Thomas Quasthoff

Conducting a Revolution

Quasthoff 1 DPA
Thomas Quasthoff singing.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The classical singer is determined to prove to skeptics that he can conduct as effectively as someone without his disabilities.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The singer had serious birth defects after his mother was given thalidomide during pregnancy to treat morning sickness.
    • With three fingers on his left hand and four on his right, he was turned away by the Hanover music conservatory because he couldn’t play the piano.
    • Mr. Quasthoff was also a radio announcer and has done voice work on TV.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Yes, he has changed. He is no longer so insolent and irascible, so impatient with students, so harsh with critics. As Thomas Quasthoff sits in his eat-in kitchen in Berlin and leafs through Bach’s great sacred oratorio, St. Matthew’s Passion, he comes across as almost sweet.

“Look,” he said as he turns pages of the chorale with three fingers of his left hand, to the evangelist’s next words: “Ich bin’s, ich sollte büssen. (It is I who should suffer).” Then he goes back again several pages. “Look! I can do it! It works!”

The renowned German bass-baritone who retired from classical singing three years ago still has inconceivable energy. On Friday he will make his debut as a conductor, at age 55, performing St. Matthew’s Passion at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland.

Other great singers have crossed over to conducting before, including Peter Schreier, Placido Domingo and the Canadian Barbara Hannigan. But Mr. Quasthoff’s case is special because of all he overcame to get this far.

At birth, he suffered severe defects from thalidomide poisoning and now stands 1.34 meters tall – or about 4-feet-5. He has legs but no knees, and his arms are so short that his hands seem to grow directly from his shoulders.

As a singer, his disability proved an advantage. Thanks to lighter arms, Mr. Quasthoff never had a stiff neck or similar muscle tensions. And his head, throat and chest developed “normally,” forming perfect resonance chambers.  His brother, the late journalist Michael Quasthoff, called him simply ”The Voice.”

Conducting, however, is different than jazz, acting, cabaret or anything else Thomas Quasthoff has done on stage since he left classical singing. Some believe a conductor needs a particular body size and arm length – the baton created in the 19th century ultimately only helps to clarify gestures.

So questions arise for Mr. Quasthoff: “How can he conduct without arms?” Or, more embarrassingly, because it hits the psychological gut: “Does it have to be that he now also does that too?”

The Internet is full of such chats and tweets. Mr. Quasthoff counters by waving his stubby extremities. “Without arms?” he asks. “What do you call these then?”

He was addressing people like me – who are not disabled and who have normal arms, yet have failed to accomplished what he has.

 

thomas quasthoff may 2002 in Vienna in rehearsal source ap rudi blaha
Thomas Quasthoff, a German bass baritone, at a rehearsal in Vienna in 2002. Source: AP / Rudi Blaha

 

His whole career has been based on making the impossible possible and proving himself to critics and naysayers.

“One receives pity for nothing,” he often says. “Envy has to be earned.”

Behind that is a question: How long must a disabled person be confronted with his disability? In Mr. Quasthoff’s case – after winning Grammys and selling several hundred thousand CDs – it really should not be an issue anymore.

Who actually believes that one conducts with only their arms and not with their whole body, head and eyes? And don’t other conductors suffer illnesses, bad shoulders, painful backs and so forth? Since when was conducting first a gymnastic feat, rather than an intellectual one?

Throughout his career, Mr. Quasthoff showed he could beat his disability and not be defined by it. Then conducting came up – the idea was Martin Engström’s, the artistic director at the Verbier Festival – and old prejudices rose again.

Seen that way, his conducting debut embodies both progress and regress. It lets his disability be seen anew. When singing, his physique dissolved into sound. As a conductor, Mr. Quasthoff is suddenly a short man again, standing out front in the spotlight, defiant and brave.

Leafing through the piano score to St. Matthew’s Passion is not a problem with the three fingers of his left hand – “Look!” – while the four fingers of his right hand beat the musical bars.


Video: Thomas Quasthoff performs Gute Nacht of Schubert’s Winterreise.

He admits to hesitance, however, at conducting such a masterpiece of sacred classical music.

“I am not a conductor and I will not invent St. Matthew’s Passion anew,” he said. “But I know the piece nearly from memory. I know which instruments play – and, above all, I know the details and where the whole thing should go.

“I want that it will flow. I also want that it will be more sensitive to language. I want dramatics, colors. Jesus from Nazareth, who will be crucified here, had fears and doubt. I want to hear those.”

Mr. Quasthoff  studied choir conducting in school and has learned over a life of listening at the rehearsals of conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Helmuth Rilling and Christian Thielemann. His friend Simon Rattle,  conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, even offered to work with him on St. Matthew’s Passion. But he didn’t want that.

“I have to do my own thing,” said Mr. Quasthoff.

At his home in the Zehlendorf quarter of Berlin, he goes to his office to get the specially made baton he will use at the debut. It is especially lightweight, with a wood handle instead of cork, and 30 centimeters long. Mr. Quasthoff assumes a serious pose and waves it as if he were conducting a 120-member symphony orchestra playing Bruckner.

In the beginning, some schools didn’t want to let him study music because he couldn’t play the piano with only seven fingers.

He called to me: “You can see that, no? When you look!? One sees that, no?”

Festival organizers in Verbier have also built a special podium that elevates him in front of the orchestra. “Perhaps it is an advantage,” Mr. Quasthoff said, “that the musicians really have to look at me!”

In the beginning, some schools didn’t want to let him study music because he couldn’t play the piano with only seven fingers. When it came to opera, no one trusted him at first to be the minister in Beethoven’s Fidelio or Amfortas, the grail king in Wagner’s Parsifal.

There were even reservations about how he could give singing lessons, a pronounced physical matter that requires hands-on touching. Today, however, Mr. Quasthoff is a professor at the Hanns Eisler University in Berlin. When he wants to show his students something, they kneel before him. With that, he reaches the diaphragm, the shoulders, the “singer’s snout,” the too-loosened chin and the many nerve points that determine whether a voice rings.

His world changed in November 2010, however, when his brother Michael died of cancer at age 53. Thomas lost his voice over the shock and it took a full year to admit that his days as a classic singer were over. He retired in 2012.

Mr. Quasthoff plays the issue down now. The end of his classical singing career might have been “frightfully bad” if that’s the only the way he defined his life.

“(But) I was always well grounded,” he said. “Saturday afternoons, with a beer in the refrigerator, watching national soccer – that makes me happy.”

Apart from that, he has much before him, including operatic speaking roles, theater and jazz, which he can sing more easily with a microphone. He also leads singing competitions and juries around the world.

And now also conducting? There’s a twinkle in Thomas Quasthoff’s eyes.

It will be like finding “a forgotten Christmas gift that you really wished for as a child,” he said. “I know exactly, when I am in Verbier for the first time conducting, that I will get this feeling. And for that, I am eternally thankful.”


Video: Thomas Quasthoff’s masterclass.

This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: christine.lemke-matwey@tagesspiegel.de

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