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Andris Poga. Photo: Katrīna Ģelze

A Conductor of a Clean and Practical Mind. An Interview with Andris Poga 0

Interviewed by Orests Silabriedis

Ten years ago a chamber orchestra called “Konsonance” appeared on the Latvian concert scene; it was headed by somebody named Andris Poga (1980) – at the time, a practically unknown novice at symphonic conducting. Interesting, interesting – observers thought – what will this seemingly ambitious youth show us?

It was known that Poga studied the trumpet (under Pēteris Kaldre) and brass and woodwind orchestra conducting (under Jānis Puriņš). What was less known was that Poga studied philosophy (2000-2004). He was only a small step away from writing his thesis which, like his coursework, would look at the ideas of Descartes, Kant and Husserl.

In 2007 Andris Poga graduated from the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy, under the tutelage of Professor Viesturs Gailis, with a degree in symphonic conducting. From 2007 to 2010 Poga was the artistic director and head conductor of the Riga Professional Symphonic Band; at this time, new horizons opened up to the Band in terms of quality of execution, repertoire, and its overarching paradigm of existence – it was the beginning of the first attempts at changing society's perception of brass and woodwind bands, proving that they are capable of more than just funeral marches and polka tunes. In 2007 Poga also conducts a concert with the Latvian National Symphonic Orchestra (LNSO), which garners him a Latvia's Great Music Award in the category of “Best Debut”.

In 2010 Poga wins the top honors at the Evgeny Svetlanov 2nd International Conducting Competition in Montpellier (France), which changes the young conductor's life. He leaves his position as head of the “Riga Band” and begins a life abroad, performing with orchestras in France, Malta, Israel and Japan – in other words, through the help of an agency, he has made himself a rather nice career. Poga's crowning achievements so far are impressive: in the autumn of 2011 he becomes assistant to Paavo Järvi, head conductor of Orchestre de Paris; and a year later, he passes the auditions for assistant conductor of the Boston Symphonic Orchestra.

Andris returns to Latvia every so often, meeting with the LNSO, Sinfonietta Rīga and the Liepāja Symphonic Orchestra, as well as performing in Riga's Opera House, where he conducted Mozart's “Don Juan” and the gala program of Riga's Opera Festival 2013, which featured Verdi's opera music. And now we had the opportunity to see Andris Poga at the Cēsis Art Festival – in concert with the LNSO on 12 July, where he conducted “Color” (2002), by the contemporary French composer Mark Andre Dalbavi (1961); “Concert for Piano” (1987), by Vitolds Lutoslavskis (1913-1994); and Dmitry Shostakovich's (1906-1975) “15th Symphony” (1971). A conversation on the musical content of this concert can be heard on the website for Latvia's Radio 3 “Klasika”, on the page “Iesakām noklausīties vēlreiz” (first aired on Saturday, 6 July, 09:30). The following interview with, on the other hand, covers the profession of conducting, as such, and cultural development on an international scale.

Has working with the Paris and Boston orchestras made you a big-league player?

The feeling is, of course, completely different. The beginning of my career wasn't what I imagined it would be after winning the Montpellier Competition and seeing how the careers of other conductors developed. In my case, quite a few French orchestras invited me to conduct, some even several times, and I was beginning to think – yes, what a great and interesting life; I can go here and there, and conduct this and that. But then my agent (from Productions Internationales Albert Sarfati) and I began to talk about how that's all very good, but that this really isn't promoting my development. If you're conducting provincial orchestras, more or less, and it isn't in your power to influence the repertoire, then as a musician, you're basically standing in one spot. We came up with the idea to speak to Paavo on whether he'd take me on as an assistant. The Paavo-led Orchestre de Paris has gotten on quite well without an assistant these past few years; overall, this practice is more characteristic of American orchestras, where there almost always is one or two assistants. This sort of system has been in place there for at least 100 years, and the position of assistant has started the careers of quite a few famous conductors – for instance, those of Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas, my predecessor in this position in Boston.

But with the “Paris orchestra”, it went like this. In previous years they followed the practice of having a so-called “educational concert” the day after the evening concert, and both would be conducted by the same conductor. Paavo said that he won't be doing this because the work load was huge – a new program every week, and he had neither the time nor the strength for it. In addition, by inviting assistants on board, the young conductors would get some good educational experience. And so it was that I happened to be one of the candidates.

