Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I grew up with music as an integral part of my family life; I was always surrounded by ensemble music making with singing or various instruments. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t conscious of being in awe of music and that has stayed with me throughout my life. When I left my native Croatia to study music in the USA, I played a number of instruments but was most passionate about the organ. After three years of intensive study, the chairman of the music department sat me down and told me that I’d never make it as an organist and that I was wasting my time. I was devastated, not least because my parents were having to smuggle money out of Croatia in pay for my tuition. But a few weeks later the conductor of our orchestra was sick and I was asked to take over despite having no previous experience. As soon as I stood on the podium I felt completely at home, a feeling of this is what life is about and that feeling has never left me.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
Composers of course, but other conductors, especially those I worked with when studying for my doctorate at Indiana when I was lucky to be mentored by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and John Nelsons. At Indiana I learnt how to learn. The conductor who had the most profound and lasting influence on me is Herbert Blomstedt. He quite simply changed my life and I ended up visiting him many times in San Francisco where we’d go for long walks where he’d patiently answer my endless questions.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
Most challenging is to get to the core of what the composer meant to say, how did they hear in their heads what they’d written? The score is just an approximation and most often the composer isn’t around so can’t talk for themselves. I’m their advocate so how can I ethically and morally present myself to them and get to the core of their musical language, and then convey that to the musicians. That’s the quandary facing all conductors.
Highpoint of being a conductor is that you get to do what so few people do – it’s like having all of Tutankhamun’s treasures. To work and immerse yourself in so much great music is more than fulfilling – when I look at my collection of scores and the treasures they contain it’s exhilarating to then engage with them and recreate this music.
You’re now the Artistic Director and Music Director of the International Centre for Contemporary Music. Are you able to share what you have planned with ICCM?
There are many different strands to ICCM’s work. We have an ambitious concert, recording and commissioning programme that is starting in London and will then spread internationally.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
First by doing due diligence, by doing the research into the times a composer was working in, the composer’s style, how did it change, why did it change and all of that has to translate into the actual playing. Challenge is to take wherever qualities any particular orchestra has and to create something unique with them, the opposite of a cookie-cutter performance. I care very much about the architecture of a piece, I tell the players I want to go from this point to this, tell them about the formal structure, this is where it’s going.
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players? Conveying the vision of the composer?
My job is to inspire and transmit my energy to the players. If I can’t do that I don’t have any business being there.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
There are many such works. A colleague came to me who was going to conduct a standard work and admitted that he was embarrassed to say he’d never conducted it before and I replied that there are so many works I haven’t either. At the moment there are 40 plus scores on my desk that I’m studying like a fiend as there’s so much still to conduct. I haven’t done Penderecki’s 7th symphony, the Seven Gates of Jerusalem, but I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do so this season.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Not really, my favourite venue is whatever suits the music I’m performing.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
It’s important to stay connected with a real part of life and for me that’s nature. It’s why I live in Oregon. I study music and then walk in the woods to go through a performance as I walk for miles. This brings me to reality and there’s a purity of spirit from comes from nature.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
A substantial investment in young people. We underestimate the power of education, including home education. What has always driven me is the knowledge that all music is sacred, it’s a gift and I learnt that from my parents. I was very lucky to grow up in a family that believed that music is one of the great gifts.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To do justice to the music, to allow it to come off the page. It’s a transcendental experience. I learned about that when growing up in a communist country where I heard so many orchestras that sounded boring and then when I’d hear another one I realised the difference. It’s not about the quality of their instruments but in how they played the music. For them it wasn’t just a job not just a question of getting the notes out like a row of sausages. Once I heard them I knew the difference.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Assuming the talent is there, hard work, self-discipline and trusting your gut instinct, your inner self.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’ve been given some ability and musical gifts and I want to live up to them. I think that’s very important to anyone. Self-actualisation that continues throughout one’s life to fulfil your purpose.
What is your present state of mind?
Very excited to see ICCM take its place on the world stage. It’s so important for us to keep creating and come up with new ways of creating.
Croatian/American conductor Zvonimir Hačko has served as the Artistic Director of Oregon Music Festival since 2014 and has recently been appointed Artistic & Music Director of the International Centre for Contemporary Music (ICCM) in London. A conductor with a thriving international career, Hačko has held various Music Directorships with orchestras in Europe and the United States. He currently divides his time between the two subscription seasons and continues active guest conducting work with ensembles in the USA, United Kingdom, European Union, South America and Asia.