Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra Interview
Thierry Fischer was recently announced as Principal Guest conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, commencing in January 2017. Here, he answers some questions about the appointment and what he hopes to achieve there.
What was your reaction to this appointment?
I’m very honoured to be chosen as Principal Guest conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, which will occupy approximately six weeks of my conducting year. I remember from my previous visits to Seoul that it is an extremely open-minded orchestra operating at an exceptionally high level with the utmost commitment to the art. They are also very prepared for the unexpected, which might sound odd, but it’s very important for an orchestra to be able to react in the moment. I felt immediate chemistry with the orchestra when I first conducted them and admire their music-making very much. When the offer was presented to me, I was immediately motivated to accept this closer relationship.
What are you most looking forward to?
There are many things I am looking forward to! Firstly, I am looking forward to working with the musicians themselves who are absolutely committed to excellence. They are willing to master very challenging repertoire from Bach to new contemporary commissions and their diverse programme of concerts is really exciting for me. Working with Unsuk Chin and Maris Gothoni will no doubt be very inspiring.
Secondly, working with the administration team and developing a close relationship with them is very important to me. A few months ago, the SPO CEO Heungsik Choe came to Geneva and we had lunch in my back garden with my agent. I really appreciated the effort they went to visit me at home. We discussed the future plans for the orchestra, and I expressed how much I was looking forward to continuing the wonderful legacy of Maestro Chung.
Finally, I eagerly await performing in new Lotte Hall. From what I have heard, the hall is absolutely out of this world.
So in a sense it is the whole picture, from the musicians to the management team and the whole surrounding community that I am looking forward to working with. Even just the thought of beginning this collaboration with such a high level organisation is highly motivating and stimulating for me.
What do you want to achieve?
I will be aiming for excellence at all times, and from this I want to see development within the whole organisation, constant progress and beauty in all aspects of our work. It is very important to me to be able to understand the arts scene there, so I look forward to gaining a thorough understanding from the inside.
How do you think the SPO audience will differ from the Utah Symphony audience? Will you change anything?
No audience can change my approach, enthusiasm and happiness of being on stage! With Utah Symphony, I am truly blessed with the support from the audience in Salt Lake City. I can’t wait to once again experience the SPO audience’s reactions, admiration and need for the arts, and also their very attentive nature. I really am very eager to share our projects with the audience there.
I do believe that the audience should not change the artists’ approach. There is no recipe for predicting the silence a performance can command from an audience, or their attentiveness to the music. This is something to strive for, but every audience on any night is different. Personally, I am the same no matter the podium. I do not change my style depending on how I think an audience might react, because predicting that is impossible.
Do you speak any Korean?
Not a word, but that will soon change. I plan to learn the basic phrases so I can greet people, exchange pleasantries and other necessities like ordering in a restaurant.
What is your favourite Korean dish?
Bulgogi, for sure! It is one of my absolute favourite dishes. I could eat it every day, but of course this is not the only reason I took the job, just an added extra!
What would be your dream project in Seoul?
Experience tells me that it is not wise to dwell on the past or dream of the future. It is best to focus on the present. The only reasonable dream I can have, in one word, is to dare. I believe you can achieve the present dream by doing small things with love and passion.
However, in more pragmatic terms, my dream project would be to conduct both orchestras; Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Utah Symphony, at the same time, combining their wonderful forces to perform Schoenberg’s Gurre-lieder.
Compared to travelling the world conducting different orchestras, what do you like about having a long-term position with an orchestra?
With long-term development of relationships, we can work together on highly creative programming strategies, and you have more opportunities to take risks during the performance, which can be equally exciting and terrifying.
However, knowing an organisation inside out is both beautiful and dangerous – you can run the risk of complacency when you get too comfortable. I always remind myself that when performing with an orchestra in front of an audience, it should appear as if you are performing together for the very first time.
Of course, in the hectic life of a 21-century conductor, it’s wonderful to have time really see what music can do for an organisation and a community. The orchestra operates as a microsociety and the conductor and management’s collective goal is to galvanise people together at the highest level, developing cohesion and understanding.
Thierry Fischer interviewed by Nicholas Beard
Conductor Thierry Fischer’s path to the podium has hardly been music-business-as-usual. Born in Zambia, Africa, raised in Geneva, he first discovered the magic of his now well-established profession at age seven, when he started taking recorder lessons. “My parents felt it was important for me to do something more than play football in the street,” jokes the affable Swiss maestro.
It was the first of two major epiphanies that brought Fischer to where he is today—an increasingly visible presence on international podiums and an American music director as deeply committed to his orchestra and he is to the community that surrounds and supports it.
Since his arrival in 2009 in Salt Lake City, the Utah Symphony has been on a steady upward trajectory, attracting younger audiences with fresh repertoire and 30 new musicians, many of them principals, to play it.
“I arrived with the conviction that everything was possible,” says Fischer, whose pride in the orchestra is palpable. “I believe you can do great things but only with a succession of small steps.”
Which is precisely how his career has unfolded—small steps, and a consistently positive outlook. “Wherever I am, as long as I am doing music, I feel at home.”
Fischer has been “doing music” since that recorder first touched his young lips.
“I remember the first time I put this piece of wood in my mouth,” he says excitedly, as if it just happened yesterday. “I can even remember the taste of it, how I was dressed, the incredibly pure notion of beauty, the physical energy of the vibration passing through my body. It was something I cannot forget.”
