For months Joana Mallwitz’s image has been plastered on billboards throughout Berlin, heralding her arrival as the new chief conductor at the Konzerthaus. She is, they proclaim, “the next big thing”. A virtual unknown figure in the Berlin capital until recently, the musician says she can no longer go to the supermarket or local bakery without being recognised.
“The build-up was massive,” says Mallwitz, who was inaugurated last month. “I had to push it all away from me, saving myself as it were, by concentrating on getting to know the musicians, or on how I want to conduct bar 17 of a particular violin symphony.”
It is with a certain unease that Mallwitz seeks to explain the enthusiasm with which her appointment has been received. There is her youth. Having started her career aged 19, she is now, aged 37 , by far the youngest music director to lead a house in Berlin’s teeming classical music world, which boasts seven large orchestras and three opera houses.
There is also the fact she is female. In the more than 300 years in which the city has proved its global status as a thriving and influential music centre, her appointment marks the first time the top job in a leading Berlin orchestra has been given to a woman.
“This is of absolutely no relevance to my work,” she says, approaching the issue with caution. “When you’re standing in front of an orchestra, you’re only concerned with one question: ‘Does it work or not?’ It’s what a conductor’s life depends on”. On the other hand, Mallwitz is quick to say she’s not realitätsfremd – out of touch with reality. “I realise there is still the need to talk about these matters. The perfect situation would be if we arrive at a place when it’s no longer interesting to even ask me the question.”
The comparisons between Mallwitz and Lydia Tár – the chief conductor of a large Berlin orchestra played by Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s psychodrama – have been rife. There have even been references to the supposed “tárketing” of Mallwitz by the Konzerthaus’s publicity team. She elegantly dismisses them. “I know it’s ridiculous. I really want to see the film and I adore Cate Blanchett, but it’s been such a whirlwind, I’ve had no time.
“But the comparisons between me and her – well, it’s just the hair, right? To be honest, people have been saying to me for the past 20 years that I and Blanchett look a little bit alike. And you know, I’m sure she has no clue about me.”
Friends – perhaps the same ones who she says originally tried to steer her away from the “shark-tank world” of conducting – have told her enough about the film for her to ask whether it’s “actually a good thing” to be compared with the fictional Tár, a haughty, paranoid, autocrat.
In contrast, the musicians who work under Mallwitz talk of her lack of hubris. “Absolutely modest, completely subservient to the music” is how one harpist from Nuremberg’s state theatre describes her. When Mallwitz left as general music director after five years in the Bavarian city, 65,000 people attended an emotional open-air farewell concert in July.
Not generally known to eulogise, Berlin’s music critics have been unusually effervescent. The reviewer of her debut Konzerthaus performance in the Berlin tabloid BZ described her conducting style as “high voltage”, her interpretation of Prokofiev as “refreshing, raw, risk-taking’, and said she had unleashed the “galloping youthful furore” of Kurt Weill’s Berlin Symphony, her dance-like movements suggesting she was strung with elastic. The Süddeutsche praised her ability to “plumb the emotional depths” of the music.
Der Spiegel has described Mallwitz, just three years old when the Berlin Wall fell, as “the antithesis of the antiquated image of the maestro”, embodied in such towering figureheads as 80-year-old Daniel Barenboim, whose resignation for health reasons as general music director of the Staatsoper after thirty years caused shock waves across the classical music community; and his recently announced successor and former rival, 64-year-old conservative heavyweight Christian Thielemann.
Diplomatically adept, she responds: “You know, there are also so many other people out there, men and women, who are a counterpoint to the antique maestro.”
She has congratulated Thielemann, she says, recalling the joy she felt as a student two decades ago in Berlin of slipping into his rehearsals, and those of the city’s other great conductors, like Sir Simon Rattle, and realising their own counterparts were in the stalls watching them. “I thought: ‘this is amazing’ – this sort of support, comradeship and exchange which is what makes this city so rich. It’s wrong to talk of rivalries. You can learn something from everyone and everyone is very different. It’s a privilege for me to be a small part of that now.”
At the same time, she says: “It’s no longer enough to say I’ll don my dress coat, take to the stage, bow, direct my symphony and expect people to be drawn to the concert hall. It would be presumptuous to think that’s the case.
She wants to reach “people who don’t know how passionate they might yet be about classical music because they haven’t necessarily experienced it yet”. Her trademark so-called Expeditionskonzert format, in which, together with the musicians, she takes the audience on a journey through a piece of music ahead of a concert, are sell-out events and her own way of communicating her passion for the music.
She recalls being 16 and seeing a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). She got hold of the score and brought it into school. “I was floored by it, on a complete high, and once I’d told my friends they were suddenly all into Sacre.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon she sat on the edge of a piano stool on the stage, describing to the captive audience of a packed Konzerthaus the huge scandal the “charmingly dissonant” work had provoked at its 1913 world premiere in Paris. Stravinsky, she explained, had finished composing it under the influence of unbearable toothache.
“It hasn’t lost any of its power,” she tells them.
Source : The Guardian