We Need to Talk:
Eliahu Inbal and Balázs Nemes in Conversation

Maestro Eliahu Inbal, former principal conductor of The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Balázs Nemes, current principal trumpet player of The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, met for a talk, right after rehearsing Bruckner together. 

Eliahu Inbal: I wanted to ask you, you are a fantastic trumpet player, why do you want to conduct?

Balázs Nemes: Why do I want to conduct? Well, because I have a vision about music-making which I want to bring to reality. Conducting was always a very strong wish, one which for a long time I didn’t dare to accept. I said to myself it’s not important, I’m anyway not good enough to conduct, and I went on with my life. But the wish stayed until one day an opportunity came along, and I decided to give it a try. I quickly realized I can’t conduct – I have to learn first.

EI: Yes, of course. There are two kinds of conducting schools: the German school comes from the piano, where one begins as a choir répétiteur, working with singers, conducting choirs and little by little conducting some operas. That is how it works for many conductors in Germany, such as Karajan himself, such as Furtwängler. The other kind of conducting school originates in Italy. A student of this school starts by playing an instrument in the orchestra: Toscanini played cello, Carlo Maria Giulini played viola, I was a violinist. In both cases a conductor must first study music and play an instrument.

BN: So you consider yourself as coming from the Italian conducting school?

EI: Yes. That is why I am more melodic in my approach. It is because of the violin that I look for the melody, the phrasing, the colors. On top of that, I come from a family of middle eastern origins and it was also the Arabic music, with its twelve scales and quarter tones, which influenced my sensibility for colors and intonation. This had influence on my approach towards Western music as well. I believe oriental music, such as Japanese or Indian, is very enriching and maximizes the sensibility to intonation and to the flexibility of the melody. In any case, it helped me a lot that I was a violinist in orchestras: symphony orchestra, opera orchestra, chamber orchestra. I worked with conductors and knew if they were doing right or wrong. I then went to study – I studied with Celibidache, with Franco Ferrara, with Louis Fourestier in Paris. It is good to study, but at the end of the day it is my own body-language, my own sensibility. Studying gives you discipline – how to analyze the score, how to balance the orchestra – this is good and necessary. But between us, don’t you think that in order to be a conductor, you have to be born a conductor?

BN: I think a good conductor contains many different qualities. Sure, some qualities are directly related with music, but other qualities are, for example, the ability to work with people – what is your effect on the musicians, how can you lead people in a certain direction, how do you converse with people through music and through your body-language.

EI: Very interesting point. In great simplification, there are two kinds of conductors: there are the dictators, and there are those who approach the musicians as their colleagues. If we take the conductors of the past, almost all of them were absolute dictators. Bruno Walter was an exception. He was very correct and polite, he could insist on what he wanted without making any compromises and achieve his goals in a gentle manner. But most others, such as Fritz Reiner and Stokowski, were truly dictators, Furtwängler too.

BN: How about you? Do you think about these things?

EI: When I go to a rehearsal my wife looks at me and says: “be gentle!”, because she knows me. I think when I was young I was more of a dictator, but over time and with age, I gained experience. I now understand people better and can foresee their reactions – I no longer need to be so harsh to get what I want. It is definitely also a question of age and experience. I am very happy when I don’t have to be a dictator. Sometimes, when I go to an orchestra which is not at the level of, for example, your orchestra, The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (which is really a fantastic orchestra), I lose patience and begin to be a little rough. But then I catch myself and I think to myself: what are you doing? You are not going to get better results this way, on the contrary, they will be afraid and crisped, they will play even less good! So it is better to reflect confidence, relax, maybe give some compliments. I forget to give compliments. There is the English way – they give all the time compliments and then, after the rehearsal, they go and they tell someone else: what a bad orchestra…! I don’t like that. I want to say truly and honestly what I feel. That’s all. But I forget to give compliments – that is something which I could improve. I am a young conductor, I’m only 80 – I still have time to improve and one day learn how to give compliments! But it must come from the heart.

BN: So you are saying you are a young conductor. How about those “babies” who are conducting nowadays?

