François-Frédéric Guy, expert in romantic German repertoire and especially Beethoven's works, describes his experience as an orchestra leader from the piano as an "thrilling tightrope act". Since 2012, he has dedicated himself to this particular challenge, now taking it even further with the two piano concertos by Johannes Brahms. In an interview, the pianist described the peculiarities of his double role and his path to conducting.
What was your first experience with play/conduct, and what motivated you to get involved with it?
In 2012, I conducted from the piano for the first time, leading the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège in the Beethoven concertos – my core repertoire. This incredible adventure was attractive to me for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to rediscover the spirit that prevailed in the times of Mozart and Beethoven, when the soloists performed on the instrument with the attitude of a chamber musician. Secondly, it helped me make a dream come true. Passionate about the orchestral repertoire, I have always considered conducting to be a natural extension of my career as a pianist. And play/ conduct is a fantastic way to move from the role of the soloist to that of the conductor. Since then, I have frequently directed Mozart and especially Beethoven from the piano; I have also recorded the Beethoven concertos again, this time with the Sinfonia Varsovia.
Conducting an orchestra while playing the solo part is not a common role. How did you learn to do it – is there a way of training or preparing?
I first worked with experienced conductors like Philippe Jordan and Pascal Rophé, who taught me a basic technique. At the same time, I watched artists who are known for their play/conduct performances, such as Murray Perahia for Mozart and Daniel Barenboim for Beethoven. I then developed my own technique. First and foremost, of course, you have to learn the orchestral part meticulously and find the most exact, unambiguous gestures so that the orchestral musicians feel supported. The piano then becomes almost a mere instrument among others. However, I must emphasize that today’s orchestral musicians perform at a very high level and with a certain degree of autonomy. At first I tried to conduct every last note, the slightest event. With increasing experience one can grant the musicians more independence and dedicate oneself to the essential.
What are the most difficult things about this role?
The main difficulty arises from the fact that soloist’s gestures are contrary to that of a conductor: the pianist’s arm moves from top to bottom towards the keyboard, while the conducting movement is in the opposite direction: from the bottom to the top. You must avoid losing the special feel of performing as a soloist, whilst constantly having to anticipate the conducting gestures in order to make the orchestra feel well led. Like a tightrope act, it is certainly associated with a certain amount of risk, but the musical result is often amazing because of its balance and coherence. The more experience I gain in all three roles – as a pianist, as a conductor/pianist and as a conductor – the more I like to switch back and forth between roles in the same concert. This is a unique and inexhaustibly rich experience.
Which play/conduct projects do you want to tackle next?
During the current season I have continued my explorations of the last great concertos of Mozart with the Concertos Nos. 22 and 23. I also conducted two Brahms concertos from the piano for the first time at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The big adventure of the coming season, however, will be a new play/conduct concerto which I have commissioned from the French composer Aurélien Dumont. The intention is to create a work in the spirit of the time of Mozart and Beethoven, albeit in a musical language that belongs entirely to the 21st century. The premiere will take place on 11 October 2019 at the Opéra de Limoges, and in 2020 I will perform the piece with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Interview: Prune Hernaïz
Translation: Heather Hudyma
With the world premiere of Hèctor Parra's opera Les Bienveillantes, directed by Calixto Bieito, Peter Rundel makes his debut appearance at the Opera Vlaanderen. A few weeks before the premiere in April, we spoke to him about the new work and his role at the centre of major opera productions.
When did you first become interested in Les Bienveillantes?
As soon as it became clear that this was a project for me, which was about two years ago, I immediately went out and found the book by Jonathan Littell. I only knew about it beforehand because there was a huge scandal in France over whether it is permissible to recount the crimes of the Nazis in the form of a first-person novel. Never in my life have I had as difficult a reading experience as I did with this book. It did something to me that probably explains, in part, the scandal it caused. As the reader, you start to identify with the novel’s narrator and protagonist, an SS man who is confident in his ideology and who received his philosophical training within this machinery, as well as someone who is an active participant in it. This is absolutely terrifying and deeply troubling, yet at the same time fascinating. The big question, of course, is how to bring the essence of the novel, this identification and dialogue with the narrator, to the stage in a musical form. The first step was to find someone to distill and linguistically compress this colossal story. As in the previous opera, Wilde in Schwetzinge, where I worked with the same production team, Hèctor Parra turned to Händl Klaus for the libretto.
So you were involved in the project even before it was clear who would write the libretto – that's rather unusual for a conductor.
I’m on friendly terms with many composers and therefore often know about their plans early on. Sometimes, I also try to seek out production possibilities for certain ideas. That's one thing that keeps me busy and interested as a conductor: not just being the musical midwife, but also helping make certain ideas a reality through my contacts. And of course, being involved from the beginning is the most satisfying way of working together.
What is important to you in the role that you play in the production process?
I never cease to be fascinated by opera as an art form; the fact that so many types of art and artists are involved from different backgrounds and with completely different experiences. As the musical director I'm virtually at the centre of the process, alongside the director. There, I see myself primarily as an advocate for the composer and the music as well as the singers. At the same time, I have to attend to the needs of the other artists and their different perspectives. This is a kind of utopian model of cooperation: everyone wants to contribute and be represented in the end product. To play a part in developing and mediating such a piece is a fantastic opportunity. It’s a tremendous luxury that our society still provides us with such a playground to develop these ideas, but apparently we still have a need to tell and interpret stories on stage – this is something that particularly defines our culture.
Are there any productions you recall which particularly provided a utopian model of cooperation, as you put it?
Having grown up in the freelance scene, musically speaking, I have often searched for working conditions that facilitate collaboration. For years I was the musical director of the Wiener Taschenoper. That was a long time ago, but there were a few examples there that left a particular impression. For example, our production of Michaels Reise by Stockhausen, a collaboration with the Ensemble Musikfabrik and La Fura dels Baus, was particularly satisfying for me, both in terms of the process and the end result.
It's not easy to single out individual works from your long list of opera engagements, sincethe label ‘exceptional’ applies to so many of the productions. Were there other pieces besides Michaels Reise that were particularly important for you?
Das Märchen in Lisbon was a very significant experience. This was the perfect example of an ill-fated production, primarily because the composer, Emmanuel Nunes, only finished the composition at the very last moment. It was a torturous process bringing the piece to its world premiere. The experience still resonates with me because the opera hasn’t been performed since and the music is terrific. Also because of the material itself. Goethe's fairy tale [The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily] is an enigmatic story, a kind of a Magic Flute-esque world with snakes and princes and many interpretive possibilities. I think it's a masterpiece; I hope that an opera house will finally decide to tackle it again.
That is an extreme example, but compositions being finished at the very last minute is probably a rather common occurrence when staging new operas.
That's just the way it is. It’s also the case in the concert world – I’m thinking of one I just gave in Donaueschingen in Germany. As a conductor, you have to keep a cool head, radiate calm and create a genuine sense of security for the others. But there are of course extreme situations, where you have to put the ball back in the composer’s court and say: ‘either we discuss making some cuts or it won’t be ready in time.’
Many of the projects you have been involved in have stretched the physical boundaries of standard opera productions. At the Ruhrtriennale you have conducted pieces such as Die Materie, Prometheus and Leila und Madschnun in a huge space. Do you have a particular affinity for such monumental performances?
It’s definitely part of the appeal to be at the helm of such an enormous apparatus: choir, soloists, orchestra, in some cases electronics, often distributed across a large space. But to be honest, what connects to opera most of all is the voice. I love the voice. Maybe it's because I was a violinist, and for melody instruments the ideal sound is that of the human voice. I have a tremendous amount of respect for opera singers, because I know what it means to be onstage, singing without sheet music and embodying a role. For me, this sense of exposure, this vulnerability of singers is something that goes beyond what happens in a normal concert. It’s precisely because of this risk that a special kind of magic or beauty can appear. For me, singers are like tightrope walkers. I can be the one who breathes with them, who gives them a sense of security, who carries them and supports them. I'm the safety net, so to speak. This is actually not just relevant to my work with singers, because so many elements are interlinked in the opera. If one thing is out of place, the whole thing threatens to collapse like a house of cards. And of course, although you do everything you can to prevent it, you also know when to let go, so that, despite everything, you can create a sense of freedom. When this works, it’s the most beautiful thing.
Nina Rohlfs, January 2019, Interview Peter Rundel 30.11.2018. Translated by Kathleen Heil.
On Manhattan’s West Side along the Hudson river, where the High Line ends after coursing through Chelsea, a dynamic new building is taking shape amid the Hudson Yards: The Shed, a nonprofit venue with the aim of making art accessible to all, will feature commissions of new works of art in music, theater, visual art and other disciplines.
Accordingly, the events with which the Shed opens its doors for the first time in spring could hardly be more interdisciplinary. From 6 April to 2 June, conductor Brad Lubman and his Ensemble Signal will transform a part of this innovative structure into a sound and art installation three to four times a day. Major names in the music and art worlds unite in the Reich Richter Pärt project: composer Steve Reich has created a new composition in collaboration with Gerhard Richter, and filmmaker Corrina Belz contributed a video piece that engages with the intricacies of Richter’s Patterns series and the minimal musical forms of Steve Reich. Together with the performers, the audience can move through the gallery space, immersing themselves in the great painter’s work, the music, and the architecture.
Numerous composers rely on Brad Lubman to premiere their works, but he has a particularly long and trusting relationship with Steve Reich, who has said that Lubman and Ensemble Signal “have given many of the best performances of my music I have ever heard.” The two artists first met in 1995; since then, Lubman has recorded Reich compositions for harmonia mundi and Nonesuch, given the world premieres of Reich‘s Three Tales, Daniel Variations, Runner, Radio Rewrite, and Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, and conducted Reich‘s music on four continents. The music of the composer holds a special meaning for Ensemble Signal, who explain that “Steve is not only a composer whose music we love – he is also a mentor and dearest of colleagues.” Ever since its founding in 2008, Signal have established themselves as New York’s leading new music ensemble. They seek to promote the artistic and performance practice that Steve Reich himself has been developing since the 1970s, not least in part by sharing it with new audiences worldwide. To do so, Ensemble Signal engage in a variety of multimedia and technical prospects – including playing, on occasion, inside a shed.
Steven Sloane will take up the position of Music Director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of the 2020/21 season. From October 2019 he will be Music Director Designate, leading the orchestra in three symphony concerts and begin with artistic planning. Karsten Witt took this appointment as an opportunity to take a look into the future – as well as the past.
“It feels like coming nach Hause.” After over 30 years in Germany, Steven Sloane still switches seamlessly between German and English, often in a single sentence. The conductor’s American accent – he grew up in Los Angeles – is still unmistakable. Recently he often starts conversations in Hebrew, before I remind him that, even after 15 years of working together, I still don’t understand this language.
When he says nach Hause, he now is not referring to his home state of California, but rather the country to which he emigrated after his graduation at 21, and where he lived for 10 years: Israel. Here he threw himself whole-heartedly into the country’s musical life and helped by its development, establishing the Choir of the Conservatory in Tel Aviv. He then conducted all the Israeli orchestras, with the single exception of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, who first invited him later. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra invited him particularly often as a guest conductor – at this time Gary Bertini was the Chief Conductor. In 1985 he was about to take the position of Resident Conductor of the newly founded Israeli Opera, but instead moved together with Gary Bertini to the Frankfurt Opera, and took his first fixed position as 1. Kapellmeister.
However, Bochum is still where Steven Sloane calls home; this is the city where he has held the title of General Music Director since 1994. His service to the musical life of this theatre city and the wider Ruhr-region are unrivalled. He has been recognised for this with several honours and distinctions, and he continues to win new audiences with his visionary and open-minded programming. The celebrated production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten at the RuhrTriennale, which the Bochum Symphony Orchestra also brought to the Armory Hall in New York, is as unforgettable as the Day of Song project as part of his programme for Ruhr2010, which brought singing to public spaces across the whole city, and saw him conduct 60,000 singers in FC Schalke’s stadium.
In 2016 he celebrated his greatest success in Bochum with the opening of the new Anneliese Brost Musikforum, built around the St. Marien Kirche near the city’s so-called “Bermuda triangle” entertainment district. This is a new home for the Bochum Symphony and the city’s music schools as well as its music lovers. With skill, tenacity, persuasiveness, assertiveness and powers of persuasion, Steven Sloane patiently led this project to great success, after it had often been written-off as unfeasible in a bankrupt city, and the concert hall’s opening was also celebrated outside the region, both nationally and internationally.
In 2018, two years after the opening of the concert hall and his nomination as Intendant, Steven Sloane declared his intention to step down in three years’ time, and to hand the position to a successor. In 2019 the orchestra will celebrate its 100th anniversary as well as the 25th year of the conductor’s position as General Music Director. “It will then be time for a change – for the orchestra as well as for me.” He has also long had a second home in Berlin, where he established the International Conducting Academy at the Berlin University of Arts, which intensively trains selected young conductors. Since the current season he has also held the position of Principal Guest Conductor and Artistic Advisor at the Malmö Opera.
In a profession that is marked by jet-setting from one orchestra to another, Steven Sloane is an exception. He loves the continuity of working with friends, but never lets this become simply routine. His motto could be “let’s look for something new” – both because of his work championing lesser-known composers as well as engagement with young artists; for his work with new productions and concert formats as well as for his efforts to develop the institution of the orchestra and the space it occupies. After naming him as its new Music Director from 2020, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra can look forward to change, hinted at in Steven Sloane’s first public statement about the position: “I will work for the orchestra to create new collaborations with other institutions in order to appear in new venues and find opportunities to create new audiences including young and older people, who have never attended orchestral concerts before.” For him, this is a project for the whole city and all its peoples, “Our future is open!”
Karsten Witt, translated Samuel Johnstone
He has taken to the stage as Charles V, as Walter Benjamin, as Prince of Homburg, and as Friedrich Hölderlin. Now, in the role of Martin Luther, Dietrich Henschel adds another heavyweight to this eclectic list of key figures from political and intellectual history. In May 2019, the baritone will take on the role of the Protestant reformer in the premiere of Bo Holten's opera Schlagt sie tot! at the Malmö Opera.
But how do you approach a character when you know more about them than what is explicitly shown in the libretto? "Before rehearsing, I don’t want to have any preconceptions as to who I am," says Dietrich Henschel. "That's how you can approach and develop the piece with your colleagues and the director." Nevertheless, Henschel can also rattle off important historical facts with ease. "The lens of history also makes it possible for me to discern the perspective of authors and composers.” As concerns Martin Luther in his iteration onstage at Malmö, this perspective is a rather critical one. "The piece develops the figure as a human being with strengths and weaknesses, but above all as an extremely narcissistic, egocentric person," elaborates Dietrich Henschel. This opera is a far cry from the positive image of Luther often put forth in the recent Reformation anniversary year, whose most successful mascot was the Playmobil Luther figurine, which sold in the millions. "I was baptised Christian in the Lutheran church and, naturally, was raised in that tradition," the baritone concedes. "I have to set that knowledge aside the moment I take on the role of Luther." Certain aspects of Luther, such as his approval of the violent suppression of peasant uprisings, do not make such an identification particularly easy. "This is where I am required to truly inhabit the role, so that I can really arrive at this decision with its violent contradictions from a place of inner turmoil. Of course, you cannot do that in ahead of time, only in the work itself, which I'm looking forward to."
As a rule, music shows him the way: "It gives the character a certain rhythm, a pulse, as well as a means of expression. You just have to give yourself over to good pieces," he says. "One is always required to enter into a symbiosis with the stage characters. In the role of Charles V, for example, during a rehearsal I suddenly found myself so angry in a certain scene that I began throwing chairs at my adversary. There was an aggressiveness in me that I did not even know existed.”
"Playing a historical figure literally is always difficult, because you come so close to the cliché. But in pieces that are more abstract, like in the Hölderlin opera or more recently in Benjamin, the individual figures keep their mysteries," he explains. Dietrich Henschel played Walter Benjamin in Peter Ruzicka’s opera last year in Hamburg to great acclaim, almost ten years after he had embodied another major philosopher in Ruzicka's opera Hölderlin. "In the case of Benjamin, everyone has to find their own way to access this complex personality, which is human and fallible," he says of the man portrayed in Ruzicka's opera at his most difficult moment – on the run, shortly before his suicide.
But are there limits to the degree to which a singer can identify with a character precisely at this point of weakness and inner conflict, so that the voice remains present? "When you're overcome with emotion, you have to take care to maintain control," confirms Dietrich Henschel, "but that’s why you’re an artist. Besides, this brokenness always comes out through the music itself." In general, Henschel avoids foregrounding the heroic in his roles. "Onstage, the most interesting characters are the weak ones," he says, citing examples from his trove of roles embodying so-called ‘great men’ – starting with Hans Werner Henze's Prinz von Homburg to Doctor Faust by Busoni to Don Giovanni, about whom he says: "If he were so unbelievably authoritative as everyone viewed him in the past, he would never have become such a legend. What is a hero who is always strong? Boring!"
For Dietrich Henschel, the ideal case would be that everyone involved – both onstage and in the auditorium – would, in light of such figures, find their own perspective. "I create my own interpretative portrait for the role, and everyone in the audience must reconcile their own truth, develop their own questions, and seek and decide for themselves what they see. I very much hope that the Luther opera, first and foremost, will also raise questions instead of giving answers."
Nina Rohlfs, December 2018
translated from the German by Kathleen Heil
From the beginning of the 2018/19 season Bas Wiegers takes over the position of Principal Guest Conductor of Klangforum Wien from Sylvain Cambreling. For the ensemble’s 2018/19 programme, the conductor contributed an essay entitled “Some thoughts about diversity and character,” a shortened version of which we reproduce here with kind permission of Klangforum Wien. The full version is available to read in the ensemble’s blog.
Focussing on what is “contemporary” means being in continuous change. “Now” is always different, fluid. Twenty to forty years ago, the leading forces behind the formation of the ensembles for new music were composers and their direct friends, who had the feeling they needed different organisms and constellations for their music. Of course young composers today write different music than what their colleagues were writing in the Seventies and Eighties. The new generation of listeners has different expectations from their colleagues decades ago. They need different vehicles for their musical experiences.
This is all very obvious, but what does it mean for the established ensembles of contemporary music? Formed decades ago, perfected and institutionalized during the years, the danger is that they are growing old and will stop being contemporary. Just like their predecessors, the symphony orchestras, they then become specialized ensembles for music of another generation.
So the ensembles (and orchestras!) need to keep refreshing their urgency, their necessity, if they still want to be of importance to a future audience and a future generation of composers. Otherwise, sooner or later, their relevance will dry up. And ensembles, even more than symphony orchestras or opera houses, are incredibly vulnerable and seemingly easily discarded by thoughtless politics, as my home country The Netherlands has so sadly demonstrated in the past couple of years.
This development does not mean that ensembles need to get rid of the repertoire and knowledge that was formed in all those years of existence, quite the contrary. A hybrid situation seems the most interesting and viable option: one where musicians keep giving the audience the opportunity to hear live music from the near and further past, while at the same time keeping the curiosity for the newest developments and shaping the near future of music. For me, the key words on which to focus our actions are diversity and character. [in German: Eigenheit]
Whether the discourse is about race, gender, income level, sexual orientation, food, or art: the world of today has clearly embraced the idea of diversity. If we want to represent the world around us, and communicate with it, diversity in programming, in the way we communicate, in the way we create, is crucial. Some music needs the focused concentration of deep listening, some music needs almost scientific attention, some music needs an informal setting, and some music needs a more theatrical presence to reach its full potential. It is important for musicians, ensembles and programmers to take up the position of a curator: we love this, we thinkthis is extraordinary, and we want to attest to this. It is important, because otherwise, inside this enormous diversity, we will get lost. Someone needs to make choices, feel the necessity to share these choices and create a context for the audience where they can be shared.
