Wilson Hermanto: exclusive interview

It is our distinct pleasure to host an event, in which the Principal Guest Conductor of “Cameristi della Scala”, Wilson Hermanto, will be a keynote speaker. Please stay tuned for further information on the event itself and in the meantime may we suggest you to enjoy an exclusive interview for BSAS, which would allow you to get to know the worldwide known conductor and musician from a different, more personal perspective.

Good morning, Maestro Hermanto!

Good morning, Grigorianna!

Apart from being Principal Guest Conductor of “Cameristi della Scala” since December 2017 you have also done a huge international career in the States, Latin America, Asia and Europe. Let’s talk a little bit about how it all started. You were born in Indonesia and there you started taking music classes in piano…

Piano and then I learnt the violin and in fact this was my principal instrument. After finishing my high school I went to the States and I entered the Music Conservatory majoring in violin and, in fact, I got my conservatory degree as a violinist, before starting conducting.

Is it common in Indonesia to receive this kind of musical training? To learn to play a musical instrument, attend classical music concerts, operas, etc.? Do people there have it in their culture?

When I was growing up it was much less common. Today, of course, it is different. People are much more exposed to classical music compared to when I was a child. Having said that though, I should say that I had many privileges growing up in Indonesia and was exposed quite a lot for what they could offer. As an example, I had a very good violin teacher, he was one of the very few lucky Indonesians who in the 1950s got a scholarship to study in Holland. Remember that Indonesia was a colony of Holland for 350 years. So after WWII, and I remind that the independence was proclaimed in 1945, some lucky Indonesians managed to get scholarships to go abroad, in that case my teacher. There he studied with one of the best violin teachers in the world at that time, Oscar Back, the equivalent of Leopold Auer in Russia or Carl Flesch in Germany. When he finished studying in Holland, he entered as an orchestra member in Utrecht, then he went back to Indonesia. There the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Jakarta, which was at the time funded by the Dutch government, needed a Music Director, so my teacher was offered the job as the Music Director of the Jakarta Symphony Orchestra. So he had quite a privileged life and he was also one of the most important musicians in Indonesia at the time.

What was his name?

His name was Adidharma, he died two years ago, being 86 years old. When he came back to Indonesia in the late 1950s, he was still in his thirties. So when he was offered this post, being still so young, he also had to learn many things. Moreover, since Indonesia had not stepped in classical music yet, he had to build an orchestra basically from scratch, which was a big challenge.

I mentioned that growing up in Indonesia I had many privileges, including to be associated with people who had had chances to go abroad. And I was inspired by classical music early on, thanks to my father. Although my parents are not musicians, they like and listen to classical music a lot. My father had some collections of recordings, which until today are considered to be some of the best, benchmarks [for quality] so to say. When I was five years old, he played me Alfred Brendel’s recording of Beethoven’s Appassionata, which was not an easy listening for a child. Soon after I discovered one of the Late Quartets of  Beethoven, Op. 130, through a recording of Lasalle Quartet, which as well until today is considered a benchmark recording. As a child I was exposed to this sound and this world, which until today I am very grateful to my father for.

When did you realise that you want to become a musician and pursue this as a career?

Probably in my teenage years, I was still in school in Jakarta. I must have been around 15 or 16 and I felt that I wanted to pursue it seriously, without knowing what would become of it. I wanted to study the violin seriously and an opportunity came to me, so that after high school I could go the United States. Basically, to grow up in Indonesia and to want to be a professional musician meant that you had to leave the country and go either to the United States or to Europe in order to receive the necessary background, meaning teachers, institution, etc. In this sense, this was a really important step in my life.

Was it easy to leave the country?

In what sense?

Well, nowadays we live in a fairly globalised world, so it is quite easy to move freely to and within most of the countries. I was wondering what it was like back then, when you made this decision…

Many of my friends from school also went to different universities abroad after high school, although they did not study music. In that sense it was common, it was not something shocking. There was always a period of adjustment, but I got used to it fairly quickly.

What is the biggest cultural shock that you experienced after you moved to the States?

I was quite young, I was 18 when I moved to America and my first two years at school I had to live in the school dormitory. That was an advantage because my friends from school came from all sorts of different background, also a lot of foreigners, like myself, so I did not really feel shocked, I was always surrounded by people who were just like me. In a sense that helped. I missed the food but I managed to get used to that in the States pretty quickly. I also appreciated that I could meet people from all sorts of background, different countries and I had not experienced that in Indonesia.

Going back to your teenage years, when you decided to become a musician, did you consider anything else as a profession?