EI: Yes! This is fantastic because they have to create from beginning, they have to find by themselves how to do this, which brings me back to the question of whether or not one has to be born a conductor. What is the special talent of a conductor? It is the talent to communicate. One can be the greatest musician in the world… you know, when I played violin in the opera in Tel Aviv, there was one conductor who was a fantastic musician: he knew the score, he had a fantastic ear, he could hear the smallest details, but he was a bad conductor and nobody respected him. This shows you it isn’t enough to know music, there is something else – the ability to communicate with people. Maybe Karajan was right when he said that the most important thing for a conductor is to feel intensely the music. If you feel the music intensely and you have the talent to communicate it, the musicians feel it – you don’t have to talk about it. The musicians feel that you feel the music very intensely, they believe you and follow. That is what makes a conductor! If a conductor has to talk and talk and talk, to say “do this, do that”, something is wrong.

BN: What I feel when you conduct, for example this week, when you came to conduct Bruckner, is that the structure, the relations between different parts of the piece, are strongly implanted in your body-language, which makes the music very clear.

EI: Yes, I think this talent develops over time as well. You have to do less to get the same result. You have to talk less, you have to do less movements. You have to feel strongly and let the result come naturally. The best example for this is Karajan: he did not do much with his hands, he just wanted. He had the wish for a certain result – and it came.

BN: So is Karajan one of your favorites?

EI: Yes well, we have to differentiate between interpretation and conducting. Talking about interpretation you can say – well, Karajan, the way he does Stravinsky, that’s not exactly what I want (I’m not talking about myself, but generally speaking). But talking about conducting, the way he conducted and achieved his results, he was absolutely the master in the 20th century. For me he is greater than Furtwängler, because Furtwängler, in order to express the emotions in a piece, had to be aggressive towards the music. He had to do too much accelarando, too much ritardando, to change the tempi, to do instead of Andante, Adagissimo. He changed the music to force a certain result. Karajan could achieve his results without forcing the music, he was very faithful to the score. Toscanini was similar, though in his case it is hard to say – unfortunately we don’t have enough quality recordings, not enough videos. But people who worked with him or attended his concerts say he did not do much with his hands, he just had his way.

BN: Colleagues who played in our orchestra at the time when you were chief conductor here, tell us about many rehearsals and long preparations. These days, we have one, two, maybe three rehearsals, even less. What do you think about this?

EI: Well, when I came to this orchestra, it was not yet at the level in which it is today. I had to work very hard to improve it.

BN: Meaning you built the orchestra, so to say?

EI: Yes, yes! We worked so much, that by the time we were recording a Mahler cycle, for instance, I did not have to do many rehearsals. I needed only one additional rehearsal. The first rehearsal was for everybody together so that everyone knew what they have to achieve in terms of tempo, phrasing and so on. The second rehearsal was in groups: I worked with the wind instruments, first violins went with the concertmeister to a different room, second violins to another room, and we all practiced to achieve the goals we had defined in the first rehearsal. The third rehearsal was again all together, but now much more detailed and precise. I had to give the musicians the ambition for depth – to go deep into the music – not just to play the notes, but to look for the meaning of each and every note and to find technical solutions to realize these meanings. If you take Mahler, for example, if you don’t do every accent, every sforzato, every diminuendo, every tempo transition, the music becomes a compromise. You have to be able to hear everything that is written in the score and the musicians have to this by themselves. They must know that they have to do it. This orchestra [The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra] became the best Mahler orchestra in the world. This is not me saying – in Madrid there was a Mahler festival where they invited all the great orchestras in the world: Chicago, London Symphony, Concertgebouw, and we were the only orchestra who gave two concerts; two Mahler symphonies. Until now, the directors of this festival tell me that Frankfurt is the best Mahler orchestra in the world.

BN: There is an interesting phenomenon: we [The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra] go to Japan quite often (when you were our chief conductor even more than today), and we play there a lot of Mahler. The Japanese audience is especially interested in Mahler. How do you explain this?

