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Pianist Lars Vogt on his twin passions of music and football

Introducing Lars Vogt, music director designate of Royal Northern Sinfonia and billed by Sage Gateshead as "the new guy in town"

Lars Vogt the music director of the Northern Sinfonia
Lars Vogt the music director of the Northern Sinfonia

He is, according to flyers at Sage Gateshead, “the new guy in town”... in which capacity German concert pianist Lars Vogt has been talking to primary school pupils on Tyneside and inviting questions.

Up shot the hand of one little Newcastle girl. “How old are you?” she inquired.

“Well,” replied the new music director of Royal Northern Sinfonia (or, strictly speaking, music director designate, since his tenure does not officially start until September), “I am 44 which must seem very old to all of you.”

The little girl had a supplementary question: “Were you in the Second World War?”

The celebrated musician laughs as he recalls his earnest inquisitor and the teachers’ sharp intake of breath. “No, it is OK to mention the war,” he reassured them.

A first proper interview with the man chosen to replace the revered but ascetic Thomas Zehetmair suggests he will become a popular figure in the North East, even though he lives in Berlin and will be visiting only when concerts and other engagements require.

On Thursday night, before taking part as soloist and conductor in a concert in Hall One, he will announce the new classical programme for 2015-16 which includes the concerts of the resident chamber orchestra and of visiting orchestras and ensembles.

He confirms he had a hand in putting it together although he mainly concentrated on his own programme with the orchestra.

Lars Vogt the music director of the Northern Sinfonia
Lars Vogt the music director of the Northern Sinfonia

“I have worked with a lot of conductors over 25 years so I have opinions of who I think should be more closely related to the orchestra. But they also have many relationships with other conductors that they want to keep going. When I saw the names I could understand why. Good names... good people.”

The purpose of a music director, he suggests, is to work more closely with the orchestra over time, developing work and a relationship.

The Anglophile Vogt first performed with the orchestra in the early 1990s, before it was ‘Royal’.

“I work with lots of symphony orchestras around the world but also lots of (the smaller) chamber orchestras because part of my core repertoire has been Beethoven piano concertos. When I first came here I found the Northern Sinfonia were a particularly lively bunch.”

On stage or off? I wonder.

“Both. It goes together. A personal characteristic of some kind reflects in the music. If you are a bit reserved you’re also likely to be a bit reserved in music.

“My old piano teacher in Germany sat on a lot of competition juries and he once said to me, ‘Don’t say this to anybody but usually, when they first walk on stage, I already know’.”

Lars Vogt grew up in a town called Düren, midway between Aachen and Cologne. Neither of his parents, Paul and Marlies, played a musical instrument. “Of course,” he says, “it’s hard to say if they’re musical because it never really showed in that sense. My dad, whenever he does things in the house, always whistles and sings. He loves big bands.”

Harriet.Mayhew@sagegateshead.com Lars Vogt (front right), music director designate of Royal Northern Sinfonia, with members of the orchestra
Lars Vogt (front right), music director designate of Royal Northern Sinfonia, with members of the orchestra

Young Lars liked the music of his generation. “It was the big time of Abba, Bee Gees. I listened to some stuff that really embarrasses me now when I think of it... the glorious Seventies!”

He liked Sting, too, and says he bumped into him recently at Heathrow Airport and introduced himself. “He said (and he affects a laid-back Sting like drawl), ‘Oh, yeah, say hello to the bunch’. He’s a great guy – I like him.” Sting, of course, has performed with the Sinfonia at Sage Gateshead.

As a kid, says Vogt, he had twin passions – music and football. His dad played second league professional football and father and son would attend matches together.

Vogt, delighted his team Borussia Mönchengladbach is pushing for the Champions League, says: “I got into the city selection team when I was 13 and I was very proud of that but it didn’t go any further.”

He played in pretty much every position. “Once I even got into goal because the goalkeeper got bored when we were leading 8-0. I had to keep the zero.”

Also at 13 he won a national youth piano competition. “That was when it became clear this could be something for me.”

He had started having lessons at the age of six.

“I had a fantastic teacher, Ruth Weiss. She gave me tapes of the great pianists and when they came to Aachen she would say, ‘You have to come. This is more important than half a day of school’. At the time I thought she was slightly nuts but now I understand how absolutely right she was.”

Harriet.Mayhew@sagegateshead.com Lars Vogt conducting Royal Northern Sinfonia in a rehearsal at Sage Gateshead
Lars Vogt conducting Royal Northern Sinfonia in a rehearsal at Sage Gateshead

He says that while she cared for all her pupils she must have seen something in him. “She did make a special effort. She would say to me, ‘Your train goes in 10 minutes so you still have four minutes to practice.”

He doesn’t remember when he decided music could be a career because, thanks to his teacher, it never came to a decision. “She was so clever because she ensured it was always in the back of my head.”

The prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition of 1990 was the true moment of arrival. Vogt came second, an exceptional achievement for a young player.

“That was incredible,” he agrees. “I didn’t expect anything. My teacher basically said don’t go there but I said I’d try it and see what it was like. I got into the finals and played with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. That was a life-changing moment for me.”

He saw a TV programme about the conductor recently. “He said he couldn’t fall asleep because he had music in his head and thought it was normal. I could relate to that. I remember playing football and having melodies in my head and thinking everyone was the same.”

Older and wiser now – though not old enough for the Second World War – Lars Vogt knows it isn’t the same for everyone but he talks passionately about winning people over to classical music. “We need to get more young people in and we need to reach out to them,” he says.

He talks about his project in Germany, Rhapsody in School, which involves orchestral players performing for young people and encouraging them to share their thoughts and feelings about the music.

“If you don’t know anything there are always ways to connect with music. I ask the children, ‘What did you feel about this music? Was it happy? Sad? Dark?’ I have had some amazing discussions.”

He stresses he does not have all the answers. “I think that is the key wisdom in life. The wisest people know that they know nothing so I tell people it’s not a bad thing to know nothing. It’s really OK.”

He knows enough to be the soloist in Schumman’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto in A in a concert called The Romantics at Sage Gateshead on Thursday evening. There will be no conductor; or rather Vogt will be leading from the keyboard.

A conductor, he explains, is there to shape and colour a performance, making decisions 50 musicians can’t make spontaneously. The Schumann, though is something even some conductors avoid. “It is written in a genius but very awkward way.

“But Schumann was neurotic, crazy, mad. He died in a mental hospital and it’s reflected in the music.”

It has stood the test of time, however. Tickets for this latest concert by Lars Vogt and his orchestra are on sale at the box office: www.sagegateshead.com or 0191 443 4661.

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