"An artist has to change the world"

Greilsammer conducts the orchestra from the piano

Pianist David Greilsammer, the charismatic director of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra, tells about performing in nightclubs with DJs and experimenting with electronic music.

This content was published on August 5, 2012 - 11:00
Rodrigo Carrizo Couto in Geneva,

Born in Jerusalem in 1977, Greilsammer has conducted his orchestra at Geneva airport, an experience more typical of contemporary art than classical music.

What’s more, in his recitals he does not hesitate to play contemporary and avant-garde pieces alongside baroque works. Classical music does not interest young audiences, either in Switzerland or abroad. What can be done to change that?

David Greilsammer: It’s true in many ways. I think we have to change things in a radical way. At the moment, classical music still is a “private club” which provides entertainment for a very specific part of society. Unfortunately we still have the same approach, in terms of repertoire and concert formats, that we had in the past two centuries. Repertoire choices should be more interesting and concerts should be presented in a new and fresh way. What would you do exactly?

D.G.: We shouldn’t only perform in select venues for the elites, but open ourselves instead to playing in new kinds of venues, such as nightclubs, or many kinds of non-classical halls. We must work hard and look for new audiences. We have to open our minds so [young people] can come closer to classical music, instead of scaring them off with old and conservative approaches. What are you aiming for as a musician?

D.G.: Playing beautiful concerts is not the most important part of being a musician. What really counts is why we are artists, and what we can do to bring new important ideas to the surface. Our responsibility as artists is not only to provide entertainment. An artist has to change the world – I’m sorry if that sounds like a cliché, but I truly believe in it. A famous musician told me off the record that he’d love to experiment and take risks, but he’s afraid of losing the support of sponsors and festival directors.

D.G.: That’s absurd. I hope that with my projects I’ve been able to show that it is possible to do things in the classical world in a different way. I don’t feel that it’s a necessity to play by the rules of the “establishment” and it’s possible to make a living by going into new directions. But what that musician is really saying is that he is not willing to take any creative risks as an artist. Then he might not be in the right profession. But risk-taking is not for everyone…

D.G.: Sometimes, with a very adventurous programme, there are only ten or 20 people that attend your concert. But you have to fight and continue doing what you believe in, until you can do things your way. If you really know what you are fighting for, it will happen. So what’s the problem? Is the music establishment too conservative?

D.G.: No. The problem is very deep, and it’s not the fault of the managers or sponsors. The real problem has to do with us, the artists. We’re so are afraid of change, of going against what we were taught. In some cases, it is true that concert promoters or festival directors can be conservative, but we should not be scared. It’s up to us to say “no” to conservatism and make different proposals. If we propose new ideas, new exciting projects, I’m sure things will change. We cannot say that we want change but then do nothing to make change happen. Do classical musicians keep repeating “safe” repertories?

D.G.: In general, yes. I find it very strange that so many musicians are still not performing contemporary music. I admire people who are willing to learn new languages and musicians who explore other creative fields, such as jazz or electronic music. Visual arts, design, architecture, cinema and theatre exchange experiences and influence each other, but classical music seems to be isolated from living culture.

D.G.: It’s true. We’re quite closed to everything that is going on around us in the world. It always amazes me to see huge crowds of young people at the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art in New York] or at the Tate Modern [in London], interested in the artists of our time. I wish we had ten per cent of that visual arts crowd in classical music concert halls!

But in the classical world we don’t look very deeply at what artists of other fields are doing. In my opinion, a classical pianist has so much to learn from a jazz pianist, especially on how to make the instrument sing… Really?

D.G.: Of course. When I prepare a Mozart concerto, I listen to Keith Jarrett or old recordings of Bill Evans. Why? Because they can make their instrument sound like a voice, and that’s what music is about.

Many musicians spend all their time listening to “great recordings” from the mid-20th century because we have been taught to have all those musical gods, idols and masters. We forget that they were wonderful for their time, but now we are in 2012 and the world has radically changed. We should try to change with our world and not stay stuck in the past. What is your dream? What would you like to achieve as a musician?

D.G.: My responsibility as an artist is to invent and create and to always be open to new ideas. I hope to bring new and fresh audiences to the classical music scene. Even if I only make an impact on one person, I’m happy already. I also want to collaborate with many other forms of art. I know it’s going to be very hard sometimes, but I will fight for it.

David Greilsammer

Born in Jerusalem in 1977, David Greilsammer is the oldest of five siblings.

He began his musical studies aged six at the Rubin Conservatory of Israel. He later studied at the prestigious Juilliard Academy in New York.

Greilsammer made his professional debut at Lincoln Center in 2004 and has performed in major concert halls in Paris, London and Tokyo.

As a pianist, he shines as an interpreter of Mozart. His interests range from early music to contemporary.

He is noted for unusual risk-taking in the rigid world of classical music, mixing music, theatre and dance elements or visual art.

In 2010, he was appointed music director of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra.

Since 2011, he has recorded exclusively for Sony, which has released the CD “Baroque Conversations”, a miscellany of works of contemporary and early music.

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