An Interview with Joolz Gale

With the aim of making classical music more accessible to a younger crowd, Joolz Gale is a British conductor on an impassioned mission. On Wednesday 28th March Joolz will lead Klaus Simon’s arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 9 with a downsized ensemble at the Berliner Philharmonie.

- echoing the 1920′s Vienna trend for rearranged compositions for the intimate setting of Schönberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen. Curious to find out more about Joolz after witnessing his assertive sense of self-style and relentless energy during the last Mini-Mahler season, we caught up with him between rehearsals in Berlin.

Can you remember the moment you decided to become a conductor?

Yes, when I was 12 I was singing with Salisbury Cathedral Choir where I went to school. We were doing Britten’s Spring Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra and John Eliot Gardiner. He was very inspiring to all of us children who were singing, and it was then that I thought I’d really like to be a conductor. I would always ask my teachers to conduct at prep school, secondary school, and even at university, but they would never let me, so I  ended up being quite a late starter.

Are you considered young within your profession?

I’m young but not as young as a lot of the guys out there today. It is definitely right that the average age of a conductor is pretty old but in the last five years the idea of having younger talent on the podium is becoming more accepted by a lot of the good orchestras. There is a shortage of talent out there, so they keep going younger and younger, which is quite healthy for classical music. Though there is also a  problem as you see a lot of young conductors who all seem the same, so the acceptance of ‘characters’ has become less normal than it was, say 20-30 years ago, which is a great shame.

What do you love about your job?

I have never really seen it as a job, actually. I would have not done mini-Mahler if I saw it as a job because mini-Mahler is a huge risk for me – starting a new ensemble, starting a new project with musicians you don’t know, and a project that has never been done before. So you have to love what you do. And there is absolutely no point in trying to inspire other people if you’re not convinced yourself.

How did you become involved in the rearrangement of Gustav Mahler’s work?

It was an idea I had for many years. When I first started conducting I did an arrangement of Mahler’s 4th symphony, which was by a guy called Erwin Stein, he was a pupil and contemporary of Schoenberg and that fed into the idea of mini-Mahler because it was from there I realized that there was a wealth of repertoire which needed to be explored.  So I guess it was Schoenberg that had the idea and I just  stole it!

Have you got a favourite piece to perform?

To be honest my favorite piece to conduct is the piece I’m conducting for that week. I don’t really have favourite pieces, I have definitely had some amazing experiences and some pieces are far deeper than others, and there are different types of repertoire. Shostakovich is great fun to do and a few weeks ago I did Sibelius’s 7th Symphony which is really 20 minuets of emotional ecstasy. The other day someone asked me to do Beethoven’s 5th but I’m not  ready for it, I don’t have something to say about it. I love the piece but I don’t really feel I can lay claim to it, that I really know what I want to say. It would just take some years probably and then I might wake up one day and feel like it’s time.

What would be your ideal outfit to conduct in?

Well, I have been dying to conduct in a 17th century Mozart costume. I just think they dressed fantastic back in the days… or I like the idea of wearing something as though in an Elizabethan court. I love old Medieval clothing too. The great thing about that the 17th century time is that they would used a bit of powder on their faces, even the guys. I’m a great fan of make-up on men; but I don’t like it so much on women.

Do you have a favorite conductor?

I guess if I were a real conductor I would say me! I have many favorites,  Leonard Bernstein is up there, Carlos Kleiber is certainly one of my top guys. Kleiber oozes music that not many previously or since have really matched, he is pure music and he is also pure ego, you can tell he practices in the mirror but you don’t care because he’s pure music. Of course I like many of today’s conductors and young conductors too, Vladimir Jurowski, Antonio Pappano – he is the director at the Royal Opera House in London - Andris Nelsons is a very young conductor who’s just come onto the scene in a big way. I could never have a favorite as they are all good at different things.

Which venue has the best acoustics in your opinion?

Well, one of the best that I have conducted in is a little Teatro in a town called Guadalajara in Mexico, it’s a complete replica of La Scala Milan. It has incredible acoustics in there and I guess because it’s incredible there it is also at La Scala. The Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires also has an amazing acoustic. Actually, Latin America has some great halls.  In Venezuela and Brazil too.  I think for Mini-Mahler, the Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie Berlin – and I’m not saying this because I’m biased – is one of great great venues for this kind of repertoire, for chamber ensemble. So I’m very happy to be performing there, I think it’s wonderful. The Royal Albert Hall is great for stuff like Bruckner, It would be my dream to do Bruckner No. 9 in the Royal Albert Hall.

Philharmonie Berlin

You exert an impressive amount of energy on stage, do you ever find it hard to get motivated for a performance?

I hope not, but It depends, I’m very sensitive to the musicians I play with, so if the people in front of me do not reciprocate or collaborate then I find it really hard. I am learning as a young conductor to switch from the artist to the professional in difficult situations, even if people are not appreciating or giving you what you want. You have to be the number one Pro and do the best you can. Music making is one of the most intimate things you can do, after counting sex, classical music is a very very intense activity, it’s an emotionally intense activity – or it should be anyway – and basically for most conductors it’s like having  a one night stand. You see an orchestra for three days and you have this incredible intimacy and intensity together, in which you exchange all these emotions and artistic ideas and then suddenly you all go home and they go on to the next guy and you go on to the next girl. The great thing about having your own ensemble is that the relationship is a little more stable and I love the way that it grows and you can see the progress and you can see it getting better and better and developing together and interacting together. That is actually what I love about doing ensemble mini.

Does conducting make you a better dancer?  

I don’t know about that because there are many conductors who can’t dance on the podium, but I would say that being a good dancer would probably make you a better conductor. For me personally, I find it easier to dance having been a conductor, for sure.

Why have you chosen to live in Berlin and what are your favorite things to do here?

Why not.. My life here is really spontaneous, I don’t have a daily routine. Sometimes I might go to Mauer Park on Sundays. I like to go to  Bonanza Coffee or The Barn, there are some great coffee places in this town (I hated coffee before moving here). I play a lot of poker, actually I spend more time playing poker than anything else. I tend to play with musicians, lots of them from the Philharmoniker and Deutsches Symphonie, and very occasionally I might go to a casino which is really good fun. In terms of going out to music events, when I first got here I went to all of the usual places like Watergate etc. but now I don’t have so much time, so when I do go out I try to be selective and only do worthwhile stuff. I am becoming far more worldly in my musical taste, whether it’s African, Arabic or Balkan. I have a friend Roland Satterwhite, who’s a great gypsy folk violinist and I always go to his  gypsy swing shows. I also love drum n bass but I generally like the world scene more now.

What other music do you listen to?

Well I tend not to listen to classical music after nine in the evening and I tend not to listen to it early morning, so that just leaves the afternoon. Radio 4 is my big thing and if it’s not that in the morning, I tend to put on stuff that feels positive. For example, the last few days I have been playing Wax Tailor, their stuff is sampling – like a better form of The Avalanches. I love funk and latino music; I’ll listen to that stuff any day. When I was younger I bought all the Best of Dance cassettes from 1994 – 1997 then I switched to the Ministry of Sound compilations on CD; I loved the Chillout sessions. I also liked Ace of Base, No Doubt, Michael Jackson’s Blood on the Dancefloor was always on, and I still really like Radiohead, it’s the one thing I have really stuck to (and Michael Jackson, of course).

See Joolz in action Wednesday 28th April at the Berliner Philharmonie