From the head to the heart and into the body

July 8, 2023


Joana Mallwitz und Sebastian Nordmann © Sima Dehgani

Welcome, Joana Mallwitz

General Director Sebastian Nordmann talks to our new principal conductor about rehearsals, scores and formative moments.

SN: To what extent are you already acquainted with Berlin, and how would you describe your experience of our city?

JM: As a newcomer to Berlin, I find this city’s cultural scene to be a continual source of inspiration, making it an exceptionally thrilling place to be. I’m really looking forward to getting to know Berlin and the Berlin audience. Because in the end, you make concerts for the locals. The Konzerthausorchester is an orchestra for Berlin audiences. That’s why I think I’m in exactly the right place here.

SN: Berlin has four symphony orchestras and three opera orchestras – what does this prospect mean to you?

JM: Nowhere else in the world is there such a density of orchestras and venues. The desire to connect with music, to strive for innovation in relation to all the others and to inspire one another is ever-present. For me, that’s a great incentive.

SN: After conducting in two opera houses in Erfurt and Nuremberg, what made you decide to switch to a concert hall?

JM: After the last few years of intensive opera work, I am very excited to devote myself even more to the symphonic repertoire with the Konzerthausorchester. A concert week always has a unique energy, an exciting tension. You commit to one another in the rehearsals and then release the shared energy in the concert.

“I’m in exactly the right place here”

JM: And I’m particularly pleased to be able to work with the Konzerthausorchester. I very much appreciate its dark, warm, medium-pitched sound, shaped by an enduring tradition. The orchestra combines this with a very modern, agile, flexible and detailed musicality.

Joana Mallwitz im Gespräch mit Musikern des Konzerthausorchesters

Joana Mallwitz in conversation with musicians of the Konzerthausorchester

SN: In contrast to an opera orchestra, a symphony orchestra has lots of rehearsal time. How would you characterise your rehearsal style?

JM: I think rehearsal periods with me can be really exhausting to start out with. When I have a concept for a piece, I have to work out all the connections I see so that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together in the end. But if an orchestra is willing to go through this and also accept that rehearsals can be intense and demanding work, we can then let go and enjoy ourselves together in the concert. After devising a plan, you can release it from your mind and allow the music and the audience to shape your experience of the evening.

SN: How does it feel when the audience is finally in the hall?

JM: You feel a tingling sensation in your back, which is different every night. The presence of the audience produces an energy – an entire room full of human energy. In that moment I turn to the orchestra, focus for a moment and we breathe in together, I try to draw everyone in the auditorium in with us.

Sebastian Nordmann und Joana Mallwitz

SN: What do your scores look like? Are they full of markings? Or do your discussions take place more in your head?

I don’t make wild notes in an array of colours. I set things up very precisely. But the scores are heavily edited, sometimes over the course of years. At the bottom and on the sides, there is text everywhere, sometimes notes to myself. And not just anyone is allowed to look at my scores, because these notes are very personal. But regardless of whether I conduct on an evening with or without a score, what’s essential is that each piece must travel from the head to the heart and into the body. Only then can you step in front of the orchestra for the first time.

SN: Which works were particularly important for you to include in your inaugural season?

JM: I wanted to program the opening concert in a way that visually represented the start of our collective journey, as it held great significance to me. We literally go back to the beginning, with three first symphonies by Mahler, Weill and Prokofiev. These three works are threads that we want to pursue further. In spite of all the programming possibilities, an orchestra is defined by its core repertoire. It is very important to cultivate this, to work on it, to keep it alive. That’s why we will play many pieces by Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven and Bruckner.

Then we have Weill’s Symphony No. 1, which, surprisingly, is still relatively obscure, and a difficult at that, but I think a very honest piece. It represents the beginning of his compositional work, and since this work is one of the focal points of my inaugural season, his first symphony deserves its place alongside the famous firsts of his colleagues.

Prokofiev’s first symphony is inspirational and has the intimate quality of chamber music, both things I always look for when making music. It is a bow to the past, with great respect for the classical period, but at the same time, it is edgy and full of wit. In my view, this establishes a good connection and sets the stage for what the Konzerthausorchester and I can achieve and embody in the years ahead.

Otherwise, when I was programming my inaugural season, I found it important to find a good balance between styles and eras, and also between well-known and unknown works. I believe each performance should engage the audience, establish a fresh connection and unveil a new aspect. I’m always looking for a common thread, but in the end it’s not necessary to articulate it explicitly.

Joana Mallwitz im Gespräch mit dem Orchestervorstand

Joana Mallwitz in conversation with members of the orchestra's committees.

SN: Was there a particular work that sparked the desire in you to become a conductor?

JM: My initial spark was Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”. I still have the pocket score that my parents gave me for my birthday when I was a teenager. I thought that if I went through it and imagined exactly how the music would sound, I could start flying. That was the feeling. At that moment, it became clear to me that I had to commit my life to being closely connected to this music. The realisation brought immense joy, relieving me of any future doubts. Although I had already been playing the violin and piano, it was only then that I came to the realisation that conducting was the path I was meant to pursue. There is still no music that is closer to my heart than Schubert’s. The symphonies, the lieder, the piano music, everything.

“There is still no music that is closer to my heart than Schubert’s.”

SN: Historically, our concert hall had a special connection to Leonard Bernstein since the days of East Berlin and especially through his concert featuring “Ode to Freedom” after the fall of the Wall. I know that he is also a formative conductor for you. W

JM: There are two things about Leonard Bernstein that I admire very much. Firstly, his ability to create music in a completely intuitive manner, which also requires careful thought and planning for it to work. What Bernstein embodies flawlessly is the path “from the head to the heart and into the body” that I mentioned earlier. Another fantastic aspect is his incredible ability to speak about music with anyone on an equal level, emphasizing it is something that is accessible to everyone – in his Young People’s Concerts, in lectures or simply in his concerts.

SN: You give short introductions before subscription concerts. What would you answer if someone asked why you, a conductor, want to tell the audience something about the concert beforehand?

JM: When I share what is important to me about a piece with the audience, why I conduct something in a certain way or even that I may have doubts about a passage, it creates a different, special sense of closeness to the listeners that I very much aim for. My intention is for the audience to approach the concert with a fresh perspective that goes beyond simply reading the programme notes or receiving an informative introduction beforehand.

“It creates a sense of closeness to the listeners that I very much aim for.”

By expressing my personal and direct connection to a piece and how it affects me, my intention is to instil confidence in the audience, even when encountering an unfamiliar work, that it has the potential to resonate with them and evoke a similar emotional response.

Joana Mallwitz im Gespräch

Joana Mallwitz in conversation

SN: In addition to your classic format, the Expedition Concerts, you are introducing something entirely new with the Night Sessions. What makes the two formats different?

JM: What I enjoy most about my work is reading scores and discovering things in them. Suddenly a connection flashes up or I ask myself: “Good heavens, how is the composer able to trigger something like that in me with just this one chord?” I’d like to spread the excitement for the greatest works of classical music and share these discoveries with as many people as possible.

“Music is music, and it is an integral aspect of our humanity to listen and respond to it.”

The Expedition Concerts were born out of this desire. I am very excited about our first three sessions in Berlin with Stravinsky’s “Sacre”, Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony” and Beethoven’s “Eroica”. I don’t want to reveal too much about the Night Sessions yet. The underlying concept is to explore a diverse range of exceptional music together, and ultimately leave with the realisation that music is music, and it is an integral aspect of our humanity to listen and respond to it.

Photos: Sima Dehgani


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