Mihhail Gerts. Photo: Kaupo Kikkas (detail) View full image

Introducing Mihhail Gerts

As we welcome conductor Mihhail Gerts to the Maestro Arts roster, he explains the importance of choral singing and how useful it was to work in opera early in his career

What are your first memories of music?

I come from a family of musicians and I grew up running around the corridors of the Vanemuine in Tartur, Estonia. That was my first encounter with music. I went to music school and started learning piano at the age of five. In Estonia, many people sing in choirs – it’s a common past-time, so I spent a lot of time in choirs, observing the conductors. Somehow, when I was around 12, I had the desire to conduct the choirs myself. I started taking conducting as a second subject and once I had completed my piano studies switched to conducting.

I started conducting choirs fairly early on, including the Estonian National Male Choir, a professional male choir that travels around the world. There are no other professional male choirs of that size – there were 56 members at that time – and there is a lot of music composed for it.

What are the benefits of choral singing?

Being in a choir bonds people. There are so many benefits on a personal level: breathing, listening, expressing oneself, experiencing common emotions and the communication with each other (which is even more direct than in an orchestra as there are no instruments in the way). As a child, singing in a festival with 20,000 other singers is very uplifting. Belonging to a group, whatever your age, sex or preferences, with everyone following the same line, is a very powerful experience. I think that this background in singing is one of the reasons there are so many successful Estonian musicians.

What did you learn about conducting from working with choirs?

I began to understand the responsibility of being a conductor, that the decisions you make – whether about programming or recruiting – affect the lives of many people who are under your guidance. I learnt a lot about organisation, which is part of a conductor’s job. Musically, it was very interesting, because the works written for the male choir are very demanding. It’s through-composed material, polyphonic to the highest degree, by wonderful composers – mainly Estonian, but also from around the world, so the range was very broad.

How did the transition to conducting opera feel?

I had to start from zero. At the Estonian National Opera at that time, repertoire productions ran over many seasons, which meant very little rehearsal time. I learnt to adapt very quickly, and to make sure that everything worked and that I didn’t disturb the big machine. The first goal was to be reliable and make it all come together with hardly any rehearsal time.

What did you learn from this experience about rehearsing efficiently?

I developed an intense understanding of how conductors’ gestures relate to the playing and sound of the orchestra – and particularly its tempo. I conducted the entire ballet repertoire, which I enjoyed very much. In ballet, the conductor puts their ego aside, mainly making sure that the music is at the right speed so that the dancers can do their best. It’s that simple: you just need to provide a certain framework so that the dancers can execute their parts. Your interpretative ideas don’t matter.

This shaped me in both positive and negative ways. I saw myself more as part of the team, serving the group, rather than coming in and saying, ‘This is how we do it,’ because that wouldn’t have worked. I learnt a lot of repertoire, and how to provide the framework – both in opera and ballet, and also operetta, which is a very difficult genre, with so much rubato. Very early on, I had to understand what to do with my hands, and that has never left me.

How did you develop as a symphonic conductor?

After seven years at the opera, I was at the point where I felt I had learnt nearly everything I could. I had a large operatic repertoire, but practically no symphonic knowledge or experience in rehearsing. I felt quite helpless when I had to present a new work to the opera orchestra because I was so used to adapting, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to rehearse from scratch. That’s why I decided to go to study at Berlin’s Hanns Eisler School of Music.

From that moment on I started to think of conductor’s role. How do I convey the idea of the music to the players? Through technical means, metaphors, being efficient with rehearsal time and making the process exciting. Step by step, I learnt to build up a clear idea of what I’m asking players to do without just saying, ‘Do it this way.’ Conducting is not about ego. My role is to lead the performance, but I’m not doing it for myself. I have a conviction that the music we are performing needs to be played a certain way. It can be played in many different ways, but since I’m on the podium today, we will play it like this because there is no other way that I can personally present this music.

How do you feel about having learnt the technical skills of conducting before the more creative aspects, in this way?

I’m very happy that I learnt it this way round. It gives me a very solid base. I have not yet experienced a situation where I have an idea, but I can’t convey or realise it. If I have a clear idea of how music should sound, I know exactly what I have to do to make it sound that way.

What have you learnt about the psychology of conducting?

There is always the human aspect: apart from being able to project with my gestures and appearance the way the music should sound, I also need to be able to open up the people I’m working with and win them to my side, otherwise nothing happens. It’s not a linear process: it’s very much give and take.

One has to empathise with the musicians. The normal life of an orchestral musician is quite routine. My first job – after showing them that the routine will continue as normal – is to open them up. The best way is to make a few jokes. The problem is that you can’t prepare them! I can arrive at a rehearsal being very clear about the harmonies, progression, articulation and all the technical nuances, but I cannot really anticipate jokes, although they are essential. That is one of the tricks I’m still learning!

How do you see the role of classical music in the future?

My honest answer is that every day I see the gap between people and classical music getting wider and wider. There are many factors that influence this – the way we live, our shortening concentration spans, social media. The distance between the music created in the past and our lives today is growing bigger, and however good it is, contemporary music can’t fill this gap. Classical music has so much to offer, whether inspiring emotions, creating energy, provoking thinking, offering connection. It needs mediators, though, and that is how I see myself – opening our world up to as many people as possible. This is why I started the TubIN festival in Estonia, to show the impact that composers can have on the widest possible audience.

The future of classical music depends on how well we are able to engage communities at the local level where orchestras are based, so that people feel that what we do is part of their lives, their identity, and that it’s fantastic. We need to do a lot of work to demonstrate that works from the past have something to tell us today. That isn’t a given.

If I look at my daughter’s generation, children who study instruments may have at least some connection to the process of live music making, but the others will not, and they are probably the majority. How do we get them to listen? Classical music is all about listening, and so is any debate, so there are huge implications for our whole lives. How do we create the muscle that can listen actively and make sense of things? It must be trained, so how do we do that? If that doesn’t happen, the future will not be prosperous.