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Interview, Domingo Hindoyan on life in Liverpool

Domingo HindoyanFeaturing Debussy's Jeux, Roussel's Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariane and Dukas's La Péri, Domingo Hindoyan's debut recording as Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra struck me as an absolute triumph, and certainly whetted my appetite for what's to come from the young Venezuelan during the rest of his time at the helm...

In between Domingo's performances of Bellini's Norma in Barcelona this summer, we snatched a virtual coffee-break together to discuss his plans for the coming seasons in Liverpool, why the city 'already feels like home', his relationship with his mentor Daniel Barenboim (who received Gramophone's Lifetime Achievement Award last night), and how being part of the original El Sistema in Venezuela has informed his approach to music education and community work.

Tell me about your first date with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra as a guest – was there a spark right away?!

Our first date was three years ago, when I flew over from Barcelona to conduct Beethoven 7. It’s not with every orchestra that you have chemistry within the first few minutes, but with them it came very immediately and naturally. With a piece as familiar as Beethoven 7, most orchestras will play it the way they’ve always played it, but not the Liverpool players: they were receptive, they were flexible, they were 100% open to new ideas, tempos, articulations.

I enjoyed making music with them from the very beginning, because the atmosphere was so relaxed but at the same time pretty intense. You guys in the UK work very fast: rehearsal then bang, concert! So all in all I’d say it was a fantastic first date – weird but great!

Is this your debut recording?

Yes, my very first recording! I’ve chosen a mixture of pieces I know and love together with a work which I’d never conducted before and found extremely difficult: Debussy’s Jeux, which I think is one of the greatest scores of the twentieth century. I feel like it’s always been unfairly overshadowed by pieces like The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Debussy’s own La mer, but it’s an extremely virtuoso piece for the orchestra as well as being a huge challenge for the conductor because of all the tempo changes and interpretative decisions we have to make. It’s a piece that has to be extremely detailed in order to sound well, and that pianissimo ending reminds me of a tennis-ball bouncing – sometimes the audience doesn’t realise it’s finished even after you stop beating!

Alongside that we have Roussel’s Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariane, Dukas’s La Péri and of course Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. I did a lot of French repertoire with the orchestra last season, and there’s more to come next year: La mer and what I call Ravel's Spanish pieces all together. It's been a great experience, and the orchestra plays French absolutely fluently!

And I gather you'll be importing some music from South America too...

My second week as Guest Conductor was one of my most special weeks in Liverpool. That was when I did some South American music for the first time with Pacho Flores [principal trumpet of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra] and the orchestra were very open to it right away: it’s not so often that you can find percussionists with the right sense of rhythm, but they absolutely nailed it!

I don’t believe that a conductor’s roots should dictate their repertoire: being Venezuelan doesn’t mean I’m going to do all South American music, any more than I’d do all German music if I were German! But nevertheless I do know this repertoire very well, and the audience and orchestra love it, so there will definitely be more…We have so many great composers from the 1940s-60s in particular, including people like Alberto Ginastera (who went to Tanglewood to work with Copland) and Carlos Chávez. A few of their most important pieces are pretty well known over here already, so I’m going to bring some of the less familiar ones.

The orchestra already has a strong tradition of doing UK premieres and world premieres, and we’ll continue with that: there’s going to be a lot of new music this season! Then there’s my beloved German repertoire, which I grew to love as a student in Geneva and continued with during my time in Berlin. Bruckner is coming back, almost every season! He’s a composer that still seems strange to a lot of people, I think, but I’ve loved him since childhood: when I was 13 or 14 I used to play the symphonies at full volume on my stereo like I was blasting rock and roll! (Listen to those massive brass moments in the last three symphonies and you’ll see why this was so much fun…).

You're also very active as an opera conductor, both at Liverpool and further afield - how much of an opera tradition did the orchestra have before your appointment?

They did some operas with Vasily [Petrenko, Hindoyan's predecessor], including Tosca, Così fan tutte and Mendelssohn’s Die Hochzeit des Camacho, and there’s a great agreement with the European Opera Centre which is going to continue. In my first season I did Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and the orchestra enjoyed it as much as the audience: it’s a very symphonic piece, and the orchestra’s as important as the singers. It’s my plan to programme a different style of opera every season, and next up is Gianni Schicchi with Bryn [Terfel] in March…

I love doing concert-versions of opera because they take you to the heart of the music so directly; even if something’s been done two years ago at Opera North or Covent Garden, sometimes it’s still nice to do it like this here!

