Christmas Interview: The Flying Dutchman Antony HermusGroup Editor and opera fan Andrew Palmer caught up with internationally renowned conductor Antony Hermus, who, as principal guest conductor of Opera North, is preparing for an electrifying production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. They discuss the parlous state of classical music, what made him become a conductor and his fervour for Opera North.
Antony Hermus © C Heysel
By the end of my interview with Dutch conductor Antony Hermus, I am convinced that the doom mongers sounding the death knell for classical music are wrong.
There is a future, despite the declining listening numbers on Classic FM and BBC Radio 3.
An hour with the Principal Guest Conductor of Opera North and I am feeling upbeat. Perhaps Radio 3 should consult him; he has plenty of inspirational ideas on how to revive the fortunes of the genre.
There is no let up in Hermus’ schedule as the musical dynamo, known for his collaborative style, is flying here, there, and everywhere, cramming in rehearsals before the Christmas break.
Hermus comes from a half musical family. His father, a banker and amateur musician, conducted the local church choir. “He’s one of those people who has music in his bones although it was not his profession. In ten years he turned a nine-member church choir into a strong fifty-person chorus that could sing at an admirable level.”
After five minutes I was in awe, I just went ooh, this is cool.
He owes a lot to his dad, who he will be joining at Christmas when he returns to his home town Oosterhout to play the organ. It was piano that inspired the young Hermus’ love of music.
“As I got better at the piano, my father said I should accompany the chorus, which was fun. I learnt a lot, especially how to build teams because my father was brilliant at it. He is a people person, passionate about music.”
Antony Hermus © C Heysel
And, it seems, Hermus is a chip off the old block, an enthusiast who knows how to bring people along with him.
His mother was not a musician but knew what was good. When she attended a concert, if something was not as excellent as it should be she would say: ‘Now Antony, I don’t know what happened today, but it was maybe not its best.’ I start to laugh because my mum used to say similar things after hearing me play the organ! Like Frau Hermus she felt everything, having a sixth sense.
“Cool, you’re an organist,” he remarks, the first of many signs that Hermus knows how to communicate.
He pinpoints several occasions throughout his life that triggered his interest in conducting, the first as a member of the Dutch Nightingales youth choir.
“When I was 14, my piano teacher who was accompanying the local opera company in Bizet’s Carmen
, said: ‘Antony can you come along and turn the pages for me.’ After five minutes I was in awe, I just went ooh, this is cool.
Talking about Opera North he is animated, enthusiastic and excited about what the company is doing for the next generation...
“Andrew, that was the start and now Carmen
always occurs at certain key points in my life.”
On another occasion Antony was due to play the Grieg Piano Concerto
with an incredibly good amateur orchestra and on the evening of the first rehearsal the conductor cancelled and suggested the whole thing be axed.
“I said, no, no, no, I want to play this, we will find a way but let everyone come. It was then I realised that I had a certain idea about music in my head and how it needs to sound.”
It was also the Hermus lightbulb moment - he signed up for Jac van Steen’s conducting class, who, as it happens, has a connection to Opera North.
A year into his study van Steen suggested Hermus went off to Germany to gain experience working in an opera house.
“One can do everything: play for different stage rehearsals, coach the singers in their roles, rehearse the off-stage bands.”
Antony Hermus © Marco Borggreve
A traineeship was organised in Hagen, a city in the Ruhr area of Germany, with an exceptionally good theatre, orchestra, ballet company and chorus, a little bit smaller than Opera North. He enjoyed it and for his graduation piece chose Carmen. He had only been there a year when the head of music left and at the age of 25, he took over the role.
“I told them I didn’t know any opera except the six that we had already done and Carmen, of course. Yes, they replied, but you can organise!”
He tried it out and it was like a baptism of fire. As a young conductor he was often expected to go into the pit without a rehearsal. “You just had to survive.”
“The orchestra made things work because as a young conductor you need to make up the flying hours because you can’t practise your instrument at home. One can study as much as one wants but it is real time that is needed.
"I was lucky, the general music director would watch me conduct and say very well done but that place went wrong because you did this, and you needed to do that. Here you were following the singer but maybe there you should lead but don’t worry, next week you can conduct again.”
After five years the music director left, and the management tried out several people for the role, but no one seemed suitable. The committee asked for an orchestral vote whether as to Hermus should be appointed, and after a unanimous result the young 28-year old took up the position.
