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Savannah Music Festival: Daniel Hope
Catching up with the festival's Associate Artistic Director

It was Savannah Music Festival executive director Rob Gibson who gave us Hope.

British violin virtuoso Daniel Hope was brought in, at Gibson's invite, to be the festival's associate artistic director when Gibson took the reins of the event a decade ago.

Hope's been a crucial cog in the SMF machine ever since, bringing in world-class musicians, year after year, to play some of the finest classical music of the past, present and future. Often in configurations (the musicians) and arrangements (the music) organized exclusively for Savannah.

A resident of Vienna, the unstoppable 39-year-old is one of the busiest artists on the classical circuit; in addition to constant performances with the world's major symphonies, he's artistic director of Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a German music festival, and has just released the album Spheres. According to his official site it consists of "repertoire celebrating the idea, first brought forward by Pythagoras, that planetary movement creates its own kind of music."

Among his greatest achievements, Hope believes, is the 2003 project Forbidden Music, consisting of symphonic works by Czech composers who were later murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

Hope and his colleagues performed Forbidden Music at the 2010 Savannah Music Festival.

On Spheres, you've recorded works by five extremely contemporary composers. Is this a concerted effort to "shake the dust off" classical music — to show people that wonderful things are still being composed — or simply a matter of your liking their works and wanting to share them?

Daniel Hope: It's a combination of many things. I specifically looked for composers whom I thought could give us a special vision of 'otherworldly" sounds. Classical music may be 500 years old, but I don't believe there is anything old or dusty about it. Some of the earliest works on the album, for example by Bach and Von Westhoff, are as modern as the pieces written today. That just goes to show how things evolve and revolve in our world.

 Please explain the planetary philosophy behind Spheres.

Daniel Hope: For as long as mankind has gazed up into the night sky at the stars and planets following their ordained course, the imagination has been set free. In ancient days, people spoke of "music of the spheres", ghostly sounds that were long thought to have been created by the planetary bodies brushing past each other. I've been fascinated for a long time by this idea of "spherical music" and by the philosophers, mathematicians and musicians who expounded their theory of musical universalis over the centuries. In this album my idea was to bring together music and time, including works by composers from different centuries who might perhaps not always be found in the same "galaxy" but yet are united by the age-old question: is there anything out there? 

  Tell me about the Max Richter/Vivaldi project. Why was that appealing to you?

Daniel Hope: As a violinist one knows, loves and plays The Four Seasons all one's life. When Max Richter first approached me and said he wanted to recompose them, I asked him what was wrong with the original? Nothing, he responded! On the contrary, Max loved the original just as much as I did. But he felt that we had been bombarded by it for decades, not just on the podium but in commercials, elevators and even on hold on the phone. His wish was to reframe it, in a sense to revisit this masterpiece and to rejuvenate it. Not only did I find myself fascinated by Max's new vision, it also allowed me to fall in love with the original all over again.

Isn't there a danger in playing it safe in classical music, that you'll eventually run out of old things to play and start repeating yourself? Are projects like the above how you fight that?

Daniel Hope: Playing it safe in music is not an option for me. We are lucky to have "conversations" with the greatest composers in the world every day. They remind us of our place, and how their music can inspire us in so many ways. And how it keeps changing, every time we play it. 

Was Forbidden Music one of the most satisfying projects you've done? I ask because I suspect it was. Are you still performing it?

Daniel Hope: Keeping Forbidden Music alive has indeed been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I am particularly thrilled that my great friend and colleague, Anne Sofie von Otter, with whom I toured the world performing music from Theresienstadt, will be joining us this year in Savannah. In fact we have just completed a television film together about the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It was my idea to make a documentary which told the story of the camp through the eyes of two survivor musicians: the London-based classical pianist, Alice-Herz Sommer (109) and Coco Schumann, the jazz guitarist (88 and living in Berlin). Alice gave me an interview in London and Coco took me back to Theresienstadt. The film also contains a live concert of the music from Theresienstadt filmed in Munich last year. 

On to the Savannah Music Festival. Ten years on, how has this experience changed for you? Is programming it a welcome challenge?

Daniel Hope: When I met Rob Gibson 10 years ago, he told me it would take ten years to create a festival which was world class. I am so proud of what the festival has achieved, how it has grown and developed. I feel we have fine-tuned so many elements and yet it retains that element of excitement and magic that I experienced when I first arrived in Savannah. I have made wonderful friends here, and I think this will be our best festival ever.

What process do you use to decide on the musicians, and each year's pieces?

Daniel Hope: I try to combine my closest friends, who are now well-known and loved in Savannah, with new faces whom I think will give something special to the festival. Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson and Anne Sofie von Otter are three new names to the Festival that I have been trying bring to us for years. David Finckel and Wu Han are two of the most important musical influences in my life, and they have established a strong following in Savannah.

But most of all, my friends from the U.S. and Europe are the backbone of what makes Savannah so special for me. It's also the only time in the year I get to spend 17 days one place — and there is no other town in which I would rather do so.