EI: Yes, because Mahler is the best contemporary composer. You know, there are many contemporary composers who write interesting things, but the public sometimes doesn’t feel what they wanted to say. They think it is a little strange, maybe a little academic – depends on the composer, of course. But Mahler expresses in his music all what people of today, young people of today – in China, in Japan, in Korea, everywhere – what they feel. We are in a difficult moment in history: there are many things happening, there are extremities – there is right and left – people are a little un-easy, what will life bring? People need a direction, and the music of Mahler expresses all of that. Mahler himself had all these fears and hopes. He dealt with irony, with fate; he was looking for transfigurations after death. The last three symphonies – the 9th, the 10th and Lied von der Erde, are about after-life. Young listeners and even those who have little experience with classical music feel that, which is why Mahler is so loved. In Japan Mahler is the most popular composer. I conducted three full Mahler cycles with Japanese orchestras.

BN: You seem to be interested in Cycles.

EI: Very much. Because a cycle means that we are in the same hall, same acoustics, same orchestra: we always go on working and the style becomes deeper and clearer. If I go as a guest conductor and do one symphony with an orchestra, we might work during one week, we might do whatever we can and have a good concert. But with a cycle an orchestra develops and the public goes along.

BN: Do you work in a certain order when conducting a Mahler cycle, for example?

EI: It’s not entirely necessary, but I think it is good to go more or less in the order of the symphonies. Especially in Mahler’ case, because his cycle is like a novel with many chapters, it is autobiographic: first symphony, second symphony – they tell us the story of his life, what he thought, what he felt; while in the last symphonies, it is clear that he knew he is going to die. There is a story with Bruno Walter who visited Mahler during one summer while he was composing the 3rd symphony in his hut. The two spoke about Mahler’s experiences from that morning and Mahler said I went out in the nature and felt this and that – but then he stopped and said I don’t have to tell you, just listen! – And he sat to the piano and played the 1st movement of the 3rd symphony: that is what he felt, that was his life at that moment.

BM: Are you also close to nature?

EI: You know, nature is even more intense in the music of Bruckner and Mahler, than when you go out yourself. Because they took its essence and amplified it through their music. When I am out in the nature I feel wonderful, of course. But look – this week, for example, what did I do? I was at the hotel, I came here to rehears, I went to the central station to buy something – where is nature? When I have the possibility, nature is for me heaven, but within music I have it already.

BN: Is it so, that your whole life you went from one concert to another? Is this the life of a conductor?

EI: More or less, but I also have breaks and many other interests. One has to re-collect, it is necessary. When I re-collec,t nature is the best place to go to.

BN: Earlier, you mentioned, that people are concerned about events which are happening now in the world. How do you see these events, for example in Europe?

EI: This a reaction to the too-long existence of liberal democracy, while the media did not notice that not all of the population agrees to that. The media failed to notice that there are other tendencies. The big mistake of Merkel, of Clinton, was that they did not care about those people who think differently. In Germany there was Pegida: the entire media, all papers, attacked them instead of asking themselves – why did they appear? What are they afraid of? and then what happened? we now have AFD and they will be even stronger. The same thing was in France. When we take for granted that liberal democracy is the only way – when we become arrogant about it, and forget to look around – maybe there are other people who think differently, that is when extremists takeover. Nobody expected that Donald Trump will win the elections, nobody! I think even he didn’t believe he will – but he won! Why? Because nobody took care of those people who thought differently. Real democracy is talking to one another and finding compromises.

BN: What is you opinion about the situation in Israel?

EI: I have no solution. I want peace. If the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right of existence, and if they don’t hold the idea that they have to eliminate it, then could we have peace. At the moment I see only one side against the other. For peace I have no solution. It is a very dangerous situation. I want peace, for me it is clear, but you know – Netanyahu is a little different. He is not looking for peace, he is looking for confrontation. On the other side it’s the same.

BN: Do you think that music has the power to change something in politics?

EI: I am not so naive to think that music can change anything. The greatest criminals – the Nazis, even Stalin, even the wife of Mao Zedong – they killed so many millions of people, but they were very music-enthusiastic people. They adored Bruckner and Beethoven! But that didn’t change anything. Unfortunately.