As a child or a teenager you always have many ideas but in the moment when there is a calling in the heart, you follow that instinct and it guides you. So the strongest voice in me then was to pursue classical music and this is what I did and what I have been doing ever since.

What about your parents and family in general, how did they react to this idea?

(Laughs strongly) As I told you none of my parents is a professional musician. My father was a businessman and my mom was at home to oversee me and my brother. They tried to support me but they did not understand really why I wanted that because they did not know the insight but said “OK, if you want to do it, try it out and see”. As all parents, they just wanted the best for their kids. Even if they would have had different ideas, at the end it was me who had to say what I wanted.

But it is not just the desire that is necessary to become successful, what else does it take?

There is no one recipe for the word “success”. I believe that in whatever profession we are we must first and foremost remain true to ourselves, have passion, which has to be combined with a certain amount of talent. The talent needs to be combined with lots of hard work and together with that you also need to have the right ingredient of personality and you also need an element of luck, and also a wide range of network. Talking about luck, it implies that you need to be at the right place at the right time, and you also need to use your instinct and be a good psychologist, since being a conductor you have to deal with a lot of people with different personalities.

Many things we learned at school are just a very small portion of what it actually took me to become what I am today. I would say that what we learn from school is probably 10%.

Even when you talk about “conducting technique”, what is it really? Is it just a kind of simple gestures beating time?

The real difficulties are how to use this gestures in order to make music and how to understand it deeply and be able to transfer that to the musicians, to make things happen together, and to deliver content. This subject is so huge, so your question is very difficult to answer in one sentence. But I think you can get some kind of a perspective of how I see it.

Can you tell under what circumstances did you decide to become a conductor? Because you mentioned previously that you were focusing on the violin…

You cannot learn conducting too early in life. You need to have enough musical knowledge, musical maturity, to play an instrument as well it is important to understand how this process is being done in a large group. Playing an instrument means that you will also play chamber music and be a part of a chamber music group, which on the larger term is already like an orchestra. But it is all the idea of chamber music, implying listening to one another.

So going back to your question, it was a process because I played the violin and I realised that it is very interesting not just to play my part but to share the musical idea with other people, combined with my wide interests in terms of repertoire, not just violin repertoire but also chamber music, symphonic, opera, oratorio, from Baroque until music written by living composers, etc. To be able to share my passion and love for music, and to be able to give my energy and inspire people lead to the idea of wanting to conduct. But not simply to conduct because, of course, as a conductor you need to have an element of leadership but you are also primus inter pares, meaning that you are one among the others, in the positive sense. So you need to be able to listen, while also offer something in return. This element of taking and giving is very important for a conductor.

If we look at the history, and take the examples of Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner or George Szell, which were great maestri of another generation but they were more dictatorial, meaning that at their time the conductor was the absolute voice of the truth (laughs). But the world we are living in today has changed, so it takes to be someone who has original ideas but at the same time a good team player and a community leader. We have to always remember that we play for people and often those who come to hear us do not have the same level of understanding and musical background. We also have to consider how to interest people to come for the first time and to convey the message that classical music helps people have a better understanding about life. It is not about liking classical music but the fact that it brings people together and to tell them not to be afraid to listen to something that might sound difficult but to make them curious instead.

I believe that great arts need open ears and when the society and the people open their ears, even if the listening is hard, they start to search something inside themselves and that influences the society in a way that people start to listen to one another. When people say “the power of music brings people together”, it implies that when people draw their ears open, they are also willing to listen to their neighbours and enemies, thus everyone starts to be more sensitive to one another. I think this is why classical music is like food for our souls. And as music has no boundaries, no matter where we are from or what our background is, this music speaks to us in a different way and I think this makes us more sensitive as human beings.

Do you think that, considering the fact that someone is going to a concert for the first time to listen to something fairly contemporary, that person needs some kind of description or preparation before listening to the piece?

Yes and no. People should not come to concerts feeling afraid of being intimidated with what is being presented. Even if they do not have time to read any background or know more, they should just sit down with “open ears” and experience it. Because it is a process and in classical music no matter what piece you listen to, you can never really know all about it. Even pieces of music that you may know since childhood, i.e. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony or Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, etc. you can listen to them over and over again and always discover something new. This is why contemporary music should not make people intimidated. Remember that in Mozart’s, Beethoven’s or Bach’s time almost every piece of music being played was a first performance. So why do we have this fear that just because we do not know the name of the composer we should be afraid to even sell tickets? I think that the key is to try to help the public understand that they are welcome and that they need to have open minds and ears for what is being presented by the performer.