At the beginning of written music, composers were always also performers. During the ages, this has been shifting, settling for a while on the idea of the composer as the creative genius, who delivers the score to the musician, who then faithfully plays the written notes. But in our time, the idea of the composer-genius seems to be only one of many ways to create new music. We have interesting composers who come from a traditional musical background, but also ones who come from improvised music, from film music or even from visual and conceptual arts rather than music. Our scope needs to be wide: On one side of the spectrum we still have composers who deliver a perfectly thought-trough score, and on the other side we find the composer who can barely read notes and needs imaginative performers to bring the musical ideas to life.
Do we want to play this whole bandwidth of musics? And are we capable of it? One thing is clear: if we only play music with technical instrumentation qualities of, say, post-Ravel or post-Lachenmann finesse, we miss out on a whole world of other ways of making music. Importantly, the musician-performer also misses out on the possibility of developing skills on a more co-composing and co-creative level. But this demands a different attitude, a different working process, and a different responsibility from both the composer and the musician-performer.
The ensembles that have been formed in the Seventies and Eighties were born from the need for a new musical and artistic direction. But weirdly enough, despite the then already omnipresent pop culture, they have held onto quite traditional stage concepts, both in the dramaturgy of the concert experience and in the musicians´ behaviour on stage.
Concerning the dramaturgy, we see more and more differentiation here. Building a concert on the ouverture-solowork-symphony-format (a romantic format that still makes its mark on many contemporary music concerts) is only one possibility. Another of the many options is a concert in one arch, guiding the audience without interruption from experience to experience. This leads to a different concentration and a different message all together. Again, it is about differentiation: not all music is meant or even fit for one or the other approach. Conceiving a more holistic dramaturgy might even mean integrating ideas about light, sound, or set design in the process. Connecting to other art forms will not only enrich our own ideas about what a performance might be, it will also open doors to audiences who are interested in those other fields of the arts, rather than just in music.
Talking about stage presence in music is not trying to put an extra awareness on the shoulders of the musician. It is simply acknowledging what has always been part of our art, but is quite often ignored or taken for granted. A symphony orchestra dressed in tails is theatre. It may be a very formalized, uniform spectacle, but it is theatre nonetheless. We are never anonymous, all is seen, registered, part of the audience’s experience. This doesn’t mean that we all need to look fashionable and Instagrammable on stage. Different situations call for different visual messages, but also different behaviours. Are we relaxed on stage, are we very concentrated? Is there a distance between the performer and the audience, or do we try to keep this distance as small as possible?
Addressing the audience directly is often still considered as something that “serious” music would not need and that would belittle the grandness of the art. I once conducted a very complex and disturbing Birtwistle piece in an afternoon concert that was freely accessible to whoever wanted to attend. It was a situation where you could easily scare off uninformed audiences with the “harsh” sounds of new music. But I absolutely loved the piece and I really wanted to open some doors to the listeners, to invite them into this world – a world that I had been exploring for months and they had to grasp in 20 minutes! I had to beg the organizers again and again before they allowed me to address a few very simple words to the audience. This fear of contact needs to go.
We must never forget the strength of a live performance. I started my journey as a conductor with the Dutch Ricciotti Ensemble. This is a student orchestra, formed amidst the unrest of the wild Seventies in Amsterdam, with the socialist motto of bringing music to the people: “Music for everyone, everywhere.” The orchestra still exists, playing in public squares, in hospitals, in schools. I am proud to say that I have been inside most prisons in The Netherlands and in many abroad. In one of those prisons, a women’s prison, I vividly remember playing the second movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The atmosphere was tense, and the women didn’t really know how to relate to us. But after we finished the symphony, the atmosphere had changed. And in the silence that followed the music, in that moment before I dropped the tension, a woman right behind me sighed and said quietly: “This is life.” I will be grateful for this moment forever. It was one of those rare occasions when you get a completely honest feedback on what you have just done, on that weird stage. I was made aware of the power of a group of people, in joint concentration, managing to create something together with the audience (yes, we need the audience to do this!) that actually, however briefly, changed someone’s life.
The present time is a very exciting one. In music, we are amidst an ocean of possibilities and developments. On stage our presence can be at once more theatrical and more informal than has ever been possible. It is all wonderfully confusing. Inside this multi-facetted reality, our task as musician-performers is to take in the vast possibilities of all those various kinds of music around us, to sharpen our love and to find the best way to attest to what we love. Composers can be “monogamous” in their love, in their choices. But performing musicians and programmers need to be polyamorous and versatile. We need to develop ways of dealing with that complexity and to share these loves with the audience, in the hope that some of our own bewilderment and fascination will transfer to them. Every step we take in that direction is one that makes the world more complete, more understanding, better.
Bas Wiegers, 2018
The Israeli composer and conductor Noam Sheriff shaped the music life of Israel more than almost any other person. He died on 25th August at the age of 83. Shortly before the burial in Tel Aviv, the conductor Steven Sloane spoke to Karsten Witt about his memories of the great artist and mentor to following generations of Israeli conductors for many decades.
Karsten Witt: Steven, you have been closely connected to Noam Sheriff for a long time. When exactly did you first meet?
Steven Sloane: I knew him almost from the first moment I arrived in Israel in November 1981. I was asked by the Tel Aviv conservatory to form a youth choir, and shortly after that I was asked by the city of Tel Aviv to form a youth orchestra. Noam, who was on the board of directors of the conservatory, came to my very first rehearsal. From that day on, he has been close, like a mentor, even like a father, like a brother. It is a loss of course foremost for his family, his wife Ella – and it feels like the end of an era that Noam has symbolized, thinking about what he meant to the musical community. There has not really been anybody like him.
He was born in 1935, which means that when Israel was founded he was 13. He returned to Israel after having studied in Berlin…
He was a composition student of Boris Blacher. When he came back to Israel, he together with Gary Bertini and other very important musicians really made the musical scene in Israel during the 50s and the decades to follow.
You have very often performed his compositions, including important works like Akeda, Revival of the Dead or the Sephardic Passion. For somebody who just hears this music, it is quite unique in a sense that you understand intuitively that this is Israeli music. Can you explain what makes his music so important for Israel?
Noam is, if not the last, one of the last composers that represent the so-called “Mediterranean style”. Just imagine the mass immigration of Jews from two different cultures, from the Ashkenazic culture and the Sephardic culture, in the 30s and 40s and post war… There was a conscious effort to create a new Israeli style which was based on the synthesis of these two traditions. So you have European instruments, you have the orchestra, which is a western tradition, combined with motives and different scales and harmonies that relate to the Sephardic tradition, the Arab and Spanish line. We talk about Paul Ben-Haim, who was his teacher, Mordecai Seter, Ödön Pártos and a variety of other composers. In many of Noam Sheriff’s compositions, you hear this search for a new Israeli style – sometimes through the use of Arabic instruments like the oud, or singers that would sing in languages such as Ladino or Arabic or Ivrit, in a completely different vocal style then we would know from western cultures. But, on the other hand, of course Noam’s knowledge of and connection to western music is the root of his work – he is a European composer. He was fascinated with the early 20th century, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, also Strauss, and this is reflected in his music. The other thing that defines Noam’s music was his absolute mastery of orchestration, his knowledge of the colours, possibilities, and understanding of what orchestral instruments can do, like really no other Israeli composer in history.
A knowledge that he of course shared in his work with orchestras as well.
It was most interesting to see him work with orchestras, how much he was able to teach orchestras about what music meant, and in particular the pieces he was working on. Later in his life, because of his vision, it became harder for him to get around and also to work on pieces. But I remember the last time he came to conduct in Bochum: He did Verklärte Nacht of Schoenberg, and he memorized the whole score, every note, every rehearsal number, so even though he could barely see, he was able to conduct with full capacities.
Was he still able to compose during the last years of his life?
He still had plans for new works. Just recently he wrote a short piece called Lenny which is like a collage, a rather humorous look at what Leonard Bernstein wrote. I’ll be conducting that in Bochum and later in San Diego at concerts dedicated to Leonard Bernstein who was a very close colleague and friend to Noam Sheriff. He died on Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday.
Thank you for sharing some of your memories with us – it is very touching to hear what Noam Sheriff meant to you and many others.
What was amazing about Noam was his tireless optimism and unending curiosity. Even recently, we were having a heated discussion about Mahler’s 4th symphony. He lived for music, and he was someone with such love of humanity and positive energies. He has been the most important conducting teacher also to all of the conductors that have come out of Israel. You can see this on the comments that people are making in social media: one Israeli conductor after the other is writing long homage letters and statements, saying how much Noam meant to them personally as musicians. There is a word in Hebrew called “nedivut” which means someone who gives unconditionally. And that was Noam. Noam was constantly helping people whenever he could.
Interview: Karsten Witt
Steven Sloane conducts works by Noam Sheriff:
27, 28 and 29/9/2018, 20:00
Anneliese Brost Musikforum Ruhr
16 and 17/11/2018, 20:00
San Diego Symphony
Copley Symphony Hall, San Diego
Mechaye Hametim / Revival of the Dead
Concert for the Nations, Memorial of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht
Symphony Orchester of the UdK Berlin
Konzertsaal der UdK Berlin
„I get very nervous when I am making records (...) when the stage is set for the final recording and I realise that this will remain for good, my hands get tense.“ No, this isn’t Claire Huangci, who recently recorded Sergei Rachmaninov’s complete piano preludes for Berlin Classics, but rather the Russian composer himself who admitted to nerves. One of the greatest pianists of his time, Rachmaninov made landmark recordings of both his own works and music by other composers, but always had a certain mistrust of sound recordings.Nearly a hundred years later, committing any works to disc still presents its own exciting challenges. This is especially true in the case of the preludes, which are not only technically difficult, but since many of the individual works are relatively unknown, the whole cycle has been rarely recorded in its entirety. Claire Huangci confirms this: “There are a couple of favourites which everybody knows, and everybody plays. These few preludes, which Rachmaninov recorded himself, overshadow the rest of the cycle. I find this a great pity – for me, there isn’t a single prelude that is a little sub-par. Every piece is simply so unique and a small masterpiece in its own right.”
Rachmaninov’s cycle was therefore a natural choice for her fourth recording, which will be released in summer 2018. “I always choose my repertoire very carefully,” she explains. “Normally they are pieces that I haven’t played many times in concert, and that I have a very personal interest in. I want to put my own stamp on the music, something I can say different from the others. I am very aware of how big the CD market is right now for piano repertoire. Everything has already been recorded numerous times, so you have to be really careful to not release a CD that is just one of thousands of recordings on the market.”
So far, this strategy seems to have worked well for the pianist. Following her debut CD featuring solo works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, she recorded a selection of Scarlatti’s sonatas in 2015. Here, she illustrated Scarlatti’s transitional role in music history by mixing sonatas which are in Baroque suite form with others which look ahead to the classical sonata. This musical concept was a great success, receiving the German Record Critics’ Award and selected as “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone magazine. Her 2017 recording of the Chopin Nocturnes was also highly praised, with the Süddeutsche Zeitung writing; “Do we need another recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes? Not really! But when one hears this brand new double-CD from Claire Huangci, the answer is yes!”
However, finding a formula for success isn’t so simple, and studio sessions always present new challenges: “recording the Chopin Nocturnes was very exhausting, but in a completely different way to the Preludes,” comments the pianist. “The Nocturnes are not really physically demanding, but the challenge is rather finding the perfect mood and perfect sound for each piece. You have to record everything in very long takes because in a slow piece, every small tempo change is noticeable.”
Chopin’s music has been with the pianist for a long time – as a young artist she won 1st Prize at the International Chopin Competition in Darmstadt in 2009 and the top award at the Chopin Competition in Miami in 2010 – but it took a while until she mastered Rachmaninov’s music. “The Preludes were somehow too far away. I couldn’t play them for a long time. I’ve already played all the Chopin Etudes and the Liszt Etudes – both of them present special challenges of course, none of them are easy – but to make Rachmaninov’s music work for me was the biggest physical challenge that I’ve encountered” – logistically speaking, the pieces pose particular problems for the small-framed pianist. “Rachmaninov had a huge hand-span – his hands could reach the interval of a 14th, which is incredible. I have extremely small hands for a pianist, so although he doesn’t go beyond a normal hand-span in his writing for piano, I had to find my own way of placing my hands, playing notes with different hands. I wouldn’t find it acceptable to leave out or replace notes.”
As well as getting to grips with the pieces’ technical challenges, the pianist immersed herself in Rachmaninov’s musical world whilst developing her interpretation. “I listened to quite a few recordings, but I tried to keep my distance whilst I was in the process of learning the music, because you don’t want your own interpretation to become too influenced. I would say that there are a handful of very good reference recordings of Rachmaninov’s music, most of them by Russian pianists, including the composer himself. These are benchmarks; I listened to them, appreciated different parts and came up with my own interpretation.” However, she doesn’t consciously try and make her interpretations stand out from others: “I don’t have to try and be different and new. Rather, I know my interpretations will be quite different just because of my background and heritage and the fact that I’m not Russian.”
Reading Rachmaninov’s memoirs, written by the musicologist Oskar von Riesemann based on his conversations with the composer, also helped her understand his musical world. But above all, it was her experience playing and listening to other works by Rachmaninov which oriented her interpretations. “I’ve now played all of his piano concertos, and whilst I haven’t performed his sonatas in concert, I have learned quite a few of his Etudes Tableaux and other short pieces, as well as having sight-read his two piano suites with some friends of mine. So I have quite a good knowledge of his other pieces for piano as well as his orchestral works,” she says, explaining that “Rachmaninov associated different moods and sound textures with every single key. When you know his works, you notice that when he composes in D minor or B minor, for example, he always conjures up this certain atmosphere, which is very interesting.”
With this new CD in the bag, Claire Huangci hopes she can play Rachmaninov’s solo piano works more often in concert – she gave a preview of this in July at a solo recital at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, where she integrated a selection of the Preludes into her programme. Her next CD project will go in a completely different direction: in January 2019 she will record a chamber music CD. “When I was young I always believed that to be a successful pianist meant playing solo all the time. I very quickly realised how wrong I was,” she explains. “When I came to Germany, I had the opportunity to meet young musicians my age, forge friendships with them and play together for fun. Then I realised how playing together, experimenting, discovering and developing interpretations together can change your perspective.”
“I am someone who likes to keep things fresh, so I love to keep playing different repertoire,” continues the pianist, who has just won 1st Prize at the Concours Géza Anda. Following this success, she is making a series of summer appearances – both chamber music performances and solo recitals – and will return to perform with orchestras again at the beginning of the new season. Although she has developed a great deal as a musician in the meantime, she is still profiting from her old life as a “child prodigy”: “I learned a lot of repertoire when I was quite young, so when I have to do something new, at least I have a head start.”
On 1 July a world premiere at the Opera Stuttgart is hoping to be ground-breaking in the true sense of the world: Toshio Hosokawa’s Erdbeben. Träume (“Earthquake. Dreams”) is based on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella The Earthquake in Chile. Marcel Beyer, winner of the Kleist Prize in 2014 and Büchner Prize in 2016, transforms this parable about the instability of humanity in the face of threatening situations into a libretto in which the corruptibility of the masses also plays an important role. This inspired Toshio Hosokawa to create a leading role for the Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, nine-time winners of the “Opera Choir of the Year”. Intendant Jossi Wieler will bring Toshio Hosokawa’s work to the stage with director Sergio Morabito and stage design by Anna Viebrock, and with this production bids farewell to the city, as too does long-standing music director Sylvain Cambreling, who leads the premiere on the eve of his 70th birthday.
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima gave a new dimension to the composer’s work with the text, which itself was written about a natural catastrophe in 1647, as documented in a film of the production team’s trip to the disaster zone. Toshio Hosokawa’s 2016 opera Stilles Meer was his own reaction to these events, which was revived in Hamburg this year.
The composer has often referred back to material from Noh theatre, for example in his earlier operas Hanjo (2004) and Matsukaze (2011). This new opera is also connected to this tradition, although not immediately obvious in the Stuttgart production, as Toshio Hosokawa explains in this text.
In Noh theatres there is narrow bridge-like structure called a Hashigakari, which Noh performers pass through to get to the main stage. Many Noh stories are out-of-the-ordinary “dream stories”, where the main actor (Shite) acts as a ghost, passing through this “bridge” to get to the stage. There, the main actor (Shite) narrates, sings and dances about the sorrow or regrets they experienced whilst they were alive. The other performer takes the role of a priest, who listens to this story, and thus the ghost is freed from its deep-rooted trauma, and it can return to the other world, once again passing through the “bridge”.
This basic structure of Noh, where the character travels back and forth between the worlds of reality and the out-of-the-ordinary, is the kind of opera experience I am looking to create. In other words, by experiencing an extraordinary story, in this case opera, the audience can have a deep experience through sounds and visuals that is separate from their daily lives. Like the Hashigakari, music is an aural bridge connecting this world and the next; dreams and reality. My mission as a composer is to create a bridge of sound connecting dreams and reality: a Hashigakari of sound.con conncting ccc
The libretto of Erdbeben. Träume by Marcel Beyer is based on the classic masterwork, The Earthquake in Chile by Kleist, about a child whose parents were massacred and was brought up by other parents, and who goes on a journey to find his real parents. The child asks himself, “Where are my real parents,” and “who am I?” The libretto suggests the child is suffering from a developmental speech disorder. The opera Erdbeben. Träume is an aural and visual journey, and also presents the child’s initiation rite, in which the child prepares to become an adult through finding out where he came from. This journey is not safe by any means, with the threat of danger from the natural world (earthquakes and tsunamis) as well as from humans. On the other hand, there is his parent’s love story and human solidarity. The journey shows the human capacity for mass violence and the ferocity of nature, but also the grace of nature.
My method of composing has always been to listen to a certain sound deeply, go into that sound, and listen to its inner sounds. In this opera, you can follow the development of these inner sounds, which creates a tunnel of sound that displays kaleidoscope-like aspects through its constant transformation. In this tunnel, however, there are monsters as well as chasms of silence. Various voices resonate, and the chorus expresses the world of the unconscious. I want the audience to join in this aural initiation rite, go through this tunnel of sound with this child who cannot speak – as well as crossing over the Hashigakari of sound, where characters pass between dreams and reality.
1/7/2018, 19:30 (World Premiere)
6 & 11/7/2018, 19:00
13, 18 & 23/7/2018, 19:30
Antje Weithaas’ latest escapade is just a little bit crazy; in May with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra she will perform three violin concertos by Bruch, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. The violinist is attempting this “solo triple” for the first time, but such a mentally and physically ambitious undertaking is nothing new to her. “I very often do very challenging projects, like playing the complete Bach for Violin solo in one concert, or leading entire Chamber Orchestra programs including a solo concerto without conductor,” she explains. Also challenging is the fact that this trip to Japan falls at the end of a residency in Schwetzingen, where she presents chamber music, solo works and leads the Camerata Bern.
The only role she is not fulfilling in Schwetzingen is as a soloist with a large orchestra – something she more than makes up for in Tokyo. Antje Weithaas explains what the three different works mean to her: “the Bruch Concerto is an archetypical German romantic concerto, filled with a lot of emotional intensity and human warmth, but without superficial virtuosity and cheap sentimentality. Mendelssohn, in my opinion, is still one of the most underrated composers. Luckily his second violin concerto is performed regularly around the world. It processes all the qualities of his finest musicianship: burning fire underneath, beauty, charm, elegance, wit... all these combined with masterful use of counterpoint and orchestration.”
