27/12/2023 Juliana Széchenyi

When the audience is in a trance: "That's when they experience a sense of catharsis"

As part of the Give Happiness project, we spoke to a Slovenian conductor who says that despite the demands of her job, it makes her happy.

The Slovenian Youth Orchestra under the baton of Živa Ploj Peršuh will perform at the 7th Winter Festival organised by the Ljubljana Festival. Our interlocutor this time is one of the few female conductors in Slovenia, which she herself does not like to put at the forefront. For her, the main criterion is a job well done, which is extremely specific and requires a lot of responsibility.

No, conducting is not just hand-waving. "Being a conductor is first and foremost a combination of mission, artistic vision and artistic values. In the broadest definition, conductors connect musicians with audiences and vice versa," explains the conductor when we meet at Križanke, where she often performs. Although music is with her almost every step of the way and makes her happy in all its fullness, it is the silence that gives her a place for enjoyment and a field for creativity: "When I have time to relax my mind, I enjoy it the most. It is only when I am in complete solitude and silence that new ideas and visions begin to drip out, and I let them flow."

You have chosen a profession that is not very common in our environment. How so?

I think the profession found me first. I am not one of those people who knew at the age of three what they were going to be when they grew up. As a result of my involvement and involvement in music in my younger years, I have returned to music in my adult years. First as a musicology student and later as a conducting student studying abroad.

How do you cope with the fact that you are one of the few female conductors in this country? Has this made you have to prove yourself even more in your career path?

From a lay perspective, the profession may not be that common among women, but in the wider world it is becoming quite common for women to be on the conducting podium and, in musical terms, to take the lead. I try my hardest to be only a conductor and I prefer to avoid the label of female conductor. If we want to present the profession as an equal one, we need to start talking about conducting alone, or about the practice of this kind of artistic profession and the values that go with it. I prefer to talk about whether the work is of good quality. But I admit that, as in any other professional path, there are certain nodes. These have never stopped me from enjoying my profession.

What are the biggest misconceptions the public has about your profession?

Conducting is an extremely complex profession, combining things that one might not think of. It's not just waving your arms and making music with your hands. These 'wikipedia' descriptions are really declassified. Being a conductor first and foremost combines a mission, an artistic vision and artistic values. In the broadest definition, conductors connect musicians with audiences and vice versa.

So what does it mean to be a good conductor? 

The easiest way to compare our work is to organise a large complex, where we have to learn and master the work before we even step on stage. We have to know what 250 people are going to be doing at every moment of the concert. We have to have knowledge of musical manoeuvres, that is, what the musician can afford to do in between and how much freedom we can allow him. At the same time, we have to balance the timing, the musical and the stage components. It's not just about bringing the idea of a musical conception to life, but knowing the people you're working with very well, even though we may have just met them. We have to quickly understand the dynamics and then run the rehearsals accordingly. We have to put the whole thing together in a way that everyone involved feels they can give their best. The conductor is the one who, at the moment of performance, draws out the most noble result from all the participants.

So there's a lot of work behind the scenes that the audience doesn't even know about ...

It's true. Although at first glance a conductor may appear to be waving his arms, this manoeuvre carries with it years of study. I can compare my profession to many other responsible professions, such as that of a pilot, who is responsible for the safety of 250 people on board, while having to plan his route and adapt to weather and other circumstances. Not everyone can be a cardiologist, however knowledgeable they may be.

Conductors are also the main culprits when a concert lacks inspiration and coherence. Am I wrong?

Absolutely. Responsibility consists of manoeuvring in the organisational process, manoeuvring in the rehearsal process and manoeuvring in the execution of a specific work. The responsibility rests on our shoulders, because it is the conductors who make the final decisions. While we are conducting the orchestra, we also have to think about the lighting, the stage... It's a process that you conceive beforehand and then put into practice without saying a word.

On the other hand, the feeling when the energies of the performers come together in a unique artistic explosion is priceless. Do you ever find it hard to contain your excitement and find that the music just sucks you in?

Definitely. It is a very emotional process, which is why it is such a difficult profession. Not only are my emotions involved, but the emotions of everyone involved are also involved. They can change from day to day, which can be quite exhausting. But it is all worth it when we succeed and at the end we get the winning feeling or pleasure. In the best moments, when all the pieces fall into place and we align energetically with the audience, I feel extremely happy. That's when your whole body is telling you that we have succeeded, because the audience is also in a trance. That's why working in the arts is so tempting and why people go to concerts. That's when they experience a sense of catharsis.