The reason I asked this question is that you conducted the Centennial Anniversary concert of Leonard Bernstein, here at La Scala. But that very same day, in the morning, you held a speech at Bocconi about him and his pieces, you also played some of them. And there you talked about him, you gave the audience the context behind each piece and I believe that they liked this approach very much, liked the possibility to feel introduced and more aware of the pieces. Do you often do this during concerts?

It depends on the occasion because not in every concert setting you can do that. If you have a normal concert with already 85 or 90 minutes of music you cannot add another hour of talk in between because it would become too long, the concert presenters would not allow such a thing. But in the case of the concert at Bocconi it was possible. First of all, we had just one hour and in that hour I spoke perhaps half of the time, so the musical presentations were actually not very long. As well, the Bocconi event was meant to be a lecture concert, meaning that I was able to introduce the background of the music and the composer. I wanted to do a little introduction with some anecdotes, with a little history but also to give some insight into the music but not in a very analytical way, to avoid people feeling lost. So I had to try to balance that and actually a very good example of this was Leonard Bernstein himself.

When Lenny was active as a conductor he was very much into connecting with young musicians and while he was the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in the late 1950s up until a certain part of the 1970s, he had a TV series, called “The Young People Concerts”. Until today they are legendary and you can watch many of Bernstein’s clips on YouTube. His genius was his ability to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds and to make them feel that they could learn something. The language that he used was simple but at the same time informative, engaging, electrifying, funny.

He was really a great communicator, and it is inspiring to have had someone like him, so that we know how important communication in our profession is and that we have to do this in order to connect with the audience and build the next generation of concert goers and listeners and even to make a little contribution to the society, hopefully making it better. However, many of these communication skills are not taught in music schools, so you need to be aware of that and try to develop them yourself. Actually in this sense there are a lot of similarities with your profession, imagine that the management school is like an orchestra, you have to imagine that you managing people is just like a group of musicians playing together. There are a lot of similarities. One can learn from one another, that is how I feel.

You were one of the few students of Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), who is a worldwide known Italian opera and orchestra conductor. Can you describe what it was like to work with him?

Maestro Giulini belonged to the Pantheon of great conductors of the antithesis of someone like Arturo Toscanini. I mentioned Toscanini’s name before, he was the epitome of a strong person who could be very choleric in front of a group of people and very demanding, he could sound a bit dictatorial but with such a strong personality that everyone was eager to have to follow him. On the other hand, you have Maestro Giulini who was considered a saint, he spoke very softly, he was a super religious man, even when you looked at him you already felt that he was an incarnation of a saint in front of you, he was a man of few words and even during rehearsals he said very few things. When you studied with him he would never tell you “This is how you do it!”, he would just say a few words to show possibilities in music. What he was actually interested in was the sound. When one conducts he or she should search for a particular sound, that of the composer, of the music being played. And it was interesting for Maestro Giulini to see how you could achieve this result. The sound production was something he would always ask you to take care of. The point of studying with someone like Maestro Giulini is that he would not offer you an answer but an inspiration to look for something that you can use for the rest of your life, which was unique.

I think in the early 70s, he restricted his appearances and even the Metropolitan Opera was never able to engage him. Do you have an idea why he did that?

Yes. Maestro Giulini was the Music Director of Teatro alla Scala for three years in the 50s, then he realised that many opera regisseurs started to develop the so-called “regie theatre”, meaning that they had the idea to interpret opera away from the original intention of the composer and the libretto. This was the turning point when Maestro Giulini felt that he could not conduct opera anymore, because when he was offered to conduct he had to be sure that what was being presented on stage was as faithful as possible to the text of the composer, the libretto and the story. When opera regisseurs started to say “My way is unique, new” but was no longer close to the intention of the composer, Maestro Giulini said “I will not do any opera if it is like this”. And that is what happened.

You were also a student of Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013), another big name in classical music. Do you remember how did you meet him? What kind of direction did he give you?

With Sir Colin Davis I had a very long and close relationship, which lasted from 1995 until 2012. I saw him a few months before he died. In 2012 I was conducting in Lyon, l’Orchestre National de Lyon, and that same week I remember Sir Colin Davis came with Staatskapelle Dresden to perform in Lyon, and then few weeks later I was lucky enough to see him again in Paris, which was one of his last concerts. His very last concert was actually in the summer of 2012, Berlioz’s Requiem in London with London Symphony, at which I was not present. Then he fell ill and in April 2013 he passed away.

