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CityMusic Cleveland: an interview with cellist Jan Vogler
Mike Telin, October 4, 2011

Cellist Jan Vogler’s impressive 2011-12 calendar includes appearances with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Fabio Luisi, the Munich Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel, the Czech Philharmonic, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Curtis Symphony with Robert Spano.

Next week Jan Vogler comes to Cleveland for five performances of the Dvořák Cello Concerto with City Music Cleveland beginning on Wednesday, October 12 at 7:30 with a concert at Fairmount Presbyterian Church.

Vogler’s most recent recording, released in July, is an all-Schubert album with the Moritzburg Festival on the SONY label featuring the Piano Quintet in A Major as well as five different versions of the song on which it is based, Schubert’s own “Die Forelle” (The Trout), Op.32. His SONY recording, The Secrets of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson has won multiple awards.

When Mr. Vogler is not performing he serves as the new General Director of the Dresden Musikfestspiele and is the founder and Artistic Director of the Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival. We Spoke to Jan, a most entertaining fellow, by telephone just after he had returned to his home in Dresden following ten days of rehearsals, concerts and meetings.

Mike Telin: I understand you’ve been quite busy?

Jan Vogler: Yes, I was in Hanover yesterday night, where I was playing Shostakovich with Lorin Maazel, and then I was in Berlin for some meetings today and then I just drove back to Dresden where I have my second home, and tomorrow morning I’m flying back to New York, which is my first home. So everywhere I go I feel like I rest only for a few hours and then go to the next place.

MT: I just finished listening to your recording of the Dvořák concerto with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, and I truly enjoyed it. I was intrigued with the concept: how did you decide to pair it with the Stephen Foster Songs?

JV: In the beginning it was just for myself because I wanted to find a new and fresh approach in order to be motivated to record it. So I was doing some research with the score and trying to find out where the themes really come from, and is the old story true that it is really Bohemian folk songs? Then I tripped over a book by Michael Beckerman, and read a little bit of what he wrote about Dvořák and Czech music, so I contacted him through e-mail and we started a discussion about Dvořák. I told him that I really think Dvořák was mostly inspired by American tunes, and why would he not be? He had just finished his American period and why would he suddenly go back to all of the Bohemian themes?

So this started the discussion and together we took the piece apart a little bit. Then we came back to the old story about Dvořák’s wife’s sister, with whom he was in love and who was dying in the Czech Republic while he was writing the piece. And so for me, it was extremely motivating to find out all of these possibly true facts. Michael was a very good training partner because he is a musicologist, so he would not say, ‘Yes, that’s absolutely true’, but instead he would say ‘that’s possible’. So he was great to keep me from going overboard, but to really say, ‘could the second theme be “Go tell it on the mountain” Could it be a negro spiritual? ‘Yes, it could’. He was a very inspiring partner. When I finally recorded the piece I felt like I did have a new approach, I had more imagination and motivation to really play my own Dvořák. I needed to overcome the Dvořák from my study times; you know what you learn and what you are told.

MT: Do you always take such pains when you are learning or about to record something?

JV: I am not a composer except for a little cadenza here or there, so I feel the only thing I can provide is to update my playing according to the development my time. So if I do observe my time then I can be a good musician of my time, and for me that is very interesting. I always think that if I haven’t looked at a score for five years really intensively I feel like my interpretation is getting a little old. So I have to really refresh it and look for new inspirations because I think that is the only thing that makes us unique. If I’m gone in twenty years, I am sure there will be a wonderful cellist who will come along and play the Dvořák concerto. The score will continue to exist hopefully for eternity. But my job is to understand my time, and to be a modern reflection of what Dvořák means in my time, and not so much only by looking at the traditions that we all grew up with.

MT: You are certainly a person of your time. While researching you I stumbled upon some videos of you at this summer’s Dresden Music Festival, where you did some performances with the Korean pop singer Bi-Rain.

