Victoria Hall – a treasured Romandy landmark
Respecting music’s power and cultural properties are central to Jonathan Nott’s understanding of his role as artistic and musical director
1 Feb 2023

One of Romandy’s most culturally significant locations has to be Victoria Hall, Geneva’s iconic concert hall which has firmly cemented itself as a cultural landmark in the city. Built in the 1890s, the hall’s construction was financed by the British consul Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who named the building after Great Britain’s monarch, Queen Victoria. 

At its heart resides the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR), founded in 1918. Jonathan Nott, its music and artistic director since 2017 is eager to share his experiences working in such an esteemed role. Mr. Nott’s background and career in music has certainly ensured that he is well-equipped for the role – as demonstrated by his previous experiences working with orchestras in Italy, Germany, the United States and Japan. But how have these experiences influenced the OSR’s director and his creative choices as its head? Mr. Nott explains that we must “… start by thinking about the OSR’s DNA. It lives and works primarily in the Suisse Romande, hence its roots lie in the French language.

As a youngster, singing in a cathedral choir in England, the music that excited me and spoke to me most was French. And interestingly French 20th century music. I loved the harmonic world of Debussy, Fauré and Duparc, and as an organ student at the time I was extremely excited by the works of Messiaen and Duruflé. The French language is fluid and lives on the voluptuousness of the lips. The sound world of French music is about perfume, about music defying the pull of gravity. Like the soul flying without the body. This sensitivity to the sensuousness of sound is in the DNA of the OSR. Ernest Ansermet, founder of the OSR, was amongst many things an avid advocator for contemporary music. His contemporaries were the likes of Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky: with hindsight some of the greatest composers that ever lived. Being at one with the music of my own time is something that I wish for, and sometimes struggle with, but I have experienced many intensely-passionate pieces, and I am passionate about sharing the beauty I have found. This pioneering spirit and championing of the avant-garde is also still in the DNA of this orchestra. At the same time the OSR has had a great deal of Germanic influence in its history of music directors, and after my time at the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, I have spent many years in the heart of Germanic music-making. And last but not least, the OSR has historically had an extremely wide-ranging collection of native countries represented amongst the players.”

Clearly then, the power of language has been a major influence on the OSR’s artistic director’s creative decisions as its leader. With Switzerland being such a linguistically diverse country itself, having diversity of sources of inspiration at his fingertips has evidently brought many positive benefits. Mr. Nott elaborates further on this point, expressing that he found this very “…intriguing in a city famous for being a home of the United Nations. After all these years of experience creating and sharing music with players and audiences, I have an unerring belief in the power of music to touch every soul on the planet, to change every human, and to change them for the better. Music embraces; music heals. So I found myself invited to lead an orchestra with a home in the Suisse Romande, with a contemporary ethic that corresponded to my own, and with an all-embracing multicultural, ambassadorial raison d’être. A fantastic combination! And my musical work is all about teasing-out all of these strata. I found myself saying in a rehearsal: Germanic music seems to me to take one on a journey for the time-span of the piece, and at the end, allows one to have a greater understanding of life, from a philosophical perspective. French music seems to me to eschew allegorical teaching; instead to offer up a gateway to the next life, the eternal, and allow us to be bodyless for the duration of the piece. And then closes the gateway. We are not wiser at the end of this experience per se (as we should be at the end of an allegorical narrative), but we are profoundly enriched”.

Mr. Nott continues: “each great orchestra has its own personality: how it reacts to a conductor’s gesture, what sound colour it prefers, or indeed what palette of colours it possesses, how it responds to the thrill of making live music with its audience, even how daring it is to ride the wave created by spontaneous musicianship. I believe that the best music is prepared for in the rehearsals but needs to be let off the leash in the concert: allowing the collective consciousness (both of the players and indeed the audience – an active-listening audience is a key ‘player’ in this exchange of thought too!) to go beyond the safety zone: how does a shoal of fish know how to turn a corner spontaneously? I have loved going on this journey, making daring music, with many orchestras, but I very much admire the collective skill, the desire to communicate, the willingness for each player to “give into the collective whole” of the OSR. And we have had such fun, and have shared so many unforgettably-touching moments together. One needs to feel safe in order to break down all of one’s self-imposed barriers. I felt that right from the start here in Geneva. The question with any artistic relationship then is: how long can this impetus self-generate – the ‘Fusion Phenomenon’. As each recent concert testifies: we most certainly haven’t reached the end of the journey in Geneva yet!” 

But what about the public’s appetite for music itself? Mr. Nott explains that: “the question of public taste in music is an intriguing one. There are certain precepts that I adhere to. One is to acknowledge what a concert actually is. Above all, it is live. It is a live exchange between players and listeners, each one half of the circle of communication – of which by definition there is none without both halves. The exchange takes place in a space dedicated to the ears, and the process of communication is through suggestion not through concrete words. We sense – we are not told – the deep human truths that great music invites us to realise. This exchange needs a cross-section of society, needs the stranger in the audience who also shares the same elation. The air molecules are set in motion by the life-force of the players, they transmit, the resonance of the collective returns, the communion of exchange occurs, and at the end (in a rather Buddhistic manner), the air molecules return to their initial state, leaving only the memory of the experience behind in the participants. If we grasp this existential element of the live, exciting phenomenon of shared music, I find it makes no difference what repertoire we play: the human being is by definition inquisitive”.

Clearly, for a building and orchestra founded in another age, this cultural landmark of Geneva has certainly made a successful transition to the 21st century. 

* Jake Sanders is the Editorial Coordinator of UN Today magazine.
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