Pioneering Swiss director Baldur Brönnimann turns his hand to opera.
As artistic director of Norway’s Bit20, and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, Baldur Brönnimann is quickly developing a reputation for mastering complex contemporary works – from his audacious interpretations of Ligeti, to staging the music of up-and-coming Latin American composers. But the Swiss conductor’s interest in opera is a relatively recent one.
‘I didn’t do opera for a long time because I didn’t think it was a very interesting medium,’ he says. ‘There was a whole framework of opera that, to me, just sounded like prawn sandwiches and champagne. It’s not really about the music.’
‘Bit by bit I felt it was something that was really creative’
Gradually, however, Brönnimann began to change his mind. After getting to grips with works by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, the conductor says he started to see what was really possible with the art form. ‘The composers and I were always having really interesting conversations about the medium and what it should do,’ he says.‘I started to read what other directors have had to say about it all, and bit by bit I felt it was something that was really creative. There is a wide field to create something meaningful.’
From the outset it seems that Brönnimann is a conductor who happily shuns convention. He appears to have an aversion to anything too firmly rooted in the past, showing little interest in the classic operas which most conductors lead at some point in their careers. What’s key for Brönnimann is that art should have a strong backbone of significance, an importance behind it.
In recent years this conviction has drawn him to several thought-provoking modern works. In 2008 he conducted English National Opera’s production of Neuwirth’s Lost Highway, based on the David Lynch film, returning the following year to lead La Fura dels Baus’ reimagining of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Last year he conducted Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at the Bergen Festival, following his 2008 debut there leading Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin.
‘It touches a nerve and I think that’s exactly what art should do’
And now the maestro is busy preparing for the UK premiere of John Adams’ hotly anticipated The Death of Klinghoffer, which he will conduct at ENO this month. It’s an ambitious work: a controversial documentary opera about the killing of a Jewish-American tourist during the hijacking of a Mediterranean cruise liner by Palestinian militants in 1985. Alice Goodman’s libretto bleeds references from the Bible and the Koran with real and imagined accounts of what happened on board; the production promises to be unique and provocative.
‘Projects like Klinghoffer are great because they go to a place where opera doesn’t always go,’ says Brönnimann.‘It touches a nerve and I think that’s exactly what art should do. It’s a bit like regaining lost ground for opera. These kind of projects are really interesting for me because they change perceptions.’
Brönnimann shows a perceptive understanding of today’s art consumers and how to genuinely engage with them, without resorting to gimmicks or stunts. ‘You know the great thing about opera is just the pure length of it,’ he says. ‘Our attention span is so much geared towards news headlines and reading something quickly on the Internet. You sit in an opera house for three hours and don’t do anything else but listen. I think that’s great.’
‘You have such a quickly digested life; certain aspects of it, like the way we consume information, are just so simple. [With] a piece like Klinghoffer, which has a really difficult subject, people don’t do anything else but sit there and listen – this in itself is really interesting.’
Brönnimann’s imaginative approach means that he doesn’t necessarily have to confine himself to conducting new or controversial works by progressive writers.‘I’ve done classical repertoire, and I still do,’ he says. ‘But I try not to take anything for granted in that sense. When you do contemporary music you have to create things from scratch. Everything is new, nobody knows how it’s going to turn out, and I try to preserve that curiosity a little bit for the classical repertoire, and not shy away from extreme artistic solutions.’
‘I try to work in places that really allow for that in a certain way. I don’t really go to places where I feel the people aren’t curious enough to push the boat out.’ The conductor grew up in a small village in Switzerland, where he first learned to play music with the local village band, and then later trained at Basel Music Academy. It’s an upbringing that allowed Brönnimann to nurture a sincere love of music, and desire to spread music, without a convoluted notion of outreach being an obligation.
‘For me, classical music was always something that wasn’t elitist, it was just something that was there, for everybody. So later on when I started my career, I was really interested in that grass roots factor. When I was teaching at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, we did lots of outreach work in some really deprived areas of the city.’
Brönnimann’s eagerness to reach audiences with thoughtful and compelling art extends to his work with Bergen’s Bit20, where he has been artistic director since January last year. Established in 1989, and known for its mixed media and genre-blurring productions, Bit20 is a contemporary ensemble that has carved out a comfortable position for itself in Norway’s music scene, which Brönnimann is keen to push forward into a new era.
‘The reason I started working there is because they’re really hungry, they’re up for doing new things with excellent musicians,’ he says. ‘They just needed some ideas to move on and get that enthusiasm back.’
