Thirteen Strings: The adventurous spirit of Maestro Bernhard Gueller

Bernhard Gueller. Photo: Symphony Nova Scotia

It could certainly be said that Bernhard Gueller has an adventurous spirit. It’s probably a necessary attribute for anyone who makes a living conducting symphony orchestras, but one the German-born maestro’s resume certainly shows.

He’s travelled the world to lead orchestras after leaving his playing career behind. That has taken him to Capetown, South Africa, where he has a strong connection to the symphony, and to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he is in his last season as music director of Symphony Nova Scotia. And this coming Friday he’ll be travelling again, this time to Ottawa where he will lead the Thirteen Strings chamber orchestra in concert.

Travel is just part of the business, Gueller said in an interview, but “between Canada and Capetown, South Africa, it’s one hell of a trip.

“I live between May and September in Capetown and September to May in Canada. I am now in my last season in Halifax after 15 years. In May we move to Capetown and I’ll be doing trips from there.” A severe drought is affecting Capetown, something Gueller knows about.

“That is quite dramatic. At the moment it’s still bearable but in June if nothing happens by then … we’ll have to stand in queues to get water.” He’ll have to bring some Canadian water with him.

Capetown has an active classical music scene he says with a symphony, an opera company, a ballet company, chamber music, a Baroque orchestra and many choirs. New music, too, is emerging, he says.

“There are some young composers who occasionally get performed. These are mostly white composers. Black composers do their own thing and it’s often not for western-style symphony orchestras.”

Gueller first moved to South Africa in 1998 and he has been connected there ever since.

Conductors often have more than one job at the same time and during this period he was also the music director of the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra.

After four years he left the post and was succeeded by another globe-trotter Alexander Shelley, the music director of the NAC Orchestra. Gueller didn’t actually meet Shelley until last year during NACO’s tour of Atlantic Canada.

Travel comes with the job, Gueller says, and each post opens up a new world. But his arrival in Halifax “was for me a new experience working with an orchestra that is almost entirely dependent on private donations or organizations.

“In Germany, cultural organizations are funded by the state. In the U.S. or Canada, you have to care about the people who give you money to exist.

“That was new. I had to get used to this. It also had a very positive side for me. This feeling of being part of a community was much more intense than in Germany where the audience and the orchestra only meet in the concert. Here, you are constantly in contact with people who support you, help you, give money to you, that was a pleasant experience I must say.”

It makes for a very strong sense of community, he said.

Gueller is adventurous in another way. He is an active promoter of new music. In fact, a piece by Ottawa’s Kelly-Marie Murphy will be performed by Symphony Nova Scotia next month. She won the first competition for female Canadian composers connected to Symphony Nova Scotia. Gueller can’t wait to get his hands on her score.

“I only know the pieces she submitted to the competition. Those were stunning. I am absolutely a fan of this woman.”

His take on new music is very direct.

“In the field of classical music, 80 to 90 per cent of the time you play all the same stuff, in different ways maybe, but most of the time it’s the same stuff.

“Thank God these are fantastic pieces, so you are not really bored. But there is also life today. You have to be interested in what is happening in your own lifetime. To look around and find something interesting that speaks to you is a very important and exciting thing.

“It is also a duty of a musician of our time to care about the music that is written today.”

After all Mozart had to start somewhere.

Gueller says the award for a female composer came at the request of the patron. “We agreed and made it more or less our thing.”

It attracted a lot of submissions of high quality.

He also believes new music written by Canadians stacks up well.

“I absolutely would play (Canadian music) elsewhere. Before I came here to Canada I didn’t know what was going on here musically. When I came here I was given tons of scores and CDs of Canadian music I was most surprised by what fantastic music there is.”

He is impressed by work by composers such as Christos Hatzis and Derek Charke.

“Thank God they wrote pieces which we could play. Symphony Nova Scotia now has a close relationship with Hatzis for example. I’ll be conducting another concert with his music in November when I come back for a guest appearance.”

The symphony has also actively commissioned new work during his tenure premiering pieces by Brian Current and Charke.

It’s his experience that audiences do like new work.

“They are receptive and quite tolerant. You may have to say something to the audience before you play” something new and complex, but once you do “it works. The audience accepts the piece.”

It’s not all pats on the back, however.

“If I play a contemporary piece sometimes I’ll get a nasty email.” But better that than indifference. “Sometimes I  dream of the time when they were throwing tomatoes at The Rite of Spring … at least there was an opinion.”

There is no new music in his Ottawa concert. Thirteen Strings will play Bach, Mozart and Haydn. And also Ermanno Wolf Ferrari‘s Serenade for Strings.

Gueller loves the latter piece. “It’s wonderful piece … very loveable.”

This is Gueller’s debut with Thirteen Strings and also his debut with such a small ensemble. But the adventurer is clearly ready for another new experience.

Thirteen Strings presents Galant! With Elegance and Poise
Conducted by Bernhard Gueller, pianist Ilya Poletaev
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.