14 december 2015

”Don’t answer! Let it ring” – interview with Christian Zacharias

”Don’t answer! Let it ring.”

The YouTube clip from the Gothenburg Concert Hall October 24, 2013, when a mobile phone suddenly starts ringing in the middle of the cadenza in one of Haydn’s piano concertos, has so far received more than 800 000 views. Nowadays, Christian Zacharias is not only famous as an internationally acclaimed pianist and conductor, but also on the Internet.


As guest conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Christian Zacharias has elevated the orchestra’s performances and understanding of the Classical repertoire in a radical way, taking the playing of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert to a completely different level. The collaboration with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was established as early as 2001. Sture Carlsson, at that time Managing Director of the Concert Hall, invited Christian Zacharias to work as Principal Guest Conductor, with the purpose to develop and deepen the knowledge of the musical idiom and style of Vienna Classicism; a long-term work with both practical and theoretical implications.

“It was a perfect opportunity”, says Christian Zacharias. “There was a void that needed to be filled and a great potential for development. Neeme Järvi (Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra 1982-2004) had a major interest in the Romantic and Nordic repertoire. The task given to me was challenging in many ways and occurred in a period when I was starting to combine my piano performances with more and more assignments as conductor.”

Since 2012, Christian Zacharias has also been working as a guest professor at the Academy for Music and Drama in Gothenburg, with support from the Stena Foundation. During one of his visits to Gothenburg, when he is preparing a performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto together with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, we contact him for a possible interview later in the year. We find him in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Concert Hall.

“He is constantly working!”, exclaims producer Katarina Danielsson while leading the way. When we enter the room, Christian Zacharias finishes the passage he is in the middle of performing, and manages to find some chairs to sit on. After some inquiries about the request, he invites us to come and visit him in his home in Kent, in the end of April. With over 200 days a year of traveling, concerts, master classes, teaching and seminars all over the world, there are not that many free days in the calendar. His recurring periods in Gothenburg are however moments he highly values, both the ongoing work with the orchestra and the dialogue with the students.

“The situation in Gothenburg is quite unique in many ways”, says Christian Zacharias. “The orchestra has a special openness and curiosity, which is definitely not something you can expect to find everywhere. I would say it is one of the socially most advanced orchestras in the world, characterized by unity, mutual understanding and respect. Furthermore, there is an extremely important and vibrant connection between the Academy and the Symphony Orchestra, as many of the musicians also teach there. The only thing I could wish for is more time, both with the orchestra and the students. This is a long-term work, one that needs time to develop and flourish.”

We leave him after exchanging addresses and phone numbers. The door has barely closed behind us, before we hear him resume the Beethoven concerto, in the very same bar where he was interrupted.

“There are trains from Charing Cross every 30 minutes. The trip only takes about an hour, but do order a taxi to my house from the train. There are just a few cabs available”, Christian Zacharias instructs us. We get off at a sleepy little station where, despite it being a Friday, a Sunday feeling seems to prevail. The county of Kent is renowned as the “garden of England”, and is displaying itself from its most beautiful side, with early summer verdure and flowering fruit trees. The local taxi driver takes us further and further away on narrow roads, lined with lush greenery, interrupted now and again by intense violet-blue carpets of Bluebells, the English hyacinth (Hyacintoides non-scripta) – an annual botanical attraction that sends nature loving Brits out on flower excursions in the meadows.


We make a turn on to a bumpy, and even more inaccessible gravelled road, and see a big Tudor house on small hill, surrounded by gigantic Japanese cheery-trees in exuberant blossom. The hazy scenery has a view that stretches for miles against the horizon. A happy and relaxed Christian Zacharias greets us at the gate, which we carefully close behind us.

“The rabbits ate everything we grew during the first year, so now we have fenced the garden properly. We moved here from central London in 2011. Both my wife, Katherine, and I are dedicated gardeners and it was clear from the very first moment that we would live here, despite my dreaming of high ceilings and big walls where I could fit in my contemporary art. Instead, we ended up here, in a listed house with low ceilings and oak beams from the 16th century!”

At the front of the house, a formal garden layout is visible, with geometrical lines of cut box-hedges, paths with softly rounded stones and a fountain, surrounded by flowering tulips. A wrought iron arch marks the end of the garden room. You can easily picture the newly planted New Dawn roses and clematis extending upwards. Grapevines are climbing up along one of the facades, already with new, pale green leaves. Thriving sage, lavender and big hibernating rosemary bushes makes you think of Provence rather than the outskirts of London. Garlic, different varieties of salad leaves and red chicory all shoot out in the kitchen garden on the back.

“I would like to spend more time here, of course”, says Christian Zacharias. “But that is also the advantage of being in Gothenburg, for example. It becomes an island of music, a place where I can focus exclusively on work. Here the garden is always tempting me back out again.”


It is obvious that gardening, cultivation and music are closely connected activities for Christian Zacharias.

“The garden is a way to exercise patience. It’s not primarily about collecting rare plants, but rather an exploration of what can grow and flourish. It’s about learning the meaning of framing, limits and reduction; compounding one’s understanding of spatiality, forms and shapes.”

We sit down on a veranda with a view over the surrounding garden. The reflections on gardening and the importance of framing inevitably leads us to Haydn, a composer Christian Zacharias always returns to.

“Haydn’s symphony No. 88 was actually the very first orchestral score I procured for myself when I was about twelve or thirteen year old”, says Christian Zacharias. “But you have to play Haydn the right way – a badly played Haydn symphony falls flat. His music is so genuinely musical, but it is not only craftsmanship that is required, there has to be a deeper understanding. It is the essence of the music that I am trying to convey. You have to ‘speak’ music, not Swedish, German or English. I want to present music as a language and a means of story telling. I want to show other people what amazes me, what is hidden beneath the notes. The line of tradition Haydn-Schubert-Bruckner is, in my opinion, closely connected and I am certain that I will continue to explore that material my whole life.”