Did the orchestra itself have any say in the choice of assistants?

Yes, it was basically a vote by the orchestra. Each candidate worked with the orchestra for half an hour, and the assigned pieces were standards – Beethoven's “Egmont”, the 4th part of Bartok's “Concert for Orchestra” (a popular piece in competitions), and the Final of Sibelius' 5th Symphony.

How does a conductor find an agent?

Usually, they notice you. While you're an unknown, you can't just go up to an agent and say that you want to work with them. As far as I've observed agents and the administrators of large orchestras who select soloists and conductors, they are very careful – they test you out first; they offer one project, then a second one, then a third; they listen to reviews, wait for reactions. For the first year and a half I worked with them without a contract – it was like a test-period. Only then did I sign a contract.

But that doesn't mean that you worked without pay, does it?

No, no, of course not; I was paid. The difference is that during that time, the agency doesn't take on any responsibility: they are friendly and nice, they give advice, but if you mess up, then they're likely to say “goodbye” – in just as friendly a manner.

What do you think was their reason for signing a long-term contract with you?

I came to some sort of awareness of people's opinion when I read a very short review of my debut with the Boston Symphonic Orchestra in the Boston Globe. I had conducted Britten's “Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra”, and the couple of sentences in the following day's review clicked with the review of my work in the French press a couple of years prior. Surprisingly, they used almost the exact same words. Conductors are sometimes described as being “flashy” – in a negative context, but in my review, it said that my approach to the orchestra and the music was “un-flashy”.

I always truly try to get the best musical result possible, and I can safely say that I do not work in front of a mirror. We all know of very successful conductors who work with big agencies, who look really good on the stage and conduct beautifully, but whose musical results are up to question. I just don't know how to show-off, and so I don't even try to.

Andris Poga. Photo: Boston Globe

Could one say that when you make music, you like to keep the world in balance around you? Raise it above its daily contrasts?

I probably don't do that consciously. Sometimes when you're studying a score you see – oh, that voice could be made more prominent, that would be interesting. And then you do the concert as you planned, but when you listen to the recording of it, you think – yes, that produced an effect, but it sounds simply dumb.

Yes, but then why are we so fond of, for instance, Paavo Järvi's interpretations, in which he makes the music sound as if we've never heard it before?

But he never does anything that isn't written in the score. For example, Beethoven's symphonies: I still remember from my years at the academy that in Beethoven's symphonies, there's a huge difference between forte (“loud”) and fortissimo (“very loud”), and Paavo illustrates this extremely well. But he only says – here it is forte, and here it is fortissimo; the orchestra does the rest, so to say. If they aren't specially told to do so, the orchestra will still play the difference, but it will only be noticeable upon deeper scrutiny. Paavo also strictly follows Beethoven's metronome markings. Many conductors believe that Beethoven had a faulty metronome and that he wanted the music to sound too fast. I once had the luck to see Paavo lead a rehearsal of Beethoven's music in Paris, and I saw how he removed the layers that had settled into the musicians from the recordings of other conductors, or from school, and that really weigh down such a well-known repertoire.

The musicians in the “Paris Orchestra” aren't always all that happy about that. Yes, Paavo is the head conductor and his wishes are respected, but the French are a very stubborn people. Paavo was once working on a Sibelius symphony, and after the rehearsal I spoke to the orchestra's principal accompanist – he was very dissatisfied, saying: how can we work like that, that's a waste of time, we're now learning how to play syncopation, but we still have Haydn's symphony on the agenda – and which we can't play, we have so few rehearsals, but we're learning syncopation which we already know how to play...

How do you get along with the French? Clearly, they are not the nicest people on Earth.

It's been very diverse. I've conducted eight or nine other orchestras there, and I've had very good connections with the musicians that ended with good results, but there have also been times when I simply wanted to leave because I couldn't hold down a rehearsal to the end – their stubbornness is so very conspicuous. Of course, every member of an orchestra is disciplined and does what he or she has to, but the atmosphere can be simply insufferable.

Do you work with the orchestra in French?

I started to seriously learn the language, but then I just didn't have the time for it. If I have to choose between studying French grammar or studying a score, I'll choose the score. But I do try to use the French terms in my daily work. The musicians counsel me and teach me French – they approach me in French and we switch to English only if there is just no other way that I can answer them. Yes, French is difficult for me, I must admit.

