Interview Robert Groslot

Bernard Derveaux von der belgischen Fanpage sprach mit Dirigent Robert Groslot.

"We have made millions of people happy" - Robert Groslot über sein Leben mit der Night of the Proms

Im August 2009 traf Bernard Derveaux Dirigent Robert Groslot in seinem großartigen Apartment mit einem beeindruckendem Blick auf das linke Flussufer von Antwerpen. Die Wohnung ist zu großen Teilen mit seinen eigenen Kunstwerken dekoriert.
Im Interview sprechen Beide u.a. über die Verbindung zwischen moderner und klassischer Musik und Majestro Groslot gibt interessante Antworten über seine Sichtweise, die oftmals sehr diplomarisch sind.

How the music began
Bernard Derveaux: You’re born in Mechelen; according to Carl Huybrechts you’re a fan of soccer team Racing Mechelen. Is that right?

Robert Groslot: Historically it is correct but outdated. An older half-brother of mine once played for Racing Mechelen and my father took care of the backup team; that’s how I became a fan. But that’s 40 years ago. In the mean time, I build up contacts with KV Mechelen and go see them play once in a while; the sponsor of KV Mechelen, Krefima, has also financed my movies.

You began as an accordion player; were you parents musically gifted?

When I was about three years old, Saint Nicholas gave me a toy accordion and it seemed soon that I could play the songs of the radio with it. When I was four years old my parents let me follow private courses and that teacher thought me solfège and reading notes; I could read notes before I could write letters. At six years of age, I became champion accordion player of Belgium. At the advice of my teacher, I began to learn violin when I was eight, and that teacher brought me to piano study. After my secondary school I went on to study piano at the conservatory; after that came the Elisabeth competition and so on.

Modern and classical music
I read an interview with you where you explained that you had an exclusive image of classical music at your first patricians at the Night of the Proms, but that you corrected that image later on.

What I explained back then is not presented correctly. I’m coming from a classical nest, and followed and education as classical musician. At that time the image was longer then it is now. When I started to conduct the Proms in 1991, I got a lot of criticism from my colleagues back then; this was not done. I, myself, was open for pop music and wrote all of the arrangements in the first years, until it got too much and Franck van de Heijden another were brought it. In the beginning there were of course a lot of technical problems; now every instrument is powered individual with his own microphone. On top of that, every artist has an individual hearing with an individual mix. That technological advance in the first 10 years until about 2002 is huge. In implies of course that the sound was not that good in the first years as it is today.

The result was of less quality.

Less quality is put quite strong because the audience seemed to appreciate it. But is a fact that it hadn’t got the same professional quality of today. That’s a really complex machine; especially Jan Vereecke has consciously invested in new techniques and listened always to the opinions and advice of me and many others.

At this time, the quality is probably better than many pop concerts.

It implies that there is little or none competition because the technical knowhow to get that quality is very complex and expensive. Who has to start from zero, can ever do such a thing; an investment like that cannot be made profitable in a few years.

I suspect that you still behave differently towards modern music; based on technicality, virtuosity, etc… Will you still value the classical composers higher than the modern songwriters?

In fact not.

Is that so? It’s easier to write a number 1 hit than a score for a classical symphony?

You should try it! It’s not as easy as most of the people think. First of all, you can’t compare one with the other because it are two different worlds that have little to do with each other. In both worlds there’s very good, good and bad music; also in classical music there are third- and forth ranged composers who’ve written music that has nothing in to it. But the goal and the purpose of the music is different. That’s of course also the unique element of Night of the Proms which combines the two worlds.

Why are you doing this? Have you got an educational task?

I’m not seeing myself as the savior of the country, but it’s a nice aspect I took along. The idea of Jan and Jan, 25 years ago, is not only a success on commercial level, also on sentimental. We have made millions of people happy; that’s not something you can realize in every profession and that’s a privilege; it’s nice that we can confront people that way with things they don’t know. And that works in both ways; in Germany there are for example a lot of people who are coming for the classical music and that way discover the pop music.

On stage
The German audience indeed listen very carefully during classical pieces.

But they also listen during the pop music and explode afterwards. There is a very large listen culture in Germany, which doesn’t mean that in Belgium or The Netherlands the audience doesn’t listen, but it’s approached on a more Latin way.

