Matthias Bamert is a Swiss born conductor who has practiced his craft throughout the world, with the finest orchestras and in the most prestigious venues it has to offer. Coming from a family that all played musical instruments as part of their upbringing, Matthias started with the violin and piano, but eventually turned to the oboe. Having studied music in Switzerland, he continued his education in Paris at The Conservatoire National Superieur. There he studied conducting, composition, opera and chamber music. At the fine institution, he attended a class taught by leading composer Oliver Messian. He also spent some time advancing his musical education in Darmstadt Germany with Pierre Boulez and Carl Stockhausen. Matthias began his professional career as the principle oboist in the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg Germany. He soon realized that he wanted to move on to composing and conducting, to follow his real dreams. One of his colleagues invited him to a rehearsal of conductor George Szell preparing the Vienna Philharmonic for a festival performance. Mr. Szell took some time to chat with him and this led to Matthias sharing some of his compositions with the master conductor. Telling him he they needed some work, Matthias made some changes and by their next meeting, he was invited to come to the United States as an apprentice conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra. He packed his belongings and boarded the Queen Elizabeth to move to the US. On the ship he had a chance meeting with another world class conductor, Leopold Stokowski. This meeting would eventually lead him to work with Leopold later in his career. After spending many years in the US with the Cleveland Orchestra, Matthias eventually returned to Europe to continue his flourishing conducting career. After securing a position leading the London Mozart Players, they would record many successful albums for a very popular series called "Contemporaries of Mozart". These works received countless hours of radio play through the years and continues to do so today. Now as a seasoned world class conductor himself, Matthias continues to lead fine orchestras throughout the world. I spoke with him about his life and career.
R.V.B. - Hello Mr. Bamert. This is Robert von Bernewitz from New York... how are you today?
M.T. - Good thank you... and you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Is it hot over there in Phoenix?
M.T. - It's very hot.
R.V.B. - I guess it's a little different from Europe.
M.T. - At the moment it is Autumn in Europe.
R.V.B. - Where is your music schedule this week in Phoenix?
M.B. - I'm conducting with the Phoenix symphony. I'm here for 9 days and I have 4 concerts.
R.V.B. - You move around a lot and play with a lot of different orchestras.
M.B. - I'm not as busy as I used to be. At my age, normal people are retired.
R.V.B. - I guess it's in your blood and it's what you love to do.
M.B. - The wonderful thing about the profession is I can do as much as I like to do.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved in music as a child? Did you come from a musical family?
M.B. - My parents were teachers in Switzerland. In an intellectual family, everybody plays an instrument. I was the youngest so I heard my brother, sister and my parents play chamber music at home.
R.V.B. - What instruments did they play?
M.B. - My father played the cello, my mother played the piano, my brother the violin and my sister the flute.
R.V.B. - I know that you played the oboe. Did you start out with that instrument?
M.B. - I started with violin, then the piano, and eventually the oboe.
R.V.B. - Did other members of your family go into the professional music world as well, or are you the only one.
M.B. - I'm the only one.
R.V.B. - Why did you take it one step further to do that?
M.B. - I cannot remember a time where I did not want to be a musician. I wanted to be a musician since I was a child... since I had contact with music. Foremost, I wanted to be a composer and a conductor.
M.B. - I started the violin when I was 6.
R.V.B. - Did you have private lessons or did your parents teach you?
M.B. - I had private lessons. I was never very good in violin and I was never very good in piano. I took facility with the oboe. It was always rather easy for me.
R.V.B. - Did you play that instrument in the school orchestra?
M.B. - I actually never did in the school orchestra... I was a percussionist. (Haha)
R.V.B. - Where did you study music in school?
M.B. - Other than Switzerland, I studied in Paris at Conservatoire National Superieur. There I did composition, conducting, opera and chamber music.
R.V.B. - Did you have any instructors there that you enjoyed and they may have shown you something that stuck with you through your career?
M.B. - There was one but I wasn't really in his class. It was Olivier Messian. He was probably the foremost French composer at that time. He was not teaching composition because the composition posts were filled by other instructors. He taught a class in analyzing music. I signed into that class. I was never an official student but that was something that fascinated me. That was my strongest influence in Paris. I went to Darmstadt where there was Boulez and Stockhausen... but there were others.
