Kwamé Ryan: classical rebel

In the high-strung world of classical music, the young Trinidadian conductor Kwamé Ryan has earned a reputation as a brilliant maverick.

  • Photograph courtesy Professor Selwyn Ryan
  • Photograph courtesy Professor Selwyn Ryan
  • Kwamé Ryan. Photograph by Ute Schnell

Some of the most important things Kwamé Ryan learned as general musical director of the Freiburg Opera and Orchestra had nothing to do with music.

“I discovered I was stronger than I thought. I became a realist. I remain an idealist in my personal life.”

At 33, Ryan is already one of the leading conductors of contemporary music in Europe. A shortish man, he has broad shoulders and a deep, smooth voice. He speaks in a polished, precise manner, but with a bouncy Trinidadian inflection rippling through, like pebbles tossed across a pond.

He was named after Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, but Ryan has added an acute accent to the “e”, because he got tired of Europeans mispronouncing his first name. The accent tells them to say Quah-may. “It’s my registered professional name now, so you have to use it,” he says, lightly.

Ryan was born in Canada to Trinidadian parents: Selwyn Ryan, the well-known political scientist and university lecturer, and Joya Gomez, who now teaches English to adults in Germany. He has an older sister, Michelle, who works for a telecommunications company in Canada.

He was a toddler when his family moved back to Trinidad. When he was 12, his parents separated, which was like the splitting of the emotional atom; at 14 he was sent abroad to boarding school in England. But those emotional extremes prepared him well for the challenges he was to face in his musical career.

Ryan was just 28 when he became the general musical director of the Freiburg Opera, in 1999, a post he held until July 2003. The honeymoon lasted about two weeks. He had to find his mettle as a leader, and he quickly realised that musical talent was not enough.

“I was just thrown in. My job is to take all the energies and filter out all that’s negative. And that has nothing to do with music.” He adds, “Certain wisdoms I had not yet attained in dealing with people. I was still an idealist. I didn’t understand how to use politics to oil the wheels. I was very honest, too honest.” He laughs in a deep baritone. “There were good lessons to learn, but nobody to teach me. I spent a good half-year wondering, Why didn’t somebody tell me, why didn’t they tell me?”

His race, colour, and background were not the issue so much as his attempts to develop his own distinctive, let’s-break-some-rules style. While still faithful to traditional music, Ryan introduced some twists and turns of his own. “I refused from day one to create museum art. I refused to be the keeper of the closet.” He wanted to attract a new crowd by including jazz and rock influences, so that young people would see contemporary classical music isn’t so scary after all. By the second season, after he had hired his own artistic team, his direction and style became clearer, and the audience and critics became aware of that.

Ryan has conducted new productions of Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, Puccini’s Tosca, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. But in the 2001–2002 season at Freiburg he also initiated a fringe chamber music series called “et cetera”, which featured programmes like Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (written while the composer was interned in a Nazi concentration camp), and a programme of Turkish court music. The season was called “Outsiders”, and the whole programme was about what it means to not belong.

The 2002–2003 season was Ryan’s jazz season. He opened with a programme called “Surrogate Cities”, which examined historical and contemporary ideas of city life. The set depicted a fallen skyscraper, with the dancers on the outside walls and the orchestra sitting in groups in the horizontal windows. The idea was to involve all three artistic departments (dance, drama, opera) in a project that was a mixture of contemporary classical music, jazz, and ethnic elements.

“There are things you do for a big audience, likeThe Magic Flute and Carmen,” he explains. “Others you do for the profile of the house, to keep the critics happy, to be on the cutting edge.” This is a man who likes to keep his audience guessing. “They never know what I am going to do next. That’s the most fun thing, the freedom to influence people’s thoughts, to broaden their horizons.”

But, sometimes, overcome by sheer self-doubt, he found himself lying flat with exhaustion, reminding himself why he had chosen an artist’s life in the first place. The ambivalence of his experience inspired projects for his farewell season at Freiburg. He played on the Greek legend of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, and was punished for his presumption. Prometheus was chained to a rock; every day a vulture would pick out his liver. By night, the liver would regenerate, and he would go through the whole painful experience again the next day. That’s what being an artist is like.

“The bird of self-doubt picks out your liver,” he says, with a look somewhere between a grimace and a smile.

He called the Prometheus programme “A Hero’s Life/No Hero’s Life”. “Like Prometheus, artists take fire and give it to the people, risking it all, chancing it all, whatever the consequences.”

But last July, Ryan walked away from the Freiburg Opera, turning down a new contract, and job offers in bigger cities, to be a freelance conductor again. “Oh, the freedom, I want that again,” he says passionately. “I want to be an artist again.”

