World-famous recorder player Maurice Steger: “I am like a minigolf star”

Фото: Molina Visuals

The Third High Arts Festival Bouquet Kyiv Stage was held in Ukraine from 20 to 25 August and concluded with a marvellous concert of the New Era Orchestra with a Swiss soloist Maurice Steger — a world-famous recorder player who has even been named “Paganini of the recorder”. Two days before the concert Maurice kindly agreed to talk to The Claquers and told us about his career of a baroque musician, his new CD “Mr Handel’s Dinner”, the Swiss mentality and his tastes in food, books and movies.

Unfortunately, we live in the world disposed of classical and romantic music. So, what does it feel like – to be a baroque musician? What advantages and disadvantages have you identified so far? 

 There are so many ways to create music and so many styles of it. For me, this global diversity is of the highest value. Naturally, classical music is just a fraction of all the music industry. Folk music, popular music, jazz music… Classical music is only a tenth part of it, and in this tenth part, I am a baroque musician which means specializing in quite a specific style of music. In this respect, I feel just like an utterly blessed “little prince” in the group of minorities, but that is nice, I am proud of it. And in this very small fraction of the baroque music, I am a recorder player which is an even bigger rarity.

 But this is not what really matters in the world, in my opinion. The fact that we are making our music so beautiful and lively in order to get everyone interested in it always is of particular importance. I believe that by means of baroque music written for the recorder I propagate so many things worldwide, that it makes me feel happy, a bit proud and very thankful. Surely, an opera soprano or a violinist are much higher than me on the hierarchy. But it is life, it is normal. I am like a minigolf superstar. Have you heard of minigolf? Who are the minigolf players? And golf is a different kind of sport, and tennis is ten million times more popular. It is reality.

Was it easy for you to become a popular musician? When and how did you start the collaboration with managers, producers?

I was lucky as it happened while I was still studying. A lot of managers and all labels of classical music (I mean, recording companies) took an interest in me. They had visited my final exam before I got a soloist diploma. After the recital, an elderly woman approached me and said: “Please, join my recording company, your first CD will be released in a year, so let’s get it started now”. The manager of a famous orchestra came up to me and said: “Play with us, let’s give 55 concerts together”. It is such good luck, I am extremely happy. I haven’t done anything for this. Of course, I performed in those 55 concerts which is a great deal.

Фото: Molina Visuals

I learned everything at that time, not during my studies. And later other baroque orchestras also invited me to play with them. It seemed to be a very successful start. On the other hand, as I support many young musicians around the world I know how diverse and thorny ways towards entering the world market may be. But competitions, amazing performance and the knowledge of how to promote yourself, including with the help of mass media — these factors are extremely important nowadays. In the long run, there is one additional important issue: you have to enjoy the performance and tell the audience a musical story no matter how hard it may be. There are so many extremely talented musicians but if the audience does not enjoy the performance… You have to enthuse the audience irrespective of the music you are playing. And, of course, these days a mastery of numerous technical skills is required as the level of performance is getting more and more advanced. You have to be the ultimate professional in what you are doing, and then your music will appeal to the listeners. This will prove that you are a good musician. When I am walking down the street and see the boys that have no money, and they are playing wonderful music, I say: “Wow, they are excellent musicians”. I believe that this is what matters above all. We have to make our music as passionate as possible. We must thrill our audience with our art. And eventually, it is not important what art is used to serve this purpose.

Recently you have released a CD entitled “Mr Handel’s Dinner”. It is both an original concept and a famous fun meme about Handel. It is interesting to know how this idea has emerged.

 The concept is highly intelligently created by myself. Handel was a German composer who moved to London where he was not only a musician but also a conductor, opera producer and director. Generally, he conducted his operas in two or three acts. After the first act which lasted for an hour, he used to tell the spectators: “Let’s have an intermission”. The first act contained an hour of music, but sometimes Handel inserted other pieces there as well, so music was played for about an hour or an hour and a half, and he announced the intermission for the spectators. During the intermissions, he invited the audience to listen to his orchestra. Between the opera acts, they presented their new original compositions, which was wonderful. Thereby the whole opera evening or afternoon lasted over five and a half or six hours.

