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Correspondence with Johannes Nebel

January 2003

Dear Johannes

I feel terrible that I have allowed so much time to elapse since writing to you. As you know I was moved by your description of the concert you did and impressed enough to put it up on my website. However, I have not answered
your questions. Perhaps it was the realization that you are doing so well and that your dream of ten years is taking such good shape that it is in fact no longer a dream, but an inspiring reality!

I have not forgotten you. In fact your image flits before my eyes rather frequently. I will be in London for the Mahler Third next week. The concert is on January 19 in the Royal Festival Hall. I suppose it would be too crazy to hope that you might slip over for it? I know that Jim Lowe will be there.
If you have any inclination I would be happy to make a contribution to your costs. Somehow you of all people have deserved to be involved in any Mahler-related venture.
I would love to see Ondrej again. Would you give him my warmest greetings and love if you speak to him?

Perhaps we will communicate again in the next few days. I leave for London on Sunday. I mainly wanted to be in communication to tell you that I think of you often and send my deepest love,

PS. I would be REALLY interested in your thoughts about the Mahler Sixth. Your insights are so valuable to me! Talking about the Schubert Ninth, I have a recording of our latest performance of it which I am very happy with and I
will send you a copy almost immediately - what is your address please? Also, Jim is doing great in Bristol and Jonathan the new Zander Fellow is a very
great success. Love Ben

Dear Ben
It is always a very special feeling when my inbox displays the address - I am so glad to hear from you! Even if I realize that you in no way have forgotten me, (the posting on the web page is evidence enough) I still must say that I appreciate it tremendously when I do hear from you. It is not hard to hear about you, since the Internet and Mahler List and esp. your own website reports about your whereabouts etc. So, to hear directly from you is - as you realize - a completely different story to me. So once again: I am so glad to hear from you!!
It's funny that you wrote me just today. It is night over here and I am just now packing my bag for my trip to Prague and Ondrej! I will stay there for 5 days and will sit in on some rehearsals, attend one concert and meet people that Ondrej thinks that I should meet. The plan is also to draw up the first lines for a project that we could do together in Prague some day. We have briefly discussed that I should come with 30 guys or something from the choir and that we could do a concert with either another mixed choir + orchestra or just male choir + orchestra.
We will see where these ideas end up - somewhere pretty great, I'm sure!
We will also make a few visits at the Academy to find out if and how I in the future maybe could apply to it. It will be a great opportunity to find out about these things but most of all, it will be great to meet with Ondrej. We have been in touch frequently since out mutual
London-experience and write each other quite a lot. I really enjoy his warm personality and his total openess towards me: his complete opposite when it comes to musical background, but yet we are a perfect match in our mutual love for music making and meeting people. How lucky I am to know Ondrej. I will of course send your love to him!
Now, My plan was to go home on Wednesday (15/1). Now, I got your email and the invitation... - and yes, it is crazy - but how should one otherwise live one's life? And what is "NOT-CRAZY" living anyway! :)
Anyway, I just now checked with the low-fare airline in the area and they could give me a pretty good price on a return ticket to Stansted. I booked it, since I am too, a bit crazy. To be totally honest with you, at this time, I haven't really got either the funds or anywhere to stay in London. Your kind offer to contribute is something I am not sure how to respond to. But in many ways I guess that we not only
have a similar view on life and music but also on money: I see money as a tool and not much more.
So, if there is a chance that you could help me in any way, I would be very happy! In what way and with how much, I would rather let you to decide for. Or how do you think? Please let me know how you like this to be arranged.
I am not clear over where I could stay but I will call the friend I stayed with last summer and check if I can stay with him or maybe Jim knows someone. Well, let me put it this way. I know only two things: I am meeting you and I am attending the concert on the 19th. The rest will yet be solved in some way. At the same time as I hope that we could meet for a bit, you can be sure of that I fill my own time if necessary. Will you be having rehearsals on Saturday? Do you usually have "open" sessions?
Whatever happens - I'm open for it and most important of all:
I will be there for your concert! How wonderful to finally experience this, Ben!
I would love to hear from you via telephone or mail to hear about your thoughts on this matter. I'd really, really love to hear the Schubert 9!!!
Johannes Nebel