Your friend and mentor Daniel Barenboim will be joining you for a concerto early in the New Year - how did you come into his orbit, and what role has he played in your career to date?

[This conversation took place before Barenboim's recent announcement that he would be stepping back from performing activities to focus on his health for the foreseeable future - it has not yet been confirmed whether the concerto performance in January will go ahead as planned].

That relationship started when I was a violinist in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which I was involved with thanks to my Syrian-Armenian roots – my family name is Armenian, but my mother was born in Aleppo. My audition with him was very improvised and informal: he said ‘Can you play something for me?’ and I just got my violin out! A bit later on when he knew I was studying conducting, he gave me some opportunities - a masterclass along with some other WEDO colleagues, observing a rehearsal here, doing a soundcheck there etc.

A few years later I got an offer to become his assistant at the Staatskapelle Berlin – the audition with Daniel was effectively done, so then I had to go to Berlin and audition for the orchestra! Everything went very well and I studied there for three years. I say ‘studied’, because I was more of an apprentice than an assistant: certainly I helped out here and there, but it was also basically my finishing-school as a conductor.

The most important thing I learned from Daniel was that everything in music has a reason: your job is to delve into that as deeply as possible, not just in musical terms but exploring the connections with philosophy, science, life as a whole. He also taught me the importance of balancing your own instincts with absolute respect for the score - the composer wrote down everything you need, and your job is to project that through your own temperament, not to go beyond it.

Daniel's been extremely generous in providing opportunities for me, and still is today. It’s going to be a big day for me when he comes to Liverpool, especially because it’ll be around fifty years since his last visit! I’ve played in the orchestra when he’s directed concertos from the piano, but this will be my first time conducting him as soloist: it’s quite a daunting prospect, but that'll give me a bit of extra adrenaline!

Speaking of the importance of mentors, what can you tell me about your plans for outreach work in Liverpool and how your own early experiences with El Sistema shaped your ideas on that?

This is so important to me: I decided to take this job not only because Liverpool’s a brilliant city with a great orchestra, but also because of what’s going on around that. It’s wonderful to see an orchestra that’s so involved with the community, so committed to inclusion and so invested in the future - I grew up that way myself. Working with children in deprived neighbourhoods is a big part of it, but of course it’s not only for the poorest - everybody can be part of the Sistema.

They’re already doing a fantastic job with outreach projects in Liverpool, as are other European cities: there’s a great Sistema in London too. But what I can do – in fact I’m doing it already! – is to bring my experience from the original Sistema, the Venezuelan regional one. When I was still Guest Conductor I started going into schools and talking through ideas and repertoire with the teachers; I’d rehearse with the kids, maybe conduct one or two pieces in their concerts, just generally try to share some of my own energy and passion for music.

I’m hoping to get some of my brilliant Venezuelan mates over to be part of that, bringing in repertoire I know that’s useful and accessible. It would be the second part of an exchange-visit, really: the whole Liverpool team went out to Caracas a few years ago and experienced the Sistema first-hand!

There are many ways to learn music, but that was the route that worked for me because the passion grabs you immediately. It’s such a great feeling when you’re excited to go to orchestra to meet your friends and work with all sorts of different conductors – the demanding one, the nice one, the angry one…As well as being the best way to develop individually as a musician, it’s just a lot of fun!

Do you still play the violin yourself?

I play for pleasure less and less these days, because I generally travel without my violin, but I did get it out in Liverpool to play with the Youth Philharmonic a few months ago and I had so much fun! My muscle-memory kicks in pretty quickly – double-stops and octaves get more tricky if I haven’t played for a while, but generally the sensation comes back in about a week. The weird thing is that my vibrato stays exactly the same, even if I don’t practise!

Finally, how are you settling into Liverpool itself?

I conduct 13 or 14 weeks a season – I didn’t relocate for family reasons, as my kids are in school and my wife [Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva] is a singer travelling all round the world, but I honestly feel at home here already. My family visit often, and my son knows Liverpool better than I do because he goes round all the museums and galleries while I’m rehearsing! I’m a big sports fan, and of course it’s one of the best cities in the world for football especially: some people kindly invited me to both stadiums, Anfield and Goodison Park, which was so exciting.

The orchestra and the whole team are extremely friendly, but it goes way beyond that: I’ll be out and about in town and people stop me and say ‘Oh, you’re the new Philharmonic guy! We were at your concert the other night!’, and when I check into a hotel or apartment I'm greeted with 'Welcome home!'. Right now I’ve been away for just over a month, and I already miss the place – that has to be a good sign!

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Domingo Hindoyan

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