Rhinegold Photo credit: © George Garnier
Programming enthusiast: Jonathan Berman

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Jonathan Berman

9:00, 8th December 2016

The young English conductor talks to Toby Deller about the importance of learning from a variety of mentors

‘I really notice when I conduct my programmes and when I conduct other people’s programmes,’ says Jonathan Berman. ‘Because, interesting though the programmes may be, they don’t always think of all of the constituent parts. You know, what is it actually like to play this stuff, however interesting musicologically it might be to put these pieces there?’

Devising inventive concert programmes is something that Berman, who has made something of a speciality of modern and contemporary music (but is also a self-confessed Bruckner fan), particularly relishes. A case in point is the three concerts he put together in 2015 at Southbank Centre.

‘There was a big festival called Changing Britain where I put words, music, films, projections all together as a show. They lasted an hour and were wonderful; the result was even better than I expected and we got some very nice praise.’ As a result, he says, ‘People came out of this understanding some of the gnarliest contemporary music, people who said: “I really didn’t like that but I get that it was part of the time”. It’s programming where you can get people to enjoy being in the concert hall even if they don’t like the music, and to understand it, to think, to be active. The more care, the more work you put in, the more chance you have of drawing someone into it.’

He also reveals an appetite for the behind-the-scenes, or at least the off-the-podium part of the conductor’s job more generally. It was partly why, when he was awarded a place on the 2014 Kempinski Young Artist Programme, he chose to go to the USA to spend time with the Cleveland Orchestra and New World Symphony Orchestra.

‘I came up with this plan to go to the US to work with [Cleveland’s music director] Franz Welser-Möst, whom I didn’t know but had huge admiration for. The Cleveland Orchestra have a residency in Miami, so I followed them down to Miami and then stayed there for a month to work with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. One part of it was to study with both of those two, but another part was to see how those two institutions work because I’m very keen to run an institution – it’s all very well beating five or four in a bar, but you have to understand how they are run.’

The programme is sponsored by a luxury hotel chain and each year funds tailored educational development plans for two musicians and two artists. His experience on it, together with a fellowship at Tanglewood in 2012, have added an American dimension to his conducting training. Up to that point this had been based largely in Europe, notably the Netherlands, Germany and Russia, and largely under the supervision of Jac van Steen, whom he met while observing rehearsals at the London Philharmonic Orchestra during what was supposed to be a gap year before going to Cambridge.

‘During that gap year I worked in the weekends at a country house. I did a 50-hour week over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and then during the week I just watched rehearsals in London. I watched a lot of the Philharmonia with Esa-Pekka [Salonen], who was very generous, and Tony Pappano invited me to anything at the Royal Opera House. And Jac was one of the people who was really interested, who really took time.’ Indeed, he suggested that Berman consider joining his conducting class. ‘I applied and got in – he takes one person a year, and I was his one person. And much to everyone’s annoyance, I turned down my place at Cambridge and went to the conservatoire in the Hague.’

That apprenticeship lasted six years, during which time he travelled around with his mentor as his assistant, notably to Germany and Wales (van Steen was the principal guest conductor at BBC National Orchestra of Wales). He also made a trip to St Petersburg to take classes with Leonid Korchmar at the Mariinsky Theatre and sought out Stanisław Skrowaczewski for advice.

He had also been introduced to Oliver Knussen as a teenager and has subsequently spent time learning from him too, eventually conducting a Reinbert de Leeuw piece with him at the Proms.

‘We did a lot of listening together, a lot of talking, so apart from what I learnt from him in rehearsals about conducting – his ears are extraordinary, his rhythm is extraordinary and I love his music as well – I’ve done a lot of that. But apart from that he really introduced to me how to look at music as a sort of continuous series of events which relate to each other. And he really taught me how composers see and hear things.’

Knussen and Van Steen provided a kind of double training. ‘Between them, they have been my two guides. But what has interested me has been being able to go and find the information I want from whoever it is who has the information.’ That helps explain his Kempinski choices, and his desire to see another two contrasting conductors close up: on the one hand, Michael Tilson Thomas, ‘who conducted Tchaik Six with his poodle in one hand! But so talented, such energy’ and ‘an incredible artist in his own right. He permeates that whole institution. He’s also a great money-raiser, a great schmoozer, a great intellectual actually as well.’ Then, on the other hand, Welser-Möst, whose care and attention for detail seems to have made a particular impact on Berman, perhaps hinting at his own artistic goals – ‘care’ is a word that crops up several times in our conversation, whether in connection with programming, interpretation or rehearsal technique.

‘I love reading about other philosophies and other cultures and I’m a complete Japanophile. There’s a wonderful thing I read somewhere about Japan which is that the thing that connects everything Japanese is care. It’s a slightly Zen idea, it’s a slightly Buddhist idea, but presented like this in a kind of western way: it doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it, but you do it with care. So you can open a door in a Zen fashion, in an artistic fashion. And actually when you get something that doesn’t work, it’s rarely because someone’s made a wrong choice. It’s actually because they haven’t made a choice.’


2010 Completes degree at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague
2012 Completes masters degree at Fontys Conservatorium, Tilburg
2012 Awarded Tanglewood fellowship
2014 Wins place on Kempinski Young Artist Programme
2014/15 Assistant conductor, London Philharmonic Orchestra
2015 Steps in for Knussen at Tanglewood

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