“The orchestra was very supportive, and I worked very hard for them too.”
... one of my personal slogans is ‘everybody loves classical music, but some haven’t found out about it yet.’
Ten years in Hagen went quickly, eventually leading him to spend six years at Dessau as music director, performing The Ring; he admits to being a Wagner addict. Whilst there his mother died, leading him to question why he was always 800 Km away from his family.
After a re-evaluation of his life, Hermus decided to head back to Amsterdam, joining the North Netherlands Orchestra as Principal Guest Conductor.
Opera North's performance of Tosca conducted by Antony Hermus in 2018
Photo credit - Richard H Smith
At around the same time he accepted an invitation from Opera North to conduct Puccini’s Tosca, subsequently becoming Principal Guest Conductor, working with the “fantastic Garry Walker.” Since this season he also became the Belgian National Orchestra’s Chief Conductor based in Brussels.
As the Christmas holiday approaches Hermus will be working, as he does during his annual summer break, preparing scores: “I always have lots of stress if things are left to the last minute. I delve deep into the score making it readable as I need to know if I am called to a rehearsal tomorrow, I would survive.”
Preparation is an important skill as time management is one of the key elements of the job, he tells me.
“I must plan. For example, what cues do I need to give, how long is a certain section, what tempo will I beat, what kind of voices are there in the opera house, do I know anything about the staging? I try to collect as much information as possible focusing on the detail.
“It gives me a kind of security and relaxedness to eliminate any stress.”
It was accepted because young people thought if David Bowie likes it, it will be OK.
There is a lot to discuss, and I am keen to hear his views on the state of classical music in the UK so I throw in a quotation of Isaac Stern:
‘Playing music in America you feel you’re selling a luxury item; but in England you’re providing a necessity.’
He starts cogitating and at this point moves from legato to enthusiastic staccato in his delivery.
Opera North's performance of Marriage of Figaro in 2020 conducted by Antony Hermus.
Photo credit - Robert Workman
“Andrew, many things are bubbling up in my mind. First, we have to believe in something; one of my personal slogans is ‘everybody loves classical music, but some haven’t found out about it yet.’
“It starts with the words ‘classical music’ - classical immediately puts the music in a certain frame… considered boring by some and for older people.
“Interestingly, two weeks ago I participated in the Ars Musica Festival of Contemporary Music with the Belgian National Orchestra, the creation of Brussels composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps.
“It’s particularly good and the theme was Big Science. I was given a Fiction Science concert, with the tag line - ‘Celestial or galactic, the music of science fiction films opens up new sound spaces, to meet the worlds of the future.’
“We had the world Premiere of Fafchamps’ Celestial shadow
and I included John Williams’ theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- the start sounds as if it could be by Ligeti. Jerry Goldsmith’s No Escape (Planet of the Apes)
and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra
concluded the program.
“Not every day bread, but it was sold out with 2000 people, among them 300 students cheering us along. How is this possible?”
It doesn’t stop there. Just before David Bowie’s death there was an Exhibition across Europe. In Groningen where the North Netherlands Orchestra is based, they decided to hold a concert.
Antony Hermus conducting Orfeo ed Euridice in 2022
Photo credit - Justin Slee
The musical director, Marcel Mandos, thought up a great programme. It transpires that Bowie was a fan of John Adams, so his Short ride in a fast machine
was included. One of Bowie’s biggest hits was Heroes
, so we played Philip Glass’ Heroes Symphony
, and there was also Strauss’ Four Last Songs
, which was the inspiration for his album Heathen
“Do you know Andrew, it was twice sold out, 1500 people at each concert.
“It was accepted because young people thought if David Bowie likes it, it will be OK. Of course, we also played a David Bowie medley at the end.
“I know it’s a little clichéd, but it is about finding connections."
How then, do we make connections?
“It starts at the base in schools making young people aware of music, rhythm, melody. Giving them the wonderful gift of music.
“When I was eight, my music teacher gave me a tape of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, suggesting I listen to them. I’ve never forgotten the feeling.
“Let me give you another Dutch quotation: “it is not so important who is the music director of your orchestra, it is much more important who the music teacher is at school.”
It’s a great quotation and I am eager to tie it in with Opera North’s excellent work.
Very many people say there is only good and bad music, whether it be classical, jazz, pop it doesn’t matter… music is a connection.
His eyes light up as he tells me the secret to how Opera North makes itself relevant, questioning all the time: why are we playing? What are we doing?