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has a special significance for the violinist at the moment; “in my opinion this concerto is very often performed with too much muscle and too much emphasis upon the virtuosic element, lacking in elegance and deep longing.” She first put her own reading of the concerto on record in a highly praised release with the Camerata Bern. “I wanted to coax the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto out of the corner of virtuoso tradition it has occupied until now,” she says about this recording. “I had played the Tchaikovsky Concerto a lot as a student, but had not returned to it for over ten years. We all found it thrilling to challenge and question our previous experience with this piece, both as performers and as listeners, and to tackle it as if it was new to us.” The success of this is borne out by its critical reception; “Antje Weithaas’ interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is the revival of a repertoire piece that has been practically played to death,” commented Deutschlandfunk Kultur, for example.
Concerts with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra under Yukari Saito
Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall
Niigata City Performing Arts Center
Congratulations to Sini Simonen, Daniel Roberts, Charlotte Bonneton and Christopher Graves: the four young members of the London-based Castalian String Quartet have won the first Merito String Quartet Award and the Valentin Erben Prize, which will be awarded to them on 23 April at the Vienna Konzerthaus. “It was impressive, how clear the decision was for the Castalian String Quartet,” commented the award’s founders, Wolfgang Habermayer and Valentin Erben. The decisive factor for the jury, who anonymously observed the quartet over a long period, was the quartet’s outstanding instrumental abilities and impressive interpretation. The Castalian String Quartet has previously received acclaim at competitions in Lyon, Banff and Hannover. The musicians introduce themselves in the following video:
More information about the Merito String Quartet Award and Valentin Erben Prize here.
An outstanding soloist, chamber musician, pedagogue, artistic director and essayist – and in all these things a musical bridge-builder and partner to musicians, composers and artists alike from various fields: Anssi Karttunen forges his own path. His journey started in Finland at a very special time. “I was born into a lucky generation,” he explains. “This was a time when the windows to the world were more open than before and perhaps even more so than later on. There were many like-minded people my own age who were interested in being more than just one thing; the cellist, the pianist or the conductor. We saw that being a musician can mean many things.” This lucky generation includes Anssi Karttunen’s contemporaries Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, with whom he started his voyage of discovery.
“It felt absolutely natural to start playing the music that my friends were writing” – so he describes his first encounter with new music. Even after giving the world premiere of over 160 new works, things have hardly changed – the cellist counts many of the composers whose works he premieres as personal friends, brought together by repeated collaborations. In every piece, he finds a whole new world. “The fact I’ve played many new pieces is of no importance in itself. It is rather the continuation that is important, that every year I still make sure I play some composer or style of music I haven’t played before.” This is not merely completism, rather a symptom of an insatiable curiousness. “We all have our tastes, our limits. I don’t pretend I’m more open-minded than anybody else. I just try not to close doors before I’ve seen the room behind. All of my experiments with different repertoires are part of who I am today.”
Anssi Karttunen’s search for uncharted territories has led to unusual projects such as the trio Tres Coyotes with Magnus Lindberg and Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones, as well as many new works. On his current schedule are works by Thierry Pécou and Benoît Mernier, which he will bring to life at the Festival Présences in Paris; an afternoon meeting with Betsy Jolas about her new cello concerto; and a long list of upcoming premieres. Yet this adventurousness doesn’t just apply to new music. “Recently I have been revisiting repertoire that I have been playing for over 30 years – for example, the Schumann and Dvorak concertos – to try and completely re-learn the vocabulary that I have maybe taken for granted. Without old prejudices, these pieces appear fresh and new once again.” He constantly widens his perspective through collaboration with people that fascinate and challenge him musically. “One of the things I am developing at the moment, influenced by meeting John Paul Jones, is an electric cello program featuring improvisation and electronics. After I’ve been working on that for a few hours, when I turn to my other music stand and look at the Bach suites or the Brahms sonatas I’ve been playing with Nicolas Hodges, I find something completely new.”
He met John-Paul Jones – a genre-defining and boundary-breaking musician from a totally different musical world – coincidentally in a hotel bar. “After a few minutes of talking to each other, we knew we needed to do something together. We knew it wasn’t going to be simple, because we first had to invent a whole new musical world. But there’s nothing more fascinating than that.” His interdisciplinary encounters with other artists present similar challenges. “When I meet a pianist, for example, we have lots of sonatas to play together. But when I met choreographer Diana Theocharidis we realized that nothing existed for us to work together on, so we had to create it. This process has now lasted 15 years. Every time we finish one project, we are already talking about the next one.”
Giving the world premiere of a major new work must be simply another day at the office for a musical adventurer such as Anssi Karttunen. His coming performance of Oliver Knussen’s new cello concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, can be seen as a reunion of close friends and an orchestra with whom he has already performed a wide variety of repertoire. Not quite so simple, says the cellist: “the moment we sit down for the first rehearsal of a new piece, we are all in a completely new situation.” Anssi Karttunen is fascinated by this first step in bringing a new work to life. “Just a short while ago in Porto, in the first rehearsal of my very close friend Pascal Dusapin’s second concerto, I was in this moment which is simultaneously luxurious and scary. You are completely naked but at the same time you feel completely safe, because you are working with people that you love. In these exciting moments these two extremes come together.” This experience is not limited to new works, evidenced by the first time he collaborated with Brad Lubman, performing Schumann’s cello concerto in Porto. “When we came together we realised we both had the same kind of fascination for this piece. Putting it together was really like playing a new piece: everybody knew every note, but still everything seemed new.”
This dialogue between the familiar and the new is also present in the cellist’s transcriptions, which he works on in intensive phases. “I am not a musicologist, so the best way of getting into a piece is to work with it. If I transcribe Brahms’s Handel Variations, for example, I do it partly in order to play it with my string trio, but also to understand Brahms’s mind, to learn about the piece and about how a composer transforms his ideas for each instrument.” Another way in which he breathes new life into his repertoire is through the special attention he pays to forgotten works. “This comes from the old stereotype that the cello is an instrument with a small repertoire” – a cliché belied by Anssi Karttunen’s extensive repertoire list. “The cello has a huge amount of repertoire, just like any other instrument, most of which is forgotten or ignored, because the way world works is that the famous standard pieces are the ones everybody wants to hear. One of our big responsibilities as performers is of course to take our instrument further with new pieces, but also to give all the pieces that have already been written a chance.”
Anssi Karttunen’s all-encompassing view of what music means in our lives and what the role of a musician can be has been honed by his work behind the scenes: as Artistic Director of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, the Suvisoitto Festival in Provoo, the Helsinki Biennale and the Musica Nova Festival Helsinki. “When I first started as an Artistic Director, I had no idea how much it would influence my own work. Now I can’t imagine not having had this experience. I keep telling musicians to seek out an opportunity to learn everything involved in putting on a concert. A concert is not just about the soloist – their career, interpretation and success – but rather about so many different things. Every decision you make affects the whole experience.” Much like in his music making, he takes this work as an open field for inventiveness. “You can deal with the realities and partners and still remain creative. Haydn had to write 126 baritone trios for Count Esterhazy, but made it into a creative process. There are many musicians throughout history who have done creative things in surprising conditions. You must not play down to an audience. I hate those who fall into the trap of trying to imagine what the least interested listeners would be comfortable with. We have to challenge ourselves to constantly push the limits a little bit and to do things that are so artistically exciting that people just can’t stay away.”
His approach to passing on his wealth of experience to young musicians is just as creative. The difficulties he has had with big institutions since a young age have provided the impetus for a different way of teaching. “I wanted to learn but wasn’t interested in exams, so I left the Sibelius Academy without graduating, and studied privately with people I was interested in. I was so curious about what was happening around me that I never wanted to stop studying and learning, and this attitude still keeps me going today. I am interested in sharing ideas and continuing this circle of learning that I have been a part of.” Excluding masterclasses, he long avoided teaching at the main music conservatoires. “For the last four years I have been teaching in the only private conservatory in Paris, the Ecole Normale de Musique, as I was looking for less institutional environments.” Given the choice between committing time to students or working with composers, he used to favour the latter, before he found a way of combining both. His vision of a freely structured and self-determined learning environment with an emphasis on artistic encounters is something he has been developing since 2008 within the workshop series Creative Dialogue, presented in co-operation with the Sibelius Academy. Here, young composers meet young performers to work on their own music, supported by Anssi Karttunen and other high-profile musicians and composers. “I tried to re-create the kind of environment that I myself found to be most creative: jumping into a real life situation where you can ask any question you want. In order to really learn, we have to become our own teachers. It is only through personal discovery that you can really profoundly move ahead.” For most participants, this is a wholly new experience. “They find themselves in the situation I was in Finland with my friends Magnus, Kaija, Esa-Pekka and others. We just started learning from each other. Everything was allowed and nobody ever said anything was impossible. This is in fact what music has always been about, what happened when the young Brahms or Beethoven met their colleagues. This is how artistic creation really moves forward.”
Nina Rohlfs, translated Sam Johnstone
The story of Livre pour quatuor begins in 1948. Originally planned as a six movement work, Pierre Boulez never finished the fourth movement. The composer wrestled with the quartet, creating various drafts – a process which took a long time. At the same time he was also working on other pieces and had no time to prepare the string quartet to be typeset, let alone get it ready for performance. In 1955 movements Ia, Ib and II were premiered in Donaueschingen by the Marschner Quartet. On the composer’s 60th birthday in 1985 the Arditti Quartet performed all the published movements together for the first time. The completion of Livre is a project that Irvine Arditti has been pursuing for years, and now reaches a successful conclusion with the help of Philippe Manoury and Jean-Louis Leleu. Here, Philippe Manoury explains his work as a musical reconstructor, a story that includes significant challenges, a good deal of detective work, and a stolen suitcase.
It all started with a phone call from Irvine Arditti asking if I would agree to complete the fourth movement of Livre pour quatuor, composed by Pierre Boulez in 1948/49. He had asked Daniel Barenboim for a premiere at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. I replied that I needed to study the question closely, not knowing the scale of the work and what aesthetic responsibility would fall on me if I took it on. I suspected that if Boulez had abandoned the project, he must have had good reasons. Reconstructing the train of thought that had brought him to where he was when he retired was not an easy task.
At first I had access to a score, written in ink and impressive for the density of its writing. On large pages, Boulez had elaborated a first draft that consisted of compact blocks: dense and unedited raw material like mineral. The cumulative effect of the various elements jostling for space reminded me of paintings by Jackson Pollock, or even Gerhard Richter. Irvine Arditti had warned me that there were no tempo markings, phrasing or other such nuances, but rather only pitches and rhythms – which in any case were practically unplayable. It was clear that I first had to solve this problem before completing what was missing in the score. This quartet was contemporary with the Second Piano Sonata, which I know quite well, and I detected here and there some similarities between the two works. However, knowing Boulez’s penchant for complex musical reasoning, I realised I would have to examine various sources in order to understand how he had arrived at this stage. One question kept coming back to me: how can you write so much music without giving the slightest indication of expression, whether it be tempo or dynamics, or whether to diminuendo or accelerando? This unanswered question led to the realisation that, this time, my intuition would not be a great help. Despite all this, or because of its very complexity, the project intrigued me. I phoned Irvine Arditti to tell him that I accepted the challenge.
I then consulted Robert Piencikowski, an excellent Boulez specialist, who worked for a long time at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, where the composer’s drafts and manuscripts are kept. He advised me to contact the musicologist Jean-Louis Leleu, who had already conducted a very thorough study of Livre and had just published a book that contained the information I was looking for. As my discussions with Jean-Louis Leleu progressed, it became clear that the task that lay ahead was even more complex than I had imagined. This fourth movement – which was now starting to become clearer – was built out of the rubble of the other movements of the quartet. I therefore had to first explore the other movements in order to grasp its meaning. To give an example: one passage comes from the end of the first movement, but with the rhythms reversed and the instrumental parts inverted. It was increasingly clear that in his compositional method Boulez at this time was using similar techniques to electronic musicians working with tape. Indeed, Boulez would soon make a tempestuous visit to Pierre Schaeffer’s Experimental Club, where tapes were cut up and stuck back together again in a different order. He left the club in a rage, slamming the door and calling it a "flea market for sounds." Nevertheless, there is a convergence, not in practice, but in theory, between the methods used by Boulez and these tape-editing techniques. This was also the reason why the score was unplayable.
Step by step, I struggled through this musical jungle and began the work of reconstruction, helped along by the knowledge that Jean-Louis Leleu shared with me, and without which I couldn’t have completed this work in such a short space of time. I had completed about a third of this rewrite when, during a train journey, my suitcase was stolen with my manuscript inside. I was devastated. Nearly two months of work had been lost. I had to find a solution to recreate what had been stolen. Among all the possibilities I considered, to my great surprise, one of them contained THE solution. I had to consult all the sketches for the movement! I knew from Jean-Louis Leleu that there was a score that Boulez had started writing in order to make this movement playable. I decided to spend a day at the Sacher Foundation studying the drafts and manuscripts of the movement. I was shown everything that existed and, to my great joy, I finally set eyes on the score I was looking for, laid out but unfortunately incomplete! Boulez had actually already begun to do the work I had started (according to Jean-Louis Leleu, perhaps as early as 1951) and, ironically, he had stopped at pretty much the exact point I had when my manuscript was stolen! Therefore I was able to start from where Boulez had left off and finish this first task.
The question of tempi, dynamics and phrasing was still unresolved. I suggested to Jean-Louis Leleu that he set the tempi, because he knew the source for each part of the movement and could suggest the tempo for each part accordingly. I then completed the dynamics with the aim of creating polyphonic clarity, in order to differentiate the various musical layers from each other. In the end, my intuition did find its way into the piece; but in music, it is impossible to proceed by logical deduction alone.
Has this reconstruction turned out the way Boulez would have wanted? I remember a comment he made to me about Friedrich Cerha's orchestration of Alban Berg's third act of Lulu, an orchestration he considered at times too respectful of the sources. Having known Pierre Boulez well, I can only hope that he would have appreciated the ways in which I disrespected him!
Philippe Manoury, March 2018
Having just appeared at the Ultraschall Festival in Berlin performing brand new music - Georg Friedrich Haas’ Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra - Mike Svoboda is a musical innovator and artistic partner to many composers. Now, the American-born trombonist, based in Europe for many years, has taken a look into his musical past for VAN Magazine. His playlist collects recordings by his musical heroes from his formative years – from the jazz albums that defined his idea of the perfect trombone sound, through late romantic orchestral repertoire, up to the equally extraordinary avant-gardists Ornette Coleman and Pierre Boulez, as well as the pioneer of just intonation, Harry Partch.
Just a matter of months after her celebrated opera Infinite Now, which was recently awarded Premiere of the Year by Opernwelt Magazine, a brand new work by Chaya Czernowin is being brought into the world. The cello concerto Guardian was performed in the closing concert of the Donaueschingen Festival on 22 October by the SWR Symphony Orchestra with soloist Séverine Ballon, who will give the work's Luxembourgian premiere on 17 November. But what does the name tell us about the piece? Does it refer to the British newspaper, or rather call to mind protecting angels? The composer laughs at these suggestions, explaining: “Sometimes names are just a source of inspiration. It might be the sound or an association that helps colour what you are doing.”
“In this case it’s a kind of request. I wrote Guardian after I finished Infinite Now, as a result of it. Although there is some hope at the end, Infinite Now turned out darker than I expected. In my mind, Guardian is a request for some power to guard us, a non-religious prayer.” The cello concerto is therefore a reaction to her opera, a piece in which she explored the elongation of time in the face of catastrophe from multiple perspectives, using various sources. Infinite Now was based on a story by the Chinese author Can Xue as well as Luk Perceval’s drama Front, itself based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
The spectre of her opera may have loomed over the writing process, but the concerto presents particular challenges of its own. “It appears to be a traditional piece in the sense there is a solo cello following what could be considered an introduction, and there is a cadenza at the end,” explains the composer. “But this is misleading. For example, the ‘cadenza’ is not an improvisatory and virtuosic summation of what has already been said, but rather a new place in the piece where the despair becomes transparent. This quasi-cadenza doesn’t end with a coda, but rather the whole orchestra crashes in all at once – and then the piece suddenly stops, as if in the middle of a jam. Even though the score seems to fulfil the formal conditions of a concerto, it actually transforms them.”
The composer’s artistic partner in this transformation process is Séverine Ballon, who she has known since around 2008, when the cellist took one of the solo parts in her opera Pnima which was premiered to great acclaim at the Münchener Biennale in 2000. “I know her playing and her personality extremely well, meaning I could write this piece inspired by who she is and how she approaches the instrument,” explains the composer. “The people I write for usually bring with them a very individual approach to their instrument, almost as if it is a part of their character. I address this when I write.”
Chaya Czernowin often extolls the importance of such artistic encounters and collaborations. She worked closely with author Can Xue during the composing of Infinite Now. “It is not only about personal experience. I think that every creative person who is open and hungry for experience is inspired by many people and things. For example, I don’t know how many times I’ve photographed the stairs that lead to my house. Because the stairs are very damp, there is something green growing on them, which has a very special hue…”
Perhaps this special hue inspires sound. Chaya Czernowin often uses such sensory experiences in the form of synesthetic associations as the source material for her music. When speaking about music, she expresses herself in rich metaphors. “This is what happens when your motivation to write is not about mastering the virtuosity of authorship,” she offers as an explanation. “I would like to be a master of what I do, but for me it is much more important to discover things I don’t know, and to bring into the world situations or audible impressions through which people can experience things that touch them inside. A metaphor is, for me, a very meaningful and helpful instrument in order to get to this place.”
If she uses all kinds of metaphors when speaking about music, she is comparatively restrained when talking about her musical influences and the aesthetic orientation of her works. “It’s the same when people ask me about being a woman composer, being Jewish, or about being Israeli,” she expands. “I am someone who looks to the future. I looked very closely at my parents’ house in my opera Pnima and when I was working with stretching identities. This is something I dealt with very extensively in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s – creating fluctuations or a continuum between different possible identities; for example, the identities of a piece or of an instrument. But now my concerns have changed completely – although, everything I learned is still there. My centre of gravity is not where I have come from, but rather where I am going, and what I want to become. Change is so meaningful for me.”
Just as her artistic interests are always changing, Chaya Czernowin’s place of residence is also always on the move. Her artistic development could therefore be explained in terms of her geographical location, starting with her childhood in Israel, where her musical mentors quickly realised her extraordinary talent. “For me, music was home from the very beginning. I always thought: How could this even be hard? I have perfect pitch, so I could hear everything, all the pitches in huge clusters. But I was not a performer.” Instead of preparing for a career as a concert pianist, as her teachers had hoped, she chose a different path. “When I was 14 to 17, we would have 20 guys over my house at weekends with guitars and drums. I played in a piano bar for years, and we had this progressive rock group. The moment I started writing songs, everything seemed to fall into place. But the music became stranger and stranger and people said: Chaya, this isn’t pop music any more, you have to go and study. Have you heard of Webern?”
