Interview with BSO’s Marta Gardolińska

Ben Britton: Congratulations on becoming the BSO’s Leverhulme Young Conductor in Association. Could you tell our readers a bit about what the role entails?

Marta Gardolińska: It is a kind of assisting position, but a bit more than that, because it means I have three main responsibilities. One is covering for all the conductors, which means whenever they get sick, whenever they don’t catch a plane, I am there and I have to take over either the rehearsal or concert. The second thing is working with the Participation Department, which organises school concerts and the BSO Resound Concerts, a lot of outreach work. So, I am usually the person who goes to conduct the bigger concerts of these programmes. And I have a series of concerts with the actual BSO throughout the season; one of them is tonight.

BB: From what I’ve read about the selection process for this position, it was very tough. Is working as a conductor very competitive in general?

MG: Yes. And it’s become more competitive in recent years simply because it’s easier to travel. Whenever there is a competition or an opening like this people from all over the world come, and there are so few opportunities for young conductors to make a small step, not just to make a jump and be the one chosen. But really there are few opportunities to get up the career ladder.

BB: When did you develop an interest in classical music?

MG: Quite early, because my mum was always interested, she knows a lot and she used to play the piano – at an amateur level, but a high amateur level. She always listened to classical music and she sang so she would take us to concerts. In Poland, where I come from, there is a whole system of music schools that start when you are 6 years old; you go to your normal school and then in the afternoon you go to your music school. You have exams at the end of the year, and you have concerts, and it’s very structured, and to some extent pretty traumatic actually. If you think of Russian music teachers, they sort of went west to Poland, so I went through all that.

BB: And so you had extensive training as a conductor after this?

MG: Yes, conducting came after 12 years of instruments.

BB: Who has had the biggest influence on your work?

MG: I’m not sure I can name just one person…But a conductor I admire for the way they have worked would be Claudio Abbado. His approach to music-making in an orchestra was the same as for a small chamber ensemble, where everybody is important, and everybody has to be involved, and everybody has to listen and bring ideas. This is sort of the ideal that has started to develop in orchestras more and more nowadays. It used to be that there was one maestro who told everybody what to do and everybody’s scared. With Claudio Abbado that started changing slowly, and it’s a more involving process of cooperation. That’s definitely an example to follow. And the other person who is influencing me directly is Marin Alsop, who used to be the Chief Conductor of the BSO. I’m now in a fellowship that she has for female conductors, so I can ask her questions about all the basic things I don’t know about the music business and that she does, so she’s a great help.

BB: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician or conductor?

MG: Well there’s one thing I heard when I was in my first year of studying conducting, from JoAnn Falletta, an American conductor: make sure that if you do conduct, you do it for the right reasons. You should make sure that it’s not for the fame, it’s not for the money (supposedly some money comes from it!) but that it’s actually out of a deep conviction that you must do it. And I heard a singing teacher say that “if there’s anything in the world that you can do that isn’t singing, do that”. Because it’s a really tough career and really tough lifestyle, but as long as you have some really good reason – either you cannot live without it or you can really make some change in the world – then it can be very rewarding, and it drives you forward.

BB: What would be your favourite piece of music to conduct?

MG: Hmm, that one’s difficult. There’s a lot. I would actually love to do Mahler’s 2nd, I adore the ending of it, obviously. So that’s one. I have certain ideas, like I’d like to do Tchaikovsky’s 6th with a Russian orchestra, because they really have the sound that you dream about. Or some French music in France.

BB: The pieces you’re playing tonight, what are they?

MG: Tonight, it’s a little different than usual. The concert has a different purpose than otherwise, it’s to attract people who normally wouldn’t be in a concert hall to come and see a big group of musicians playing together. So, it’s all really good music, that speaks directly to probably anybody. It’s all beautiful, but very varied: it goes from Russian to French to English music, everything is in there. And there are little connections. I’m supposed to narrate the concert a little bit, so I try to show them. But it’s just really good music – that’s what it is.

BB: A friend of mine was asking about your baton. How do you choose whether to use it or not?

MG: Of course, there are conductors that conduct with or without the baton. There is one really clear-cut reason; the bigger the ensemble, the more you start needing the baton, simply because if there’s someone at the back, with the brass, they may not see your hand, or it’s just not as clear. Then there are people that just feel so uncomfortable with the baton that they prefer to do it without. Very often it’s the people that do modern music, and are very contemporary. But with an orchestra, without a baton, it makes no sense, because you have to have two worlds: one in your left hand, the other in your right. But everybody chooses what suits them, it’s very different for everyone.

BB: Are there lots of different types of baton?

MG: Yeah, there’s millions of them, and millions of prices. I have probably the cheapest baton you can ever get, because I don’t want to feel it, really. I want it to not be an issue. It has a cork ending, so I can change the way I hold it. I can hold in with my whole hand, or just with my fingers, so it gives me freedom. But there’s a whole bunch of very specialised, properly weighted batons, but I really see no point because that won’t make you a better conductor.

Ben Britton


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