I know Israel, where you were born, is a very musical place, but what led you into conducting in particular?
Well, I didn’t start off wanting to be a conductor. I grew up in a house that had very little music in it. No one in my family really played, except my grandfather who used to play as a child, but he was in his 90s when I was growing up. He was born in Hungary and he didn’t really play at all, except once in a while he would take out the violin and play a few gypsy tunes.
Anyway, one day, there was a knock on the door – this was in the early 1990s when there was a big immigration from Russia – and there was a lady at the door saying that she was a Russian immigrant and a musician, and that as there was not really a lot of work, if any of the children in the house wanted to study the piano, she could teach them. My mother said it would be a lovely idea for me to have a few lessons on the piano, and as soon as I started, I thought this is wonderful, but I want to play the violin like my grandfather.
So, I switched to the violin, but very quickly I thought what I really wanted to do was to become a composer, and so I started doodling and sketching in a very childish way, and then I started learning composition for a while, but I became a bit crushed when it was clear to me that this was not my passion. When I was 14, the head of the academy said if you really want to become a musician, what you should be studying is music – theory and harmony and all of that kind of thing. So he registered me in the academy and I started to learn.
Everybody else was older than me and when I went to the first lesson, the teacher said something about a triad chord and I turned to the person sitting next to me and said “What’s a triad chord?” He thought it was hilarious, but slowly I started to learn a broader spectrum of music. The first time I played in the orchestra was The Rite of Spring. Funnily enough, I’m conducting it next week here in Berlin with the Staatsoper. But then I had no idea what it was. I thought, “Well, I play the Spring Sonata so it must be something similar to that.”
You can imagine how I stumbled through it – I dread to think what came out of my fiddle that day – but five minutes in, I knew the orchestra was where I belonged. It was so wonderful, the sounds and the characters, and the different instruments, and the boys and the girls, and the cigarettes and the coffee. I was in love – love at first sight. When I grew up a little bit more, I was drawn all the aspects of the orchestra, so conducting became the natural way for me.
Daniel Cohen. Photos © Benjamin Ealovega
You spend a lot of your time now conducting opera. How did that happen?
After I finished my schooling – I’d first moved to London and I spent a bit of time in Berlin – I came back to Israel and there was an opening at the Israeli Opera House. They invited me to do a few things, and I really learned what it means to conduct opera there. It was around the time that Asher Fisch was the music director. I had a huge interest in theatre growing up and in literature, so everything to do with drama and storytelling was very close to my heart. And then the chance came to do this in the most intensive way in Berlin. The Deutsche Oper Berlin, where I now work, is one of the busiest opera houses in the world. We do well over 40 titles a year. “I’m never going to get another chance to experience this level, and this intensity of doing opera,” I thought, and these three years have been an absolute revelation for me.
You’ve been successful internationally. Was there a particular mentor who helped you make the leap from Israel to the international scene?
I think, as is often the case, it’s not a question of one mentor but a few very close people who help. At a very early age, it was Asher Fisch. When I started out in Israel, he was the one who really saw me, and gave me the real musical mentoring that I needed to in order to do my job. He taught me a lot, and he was the one who gave me my first chances in Israel and then abroad.
And then I started to work with Daniel Barenboim in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I played the violin there for seven years and I was his assistant there for three. He really was one of the biggest mentors of my life. Now that I’m working in Berlin, he also invited me to conduct in his opera house – the Staatsoper – and to do the Rite of Spring with his orchestra.
And now that I’m at the Deutsche Oper, I have the wonderful advantage and luxury to help Donald Runnicles, who’s our music director. He’s not only music director in the broad sense, but he really cares so much about the people in the house. He comes to a few rehearsals and sees my shows and calls afterwards to give me advice and help. He has a huge amount of experience in this repertoire and with this lifestyle. I find his advice extraordinarily valuable.
Looking at your repertoire, it’s extremely broad. Are you a natural jack of all trades?
