Daniel Cohen may be young, but he’s already performing with the best.
Although he’ll just be turning 29 next month, the self-described proud Tel Avivian has been travelling around the world, conducting orchestras in Europe, Israel, and now, Canada.
The morning of our interview was Cohen’s first free morning in 28 days, he said. He had just spent time in Tel Aviv conducting Wozzeck, by Alban Berg, which he said may be the most complex stage work ever written and his favourite piece, as well as being the first opera he ever heard.
He left for Italy afterward to conduct Beethoven symphonies with the Teatro Petruzzelli orchestra in Bari. That’s when he got the invitation to conduct Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito for the Canadian Opera Company (COC) next month. He had only 11 days at home in Tel Aviv to study the score before being whisked off to Toronto.
“[It] was really a marathon for me,” Cohen said. “I had 11 days without sleep, just to get through this score and study it deeply enough to rehearse it with this phenomenal cast of singers.”
Although Cohen has never been to Canada, the COC invited him to conduct after receiving a recommendation from French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and Israeli Daniel Barenboim, whom the COC’s general director, Alexander Neef, called conductors of great renown.
Cohen is “very relaxed and free and at ease with what he is doing, and very comfortable even when faced with a challenging repertoire,” Neef said, adding that Cohen has extensive experience conducting opera. “In a conductor, you need someone who knows how to work with opera singers and prepare an opera for performance.”
Cohen said there’s a big difference between conducting operas and conducting symphonies. In a typical symphony, the conductor arrives at rehearsal with his or her own interpretation of the music, which would be influenced by the character and sound of the orchestra. Conducting an opera can be much more complex.
“It’s not a purely theatrical piece, and not a purely musical piece,” he said, describing it as a multi-layered creation that combines each singer, conductor and director’s interpretation of the music. “It’s more of a collective effort in which all these amazing musicians contribute to making this overall production.”
Cohen said he doesn’t come from a musical family. His parents sent him to take piano lessons when he was six, but like many children, he wasn’t thrilled with the instrument. Instead, he fell in love with the violin.
“My mother claimed I didn’t like how the sound of the piano kept dying, and that I wanted to have a sound that I could sustain,” he said, admitting he thinks it’s a bit farfetched that he would have made that claim at such a young age.
He said he knew he wanted to conduct from the time he took up the violin.
“I like having that large palette of the orchestral sounds, where you have the violin and the oboe and the percussion instruments and the strings,” he said. “It’s a beautiful canvas to paint on.”
He began conducting in London, England, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music. He described his family as anglophiles – two of his grandparents served in the British army.
“Britain was in my blood,” he said. “I had this impression that London was like living inside a T.S. Elliot poem, and I loved that idea.”
At the academy, he put together an orchestra called Eden Sinfonia. Being in charge of an independent orchestra meant he worked in every role, including creating the programs, carrying the chairs to the stage, printing the music and more.
“I don’t think I slept at all in those four years, but I learned so much,” he said. “You can’t really be a chef at a restaurant until you spend a few years washing the dishes.”
Ultimately, that experience has helped him in his current work.
“You’re stepping in on a tiny little stage for one person, and you’re standing in front of 80 to 100 people who, most of them are old enough to be your parents, and you’re asking them to work extremely hard to make your musical vision sound the way you want it,” he said. “That’s a lot to ask of a professional musician.”
Although the age difference might seem stressful for Cohen, he said he doesn’t usually feel it.
“The moment that anything goes wrong, then it matters that I’m young, but as long as I’m doing a good job, it never does,” he said, though he joked that he might simply be denying the amount of pressure in order to cope.
Once the opera in Toronto wraps up on Feb. 22, Cohen will head back to the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, where he is chief conductor of the Jersey Chamber Orchestra.
Later this year, he’ll take part in the Lucerne Festival, where he will share a concert with French composer Pierre Boulez, who supervised the composition of a piece written specifically for Cohen, which he will perform there.
“It’s a great honour for me,” Cohen said. “It’s like for a young artist to open for the Beatles.”
He said he’s looking forward to learning from Boulez, whom he described as one of the few great examples of someone who is both a conductor and a composer.
Although Cohen said he doesn’t feel as if he has accomplished enough to give advice to beginners, there’s one piece of advice he remembers from his early days.
“From the outside, it’s a very glamorous life,” he said. “But to any of us who are lucky enough to work, they would all say the same thing: it’s a terribly difficult life.”
Specifically, the biggest challenge is that he’s rarely in any one place for long, and it’s almost impossible to have a personal life or a family.
“As good as you’re going to get, and as successful as you’re going to get, and as rich as you’re going to get, you’re not going to get anything that’s recompense for living that life except music,” he said, remembering this advice from one of his former teachers. “If you’re doing it for any other reason, stop now.”
La clemenza di Tito runs at the Canadian Opera Company for nine performances starting on Feb. 3. For more information about Cohen, visit danielcohenconductor.com.