Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
When I was 14 I had a great piano teacher. He was the repetiteur for a production of Carmen in The Netherlands and he invited me to come along and turn the pages for him at the piano dress rehearsal. Well, in truth, I turned a total of five pages, but from that point on, I was just in awe of what I saw on the stage: all that action, all that singing, all that music! And there was one person who had it all in hand: the conductor… I found it endlessly fascinating!
Later, when I was 17, I was asked to play the Grieg Piano Concerto with a very good amateur orchestra. However, on the first day of rehearsals I was called and told that the conductor was ill, and the rehearsal was going to be cancelled – and possibly the performance. I had been looking forward so much to the rehearsal and to performing this piece that I – admittedly with some over-confidence – said that I didn’t want it to be cancelled, and that I would somehow make it work – which I did! I went to the rehearsal, started waving my arms and playing the piano, explaining the music to the orchestra and kind of rehearsing. And I noticed how much I liked working with musicians, and how much I liked shaping music with them. Some time later I knocked on the door of Jac van Stehen‘s conducting class in Tilburg, and the rest is history.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
First, and the most important, my father. He was the conductor of our church choir, and was the one who put me in front of the piano and taught me the basics. Later I accompanied his church choir loads of times, and I learnt a lot from him, especially in people management. As a teenager I was member of a very good youth choir “The Dutch Nightingales”. It wasn’t long before the conductor discovered that I was much better at playing the piano than at singing, so I became the accompanist, and learned to be hugely flexible.
Of course my piano teachers were also very important. My last piano teacher, Jacques de Tiège, was a real Guru who took what little musical knowledge I had and completely expanded it. My conducting teachers Jac van Steen and Georg Fritzsch were – and are still – extremely important mentors for me. They showed me the way in the world of conducting. And last but not least, Benjamin Zander, whose book “The Art of Possibility” and his masterclass that I attended, made a lasting impression on me and showed me how one can look at life and conducting.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
There are many challenging aspects of being a conductor! Every first rehearsal with any ensemble or orchestra is a real challenge: one has to gain the trust of the musicians, and one never gets that for free. Also challenging are the multitude of people and their different energies that you have to deal with – but at the same time, that is also the fun part! It is incredibly fulfilling when the orchestra goes along with you on the journey to try to find the best way to perform a piece. I define a good leader as “someone who can make other people powerful” – so it makes me really happy if I somehow can make a group of people perform at their utmost best!
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
Of course conductors communicate a lot through their body language, their gestures and their energy. It’s incredible how the same orchestra, with the same musicians, can sound totally different when another conductor stands in front of them. That has to do with “mirror” neurons – we conductors mirror our energy to the orchestra. Of course sometimes we have to talk, but whenever possible I believe that we should keep that to a minimum – an orchestra wants to play music, not listen to long discourses!
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
I see my role as being the inspirator! Before the first rehearsal I will have studied the score intensely and, most of the time, I have clear ideas about how I think the composer would have wanted his piece to be performed. However, I do try to inspire the musicians and to give them as much freedom as possible. Whether they are on stage or in the pit, the players are the real artists – a baton doesn’t make a sound! But that initial vision of a conductor is extremely necessary, so that in a short time all the players are heading in the same direction.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
I have already had the privilege of conducting many works that were on my wish list! In opera, at some point I would really like to conduct Poulenc‘s Dialogue of the Carmelites and in concert I would like to complete my Mahler cycle (I am now only missing two symphonies … :-).
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
This, I can easily answer: it is, of course, the Concertgebouw in my hometown of Amsterdam! And also BOZAR, the best concert hall in Belgium, which is the resident Hall of the Belgian National Orchestra, of which I am the chief conductor.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I read a lot! Books, articles, features. I meditate every morning, which helps me to stay calm, focused and centred. In life it is all about balance, so I notice that the more I am in balance, the better I flow as a conductor, and the more I can offer to the musicians.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
I have a slogan that goes like this: “Everybody loves classical music, but some people just haven‘t find out about it yet…”.
I have had a lots of experiences with younger people who at first shy away from classical music, but when they are finally brought to it, they discover that they suddenly love it! I remember being at Lowlands, the biggest pop-festival of the BENELUX – more than 50,000 people attend every year. My younger brother, more of a hard-rock-fan, decided that he wanted to go to the Festival with his big brother. He was not into classical music at all, but suddenly he found himself listening to Prokofiev’s Roméo et Juliette which I was conducting in a big tent for an audience of 8,000 people. And the audience – who were not classical music fans either, but music lovers in general – started cheering and clapping after the first section – just like in a rock concert!!! They went completely nuts at the emotional sounds of this music: the roof came down!!!
Afterwards my brother said that he liked our music so much that he asked if he could have a CD of this “Prokofiev-thing”. Well, of course I gave him one – and it is still in his car….!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Even if this may sound a bit melancholic, I would have to say that success for me is when, after a concert, we manage to send at least one person home into the night with tears in their eyes.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?
Keep dreaming, keep believing, keep working, keep inspiring!
What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?
In our profession we focus a lot on the technical aspects of playing, and on “making no mistakes”. Of course one should practice these aspects as much as possible, but I think it’s also important to look at the mental side of our profession. How can we create a mental focus that allows us to perform in exactly the way we want to, at exactly the right moment in the concert? There are a lot of methods that can support us and I think it’s very encouraging to see that more and more people are aware of how these methods can help improve our connection with the audience. Because that’s all we are doing it for: to share our passion and love for music with as many people possible!
Antony Hermus conducts Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera North from 18 to 24 February. More information
Antony Hermus is Chief Conductor Designate of the Belgian National Orchestra, conducting the orchestra both in their home in Brussels BOZAR and on tour internationally. He also holds the posts of Principal Guest Conductor of the North Netherlands Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of Opera North. A leading figure in Dutch musical life, he conducts all the major orchestras in Holland including Royal Concertgebouw, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Residentie Orkest and Rotterdam Philharmonic.