As part of our Ones to Watch series of artist interviews Sarah Breeden caught up with conductor David Afkham ahead of his concert with the LSO at Barbican on Sunday 1 February 2015. His programme will include Webern's Passacaglia, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 with Nicholas Angelich and Brahms' Symphony No 2.
The final of the Donatella Flick competition is part of the Ones to Watch Series. You were the winner in 2008. What made you apply?
I was actually still in the middle of my music studies when I applied but sometimes when you study you are kind of in a shell so I was interested in getting a new perspective. So I thought ‘why not apply? It’s a chance to work with the LSO - this is just fantastic. It’s a chance for life!’
I didn’t have any pressure - I just wanted to enjoy the music. I couldn’t believe that I was in the final but I remember very well the great joy of working with the LSO. It was just an unbelievable feeling to work with these fantastic players and enjoy their sounds.
Part of the prize is working with the LSO for a year.
Yes, it’s a great opportunity. You can work with this fantastic orchestra, fantastic soloists, and get to know this life of an orchestra, and learn from the great experience of fantastic conductors, Bernard Haitink, or [the late] Sir Colin Davis, or Valery Gergiev. And I also worked on educational projects and concerts, so it was a great time, a really great experience.
Do you have any advice for this year’s winner?
It sounds a little stupid but enjoy the music and trust these fantastic musicians! You can ‘play’ with this orchestra - that’s a wonderful gift.
Your enthusiasm for the LSO is contagious! What do you think makes the LSO so special?
It’s always difficult to describe but they have a very fine, brilliant sound. I’m from a German tradition - I grew up with a very dark sound, but here it’s very brilliant, very fine, elegant. I really enjoy it.
And the players are very fast - I remember rehearsals for a new contemporary piece and in half an hour they have it. Unbelievable, virtuosic capacity! I also really like the people. I remember the first time I was on stage at the Barbican with them and they gave a warm, positive feeling. And the musicians are for the music. It’s not about ego - they are there for the music and that is also one of my ideals.
On 1 February you will be conducting Beethoven Piano Concerto No 3 and Brahms Symphony No 2 - why did you choose these pieces?
I feel very close to those pieces. My musical roots are Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert: this is my home and I just wanted to do something that I love with the LSO. I know they will play Brahms and Beethoven brilliantly.
I love very much Brahms’s Symphony No 2. It’s a very positive symphony. It only took two or three months to write unlike his first symphony which took 15 years! It’s full of intensity and passion and very beautiful. The last movement is pure joy.
So, how would you describe what a conductor does to someone who doesn’t know about classical music?
That’s a hard question! Your first role is to keep all these musicians playing together in the right moment but this is very technical. This doesn’t say anything about music.
The second is you have to give a vision to the musicians, have a message, so that these black points on the paper start to have a meaning. You also need to motivate and inspire and lead people. There are many things! It’s a long story!
What made you want to become a conductor?
It’s hard to say. It wasn’t like 'I will become a conductor’. No, it was a surge. I played piano and violin but I wanted more. When I became a young student I tried out conducting and I thought ‘this is it!’. This is the thing I was looking for. It combines so many things, it’s not (this sounds very bad!) just pressing keys on the piano. You have to know much more about the pieces: the history, the story or the composer or the literature. If you do opera you have to learn languages suddenly. Then to experience that orchestral sound! I was looking for it and then I found it and I fell in love with it.
It’s a very complex profession and I cannot separate it from my being, actually. I cannot just close the door and I’m not a conductor any more. It never ends, it’s so connected to your existence.
Standing on the podium - that’s quite a privileged position. It’s very exciting. I remember standing for the first time in front of an orchestra. It’s so overwhelming, there’s so much energy flowing in your ears and over your head and your skin that it’s hard to analyse it and you have to get used to this sound and these energies.You become one with the players. My ideal is always to lead the orchestra from the inside, not the outside. It’s hard to describe. It’s very special. Conducting is a strange thing.
Are there any pieces you’ve not yet conducted that you really want to perform?
I don’t know. I can’t say. It’s everything at its time. Now I feel very close to certain composers but in another situation in life I’d like to discover other things. The repertoire is huge and it’s fantastic - a life is not enough! But of course every one has its own personality and some things fit and some maybe don’t fit so well with your personality.
Any composers you don’t ‘fit’ with?
Ask me later in life!
Are there any musicians you idolise?
No, but I am very close to my mentor, conductor Bernard Haitink. I don’t assist him any more because some day you go your own way, but we are still very close and we speak a lot. I sometimes don’t know how to say ‘thank you’. He’s very important. Just to know there’s someone next to you, putting his hands on your shoulders and saying ‘I understand’, that means so much. I’m very grateful for that. He’s just like a father.
Do you have any rituals on the day of concert? Do you get nervous?
I always have a little siesta in the afternoon - you have to be well rested so you can concentrate.
I don’t get nervous on the day of the concert but I do before the first rehearsal. It’s always a new experience, even with orchestras I’ve worked with many times. You never know how the musicians feel, did they sleep well, what did they do the week before, maybe they’re tired, maybe very enthusiastic?
On the day of the concert I am excited. It’s funny, because then when I go on stage and see the musicians, and start the first chord or note then everything is gone and I’m totally in the music. I’m grateful for that.
Do you use a baton?
Yes. It’s wooden, but nothing special. It’s like an extension to my long arms! It’s very light. I like to have a free feeling in the arm so you can paint in the air. I think that’s how it should be.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career do you have one piece of advice you would give yourself?
I don’t know! I didn't plan it, it came by being in the right place at the right time, studying hard and being honest to music! This is really my vision. It’s not about me, it’s not about the musicians, it’s about the composer, it’s about the music, it’s being honest. And I think in the end the truth comes through. That’s very important for me.
Can you imagine doing anything other than being a professional musician?
I couldn't separate music from me, my soul, heart, mind, existence, but I love nature very much. In my free time I love to be in nature and silence just because there’s so much music - it’s great to listen to birds or wind. So something with nature would be nice.
Or maybe something with art or culture would be very interesting. Art is what defines us as human beings. I would also say philosophy, theatre, opera, literature, history - this is something which defines the human spirit. Also science of course. But nowadays it’s very materialistic and cold, sometimes and I think it’s very important not to forget this aspect, that human nature is also art, culture and life.
Sarah Breeden regularly contributes to BBC Proms family concert programmes, has written on film music for LPO as well as LSO, school notes for London Sinfonietta and the booklet notes for the EMI Classical Clubhouse series. She was Editor of LSO publications, has edited BBC Proms in the Park souvenir programmes, and worked for BBC Proms for several years.