Q&A: New Artistic Partner Jonathan Cohen


This weekend marks British multi-instrumentalist and conductor Jonathan Cohen’s first performances as an SPCO artistic partner (Tickets + Information). To help introduce him to Twin Cities audiences, we asked the following questions:

Why is classical music important to you?

I find that music is a great forum for exchanging ideas, and is as creative a way as any to express one’s strongest opinions and emotions. You can never also really learn it, because it’s part of you and we’re always changing, but we can try and learn every day about ourselves and the world through music making.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a classical musician?

Maybe something to do with computers or boats. I’m not entirely sure. Never thought about that!

Is there a piece of music or moment that inspired you to pursue a career in classical music?

I love challenges and puzzles and there is no greater challenge than to perform Bach’s music well. It is very complex but also very natural. The mind has to be very alert and to take in many aspects at once. The complexity and cunning twists of harmony, combined with strong rhetorical gestures make it almost like a speed test to fully understand the amount of information per second that needs to be processed as the music flies past. You need to also be outside the flow at the same time because there is a very strong sense of a big and meaningful picture. It’s certainly a challenge.

Who is your biggest musical inspiration (classical or non-classical)?

My biggest inspiration is my five-year-old son Joshua. His laughter and pleasure in life brings me a lot of joy and pride.

Do you have any interesting stories about your instrument or its history?

Like the time I started a concert without switching the organ on? Or walked off stage the wrong way into a cupboard? Or knocking the violin out of the soloist’s hand while conducting (she caught it!)? These things happen all of the time… it’s part of music and life on stage!

How does playing new music differ from playing more traditional repertoire?

I find some new music very hard. I like to be able to hear a piece in my head when I read a score. Sometimes I find the rhythmic and harmonic challenges of some newer compositional styles too difficult to read on the page. And then for me it becomes about getting it right or the difficulty of realising it accurately. Old music is pretty simple to get right in certain ways, but then in some cases it is more about the complexity of the nuance, the tonal shapes, understanding the cultural history, the harmonic rhetoric and what’s behind and in between the notes. It seems to me to be less about notation which was often conceived more as shorthand for their daily practices in older times. I’ve always been more excited by these decoding aspects, and the mystery of what was meant in a historical score, but I do also have a lot of respect for new music and its devotees and I think it’s crucial to keep performing new works. After all, all music was once new music!

What is different about performing with the SPCO versus other ensembles you have worked with?

I’m a big fan of chamber music. I love working with the SPCO because everyone invests themselves in the performance as chamber musicians. That is to say, we keep a strong sense of the charisma of the individual but also work well as a collective body, each person taking responsibility for his or her part in the score. When everyone in an ensemble is fully invested emotionally, the sound is rich and alive.

Do you have any pre- or post-concert rituals or routines?

I don’t like waiting with bated breath to go on stage and building up a concert as a massive deal. It’s good to just take a deep breath, rub the hands together, seize the moment and begin. Like working in a kitchen, let’s just get to cooking some great food together. I like the idea of rolling up your sleeves and going to work. I don’t think we should be too precious, lofty or arty about music. We should all be passionate chefs with a love of fresh and interesting food in a busy kitchen.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in music?

My best advice is to aspire to play great music with great people in great places and to follow where it leads. I don’t think it works to be too planned in life or career; it’s better to have an involved, open and experimental attitude. Always keep enthusiasm and the art of constantly doing/playing/learning high on the agenda

What is something unexpected that people might not know about you? Hobbies or non-musical activities?

I love the ocean and enjoy sailing.

What is the last song or piece of music that you couldn’t stop listening to? What is it about that song or piece that grabs you?

I’m did 17 performances of Marriage of Figaro this summer, so literally I couldn’t stop listening to this piece very easily! Mozart’s genius melodies and catchy tunes were a hit from the first moments they were heard and I’m pretty sure they will endure forever everywhere for everyone. I can never be tired of hearing his beautiful music.