"I can feel the will to change and improve among these musicians"

Conducting prodigy David Afkham will take over the Orquesta Nacional in 2014

German conductor David Afkham during a concert.
German conductor David Afkham during a concert.

It was the energy of the strings. Also, it was the fact that at 30 years of age he wanted to feel the responsibility of being the main conductor, after working as an assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Oh, and the fact that his girlfriend, a violinist, happens to live in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao also helped tip the balance.

And so David Afkham, a young musician of German-Iranian descent, said yes to Spain's national symphony orchestra, the Orquesta Nacional de España (ONE) - for the second time.

He had already agreed to become ONE's principal conductor a few months ago, but a bureaucratic glitch delayed matters until last Friday morning, when the contract was formally signed. Afkham will take up his new position in 2014, and he says that is raring to go: "I can feel the will to change and improve among these musicians, who have conquered my heart. I will challenge them and they will challenge me, that's for sure."

And there are certainly challenges ahead. When the outgoing conductor, Josep Pons, proposed David Afkham as his successor, he didn't think the path would be quite so hard. "The conversation between us was private, but he basically told me about this orchestra's history; the transition that it went through, existing tension between the veterans and the younger musicians, and about the need to relieve that tension between the old and new styles, between the old and new energies, and also about the problem with authority. He told me it was an unfinished job that I was capable of taking on. Now I must make an effort to find the key to resolve the situation."

So Afkham knows what he's getting into. But his enthusiasm is infectious, and it soon starts to rub off on most musicians who are in touch with him, especially the younger ones. Pons had observed this earlier. Together with Afkham's international profile and brilliant future in the European music scene, Pons figured that here was the perfect individual to help ONE look to the future.

The sound in a composer's head cannot be completely guessed at"

All the Catalan conductor needed to do was pave the way to make the transition smoother, by getting Afkham accepted by the musicians early on. And so, during the past two years, Afkham has already conducted ONE on 10 occasions.

Now the orchestra's new management team, led by technical director Félix Alcaraz, has formalized what was already a given. "Afkham was the first and only choice," he said.

For the musicians, the contract signature ends months of uncertainty. ONE's management has also breathed a sigh of relief. And the audience, which has shown great enthusiasm at his conductorship these last two years, will surely be glad to have Afkham here on a full-time basis.

Afkham is coming to Spain with clear ideas in his head, a broad smile and the desire to please. He warns over what he perceives as his shortcomings but also underscores his strong points and preferences. "My repertory and my strong point is classical and Romantic music from Central Europe, from Mahler to Beethoven, including Brahms, Bruckner... I love Spanish music, but I believe there are other maestros who can deal with it much better than I can. Still, I am anxious to learn."

Afkham also has yet to perfect his idea of the orchestra's ideal sound, although he already knows from mentors such as Bernard Haitink, the Dutch conductor, that this is an enigma that is impossible to resolve.

"The sound that each composer had in his head cannot be completely guessed at; we can only have an approximate idea," he says. In his case, he plans to be flexible and try to get orchestra members to support each other. Afkham said he wants to focus a lot on the wind section, which is where he has noticed the greatest shortcomings.

Ultimately Afkham, who was born in the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, says he will bring a European mentality to the task up ahead. "I think neither like a German nor like a Spaniard; I think like a European, and I know that Europe is going through difficult times. It is essential for governments to publicly support culture."

For now, the young conductor feels that Spain is displaying that kind of support. "I wouldn't have come here if they hadn't proven to me that this government is interested in culture," he says.

Let's hope he doesn't come to the impression all too soon that he was wrong.

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