R.V.B. - In that time period, contemporary classical music was very popular.
M.B. - It was very extreme avant garde. Some of the things that were told by Stockhausen and Boulez, were things like "In a few years, people won't listen to music anymore. They will just read it." Looking back, you wonder what they were thinking. (Haha)
R.V.B. - Who were some of the composers that you liked in your learning years?
M.B. - That changes over the years. As a child, I was attracted by the romantic composers... only later on did I progress to Mozart and Hayden.
R.V.B. - How did you transition into a professional musician?
M.B. - After my 4 years in Paris, I couldn't make a living on composing. I wanted to find a job as a conductor. In Europe at that time, you did that at an opera house. I applied for a job in Kassel Germany. When I went there, they asked me to play Rosenkavalier on the piano... which I couldn't. I realized my piano skills were not good enough, but I had the ability to play oboe. I decided to learn the repertoire as a musician. I applied for a job In a Mozarteum orchestra in Salzburg. I got the job and for 4 years I was the principle oboist in the Mozarteum Orchestra.
M.B. - I didn't. In Salzburg, a friend of mine got me into a rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic, at a Festival with George Szell. I was spellbound as I was listening there. When the rehearsal was finished, George Szell came down into the audience and he saw me sitting there. He came and talked to me. I was of course terrified. He had those eyes and he just looked through you. He asked me what I was doing and I told him that I wasn't happy doing what I was doing... and that I was also a composer. He said "Bring me a composition." The next day, I brought a composition. He looked at it and immediately found some mistakes in it. He had those kind of eyes, (Haha) but he was kind of intrigued. He said "Next year, I am back in Salzburg, come again to my rehearsals." So the next year I went back and he remembered every word we said. "I have to bring him some more scores." After the end of the week he said "You can come to Cleveland if you want as an apprentice conductor, but I cannot pay you." At that time I had an American girlfriend. She told me "If George Szell would give a recommendation, any foundation in the United States would pay." I applied to the Ford foundation and they offered me a stipend. I felt like I had to marry that girl... with whom I'm still married to.
R.V.B. - Congratulations.
M.B. - That's very seldom in my profession... I know that.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet her?
M.B. - She was a flutist in the orchestra. I met her, and of course it was the best thing that ever happened to me - to be invited by George Szell to go to the Cleveland Orchestra - as a Swiss hillbilly.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha)
M.B. - I had so many scores, books and records. So we bought a Volkswagen van and put everything in that van, drove to Calais and took the Queen Elizabeth.
R.V.B. - How exciting!
M.B. - I was so excited! Suddenly I was on that boat for 3 1/2 days... stuck, like in prison. I was absolutely bored to death so much, that I started to read the passenger list. There I came across a Mr. L Stokowski. My Wife said "It's well known that he doesn't fly. It could be possible that he could be on board this ship... as you are. Let's send him a note." She wrote a note... which I copied. We gave it to the butler and went to lunch. We had the cabin right next to the engines... the lowest possible class. When we came back, there was a note in the door. It said "Sorry I missed you, call me at 3 o'clock." That was a big problem for me because at that time - as I wrote that perfect note - I didn't speak English. My wife said "Call means that you go knock on his door." So I did, and there he was. He said "Come in." We talked in French and German. He said "This is a wonderful orchestra. George Szell is a wonderful conductor but he has very strange ideas about bowings." I thought that was hysterical. Stokowski is the one with free bowings.
R.V.B. - How were your conducting skills up to that point, and did you bring your good scores to Mr. Szell?
M.B. - The second year I gave him a piece that I was writing at that very moment - at the festival that he was going to conduct. He said would come to the concert of my piece. He looked at this piece but unfortunately, a year later he died. So he never made it to hear the piece. When I came to Cleveland, there was Louis Lane... a resident conductor... Michael Charry, an assistant conductor... Jimmy Levine, assistant conductor and then came I. So of course there was not much conducting that I could do. But then I was an apprentice conductor, and that was a one year term. Towards the end of that year, I found out that Stokowski was looking for an assistant conductor. I thought "Oh, I know him!" I auditioned there and I got the job.
