Frank Cramer and the natural flow of interpretation

Interview for Gli Amici della Musica by Maria Dell

I met Maestro Cramer at the Semper Opera in Dresden, where he will debut in May 2008 with Mozart’s Magic Flute. He has been conducting in Italy for many years - always highly acclaimed by audience and critics alike. Frank Cramer doesn’t like to speak about himself but as soon as we’ve broken the ice he grants us this interview with a friendly smile on his face.

When and how did your profession as a conductor begin? I’m sure you didn’t wake up one morning and said to yourself: now I want to conduct... did certain experiences lead to the decision, did your family or anybody else influence you in any way?

I started playing the piano when I was 5 years old. My family supported my enthusiasm about music but they never rushed me into it. Jacques Offenbach is a paternal relative of mine, but at the time I didn’t even have a clue who he was. When I was 14 I went to a musical grammar school and was at the same already a young piano and trumpet student at the renowned Folkwang Hochschule (University of the Arts) in Essen. I really was a good pianist and trumpet player, but I already was secretly fascinated by the conductor profession. I visited every concert I could and so the desire to study conducting grew steadily. A youth concert by the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra at the time included Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question - this wonderful small piece in which the trumpet from afar repeatedly asks the question about the meaning of life. I was 16 and played the trumpet solo part. That is when I met the concert’s conductor, who then became my first conducting teacher...

You look back on a long and solid career, as well as on a not only varied but also impressive repertoire. Can you tell us a bit about the milestones of your career?

After studying in Hamburg - where I was deeply influenced by my teacher Horst Stein - I started to pursue the classic Germany conductor career and had permanent engagements, working at various theatres in Germany and Austria for 12 years. During this time I practically learned the profession from scratch and especially accumulated an extensive opera repertoire. Since successfully conducting Aida at the Sferisterio di Macerata in 1989 I have been working as a guest conductor in Europe, the USA, East Asia, and South Africa, and I have conducted numerous concerts with works from all areas of the symphonic repertoire. In the course of time many radio, TV and CD recordings such as those with the Bamberg Symphonic Orchestra for example document my work as an artist. I also teach orchestra conducting at the Karlsruhe Music Academy.

Your upcoming performances include concerts in Seoul and Jena, then in the Prinzregenten Theatre in Munich with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester (Munich Radio Orchestra). Can you tell us something about these programs?

The largest and most demanding work in the programs is Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. It is his last composition, which he wrote in 1940, three years before he died. In it Rachmaninov refers to many moments in his earlier compositions as if reviewing his own past life. The music is extraordinary colorful, contemplative and melancholic, but also boasts rhythmic vitality, it’s difficult and complex, and not often heard. Prior to the Dances we will be playing Haydn’s Symphony No.101 (The Clock), and Mozart’s Oboe Concert. Last year I already worked with the Korean Symphony Orchestra when we performed The Mermaid by Alexander Zemlinsky that was recorded by Korean television. That was an extremely good cooperation and a huge success so that I’m really looking forward to meeting this wonderful orchestra again. Of course it’s also very appealing to conduct the Symphonic Dances with the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra again in Germany immediately after Korea. In this concert we start with Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho- Suite, followed by Korngold’s Violin Concert, works that are all rarely played. I will be conducting the Münchner Rundfunkorchester (Munich Radio Orchestra) in the Prinzregenten Theatre with pieces by Rossini, Mozart, Rosetti, R. Strauss, Egk, and Gershwin. It’s a program that requires high flexibility and stylistic efficiency of both the conductor and the orchestra. The concert will be broadcast live which makes it especially exciting.

How does a conductor prepare for a concert or an opera? What goals do you have?

It has always been my ambition to get as close to the composer’s intention as possible. I’m old-fashioned in that respect and believe that to be the interpreter’s best and foremost obligation. My own personality automatically flows into my interpretation without any action on my part. I am thoroughly studying this score. I furthermore want to understand the meaning the piece had at the time of its creation, so I learn about the entire contemporary historic context of the composition and the composer’s other works and so on. When I step up in front of an orchestra this intellectual contention moves to the background and at that point the composition has already become a part of me.That way a natural flow emerges, an implicitness of the interpretation...

I’m sure you have been asked the following question many times: which do you prefer conducting a concert or an opera? An opera is surely more demanding or am I wrong?

I have no such preference. On the one hand conducting an opera is more demanding regarding the craft as such - the coordination with the stage, responding to the singers’ and the choir’s particularities, maybe longer distances. On the other hand the scenario is also helpful, as an opera conductor is never alone. If you are lucky enough to work with wonderful soloists and if you have a good compelling production, it will go like clockwork. In a concert you have the sole responsibility. There’s just the music, the orchestra and yourself - which is demanding and wonderful in its own way.

What are the strengths of your repertoire?

For me it’s the music’s quality that counts, a specialization has never been of interest to me. Regarding concerts my preferred composers are Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. In the past years have just as passionately taken on composers outside of the prevalent repertoire such as the late romantics like Zemlinsky, Korngold, Stephan, and Nielsen or 20th century composers such as Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Schoenberg, and Webern. When it comes to opera I especially like to conduct Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and Strauss. As a pianist I like playing Bach best.

You have done a lot of conducing in Italy. Some say that our orchestras are less disciplined than those in other countries. Did you ever have to make an extra effort to be respected by an Italian orchestra?

On the contrary! I have always immensely enjoyed working with Italian orchestras, whether in Turin, Verona, Genoa, Florence, Cagliari,Trieste or Udine, just to name a few. In my opinion it’s the wonderful combination of professionalism and emotion that makes the Italian orchestras so special. Add their humor and the pleasant ease in their communication - that makes working with them a pure joy!

What attributes of your work fit your personality’s attributes best?

Clarity, sincerity, passion, candor, consistency, and humor

...a wish for the future and an ever-present passion?

Health and love