Broad interests: Tomáš Hanus’ repertoire extends far beyond Czech music
Meet the Maestro: Tomáš Hanus8:00, 16th November 2017
The music director of Welsh National Opera tells Toby Deller about his studies with Jiří Bělohlávek, his blossoming relationship with WNO, and why he is naturally drawn to Czech repertoire
Speaking shortly before his first concert as music director of Welsh National Opera in autumn 2016, Tomáš Hanus described the experience of conducting the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera for the first time as ‘not only a meeting with great professionals, but with people who really want to make music; people who really are looking for the best possible sound, the best possible colour, intensity, expression, articulation. It went beyond just a cold professional relationship.’
That concert of Mahler’s second symphony was only his second appearance with WNO, having been appointed on the strength of his first. And while it may seem unusual for a company to offer a post to a conductor without having had them come in to take charge of a full production, Hanus could demonstrate sufficient experience. He was music director of a company in his native Brno for two years and has conducted opera regularly in Europe – most notably, since 2009, at the Bayerische Staatsoper.
Since that second concert he has made his first operatic appearances with the company – Die Fledermaus and Der Rosenkavalier in May and June 2017 – and was in the middle of its two autumn productions together (Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead) when he talked to CM. The reception for all four productions has been positive, so it looks to have been an astute appointment. Hanus, with a year with the company behind him, remains true to his first impressions, praising the company’s ‘serious and deep approach’.
He will be conducting in Cardiff again this month: a programme of Lieder eine fahrendes Gesellen and Shostakovich’s seventh symphony that is part of a series of symphonic concerts with the orchestra; he says it is important for opera orchestras to have the opportunity to appear on stage from time to time. But he has also chosen pieces with some relation to the theatrical season too (for example, the Shostakovich symphony is connected to the Mussorgsky opera that Shostakovich orchestrated). In that way, he explains, the audience have a chance to explore musical connections too.
As for his own repertoire, he has performed a fair amount of Czech opera – Katya Kabanova in Finland, for instance, and The Makropoulos Case in Paris, and it was Jenůfa in 2009 that launched his relationship with the Bayerische Staatsoper (where he returned for Rusalka the following year and The Bartered Bride this season). But as his opera and orchestra programmes with WNO suggest, it would be misleading to see this as evidence of a particular specialism. ‘Not really, no. I was born in Czechoslovakia, so of course it was very natural. But I am interested in a wide repertoire.’
A violinist, he undertook his conducting studies in the country, too, at the Janáček Academy in Brno with Jiří Bělohlávek. During this time he had a role in the setting up of what is now the Prague Philharmonia – the orchestra Bělohlávek founded in 1993, inspired by hearing the young musicians of a group with which Hanus was involved.
‘Mr Bělohlávek was a really great teacher and the most important thing was he never wanted to create a copy of him in his students. What I got from him was a big freedom to find my own way to communicate with an orchestra rather than his, except for some points of conducting technique – which was very inspiring too. But he never insisted on everyone doing everything the same way.’
Hanus’s conducting, to the observer at least, involves a visible and vivid pleasure in making music, involving a technique that always seems to allow space for encouraging the musicians to give more (or indeed, less). So it is no surprise when he ends our conversation saying, ‘I would always encourage the audience to come and listen, because the best way for me to say something about music and conducting is in the concert hall or the opera house, rather than using words.’