Interview with Conductor Etienne Abelin

Interview with Conductor Etienne Abelin

«You can  tell the difference by the tonality a discussion takes»

We met with  Conductor Etienne Abelin and talked about the trippy genesis of the LSD Oratorium OH ALBERT.

Hello Etienne Abelin, you are the conductor and one of the strong spirits behind OH ALBERT, you are still alive, with a smile,  how eclectic can concerts be if they dont have to be theater?

Very eclectic! Nowadays theatrical and visual elements are more and more part of any concert experience, also in the „high art“ area such as classical music performances.

Elia seemed  energetic, seemed sort of out of control…

Now that was some passion going into this endeavour! OH ALBERT is clearly something that is very dear to Elia’s heart. Understandingly, he wrote that damn thing. And because it’s exciting stuff on many levels. Intriguing story, engaging topic, interesting combination of different musical genres, interdisciplinary aspects.

You were early involved with  William Brittelle and Elia Rediger, how was that writing team to watch?

What a team. A treat to watch. And a great story in itself: they worked for over a year only over skype, and it worked so well. They pretty mich dove into virtuality that this piece sings about and  just met „in real life“ four days before the Premiere.

Did OH ALBERT make you stay friends?

We smoked weed, that helps…(laughs) No, seriously: even in the most stressful moments of the production there was a sense of shared fate and responsibility. And a shared passion to tell this story well, and to engage in this hybrid post-genre way of combining musical traditions organically.

Is there a moment that stuck in your head? 

Reading and Learning the score, I really fell in love with the piece. Of course that’s my job as a conductor anyway. But it wasn’t hard here! I started building affection for Alice and her struggle – which is the struggle of all of us in the second decade of the 21st century. How can we be revolutionary and engaged at a time when „digital double, triple and quadrupel identities“ lure us into feeling like we’re masters of our own fate while in fact, that’s not at all the case. There’s this moment shortly before the end when Alice tries to get the orchestra to join her in leaving the golden cage of the Panopticum space – but the answer is resignation. It’s a very sad, moving moment, maybe the one that touched me most.

You have a favorite song in the evening?

Hmm, that’s a hard one, I love so many of them! The exposition statement of the Performance Blues, the laid-back feel of Still the Answer, the excitement and build-up of Oh Sandoz, the dark and haunting tone of Father to Alice and also March to the Underground, of course the craziness of the Hysterias. And then of course the sadness of Miss Understood and the energy of Revolution. If I had to choose one, maybe it’d be Revolution, the call for not giving up hope for progress, for utopia.

Any hate in the classical world  you received for this hybrid OH ALBERT ?

Rather cute : the young daughter of one of the orchestra players came to one of the performances, thought it was mega cool in general but that the digital identity voice of Elia was a bit scary. Which I agree with, it was in a Darth Vader kind of way… There was quite a bit of enthusiasm, many people loved it. Others criticized, they had issues with various aspects and discussions were controversial but fruitful. Some were fundamentally critical which didn’t surprise me,

But that is easy to understand since this one steps in many fields at once. From day one being small and vulnerable for many years, there are many ways to feel that we’re inadequate in the world. As adults that doesn’t stop, emotionally we remain children in many ways. And then often we project this inner sense of inadequacy outwards and fundamentally devaluate things and people which then makes us feel a bit better for a short moment. I think that’s the underlying reason why we often engage in scathing, fundamental criticism. Of course it’s also possible and important to criticize constructively – you can easily tell the difference by the tonality a discussion takes.

 « We project this inner sense of inadequacy outwards and fundamentally devaluate things and people which then makes us feel a bit better for a short moment. »

And a certain tradition of criticism in Europe gave this tendency a particular outlet and legitimation. I think it’s important to reflect on this honestly and in turns with enough critical distance. Someone could write a book about this!

Biggest difficulties inside the orchestra with OH ALBERT?

It was rough to mount this production in just a few days. Not being able to get into a rehearsal rhythm, having to wait a lot for other elements (electronics, technical issues, light, scenic elements) is incredibly tiring. The musicians of the Basel Sinfonietta were super patient and supportive in this process! Also, playing partially with click-track, especially when not all musicians have the click in-ear and when there are challenges like passages without clear beat and tempo changes, is very challenging for all. Also for me as a conductor. But we needed those, since Elia was running around being filmed, in need of syncing. I was really happy how we overcame this challenge for the two performances.

Thank you for your insights, Etienne! W.M

Well, that’s it? There would tons of more…

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