Rory MacLean meets André de Ridder
‘Happiness?’ I asked.
‘Music can bring me peace. It’s tactile, makes me more able to see the significant things in life. Music takes me to another place, and that’s often where I want to be.’
He laughed suddenly and wondered aloud, ‘Maybe the physicality of music explains my becoming a conductor? Conducting is about trying to translate music into visible movement.’
André de Ridder is one of today’s most daring and fascinating conductors. He is the principal conductor of the British Sinfonia ViVA. His bold and innovative programming has made him a favourite guest of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Britten Sinfonia and the Hallé Orchestra. His passion for the development of contemporary music has taken him to the Manchester International Festival where he led the premiere performances of Damon Albarn’s Monkey: Journey to the West and the truly original new English opera Dr. Dee. He orchestrated and conducted the Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach and brought the electronica duo Mouse on Mars and MusikFabrik from Chicago to the Kölner Philharmonie and London’s Barbican Centre.
‘Music takes the listener from one place to another, changing them, which is the mark of great art,’ he told me when we met in his Berlin apartment, its high windows looking out onto the quiet residential street. ‘It’s a sequence of events which happens in time. When one listens to music, one hears a structure, a story. That story isn’t necessarily literal, rather it’s an abstract journey which can portray - perhaps even express - feelings. Music is absolute. The listener doesn’t have to understand what it’s about, or where it’s taking him or her, but it can make new connections for them and engender a kind of dematerialisation.’
De Ridder grew up with classical music. In Berlin his father was an operatic conductor, his mother an opera singer. Their passion for music was instilled into him from an early age. He learnt the piano and the violin. At ten years old he was taken by a cousin to a rock concert at the Waldbühne. The physicality of the music – specifically the Krautrock band Abendrot – shook him to the core, as did the sight of the dancing, electrified audience. In private he began to listen to Joy Division, then New Order and The Cure, while in public he played the classics.
Then at the age of fifteen, at a decisive point of his creative development, de Ridder changed violin teachers. The new man insisted that he correct some basic techniques, and unlearn muscular memory. As a result de Ridder couldn’t join a classical youth ensemble, as would have been the usual course for a talented violinist at that age. In need of a creative outlet, he instead formed a pop band, the first at his traditional humanistic grammar school.
‘Immediately I loved the feeling of working with a group,’ he said. ‘I learnt the guitar and sang. We modelled ourselves on alternative American indie bands. We were quite loud.’
When de Ridder did start playing with youth orchestras, he brought with him his own strong ideas about the relationship between classical and contemporary music, and found himself at odds with his conductors. As the traditional German training for a Kapellmeister struck him as restrictive, he chose instead to train as a Tonmeister – a classical music sound engineer – in part to give himself access to studio space for his band. After a spell at Vienna’s Music Academy, he won a place – against hundreds of other applicants – on the Royal Academy of Music’s conducting course.
‘I’d always been an Anglophile,’ he told me, his face framed by long tendrils of black hair. ‘I learnt English through pop music, memorising the lyrics from liner notes. I twice dragged my parents around Ireland in search of Celtic crosses and ruined castles, around the time I was listening to U2’s Unforgettable Fire. It had become my dream to study in London.’
De Ridder based himself in the UK for the next seven years, landed his first job with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, then the Hallé Orchestra, before establishing relationships with a number of other British organisations and orchestras.
‘An orchestra can be made up of as many as 80 instruments but it only ever has one conductor, so conducting can be an odd and lonely experience. You have to be convinced that it’s the right role for you, and that you cut the mustard. Every musician has a musical opinion of course, and the conductor needs to persuade every individual to follow his own specific path. Yet the conductor also must allow each musician to express themselves.’
Today de Ridder is back in Berlin, collaborating with the young orchestral ensemble Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop among others, but his most innovative work remains in the English-speaking world.
‘Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,’ ('Alas, two souls dwell in my breast.') he declared with feeling, quoting Goethe's Faust with a self-aware wave of his hand. ‘I am privately and personally at home in Germany but professionally I work mostly in the UK. In part this is because of my “family relationship” with certain orchestras, as well as the British work ethos: musicians who are both professional and down-to-earth, who give their all to music.’ He sighed and went on, ‘But there’s another reason. In the UK, the borders between musical genres have been torn down. Cutting-edge contemporary music - for example pop and electronica - is valued as seriously as classical music. At the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, a Stravinsky symphony will be programmed alongside an industrial band. But in Germany most arts funding is targeted at the major institutions, and much truly innovative work in non-classical genres - despite huge interest in it from arts commentators - is not really supported in the same way.’
De Ridder explained that tiered, artistic discrimination endures in the political sphere, in the separation of 'E-Musik' (meaning ernste or earnest music) and 'U-Musik' (meaning entertainment - 'Unterhaltung' - and by implication non-serious music).
‘I know this is provocative, and perhaps it simply reflects the people with whom I’ve worked, but over the last few years I’ve met many pop musicians who are more serious about what they do than some classical musicians.’
‘I’d love to be part of creating a new platform or festival in Germany, bringing together different art forms, inspiring artists to create new collaborations in music,’ emphasised de Ridder, perhaps thinking of Manchester and the world’s first, artist-led festival of original, new work. ‘But for this to happen, there has to be a more integral approach to the arts. And political decisions need to be made, for which the establishment isn’t quite ready.’ He shook his head and added, ‘I love this country and its cultural heritage but I am a musician, not a politician.’
At that moment de Ridder glanced away again, and I imagined him looking over an assembly of musicians, seeing them not as an amorphous mass but as a collective, at the start of a collaboration on a great new journey. ‘I can’t do it alone,’ he said, as he might say to an orchestra when first lifting his baton. ‘I need people who are willing to help me.’