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24.8.11

The Kit-Kat‡ Conductor: Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 13 )

Nestlé Young Conductors Award • Round Table

The Nestlé Young Conductors Award • Round TableNestlé, the oldest corporate sponsor of the Salzburg Festival, has as of late focused its attention (worth €700,000 or $1M) on the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award. “An award, not a competition!” (Artistic Director Markus Hinterhäuser), the YCA—in its second year—tries to find a worthy young conductor every year and boost his career by means of prize money and, more importantly, international exposure: A proper Festival-concert in the Felsenreitschule with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. A CD release down the road on Orfeo’s line of Festival concert recordings. And of course plenty press coverage through a whole lot of journalists flown in from the US and Asia and pampered with lovely dinners† and Macbeth-tickets—all courtesy Nestlé, evidently eager to get the word out.

A round table discussion on August the 12th preceded the YCA concert: The lofty topic was “Can culture and arts create identity and peace or is economic prosperity more decisive?” It got poked at by Markus Hinterhäuser, the chairmen of Roche and Nestlé, Franz Humer and Peter Brabeck, Ann Veneman (who has held the jobs of executive director of UNICEF and US Secretary of Agriculture) and Catherine David who has been curator of several French museums in the 80s and 90s, and has focused on Arab and middle eastern art for over a decade. Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler presided graciously over the event that veered close to becoming a farce.

With a topic like that, vague to the point of meaningless and throwing in a false dichotomy for good measure, it wasn’t too surprising that the discussion descended into an unbroken string of platitudes (courtesy Mme. Veneman) and finally got stuck in the utterly incomprehensible inane prattling of Mme. (“My-theory-is-that-sugar-is-even-more-dangerous-than-tobacco”) LangDavid. The latter referenced every name-dropped Middle-Eastern or French artist-philosopher-philologist-politician with a whole family tree, got endlessly entangled in obscure asides, and muttered heavy-accented, half-digested anecdotes masquerading as insight until she was finally interrupted and silenced to general relief.

The only useful contributions came from the three, mercifully level-headed, men; no-nonsense business-like attitudes of the two chairmen, unsullied by corporate-speak. In between came the devastatingly pithy comments from Markus Hinterhäuser who couldn’t quite hide his mild annoyance with the errant superciliousness of the topic. He boiled it down to a cut-and-dry: “A Schubert Symphony will not help people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.” Or “Refugees on Lampedusa don’t need a Beethoven Sonata.” And finally: “We’re so intellectual about art, putting contemporary art galleries into social problem zones and find it very chic to be part of that [‘enlightened’] community. But people who struggle decidedly do not care about modern art galleries”. Those were crisp and refreshing comments sufficient—if they hadn’t been half lost on the audience—to expose the idea of burdening of music with extra-musical tasks, whether creating (cultural) identity or peace, as absurd. Neither Tottenham riots nor Rwandan genocide can be traced to a Mozart-deficiency, yet the dictatorships of this world have always marched along to a nice and steady beat of state-supported music. Music accompanies more than it creates. Dancing and singing, pace Mme. Veneman, might just not be particularly “important instruments to create awareness amongst local communities about issues that have an adverse effect on their lives, such as malnutrition, access to water or poor sanitation.” It doesn’t take a drum circle to realize the well has dried up.

Between Humer and Brabeck, attempts were made to bring perspective back into the discussion, which was particularly refreshing since both chair companies generously sponsor culture and might have been thought to have an interest in exalted ideas about what the thus-sponsored culture can actually achieve. Humer railed against imposing Western (management styles and) culture on companies in foreign countries, suggested that “our Chinese management couldn’t care less about our sponsorship of the Salzburg Festival ‘Kontinente’ series”, and then dryly referenced Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, security, shelter coming well before art. Brabeck meanwhile agreed that music is an expression, not the origin of culture; not inherently good (or bad), but merely a good, which at best enriches the lives of individuals who then can either make something out of that personal improvement, or not.

The Venezuelan El Sistema horse was very nearly flogged to death—especially by Ann Veneman—as the epitome of all that is good and wonderful as far as peace- and identity-building music programs go. Comments that a similar project is missing in Europe, not the least due to the lack of local political support were restrained by Brabeck who pointed out that El Sistema’s origins were precisely not political; that the project had even been opposed by the political powers-that-were. The fact that the current regime makes good use of the orchestra as a propaganda tool was largely ignored, although a snide audience comment remarked that the orchestra’s outreach to Venezuelan prisons was “very gratifying, because it finally gave opposition politicians and independent journalists the opportunity to learn the clarinet.” In strange comparison to the tune of “Venezuela-wonderful”, the politically correct China-bashing was just about to set in when Franz Humer calmly suggested that lifting 400+ million people out of poverty in just a couple of decades, with as many projected to leave poverty behind in the next two decades again, was something worth checking one’s condescending, however–accurate, remarks about human rights abuses.

An apropos aside: As the roundtable the convened, AP sent out the news item that Daniel Barenboim was being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the East-West Divan Orchestra (to perform at the Festival just a week later). A whole different can of worms about culture and its pretensions for peace that was—fortunately—not opened.

† Disclosure: I, too, have partaken in the enjoyment of said lovely dinners.