“Last season Opera North performed Monteverdi’s Orpheus
, it was brilliant, stunning, and amazing, combing Monteverdi with music of our time and other cultures, mixing it up into a brilliant artistic product. Everyone was mesmerised, it was incredible.”
Talking about Opera North he is animated, enthusiastic and excited about what the company is doing for the next generation, recognising it is especially important and essential if we want to continue to see audiences grow.
“Find something for the audience, get them in and most of the time they stay,” he declares.
He has yet another example, telling me about his brother, a die-hard rock fan. One of the biggest pop festivals of the Benelux is Lowlands, where fifty thousand people attend. There is a Sunday morning classical music spot. As artistic adviser to the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands he was invited to perform Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet
in front of 8000 people.
Opera North understands it very clearly: culture, theatre and music are not the cherry on the cake but the flour in the dough.
“My brother is eight years younger than me and although we are close, he almost never comes to any of my concerts - it is not his world. Suddenly, big brother was at Lowlands, and he was there joining in with the shouts from the crowd. It was like a pop concert, utterly astounding. Normally in classical music, it is silent with coughing frowned upon.
“At the end of this brilliant event the audience went completely crazy at the Death of Tybalt
with its 16 beats. It was the recognition after the first four beats when they started clapping along. It was incredible.
Afterwards, my brother asked me if I had a recording of this 'Prokofiev', so I lent him one, it is still in his car as he listens to it regularly.
“Very many people say there is only good and bad music, whether it be classical, jazz, pop it doesn’t matter… music is a connection.
“If I can come back in the next life, I would have one essential wish, I would like to find another name for classical music.
“We just need to loosen up the framework; even opera sounds like we must get our bow ties on. It’s just not true.
“That’s where Opera North scores, it is doing a great job, concerts are well attended as well as opera performances. We have a challenging and interesting season coming up: Tosca, The Cunning Little Vixen,
and for the first time Ariadne auf Naxos.
Ariadne auf Naxos at Göteborgs Opera 2018 © Mats Bäcker
As well as Wagner he tells me he is also addicted to Strauss. Well, I say that makes two of us and after a quick digression about his love of playing jazz harmonies in his free time and how Strauss serves him well, we return to Ariadne.
“The score has so many colours and layers almost everyone in the string section is playing an individual part. Instead of sections, its divisions with solo parts and there are three keyboards: harmonium, piano and celesta.”
“It’s accessible, has energy, passion and is touching, everyone should definitely come along as it will be a special evening.”
Talking of energy and passion, Hermus has it in copious amounts, especially when talking about the special connection he has with Opera North.
“Thinking about our earlier discussions Andrew, on how to tackle the challenges in classical music, I think Opera North understands it very clearly: culture, theatre and music are not the cherry on the cake but the flour in the dough.
“Opera North is living that very well. They are not trying to be elite - they want to be in the middle of, and part of, society. It’s where they shine.”
He is thrilled with the new youth orchestra that Oliver Rundell recently started and is looking forward to nourishing the connection and taking a rehearsal.
“All these initiatives, the orchestra, the chorus, it’s all remarkable.
“The orchestra is connected, whether chamber music, concerts, accompanying pop songs or opera galas, performing at Millennium Square or pop ups, they do all these things well. They never tolerate a lesser level always aspiring to be high quality, which I adore, they take everything that they do very seriously.
I could chat for ages with this amicable, highly accessible, non-stuffy conductor, such is the energy around us, but he has a Mahler 10 to prepare for as well as a flying visit to Leeds for a quick Ariadne
But its back to Holland for Christmas, to be with his family, playing for the new director of his father’s chorus. Not knowing who Antony was, when his dad suggested his son played the organ but would not need a rehearsal, she was a bit hesitant. After visiting his website, she knew like all of us, that this flying Dutchman unlike the doomed ship of the same name, is a stable, inspiring and encouraging force.
Ariadne auf Naxos runs from 18th February 2023 until 24 March 2023 at
Leeds Grand Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quay. Theatre Royal, Nottingham and Theatre Royal, Newcastle.
More info on venues and dates here
The Orchestra of Opera North Viennese Whirl concert is 30 & 31st December 2022 at Huddersfield Town Hall and Hull Town Hall
Puccini - Tosca
- runs from 21 Jan 2023 until 1 April 2023 at multiple venues
Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen
- runs from 4th February 2023 until 1 April at multiple venues.
More information here