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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 18, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Globetrotter Matthias Bamert’s Next Step
Conductor Matthias Bamert gets around. His basic trajectory consists of London, England, where he lives and is associate guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Perth, Australia, where he is chief conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he is principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. His guest conducting invitations reads like a list of destinations for a global travel bureau: Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, among others.
Bamert comes to New Brunswick’s State Theater to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Tuesday, January 24, at 8 p.m. Considered Britain’s national orchestra, the RPO was founded by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1946. The program includes Sibelius’ "Finlandia," Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 5 (the "Turkish"), and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. American violinist Joan Kwuon is the soloist.
Comparing the natural histories of various orchestras that he has directed, Bamert lauds the RPO for the high artistic quality resulting from its strenuous working schedule. "I’ve never seen an orchestra work that hard," he says in a telephone interview from his London home. "Last week they had a morning rehearsal, and then an afternoon rehearsal, each of them for three hours. Then the orchestra played Beethoven’s `Ninth’ in the evening. It’s a fantastic orchestra. That’s the way London orchestras work."
And talk about rigorous. The American tour of the RPO calls for 24 concerts in 29 days. Five different programs are on the schedule. Bamert conducts three of them. "I don’t think an American orchestra would be willing to do that many programs," Bamert says. "It’s a tough tour. It’s a financial thing. There is not much by way of subsidies in the U.K. We don’t even have the sponsors you have in the U.S. Musicians have to work extremely hard."
Bamert contrasts the 24-concerts-in-29-days pace of the RPO’s American tour with the immobility of his West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), which is essentially stationary. The WASO is located in Perth, the capital of the state of Western Australia. Bamert points out that Western Australia, which is the size of western Europe, has only 1.8 million inhabitants. Because 1.5 million people live in Perth, the orchestra concentrates there. "You can’t afford to go four hours by plane to play in a little town," he says.
In May the WASO is scheduled to perform in a half dozen cities in China, on a relatively leisurely time-frame. "It’s a two-week tour with six concerts," Bamert says. "The infrastructure is not like the west. There are transportation problems."
Bamert was born into a teaching family near Bern, Switzerland, in 1942. His father taught mathematics; his mother taught elementary school. He laughs when I ask him which was his first instrument. "I was the youngest of three, and everybody played an instrument," he says. "My father played piano and cello; my mother played piano; my brother played violin; and my sister played recorder. When I was three, they gave me a triangle." In a less sophisticated family, they might have furnished him with two spoons.
At age five Bamert began studying violin. His third instrument was piano. Eventually, he heard an oboe, in the school orchestra, and was captivated. At the Paris Conservatoire he studied chamber music, composition, and conducting. "I started as a composer," he says, "and wanted to be conductor." In Europe one of the time-honored paths to a major conducting career is to obtain a post as a rehearsal conductor in an opera house. "I applied to Kassel, Germany," Bamert says, "and they made me play `Rosenkavalier’ on the piano. It was impossible, and I decided that being a rehearsal conductor was not the way to go."
"I thought that to be a conductor I should get experience in an orchestra. I have this strange facility of playing the oboe, and I looked at what was available." He was appointed to an opening in Salzburg, Austria. "I discovered when I got there that I was the principal oboe," he says.
Bamert met his wife, Susan, a flutist, in Salzburg. He also met George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra there. Under a Ford Foundation grant, Bamert studied conducting with Szell in Cleveland. After serving as assistant conductor to Leopold Stokowski at the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, he returned to Cleveland as an assistant conductor for about eight years.
Both of the Bamert children were born in Cleveland. Daughter Gabriela is now a horse veterinarian in California’s Simi Valley. Son Gregor is a London investment banker.
In a sequence of career moves since Cleveland, Bamert has built a reputation for innovative programming. As principal guest conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra and director of the Glasgow contemporary music festival Musica Nova, Bamert conducted world premieres of pieces by contemporary composers. Bamert’s discography of more than 60 recordings, mostly for Chandos, reveals his imaginative bent, as well as his knack for attention to the bottom line. "When I became music director of the London Mozart Players, Chandos asked what I wanted to record," he says. (Bamert led the group for seven years.) "I decided against Mozart because Mozart is over-recorded. So I started the series `Contemporaries of Mozart.’ It was a very rich time, but the public doesn’t know much about Mozart’s contemporaries. We just recorded the 19th CD in the series. They sell very well."
Bamert has held his position with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra since August, 2005. "The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur are the tallest buildings in world," he says. "They were only built in 1998. On the second floor, between the towers, is a fantastic concert hall. The people in charge thought, `If we have the tallest buildings in the world, we should have the best orchestra in Asia.’ So they asked IMG (International Management Group, a worldwide talent management giant) to assemble an orchestra by auditioning internationally. Cost didn’t matter.
"The orchestra is paying salaries at the level of the New York Philharmonic," Bamert says. "In Kuala Lumpur that goes incomparably further than in New York or London. The orchestra has 105 members and they live like kings. They’re mainly young people from 25 nations. There are 15 Americans and 15 east Europeans. The orchestra is young and in its prime. In 2007 and 2008 there will be a major European tour; and in the 2008-2009 season, a major American tour. The repertoire is western."
He says the orchestra is amazing. "Every guest conductor and soloist has been astounded at its quality. The main thing for the future is not to keep it a secret. The important thing is to build audiences. We’re forming a national youth orchestra in the next year, and looking for recording contracts."
Bamert contrasts the situation of orchestras in Asia with the state of affairs in the west. "The potential of orchestras in Asia is immense," he says. "There are 10 symphony orchestras in Tokyo. There’s a new cultural center in Singapore, and they’re talking about a new cultural center in Hong Kong. There are constantly new orchestras in China. Our orchestras are struggling; theirs aren’t. In the west audiences are old; in Asia, audiences are young. There’s a tremendous appetite for western classical music in Asia."
Bamert adjusts his programming to the expected audience. "I do a fair amount of contemporary music in Perth," he says. "I have to be more conservative in Kuala Lumpur because we’re still building audiences. With contemporary music, it always matters how you package it. When I present contemporary music, I speak to the audience."
This savvy conductor knows no boundaries when it comes to enticing audiences. During his tenure as music director of the Swiss Radio Orchestra in Basel, from 1977 to 1983, Bamert took advantage of the orchestra’s unusual situation. "We had the luxury of being able to film for TV, in addition to broadcasting," he says. "The orchestra was paid by the radio station. We could take a week to do a film, and at no cost. It was a unique situation."
Bamert unleashed his imagination in about 35 TV performances, which have been seen all over the world. "To show music on TV, you must make it visually very attractive. In a way, an orchestra telecast is like a football game. If the ball is in the picture, everybody’s happy. On TV if the oboe plays, you can show the oboe; if the violin plays, you show the violin. But doing only that much is not all that great. We were looking for something unpredictable."
In front of the TV cameras Bamert turned to reaching the podium on roller skates, or conducting with his arm in a cast in order to help audiences visually grasp the conductor’s job. "We won prizes," he remembers. "We were very inventive, but after a while, things started looking the same, and we stopped."
Bamert’s extraordinary exuberance has made an impact not only on TV audiences, but also on his children. "When my kids were teenagers," he says, "they came away from classical music and got interested in rock and pop. But they were nice enough to come to a concert when Daddy conducted. Standing around in the green room after a performance, people would ask them, `Are you two musical, too?’ And they would say, `No, we’re normal.’"
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Tuesday, January 24, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Conductor Matthias Bamert and guest violinist Joan Kwuon present a program of Sibelius, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. $30 to $65. 732-246-7469.
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