Oscar Jockel - conductor and composer

Alumnae & Alumni Stories
Oscar Jockel | © Tom Thiele

Oscar Jockel is currently Kirill Petrenko's conducting assistant with the Berlin Philharmonic and a conducting fellow of the Karajan Academy for two years. He has been appointed the first Composer in Residence of the Brucknerhaus Linz for the 2020/21 season. Previous commissions range from works for solo instruments to sound installations and orchestral works, the latter for the Bruckner Orchestra Linz or the Camerata Salzburg, for example.

Oscar Jockel
Conductor and composer

Paris, Berlin and Bretstein


He received his first musical training with the Regensburger Domspatzen under Domkapellmeister Roland Büchner. He studied music theory, composition with Achim Bornhöft and conducting with Reinhard Goebel, Bruno Weil, Johannes Kalitzke and Karl Kamper at the Mozarteum University. At the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz he studied composition with Klaus Lang. He also deepened his conducting studies with Alain Altinoglu and his composition studies with Frédéric Durieux as a master's student in Paris at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse.

Oscar Jockel has received numerous scholarships and awards, including from the German Bundestag as a cultural youth ambassador to the United States, from the City of Regensburg, from the Kai-Uwe von Hassel Foundation, and from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. In the spring of 2023, he received the Herbert von Karajan Award at the Easter Festival in Salzburg, where he performed his arrangement and orchestral performance with DJ Westbam.

Congratulations on the Herbert von Karajan Prize! What is the significance of the prize for you?

First of all, I was incredibly happy. But I also know that I've been very lucky, although I've also prepared myself a bit for this luck (laughs). It may sound strange because I'm still relatively young, but it's an appreciation of what I've done so far, as a composer and as a conductor. Of course I'm pleased that it's being recognized, and it's a kind of signal effect to the outside world and a message for me to continue. Right now I'm sitting alone in Styria surrounded by cows and mountains and pursuing my passion, so now and then you feel cut off from everything. I need this isolation to be able to be creative. But ultimately art is a form of communication, bridging loneliness, touching people. For me, the prize is a confirmation that my art can achieve just that - especially with such a prize, which has a long history and great charisma.

What role do prizes, awards and scholarships generally play in the careers of conductors and composers? Do you have to apply for prizes and so-called calls?

You can't apply for the Karajan Prize, you're chosen. I don't really think much about my public image; in my opinion, you can't really plan it, you can only go your own way tirelessly. I've been very lucky so far, because it's usually been other people who have persuaded me to apply here or there. Even with compositions, someone has often written to me or encouraged me to submit one piece or another. I can only also encourage people to use these platforms, to approach people and to get into conversation with them. That said, I think it's very important not to lose sight of your own path in the process. With both defeats and successes, there is a danger of losing the joy of the thing itself or doing things out of false motivation and no longer being completely honest with yourself.

Why both composer and conductor? How did it come about?

For me, one doesn't work without the other. I need the seclusion to compose and be creative, so that I can later share the music with other people. A jet-set life, from one concert to the next, would not be for me. I often find that I have to say no to conducting offers, even though in principle I would love to do them - I'm also a composer and can't take on many projects. You have to manage your time well and know exactly what you need in order to be artistically productive. If you only decide according to the short-term offers or according to the fees, you'll probably get somewhere, but I'd break down pretty quickly if I didn't have any more time to compose. However, that only crystallized in the course of my studies: I started at the Mozarteum with composition, and in my second year I added conducting. On the one hand, I enjoy losing myself in the compositions of others, penetrating the score and subordinating myself completely to its will and its own laws. On the other hand, I have a great need to think up my own artistic laws and surrender completely to my own sound in my head. They are two completely different things, but they complement each other, so that one activity informs the other.

Are there any musical focal points for you?