R.V.B. - Things happen in a strange way sometimes and sometimes it's just fate.
M.B. - Or shall we say luck.
R.V.B. - You have to be a go-getter to be lucky and you are one. You took a chance coming to America and luck found you.
M.B. - I think that is well put. The luck found me. I spent a year with Stokowski, which was incredibly interesting... and unusual... and unpredictable... but I learned a lot.
R.V.B. - Why was it unpredictable?
M.B. - He was unpredictable. You could never say "That's the way he does something." It was different all of the time. He was incredibly different from George Szell. Following the score was the most important thing for George Szell. Stokowski would say "You know this is not music. These are black lines and black signs. We read this and we make music." He changed a lot of the scores - as you probably know. So when I went to work with Stokowski in 1970. When George Szell died, Pierre Boulez was the principle guest conductor and music advisor. Then Jimmy Levine left. They were looking for an assistant guest conductor and they asked me. I was the last one that George Szell invited and Pierre Boulez knew me. So I went back to Cleveland and spent a year with Boulez. Then of course, Lorin Maazel took over. I eventually became resident conductor. I was in the States for 9 years and then In 1978, I moved to Switzerland.
R.V.B. - Did you enjoy living in the United States? Was it very different from Europe?
M.B. - It was totally different. One thing was - I started on the top - with the top orchestra. The United States - at that time - was a lot different than it is now. People were so welcoming and the orchestra was so charming. I had a wonderful, wonderful time.
R.V.B. - It was the glory days of the big city orchestras, in the United States. They were thriving... Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland... They were all top notch orchestras.
M.B. - They were wonderful. Every orchestra had its own personal sound. You could listen to a recording and could tell exactly which orchestra it was. Now everything has become internationalized. Music directors, very often don't stay long. They don't do very many weeks. You still have fantastic orchestras in this country but they way the music business is today, there are less distinctive orchestras than there used to be.
R.V.B. - It is a good sign that classical music is still thriving for the most part.
M.B. - Of course it's a good sign. It could be doing better. There are some orchestras that are going out of business. Not only in this country but also in Europe. It is not the case in Asia... it's opposite.
M.B. - I have been there 4 times already, since the 1st of January.
R.V.B. - How long are your stays there?
M.B. - In January, it was 3 weeks. The 3 other times it was just 1 week. I was a guest conductor.
R.V.B. - What position did you find when you returned to Europe?
M.B. - I became music director of the Swiss Radio Orchestra. It was a traveling orchestra but it was based in Basel.
R.V.B. - The performances were broadcasted over the radio on a regular basis?
M.B. - Yes. That is an orchestra that doesn't exist anymore.
R.V.B. - The music business went through a lot of changes. Some of it is because of the internet. Classical music will survive and eventually get stronger. It has staying power.
M.B. - It is our western culture. The interesting thing is that our western culture, is very successful in the east. There are 10 symphony orchestras in Tokyo. There are 5 or 6 in Seoul. There are a large number of orchestras that have very good musicians, and they draw large audiences.
R.V.B. - They really appreciate all genres of western music in Asia.
M.B. - In Japan for instance, The NHK - which is the best orchestra - broadcasts on television every Sunday night at 9 o'clock in prime time... a symphony concert. You don't have that in Europe.
R.V.B. - The only time we have that here is on public access TV. Tell me a little bit about the London Mozart Players. You did a lot of recording with them. Do you approach conducting any different when you know you are being recorded as opposed to doing a live concert performance?
M.B. - Making music is communication. It's a totally different feeling if you communicate with people than with a microphone. It's more difficult with a microphone. With the British situation of recording, you are not allowed to rehearse. Everything that you record is sight read. Everything occurs incredibly fast. It's very organized so that you don't lose any time. you have to make the best of the time that one has. It's quite the technique. The musicians are such fantastic sight readers... by necessity.