On stage, do you hear the noise of talking in the arena?

In a certain way I do, but due to the technical progress it doesn’t bother us that much. The musicians of the orchestra always have 2 earpieces in; I only wear one because I also want to have live control on the orchestra; otherwise I merely hear a mix and the real tunes.

It needs a lot of concentration

Yes indeed, but that’s a habit and it belongs to the task as conductor.

Are you the boss on stage, not only of the symphonic orchestra but also of the Electric Band and the artists?

In a certain way I am but I cannot push them anything. When Jan Vereecke makes contact, he clearly states that I’m the boss from the rehearsals on. If I say that I want to do it again or don’t want it anymore, it’s like that. I try to agree with the artists, but I’m the man in charge.

I assume that the artists are not always as easy, including the classical musicians.

You have all kind of people.

Any examples?

No, because it’s to delicate to talk about it. What we see very often at the first rehearsal of a new session, is that the pop artists are very nervous; they don’t rehearse every day with a symphonic orchestra and some of them never did it before. Because they are nervous, the often are very tough. I try to set them at ease as soon as possible but make it also clear that all is handled very professionally; I agree with their wishes as far as possible. And one artist relaxes more easily than the other.

The choice of music
The classical composers passing during the shows of Night of the proms, are all form the end of the 18th, 19th ore 20th century. Beethoven is played much more then Bach.

Our choice of music is lead by the accessibility and character of the piece. It’s not useful to play sad or funeral music or church music. The music has to be of the world and sound like a festivity, lively and also acoustically suited. The music of Debussy for example is beautiful but at the same time very delicate that it would be lost into an arena like the ‘Sportpaleis’ or ‘Ahoy’. The music has to fully use the orchestra; Bach wrote mainly for smaller orchestra, that’s the reason why his music is played only a few times. Also important is the accessibility. The music must not be too complex for a non-prepared listener; the music has to be accessible for everyone, not only for those who have a listing culture.

In Charleroi you played Carnival Romain van Berlioz, that’s less accessible music.

I hope the pieces returns in the next session or the session after that. I can hardly give the accessibility a score, since I professionally busy with music on a daily base; I know almost everything of the classical music, from the most simple to the most complex, and all this music is accessible for me. Jan takes himself and a few people around in (a few from his office), to value the piece; if they think the piece is accessible, he thinks it is. Of course this results in a sometimes a bit more difficult, like Berlioz. So Jan decides but I give him some suggestions. Berlioz we definitely can play in Germany because we can go a bit further in the accessibility and listing culture compared to Belgium and The Netherlands.

Enjoy Playing
You founded Il Novecento and know the world of the musicians like the back of your hand. In all comments of the orchestra it stands out that the fun of playing is at least as important. Are all musicians of the orchestra classically shaped that, like you, enjoy modern music? Does the fun exist of playing the music of being on stage?

One of the greatest flaws in classical music by a symphonic orchestra is that they look bitter. In that profession you easily reach a daily routine. From the start on we watched for musicians that lack the spirit or the socially sentiment for the project, are not invited again. So now we have a group that has a huge social coherence, which really enjoys playing and plays towards the audience. 80 to 90% of our musicians return every year; not only do you have to play your instrument perfectly but also be able to function towards the audience. When we notice that it’s not working, the person is not invited again.

But you play with Il Novecento also normal classical concerts?

Indeed, but the aspect of ‘audience’ is not as important there, but the social aspect remains very important. It’s not without a reason you have to ‘play’ music; when there is no more fun in playing, the music dies and you can hear that.

Is it in many ways an evolution from the 80’s until know? Or did this gap grew bigger?

Many orchestras have realized that they have to behave differently towards the public, also in the program.

Does classical music have to be popular?

No, but that music is very expensive. It’s based on government allowance, own capital and sponsorships. Of course should these allowances and sponsorships have nothing to do with the program, but that’s a dangerous statement; the taxpayer pays a lot of money and gets a program that has the interest of less than 1% of the population. That’s on the edge. I don’t think there should be elitary art but you have to take the money people are offering into account. It doesn’t always have to result in something flat but you have to take in into account; that’s ethically necessary for me.

Night of the Proms
How did you became conductor for Night of the Proms?