‘We’re planning to record all the Ligeti concertos for BIS,we’re going to a few festivals, like Borealis. We’ll also collaborate with local institutions, including a music academy and a contemporary dance group. It is a really exciting job because it allows me to push the boat out even further and I hope over the years that we do things that are quite outrageous.’
In terms of the ensemble’s repertoire itself, Brönnimann feels a need to expand. ‘We need to update and bring a lot of music, that they haven’t played, to Norway,’ he says. ‘We have to reinvent the way of doing music, and also the kind of music they do.’ ‘Now we’re in the process of looking for new venues to play, going to a type of public who maybe wouldn’t come to the ensemble. Because for the established classical music audience, Bit20 is too avant-garde; and for the young avant-garde people, the ensemble is already too old.’
Brönnimann’s enduring interest in new music and ensuring it has relevance to contemporary society reveals him to be a reflective and curious conductor. ‘When I was young I thought it would be stupid not to do the music of my own time,’ he says. ‘Just as well as us doing the whole repertoire of the past, it would be strange not to look at what is written nowadays.’
‘That’s also probably part of making all music really mean something further than just taking the dust off the same old pictures every time – but actually fundamentally meaning something.’
There is a certain rebellious streak to Brönnimann, a willingness to approach things differently and just see what happens. ‘Some people think that you should look at historical music first, then come to see later music through that. For me it’s the opposite way: I love to see contemporary music and then come with these ideas to do something like Brahms.’
‘All music was contemporary at some stage, with a fresh impact, breaking new ground. I’m curious to recapture that feeling a little, that things are new and not so much based on conventions that have been around for years.’
This, then, is the ideal outlook to take to Colombia, a country that has a colourful musical heritage of its own, but a budding interest in Western classical music. As music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, Brönnimann uses his inventive approach to mirror the country’s unfolding discovery of the classics, without imposing staid musical customs and attitudes which hold very little relevance to modern Colombian society.
‘Colombia is a big country with lots of music, but they don’t necessarily see classical music as part of their heritage,’ he says. ‘It’s really down to us to reach out to people who have never heard classical music. For me, that’s really exciting; [we’re] building new audiences and bringing people to what we do.’
The orchestra mixes standard classical repertoire with the work of young Colombian composers. ‘It’s going really well, it’s so much work,’ he says. ‘It’s interesting because there’s so much enthusiasm there from the orchestra and everyone involved, to build something – I just love to work like that.’
Does he find leading a Colombian orchestra very different to directing a Norwegian ensemble? ‘I think it’s more to do with the places and where they are,’ Brönnimann explains. ‘You couldn’t get more opposite places than Norway and Colombia, which I think is great. In Colombia they have a completely different history and reality; I think it’s a great opportunity because one has to relate to the environment in which one operates.’
‘In Norway everyone feels that classical music is their culture but it’s really about opening minds to new ways of hearing and interacting with music. In Colombia very often it’s about creating audiences and creating awareness, so I’m really interested in all the aspects around classical performance,how to make it relevant, how to use new media, how to create new projects.’
Brönnimann concludes that while the countries are very different, the jobs demand similar things from him. ‘It is not just that you’re administrating something that’s already established. It’s about creating something rather than just going along with something that’s already there.’
‘For me classical music was always something that wasn’t elitist. It was just something that was there, for everybody’
Indeed Brönnimann is aware that Colombia is not a wealthy country, meaning social and educational outreach is perhaps even more crucial. ‘There are high levels of poverty,’ he says. ‘If you play in Bogotá, at one of the big series, people can pay USD100 (€76.34) for a ticket, but a few blocks away, a family could live for a month on USD100.’
‘You can’t have an orchestra on 80 per cent state funding and just play to five per cent of the population,’ Brönnimann adds, saying that he has worked with the ministry of culture to devise programmes which get classical music out to everyone in Colombia.
From controversial opera in London to contemporary sounds in Bergen and South American beats in Bogotá – what does Brönnimann feel is the most demanding part of his career? He laughs at the question and promptly spins it around with a positive slant: ‘I wouldn’t say the most difficult part, but for me the most challenging part is to never get stuck with what you do, but to constantly question yourself.’
‘I’m not very good at standing still, as my orchestras and groups will tell you. There is so much to do and there is so much we don’t do yet with classical music. There are so many aspects of reaching out to people and seeing what other art forms have done like contemporary art. I recently went to Tate Modern and you see the type of interaction they do, the way they present the art, the whole framework for it.’
‘Sometimes I just think there isn’t enough time to explore everything. You have just one life,’ he laughs, ‘hopefully there is still a bit left in mine.’