Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
The belief that music really has the power to change people’s lives. This is something that I was not necessarily able to appreciate fully when I was young and pursuing my studies in piano. When we are young we are mostly concerned with results and tend to judge everything by how our choices affect us first and foremost. It was only at a second stage of my life that the inspiration to use music as a catalyst for the development of meaningful human relationships came to me. Since then, the biggest satisfaction I get from music-making is the way it inspires the mutual understanding of very different personalities. It is this mutual understanding that leads to measurable changes in the quality of life of the many people with which I’ve been lucky enough to make music up to this point.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
To name only few, Beethoven is surely a figure that has always influenced my musical life. What I find incredibly stimulating in him is the attitude towards transcending the human condition through music. This attitude is very much evident in most of his compositions, it drives their energy and direction. A second figure of great influence is the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. As humans our biggest challenge is combining our intellectual sphere with the emotional one, reason and emotion, mind and heart. The link of these two is in our ability to use imagination. Spinoza is the one who first pointed this out to me and I will always be grateful to him.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?
Definitely the most challenging part is that of understanding who you have in front of you as orchestra members and developing a visual language that they’ll be likely to understand. As the only orchestra member not playing an instrument, the conductor has the challenging task of making music happen without practically executing it. This requires inspiring the right mixture of respect and appreciation from all the individual players part of the ensemble. It is rewarding to feel part of the universe of sound surrounding us during a rehearsal or a concert. And to feel like being part of a complex and moving human activity involving so many people. It is a transcendental experience which to me has no equals.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
I believe the essence of being a musician is living life as a full human being. This is a great privilege, in many aspects. The conductor has the key task of inspiring a mutual experience by communicating his own personal desire. Everything is fundamentally driven by desire in music, and whereas Beethoven had made that obvious with his treatment of harmony, Wagner was the first composer to state it philosophically. Therefore communication is something that can require the conductor to share with the orchestra a great deal of personal facts and features. There is no single way in which things work and communication strategies depend on what orchestra, what musicians, and what repertoire one is dealing with. There are musicians who love to be told a story, other who only expect a very clear beat, others who love puns and yet other who are too concentrated on the music to allow any room for anything else. My effort is always that of making the music myself, by shaping it, by living the dynamics with my body and my movements. We are the art we make in the end and for an art – music – which has got so little connection to objective reality, the best a conductor can do to communicate ideas, other than talking through them of course, is to stimulate players to evade the reality principle in the universe of imagination that the sound unravels.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
Definitely inspiring musicians is something I aim at. It is then down to others to say whether this works or not. I have always had mixed feelings regarding the need to convey the vision of the composer. There is of course a very established school of interpretation that wants to stick rigorously to the score and that frowns on any attempt to deviate from what it believes the composer wanted to say. As interpreters, we realise that music happens along two different dimensions, one of which is objective, or absolute – the notes – and one of which is subjective, or relative – the dynamics and the tempo. Whereas the first dimension almost entirely lies with the musicians actually playing the notes, the conductor has quite a lot of control on the second one. So by the way I put it one might almost be inclined to think that the conductor is there to “complete” what the composer has written down. My view is that there is no one interpretation of a piece, but there are as many as there are interpreters and the hierarchy of their worth should be looked for in what kind of emotional response each of them triggers in the listeners, rather than in their relevance to the score. In my view, the greatest work of arts are those that can communicate something poignant across a variety of interpretations. As interpreters we should welcome this fact and challenge the idea of perfect interpretation that one or another reading of a score have established as the benchmark. Otherwise we will soon be replaced by much more reliable technological apparatuses. To summarise I would say that my role as a conductor is that of inspiring musicians to be human through the music we make together.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
I would love to conduct Mahler’s third, sixth and ninth symphonies at one point. They represent my idea of a self-contained musical world, where everything is possible and achievable, where love has no boundaries and the tragic destiny of the individual is faced with courage and zest.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Not really. As a musician who has followed a very unconventional path I’ve happened to perform in very unconventional venues. I like the newly refurbished church of St Andrew Holborn in London because it brings a twist to the typical church structure.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Apart from Beethoven, whom I consider the father of music in the sense of a discipline bringing together the rational and the emotional sides of every human being, I have always been very close to Brahms and to the Austrian late-romantic tradition, Mahler and Strauss in particular. I do not have favourite musicians, there are certain interpreters that I prefer over others of course but I find it difficult to say who is the best. I cannot deny a fascination for the art of Glenn Gould and Alfred Cortot as pianists and of Carlos Kleiber and Claudio Abbado as conductors. Among living musicians, I find Ivo Pogorelich perhaps the most stimulating musical figure I have ever come across.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To me, success is about how close we manage to get to being unique. The principal problem young people have nowadays is that they measure success by how similar they can be to a pre-determined model, whereas what they really should do is develop their own selves individually. This of course is true for music as for many other disciplines. I worked for an investment bank for a few years and people considered successful a person with a lot of money. But everyone can have a lot of money if he works day and night. When a not too musical aristocrat gave a very poor performance of his compositions, Beethoven would snap by shouting some sort of insults, to which the peeved man would react: “Don’t talk to me like that. You should never forget I am a price!” To which the answer was: ”There are as many Princes as there’s cows, but there’s only one Beethoven.”
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To be true to themselves. As an aspiring young musician myself, I have been struggling with identity for most of my life. When we are young we constantly look for references and idols. Our body and our ideas feel so ill-suited for a world of giants and stars. But actually each of us is special in his or her own way and we should take that as our strength rather than as our weakness. Don’t think of music as a competitive discipline. Music making is more similar to a marathon than to a race. In a marathon nobody really cares about who comes first, but what is important is why all these people are running together. It is the concept of community building and pursuing ideas that is important. Unfortunately the international music system, which is fundamentally based on commercial interests, wants to turn music into a commodity product where sensationalism and a sense of the extraordinary drive appreciation. Because the market is limited there is only space for a very restricted number of stars to shine. What we are trying to do with Fidelio Orchestra is to change this by stimulating aspiring young artists to believe in their own individual worth as musicians, who can talk to the widest possible audience of intelligent individuals.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like be in a position where I will have achieved something in the direction of making young people passionate about classical music as something that can make their lives richer and more interesting, as it does to me. Maybe 10 years is too little time for this, but as Beethoven teaches us, it is never about achievement, it is about the process leading to it.
Raffaello Morales is conductor and music director of recently-founded Fidelio Orchestra, a London-based ensemble which brings together professional musicians, music students and people with other day jobs and a passion to play music to a high standard.