Portrait

by Brigitta Rehnke and Fabian Stallknecht  

 

Contents

 

Under the spell of a bow

Musical conquests

Grasping the baton

At home in the world

Prelude to new  

 

 

 

Under the spell of a bow

Christoph Poppen was born in Münster and grew up in Bonn. His grandfather was assistant to Max Reger, and an active church musician, as well as a conductor and Music Director of Heidelberg University. Thus it was that a young musician felt drawn closer to the world of music. At the age of 14 , and whilst still at school, he began his violin studies with Kurt Schaeffer at the Robert Schumann Hochschule in Düsseldorf. At 18, he attended a course with Nathan Milstein for the first time, someone who in subsequent years was regularly at his side, both as a teacher and a mentor.


The first victory – Christoph Poppen with the wife of his violin teacher Gustav Mikulai (piano) at his first prize-winners’ concert in 1966.

C.P.: Until today, Nathan Milstein is still my greatest idol. No one has influenced me more in my instrumental thinking as he did. At that time, the entire world of younger violinists met at his wonderful annual master classes in Zurich. In addition to this I had the good fortune to visit him at his Chester Square house in London for intensive private lessons.

At the age of 21, Christoph Poppen completed his final performance examinations. On the advice of Nathan Milstein, he travelled to the United States for the first time, continuing his studies with Oscar Shumsky (1917-2000), whom Leopold Stokowski once referred to as “the most amazing genius I’ve ever heard”. His close friend David Oistrakh revered him as not just a soloist, but also a chamber musician and conductor, as well as a devoted teacher.

C.P.: Oscar Shumsky was a teacher who, unlike Milstein, led his students step by step along a musical path. I remain greatly indebted to him. My own students today still benefit from the exercises he gave me at the time.

Other master classes taken with Sándor Végh, amongst others, helped complete Christoph Poppen’s musical training as a violinist.

 

Musical conquests

At the early age of 16, Christoph Poppen founded his own string quartet, which was initially known as the Juventus Quartet. This was strongly supported by his Düsseldorf teacher Kurt Schaeffer, himself an enthusiastic quartet player.

C.P.: The quartet was for me the hand of fate, and it provided the best artistic, and learning experience that I, or anyone else could ever wish for. One constantly had three highly critical colleagues at one’s side, who were at the same time friends, none of whom would ever overindulge you. And this is how I learned how important it is to be aware of everything, and to lead without imposing oneself on others. This type of leadership is still my ideal method of expressing my ideas on musical partners, especially in terms of conducting. I admire conductors such as Claudio Abbado, who also followed this approach so perfectly.

In 1978 he founded along with Harald Schoneweg (second violin), Hariolf Schlichtig (viola) and Klaus Kämper (violoncello) the Cherubini Quartet, which eventually went on to conquer all the major stages of the world with its impressive interpretations of the quartet literature of the Classical and Romantic periods. In 1981 it won the Grand Prix at the International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France.


The fantastic four. The Cherubini Quartet - Hariolf Schlichtig, Christoph Poppen, Harald Schoneweg and Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (from l. to r.)

C.P.: Playing string quartets was at that time more or less what I called my life’s core. We rehearsed more or less 24 hours a day. During some seasons we performed over 100 concerts. Although I also gave many solo concerts, there was no doubt, that playing quartets was always going to take precedence. This was a very intense but enjoyable time!

In 1984 Christoph Poppen was awarded the Advancement Award of Nordrhein Westphalia for Young Musicians in the discipline of music.

 

Grasping the baton

That same year, in 1984, Christoph Poppen travelled again to the United States, to Bloomington, Indiana, in order to study with Josef Gingold. Gingold (1909-1995), an American violinist of pedagogical renown and one of the most influential violin teachers of his time in America.

C.P.: After those very intense seven years on stage, I felt the burning desire to be a student again. In retrospect, one could describe that happy year I spent with Joseph Gingold as a sabbatical. Bloomington was the El Dorado for violinists at the time, and Gingold, after the death of Ivan Galamian, was simply the most coveted teacher in the world. He taught from morning to night and passed to his students on all the experience he had gained as concertmaster under George Szell in Cleveland Orchestra. “If you don’t have patience, don’t become a pedagogue!” This was one of his famous sayings and we heard it quite often. To this day, some wonderful recordings of his own string quartet are extant, in which he played together with Oscar Shumsky, William Primrose and Harvey Shapiro.

During this time in Bloomington, a new passion was becoming noticeable: parallel to his studies, Christoph Poppen took an increasing number of conducting lessons.