During all the years I was close to him, he never considered teaching as a teacher-student relationship, it was more like a mentorship. We would see each other in different periods of time, especially in the late 90s and the beginning of the 00s. We would spend hours looking at various scores, which I had to conduct and talking about the music. With someone like Sir Colin Davis it is a lesson of a lifetime because he would never say “You must do it like this”, he just spoke about possibilities and he would look at a piece of music and offer you his insight, for the rest you had to find your way. He would look at my conducting videos, critique me and go to my rehearsals, whenever he could. He even came to some of my concerts and then we would talk about it afterwards. He was so dear to me and many things, which we talked about back then, I still use today as inspiration for myself.

His credo was “Forget the bar line, you have to see what is behind it”, meaning that you also had to be able to see the score deeply, in a combination of knowing the composition, being able to analyse music as if you were the composer, break it apart and put it all together, like a puzzle. Pieces of music are written with specific architecture and when you start to feel the inside of it, it is like walking in a tunnel and knowing every part of the building and understanding where you are in every moment. To develop this deep understanding of music takes time, it is a long process.

Another strong impulse in your career you receive by Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) which would often tell you “Feel inside the line”. Can you explain what he meant by that?

(Laughs) Maestro Boulez was not only a great conductor but also a great composer. Here in Italy in order to become a conductor or even to enter a conducting class, you have to pass eight years of composition classes. It does not mean that you have to become a composer but that you have to pass through such level of education, so that you have enough knowledge to look at a piece of music. Composition classes mean that you have to be able to write Fugues, read scores, analyse them and also to know a lot about various styles of music, be able to write a composition of a first movement of a sonata form, etc.

So what Maestro Boulez was saying with “Feel inside the line” was that if you do not know

the composition inside out, you will not be able to feel the line of the music.

To beat the time is very easy, you can even teach a five-years old child to beat one-two three or one-two, this is easy. But being a conductor means that you have to use thе technique of beating in order to make music. And to make music you need to have a complete understanding of the composition being played. And they are often very complicated. Even if a piece is easy-sounding, there are many details, colours, different hidden nuances, which can only be apparent when we understand the composition. Then we can see its magic and thus get a result during the rehearsals and reproduce the magic with the musicians during the concert. This is why being a conductor is so difficult, because you need to have the whole package. So what Maestro Boulez was saying was that the complete knowledge of the score of a composition is paramount.

You became very well acquainted with the famous French musicologist Henry-Louis de la Grange (1924-2017), who is famous for writing Mahler’s biography and being a prominent expert on Mahler. Together with him you curated the Mahler Projects during the years 2010 and 2011, when you also conducted a couple of Mahler’s symphonies and other pieces. Do you feel that the contact you had with Professor De la Grange has influenced you regarding the way you approached and interpreted this composer?

Understanding Mahler is a lifetime journey. I was very privileged to know Prof. De la Grange and I am thankful to him for his friendship. He was a man full of knowledge and culture about many other things than Mahler. We would also talk a lot about Haydn, Chopin or just about history in general, or life. Because if you want to know about Mahler, you can simply read the book. But the interesting thing when you were spending an afternoon with him was that the conversation expanded to many other things. For example, we spoke about Haydn and he said “You know, my favourite Haydn Symphony is No 98”. You can ask why, since he wrote such great symphonies but at the end it is all about personal taste.

But you can see that he was a man full of curiosity, he wanted people to know him not just

as someone who was passionate about Mahler but as a man full of culture. He bequeathed the whole library collection of Alfred Cortot, the great pianist, can you imagine? He bequeathed the music and also a lot of manuscripts, so you can imagine how large his knowledge was. And I find it accelerating because as a musician it is important to be open-minded, not just about music but also about life, meaning that you have to be sensitive about what is going on in the society, with politics, knowing the history, meeting people of all colours and aspects of life and culture, and to have meaningful discussions with these people will only enrich our lives.

A couple of years ago you were invited to Saint Petersburg by the famous Valery Gergiev to conduct Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Mariinsky Theatre. He is a very powerful player in the industry. What impression do you have of him from the personal contact you had?

I love Maestro Gergiev generally, not only as a person but as you said he is a genius, he is one of the greatest conductors and musicians of all time, he has a very special conducting technique, which I love, people call it “The Gergiev technique”. It is something very personal and he gets beautiful results from there. And he has such inspiring eyes and face when working with orchestras and great humour, and he is very efficient in rehearsals, very quick. He is an extremely smart man, full of energy… I just love Maestro Gergiev.

My next question is a little bit more specific to the technique. What is the meaning of pauses in a piece?

