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“The best-kept secret in the international music scene”: Michael Fine talks to Bas van Westerop and Aart van der Wal about the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, differences between American, European and Asian culture and Valery Gergiev.  (BvW and AvdW)

Michael Fine - Photograph © Marco Borggreve

Michael Fine is Adjunct-Director Artistic Affairs of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also a Grammy Award winner with recordings on over a dozen labels. His productions have won most international recording awards, and featured on the best seller list in several countries. As Deutsche Grammophon's former Vice President for Artists and Repertoire, Fine ran the artistic program and supervised productions.  He also works for the Seoul Philharmonic, still works regularly as a recording producer and loves to play the clarinet.

Your function here was just upgraded from “Artistic Manager” to “Adjunct-Director Artistic Affairs”. Can you please tell us more about this?

The idea is that the artistic department is directly connected to the core mission of the orchestra and as head of that department, my position should reflect that status. Perhaps it’s also to recognize what I’ve accomplished over the past few years with the help of an excellent team.

Although I am a new employee, don't forget that I've been actively involved with the RPhO as a consultant since 2004 and have programmed the last four seasons (and now am working on 2010/11 and 2011/12).  Happily, my contract allows me to continue my work in the recording field as well as my ongoing consultancy for the Seoul Philharmonic.  I enjoyed working as a regular consultant with the RPhO as well but this very unique orchestra exerts a very seductive charm and despite some reluctance at giving up some of my independence, I am very happy to be working more closely with the orchestra.

Are you able to manage Rotterdam, Seoul and your recording work?

I think they complement each other in a very positive way. The music business is international; recording brings me into contact with many artists that we would like to invite to work with the Rotterdam Philharmonic.  My long-standing recording relationship with the London Symphony has become particularly helpful now that Valery Gergiev has been appointed as their Chief Conductor.  Gergiev's schedule is famously complex and having friends in the LSO management often helps us untangle some rather difficult scheduling problems.

So, yes, I see my different jobs as complementary. While it occasionally puts great stress on my time, I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.  Personally, I enjoy all this stimulation but even this isn't enough:  It is very important for me to 'make' music and so I still play the clarinet as much as I can.  I try every year to play at least one or two chamber concerts and maintain a regular practice regimen.  I refer to this as 'my honest work' which brings me very close to the music.  Recording work is similar – at least in terms of post-production and having a creative role in the process.   I enjoy artistic management: programming concerts, inviting guest musicians, and then having the good fortune to hear the results played by a world class orchestra.  But then there is the other side of artistic management work involving politics, money, artist management agencies, and dealing with a public that can dangerously take the arts for granted.  When you’re playing the Brahms Clarinet Trio it’s only about music. But as everybody who works on the administrative side of an orchestra will tell you; when you hear your orchestra play a great concert you remember why you do it!  And that we do it for the orchestra. And that of course makes one want to shout to anyone who will listen that there is a really great orchestra in Rotterdam!

My Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra is a very young orchestra capable of delivering some very exciting performances especially with their Chief Conductor Myung Whun Chung.  It’s completely different in Asia: all the musicians have a one-year contract (as do those in the office). Each musician auditions annually and gets a written evaluation by the chief conductor.  Their contract is very simple: you come to work at nine, you leave at six or when the conductor says you’re done!  This is a world away from the conditions musicians in the US and Europe are accustomed to but on the other hand, when Charles Dutoit came with a demanding program including the complete Daphnis, rehearsals invariably ran overtime without a murmur of complaint.  Our musicians were thrilled, saying they were learning so much. It’s a different world: sometimes we play on all seven evenings of the week in all districts of Seoul. The orchestra has a strong sense of service to the community and fortunately the audience reciprocates with deeply felt appreciation, loyalty, and the most vociferous applause I have ever heard.

The Seoul Philharmonic's very young Artistic Administrator visited Rotterdam to see how our office works and of course to hear the orchestra.  She said: 'It’s so nice that older people come to your concerts here.'   In Korea the audience is very young, passionate and musically literate.  Sometimes we sell out every performance of a concert and there are many people listening in the lobby with their ear against the door.