The YCA Winner

A press conference the day before, with some of the same principal members (Brabeck, Hinterhäuser, Rabl-Stadler), had announced the 2011 winner of the Young Conductor’s Award that Nestlé sponsors. ‘Supporting young talent and honoring outstanding performance in an appropriate way’ are surely all among the reasons why Nestlé sponsors this event; a simpler explanation might be that the company’s chairman and former CEO, Brabeck, once wanted to be a conductor himself. (That he went on to feed the world instead of leading orchestras strikes as a prudent decision.)

A jury of nine musicians and arts administrators (including Mitsuko Uchida and Frans Welser-Möst) decided—after screening video tapes, whittling the applicants down to three, then sending them through ropes (a rehearsal- and ‘concert-like performance’) with the Gulbenkian Orchestra (dir. Lawrence Foster) in Lisbon—on a winner. At the end—after the second of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (for everyone) and Brahms’ Tragic Overture (in the case of the would-be-winner), the process spat out Ainārs Rubiķis, a soft-spoken 33-year old Latvian who doesn’t look a day older than 19. With that bit of news out of the way, the conference moved on to the apparent highlight, the ceremonial cutting of a 20th Anniversary Nestlé-Salzburg cooperation cake.

The next day Rubiķis would get to perform with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (“Monsters – in a good way” so Rubiķis), a program he, Hinteräuser, and the Alexander Meraviglia-Crivelli (General Secretary of the GMYO and member of the YCA jury) put on the back of a napkin, with Rubiķis’ repertoire in front of them.

The YCA Concert



The resulting program on the 13th, in trying to cover all the bases, offered bland aimlessness in the form of Debussy’s Prelude á l’apres-midi d’un faune, Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, and Stravinsky’s Firebird; by and large pieces in which conductors can lose more than gain. Even though the promise of Ainārs Rubiķis exceeds—so the unofficial opinion of the jury members—that of last year’s winner David Afkham, the latter’s concert program (Ligeti Atmosphères and Shostakovich 10th Symphoy) was much stronger in conception and—as the just-issued recording of the concert suggests—execution. (And Afkham is six years younger...)

available at Amazon.de
Ligeti, Shostakovich, Atmosphères, Sy.10,
David Afkham, GMYO
Orfeo C797
The first thing Rubiķis displayed was that he has all the pompous conductor-poses down pat: Starting with ostentatiously shaking the concert master’s hand, then generously-portentously gesturing the orchestra to sit (an elongated, studied circular wave) and finally going for the obnoxious applause-prevention-conclusion-pose that fakes rapt post-performance audience-silence when the music (or performance) itself wasn’t sufficient to do so. Once invented to keep the early eager clappers in check, it’s become a bad habit that has spread to almost every conductor in every piece that ends with anything less than a triple-fortissimo chord.

It certainly followed the Debussy, which had an unchallengeable, unorganized prettiness about it. It followed the horsey percussion tic-toc and quiet cello pizzicato of the Shostkovich Concerto—with soloist Alisa Weilerstein. I cherish Weilerstein as a very competent cellist, certainly enough for a nicely buzzing Eastern seaboard career. But I am amazed at her continually growing international track record that suggests super-stardom where I hear mere pleasantness. So in the Shostakovich, which showcased a gorgeous tone in the opening before descending into something slightly whiney in a first movement that felt slower than it was. She is subtle (a plus, generally) without being quietly-understatedly overwhelming. Incidentally, she strongly reminds me of one of my favorite Muppet characters, except gripping, not chasing the frog.

The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra—given the gender distribution on this tour being almost the inverse of the Vienna Philharmonic’s a friend suggested “Alma Mahler Youth Orchestra” a more appropriate moniker for the band*—is not a typical youth orchestra. It’s basically a professional orchestra working in the finest concert halls with the best and most reputable conductors, minus the pay. As an educational institution, the players just get room and board. Or as the GMYO website flips the statement around: “The musicians’ participation in the tour projects of the GUSTAV MAHLER JUGENDORCHESTER is free of charge.” Perhaps that contributes to the excitement of performing in a professional setting not being audible at all times, as it would be with a youth orchestra that has at best one high profile outings a year. Or perhaps the orchestra’s edge was dulled by the foot of felt that covers the stage of the Felsenreitschule, courtesy Peter Stein’s Macbeth.

The Four Sea Interludes are great, exciting music that work well just with great dynamic extremes and gradations (of which the GMYO has many) even when color and nuance are in short supply (as they were). The conducting itself was an array of symmetric, soothing arm extensions which didn’t seem to much affect the orchestra one way or the other. During “Moonlight” orchestra and band were in sync; in “Storm” Rubiķis was at his most precise. The concluding Firebird (one of the orchestral Salzburg-highlights with the RCO last year) was monochrome and loud with self-conscious moments… very accurately played but neither on fire or quite taking flight, as it were. It was a good concert, without being a special moment, and it offered no insights as to the future or even quality of the 2011 Kit-Kat Conductor.


Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli


*One wonders how such a name might manifest itself… would the orchestra immediately start to cheat on the Salzburg Festival with any number of other, fine art and architecture festivals?)

‡ Temporarily forgetting about US American audiences I punned without taking notice that in the US Kit Kat is produced (under license) by Hershey, not Nestlé