Keeping it Fresh: Extended Interview with Alban Gerhardt
Alban Gerhardt, the world renowned cellist who will play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Oregon Symphony on October 27 & 29, has a full schedule. Between traveling to perform countless concerts with top international orchestras, keeping up on his vast repertoire of cello concerti and an engaging recording career (which has earned him three ECHO Classic Awards), the cellist took time to chat while driving to a music festival. Gerhardt’s conversational style is down-to-earth and friendly. Revealing an artist’s appreciation for beauty, he remarked on the picturesque German countryside, interrupted himself to describe a flock of birds swooping in above his car, but easily transitioned to issues of obvious importance to his career.
Gerhardt is incredibly successful, but this success has not gone to his head. Self-proclaimed as anything but career-obsessed, he has the simple wish to spend time with his family. With regard to music, he has one goal: “My goal, my wish, my dream is that…I can keep the love and enthusiasm for music as fresh as possible as long as I live.”
InSymphony: You were born into a musical home. Your father was a violinist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and your mother is a singer. Early in your career, it was your dream to join the Berlin Philharmonic. When you had a chance to audition, you instead chose a solo career. How has that choice influenced your career?
Gerhardt: My dream was to become a member of my father’s orchestra. But the principal cellist retired four years earlier than he intended to. In Germany, retirement is at 65. And when he was 65, I would have been 25, which would have been the perfect age, in my view, to try a job like that. My father wanted me to audition, but I refused because I felt I was too young, and I didn’t want to settle down for life yet. I knew if I took such a job, I would not have to develop much more. I’m rather lazy by nature, so I wouldn’t have pushed myself. I sensed there was still more I could learn as a cellist and as a musician.
InSymphony: So you’ve found your solo career has pushed you farther than the other career might have?
Gerhardt: Yes, I’m definitely very happy that I did what I did because I’m not very good at following orders, and in an orchestra you have to follow orders. The conductor is the boss, and he tells you what to do. And Berlin Philharmonic has some great conductors, but even the great conductors might have a different opinion than my own. I prefer to do my own thing. And now I know it was the right choice.
InSymphony: You write about traveling for your performances quite a bit on your blog. Do you consider your life of travel a perk or a struggle?
Gerhardt: For me, traveling is not so hard. I don’t really get tired so much, but I don’t like it. I very much prefer to be home. And now, luckily my wife is coming with me to the festival, and we perform there together. But both of us would prefer to stay home and enjoy Berlin, which is a very beautiful city, especially in the summer. Nature is quite beautiful around Berlin, so one could actually spend the whole summer not going anywhere. Often, we are gone the most in summer because there are all the festivals. I feel obliged to show my son the world, so I accept things I would normally not accept just to be able to take him and show him around.
But, I didn’t think it would be so much traveling. I didn’t really think at all when I chose not to join the orchestra. My main thought was to see how much I could develop and then take whatever happens. I won the competition of the German Music Council when I was 21, in 1990. This was shortly before the whole audition thing became relevant. This competition came with not only with some money, but also with loads of horribly paid and very unimportant tiny little concerts. Before, I never played concerts. I was not a child prodigy. I played one with some horrible chamber orchestra when I was 18, then another concert at 19, and then I did this completion and suddenly I had 50 concerts in a year. I travelled like crazy around Germany. There were lots of tiny little concerts, which paid nothing. But I loved it. I very much loved the thrill of performing and growing. I realized that with playing concerts, I became a better musician. You can do so much practicing all the time, but when you really have to perform, there is another level of learning and growing. Actually, almost like in sports. They cannot only train, they need to experience competition. Like a soccer player, they need to play games to get better.
InSymphony: One of your goals is to bring classical music to younger generations. In what ways do you work to achieve this goal?
Gerhardt: Wherever I go, my manager organizes opportunities to go to several schools and introduce the cello, talk to the kids and tell them what it meant to me to be able to learn an instrument. And I always say that not everybody has to play an instrument, but it would be nice if every young person does something where he or she can be creative in some way or another: painting, singing, dancing, playing the drums, whatever. Something that requires your own fantasy and your own ideas, not just sitting in front of some screen and playing games.
In Germany many freelance positions are combined with a project called Rhapsody in School, where we are sent to different schools. And it actually works quite well, but it is never enough. I learned how much success it actually gets in the U.S., because in the U.S., they somehow realized earlier how important it is to reach out to younger audience.
InSymphony: Is there a specific lesson you want to convey to students from a mentor standpoint?
Gerhardt: Mostly, I would not want to inspire anybody to become a professional musician. If someone seeks my advice on that front, I would be very hesitant to recommend studying music. You really, really have to be very obsessed and a bit crazy about it to actually study it and do it as a career. I see so many professional musicians losing the love for music…and often I see people who have music as a hobby, and they continue to love music much more.
So when I go to schools, it’s actually more to break the first barrier; often, they have not heard an acoustic instrument in their life. But I hardly ever talk to young people who want to be professionals. I gave a so-called week long master class, and they were all young adults between 15 and 25 who want to do it professionally. But they didn’t ask me anything about careers, so when I’m not asked, I don’t really feel I should lecture them or anything. If they would have asked me, I would have told them maybe to study something else at the same time.
My father was teaching all his life, and one of his students didn’t get into the orchestra she wanted to get into. She had studied medicine at the same time as violin, and she chose to keep the violin as her love and became a doctor as a profession. I know quite many doctors and lawyers who claimed they would not have gone so far in their profession if it wasn’t for playing an instrument. It somehow inspired them, and also, by playing an instrument we learn how to focus, concentrate, and how to work. All these points are essential for a young person growing up.