I have a wide range of repertoire, which is mainly due to my previous activities and experiences: From singing Gregorian chant as a boy, to playing the harpsichord during my time with Reinhard Goebel, to repeating operas on the piano from "The Magic Flute" to "Bohème" to "Woman Without a Shadow," to the traditional Romantic orchestral repertoire I encounter with the Berlin Philharmonic, to the contemporary works I write myself or encounter with the Ensemble intercontemporain in Paris. Nevertheless, there is a common thread in all these activities and in this wide range: An irrepressible fascination with sound and experiencing musical worlds that touch me deeply, intellectually and emotionally. For example, I begin my portrait concert at the Berlin Philharmonie with a piece of Giovanni Gabrieli's "Sacrae Symphoniae," a wonderful work for multi-choral instrumental groups, where I play basso continuo myself. Next comes one of my own contemporary compositions, "paths in the sky" for five orchestral groups, who slowly walk from the various balconies in the hall through the audience to the stage playing. This is followed by the rather romantic-sounding Violin Concerto by A. Berg, which is based on a twelve-tone series. And then in the second part there is the seventh symphony by L. v. Beethoven. It seems that everything is there, that makes it make sense to me and a great coherence with inner relations.

A string quartet by you was recently premiered at the Brucknerhaus. What does music mean to you? What kind of music do you want to write and convey?

For me, music is an access to reality. It is deeply emotional for me, which also has to do with childhood memories. They were formative experiences that created the feeling of being immersed in another world. For example, when I was in Regensburg Cathedral for the first time, with its eight seconds of reverberation. A motet by G. Palestrina sounded - I was in another world, overwhelmed. At the same time, this other world helped me to build a bridge to reality. As a child I suffered from a genetic hearing impairment, hearing formed only in the course of my childhood. I started speaking relatively late because I perceived low frequencies above average and high frequencies very poorly. Today this has completely normalized, but in the past music was often the only useful means of communication for me. I could make myself understood better through my music than through my inarticulate speech. Maybe this is where my love for Palestrina's music comes from, because you can't understand a single word in this polyphony (laughs). Today I try to convey a kind of experience in my compositions. I want the listener to be in the here and now, just as the music takes place only in time. At the moment when music is played, time must exist. Thus there is a connection to the here and now. Paradoxically, time dissolves in the moment in which one really perceives music. We musicians probably all know the feeling when hours pass by at the instrument or we are in a captivating concert and you hardly notice how time has passed. Those are the most beautiful moments for me. My compositions quite often recur to this experience of time, trying to make perceptible exactly this self-lost flow of time.

To be successful in music and in the arts in general - in the sense of having a career from which you can make a living - usually requires a lot of commitment and time. Have you always been ambitious? And how much time do you spend on music?

As a teenager, I was very ambitious because I wanted and was able to achieve the things required of me. It wasn't until I got to college that I questioned many things about the norm and thought about what really interested me and why I was so ambitious in the first place. I didn't follow a strict plan, tried many things and tried to follow my passion. Once you find that one thing for yourself, the passion and the certain goal orientation that lies within it follows naturally. However, it is no longer extrinsically motivated, but intrinsically motivated. Optimally, it is precisely this critical spirit that awakens at university. As a child or adolescent, it is normal not to have any real ideas of one's own; one tends to imitate, and that is a good thing. But later on, you should definitely do the opposite of what the university expects of you. Please don't misunderstand, I'm not calling for student rebellion (laughs). You want to do everything right, and the curriculum is the reason why today I can read scores and play the piano, have very good skills in composition, and have knowledge of music history as well as music theory. It takes an insane amount of skills to be a musician, and I don't want to minimize that. But in the end, the decisive moments were those when I walked through the city, for example, and marveled at the infinite shapes of the clouds or historically decorated doorways or roof gables and was able to establish a connection to this or that music, which explained my own personal fascination for a certain thing.

So also allow foreign impressions?

Yes, absolutely! The favorite saying of a traveler is that one actually travels oneself in a foreign country. Only when you step out of your own world into another world do you realize how trapped you are in your own perception. In a world where everything is blue, you yourself won't even know what blue really is. Only when you have seen a green world will you know what blue is. An Austrian who has never been to another country and has never heard of another country will not know how Austrian he himself is. That doesn't have to be a bad thing per se. Maybe there are things that are totally great about being Austrian, but maybe there are things that are not so great. To have clarity about one's own identity as a musician is essential for me to make meaningful progress and development.

How can we imagine your working day?

