In 2012 Markus Stenz was appointed chief conductor of the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Hilversum. He conducted both classical masterworks, world premières and lesser known repertoire by Dutch composers, in NTRZaterdagMatinee in Concertgebouw Amsterdam and AVROTROSVrijdagconcert in TivoliVredenburg Utrecht.
On 7 June he takes his leave as chief conductor with Szenen aus Goethes Faust Robert Schumann. We know Stenz as a passionate and well-informed conductor, who always strives for the best result. But what is his background, and how did he end up in music?
Markus Stenz (1965) grew up in the village of Kaltenborn in the Rhineland-Palatinate: ‘A hamlet with two farmhouses, a church, a pub and a village school of which my father was headmaster. We lived above it. It was deadly boring and my parents made music to drive away the boredom. My mother was always singing, whether she was cooking, ironing, or doing any other household chores. My father was a skilled amateur musician, who, besides piano and organ, also played wind instruments and conducted a choir. As a toddler of two, I crawled under the grand piano, that’s how beautiful I thought it was.’
Little Markus also bangs the keys himself and at the age of five his parents send him to piano lessons. ‘They chose the best teacher in the region, Mrs. Haas-Paquet in Ahrweiler. She was such a typical gnome woman: small, with bony fingers and a bun. For my first lesson I refused to go inside, because I thought she was so ugly. I clasped myself to the door of the car. When my mother told her in distress what was going on, Mrs. Haas said wittily: “You’re right, I’m ugly! And now we’re going to start.” – And then I had lessons from her for ten years.’
This wasn’t a matter of course, however. ‘It was 45 minutes’ drive and I always got sick in the car. Both on the way up and back the question arose where to stop: in Kempenich or in Ramersbach, so that I could throw up.’ Moreover Haas-Paquet proved to be a strict teacher: ‘I drove her to madness because I improvised rather more than I practiced, so when I played she often corrected me: “You missed that note again!” – But she was also very sensitive, and I learned a lot from her.’
Although he grows up in a musical environment, Stenz only visits a concert once as a child: ‘Around my tenth my father took me to the Beethovenhalle in Bonn. I don’t remember what was played, but I do remember the conductor. With his bald head he looked very much like Professor Charivari from my children’s book Raumschiff Monitor, which I liked. I suspect it was Georg Solti.’
A few years later he sees Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures on television. ‘A key moment! I thought it great that he brought jazz and classical music together in a self-evident way. He was so free in his thinking and illustrated his lectures with live music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, electrifying.’ At the age of eighteen he started studying conducting with Volker Wangenheim in Cologne and after that he took a course in Tanglewood with his hero Bernstein.
Stenz enjoys working with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, where he will regularly return as a guest conductor in the coming season. ‘I like the adventurous programming and the unconditional commitment of the musicians. The repertoire ranges from the classical canon – from Haydn to Beethoven through Mahler – to Dutch composers such as Rudolf Escher, Peter Schat and Joey Roukens. We’ve also performed a lot of concertante opera, often in combination with the Radio Choir, as last week we performed Die Gezeichneten Franz Schreker, and in 2017 we played the world première of Babylon Jörg Widmann.’
‘I hardly know of an orchestra that plays with more dedication and passion. We faced hard times because of the ongoing cuts on funding in the Netherlands, but we’ve responded to this with highly motivated playing. For me it is essential that an orchestra is able to play commissioned compositions. Discovering new avenues is a basic instinct, for all musicians. The great thing is that the public here has always been very open to the very latest notes.’
The reactions of the audience are of vital importance to Stenz anyway: ‘Without an audience there is no concert, they are the determining factor! We musicians are experience artists, we create art in the moment, and hopefully the audience will be carried away. It’s great when people come and tell us from the bottom of their hearts how much they liked a concert.’
‘I drew a lot of inspiration from the book Zen in the art of archery. It describes how in the perfect case it is not the shooter or the archer who shoots, but ‘it’. It may sound a bit ethereal, but at concerts I sometimes feel: now it becomes music, not I conduct, but ‘it’. – Those are magical moments.’
I interviewed Markus Stenz on Goethes Faust and his leave as chief conductor for the live broadcast of the concert on Radio 4.