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Interview with conductor William Kunhardt

20 June 2013 | Robert Bradley

London Calling’s Robert Bradley caught up with William, who is currently touring with the Janacek Symphony Orchestra in the Czech Republic.

William Kunhardt is one of our country’s leading conductors and at just 23, he is already a principal conductor for the Arensky Chamber Orchestra and has made international debuts with orchestras from Greece, Bahrain, Germany, Egypt and Bulgaria as well as UK debuts at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Cadogan Hall and St Johns Smith Square. This July he is returning to St Martin-in-the-Fields to conduct The Croft Orchestra and violinist Clare Howick. 

London Calling: When did your relationship with classical music begin?

William Kunhardt: I began asking to play the violin at the age of four and I pretty quickly got my way, so it’s been a big part of my life ever since!

LC: As a young up and coming conductor, what would you say has been one of the biggest hurdles you've had to overcome?

WK: Probably getting opportunities to conduct! It requires a lot of guts to stick your neck out and either create or ask for opportunities, particularly in the beginning when you are all too aware of how little you know.

LC: You're currently touring the Czech Republic with the Janacek Orchestra, how does this compare with doing one in your home town of London?

WK: Well this summer is quite different as I’m doing a lot of ‘learning’. I’m actually working here in the Czech Republic with a great pedagogue, Jorma Panula, on a huge range of repertoire, and then I’m going on to do the same thing with Estonian conductors Neeme and Paavo Jarvi in Parnu in a few weeks. But with regard to a normal concert, most of my freelance conducting is abroad actually so I’m quite used to being in a strange place with different people. In a funny way I find it easier to enjoy than when I’m working with my own orchestra because as a guest in their ‘house’ I’m not responsible for the long-term future of the orchestra, just for the upcoming performance. It makes it much easier to focus just on the music and have fun so I love it. I’m a huge fan of both travelling and meeting new people, so getting on the road is something I look forward to always.

LC: In 2011 you had a UK debut at St Martin-in-the-Fields, if you could go back in time and personally give yourself some pre-concert advice, what would you say?

WK: At that point, when you are about to walk out on stage, I would say to accept who you are and not to worry about what you are not yet. We all have shortcomings, but those are things to think about in the practice room, not the concert hall. We’re so used to being self-critical as musicians that it can spill over into concert giving, and spoil the enjoyment and ultimately your own performance. The joy of a concert is sharing great music with people, from your family, to those you’ve never met before, so I would tell myself to focus on that – the greatness of the music and the point of the concert – rather than myself.

LC: Beethoven's Egmont Overture is a very powerful and politically driven piece about rebellion against oppression; do you find such passionate pieces far more enjoyable than say one with a far simpler narrative?

WK: Not at all, every piece is different and has its own individual merits, which is why music can give you pleasure and fulfilment for an entire lifetime. I wouldn’t say I prefer one style, genre or mood to any other – it completely depends on how I feel at the time. That said, I always try to focus on how amazing the music I am currently preparing is – once you start working hard on a piece for a few weeks you can start to lose that initial thrill, and I think it’s really important to keep that alive.

LC: The concert on the 16th July also features Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 and Barbers Violin Concerto, How do they compare when conducting?

WK: Well in a very basic sense, one is just you and the orchestra (the Beethoven) and one has the added factor of a soloist (Clare Howick, playing the Barber). That said, I think good conducting is always about listening and accompanying those playing, so just because one has a soloist and one doesn’t I try not to change my approach too much. Equally great performances are always derived from the same basic things – brilliant execution, colour, contrast and drama, so whether it is Beethoven or Barber I am always looking for the same basic things. The more truly great performers I watch, the more I realise that one of the things that makes them able to be so consistently good is that on a basic level they keep things simple – I try my best to do the same!

LC: Classical music in the last decade is becoming increasing more popular among the younger generations, why do you think this is?

WK: I think a lot of this has to do with how young performers, like myself, are very aware of how the industry is often seen in a negative light–either as boring and antiquated or elitist and intimidating – and are very actively trying to change that. I think if you look at what is going on in concert halls around the country there is a huge amount of innovation, of rethinking how concerts and orchestras are presented and of searching for ways to give people a route into classical music. I think the quality of this kind of work here in the UK is pretty amazing as is the way people have persevered over the last few years to get their message across. Happily, as you’ve pointed out, I think it is working.

LC: Which of the world’s top conductors has had a major influence on you?

WK: It’s always a huge cliché but Carlos Kleiber was my first great inspiration. Of modern conductors, I’m a huge fan of Semyon Bychkov, who happily comes to the UK fairly regularly, and Andris Nelsons, who we’re very lucky to have working in this country. Paavo Jarvi is also someone I admire a lot so I’m incredibly excited to be working with him in a few weeks.

LC: Have you ever met any of them?

WK: I have a few mutual friends with Andris so I have met him a few times, Semyon Bychkov I have watched rehearse but never met, and Paavo Jarvi, as I have mentioned, I will be meeting very soon!

LC: And finally, what advice would you give an aspiring musician looking to gauge success within the classical music genre?

WK: To listen and learn as much as they can but not lose themselves and what they believe in, to give as much as they can to their art because you get out what you put in, and to not be afraid of getting hit hard, because it happens a lot, and the times when you fall hardest are the times when you learn most.

William will be conducting The Croft Orchestra performing Beethoven and Barber: Revolution and Romance on July 16th at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Tickets and further information available here.

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