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Interview with Gijs Leenaars, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunkchor Berlin
If we close one eye, or two, or even three eyes and ignore the glasses, then you could be forgiven for mistaking Gijs Leenaars, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, for a young Ludwig van Beethoven. On 6th October he (Leenaars), together with his chorus and the Kammerakademie Potsdam, presents the magnificent “Missa solemnis” – a taste of what is to come in Beethoven’s much-vaunted anniversary year 2020, currently being promoted under the “BE BEETHOVEN” hashtag. Fitting, right? To the tongue-in-cheek question of whether he sometimes feels like Beethoven, Gijs Leenaars can only laugh.


You mean, like, deaf? One thing I can really identify with is Beethoven’s will to understand mankind. He spent a lot of time pondering on how society and the individual are either on good terms or at odds. And he was also a freelance composer, of course, which I find very touching. And I read somewhere that he was pretty untidy, with his room a shambles and bread crumbs everywhere, dirty dishes and the like… I’m probably not as bad as that - but I can see some areas of overlap there.


And what’s it like to be up there onstage conducting a work of such power with a chorus and an orchestra? Do you feel a bit like Beethoven?


No, I can’t say I do, because I don’t know how Beethoven felt. But when I sit down with a score – and the “Missa” really is a difficult piece that requires many hours of study – I always find myself wondering what he meant to express at such and such a moment. Obviously I try to soak up a few biographical clues, and there are quite a few in the “Missa”, but there are so many stretches – especially in this work – where I ask myself why he did this or that. A lot of it is packed with feeling and out there in the open, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s utterly opaque, so that sometimes I’m simply not sure what he’s after. I try to get closer to him at moments like those, but the attempt remains exactly that: an attempt. But then again, maybe it’s not that important because there’s a whole bunch of answers to the question. The important thing is that I’m trying.


What challenges does “Missa solemnis“ pose?


For me, as conductor, it’s hard to arrive at a clear idea of how something should sound – and then to hang on fast to the idea once it’s come to you. It’s not that easy because you’re often held back by technology. And you wonder: “Is that even possible?” For example, as far as the volume goes, he often wants quick stretches of music to be played very loud – even in a vocal range that is actually beyond people’s capacity. A piece of bass singing will never sound as loud as a stretch of soprano. And sometimes I get the impression that Beethoven – maybe due in part to his deafness – was living in an imaginary world of his own rather than being in touch with the world around him.


So how do you solve that kind of problem?


For a start, you have to have the confidence to take decisions that may pretty wide of the mark at first. Turning a fortissimo into a forte, for instance. But also you don’t want to lose touch with his vision of how it should sound. After all, Beethoven wrote it that way for a reason. There are some places in the score where he wrote fortissimo under each note. I can’t crash in there and make a mezzoforte out of it. If you ask me, that’s the hardest thing for a conductor. You’ve got to render his sound as he wanted it.


Is that why you chose the Kammerakademie Potsdam rather than a large conventional orchestra to partner up with the Rundfunkchor Berlin?


It is, yes. I really believe that it’s working well. Although I don’t know how big the orchestra was back in 1824 in Saint Petersburg at the world premiere – unfortunately there’s nothing out there on the subject. But I’m more or less convinced that it goes well when the chorus is given a chance to shine. As a rule, I think it’s nicer when a smaller-scale orchestra plays loud – and in such a way that it needn’t worry about being too loud. Because it’s stupid when you’re constantly asking a large orchestra to keep it down a bit so the audience can hear the chorus. It’s nicer for the singers if the orchestra doesn’t have to be held back.


If they can perform together rather than trying to outdo each other?


You can always go louder, but singing softly is very hard. Only very talented singers can bring it off. But it only sounds interesting when the listener can pick up on the differences. And that’s our job.


Beethoven was a religious man, but he still ended up abandoning the Church as an institution. In fact, the „Missa solemnis“ is no longer performed in a religious context. What’s your slant on the religiosity of the piece, perhaps with an eye on the present day, with a controversial debate going on regarding the value to be placed on religion?


If you ask me, of all the requiems out there, this one is perfect for the times we live in, because Beethoven makes a strong link between religion and politics. For example, he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning the Roman Catholic church, focusing instead on Christianity or on society in general, which is on a quest for redemption or peace. I believe the younger generation today can latch on to that. There’s always the question of how to deal with religion and feelings? Personally, I don’t believe in God. But that doesn’t mean that I never reflect on issues of eternity and how people treat their fellow man and the earth we live on. Those are essential questions that will always occupy us. From that viewpoint I am fascinated by the “Missa”; the burgeoning humanism in the work is palpable.


And you‘ve got big plans involving the “Missa”, right?


I sure have! Unfortunately, we’re a bit bogged down at the early stage of planning, so I don’t want to talk it up yet. But it’s going to be great! We want to give audiences a chance to experience the “Missa” afresh and with great intensity and with a filmed element that packs much more of a punch. The concert in the Konzerthaus on 6th October is just a hint of things to come!



Interview: Renske Steen
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