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Challenging stereotypes: Kevin John Edusei

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Kevin John Edusei

10:45, 4th September 2017

After stints as a percussionist and sound engineer, taking up the baton has led Kevin John Edusei from success to success. He tells Toby Deller about his musical background, and how collaborating with the Chineke! Orchestra challenged his ideas about diversity in classical music

‘I started out as a classical percussionist and sound engineer and producer for classical music,’ says German conductor Kevin John Edusei, ‘and then swapped sides, so to speak: from behind the mixing desk and the back of the orchestra, I went to the front of the orchestra and the podium.’

Although it is rather unusual for a conductor to have a training in sound engineering, Edusei’s early musical upbringing followed an otherwise typical path for someone born in a small German city (Bielefeld, located in the north west between Hanover and Dortmund). ‘I started out with the piano then later, in my Sturm und Drang phase, switched to classical percussion. I then became a junior student at the music academy of Detmold, where there’s a famous Tonmeister course.’

Edusei went on to study sound engineering at senior music college alongside his eventual specialism, conducting (and percussion). ‘Working with scores, really understanding how orchestral scores work: certainly there’s a lot of overlap between those two fields.’ Within four years of leaving the University of the Arts in Berlin and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, he won the Dimitris Mitropoulos conducting competition. His first chief conductorship appointment came in 2013, at the Munich Symphony Orchestra, followed by a second at the Konzert Theater Bern a year later.

Meanwhile, among his various guest invitations came an approach from Chi-chi Nwanoku to come to the UK to work with Chineke! Orchestra in 2016. The collaboration resulted in the orchestra’s first CD release earlier this year and resumes at the Proms for the orchestra’s debut there on 30 August. Having heard about the all-BAME orchestra through social media at the time of its first concert, he had immediately wanted to be involved in some way. ‘When the phone call came from Chi-chi one year later, I was totally surprised and happy and glad that they had found me.’

At the same time, he admits to a certain wariness too. ‘In my career and in my life, skin colour, of course it was an important issue, but my career wasn’t based on being different or being an exception. My career was based and is still based on my love of music and my personal, individual skills as a musician. So when I heard about the project there was also this sceptical voice inside me that said: “Why would you pretend that there is a uniformity in skin colour?”’

But having conducted the orchestra, he says, ‘There was one thought that really stuck with me: we are, still, all very different, every single one of us. This was a very comforting thought, and maybe it needs the picture of an all-black orchestra to break with a certain stereotype of classical music.’

So there is more than one stereotype being challenged: not only that classical musicians are white but that they are a certain type of person with a certain character, say, or even with a certain kind of training. He tells the story of the astonishment of one Viennese member of Chineke! at the skill of a self-taught colleague from Burundi: ‘ “He can really play! How’s it possible?” This is the sort of magic and emotion that is connected to Chineke!’

That is not to play down the importance of his principal orchestra job. ‘I find my work with the Munich Symphony extremely rewarding. We are at the end of the third season of my chief conductorship and now I have the feeling the orchestra responds a different way and we really built something from the ground. That is a new feeling for me because you can have great short experiences as a guest conductor, you can have a great chemistry, enormous amounts of humour and fun and virtuosic concerts. What you can’t have is a stable long-term relationship with your musicians.’

He has just started to record a Schubert symphony cycle in Munich (his composer preferences lie among the early German romantics, particularly Mendelssohn), while his job in Switzerland, where he has conducted Peter Grimes, allows him to continue a long-standing connection with opera dating back even further than his early work as Kapellmeister at opera houses in Bielefeld and Augsburg.

‘My musical upbringing started very early at my parents’ home. There was one figure who was very important to me becoming a musician and that’s my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Antonie Wingels. She was an opera singer before world war two. We had a very close relationship, she often sang for me or we would listen to recordings, preferably Der Rosenkavalier. She passed away before my professional career took off and never saw me conducting on the podium. I’m sure we would have had great conversations about music. I think of her whenever I walk on stage.’

www.kevinjohnedusei.com


Biography
1976 Born Bielefeld, Germany
2004 Graduates from Royal Conservatory of The Hague and University of the Arts Berlin in conducting, classical percussion and sound-engineering
2005-2011 First Kapellmeister at opera houses of Bielefeld and Augsburg
2008 First prize Dimitris Mitropoulos Conducting Competition
2013 Appointed chief conductor Munich Symphony Orchestra
2014 Appointed chief conductor Konzert Theater Bern

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