> > > "Cellist Jan Vogler's time is divided between two very different cities: New York and Dresden."
Samstag, 4. Dezember 2021

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"Cellist Jan Vogler's time is divided between two very different cities: New York and Dresden."

And, as he tells Dennis Rooney, that's just the way he likes it.


'I consider the day the Berlin Wall came down the luckiest of my life, because otherwise I could not lead the life I do today without leaving my family deserted in East Germany.'

Jan Vogler is speaking of having two homes, one in Dresden and the other on Manhattan's Central Park West, where he was shortly after Christmas when we met.

'I keep two places because I play so much in Germany. But I love New York. It is my passion to live here and I seem to work best here. New York is the perfect environment in which to be creative, which makes studying and practising great here.' He has led this transatlantic existence since 1997, when he decided to devote himself full time to a solo career, something unimaginable in the East Germany in which he grew up, which he describes as a trap for anyone with ambitions for a solo career. The more usual goal, he says, was to 'study hard and then get the best possible post.'

Vogler enjoyed a leg up in reaching his goal. Both his parents were musicians in Berlin, where he was born in 1964. His mother was an orchestral violinist and his father assistant principal cellist of the orchestra at the Komische Oper. At six Vogler was handed a cello. 'My father thought I looked like a cellist,' he says. 'My brother was taller, so he became the violinist.

I liked the cello from the beginning. I doubt that I would have liked any instrument more.'

Vogler's father taught him until his mid-teens. He says that being instructed by a parent is 'terrible'. 'Your parent either overestimates your abilities or the opposite. The latter was the case with my father. His intention was to give me a good foundation, but he was incredibly strict. He made me learn all the scales in thirds and octaves. He would call out: "D flat major, in thirds" and I had to respond as if he had pushed a button. Since I practised at home, he could hear all my mistakes then and in the lesson too. Later, I was able to work with people who were less strict, but my father really helped me to understand how things work, so that when something goes wrong I can analyse the problem and correct it.'

At 18, by then a pupil of Josef Schwab, Vogler made his debut in a Berlin recital. 'Of course I played an elaborate and, by my standards today, stupid programme: the Arpeggione Sonata followed by Locatelli, and in the second half, the Prokofiev Sonata and the Brahms F major.' At 19 he spent a summer in Marlboro. 'Siegfried Palm heard me in a class and said that he must get me to Marlboro. I didn't think it possible because the Iron Curtain was still in place. But he made Felix Galimir hear me during a tour. Three months later, I was in Marlboro. That's where I learned my English - I didn't speak a word when I arrived. I loved America right away and I'm very grateful to it for giving me, after my strict training, the freedom to be individual and "let it out". That was why I grew so attached to America and made a tremendous effort to live here.'

That day was still far in the future, but Vogler discovered at Marlboro that much of an older style of European music making had survived there and elsewhere in the US. 'I met Feuermann's widow and I discovered that players like Galimir preserved a style that was to an extent also preserved in East Germany, which remained connected to the old German tradition. In West Germany, cellists like Navarra and Tortelier began to teach shortly after the end of the war and encouraged students there to adapt to the French school. Now I'm happy that didn't happen to me, but at the time we were rather jealously looking over the Wall because we had only the Leipzig school of Klengel (who had taught my grandfather). We were resistant to the Russian school. Frankly, East Germans weren't exactly well treated by the Russians, so we never valued Rostropovich as highly as he was valued in the West. When we heard the younger Russian players, we were impressed but it wasn't what we were longing for. I found that when I came to Marlboro.'

Not long after his summer in Marlboro, Vogler's performing career began in earnest when, in 1984, he was appointed principal cellist of the Dresdener Staatskapelle. At 20 he was the youngest person ever to hold that position. 'Because I lived in East Germany, I had opportunities with orchestras that I would never have had in the West. I was invited to audition. There was no application, no tape. Anyone familiar with how orchestral auditions are conducted today would find it astounding. Each candidate was heard on a separate day. I was asked to perform the Haydn D major Concerto and the Dvorak, both complete, with the orchestra.

As I waited to make my entrance in the Dvorak, I listened to the horn solo being played by Peter Damm, the principal then and a celebrated musician in East Germany. "What could be nicer," I thought, "than to play this concerto once with this orchestra?" So I played very freely. It was like a concert. I had prepared all summer. My father, who had access to all of them, urged me to examine every important orchestral solo just in case. I could play them all by the time I went to Dresden but I certainly was not expecting anything. When the conductor of the audition, Hans Vonk, came to me afterward and told me that I had been given the job, I was very surprised.'

Vogler recalls his arrival in Dresden after his appointment.

