The frenzied passion of a sensible chap impresses THEO PANAYIDES as he watches the new conductor of the Cyprus Symphony Orchestra in action
Yes, it’s a free concert and yes, it’s a Friday night in mid-September – and yes, well-known baritone Kyros Patsalides will be making an appearance. Still, the turnout is impressive – and may have surprised even Jens Bachmann, making his first public appearance as conductor and artistic director of the Cyprus Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) since taking over in July. The square behind Phaneromeni Church in Nicosia is packed, maybe 700 people in all, middle-aged couples and families with kids (one of them unhelpfully supplied with a little tambourine of her own, the better to drown out the music). 200 extra chairs have had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd, which spills over the edges of the square and up the stairs leading to the school.
I arrive five minutes early and can’t find a seat – which is actually a blessing in disguise since I end up standing in the church courtyard next to the square, admittedly watching the show through the bars of an iron fence but also just a few feet away from the orchestra. I can see the expressions (actually just a single expression, focused intensity) on musicians’ faces – and I even fancy that I glimpse a tinge of exhilaration on Jens’ face as he appears in a flowing white shirt, checks out the crowd, bows to them deeply, then turns around briskly and leads the players into ‘Les Toréadors’ from Carmen.
The previous day, we meet in his office in the Cultural Services building of the Ministry of Culture. Ethnic stereotypes should of course be avoided – but he does seem very German as he meticulously explains how to get to the building (“Take the lift to the fourth floor, which is the top floor,” he instructs with perhaps a surfeit of punctiliousness). Then again, maybe he’s just very organised – and indeed it comes with the territory, orchestra conducting being, by definition, “a big-picture job”. He’s the only one with a sense of the whole enterprise, using the musicians like a painter wields his paintbrush or a sculptor his chisel. Sculpture is also his preferred metaphor, explaining why he switched from playing to conducting at an early age: “Getting a sculpture out of a rock, you might say, with the orchestra – that was something that was extremely enticing to me”.
No offence to the CYSO, but Jens seems a little over-qualified for his new job. It’s true he’s on the young side for a conductor (he turned 45 in June), and spent much of the 00s as an assistant conductor – but he assisted some heavyweight mentors, the legendary James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnanyi at the NDR Symphony in Hamburg (he’s also worked at the Munich Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera in New York, among others). He comes across as confident, lively to the point of being hyper, cutting quite a distinctive figure with his egg-shaped head, shock of ash-blond hair and blue eyes behind round, rimless glasses. The smile, when it comes, is relaxed and toothy. He talks breathlessly fast, his English honed by his years in the US; he graduated from the Juilliard School in New York, following four years at the Hochschule fur Musik ‘Hanns Eisler’ in his native Berlin. He’s thin, almost boyish. The top button of his light-purple shirt is unbuttoned, adding to the casual air, then he notices and discreetly buttons it.
What, I wonder, is he like? What are his demons? Alas, this is not that kind of profile – or maybe it’s just that Jens doesn’t have many demons, having decided as a teenager what he wanted to do and set about doing it. His lifestyle is active and wholesome, his hobbies being primarily “Nature activities” like hiking, swimming, skiing and cycling (“I’m looking forward to my first hike in the Troodos mountains”). He eats and drinks healthily, with just the occasional glass of red wine; “My body deserves good treatment because it has to serve me well – and obviously, as a conductor, you work a lot with your body”. Any bad habits mostly derive from being super-organised most of the time, so that he tends to let things slide (leaving his laundry on the rack, that kind of thing) in his downtime. He doesn’t lose his temper, and insists he’s a very patient person. He’s been with his wife – a violinist, and now also a violin teacher – since 1996; they married in 2001, but sensibly waited a few years to start a family. His seven-year-old son has just started school in Hamburg which is why (again, very sensibly) the rest of the family will be staying in Germany, and only coming down to Cyprus during school holidays.
All very sensible – but then I watch Jens in action at the Phaneromeni concert and something else emerges, the frenzied passion of his chosen profession. His hands claw at the air, then beat time in a chopping motion. His body twitches, his shock of hair flops. A conductor isn’t just a traffic cop, his task is to embody the music; he’s a kind of shaman or dancer, acting as a beacon for both players and audience. After all, I note, it’s not just about musical knowhow; rightly or wrongly, we expect a maestro to be charismatic too. “I don’t know whether I should call it ‘luck’ or something,” he replies, “but that was something I never had to worry about, or think about. I believe,” he goes on, trying to find the right words, “once you are filled with your mission, and the output of what you’re supposed to project – it’s something that makes you glow inside.”
That’s the trick, that inner glow; where does it come from? Not genes, apparently, as he wasn’t born to a musical family (or a family of musicians, at any rate). His dad was a landscaping architect, his mum a high-school German literature teacher; “I’m kind of the black sheep of the family!”. That said, flair and a sense of the dramatic seem to come naturally – or, at least, have always been part of his style. “Bachmann has much more theatrical presence than his mentor [i.e. Levine], who looked on from the audience,” wrote the Boston Globe, reviewing a long-ago performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Even in conversation, he brims with a vigorous energy; he does have a glow, even in his office in the Cultural Services building – but it’s the glow of a clean, bright light-bulb, not the mad musical fire he musters in front of an audience.
