Jonathan Stockhammer

“The Perfect Sound Is Something You Have to Feel”

People

At the heart of the “future of audio” are people – inspired individuals who dare to give shape to their creative vision and artistic imagination. Decision makers who prefer to reach their audiences and customers through great audio. Audio lovers who work relentlessly on innovative projects, who redefine and recreate sound experiences that touch the very souls of their listeners. “People” is dedicated to all those musicians, artists, engineers, producers, decision makers, owners and audio designers who fill and shape our world with sensational sound.

He’s a man who straddles two worlds, shifting between classical music and pop. Jonathan Stockhammer is currently one of the world’s most sought-after conductors. One thing remains consistent in all his projects: the way he strives for excellence.

  • Author: Simon E. Fuchs
  • Photos: Sennheiser / Philip Peine
„He has a passion for challenges and lives for innovation culture.“

Conductor Jonathan Stockhammer is sitting down to a late breakfast in a London hotel. He’s wearing flip-flops and a pink t-shirt. Set out in front of him are a smoked salmon sandwich, a green veggie smoothie and a cup of coffee. He was out celebrating the success of his last concert with his musicians until 2 o’clock in the morning. The concert was a mix of classical music and pop and featured up-and-coming musicians from the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie symphony and Imogen Heap in Westminster Central Hall. It was a journey between the musical worlds.

On the eve of the concert, Stockhammer sports a dark tuxedo and shiny black shoes. He stands to the right of the stage, waiting for his entrance. He looks meditative as he stares out into the void. He was so focused on his quest for the ultimate sound experience and for the perfect concert that he forgot to eat. As his name rings out from the stage, the audience begins to applaud. Stockhammer snaps out of his trance. With a spring in his step, he makes his way to the conductor’s stand.

Stockhammer is considered to be one of Germany’s most experimental conductors. Among the American-born conductor’s credits is a concert with the Pet Shop Boys and the Dresden Sinfoniker orchestra, who were playing on the balconies of a communist-era apartment building, which he conducted from a crane. He has a passion for challenges and lives for innovation culture.

He was introduced to classical music at a very young age with a father who played the viola and a flutist mother. At his parents’ request, he first studied in Boston before submitting to the irresistible call of music.

„His Concerts Are Characterized By His Performance Agility“

Jonathan Stockhammer, you first studied Sinology and politics in Boston. What led you to pursue a career in music? A decisive moment for me was a concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. It was Thanksgiving but I was unable to travel home to my parents in Los Angeles, so I bought tickets to a classical concert. It was raining that night and I had no umbrella. I sat in the audience soaking wet and shivering. But I forgot all my discomfort after the first movements. I was overwhelmed by the music’s beauty and was completely put under its spell. I knew at that moment that music ought to be an important part of my life. I then went to Los Angeles to study composition and conducting.

When you’re not attending classical concerts in venues like Avery Fisher Hall, how do you generally listen to music? At home I have a very good stereo. I had a break-in a few years back and many things were stolen, including my stereo. I wanted to buy a new one and had 17 or 18 different components at home with which to listen to it. It became clear to me then that a stereo has nothing to do with status or luxury. It simply has to do with good sound. The differences between the individual stereos was something you could hear. With some stereos, the pieces were simply more tangible and conveyed more emotions. I rediscovered some details while I was listening. And these were recordings I’ve known my whole life.

Jonathan Stockhammer performs in London
„Five Years Ago, Stockhammer Discovered New Ways of Listening“
„It’s important to feel the composer's craftsmanship.“

How important is high-end listening and recording to you in classical music? For a long time, I thought I didn't really believe in it. Live concerts were the most important thing for me. I didn’t listen to many music recordings. Maybe I was too involved in my work. But around five years ago, I suddenly realized I was missing something. From that point on, I began listening to CDs again. In doing so, I rediscovered wonderful recordings. I let myself be carried by the wave of the orchestra. For me, it’s important to feel the composer's craftsmanship and to capture the moment when it was recorded. Recording concerts is its own kind of art. It's a different way of getting to the heart of a piece.

How are you able to conduct such excellent concerts with the talented musicians of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie? I try to draw interpretations out of people. I try to inspire them to play a piece differently than the way it has been played so many times already, to motivate them to take new paths. This concept has worked very well with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie. I have worked together quite a bit with this orchestra and each time I am pleased to do so. The young musicians' enthusiasm is amazing. In the same way that I motivate them, they give me energy back. I love conducting them. Each event and each rehearsal is different. It’s enlightening every time. Playing with them is so refreshing – like interspersing classical music with a bit of heavy metal.

What approach do you take when you arrange pop songs for a classical orchestra? Many classical variations of pop songs just use classical instruments as decoration. Sure, it's wonderful to be on stage with 60 well-dressed people. That alone isn't a bad thing, but it's a waste of resources. I try to capture the orchestra's sounds and give the piece a new personality, because ultimately it's the tension between pop and classical music that makes a concert or recording so interesting.

Sennheiser HE 1 Event at Westminster Abbey Central Hall
„An Unconventional Fusion of Pop and Classical“

What was it like working with Imogen Heap? My goal was not just to have the orchestra and Imogen Heap on the same stage, but also to weave their genres together. After all, pop and classical music aren't that different fundamentally. I find her music very inspiring. She's an artist who understands her craft. She knows exactly what sounds she wants and she can bring them to life on a computer, on stage or with new technology. She's like a conductor of her own music.

What does the quest for the ultimate sound experience look like? Every conductor has his own way of evolving toward perfect sound. For me, it doesn't just exist on paper. You have to feel it. The music can be moving, seductive and sensual. But it can also agitate and frighten people. In order to effect these emotions in listeners, I use certain tricks and techniques. I can't very well tell an orchestra that a certain part of a piece should sound emotionally difficult. These words don’t necessarily mean something to everyone. That's why, for example, I design a landscape that has these characteristics.

In hindsight, was it the right decision for you to go into music? It was a very good choice. The longer I stay in the music business, the more certain I am of this question. It's so much fun and I live for it. At the moment, I can do so many more things than a normal conductor would do. I work on operas, make experimental music and play with jazz musicians. And I have the opportunity to join pop musicians like Imogen Heap on stage.

Junge Deutsche Philharmoniker