No, I wouldn’t say I am. But certainly at a later stage, I think my repertoire will get narrower, I think that’s only natural. But for now, where I really feel at home is the Mozart operas. I’ve done six of them in the last three years, and it’s been a continuous joy for me. I feel like I can spend my entire life doing only Mozart operas. But from what I have tasted in Strauss and Tchaikovsky, there are two opera composers I would love to do more of. And in the symphony, Beethoven, Bach, and I enjoy doing the Brahms symphony so much. I think that repertoire will always be very close to my heart. Early 20th century is an area that I find particularly fascinating, from just before the First World War to just after the Second. That period is an endless treasure trove for me.
In Perth you conduct Beethoven’s Seventh. Where do you see that sitting in his development as a symphonic composer?
If you look only at the symphonies, it’s typical of the progression. After the Seventh, he kind of took a step back into his own past for the Eighth, and then went totally off the rails for the Ninth. But the Seventh is really the pinnacle of his symphonic maturity. And I don’t think there’s been any other time in the history of humanity that there was a composer who allowed himself to be so shamelessly celebratory in the finale of a symphony. It’s so concise and it has architecture that is perfect. It’s not terribly long, but it’s got a huge spectrum of emotions. You feel as if you’ve been on a such a journey.
You’re also conducting Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy – a beautiful piece, but not heard nearly as often as it might be. Is that a favourite piece of yours?
That is a new piece for me. Actually, I have a soft spot for Bruch. I’ve listened to a few of his symphonies as well. He’s one of the composers who fell off the radar due to many things, and perhaps he’s worth a second look, because he’s one of those missing links between the early Romantics and the late Romantics. The piece itself I’ve heard a lot, but I’ve never conducted it. I think perhaps the reason why it is not performed so often is because it’s so bloody difficult! There’s a lot of material, so unlike a concerto which is symphonic in structure, but when you’re dealing with a fantasy, by its nature, it’s a little bit episodic. It has a lot of fluctuations and different musical material, which doesn’t make it more difficult to listen to, but it makes it a lot more difficult to perform.
Interestingly, the other piece you’re performing is described as a fantasy overture. Why is Romeo and Juliet described as a fantasy overture, given it’s a narrative story.
I was wondering the same thing! We talked about a fantasy being episodic, but this is not the case with Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet is a very strict, symphonic sonata form. The way I read it, I think it’s his way of saying tone poem. Of course, you can say that he’s telling the story, but not really in a chronological way. He’s more painting a picture that’s inspired by the drama, so he’s making a fantasy on the drama. Maybe he meant it in this sense.
I have to confess I’m also in the Shakespeare mania group. I spent most of my adolescence reading Shakespeare and watching his plays. So anyone who was inspired by him is alright by me. I think Tchaikovsky’s is one of the most flattering adaptations of Shakespeare story that I can think of. When you listen to Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, you hear Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. But with Tchaikovsky I never feel that. I’m totally immersed in the story from the beginning. And even though the Friar’s music and the ecclesiastical music is not right for the story, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I’m totally immersed in his world from the get go.
You’ve conducted WASO only once before when you stepped in at the last minute. How did you find the orchestra?
I was there when Asher had just started. I found them an incredible orchestra, they were so quick – not do as I ask, but quick to understand the reasons behind things that I commented on. They understood them, and gave me something in return that was beyond what I expected. So I had a wonderful, wonderful time with them, and now I really look forward to doing this repertoire with them.
And how did you find Australia?
Well, I’m afraid, my only honest answer is, I hardly found it at all, I was there for four days, and had two concerts, but I did find a childhood friend of mine in Perth who I’d lost contact with for many, many years. She showed me around, and we went to the beach once. I’ve seen a little bit of the city centre and I found it absolutely charming, absolutely charming. But it was a very strange feeling to fly halfway around the globe, and then get out of the plane, and go, “Ah, this is exactly like home.” The sun was shining, the eucalyptus trees had this wonderful smell, and I felt I was back in Tel Aviv!
Daniel Cohen conducts WASO from March 16 – 18