A native of Germany, conductor David Afkham believes the legacy of Teutonic composers such as Beethoven and Brahms are “steeped in my blood.”
Propitiously, Afkham returns to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program Oct. 24-29 devoted to three masterworks of the German repertoire, Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 (Mourning), Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.
A devotee in particular of Brahms, Afkham recently lauded “the timeless way [in the composer’s works] connect with people. One is crying, the other is laughing at the same time [while] listening to the same music. This is the wide range of what music can evoke in one’s heart and mind. With pieces that are so in our tradition, as Mahler once said, ‘You have to keep the fire burning rather to just pray the ashes.’ “
A rising star on the podium, Afkham has conducted many of the world’s great orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony; he also served as an assistant to Bernard Haitink at the Royal Concertgebouw.
As for his busy schedule, Afkham takes it in stride. “You come to an orchestra with a vision of a piece of music. How it should sound, how you would like it played. It shouldn’t matter which orchestra it is,” he said in an interview with the Belgian site Bruzz. “You’re just trying to achieve what’s best for the music and bringing the end result of that vision to the audience. Whether you’ve played with an orchestra a thousand times or if it’s a brand-new one is irrelevant.
But in the end, it all boils down to chemistry, he believes. “It’s an energy, a response between yourself and the orchestra,” he said. “You know it’s a part of your profession to deal with that energy, and not avoid it. How to turn it into something where both sides can make the best of it. And I happen to believe in the good of the people. In the end, everyone wants to try and do the best they can and make the most of the music.”
Photo: Gisela Schenker/Askonas Holt