Maria Badstue: I always considered the musical part of me to be something genetic

Maria Badstue: I always considered the musical part of me to be something genetic

Maria Badstue talks about her experience of conducting at SOI Chamber Orchestra and her journey

Verus FerreiraUpdated: Saturday, August 05, 2023, 07:57 PM IST
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India-born Danish native Maria Badstue's personal life is as intriguing as the music she conducts. Adopted by Danish parents when she was barely five months old, the conductor who recently visited Mumbai for a concert at the Tata Theatre, NCPA with the SOI Chamber Orchestra presented works by Sibelius, Biber and the third piano concerto by Beethoven, including the Indian premiere of Cornerstone by Bangalore based Johann Mathews. In an exclusive interview with The Free Press Journal, Maria talks about her journey and more.

Excerpts from the interview:

How did your journey into music begin?

I don’t come from a musical family, and I always considered the musical part of me to be something genetic. I have always thought this is something that came with me from India. My parents tell me that since I was about two to three years old, I would often sit in front of their big speakers in the living room listening to all kinds of music, especially classical. At eight, I started playing in the brass band for the local scout organisation FDF, that organises brass bands across Denmark. I played the cornet and later the trumpet. When I was around 14 or 15, I conducted a brass band for the first time; it was my first introduction to standing in front of an orchestra. At 19, I moved to a bigger city for a preparation course for the entrance test for the Danish National Academy of Music. Here, I studied the trumpet and met my first conducting teacher, music director of the Danish Chamber Players. He was so kind to give me a chance to conduct the ensemble in concert. This was my first meeting with a professional orchestra, and it made a deep impression on me.

You were around 15 years old when you conducted an orchestra, despite being a trumpeter. What led to the switch?

I was not a professional trumpeter at that time, I was just playing for fun. I remember standing at home and making gestures with my hands to music on a CD from a very early age. I was always drawn to the situation of someone showing something with their hands and others playing to what they interpret from the gestures. As a trumpeter you play a relatively little part of the score and there are a lot of waiting spaces. But as a conductor you are part of everything. So if one wants to be involved in the whole score, it’s a good idea to become a conductor. Conducting and working with music in general is a big personal journey and a big work with oneself. I was very shy and afraid in the beginning, but somehow I managed to meet some really good and important teachers early on, who understood me and could help me. And as my wonderful mentor and teacher Jorma Panula has said: ‘A conductor is an introverted person who likes to be in public’.

When you say you Jorma Panula was your mentor, how did he groom you to become what you are today?

Jorma is perhaps the world’s most important teacher of conducting. He has been one of the most important figures in my life. It was important for me to meet him and it has been crucial to have support from a capacity like him. Panula encouraged me and believed in me. I was so proud and motivated that he took serious interest in me and my development. He is an amazing teacher, and I learned so much from him, about music, how to study and study fast and, especially, the psychology of working with many people. He taught us to respect the orchestra and always be prepared. He is a master of teaching people how to self-study. He does not give specifics on how to do it, but really encourages what you have, as everyone comes from different backgrounds.

You first visited India in 2017. What did you feel about being in your homeland?

I feel proud when I see how big spirituality and the teachings of having an inner rich life is in India. This is inspiring and I have met so very many sweet, skilled and sensitive people here. However, I am very sad when I see all the poverty. I can´t stop thinking that some of all these poor people around can be my relatives. Being in the concert halls and wealthy surroundings on the one side is of course a big privilege. But it is a hard contrast to walk on the streets alongside all the poor people, knowing I could most likely have been among them without most likely any chance to have entered any concert hall in my life. To witness the poverty and how the country treats its people obviously gives me mixed feelings. On that note, I think there is a lot of lost great potential to develop.

At which point in your life did you come to terms with your Indian identity?

This is a complicated issue, and I am not even entirely sure today how I feel. But I have come to terms with the fact that people find it hard to understand, if I don’t include something about India in my resume and presentations. I am and I feel very Danish, but I still appear quite Indian to everyone else at the first sight. So I am trying to embrace both. I am also proud of my Indian heritage and my roots in the country.

Did you soak in the sights of Mumbai, taste Indian food and culture, visit your hometown Pandharpur?

I have tasted a lot of the food. It’s amazing but spicy for my delicate Scandinavian stomach. I was on a guided tour the other day for the first time, and it was very interesting. I also learned a bit about religion, and I would love to have more time to delve into the cultural history. I still did not have a chance to visit Pandharpur, maybe next time.

How was your experience conducting the SOI Chamber orchestra at the NCPA?

I was very pleased to discover the great development that SOI Chamber has gone through. They have grown in numbers, and the orchestra is much bigger than last time I was here. I must say they play much better. The group has an enormous potential and this gives great hope and promise for the future. There are people at NCPA that are doing an amazing and very big job to develop the classical music scene and develop Indian talents. I would like to think and hope that the western classical music has a great future also in India.

There aren’t too many women in the field of Conductors. What do you feel about this and what you think should be done to encourage more young women to take the profession?

I believe that nowadays opera houses and symphony orchestras worldwide are more seriously committed to casting a broader variety of artistes in principal roles and positions like soloists, singers and conductors. There are more female conductors who are qualified to be cast for bigger stages than there have been in the past. I do believe there are people in the industry who want to change the narrative and open up and invite all talent to create a space where a more diverse pool of people, including the performers and the audience, can feel at home and included. I think this is needed simply to make classical orchestral music and our wonderful repertoire relevant even 200 years from now. One of the most important things to have happened in my lifetime in the music industry is that globally we have started to have these important and much-needed conversations.

You founded the Nordic Masterclass for Conductors. Tell us something about your role as Artistic Director and the main goal of starting this prestigious masterclass.

To learn to conduct one needs to be in front of an orchestra and its needed to have a professional orchestra to get a professional reaction to your gestures. The whole psychological part is also a very big part of the job. I travelled a lot in Europe and Jorma Panula provides these opportunities with masterclasses around in Europe with various professional orchestras. I attended many of his masterclasses and had some of my most important learning moments in these sessions. We did not have this kind of conducting masterclass in Denmark, and I was very keen to try to conduct a Danish professional orchestra. I proposed the idea to some of the Danish regional orchestras, and luckily the brilliant South Denmark Philharmonic Orchestra liked the idea. This season we had our 10th year anniversary of the Nordic Masterclass, I am proud of the initiative that attracts around 100 applicants every year and has established itself as one of the most prestigious masterclasses in Europe for conductors.

At your recent performance at the NCPA you presented a composition by a young Bangalore based composer Johann Mathews. How did this collaboration come about?

The SOI had made a call for a composers competition. Johann Mathews won the competition, and we played his piece.

Who are the western classical composers that inspire you?

Oh, there are so many. But maybe Beethoven, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Bartok, Debussy, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Verdi, Strauss.

What memories will you take back from Mumbai?

There are so many and I am still digesting. I am already looking forward to coming back.

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