Wesley Horner: In this concert, you’re conducting a very familiar work, the g minor symphony of Mozart. How do you make it fresh? How do you make it yours?
David Afkham: The big Mozart g minor symphony is a very special piece. You hear it everywhere, but you have to start again. You have to read the score. This is the truth. This is the true element you have to rely on. You have to study the score. Then you read books, historical books.
But it’s not about finding an extra new idea. It’s just to bring the music to life. What does it want to say to us? What does it mean? There is a lot always to discover and to study again. It’s always a new piece.
Wesley Horner: How do you know during the performance if it’s working?
David Afkham: This is a hard question. I think it’s all about energies. You feel it. If you go on stage and feel – oh, my gosh – that’s a good energy! Then you start, and the first bar is wonderful. And you feel the concentration and the wanting of the musicians. Then you know it’s going to be a really fantastic concert.
Sometimes it’s not that easy. You have to work on that. You have to really inspire the musicians. And sometimes you have to push them a little bit. Then you can lead from inside.
For me the wonderful thing in orchestra conducting is when you have the moment where you can just let go. If you don’t need to push from outside – here’s the ‘one,’ there’s the ‘three’ – but just to become one group, one body. Then it’s moving from inside and you can shape it. That’s the beauty of huge chamber music.
Wesley Horner: You’ve already conducted some very large orchestras in some very large concert halls, some of the best in the world. Now you will be performing Mozart in Mozart’s hometown, in a very small concert hall. How does it change your work as a conductor? How does it feel different?
David Afkham: I think there is not such a big difference. The approach is the same. The approach is to study the score and make music together with the musicians.
Of course, if you conduct a Bruckner symphony or a Mahler symphony, and you have a huge audience in your back, it feels different. But at the end, as a conductor you’re looking into the eyes of the musicians. And what counts is the music at the moment. So at the end, there’s no difference. Of course, we have to adapt. We have to be careful that we are not too loud.
But to perform Mozart in Salzburg – yesterday I was walking by the statue of Mozart. And later during the rehearsal of the Mozart g minor symphony, I thought, ‘My God. He’s listening. He knows it. He’s looking over my shoulder.’ You feel very responsible. You feel the wanting and the expectations of the musicians. It’s a very special thing, to do Mozart in Salzburg.
Wesley Horner: If you had Mozart’s cell phone number, and you could say, ‘You know, Wolfgang, tomorrow I am going to conduct this symphony of yours. There is something I’m curious about, something I don’t understand. Can you help me?’ What would you say?
David Afkham: Oh, my God. I think I just would love to just enjoy his voice. And, of course, I would just put the cell phone on my music stand and keep it on while playing through the piece, and then ask him, ‘What is wrong? What can I do better?’
But I think it’s important not only to ask, ‘Is it wrong? What can I do better? Is the tempo correct?’ very technical things. But to know Mozart as a person, to know the time he was living in, to know whether he has a personal relationship with the symphony, to know the meaning behind the music. And to really get to know this character, this human being.
I think to know his personality, that would be interesting. And to have wine with him together, that would be fantastic.
Wesley Horner: He would challenge you to a game of billiards.
David Afkham: Yes, I think so. True.
Wesley Horner: If you’re conducting a complex piece such as Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, for example, sometimes – let’s be honest – mistakes can happen, deep in the viola section, and no one knows. But when conducting Mozart, do you have more anxiety, because it’s so exposed?
David Afkham: Of course. I think the most difficult music is really that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and of course, Brahms. Everything is difficult, everything. But in Mozart, you hear everything.
Everything is so transparent in classical music, as it is in classical philosophy and the classical idea. Everything has to be clear, and not just precise. That sounds too technical. But it is the human spirit that has to be transparent. As Kant wrote – I don’t know the English expression – we are responsible for everything that we’re doing.
And this is what you hear in the music: the clarity, transparency, the beauty of spirit. That makes it very, very difficult to shape everything. It’s not just starting a phrase, ending a phrase. It is also, ‘Where are we going? Where is the climax? In the whole piece, what is the relationship of the first movement to the last one?’ There are so many things that you have to be aware of. I think it needs a whole lifetime to become a master of that.
And if you talk to the masters nowadays – great maestros – they say, ‘If you are very good with Mozart and Beethoven, then it’s easier to do Brahms.’
Wesley Horner: In this concert featuring arias by Mozart and others, you have another challenging role. You have a singer that you have to listen to at the same time as conducting the orchestra. Is it more difficult? What joy does it bring to you as conductor to be an accompanist?
David Afkham: It’s beautiful to have a singer or an instrumentalist soloist with you. It always makes it richer somehow. Of course, with a singer you need to listen: ‘When is she breathing? How is she breathing? What colors is she doing? Can we adapt to her colors?’ This is pure chamber music.
I’m very, very happy to work with the Mozarteum Orchestra – they are so beautiful, opening their ears and following the soloist. And if you have a wonderful orchestra like I have now, you just enjoy. I think like Carlos Kleiber said, ‘I want to enjoy, not just conduct.’ That’s it. You have to bring the orchestra to the soloist to make it one group again. And with these arias, you have to be very flexible. They are tricky arias. We have several which are not that known. They are new for the orchestra. Many transitions, many change of tempos. It’s a challenge. It’s a task. But at the end I think it’s fine.
Wesley Horner: What do you do physically to prepare yourself, the job of standing there for 2 hours? At your age, you have a long career ahead of you. What do you do to stay fit?
David Afkham: I should do something. I should. Staying fit, it’s necessary that you do some sport actually. But I’m very lazy in that. Because, you know, if you have free time then you’re preparing the next program.
You cannot just learn a Mozart symphony in one day, or in two days. You have to really organize your schedule for the long term. I’m learning pieces now for the next two years. Then I can grow with these pieces, get a little bit behind the music.
But you shouldn’t just have your mind. You have to also be careful with your body. It’s both. At the end it’s heart and mind which count, and it’s very important that you stay healthy. Because if you’re not healthy anymore, how can you conduct? Yes, I should do something. I know, I know.
Wesley Horner: Just before you walk out on stage, what do you do in your mind to get ready for the performance?
David Afkham: It’s about getting into the music, closing eyes, finding the focus, finding the concentration, a good balance between mind and heart somehow. It’s a kind of meditation. It’s not a huge thing. It’s just concentration, and about finding the good suspense. Perhaps going through the music a little bit. But then joy, having joy.
You can rehearse a lot. You can talk a lot. At the end there’s no way to talk in concert. You have to show. You have to embrace the people and bring the music to the audience and not just to the audience, to everybody. This is the most important. It’s everything for the music. That’s what counts at the end.