InSymphony: You seem to be quite current on social media trends such as your blog and Facebook. You also have a very successful recording career. Do you intend this to be a way to reach that younger audience as well?
Gerhardt: Exactly. I think musicians should not hide in the cultural corner and just go to a concert and leave. We are fighting with so much competition, and not competition by other musicians, but other competition by distractions. There is so much people can do besides go to a concert. So we really have to make them interested in coming to concerts and explain what is so special about going to a concert and not just watching YouTube all night. Even if they are interested in music, they might just sit at home and listen to CDs, and it is not the same as a concert.
I’m also pretty much aware that, at least in Germany, but also in America, when trying to become more popular, some of the classical musicians kind of fell out and bowed down to the lowest common denominator. And I think that is very dangerous because we should be proud of what classical music represents and should not try to make it easy. We have to make ourselves acceptable, but we should not forget the essence and the value of the thing we are doing here. In other words, we should not try to do too much pop with our music, even though we are trying to stay, in a way, popular. But I would never ever do some dancing show and play cheap music in order for more audiences to see me, because I don’t think that helps classical music. It might help myself in the very short term, but in the long term I would lose as a serious artist.
InSymphony: You’ve had an impressive musical education. Is there a musical instructor or mentor who especially influenced you?
Gerhardt: I had two or three lessons with the Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff. He said some very important things and pointed me in the right direction. He didn’t take me as a student, luckily, because I think he would have been too strong of a personality for me. But the two or three lessons I had were quite meaningful. He remains actually one of the greatest musicians I have met in my life. He is not playing the cello anymore; he is conducting now.
InSymphony: You’ve said your parents didn’t push music on you, and that you take a similar stance with young people. Do you value independence in searching out a relationship with music?
Gerhardt: Yes, I value independence. One boy asked me the other day if I could recommend a recording for a certain piece he wants to learn. I told him, first of all, there was no recording for this piece, and second of all, he shouldn’t even think about it because he should try to come up with his own idea. Then we keep our independence as musicians and not sanctify some tradition, which is often just a collection of bad habits.
InSymphony: What kinds of activities do you engage in outside of the music world?
Gerhardt: Oh I love to play tennis. I’m a tennis addict. I’m not a very good tennis player, but I enjoy it very much. If I had time I would go everyday, for three or four hours, and I never get tired. I mean the heart and lungs get tired, but somehow I started doing that four or five years ago. The teacher asked me if I wanted to learn tennis or hit some balls (laughs). And I told him, ‘I’m a musician, and I probably should learn it so I don’t get injured.’ And he was very adamant that I learn it the right way, so now I can play without ever tiring out my arms. I can even play the day of a concert and not feel any handicap. That’s my biggest passion, outside of music.
Otherwise, I love being with my wife and my kid (son, János) and being home, and cooking, actually. We love to cook. I’m not a gourmet or anything, but its great fun to prepare your own food. In Berlin, that’s why I don’t know any good restaurants, people often ask me, ‘So where can we go,’ and I say that I don’t know because I always cook at home.
InSymphony: Do you find these non-musical activities help you stay engaged and balanced in your musical career?
Gerhardt: I wouldn’t know because I never did it differently (laughs). I’m sure it does. As friends who know me can confirm, I’m not career obsessed. I think I’ve found quite a good balance. It has always been like that. I’ve never focused too much on one thing. Obviously, while studying as a child I had to focus on the cello, but I prefer not having to do that all the time.
InSymphony. Being a musician affords you the opportunity to visit different parts of the globe. Do you see a difference in how music is interpreted or received around the world?
Gerhardt: Well, because of globalism, it is not so different. Around the world, music is being played quite similarly and often interpreted rather similarly. How people receive it can be quite different. In America, people are much more joyful afterwards, but they clap much shorter. They scream and they stand, but then the applause is over pretty soon. And in Germany, they don’t scream at all, but they tend to clap forever. So, I prefer the American way. I don’t like this going back and forth business.
InSymphony: In terms of your solo career, do you have any particular expectations or goals for the upcoming years?
Gerhardt: Actually, I was asked that question once for the first time about 10 years ago, and I was caught by surprise, because I realized I don’t really have any more goals. But, I would love to keep loving what I do and keep on being able to do that. I don’t dream of some certain orchestra or anything, I just wish to be able to do it until I die and love it at the same time.
I hate it because I see these people doing our profession and hear that they don’t really like it anymore because they’ve been doing it for so long and they grew tired of it. I have seen so many people who grew tired of playing music, when the music making almost became stale, not fresh anymore. And my goal, my wish, my dream is that will never happen to me and that I can keep the love and enthusiasm for music as fresh as possible for as I can as long as I live.
Once a couple of years ago I talked to some financial person who wanted to advise me on how to secure my future, and he asked me when I wanted to retire. If I have a say in it, I’d love not to retire at all, just to play, or if I cannot play very much any more, play very little and teach, but I would love to do music for the rest of my life. That’s my goal.
InSymphony: You are playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Oregon Symphony in October. Tell us about the piece and your feelings about playing again with the symphony.
Gerhardt: Yes, I’m excited. I’m playing Tchaikovsky, and actually, it was the piece I played for my debut with my father’s orchestra. It is one of the first variations I played. Actually, I have played them quite often in my life, but I must say they never get any easier. They are very tricky, almost like a Haydn concerto, which are also among the most feared concertos by cellists. Audiences don’t know that because it doesn’t sound so difficult, because each variation is so different and there are so many different technical and musical challenges, that I’m always quite nervous about playing them. But I love it. It is beautiful music.
I love working with Carlos, If it is a hostile environment, it is much harder to play music. I’m sure Carlos is going to make me comfortable enough to play well. It always helps to work with friends.