I've come to the conclusion that live performance of classical music by symphony orchestras is slowly dying in America, surviving though not significantly growing in Europe but exploding in Asia.  After the Rotterdam Philharmonic's Seoul performances during a recent tour of Asia, one of our younger principal musicians told me know he knew what it felt like to be a rock star.

In Korea somebody told me that classical music is cool!! If you ask a middle-class Korean parent “What do you want your child to be?” the answer will be a violinist, a pianist or a conductor.  And in Asia everybody, the culture, the society, respects art-music:  it’s very important to them. The Seoul Philharmonic played the Beethoven Ninth at the inauguration of the current President of Korea.  At the end, Myung-Whun Chung took his baton and handed it to the new President, live on television. The message was very clear: it is your job as President of the Republic to protect the arts: traditional and Western classical. And because society says it’s important, people, kids, get that as a message.

If you’re in a society like the US, where art is considered incidental or luxury, nobody gets the message that it is important.  Or worse, nearly any form of expression is deemed art because there are no longer any critical standards.  Imagine a society that said: we don’t need libraries, books aren’t important, they are too expensive. Well, books contain the tradition, the history of our culture. But society says: Well, who needs that. The result is an illiterate society and one at risk with losing any touch with its past. That’s very dangerous I think. And that’s the way it’s going in the US I’m afraid.

In Europe there is, thankfully, a tradition and a history of respect for the arts.  I’m so impressed in Holland especially: when Valery Gergiev had his last concert as Chief Conductor in May we had 5 TV-stations here. In America the media would take no notice. Here in the Netherlands, we have 5 newspapers covering our concerts: that’s (almost Ed.) unique in the West. In most American cities if an orchestra went out of business, other than the 'Big Five', most of the public wouldn’t even be aware, fewer would care.

In the US-model, orchestras are largely financed by private and corporate sponsorship. That’s fine because people need to understand that art is expensive and someone has to pay for it. But depending on individual donors and their personal taste can be dangerous:  I know of one wealthy donor who decided to stop supporting a top regional orchestra leaving them with the staggering amount of nearly three million dollars to find elsewhere.

And here in western Europe where the major arts are supported by tax revenue, that puts the arts in the center of the public discussion, a good thing in my opinion. I heard about a study done here in Rotterdam asking people: “Do you come to the orchestra?” To those who responded “No,” a further question.  “Would you be unhappy if it went out of business?” “Yes, we would like the chance to go!  We pay for it!” That’s a good thing and comes with the recognition that art is not a luxury but something essential that is part of a good society.

When people ask isn't it more important to support hospitals and institutions that help the poor instead of orchestras, we should say that the arts are just as important for the health of any society. We jeopardize ourselves as individuals and as members of society when we forget this!

In the UK the message is sometimes heard: the classical arts are not really important. There are those who say: when England is a multi-cultural country why do we have to support Western art? On the other hand you give up your own culture at great risk. It is important in a city like Rotterdam, with over 150 different nationalities that people can identify with the historic culture of their new home.  It can bind us rather than divide us and its appeal, to anyone who will seriously listen, is powerful and universal.

In France at least it is important for ministers of the government to be seen at concerts. They give a signal.  Our former mayor Ivo Opstelten, leads by example when he attends our concerts, he sees it as part of his responsibility.  That’s a kind of cultural leadership andI can't recall the last President of the United States who showed that sort of cultural leadership.  Even if they don’t personally care for the arts, they should  say:  “It has importance” by attending concerts, opera, ballet, museums etc.

Do you have any specific goals for the next 5 years here in Rotterdam?

For me the main goal is to let people know about the orchestra! This orchestra is the best-kept secret in the international music scene.  Partly because, when you think about Rotterdam, you think about it as a port-city, an industrial city, not a cultural city. The image of the city is hard to change – and living here one quickly learns that there are many fine cultural institutions in Rotterdam with a strong base of public support - but this city has an orchestra of great international stature, a virtuoso orchestra with some incredible star-players.  There have been so many superb concerts over the past year with conductors such as Gergiev, Simon Rattle, John Eliot Gardiner and our new Chief Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin that it would be difficult to single one out but I will never forget the Shostakovich Symphonies 5 and 15 in New York's Lincoln Center with Gergiev,  played with a white hot incandescence and at the highest possible level.  Maintaining this sort of level across the long season even with conductors who are not at that level is difficult of course but the orchestra has set a very high standard of excellence.

