Ten ways of describing a dream
The story of conductor Claus Efland
Jan Thornberg, presenter of Danish Radio’s classical music programme ‘Music from the Stage’, is taken aback when he receives a phone call one morning in June 1985. He has just invited his listeners to call in to make a request, when someone rings in asking for Albert Lortzing’s opera Zar und Zimmerman [The Tsar and the Carpenter]. The caller even asks for a specific scene in which the incompetent Bürgermeister, van Bett, wants to rehearse a choir in preparation for the Tsar’s arrival. The person ringing in continues, and Thornberg cannot believe his ears: on the other end of the line is a child, a young boy who wants to listen to this particular scene in a recording with Karl Ridderbusch singing the role of van Bett and Hans Wallat conducting. Astonished, Thornberg asks: “How old are you . . . . ?“.
Claus Efland was only eleven years old, but had known Lortzing’s masterpiece for a long time. Young Claus would often listen to classical music on the radio when he came home from school. If he enjoyed what he heard, he would press the record button on his tape recorder. This is what happened the first time he encountered Lortzing’s music, the scene from Zar und Zimmerman with Ridderbusch and Wallat. Unfortunately, he pressed the button too late so when he listened to the whole tape – which he did a lot – this scene was incomplete.
So, Thornberg calls the Efland family back to fix an interview with the boy. The interview takes place, is broadcast live, and generates an extraordinary response across the nation. First, everyone hears that some children are doing more than just kicking footballs or playing dolls. Second, the boy finally gets the complete extract of Zar und Zimmerman with Ridderbusch and Wallat on his tape recorder. And third, young Claus Efland knows that his life now has only one direction – music.
Did the boy already have plans to be a conductor? Yes, of course; after all, he had been listening to classical music since he was two. But just as Jan Thornberg wondered, we must ask: where does this early interest come from? Is the family musical? No. It all started with a composer called Johann Strauss and his connection with the young Claus’s birthday. Music lovers everywhere know the great New Year’s Day concert, broadcast worldwide from Vienna since the 1960s. The Efland family would watch it every year, the young Claus transfixed by the wonderfully elegant and majestic waltzes, the great Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor Willi Boskowsky also playing the solo violin in appropriate Viennese style. The magnificent Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein with its unique flower-inspired decoration fascinated the boy from childhood, to the point when he would even attempt to build a copy with his Lego bricks. Claus started to conduct at an early age – to recordings made especially for this purpose, in the corner of the front room. His parents regarded his behaviour unquestioningly, thinking it was just a passing phase. As we now know, they were wrong.
In 1984, Claus joins the boys’ choir in a church in Assens, a small town on the Danish island of Funen. The choirmaster soon spots the boy’s talent and supports him, encouraging him to take up an orchestral instrument. Claus soon settles on the violin and takes lessons first with a local musician, then with Marianne Granvig, one of the leading violin professors in Denmark. She prepares him for audition at the music college in Odense and in 1995 he begins his musical studies. Two years later he is accepted into Peder Elbæk’s violin class in Copenhagen but Claus is still clear: he wants to be a conductor. His parents continue to support him without hesitation. Never did he hear the question “When are you going to get a proper job?” as you so often read in artists’ biographies. On the contrary – they buy him a ‘proper’ violin, an instrument he still owns.
Claus would later play another violin which became the “love of his life”. Exactly why it became the love of his life did not become apparent till he returned to Odense to study. The Music College in Odense was founded by, among others, Carl Nielsen. Before becoming a composer, Nielsen had played violin in the orchestra of the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. He owned a beautiful instrument, built by the famous Stefano Scarampella. The round, warm tone of this violin undoubtedly influenced Nielsen’s view of the ideal string sound in his symphonies. After Nielsen’s death, the violin remained with Odense Music College but lay in a basement, unused and neglected. But Peder Elbæk had not forgotten the Scamparella and suggested that Claus should enquire about borrowing the instrument. It was agreed, and the instrument was restored. Claus remembers the day when he travelled to Copenhagen to collect the violin. He recalls entering the violinmaker’s workshop in the Old Town, and the master bringing him the black violin case with the words: “Nielsen’s violin – here it is again!”
Professor Elbæk wants to see the instrument. Tears spring to his eyes as Claus takes the violin out of its case. Elbæk asks him to play. “What a sound!”, he declares, over and over again. Day by day, as Claus plays on the instrument, the sound becomes even bigger and warmer. He frequently performs Nielsen’s second violin sonata in recitals, in the knowledge that the piece was written for that very instrument. For three years, Claus is entrusted with the Scarampella but on completing his studies he has to give the instrument back. He never sees it again.
Farewell Scarampella! Farewell Odense!
Claus wants to go to London to study conducting. While studying in Denmark he had already visited the famous city on the River Thames to discover whether or not he could realise his dream. He wants to know the admission requirements of the Royal College of Music. Yet again, he is in the right place at the right time. On that particular day, conducting professor Neil Thomson is working with the student orchestra, rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Sitting behind the orchestra and watching the rehearsal from that angle, Claus is impressed. A student orchestra of that size and especially of that standard is something he has never encountered in Denmark. At the Royal College of Music he gets the sense of an orchestra playing like a first-rate professional orchestra. Also, the way Neil Thomson works with the orchestra impresses him. After the rehearsal he approaches Neil who invites him to stay and watch his teaching.
