Paavo Järvi und Ilona Schmiel (Foto: Sabina Bobst)

«It’s Always About Connections»

Where is the journey heading – in both musical and geographical terms? Music Director Paavo Järvi and Artistic Director Ilona Schmiel discuss open doors, tram rides and tours.

Interview: Susanne Kübler

Before we talk about the approaching season, let’s talk first about the more distant future. You have both extended your contracts until 2029. What will be the major issues until then?

PJ To put it in a nutshell, it’s about realising the orchestra’s full potential. When I came here, I said that achieving world class was our objective. Well – the orchestra is world class. But the beauty of music is that it always goes one step further.

IS Paavo started here in 2019, a few months before the outbreak of the pandemic, and we had to postpone many things. Now we have reached a perfect starting point: he and the orchestra have gained a great deal of shared experience in the meantime, and the renovated Tonhalle Zürich offers excellent conditions. To move forward even further from this point will require not only extra energy, but also continuity and trust.

What will that mean in terms of programming?

PJ Extra energy and continuity! To start the new season, we’ll be continuing our Bruckner Cycle with the Ninth Symphony. And in February 2024, we’ll be launching a Mahler Cycle that will occupy us for years to come. This is the logical continuation of what we have done so far. Mahler’s work is the apogee of German symphonic music. I love many composers, but I don’t know anyone else who had such a rich inner life – and was able to translate that so fantastically into music.

You will of course be familiar with David Zinman’s Mahler Cycle …

PJ Yes, and I think it’s very good. But with these works, you can never say, «We’ve already done that one.» Every performer will have a new perspective; it goes on and on. Not only on stage, incidentally – for us to progress, musical quality and reputation must develop in parallel. Just as important as what happens on stage is what happens behind the scenes: the concert business must run smoothly, we have to have money for important projects, we must offer what is now called «content» on social media. And above all, we must reach our audience.

IS There are indeed challenges in this area. Since Corona, audiences have behaved differently, and everything has become much more short-term. The last two days before a concert are crucial. For us, this means constantly evaluating what works well. We have found, for example, that not only younger audiences like the short formats. The tonhalleCRUSH concept, for example, which we introduced last season, was an instant success: in the first part you hear an orchestral work, in the second half, orchestra members play completely different music in the concert foyer – folk, jazz, blues, sounds from their homeland. In our orchestra, we bring together over 20 nations and very different musical backgrounds. We want to show that to our audience.

We don’t just want to present superstars, but also exceptional personalities with special stories.

Besides Mahler, what else will be new in the upcoming season?

PJ I’ll be working with cellist Kian Soltani for the first time! He is one of our focus artists (Fokus-Künstler) – a very exciting musician. He grew up in Austria, but his family comes from Iran. He will not only be playing the great cello concertos by Schumann and Dvořák, but also Persian music – with his father, among other performers. The second focus artist, Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna, is someone who also often moves outside the mainstream. We don’t just want to present superstars as focus artists, but also exceptional personalities with special stories.

IS That’s also true of this season’s Creative Chair: Bryce Dessner has become known in the USA as an electric guitarist and rock musician, especially with the band The National. When someone like that enters the classical world, with his resources, it is highly interesting. Paavo will conduct his orchestral work, «Mari.» Bryce Dessner himself will be on stage for «St. Carolyn by the Sea.» He’ll then be presenting an audio-visual project entitled «Electric Fields» featuring David Chalmin, the Labèque sisters and singer Barbara Hannigan, among others. Alice Sara Ott will be premièring a piano concerto Dessner wrote specifically for her. And Pekka Kuusisto will be performing his violin concerto ...

Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto will be conducted by Joana Mallwitz and «St. Carolyn by the Sea» by Simone Young. In addition, Alondra de la Parra, a third prominent conductor, will work with the orchestra. Coincidence or intention?

