Lars Vogt – All in for the big picture of music

On the morning of his sold-out Zankel Hall chamber recital with violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, pianist Lars Vogt opens Carnegie Hall’s backstage door for me. The trio’s artists hail from Germany and are Grammy-nominated musicians of the highest caliber. Vogt has a busy schedule before the evening concert, and I am in awe that he is making time for our meeting. (photo credit: Neda Navaee)

We had corresponded beforehand on some occasions about Rhapsody in School, the initiative Vogt founded 2005 in Germany that brings classical performers into classrooms. The project aims to create personal encounters between students and charismatic musicians that are geared to ignite the next generation’s curiosity and passion for classical music—a passion that has clearly declined in a generation overpowered by popular culture.

I had initially been smitten with the glorious idea behind the catchy name, quickly becoming aware of the team effort required to sustain the passion project. Especially in view of the stark differences within the US education system and existing educational outreach programs for the arts, building a similar platform inspired by the German model here in New York, makes for a challenging, if much warranted endeavor to aspire to.

In Germany, the creative initiative was able to cover ground successfully. Supported by sponsors and partnerships with concert producers and festivals, around 200 school visits by accomplished musicians take place year around. Lately Rhapsody in School has expanded its reach into Opera, special workshops and its own, kids involved concert productions.

Naturally, I wanted to hear more about how the project developed in its initial phase. “The idea actually developed during one of the sessions at the festival,” remembers Vogt, referring to his chamber music festival Spannungen, which translates to “Tensions.” Founded by Vogt in 1998 in the small town of Heimbach, in the vicinity of the artist’s hometown of Düren, Spannungen takes place in the unique setting of an operational turn-of-the-century hydroelectric power station. Every summer, the space turns into a striking, re-invented concert hall. Makeshift curtains and carpets are brought in to improve the acoustics, adding to the venue’s simplistic character and providing a perfect framework for the high-voltage music making and cross-pollinating cultural programs that pull audiences into the festival every season.

“We musicians often sat together, sometimes trying to remember what brought us to music,” he explains. “Many musicians, like myself, were not fond of our experiences with music lessons taught at school. Real inspiration happened through personal encounters with performers at concerts, or better yet, in personal conversations. Meeting musicians inspired enthusiasm to learn more about the craft and integrate music into our lives.” He continues, “Concern about losing the young generation came up often. I felt it did not help to lament about it if we were not doing anything about it, and so with the wish to become proactive about this problem, the idea of Rhapsody in School was born.”

It sounds quite simple: classical performers visit differently aged school children (grades 2-12), their visits facilitated by a liaison that works between the artists and the educators. Working with a roster of local performing musicians, or visiting performers on a concert tour, students get access to a variety of instrumental performers including, lately, opera singers. The most decisive element is the personal encounter with these musicians, based on the idea that music must be an emotional experience: “It has to touch your soul,” adds Vogt.

(photo credit: Rhapsody in School )

In his role as Artistic Director of Spannungen, and deeply rooted in the performing arts world, Vogt found himself connected to many willing musicians. “Initially, I thought it might not be so easy to find time for the musicians to visit the schools, which takes place on a voluntary, un-paid basis. We musicians all have busy schedules, and are constantly en route to rehearsals and performances, or practice. But even if at times I thought to myself, ‘do I really need to plan another school visit this morning before my concert tonight,’ the visits always turned out to be the most fulfilling experiences, and I don’t want to miss them in my life. It turns out that I am not alone. The strong desire to fulfill this commitment is met by many of my colleagues, and it makes so much sense,” he explains. “You can see it in the eyes of the kids—the reaction, when you really reach them—it’s quite amazing. I am always hoping to plant a seed, which may even blossom much later, and that’s ok. It’s not just for our sake as performers, in our own interest to secure a future of music lovers; I truly believe that music can be this incredible space, that like no other allows us to truly explore our humanity. Especially in our crazy society, this is of the utmost significance, and I am always trying to convey this in my encounters with the youngsters,” he says.

Of course, the artists are not expected to contact schools and organize these visits on their own, so this is where Rhapsody in School builds a liaison between the school and the artists, matching up performers and coordinating transportation. And then of course, in connection with the visit in the classroom, sponsors can make it possible to invite the entire class to the performers’ concerts in town, elevating the initial introduction into the full experience.

I asked Vogt, “what typically happens during the school visit?”

“I usually start with playing some music and trying to explain what I find most important about—how I aim to bring out different colors, moods—and there is a lot of interaction when I speak about how that can translate into the real world,” he replies, continuing: “Some artists do quizzes or games, others tell anecdotes about how music shaped their life. It depends on the age group, of course, but I like to relate music to the ups and downs of silence and turbulence in life, how you function in real life and how to show your individuality. How you interact, not only in an orchestra, but in your classroom and the world around you. Music can teach you that you are more than just a cog in the clock, that you have a role, and that there is a way to fulfill the deep desire to connect and communicate, and ultimately to understand about the human condition—all this can be explored within music,” he explains, and there is so much truth in it.