I remember friends of mine in the Cleveland Orchestra saying that they were proud to play their best for conductors they liked the least: to always give the public their best even if they didn't find the person on the podium particularly inspiring or even competent. That is also a goal for us.  Our reputation in the world sometimes reflects another side of our musical character, an orchestra with an occasionally difficult disposition.  Many conductors tell me that the Rotterdam Philharmonic starts slowly at first rehearsal but when things are moving in the right direction has unlimited potential.  One rather well known conductor said he has never worked with a more emotionally expressive group.  He meant musically and it was a compliment!

Sir John Eliot Gardiner guest conducted the orchestra in four absolutely stunning concerts recently.  John Eliot and I worked together at Deutsche Grammophon and when I saw him, by chance, in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, I just asked him if he would like to spend a week with the Rotterdam Philharmonic.  He kindly agreed but with his busy schedule, it took some time before we saw him stand on the podium in the Doelen. We made an interesting program (Shostakovich, Bartók, Dvorák) and I'm afraid that I terrified the orchestra by saying that Gardiner can be extremely tough and that he might just walk out if the discipline on stage is not good.  But I must say the concerts offered some of the most glorious playing I've heard till now from this orchestra: concentrated, disciplined, and completely 'giusto' with clear and transparent textures, rhythmic integrity, wonderful balances.  He is one of a handful of conductors who work well with both the orchestra and the hall and who make the hall's occasionally difficult acoustics work. Young Robin Ticciati did it also last May in one of the most beautiful Enigma-Variations I ever heard.  Yannick most memorably in a complete Ma Mère achieved this as well.  The Doelen makes you work:  you can’t lean back and relax. I remember when the Concertgebouw Orchestra played here last year there were some really tough moments in La Mer though the orchestra settled in beautifully for the Fantastique on the second half.

Are there any plans for a permanent guest-conductor?

Yes, there is a conductor to whom we have offered the position and are now in negotiations with his management.


We will record all the Beethoven symphonies, Strauss Tone Poems and major French literature including Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique with Yannick, and we already made a recording of Ravel’s Daphnis  Suite No.2, La Valse, Ma mère l’oye and Valses nobles with him for EMI. And we will make two CD’s with Renaud Capuçon and Emmanuel Pahud also for EMI. I think a CD, especially a live recording, is like a snapshot, a souvenir. We recorded our Ravel disc over a year ago.  After a recent and superb La Valse in Dortmund,  Yannick and I said to each other: we should have taken this one, this was the best. That’s also why so many conductors want to re-record repertoire again and again. As Vice President for Artists and Repertoire at DGG, I enthusiastically supported Claudio Abbado's desire to re-record the Beethoven Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic. He had seriously re-thought these masterpieces.   It was very expensive but the artistic results justified the financial risk.

I believe that recording is an essential part of making an orchestra better: recordings force musicians to  listen objectively to themselves and their colleagues.  The process of studio recording, though demanding, is essential for the modern orchestra.  Some musicians are intimidated by the microphones but the process allows for risk and then if it doesn't work, we play it again.

Trust between the producer and the artist is essential to the process artistically but also makes the process more efficient.  My job is to give the artists their ideal performance of the work recorded, not my view.  Of course, this means a lot of editing and in the case of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, what I would call 'good editing': multiple takes of musical passages that are all good with the agonizing decision about which phrase or even individual note to use.  And then, there are usually three days of mixing, balancing the voices and adding some acoustical veneer.  Of course, even in the best possible scenario, we do not achieve perfection but only a representation of the artist's work at a given moment.  Great recordings are not necessarily about note-perfect playing.

Yannick’s Beethoven got a bad review in The Gramophone.