Isn't that a hindrance in your professional work?

Not yet, but I do feel some pressure from the agency that I should learn the language. Paarvo has never learned French to this very day, and the orchestra is angry about that.

How much time do you spend in Paris?

In Boston I've been told precisely how many weeks I have to spend there, whereas in Paris, much depends on my own plans. For instance, I'm scheduled to be in Paris for eight weeks next season, but only three of those will be with Paavo. Along with the educational concerts, there will be two special projects – in September I'll be heading a concert of the orchestra's chamber ensemble at the Louvre, while in June of 2014 I'll be conducting the “Paris Orchestra” at the Bad Kissingen Festival in Germany; I'm really happy about this one, because this festival is a serious musical platform.

Unfortunately, this is my last contracted season in Paris, and there haven't been any definite discussions yet on the future. Clearly, it has been an invaluable experience – being together with Paavo and learning from him. But there's a financial problem – the positions of both assistants are financed by a stipend that the orchestra receives from elsewhere, so our jobs aren't part of the budget.

What do you like most about making music with “The Paris Orchestra”?

Spontaneity. If you latch on to an idea, they'll follow through to the bone. I once heard them play Brahms – you're sitting in the audience and you realize that you haven't heard anything like it, not even from the Berlin Philharmonic – they have such passion! And the same goes if they don't like a conductor or a soloist – they become completely cool and distant. I won't name any names, but a couple of years ago I watched one of their concerts with a rather famous conductor, and the orchestra literally handed in just a simple delivery of the symphony. I saw that the principal accompanist wasn't really looking at the conductor, but rather looking at his sheet music. They didn't play badly – an average listener might not even notice anything in such cases, since the playing is of consistent quality.

What about American orchestras? We're used to thinking that they are absolutely perfect, and that their brass players will play your ears off...

Their strings, too, by the way!

So that still holds?

Their level of quality is still very high, and their working style and attitude is very different than that of Europe's. For instance, the power of the unions. I can tell you a short story about that – we were preparing Britten's “Young Person's Guide”; this piece has many various ensembles, and the orchestra is divided into groups for rehearsals – the strings are done separately from the brass and woodwinds. The day before the concert, the dress rehearsal is open to the public. The starting time is 19.35, and it's scheduled to end at 22.05. Even though it's a dress rehearsal, we were allowed to work a bit on some details. I was alloted the rehearsal's last half-hour, and in planning it out, I had erred by half a minute. So, the clock says it's 22.04, there are about 300 people in the audience, and the orchestra's inspector appears on stage. He slowly walks across the stage to it's center, looking at me, and I at him. All that's left is the fugue's coda, which is less than a minute long, bet the clock says it's 22.04.59 and the inspector claps his hands, the orchestra stops in half-measure, the principal accompanist says “Sorry,” and the musicians go home. I've even seen this happen with famous conductors.

What I like about America is that they're very friendly and they'll say – Well, sorry that it has to be like this, but everything will turn out all right. In Europe, and especially in Paris, if the orchestra sees that things aren't going the way that they should be, they distance themselves and take the initiative into their own hands – they play on their own and really don't look at the conductor any more. If something like that has happened, it's unbelievabley hard to regain their trust. Paavo began to work in his position directly after Christoph Eschenbach had left. Eschenbach is an excellent musician, but his conducting technique doesn't conform to what an orchestra expects, so they were used to not even watching the conductor. When Paavo began to work with them, he was actually forced to instruct them to watch the conductor.

It's different in America – if you happen to make a mistake, the orchestra will still look to you the next time and will play whatever you tell them to play. Interestingly enough, in America they use the same word – “service” – for both a religious mass and a rehearsal. It is clear that the world's most professional musicians are there.

Strangely enough, in America they're a bit reserved around conductors that are like, for instance, our own Andris Nelsons, who likes to talk a lot, involve fantasy and joke around a bit. For American orchestral musicians, their employee rights come first, and when they sit behind their music stands they are simply fulfilling their work obligations, and they are not all too passionate about the results. I also think that there are completely different criteria for musical professionalism in America, as well as in their reviews and radio broadcasts. It's a completely different world, one in which everything is looked upon and described in terms of quality and visual effects, rather than that of content.

Would you like to end up working and living in America?

