Cornelius Meister: the story of wonderful music

Amazing conductor, talented pianist and (I didn’t know until last week) a dedicated marathoner. Cornelius Meister came to Bucharest at Enescu Festival to conduct an impressive distribution (two choirs, over 200 players) in Mahler’s VIII Symphony. On his way to the airport, in the elegant interior of BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé, we talked about the challenges of being one of the youngest artistic directors in the world, about music and talents, about hobbies and next plans for this year. (A short video and the entire interview, below.)

Great concert last night! I loved it! It was very impressive, 300 people on the stage…
Maybe more…
And that brings me to the first question: as a conductor, actually, you are the only one on the stage who doesn’t see the public. How do you feel if the public is responsive or excited about the performance?
In my opinion, it’s important how the audience reacts, not only after the concert, how many “Bravo!” they shout. If I feel that silence, if I feel that everybody is with us… it helps a lot to perform a good concert.
It’s your first time with Romanian Radio Orchestra. How was the experience?
It is a very good orchestra. It was easy to collaborate with them because they are highly motivated, and deeply impressed by the Mahler music, so we had a really good time together. I also was really happy with the choirs.
How many rehearsals did you have with the Orchestra?
Usually, these kind of projects are planned with 3-4 years ahead. When the concert comes, you would have done a lot of the work: you know which music edition will you use, which bow you will use for the strings… a lot of things are prepared before the first rehearsal. So, on that time we come together, most of the work had to be done already.
You said that was nice and easy to work with this orchestra. Do you feel the same about all of the orchestras you had the chance to work? Which one was your favorite, in the world?
This summer I have conducted at three different festivals: At Enescu festival, at New York and, before that, at Salzburg. All of them are completely different, because all of them have traditional styles influenced by their cultures. After this week, I will go to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra; 10 degrees Celsius (he laughs) from 40 here. But also I like to work Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, with Tokyo orchestra… everyone is different. And it’s good that we don’t have a single orchestra style.
As the conductor, do you adjust yourself after the orchestra you work with, or is the other way around?
Well, it’s like in a big company, when a new CEO is coming. Both sides will learn from each other. It’s not a good idea to say: I’m here and you have to change everything. But, on the other hand, it is necessary that the conductors gives them new ideas; it’s his/her job. This week I felt we have the same aim: we are focusing on Mahler’s VIII Symphony. There was no discussion which piece we had to play, which staff we need to involve. Of course there are certain things that a conductor has to decide, but without a great orchestra, a conductor will be nothing.
Do you play Enescu? Usually?
I should play more. I like his music. And by the way, I’m a really big fan of Dinu Lipatti, outstanding pianist. Next time when I’ll came to Bucharest I will try to visit Casa Dinu Lipatti (he smiles). And I’m also fan of Celibidache.
And what is your favorite Enescu part?
I’m impressed that he wasn’t just a great musician and a famous teacher (in fact teacher of great Yehudi Menuhin), but he supporting the Atheneum, so important for the cultural life of this city. There are some musicians that are just great musicians, which is OK. But he was more. And that is something we should think about.
You have mentioned Lipatti. And I know you play piano. How do you took the job as a conductor?
It is a great experience to make wonderful music together with other people. Yesterday we had hundreds of people on the stage, and it was a great feeling to be with them and with the audience – I think they were 5.0000 people there yesterday, just listening the same music at the same moment.
Do you remember your first concert as a conductor?
Yes, I was 18. It was Bach, Concerto for 2 violins and orchestra.
Were you nervous? Did you had butterflies in your stomach?
No, not really. When you are young, you don’t realize that the moment is important, and that it would be your first concert from a series of hundreds concerts.
You are kind of a record man: the youngest musical director in Heidelberg at 25, the youngest chief conductor and artistic director of Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at 30. How was it – to be on the spotlight?
