What makes a great conductor? Musicality, ambition, fearlessness? Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann has these qualities by the bucket-load. We spoke to her recently about her return to the Barbican stage on Thursday 27 January with a programme comprising Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Ravel. Read on to find out more about what drew her in to the world of conducting, her concert routines and what she's looking forward to most in 2022.
This season sounds an exciting one for you – it’s your first as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, plus you’ve just been announced as Atlanta Symphony’s Music Director from the 2022/23 season. You must be looking forward to what’s in store over the next few years?
Yes of course, I am very excited about the next few years! Especially after two years of the pandemic, to have some amazing opportunities coming up such as these is really important. It will be my first time as Music Director in the US, which means I will have responsibility over the whole season and the programming. I will feel extremely involved in every aspect of the work, more than just for my own concerts; it’s a new and important next step for me and for my life as a musician.
The Philadelphia Orchestra welcome Nathalie as Principal Guest Conductor
Audiences might know you as either a conductor, a contralto, or both! How does your training as a singer affect your approach as a conductor?
Of course, my training as a singer has a lot of impact on my conducting. I try to use this knowledge to make the orchestra sing and breathe. I have spent a large part of my life shaping my instrument as a vocalist – in that way I can help the orchestra in singing a phrase with the right shaping (or at least the shaping I would love to have!). Instead of trying to describe it with words, it’s very easy and quick to just sing the phrase as you imagine it – and usually the players enjoy it!
Your website says you started studying piano, bassoon and cello at a young age. Where does your interest in conducting come from?
My interest in conducting came as a child when I was going to rehearsals with my parents, who were both opera singers. I was as fascinated watching the singers working as I was by the conductor. I would be sitting in the pit, and I wanted to understand who this magic person was who was making this music with a baton in their hand! I didn’t really understand how it was working but it was captivating. I tried to get into classes when I was a teenager, but I was neglected as the only female by a teacher who was a terrible misogynist – I was made to think that it was not time for a woman to try and make it as a conductor. Fortunately, I had lots of good feedback about my voice, so I started my career as a singer, but I always kept my dream of conducting.
You conducted the LSO for the first time in January 2020 – two years on we’ve all been through a lot. Has the pandemic altered your perspective on the arts or your work in any way?
Of course – I think there is no artist on earth who can say they were not affected by this tragedy. It’s a human tragedy, not just a medical one. It has taken people far away from each other, which is the opposite of what we are trying to do in music making; we are trying to connect people, bring them closer together. It has been awful, and it is still awful. It has, however, brought to light how crucial music is in communication and how important it is to help people to survive in this life. The ancient Greek people said: that when a nation neglects arts and culture, a nation is dead. But this is motivation to fight even more to show the world how crucial we are!
Tell us about the concert you’re conducting with the LSO on 27 January – why did you programme these pieces together? And what can audiences expect?
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is one of my favourite symphonies and the LSO is such an expressive orchestra, with just the right sound and the right way of bringing control to Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m really looking forward to performing this amazingly romantic piece with them, full of passion and love, in the way I imagine they will play it. In the first half we have the beautiful Mozart Violin Concerto No 5 with Alina Ibragimova, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting with her again. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin fits with the spirit of the programme, and it will be the first time I’ve performed French music with the LSO, so I am very excited about that. I hope that the audience experiences all the different colours and emotions of this programme.
Even before rehearsals start, how do you prepare for a concert? Does that change depending on the orchestra you’re working with?
I study! The preparation doesn’t really change depending on the orchestra, the only difference is how much time you have to rehearse. You can prepare for a schedule where you have plenty of time to rehearse, so you know you will have more time to get into details and colours. On the other hand, you might have very little rehearsal time, so you have to be efficient, quick and focus on the important things, trusting the players to bring the details and trusting the non-verbal communication between the players, which is crucial. The less rehearsal time you have, the more important complicity with the orchestra is, so you can achieve lots of things without having to go into tiny details.
What are you thinking to yourself as you are about to step on stage on concert night?
It depends, but usually, the only thing I try to focus on is the music. It’s all about the music, nothing else. There are two phrases – just be yourself, and every minute, every second, you have to sweat the music. As a conductor, this is how to inspire people – you have to be the incarnation of the music you have in your heart.
And what about when you step off stage when the concert is all over?
Well, if the concert was good, I’m just the happiest person on earth! I am on cloud nine and don’t want to land back down. If the concert was bad, which fortunately is rare, I will just say get me a good beer!
We can’t wait to see you back on the Barbican stage again on Thursday 27 January. But finally, tell us what you are most looking forward to about the concert.
I am very much looking forward to finally being back with a full orchestra at the Barbican. We have had so few concerts in the last few years with proper and full concert conditions, so I am thrilled to be back and to have this true feeling of life again!
Listen to music from the concert and other related works:
TCHAIKOVSKY'S FIFTH SYMPHONY
Thursday 27 January 7pm (Barbican)
Ravel Le tombeau de Couperin
Mozart Violin Concerto No 5
Tchaikovsky Symphony No 5
Nathalie Stutzmann conductor
Alina Ibragimova violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18
£3 online booking fee, £4 telephone booking fee per transaction - click here for more information on booking fees