For Chaya Czernowin, studying also meant travelling. As a DAAD scholar in Germany she was taught by Dieter Schnebel, and she followed her studies in New York and San Diego with a period of intensive travel. Even if she maintains a focus on the creative here and now, she recognizes the influences she accrued on this artistic journey. “Of course, nobody grows in an empty space. I always say that I have contradictory influences, for example Gagaku (Japanese court music) and free improvisation; Scelsi and Feldman; or Lachenmann and Ferneyhough. But if I was asked to place myself in a lineage, I would say: Ockeghem, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Scarlatti, Schumann and late Beethoven – people who disagreed with the conventions of their time, working against the past and towards the future. You can see that friction in their work.”
The thought arises that her current place of residence – after professorships in San Diego and Vienna, she has taught at Harvard since 2009 – suits her well artistically. Her eclectic influences and her focus on experience and constant development connect her with American artists of various disciplines. Chaya Czernowin agrees, with a caveat: “I am always looking for friction, and for me this isn’t a very American notion. It is more connected to European dialectical thought. Perhaps I am sort of a strange traveller in the sense that I try to discover the unseen continuum in every dialectic.” Pure dialectic in its basic form is outdated, she says; “With our technology and the capacity for high resolution, we can look beyond the surface to discover how things are connected in very minute ways.”
Her view of these subtle connections, as if seen through a hi-resolution lens, will also surely make its way into the large music theatre piece she is currently working on. “The new opera will be like going home: home to intimacy and the psychological realm. Infinite Now is so huge; it is really my view on the world. The opera I am working on now returns to a very personal voice.”
Nina Rohlfs, 10/2017. Translation, Sam Johnstone
Guardian (2017) for cello and orchestra
Commissioned by the Südwestrundfunk, Philharmonie Luxembourg and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg.
Séverine Ballon (cello), SWR Symphony Orchestra, Pablo Rus Broseta (conductor)
Donaueschingen, Baarsporthalle, 22/10/2017
Séverine Ballon (cello), Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg, Roland Kluttig (conductor)
Luxembourg, Philharmonie Luxembourg, 17/11/2017
Jan Caeyers and his orchestra, Le Concert Olympique, will make their Berlin debut on 20 November at the end of a tour that has included appearances at the deSingel in Antwerp and the Wiener Konzerthaus. Together with a trio of high-quality soloists – Till Fellner, Antje Weithaas and Maximilian Hornung, who will perform the Triple Concerto – they will present a special programme to kick off their concert series The Beethoven Experience. The title is no empty promise; these concerts will offer a unique insight into the composer’s musical universe, as Jan Caeyers explains in a video interview.
What should the audience expect at the concert on 20 November in the Philharmonie?
Jan Caeyers: We will show how, thanks to Beethoven, orchestral music radically changed between 1795 and 1810. We will begin with the Haydn’s last “London” symphony – as we know, Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher and reference point – and end with the Egmont Overture, which brings Beethoven’s “Heroic” period to a close. This is a massive leap. There are few examples in history where music changes so much within a period of 15 years. This is what we will show. With Beethoven, it is important to realise that this development came about through his piano music. Beethoven always tried out his developments on the piano first. Therefore we are placing the Triple Concerto, written roughly halfway between 1795 and 1810, at the heart of the programme, as it provides a link between the two other pieces. I will also speak a little before each piece to try and show the audience what makes each one special. No musicological lectures, but rather little upbeats to each piece, in the hope that the audience can listen with a greater understanding of what is happening on stage.
Cellist Maximilian Hornung looks forward to performing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with enthusiasm; in the following interview, he describes his triple role in the piece: “whenever I play this piece I find it an interesting combination of being a chamber musician, an orchestral player and a soloist.”
Forum am Schlosspark Ludwigsburg
Two years after its celebrated premiere, Toshio Hosokawa’s opera Stilles Meer is being revived at the Hamburg State Opera from 31 January, in the original production by Japanese director Oriza Hirata and the musical direction once again taken by Kent Nagano. The work was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences alike; NMZ magazine commented that “Hosakawa’s sounds are so finely tuned, they generate a real undertow,” whilst BR-Klassik praised “a tremendously subtle, tentative drama […] an intense interaction with moments of tension.” Stilles Meer deals with traditional subject matter from Noh theatre, brought up to date in the context of Fukushima. Toshio Hosokawa gave an interview about the opera and its relationship to the Fukushima catastrophe during a visit to Berlin at the end of 2015.
KWMM: Mr. Hosokawa, first of all a belated happy birthday! Is it an important day in Japan?
TH: Thank you! Yes, 60 is an important number: five times twelve years. Twelve years form a whole, which is why this birthday is always a big celebration.
In your new opera Stilles Meer you also familiarise us with a Japanese ritual: around the equinox when day and night are of equal length in spring and autumn, the souls of the dead are invited for a day and depart in the evening. In your opera, a German woman living in Japan wishes to take part in this ritual as she has lost her child and second husband, who is Japanese, in the tsunami. Her first husband, the child’s father, wants to convince her to return to Germany. What is the importance in the opera of the two cultures that the family moves in?
There are two literary templates behind the opera. The first comes from the noh theatre tradition: Sumidagawa is the story of a mother who has lost her child and cannot believe it. The second is taken from our classical modern era and is a good hundred years old. Maihime [The Dancing Girl] tells the story of the doomed love affair of a Japanese man in Berlin. Mori Ogai’s book about his own experiences in Germany, which was also inspired by German literature, is very well-known in Japan. In my opera it’s the other way round: a German man comes to Japan to find his lover. Engaging with the culturally different is always interesting for us.
This engagement plays a central role in your own life. You studied composition in Germany discovering Japanese culture from a distance for yourself in the process. You have subsequently drawn on noh theatre subject matter twice in your operas. Stilles Meer goes beyond the traditional subject matter, unlike Hanjo and Matsukaze, in terms of both the change in cultural perspective and the current reference to the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima. How did you personally experience these events?
My principal theme musically-speaking is being at one with nature, finding harmony with it. This intention runs through all my works. We destroyed nature in Fukushima! The natural disaster was much more terrible than anything we could have imagined. I was born in Hiroshima. Before my birth this city experienced a major catastrophe. And then Fukushima... It was a shock and I have grappled with the topic for a long time since. There’s one scene in the opera during which the people go to the sea shore with lanterns and give the lights back to the sea. This ritual reveals what we believe – the human soul comes from the sea and returns to the sea after death. But this sea isn’t clean any more. So where can we return to?
It becomes apparent in the libretto that a rupture runs through the opera: you are dealing with historical subject matter, a traditional ritual and suddenly people appear in protective clothing. Is this a new aspect in your operas?
Yes. We cannot just make “nice” operas. I myself was in Fukushima, I saw the deserted towns and cities, it was awful. It seemed to me to be… our future. The end of the world. I really saw that, I’ll never forget it. Now in Japan we want to turn a blind eye to this. But we must see what has happened.
Oriza Hirata developed the libretto, which Hannah Dübgen then refined into its final version, and he is directing the opera in Hamburg. In Japan he is well known for using colloquial language and staging realistic productions. How does this fit with opera?
Georges Delnon, the new intendant of the Hamburg State Opera, asked for this collaboration. He wanted to bring something quite different to the stage compared to what is normally shown in German opera productions nowadays. Up until now Oriza Hirata has only taken on one small opera production, Hanjo, in Hiroshima. He did a wonderful job. Furthermore, he has already used robots in other theatrical work and also uses them in my opera: only robots are allowed access to the protected area. In one scene they lead the choir, which performs in protective clothing, into this area.
With the conductor Kent Nagano, a third person with Japanese roots is involved in the production.
Kent Nagano is a marvellous conductor, I’ve worked with him several times already. He is American and is constantly looking for his identity. I know a number of people who grew up between two cultures and all of them are searching. It can be interesting – how do the cultures come together, how can you learn about foreign cultures and reshape them?
There is another cultural bridge in this piece and generally in your work: dance. Your previous noh operas Hanjo and Matsukaze were staged by well-known European choreographers, Anne Teresa de Keersmaekers and Sasha Waltz. The main female character in the new work used to be a ballet dancer, and a child who was taught by her dances for her during the ceremony by the sea, slipping momentarily into the role of the dead child. What role does dance play for you?
In noh theatre, all movements are predefined and stylised. And when I’m working on a production with choreographers, the singers move very beautifully. I need that. In Japanese dance, the dancers move very slowly, with the Earth. European ballet tries to work against gravity. These thoughts were a great source of inspiration for me. I have composed some works for imaginary dance, my inner Japanese dance music.
At the heart of the opera is a process of parting and, overall, the noh theatre tradition is about healing. How can that also happen in the opera, and what happens to the spectator?
My reason for making music is that I need healing, spiritual salvation. In my opera, this sad mother sings and experiences healing through this. The audience also experiences this spiritual healing through listening to the music. Benjamin Britten used the Sumidagawa subject matter to compose Curlew River. I think it is a very good opera but too Christian. I would like to make a Buddhist opera that is more about acceptance. Noh is the drama of the process of healing the soul and that is what my opera should also be.
And the healing here is the fact that, in another state of consciousness, we are able to perceive and accept reality?
Yes. That we see, through music, what really happened in Japan. That is the only thing that artists can do today. We cannot directly express ourselves politically. But with music, we are able to show the catastrophe and also good order.
KWMM 11/2015 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
In September Mariam Batsashvili was on concert tour in Mexico. News of the devastating earthquake on 19 September reached the pianist shortly before her first concert in Monterrey. The following personal account of her experience in Mexico is taken from a text the pianist wrote for the Keyboard Charitable Trust in London, who organised the tour.
After a very long trip I arrived in Monterrey almost at midnight and Jorge Gallegos and his lovely wife picked me up at the airport. I was way too tired to look around my room in the hotel, so I just found my bed and slept at once. The next morning when I woke up, I opened my curtains, and: wow, a beautiful big balcony with table, chairs and sunbed... I couldn’t help but run out there and I found myself standing there in front of a beautiful panorama: city, mountains, sunshine.
That was a beautiful start to my adventure in this city. I practised at Jorge’s instrument shop, with an endless choice of pianos. Later on Jorge took me to the mountains, as I am attracted to nature and high places (above sea level), and we walked there, talked about many subjects and realized how very much we have in common. The next day we went to his friend’s for lunch, a beautiful family who cooked special Mexican food (for me, a vegetarian improvisation of the original dishes) – it was so good! To be sitting there in the middle of a loving family, with Jorge and his wife, was a wonderful experience. I quickly realised that our mentalities are very close to each other in terms of humour and general understanding. I was taken everywhere by Jorge, his son, or a driver: I could not have been more cared for. I felt so much love!
On the day of the concert we were all excited. Jorge was happy with the audience attendance, I was happy to be playing for them and trying to give them some comfort with music at such a difficult time for their country. It was only a couple of hours before the concert that the tragedy caused by the earthquake happened. I always tend to present music as something close to people’s hearts, not as the job of a professional. I believe art in general is something that can help people, awaken their deepest emotions, maybe even some long forgotten feelings or experiences that are hidden somewhere in the corner of their souls. Music reaches different corners depending on what music it is, and it gets a response from the listener; sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but in any case comforted.
I was very much under the influence of the earthquake and how many people died with no idea that this was their last day. That really makes me very sad, helpless and small. I generally think that most people are not thankful for every day. They take it for granted. I am sad about this, because I think every day is a present for us. Love is something that needs to take over the world; that would help.
After the concert people came to me and hugged and thanked me, telling me they had cried. I saw their faces and thought: yes, that is exactly what I want, to see their faces full of emotions. They felt something, experienced something, and we all created something spiritual and were standing together. That is how I see myself and that is what I want my concerts to be like, always: people leaving full of thoughts of a better life, of love and kindness.
“In Stromab the whole orchestra is sent like a boat down the great river in its dazzling diversity,” says Johannes Maria Staud about his new orchestral piece, premiered this season by three leading international orchestras. The world premiere will be given in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Orchestra under Alexander Vedernikov, before the Wiener Symphoniker under Francois-Xavier Roth give the Austrian premiere a few weeks later. In January 2018, Stromab will find its American premiere in Cleveland under Franz-Welser Möst, followed by further concerts in in the US. Ahead of the upcoming premiere, Johannes Maria Staud talks about the finished score and its relationship to Algernon Blackwood’s short story The Willows, which the composer describes as “one of the most beautiful horror stories of all time”. The conversation with Dr. Frank Reinisch is published with the kind permission of his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel.
The most popular river composition, Smetana’s Moldau, is considered a perfect example of programme music, and a reason for this might be that this work seizes tensions, it addresses nature and history, and hence is by no means idyllic. However, in your work commentary you decidedly reject this overly concrete description. But then you speak about the whole orchestra being “sent like a boat down the great river in its dazzling diversity.” In what extent is the Danube shimmering through your score?
I rather had the abstraction of a big stream somewhere in the center of Europe in mind, a stream that, since time immemorial, in peace as in war, has been connecting innumerous cultures and languages from West to East; a stream whose wildness will in the end always remain untamable, despite all human intervention. I was absolutely aware of the mental associations with Smetana, but in the end, this was not really of importance for my process of composing. Yet even Smetana with his Moldau and the whole Ma Vlást cycle went far beyond the self-imposed rules of program music that had become fashionable at that time. For that, these symphonic poems are probably too visionary soundwise, their compositional abstractions too appealing.
The work has several segments that are provided with extremely vivid tempo markings. Those alone give rise to the image of a river, which in part is very hard to be travelled on. The adjective “wild” is used almost as a leitmotif, “viscous” is also of importance, the conjunction “with viscous wildness” (measure 40–46) seems almost like an oxymoron, and then again “poisonous” (measure 161–188) reads downright dangerous. But is it really the river which is meant here or is it rather the orchestra and its protagonists, with the conductor in the first place?
The dramaturgy of this work – hence the title – is allegoric for a journey down a stream in a small canoe which at times is at the mercy of the raging waters. You may see the orchestra and its conductor as an extremely experienced canoe team that masters dangerous and risky situations with creative verve and presence of mind and, plunge down the great stream as if there was no tomorrow.
Stromab was commissioned by three orchestras from Denmark, Austria and the United States and will be realized in the season 2017/18 by three different conductors, one of them being Franz Welser-Möst with whom you had been in touch previously. Only rarely does a newly composed work experience such a broad and prestigious reception. What do you expect from the three interpretations, each of them involving an intensive rehearsal phase?
I am already looking forward to cooperating with the different orchestras and conductors. And I am already anxious to learn how the readings, the approaches to interpretation differ from each other. Even if I try to accurately note down my inner sound visions as usual, I still need people who get into the spirit of my sound world and at the same time fill the journey along my imaginary stream with individual life. I am often surprised myself of hidden details that are brought to shine in different interpretations.
On the other hand, Stromab is a work associated with the opera Die Weiden (The Willows), which will be premiered in the Vienna State Opera in December 2018. Die Weiden is about a mystically tragic river journey of two lovers who are lost to the world. To what extent is Stromab related to the opera score that is currently being written?
Indeed, Stromab is the starting point for my opera, a focal point out of which it will be developed. The great stream, which is continuously present in the opera, is musically in the center of the orchestral work. Material from the orchestral piece will be taken up, developed further and then put into the compositional grinder. Moreover, many different ideas are added in Die Weiden which compete with the material of Stromab and which are going to collide with it. The prologue for instance is musically totally different from Stromab, while the subsequent prelude is going to refer directly to the orchestral work.
So, without the opera commission, Stromab would not have been composed like this?
That I don’t know. Stromab owes its main inspiration primarily to Algernon Blackwood’s wonderful short story “The Willows” from the year 1907, with which the opera is going to overlap only here and there, despite the title. I would have read Blackwood’s story anyway – and it would have inspired me to inventions of my own – but who knows what would have happened … It’s hard to tell.
To conclude, we are already allowed to take a peek at your continually growing opera score. The prologue has been composed, and Lea sings, when taking farewell of her parents: “Stromab (downstream) everything is easy, so easy”. This alleged easiness – that much can be revealed – is going to become dangerous, and I believe that composing Stromab was far from easy for you. A good omen?
(Laughs) The most difficult question at the end. Let me say it like this: I hope so!
Interview: Dr. Frank Reinisch, Breitkopf & Härtel, 9/2017
Stromab (2016/17) for large orchestra
Commissioned by: The Royal Danish Orchestra; The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser Möst, Music Director; Carnegie Hall; Wiener Symphoniker, Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft, with support from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation
The Royal Danish Orchestra, Alexander Vedernikov
Copenhagen, The Royal Danish Opera House, 22/9/2017
Wiener Symphoniker, François-Xavier Roth
Vienna, Konzerthaus, 25/10/2017
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst
Cleveland, Severance Hall, 11/1/2018 (also 12, 13 & 23/1)
Mariam Batsashvili has stunned, fascinated and touched audiences at the most renowned concert halls in Europe during her tour as a “Rising Star” of the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO). Now, the young Georgian pianist has just received the exciting news that she will be a BBC New Generation Artist, as part of which she will perform at major festivals and concert venues across the UK during the next two seasons. In conversation, she shares her impressions on a whirlwind few months, the magic of the classical concert, and her tips for surviving the rigours of life on tour.
Mariam, you’re coming to the end of a big season in which you performed in practically all the major European concert halls. What are your reflections on the tour?
Of course, I was told that I would be playing in venues including large concert halls and chamber music halls, but to start with the Cologne Philharmonic, which really is huge, was quite a shock. What I can say is that I found almost all the halls acoustically perfect, whether big or small, and I now understand why they are built in this way. It’s inspiring to know that so many great musicians have performed there before me. The halls have a particular spirit because of this history. As well as the concerts, we also tried to communicate with the public through projects with school children as well as question and answer sessions and concert introductions. It is great that the ECHO tour provided this opportunity. We also had to play contemporary music written especially for us – my piece was by a young Spanish composer. The ECHO project is not only about supporting performers and the popularisation of classical music, but also young composers.
You had the chance to play your pieces very often and in various places. Did they change throughout the tour?
I played the Sonata by Franz Liszt almost everywhere; this has always been my favourite piece. But, of course, the interpretation changes. There are two ways in which this can happen. Firstly, it can get worse – your playing becomes routine and you start to lose some of the detail. This is of course terrible, and hopefully this didn’t happen to me. In fact, I found the opposite; that every performance became better. Listening back to recordings, as well as whilst playing, I kept finding new things, new details I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how that could be possible, since I had already worked so thoroughly on the piece. But in concert, new and interesting things come to life. Things can change depending on the aura in the room, on the people, and your relationship to them. It’s a kind of magic.
How did you prepare for the sheer amount of concerts and life on the road?
The Liszt competition also gave me the opportunity to go on a big concert tour for two and a half years, so I have really been travelling since 2014. Therefore I already had a routine which I took very seriously. Sometimes there were moments where the travel became too much, but I have a little trick: talking to myself in the mirror. I tell others to do the same, as it really helps remind yourself what you want and what your real goals are. Don’t let these moments interfere with the larger plan, but rather gather your strength. Performing after a sleepless night, after a long flight, with jetlag – I have been through all this, so I know my own strength. You can only achieve things if you really want to, if you are motivated and have ambition.
Regarding practicing on the road, I always take my scores in my hand luggage. Practicing mentally with the scores is part of my routine – it helps me a lot, and I use the opportunity to do it whilst travelling. One other thing: travelling stops being fun or exciting when you do it six times a month. I always look forward to the concerts, but there was a period when I became quite tired of being on the road. But then I said to myself, OK, when would I otherwise get to sit down for about four or five hours a day and do something I wouldn’t normally get the chance to do; read a couple of books for example. Now I have learned to use this time for my own pleasure.
As well as recitals, you are increasingly performing as a soloist with orchestras. How do you find working with a musical partner, an orchestra or a conductor, with their own musical agenda?