M.B. - When I became music director of the London Mozart Players, Chandros (record company) asked me "Which Mozart do you want to record?" I thought for a very long time and I said "I don't want to record any Mozart... it's been over recorded." We're talking about the early 90's. I said "In the classical period, there were many other composers. They almost lived in the same town. There must have been composers writing symphonies all over Europe... even outside of Europe. Let's have a look at that, because those composers weren't known." I did this series and it was incredibly successful. It's something that developed and it has two different repertoire's. There's a recording repertoire and a concert repertoire. I have recorded close to 100 symphonies in the Contemporaries of Mozart series. I have conducted very few in concert.
R.V.B. - That's a shame. You would think that people wouldn't want to hear the same thing over and over again.
M.B. - They do want to hear the same stuff. I say that about concerts. On radio stations, Contemporaries of Mozart gets played from morning until night. They sound like Mozart and Haydn. The radio stations can't play them Haydn and Mozart all the time. On the radio people want to hear something different.
R.V.B. - You also spent some time with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
M.S. - Yes... I was the principle guest conductor for 5 years. We did have a very interesting repertoire. We also performed at the Proms in London. That is where I started my relationship with Chandros.
M.B. - It was a national orchestra based in Glasgow. Every concert is repeated in Edinburgh. We would also perform in Dunde, Aberdeen, and Inverness.
R.V.B. - As a conductor, you have to know the music inside and out for all of the instruments. There is more involved for you as opposed to the individual instrumentalists. When you receive a new score, what is involved with you being ready to start presenting it and working with the orchestra?
M.B. - At my age, you have a big repertoire. For example for my concert here, we are performing Brahms - Tragic Overture, Stravinski - Symphony of Sounds and Brahms 4. I have conducted those works before. With a brand new score, it depends. A big symphony could take a few weeks. With an orchestra, each musician has one part. That's all they have to know about the piece. I have to know every part and put it in context so it makes sense.
R.V.B. - You have done a lot of premieres of new music. It has to be more interesting than playing the standards.
M.B. - Contemporary music has changed a lot. When I came out in Darmstadt, the kind of music I had to conduct there was much, much, much more complicated. Everyone liked Elliott Carter, Boulez, and other intellectually complicated music... music that was really challenging the brain. Today when you see some scores, you can almost sight read them. They have become much more practical... they had to. You don't have the years of time like we had in the 80's. Especially in Europe, with all of the radio orchestras. It was all paid for. You could have 2 weeks of rehearsals for a concert.
M.B. - I also started a piano festival. The summer festival was a 4 week festival - where I started inviting the greatest orchestras in the world. I signed the Berlin Philharmonic every year. I signed the Vienna Philharmonic every year. I signed the Concertgebouw every year. I had one or two American orchestras every year. It was really a high profile summer festival. I had a staff of over 20 people, that after the festival, had nothing much to do anymore. I thought I could use that staff to do another festival. I knew Salzburg had an Easter festival. The important thing for me was, that the Easter festival did not compete with the summer festival. That's why I made the Easter Festival consist of mainly religious music. I still had some time to do something new. Towards the end of my tenure, I started this piano festival. I thought "Lucerne is not the center of the universe, but if you could in very short time, have the greatest pianists around, that would be great." One evening you could have Pollini. The next evening you could have Brendel. The next evening Pires. If you made it concentrated, it would be very attractive, because it didn't exist at that time. I put it in November because there are usually no festivals that month. It was a very successful festival right from the beginning. The Easter festival took some time to get going.
R.V.B. - It sounded like you had a nice budget to work with.
M.B. - I was not only artistic director but I was also intendant. I was responsible for everything. In a very short time I realized, "If I don't do the fundraising, they will fire me, because my taste is very expensive." I did most of the fundraising. The festival already had a very good name. If I approached a very well know orchestra, I wouldn't have to explain where Lucerne is. It did have a prestige that I could build on.
R.V.B. - It sounds like a very interesting time period for you.
M.B. - It was, but it almost killed me. I didn't have a lot of time. My predecessors were full time. I did conduct at the same time. I never conducted at the Lucerne Festival while I was the intendant.
R.V.B. - I gather you raised enough funds to make the festival profitable and successful.