IS It isn’t about quotas, but exclusively about quality. That’s the first thing I’d like to say. We always look at who might fit in with us. If Joana Mallwitz is excited about the idea of making her début with us together with Pekka Kuusisto and Bryce Dessner, then it’s a perfect fit. Simone Young is also making her début with us, alongside Dessner conducting compositions by Stravinsky and Strauss that are part of her core repertoire. Alondra de la Parra will once again be conducting the New Year’s Eve concert; we already have a special relationship with her. And it’s important for me to add that Paavo will be working with a new Assistant Conductor.

PJ Yes, with Margarita Balanas from Latvia. She is a very good cellist, and I also think she can have a real career as a conductor. Nowadays, what’s needed for this profession has become even more of a mystery than ever, especially because of the growing number of female conductors. Stereotypes of what the «conductor» should look like are being broken down, also in purely visual terms. But you can tell immediately whether someone has that certain something – and she has it.

IS By the way, last year’s Assistant Conductor Izabelė Jankauskaitė will be conducting a family concert (Familienkonzert). For us, that is what’s essential: it’s always about connections – with guest performers who have been with us for decades, such as our Conductor Laureate, David Zinman, or Herbert Blomstedt. With former focus artists such as Pekka Kuusisto, Janine Jansen or the Labèque sisters. And also with new protagonists, with whom we hope to establish a long-term collaboration.

Speaking of connections: How are your contacts with other Zurich institutions developing?

IS Collaborations are extremely important to us. They enable us to open doors between the arts – in the visual field, for example. Over the coming months, there will be projects with the Museum für Gestaltung and the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Networking in the field of education also remains a concern: «Together with Superar Suisse, the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich and Zurich University of the Arts, we’re creating very different approaches. And in the coming season we will again be expanding these tried and tested co-operations with the addition of important offerings, such as visits to rehearsals for special needs schools. In the best case, the Tonhalle Zürich intends to become a kind of «home» for children and young people, their friends and families.

PJ I am also very much looking forward to continuing the Rachmaninoff Cycle in collaboration with Zurich Opera House. In November, Gianandrea Noseda and I will be swapping desks and orchestras – and we’ll be sharing pianist Francesco Piemontesi as our soloist. That’s good for us – and good for Zurich as a city of music. By the way, I’m often out and about in the city. For our new «Tram for Two» video series, I drive through various neighbourhoods with soloists, and we talk about all kinds of things. I like ideas like that, which are light-hearted in a good way. When I think back, everything important to me came about that way – through a pleasant experience, a joke, a game. Whenever I had to learn something for an exam, I always forgot it immediately afterwards.

IS Yes, playfulness is so important! I had a key experience with two young start-up founders who put virtual reality glasses on me. It was about a Beethoven game. I thought I knew a lot about Beethoven, but coaching him in a rap battle was something I had never imagined. In September, we’ll be presenting the game in the concert foyer (Konzertfoyer) – in a week when Paavo will be performing a Beethoven programme with the pianist Olli Mustonen and our orchestra. Once again, this is an ideal combination.

Presence in the city is one thing, presence in the world is another. Nowadays, tours are often criticised. Why do we tour, anyway?

IS An enormous amount happens on tour. For a while, we live together, and everyday life disappears – there is a completely different intensity in the orchestra. The crucial thing is how you travel: that you plan sensible routes and think carefully about where you play which repertoire in order to be a «successful ambassador» for Zurich and Switzerland as a whole. In September, we will be opening festivals in Bonn and Prague, which are important showcases. In between, we will be returning to the International George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where we are already held in high esteem. In all these places we will be giving two concerts. Tokyo will then be our base in Asia for several days. We’ll be performing at Suntory Hall, and from there we’ll be fanning out to neighbouring cities. And when we’re in Seoul, where there are so many young audiences, we immediately feel their enthusiasm, which always leaves us with a lasting impression!

PJ For me, that enthusiasm is exactly the reason for touring. When we have success elsewhere, it boosts our self-confidence; that in turn inspires us when we perform at home. It all goes together: the concerts in Zurich and our success around the world; live performances where we can win over audiences; the CDs they bring us to autograph; and the streamings with which we’re remembered. If we want to move forward step by step over the next few years, then then we’re going to need all of these things.

published: 10.07.2023