When I was there in 1987 as solo piano player, I told them that if they ever needed a conductor, I was willing to do it. They didn’t know I was also conducting. At the trial show in Apeldoorn and The Netherlands 1990, they asked me with the New Flemish symphonic orchestra I conducted back then. In 1991 they asked me to conduct together with the Philharmonics; when to cooperation between Jan & Jan and the Philharmonics broke down due to serious difficulties, they addressed me to do it again with my own orchestra.

How many shows of Night of the Proms did you conduct?

I’ve conducted 663 shows; only at the first 16 shows I was not present. Patrick de Smedt will have conducted a few more shows.

Is there particular music that couldn’t be brought by the symphonic orchestra?

We can handle pretty much. The blowers play a lot of jazz music beside the orchestra which enables the orchestra to swing when it has to. Before, ‘OMD’ thought that ‘Enola Gay’ couldn’t be played, but in Charleroi we corrected that statement. We both play urban Music as soul, and both with I Muvrini as with the Gypsies; we’ve proven that we can take on a lot. All of it depends on the good arrangements for which we can rely on Franck van der Heijden, Dominique Vanhaegenberg and Geert Keysers.

What’s Night of the Proms for you? Normally there’s the reference that it is unique because of the permanent presence of the symphonic orchestra. But in the past other modern groups were on stage with a symphonic orchestra?

There are different possible definitions, but Jan once pointed out that of all shows around the world, only Night of the Proms has a complete symphonic orchestra that plays from the first until the last minute. That’s indeed a constant value and forms a large recognizable factor of the product. Besides, a real Proms show is one where the people don’t have to stand up, but are able or have to move, and are allowed (but not obligated) to sing along. It’s like in Mozart’s time: they often forget that people back then sang along and had fun in the room as well. Normally they didn’t have any chairs in the parterre, except for the edelen. That didn’t happen of course on all concerts and other theater pieces. Look at the movie Amadeus; there you have a beautiful example of the people singing along. For me the definition of Night of the Proms is that it is a party. A musical party; no concert and no succor match.

Do you still see it as a party? Wouldn’t you rather only conduct classical music?

No. Of course I have a preference for classical music, but I spend about 4 months a year to Night of the Proms and besides that have enough time to work on my own music, my movies and my other forms of creativity. For my, that change is perfect.

What will the brothers Katona bring? Typical guitar pieces?

No, it will be mainly a cross over with different smiles left and right. It wonderful thought of. Jan Vereecke is a clever guy in that.

Did Toots Thielemans (Künstler der Proms 2009 in Belgien und Holland) ever played with a symphonic orchestra?

Yes, I guided him several times before. Long ago, I wrote an arrangement of Bluesette. Toots is a wonderful musician.

Last year we had a band LIVE, and this year Sharon den Adel of the band Within Temptation. That means a step further in the combination of modern music with a symphonic orchestra.

That’s correct. But that music is perfect of orchestration. So the step to an symphonic orchestra is rather small.

Did you know that music?

Not that well, but I’ve heard them before.

Is your opinion asked when Jan wants to contact a certain artists. For example I’d never thought LIVE in 2008 would come out that wonderful.

Sure, Jan gets a lot of offers from agents and managers. There’s not only the commercial part of the deal, but they have to figure out if the music can be orchestrated. Jan has proven to have an eye for that and to be able to negotiate very well.

OMD you know of course; did you meet Roxette before? Were there any rehearsals yet?

No, there were some preparations; When I’ve met Marie in May se was still fragile. I hope she’s much better now; it looks important to me that she’s protected and not has too many contacts.

The success
Is the success of Night of the Proms also thanks to the Flemish character of it? A very professional and tight organization, but on the other hand a relaxed product with some humor and generosity?

There a truth in that; but at the same time it’s proven that it works everywhere. But the success of the product, like in Germany and in The Netherlands, depends mainly on the people organizing and willing to go through with it. In Germany it took seven years before a break even was reached; so it’s a very big investment. In France it went wrong because of the people behind it. In Spain we had some shows with an enormous success, but the organization was not following. It’s indeed a product with Flemish roots and that’s exported very well by Jan and Jan; abroad they tried to reproduce it without any success.

A Night of the Proms evening with that much fun, doesn’t cost a lot.

