A Lifetime of Love for Classical Music

Wilson Hermanto, a US-Indonesian conductor, says more needs to be done to nurture an appreciation for Western classical music in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Aula Simfonia Jakarta)

By : Jakarta Globe | on 12:55 PM May 21, 2014
Category : Life & Style, Arts & Culture, Music

The Aula Simfonia Jakarta music hall echoed with the sounds of some of Beethoven’s most enthralling compositions, starting with the German maestro’s “Prometheus Overture.”

While not as iconic as pieces like the “Pathetique” or “Moonlight” sonatas, its vibrant, lively tunes are infused with the same depth, emotion and drama that defines the other works.

“The ‘Prometheus Overture’ is a virtuoso piece, as it contrasts fast notes for its string section and intricate sounds for its woodwind section,” says Indonesian-American conductor Wilson Hermanto, who deftly guided the orchestra through the piece, which was originally composed for a ballet but became famous as a composition in its own right.

The “Prometheus Overture” led off to more surprises for the evening, starting with the “Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61,” featuring German violinist Linus Roth on solo violin.

“‘Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61’ is one of the greatest compositions of its kind,” Hermanto says. “It’s also innovative in its use of melodies and harmony, as it’s akin to a dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra. The piece is also beautifully orchestrated, as it can go in and out of its sections in such a seamless way that the solo violin and orchestra can interchange between leading the melody or accompanying it. The piece is worth highlighting, as it reflects the versatility of classical music.”

The “Violin Concerto” might have diverted and enchanted the audience due to its intricate composition. However, it “Symphony No. 2,” which was composed between 1801 and 1802 by Beethoven when he studied under Joseph Haydn at Vienna in his early thirties, that capped off the performance on a high note.

“The ‘Second Symphony’ is one of the first compositions that [marked Beethoven] as a budding musician, as it took on a bigger structure than the ‘First Symphony,’” Hermanto says. “Its style and scale hint at his later masterpieces like the fifth and ninth symphonies.”

Hermanto adds that the all-Beethoven repertoire is a departure from his usual repertoire, which commonly features other composers such as Mozart, Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

“I guess its a good way to keep the audience focused, and speaks volumes about Beethoven’s universal appeal,” he says.

Climbing up the ranks

Hermanto’s recital at the Aula Simfonia Jakarta was a triumphant homecoming and marked his debut as a music conductor in Jakarta. The performance also allowed him to reunite with a number of musical acquaintances, including his former mentor Adi Darma, the music director of the now defunct Jakarta Symphony Orchestra. The performance was also a milestone in Hermanto’s lifelong journey through classical music.

“I started out taking piano lessons in Jakarta as an adolescent, but my classical music training really started when I left Jakarta in 1991 to take undergraduate studies in violin at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore,” says the 42-year-old Hermanto.

“But the real turning point came when I took graduate studies in conducting at the Manhattan School of Music with late Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling. Since then I studied the field under various masters like Carlo Maria Giulini at the Scuola Musica in Fiesole, Italy, and Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy.

“I stepped up my game as assistant conductor to Franz Welser Moest at the Cleveland Orchestra between 2002 to 2004,” he adds. “I also acquired my skills from other giants in the classical music field. These include renowned conductor Sir Colin Davis, who was one of my mentors before his death in 2013.”

Hermanto didn’t just limit himself to learning from others. He also founded the New York-based Prometheus Chamber Orchestra and led it from 1996 to 2002. He was also the music director for the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles from 1999 to 2002.

Hermanto explains that there is much more to conducting than people realize.

“Conducting might seem an incoherent, even comic activity for those watching it, as we make no sound, just wave our batons and make frenetically emphatic gestures,” he says.

“But in reality we have to be all-round musicians who have to provide the tempo for the composition, have a musical give-and-take with the musicians, and make sure the string, percussion and woodwind sections play their respective parts.

“My training on the piano was useful in training to become a conductor, as we have to read many lines of notes, instead of a line at a time like one would when studying the violin,” he adds.

“We also have to make sure the respective sections come in and out seamlessly in the composition, and have overall control of the ensemble, as the din from the music might keep them from listening to one another or getting their cues from the conductor. The conductor also has to follow the notes set out by the composer and capture something of their dynamism.”

Hermanto explains that doing so entails overcoming unique challenges.

“Pop music over the past 60 years like the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Madonna are recorded, so when they die we can still listen to them. On the other hand, classical music is judged by how the musicians and conductor interpret it, since composers like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart have been dead for hundreds of years. The challenge is how to interpret the music as authentically and as near to its spirit as possible, so as to become the definitive version that shapes people’s tastes of that music,” he says.

Classical music in the modern world

“One reason why Western classical music lasts is because of its diatonic or 12-note structure, which contrasts with the pentatonic or five notes of its Asian counterpart, like gamelan,” Hermanto says.

“The structure makes it well organized and akin to architecture, as most tangibly seen in Baroque pieces like Bach compositions. But what gave Western classical music its universal appeal is its influence from literature, theater and languages, an element that took its definitive form through opera.

“And what it makes it complete, aside from its systematic organization and structure, is its emotional value. This gives classical music its universal appeal, which has spread far from its roots in Europe to the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa.”

Hermanto notes that Indonesia is just as receptive to classical music and the universal appeal of composers like Beethoven, a point he gauged through his recent performance at the Aula Simfonia.

“Indonesia has tremendous potential for classical music, but that is not enough,” he says. “A vital element in classical music is learning from foreign maestros, which is something that we need to do to get inspired and the proper level of music to aspire to. Eminent conductors like Ricardo Muti and Christoph Eschenbach have toured in China.”

Indonesia’s inability to do the same has kept the country’s classical music scene at least 15 years behind other Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea, Hermanto says, “which is sad considering that it’s the fourth most populous country in the world.”

He attributes the poor understanding of classical music here to Jakarta’s lack of a symphony orchestra or opera house, complete with an orchestra pit and stage hands for the latter.

“But here also, the problem is the same as that of bringing in foreign acts, namely limited funds. Sure, we can find corporate sponsors, but they in turn face hurdles not faced in other foreign countries, namely the lack of tax breaks needed to bring the musicians in or develop classical music in Indonesia,” Hermanto says.

“Another hindrance is the preconception that classical music is an elitist form of art. Nothing can be further from the truth. As a high form of art, it might take a bit more concentration, feeling and contemplation to listen to than rock or pop music. But the humanity inherent in it make its appeal universal among young and old.”

He adds that this latter element is the reason the genre will have a bright future in Indonesia, in spite of the challenges ahead.

“Classical music has a way of transcending our differences and uniting us, which makes it suited to a diverse nation like Indonesia,” Hermanto says.

“So regardless of whether we’re Javanese, Sumatran, Muslim or Christian and so on, the humanity inherent in classical music reminds us of how much we have in common as human beings and how we can aspire to a higher plane of thought and spirituality together.”

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