When I came to Heidelberg, I was responsible not only for the musical planning, but also I had financial authority, responsibility for the people involved. It was a good training for me, not just thinking about the music, but also to see how we, as a company, can be together. I think I knew how to study musical scores, but for one and a half years I have studied all the issues related to the job.
People think that artists, like musicians and painters, are more bohemian, more relaxed about financial and administrative stuff. How did you managed to cope with both parts?
As a conductor, you have to plan things. Of course, you should be a little creative. But without organization, you cannot do the job. You have to decide how many rehearsal do you need, and a rehearsal is a very expensive thing. I know that we have to be careful with all the money we can use. If, for example, you plan a rehearsal an hour too long, and you don’t need that time, you waste money. I think that ‘s important for a conductor to be prepared for an organization, to know how difficult or easy a piece is, to know how many people do you expect to come to the concert.
You mentioned rehearsals. For a pianist, for example, is easy to rehears of his own. But how do you rehears as a conductor? You cannot play alone in front of the mirror, right?
Every conductor has his own way. But I like to play the symphonies, the opera, on the piano, from the scores. Then I really know the piece. And of course I sit for many many hours just reading the scores, again and again, like an actor or drama director theatre who reads and reads the same scene. Our job takes a lot of time, a lot of energy. Maybe some people think: ah, musicians come to the concert in the evening, and what are they doing in the morning?! But it takes hours and hours of study even before the first rehearsal.
So it is useful for a conductor to know how to play other instruments?
I play the piano, and the cello, and the horn. It’s not a bad idea for a conductor to know a little bit about the string instruments and a little bit about the wind instruments. It is easier to tell somebody how to do something better if I know the instrument.
I read somewhere that it’s not a good idea to look at the brass instruments because they will start to sing a little bit too loud… It is a legend?
Actually, I think Richard Strauss was the one who said it. Nowadays we are really lucky to have the best trained orchestras. I think that 50 or a 100 years ago we didn’t have the players at this level. So nowadays every orchestra musician feels the responsibility for everything. I don’t think there is somebody focused only on his part and saying “oh, no, now I am going to play loud”.
Nowadays technology helps?
Broadcasting, CDs, and television and internet and streaming is part of our life. In the old days it was, of course, much harder to listen to different interpretations. Now you go to the YouTube and you will find not only audio, but visual different interpretations. And this also helps smaller orchestras in regions of this world that didn’t have the chance to have the idea of other interpretation. But in my opinion it is important to preserve the cultural style. It is not useful to have a single interpretation style.
What do you listen, beside classical music?
There are so many occasion to listen something is not classical music – in the elevator, restaurant, wherever – so I am happy when I don’t have music around me. I think this is such a bad idea to have always music around you; it is a really bad idea to have somebody to decide that the whole restaurant should listen to.. this song. And 98% won’t. But I am used to listen to music I will stay in that restaurant listen to the music I don’t want to.
If you can choose your dream team: the orchestra, the part, the city…
I prefer variety. I have conducted all the Beethoven symphonies, Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, Sibelius. I know there are some musicians that like to play the same music, but I like to conduct a big variety of pieces. If you have asked me yesterday, I would have told you Mahler ‘sVIII Symphony, of course. But today I am thinking about Schumann Symphony No.4 and Mozart Clarinet Concerto which I will conduct next week.
That was my next question… plans for the future period?
Iceland, then my season with Vienna Orchestra will start, some Bruckner symphony, back to Paris and Zurich and to Geneva, then I go to Washington.
You are going to be on the road…
I just had my summer vacation, so that’s fine. I loved to go to the Baltic Sea to run and swim. Also it is a famous half-marathon in Heidelberg. And I did it twice this year.
So, we are here at the airport. Thank you very much. Hope to see you at the next Enescu festival.
Yes, of course. Thank you.

Cornelius Meister

Orchestra Nationala Radio_Meister1

(BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé was the official shuttle for Enescu festival.)

Foto: Cercel Lazăr, Cătălina Filip

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