The conductor Elena Schwarz grew up in Lugano, Switzerland, with parents who were both doctors specialized in internal medicine. Her recently work has emphasized contemporary music: she performed Olga Neuwirth at The Lucerne Festival, and Brian Ferneyhough in 2013 in Berlin, among other composers and ensembles. When we spoke on Skype, she spoke English fluently, but appeared to have picked up a slight Israeli accent that was particularly noticeable when she was hesitating.

VAN: So you lived in Tel Aviv for awhile, right?

Elena Schwarz: Yes, I moved to Israel after my studies. For various reasons, but one of those was that through Geneva there was a collaboration with the Edward Saïd Conservatory. Which used to be part of the Bareboim-Saïd big structure, but now it’s independent. I had some projects there, and I’m still actually involved with exchanges between the two conservatories.

Photo © Priska Ketterer
Photo © Priska Ketterer

You conducted a project with the Palestine National Orchestra. What was that like?

The project that we did last year was a collaboration between some elements of the National Orchestra, the orchestra from the Saïd Conservatory, and some students from the Geneva Conservatory. It was a project that brought people together. Despite the political situation, which of course is complicated, it was really the kind of project that allowed you to see everything that is there in terms of potential. Culturally, we really had full halls for the concerts. There was a lot of interest by the public, by people who are not so used to seeing Western classical music. Students bringing their families: there was definitely a feeling of getting together and making the project work. There is a positive mix that is quite inspiring there, in terms of people’s positive energy as much as the music-making, I guess.

You focus on new music, but also conduct the “standard repertoire.” From a technical point of view, how would you approach a Brahms Symphony differently from a world premiere?

What I really enjoy in working with a very broad repertoire is the fact that it is usually different. You talk about a world premiere. In contemporary music, we’re involved in bringing pieces to life, and that’s always a huge privilege. But then we can also be involved with ensembles as small as a quintet—as a conductor, that happens. (Sometimes even smaller, which is kind of unfortunate.) When you compare a quintet or a very small formation to an orchestra, then of course it’s usually different: not only in terms of technique, but then also in terms of how you interact with the musicians. When you have five, six, seven, 10, it’s still individuals; but then when you’re working with an orchestra it’s individuals as much as members of a collective, and then you have to switch between that.

So for me, when I finished studying, and through the end of my studies, I was working mostly with contemporary music. That was borne out of interest. Then interest produced opportunity. I went with it, because I felt it was something that was interesting and at the same time allowed me to grow as a conductor. Then more recently I returned to working with the orchestral situation. And I don’t think that has to do so much with technique, but I do think there’s something very healthy, when you’re a young conductor, with working with a smaller group of people. I certainly learned a whole lot from that kind of interaction. Often we’re dealing with pieces that are very complex, whether rhythmically, or whether they involve lots of new techniques. So then musicians will speak to the conductor in terms of, “I really need this at that point otherwise I won’t be able to work out the passage.” And also composers will then speak in rehearsal. I think in terms of the rehearsal room situation, as a conductor I found that to be incredibly formative for me.

Elena Schwarz conducting Daniel Moreira’s “Countdowns” with the International Ensemble Modern Academy.

New music conducting and orchestral conducting look very different from one another; in new music you’re giving clear beats and entrances, while orchestral conductors will often do vague gestures that are meant to show something about the phrase, but have less to do with the beat. Do you feel more free in front of the orchestra?

My definition of an ideal—something that I’m always trying to work towards as a conductor—is to be there to give what is most essential to the music in that moment. And that is inherent in the music itself, but also to the musicians whom you’re working with. It always changes. You were talking about a Brahms Symphony. It’s repertoire that musicians know so well, and that relies on a pulse. So what you say about vague gestures that are getting away from the beat: I mean that’s obvious, because musicians don’t need [a clear beat] in that style of music.

As a conductor you fine-tune as much as possible to feel, immediately, what is needed of you. That’s something we are constantly working on. Then if you talk about vastly different repertoire, then other information like how precise the beat is, certain tempi changes—those become essential. That is what you need to give to the musicians in that moment. So I think, actually, that what may come across as a vastly different conducting style is actually responding to something that is a very similar fact: what the musicians need at that moment to play their best.

You talk about feeling what’s needed of you, not just having the musicians tell you. Can you elaborate on this? How do you develop that intuition?

It is totally feeling, although we can prepare. The more experience you have when you’re preparing the scores, the more you immediately have a few options in certain places. Saying, “OK, that may be needed at that certain time.” That’s a thinking part. I’m still very young as a conductor, but I see that my intuition is getting better. Because you develop possibilities and then you see whether that was actually a tough spot or not. And then the next time you get better at realizing that.

In the moment, for me it’s feeling and intuition. It’s managing to respond to a situation very quickly. And trying to elaborate the best response. That is something that I guess you could say you can’t really prepare for. Although, I must say in my experience I learned a lot by going to other people’s rehearsals and concerts. I’m also interested by what kind of relationship the conductor is establishing between his gestures and the orchestra: what type of interaction he’s looking for.