The most important thing is to meet the conductor alone first, to play through the piece, talk about it, and decide what you want to do. You can’t leave it until rehearsals to decide this, when the orchestra is sitting there.
Critics have particularly praised your ability to really play together with the orchestra.
The orchestra helps me, and is there for me. I am really allergic to the idea of saying “I’m the soloist, just follow me.” This never works! You have to work together with the conductor – we are both there to serve the same thing, the piece.
Could we briefly take a look at the future? After a series of summer festivals, you will play a lot of new repertoire next season.
Yes, this is really exciting; I will be playing the Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. The fact that I am going to play both these pieces, which are at the very core of the repertoire, is a big thing for me. After playing a lot of concerts, I am looking forward to practicing these new pieces, as well as playing some works with orchestra - Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. I have been playing a lot of Liszt recently because of the competition, but something new is coming now, which excites me!
At the end of August and the beginning of September, Friedrich Cerha’s monumental Spiegel cycle will be performed by the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra under Matthias Pintscher. Conceived as a kind of “world-theatre about humankind”, the seven parts of the cycle are concerned in purely musical terms with one of the composer’s life-long interests: the relationship between the individual and society. To mark the 2011 CD release of Spiegel, recorded by the SWR Symphony Orchester under Sylvain Cambreling, composers of various generations contributed their personal encounters with Friedrich Cerha’s cycle. These quotations are published with the kind permission of Kairos.
Pierre Boulez (Paris, 21/12/2009)
I have always regarded Friedrich Cerha as one of the most important personalities of his generation. I have followed his composing with great interest whenever I had the opportunity to listen to a work or read it during its creation. I am delighted that an album has now appeared which makes it possible to get an impression of his music’s remarkable development. I hope that this will serve to create an awareness of his true significance.
György Kurtág (Salzburg, 26/01/2010)
Friedrich Cerha’s Spiegel deeply impressed me. The impulsive drama, the constant – sometimes quite low-velocity – emotional movements had me captivated to such an extent that I almost didn’t notice that I had already listened to 80 minutes of music. I completely forgot to listen for how it had come to be, how it was made; I constantly had visions, sometimes large Rothko-like surfaces, sometimes Munch paintings, and then Turner or simply landscapes long familiar to me that blended into one another, at times eerily lit and then friendlier once more. I am thankful that I was able to experience this; Sylvain Cambreling’s recording is magnificent – and I hope to have the opportunity of hearing Spiegel in concert someday, as well.
Helmut Lachenmann (Stuttgart, 02/02/2010)
I have finally heard Cerha’s Spiegel cycle – twice! These are indeed impressive soundscapes, composed with a feel for sound that is simultaneously assured and prophetic.
Hans Zender (Freiburg, 19/02/2010)
When today, looking back over 50 years, one encounters the Spiegel pieces by the young Cerha, one is uncertain just what one should admire more: the mastery in the handling of means that were new at the time, the appearance of a clearly recognizable individuality within a texture more prone to negating the individual, or the determination of the composer, later on, to depart from the – narrow – basis of the recognizable compositional brand that he had hit upon, and to do so just as soon as possible. To leave it for a stylistic opening to the full breadth and freedom of the many facets of the modern era, to a universal stance – which also quite naturally included dealing with historical styles – of a great musician whose individuality could not be expressed in terms of the then-current formulas of the compositional field. In the very diversity of his stylistic palette, Cerha’s oeuvre embodies in a unique way the spirit of a–not doctrinaire, but rather lively – modernism that selects and uses available means freely and in often-new ways.
Brian Ferneyhough (Stanford, 02/03/2010)
Camera lucida – camera obscura
I always used to think that a standard-setting piece of orchestral music really had to be able to close more doors than it was capable of opening; this notion leads me to think of pieces such as Gruppen and Atmosphères. What I found particularly interesting about Cerha’s Spiegel cycle, on the other hand, was to just what extent these stylistically quite disciplined structures communicate an entirely different impression. As I first listened, I was immediately captivated by the meticulous detail of the figuration, captivated by it in accordance with the extent to which the cluster-like quality of the overall structure did not blot out, but rather sharpened and deepened this necessarily up-close impression. Even just in connection with the title of the cycle, I thought of comparing it to the so-called “Claude Glass”, that mirror-like accessory made of black obsidian that was used by 19th-century painters. By virtue of the fact that all of the colour is forced out of that which is reflected in the glass, one gets the impression of a raised perspective: the extreme limitation in the one respect leads inevitably to an almost “surrealist” excess of sharpness in both the objects as well as the conditions of the sonic space which they project. This is how I view the dimensional dialectics borne within these compositions.
Georg Friedrich Haas (Basel, 24/02/2010)
Friedrich Cerha’s virtuosically composed orchestral work Spiegel is a milestone of music history. Within the space of one-and-a-half hours, there unfolds a drama of changing sonic densities, dynamic levels and contrasting structures. The work’s rational calculation leads to an emotionally compelling effect. In 1972 – as a young man who was just beginning to study music – I was able to experience the first-ever performance of the complete cycle. This performance numbers among those impressions which decisively influenced my musical thinking.
Beat Furrer (Vienna, 03/03/2010)
During my university studies, I hardly missed a single opportunity to be at Cerha’s rehearsals and performances of Baal, Netzwerk, Monumentum and the Spiegel pieces. His concerts with die reihe opened numerous doors for me: to the music of the Second Viennese School, of Varèse and others. Along with Haubenstock-Ramati, Cerha played a crucial role in that process of opening in Viennese musical life which eventually led to the establishment of the Wien Modern festival in the late 1980s. His orchestral and music theatre works bear witness to consummate mastery. Particularly the Spiegel series, written during the 1960s, is pioneering and radical in terms of its development of form from the sound itself; to this day, the cycle retains every bit of its original strength and freshness.
Bernhard Lang (Vienna, 21/12/2009)
I first heard Spiegel as a music student back in the ’80s when it was performed at the musikprotokoll festival in Graz, and I was deeply impressed. I still remember a great, very slowly swelling orchestral sound, which was mirrored, however, at its energetic centre – thereafter passing into an equally slow decrescendo. Sound as a surface, as an instrumental simulacrum of electronic sounds, as a staging of structure: that is what was so fascinating about these pieces. The multidimensionality of the mirror’s programmatic nature referred to Webern – but also, as in Foucault’s discussion of ladies-inwaiting, to a step towards the postmodern, to a way of viewing the subject as something mirrored multiple times and ultimately ungraspable.
Michael Jarrell (Geneva, 24/02/2010)
For me, Cerha’s Spiegel cycle is one of the most impressive orchestral cycles of the second half of the 20th century. In its richness of perspective, I detect a strong inner relationship with Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques. It is a cycle of great strength and eruptiveness which artistic significance is comparable to that of Apparitions and Atmosphères.
Mark André (Berlin, 30/01/2010)
The Spiegel cycle by Friedrich Cerha is a thoroughly fascinating work. From the very beginning, one senses a wholly unique sort of breath-like pulsations. This “breathing” allows the work’s structure as such to unfold in all its complexity. The consistency of its composition gives rise to massive tension, which strength acts on one’s perception with great immediacy. It is about contemplating and admiring a multilayered message.
Marcelo Toledo (Wien, 05/03/2010)
Sometimes the work of an artist is manifested through a process that arrives to its final product from outside of the intrinsic mechanisms of that particular art form. Then a complete new world is presented to us. In the Spiegel series Cerha gives the impression of building his monumental orchestral pieces not from the language of music but rather from the tradition of drawing, sculpture, architecture, geology or any field in which the visual imagination is extended to its limits. The Spiegel are fundamentally sound shapes, textures, colors and densities transformed in time. It is music projected into space similar to the way visual artists and architects, sketch volumes, textures, forms and proportions into a plane. The Spiegel are, in their own way, the ultimate expression of what Varèse called organized sounds. The fact that after those two years of the seven Spiegel Cerha moved on into new music worlds keeping his prolific catalog could suggest the existence of these pieces as one more aspect of his work. We could be sure that these seven pieces stand up in themselves together with Charles Ives' unfinished Universe Symphony, Varèse' Arcana, Stravinky's Le sacre du printemps and few other orchestral pieces from the second part of the XX century as part of the tradition of utopian works of modern music.
Rebecca Saunders (Berlin, 26/01/2010)
I am fascinated by Cerha’s flexibility of line, by the body and weight of the orchestral sound. Cerha’s Spiegel leads one into a visionary sonic landscape which is of great sensuality. The architectural lines of the whole cycle possess an extraordinary clarity. Both strange and arresting.
José M. Sánchez-Verdú (Berlin, 24/02/2010)
A distant star: Friedrich Cerha
As a student in Spain, the name of Cerha was like a far-off star to me: brilliant, and at the same time infinitely distant… I had experienced Cerha as a conductor by listening to numerous recordings by his ensemble die reihe; I will always associate the Chamber Concerto by Ligeti with his name. And at the same time, this name was also inseparably connected to Alban Berg and Lulu. Cerha was a reflection of Vienna and its culture – in many senses. die reihe was, for me, a reference to something great that this composer and conductor from Vienna had led forward, always in a lively way. Later on, he came closer to me: this allowed me to get to know several compositions by him, and I finally also learned more about his personality, including how he taught composition to some of my colleagues, one of whom was a Spanish composer. But then, Cerha’s name was still like that of a neighbour in my own world, a name from the culture of Austria and of Europe. Brilliance, awareness, dedication, interpretation and creativity were all summarized by this name of “Cerha”. The star and its radiance had come quite near. The musical universe needs stars like this.
Bernhard Gander (Vienna, 15/12/2009)
…I had the pleasure of hearing the Spiegel cycle only this year–around 50 years after its composition – in a complete performance. It had a frightfully refreshing effect on me. In terms of sound and emotion, this work is compelling in a way that other pieces written around that time and made from similar materials simply do not manage to be. To my mind, this is one of the outstanding qualities of Cerha’s music – he does not simply leave sound material to be sound, but much rather forms it, always making it his own.
Klaus Lang (Vienna, 04/02/2010)
I heard Spiegel for the first time in class, back when I was a student, and I was fully impressed by the idea of blocks of sound that were conceived quite sculpturally, like objects. Ligeti, for example, lends Atmosphères or Lontano a poetic connotation. With Cerha, on the other hand, I enjoy pure music – the immersion in a pure experience of sound where it is not about it's leading anywhere, to any particular message. Cerha consistently does without the illustration of moods.
Elena Mendoza (Berlin, 22/12/2009)
I became acquainted with Cerha’s Spiegel thanks to KAIROS, and I was immediately taken with the work. I ask myself why I had not run into this milestone of the 1960s avant-garde much, much sooner, for it could have far more clearly suggested to me a route to my own musical language than the compositionally similar orchestral works by Ligeti and Penderecki (Atmosphères, Threnos, etc.). In Cerha, the newly invented material is not the theme per se, but rather a means to an end in order to shape a musical story that is quite exciting in a dramatic sense. Cerha plays imaginatively with the material, leading it to unexpected destinations, seeking out expressive twists, and he is every bit as much a master of organic transitions as he is of sharp contrasts. He takes what he needs from 1960s compositional methods in order to shape sounds for his musical discourse: this is highly differentiated on the inside, and dramaturgically overwhelming from an overall formal perspective. An appeal to the symphony orchestras out there: please give frequent performances of this lively orchestral cycle, every exciting minute of it! It represents a real opportunity for a large number of inexperienced listeners to understand the language of the avant-garde and make it their own.
Johannes Maria Staud (Vienna, 31/12/2009)
Cerha’s Spiegel cycle, this gigantic quarry of ideas and textures, this gold mine of unfettered sonority and audacious twists, this kaleidoscope of shimmering hues and orgiastic masses of sound, is a work which is compelling and refuses to let you go once you have wandered into its claws. As with a spider web, Cerha envelops the listener in his seductive and suggestive sounds, abducting him into a cosmos of generous architectonic dimensions which is governed by its own laws. Without a doubt, this work represents a milestone of 20th-century music. What continues to baffle me today is how fresh and unworn, how visionary and exciting this music sounds even fifty years after it was created. The uncompromising and economical way in which it was composed and the innovativeness of its notation and orchestration go hand-in-hand with an unbelievable bounty of sweet and iridescent, coalescent and eruptive, bizarre and unforgettable moments.
Hèctor Parra (Barcelona, 14/01/2010)
Giving a deep listen to the cycle Spiegel by Friedrich Cerha takes us to the limits of our perception and cognition of all things sound. Masses of frequencies very often contain modal spectra in constant evolution towards chaos. Or, contrastingly, towards harmonicity and powerful abstraction, an overwhelming power which unifies space and time as if mirroring the physical reality of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A curved world expands from the very first acoustic stimuli: immense, moving, majestic, full of mystery. Cerha's Spiegel pieces allow through their deep and immense nature, as well as their sounding space-time, the emergence and interaction of connected emotions in the deepest architectural sense of our creativity.
The composer Mark Andre began July with an eventful week: as part of the musica viva weekend he received the biennial “Happy New Ears” prize (named after John Cage’s well-known provocation to listen with fresh ears) from the Hans und Gertrud Zender Stiftung in collaboration with the Bavarian Academy of Arts, musica viva and BR Klassik. The day before, the Arditti Quartet gave the world premiere of Miniaturen, and on the day of the prize ceremony his orchestral work woher… wohin was premiered by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Matthias Pintscher. In conversation with Jeffrey Arlo Brown, the composer discussed teachers and companions, his German-French heritage and the aesthetics of fragility.
This interview is reproduced here with the kind permission of VAN Magazine, where it was published immediately before the prize ceremony.
VAN: You studied at the Paris Conservatory from 1987 to 1993, with Gérard Grisey among others. At that time, Pierre Boulez had great influence over the music scene in France. What was your experience like?
Mark Andre: I only studied with Grisey for a year, which happened more or less by chance. He talked a lot about Ligeti and Scelsi. Of course, he was strongly opposed to other… “factions,” let’s say [laughs]. It was hard not to be aware of the fight between him and Boulez. But I had a lot of respect for Boulez—I was able to work with him, much, much later. I also had a lot of respect for the Spectralists. But neither of them felt like family, I didn’t fit in with either group.
Was it hard being young and not knowing where you fit in?
Of course. But Claude Ballif, my other teacher, was fantastic for me. He made us aware of Ivan Wyschnegradsky, who was a close friend of his. Claude even had Wyschnegradsky’s piano with the two keyboards at home. He supported him, because at the end of Wyschnegradsky’s life in Paris, he became quite isolated. Unfortunately, Claude has been a little bit forgotten—that happens fast.
After graduating from the Paris Conservatory you moved to Stuttgart, Germany, to study with Helmut Lachenmann. Lachenmann speaks German in a famously complex, layered way. Were you even able to understand what he was saying at the beginning?
Well, I’m from Alsace in France. At home we spoke Alsatian, which helped. For me it actually felt like a homecoming, because of the language and the culture. I felt better in Stuttgart than in Paris. And later, my close relationship with Helmut helped me feel at home as well.
Was he very strict as a teacher?
What he cared most about was a kind of typology of observation. How and what do I observe? At what point am I authentic? Where is the potential in my work? In that sense he was extremely strict. You learned to be very reflective. That was his way of challenging you, of making you confront yourself.
What changed in your music during that time?
It went more in the direction that I wanted. Maybe, when I was in Paris, I didn’t have the willpower to follow that path by myself. For example, in Paris they were always asking us, “What is your compositional language?” I tried to give them a decent answer, but on the inside I was thinking, “I don’t have a language, in music it’s not about the language.” With Helmut it was about the way each musical situation breathed.
You changed your name from its French spelling, Marc André, to a German spelling, Mark Andre. Where did that come from?
My family is Franco-German. Our last name was originally Andress, but it was changed in 1924, when my grandparents were living in France. You know, my grandfather had two brothers who died in World War II. One was killed in Stalingrad [fighting for the Nazis], and the other died in a concentration camp with the French. But they are buried together. So we’re neither Germans nor French nor Alsatians. We have a fluctuating, shifting identity.
You were raised by your grandparents. Did that affect you in any particular way?
What definitely shaped me was the constant closeness to old, fragile people, who were often sick, who took lots of medicines and told stories from earlier times, from their childhoods. I felt the way the war created these difficult questions of identity for them. They didn’t talk much about it—in fact, it was somewhat taboo—but it still had a permanent effect on me. Also, I’m from a very religious family, particularly my grandmother; that also had a major influence on me as a child.
What was your experience of religion when you were young?
I went to Sunday School every week. And one of the lessons the nun gave was about the Holy Spirit. For many Christians that is an abstract, intangible concept. But for me it was exactly the opposite. It was almost as if I felt it, as a presence or energy. Somehow, I felt something that was blowing inside me, like wind. Wind and to blow are the same word in Hebrew.
Today’s conversations about Christianity tend to focus mainly on its political implications, such as the morality of abortion. How do you approach these issues?
Thank you for asking me that. Especially as Protestants, we’re confronted with the commandments of Moses on the one hand and the extremely complex teachings of the gospels on the other. So you have to make individual decisions.
What’s extremely important to me is the episode of Jesus and the adulterous woman. Jesus makes this incredible statement: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” And of course, nobody throws a stone. Instead, they go home and reflect. And this teaching is in itself a kind of compositional lesson as well, because reflection is a very central part of composition. That episode gets at the heart of the creative process.
The central category of my work is one of disappearance. I mean that in an intuitive sense, not a negative or melodramatic one. In the gospels, there are episodes where Jesus of Nazareth disappears as soon as he is recognized. And in my compositions things disappear in a similar way: structures, sounds, and different kinds of time.
What do you mean concretely by “disappearance”?
For example, I recently wrote a piece for [the clarinettist] Jörg Widmann. Together we developed these different multiphonics with double trills, which were very pianissimo. That meant that the sounding result was always fluctuating; the sounds were always introduced on the verge of their disappearance.
Listening to your pieces “hij I” and “hij II,” I think I hear a certain fragility—a word you used in connection with your grandparents. Is that something you hope to achieve in your music?
I do believe that fragility can create a space for intensity. In my work it’s not supposed to be a mannerism, an atmosphere, or even a dramaturgical element, though; instead, it’s the result of a series of structural, timbral, temporal, and organizational decisions. The musical situations unfold, they are there to be perceived. Everyone is capable of using their antenna to observe things in their own way. I have great admiration for musicologists, but you don’t need a doctorate in musicology to experience that.
Several years ago I heard a piece of yours with friends who had never been to a contemporary classical music concert before. And the music had quite a strong effect on them.
That’s an honour. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but when you are spoken to and touched at your innermost core—for me, that’s the result of observation at a very high level. I have a lot of respect for anyone who observes a concert with intensity.
In 2011, the Guardian wrote, in an article about your music, that it’s not particularly well known in the UK or the U.S. Do you have any idea why?
No, but I regret that.
Maybe it has something to do with the way your work is anchored in the central European tradition of new music?
You know, I was in Finland once and had an interview for the radio there. And the reporter told me, “Your music is post-War-traumatized-German-music” [laughs]. You never know what other people will observe about your work, but that surprised me.
How do you work, day to day?
I work very, very much. At least eight hours a day, or until I’m completely exhausted. Maybe it sounds melodramatic, but that’s my life. I see everything through the prism of my work, it determines everything. And that might even be dangerous, in a sense. It leaves very little time for other things.
I also work in my apartment. I need to be close to my computer, to my sketches—I need their presence. Those things breathe and live on their own, like an organism. And the danger—maybe I need that too.
