"Have Baton, Will Travel"

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Ralph
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"Have Baton, Will Travel"

Post by Ralph » Sat Apr 23, 2005 10:23 pm

From The New York Times:

April 24, 2005
Have Baton, Will Travel
By JAMES R. OESTREICH

PITTSBURGH

HE'S the hottest conductor you've never heard of.

When - after the recent resignation of Riccardo Muti as music director of the Scala opera in Milan - the Filarmonica Della Scala found itself without a conductor for its concerts of April 7 to 9, it turned to Arild Remmereit.

When Christoph von Dohnanyi canceled his performances here with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on April 15 to 17 because of illness, that ensemble, too, turned to Mr. Remmereit.

When Daniel Harding canceled his appearance with the Orchestre National de France in Paris because of illness last Thursday, the orchestra turned to ... well, you know. And Mr. Remmereit said he had been available for that assignment only because when an American agent asked whether he might be interested in substituting for Daniele Gatti at the Chicago Symphony during the same week, Mr Remmereit said no.

(At press time, the Paris concert was in jeopardy because of a strike by workers at Radio France, and Mr. Remmereit had been asked to be ready to rehearse yet another work, replacing Strauss's "Alpine Symphony" with Sibelius's Second.)

In music, as in most other pursuits, one person's misfortune can be another's opportunity. Many a podium career has been built on successful substitutions - sometimes as little as a single unrehearsed performance, as when Leonard Bernstein replaced an indisposed Bruno Walter at the New York Philharmonic in a nationally broadcast concert in 1943. But more typically, the process is cumulative and measured.

In Mr. Remmereit's case, it seems a sort of spontaneous combustion. His only previous appearance in the United States was with the Madison Symphony in Wisconsin in 2003, and his only definite future American booking is also there, in October.

"He's quite a fantastic conductor," said Richard Mackey, the executive director of the Madison Symphony. "He's exuberant but completely musical. And at the first rehearsal, he knew the name of every musician in our orchestra."

But Mr. Remmereit is no longer Madison's little secret. If the sensation he created in Pittsburgh is any indication, he seems destined for big things, and soon.

Regarding his sudden change in stature, he spoke as if from afar. "The snowball has reached such a size that it has started to roll," he said matter-of-factly, with no show of ego - beyond, that is, what any conductor needs to survive. In fact he seemed a little dazed by it all, repeatedly speaking of the need to stay focused.

"It's terrifying when it happens," he said, "but I can't tell you how naïvely happy I am when it goes well. These are such major steps that I wasn't even hoping for a few weeks ago."

ARILD REMMEREIT (pronounced AHR-eeld REMM-uh-right, with the r's heavily rolled) was born in a village in Norway, between Bergen and Trondheim, and has lived in Vienna since 1987. Slim and fresh-faced at 43, he has had a busy but low-level career in Europe. He conducted the Residenz Orchestra of Vienna, which played mainly for tourists, from 1989 to 1992, and he was artistic director of the Ukrainian State Opera in Kharkov from 1992 to 1995. But substitute appearances with the Munich Philharmonic in January and the Vienna Symphony in February rapidly raised his profile.

So here he was, on April 15, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in place of Mr. Dohnanyi, whom orchestra members had been looking forward to working with for months, in a vintage Dohnanyi Germanic program, which some audience members had been looking forward to just as long. Of the three works scheduled - Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," Schumann's Fourth Symphony and Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist - Mr. Remmereit had conducted only the Schumann before in concert.

At the start of both the morning rehearsal and the concert, he approached the podium like a diffident schoolboy. But once there he showed utter self-assurance, using clear and wide-ranging gestures, particularly in a breathtakingly dynamic reading of the Schumann.

The audience cheered lustily, and the orchestra showed its appreciation with shuffled feet. And although Mr. Ohlsson stole the end of the show not only with his concerto performance but also with a Chopin waltz as encore, the only thing listeners seemed to want to talk about afterward was Mr. Remmereit.

"Sensational" was the word heard most frequently in a Talk-Back reception, a regular postconcert event that allows audience members to mingle with players and administrators. Mr. Remmereit radiated a joy in music-making, several listeners said. Inevitably, his boyish good looks, expressive podium manner and understated charisma were noted, but so was what some perceived as an unusual rapport between conductor and players.

The orchestra, which has had no music director since the departure of Mariss Jansons in 2003, recently cut short the search for a new one and is about to begin a ballyhooed three-year experiment in doing without, turning its fortunes over to three specialists: Andrew Davis, Marek Janowski and Yan Pascal Tortelier. But at the reception many proposed drafting Mr. Remmereit as music director at the end of that period - if not before. He's a real find, they said, and of all the major American orchestras, Pittsburgh had him first.

SUBSTITUTE conducting is not for the faint of heart. Orchestras generally try to keep a program intact, to upset the audience's expectations as little as possible and to accommodate previously engaged soloists.

Semyon Bychkov, another conductor whose career was founded on a number of high-profile substitutions, caught a break recently when he took over Mr. Dohnanyi's week with the New York Philharmonic. With only days remaining before the first rehearsal, the orchestra let him replace three scheduled works with Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, which he had just been conducting with the Pittsburgh Symphony. But he had to keep Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Mitsuko Uchida as soloist.

