An Interview with Jan Vogler

By Richard Vause

It is the peak of Dresden’s Spring and in the bar of one of the city’s higher-end hotels, drinking the closest thing to English tea you can find out here, Richard Vause sits with Jan Vogler. The name may not ring a bell for all, but those in the classical music ‘know’ will recognise Vogler as one of the world’s leading world cellists, handpicked as part of the New York Philharmonic and Intendent (a mixture between compere, organiser and poster boy) of the Dresden Music Festival, with this year’s instalment set to run from the 11th of May to the 2nd of June.

With passion and precision, Vogler spends the next half an hour describing what classical music means to him, what it can mean to newcomers such as myself and its place in contemporary lifestyle. Donning a floral shirt – which I can tell you, is an extremely rare flash of colour and flamboyance for Dresden – supporting a red sweater draped over his shoulders, just brushing the base of well-kept, floppy hair, this man is clearly an individual who knows his culture. And when his fringe begins to dance across his forehead, you become fully aware that he is passionately making a point. Jan saves the first dance for the discussion of the origin of the festival.

“The festival was born in the 70s as a way to show the west how ‘open’ East Germany was, which is a very curious idea. So they invited the best musicians in the world, but all the journalists just couldn’t get over the fact that everyone needed bodyguards! It wasn’t seen as genuine, and so it couldn’t ever really become one of the great festivals of the world because of this anchor.” He continues to describe how the festival fell into the back of people’s minds and subsequently entered the doldrums in the 80s and 90s after the wall finally fell (“people had other things in mind like enjoying freedom!”). As a performer in Dresden during these times, it is clear that this festival is not only a symbol of East German freedom, but of huge personal significance to Vogler.

When offered the opportunity to take over the festival’s organisational reigns, he leapt. “I remember I just thought ‘this really is a big task to bring it back to its old glory.’” Eventually, the biggest names began to return to the bill, a factor that Vogler puts down to the festival’s unique resource: Dresden. “We invited the absolute top league of artists and we let them perform in some of the most beautiful locations in Dresden. In Germany, in fact.”

In his organisation of the festival’s 2013 programme, Vogler has been keen to utilise the breadth of Dresden’s assets. From performances in the baroque postcard-piece, the historical opera house the Semperoper, to under the stars in the grounds of the city’s largest public park, Vogler sees the entire city as a stage. A stage which he is tasked with populating. And here lies the art of deciding which acts are best suited to different locales.

“We’re using the Gläsernemanufaktur (Volkswagen’s famous glass-fronted factory) and though it may not have that sophisticated acoustics, it still brings something to performances. So we’ve put a kind of cross-over performance in there and we have got VW providing parts to use as instruments. We don’t just want to do what’s expected. So take the Semperoper. If we put an artist like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain in those surroundings, it may be really sexy.”

Dresden’s venues also hold a resonance for the festival’s 2013 theme of ‘Empire’. Showcasing how the British and other empires have influenced the music of colonised lands, of specific interest is the idea of failed Empires - such as that of the Germans, “thankfully”, as Jan points out. Here, the unique setting of Dresden is epitomised. “We have the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performing the British-composed ‘War Requiem’ in the Frauenkirche. The Frauenkirche: a site destroyed by British bombs! Here, you have a message of reconciliation and of spirituality and a real anti-war message. Just from the location of a performance!” With his fringe now flicking in a satisfyingly violent manner, it is clear the healing and further power that Vogler believes music can hold for all. A power that his infectious persuasion is keen to showcase to me.

After explaining my stance as a relative newcomer to classical music and a full novice of live performances, Jan provides me with some advice regarding how to best engage with the genre. “You have to go for concerts with a bigger message than just the music – like the Frauenkirche performance. Don’t feel obliged to go with the aim understand anything in particular. Just go to something with a message you like and then it’s all up to your experience of the music”, he articulates through a knowing smile.

He goes on to explain how the selection of a performance suitable to you can be made incredibly simple. With most classical music mostly born a few centuries ago, it is inextricably linked to the time. “I mean the ‘superstars; of composition – we are talking Bach and Beethoven here – simply sound-tracked history. Bach was portraying the protestant movement in his music. And Beethoven? Beethoven essentially composed the sounds of the French Revolution. In almost every piece you can just hear the incredible excitement of the people of no longer being dependent on their King”. Jan’s advice is, if you are struggling for a place to start, choose a piece from a time and a place of interest to you.

Our conversation meanders around the intricacies of classical performances – “there’s this big black animal up there – a piano – and there will just be this guy totally conquering it” – and taxi drivers’ love for classical music – “they need to be calmed down rather than ripped up” – before settling on a discussion considering why classical music often fails to engage a young audience? Jan explains how the first experiences of younger audiences are often one-off, involuntary attendances. “They go and they forget. But then, 30 years later, someone invites them to the same performance and they realise they’d like to try it again and, now, it means more. It’s gaining a familiarity with the music that is often not as easy to achieve as with pop music”. When I point out this was similar to me moving to Germany and experiencing a lot of techno he smiles. When I mention Kraftwerk his smile widens - “now that really can sound alien when you first hear it” - and he continues to stress how exposure is the issue not age or any other factors.

“I now think that the difference between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music is not really there anymore” he states. We discuss the role of the internet in the proliferation of access to all genres so readily before Jan further contemplates where classical music fits in the modern world. “I must say that sometimes I do peek and see what people listen to on the subway (in New York, where Jan splits his time with Dresden) and I remember I saw this very tall black man on the subway and he was huge. He must have gone to the gym twice a day. And I expected to see on his iPod some music I have never heard of and I look and it was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons! With my friend performing! And so I just don’t think the same barrier between genres exist anymore.”

When arriving to meet Jan I feared I may struggle to hold a conversation with him. Overhearing the snippets of the interview prior to mine I heard Tchaikovsky’s name being batted about frequently and this, frankly, did little to quash my fears. But I was still keen to speak to him and to attend the Dresden Music Festival almost as an adventure into the unknown world of classical music. Having spoken with Jan, this exploration seems far less exotic but more exciting. The music and experiences to be found at the festival, if chosen correctly and approached positively, may not be too far from what I already know and hold vast potential for wonderment.

And if a newcomer, such as myself, is ever in doubt? “Just got for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Definitely. Listen to it! It’s basically rock music”.

Jan’s highlights of the Dresden Music Festival for a ‘newbie’:

  • Rufus Wainwright w/ full orchestra, Albertinium (Classical gallery). Sun 2nd June.
  • The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Frauenkirche. Sat 1st June.
  • The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, The Semperoper. Sun 26th May.
  • New York Philharmonic, Gläserne Manufaktur (Volkswagen Factory). Tue 14th May.

For more information on the Dresden Music Festival, visit: www.musikfestspiele.com

For more information on Jan Vogler, visit: http://www.janvogler.com/

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