December 2002

Dear Johannes, I had on the top of my list to answer your letter from several weeks ago. You had just made the fateful decision to leave your job and to move, like a small vessel, into the uncharted waters of a career as a conductor. Your story has already moved many people. One I just heard from in Malaysia was inspired by you to take a similar path. I felt I owed you a letter of encouragement and also some advice about possible steps to take, and somehow I didn't get around to doing it. I confess I felt somewhat guilty I knew that I had played some part in your decision to make your career shift. And then this morning your letter arrived. Of course you don't need encouragement or advice - you just needed to take the plunge and swim. What a magnificent story and here it is....
"Dear Ben,
It has been a few months since I heard from you and (only a little shorter time since you heard from me, I gather). And as I, as of last Friday, am no longer an employee at Framfab, the company where I worked as a copywriter and communicator for three years - I definitely have the time to write you! Communication is still communication, even though it might take some time for the words to reach both ways. The last months have been very busy with finishing up at work, closing projects etc. But most of all, the work with the new male choir has taken a lot of time: Fixing sponsors, (our main sponsor turned out to be Bang&Olufsen, a brilliant hi-fi brand from Denmark!), practicing at home and with parts of the choir, and every Thursday night with the whole choir, making the programs and posters late nights, booking a soloist and a pianist, booking the concert aula (where we met for the Schubert workshop). Oh well, you know all that work as well as you know your own pocket - but for me this has been the first time that I have had this responsibility. I have been very grateful for the way we organized the choir. The two other founders of the choir have worked just as hard with their parts. I am so glad to say that the concert was a great success. I will try and explain in what way. We filled the entire hall, which we had not really dared to hope for. The soloist and the pianist had been at our two last rehearsals and we were actually done with the dress rehearsal in such good time that everyone had the time to greet and meet with friends and family. I had a bit of bad luck since both my siblings were away in different parts of Sweden and Finland and my father had to go to Germany to visit my grandmother who has been in a home for elderly people and hasn't spoken many words the last year. My mother showed up and also my ex-girlfriend Mina - (we are very good friends today, by the way. I am very, very happy for that). The concert started with a piece that one of the boys in the choir composed for the occasion: the first performance of Sweden's largest male choirs! Not the best, but the happiest and most enthusiastic - more of that soon! The piece is called "In choro nemo" - meaning something like "In the choir no one" and is a bit of a pun for what we have made our choir's trademark to get men to come and join - "In the choir no one can hear you sing". All is of course just a joke, but at the same time very true and important at first for some of the guys. Roughly one third of the choir have never attended a choir concert in their entire life, much less have they sung in a choir!!! So, naturally many of the guys who applied to join and also those we asked, were a bit nervous and scared - you know the good old "But I can't really sing. I'm not musically gifted..." And so we asked them if they ever used to sing, if they like to sing when no one is around? All of the skeptics agreed on that music is great but many still insisted on their personal shortcomings. So, the expression, "In the choir no one can hear you sing" And this made many smile at the whole deal and naturally, after a few rehearsals, they stood there, singing and smiling - as if they had been doing nothing else in their life. Not all know notes, not all have great voices, not all really dare to sing straight out their hearts yet - but all who are in the choir at this point are nothing less than passionate about that they are actually a part of this new, great thing! On with the story. We sang the first piece out in the hall, with the great doors open - a kind of "Chor in der Ferne" if I made allude to a certain Gustaf. The audience was listening. Enter a large group of men in tails. So 60 minutes of music, presentation and much happiness followed. Considering how nervous I felt the days before the concert, it was fantastic to discover that I felt totally calm - excited, SURE! But not confused or torn apart of nervousness as I had feared at some moments previously. We sang various pieces; some Nordic songs, a psalm together with the baritone who was introduced by his singing from the balcony with the choir accompanying in pianissimo. Our brilliant soloist from the conservatory in Copenhagen sang three songs together with en equally stunning pianist. The choir continued with a piece by Bruckner called Trösterin musik and a Viegenlied by Schubert and we concluded the concert with a very beautiful song by Grieg sung by the soloist in an arrangement with male choir. What a great time we had! The night continued with a great ball in Malmö with lots of good food, singing and dancing to a great jazzband... However, immediately after the concert we got great feedback from many of the concertgoers, who said many different things but there was one thing that I cherish more than anything: the audience had been sitting on the edges of their seats because this choir - as opposed to many other ensembles around - looked like they LOVED what they did, they sounded happy, enthusiastic and so thrilled to be there, right then and there. (I notice that when I'm writing this, I write faster and faster - how only writing about these things can affect you!) The choir was radiating happiness and many in the choir were needless to say so proud!!! They were standing in a forum where they never could have dreamt that they would/could join. Some of them even needed a little push, these guys (about 22 year-old/young men) where now standing and smiling and singing their hearts out. So, the results of the first 16 weeks of the life of this choir have been absolutely thrilling, both for me as the director of the musical aspects and for the members. Not least has this brought some 80 people new friends and for many of them a totally new way to view themselves: "I'll be damned! I can sing!" For the next term the goal is clear, we want to grow to around 100 active singers. It is great to realize that it is possible to create this together. The chairman, who is a very strict (but fun) med.student was - just like I was - quite surprised to discover that all we had hoped for in both musical