R.V.B. - You did some traveling to Malaysia and New Zealand. How did you go about working there?
M.B. - In New Zealand, they asked me to be a guest conductor. The music director was a friend of mine. I was also asked to be a guest conductor in Malaysia.
R.V.B. - Is there any difference in conducting orchestras from different parts of the world? I'm sure the language barrier may come into play sometimes.
M.B. - Not in New Zealand of course. In Malaysia, it was an international orchestra. They auditioned musicians from all over the world. When they build the Petronas Towers, the chairman of Petronas was a lover of classical music. So he built a concert hall between the towers. He said "We have the tallest buildings in the world... we also want to have the best orchestra in the world." He asked IMG to put together the best orchestra in the world. They said "You have to pay the same rate as the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic." Petronas said "No problem." They auditioned musicians from all over the world for two years. It was a fantastic orchestra!
R.V.B. - Did you ever record with them?
M.B. - We had plans to. When I took over that orchestra, the chairman of Petronas died. A few weeks later, the CEO of the orchestra retired. Suddenly I was dealing with people who had never been to a concert and they cut the budget. We had so much money when I first came there. They cut the international series, where they would invite the great orchestras of the world. My contemporary series was cut. We had less money for guest conductors. I left after my 3 year contract had expired. It was a big disappointment because it started so wonderfully.
R.V.B. - Do you have any favorite live performances or any favorite venues that you have performed in?
M.B. - My ear got trained with The Cleveland Orchestra. That gave me an idea on how an orchestra should sound. As I have moved around, there have been wonderful concert halls and wonderful orchestras. It's hard to say.
M.B. - It may sound a little provincial, but I think one of the best sounding concert hall acoustically, is the one we built in Lucerne. It sounds absolutely fantastic. Russell Johnson - who was a world renowned architect and acoustician - designed it. In this country, it's Symphony Hall in Boston. Cleveland is now very good. Tokyo has very good concert halls.
R.V.B. - What are you proud of in what you've accomplished in your career?
M.B. - I think that I have done a lot of things. I also used to be in Television. I did music films. I had a Grammy nomination. That was a very interesting time in my life. I regret that my composing kind of dried up, but that can happen to anybody. Any time a composer starts conducting - and really gets into it - it can dry up.
R.V.B. - Tell me about your Grammy Nominated piece.
M.B. - It was with a French director. We took a piece of music and made a visual interpretation of the piece. I also had a whole series of children's concerts, for which I wrote all the music... narrated it and conducted it. They won a lot of awards all over Europe, for these works.
R.V.B. - Do you do a lot of freelancing today to get work?
M.B. - Yes. I'm a guest conductor at the moment.
R.V.B. - Does the traveling still appeal to you?
R.V.B. - Where do you live these days?
M.B. - I bought a house in Switzerland after spending 21 years in London. It's in the south of Switzerland. There is a small part of Switzerland that is south of the alps. It's very close to the Italian border. It's a different climate. We have palm trees in the garden. It's a little bit like Italy.
R.V.B. - How many languages can you speak?
M.B. - Music! (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - That's your main language.
M.B. - I grew up on German and French. I learned English after I met Stokowski. I can speak some Italian.
R.V.B. - Did you ever perform in Italy?
M.B. - I don't do opera. In Italy, most everything is opera. I have conducted in Italy but not very much.
R.V.B. - Do you think that you are ever going to compose again?
M.B. - Sadly... that's finished. I can't go back.
R.V.B. - Are there any pieces that you have composed in the past that you are proud of?
M.B. - They're in a different style from what contemporary music is today.
R.V.B. - Did you catch any style from Stockhausen and Boulez?
M.B. - Of course I was influenced by them.
R.V.B. - How many concerts are you doing in Phoenix?
M.B. - We're doing rehearsals now. There is a Friday morning concert. There's a Friday evening concert. There's a Saturday evening concert. Then there is a Sunday evening concert in Prescott. On Monday, I fly home.
R.V.B. - I appreciate you taking this time to talk with me. You're having a wonderful career in music. It sounds like you are still very much enjoying what you are doing.
M.B. - Thank you very much. All the best to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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