Yes, I wonder if this man actually listened to it: his comments lead me to think otherwise and perhaps he came to the recording with incorrect and preconceived notions. What I can say about my recordings as a producer is this: I don’t mind a bad review of a good record.  The critic is entitled to his or her (hopefully) informed opinion.  Of course, I prefer a good review of a good recording but what I don’t like is a good review of a bad record. I've had the privilege of having produced over a thousand commercial recordings:  not all of them live up to either my own or the artists' standards.  I would rather not read a good review of one of these recordings because I can’t trust this reviewer anymore. And of course we do need criticism!

Education? Bringing more kids to the concert hall?

I believe that education – and this includes musical education – is a life-long process.  It is not only about bringing young children to the hall.

Despite what I consider classical music's universal appeal, realistically, I know that we cannot compete with popular culture for a mass audience.  But I do know that every year, there are large numbers of people around the world who discover the emotional and intellectual appeal of western art music and this for some of them develops into a real passion which they cannot do without.   Am I disappointed when we have an empty hall for a great concert?  Of course. it saddens me that there are people who cannot hear the beauty of music and might even be unwilling to experience it.  At the same time, I accept the fact that perhaps only 1200 people – the happy few – might attend one of our more adventurous programs. Of course I would like the entire city of Rotterdam to come, but that’s just not realistic.  And those happy few, if the performance is good, they will respond in their own way to what our musicians have to say about a work of art.  And perhaps optimistically, I believe this response is possible for anyone who takes the time to really listen.  It does require active participation (unlike so-called 'entertainment' which can be so very passive.)  That being said it is important to not be afraid of the audience or underestimate their desire to be active participants and to challenge their expectations.

I'm proud of our education program which brings music to the community and brings many young people into the hall.  It is so important that a young person's first encounter with a symphony orchestra be positive, enjoyable and perhaps challenging as well. I'm also proud  of our “Young Person’s Guide” – a group of young and very young music lovers which just keeps growing.   I'll never forget the two teenage girls waiting outside of Robin Ticciati’s dressing room after his debut concert: they wanted to take him out dancing! But it wasn't just about Robin: they were in love with the music as well.

What about Gergiev and his festival after 2012?

I just saw him a few weeks ago in London for a very good meeting.  I must say I’ve learned so much from Gergiev: his respect for music and musicians! In some ways he’s one of the most courteous conductors.  When he calls you it’s: “Do I disturb you, how’s your family, how are you?”  His respect for the great artists of previous generations is legendary as is his knowledge of the old, classic, recordings which he loves to discuss.

I purchased  a new mastering of the 1952 Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter made by Pristine Audio, a company that does the most remarkable renovation work. I brought it to Valery and he said: Let’s listen to it!  He was on the phone, watching television and at the same time making the most extraordinary and penetrating comments on the interpretation.

His love of music is unsurpassed: last year I had to ring him with a question about a program.  He was in Baden-Baden suffering from a bad cold and unable to travel to his next destination.  In the background I heard La Bohème playing. I said: “Valery, La Bohème?” “Yes”, he said, “Toscanini’s recording: the maestro died 50 years ago today, it’s an important day and this is an important recording!” Once he called me at one or two o’clock in the morning when we were both in Rotterdam.  Did I have Bruno Walter's Mahler Symphony 1 on my I-pod; could I bring it to his room? He was curious about a tutti viola passage in the final movement.  We spent a fascinating and enjoyable hour which began with Mahler 1 but then moved tangentially to many equally intriguing subjects.

Whenever we have a young conductor at a Gergiev performance, Valery always takes time to talk with him. His master classes are entertaining for the audience but can be life-changing for the fortunate young artists who benefit from Valery's extraordinary insights into the art of conducting and musical interpretation.  Whatever people say about him: the rushing Russian etc, the thing to remember is his fundamental musical and personal integrity that informs his life and his music. 

He loves this orchestra and we want him of course to come back as much as possible.  In addition to ongoing discussions about the Festival, we continue to speak about regular guest conducting weeks and possible touring. I was delighted to overhear Valery tell a young English conductor that he wished the LSO strings could play with the round and beautiful sound of his Rotterdam Philharmonic strings.  It has been a remarkable collaboration and it isn't over.

Bas van Westerop and Aart van der Wal

A Dutch version of this interview can be seen on Aart van der Waal's web site Opus Klassiek.

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