Howard Griffiths led the Zurich Chamber Orchestra for ten years.
“It’s like eating; you wouldn’t want to go to a Chinese restaurant every evening.You might go once or twice a week but not every night; it’s the same with repertoire,” explains Howard Griffiths who is guest conducting in Malaga this weekend. The allegory the British conductor, who will be leading the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra at the Cervantes Theatre on Friday the 10th and Saturday the 11th, is trying to get across is that his favourite composer changes with every project he undertakes. But it’s still a little surprising to hear a prestigious conductor compare Mozart and Shostakovich to Chinese and Indian takeaway.
Griffiths, who has been chief conductor at two renowned European orchestras and has been awarded with an MBE, is tackling a Russian programme for his two dates in Malaga where he has conducted on multiple occasions including two “incredible” concerts in front of 3000 people in Malaga’s cathedral.
Griffiths is only too pleased to soak up the city’s winter sun and the culture on the southern coast of Spain clearly appeals to the Swiss resident. “The colours here are just incredible. You can see why Picasso lived here and became such a great artist. The general atmosphere is completely different to Northern Europe,” he says, just after coming out of rehearsals with the orchestra he is leading this week.
The Brit began his career by playing viola professionally in the orchestras where he would hone his craft and learn from the other conductors. Griffiths says that he learned as much from the bad conductors as the good ones, saying that the former were equally as important in showing him “how not to do it”.
He then led the Zurich Chamber Orchestra for ten years, taking over the reins from founder Edmond de Stoutz who had conducted the orchestra for over 50 years, starting in 1945. Although Griffiths says that reaching ten years as a conductor there was “just incredible”, he felt that “after ten years you have to make a change”. Chamber music itself was too limited in repertoire for him to continue.
Since 2007, Griffiths has been the chief conductor for the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester (BSOF) which is based in Frankfurt, Germany, and has just extended his contract with the orchestra until 2018. Despite his commitment in Germany he still gets the opportunity to guest conduct orchestras across Europe.
It’s quite clear that in the studio, as well as in the concert halls, Griffiths is not content with standing in one place for too long. The Hastings-born conductor has produced over 100 CDs and his vast discography has allowed him to experiment with his output. Griffiths specialises in recording the work of Swiss and Turkish contemporary composers and also enjoys searching the hidden corners of the library to find rare gems which he can reproduce with an orchestra.
“I love discovering unknown repertoire. I go into the library and there are some wonderful pieces to discover but nobody plays this stuff anymore. It’s not every time you win the lotto but a lot of the stuff I have found has been very revealing and should be played more often,” says Griffiths whose latest collections released include pieces by Louis Spohr and a love story told through European classical pieces in an album entitled ‘Tea for two’.
Griffiths’s son is also a conductor and the fourth generation of musically gifted individuals in his family. “It runs in the family, my grandmother played in an orchestra and in silent movies. That was her passion. My father played the organ in a church until the age of 90 and that also was a great tradition for him,” recalls the conductor who began as a violinist before moving on to the viola. It’s little wonder then that he believes that a passion for classical music must be sparked during childhood.
“I think it’s very important to be exposed at a very young age to classical music, like at five to ten years old, otherwise it’s too late. It’s like anything, if want to appreciate theatre and Shakespeare and you don’t have the opportunity to go when you’re young, you probably won’t go when you’re older either,” says Griffiths who is clearly passionate about engaging listeners at an early age.
The conductor has even written a children’s book called ‘The Witch and the Maestro’ which is available in German and English and comes with an accompanying CD. The success of his attempt to catch the attention of younger listeners has prompted Griffiths to write a second book.
Griffiths has concerns however about the modern age children are now growing up in. He believes that, despite its advantages, the internet is negatively affecting creativity.
“There’s more music out there than there ever has been and more people listening to music than ever. But I’m rather concerned with the dumbing down of society, where people sit in front of the internet for three hours and then when you shut the computer you have nothing. You don’t feel in any way as satisfied as you do when you make music. Your soul is enriched by making music.”
Griffiths’s reservations toward the modern world, where classical music sits on the fringes, could sound rose-tinted but the 63-year-old instead believes that classical music needs to adapt to its surroundings and become accessible to the masses.
“We need to do concerts in jeans and for children. We have to do crossover concerts with other sorts of music. I think we need to broaden the horizons of the orchestra. We have to go to the people and get the people interested,” he says. Whether classical music is ready to ditch the tailcoats and embrace the modern age is another thing, however. One conductor who will be ready is the ever-evolving Howard Griffiths.