Very much a Renaissance man, the violinist talks about life, thinking outside the box and his hopes and fears for all of our futures.
Nowadays, you’re not just a violinist, you’re a writer, broadcaster and supporter of a range of humanitarian causes. Might you ever have chosen a different career path?
I don’t think so. Music defines my day from morning till night. I’ve been performing music around the world for over 25 years. I also write about, present and curate music on a variety of mediums, from books to television, from radio to social media. The violin gives me the chance to share the thoughts and emotions of the greatest composers who ever lived. And if I choose to play, write, broadcast, programme or present, it’s always because I believe there is some form of great music out there which needs to be communicated, somehow. Music is communication, at least for me.
You have a reputation for thinking outside the box, especially with programming. Is that ever a conscious choice?
I have always tried to tell stories with my programming. For my first recording back in 1999, on Nimbus Records, I combined the Concerti of Schnittke, Takemitsu and Weill. I had been privileged to work with the first two of those composers, and thought I would try and build a concept around their thoughts and ideas. Most people thought I was mad to debut with that repertoire. But not only was it well received, it made money and is still on sale today. Having said that, nowadays we are quick to use terms like “cutting edge”, but if you want to see really astonishing programming, look at what Mendelssohn or Joachim were presenting in their day.
Violinist Daniel Hope. Photo © Tibor Bozi/DG
How long have you resisted recording The Four Seasons, and why do it now?
I guess since I began performing it publicly when I was 13, although I first experienced Vivaldi as a toddler at Yehudi Menuhin’s festival in Gstaad, in 1975. I heard what I thought was birdsong coming from the stage. It had such an electrifying effect that I still call it my ‘Vivaldi Spring’. My many experiences with The Four Seasons, all the way from childhood, led me full circle to the moment when I was appointed Music Director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra in 2016. I found myself in front of this wonderful orchestra playing the piece I’d first heard them perform four decades ago. And then I realised how these musicians were so energetic and enthusiastic in the way they expressed their understanding of Vivaldi. I felt our performances were a revelation in terms of the colours we produced, the tempi we took and the details that emerged. After performing the concertos for the third time together, recording it was either now or never!
So did you adopt a particular approach?
What you are hearing is the culmination of 35 years of work and thought on this masterpiece. Certainly my interpretation has changed dramatically over the decades, starting with the usual romantic approach with which most violin students begin their musical lives and then changing thanks to important influences by countless extraordinary musicians, such as Kristian Bezuidenhout and Christopher Hogwood. They both taught me so much about the sound world of the baroque
and the colours of continuo.
You’ve often balanced old (ie. baroque) with new (ie. contemporary). But is your new album branching off in a new direction?
This is my most personal album to date. It’s also the first one I produced myself, even though I put a great deal of thought into the dramaturgy of every album. My goal with For Seasons was to take Vivaldi’s masterpiece one step further – by placing it in the context of a 21st-century climatic response: the 12 months are each represented by a specific piece of music. And in turn, 12 visual artists respond to the music and to the seasons with the paintings that are featured in the booklet. That opened up a whole world of music.
Are you ever concerned about the future of classical music and its audience?
I think every musician should be concerned, but optimistic. However, there is a far more important factor to be addressed than filling concert halls. While I’m a great proponent of arts education, let me be clear in stating that the purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists. The real purpose is to create complete human beings. If we are to survive as a human race, we need creativity, ingenuity and innovation. And real innovation doesn’t just come from technology, it comes through art and design. Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and defining the world. Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, but in the last 50 years we’ve turned that imagination over to the marketplace. And the marketplace does only one thing – it puts a price on everything. The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics and focus on value. There is only one social force that is strong enough to counterbalance the commercialisation of cultural values, and it’s our educational system. Yet here we sit, in the year 2017, and in our schools children are being pushed through without music, without visual arts, without dance or literary arts, training primarily one side of their brains – analytically and numerically – while the other half, which is about holistic and aesthetic learning, remains severely underdeveloped. That is something about which we should all be concerned.
The fate of Jewish musicians and the legacy of the early-20th century is obviously important to you. Who for you are the inspirational figures from this period?
My grandparents and great grandparents on my mother’s side were German Jews kicked out of Berlin in the 1930s. Von Ribbentrop personally confiscated my grandmother’s house and turned it into the centre for Nazi cryptology, the German equivalent of Bletchley Park. There are many inspirational figures from that period: Menahem Pressler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gideon Klein, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and Sophie Scholl. But there are many, many more. I made a film about the Theresiensadt concentration camp called Refuge in Music, telling the story of two surviving musicians, classical pianist Alice Herz-Sommer and jazz guitarist Coco Schumann. Both inspired me enormously.
What did you achieve through the Tu Was! project? And was it a one off?
I’ve done “Tu was!” (literally ‘Do Something’) three times now. On one occasion it was a climate change concert. We calculated how much CO2 was generated by one performance and had energy companies donate the money to plant 1000 trees to offset that amount. The other two concerts commemorated the 70th and 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The one on November 9, 2013 was in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Images of artists and musicians banished from Berlin were projected onto the Gate while thousands of school kids took part in a year-long project
to make short cellphone films on the subject of tolerance, which were also projected.
So can musicians do anything to combat xenophobia and fear of the immigrant?
As we speak, the UK has just separated from the rest of Europe and we are seeing a worrying rise in right wing populism around the world. Let’s be clear: music cannot change the world. But I do believe it can touch people and make them think. And if it can make them think, then it can incite dialogue. And dialogue is our only hope to prevent war…
Daniel Hope’s For Seasons is out on Deutsche Grammophon