'At 20, I felt very much an adult. I had been pushed hard by my teachers. After I played my debut recital when I was 18, I was told repeatedly that my student days were over and that I was now a grown-up. As principal in Dresden, I sat among grey-haired men, many of whom wore beards, but - I'm not being immodest - they didn't scare me. Now, when I look at photos from that time, I ask myself how they could have taken that matchstick-thin boy walking in with his cello at all seriously. I was very confident in my playing, maybe a little overconfident, because when I arrived I had no experience with orchestral playing. I remember playing Der Rosenkavalier for the first time; one rehearsal for each act and then the performance. I learned my part but, except for my solos, I had no idea how to integrate it with the rest of the orchestra. Having studied all those solos probably saved me in the beginning, because when I played a solo I sounded good, but when the cello section saw me, they must have realised that I needed a lot of guidance. Even so, I was devoted to mastering my new job. I cancelled all my concerts for the first year, which then seemed to me such a long time.'

Dresden in those days, recalls Vogler, was 'very dark'. 'It had a lot of buildings that still showed traces of bombing and fire. There was nothing to do but play, read, listen to records and study the cello.'

He recalls the solitude of those days with gratitude. 'I think that everyone needs such a quiet time to build up the reserves for the rest of one's life.' As principal in Dresden, he had the opportunity to perform all the major concertos with the Staatskapelle and also to tour. Once, he replaced Heinrich Schiff in the Schumann Concerto with the Berlin Radio Symphony, which led to a meeting with the elder artist. 'Someone had sent him a tape of that performance and he invited me to a masterclass. What I found most valuable about Heinrich was his freedom in individual performance. What he does with a cello nobody else does. I always felt that when he sat at the cello it was an experience to see how far a piece could be adapted to his individual physical characteristics. He had a vision about energy on the cello.'

In 1988 Vogler made his US debut in Chicago, playing the Strauss Romance with the Staatskapelle and Vonk. He toured the US again in 1996, performing the Schumann Concerto with Giuseppe Sinopoli. His growing reputation as a soloist and the demise of the East German state led to his decision to resign from the Staatskapelle in 1997 in order to devote himself entirely to a solo career. That same year he established part-time residence in New York. The following year he made his New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall in the complete Beethoven cello sonatas. Other New York appearances within the past two seasons have included the New York premiere in Carnegie Hall of the Concerto by H.K. Gruber, with the composer conducting, and a performance with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein in Avery Fisher Hall, playing the Adagio movement of the Burger Concerto and the infrequently heard Korngold Concerto.

European and Asian tours have been supplemented by a series of concerto and sonata recordings for Berlin Classics. In 2002 Vogler received an Echo Award (Germany's equivalent of the Grammy) as best instrumentalist, and last year he began to record for the German branch of Sony Classical. The first release was of Faure and Schumann piano quartets with colleagues from the Moritzburg Festival. Last month, Sony Classical released two works of Richard Strauss: the Romance (which Vogler premiered) and Don Quixote, with the Dresdener Staatskapelle conducted by Fabio Luisi.

Apart from his solo work, Vogler is busy with activities surrounding the Moritzburg Festival. He founded the event in 1993 to foster a collaboration between musicians and composers of international stature and gifted younger musicians from Europe and America. These collaborations continue well beyond the festival season (which takes place in Dresden in August), with concerts performed throughout the world. In New York festival artists were heard in three Carnegie Hall programmes last September. Moritzburg embodies some of Vogler's ideas about integrated aspects of performance.

'We aim to identify players with a common approach to phasing, colour or any of music's many other qualities. In that way we can build interpretative "families",' he says.

Vogler himself has a very clear idea of how he wants to sound.

'It was always in my mind what a cello should sound like. I wanted to sing on it, and I had the idea of this very transparent, singing but penetrating sound. My sound ideal was placed somewhere between Feuermann, Piatigorsky and Leonard Rose.'

He plays a 1712 Giuseppe 'filius Andrea' Guarneri. 'A friend who was principal in the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra owned it and had a love-hate relationship with it. I only loved it: it seemed to do everything I wanted. It sings, it's extremely penetrating and transparent, rather bright. My friend kept complaining about it screaming, of being scared by it. One day he told me that he had decided to sell it and had already put it with a dealer. I was horrified, but he hadn't thought that I could possibly have afforded it. Me, an East German and the Wall only recently down? But I went to the Dresdener Bank and had a long talk, telling them of my future plans. Someone there must have liked me: they lent me the money. I bought it and everyone thought I was crazy.

I was the first East German musician to do such a thing. But when I played it in Dresden for the first time, in Don Quixote, it was like a new world for me.'

The cello, says Vogler, is 'a very mature partner. It has its own life.' He admits that he talks to the cello, 'mainly when I practise. If I try something three or four times one way, the cello tells me: "try it like this." In the end, I give up maybe 20 per cent of my ideas because the cello has a strong character. I believe in teamwork; you need a partner for everything. Whatever surrounds you is stronger than you. That's why I need lots of practice time, so I know that the cello and I have talked about every bar and agreed. Then, on stage, I can just go.'

The Strad, April 2004


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