Q&A: Cellist Alban Gerhardt Brings Classical Music to the People
German cellist Alban Gerhardt has performed with orchestras worldwide to spectacular reviews, but he’s also known for playing in unusual venues. During a tour of Germany during which people called into radio stations to propose sites for free concerts, he performed in a train station, a commune, strangers’ living rooms, and a maternity ward. As the Oregon Symphony’s first artist-in-residence, he’ll bring the big, emotive fullness of his playing to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme at the Schnitz on Saturday and Monday night, but he’ll also play some nontraditional venues, including Pioneer Place on Friday and the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital on Monday. For a full schedule, scroll down to the bottom of the interview. We caught up with him by phone on layover en route to Portland to talk about why he does it and some of the crazier places he’s played.
When and why did you start performing in public spaces?
I started doing it three years ago. There’s a really cool performance space in Berlin that used to be an old water plant. The guy who runs it wanted to know what we could do there in a different format. We ended up thinking that playing all the Bach Suites [Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello] would be cool. He put mattresses and lounge furniture out in a loose way, made it really cool looking with light effects, and I played every suite from a different spot. Eighty percent of the people who came normally didn’t go to classical concerts, and they loved it.
I thought, if people who don’t know anything about classical music can love Bach suites, then I should bring that music to people who don’t make an effort to come to a hall, by bringing it to them where they walk around—their natural habitats. Next somebody suggested the idea of a radio tour where I would go in the mornings to non-classical radio stations and announce that I’m willing to pay Bach in the evening for free, and people would just have to come up with an audience and a place. And it worked fantastically. I played in a fitness studio, a maternity ward, in a pub where the enemies of nuclear waste were having their headquarters.
Did it change the way you play?
I know I have to give extra effort to get to the people. I’m very much aware that they’re on the run, and I want them to stop, so I have to work much harder than I have to in concert hall. I have to go much deeper into the music, and it helped my performance of Bach in general.
The last thing I did was playing all the suites in the Berlin train station. It was the most amazing and tiring thing I’ve ever experienced. The noise is so loud in the station. One lady told me that she had never listened so deeply to music, because in order to get into it, to hear it over all the noise, you had to focus more. Normally in concerts, you can doze away. But it takes just a cello and Bach to transform a train station into a new kind of concert hall.
Why do you do it? What are you hoping to accomplish?
I hope that I reach some people who don’t think classical music is interesting. I have a child, and I know how incredibly difficult it is to keep them focused. When I was young, there were no distractions: you played soccer, read a book, or played an instrument. Now you can spend entire days in front of computers. I do it to get people in general to do something creative or pick up an instrument. People get inspired to learn music, but also to open their eyes and ears and to realize it’s not luxury. You don’t have to study music to enjoy it.
Is there a particular moment or audience response that stands out—something else that clicked and made you think, this is why I do this?
Whenever they transport nuclear waste, whole armies of intellectuals start demonstrating and try to stop the train. They all gather in the middle of nowhere. It’s often young people, cool people, and the last thing they want to hear is classical music. I got there far too late, because I got lost in the middle of nowhere, and everyone had left [for the protest] except a couple of older people sitting there completely stoned. I said that somebody must’ve called me to play there, and they said, ‘oh yeah, play whatever you like.’ So I played for these old people, and when I was finished, at my back, all the younger people had come back down and they all started applauding and screaming. I knew that these were people who had never before thought of classical music as something cool or beautiful, and that was quite moving.
Two weeks earlier, I played in a maternity ward for newborns. It was incredibly inspiring to know that I’ll be the first music these newborns hear.
You play all over the world, but you’ve also become quite loved here in Portland. What's it like to play with our symphony?
Portland should be really proud of their orchestra. I think I’ve come three times in the last nine years, and each time they’ve gotten better. They have such high standards and quality. Sometimes people don’t realize the quality they have at home. The might fly to New York and go to the Met and feel they’ve seen great music making, but they don’t realize they have it at home as well.
You’ll be playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Why did you choose this piece?
They asked me to do it. I wouldn’t have suggested it myself because it’s really hard. It’s very beautiful, but as the name suggests, it’s a set of variations, so it’s never boring. It’s melancholic, but also it can firework. It’s introvert and extrovert. It changes every two to three minutes. This switching from styles and expressions is quite hard but very entertaining. But since I cannot say no to Karlos, I did it. And there’s a little surprise encore.
Geirhardt will perform with the Oregon Symphony on Saturday, October 27 and Monday, October 29.
He will also perform at the following locations, which are free and open to the public.
Thursday, October 25 from 5–8 pm
Portland Youth Philharmonic Master Class
Sherman Clay Pianos, 131 NW 13th Ave.
Friday, October 26 from 4–5 pm
Bach Cello Suite performance
Pioneer Place Mall, Lower level, near escalators in the atrium
Sunday, October 28 from 1–3:30 pm
Oregon Cello Society Masterclass
Lincoln Hall, Portland State, Recital Room LH 75. 620 SW Park
Monday, October 29 from 1–1:45 pm
Bach Suite performance
Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Lounge, Main Entrance, 3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Rd.
Bach Suite performance
OHSU Center for Health and Healing, Waterfront Lobby, 3303 SW Bond Ave.