C.P.: Actually, my interest at that time was purely of a musical nature, and there was no such a thing as a decision to switch from violin to conducting. Indeed, coincidence played a major role, especially when I suddenly had time to study scores in Bloomington. Back then, I had no idea, that I would soon spend my life in front of musicians instead of amongst them.


A new instrument - the baton

In point of fact, the psychological step from primarius of a string quartet to the artistic director of a chamber orchestra is not that big, and I did not hesitate for long when the chance presented itself. I still saw myself more as a primarius or a primus inter pares rather than a maestro. I can safely say that my main aim has always been to make even a symphony orchestra sound like an extended chamber music ensemble, where much personal responsibility rests on each musician.

In 1989, Christoph Poppen took over the „Chamber Orchestra of Detmold”, led by Tibor Varga, which was then called „Detmold Chamber Orchestra“. He spent seven years at the helm of the ensemble.

C.P.: Sometime around the beginning of a season, I noticed with astonishment that my diary contained more appearances as conductor than as a violinist. That was when I started to think seriously about things and decided to accept this development. One of my first mentors was Sir Colin Davis. Later, I took lessons from the legendary Jorma Panula, and to this day we continue to share a warm friendship.


New energy

In 1995 Christoph Poppen was appointed Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Munich Chamber Orchestra, an internationally highly respected ensemble. Within a short space of time a reputation had been achieved for distinctive programming that contrasted classical repertoire with contemporary works. And with many new commissions, Christoph Poppen had created a new image for the orchestra. During this period he was often invited as a guest conductor at home and abroad.


With 13-year-old student and soloist Veronika Eberle and the Munich Chamber Orchestra (2001)

C.P.: Moving from Detmold to Munich was a crucial step, and I felt at the time that new comparisons were being made, other benchmarks set. I was with the Munich Chamber Orchestra for over a decade; it was a very happy time and we still enjoy a warm, reliable friendship. In the end, I had to face the impending pressure to leave, simply because my longing to conduct larger symphonic repertoire had become so strong.

In August 2006 Christoph Poppen took over the position of chief conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken. One memorable highlight of this first season was the open-air concert with pianist Hélène Grimaud on the Island of Mainau. Among all his key tasks, the most important one for Christoph Poppen was still a year down the line: the merger of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken with the Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern. Thus it was that Christoph Poppen became Principal Conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern from 2007 until 2011.

C.P.: The challenge was to find the right person for this uncommon task. The merger was of course a challenge of the highest order. But I accepted it and faced it. Generally, when it comes to conducting, I differentiate between two distinctive poles: the music itself of course, but also how to work with people and to take over responsibility for a close community. In Saarbrücken, I had in repertoire terms regions of great contrast, but in the end reaching out towards the symphonic was ultimately correct.


Musikfestspiele Saar - Solistin Juliane Banse - Deutsche Radio Philharmonie - Korean National Choir

Since 2007 the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern has drawn on an unusually large repertoire: not only classic scores of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also New Music remain core programme elements. And the introduction of the position Composer in Residence mean that Christoph Poppen had created another distinctive aspect to his work.

It was not long before Christoph Poppen was singled out for another award, the biennial Art Prize of the Saarland, which he accepted in 2010 from the State President Peter Müller.

 

 

At home in the world

Christoph Poppen is a frequent guest conductor around the world and toured internationally on a regular basis during his engagements in Munich and Saarbrücken. Whether it be the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Bamberg Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Munich Radio Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, Symphony Orchestra of India, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra or Vienna Symphony, Christoph Poppen is a wellknown and welcomed guest in many of the musical centres around the world.


With Kioi Sinfonietta Tokio

C.P.: Presently, I enjoy the freedom without being bound to any one orchestra. It is wonderful to return regularly to a particular ensemble, but it is also exciting to work for the first time in a new place, to open up new territories, and to meet new people. For me, it is crucial that wherever I am, I make the music come alive. The actual place is perhaps not so crucial. What brings me pleasure is the feeling that I can convey my artistic thoughts and contribute to an overall artistic experience. This is, for example, currently happening for me in Asia, where I am so happy to make many guest appearances. I have the feeling that what I feel is important in musical terms is immediately taken on board and implemented.

In recent seasons, Christoph Poppen has also made an outstanding name for himself as an opera conductor. After the successful musical direction of the concert performance of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at the Opera House in Frankfurt/Main in 2009, several requests followed from international opera houses. That same year, he conducted the stage production Sing für mich, Tod, which draws on the biography of the composer Claude Vivier. This was a musik-Fabrik NRW production at the Ruhr Triennale in Gelsenkirchen.