The energy of an orchestra is certainly a powerful life force and inspiration. Do you always need it, or do you sometimes prefer to switch to silence?  

Constantly (laughs). If I can, I don't listen to anything at home and enjoy the silence. When I have time to relax my mind, I enjoy it the most. It is only when I am in complete isolation and silence that new ideas and visions start to drip out and I let them in. If I am listening to music, it is harder to do this. But it is true that nowadays we are always at a concert, surrounded by different noises and sounds at almost every turn.

Your most faithful companion in all this is the baton. What is the link that has developed between you?

The tactile arm acts as an extension of my hand, which is very handy when working remotely. Because it is white, it can be seen in many environments. Of course, I prefer to conduct with my batons, which mean a lot to me, as they were given to me as a gift from people I love. It would be difficult for me to associate myself with a baton that I borrowed from anyone. They vary a lot, whether in weight, length, handles... I have only bought one in my whole career, and it was extremely beautiful. It was wooden and I broke it at the first rehearsal when I banged it on the counter and it instantly 'snapped' in two (laughs). There's also a lot of conducting with just your hands, for example if there's a small orchestra in front of you.

You attach great importance to working with young musicians. Does working with them require a different approach? Do you have to conduct with a baton more often?

I want to work with everyone in the same professional way. This means that I conduct rehearsals in the same way and talk to them in the same professional way as I do with older musicians. Over the years of working with them, it has been confirmed that they progress faster this way. If I see that they need further clarification or discussion, I approach them through you. The fact is that young people don't have as much experience with conductors and have to learn our gesticulation first. It is a system that you learn by practising, like following the rules of the road.

Are there differences between the younger generations and is it perhaps harder to get them excited about music today than in the past?

I don't notice a difference between the generations, which I attribute to the fact that young musicians are very specific people. They are very committed to this work and see it as a chosen path in life. This is especially true for those who cross the magic line from lower to upper secondary music school. The next stage is then the Academy of Music.
They are very serious and open to conversation at the same time. They want to know more, so I have no problem keeping their attention. Their dedication to music is comparable to their peers from orchestras in other countries. We encourage them to be ambitious and to accompany foreign orchestras. They need to be aware of how the arts market works elsewhere. It is true, however, that in all this flood of information, it is rational to guide them to credible information.

How do you see the art market in Slovenia?

The art market here is very Central European-oriented. As Slovenia is extremely small, it has to actively search for a market comparable to its own. Despite our small size, we Slovenians are not used to going to countries where there is more going on to find information. Of course, this also depends on one's social background and finances, so I would say to young people that musicians have always travelled and looked for their influences and influences. All this knowledge is painstakingly accumulated by the individual and put into his or her own little box.

Is Slovenia a supportive environment for young musicians and does it offer enough opportunities for them?

I believe that Slovenia is intensively creating an enabling environment at this very moment. I would give you the same answer in five years' time, because even in the broader context, things are changing in such a way that only our own activity can save us. Slovenia is not honey and milk for the music profession per se, but the same is true for other countries. It is also not to say that all trained musicians will succeed at a professional level. My work is based on the belief that every talented and hard-working musician deserves a quality career and, above all, the opportunity to live out his or her life's mission. Above all, it is important to actively engage with all stakeholders in the music field and in this way to find a way to be successful.

Is quality music still perceived as a cherished value in this country?

I think so. There are a lot of children in music education in this country, and it is of a very high quality. We all have to make a tremendous effort to make sure that all these children also have the opportunity. The latter is when the action is justified. There is a lot of production, events and concerts in Slovenia. Every musician must realise that he is the creator of this environment and must work with the aspiration of having enough listeners and performing quality works. The music environment throughout Europe is not losing listeners. In this country, too, there are a lot of families connected to music in one way or another. However, we must not take everything for granted. It is no different in other industries, and music is no exception.

What expectations do you have for this year's 7th Winter Festival, where you and the Slovenian Youth Orchestra will traditionally present programmes that combine classical music into multi-genre concerts at the Ljubljana Festival?

Significant. This is a unique opportunity for our orchestra and one of the highlights of the season. The programme is a great challenge for the young people, who work hard until the end and welcome the event with all the grill they can muster. To explain it in sports jargon; this is their chance for a medal. At that moment, all the parameters have to fall into place. I am sure that we will put on a fantastic concert. This feeling has not left me since the moment we put together the programme and added the extremely talented soloist Rok Zaletel Černoš.