After a week in London Claus knows for certain that he wants to spend three years there. He applies for the conducting course at the RCM. A great place, he thinks, because it is connected to names like Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Colin Davis and Sir Simon Rattle – one of them is going to have a special influence on Claus. In the end it is Neil Thomson who encourages him to apply for the RCM and prepared him for audition in February 2000. What Claus does not know is that the audition is very intense and highly significant, with 120 candidates applying for the conducting course. On top of that, he also does not know that only eight applicants are chosen for audition. But what he does get to know in the afternoon of the audition is that only one person has been offered a place to study conducting at the RCM: Claus Efland. As he later recalls, “A lucky moment!”. So he again leaves Denmark in September that year, heading for London again, this time to settle down close to the Thames.
Welcome to England!
At the Royal College of Music there are three teachers guiding Claus: John Carewe, Neil Thomson and Edwin Roxburgh. From them he learns in a concentrated fashion things that may seem obvious, but which he had never before considered. That every note in a score has a function and should be analysed is a skill learned from John Carewe. How to show an orchestra what you want with your hands rather than mouth he learns from Neil Thomson who focuses on the technical skills. Claus well remembers his first lesson with Thomson: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. “What kind of sound do I want? The exact idea must be clear, without the help of a piano or a recording”. The third teacher, Edwin Roxburgh, a remarkable composer and conductor, teaches Claus how to direct contemporary music. Sharing lessons with only two other students, one year above him, makes Claus’s conducting training a very intense experience. Compared with the limited time a student conductor gets with an orchestra at other music colleges, Claus’s experience at the RCM proves to be a truly rosy time. Almost every day he can stand before a full symphony orchestra. From the very start, he tackles the great masterpieces and has the chance to rehearse them. Furthermore, prominent visiting conductors add even more spirit to the RCM: Charles Mackerras, Bernard Haitink, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lorin Maazel, Sir Colin Davies, Sir Simon Rattle, Daniele Gatti and many others. The best way of achieving musical maturity is through hands-on experience. And as before, these experiences are going to take Claus even further on his professional journey. It is clear that sooner rather than later his journey will take him away from London . . .
. . to Dresden, where in 2003 Sir Colin Davies is giving a conducting masterclass. Claus passes the audition and after, a week of working with Sir Colin, conducts a 15-minute rehearsal of Dvorák’s 7th Symphony with a student orchestra. Not only does Claus learn a lot from the week, but an invitation follows to become an assistant for the Maestro. This means moving from London to Dresden where Davies conducts the fabled Dresden Staatskapelle. A big and important step – leaving London. The most important aspect of the assistant post for Claus is the opportunity to go through big scores with Sir Colin who always allows plenty of time for that. Later, when Sir Colin cuts back on his work in Dresden, Claus is no longer needed but this creates time and space to take more new steps forward.
In 2004 Claus participates in the renowned Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in London and wins Second Prize. As well as receiving the prize from His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and working with the London Symphony Orchestra, this award is going to change his life. As often happens, it starts with a phone call.
The call comes from Leicester. The Bardi Symphony Orchestra is enquiring whether he is available for two concerts conducting Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, an offer Claus cannot resist. Both performances are exceptionally successful and this really matters, because the orchestra is in artistic crisis. But it is immediately obvious that Claus Efland is the person to breathe fresh air into the orchestra. More invitations quickly follow, including for Orff’s Carmina Burana with 500 performers, 400 of whom are in the choir, and Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. All performances earned immense critical acclaim and in 2008 Claus is appointed Music Director. Since then, many concerts have happened in Leicester, highly acclaimed by both audience and orchestra members. And, for the first time ever, the orchestra plays Nielsen, notably Symphonies 2 and 4.
The experience of being Chief Conductor has made a huge impact on Claus as he carries the full responsibility not just of programming but also of developing the orchestra artistically. The difference between being chief conductor and guest conductor is now very familiar, as Claus receives invitations from orchestras all over the world including Denmark, England, Italy, Argentina and Mexico. There is yet another new development to report: becoming an exclusive artist with recording company Challenge Records. This is a further major step forward, and several albums with Sinfonietta Riga have already been released internationally.
Claus’s life has changed a lot, but he always celebrates his birthday in the same way. On January 1st he still turns on the television in the morning when the New Year’s Day concert with the Vienna Philharmonic is broadcast live. Since 2011, however, he has to record the event and watch it later, since he is not available in the morning. The reason is – and here the circle is pleasingly complete – for the past three years he has conducted a series of ten sell-out New Year concerts in the Berlin Konzerthaus with the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.
If Jan Thornberg from Copenhagen were in the audience, he would surely be amazed.
© Thomas Otto
translated by Sue Sturrock