The Northern Sinfonia’s star signing, Thomas Zehetmair, talks to David Whetstone after a dip in the North Sea.
ON a bright but seasonally brisk September morning up the Northumberland coast, Thomas Zehetmair pulls on his trunks, jogs towards the sea and plunges in.
Having suggested a swim some months ago (with an interview being the ulterior motive), it would seem churlish to do anything but follow in his wake – particularly since this will be his second dip of the day.
In the sea’s cool embrace, the Northern Sinfonia’s music director seems as much in his element as a seal.
Requesting, through slightly chattering teeth, that he doesn’t say anything interesting while my notebook is on dry land, he replies with a mischievous gurgle that it will be good for my memory. Then he strikes out in a purposeful front crawl.
It was in 2001 that Thomas Zehetmair was appointed music director of the North-East’s professional chamber orchestra, one national newspaper hailing the Austrian’s arrival as “the best signing since Alan Shearer”.
But while Newcastle United’s famous centre forward has put away his shin pads, Zehetmair is still in post, directing our orchestra onwards and upwards in pursuit of classical music’s equivalent of silverware.
Mostly – like soccer stars who let their football do the talking – Zehetmair has been content to communicate through the music: as director and conductor of the Sinfonia, violin soloist and founder of the Zehetmair Quartet, which he founded in 1994.
He has given very few interviews and none that I can recall to the North-East media. But he is hailed as a musicians’ musician and those who write about him reach regularly into their bag of superlatives.
The recent CD featuring Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Schumann’s Symphony No 4, recorded in Hall One of The Sage Gateshead, was chosen by BBC
Music magazine as its disc of the month. The review, harking back to Zehetmair’s “triumphant Proms performance in July 2006”, praises the recording for being “finely balanced”, “fast and flowing” and “exuberant”.
Zehetmair is a much-travelled ambassador, performing all over the world in his various roles. His association with the Northern Sinfonia, The Sage Gateshead and the North-East goes along with his luggage. Small wonder his face appears on some of those Passionate People, Passionate Places posters selling our wonders to the world. Here, on the cusp of autumn, is clear evidence that, in Thomas’s case at least, this is more than just a slogan.
After towelling himself dry, going through a swift yoga routine “to warm myself up” and posing for a photo, we head for the pub. Here Thomas is welcomed as a local, even though his Sinfonia contract binds him to the region for no more than eight weeks a year.
He has had a home in a coastal beauty spot since August 2003. When here, he swims daily whatever the season.
Splashing in the surf, he had spoken of the sea’s remarkable clarity off this coastline. Indoors he says: “It’s still our second home because I hold a professorship in Graz (Austria) where we’ve got our residence. But my wife and I fell really in love with this area so we decided to stay here rather than in a hotel.”
His wife is Ruth Killius, another talented musician who plays viola in the Zehetmair Quartet. It was she who saw their cottage advertised and, even though it had no electricity, curiosity led to a viewing.
Thomas Zehetmair was born in Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart. He attended the city’s Mozarteum and received violin lessons from his father, “a very distinguished teacher”. Mozart was also taught by his own dad. In the 21st Century, Salzburg milks its Mozart connection but Thomas, smiling, says: “He didn’t like Salzburg very much. He was kicked out by the Archbishop.”
Thomas says he was “not so young” when he first picked up the violin. “I was seven but I played already things on the piano when I was three.” He thrums his fingers, Chopsticks-style, on the wooden table.
Both his parents, in fact, played the violin and their son willingly followed suit. “I loved music all the time,” he says emphatically. “There was never any question about that. My father was a very good teacher and I’m very grateful because I wouldn’t have practised so much if he hadn’t pushed me.” However, unlike the piano, the violin was “a passion from the start”.
Asked about other types of music, Thomas obligingly cites The Beatles and says his wife grew up with Abba’s Greatest Hits. But he doesn’t sound wholly convincing. On surer ground, he admits: “It was classical music all the time. I was quite an outsider among children because they listened to completely different music.”
His mastery of the violin has led to a busy performance diary and many recordings. It was as a soloist that he first played with the Sinfonia and he recalls an instant bond.
He swiftly accepted the position of music director, which would enable him to develop his career as conductor. In this, he strives to emulate fellow Austrian Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who he names as one of his great inspirations. I had wondered about the relative satisfaction to be derived from playing violin and being the man with the baton. He says it’s the same, both being a means of delivering a great musical interpretation.
“My ambition with the Northern Sinfonia was to get the best out of the huge potential which was there,” he says.
“I think we are developing all the time. We have some fantastic young players and I am developing along with them, so it’s a general development. For all of us, The Sage Gateshead is a very inspiring environment. I took the job because of the orchestra but The Sage is one of the best halls in the world. You can really hear every note that you make and you can communicate very directly with the audience. Also I like the look of the hall, which is very beautiful. It was a fantastic moment when we opened it with Haydn’s Creation.”
The Northern Sinfonia, with Thomas Zehetmair conducting, launches the 2007-8 Classical Subscription Series in Hall One tomorrow with an all-Beethoven programme including the Fifth Symphony, the overture ‘Coriolan’ and the Piano Concerto no 4 with Paul Lewis as soloist.
It is a complete sell-out, which is heartening, but not entirely surprising. “We have a growing audience,” says Thomas. “I think it’s because the Northern Sinfonia is a fantastic orchestra and also because the hall brings people there. I think it’s against the national trend that the audience in this region is increasing but it’s a great thing.
“I have had the experience of doing some interesting programmes with some composers who many people don’t know and sometimes you get the reaction, ‘Oh, what a fantastic piece. We’d never heard of that’. But people know we will deliver these pieces in the best way we can.”
Among lesser known delights to come this season are Sibelius’s Symphony no 4 (December 2), “the first time for the orchestra and the first time in the new hall”, and the Hindemith Horn Concerto (November 29).
For the future, there’s the Northern Sinfonia’s 50th anniversary season in 2008, beginning with a full cycle of Beethoven symphonies.
The orchestra will also tour South America and the Far East, with concerts scheduled for South Korea and the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur.
This year’s action begins, however, with tomorrow’s Hall One concert, for which my swimming companion will prepare with his usual disciplined routine of stretching exercises which he recommends to anyone preparing to give heart and soul to the deliverance of musical masterpieces.
The Northern Sinfonia will then be back in action on October 14 and 20, with the Zehetmair Quartet taking the Hall One stage on October 24 with string quartets by Mozart, Hindemith and Schumann.
This will be Thomas Zehetmair’s sixth season with the orchestra. Everything he has striven for, he suggests, is starting to come together. Full houses could become as certain as the lure of the sea.
For tickets to all concerts tel (0191) 443-4661. For more information visit www.thesagegateshead.org