Are you ever rehearsing and you have the feeling that something is wrong, but you don’t know what it is?

As a student, I remember I was reading one of Pierre Boulez’s books where he talks about conducting, and he was saying that—I think he was talking about intonation, but you can adapt it to other things—the way he learned to rehearse with orchestra and really trained his ear was by immediately saying what he thought. So instead of holding back and thinking of something and not being quite sure, he would just [come] right out and say, “I think it is like this and like that.” That’s something I’ve tried to apply. Of course when you’re learning—in a sense one is always learning—but especially when you’re totally starting out, that can be tough. But I think that can be a really good way of training yourself. Trying to formulate that right away.

Then, I think it would really be an illusion to say that you always hear everything that is not working quite well. Personally, I try to concentrate on a few parameters. I mean, of course you have a global listening. But then to zoom in on certain parameters at certain times. I try to structure my rehearsals in a way that my listening is not always the same, not always global. Things like articulation, intonation—I will try to fine-tune that. In a way that I’m also giving structured feedback. But that is the attempt. And sometimes we have to accept that sometimes that doesn’t come across as it could.

For composers, there’s often this feeling that, especially if they’re young and unknown, they have to prove themselves in front of a new ensemble—show the musicians who’s boss by hearing a small detail, like the second oboe being slightly flat or something. Do you feel like you need to do that?

I really disagree with any idea of the conductor as the boss. Like, I’m uncomfortable with that idea, because I think it brings with it a whole series of stereotypes that I’m not very comfortable with.

In terms of what is happening when you first meet a group of people, let’s say an ensemble, especially when you’re young and less experienced and they are maybe a big name: I can relate to that experience totally, because it happens to me. I’m aware—and I think any conductor is aware—of how important the beginning of working with new people is. And how quickly, as when we meet someone and we decide right away whether that person is interesting and we’d like to speak a little bit more, ask some questions, or not really—we’re aware that that first impression is important. It’s not everything, but it’s important. That said, I don’t prepare for that in any way of saying, like, “I should say this and that to show that I hear everything,” or like according to what you said. To prepare that way, it’s putting yourself under a lot of limitations and I don’t think the orchestra or ensemble actually responds very well to that. Even though the situation for composers and conductors is very different.

I think what is very important at the beginning when you work with a new group is to establish healthy communication. First of all, where you can say things to them when you hear that something is not right. That is very much a question of how you establish a human relationship: openness…and it goes without saying, but preparation. An ensemble responds well to someone who is well-prepared and has clear ideas. But that’s it. Actually, often, when I’m starting to work with a new group, I try to read quite a bit into a piece, so that we have an impression [of one another]. And by the time I start to do that I’ve completely forgotten that it’s a new group.

At the Lucerne Festival with Bernard Haitink • Photo © Priska Ketterer
At the Lucerne Festival with Bernard Haitink • Photo © Priska Ketterer

Getting back to the beginning of our conversation, do you take the work with an ensemble abstractly, or is it connected to what’s going on in the world?

One of the things that is important to me in this job is that we work in a really closed environment. The concert hall, the rehearsal room. It’s always been like this that it’s been very important for me to communicate—maybe it’s because of my family not being musicians—with the outside world about what we are doing. And that’s true a little politically. That’s why I’ve tried to be involved in places that are less privileged than where I grew up.

So that’s not only being with the Palestine National Orchestra. I also went to guest teach in Afghanistan. A year and a half ago. So maybe that’s another way of putting it which gets a little away from my personal life, which I’m happy to do. It’s personal in another sense, which is that it’s something that’s important for me. I’m keen to balance out both aspects. Especially in the current political climate, I do think I’m looking for a way to make sense of things, for my job also.

What was your physical experience of being in those places like?

So I would make a really, really huge distinction between the West Bank and Kabul, Afghanistan. Like, a huge one. And I don’t want to say by including them in the same answer that they are in any way similar realities. Right? They are very different ones. What I can describe in terms of putting them together is my personal experience, my wish to get involved in very different realities than mine and in a very small way make a kind of difference. If that is possible. Or at least attempt to do so.

So if you want to talk about how Afghanistan is, I went last year, and I could not go the first time—because it was more dangerous then, there were more attacks. I went in a period that was relatively stable. Of course, the way things are in Kabul, it works by compounds. I was teaching, at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, it’s in a compound, and as a foreigner you cannot really walk, it was not recommended to walk in the streets. So basically what I was doing was traveling from the place where we were staying to teaching in a conservatory and then back. I saw the city through the car window.

Always when you travel to places that are very different from what you know, especially places that you hear about in the news, then you are expecting something completely different from what you will see there. And that was definitely my experience in Kabul. Even though I know it’s not a very secure place to travel to, that was not what I took with me from my experience there. I think I took away from it much more than I gave, in terms of the incredible students that I met. That love for music is very inspiring for someone who had the privilege to do music, and not in a reality where it’s actually very difficult. It took place for 10 days—and it’s definitely still an experience that lives with me. ¶