James Judd: Whether it is orchestral music, jazz or rock – music is music

An interview with the new principal conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic, in which he invites the Slovak audience to take more responsibility.

James Judd conducting in BratislavaJames Judd conducting in Bratislava (Source: Peter Brenkus)

Bratislava has a new principal conductor: Briton James Judd has come to work with the Slovak Philharmonic (SF), starting in the 2017/2018 season.

In his previous career, he worked with names like Claudio Abbado or Lorin Maazel, working as chief conductor or musical director in the Cleveland Orchestra, European Union Youth Orchestra, Florida Philharmonic, Florida Grand Opera, and in areas diverse as Tokyo, New Zealand, and Israel. Since September 2016, he has been the chief conductor of the Daejeon Philharmonic Orchestra in Korea.

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Judd is the founder and art director of the Miami Music Project, a non-profit organisation which brings musical education to youth, especially in socially disadvantaged communities, and tries to use music to better transform society, gain values and develop talents.

He has already played several times with the SF; most recently in the opening concerts of the Bratislava Music Festival (BHS) and in the opening of the philharmonic season.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Considering all your experience from different countries, could you compare the Slovak Philharmonics with other orchestras, and the situation in Slovakia with other countries?

James Judd (JJ): Well, this is a difficult question. All great orchestras in these countries have a different characteristic sounds coming maybe from the language, or the history and background – whether it was dominated by singing or brass bands, etc.

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Having said that, all major orchestras in the world, of which the Slovak Philharmonic is one, have the same characteristic of being able to master the technical aspects and really get inside the music. When they play Brahms, they play genuine Brahms – although with a different sound and a different style, it's still Brahms.

The same goes for the local orchestra. I've been fortunate to be coming here for several decades now, and I worked with it occasionally, and it definitely has the sound of big tradition. This is not surprising, as many composers were either born here, or came to study or work here: you have a treasure of tradition!

There are strong creative and intellectual activities here, and with a strong emotional response to music, you feel it's one of those places where you can feel the music is in the blood.

TSS: And what about audiences?

JJ: There are differences even within continents: in Japan, there is a long, huge tradition and in Tokyo there are nine great, world-class orchestras with a really fanatical audience; while in China, it’s a new experience. However, they are building new halls and spending money on orchestras. Audiences are full of young people, including babies and whole families. But visitors don’t have the rituals of concerts yet, and even in Beijing, organisers have lasers and if they see someone on a phone, or someone moving during a concert, they direct the laser on them, and they give them two opportunities, and afterwards they come down and lead them out – even if it’s a disruption.

In New Zealand, they have the best orchestra in the southern hemisphere with a very knowledgeable audience.

TSS: What is your relation to Slovak music?

JJ: I have known – and already conducted or going to conduct – works of composers like Franz Schmidt, Oliver Dohnányi, or Alexander Moyzes. Egon Krák is writing a cello piece to be performed next spring, for example. I am getting to know more and more Slovak music, researching it, and friends in Bratislava send me ideas all the time on what scores to look at. Obviously, coming from outside, I am not as familiar with so many local composers as I ought to be, so it's a lovely occasion to extend my education because I want to promote Slovak music in the world. You have wonderful archives at the Music Fund Slovakia.

It's going to be something interesting, to play Slovak music, although works of great composers may be a bit neglected now, and also the new generation of living composers as well. But this is life, the situation is the same in every country – it seems that all generations have problems accepting new pieces. This is the task of conductors and musicians: we should give the composers the opportunity to present their work the best we can.

TSS: What about the dramaturgy of SF: what works, composers or genres would you like to bring to Bratislava?

JJ: Everywhere in the world, dramaturgy is organised so far ahead that almost everything is fixed until my third year. Honestly, I am gradually looking through all the programmes of SF since 1949, and together with the local managing director and art director, we try to find which famous, important pieces the orchestra has not played in a while. Also, we think about how to involve the choir, as you have a good choir here.

Then, we are also looking for compositions of living authors, in Slovakia but also outside. So we are trying to find a good balance: something attractive for the public while also trying to attract a new audience. We need to bring new people.

Our effort is like putting together a meal: how much spices to give, how much pepper – with the programme, it's the same. So on one hand, you try to make each programme satisfying for the public; then you look to make the whole season balanced and then you look at where that fits into ten years.

TSS: As for your personal preference, do you have any likes or dislikes among composers? The opening concert includes Mozart and Mahler.... do you have anyone you feel personally attached to, or have professional ambition to play?