There are two modes: conducting concerts and composing. When I compose, I have a very strict daily routine. It's a question of what framework conditions I have to create for myself so that I can make art optimally, and for me that means seclusion on the one hand and a very clear structure on the other. I get up early, go outside. Then comes composition work. I eat at a certain time, then I'm back out in the mountains, and after dinner comes my second work shift. It's very clearly structured. When I'm conducting, it's much more chaotic, there are a lot of outside influences. But discipline is insanely important for me.

Was your path clear to you from the start and was it as straightforward as it now seems? Or are there definitely hurdles that you have to overcome?

The application rejections and failures are not in any bio, of course, and yet they hit everyone. I probably had just as much success as failure. I only just managed to get into the Gymnasium. Later on, I got my A-levels and wanted to study medicine. I attended a preparatory course for medicine in the USA, but dropped out because I found life in the USA oppressive and returned to Europe. So my artistic career was by no means clear from the beginning. There's a nice saying, "You have to go astray in order not to fall by the wayside." In this respect, in retrospect, I am nevertheless happy about the failures and detours. In addition, there are of course also some hurdles for musicians* to overcome: The beginning of the studies with the admission to a good university is probably the first major hurdle, then in the studies teachers and reference persons are important. You first need the gift of being able to get involved. The next hurdle is to develop your own ideas in order to set yourself apart from the many talented fellow students or to find your peer group. Here, too, I was very lucky with my teachers, who accompanied me into independence. Then come the hurdles outside the university. That's why it's important to look outside the university as early as possible, to look outside. There are many great concert formats, many great artists. Erasmus is also a great program, traveling, gaining cultural experience. At the latest from then on, the path and the hurdles become individual for everyone. Although I didn't know what the next hurdle would be until near the end of my seven years of music study, it still fell into place. And if it still doesn't fall into place, I can always recommend an extended trip to India. In any case, that got me further, although to this day I can't say exactly why.

What was particularly important in your studies and where could it have been a little more?

I learned a lot and acquired knowledge through the clearly defined framework and structure of the university, even from teachers and in situations that were not my cup of tea. But you can't say you're successful because you learned this and that. Thinking outside the box and information about professional practice are essential. For example, knowing how things work in a concert hall. How a program is put together at an event organizer, how concerts are curated, what fits well dramaturgically, who the people are behind the scenes. Networks are not insignificant either; you have to be able to approach people. Years ago, I wrote Matthias Pintscher a message on Facebook because I wanted to hear a rehearsal with him, I was interested in how the Ensemble intercontemporain, one of the best ensembles for contemporary music, works. He answered me and invited me to the rehearsal - a university can't offer that, but technology today makes many things possible in an uncomplicated way. You just have to do it, take the chance and be interested.

Where will your professional journey take you? What are your next stations?

That's hard to say because many things can't be planned and no one can say where I'll be in five years. In my case, one always resulted from the other, whether through radical new beginnings or smooth transitions. Basically, you just know what the next step is. And if you take many steps in a row, then at some point you find yourself unexpectedly and abruptly at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. All I know today is that next week I'll be at the Shostakovich Festival with the Staatskapelle Dresden and then spend most of the summer composing in my Styrian mountain village. There, for the next season, I'll write a piece for the Berlin Philharmonic, a piece for the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, a piece for the Vienna Musikverein, and one for the Divertimento Ensemble in Milan. Then I'll also be with the Berlin Philharmonic for another year. Next season I'll also be conducting my own concerts with the Karajan Academy, with the Sinfonietta of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, with the Vienna Concert Society or the Prague Philharmonic, and many other wonderful projects. Then I'll also be with the Berlin Philharmonic for another year. In addition, next season I'll also be conducting my own concerts with the Karajan Academy, with the Sinfonietta of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, with the Vienna Concert Association or the Prague Philharmonic, and many other wonderful projects. But first and foremost, I try not to think too much about the next stations, but rather about the here and now. Fortunately, I have a great management that takes care of that and is already organizing the dates for 2025. I would go crazy if I had to think about all the next stations all the time. So for me, it's now also a matter of putting trust in others who can take some of the burden off you.

Is there anything else you can pass on to young students?

Be critical, keep the enthusiasm, the passion and try to be open to the "magic bag of life". There is no one recipe for success. And be out in nature a lot.

www.oscarjockel.com (Opens in new tab)