We interview William Kunhardt – Musical Director of the Arensky Chamber Orchestra


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William will be conducting the Arensky Chamber Orchestra on Saturday 28th November at The Hospital Club, Covent Garden.

How did you first start in music? What was your inspiration?

That was so long ago, I’m not really sure! But my parents tell me that as a small child I used threw a temper tantrum every time a went past my local music shop…that was until they went in and bought me a tiny violin! I was apparently 3/4 at the time.

I definitely remember the experience that made me start taking music very seriously. I was about 15 and my school in Eastbourne had been endowed with some money to get great performers down from London to give concerts. It’s not a big town NS I didn’t experience much world class music growing up so these concerts really changed my life. In particular the lady who came to play the violin finished her concert with an entire Bach solo sonata.  I think it was the first time I had heard solo Bach, but more to the point it was the first time I truly understood how huge the possibilities were to move to people through music. Also it opened my eyes to how much unbelievable music there is out there, if you can play it! I started practicing a lot more after that…

When conducting live what things do you think about?

That really depends on the context! If I’m performing, I just try to be 100% present with the music and not think about anything else. At that point it’s just a case of letting the orchestra play, not getting in the way and just guiding or inspiring them as best you can. But in rehearsal it’s tough, you have to have a multiple personality disorder! Part of your mind has to be thinking about what you want it to sound ike, another part is working out how to show that and a third part is hearing the results, deciding if they match with what you wanted to hear and if they don’t determining what you can do or say to fix it! It’s exhausting just saying it!

What 5 things to do you do every day if you are to have a ‘great’ day.

Right well I start my day with a trip to the gym – it’s a pretty hectic lifestyle as a conductor so whilst it’s difficult to train seriously towards a specific goal, staying fit and in shape is essential if you’re going to cope well with the pressure and the travel.
Next is definitely a well earned coffee…
For the last year I’ve followed that with a meditation session. I use an app called Headspace which has changed my life – it’s amazing how 20 minutes of quiet completely alters the way you deal with the day.
Then I guess it’s on to practice, I try and get in 5-6 hours of study and practice for it to be a ‘great day’!
Lastly, something that I’m learning is as vital as the practice is to 100% relax in the evening! If I’m staying at home I pack all my scores away out of sight and turn of anything like email or Facebook. I love cooking so making lots of something delicious and enjoying that with my girlfriend would be the perfect way to round things off!

What advice would you give a school pupil that wants a career in music?

Ha..practice!! But not more, just better. It’s a big difference and not something I learned till later in life.

Is a composer of classical music more talented than a composer of say chart music?

Tough question – mainly because I have no idea what talent really is. It must be something, but all the ‘most talented’ people I know also happen to be the hardest working or deepest thinking people I know…so I’m never sure how important the ’talent’ really is. What I will say though is that Classical music is almost half a millennium older than pop music and in that time it’s definitely developed a level of complexity that you don’t see in pop (yet!). So probably you need more training and technical knowledge to be a classical composer but that’s it. Creating music that truly moves people requires the same innate abilities, whether you’re using a guitar or an 80 piece orchestra. It’s a whole other question, but that’s why in my ideal world there wouldn’t be distinctions like ‘pop’ and ‘classical’. Or if there are then it would be like the differences between hip hop and metal – just two genres of exactly the same thing.

Talking of that, what is the future of classical music and do you feel that radio stations such as classic FM do a good job in attracting a new audience.

Well first of all, I think the future of classical music will be vibrant and brilliant. However, I think in order to secure that we do have to continue to change up the present – the great news is there are now a lot of people doing that which is why I’m so confident. I want to say categorically, it’s not that the music is out of date: there are great contemporary composers producing fantastic work and even if that weren’t the case, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach are as relevant as they always were – the emotions they deal with are timeless. However there does need to keep thinking about how we present that music. We live in a world of 3D films, immersive experiences like Secret Cinema and a pop music industry that spends millions of dollars making it’s artists communicative and accessible 24 hours a day. Even as a more traditional art form we have to acknowledge that, embrace the changes and develop new ways to present our work that are engaging and relevant to modern tastes. There are some wonderful traditions in Classical Music and I’m all for keeping them, but if we stay rooted in the past we’re missing out on some brilliant new opportunities and ways to be expressive. Plus it’s great fun and so rewarding when you invent something new and get it right. So that’s what we try and do here at the ACO – create modern concert experiences, and happily lots of people around the world are doing likewise.

With that in mind, the first words on the ACO’s website are ‘Experience a new kind of Classical Music’ – what does that mean?

