Rory MacLean meets Clemens Schuldt
In 2010 at the age of 28, Schuldt won the renowned Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, bringing him a year’s attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra as well as invitations to lead a dozen other orchestras.
‘London was an invaluable experience for me,’ he said when we met for tea in Berlin. ‘I learnt how one of the finest orchestras in the world works, and how inspiring it can be. I took Valery Gergiev’s first rehearsals, preparing the orchestra for him. I watched Sir Simon Rattle look - really look - into the eyes of the musicians to inspire them. I asked Sir Colin Davis dozens of questions. Plus I had the chance to speak to the clarinettists, to the bassoon players, to the violinists, and ask “How did you create that sound?” And “How soft can you play that note?” I learned so much.’
A disarming candour ran through our meeting, as it runs through Schuldt’s early life. His parents met and fell in love playing four-hands piano. Aged six years old he began to learn the violin because he ‘loved higher tones, higher vibrations’. He also loved to play hockey, deciding to give it up for music at the relatively late age of fifteen. He didn’t pick up a baton until he was 24, and then only to conduct musical friends at a benefit concert.
‘But in that moment I felt so free,’ he recalled, his eyes filling with excitement. ‘I felt that I could give my all to the musicians, to inspire and to help them.’ He smiled and added, ‘Later I learned how one can fail as a conductor.’
Schuldt was at once humble and ambitious, driven by a determination to connect music with daily life, mixing refined musicology with everyday expression. For example, he’ll ask an orchestra to play a few bars as if they’ve just awoken on a balmy summer morning, or tasted a delicious coffee. Then he’ll suggest, say, putting the same energy into a section as in the shocking, first chords of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.
‘As a conductor I think it’s important to be oneself. One needs to interpret music honestly. After all, what can I tell a musician who’s played their instrument for longer than I’ve been alive? What can I do other than be polite, and to explain that I have an idea, or an ideal? To do that I mustn’t play a role. I need to be honest.’
Among his most influential formative experiences was the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, renowned for its egalitarian working method, free of hierarchy but with all the more euphoria and energy. For Schuldt it’s an openness both of spirit and to spontaneity which enables musicians to produce their finest performances.
Schuldt also spoke of his deep love of music, and the thrill of having the sound of a movement or symphony in his head.
‘When I learn a score, I can imagine a dark solo oboe or high string sound. In my mind I can try a different dynamic, I can change the colour of the sounds, I interpret the score to what I believe best suits the composer and the music.’
In November Schuldt returns to the LSO to conduct Parallels by the British contemporary classical composer Edward Nesbit. The premiere will be followed by Sir Colin Davis conducting Walton’s Symphony No 1 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4.
‘The danger with contemporary music is that one can look at the score and only see the notes, and miss the emotion that lies behind the piece.’
‘To me it’s vital to try to know something about the composer: to read Schumann’s love letters, to understand Haydn’s sense of humour, to appreciate Mahler’s passion for nature and religion, to see Shostakovich’s work in its political context. I try to make a connection between the individual and their music. For example, compare Brahms – who was balanced and self-confident – and Schumann who seemed to want to embrace the whole world in his music. In knowing something about them as individuals I’ll handle their crescendos, for example, in totally different ways.’
‘I have only my own musical imagination, my personal experience and range of emotion. In understanding a composer new doors are opened, and the result can be really amazing. I am looking forward to reading Ed Nesbit’s score, to bringing it into my mind, and then talking to him about it.’
With a laugh he went on, ‘I wish I could as easily telephone Mozart, or to ask Haydn to tell me a joke, or to drink a glass of wine with Schubert.’
As well as the LSO, over the next year Schuldt will also guest conduct the world-class Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo. Invitations are also rolling in from countries as diverse as Vietnam, Lapland and Jordan, as well as the UK, Spain and Germany.
‘As a young conductor I have the energy for discovery, and the ambition to make every project special. With that I try to encourage musicians – many of whom are much older than me – to recall their own sensitivity when they were my age. My objective is to improve myself, as it has always been, and to keep on learning.’