Ask anyone in classical music and they'll agree - it needs younger audiences.
American David Zinman - one of the best conductors in the world - is no exception. The 75-year- old, who makes his New Zealand debut with our symphony orchestra tomorrow, has long been a champion of appealing to young people.
But the big difference with Zinman - a five times Grammy Award winner - is that he's thought outside the square. With Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra, which he's had a long association with, Zinman has staged classical concerts that start at 10pm. They're followed by a dance party until 4am. The "Tonhalle Late" series has been such a hit, Zinman's encouraging others to take up the concept, including New Zealand. "You can do it," he says.
"It came about because my youngest son - when he was about 16 - was asked 'why don't you go to concerts?' I said 'your mother and your father are both musicians. You've been to concerts all your life. You were a boy soprano, you sang in Mahler's Eighth Symphony, you've been in The Magic Flute. You like classical music, but why don't you go to concerts?'
"He said 'but none of my friends go to concerts'.
"I said 'why don't they go to concerts?'
"He thought about it and said 'they don't want to be seen with their parents'."
"A little light bulb went off in my head," says Zinman. "Let's have late concerts where parents aren't allowed. It would be in the lifestyle of age 18 to 25 or 30. What do they like to do on a Friday night? Maybe they want to go to movie or a dinner and then go to a concert. They'd be there with their friends and it would be a social evening.
"It is very, very popular. We always have full houses and we just play anything. I talk to them a little bit at the concert, but not a lot. We just dress normally because they wanted "their own" concert and that's it."
Zinman began his career as a concert violinist - he still plays - but one of the reasons he is determined to encourage young people is his long conducting career. He was in his 20s when he landed a job assisting conducting great Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1961. In 1964 he was one of the youngest conductors of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra.
Zinman's also surrounded by under 30s as they can comprise a proportion of the orchestras he conducts. In many cases he's the oldest one on stage, he says.
"That's what keeps me going in a way - working with young people and working with new ideas."
One of the things that's changed for the better during his 50 year career is the quality of musicianship among young people, he says.
"They are much better qualified and much more into it than when I started out. Their techniques are so much better."
Zinman also likes that a wider range of people are involved in classical music. He can still remember when women conductors were unheard of and orchestras were solely male. "The New York Philharmonic didn't have any women when I first heard them play."
But Zinman says some things in classical music haven't improved. "When I first started there were a great many conductors who I really admired and could learn from. But the quality of music-making isn't the same. It's - how should I say - 'mechanical'.
"In those days the mechanics weren't so good but the music-making was good. Now the mechanics are fantastic, but music-making is more evened out. There's less difference between what goes on in Australia, the United States or Berlin. It isn't as differentiated as it used to be and orchestras throughout the world are more international."
But Zinman isn't one to grumble. "It's a different world, but I'm not saying it's a worse world."
The conductor's own achievements are impressive. He appreciates the Grammys (he points out that they also went to the orchestras he conducted). There are also the numerous awards, including his peers bestowing the prestigious Theodore Thomas Award, presented by the Conductors Guild.
But it's also his wide body of work. He's guest conducted many of the world's leading orchestras, has regular stints with several including the Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony and accompanied big name soloists including Yo Yo Ma. He was music director for the Aspen Music Festival for nearly 25 years until 2009 and conducts at several prestigious festivals. He teaches would-be maestros at the American Academy of Conducting.
Most of all, it's what he will do tomorrow with the NZSO, conducting Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony, which calls for multiple extra instruments and even a wind machine. "Strauss is such a good composer that the piece comes out no matter what," he jokes.
Retirement? "I'm considering retiring all the time. Every day I wake up and say 'why don't I retire. Why can't I find a doctor who tells me I'm not fit to conduct?' "
Instead, he continues because there are still challenges and discoveries.
David Zinman conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, tomorrow, 6.30pm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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