Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

The conductor with two faces

Posted by Kimberly on June 16, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
June 16, 2007, page 13 (1,028 pages)

Lior Shambadal is a man with two faces. One is as the principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony. The other is the man. Or as Lior puts it, “when he’s going to bed and putting his pyjamas on. Or when he’s standing with his tails on the stage.”
Lior is currently in Macau on invitation by the Macau Orchestra to conduct Wagner, Bruch and Strauss as part of the Masterworks of Romanticism Series later tonight.
“It is a glamorous profession,” he says.
“For example, I’ve conducted over 100 concerts in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. There’s nothing more in life.
“There’s also the glamour of people coming to your concert, wanting your signature and photo,” he says.
But with glamour comes responsibility.
“It all depends on me. There’s nobody else responsible. Well, a conductor can say ‘the lights were not so good or the audience was cold.’ This is nonsense. All me. For good and for bad,” he says.
It’s a little astounding to be taught just how difficult the work of a conductor is. Admittedly it may seem rather nonsensical, waving a small stick in the air. But to be aware of the hard work behind those actions, is to realise this profession is certainly no bed of roses.
“I remember reading, that one hour of conducting is equivalent, from the physical and metal effort at the same time, to eight hours of hard labour,” says Lior.
“Because there are very few professions in life when you are dealing with the hard, physical training and at the same time, the highest concentration mentally and spiritually.
“You are obliged normally to hear everything, to act with your body, to have the spiritual stamina to influence the orchestra and the people behind you and to be able to read the music both vertically and horizontally at the same time in the speed of milliseconds,” he says.
Yet he reads 1000 pages a day. And thinks it’s nothing special. But there are advantages to such hard study.
“So many other things in life become more simple; languages [he speaks seven languages], because you are dealing with extremely difficult material,” he says.
Yet no matter how numerous the occasions that find Lior conducting the same piece of music, there is one rule.
“Every concert is the first one.
“I’ve been conducting the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for ten years. I don’t know how many concerts I’ve done with them but let’s say about 40-50 concerts a year. About 500 concerts.
“But every concert with them is still the first concert. Because if it is not good, they will forget the first 500 concerts. They don’t remember them. They never happened. No credit,” he says.
When encouraged to describe the music he conducts, Lior says, “music is not only art, its a science, much more than medicine, because it’s an absolute science.
“The note that you are playing, if it’s in tune, is absolutely measurable. And disease is not absolutely measurable,” he says, adding that Schubert called it the ‘holy art’ because of the incredible combination of subjects involved.
When questioned about the high standards he sets for himself, he says it’s a necessity.
“If I go to Osaka on Sunday and the concert is not good because I am tired, because I didn’t sleep all night having changed programs from here to there and flying in between; nobody cares.
“People pay the tickets. It’s very cruel. And I have to deliver the best thing I can do for myself.
“Because if I’m satisfied it’s probably very good. It’s very seldom. It’s almost never,” he says.
Having played at countless number of halls throughout the world, asking Lior whether he has a favourite produces no clear response.
“There is no best place. There are many good halls around the world. There are good halls in China, South America even. There are good halls in England, not in London, but Manchester and Birmingham. Wonderful halls,” he says.
In the end, it’s all about the acoustics. Nothing else much matters.
“When you conduct and the sound that comes back to you is poor, you just want to go home. But when it sounds great, you say ‘wow!’ and want to take more and more.
“Let’s take Osaka by the way. I remember the hall, the first time I went there, I’ve been there many times. I conducted and I looked at the orchestra and I can speak to them very directly. I said ‘wow, what happened? You can suddenly play!’ he says.
“I was in shock.”
It seems that the hall had been modelled on the original plans of the Berlin Philharmonic Hall prior to the second world war.
Despite moments of sheer amazement like that, there is very much a downside to the profession.
“It’s a very lonely profession. You cannot go with the orchestra to dinner. It’s not possible. A conductor will never do it.
“You are alone for hundreds of days a year. I hate it. You know what it’s like to go to a restaurant alone? I cannot speak for others. There are people who like to be alone,” he says.
“The only thing I would like to do alone is to go to museums.”
Lior describes the Macau Orchestra as strange but effective.
“It’s an orchestra that is built from many fractions. It’s partly Chinese, partly Anglo-Saxon. Partly Czech, people from all over the world.
“Which is very good because you discover globalisation. You can use the benefits of the different people. It’s a very international orchestra. This is good,” he says.
To Lior there are two good things to his profession. One is the lack of a desk.
“I couldn’t do it. I would hang myself,” he says.
The other is the lack of the word ‘retirement.’
“As long as you live and can move, you can do this. Conductors are ninety and they are doing this,” he says.
“So I know I am not going to retire when I am 65 because that doesn’t exist in this profession. And it’s wonderful.”
The Macau Orchestra will be playing at the Macau Cultural Centre’s grand auditorium tonight at 8pm.

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