Symphony orchestra conductors occupy somewhat of an intriguing place in the collective psyche of the uninitiated. Seen as the towering and commandeering figures passionately gesticulating to a loyal band of string, brass, woodwind and percussion followers, conductors (more so than the superstar soloists they often invite) have come to embody contemporary music in all its complexity: stern, cerebral and detached. Steeped in its own world of high-cultured righteousness, an orchestra’s de-facto ambassador, its conductor, is often perceived as the ultimate intellectual, preferring, it is assumed, solo sessions in his study endlessly listening to repeats of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to having to explain his art and talent to a bunch of novices like us.
So it came as a little surprise to find that Michel Tabacik, charismatic conductor and musical director of the Brussels Philharmonic – het Vlaams Radio Orkest, didn’t exactly fit the bill as far as conductors go. Yes, he is fierce-looking, intense and stern in the same manner a high court judge might be, although his absorbing and firing personality makes him the perfect contender to ensure his philharmonic remains relevant with today’s short attention spanned audiences. To somewhat paraphrase one of our current fetish sentences, Tabachnik’s heart is in the past, his feet in the now and his mind firmly geared to the future.
“We have to play normal repertoire (similar to the Cinematek playing the classics), we have to play new creations or commissions and we have to initiate collaborations (pairing, for example, a dance company together with the orchestra)” says Tabachnik when asked how a year’s program is devised. Although a single theme might be used to underpin an entire season’s program and helps lend it some consistency, he is deeply conscious of the need to mix the old, the new and the original: “Every season, we have to find a way to reinvent ourselves and raise the level of excitement. Local competition being so fierce (there is at least one, if not two, concerts every night), we need quality, imagination and an interesting selection of guest artists to attract the public.” So the conductor doesn’t merely conduct then. He envisions, invites, calculates, champions, programs and educates too.
But how does one become a conductor? Is there a graduate course in wand-wielding wizardry? Is it a calling, or a talent anyone can pick up? “Bernstein used to say that you are born a conductor” says Tabachnik somewhat approvingly, although the reality of climbing the echelons to being a conductor is a far less abstract affair. You first go to the conservatory, learning an instrument (Tabachnik took up the piano) then go to master classes with a conductor (Tabachnik did three years with French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, going on to become his assistant). “You cannot simply decide to be a conductor” he states, affirming that “to communicate sound through gesture is a special gift.” Indeed it is…as is the art of understanding what the heck is happening on that front pedestal. How does the uninitiated take his first concert in then? “You need to think broadly in terms of civilization, and the specificities of ours. People have to come to our concerts with a good knowledge of music, and an urge to be inspired.”