“The importance of time, framing, the repetitive elements, the reductions and mini variations, the way of using intervals and spatial distance, never cease to fascinate me. My relationship to Schubert has only intensified over the years. The magic does not fade with a deeper knowledge. The experience only extends and transcends.”


What does it take to become a good teacher and pedagogue?, we wonder. What is the best way to convey knowledge and experience?

“My goal is to inspire and create curiosity”, says Christian Zacharias. “I have neither the patience nor possibility of everyday teaching. I am not there to drill, repeat and practice. When that level is achieved, it is about encouraging the students’ independence. They must find their own voice, their own way. Ideally, I make myself as superfluous as possible, only interacting when needed, becoming a spark and inspiration. Traditional teaching can easily become restraining and have a performance focused bias. It is equally important to open doors and to show the necessity of a bigger perspective on art and life as such. Next time I might do something completely different with my master class students – cooking or planting for example. Doing that is also a way of practicing reduction, examining how to create harmony and balance, finding the right fusion of different elements. Routine is the biggest danger of them all. The most important thing is to have the courage to keep trying, to keep your openness and curiosity, to see the mistake as a gift. You have to make use of it, not just correct it, but let it affect the whole. This is the reason why computers are not creative.”


You cannot help but notice Christian Zacaharia’s fervent devotion when talking about the dissemination of knowledge and teaching. His own insights and experiences are the foundation and he sees teaching as an indeterminate, lifelong process. Teaching is dialogue and communication. To give and receive.

“I have been invited to teach, but I am also the one learning,” says Christian Zacharias. “The analysis of music is not pathology. It is simultaneously an adventure and a possibility, a way to experience the miracles and wonders, the relationships and connections between structure, composition and tonal language. I was always longing for that kind of inspirational moments and eye openers when I was young.”

“I had one of those overwhelming and elucidating experiences in 1976, when I was 25 or 26 years old and was invited to perform the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major, with the conductor Sergiu Celibidache in Stuttgart. We practiced intensely for a week, basically day and night. He demanded constant presence and concentration on a high-tension level. It was a sort of shock inspiration, so strong that I almost got physically ill. It was something that had to be processed and digested before having an effect. But for me it was also a liberating experience, something that let me out of the prison of imitation and copying. It was a means to find my own way, to speak with my own voice. Celibidache’s recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, with the pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, ceased to be a norm. I suddenly felt it was possible to question the interpretations, and not least, the strive for perfection. Perfection might, in some aspects, be the same as artistic death. Celibidache’s importance shifted from role model to source of energy.”

We leave the sunny room and follow Christian Zacharias to the renovated farm, now housing parts of his art collection and a spacious music studio with white walls and high ceilings. A Steinway grand piano is positioned in one of the corners and opposite stands a harpsichord, an exact historical copy of a Portuguese instrument, perhaps identical to one of those that Domenico would play in during his stay in Lisbon in the 1720’s. Two huge, antique Turkish rugs in soft, faded colours lay on the floor and the walls are decorated with contemporary art pieces that have caught Christian Zacharias’ interest. But what is that, we wonder and point at a sculptural wooden object, standing against a wall, sparking our imagination.

“It looks like a Louise Bourgeois, doesn’t it?”, says Christian Zacharias and laughs. “I could not resist it when I saw it during a trip in Turkey. It is in fact an antique combine harvester. It is all in the eye of the beholder!”


Two small, humble, but strikingly magnetic, paintings of a single glass catch our attention. The artist, Peter Dreher, around 80 years old by now, has painted the same subject since 1972, over and over again. Christian Zacharias saw some of the paintings at an exhibition at the end of the 1970’s and felt an immediate kinship.

“He sits down and does it for the first time – every day! It is always the same, but at the same time, totally different, with thousands of micro nuances and divergences. There is nothing grandiose, no grand gestures, only patience and a sharpened view – an increasing sensibility – the magic of repetition and reduction. What he does is closely related to what I strive for and we have actually collaborated in a project where he temporarily left his glass. A CD edition of Scarlatti’s Sonata K 55 in G Major, which has, by the way, been my encore since 1973, but here you have it in 20 different versions. He painted 20 portraits of Scarlatti for the cover and I managed to collect 20 different live versions of my own performances. It was published as a kind of art project in a limited edition in 1995.”

Our photographer, Peter Claesson, examines the lighting conditions as Christian Zacharias sits down by the Steinway grand piano. Is this where you normally practice?, we ask.

“Well, I do the very last run-throughs here before a performance. But I usually use my music room adjacent to the house for my every day work, you can access it directly from the kitchen.”

We enter a smaller room, where a grand piano takes up most of the floor space. Garden literature, art books and scores all fend for space in the bookshelves. On a low shelf behind the piano, we suddenly recognize a first edition of Andy Warhol’s famous banana cover for Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album.

“I was lucky!”, remarks Christian Zacharias. “It caught my eye by coincidence in a store with used records in Amsterdam. It is very nice actually, completely intact. An affordable way to get your hands on an Andy Warhol.”

Christian Zacharias sits down by the piano, tentatively hits a few notes and eventually begins to play. The music is György Kurtág’s transcription of Bach’s cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, for piano 4 hands. Christian Zacharias however combines the difficult task of playing the arrangement on his own, while commenting on the music and telling us about Bach’s original score, where the restrained and melodic passage is written for an organ and two flutes.

“I often play Bach in the morning, as a warm up”, he says. “It is a way to get in the right mood. Good for the mind and good for the hands.”


Svensk text finns i Stenastiftelsens årsbok 2015 under pressmaterial.

Fler nyheter