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Interview: Joel Ethan Fried

Joel Ethan Fried has been the Artistic Director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 19 years. We spoke to him about the challenges of programming, working with the world's greatest conductors and the orchestra's great Mahler tradition.Listen to Joel's exclusive playlist of RCO selections, only on Primephonic.

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What are the key aspects of your role as Artistic Director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra?

The job of artistic director is a little different in the Netherlands than it is maybe in the United States or in Germany. I’m responsible for three things. The most interesting part is what we call programming, and the production that supports it. I'm also responsible for artistic personnel, which means auditions for all our new musicians and the procedures when someone comes in as a new musician. Then we also have a modest education programme, including an orchestra academy. But probably the most visible part for most people is the programming.

They’re all fun in different ways, but I particularly enjoy programming and the production that comes with it to ensure the performances are at the highest level: rehearsal schedules; having the right conductor for the right programme and (if it’s a new piece) getting the parts ahead of time; checking them and maybe asking the composer about their piece. A lot of small things, but they all have to be right.

How you align the schedule of the orchestra with the schedules of conductors and artists – all of which are planned years ahead? That must be quite a difficult jigsaw to fit together.

It is a puzzle, and of course I have help. We start by dreaming about what kind of programmes we want to make, and which conductors we want to have here. There are various ways to programme concerts, but we have chosen to be what we call 'conductor based'. There are other orchestras who are repertoire based and say for instance "This week we want to have a Beethoven symphony, and then here we'll do a concerto festival, here we want to do new music", and then they look for conductors for those programmes. If you do that it's possible to get a really well balanced season as far as having a little bit of everything for your audience and for your musicians and that has certain advantages.

We, however, only want to work with the twenty best conductors in the world and five or six younger, up-and-coming conductors whom we think have a good chance of getting to that level. So we start by asking the conductors for their availability two to three years ahead of time, but if we take the usual suspects and ask them what they'd like to conduct, they’ll all say Mahler and Bruckner, which is a little strenuous for the orchestra and also not so interesting for the audience! So we deliberately try to have a mix so that we also have some earlier music, baroque, classical and that we have enough music of living composers and new pieces.

So when you’re having these discussions with conductors is it almost like a negotiation of repertoire?

It is usually like a negotiation, dialogue is a nicer word, but I’ve also used the word negotiation because they have things they want to do and we have things we want them to do and we have to find the charm and the persuasive ability to convince them. Even though they really want to do a Mahler symphony, we might think they could do a Beethoven or a Brahms symphony fantastically well and then maybe in another season they can do Mahler.

With Mahler and Bruckner being composers that this orchestra is so renowned for, how do you keep it fresh? How do you make sure that every Mahler 6 is going to be a different Mahler 6?

There’s no way to make sure – all we can do is improve the odds. Usually each chief conductor that comes to Amsterdam works their way slowly through the Mahler and Bruckner symphonies, and each one brings a new perspective. We don’t have a chief conductor at the moment, we are going to be working with guest conductors for the next few seasons and each guest conductor really has his or her own way of doing Mahler while also respecting the sound of our orchestra. There’s so much room for interpretation in Mahler, in spite of his obsessive instructions in the score! Even in his own time there were different streams of Mahler interpretation: there’s the Bruno Walter school where a lot of the rough edges are rounded off, and then there's the Mengelberg school in which he accentuates the extremes. Who are we to say what the authentic Mahler interpretation is? For a long time with the orchestra we still played from the parts Mengelberg used and we gradually began replacing them (keeping the markings of course!) It means that we’re really one of only two orchestras in the world with an authentic performing tradition that goes back to Mahler – the other being the New York Philharmonic. 

How do you achieve the balance of engaging new audiences while not alienating the slightly more conservative audience members?

If we solved that problem the world would be beating a path to our door and we'd all be millionaires! We've implemented a few things which I hope help. When I arrived I made sure that for the Friday night concert series focused on 20th and 21st century repertoire we always have a concert preview. It puts people more at ease and helps them absorb the music. I also started a 'meet the artists' session which we do after the concert on Friday night, where I interview usually the conductor, the soloist and an orchestra member. We have several special series such as the RCO club night, where we play 20th and 21st century chamber music in a space that is usually a nightclub – most recently in the Melkweg in Amsterdam. Then, we have two support organisations together with the Concertgebouw concert hall. One is the Friends, about 14,000 people, and the other is 'Entrée' which is for people below the age of 35 and that’s 8,000 people. They have their own board and they organise events that specifically encourage young people to attend. We want to make it attractive for people to come and experience what a great thing it is to listen to classical and symphonic music with a great orchestra. You can listen and concentrate or you can let it roll over you, you can experience music in many different ways.

You've been in this job now for 19 years – how have you seen things change in the industry within that time?

One big change is that the subscription model is endangered. Our subscription base is not as large as when I arrived – most of our subscriptions series back then were sold out and there was a waiting list of maybe two hundred people for most series. Today, none of the series subscriptions sell out, so we have to sell a lot more single tickets. People who buy single tickets tend to decide whether they'll go to a concert in the week before the performance, which makes it more challenging. Another big change is that we have a lot of new wonderful players, and the orchestra has become more international – we have 25 nationalities in the orchestra now and it's very interesting to watch how that works. 

Are there any programmes over the course of your nineteen years at the Concertgebouw that really stand out?

Sometimes you remember individual concerts. I go on most of the tours, and I remember in the fall of 2014 in Salzburg we were with Mariss Jansons and it was his last season as chief conductor, so it would be the last time we played with him in Salzburg. We were doing a programme that ended with the Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2, and Mariss just had this wonderful facial expression when he gave the upbeat. There was just an electric atmosphere and the orchestra played fantastically. Those are the concerts you never forget.