As Lars Vogt prepares to bring the Royal Northern Sinfonia to the Lammermuir Festival, the conductor explains how Sir Simon Rattle inspired him. By Ken Walton
It may yet be several weeks away, but before we know it the Edinburgh International Festival will be a distant memory, and the next big Scottish musical shindig, East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival, will have all but come and gone, set to reach its climax in a closing concert by the Royal Northern Sinfonia (RNS) on Sunday 20 September in St Mary’s Church, Haddington.
That event will be the grand finalé to an impressive cocktail of 19 concerts which over 10 days features performances by the Sottish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC SSO, the Michelangelo String Quartet, the Dunedin Consort, the Kungsbacka Trio, the Hebrides Ensemble, pianist Steven Osborne and cellist Philip Higham among others.
And it comes at a significant time for the Newcastle-based RNS and its brand new musical director, the pianist-turned-conductor Lars Vogt, who will by then have spent only a few days officially in his new post.
He’ll be conducting music by Sibelius, Mozart and Erkki-Sven Tuür, as well as playing and directing Grieg’s Piano Concerto from the keyboard.
“I wanted my first programme with the orchestra to reflect the journey we intend going on. It is really quite eclectic. It has the musical north, which will be the biggest part of our journey”.
By “north” he means that rich cultural tract that stretches across Scandinavia and into Tuür’s Estonian homeland. As for Mozart, says the German-born Vogt, “he is simply one of my biggest loves, but too often we find that he has been put into a chocolate box – nice music that’s easy to consume and it doesn’t bother us to do other things at the same time. So we’ll be looking afresh into Mozart’s works [in this case the “Prague” Symphony], not just the joie de vivre and beauty, but the darker aspects too; those dark harmonic shifts, which are quite challenging. In his language everything means something, and I feel we sometimes have to reclaim them.”
The most interesting aspect of Vogt’s appointment, of course, is that he is better known to us as a solo pianist than a wielder of the baton; though it’s always been clear, from his regular solo appearances with all of Scotland’s orchestras, that the 45-year-old former Leeds International Piano Competition prizewinner has harboured an inkling to be the man in complete control.
“Yes, that’s quite true,” he admits. “I don’t stop being involved in a performance when there’s no piano going on. I really want to see into the eyes of people playing the theme that I’m about to take over and to influence what is going on at these moments.”
Have there been times in his concerto performances where the presence of a conductor has been more frustrating than helpful? “Yes, it has happened,” he says, revealing no names. “I love working with great conductors, friends like Daniel Harding and [SCO principal conductor] Robin Ticciati. We’re really close and we share so many ideas and thoughts, and even when we don’t agree, I’m happy to learn from their different perspectives. But when a conductor doesn’t feel what I feel? Well, it’s hard to explain.”
But can he explain why the conducting bug took hold? “It was Simon Rattle’s fault,” says Vogt. “He put the idea into my head. When I was 20 and playing one of my first concerts with him at the Hollywood Bowl, we walked off stage, and out of nowhere he said: ‘In ten years you’re going to be a conductor’. It hit me like a lightning bolt, because I’d never thought of it. I guess he noticed how curiously I observed what he was doing. I was fascinated at what miracles can be achieved by something that doesn’t – ideally – produce any sound.”
Vogt’s connection with Rattle intensified when he was pianist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2003-4, giving him even more opportunity to observe and learn. “I remember one of Simon’s orchestral musicians going up to him and saying something that I could really relate to. He said: ‘You know, when you’re conducting, it’s like there’s a hurricane going on, but you’re at the eye of the storm, where it’s really still’. It’s true, Simon sends out waves that go like earthquakes; it fascinates me that that is possible.”
While Vogt has harboured the desire to conduct ever since Rattle lit the fuse – taking lessons back in Germany in his 20s and capitalising ever since on the odd opportunity that came his way – the Newcastle appointment is the first official public manifestation of his “coming out”.
It’s a relationship that first took root almost 25 years ago, when former RNS music director Heinrich Schiff invited the young Vogt to perform with them. There was a gap, he says, before he returned more recently under Thomas Zehetmair’s directorship.
But last year Vogt was invited back to conduct an entire programme of his own. “I was caught up in this incredible wave of enthusiasm,” he recalls. “I could say anything, try things out and change them if they didn’t work; nothing would be used against you. It was such a positive atmosphere, and right afterwards they asked me if I wanted the job. I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Vogt has already immersed himself in the wider community work of the chamber orchestra, going into local schools and implementing plans for pop-up concerts in public venues around Newcastle and Gateshead.
He’s not afraid to take risks. “I think security is the opposite of artistry,” he argues. “Nikolaus Harnoncourt said it beautifully recently when he was trying to get a choir to sing a real pianissimo. He said: ‘it has to be a sound that is on the edge of failing’. I thought that was a wonderful statement. We shouldn’t be afraid of failing. If anything, you have to get close to it for the sake of truth.”
We’ll hear how far Vogt is prepared to go in his Lammermuir debut. He’s had lots to say as a pianist. Now, as conductor, he’s really calling the shots.
The Lammermuir Festival runs from 11-20 September in various venues around East Lothian, 0131-473 2000 / lammermuirfestival.co.uk