JJ: No, although I feel very comfortable in Mahler's world. I was very lucky because as a young man, I was the assistant of Claudio Abbado, and I assisted him on almost all Mahler's symphonies over the years, studying and looking and learning. But I don't think I have any specialty; what I find enjoyable is that when you rehearse Mahler you can't think of any other music. But when you start rehearsing Mozart, the fourth movement of his Jupiter Symphony, it's one of the miracles of creation. The last movement is just structurally so perfect; you can't imagine anything else. We rehearse Elgar for the next concert, and once I start with Elgar I can't focus on Mahler or anyone else. That's the joy of my work.

I was also the assistant with Lorin Maazel in Cleveland, and he told me: After you study, memorise your music, the history of the composer, rehearsal; when it comes to the concert you really become the composer. You have to forget everything and just totally be re-creating the music. And that's what I like to try to do – that you really live within the composer, losing yourself, immersing yourself; it's almost like acting, in a sense.

So I have no preferences, I am just totally at what I am doing.

TSS: Do you have a recipe, an idea from your previous experience how to lure new visitors, new audiences?

JJ: This is where every country is more or less the same – but I would say that musical education for children and a rich tradition help a lot. In Slovakia, you still have musical education, in the USA, it's much more difficult as there is little musical education. Most audiences everywhere are usually rather conservative in their taste, and reluctant to listen to music they don't know; and it is a challenge in every country, to a lesser or greater extent. But the formula is simply to be sensitive and to see what types of works people come for – soloists, chamber works, symphonies – and then, to interest them in hearing new pieces.

"To call it serious music is catastrophic, even to call it classical music is catastrophic. We can to come to a quartet, to rock, hip-hop – it's all the same twelve notes. What's the problem?"

James Judd

TSS: It may be especially challenging to bring young people to concert halls. What is your experience in this?

JJ: When I talk to older friends going back in generations to the 1950s, audiences were always old. There is a reason behind that: the young are busy studying, then they start having families, chasing careers and they only have time later in their life. But the important thing is to make sure that every student, every young person starting from the age of three or four through to college come to concerts and listen. So the children's concerts, youth concerts – and musical education – are important, because if we don't give them this wonderful experience before they are let's say 10 years old, they won't come back when they are older. It is easier with the young, though, because they are not programmed yet.

It is so important to give the young this important first smell but also, it is important to never give up on bringing a young audience in. And in Bratislava, it is much easier than, for example, in London where most students live outside the city and would have to travel to come to a concert. I have seen many young people in the audience here.

Also, it may be the name itself – classical music – that can them turn off.

TSS: In Slovak, it is called vážna hudba – meaning “serious music”.

JJ: Terrible. Whether it is orchestral music, jazz or rock – music is music. By saying so, we destroy the joy and the possibilities for ourselves. To call it serious music is catastrophic, even to call it classical music is catastrophic. We cancome to a quartet, to rock, hip-hop – it's all the same twelve notes. What's the problem? Unless we stop doing this, we're just creating a wall for kids, and we become snobs and elitists. We should invite kids to enjoy Beethoven, the serious, the humorous, the lovely Beethoven. But we mustn't say – oh, it's disgusting if you love rock, this is so pathetic.

"One important thing about music is sharing. We perform to share the music with public, and the public who loves the music should – to solve the problem – share it with someone who has never had this experience. In this way, we could fill the halls."

James Judd

TSS: What about the Slovak audience, how do you perceive them, and do you have feedback from them?

JJ: In fact I think they are knowledgeable but I wish we had more people who have never come to concerts before. I would like to have more of a mixture. You have a sophisticated audience here, proud of your tradition and knowledgeable.

I would like every member of the audience to bring one person who has never been to such a concert because one important thing about music is sharing. We perform to share the music with the public, and the public who loves the music should – to solve the problem – share it with someone who has never had this experience. In this way, we could fill the halls. It's simply taking responsibility – it's like climate change or an election: if everybody took responsibility, things would change and the world would be different.

We should bring music outside, more to people. And we should also open doors more, invite the public to rehearsals: young people should feel it is also theirs... that Reduta is their hall and the Slovak Philharmonic is their orchestra. I think we should always go and try and never take things for granted.

Unlike words which fail to describe some things in emotions, music – in a way – becomes a language of infinity, with boundless possibilities, and yet the language of music has very few words.

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