C.P.: Opera itself has always fascinated me. When I was 17 or 18 years old, I heard Margaret Price as Fiordiligi and was so excited that I seriously thought that the best thing would be to die now and be reborn as a singer! That did not work, although I married a wonderful singer... 
Joking aside, I really enjoy working with singers, in concert, too. The opera is, of course, a very different medium. Working with a director calls for a collaboration of immense musical and dramatic energy. It must be seen as an ongoing response to unforeseen circumstances reflected in the fascination of day-to-day life.

At the Tyrolean State Theatre in Innsbruck, Christoph Poppen first conducted Mozart’s Magic Flute, then La Clemenza di Tito. On the basis of this highly successful collaboration, he took over as Musical Director of Rossini’s Otello in February 2010, the premiere of Richard Strauss’ Arabella, and two years later Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff in a new production by Brigitte Fassbaender.
The award-winning new production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio at the Aalto Theatre in Essen in May 2012 was followed in the current season by numerous other performances. During the 2012/13 season Christoph Poppen conducted a new production of Gluck’s Iphigenie in Aulis at the Stuttgart Opera.

 

Prelude to the new

At the beginning of the 2013/14 season Christoph Poppen took on a four-year assignment as Principal Conductor with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra. The goal was to align the ensemble to original programming ideas, and herald in a new era. “Poppen returns home” was the headline of the Cologne newspaper Kölner Stadtanzeiger. In their very first season, Poppen and the KKO made many successful guest performances at home and abroad, as well as in the concert hall of the Cologne Philharmonic.


Cologne Chamber Orchestra

In addition to his post in Cologne, Christoph Poppen makes many guest appearances in the current and upcoming seasons with several famous symphony and chamber orchestras in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Poland, and Greece. He also continues his successful collaboration with orchestras in Asia, including the Singapore Symphony, the Tongyeong Festival Orchestra, and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.


Gidon Kremer

C.P.: Previously, my diary was full, and ruled out appearances with chamber orchestras. I was therefore very pleased to receive the request from Cologne. With the passing of long-time Principal Conductor Helmut Müller-Brühl, it is important for me, as Principal Guest Conductor, and now Principal Conductor, to develop new formats, and to lead the orchestra away from the purely classical period, and towards the music of the 20th century. This is a very lively collaboration, and one which still leaves room for other tasks and challenges. We have many interesting plans for the upcoming seasons! Furthermore, I would like to continue extending my repertoire by appearing with familiar soloists and orchestras. I also envisage, time permitting, more solo violin performances. My educational activities will always remain important to me. It is a great joy to meet on the various stages of the world current and former students.

 

Since the summer of 2014, Christoph Poppen is also one of the Artistic Directors of the international music festival cofounded by him in Marvão, Portugal. An ambitious festival programme is a joint effort with the Gulbenkian Orchester Lissabon, and features an array of internationally renowned soloists and chamber musicians


The Festival International de Música de Marvão

C.P.: The Festival International de Música de Marvão is very close to my heart. Music should be able to connect people to each other, as well as making us happy. I truly believe that this can be achieved in Marvão, with its unique atmosphere, and will, I believe, achieve a healthy following within a short period of time. Visitors from around the world will look forward to this unique experience. There is no other place I know that can engender such strong feelings of joy. This is where the worlds of music, nature and architecture meet.


The Festival International de Música de Marvão

 

Another new project, co-founded by Christoph Poppen and other artists is the charitable organisation Artists for a better Future. This project was set up to provide a better future for children and young people world-wide.

C.P.: As artists, we are in the fortunate position of being able to awaken the world to social problems. A large number of my colleagues have felt the need to become socially active in such areas. Many of us have started such initiatives, albeit on a smaller scale. I, for example, set up some years ago the Philippine Child Assistance Project, and we are convinced that with a collective effort we could contribute more than smaller projects might. The idea behind Artists for a better Future had been at the back of my mind for many years. I am very pleased that it has finally come to fruition, and that we can start working on it.

As for the distant future…

C.P.: I could well imagine a time, and with over eight decades of conducting behind me, where I would render Bruckner’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas. The road up to that point would be varied and exciting. Of vital importance is that musical and human harmony are connected one to another. My wish is that I would continue to have an amicable relationship with my orchestras, and that a spiritual openness arising out of the music forms our common ground.

 

 

 

 

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