“The musicians need to be living inside the music, not simply illustrating it.” Andris Nelsons Answers Questions about the Festival Theme of “Psyche”

«Alle Musik, die ich aufführe, pumpt mich mit Adrenalin voll.» / “All music that I am performing fills me with adrenaline.”(Photo: Priska Ketterer/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

“All music that I am performing fills me with adrenaline.” (Photo: Priska Ketterer/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

A conductor “must be a very great psychologist. You can say ‘please a little faster’ 100 different ways,” Andris Nelsons once remarked, explaining one of the challenges of his profession. He is therefore especially likely to be an expert in what pertains to this year’s LUCERNE FESTIVAL theme – “Psyche.”

What is your earliest musical memory?
My strongest early musical memory is attending Wagner’s Opera Tannhäuser at the age of five with my parents. However, my very first musical experiences are of early music: my mother founded the first early music ensemble in Latvia.

What formative musical experience confirmed your desire to become a musician?
Watching Tannhäuser at the age of five was such a formative experience for me. The performance had a hypnotic effect on me and left such a strong impression. I simply wanted to be involved in music the way a conductor is! I was completely overwhelmed by the music.

What work or works do you find to be extremely sad?
The first thing that comes to mind would be the operas of Puccini!

And what strikes you as the epitome of joy and high spirits?
All music is extremely provocative in this way, in many different ways and senses. Music certainly creates a heightened emotional state.

Is there music that moves you so strongly in emotional terms that you actually shudder before a performance?
All music that I am performing fills me with adrenaline and I am always looking forward to a concert, whatever the repertoire. For me it is rather the opposite: the thought of performance, whatever the great work is, is magical.

Is identifying with a work psychologically a process that is indispensable for a convincing performance to succeed?
For me, every performance and every work needs to have each musician absolutely involved psychologically. This is very much crucial in my opinion. The musicians need to be living inside the music, not simply illustrating it. We should think of theatre, like an actor in a play. This is a very personal opinion of mine. I am sure it is different for each conductor but this is truly vital to me.

Is there music that affects you the way medicine works on the body or mind?
I would say that in a certain sense all music works as a medicine! Of course, different people need different medicine and it is the same for music, in terms of composers, genres of music. My strong opinion is that music is both the food and also the medicine for our souls.

And vice versa: is there music that can make you sick?
Well, music has a great strength, there is no question about this. But strong music can be overpowering – sometimes you do not know what to do with yourself! Music can make you feel emotionally unbalanced. Richard Strauss’s Elektra would be a great example of this. Sick is perhaps not the correct word, but this music is very overwhelming, yet in a way that is remarkable! A music that makes me sick, in the sense of unwell, I would say would be techno music. Hearing this for the first time as a teenager was a memorable experience; it is something that I just do not understand! I could say this music makes me sick.

And to put it yet another way: would you “diagnose” neurotic or even psychotic traits in certain compositions?
Oh yes, certainly. My main example I suppose would be the music of Wagner in the way his music is narcotic to me. I have a real dependence on this music, it has a hypnotic quality over me.

What famous work from music history leaves you completely cold?
There are works that leave me completely paralyzed by their profound expression. The ending of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony for example, when at the end there is nothing left. I would say that from all the great composers there is always an emotional feeling, everything brings about a reaction, you are always moved in one direction or another.

Are you haunted – perhaps even plagued – by musical impressions (the so-called “ear worm effect”)?
Yes, I believe most people are. This is one of the mythical aspects of music, quite an unexplained thing as we do not have choice over the “ear worm effect”!

Do you believe people become “better” through music: more intelligent, more communicative, more sensitive?
Certainly, as I strongly believe music is both a food and a medicine for our souls I think it is absolutely necessary for every human being to experience a concert or opera performance. Through music I believe we become more sensitive, thoughtful and open emotionally. Through music we are able to analyze ourselves in more depth, experiencing great music in performance and expanding our minds!

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