Reflections by Christian Thielemann


“I miss my stage nerves”


The corona crisis is presenting us all with immense challenges: artists, institutions and audiences too. Even someone like me feels downright “jobless”. We have all seen the photos from the time of the Weimar Republic, with desperate men wearing signs around their necks saying: “I’ll take on any work!”. That’s how many musicians are feeling, one year into this pandemic. I recently even caught myself pondering how I miss my stage nerves. I actually hate stage nerves. And yet now I miss them.
What can a singer do if she can no longer sing? What should a conductor do if he can’t conduct? They can listen to music and read scores, both of which have their own appeal. Listening to music is lovely – such as listening to Brahms sextets or to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing lieder. It is also exciting to read scores – such as the symphonic poem Don Quixote by Richard Strauss, which I’ve never conducted. It’s a fantastic piece! But if you’re just reading a score alone in your room, knowing that you won’t be performing it in the foreseeable future, it’s like learning a language that you are not allowed to speak. It won’t belong before you’ve forgotten much of the vocabulary and the grammar, the sound and pronunciation of it. That’s a shame.

In the past months, I was grateful for every opportunity to conduct. For the Bruckner symphonies, for example, that I recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic. When preparing to conduct the First, I studied the so-called Vienna version carefully. There are only a few recordings of it, which makes it all the more exciting to hear it. The different versions of Bruckner’s symphonies are in any case an inexhaustible topic! I was never before so aware of what a luxury it is to make your own way through the mountainous regions of his sound world.

I have also been grateful for every kind of streaming, because it’s much better than having nothing. If you normally only drink champagne, but in times of crisis can have only red wine, you’ll still drink it rather than go thirsty! Streaming makes it possible for the public to “attend”, whether live or afterwards online for a certain time. We shouldn’t underestimate this option. Nor should we complain just because the social side of things is missing (rightly so at the moment!) – the conversations in the interval, or going to a restaurant afterwards. None of that bears any real relation to practising our art.

We had hoped to the very last that we might still be able to hold the Easter Festival at Easter 2021. But in mid-March it finally became clear that no events will be possible over the Easter weekend. Despite my sadness that the Festival will again be unable to take place at Easter, I am grateful that, by consolidating our efforts, we have succeeded in postponing the Easter Festival to the end of October and the beginning of November. In these extraordinary times, an “Autumn Easter Festival” should also be possible – and I am sure that holding our Festival in the autumn will undoubtedly have a charm of its own.

When I think about the eventual end of the pandemic, I am often reminded of the1920s: the First World War was over, monarchies had fallen, the economy was devastated – but the worse people have it, the wilder they party. The end of corona could also see something like a hedonist revival (assuming that we are free to travel and the vaccination situation allows it). Perhaps incredibly creative times lie ahead! And I hope we will have learnt things from this crisis: that we’re all in one boat, also those of us in culture; that we have to manage all our resources better; and that we have to learn again to appreciate the obvious – the smaller, more intimate forms. In this sense, I should like to call out to our young musicians most of all: don’t give up, things will get better! We have a wonderful profession – and we are needed. Now more than ever.

Transcribed by Christine Lemke-Matwey.

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