Brad Lubman’s official title at this year’s Grafenegg Festival is “only” Composer-in-Residence. However, at Schloss Grafenegg in August, the many facets of his musical life will be on display: as a conductor, he will give the closing concert with the Tonkünstler Orchestra, leading Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder with Waltraud Meier, and for which Brad Lubman as a composer has written a new orchestral piece, Reflections. He has also acted as a door opener for a generation of young musicians through his teaching, as he explains in conversation with Sarah Laile Standke. In Grafenegg, he will once again help young musicians navigate the rocky terrain of contemporary music as leader of the festival’s composition workshop INK STILL WET.
In total there will be three compositions by Brad Lubman premiered in Grafenegg. His Grafenegg Fanfare will open the festival, and his ensemble piece Theater of the Imagination will be heard on the final day of the festival in a prelude to the closing concert which features Reflections. Grafenegg presents a rare opportunity to get to know the American-born musician as a composer, who is more familiar on the conductor’s podium with the great orchestras and ensembles in Europe and USA as well as with Ensemble Signal, the group he founded in New York. The five composition students participating in INK STILL WET, who will work with the Tonkünstler Orchestra for five days, will profit from Brad Lubman’s multi-faceted musical perspective as well as from his long teaching experience as a Professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
This edited excerpt from Brad Lubman’s conversation with Sarah Laila Standke about his compositional work and his view of the role of new music in contemporary concert programming is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the Austrian magazine morgen. The original German text can be read in full at http://www.morgen.at/htm/downloads/2017_03_24.pdf
SLS: When and why did you decide to be a conductor first and a composer second?
BL: I was interested in becoming a conductor when I was 14 or 15 years old. I don’t know why, but for some reason I became obsessed with the idea, mostly because of the music of Mahler, Beethoven and Debussy. From the age of 14 until I entered college when I was 18, I would practice conducting to records of lots of different repertoire. I also started studying scores of the basic orchestral repertoire. Then, during my time in college, I organized various ensembles and was always conducting something (both old and new music). As soon as I got out of college I freelanced as a percussionist and a year after that I was conducting new music with different ensembles in New York. The main impulse was to conduct, but I couldn’t stop myself from composing. I see myself mainly as a conductor who composes, but composing is a serious part of what I do.
Does that mean you always have musical ideas in your head?
Yes, that’s an interesting question: How does a piece start? Does it come from a musical idea or an emotional state? Very often ideas come while I’m listening to someone else’s music, or backstage waiting to go out to a concert. In the early 1990s I considered giving up; I thought that maybe I actually have no ideas, and just imitate and emulate composers that I like. For two years I completely stopped composing, and started to listen to composers whose music I didn’t know, and explore things other than music; I read a lot of John Cage and Samuel Beckett and watched art films. After this two year crisis I just had to compose again; there is obviously an innate need to create on some level.
What fascinates you in music?
As a composer I’m influenced among others by Carter, Boulez, Feldman and Reich. In my own works of the last few years, I have been focusing on a non-narrative, incongruent, surrealist approach: to take the listener and surprise them. In general, I’m very interested in structure and logic, as seen in the music of Bach, Webern, Boulez and Carter, as well as music with a mysterious and emotional side, for example Mahler, Schubert and Debussy. I’m also fascinated with colour in life and in design, which is why I am really fond of spectralist composers like Grisey and Haas - although the latter wouldn’t call himself that.
What role do you think new music plays in the concert hall and in people’s minds?
I think that it should play a different role than it does at the moment. For many people it is still “that weird music”. Imagine if the only thing you ever ate was a bread roll and a tuna fish salad. That’s terrible! You would never get to experience Italian and Indian cuisine or ice cream. The standard repertoire is great and uplifting and I love all of it, but I find that if it is all that you know, it can be very limiting. The role of new music should be to keep people open-minded. If you can learn to be open to new music and new art forms, you can be open-minded and understanding with other people even if you’re from different cultural backgrounds. The typical response of most people is: “I don’t want to hear it, I’m afraid I won’t understand it,” but maybe there is nothing to understand – just listen to it. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it, or maybe when you hear it again in ten years, you’ll love it. This takes a lot of work. I think that maybe we were getting somewhere in the 1970s, whereas now we are taking a step backwards. The most important thing nowadays is ticket sales and not art for art’s sake. However, with younger people who start their own ensembles, especially in New York, there is a great enthusiasm about new music. I think the concert world is very predictable and needs revitalising: some of the new music that’s being commissioned seems to stay within a safe zone. A lot of these pieces are fantastic, but I think it’s the job of presenters and performers and conductors to not only play that type of new music which may be user friendly, but to create a more open experience.
How do you think this could change? Do composers or audiences have to change?
A lot of places are now reaching out to younger audiences and trying to introduce them to new music. That’s a step in the right direction, because if you get to someone when they are eight or 15 years old, you can change their life in a very profound way. Steve Reich once spoke about how a friend played him Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and some John Coltrane when he was 14 years old. He said it was as if somebody had opened the door to a room in his own house that he had never seen before. I think there are many people who would be open to this and just need to be shown the right way.
Why do you think people are afraid of listening to contemporary music?
I think people are basically afraid in general. It also has something to do with one’s upbringing. People want to feel like they are a part, like they belong. And if they feel removed from it, they might say: “I don’t want to go to a classical music concert because I don’t understand it. The orchestra wears these ancient tuxedos, and I don’t know what to do.” This person would rather go to a crazy loud rock club. Perhaps the person who only goes to orchestral concerts should also go to a night club and experience the energy. It is just the fear of being open. Who knows if we can ever discover a way around it, but I think that’s the first boundary that we have to get past.
The semi-staged production of György Ligeti’s absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre was performed this year to great acclaim from critics and audiences alike in London and Berlin. Directed by Peter Sellars, boasting a luxury cast of singers and performed by two of world’s best orchestras – the London Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic respectively – both runs were conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Here is a collection of the most important press quotes as well as a trailer of the production and a short film of the conductor and director talking about their work.
This grotesque parable of war turns death on his head, and is enriched with elements from absurdist theatre, the medieval “danse macabre”, all the attractions of the funfair and the fictitious setting of Breughelland. Premiered in 1978 and revised in 1996, the work is characterised by grotesque alienation, comic book-esque exaggeration and mannerised excess. Musically, the opera sets off fireworks of ironically refracted, virtuosically exaggerated references to the operatic tradition as well as various musical languages of the 20th century as well as pop culture.
Le Grand Macabre was presented in a semi-staging in January and February 2017 at London’s Barbican Hall and the Berlin Philharmonie which played to the acting abilities of the outstanding singers, and was elevated through the stage design and use of video.
Thrilling: Ligeti's opera is brought arrestingly up to date in this production (…) the stunning virtuosity of the score was all the more effective for the taut, disciplined delivery by the LSO under Rattle.
Evening Standard, Barry Millington, 16.01.2017 (London)
From the opening toccata played on car horns which parodies the canzona from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, to the radiant passacaglia that supports the final scene, everything in Ligeti’s score is heard more vividly than it could ever be in an opera house, and the playing of the LSO is astoundingly good.
The Guardian, Andrew Clements, 16.01.2017 (London)
The miracle of the score consists in the fact that Ligeti musically connects the droll and trivial with the highly constructivist, the voluptuous and sensual with the surreal and farcical – the work is as adventurous as it is complex and agile. The work has not yet been more emphatically or precisely realized.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, Wolfgang Schreiber, 20/02/2017 (Berlin)
Beginning with a cacophony of car horns, the work builds to explosions, executions, insinuations and provocations, and encompasses coloratura, canon, chorales, shouts, screams and noises. (…) “Le Grand Macabre” remains easily comprehensible despite its complexity and Baroque ornateness; has a highly original conception and witty instrumentation; and is deeply rooted in the formal and sonic conventions of classical tradition. It is simultaneously bracingly acerbic, artfully allusive, outrageously funny and deadly serious – every generation can find their own meaning in this piece. This masterpiece has never disappeared from the repertoire.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Eleonore Büning, 22/02/2017 (Berlin)
Clara Ianotta from VAN magazine interviews Chaya Czernowin on her upcoming opera Infinite Now, art’s power to preserve individuality, and the intimacy of breath.
In the first week of February, I talked to composer Chaya Czernowin, my professor in composition at Harvard University, about her upcoming opera “Infinite Now,” which is due to be premiered in Ghent in April 2017, followed by performances in Antwerp, Mannheim, and Paris. Drawing texts from Can Xue’s story “Homecoming” and Luk Perceval’s play “Front,” which is based on All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, “Infinite Now” represents Czernowin’s largest-scale undertaking to date.
In the 20th century composers tended to avoid calling a piece of theater an “opera”—I’m thinking for example of “Prometeo” (“tragedy of listening”) by Luigi Nono, “Neither” (“anti-opera”) by Morton Feldman, “Die glückliche Hand” (“drama with music”) by Arnold Schoenberg, or most of the stage works by Luciano Berio. When you talk about “Infinite Now” you say “opera.” What makes this piece an “opera”?
You know, when I wrote “Pnima,” I also called it an “anti-opera.” I think that at that time I was very attached to the progressive, and I even said to people that I hated opera—which was not completely accurate because, for example, listening to “Pelléas et Mélisande” by Debussy actually changed my life. Sometimes I would call “Infinite Now” a work of music theater, but the truth is that I feel that there is something very conclusive, total, about the piece, because it uses so many means. As opposed to a string quartet, where you have four instruments that actually are an atomic family, four individuals speaking almost with the same voice, “Infinite Now” is the place where you are given all the means in abundance, a kind of euphoric abundance of everything you could be, in a way, a stage for all your ideas. That was how I came to view “Infinite Now,” after a while. And for me, that is really connected to the experience of an opera. There is something which is very holistic about it—it is not merely the abstraction that music can give you, but it really is connected to life, in a way. It brings voices from reality. I use a lot of field recordings: there are places where you have 10 layers of field recordings from different kinds of experiences that you can actually not even decipher. You have so many things that are happening, which create a kind of magma or a mini-reality. And that for me is one of the operatic aspects of the piece.
So why is “Pnima” an anti-opera and “Infinite Now” an opera?
“Pnima” was an eruption of emotions, a psychological growth over a long time. But at that time, my means were very restricted: two women, two men. In “Infinite Now” I have a trio—and while the difference between a duo and a trio seems small it is actually huge. A trio is actually a group. So, I had those two duos, six soloists and a string orchestra, which is almost a magnification of a string quartet. My approach fittingly was one of focus and abstraction. In some ways, “Infinite Now”—which came 16 years after—is a response to myself, to “Pnima”; “Pnima” is my debt to my past and to my family; “Infinite Now” is my debt to my future and to who I have become.
Our political present, our “now,” represents an extremely difficult moment for humanity. I feel like composers have no role in contemporary society and our music does not have the same meaning that it had in the past, for example, when it was possible for the premiere of Luigi Nono’s work “Intolleranza” to be interrupted by a group of neo-fascists.
The topics you used for your operas, “Pnima,” “Zaïde/Adama,” and “Infinite Now,” are very political. How does a composer like you deal with the current political situation? Is there even a meaning for what we are doing?
Well, it’s a very important question, and it can be a very long answer. A little while ago, I was talking with my son Ko about political movements, their power, and also their corruption of power. When we are in a group, a political group, we are active, we can contribute. The group can become strong and then acquire power. And my son Ko said to me, “this is where the art comes in,” because when a political change is needed we need the power of the collective. But later, and also at the same time even, we do need to regain a path to our individuality. At that moment you need the presence of the artists to split these two things up again, and help society in regaining that path. The collective is very important for making change happen, but then the balance of collective and individuality is necessary for our existence. This is where we come in. I don’t have so much trust in works of art which serve a political purpose—I’ve always been very suspicious of them, even though I understand that they are needed. In new music I always believed that individualization is one of the most important parameters.
You write that “Infinite Now” is an “experience, a state: in the midst of a morass, the presence of an imminent disaster.” I had the privilege of listening to the recording of the first half of the work, and I kept asking myself why I could not feel the presence of that “imminent disaster.” Everything felt safe, nearly familiar. But then I started to wonder whether your intention was to create an environment where you feel protected, where you can almost build memories.
Will the “disaster” follow this part?
Well, it is very interesting. I think that in “Infinite Now” I discovered different kinds of time. I call it “the time within the wrinkle”—I am listening to something which is happening in real time, but as I am listening to it, I realize that at the end of my field of listening there is something that is almost unrecognizable but that takes my ear. I zoom in on it, and as I do, it opens up and I discover a whole new gamut of things inside it. Now, this is not an addition, because it was there the whole time, but I am now just stopping that small sound and I am exploring the inside of it. As it unfolds, there is another onion-layer that comes from a totally different direction that didn’t even register when I was listening to the big flow stream of the initial river. And that is why I call it wrinkle, because you go inside a point in time and you discover that what you thought to be just a small detail is actually a whole physical presence of a universe of multiplicities, of heterogeneous happenings.
From the beginning, I knew the piece was going to be very long, and I also knew I did not want a climax at the end. In “Infinite Now” everything is building, building, building, and from the middle point on (where the breathing comes in) you begin to understand its direction, even though the flow is not at a constant rate. From a certain point, where your legs seem to be very strongly planted on the ground, because you are given many structural icons you can trust—every act starts the same way and has a very similar construction— everything becomes more and more alien, suddenly the two texts begin to relate to each other, and you end up on the smallest island of strangeness that you have never been able to see because it’s so hidden from your eye, but you are very safely getting to it. Everything goes there, and it is not like the two themes have been integrated to celebrate their unity. There is an inevitability in this opera that becomes stronger and stronger the more we continue to go. That is my hope.
So what I heard at the end of the third act is breathing, not sleeping?
If I look at the texts you use there is an internal space [“Homecoming”]—which is represented both by the psychological struggle of the female character and the fact she is physically trapped in her house—and an external space, the war [“Front”], the letters written by soldiers. These texts are all written in the past, but they become real again in the moment they are read in your opera. And then—but this is because I interpreted the breathing for sleeping—exactly when we hear the recording of the BBC news, which represents our present, we are sleeping. But you are telling me it’s just breathing, right?
Well, I don’t mind so much how you interpret it. Sleeping is a very interesting state. I asked my collaborator Carlo Laurenzi to give every breath its own individuality, highlighting different registers through reverb or dryness or careful slight filtering, and I created the timing in such a way that the breathing becomes a hyper-realistic state of utmost intimacy that has to do with our non-controlled mechanism. Again, it’s a kind of a wrinkle in our perception because when we zoom into that very essential and preliminary state, it can be a symphony. It doesn’t matter if it’s sleeping or breathing, what’s really important here is the moment when you succeed to get into this intimacy because the music compels you to start listening to all those details (you almost smell the mouth of the person breathing), and then you have the BBC News jingle approaching. It’s not coming as a huge contrast, it comes very softly, but it is so foreign, and that is exactly the place where politics come into the world for me.
In “Infinite Now” you use many field recordings. It’s particularly powerful when you are able to recognize not only the sound source of the recording, but the space where it first took place. It is almost like a window opens at that particular moment and we are suddenly projected elsewhere. This does not quite happen within the live instrumental music though, which seems to have its own space. So, how is the space within the texts reflected in the music?
It’s very strange because these spaces, in a way, are a kind of living architecture, and let me explain what I mean by that. Every act starts with this material of a metal gate closing. Of course, none of them are the same, it’s kind of a developing variation, some of them are extremely reduced and simplified, but it’s a very clear signal: we are in the next act. And before those gates there is always a 12-second break.
You mentioned that in “Infinite Now” time does not flow linearly, but the way you explain the structure of the opera is extremely linear—we start always from the same point (the gate closing), the breath that becomes the wind, etc. Every element seems to develop smoothly. Can you please elaborate on that?
I hope I can find the right way of putting this into words. You have elements A, B, C, and variations of these. Moving between these As-Bs-Cs you begin to get something which is linear and not linear at the same time because you are basically repeating them, but repetitions are just not the same. So, the sameness, the not sameness, and the repetition find a kind of a new meaning. That something is a huge structure that is repeated and it’s reinterpreted and then it’s reinterpreted again. And the way that the reinterpretation works is that, even though the constraints of what is repeated is still clearly identified with what it was before, every repetition directs you much further away, but you feel that you are on safe ground because you can recognize a certain element of repetition. This allows me to take the listener to very alien places gradually, not as a contrast, and also not as a clean process.
What happens in the second half of the opera?
I can give a short attempt to describe it, but it’s hard to put it into words. In the fourth act the two material sources begin to work together, and at a certain point they even kind of answer each other; suddenly they find themselves in the same universe. From there, that universe is beginning to act. That is what I call living architecture—it’s not enough that you build this huge space, palace, hollow, whatever you want to call it, at a certain point it or they begin to wake up and move, they begin to do something, which is why they were created. Then comes the fifth act, where all the voices, the train, the breathing, all these kinds of air sounds become a desert of wind. The whole opera house becomes like a desert which contains all the wind in the world. And within that wind the orchestra begins to push, and we reach a place which I call “the rocks,” where you are suddenly in a huge space and you just have these very isolated rocks. The sixth act is the place where music actually begins to talk with all the energy that it took from before, from all the extra-musical things. Suddenly the music has the way of talking which for me encapsulates everything we heard before with a new focus. And when this is done, we are in a place where the woman [from the “Homecoming” section] is adjusted, so to say, and Paul Beumer is talking about how the reality was so powerful and so terrible at the time of the war, and he says “Leben, aber das Leben” [“life, but life”], and in that moment, out of nothingness and desolation, life starts to appear.
Having heard the first half, I was expecting destruction, but you transformed it into a void.
You know, it is a way of finding life and continuation in the most restricted place, not through the contrast, not through the fight, not through the outward resistance, but through the understanding that—and I am saying it now in a very extreme way—that even if we will not exist anymore as human beings, the ants will live on [laughs]! I know it sounds very optimistic [laughs].
One of the questions I had while listening to the first half of the opera was, How it would end? Does life continue after war, or does it stop and it’s just time that keeps going? Can we dare ourselves to keep living?
Yes, basically it is a metaphor for the person whose life was ripped apart, and how to continue, how to find that one tissue of emotion, of place that you can actually hold on to and continue. In the craziness, in the most alien possibility, to still have something you can hold on to, a ground from which you can later move on.
Clara Ianotta, VAN Magazine, 16/2/2017
On the move in Europe and equipped with freshly composed American music as is so often the case, the Mivos Quartet is also travelling with a two-month-old this time (“a travel baby, he falls asleep to Ferneyhough,” the parents assure). Whatever the situation, the four musicians have made it their mission to bring the latest music from the new world to the rest of the world. On their recent concert tour, which took them to the Stuttgart Eclat Festival amongst other venues, the ensemble also performed in Berlin, and we took the opportunity to discuss transatlantic cultural hopping and the liberating effect of the most contemporary music.
“People here in Europe are surprised by what is happening in America, even in new music circles,“ violist Victor Lowrie explains, and violinist Olivia De Prato adds: “In Europe, a lot of people think that American new music is all Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, all minimal music. But there are many extremely interesting young composers who do very different styles of music. For example, we play a lot of music by a collective from New York called the Wet Ink Ensemble. Alex Mincek, Kate Soper and Sam Pluta – these are some of the composers that we truly believe in and would like to share with audiences around the world.” Victor Lowrie notices in his fellow composing countrymen a common characteristic that, unlike their European counterparts, they indulge less in ideologically charged aesthetic skirmishes. “There is more of a stylistic eclecticism that can lead to surprising creative avenues“, he concludes.