and not least social aspects had been surpassed by far so now, we can steer for a new term, with a new concert sometime during spring and also, after concert we were invited to Stockholm for a special male choir festival. So, as you note, this letter is quite filled with what has occupied my time this fall. During this time, I have been reading and studying musical history, a subject I really have come to enjoy more and more over the year that has passed. Only one thing has really been missing, the practical training on an instrumental ensemble. However, I got in touch with the musical director of the university here in Lund and he has allowed me to sit in at rehearsals every Wednesday. They are doing the Tchaikovsky 5th this coming Saturday and it will be very exciting to see how it will turn out after the rehearsals! It is one of my favorite works by him and it will be the first time to hear it "live" for me. Ben, It was only a few days ago that I discovered something that made me both moved and filled with joy: I checked in on your homepage and found a section that I had not seen before - or to be more truthful, I hadn't gotten there until then. (It's funny how one reads one thing, gets deeper and deeper into a subject or matter and you "link on" and find yourself on a completely different web page reading about Shostakovich or something like that, ending with the probable action that one goes to the living room and put on the CD with the music...) Anyway, I found myself in the Ben's JournaI (What a GREAT homepage it is!) for the first time in two months or so and read about this fellow who wrote you from Sweden. Two sentences down the line, I realized that you wrote about me. I couldn't even read it without a feeling of that I was reading a plot from a movie or a book. The mere thought that this had happened and is happening right now is mind-blowing for me. I can't believe that I have left my job, that I lead a choir of around 80 men and that I have gone through my first courses this summer in London and in the Czech Rep. But I have. I know that you don't like to take much credit for things like this, but let me at least state that I am glad that you exist and that we are two people who met and keep on inspiring each other and others. I don't know how many dozens of people have uttered those exact words to when they have heard, discovered and taken part of this: "This is so inspiring! I'm so sure you're doing something right here!" I know that too, today, but I still feel like that old saying...the more I am working with people and music, the more I realize how little I know. That is nothing that makes me sad though, (although I confess that I was just going to write something half-negative just then...) - this is of course both natural and fantastic! There is so much to learn, so many people to meet, so much music to play and discover. However, this fact makes me aware of the fact that I need and really would like to apply to music college somewhere. The other side of the coin of leaving the company at this stage is that I will need to wait for one year to apply and another half to find if and where I could be accepted as a student. So, during this time it is not at all clear what I will do. As I wrote you in my last email, I hope that you will let me know if there is a chance for us to meet again in the near future - either for just a concert (somewhere in Europe maybe) or for a longer period of time. I have read some fantastic reviews on the Mahler 3 that you have performed in November. So glad to read about it. I dare say that I feels quite special to read about and at the same time realize that I know that a record will come out at some point of this grand work! And speaking of grand works, I might t4ell you now, that I started writing this letter at 5 AM because I couldn't go to sleep. I have been listening to the MZ6 (as I refer to it in writing). It's the third time today. I have promised to tell you what I think of it. It is not hard to pinpoint what I have to say about it. It has three things that is rarely found in the recordings out there (and by this time, I have quite a few): 1) It has the most exquisite phrasing that I have ever heard. That goes for your M4 too, by the way. 2)The recording has got something I would call a golden middle way between of what mostly is applied on the 6th. It is not neurotic and not cold. I would say that this in my opinion is a rather widely spread thought about Mahler. Sure he was pretty strange fellow in many senses. But from what I have learned over the years, he was filled with the need of beauty in the grim, and at the same time torn/forced to paint the grotesque in his music. In the 6th, this is evident, just as is it in the 9th and in a few passages in the 5th. But, in my opinion, it felt fantastic to hear beauty even THROUGH the despair. Even though the symphony is dark, grim and sad, it is filled with Mahler. With this, I mean that it seems strange that the M6 would be so much out of the framework that the previous symphonies had created, that they would not be represented. Many a conductors have taken on the M6 as something horrific and neurotic. The end. (And that is not only what Mahler about. Neither then, nor at the time he wrote the 9th. Sure, he was that too, but so much more!) Others have been almost "cold" in their view on him. I would say that these conductors have had the same problem with the other symphonies by Mahler. 3)The pacing and tempi between the first and second movement is ideal - for me! Ben, I would love to give a lot of details, but I'll let it be until the next mail. I have a feeling that it will be some more letters before I get to hear the ZM3... But no, I can't help mentioning the wind players...I think that they played better on this CD than ever. The oboe(s) make me totally breathless. Oh, I need to stop now. It is after all ten to 7am now and I need to sleep at least a few hours. I would like to end this letter with a few short questions. What are the next plans/projects in your life? How does your schedule for the Beethoven/Mahler recording turn out? Will you record the Schubert 9th some day? It has grown immensely on me during this year How is the Zander Fellow doing? I hope that you are working great together! Please send my regards! Have you heard from Jim and how is he doing in Bristol? I wrote him more than a month ago but haven't heard much from him but I guess that he as busy as one can only imagine. Will you go to Europe the coming year? I.e. can we meet at some point, you think? I look forward to hearing from you, Ben! Take care of yourself and of those around you. If Roz knows who I am, please tell her hello from me. I would love to meet with the woman behind the book and behind the thoughts/ideas that I try to live. You make a great team, that's for sure! Thank you, both!
Yours truly and with warm love

