Hilary interviews Christian Gansch, guest conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for her May 2004 tour in that country

Q: Is chocolate a drug?
A: Yes.

Q: Pets?
A: I love them. Not so much dogs, but especially cats. They have an independent approach yet on the other hand, they show you that they like tenderness.

Q: What about Bach?
A: For classical music, Bach is as basic as Plato and Aristotle are for the development of Western culture. There’s something transcendent or metaphysical in his music. Also, every note is perfectly placed, yet without being mathematical. You can feel the meaning behind his phrases, as if they tap into some sort of universal order.

Q: Classical music in schools – what difference does it make, and why is it important?
A: There isn’t enough these days, and sometimes the fun and joy of music is lacking in the curriculum. What is taught is almost too studious. I think the lack of musical and artistic education in schools will create problems within the next half-century, as far as well-rounded, thoughtful human interests are concerned. We really need to bring young people into these pursuits. Perhaps, since the schools don’t do this, the record companies could provide special editions for young people – from the design to the liner notes and advertising methods – and maybe make up a list of new releases or recommended recordings for high-school or university students.

A funny story: when I was in Moscow recently, I found myself in a disco talking to some really fashionable, hip university-age students. They were really interested in every piece I was conducting that week. They knew about the soloist; and eventually, they pulled me into a discussion about Rachmaninov and Scriabin. These were people who looked like they’d only be into pop music, or rock ‘n roll, but because of the thorough musical training in Russia, and the knowledge of everything artistic, they were incredibly well-informed. I was shocked! But it was great. Usually, people don’t know much about what I do or what exists within the realm of the higher art forms.

Q: Applause between movements (sections of a piece) in a concert?
A: It doesn’t really bother me. Sometimes it could be disturbing, but it doesn’t matter – it’s just nice when people come to the concert. After all, in opera performances, even in Vienna, it’s common for the audience to applaud at the end of an aria.

Q: Reality TV shows?
A: I hate them. I definitely hate them.

Q: Cut flowers?
A: I like getting them after concerts, but for myself, I prefer to buy potted plants or potted flowers, when I’m at home. Cut flowers have a slight melancholic sense for me, because they’re beautiful, but I know the beauty will fade in a few days.

Q: Tap water – drinkable?
A: In Vienna, they have the best-quality tap water, so I’m used to this. It comes to the city directly from the mountains and is considered even better than some mineral water. But I’ve found that in some other places, if you drink from the tap, you have to cancel the concert!

Q: Holidays?
A: When I’m going on holiday, I prefer it to be about a week, spontaneous; it it’s too long, I get bored just lying around on the beach. France and Italy are wonderful, very easy to get to from Munich, where I live.

Q: Anonymity vs. fame?
A: I like to have a slightly understated life. I need the space to be away from everything sometimes, to be by myself. But I don’t mind if someone likes my work as a conductor and wants to say hi; I’m grateful for that and appreciate it. I do like being known as a musician; being recognized gives me professional satisfaction, but I don’t need it for personal gratification or motivation.

Q: What’s important at a musical event?
A: As a listener, that you can feel that the performers are immersed in what they’re doing, that they’re living their work and being emotionally authentic, true to the music. Then it’s a good performance. From the musician’s perspective (mine), I think that to attempt to attain truth is an impossible aim – it’s too big a word – but in music, as in life, truthfulness is reachable and should be a goal at all times.

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?
A: Music is both an intellectual and an emotional pursuit, for some people even a fulfillment of a basic human need. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to conduct orchestras and be part of that musical experience – but even if I didn’t conduct, I’d still study scores (Beethoven, Bruckner, Ravel, Debussy, or Strauss, or Prokofiev, for example). Music is healing, and it illustrates the soul as if in a mirror of compassionate objectivity.