Interestingly, this eclecticism – the mixing, penetrating, delimiting – is not placeless and arbitrary in itself. In fact, their geographic home is probably the factor that moulds the quartet’s character most. In today’s America, and especially in New York, something is happening that – layer by layer so to speak, in several cultural working steps – has always occurred there in a more concentrated, more radical way than anywhere else. Together with the waves of immigrants, music also immigrated into the country, resulting in a particular competence in “how that works with people’s influences, their personal background in the music that they are familiar with.”
The melting pot qualities of their home city are conducive to the quartet in many ways. Cellist Mariel Roberts explains: “Especially in New York, there are so many artists of the highest calibre in every realm of life, every type of music, every type of art. There are people who do traditional modes of performance, and all of the people who do experimental versions of that mingle together. So we work with artists who do experimental jazz, experimental electronic music, hip hop, mixed media – everything you can think of. All these people are pushed into the same circles and are interested in each other’s work – a really interesting collaborative space to work in”. Cultural life in the US is far less institutionalised than in Europe in those areas in particular – for better or for worse a factor that fosters special alliances. “We’ve been lucky to work with these people who are not in ‘our world’, to explore for example more improvisation as a group. It is something that can be difficult to achieve as a string quartet because of the mould that you are expected to fit into“, says Mariel Roberts.
The project they performed in Berlin also originated from within their New York network. Atemwende for string quartet and trumpet, a composition by Bojan Vuletic from his cycle Recomposing Art, has been part of the Mivos Quartet’s repertoire with trumpet player Nate Wooley for quite a while. On the tour, it is interwoven with letters by Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, based on a concept by the actress Britta Shulamit Jakobi. “We have worked with Nate for many years,” explains Victor Lowrie. “In 2011, he recommended us to Bojan Vuletic who is now an artistic friend of the ensemble and invites us annually to his asphalt festival in Düsseldorf.”
The Mivos Quartet has also been a repeat guest at the Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music. The musicians describe this kind of new music biotope as a clear contrast to the atmosphere in New York. “There is a different kind of criticism that happens, particularly in Darmstadt. People are more concerned with history, lineage, the proper form of things, and are more combatant about aesthetics,” says Mariel Roberts. “In the States, since the history of classical music isn’t technically an American history, people don’t become too defensive of or attached to certain aesthetic choices.”
Accordingly, the four use their time in Darmstadt and at other European festivals as a musical stimulus, an opportunity to meet musicians, and they consider the disputes that sometimes take place more as a distraction from the music. After all, they were attracted to new music in the first place mostly because they felt less limited by aesthetic prejudice when playing it. “There is something very liberating about new music, growing up playing classical string quartet repertoire. In new music you can wipe the slate clean and decide how something should be performed,” violinist Lauren Cauley explains. Crucial to all four is the pleasure they take in working with composers and thus in finding new solutions for musical situations. It is not only through partnerships with composers, some of which they have enjoyed for many years now, but also through two composing competitions under their aegis, that new and interesting scores fall into their hands. Olivia De Prato explains: “Whereas a lot of classical players say, this or that is not possible on the instrument, I feel like for us, nothing is impossible. Even if technically something doesn’t work out, we can talk to the composer and see what he or she wants, and then we will come up with an idea that fits that image.” Mariel Roberts adds: “It frees a lot of our own creativity to collaborate directly where you are not just playing notes on a page but making music with someone on a really intimate, immediate level.”
When it comes to the joy they take from this artistic process, it does not make any difference whether a composer of the older European generation such as Rihm or Lachenmann, whether their peers from New York, or whether musicians from other genres are their partners. This openness means that the Mivos Quartet frequently works with stars from other music scenes – stars who the ensemble can (or must) introduce to its own audiences. The trombonist and musician George Lewis, for example, whose new string quartet Playing with Seeds is on their agenda for their visit to the Eclat Festival in Stuttgart, is also seen by European concertgoers as eminent in the world of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation; as head of the jazz department at Columbia University he leads one of the most prestigious jazz institutes in America. Translated for a concert hall audience with less of an affinity for improvisation, the quartet describes him as “a really incredible American composer who until recently has not been played that much either in the States or in Europe and who has a background in improvisation”. Similarly, Saul Williams, world-renowned in hip-hop and spoken-word circles, can still be a new discovery for other audiences. The quartet will perform a whole programme with him at the ACHT BRÜCKEN Festival in Cologne. In addition to NGH WHT by Thomas Kessler, they will premiere a new piece by Ted Hearne. Colton as Cotton, written by the quartet in co-operation with Saul Williams, has also been performed several times in recent years.
That’s right, now and again the quartet members also compose. Cross the border – close the gap one might want to call out in happy postmodern nostalgia to summarise the whole thing. Instead, we continued talking about current US politics.
Nina Rohlfs, 02/2017
Young British composer Charlotte Bray was propelled to success in her home country whilst still in her 20s. After receiving her first BBC Proms commission in 2012, the orchestral work At the Speed of Stillness, she was tipped as one of the most influential young Londoners in the Evening Standard and described as at the “forefront of younger British composers” by Gramophone magazine.
Speaking to me in her Berlin studio, sketches for her latest composition open at the keyboard, she agrees that this acclaim came with its own pressure, but hasn’t had much of a chance to contemplate her success. “When you’re in the middle of trying to finish a piece it’s quite hard to define what, why, how you got where you are.”
Since then, she has written three new orchestral works in addition to a catalogue of chamber pieces as well as her first chamber opera, Entanglement. Incredibly, she feels like she is just making up lost ground. Having originally studied cello at Birmingham Conservatoire, she didn’t start composing in earnest until she was 20, and promptly switched course to study with Joe Cutler.
“Whilst studying cello I always knew that I couldn't express myself on the outside how I could on the inside. I remember very vividly sitting in orchestra and being so fascinated by the conductors, because they seemed to communicate with me on a musical level that I wanted to join in.” Composition, on the other hand, came naturally, and she went on to study with Mark-Anthony Turnage at London’s Royal College of Music.
Not that she regrets what she perceives as her late start in composition. It may even have given her a unique sense of creative freedom. “It’s that naïveté that allows you to play with ideas. There are some ideas or pieces that, if I’d known that other composers had done something similar, I would never have written.”
We are speaking at the end of a particularly good year that saw the premieres of two new orchestral works by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Stone Dancer was performed at the Aldeburgh Festival under Oliver Knussen – one of the composer’s many champions in the UK. Falling in the Fire was her first large-scale concerto and second BBC Proms commission, and was performed there last August by cellist Guy Johnston under conductor Sakari Oramo.
This particular work would prove to be pivotal. Initially it was to be based on a chamber piece she had written for the cellist’s chamber music festival in Hatfield, England. But on the morning she was to put pen to paper, news broke of the destruction of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra by ISIS troops. “I wrote down some musical material in a bit of a daze, not really thinking very clearly. It took me by surprise really, but I really felt compelled to do something.”
The resulting piece is compelling and anguished; after the premiere, another composer described it to her as “troubling.” Has this awoken a political interest in the composer? “I definitely wonder why we don’t look at political subject matter more as composers and really think about the world we’re living in.”
She feels that she has a moral responsibility as an artist – “if you're not going to say anything, then that's also saying something” – but doesn’t claim to be offering any solutions to a complex issue. “Whatever I say is just an expression of my feeling about the situation. I’m certainly not claiming to be trying to find an answer. What answers are there?”
Whilst not always political, much of her work is sparked by influences from outside music; “I think you could probably get more from a book written by a painter than an orchestration book”. Interested in art, poetry and architecture, her work has diverse sources that intersect in unexpected ways, for example in her recent oboe quartet Bluer than Midnight.
“When I came to write the piece, I had Ezra Pound in my head, who was always talking about blue.” The work’s title references both a line from the poet’s Cantos CX (“waves under blue paler than heaven/over water bluer than midnight”) as well as artist Yves Klein’s minimalist studies in deep blue.
Influences from visual art and literature give her different perspectives on her creative practice, and push her work in new directions. However, her compositional process often starts with sound – “but, something that isn’t really a sound, but rather a feeling or a texture; something quite tactile.” Coupled to this is a strong focus on melody, and a natural grasp of orchestral colour.
The composer is coming to the end of a short-term teaching post as visiting professor at L’Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya in Barcelona, which has been a source of inspiration in itself. “It’s so refreshing to meet young composers who have totally free minds and explore their ideas.” In this respect, the composer’s attitude to her art has not changed much since her own creative beginnings: “It does get harder and more difficult, but playing with material and creating something is a fun thing to do.”
Sam Johnstone, 01/2017
This October, the Bochumer Symphoniker and their long-standing Music Director Steven Sloane celebrated a milestone with the opening of their long-awaited new home, the Anneliese Brost Musikforum Ruhr.
The grand opening of the Musikforum was marked by a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony as well as the premiere of Stefan Heucke’s cantata, Baruch ata Adonaij – Gesegnet seist du, Herr, performed by the Bochumer Symphoniker under Steven Sloane alongside baritone Martijn Cornet, massed choirs from Bochum and the Ruhr region and pupils from the Bochum Music School, which is situated in the new building. A recording of the opening concert is available to stream on the Arte website.
The new Anneliese Brost Musikforum Ruhr is built around the Marienkirche, and will not only be home to the Bochumer Symphoniker, but also provide a regional centre for culture. Before its opening, the project was praised for engaging with the local community, and for creating a versatile concert hall at a low cost in difficult economic circumstances in a relatively short space of time. The concert hall’s opening was covered by newspapers including the Neue Zürich Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who praised the conception of the project and the acoustics of both new halls.
Steven Sloane marked his 20th anniversary with the orchestra in the 2014/15 season. During his time as Music Director, he has transformed the ensemble into one of Germany’s leading orchestras, and brought international recognition to the arts in the Ruhr region through work including the European Capital of Culture RUHR 2010.
The new concert forum plays a leading role in the following video streams with Steven Sloane:
In November, Antje Weithaas celebrated her 50th birthday with a special performance at the Konzerthaus Berlin with the Camerata Bern, the chamber orchestra she has led since 2009. Ahead of the concert, we spoke to her about her multi-faceted career as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher, and why she is always looking for something new.
You’re celebrating your 50th birthday this year. Does it feel like a milestone?
To be honest, I don't care about numbers. As long as I feel well, then I don't mind. Sometimes I can't believe it’s already 50. But, it’s a birthday like any other, in a way.
Has it given you pause to reflect on your career?
Not really. My career was always very flexible and never just moved in one direction. Opportunities just came up, for instance the Arcanto Quartet many years ago, and then Camerata Bern. I need these completely different kinds of activities – playing solo concertos, recitals, chamber music in every possible formation. I'm always looking forward to what's coming next.
Is there anything you have in common with the young violinist at the beginning of her career?
Today I think I know what’s important for me in making music. I wouldn't say I knew that when I was young. Teaching helped me a lot, because when I was young I was an instinct musician. When I started teaching I had to be much clearer about my thoughts as I had to explain them. You can’t just say “That’s the way I feel it”. You really need to prove that you’re careful with the scores and with the special language of a composer.
Was playing the violin always a way of expressing yourself?
Absolutely. I would say that it’s really my voice. I’m much better at playing than at talking! (Laughs) I always try to communicate with the people on stage, and also with the audience in the hall. You can’t really explain what happens in this moment, but you feel the tension, and that it creates a very special atmosphere that only occurs in a live concert.
Does this urge to communicate explain why you are so active as a chamber musician?
People often say that chamber music is more communicative and that when you are playing solo it’s different. For me there isn’t a difference. If you play with an orchestra and a conductor and there’s no communication, who wants to hear that? I really want to communicate, even with a large group.
At the Konzerthaus, you’ll be performing with the Camerata Bern. What are the challenges of leading an orchestra, as opposed to, say, a string quartet?
It is completely different in rehearsal, and how you prepare. You need to have a very clear concept of what you want to do with the piece. Then you need the freedom to react to what the others give and create something together. Another thing is the energy on stage… This is a miracle I can’t explain. We can play a piece one way in rehearsal, but on stage a million different things can happen. It’s very challenging in the moment, but also very satisfying.
When you joined the orchestra did you have an idea of the type of music you wanted to play?
We started with the normal repertoire and transcriptions for string orchestra, but from year to year we became more bold and courageous. Beethoven’s First or Eighth Symphonies are possible, because they’re very classical, but we also tried the Beethoven Violin Concerto without a conductor and it worked. Sometimes it can work better with or without a conductor, but this direct communication and sense of creating something together in the moment can be very hard to achieve if you have a conductor involved.
At the Konzerthaus, you’ll be performing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, arranged for string orchestra.
Yes, but you shouldn’t expect the sonata for violin and piano! Every note Beethoven wrote is there – nothing added, and nothing taken away – but it’s a completely different sound world. The second movement becomes like a string sextet, whilst the last movement has this absolute energy and presto feeling. We don’t want to make the piece better – we just want to take another approach and hear the piece in a new way.
What attracts you to a piece? Is there a common thread in your repertoire?
I always try to find something new. I would find it boring to specialise in one style. That’s really why I want to play the whole range of repertoire, everything from Bach to contemporary music. What is important to me is to play every piece in the style it belongs. Every composer has his or her own language and needs a different sound, phrasing, articulation, etc.
Do you still get nervous when you go on stage?
Of course. I learnt to handle it, but I can’t go on stage without this tension. If it’s positive, then it’s energy. It’s a natural part of performance to be nervous beforehand. If I notice that it becomes routine when I go on stage then I’ll say “no more”. That’s why I don’t play the same piece twenty times. Every week I am doing something different. That way it remains fresh and I always have a new approach. I hope I keep playing for as long as possible!
Sam Johnstone, 11/2016
A portrait concert as part of Bavarian Radio’s musica viva series in Munich, a concert symposium at Wien Modern, performances of the opera Don Quijote with the Ensemble Modern, a series of birthday concerts with the new SWR Symphony Orchestra and a performance of his Winterreise at New York’s Carnegie Hall with Mark Padmore under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle: in addition to this long list of events honouring the work of Hans Zender last year, the great composer, conductor and music philosopher celebrated his 80th birthday on 22 November.
The latest collection in Denken hören – Hören denken, Hans Zender’s impressive series of essays dealing with philosophy, music aesthetics and cultural-political issues, was published by Karl Alber in October to tie in with the celebrations. Also in the pipeline is Penser avec le sens, a selection of essays from the volume Die Sinne denken, which will be published Contrechamps Editions Geneva.
Furthermore, two new CDs were released to mark the composer's birthday. 4 canciones nach San Juan de la Cruz, recorded by the soprano Angelika Luz, violinist Ernst Kovacic, Klangforum Wien under Sylvain Cambreling, the Bavarian Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart under Marcus Creed, and the SWR Symphony Orchestra under Emilio Pomàrico, was released by WERGO. His “composed interpretation” of Winterreise, recorded by tenor Julian Prégardien and the Deutschen Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern under Robert Reimer, was released on P.RHÉI.
"Music is simply the most beautiful and fulfilling part of my life", says Tabea Zimmermann on why she is celebrating her 50th birthday with a concert. A few weeks before the festivities she tells us about her plans for the matinee performance, a new world premiere and her multi-faceted life as a violist, professor and festival director.
The impressive list of musical well-wishers sharing a stage with Tabea Zimmermann at Berlin's Radialsystem on 9 October points to the richness of her professional life. The violist explains: "I may have recorded two CDs with Kirill Gerstein but we've actually performed very little together in concerts. We now have the chance to play together, since he also lives in Berlin. Jörg Widmann is a close friend and we've been playing together for years; as a guest with the Arcanto Quartett or in our trio with Dénes Várjon, with whom we premiered Jörg's trio Es war einmal... ("Once upon a time..."). This long-standing bond is wonderful." Tabea Zimmermann’s commitment to contemporary music is combined with her love of teaching: "Benjamin's Viola, Viola is a very challenging piece that I play every now and again with students, and have been working on with German Tcakulov." She will also perform Dvořák's quintet with the esteemed Armida Quartett – four young musicians with whom she has become good friends. Among them is her former student, Teresa Schwamm: "Teresa is now a colleague and we make music together. A happy coincidence!"
Reflecting on her achievements is not Tabea Zimmermann’s priority as she celebrates her milestone birthday. When she does briefly consider her long career on the stage, the musician is a little amazed, having started viola lessons at the age of three and still becoming "increasingly familiar" with her instrument after 47 years. "Playing, travelling and working have accompanied me throughout my life and it is still a positive experience. I take huge pleasure in making music! There’s no end in sight yet, although in the past I would never have thought I would still be playing the viola at the age of 50." She does not know whether she will still be playing in ten years' time. "In the meantime I can, however, imagine that I will be. Of course health is something to be taken into consideration. I don't feel impaired yet but playing a stringed instrument is such a complex activity that one can surely not carry on in the same way at the age of 80."
Another reason that 50 is a significant number for her is a very personal one: Tabea Zimmermann's first husband, the conductor David Shallon, suddenly passed away shortly before his 50th birthday."Back then we wanted to have a big party but sadly never got round to it. The fact that I'm now passing over this threshold, 16 years later, is of great significance to me."
"So now I'm celebrating", concludes Tabea Zimmermann, adding that she has never done this before. The violist now feels she has been "lucky". "I have received an awful lot in life, from the Lahr Music School, my teachers in Freiburg and Sándor Végh in Salzburg: to my surprise, I've always had support and encouragement. From a very young age, I was told, 'Don't change' and 'Continue like that'. That gives you a decent following wind!" When she says this experience has given her a sense of responsibility, it is not just a cliché; it is the impetus for a whole range of activities. As well as her teaching commitments, which have become ever more important to her, there is her relatively new involvement with the Hindemith Foundation, her appointment as chair of the board of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn and her artistic directorship of the Beethoven-Woche. "I don't believe in big changes from the outside", she explains. "I have observed that in society you can only change things in your own area. For me that has a lot to do with personal contact. I don't like dealing with power structures and hierarchies."
She has increasingly arranged her own musical activities in accordance with this maxim, choosing special musical partnerships. She spent two intensive years as artist in residence with the Ensemble Resonanz, premiering Enno Poppe's viola concerto Filz among other works. The piece was recently performed again at the Musikfest Berlin to great acclaim. "The Ensemble Resonanz is a small group with a democratic attitude that has developed a very strong profile for itself. When I lead a programme with them, I have my own thoughts, but it's not about telling the others what to do. I would rather suggest something that the ensemble just cannot turn down." The collective search for new musical insights is also integral to her teaching. "Everything that I work on with my students comes into my own work and vice versa: the things that I experience during rehearsals and concerts make their way into the classroom the following week. It's a continual growth that I'm really happy about and thankful for."
Will Michael Jarrell's new viola concerto also appear in a lesson in the not too distant future? The score is on Tabea Zimmermann's music stand at home at any rate, but before it can be celebrated, there is the small matter of its world premiere. She describes this exceptionally virtuosic and formally varied work as "practically unplayable but still huge fun. I’ve premiered over 50 compositions so I’m able to enjoy a bit of confidence and hope that everything goes smoothly again.” Laughing, she adds: “But I never know for sure. For all the preparation, practice and tinkering, it only comes together during rehearsals”. This is a process that demands trust and openness from all involved. “My attitude before a world premiere is that I mustn’t judge the piece but rather make it possible for the sounds to be heard.”
Tabea Zimmermann looks to her own future with a similar openness. “The question ‘What next?’ has occupied me since my first competition, when I was asked what I would like to be doing in ten years’ time. I wasn’t and am still not able to give an answer! I'm happy that I didn’t always have everything meticulously planned out. My favourite music is always what is currently on my music stand.”
