Interview: Nikolaj Znaider

As part of our Ones to Watch series of concerts we’re putting the spotlight on seven of the brightest emerging conducting talents in the world with a series of interviews.

We’ll be finding out what makes our up-and-coming conductors tick, what they think makes a great conductor great, what a baton is for and crucially… who they would invite to a fantasy dinner party!

This month we caught up with the multi-talented conductor/violinist Nikolaj Znaider in anticipation of his Ones to Watch concert with the LSO on 18 December 2014. He will be joined by soloist Rudolf Buchbinder in a programme featuring works By Beethoven, Mahler and a new piece by Aaron Parker as part of the LSO’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme.

Video highlights are below or you can read on for the full interview…


Imagine I don’t know a lot about classical music. How would you describe what a conductor does?

I think the job of the conductor is twofold. Everyone sees the practicality of it – you have 90 people on stage, they have to play at the same time, heaven forbid you have an opera you have another 20 people running about on stage. You have to make sure everything stays together and nothing falls apart, that’s the very basic thing that everyone sees. What’s harder to understand, and unless you do it yourself almost impossible to really understand is, what is it that a conductor can add? The conductor doesn’t play anything; the conductor doesn’t make any sound.

Now, the much more interesting part, the thing that attracts me to conducting is that we get the chance to paint with an enormous brush. I play the violin as well, that is a much smaller paint brush. It’s still music, it’s still me, but the kind of colours that you can paint with an orchestra are incredible.

For me, the main job of a conductor, and I’m paraphrasing the great Leonard Bernstein here: ‘With a lot of flattering, and threatening, and joking and screaming and yelling and sweating, you can make an orchestra play. But you have to make them want to play.’ I think if I have to sum it up, that’s what it is about.

Can you think back to the first time you conducted. What was the programme, what was the scenario and how did you feel about it?

It’s a terrifying event, and I don’t think anyone forgets it. In my case, I’d been playing for a while on stage and I felt very comfortable with what I was doing, and then I started having this need to conduct. So I studied the music and felt I knew what I wanted to do, and I got up in front of the orchestra and I realised, ‘my God I’m a beginner again!’ That was fantastic, it is wonderful to stay a student.

Can you tell us a bit about your programme on 18 December. What made you choose that repertoire?

Well, I remember a particularly stunning night with the LSO where we did Mahler 5, and it was a wish for me to do another Mahler Symphony with them. This particular one is for me one of those pivotal moments in music history and it corresponds with a pivotal moment in our history. It feels so much to me like the end of the old world and the beginning of modernity with all that that entails – the world wars, and the true industrial age that we are now in. So I was very happy that we could do that, and when I found out that the soloist was Rudy Buchbinder I said we’ll do whatever you want to do. He’s a great friend and a terrific musician who I’ve worked with a lot, we just actually played Beethoven sonatas together with me on the violin, and we’ve done a Beethoven concerto before. I though Beethoven Concerto 4 would go very well, and I think there are very few people who perform it as well as Rudy.

Is there any repertoire you won’t go near, a Room 101?

No, I think you have to try anything once actually. Especially in music, because from a distance experience has taught me that, yes there are some things that we have an immediate emotional response to which is positive. But I’ve also had the experience in music that there were some pieces that I didn’t understand or that I was forced to perform for various reasons, either a conductor or an orchestra insisted on it. And I thought ‘Oh no, this is going to be awful, I don’t like this…’.But then having done them, having studied them and gone through that I really quite enjoyed them.

So for example, I sat through Moses und Aron, Schoenberg’s opera – that’s difficult. But I had to and I thought it was great. I also played his Violin Concerto, I played with the LSO as a matter of fact when Daniel Barenboim insisted. So I learnt the piece, it took forever – but I actually enjoyed it, I really think it’s terrific! So, I think there’s nothing I wouldn’t want to try. There are maybe things I wouldn’t come back to, but I think part of being a musician is retaining a sense of curiosity. The moment we stop being curious, the creative process stops. I think if we close that lust for new music, then that’s a bad road to go down.

Do you have any funny moments/stories from the podium? Have you had any embarrassing moments or disasters?

I think to quote Colin Davis, my great mentor and for many years the principal conductor of the LSO, ‘Life is staggering from humiliation to the next’. And I think that’s true, I think we are always being humbled in a way, but I agree that some incidents are more fun than others, though perhaps only for the audience. I’ve dropped the baton, but I don’t think that’s particularly embarrassing, it can be quite fun! I think in general anything that brings a little bit of irreverence in to the whole thing isn’t necessarily bad.

In preparing for a concert do you have anything you need to do or any rituals?

As far as rituals are concerned, a slight superstition never hurt anyone as long as you can control it a little bit. I’ll take a nap every afternoon, I kiss my cufflinks three times before going on stage… I think that’s it. So it’s within check but don’t take those things away from me!

Imagine I know nothing about conducting. Explain the significance of the baton.

I can tell you one thing about batons. It’s much cheaper than buying a violin! You can buy them for £5 and they are fine, you just need something with a nice balance. You can get them in plastic, in wood – I got some very fancy ones made for me in America, and it cost 40 dollars. So it’s not that important. I think that is why the great Valery Gergiev conducts sometimes with a toothpick, because he’s trying to remind us all that it is not that important.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

I would probably tell myself to relax a little bit. I think in the beginning I was very ambitious, which is good, so I am not sure!

I think at that point in my life, it was the right thing at the right time, I think perhaps I would tell myself not to be concerned with how quickly things did or didn’t go, to have more patience with the process. Be happy with the fact that things are going well, and I would say ‘young man, just allow yourself to sit back and relax from time to time!’

Enjoy the ride!

Yes, enjoy the ride! You should give me advice!

I am fortunate now, I have children, so that puts everything into perspective, it helps you get a grip with things. I would say again, someone like Colin Davis was a wonderful influence, he reminded me about what was essential. He became a sort of Zen master, because he dealt with the essential, and the essential is the love of music.

If you weren’t a professional musician what would you be doing?

The difficulty in answering this one is because I have been playing practically all my life. Music has become something that is such a close part of my identity. It’s like asking a proud Englishman, what would you do if you weren’t English? You know, it’s me, it’s who I am! I am a musician.

I don’t know what I could have been? I would have to go back to when I was seven, but then I would have become a different me!

What’s your ideal day out in London?

I love to walk around German Street, Saville Row, that area and look at nice ties – the English know how to dress well! And I think Mayfair is beautiful to walk around. I think the best way to spend a day though is with friends and family and to have a nice day out. Have high tea, either the Dorchester or the Ritz. And then you have to end up in the theatre! I should say the Barbican and LSO of course, but if you just did that last night then go to a nice show, there are always good shows on!

Ok, say you were having a dinner party. And you could invite 5 people alive or historical, who would you invite?

Mozart, for sure! I think he would have been a phenomenal dinner guest, interesting, witty, sincere. I would avoid Beethoven; if you catch him in a grumpy mood he would ruin the whole atmosphere! And then Leonardo Da Vinci, Einstein, Goya – that could be interesting – and Shakespeare!

Wow, a very intellectual dinner party!

Yes, but really fun people. Crazy, but good crazy!

Imagine I’m a potential audience member and you only have a few seconds to convince me to come to your concert. What would you say to me?

You cannot miss Rudy Buchbinder playing Beethoven, that’s number one. Number two, if you’ve never heard the Mahler 1, it’s a must know piece that’s going to change the way you look at music. And if you have already heard it you should come anyway because it’s going to be a good one!