Q&A – An Interview with Peter Czornyj


This month we’re speaking with Peter Czornyj, Director of Artistic Planning for the Sydney Symphony.


AL: Early in your life you discovered a love for the cello. Do you come from a musical family? When did you start learning? Were you a concert performer? as a soloist or with an ensemble?


PC: My fascination for the sound of the cello began on the day I saw Mstislav Rostropovich perform in 1968. I came home from that concert begging my parents to buy me a cello. The concert included the great Cello Symphony by Britten and Haydn’s C major Concerto, and the conductor was the amazing Constantin Silvestri. My parents were wonderfully supportive and I got my cello. But this was actually my second instrument, as I had been having piano lessons from the age of seven. Music was appreciated in our family but I was the first to take this up with serious study and consider a profession in music. I played the piano throughout my student years, and the cello in school and university orchestras, and I then had a short career as a pianist, as vocal coach and theatre musician in Hamburg and Berlin during the 1980s.


AL: Do you sometimes have a secret hankering to take Catherine Hewgill’s place,  front of stage at the Opera House?


PC: I’ve always had enormous admiration for professional cellists, probably because I really knew that I would never make it myself in that profession. I still love the sound of the instrument.  Catherine Hewgill is an amazing principal cellist and a very fine soloist. The job is very safe in her hands. When I think about all the great cellists that I have been fortunate to hear in concerts, including Rostropovich, Fournier and Tortelier, and the great cellists of today, like Alban Gerhardt, Lynn Harrell, Yo-Yo Ma, Truls Mork, Daniel Mueller-Schott, Jian Wang and Pieter Wispelwey, I think this is a great time for the cello. But returning to my first instrument, which I occasionally still find time to play for my own pleasure, the list of phenomenal pianists I have heard over the years makes my jaw drop, and they have included Bolet, whose recitals were mesmerizing occasions; Horowitz, whom I heard in recital twice and found his sound absolutely incomparable; and Argerich, Arrau, Ax, Benedetti-Michelangeli, Bronfman, Hewitt, Hough, Lupu, Ohlsson, Perahia, Pollini, Zimerman and many, many others. It just amazes me how each and every one of these pianists is able to conjure up a very personal sound at the piano.


AL: Can we talk a little  about your position as Director of Artistic Planning for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra? In this role, I understand that you, together with the Conductor, plan the year’s program, indeed a few years’ programs, and at the same time select the artists to perform the works. How does this all work? What is the process?


PC: Each year, the planning process begins with a blank calendar and we fill this with lots of exciting activities. It’s a very productive and collaborative process, involving a number of important figures, most importantly the principal conductor or the chief conductor of the orchestra. It essentially starts with the pinning down of the important weeks to be conducted by the titled conductor, deciding, for example, when Vladimir Ashkenazy is going to be conducting in Sydney, and, in the current planning stage, when David Robertson is going to be in Sydney. From that point, you can then decide which weeks of the year are available for guest conductors, and who those conductors should be, and which soloists are then going to be invited for future seasons. This means planning often 18 months to two years ahead of a season, to be certain that we have the people we want to have in a particular season in Sydney.


AL: To what extent does the Conductor influence the works to be performed?


PC: Conductors only conduct music that they really want to conduct. It sounds so obvious but it is a delicate planning process. I’ve tried convincing conductors to conduct something that, eventually, becomes clear doesn’t speak to them – this may be a concerto that a soloist has suggested, or a newly commissioned work, or something that would seem just right for them but is not currently what they are considering – but I find the effort involved in actually having this conversation is nevertheless really worthwhile. Each conductor is personally attracted to a certain repertoire outside the core symphonic repertoire that every conductor will want to conduct, and this is what makes concert programming so rich and varied, so stimulating and fascinating. It means you have conductors who conduct Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, but the same conductors or other conductors will be keen to conduct Liszt, Bruckner, Mahler, Messiaen, Stravinsky Szymanowski, Tippett, Zemlinsky, Gershwin, Bernstein and Boulez!  


AL: You have managed the commissioning of new concert works, in Australia, in Europe and the USA. (Is this correct?) What is involved in this?


PC: Commissioning new music is such an important part of what we do as program planning directors. We live in very creative times. Authors are writing new books, great films are being made, exciting theatre productions are taking place of new plays, innovative choreography is being danced, painting, sculpture, photography, all reflections of our times, and of our creative view of our world and ourselves. It is so important that orchestras create new orchestral scores, inspiring today’s composers to explore the sound of the orchestra. Working with composers, publishers and performers, and connecting with orchestras around the country and around the world to create co-commissioning opportunities is hugely satisfying. What’s more, there are so many wonderful people who are keen to support these commissions, to provide the funds to make all these new compositions come about.  You speak with a lot of people to bring all these parts of the puzzle together, and that is very exciting.


AL: Having worked together with David Robertson in the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, his appointment must be particularly exciting for you.  How might it be different working together now in Sydney? 


PC: Working with David Robertson is very inspiring. He has such a broad and extensive repertoire, and programming with him is a delight. He has a very instinctive feel for what works as a gratifying concert experience. I think he really understands what makes an orchestra sound at its best. What may be different here is that he will want to explore in depth, over time, the music of this wonderful country, and collaborate with Australian composers, and then also connect with the music of countries around the Pacific-Rim region.


AL: Over the years you would have met many outstanding young musicians. Are there some you’ve come across later as mature, talented musicians who have achieved great things? Could you give us some examples?


PC: To mention just a few names here, I heard some now very successful performers make their early important debut appearances, performers like Gil Shaham, Magdalena Kozena, Sergey Khachatryan, the conductors Simon Rattle, James Gaffigan and Lionel Bringuier, and more recently Australian conductor Nicholas Carter, and the Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth and an excellent American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. It’s really wonderful to see these performers develop and really important careers happen for them.


AL: Your position as Director of Artistic Planning must take up an enormous amount of time and energy. Obviously it brings you great joy and stimulation being with international artists in the music world. Do have any favourite artists?


PC: That’s a really difficult question. They are all favourites. They are, each and every one of them, very special people. I cannot pick any one above all others.


AL: Do you have a ‘wish-list’ of the top five artists who have not yet come to Sydney, and whom you would love to persuade to perform here? Who is on that list?


PC: If we could convince them that the travel is not anywhere near as arduous as they might think, and that, once they have their feet on the ground, they would love it here – as everyone who comes here does –  it would be terrific to see Krystian Zimerman perform with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (I have tried), or the great violinists Leonidas Kavakos, Janine Jansen and Julia Fischer (I am still trying),  or conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, Antonio Pappano or Riccardo Chailly. That’s more than five top artists but some be able to be convinced to make it downunder.


AL: Does your work take you and your family in different geographic directions at times? How do you manage this? 


PC: Travelling is an important part of the occupation. It’s important to hear what is happening in other parts of the world, in other state capitals of Australia, for example, in New Zealand, and in Asia, America and Europe. And I think it is important to be connecting with performers and other artistic planning directors internationally, as well as representing the Sydney Symphony Orchestra around the world.  As a family, my wife and our two boys enjoy travelling a lot; visiting friends and family overseas. We also get to go to concerts together in other countries, and to  basketball, soccer and baseball games. We like to keep busy; it makes for thrilling and exciting lives!





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