The shows in Belgium are indeed not expensive, but that has also to do with the tradition; the prices in France for example are traditionally high and they can’t put themselves on the calendar with a ticket that is half the price of competitor pop concert; in Germany it’s more or less the same.

What are your highlights from all your Night of the Proms editions?

There are many: Simple Minds, Toto, and lots of others.

Are that also your personal highlights?

Yes, because they became friends as well. I cooked here in my flat for the Simple Minds.

The last years, there’s often a medley, the Barock Medley, the Bolero Shuffle, etc… As a musician, is something like that a good product?

The Bolero played this year, is a shorter version; that idea I gave to Dominique who arranged it; in fact it’s Columbus’ egg. In the Bolero you’ve always the pre- and the after sentence that is played 2 times each (AA BB AA BB). I proposed to play the first half of A and the second half of B, and so on; that way you cut the piece in half and again all instruments come up. The other medleys were made as introduction to certain settings, like the year of Mozart; at such an occasion it’s boring to play only one piece of Mozart. It’s better to take a few recognizable melodies and combine them to a medley.

Doesn’t it bother you that the modern musicians don’t know any classical music?

That’s quite ok. Some musicians have no interest in classical music but I remember the guys from Toto, they knew the classical music until the specialized ones like Stockhausen. I visited Sting at home; he has a very large disc collection with classical music.

When Donna Summer came, you introduced her with the 8th symphony of Mahler; did she knew it?

I didn’t think she knew it but appreciated very much. It didn’t bother me that she didn’t know it; I don’t know all pop music.

Thank you very much for this interview.

There are lots of question that could be asked to Robert Groslot. But we hope he may conduct for many years on the Proms stage; this will give us the opportunity to redo this interview later on.

Robert Groslot is born on the 9th of July 1951 in Mechelen. After his piano study at the Royal Music conservatory in Antwerp and masters courses at Leon Fleischer and Alexis Weissenberg, he becomes laureate of different competitions like the Tenuto competition (1972), the Alex de Vries competitions and the Alessandro Casagrande Piano competition in Terni (1974). Most of the people know him as laureate of the Queen Elisabeth competition of 1978 where he played the concerto of Tsjaikovsky in the final. Since then, he plays and conducts all around the world and more than 100 CD recordings are on his name, among them more than 50 piano shows. In 1991 he started Il Novecento which became the permanent symphonic orchestra of the Night of the Proms shows, which he conducts. The maestro is teacher in piano and ballroom music at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp.
Not only does Robert Groslot plays and arranges, he also compose and writes multiple works for different ensembles; Black Venus, after the novel of Jef Geeraerts, The Great Globe, and L’Obissea d’Orfeo, music for
Also he’s a graphical and filmmaker. Since 2001, at the moment his new live began – dixit Robert Groslot – he makes tableaus, Computer Designed Paintings (CDP), a new kind of visual media that look a lot like photography and painting art, but is none of both. He has an exhibition in Berlin (the Belgian Embassy) and in different cities across Belgium. In 2005-2006 he finalized his first movie project, based on the music of The Great Globe. His second movie project, Si le monde …, is inspired on thinking and on the works of Albert Camus; the title point to a quote from Le mythe de Sisyphe: ‘Si le monde était Clair, l’art ne serait pas’. The project doesn’t only capture a composition for a symphonic orchestra and choir, though also through a art movie, 20 tableaus, 11 litho’s, 6 sculptures, an art book with the DVD of the movie and a virtual building designed in 3D. At the moment, he’s working on a 3th movie project.
Robert Groslot is a specialist and a busy bee that doesn’t locks himself up into an ivory tower; a wide vision on the world doesn’t mean a superficial attitude on life. His life appears to be like the statement of piano player Robert Schnabel about the sonatas of Mozart: “The sonatas of Mozart are unique. They’re both easy for children and to difficult for artists”. Witch the Maestro confirms: “It is indeed the music that appears to be simple, but is also sensual and technical very difficult. So, too difficult for amateurs and also for professionals. Every note has to be there. It is very vulnerable music, both musically spoken as technical perfectionism”.
And with that Robert Groslot gives a lesson in life, that the biggest satisfaction follows from respect for the world, and that working hard to a completion of it, can give the greatest satisfaction.

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