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The charismatic solitude of the orchestra conductor

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In a travelling musician, THEO PANAYIDES finds a combination of talent and sensitivity who lets the drama of his craft bring him closer to the great composers

Two minutes into our interview – at a coffee place called Le Carré in Latsia, on the outskirts of Nicosia – Charles Olivieri-Munroe gets up and goes inside, to ask if they can turn down the music. (To be fair, we’re the only ones there.) 20 minutes later, more customers have arrived, sitting at a table just behind us. Their conversation is animated; one of the party subscribes to the classic Cypriot credo of addressing your table companions at the volume of one shepherd greeting another across a wide mountain valley. Charles is polite but increasingly discomfited, and I finally put him out of his misery by suggesting that we move to another table. That’s not the end of it, alas – because, 50 minutes into our interview, a drill starts to roar down the road from the shop. But by then, there’s nowhere else to go.

Background noise is a given in most situations, including interviews. Most people don’t even notice – but Charles is an orchestra conductor, a trained ear able to pick out some imperfection in the oboe from a symphonic sea of 80 players. “Maybe I’m over-sensitive sometimes,” he muses at one point, speaking of life as well as music – and sensitivity is key to his work, if only because what he does is so intangible. Music is “the most abstract, I would say, of the arts,” he ventures, “and conducting is the most abstract of the musical arts. Because you’re not playing an instrument… You’re waving your hands, and music’s coming back from human beings playing instruments. So it’s a great mystery, in some ways.”

profile2He’s 53, silver-haired and debonair-looking with a kind of virile elegance, a touch of the Richard Geres. His manner is smooth, downright Zen-like, waxing lyrical when the subject turns to the great composers. Mentioning his style and appearance isn’t irrelevant in this case, because a conductor – unlike an orchestra musician – needs a certain persona; a “combination of talent and charisma” is how he was once described by the New York Times. “You need to have leadership qualities,” he confirms. “You need to stand there and impose your will, your interpretive will. You need to be respected.” The conductor stands at a certain distance from the orchestra, both literally and figuratively. He (or she) can’t get too chummy with musicians, it’s the curse of the leader; then again, “one mustn’t be aloof, either. So there’s a balance”. It’s about people management, emotional intelligence. Sensitivity again.

It’s also a very individualistic job – especially for someone like himself who’s not tied to any one orchestra, but travels all over the world as a guest conductor. Charles is Canadian but half-Maltese; he was born in Malta, grew up in Toronto but has been based in Prague – where he did his Master’s – for the past 25 years (his big break came in 2000 when he won First Prize in the Prague Spring International Music Festival Conducting Competition, after which the offers started flowing in). He’s appeared with some very big orchestras, like the Israel Philharmonic and Czech Philharmonic, but in fact his schedule is eclectic: so far in 2022-23, he’s conducted in Bangkok, Tirana (the capital of Albania), Turkey, South Korea – and in Cyprus with our own Symphony Orchestra a month ago, the programme including a local piece (Green Line by Tasos Stylianou) and The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven’s relatively obscure dramatic ballet from 1801.

At this point, a parenthesis should perhaps be inserted. We talk a few days after the concert, and I’m somewhat surprised when he suggests the out-of-the-way Le Carré as a meeting place – but in fact he lives down the road, explains Charles; he’s no longer based just in Prague, but divides his time between there and Latsia. It turns out that the recent concert was actually his fourth time conducting in Cyprus – the second having been in 2020, after which he received an “appreciation” from a local poet and musicologist named Maria Kouvarou.

Thank-you notes aren’t too uncommon in the age of social media – but in this case there was something about it: “You know how it is. Certain things catch one’s eye”. The note piqued his interest, if only for its depth of musical knowledge; Cyprus, after all, “is an island,” he notes diplomatically – you don’t expect that level of connoisseurship. He and Maria began corresponding, though Covid restrictions made it hard to meet in person; for months it was purely epistolary, like an old-fashioned courtship. Charles was just coming off a painful divorce, having been together with his ex-wife for almost 30 years (they have two kids, both in their late teens). “It was a traumatic ending,” he recalls, “and very unexpected. But indeed, as the cliché goes, one door closes, another opens.” He and Maria discovered “we had a lot in common, basically”; they’ve been together – partly in unglamorous Latsia – for about two years.

It’s unclear what a difference (if any) it makes to be catching Charles Olivieri-Munroe at this precise point in his life, energised by the heady sensation of a new chapter having opened up in middle age – though also still experiencing a profound throb of pain at the collapse of his old life; you don’t have to be ‘over-sensitive’ to feel devastated when a marriage breaks down. It was awful, he confirms – but of course human beings are resilient, “and I’m very lucky also to have music. And the music I perform is music at the highest level – I mean, it’s music that speaks to the soul, if you give it a chance”.

Did his personal troubles affect the work? Was he able to compartmentalise?

