A life between three continents
Maestro Günther Herbig is sitting in the executive director's office of the Taiwan Philharmonic (a.k.a. NSO) in Taipei. Friendly, happy, smiling, he is following the conversation with an nonchalant attitude. Wide awake, his eyes focus everyone in the room while he talks. Günther Herbig, 84, has just finished several hours of rehearsal for the upcoming concert.
Herbig is a globetrotter, a powerhouse, full of romantic sensitivity which comes across on stage. His eyes are full of life, his life is full of travel. While many conductors' careers are connected to one country, or even to one orchestra, Günther Herbig's life is linked to more than six orchestras, located on three continents.
The story of this cosmopolitan maestro started in Europe. Herbig was born in Bohemia. He studied in Weimar, Germany, and learned to conduct from Hermann Abendroth. "I didn't have the possibilities young students have nowadays, seeing numerous conductors at work. Abendroth was probably my only inspiration", he remembers. Herbig later had the possibility to learn from Herbert von Karajan. Beside his studies, he was one of the few people who had attended rehearsals of the great maestro. "A precise work on a sound he had in mind to achieve exactly what he imagined. This is what I learned from him, and how I am still working myself."
In 1966, Herbig became the second conductor of the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester which Kurt Sanderling led at that time. After almost six years in Berlin, he finally got his own orchestra: Herbig succeeded Kurt Masur at the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972. His first big job, full of responsibility, he says. Although Herbig did numerous recordings and world tours with the Dresden Philharmonics, he stayed in Dresden for five years only. In 1977, he moved back to Berlin to take Kurt Sanderling's place: Maestro Herbig became the principal conductor of the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester.
Here, in Berlin, the capital of classical music in East Germany at that time, Herbig had a big job to do: The diligent man had not only his orchestra work to do - rehearsals, concerts and tours. He was also working on a new concert hall for the Sinfonie-Orchester. Six years of detailed planning with the architects, day and night, just to get an unforgettable, tailored sound experience. Herbig was led by an idea. "I had the chance to finally get my own space. In Dresden, we always had to schedule our concerts with an eye on important political events, which always had the first priority in the city concert hall. Here, in Berlin, I was promised to have my own house, just to be filled with music."
His eyes are still twinkling when he remembers the final, big disappointment: one year before the opening, Herbig was informed that the concert hall would be led by a politician, not by the Artistic Director himself. For Herbig, that was not only a breach of contract, but also a breach of trust. He quit his job, left the orchestra, and was abandoned by the politburo.
After that, Herbig experienced the full power of the Socialist Unity Party: he became persona non grata. No invitation to any orchestra, no tours, his recordings disappeared off the shelves and windows of the music stores nationwide.
Herbig left the GDR shortly after, in 1984 - receiving numerous offers in America. He became the principal conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. America became his new homeland. Herbig has lived in a small, picturesque town near Detroit now for almost 30 years - when his schedule allows it. At the top of his career, Herbig had been conducting 45 weeks per year. In 1989, he also became principal conductor in Toronto, and once again, after the german reunion, was leading the Orchestra of Saarbrücken, Germany.
In 1972, almost 50 years ago, Herbig had his first encounter to Asia during a tour with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan. After numerous invitations, he discovered Taiwan and its "young, admiring, technically highly versatile" musicians. This connection was reciprocal from the first moment - the musicians of the NSO love their maestro, the audience celebrates him like a pop-star. For almost two years(2008~2010), Herbig temporarily served as principal conductor of the orchestra. A special connection, which has been strong since.
But Herbig does not only conduct the NSO. He does a lot of rehearsal work with the musicians. "Style moulding" he calls this job. "In Europe, especially in Germany, we have a big classical tradition. Orchestras, sometimes more than 300 years old, have their own sound. I am working on a special sound of the NSO", he says.
The choice of compositions he performs with the orchestra show Herbig's deep connection with the German Romantic period. What is the feeling of a conductor who is used to work with orchestras with great traditions, suddenly standing in front of an orchestra that is not even 50 years old?
"I don't feel a difference. The musicians have an enormous quality and knowledge", Herbig says.
The conductor has made over 100 recordings with many orchestras all over the world. But that is impossible to see when one talks to him. His deeply emotional understanding of music is full of understatement: "You don't need to study to know how to conduct a bar. you can simply learn it, even as a cleaning lady". Herbig smiles, "The most important thing is to have an idea of the little black dots in between those five lines on the music sheet. And then you must put this idea into effect with the orchestra musicians." Maestro Herbig, the guardian of the german Romantic idea, smiles and takes a big sip of Oolong tea.