Q & A: Conductor Ivor Bolton on History with Salzburg Festival & Cultural Crisis Caused by COVID-19

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
(Credit: Ben Wright Photography)

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the renowned Salzburg Festival in Austria.

A critical milestone for the festival, they chose to still responsibly present the event this summer, albeit with a severely reduced program and heightened safety and security in response to the global pandemic. British conductor Ivor Bolton lead the Mozarteumsorchester Salzburg performing a program entirely of works by W. A. Mozart—the Mass in C Minor, Adagio and Fugue for strings in C minor, K. 546, and Vesperae solennes de Confessore for Soloists, Mixed Choir, Orchestra and Organ in C Major.

Today, Ivor Bolton is balancing his responsibilities as Chief Conductor of the Basel Symphonie Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Festival Orchestra, and Conductor Laureate of the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg. In the United Kingdom he has been the Music Director of English Touring Opera and Glyndebourne Touring Opera, and the Chief Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In addition to his many recordings with the Mozarteumorchester, Bolton appears on notable recordings with the Bayerische Staatsoper of Monteverdi’s “Poppea,” and Handel’s “Xerxes” and “Ariodante.”

OperaWire spoke with Bolton the morning of the Salzburg Festival’s opening, a conversation that focused on his 21 years with the Salzburg Festival and his experience of the pandemic and how it shook the classical music world.

OperaWire: How have you dealt with the quarantine?

Ivor Bolton: During the pandemic I was in Barcelona, Spain. For weeks, you were not allowed to go outside, unless you have a dog or a small child. My friend in Barcelona with a baby was joking that he should start renting out his kid for others desperate to go outside. It was such a bizarre situation.

Many professions are struggling to survive at the moment. Musicians are just desperate—not only because of financial hardship, but also because they feel that they don‘t exist professionally. A lot of freelance musicians have nothing. One of my friends is a Spanish violinist who leads orchestras. He was good enough to work as a freelancer. Now, he has no income and he wrote to me asking for an opportunity to play in an orchestra. Unfortunately, I had to turn him down, as I can’t even use all of the violins that already belong to the orchestra. Social distancing means we have to work with fewer people.

OW: How was it for you to get back to work after such a hiatus?

IB: There seems to always be a conversation amongst politicians about the unequal situations across different professional spheres. You see photos of passengers siting shoulder to shoulder on planes with no masks and then you see pictures of classical music concerts where there are only a few people in the hall with five meters between them. It does feel like there are more stringent rules for cultural events.

Of course, I understand the economic pressure, but musicians are way more dependent on the government economically. The performing arts are labeled as an excess commodity for the middle class and wealthy. This angers me, since I come from the working class. The generalizations made by the government are irresponsible and only reinforce the divide between parties. It is both eye-opening and disheartening to witness the unfairness across the board in our society.

OW: How is it for you to work with a large group of musicians after quarantine?

IB: It feels great to be practicing and working with the orchestra and choir. It gives a sense of normalcy. Of course, we all have to wear masks in the building, but not during the actual rehearsals. I would find it very hard to wear a mask in rehearsals.

I guess no one enjoys wearing them, but many will accept it as it can improve the pandemic. Everyone understands how dangerous another quarantine would be—a closing down of the economies of entire countries. Some businesses and organizations that went bankrupt during the first shutdown will never come back.

OW: How did your project in the Salzburg Festival come about?

IB: Last year I suggested concert repertoire for the 100th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival in 2020. I remembered the pieces being performed previously and I thought this would be a great, large-scale concert, complete with soloists, full orchestra, and a choir. Then the pandemic came and I figured a concert with so many performers would not be possible.

I was surprised when the festival said that, on the contrary, they really wanted to execute this concert program as a statement for cultural life in these difficult times. I think the organizers did a great job bringing any sort of festival at all.

Many festivals were canceled and a lot of productions will never be staged. There are new projects scheduled for the future and there is no time to work on what had been planned for this canceled season. There were projects that people wanted me to postpone in September, but if the cultural life is moving at that time, I already have all of September booked with plans—we will be opening a new concert hall in Basel. Even though the festival is not as exciting as usual, it is absolutely better than nothing.

OW: How would you describe your relationship with the festival?

IB: It started in 1996 when I received a letter asking me to come work at the Salzburg Festival. I planned to attend in 1997, but I had so much work for the two following summers. It wasn’t until the summer of 2000 that I made my debut at the festival. I remember it being a successful production and the beginning of my relationship with the Mozarteum Orchestra. Over the course of the festival they began discussing the possibility of me becoming the chief conductor of the Mozarteum Orchestra. We signed the contract just a couple months later.

Unfortunately, again, I couldn’t start the work until the year of 2004. Then I became the head of the orchestra for next 12 years. During this period, I conducted many different projects in the festival—opera productions, concerts, requiem masses.

My life took yet another turn when I moved to Madrid. It was one of the most intense times for me, with new opera productions every year and a new contract with the Basel Orchestra. Even then, I tried to keep some kind of connection with the Mozarteum Orchestra and Salzburg Festival, leading several projects a year.

OW: Which of the festival’s historic moments have personally inspired you?

IB: The history of this festival is particularly inspiring. I believe the Salzburg Festival to be the biggest classical music festival in the world. They put on hundreds of events—six newly-staged operas, several theater productions, orchestral concerts, chamber music concerts—each year. You could not possibly see them all even if you wanted to. I have a particular memory of the scandalous production when we all felt as if we were in a red zone. All singers and director were receiving criticism and even abuse from the public because of the production.

Controversial elements of the production really angered people—you never knew at which moment each show night the people in the hall would start booing. Usually singers would have to stop and go to the next scene, because it was impossible to perform. I remember enjoying working with the orchestra, but the scandal meant that no one really paid attention to the fact that the orchestra played superbly and with fine style. That is the world we live in.

Over the years, we have had several amazing and beautiful projects in the festival that I remember with warmth and joy. I am immensely proud of the work we put in to make all these projects and concerts come alive and grateful to be able to have all these memories.

OW: How do you balance this lifestyle?

IB: I am lucky to have such good work opportunities. Basel is a fantastic orchestra trying to establish its identity. The group is doing really well. Madrid’s opera house, Teatro Real, also has a serious international reputation since 1996 when they rebuilt the theater after the civil war. They made quite a transformation and are now recognized as one of the most advanced theaters in the world with world-class talent. The motivation to create is clearly felt there.

Even though Spain had such a difficult time with the pandemic, they managed to stage and  perform the opera “La Traviata” in July, albeit to a house at half the audience capacity. We are proud of the production, even though it was an economic catastrophe having to sell so few tickets. The staging was modified to accommodate safety requirements. The company really wanted to stage something before next season in order to master all the regulations and how to navigate them moving forward. It seems the pandemic limitations on the cultural sector is bigger than, for example, those on people standing outside football stadiums at this time. I guess since so many people love football, everyone turns a blind eye to thousands of people hugging each other with no masks in stadiums.

OW: What are your future projects?

IB: This August in Basel we are planning to record some works of Brittan. We will open a new hall at the beginning of next season, called “Basel Casino.” This beautiful hall was closed for four years, since historic archeological artifacts were discovered. The project was already postponed, so we really don’t want to delay it once more due to the pandemic. We are planning an opening concert playing Brahms’ new double concerto with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and only seventeen orchestra players. I am looking forward to it!


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