That light-bulb glow is important, though, and may have helped in beating out some 50 applicants for the CYSO job – a job, he admits, that draws on administrative skills almost as much as musical talent. Jens’ years as a top-tier assistant conductor come in handy here, that job having baptised him in everything from liaising with soloists to checking acoustics in concert halls; his organised side (the clean light-bulb side that supplied me with meticulous directions) also comes into it. Managerial duties are “extensive” in his new position – especially now, at the start of his tenure, with a full season to plan and a repertoire to be chosen. Three musicians are due to retire soon, and auditions must be scheduled for their replacements. Long-term decisions must be made – but short-term success is also important. “Rehearsal time is, let’s say, the most favourite time of my day,” he concludes diplomatically.
Then again, that was the attraction of Cyprus: a case, once again, of the big picture. If you look at most northern European orchestras, you’ll find “a straitjacketing routine” of weekly concerts and very set schedules, explains Jens. Here, on the other hand, things are more flexible. Not only is he able to go abroad when guest conductors arrive (this month he’s actually in Germany working as a piano accompanist, which he likes to do just to keep in practice), but leading the CYSO is also about much more than conducting an orchestra. “I really, really like the idea that under the umbrella of the [CYSO] Foundation there is also the state music school and youth orchestra,” he enthuses, meaning he can focus on the next generation and “the growth of classical music in this country”; you might say he’s conducting the future of classical music in Cyprus.
It’s not a majority taste, I warn him.
“Mm-hm. Well, not at the moment,” he replies affably. “But we work on this. We work on this on different levels”.
Jens has plans. More family and ‘outreach’ events like his inaugural concert in Phaneromeni; working with CyBC to broadcast events, whether on TV or radio. Clearly, the thought of such a big project – not just preaching to the converted, but attracting a whole new constituency to the side of the angels – appeals to his active, communicative side. But there’s also another, more profound vision here, the same Utopian vision that’s behind our multicultural orchestra with musicians from a dozen different countries (only half the players are of Cypriot descent). It’s a faith in the power of music as a unifying force, an “omnipotent” language as he puts it. “Experiences might differ,” he explains, “but we all would agree that if we listen to, um, Schubert’s great C Major Symphony, then we will leave that performance joyfully enchanted, positive, recharged. And that’s kind of a common notion.”
Is it a common notion? Is it even true? Therein lies the rub, and perhaps the key question in the life of Jens Bachmann. After all, there’s music and there’s music. He himself claims to listen to all kinds of music but I reckon he means mostly classical, maybe with a few bits of jazz and rock’n roll. (Tell me a pop song that you love, I ask him. “I don’t have one in my mind at the moment,” he replies instantly, without even so much as a token effort.) Still, there’s no doubt that music is magical – not just beautiful or beneficial, but actually magical. It’s uncanny that sensible, down-to-earth, otherwise-insensitive people can be moved so deeply and inexplicably by something so abstract and ethereal – “the most un-materialistic manifestation of beauty,” as Jens puts it.
Visual art is something you can touch, even dance has a three-dimensional aspect – but music? “It comes into existence only through the collaboration of musicians, but there’s no way you can hold on to it. Once the performance is over, once the piece is over, it’s gone,” he muses gently (ignoring CDs for the purposes of this argument). “And, in some good moments with musicians, we always remind ourselves that we take that sound from whatever realm it comes – out of the silence, into audibility – and deliver it back into silence.”
That’s what I see him doing in the square behind Phaneromeni, the new conductor of the Cyprus Symphony Orchestra being himself quite a sensible chap unaccountably moved by the power of music as he clutches at the air and buries himself in the realm of Bizet, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Brahms and the others. A conductor’s job is to unify the orchestra, he tells me, based on three main parameters – dynamics (i.e. whether the playing is loud or soft), articulation and tempo – but parameters mean nothing without “the emotional content of a piece”, which is ultimately what determines everything. Technique is nothing. Emotion is king.
Kyros Patsalides has belted out the ‘Toreador Song’ and Jens Bachmann takes it down a notch now, leading the CYSO in the lilting sounds of ‘Morning Mood’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. I decide I’ve heard enough, so I turn around to leave – and come face-to-face with a sight so lovely it catches at my throat. The courtyard of the church is half-empty, just a smattering of youngsters sitting on the cobbles or leaning against the church wall – but there in the middle of the courtyard, entirely unselfconscious, two teenage girls (one willowy and tall, the other shorter) are dancing together in a courtly impromptu caper, hands clasped and feet moving in harmony as they sway to the ebb and flow of the music. No-one calls out, no-one teases them. They dance with the seriousness of youth and a crystalline certainty, caught in the spell of a 19th-century Norwegian summoned by Jens and his orchestra. Only music can do this.