Daniel Kawka, fold after fold


There was a time, not so long ago, when musical creation required a calling, specialisation was necessary and commitment required you to fight tooth and nail to combat ever-living academicism. Now, from the end of the 1970s, just as music was becoming more flexible, you could say, because ideologies and systems were gradually losing their resonance, performers devoted to creation began publicly venturing into fields from which they had been more or less barred up until then. In reality, none of them had renounced the classics (the basis of all of their teaching) but the barriers put up by the music broadcasting industry and the commitment mentioned above had prevented them openly and continuously showing all of their affection for the classics’ masterpieces.

On this issue, and taking just conducting into consideration, it was undoubtedly Pierre Boulez who best changed the course of history, shifted the barriers and broke down prejudice. Following in his footsteps, many are the young conductors who, having brilliantly defended creation, today naturally conduct the repertoire, while continuing to work for today’s music. Daniel Kawka is one of them.



A philosopher once said: “A human being’s true and only life story is the gradual emergence of their secret wish throughout their public life.” This quotation ought to appear as an epigraph in all biographical works, however modest. Daniel Kawka undoubtedly forged his bond with this “secret wish” (which makes us unique, even more so than our appearance and social status) one evening in 1979 when he discovered Parsifal in Orange conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The words he uses to relate this memory, still so vivid in his mind, are drawn from the realms of delight and discovery. (This is hardly surprising if you consider opera music, torn between luxuriance and hieratic style, its libretto and the initiatory voyage it offers). From then on, the young man, already a musician, became passionate about Wagner – a passion that never failed and grew over time. He also sensed that voice and opera (which combine lyricism and words in space) are like the culmination of all music types. Consequently, if music was a sensual liturgy, it was better to be its high priest, its great architect: he decided to become a conductor.

But his “secret wish” was not entirely sealed. The following year, he had another revelation: Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master), a score the complexity of which surprised him just as much as its “ferocity”, even when shaped by “furious craftsmanship”.


A lot through willpower; a little by chance.

Daniel Kawka’s musical training was comprehensive. He covered all of the areas required to be a musician: writing and analysis classes at the Lyon National Academy of Music, composition classes (from György Ligeti, Elliott Carter and Klaus Huber), learning how to conduct an orchestra with Charles Brück at the Ecole Normale de Musique followed by seminars notably with Peter Eötvös and learning how to conduct a choir under the watchful eye of John Poole, who took him on as his assistant. He discreetly prefers to keep silent about his agrégation (high-level competitive examination for recruiting teachers in France) in musicology – undoubtedly because he prefers action to scholarship, “doing” to “knowing”. He remembers that he was a guitar player but the relationship it allowed him to have with sound seemed restricted: he gradually felt the need to enlarge his range.


From an extended range …

1993: Daniel Kawka set up the Contemporary Orchestral Ensemble, the very name of which reveals a great willingness to enlarge. Pierre Jodlowski’s De front (Head-on), Alessandro Solbiati’s By my window, Brice Pauset’s First Symphony and Hugues Dufourt’s Piano Concerto are among the major works the ensemble can pride itself on – summits that do not hide the ensemble’s thorough work on the last fifty years’ repertoire.

The range increased a little more: 2002 saw the birth of the Philharmonic Festival, a symphony orchestra that, as was Daniel Kawka’s wish, can tackle the major works of yesterday and today: Mahler’s symphony Resurrection, as well as Boulez’s Pli selon pli (Fold According to Fold), Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, Steve Reich’s City Life, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and The Rite of Spring, etc. In addition to these two formations, the second of which is the product of the first, Daniel Kawka conducts just as many orchestras and choirs devoted mainly to classical music as modern music ensembles (such as the Ensemble InterContemporain and the London Sinfonietta). But this is the case for the majority of conductors in his generation. We must look elsewhere to find his difference, somewhere where his “secret wish” reaffirms its promise: opera. In fact, rare are the conductors who, like Kawka, can conduct Suzanne Giraud’s Le Vaisseau fantôme (The Ghost Ship) and Le Vase de parfum (The Jar of Perfume) (in progress) and Messiaen’s Don Giovanni and Saint François d’Assise (Saint Francis of Assisi) (for the premiere in Poland).


Philosophy of (new) music.

His work on the contemporary repertoire has allowed him to acquire the tools required to conduct the music of the past. He is one of those who believe that regular contact with today’s scores provides us with another opportunity to listen to the masterpieces of the past, with a new ear each time that perceives their daring, mummified and rendered banal by the passing of time.

Ever since he heard Parsifal and Le Marteau for the first time, Daniel Kawka has endeavoured to find out the truth hidden behind music and tries to lift a corner of the veil at each performance, perhaps – and luckily – forgetting what Adorno used to say: “Music is a mode of knowledge that remains hidden from itself and those who know it”. In any case, according to him, the conductor’s job is to shape the work and set it in time so that the listener’s sharp, joyful consciousness travels through the particular instant devised by each score. He adds that the technique and tools – hearing and arms – it requires must be used to find answers to fundamental issues – the most suitable expression of music and the message it sends out. As regards commitment to the works of today, he sees this as a duty, which does not exclude desire, pleasure or delight, his relationship with sound seems to him to be so organic, so visceral.


Secret Theatre (en forme de questions-réponses)

Does he consider music to be mystical? I’m not far from believing so.

What is the absolute form of music? Opera.

Countries? German and French music.

A pantheon? Wagner, Boulez and Richard Strauss.

A direction? Working vertically, thus pursuing complete works, sometimes with different ensembles: Boulez, Mahler and… Roussel.

Any other “secret wishes”? To conduct all of Wagner’s operas.

Models? Pierre Boulez, an absolute model and an example of perfectibility (a magnificent “passport to boldness”) and Claudio Abbado, the absolute, who combines humanism and conscience.