Music as the art of bringing joy to the world

Andrew Manze is not a star of the conducting world. He doesn’t have a cult around him. He is not a tyrant. He doesn’t believe classical music is in need of a savior. Andrew Manze is simply a wonderful musician, who loves making music and sharing his passion for music with fellow musicians and audiences around the world. In a way, he’s the best kept secret of the classical world, an endearing musician who seems to be humble and sweet-natured, or as Harmut Welscher explained in an excellent and comprehensive article on Manze for Van Magazine, the “antidote” to the star system:

« Manze is a maestro, but our conversation is an antidote to the poisonous term. He’s neither brash nor arrogant nor a diva. He’s a witty storyteller, an avid listener and a cultivated host. « 

Andrew Manze started his musical career as a baroque violinist, and was a star in his field. While reading Welscher’s article I was quite amazed to discover that Manze was considered to be « the enfant terrible of the British early music scene », because of his boldness and the freedom of his interpretations. He progressively shifted his interest from playing the violin to conducting, becoming associate director of The Academy of Ancient Music in 1996, then the artistic director of the English Concert in 2003, and finally principal conductor and artistic director of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. It was during his tenure in Helsinborg that he decided to stop playing the violin for good and to focus exclusively on conducting, as he felt that early music was going into a dead end and was becoming far too dogmatic for him.

While his early career as a musician led him to specialize in 17th and 18th century music, which he said was a « detour » for him, his career as a conductor has allowed him to return to his « first love », i.e. nineteenth- and twentieth-century orchestral music. One can say there are two periods in Andrew Manze’s life as a musicians, which are relatively distinct in terms of repertoire, which is quite obvious when you look at his discography.

As a conductor Andrew Manze has this rare ability to transform the sound of an orchestra, as was stressed by Kristin Skjølaas, one of the members of the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra. What is so wonderful about this conversation is that Manze’s love for the music and the musicians is so palpable. He also says something extremely interesting that sums up very well his style of conducting: « We should be in the business of creating onstage. So we should be listening to ourselves all the time and questioning the piece. » That’s how I feel whenever I listen to Manze’s albums. He makes even well-known pieces sound very fresh and full of surprises, as if these pieces were performed for the very first time. That’s an immense quality, because he never loses the sense of the orchestral balance when he highlights certain details in a score, but on the contrary he knows how bring out certain details almost naturally, while taking great care of building a coherent and somewhat organic reading of a piece, with a remarkable sense of phrasing and articulation.

Interesting in his video he is interviewed about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which he recorded recently with the NDR Philharmonie. He explains that the danger with Beethoven’s Fifth is that as musicians think they know it, they « might slip into an automatic way of playing, which is like a physical memory of the picture of the piece ». He considers that the « overall issue is between darkness and light and joy », and he explains that he is « more and more trying to find the joy » in this piece, in which even though there is a « heaviness » expressed with « grandeur and nobility », this symphony is for him « full of joy and love ». In Manze’s disc, what struck me was how poetic Manze’s interpretation was: it’s full of light and he manages to make this music sing in a unique manner, especially by bringing forward the wind parts, with some wonderful solos by the musicians of the NDR Philharmonie. In the very first text I wrote for this blog, I had noticed how apollonian was Manze’s interpretation of the violin concerto with James Ehnes and the RLPO, and the same can be said about this album which is characterized by great balance, clarity and elegance. One other noticeable aspect of this performance is that the overall sound coming from the orchestra is dense, but not thick. Here, as Andrew Farach-Colton analyzed it in the April 2020 issue of Gramophone Magazine, comparing Manze’s disc to another recent release, Andrew Manze « demonstrates how it’s possible to highlight the melody’s shifting metric emphases while maintaining a dolce, singing line ».

In Symphony No 7, Manze’s lightens the sound of the orchestra and finds a great balance between the structure of the symphony and its energy, so that the music breathes and sings in the most joyful manner. Once more the woodwinds shine in this recording by the beauty of their playing. Manze’s style as a conductor in Beethoven is far from the hieratic style of a George Szell and he rather makes me think of the more gentle Bruno Walter. In George Liébert’s book on the art of conducting, there is a beautiful text by Bruno Walter which seems to correspond perfectly to Andrew Manze’s art as a conductor:

« The ideal musical interpreter will be the one who, fully penetrated by the work, will concentrate entirely on it, but who, at the same time, will mobilize in its restitution all the strength of his own personality, and therefore also the pleasure of bringing into play his own talent; it will be the one who will have preserved the joy of making music that he felt in his young years, and who will be able to transmit to his interpretation his profound nature, because it will have entered into an intimate alliance with that of the composer. » [Personal translation] (George Liébert, L’art du chef d’orchestre, Pluriel, Editions Fayard)

The profoundly gentle and joyful nature of Andrew Manze is quite evident when one hear him conduct music, as well as in his interviews and masterclasses. He is not convinced of his own greatness, nor is he career driven. He is simply a very hard-working, humble and joyful musicians who loves his craft and his colleagues, and who puts music first.

If you want to listen to more albums conducted by Andrew Manze, here is a selections of the ones I appreciated the most in recent years:

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