The British conductor Jonathan Nott brings the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra to Edinburgh. He talks about working in Europe, and his other passion, his Lamborghini
The music programme of this year's Edinburgh festival will be concluded by a rare visit to these shores by the German-based British conductor Jonathan Nott and his Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. They will play two concerts with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard featuring music from Ravel, Messiaen, and Bartók. There is nothing unusual in British conductors taking on big orchestral jobs around the world – Simon Rattle in Berlin is just the highest-profile of many other examples – but there is a lingering sense that most of these musicians are somehow "playing away". In Nott's case, though, when he performs in the UK he is truly on unfamiliar ground.
After a choral scholarship at Cambridge and training at the Royal Northern College of Music, Nott launched his career in the mid 1980s by entering the kapellmeister apprentice system in Germany, where he assisted principal conductors, took rehearsals and only occasionally gave performances. Twenty-five years later he is still there, having been principal conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra before taking up his post at Bamberg in 2000.
"It's just something that happened," he says. "But there's no denying that being based in the centre of Europe does put you in close proximity to many fantastic orchestras and many possibilities of finding great players to work with. And I've also enjoyed having a more European perspective on art in general. They do think about it differently in Germany to England. They haven't forgotten the potency and importance of music."
The medieval Bavarian town of Bamberg, a Unesco world heritage site, has a population of 70,000, and "fully 10% of them are subscribers to our orchestra," Nott says. "That makes a difference as to how music is thought about. As a musician living in that environment, you know that the last thing music is, is elite. And while one never wants to be blasé about funding, the consequence is that when times are hard the arts are not the first thing to be cut. In fact, they're almost the last thing to be cut. It's a very inspiring place to make music and reminds me why I wanted to be a musician in the first place."
His time at Bamberg has seen a rise in both the profile and reputation of the orchestra. Nott founded the orchestra's Gustav Mahler international conducting competition – the inaugural winner was El Sistema sensation Gustavo Dudamel in 2004 – and last year their recording of Mahler's ninth symphony was voted best orchestral recording of the year at the prestigious Midem industry trade fair in Cannes. He says working with an orchestra for such a prolonged period has brought huge benefits, but also some temptations.
"Things do get easier to organise. And it becomes increasingly easy to regurgitate and to show off. You really have to guard against that. But with care, dedication and empathy it is possible to create a musical organism that is both highly disciplined and creatively unfettered. This only comes through years of working together. You begin to work on an almost subconscious level. When you don't have to use the language of this world, it allows the possibility of saying things from another world. The length and nature of this relationship has allowed me to experiment with what it is possible to say in music. The ability it has to uplift and transcend is devastatingly powerful."
As the son of a clergyman Nott first made music as a boy treble in Worcester cathedral. "I felt from the very start I had something to give musically, and ultimately for me is it has been a spiritual and religious process. Once you have experienced that sort of music-making it never goes away. Not that you never change the direction of your music-making." As a student he was a singer – "or at least I tried to be a singer – and although he soon transferred to conducting, "there is always a certain element of what does it mean to pull a line out, what are the subtleties of making one note go into the next. The building of a melodic line, something immensely strong but constantly supple, should create the sense of the movement of an enormous mass with an apparently fluid weightlessness. It can only be realised when an orchestra has a genuine and deep-seated combination of strength and flexibility."
It is these characteristics that Nott hopes to bring to the music in Edinburgh. "There is the violence and the beauty that make up the sound world of Bartók. The sensuousness of the Ravel in which you are always striving to attain a concrete goal, but it always slips through your hands. It's a bit like the musical experience itself. In a good concert you are not really controlling, you are just allowing, and at the end there is nothing left to hold on to. With Messiaen you have this wonderful palette of colour and expression."
Nott currently lives in Lucerne with his wife and three children and has just extended his Bamberg contract until 2016. "That will make it a 15-year span and after that it looks as though I will move back to England, which will be interesting in all sorts of ways, having spent so long away." Not least, he says, he will miss the German autobahn system's lack of speeding regulations, as away from the podium his hobby is his beloved Lamborghini.
"You have to have an escape. It is too easy to get sucked in to the power of music, which can become exhausting. I always said as a 12-year-old that I would get a Lamborghini and eventually I did. I took it to our end-of-season party in Bamberg a couple of weeks ago and said anyone who wanted the keys could have a drive. I didn't see it for three hours, but it came back without a scratch. And of course driving a car like that is not completely unlike conducting a symphony. It is a case of steering and allowing rather than imposing and defining. You pick the correct lines and choose how fast you take the curves, using the least input to get the best possible results. Whether a symphony orchestra or a Lamborghini, the thinking processes are not really so far apart."
The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra with Pierre-Laurent Aimard appear at the Edinburgh festival on 2 and 3 September.
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