The “Afkham effect”

The young German conductor, who will head the Spanish National Orchestra from 2015, explains why he has such a strong feeling about the Madrid-based ensemble

At 30 years old, conductor David Afkham is already an international star.
At 30 years old, conductor David Afkham is already an international star.Carlos rosillo

For a few months now, it’s been relatively easy to find references to the Spanish National Orchestra and Choir (OCNE) in the international media. We could attribute this unprecedented global notoriety to “the David Afkham effect.” Or we could simply view it as just another consequence of hiring the 30-year-old German to head Spain’s top musical ensemble from 2015.

And while he has yet to do any significant work here, expectations are already high about the changes that his youth, skills and enthusiasm will bring to an orchestra with a reputation for being difficult to govern.

It’s been a bumpy road punctuated by moments of despair just to get to this point. After he had already signed his contract, the previous Socialist government suddenly put the hiring on hold and the whole project nearly went down the drain. Then, after two years without a principal conductor, the OCNE’s new technical team decided to lure back this young son of a Parsi father and German mother whose rise up the musical ranks has been nothing short of meteoric.

Afkham has spent the last few days in Madrid, going over the three concertos he was due to conduct over the weekend in a sneak peek performance with his future orchestra: Mahler’s Titan, Schönberg’s Five pieces for orchestra and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. The concerts provide insight into how Afkham is bonding with his new musicians and what needs to be worked on between now and 2015.

It’s like having hired Bernstein or Karajan at 30, except he is more knowledgeable”

Born in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1983, Afkham is a rising star on the international music scene. Trained since the age of six in piano and violin, by 15 he knew he wanted to be a conductor (his brother is a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic and his other siblings all play instruments as well). Extensive experience has granted him a musical technique as well as a technical and personal maturity that belie his young age. Precise with his timing, elegant and solid on the podium, Afkham approaches conducting with humility and complete respect for the music. Everything must be at the service of unity, he often says.

If the OCNE was looking for a talented leader who could grow with the orchestra, it has found one. The feeling among orchestra members, especially the younger ones, could not be more favorable.

“He emanates music; he doesn’t waste time with any nonsense,” explains Manolo Blanco, a trumpet player. “His technique is exquisite and his musical training great. He is a tremendous perfectionist who goes over every last detail; he consults with the musicians; he teaches but he is also learning at the same time, he’s like a sponge. It’s like having hired Bernstein or Karajan at the age of 30. Except I doubt even they were so knowledgeable at his age.”

Famous conductors heap on the praise as well. Zubin Mehta — a Parsi like Afkham — says he has only heard good things about him and feels that the OCNE made a very smart move by hiring the German. Daniel Barenboim thinks very highly of him and the two see each other regularly. The promoter Alfonso Aijón praises Afkham’s tremendous modesty and matching charisma, which is essential to garner favor from an orchestra with a record for being hard to handle.

Sometimes there is a connection with an orchestra — it’s going to be wonderful”

All of which leads one to wonder not what the OCNE saw in him, but rather what he saw in OCNE, and why he waited around to get a second call, turning down other offers in the meantime.

Plumping down on a seat at Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional after an extenuating first round of rehearsals, Afkham explains his choice, which was based on 11 visits to Madrid over the course of two years.

“I really love this orchestra and I wanted to make music with this fantastic family of performers, and also with the choir,” he says. “So of course my ‘yes’ was there the entire time. It’s something that you cannot explain. Sometimes there is a very strong connection — you come to an orchestra and you feel that it’s going to be wonderful. And here I feel a solid, good, healthy connection.”

Meanwhile, the musicians say that Afkham exudes energy at every rehearsal. He has asked for a photograph from each one of them and is learning all of their names. Given the precariousness of recent times, some of these musicians had already packed their bags, ready to leave at any moment. But now that Afkham is here, many have decided to postpone their decision a bit longer. He returns the favor with a public declaration of love and the revelation that he is going to switch Spanish language teachers when he goes back to Berlin (where he currently lives) in order to accelerate his assimilation into Spanish culture.

Afkham still does not know whether he will move to Madrid this year — he has only been hired for three weeks in 2014 — or whether he will wait for the following season, when he officially takes up the baton. While he wants continuity to his job, his agenda will still be filled with international performances (with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the French National Orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle and others).

The idea for now is to design the artistic project, hire the guest conductors, and expand the orchestra’s repertoire. Afkham feels especially comfortable with the Central European composers — Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss, the second school of Vienna, Bruckner and Mahler — but he also wants to open up to Spanish and contemporary music. And it’s funny, he says, how the sound of his new musical ensemble reminds him of the Germanic school that he belongs to.

“It is so intense, with a lot of expression and virtuosity. It can also be very dark, which is something I like because I come from a Central European tradition where the sound balance is guided by the low registers... and I can feel some of that tradition here as well. That is why it makes me feel right at home.”

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