Especially in the US, where many public schools have reduced their music curricula to practical non-existence, interest in music must come from outside the state-provided system’s box. But even in private schools, which usually implement at least rudimentary exposure to music education, appreciation for classical music should not be taken for granted, especially with young people’s constant exposure to new media. The same goes for Germany: even as the birthplace of the three giant B’s of classical music, and for all its state-sponsored classical programs, German venues are not exempt from grey hair syndrome at classical concerts, which afflicts orchestras and concert halls across the western world.

Even at Carnegie Hall, the mundane sets in, taking us out of the ideal world of music into its everyday realities, as Vogt wants to check out the Steinway grand piano once more for the evening’s challenging Schumann/ Dvořák program; the piano stool is left upside down on top of the piano, which is pushed to the corner of the hall. Vogt must wait for the stage crew to appear to place it properly. “Once, I tried to move the piano just a little bit, so I could sit more comfortably at the keyboard, and I got yelled at—no one is allowed to touch it other than the stage crew,” he acknowledged, reconciling (a little frustration notwithstanding) with the strict ruling of the American Union’s authority. But here is an artist who keeps his cool and down-to-earth demeanor as he waits to sit down at the piano. He is testing the action, which he still finds a bit too edgy, playing slow passages of Schumann’s piano concerto, but he does not fuss about it. “I recently performed the concerto, it’s in my fingers,” he remarks nonchalantly, preparing for another slice of Schumann’s oeuvre tonight. (photo credit: Ilona Oltuski)

The pianist, who gained international recognition after his second prize win at the 1990 Leeds competition, succumbed to the fact that different pianos’ touch on tour are a challenge a long time ago, a dilemma for which he compensates with a tight adjustment of his piano’s action for practice at home.

Rather than a protagonist of prodigal pyrotechnics, Vogt digs deep and engages fully. “Music drives on the emotional rhetoric, beyond the mathematical calculi—it swings and gestures—and the artist, like a painter with the brush, has to make it come to life…has to project that feeling of bliss and spiritual elevation…” he describes passionately. His ability to apply a “bigger picture,” to music may have been indicative of Sir Simon Rattle’s comment to Vogt, which he ventured after their joint performance in 1991: “In ten years, you will become a conductor,” Rattle predicted. Having become a mentor to Vogt, he must have seen something crystallizing in the pianist’s musical process—his ability to look beyond the score and his own instrument—as for a good while now (and increasingly after taking on the post as music director of the only full time orchestra in England, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, in 2015) Vogt’s career has accommodated an expanding role as a conductor. He now spends about equal time conducting and at the piano.

(photo credit: Giorgia Bertazzi)

As a musician and pedagogue, Vogt is always on the lookout for the special sensitivity for that pianistic freedom found in between the notes and bar lines, following in his mentor’s footsteps as the successor of Hannover’s legendary piano pedagogue Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, just much more amiable—Kämmerling’s temper was legendary— approachable, and supremely articulate. “One can’t describe every detail in context; music has to carry that individual expressive quality that resonates with an emotional response,” he explains. About teaching new talent, he says, “Some can easily learn a piece by heart in a blink of time, how enviable! It takes me a long time to learn a new piece by heart. Lately, many young pianists come more and more equipped with a lot of facility, but less expressiveness. In such a case it’s often helpful to work with associations. I always try to evoke a certain mood and atmosphere to musically decipher an emotion. Pictured in the imagination of a pianist, that often facilitates finding that distinct sound at the piano.”

Vogt’s own lucidity at the piano comes from this kind of enigmatic imagination, ready to convincingly enter into a specific sound world. For over thirty years, he has performed in tandem with violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who has been hailed for his soaring tone and the glass-clear transparency of his melodic lines. There is nothing forced or labored in this artist’s angelic phrasings, which rise above their earthly contiguity. In concert, both Tetzlaff siblings’ intense fluency is tangible, without ever failing to adhere to utter clarity. Vogt, rather still at the piano—his pianissimo is pianissimo indeed, even in the deftest left-hand accompaniments—and he texturizes the different moods freely within the musical framework. This is music making at its best, where each of the instruments feeds on the others’ nuanced takes; they heed each other’s energy, with Christian Tetzlaff often leaping into mid-air. Most intensely, perhaps, I felt the cello’s breath in unswerving rapport, but each artist remarkably manages to keep their individual voice, without ever losing the larger musical context.

As a trio, they have not been on a US tour in a few years, but as a piano/violin duo, Vogt and Christian Tetzlaff return to the States more often; Vogt shares a special bond of trust and ease with his violinist landsman. “Christian and I have been performing since the beginning of the festival. Tanja joined us a bit later.” There is a great sense of pride, as he remembers the founding years of the festival, remarking: “We did it for such a long period of time, and there were lots of fun times. Chamber music is like real life,” he states, “in that it really is all about the psychology between instruments. It’s about the give and take in the music, and you need to motivate each other,” he says, and I feel motivated and inspired, indeed.