On Thursday, Nikolaj Znaider starts a two-week residency with the National Symphony Orchestra. Znaider, 40, made a name for himself as an international solo violinist before moving into conducting, and his NSO residency will involve both: he’ll play the Brahms concerto the first week, and conduct Mozart’s final piano concerto and Mahler’s 1st symphony the second week. Last week, he spoke by telephone from his home in Denmark.
Anne Midgette: You’ve just performed with the Munich Philharmonic in the Gasteig, their concert hall. How does the acoustic there compare with that of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall?
Nikolai Znaider: The Gasteig is, how to put this politely: it’s not famed for its great acoustics. And I think that’s slightly unfair. I don’t think it’s the greatest concert hall in the world, but it is not a terrible one. Leonard Bernstein famously said, “Burn it.” It’s not quite as bad as that.
I never disliked [the Kennedy Center Concert Hall]. It’s a slightly different experience when you conduct and [when you] play, just because when you play, you are relying on the feedback you get from the hall. As a conductor, less so, because you’re not concerned with the sound of a little wooden box, but the sound of everybody; there’s more resonance. I don’t remember [the hall] being unpleasant in terms of lack of feedback. You can make good music almost anywhere.
ALM: In 2010, you said you were dividing your time about equally between conducting and violin playing. Is that still about the same ratio?
NZ: It seems like I’m doing a little more conducting than playing, but maybe in terms of concerts it evens out. I had a recital tour a little while ago; I gave 7 concerts in 12 days. I can’t do that as a conductor.
I still like playing. Both things are difficult to do, but once you know how to do them, the violin stays difficult. [It requires] muscles and tendons; it’s not enough just knowing how to do it, knowing how the music goes.
ALM: Does increased conducting activity change your relationship with conductors when you’re a soloist?
NZ: You know what’s funny: I used to be kind of, I won’t say irritated, but very challenging and dissatisfied a lot of the time with a lot of conductors. Since I started conducting, I have more patience with conductors than before. And also as a conductor, I have a lot of patience with soloists. Knowing the other side has made me give more of the benefit of the doubt.
Of course as a string player, when I make suggestions no one ever looks at me funny. I’ve seen even great conductors talk to string sections and get funny looks back. I’ve played with most orchestras, I have a relationship with the instrument that is quite close, and I can get away with getting into the string players’ business, and they accept it.
I have to say, everybody’s so nice these days, it’s the new thing. The grand old stories we love about the maestros – I actually had a couple of conductors be tough on me when I was just starting out. I caught the back of [the old authoritarian tradition.]I remember my audition for Barenboim when I was in my 20s: he was certainly didn’t go out of his way to make me feel less intimidated than I already was.
Kurt Masur in my London debut – [he was] a towering, very imposing man, of course, and very impressive. [Even in the piano runthrough,] he didn’t say one word. Then we had a rehearsal, and he didn’t say anything. Then in the concert, after the first movement, he turned to look over at me and under his breath he said, “Bravo.”
[After a concert that was a big success, I asked,] Maestro, can I play an encore? [He answered,] “Young man, you’ve had enough success for one night.” It was the old-school, tough-love kind of treatment.
ALM: Is it more challenging to conduct a concerto or a piece without a soloist?
NZ: Neither.… I don’t feel I have a set way [of doing a piece,] because I always strove to have this discipline of fluidity, of shape. [Furtwangler once said,] “It requires much more discipline to have a fluid form.” It’s a very lucid observation. If you drill [something] into yourself, you do it enough times, it becomes automatic. To shape something [from scratch] every time so it still has inherent logic, that’s the challenge.
ALM: Do people have prejudices about soloists-turned-conductors?
NZ: Oh sure. I do too! …I managed to start just early enough. I said if I do this, I want to not be a conductor-violinist, I want to be a proper conductor. I wasn’t even sure what that was. But I talked to people, [and] I tried to identify the things you had to be able to do to be a proper conductor. You have to conduct operas, Mozart recitatives — all those things that you can’t do without proper technique and knowing the craft.
I knew I couldn’t start by doing “Sacre [du printemps,” Stravinsky’s pioneering ballet score]. Start with “Dumbarton Oaks.” Mozart recitative: you start by doing some of Mozart’s concert arias. You don’t do “Don Quixote,” [the challenging tone poem by Richard] Strauss; first maybe “Til Eulenspiegel,” [an earlier Strauss tone poem.]
ALM: You have been principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky since 2010. Do you do opera and ballet as well as orchestral work?
NZ: Oh yes very much so, absolutely. I did get to do lots of recitative, in the best way possible, which is with no rehearsals. Really that schooling there has been sensational. They have a grueling schedule. You can’t rely on good musicianship, or preparation: sure, they’ve played it, but three months ago. You better just conduct it right.
ALM: What has been your most daunting conducting assignment to date?
NZ: It has to be opera. I can’t pick one single thing. It’s the nature of opera that something always goes wrong; it’s too many variables. I’ve had a tenor be taken to the hospital after the second act of “Aida.” I didn’t understand why the interval was so long; three minutes before curtain someone comes and says, “We lost our tenor; here’s a new one.” That’s not even an unusual occurrence. There’s been a lot of daunting experiences in the pit.
ALM: How do you approach Mahler – a composer you couldn’t really get into as a violin soloist, because he didn’t write any major solo violin works?
NZ: I had a chance to get to known Mahler through Barenboim; I was able to listen to rehearsals. It captured me, really. I went through a phase of being a devote of great conductors from the past, Bruno Walter, and Bernstein, of course, and I became just obsessed with his music. It’s another important milestone for a conductor. He was one of those defining composers I had to see if I was close to, and I was very happy I was.
It’s almost like entering a monastery, [where you] go and study yoga: you have to go in and eat your rice and pray. You need that kind of devotion, I don’t want to say fanaticism, but totally be in it and believe in it. It’s true of all music, but there’s some music that sucks you in, requires more of you; you leave a piece of you there. Maybe it’s personal, just my molecules that get rearranged. [Whereas with] Shostakovich, I love his music, but my molecules aren’t rearranged. When I wake up the next morning (after conducting him], I have Brahms in my head.
ALM: What does the idea of “a residency” mean for you?
NZ: The older you get, all these clichés that you roll your eyes about as a teenager turn out to be true. “You just need to fall in love and have your heart broken.” “You have to know Schubert’s songs to play Schubert.” In this case, the cliché that you play music more beautifully together if you like one another turns out to be true. Any conductor has a small set of orchestras they work with frequently. You have five, six orchestras you go to. That comes because you have mutual trust, mutual affection; through the weeks and years of working together you have a similar way of looking at music. That’s what I strive to find with orchestras. It’s a great way to deepen the relationship when you come in for a period of two weeks. There’s much more of that mutual affection that I think needs to drive good music making.