“Ironically it made me, I believe, a deeper artist than I was. I was always a very ambitious person. I’m a self-made man – I didn’t have higher powers pulling strings for me to get where I got. Having said that, and having achieved a lot, when one experiences loss in life it makes one more philosophical – and more empathetic, frankly… It gave me a deeper understanding of the composers.” After all, says Charles, rising from legato to a kind of jubilant crescendo, “these composers, they really mirror the tragedies of humanity, the joys of humanity – the ecstasy, the depression, it’s all there in these wonderful symphonic works. Which you don’t get in a two-minute pop song… And unfortunately it’s only a small proportion of society that ever gets exposed to it, because their parents don’t know. But when they do, there’s no going back.”

profile3That’s a recurring motif – the glory of classical music, how amazing it is (‘amazing’ is one of his favourite words), and how sad that the masses ignore it. It sounds elitist, but in fact he’d welcome a bigger audience: if he could pass on one message, it would be “to encourage young people – and of all ages, frankly – to be more curious. Be curious!” He himself never had this problem, for which he credits his parents. His mother was a painter, his dad a medical man (a dentist) in academia – actually Associate Dean at the University of Toronto – who also played the piano, classical guitar and violin. Both Charles and his brother received piano lessons, the boy’s talent being readily apparent (studying music at college was his stepping-stone to becoming a conductor) – but it wasn’t just music, he recalls, they were also taught to ‘be curious’; his parents were critical thinkers, and passed that on to their kids. “Not just to swallow everything we see on television and read on the news, to question.” That’s his own approach, he explains with feeling: “Be outside the crowd, don’t be in the crowd. Be contrarian. I think it’s actually a pretty good motto for life. Because, generally, the crowds are wrong.”

Crowds are wrong in their preference for pop over classical, obviously – and probably wrong in their taste for nine-to-five jobs though he wouldn’t know, he’s never had one. Charles’ curiosity extends to his travels – and indeed he’ll sometimes accept an invitation (especially post-Covid, when his schedule is lighter) based on the destination as much as the music. Hence, for instance, Tirana, since “I’d never been to Albania”.

What’s it like?

“It’s a beautiful country – like our world is a beautiful world. It’s always the people, I say, that ruin it… That’s the great tragedy of humanity. And let’s hope we don’t destroy the world in one big bang.”

Well, maybe – but a world without people wouldn’t be much good, would it?

True, he agrees, “because people have also shown themselves to be able to create beautiful things. And that’s what I’m about,” he goes on, surfing a wave of enthusiasm again: “That’s what I’m trying to highlight in my world… Let’s celebrate the greatness of humanity – the Michelangelos, the Da Vincis, the Ludwig van Beethovens. The Cyprus Symphony Orchestra, you know? Wow! – there’s an orchestra here on this island. That’s an amazing thing! And it should be celebrated. And people should be sending their kids to go and hear this orchestra – because, by the way, they play very well. And it’s inspiring, and it takes [kids] away from their iPhones and iPads and their who-knows-what. You can’t be connected to some virtual device, you have to sit there and listen to this music – which by the way has been with us for hundreds of years, and will never disappear. It’s like chess, it’s like tavli [backgammon], it’s like a violin. These are some of the remarkable things which cannot be superseded by modern invention. Isn’t that an amazing thought?”

The art of the conductor is intangible – but it certainly includes being an enthusiast and a motivator. It’s the only way to gather 80 or 100 musicians (many of whom will be cynical, especially when they play with a new guest conductor every couple of weeks) and involve them in your vision. “It isn’t just about playing together,” explains Charles. “A good-level orchestra will play together. It’s about interpreting what the composer wanted, such that it’s poetry, it’s lyricism, it’s excitement.” His passion comes through in our conversation – though in fact, when conducting, motivation happens mostly non-verbally. “An orchestra wants as little talk from a conductor as possible. They don’t want to be lectured to. So, if you’re able to connect with them simply through your gestures – from physically conducting, and saying as little as possible – it’s much more impressive.”

Part of it – most of it – is music; but it’s also, as already mentioned, people management. This is not to say that rehearsals devolve into debates and therapy sessions; these are professional musicians, they do their job. But it happens that a player may be playing below their best, and it may be Charles’ job to correct that. Obviously, “I’m not going to embarrass that individual in front of his colleagues”; instead he once again recalls his dad, “a wonderful man” who was also a great listener – and that’s what he does, takes the musician aside, asks if everything’s OK in their life “and just let them speak. And often, this clears the air”. In the end it’s about being human, showing empathy and just getting people on the same page: “Why? Because we’re serving a higher purpose”.

That higher purpose takes up most of his life. And the rest of it? Meeting friends, going to the gym. Classic cars are also a hobby: “I inherited a Morgan Plus-8, so I enjoy tinkering with that… You know, silly boy things”. He’s also into Bitcoin and “alternative – how would I call it, financial instruments”, a fitting interest for an individualist and conscious contrarian. He also has “a great concern for our world”, says Charles, notably the threat of nuclear war – the “one big bang” he mentioned earlier – which tends to get eclipsed by trendier causes like the environment, especially among the young: “But you don’t have an environment, you don’t have transgender rights, or minority rights – you don’t have any of that when the world is blown up. Right?”. It’s a nice irony that his passion is divided, Janus-like, between the murky spectre of the future and the 300-year-old music of the distant past.

Speaking of the future, what of his own? Do conductors retire at some point? “Not really, they usually drop dead on the podium actually,” he replies with a straight face. (This really happens, apparently.) Besides, “I never regarded conducting as a job where I would retire one day. It simply isn’t that… It’s art – right?” Creative forces dance at his fingertips, lauded in eloquent rhapsodies. “This is who we are,” says Charles Olivieri-Munroe, ‘this’ meaning music and art and the rest of those lofty feelings. “This is what separates us from the animal kingdom, our ability to create – and not just practical utensils, but this sublime art. You know? It serves no purpose, other than to feed our soul.” We part ways, our souls still rather battered by power drills and rowdy customers.


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