Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Franz Schottky: Classical music should be for everyone | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Franz Schottky (center back) at work with young musicians. (Dieter Müller/Courtesy of Franz Schottky)

Franz Schottky (center back) at work with young musicians. (Dieter Müller/Courtesy of Franz Schottky)

Franz Schottky (center back) at work with young musicians. (Dieter Müller/Courtesy of Franz Schottky)

London and Munich, Asharq Al-Awsat—Classical composers have long been familiar with the Arab and Islamic worlds. From Beethoven’s Turkish March to the Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on One Thousand and One Nights, the Middle East clearly fascinated Europe’s greatest composers.

The Arab world itself, however, has only recently begun to develop its own classical music scene. With the growing popularity of the genre across the region has come an interest in attracting new audiences and training Arab youth to play in orchestras. That is no easy task anywhere in the world today, but has proven especially difficult in the Arab world due to a lack of local knowledge, interested and funding.

German classical conductor Franz Schottky understands that there is a limited audience for classical music. “Over the past years, I have noticed a strong lack of knowledge about classical music in Germany,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat in a recent interview—but he is working to correct that lack of knowledge in a number of creative ways. He always explains the background of a piece before his orchestra plays it for the audience, he told us, before explaining how his orchestra organizes special concerts for babies and children aimed at developing a lifelong love of classical music.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Mr. Schottky, who founded the Kammerphilharmonie dacapo München and who has conducted leading orchestras across Europe and around the world, about his creative methods for attracting young audiences and young musicians to classical music and how his methods might be applied in the Arab world.

Q: Have you ever conducted in the Middle East or worked with musicians from the region?

Mr. Franz Schottky: No, I have not yet had the possibility, but it I think it would be interesting. I think [conducting] in the Arab world would be a good opportunity to work with young musicians, because they are not yet so fixed in their opinions about how a certain piece of music is to be played. You know, in the Western classical world it’s all already recorded 10 or 20 times and everybody has an exact idea of how fast a piece must be and how loud. It’s all very strict, and maybe sometimes follows tradition too much. I think music is not only about tradition: It’s about spontaneous reaction and about living now and about feeling the music. It’s possible for people who do not have a pre-conceived idea of the context of this music to be very open and to follow their own feelings and thoughts.

Q: Do you think audiences need an understanding of Europe throughout history in order to really understand what’s happening in classical music?

Well, I don’t think so, not really. I think it can help if you know a bit about the cultural background of the composers, how they lived, and what was written in literature at the time or what appeared in paintings. But I think music is a special case among the arts. You cannot think and hear and make music at the same time. If you are experiencing music, you cannot really think about anything else. If you are reading literature—if you are reading an interesting book—then you need a lot of cultural background, because the writer might speak about certain buildings or a certain way of doing something, and you have to know exactly what that is. But in music, the notes are not based on anything; there is a direct reaction between the sound and the human mind. It can help if you know something about the background [of the piece], but that is not necessary. You can still feel the music.

Franz Schottky. (Dr. Robert Freiberg/Courtesy of Franz Schottky)

Franz Schottky. (Dr. Robert Freiberg/Courtesy of Franz Schottky)

I understood that until recently, there hasn’t been much interest in classical music in the Middle East. But I also think that there has been a lot of contact with Western people over the past few years, so the Arab people are also gaining more experience of classical music through that contact.

One observation is that until recently, it has been a bit of a special thing for the upper class. I think it has been reserved more for the really rich and intellectual people; they’re the ones who come to the concerts. And the same is true in Christian [i.e. Western] countries; it’s more of a luxury thing. I think this is maybe a good way to approach it, because music is something like luxury, we can say. In the Arab world there is a taste for sophisticated, fine things, and a very good instinct for detecting high quality. This paves the way for classical music. But I think it [classical music] should be open to others, people who are maybe not from the highest classes, because, in my opinion, classical music can help people to feel better and to relax, to step away from thinking too much.

Many of my musical friends would also say that we do not only make music for others. We, as musicians, make music for ourselves, because we need it. Maybe people who are not musicians don’t really need music every day, but there is something in human beings—and it’s not important whether they are Arab, Western or Asian—that responds deeply to music.

Q: You organize concerts specifically for young people with your orchestra. Do you see that as a way to potentially attract new musicians into the genre?

Yes, that is very important. In the West, it’s not so easy to attract new talent anymore. I think it’s important to open up, especially through new media. I also have friends in the Arab world who already thought about making films about classical music and showing that the musicians are normal people: maybe they play table tennis in their breaks, and go for a drink in the evening. [Through those films,] you can see how they live together and how they play the piece. Then, via YouTube and Facebook, you can ask questions about the piece and you can get the people to interact. There are a lot of possibilities there.

Q: Another of the goals of your chamber orchestra in Munich is to encourage young people to enter classical music or consider classical music as a profession. I think you know about the Royal Omani Symphony Orchestra. In the 1980s, they recruited young men from diverse backgrounds and took them to a boarding school. In two years, they taught them everything they needed to know about classical music and playing the instruments in order to be a professional symphony orchestra. I wanted to ask you if you had any insight as to what that process would have involved? How intense it would be? Could it be repeated?

I think the general idea is quite interesting. If I understand right, the Sultan of Oman didn’t want to send them to Europe or somewhere else, he wanted them to stay in their cultural background and at the same time learn classical music. If you have to learn everything in two years—of course that is a bit difficult. What I think would be best is a combination of teaching young Arab players in their own countries, maybe with the help of Western musicians, but at the same time also try to bring them to work with Western orchestras for a certain amount of time.

I can easily imagine hosting a musician for one week or two weeks in my orchestra. For example, if we play a new program we need normally five rehearsals, and then we have two or three concerts. There is potential to bring people from the Arab world to play in my orchestra or in a Western orchestra for a short period. And do the same in reverse—for example bring the leaders of a German orchestra like mine to Oman, for example, and to let them play with the Arab players.