JV: You’re right! That was also something that I really felt would be a very nice possibility to build a bridge. I met Bi-Rain in Korea. It’s a long story that I will try to make short, but the German President back then took me on a state visit to Korea as a cultural ambassador, so I played at the dinner where the presidents met and played at a number of important occasions. But what stuck most in my head was meeting the biggest pop start in Korea, Bi-Rain, who has like one hundred million fans. It’s totally absurd for a classical musician to even think of. When we went to a restaurant we had to have the roads closed to make it possible to even eat. So I casually asked him if he would like to come to Dresden for a concert, and he said sure, so that’s how we started this but it really brought together two different worlds.

It was a concert that was very touching, because lot of kids who would never come to a classical music concert came and listened to Bach. We had both agreed that we should both present our music in its purest forms first, and then come together for two songs. We didn’t want to do crossover, we really wanted to just show friendship. It was very interesting because I really played Bach in the beginning and he really sang his songs and then I played introductions to his songs that were composed by a friend from New York, so it was something that I could contribute to make his song different. And at the end of the concert it was basically that he went his way and I went mine again. So we really were only showing a moment of collaboration, but that was the idea: kind of Post-Crossover.

MT: I thought it was great. I saw, I think four videos, all of which I am sure are not legal.

JV: Totally not legal, but there were a lot of TV stations both Korean and German, and they all did reports on the concert. But Bi-Rain told me that ‘tomorrow you will see about a hundred different videos on YouTube’, because he knows that this is the way it is in the pop scene. Everybody takes out their iPhones and they take these videos, so it’s just what people do, and they include it in blogs. It’s very funny. Very different from Classical music.

MT: What kind of reaction did the concert receive in the press?

JV: Actually ninety-five percent positive, and the five percent critical I liked because I thought that it would have been too bad if everybody loved it. In the beginning it was the classical audience who bought the tickets and then the Korean fans realized that Bi-Rain was singing and it’s really him, so they bought the rest of the tickets.

So we did realize that we would have two different audiences, and at first I was quite concerned about that. So that is why we made some introduction videos from the beginning at the Opera House in Dresden, where we were talking about what we are going to do so that people were introduced to the idea. The video was made in Potsdam in front of the castle from the Baroque times, showing off the traditions, and we spoke about the bridge and friendship. We made a lot of effort to make it work. And in the end we really felt that we were able to bring the audiences together.

The classical audience was much older, and the fans of Bi-Rain are between sixteen and ninety-three, but mostly sixteen. But we really brought them together: the classical fans were very thrilled, they said how nice it was to see all these young kids being so quiet during the Bach. I think that his fans thought, OK, Jan brought Rain to Dresden so Jan is Rains friend, and because he’s Rain’s friend, he’s also our friend, and now he’s going to play the cello so we’ll listen. They were very sincere, and I got a lot of letters and notes from them, so it was very nice. It was a big risk, it could have gone wrong, and I would have had no problem taking the blame, one needs to try things every once in a while.

MT: You were awarded the Erich Kastner Prize this past January from the Dresden Press Club: why did they decide to honor you with the award?

JV: Well I would like to know that too, because the winners are usually big politicians, they are always much older and far more important people who did a lot more for society then me. But I do try with the cello to influence society a little bit. I try to see my cello as a tool to communicate something good about life, because music truly can bring people together — that’s not just a phrase — and I think this award is a little bit for that. But I feel like, OK, now I really need to work hard to make it appropriate for me to have been chosen for the award. But I guess they felt that I did something for society.

MT: Have you always had this interest, I mean the humanitarian aspect of music?

JV: Yes, and I think my heroes in music or in cello playing are people who were. I’m thinking of the great cellists like Pablo Casals, and Rostropovich, people who saw something bigger. I grew up with that because I read their books. I read about them while I heard their music and I was impressed with how they could take the cello to be an ambassador. I love my cello. I feel as fresh with the cello as I felt when I was six years old. I mean I still feel in love with playing the cello. But also it was a little bit like replacing the shrink. (Laughing) so if you have a relationship with the cello which is just personal love that you don’t share, it can become very complicated. So once you share that love and once you see a bigger meaning, some aspects which might be quite a dead end, they disappear, they become smaller, then other aspects about music that are truly more important become bigger. And they lead you to better results.