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Conductor Marc Minkowski: horses, Mozart made for each other

By Michael Roddy

VERBIER Switzerland (Reuters) - French-American conductor Marc Minkowski loves music and his second passion is horses, so he is combining the two at a concert that will open the annual Mozart Week festival in Salzburg next year.

Nor is this going to be like an opera where someone leads a horse onstage and it stands there munching from a feed bag. Minkowski's horses will be performing inside Salzburg's 17th-century former "rock riding school", which was later transformed into a concert hall, to the music of Mozart's cantata "David Penitente" on the festival's opening day.

"The horse is a naturally musical animal, his rhythm is already musical and he's the best interpreter, the best dancer, you can find - of course with a decent rider," Minkowski, 52, told Reuters at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland where he conducted a rousing version of Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" last weekend - without any four-legged stars.

Minkowski, who has staged a horse-music event at a festival he runs in the spring on the Ile de Re off the west coast of France, is being aided and abetted in his project at the Mozart Week, where he is the artistic director, by the French horse-trainer extraordinaire who goes by the single name of Bartabas.

Details of what the horses will be doing are under wraps, but a horse trained by Bartabas can be seen in a YouTube video galloping backwards.

Minkowski said the link between horses and music should come as no surprise, since some of the first concert venues were built by the same architects who designed riding schools. The hall in Salzburg is just such a place, and was converted to concert use when the Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920.

"The orchestra and the singers will be performing in some arcades and the horses will be ... in the middle, after years of absence from this space for these animals. It will be quite an event," Minkowski said over coffee on the patio of a Verbier hotel with a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains.

Inventive programing comes naturally to Minkowski, who is known as a specialist in what are often called period - or historical - instruments, but who resents being pigeonholed.

"Really I always fight against being stamped as a 'specialist' or an 'archaeologist' - I'm just a musician and I play works from very different composers and groups," he said.

He does it, though, with flair. His recorded version of Haydn's famous "Surprise" symphony, for example, has more surprises than the composer ever intended. The first time the orchestra works its way toward a loud climax it goes silent when it gets there, the second time the musicians shout and only on the third go round do they play the notes.

Another bit of inventive programing was to combine Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" opera with a version of the story with music composed by the French conductor Louis Dietsch under the slightly different title of "The Phantom Vessel".

Dietsch's piece had lain abandoned in the library of the Paris Opera for more than a century and Minkowski allowed it is "nothing deep". But combining the two, which he and his period instrument band "Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble" have done on CD, "was really an experience and very interesting".

"This is a repertoire I want to investigate more," he said.

He has been exploring mounting Wagner's "Ring" cycle using lyric singers, rather then the usual Wagnerian "hero tenors" and large-voiced women, with a German opera company he declined to name because the talks are continuing.

His other wish is to have more conducting engagements in the United States, where he said he has been invited twice by the Cleveland Orchestra and also by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but where he has not had anything like a big career.

"Maybe with these orchestras it was a little bit too soon," he said. "But a conductor is like a good wine that needs a few years to develop and mature."

(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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