The theatre didn’t have any cafeterias or toilets compared with nowadays when we visit the restroom every ten minutes. In those days it was very difficult but the audience enjoyed the event none the less. And they took delight in those “intermissions”. There were exciting musicians in Handel’s orchestra, in particular, Giuseppe Sammartini, William Babell, Pietro Castrucci, Matthew Dubourg, Francesco Barsanti. They presented their works as composers. For the viewers, it looked like an impromptu concert. And why the title is “Mr Handel’s Dinner”? Because he was a gourmed and was continuously getting fatter. He used to eat at a private restaurant opposite the theatre, and he always ate in the evening during the first intermission. It was a great honour to eat with him. He ordered baked pigs! Sometimes when he had to wait between the dishes, he went to the theatre and also played a small piece for the audience. All the players had to stop — “Oh, here comes Mr Handel”, so they played a small piece, organ concerts and then went to resume their dinner. I have reconstructed this concert held during the opera intermission, hence the title is “Mr Handel’s Dinner”.

We understand that Handel had a very refined taste in both spheres — a musical and a culinary one. What are your tastes in food and music?

Food? I like it very much. I’d even say that I like both food and music, and they are both important to me. I like local food. And I especially like Italian cuisine, it is really amazing. I like Arab food very much. Maybe not specifically meat but all the side dishes with vegetables. And seafood is also fantastic. I also like Asian dishes. On the whole, I like it when there is a lot of food.

As a follow-up to the daily routines. Have you got any specific rituals connected with visiting a new city? What does your day on a tour look like?

 A good night’s sleep and delicious food. It is very important. 

 And a rehearsal?

 Yes, a rehearsal as well. Surely, a rehearsal, but it is a norm. Also freedom. When I am not under stress, so I had to learn to cope with it. I can go to rehearsal without stress. A good mood, pleasant communication, friendship and love to all musicians with whom you are performing — it is the most essential thing. For instance, you arrive and see that the orchestra is not exactly what you have expected it to be. You have a hundred reasons to be disappointed. The flight was terrible, the bed isn’t comfortable enough and you don’t like it. It is important to like people with whom you work, even if they are not so crafty or play not in your style.

Фото: Molina Visuals

How do you feel about Kyiv?

I like it very much! It is quite original, and people here are very cordial. Yesterday I played with the New Era Orchestra, and there were a lot of different people. The first cellist looked like a person of the Mediterranean or Middle East origin, and next to him —blonde ladies, totally different. So, it is interesting how many influences I can observe here, it’s a mixture. I also like the old city. I was touring it yesterday, I have visited several districts today, and I have to say that the atmosphere here is enchanting. I like it. Also yesterday our conductor (Tetiana Kalinichenko — L. S.) was so very sweet! She is really very special and she inspires me.

Maybe, it is hard to understand each other in the course of two or three rehearsals? What do you do if there is no contact with the conductor or the orchestra?

I think that communication here, in Kyiv, is taking place not only verbally, as English is very difficult for the orchestra, not everyone understands it. The language of music is more important, we communicate through body language. Tetiana is always engrossed in her music. She is not too much in contact verbally, but she is able to establish a powerful psychological and mental connection. That is enough and it is the thing that really matters. We are not supposed only to talk — instead, we have to feel each other. It is important for the rehearsals. 

You have got a lot of concerts. When do you live?

At concerts. It’s a terrific lifestyle. One has to find his own rhythm — that is good.

Because of the pandemic we were close to the situation when concerts could be heard online only. What would it feel like for musicians, for you personally? Is the audience important for the performer?

Oh, yes. A concert is a shared experience and spectators are very important. It should be noted that if there are no spectators, it feels different, not like when you are on stage at a concert hall. For me, it is a completely different sensation.

Can you compare the response of the audience to baroque music in large cities and small towns, in different countries?

It is not connected with the size of the city. The size is not always important (laughs). But there is a connection with the education system and even a musical style which is dominant in the country. For example, I am playing in India, and baroque music is not a part of this culture. So, only a small part of the population is interested in it, and I played in the biggest cities there, my listeners were Europeans from different countries. Then you play, for example, in Central Europe, where this music is well-known, or you play it in Asia, and it is known there as well. I think that baroque music is not so popular. But in this respect, it stands a chance as well.

And a challenge?

A challenge, yes.

Each Ukrainian child willing to play the wind instruments starts with playing the recorder or the “sopilka” (the Ukrainian folk instrument that looks like a pipe). These simple instruments present the initial stage for them. They have to learn to play these ones before they switch to the flute, saxophone, etc. But you are still playing the recorder and demonstrating its potential! When and how did you find a recorder so powerful?