If I had the opportunity to occasionally conduct some good American orchestras, that would be, of course, very interesting. Would I want to head a mid-level, provincial orchestra there, for the long-term? That's a difficult question to answer, truthfully. Right now, I'd have to say no. But I do have another “land of my dreams” – Japan, and if I were ever asked to head an orchestra there, I wouldn't think twice about it.

What is it that draws you to Japan?

I just feel a good atmosphere there. I'm the kind of conductor who tends to offer, not order, and I think that that goes well with the Japanese mentality. They're not used to it when, say, a Russian-type of conductor arrives and simply says: That's going to be like this, and this will be like that (even though they do love Russian conductors, but only a select few). The Japanese wait until someone asks them to play, not orders them to play. Here, in Latvia, about 10-15 years ago it was like this – if you weren't aggressive enough and commanding enough, the orchestra could simply not take notice of you. It's not like that in Japan, especially if it's a good orchestra. Another advantage – everywhere that there is an orchestra, there is also a good concert hall. I've had the luck to meet a very good Japanese agent – I hope I'll continue to get offers to play in their country. I must be a disciplined type of person; I like it when everything is organized, and over there, it really is.

Do you still remember how to play the trumpet?

I remember how to play it, but I haven't played it. You can't loose the skill, but you can loose your form. Very quickly. I don't feel a pull towards that instrument. However, every so often when I tell the orchestra to play a phrase one way or another, I think – maybe I should try it myself to see how it can be done, if it even can be. I think it's a big advantage for any conductor if he can play an instrument, and especially if he still plays it. By the way, I can remember the precise time when I last played the trumpet on stage – it was in May of 2006, when [Andris] Nelsons conducted the LNSO in Strauss' “A Hero's Life”.

How has the study of philosophy aided your way of thinking?

When I first started University, our first tutorial was led by Rihards Kūlis. I remember well him saying – I can tell you of two perspectives: some philosophers work as grave diggers, while some have re-qualified themselves as journalists. The second thing I remember – we were taking our written entrance exam that had questions on specific writers, as well as one essay question that was the same for everyone: What is philosophy? I still believe that the most correct answer is: The history of philosophy. For four years I was linked to the world of philosophy and philosophical literature, and I think that what I have gained is a reckoning with the forms of culture. You've read about them, you assume that they exist and that they operate in a certain context. Has it changed me as a conductor? I don't know. As a person? Definitely. There is one thing that I have become partly sure of – fields like psychology and pedagogy have been derived from philosophy, and on their own, they are pointless.

What keeps you going? All right, there's obviously music, a lot of music, the studying of scores, but outside of that – do you have a need to, let's say, watch the clouds, or read books?

I'm interested in the world as such, but I don't have a definite side-interest or hobby. Yes, I like films, but I mostly watch them only during longer flights. In the last year, the amount of music in my life has become simply crazy. If you could see how much my sheet music cabinet has expanded in the last two years – it's just scores, scores and more scores.

Where do you keep your sheet music cabinet?

At home, in Riga. And I think that that's where it will stay, because this is where I feel the best. In that sense, I am a patriot.

Is this huge amount of music enough for you? Does musical information feed on itself?

I really don't have an answer to that. Often times I hear some sort of music, and that's enough for me. When I have to go work with this music, then sometimes it does happen that I have to artificially think up of how I want it to be, but the interesting thing is that you discover something, and at that moment this music appears differently to you. It's similar to philosophy – you think of some thought, and when you come to some solution, you have the feeling of discovery.

Don't you sometimes think of something, and you immediately know – this thought can be knocked over by another thought; or – in this place, this sort of opposition will appear – and so on?

You mean doubt? That's the way it should be. For instance, I've imagined that in Shostakovich's symphony a trombone solo is like a small scene from life, in which a Russian bloke in felt boots and a trapper hat comes in from the snow. Then I notice that it says piano, which doesn't fit in with my imagined scene. So then there's a dilemma – either its the soviet piano, which has been written reservedly, or your imagined scene is just wrong.

At what moment does the doubting stop? When you climb up onto the pedestal?

There is no room for doubt on the stage, of course. A conductor must be able to make decisions quickly, even if they are wrong. I think that the quality of a conductor is characterized by how many right decisions you are able to make intuitively and in a very short period of time. If you make a lot of wrong decisions, then you're not a good conductor. At some point, you have to stop doubting and make a decision.