You see, music is not just about sound, silence is part of it too. Just take the example of Mahler’s Symphony No 9. When you perform the end of the last movement, which is an Adagio, where the music is so soft, breaking apart and dying, you need the tension to be held as long as possible because in that moment of silence the audience sinks in the meaning of the music. So the performer has not only the responsibility to play the movement beautifully but also to hold the tension. Take another example, Beethoven’s Eroica. In the first movement, even though the music is Allegro, the moments of harmonic when the music raises in tension and the harmonic changes abruptly, and Beethoven clearly wrote some quick silence there. Even if it is one beat of silence, it has to be done very artistically so that it makes sense with the music.

Talking about silence it can go different ways, it can mean silence at the end of the piece, to hold the tension as explained in the example, but silence also exists in between the music, it can also be in quick succession, of a very short duration. There is also silence at the beginning of a piece. Let’s say the conductor comes out from backstage and the audience claps and the conductor turns to the orchestra. Before the first beat, there has to be a moment of silence in order to prepare the mood of the music. That is also called silence, the silence in music, which leads to the first note and to the music. And if this silence is not established right, then the music also does not sound right. This is a question that is not very easy to answer unless it is a very specific piece of music. But I can say that sound and silence are equally important.

Do you have some kind of routine that you do every time before you go on stage? To help you focus, deal with stress or stage freight?

No, I do not have anything particular. I think that it is good to focus the mind and have a little, quiet moment in the room, a quick meditation but I do not have anything specific.

You travel a lot for rehearsals and projects. Have you figured out a way to cope with jet lag and stress on the road? Do you have any advice you could share?

It is difficult to say. Well, if it is a long flight then what people do, which I also think is good, is to try to adjust straight away to the time of the new place. If your body keeps adjusting to the old time, then you really feel the jet lag. Usually the first two days are difficult if you are forcing yourself to quickly adjust with the new time. Often when I arrive I start to work right away, so during the flight I would already be thinking what the local time is, so that I know whether to sleep in the plane or not. Because if you know that you arrive at the new place  early in the morning, then you know that it is better to keep staying awake even if you feel very tired and then sleep during the night of this new place and then right away try to adjust. This is probably the way to do it.

Which place on Earth do you consider your home? Is it one place only or more than that?

I try to feel at home in whichever place I am, it might sound a bit kitsch but it is not. What I mean is that I want to give the best of myself wherever I am. So if I have to go to a country in which I have never been, I also try to feel at home in order to be able to perform at the best. So my attitude is to try to be as positive as possible, at all times.

Does your wife accompany you when you travel?

Not so often because our son is still small, eight and a half, so it is not easy.

Is she also a musician?

Yes, she is an orchestra player, she is a violist.

She is half-Bulgarian, half-Armenian, your cultural background is also quite rich… What is it like to live in a family like yours, in which so many cultures coexist?

My wife has lived in Switzerland for quite a long time, since she began with her studies at the music conservatory. We just feel that we are international, we try to apply the value of life, which I think can be applied to any nationality. I do not have any particular recipe or dogma about anything, I just try to live my life in the most positive way and at the maximum everyday.

But you have been to Bulgaria, right? Then I should ask you, being Bulgarian myself, what do you like most about this country?

My wife is from Varna, so the Black Sea. There I also learned to discover the Eastern European cuisine because the Bulgarian one is a bit closer to the Greek and the Turkish, and the fresh seafood. Maybe in the summertime it is a bit too hot and humid. But I got to learn the language a little bit, which is important. That is what I like.

Can you think of a funny story that happened to you there, which you will never forget?

When my son was smaller we would often spend our summers there. Her family lives in the center where there are a lot of parks with places for children activities. There you can play a little shooting game, with arch and arrows. This was great because we do not do this in Switzerland and to see this small boy doing that in the country where his mother comes from is beautiful to see.

What projects are you currently working on in the nearest future?

We have interesting projects with Cameristi della Scala coming up. There is a project in Sirmione, at Lago di Garda, for a beautiful outdoor concert in Grotte di Catullo, where Cameristi della Scala will be collaborating with Richard Galliano, playing accordion music by Piazzolla, etc. Later this summer I will do another interesting project with Cameristi della Scala at a festival near Geneva, where we will play with our friend, Sergei Babayan, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 and the orchestra will play Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Next year in Poland I will do Schnittke’s Viola Concerto with Yuri Bashmet as the soloist.

You have a very busy schedule.

Here and there, yes.

And I would like to thank you very much for finding the time for this interview.

Thank you, Grigorianna! It has been a pleasure to talk to you. I am looking forward to the Big Talk at Bocconi. Thank you for having me!

So are we. Let me wish you furthermore lot of success in between.

Thank you!

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