He’s proud of what he accomplished at Freiburg, but he no longer has to prove anything. “It’s good to have done a management job. I don’t have to take a job to prove I can do it.”

He adds, “I don’t want to forget why I am doing this in the first place. When you go into management, you take on a lot. You need stamina. It does erode the altruism and the holiness of what you wanted in the beginning. That’s why I want to go back to freelancing.”

Ryan knew from early childhood that he wanted to spend his life in music. His mother sent him to piano lessons when he was five — and had to nag him to practise. He also learned to play the steel pan, and he and his sister composed calypsos together; she wrote the text and he wrote the music. He accompanied her on the piano on both occasions when she won the calypso queen competition at her high school. “Those were great, great days,” he says, dreamily.

It was one of his early music teachers, Nellie Bailey, who told his parents that the boy had a special talent. By the time Ryan was 12, he began to feel stifled, and wanted to go abroad to study music. His father’s initial reaction was that no child of his would go to boarding school. But two years later, when his parents’ marriage had finally disintegrated, they thought it best to remove him from the family tension, and enrolled him in Oakham School, in the small English town of Rutland. His father recalls, “I told him if he was good, he would teach. I told him he had to be really, really good, and he assured me that he would be.”

Ryan kept his promise to his father. He studied piano, violin, bass, and voice at Oakham. “It was an adventure. It was great, terrific. I wouldn’t have been able to realise my potential in Trinidad. I felt blocked — and between the ages of 12 and 14, I felt that particularly strongly.” He went on to Cambridge to study musicology and conducting under the avant-garde Hungarian conductor Peter Eotvos.

When Ryan first visited Germany in 1992, on a scholarship to Tübingen University, he intended to spend one year there. He took German lessons for six weeks in Trinidad, flew to Tübingen, and in six months was fluent in the language. His most embarrassing moment came when he arrived at the airport and a customs officer wanted to check his luggage. He thought she was offering him a taxi. “Nein danke,” he replied, smoothly, “No, thank you,” only to be hauled over and have his luggage rummaged through by a very angry official.

After his first year in Germany, Ryan began to get work as a freelance conductor. The rest of the time, he taught aerobics to make extra money. From 1998 to 1999, he was assistant to Lothar Zagrosek at Stuttgart State Opera. When the post of general musical director in Freiburg opened up, his indomitable mother helped him prepare by holding mock interviews and firing questions at him.

Although his work centres on contemporary European music, he also enjoys pop, jazz, and calypso. He sings it all when no one is listening. Asked what he would be if not a conductor, he says, “I could possibly imagine myself working in film.” He has a collection of over 300 DVDs, and finds it hard to pick a favourite. “Maybe The English Patient. It kills me every time.”

Now that Ryan has left the Freiburg Opera, the world is his stage. He has built up a reputation that will allow him to go just about anywhere and work with anyone. “It’s about choosing what not to do at this stage,” he says. “It’s about being careful and knowing when you’re ready.”

He’ll continue to be based in Freiburg, where he recently moved into a new apartment in an art nouveau neighbourhood, but this October he’ll be conducting at the Tonhalle, in Zurich, to be followed by opera at the National Opera of Paris, the Stuttgart State Opera, and the Welsh National Opera. Ryan already knows what he’ll be doing two years from now. In 2005, there will be concerts with the Baltimore Symphony, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the National Orchestra of Belgium.

Living out of a suitcase has its limitations, but Ryan is excited about regaining his freedom. And he has never lost his enjoyment of performance. Nothing compares with those few seconds just before he strides on stage, dressed in formal evening-wear. “Who else gets to dress like that?” he jokes. “Except maybe the maitre d’ in a restaurant?”

“But, more seriously, I am blessed in that I have no performance nerves. I get a kick every time, going on stage. At that moment, I have a perfect score, 100 per cent. I spend the rest of the night trying to hold on to that perfect score.”

Kwamé Ryan discography

1999 Stäbler: Rachengold (Col Legno)
Ryan conducts the South German Radio Chorus/Vienna Klangforum in a performance of the choral work Apparat

2000 Feldman: Neither (Col Legno)
Ryan conducts the Bayerischen Rundfunkorchester in a performance of an opera with text by Samuel Beckett

2000 Xenakis: Orchestral Works (Col Legno Collage)
Ryan conducts the South West France Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Ioolkos

2001 Sciarrino: Chamber Works (Kairos Series)
Ryan conducts the Recherche Ensemble in a performance of four chamber pieces

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