Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider masters the delicate skill of thriving in two careers

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider has developed what he calls a “heritage relationship” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over more than two decades, with “an element of spending time together and growing together.”

Lars Gundersen

The way Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider tells the story, he didn’t have much choice about becoming a conductor.

He had already built a career as a successful international solo violinist, but leading a full ensemble “felt like an inner necessity,” he said  by phone from Europe, before he returned to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 26-28 in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Also on the program was Mahler’s Blumine and Bloch’s concerto Schelomo, which featured cellist Jian Wang.

“It wasn’t so much that someone gave me chance [to conduct] as that I insisted,” he said. It was at a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the ’00s at Ravinia, he remembers, that he really “felt like I have to do this.”

As a violinist already, he felt his entry path was to conduct concertos that he was already soloing in, “and then I would try to convince people to let me do the second half of the concert as well.

“Waving your hands is its own craft, but it’s the smallest part of being a conductor,” he said. “You have to comprehend the score in its entirety and listen to everyone at the same time, and learn the art of leading, and have a vision of the music and make it palpable to a group of people.”

“Mahler is such a synthesis of different influences, divine and prosaic, banal and sublime. It’s a challenge to make it cohesive.” — Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider on the composer’s First Symphony

Now that Szeps-Znaider has established dual careers, the problem is giving both of them enough time. “I asked Daniel Barenboim about that once,” he said, referring to the eminent pianist and former music director of the CSO, “and he said, ‘When you figure it out, you tell me.’ The violin is something physical; it’s hard to go from conducting back to playing. Your fingers feel like they’re swollen.”

For a one-week conducting trip from his native Denmark to the United States, he often does not bring his own instrument. “It would be too much hassle, taking it through customs and everything,” he said. “But when I’m in another city, I’ll often ask if I can borrow a violin to practice on. Usually, there’s one lying around.”

In addition to the October 2023 performances of Mahler’s First Symphony, Szeps-Znaider will return in May to conduct the CSO in a concert of Mozart and Stravinsky. He has developed a “heritage relationship” with the orchestra over more than two decades, with “an element of spending time together and growing together.”

The Mahler had been on his wish list for a while, he said, and it has been rescheduled after earlier plans were changed by the pandemic. “Mahler is such a synthesis of different influences, divine and prosaic, banal and sublime,” he said. “It’s a challenge to make it cohesive.”

But he was eager to undertake the challenge with the CSO. “That Chicago brass sound is something I’m really looking forward to,” he said. “That glorious apotheosis in the last movement — it’s destined to become memorable in the hands of the Chicago brass. Some of them are still there from when I first visited as a violinist, around 2000.”

The reputation of the Chicago brass section stretches back for decades earlier, of course, and Szeps-Znaider believes that preserving a unique orchestral sound is a rare achievement in this interconnected age. Even 100 years ago, he said, observers were lamenting that radio was smoothing out the differences between orchestras. However, he added, “There are some in Europe that still have their own sound, like Vienna and Dresden. And I think Chicago is another. I think it’s really impressive when that still happens.”

This article has been updated and was originally published on October 2, 2023.