I guess when I was 13. I had an unsuccessful start with the recorder and it was hard for me. And since 13 I have been a typical boy at a typical stage of his life — I didn’t want to talk much but I had an excellent flute part and I felt “wow”! It’s like a dialogue, a conversation between me and the instrument. The instrument is so powerful, but it is not the main thing about it. The recorder is not the loudest instrument in the orchestra, but it offers diversity in sound and dynamics, that is why I like it very much.

Фото: Molina Visuals

What occupies the leading position in your recorder performance? Promoting the instrument or playing baroque music?

Playing baroque music. I am also a conductor, I play a lot of various classical music. The baroque is just a sphere in which I specialize.

In my opinion, the recorder can become more popular today not only due to baroque music but a contemporary one as well.


Do you inspire composers to write contemporary music for the recorder and do you play it?

Yes, I do. I don’t have time enough to play it regularly, but we make a lot of orders to composers, try to inspire them by our performance. I think this autonomous instrument is very topical. So, we are working in the contemporary sphere as well.

What do you mean by saying “we”?

By “we” I imply a few the most important recorder players in the world. We keep in touch with each other and a lot of things are shared in our work. For instance, I have a friend, Eric Bosgraaf, who does a lot on this new recorder stage. He gives, probably, 20 premiere recorder performances a year at a very high level. Of course, I have a lot of opportunities because I conduct big orchestras as well. If we are performing, for example, one world premiere for the recorder and the orchestra, it becomes very well-known after one single concert. It is very important, and I think that such events are getting more and more popular nowadays.

You are very proactive on stage. I’d say that your performance is very close to dancing. Does it help in performing? And where do you stand on static performances?

I have understood that our bodies work in different ways. My body works very well, as a turbine, and when the engine is on, my body moves. Other bodies and performers’ positions accumulate great power when they are like this (shows the immobile performance). Nothing of this is “better” than the other option. It is better when your chest is as authentic as possible. My sounding becomes colourful, filled with dynamics and interesting tones when my body is moving. So, technically it is better for me. But when I watch my video, I say: “No, no, please, it is too much”. I don’t like it personally, but this way I do my best in performing.

Фото: Molina Visuals

I daresay, each country has a certain mentality which influences musical performance. Can you describe the Swiss mentality and explain how it influences your performance?

The Swiss mentality is not too “left-wing” or too “right-wing”, it is very correct and sympathetic, open to new things, traditional, but a bit boring at times.

But you are not boring at all.

Yes, I am not boring, it’s true. Anything but boring. Swiss mentality is well-balanced and has no extremes. The Swiss are the best diplomats in the world.  It is not “yes, no, no”, it is always “the golden mean”. Nothing is ever said directly, but instead, it is said very kindly, with a clear objective but you never feel under pressure. It is never “too much”. For the Swiss I am too emotional, it is not typical of this nation. I have a distinct character, I say “yes” or “no”. When I say “I love” it means “love”, when I say “now” it means “now”, and it is not typical of the Swiss. I think, they also like me and I like them very much, I am a full-fledged Swiss person, but not a typical one. I have a mixture of nationalities inside me. But Switzerland is getting better and better, and today they have a more relaxed and quality lifestyle. A lot of things are ideal in Switzerland, and I love my country, as well as other parts of the world and their influences upon me.

What is the superpower of the Swiss?

It is a fantastically precise work with everything, a totally different type of standard. There is a very nice system of education in Switzerland which is devoid of any stress, so no one is stressed in Switzerland. You know, here, in eastern countries, they are a bit under stress when taught to play musical instruments, they have to study with speed and precision. Switzerland is more comfortable in this respect. To my personal taste, sternness and a lot of comfort are present in musical life here. (says in a stern voice) “Now, practice for an hour!”— is never said in Switzerland. (in a gentle voice) “Oh, why don’t we play the recorder for seven-nine minutes? Great!” This is Switzerland, and it is so sunny here. 

Sometimes our tastes in books or movies, for instance, can say a lot about us. What are your tastes?

I will mention something very specific — Musik als Klangrede (“Music as Speech” — L. S.) by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Then I would like to mention Hermann Hesse whom I like very much. I am a good friend of Donna Leon, she is world-famous. She likes baroque music, and we often spend time together. And movies… I’d say I like French movies. I like Fellini, Almodóvar very much. Late Almodóvar is so strange, but I like it. I also like “The Night” by Michelangelo Antonioni, it’s a fantastic film. Good films are so inspirational.

And Maurice Steger’s performance is inspirational as well. Watch the first part of the Bouquet Kyiv Stage concert with the participation of the New Era Orchestra and Maurice Steger.

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