Well, I think the key word is experience. Because that’s what is radically different at ACO concerts – it’s the same, extraordinary music that you can hear in the world’s most famous concert halls, but we’ve designed a completely new way to listen to it. Here’s how I see it in two points:

1. Each concert tells a story – the story of the piece, the story of the composer, the story of us as musicians. Everyone love stories and the people in them: that’s what hooks us in films, newspapers and on social media – anything in fact. Classical music has some of the greatest characters and plots – from composers battling entire governments through music to musical heroes overcoming Gods and monsters – it’s all there. But at a Classical concert you’ll rarely hear the artists bringing those stories to life. So that’s what we do – we talk to people about the music from the stage. We tell the story of the composer’s life and what inspired them to write the piece. We play little examples and snippets of other pieces to bring the story line alive. We even create themed food and drink to highlight the meaning behind the notes! But above all we share our personal experiences with the piece so that you get to know us as well as the music. What we hope is that listening to the final performance will be a lot more powerful now that you have context, and even more importantly that you’ll walk away with a deeper connection to classical music as a whole.

2. Our concerts are social occasions – most concerts involve sitting in big rows, very still and in silence for long periods of time. They start at 7.30 (which makes getting out of work, grabbing dinner and getting there on time a rush) and they have one very brief interval – after you’ve traversed the toilet queue and gulped down a drink you’ll have run out of time. Not with ACO concerts! First of all we play in a cabaret venue not a concert hall, so the seating is relaxed and there’s lots of space to move around. Second the format is  broken up into smaller chunks – like a pop or rock gig – so there’s loads of time for catching up with your friends, having a drink and relaxing as well as for listening. Plus the normal concert rules don’t apply with us – if you want to eat during the concert that’s great with us (the Hospital Club has an award winning restaurant and waiters are on hand throughout to take your order!) and phones are definitely allowed! We love it when people take photos and videos during concerts. Best of all our concerts don’t drag on – we aim for about 70/80 minutes of music so there’s always lots of time left in the evening to enjoy the Club’s four floors of luxury bars and restaurants!

You mentioned your venue, the Hospital Club a few times. What makes it so special?

So the the Hospital Club is an exclusive members-only club in Covent Garden (don’t worry our concerts are public, anyone can come – access to the club is just another perk of our shows!!). It has four floors of bars, restaurants, meeting areas and even a TV studio. So definitely the first thing that makes it so special is the space itself. Just the exclusivity of the venue gives the concerts a sense of occasion and theatre. And then on the top floor it has this incredible cabaret venue, the Oak Room, which is where we play. Most of the performances there are by indie bands and singer-songwriters so just being in that location and venue completely tears up the Classical rule book.

The other big plus is the resources that are available to us. We’ve only been in residency for one year so we haven’t explored all the options yet, but one great example is the cocktails we serve included with the ticket at each gig. Nicolas, the Club’s resident mixologist designs a cocktail inspired by the music, which is served to the audience as they listen. So we’ve had everything from a steaming flask containing ‘Isolde’s Love Potion’ to ‘Mahler’s 9th’ a DIY drink that changed flavour between the movements of the symphony!

Finally, for anyone interested in coming on the 28th what should they expect?

Right – well first some advice: get there as early as you can so that you can explore the club, which is great fun in itself. Then once people have found themselves a seat in the Oak Room, they can expect one of my favourite new inventions, the ‘warm up set’. They’ll get to meet individual musicians from the orchestra, who’ll perform an informal solo set of their favourite music and tell you a little bit more about themselves. Then it’ll be the famous cocktail  For this one expect something Nordic and icy…we’re playing Sibelius, who was a Finnish composer known for his passionate love of Finland’s Fjords, mountains and its vodka! Next you’ll meet the full band and you’ll get our ‘live programme note’ – I’ll be taking you into the stories behind the notes and exploring the worlds of the two composers we’re showcasing. First it’s Steve Reich’s New York and as I mentioned Sibelius’s wintery Finland. Then finally it’ll be the main event – two masterpieces of the classical repertoire performed in full by the entire orchestra. We hope you’ll enjoy it us much as we do!

Reviews 

“Deeply moving” – The Independent

The Southern shores of 1920s Finland and the never-dimming lights of 90’s New York are our destination tonight with Steve Reich’s Double Sextet and Sibelius’s 7th Symphony. If this is your first ACO experience, here’s what you can expect:When you arrive at Oak Room, find somewhere comfortable and we’ll begin by serving you a unique cocktail created by the club’s very own Nicolas Lespagnol and inspired by the music you’re about to hear. Then, with drink in hand, sit back and journey first to New York, where you’ll discover Steve Reich, cult composer and inspiration for names like Bowie, Radiohead and the Who, then to Finland, icy home of the Romantic giant Jean Sibelius. The orchestra will share excerpts and short performances from both masterpieces as well tales from both composers’ lives, taking you deep into the story behind the notes. Finally, it’s the main event: sit back and lose yourself in full performances of these two masterpieces, live from the Oak Room stage!

This is classical music – but not as you know it. For more visit www.theaco.co.uk

WILLIAM KUNHARDT BIOGRAPHY

Since his professional debut as a 22 year old William Kunhardt has been engaged by orchestras and festivals across Europe, Asia and America. As well founding Musical Director of the Arensky Chamber Orchestra, William is a resident Conductor of the Piraeus Festival in Athens. For more visit www.theaco.co.uk

Interview by David Ridings