Behind the Music: Carsten Schmidt
by Katharine H. Moore
None play a larger role in the founding and artistic leadership of the Staunton Music Festival than Carsten Schmidt, the director and visionary of our annual classical program. Carsten, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College throughout the school year, regularly gives concerts around the world as a pianist, harpsichordist, and conductor. He has performed at famous venues such as the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, the Moscow Conservatory, the Kuhmo Festival in Finland, and the German Mozart Festival. Around Staunton, he is known for his daring and dynamic programs - for his zest to incorporate both venerable classical pieces and radical, avant-garde works into the same performance.
I asked Carsten a few questions to better acquaint concert-goers with his background and his passion for traditional and contemporary classical music.
KM: Having grown up in Germany, how did you end up at Indiana University and eventually find a home in Staunton?
CS: In 1988 I went to Indiana to study with a wonderful pianist, Leonard Hokanson, whom I had met at a masterclass in Vienna. I wasn’t really thinking about staying in the U.S. then, but somehow I went on to study some more, at Yale, and then went back to Indiana to teach as Hokanson’s assistant. In 1995 I took a job at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. While I was only there for a few years, I realized what a nice place Staunton is. So even though I moved on to having residences also in New York and Germany, I have had the same home in Staunton for more than 20 years.
You have developed a reputation for the daring, mixed programs you put together, pairing such composers as Monteverdi and Schoenberg on the same concert. Why does that mean so much to you?
I really love when a Staunton Music Festival concert program becomes a composition in itself, and I hope to get from it exactly what I look for in a good musical work. It has to make sense, but also be full of surprises. The juxtaposition of well-known and unknown works is a key ingredient for that recipe, as is the mixture of often very different musical styles. When all goes right, the result is that the concert is not only entertaining, but also that the various pieces illuminate each other by being put in a new perspective.
How has Staunton Music Festival grown artistically in these 21 years?
First of all, it has simply grown a lot, which means we can do all kinds of things now that were not possible in the early years, such as an opera: Handel’s great Hercules, which opens this season, or the Mozart Requiem which is the final concert. The other important thing is that we have so many regular performers who have come for many years now, so there is an enormous amount of friendship, comfort and trust among them. This makes for a rich environment to make music in.
How would you like to develop the festival in the future? What works have you dreamed to program but have not yet been able to?
I think the festival is on a really good trajectory. There is an enthusiasm and musical curiosity from the audience, and in the end, together with wonderful and dedicated performers, that is what matters most. We have some more work to do to really put SMF on truly solid footing, mainly financially. As to programs and works, there is a long list, but I am a little secretive about that....
Having studied and performed on multiple keyboard instruments, which would you take on your desert island: harpsichord, fortepiano, or a modern Steinway?
Hope never to have to choose! But practically it probably would have to be a modern piano if it’s really a desert island. Early keyboards would not do so well with that climate!
What makes a performance a true success in your eyes?
First of all, I am interested in thinking about what a composer's intentions were/are, and how the performance can try to realize them. Then it has to strike a balance between preparation and organization on the one hand, and spontaneity on the other. And then it needs to show an awareness that it is something that really only happens once, in a particular place and time, and with and for specific people. This is why we are so addicted to the thrill of live music.