Mr. Remmereit has had no such luck. All three programs that he conducted this month went unchanged, and he had to plunge into quick if not frenetic study.

The call from La Scala - actually, repeated calls from his agent on his answering machine - came to Vienna on a Sunday night, after he had returned from a concert (attending, not conducting) and a dinner afterward, at 12:30. The Filarmonica, he learned, would be performing Schubert's Fourth Symphony and Beethoven's rarely performed cantata "Christ on the Mount of Olives." He had never conducted either in concert. And rehearsal was to begin in Milan the next morning.

The lateness of the call, a day and a half after Mr. Muti's resignation, could only mean that Mr. Remmereit was far from the first person approached for the assignment. (One person approached earlier, in fact, was Mr. Bychkov, who was then still committed to the notion of a week off - his last until July.)

But Mr. Remmereit had no time to ruminate. He set to work through the brief night, studying the pieces - the Beethoven from a piano-vocal reduction, the best score he could lay hands on at the moment - and left for the airport at 5:30. There he saw the full orchestral score just 10 minutes before rehearsal and, in essence, learned the difficult piece on the job. "I don't want this to sound like I'm not serious," he said in an interview here, showing slight agitation at the memory of that harrowing night. "I have taken chances because I know that now is my time."

Nor was Mr. Remmereit an obvious candidate in Pittsburgh. The orchestra's vice president for artistic planning, Robert Moir, described the process: when Mr. Dohnanyi canceled on the Monday of the week before the concerts, Mr. Moir started working through his A list. Late in the day, he put out an all-points bulletin to the big managers in the business. Usually, he said, those calls are returned within a half-hour. This time, nothing.

Becoming desperate, he called the former music director, Mr. Jansons, at his home in St. Petersburg, Russia. Though unable to step in, Mr. Jansons reminded Mr. Moir of an earlier recommendation: Mr. Remmereit, who had helped Mr. Jansons prepare a performance of Schoenberg's imposing "Gurrelieder" with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The players were apprehensive. "I'd been looking forward to this date on the calendar, to working with Dohnanyi," said Paul Silver, a violist in the orchestra. But having worked through four rehearsals with Mr. Remmereit, Mr. Silver added: "He's brought a fresh approach and made a very good impression. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor that is very disarming. Some of the things he's doing you could pick up from studying, but if he's studied them, he's a very good actor. He seems spontaneous and genuine."

Other players, too, confirmed the impression that they had established an immediate connection with the maestro. The reasons were not hard to find during that last rehearsal. "Tell me honestly," Mr. Remmereit said to the group after a run-through of the "Siegfried Idyll," "is it clear what I do?" That kind of self-effacement is almost unheard of among conductors.

Mr. Remmereit's manner is thoughtful and soft-spoken but firm. "How you play it now is quite fine," he said in the Schumann symphony, "but if we do the diminuendo, it will be perfect."

After the rehearsal, he explained: "Americans are like Scandinavians. They have discipline, but it's very relaxed. It's not Central European."

Andrés Cárdenes, the orchestra's veteran concertmaster, said Mr. Remmereit "has a good baton technique, and he is a fine accompanist, which is rare even among great conductors." (Mr. Ohlsson also attested to Mr. Remmereit's expertise as an accompanist.)

"He is going to be an important conductor," Mr. Cárdenes concluded. Coming from the players' official representative, after just four rehearsals, that's about as big as it gets.

BUT if Mr. Remmereit is so obviously gifted, why did it take a series of flukes to get the attention in which he is now almost drowning?

"Our little industry is bifurcated by an ocean," said Mr. Mackey, of the Madison Symphony, "and he's done a lot in Europe. But without a post, a conductor is invisible."

Mr. Moir, the Pittsburgh vice president, elaborated: "I'm a firm believer in the idea of a late bloomer. He's very intelligent, and he knew that nothing would be gained by self-promotion in a conductor-hungry world, and everything would be gained from waiting, from having a job and doing it well rather than getting his name in the papers."

As big a role as luck and happenstance may play in getting an initial opportunity, repeat engagements depend on the quality of that first encounter and speak to its success. In addition to the Madison Symphony, Mr. Remmereit said he had been invited back to the Vienna Symphony and been led to believe that his prospects for a callback at La Scala were bright. (Certainly, Mr. Muti left behind plenty of vacancies.)

Mr. Moir said that the Pittsburgh Symphony was booked two seasons ahead but that he had invited Mr. Remmereit back for the 2007-8 season - and asked, "If somebody else cancels, can we call on you?"

For a conductor the ideal, of course, is to be so busy that there's no time to substitute for someone else, and Mr. Remmereit's services are now sure to be in demand. Might the notion of a permanent position with an American orchestra - where, to the chagrin of many Europeans, a music director is expected to socialize heavily and aid in fund-raising - appeal to him?

"Yes, I would like that very much," he said. "It's important for the music director to do a lot of work." He said he is also eager to do his bit for contemporary music, as he already has in Europe.

Meanwhile, he was off to yet another high-profile engagement. Mr. Moir reported that when Mr. Remmereit took the stage for that Friday rehearsal, he complained of soreness in a shoulder (small wonder, the way his head must have been spinning above it) - and said that he might have to call in a substitute for his date in Paris. Yes, he was kidding.
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