Original Letter from Johannes, July 2001

Dear Mr. Ben Zander,

I am writing to you, since I consider you being a very straightforward and quite extraordinary person, who at the same time is a brilliantly gifted conductor. Your latest recording, the Mahler 5th is a fantastic performance! I have listened to it many times over the last few weeks.
I'll get back to that later though:)

This mail to you and of course above all your reply to me - is of great importance for my future.

I am a Swedish, 28-year-old/young man and have been occupied with music my whole life so far, although never quite professionally. I sing in several choirs and have knowledge and experience of playing quite a few instruments. However, the years have passed and the last few years my interest in classical music has grown stronger and stronger. Over the past years, a strong urge to learn the art of conducting has evolved and I would really like to find out ways I could educate myself/get education in this area. Of course, I am aware of the amount of time and commitment that is required, not to forget the talent that a conductor must be gifted with.

My interest for this is no longer just a stray thought. As it is today, I spend 2, 3 hours every day, listening and/or reviewing and analyzing music and I feel this is something that I would really like to develop. Just as everyone else, I have found some composers that thrill me more than others (Brahms, Beethoven, and above all: Mahler) but in all, I always am excited when I think what I could do as a conductor.

I guess what I'm really wondering is:
How should I find out which way to go?
How do I find out how to achieve my goals?
Do I have to become a virtuoso on an instrument before setting the aim at conducting?
Are there conductors that have assistant's today (do you?), and is this a realistic way to become a conductor?
Since I am 28 and not 18, should I try to go any other way than the usual way, i.e. studying in a conservatory and rather try to learn privately from a conductor?

Needless to say, I would be very, very grateful if you took the time to help me out and speak your mind about this matter.

As I started this mail, I am very, very fond of your recordings of both Beethoven and Mahler - I really do hope you have the opportunity to record more in the future! The thing that has enthralled me even more is the eagerness (and this is where I recognize myself in you) to explain and share the fascinating mysteries and wonders of music (not least Mahler's) - to get more out of the listening for others and myself.

As I said, I am very aware of the fact that there are a plethora of subjects and genres you have to tame/master/ignite in order to become a conductor but this feeling have is so much more compelling and "right" to me than I can explain. Today, I work as a copywriter in a rather big company in Sweden. I work with communication and with getting the message through. I feel, however, much more like a communicator and this, together with great love for making, performing, sharing and discussing music - I think that the notion of becoming a conductor is not taken completely out of the blue.

I have learned about you and understood that you were a scholar of Mr. B. Britten and started out very young with learning music. Of course this makes me a tiny bit scared that it's too late for me to become a great conductor - something I really think I could become!
On the other hand, from what you succeed to communicate in your lessons and through interviews and not least in the music you conduct - I'm certain that the want and love for music is much more important and maybe a "key" for you to understand what's going on in my mind.

I am sure that you have very much to do; therefore I don't expect a quick answer from you. Actually, I would prefer a reply where you really have had the time to share your thoughts, rather than just getting a fast reply. I guess you understand what I mean.

Thank you so much in advance!
Best regards,
Johannes Nebel (-Copywriter today, conductor ten years from now?)
Lund, Sweden

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