Before long, he switched to the flute. “When I was a teenager, the flute was my escape,” he says. “You find your way to be rebellious. For me it was playing the flute, nonstop.”
At age 16 he decided he would become a professional flautist—which, sure enough, he did, occupying the principal chairs of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Zurich Opera Orchestra, and eventually the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for ten years, under the baton of the great Claudio Abbado.
A self-confessed utopian, Fischer remembers this period in his life—he was in his late 30s–fondly. “I was very happy, as an artist and as a human.”
When a call came from a friend to lead a rehearsal of an amateur choir in Geneva, Fischer declined. “Find someone else,” he said. He had never conducted before, nor did he harbor any aspirations toward maestro-dom. On the contrary.
He finally agreed to do it “as a joke,” he says now.
The joke, as it turned out, was on him. “After one minute conducting an amateur choir, I knew my life had completely changed.”
Such was major epiphany No. 2.
“It was almost a physical reaction—the same reaction I had as when I started recorder lessons. I remember going back home and saying to my wife, ‘My life has changed.’”
In the end, Fischer not only led the concert, but took over the orchestra, a year later, when the founder of that Geneva orchestra retired
“I had been about to accept another important flute job in Germany, and I decided not to, just so I could take on this semi-professional group,” which, over time, he transformed into the fully professional Geneva Chamber Orchestra. With an apparent laser-like vision, Fischer directed himself toward a conducting career. He had had no formal training, although ten years under Abbado could hardly have failed to have an impact, and he knew he needed to work on craft and technique.
In 1997, he was offered the job of chief conductor of the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra. Since then, he has held a number of chief conductor jobs, including the Ulster Orchestra, the Nagoya Philharmonic and, most recently the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, from 2006-2012. Along the way have been guest spots with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra and many others.
When Fischer was first asked to guest conduct the Utah Symphony, in 2007, he was a relative unknown Stateside. He knew the orchestra only from its many recordings with Maurice Abravanel, its music director from 1947-1979. “I just thought I was going to conduct an orchestra with a glorious past,” Fischer says now of the invitation.
His debut with the orchestra, reported The Salt Lake Tribune, “ended with shouts of praise from audiences, foot-stamping approval from the orchestra’s musicians, and critical raves in the press.” After two weeks in Salt Lake City, the musicians, the board, and President and CEO Melia Tourangeau, knew they had their man.
But when orchestra representatives flew to Geneva to invite him to be their music director, he was astonished. “I had no idea,” he says. “Honestly.”
But he was interested. “I was attracted to the idea of being a music director in America because it is so different from the way these jobs are in Europe. The impact you can have here, on the whole organization, the community, as well as the orchestra, was very appealing.”
Fischer had very definite ideas about what he would do with the symphony, ideas he made clear before accepting the job. “I wanted to bring the orchestra back to where it had been [under Abravanel] with its reputation, its commitment to education in the state, its recordings, its touring activity, and commissioning at least one composer a season. I believe everything has to be connected to one global vision.
“I was clear that, if I came, I wanted to realize the cliché, ‘in America, everything is possible.’”
Having the commitment from the administration and board of directors to support his vision, and with the seal of approval from wife Catherine (who now works at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts), Fischer accepted the post, effective in fall 2009. The rebuilding and retooling process began almost immediately. Within 36 months, there were 30 new players in the orchestra. Most of the changes came about through natural attrition, but it is a testament to Fischer’s grace and good judgment that the turnover went smoothly.
“I don’t believe in revolution—especially in an artistic organization,” he says. “But I do believe in consistently aiming for excellence, and that has guided all of my decisions.”
With the orchestra’s 75th-anniversary season approaching, in 2015-16, and with his vision of restoring it to the glory days under Abravanel, Fischer has been working with increasingly difficult repertoire with an eye toward preparing his merry band for a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies—an Abravanel specialty.
“We started with a Beethoven cycle,” recalls Fischer, as a means of determining and honing the orchestra’s technical skills as an ensemble; in the second season came a small Mendelssohn cycle, then a Nielsen symphony cycle. “I am a huge fan of Nielsen’s music and his values as an artist,” says Fischer. “There are incredibly complex challenges in all of his symphonies.”
Slowly but surely, the conductor has been creating what he calls a “window into Mahler’s world, which is intense, heavy, moody, dramatic, extreme.”
Will they be ready? “Yes!” enthuses Fischer with obvious pride. “There is a great atmosphere at the moment. People are incredibly motivated.”
He speaks not only of the players but of the audience, which has grown to trust Fischer’s choice in repertoire—unfamiliar and/or contemporary as it may be. (He commissions a new piece for the symphony every year.)
“When I arrived I said immediately to the musicians and to audiences, ‘I don’t believe an orchestra is only a museum where you go simply to be comforted by what you already know. As artists, we have the responsibility to open doors, to open our ears, to play the music of today.
“I believe if we are challenged by new music, suddenly there is an irresistible new energy to perform old masterpieces.”
His approach to both is captivating musicians, audiences, and critics alike worldwide. In addition to a full schedule in Utah, the coming season sees Fischer guest conducting Japan’s Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchester, among others.
“I like to be constantly challenged,” says Fischer of his jet-setting schedule. “I have an irresistible attraction to the unexpected. I’m inspired by the notion of excellence. I am always reconsidering the notion of beauty and hope. These are the essential elements.”