Nina Rohlfs, 09/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
The evening / is bitter / for those / whose lover is as far / as the sky.
(Japan, unknown poet, 920 AD)
Matsukaze and Murasame share a passionate and unrequited love for the same man. Hundreds of years after their death, their ghosts return to the salt shack where they spent their lives. From 6 until 9 April, Toshio Hosokawa’s opera Matsukaze can once again be seen at La Monnaie in Brussels where choreographer Sasha Waltz’s original production received its world premiere. As in 2011, Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant will take on the roles of Matsukaze and Murasame. Later in the month, the production will be performed at the Polish National Opera.
Matsukaze is based on material from classical Nō theatre that is very well-known in Japan. The composer describes the story as a drama of salvation: “Matsukaze and Murasame return to our world once again. They have a very sad fate and suffer a great yearning from which they wish to free themselves. This aspect of the story is very important for me personally. Through composing, I would like to free myself from such attachments; through music, I seek to purify my existence.”
As in many of Toshio Hosokawa’s pieces, nature plays a significant role in Matsukaze. “The title of the opera is important because the name Matsukaze is a compound word meaning wind (kaze) in the pines (matsu). What the women sing can be understood as sounds of nature. This was important to me as I composed the work; without song, I cannot bring nature into the score. When I make music, my sounds become one with the entire cosmos. In Matsukaze, music, song and dance create this connection to nature. At the end, Matsukaze becomes wind and Murasame becomes water and rain – that is a very Japanese way of thinking.” Toshio Hosokawa sees the two main protagonists as intermediaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead: “These days, we live in a world that we want to separate from death. We forget the dead, although we all die. Shamans establish a connection to the world of the dead, they move between the living and the dead.”
As classic as the story and its spiritual influences may sound, Hosokawa’s treatment of the material is far removed from the ritualised art of Nō theatre. “These strict movements and rules come from the samurai times when Nō theatre emerged,” the composer explains. “In many Japanese arts, Kabuki for instance, I recognise a very strict societal order, a hierarchy, a male society with very strict laws. It’s not possible to breathe. I don’t like that, and I’d like to free myself and art from this. But the thought, the basic theme, interests me.”
Toshio Hosokawa also based his opera Hanjo (2004) on Nō theatre. However, while the libretto of Hanjo was newly interpreted by the Japanese poet Yukio Mishima, Matsukaze was composed upon a German libretto by the young author Hannah Dübgen, who closely references the Japanese original by Zeami.
The traditions of Japanese culture influence Toshio Hosokawa greatly but do not confine him. His relationship to European music is similar. “I need both music from Japan and music from the rest of the world. I love European music more than Japanese music, already having studied it as a child. Almost all Japanese people love European music because it broadens their perspective. The Japanese tradition is very narrow. I feel our Japanese music to be less independent. Our music needs atmosphere, context, climate and special places in order to exist, and only comes alive through the joining of these components. In contrast, European music is an abstract form, a bigger world. It is possible to utilise it in other contexts,” he explains.
Aside from its riches, Toshio Hosokawa also sees weaknesses in the European music and opera tradition. “In European opera, music and movements are separate. The vocals are wonderful but the gestures are always the same. Coming from Japanese theatre, one is used to song and movement relying on one another. I would like to create something new, a truly new opera and for this, new impulses and personalities are essential.”
In the last scene of Matsukaze, it is dance that brings deliverance to the souls of the two sisters who long for the fulfilment promised in a poem penned by their lover:
Today is the hour of parting / the gates of the capital are waiting for me / yet when I hear your longing / call, loved one - / I will return.
Nina Rohlfs, 04/2015 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
Interview with Toshio Hosokawa: Ilka Seifert
6 – 9/4/2017
Brussels, Théâtre national
21 – 23/4/2017
Warsaw, Polish National Opera
Ahead of their performance of Busoni’s complete works for two pianos at the Musikfest Berlin this September, the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo tell us why Busoni is under-represented in concert programmes today, and how he broke the mould at the turn of the 20th century.
This year marks what would have been Ferruccio Busoni’s 150th birthday. In his day, the Italian-German pianist, composer and essayist was renowned the world over for his dazzling virtuosity at the keyboard. He continues to hold a special significance for pianists: his piano compositions are astounding artistic and technical achievements that set the most irresistible challenge for performers at the highest level.
In his compositions, Busoni aimed for a middle way between the forward-looking modernism of contemporaries such as Arnold Schönberg and the timeless melody and counterpoint of the great composers of the past, especially Bach. However, his music has gained a reputation as being dense, difficult and foreboding. For the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, “Busoni is absolutely under-represented in today’s concert culture. That may be because he is not readily seen as a universal genius.”
Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher are challenging this perception with a new programme incorporating Busoni’s complete works for two pianos. Having performed the programme in August at the Busoni Festival and the Piano Festival Husum, the duo will now perform the programme as part of the Musikfest Berlin on 4 September.
The duo is well known for its serious and intelligent approach to concert programming. This programme, however, was of Busoni’s own devising. “In his writings, Busoni speaks of a ‘through-composed’ programme that incorporates his complete works for two pianos,” Andreas Grau says. The programme was never performed by Busoni, and has been rarely heard since – although he points out “there was one recording years ago on LP by the Swiss duo Isabel and Jürg von Vintschger.”
Busoni conceived the programme after finishing his transcription of Mozart’s Fantasie für eine Orgelwalze. He saw that this work could be combined with his transcription of Mozart’s Duettino concertante to create a new sonata. As Andreas Grau explains, “the contrasting parts of Fantasie für eine Orgelwalze function as the 1st and 2nd movements and the Duettino concertante, as in the original Piano Concerto KV 459, functions as the virtuosic and brilliant conclusion.” Busoni then framed this new sonata with two of his improvisations on Bach, including his famed Fantasia contrappuntistica, reworked for two pianos.
For the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, this programme displays the scope of Busoni’s work. “It is fascinating to see the breadth of Busoni’s composition, which spans from close correspondence with the original work – as in the Duettino concertante, which could as well pass for Mozart’s original – to an almost complete reinvention – as in Fantasia contrappuntistica, which transfers Bach’s music into the 20th century.”
As well as this, the programme offers an opportunity to appreciate what Andreas Grau calls Busoni’s “visionary spirit.” For the duo, “it is always fascinating to play works from this period whose creators were also their interpreters. In this respect, Busoni stands in the tradition of Franz Liszt, who edited his works for his own use. This gives us a new way of looking at the relationship between an original and its interpretation and transcription.”
Indeed, many of Busoni’s works are transcribed or edited versions of pre-existing music, and are a kind of homage to the great composers of the past. This, along with the fact that much of his music was created specifically for his own performance, means that his creative work breaks the mould of what we expect from a composer working at the beginning of the 20th century.
With this programme, the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo aims to redress the balance of Busoni’s contemporary reception. As too do a host of institutions holding concerts and exhibitions in Busoni’s anniversary year. The duo’s concert will be held at the Kunstbibliothek Berlin, where it will open a special exhibition entitled ‘BUSONI. Freiheit für die Tonkunst!’
Using artefacts from the Busoni estate held by the Staatsbibilothek zu Berlin, the exhibition will display the composer’s music manuscripts, programmes and arrangements of other composer’s works alongside letters between Busoni and contemporaries such as Schönberg, Stefan Zweig and George Bernard Shaw, and works by artists who were important to Busoni, such as Pablo Picasso.
This exhibition, as with the duo’s Musikfest Berlin performance, aims to paint a truer, more nuanced picture of Busoni in his 150th birthday year. As well as a piano virtuoso, and a composer indebted to the music of his forebears, he was a radical visionary who dreamt of a new kind of music, and who challenges our idea of what a classical composer looks like.
He may be a neglected figure in contemporary concert programmes, but the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo “hope that his two anniversaries in 2016 and 2024” – which will mark the 100th anniversary of his death – “will help to change that, and that this fascinating music can be brought to a wider audience.”
Sam Johnstone, 08/2016
According to his official biography, the decision to dedicate himself to conducting was made fairly recently: in 2010 Pierre Bleuse chose not exactly to give up his highly successful career as a violinist but at least to let it rest in order to begin studying with Jorma Panula in Finland. It may therefore come as a surprise that the Frenchman has been a regular guest conductor of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse for several years. In the meantime the Orchestre National Bordeaux-Aquitaine also extends invitations to him and he is now setting out on an international career – in July he made his US debut with the Utah Symphony. In answer to the question of whether he took a secret shortcut to the conductor's podium, he says no and laughs: "I actually first became obsessed with conducting when I was four, before I even started playing the violin. So it was always my first love and even as a violinist I was always connected to conducting."
In order to live out this love the sought-after violinist, who performed as an orchestral and chamber musician, and as a concertmaster with orchestras such as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, became a student again. "It required a certain amount of humility but taking the time to do this was both essential and very rewarding. Jorma Panula told me point-blank, ‘You are a conductor, stop your job and concentrate!’" The great teacher of conducting served as a door opener to the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. "It's not necessarily easy for an orchestra to accept a colleague from the same city in the role of conductor – I was solo violinist with the Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse until 2010. Luckily our first meeting in 2012 went so well that the result has been an annual collaboration ever since."
In any case Pierre Bleuse's past as a violinist was advantageous for his conducting training as he had an intimate knowledge of repertoire from baroque to contemporary music, and an accurate insight into the inner workings of an orchestra from the musicians' point of view. From 2005 to 2010 he regularly led the Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse as solo violinist – an experience which influenced his current understanding of the conductor's role. "My work seems to me to be a natural continuation of what I tried with the chamber orchestra: I'd like to communicate what the music is saying and focus completely on that. At the same time I am convinced that as a conductor you have to listen to the wonderful musicians who you are working with. Of course I have a clear idea of how I want to shape a piece of music but I am always open to what the musicians have to contribute. It makes me happy when every musician can be an artist and not just a little soldier in a concert." This thought leads him in preparation for his concert in Utah. "Every orchestra has its own sound. You cannot necessarily prepare for it. But it helps to be aware and alert in the first moments of the rehearsal for these differences. That doesn't however mean that you have to adapt, you have to stay true to yourself."
In the meantime Pierre Bleuse counts himself lucky that he also has the opportunity to put programmes together. "As a young conductor you are often not able to choose what you would like to conduct. This is currently changing for me – in October I'll conduct a programme for the first time with works by Ravel and Dukas in Toulouse." As a co-founder of the Festival Musika Toulouse, Pierre Bleuse devoted himself intensively to programmatic questions. "I like this adventure. For Musika I spent a lot of time developing unusual programmes and interesting concert formats." The idea for the festival first came about through Pierre Bleuse's concert activity in Norway where he met musical partners and sponsors for a French-Norwegian cultural exchange. As a networker and creative mind, he was able to co-develop an economically and musically successful festival that has since taken on a different form: the Musika Orchestra Academy, still under the artistic and musical direction of Pierre Bleuse and in co-operation with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, creates a playing field for young musicians to work and learn at the highest level.
Another important point on the conductor's wish list will be crossed off in the years to come. "In my musical life I'd like to have as good a balance as possible between symphonic repertoire and opera", explains Pierre Bleuse. He continues, "My mother is a singer and I was exposed to a lot of vocal music as a baby. When I was twelve years old I had the opportunity to play the young violinist in Offenbach's Orpheus. It was an unforgettable experience performing on stage with the singers and getting to know this musically and theatrically rich world." He is therefore delighted to be conducting Offenbach's Barbe-Bleue in three years' time. "But I also have a love affair with Britten and I'm crazy about Wagner", he adds. Another special opera production is due in the coming year when he will conduct Michael Jarrell's Cassandre at the Festival Aix-en-Provence. "I feel very close to this music. And it is important for me to conduct a wide repertoire in which romantic works feature just as much as contemporary ones. I am sure that conducting Michael Jarrell's opera will once again give me a new and fresh perspective when I then conduct a late romantic symphony, for example."
Nina Rohlfs, 07/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
Fundamental questions about space and time are keeping Philippe Manoury busy at the moment: his “Köln Trilogy” is a large-scale spatial-triptych that scrutinises the architecture of modern concert halls and orchestral spatial concepts from an aesthetic point of view, turning them into compositional material. The first part of the trilogy, Ring, will receive its world premiere on 22 May.
The Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne will continue the trilogy in 2017 with its performance of In Situ, which was premiered in Donaueschingen in 2013, before a third new composition completes the cycle in 2019. In this interview Philippe Manoury describes his journey of musical discovery and what guides him in his musical research as a composer.
Philippe, you were the portrait composer at the 2014 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik. Was that the first time you have been the main focus at a German festival?
At that point yes. It was the first retrospective on such a scale, also including world premieres. Ten years ago my music was practically never played at German festivals. I told a few people about this and two artistic directors answered straight away: Hans-Peter Jahn in Stuttgart and Armin Köhler in Donaueschingen. Fortunately the situation has changed since then.
You grew up in the ‘province’, in the Corrèze département. Did you discover music by chance?
No, there was music at home. But it wasn’t the kind of music that I compose these days. My father played the accordion and was a folklore specialist of the Massif Central region. In this rural setting there weren’t any points of contact with classical culture or art music. When I say that I cannot help thinking that there’s a social appropriation to music, which was always associated with the ruling classes, first with the nobility and then with the middle classes. When we moved to Paris – I lived in the countryside until the age of seven – I was exposed to more music albeit in a very special way. Music became my refuge. I was a child accustomed to country life and Paris, and in particular my first contact with school, was therefore a great shock. Music was a way of escaping from the dark and narrow world that I associated with school.
You began your musical training in the early 1970s at the Conservatoire de Paris. What was the Paris music scene like at that time?
The stuffy atmosphere of the interwar period was still at large with regards to music education. Composers who are recognised as important figures nowadays – I’m talking about the generation from the 1950s including Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Nono, Ligeti – didn’t feature in education at all. As students we studied them outside the classroom, that wasn’t forbidden, but in composition and music theory classes they were never discussed. The standard of academic education was good if not very good but it focused completely on the traditional tonal concept and had a very French bias. I remember the great paragon in composition classes was still Gabriel Fauré who was defined as the ultimate high point in harmonic development. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Mahler or early Schönberg – even late Wagner – were not taught. French neoclassicism with Cocteau as the main protagonist and the associated anti-German stance was still very of the moment. Still, there was Messiaen who enjoyed a certain prestige. Boulez didn’t live in France. Xenakis and Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) were present and spectralism was just emerging.
When did you discover electronic music?
That happened during my studies at the conservatoire. In those years students composed either for electronics or instruments. There was a strict division between the two. I found myself in a dilemma because with my traditional training I didn’t know anything about the electronic processes that I felt drawn towards. I was enrolled as a student in Pierre Schaeffer’s GRM class. But the anticipated light bulb moment never came. I was never able to warm to this purely intuitive aesthetic of musique concrète that refrained from using theoretical principles. The person who showed me the way was Stockhausen. He came to Paris every winter and gave concerts. That’s how I witnessed the French premiere of Mantra, and heard Kontakte, Hymnen, Telemusik, Gesang der Jünglinge, all of them extremely impressive works. And I discovered that someone hadn’t just bridged the gap between electronic and acoustic music but had done this within a work and, as in Mantra, in real time. This really did release shock waves. Real time was certainly still very rudimentary back then but I discovered this world through Stockhausen. I always say that Stockhausen is for electronic music what Monteverdi is for opera. He didn’t invent it but he was the first person to develop a strong vision for it.
Music in real time (La musique du temps réel) is the title of your book that was published in 2012 containing interviews with Omer Corlaix and Jean-Guillaume Lebrun. It seems to me that you have had a great influence on this concept. What does it mean exactly?
Instrumental music is composed in a “divergent time”, that is to say the time needed to conceive and write the work is not the same as the length of the finished piece. But as soon as these compositions are performed we move into real time. The notes that were recorded on the paper lead to a production of sounds that have a birth, a life and a death, that are absolutely unique and unrepeatable. There are two sides to time, the divergent time of the compositional process and the real time of the performance. The development of very powerful computers suddenly resolved this situation in the 1970s: the notes are not necessarily predetermined any more in all their components but calculated in the moment when you hear them. While this is happening we can work on them, change and control them just like an instrumentalist would do with acoustic music. The following situation can describe music in real time: a machine calculates notes with a speed that our ears cannot detect. So I didn’t invent the term, it comes from the world of science. Let’s put it this way: I have theorised aspects of this idea in the field of composition and one of the most obvious of these aspects is the reintroduction of performers into electronic music.
Maybe we can come back to Witten to illustrate this and in particular to the world premiere of Le temps, mode d’emploi for two pianos and live electronics with the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo. What was this collaboration like?
I was working with two formidable pianists – they don’t just play fantastically well, you can also feel their mutual understanding. This unity is immediately noticeable just like with an orchestra that has played under the same conductor for many years and a blink of the eye is enough for the musicians to understand what is wanted. The GrauSchumacher Piano Duo had a purely musical approach, that is they gave themselves over to the music and tackled it in the same way they would any other work. Of course I can explain the details of my composition but if this musical spark in which the music is expressed isn’t there, something very fundamental is missing. It was immediately clear with the duo. In Le temps, mode d’emploi the electronics generate structures that are regenerated every time. I wrote the piano parts in such a way as to afford the pianists the freedom to react to the electronics because they cannot foresee in detail when moments of great silence or great activity will occur.
In recent years you have composed a series of orchestral pieces that demonstrate your affinity to large-scale formats, to orchestras. Do you see yourself as an “orchestral composer”? And do you associate yourself with any particular school of thought?
Certainly I see myself as an orchestral composer because I often say that the two media that interest me the most are large orchestras and electronics. The latter is a kind of new orchestra for me, by the way. Large orchestras offer a multitude of sources and I like this pluralism of voices. Writing for orchestras is like playing chess: the combinations are infinite even if we do know all the rules. However it isn’t so easy to pigeonhole me. I don’t belong to post-serialism or post-spectralism, and I don’t have noise music tendencies or compose neotonally. I would say that my first influence as a composer was Wagner. The plasticity of his music, in which the polyphony expands and tightens, and the lengthening and contraction of time never fail to impress me. Debussy remains important as the one who did away with hierarchies in orchestras. The strings no longer dominate and he distributes the weight in a new way. And Mahler should also be mentioned with his suspended time and unique counterpoint. I’d like to mention Boulez and Ligeti from among the contemporary musicians. Boulez made interesting discoveries with the orchestra with regards to time. Faced with the great variety of elements, of individuals in the orchestra he found ways to allow each group to react with a precise temporality. For example in Répons the soloists are grouped around the conductor and can act freely while the orchestra plays more metrically. This mutual penetration of the temporal layers is often overlooked but it gives his music a unique dramatic tension. Ligeti found poetry in time and space that is very attractive. The music sometimes seems to come from far away; sometimes it seems to be frozen like in a hallucination. All in all one could say that what interests me the most about orchestral music at the moment is the sound-space relationship.
Interview: Sarah Pieh | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
On 10 March Samir Odeh-Tamimi's new composition L'Apocalypse Arabe I received its world premiere at the Klara Festival in Brussels, interpreted by the ensemble for early music B'rock and the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir. Embedded in director Pierre Audi's music theatre version of Bach's St. John Passion And You Must Suffer, the piece develops its own musical world that is by no means orientated towards Bach's soundscape or the religious images of the Passion.
In Pierre Audi's stage version of the St. John Passion, the historical time of Christ's crucifixion, the period when the Passion was created and the current view of the issues raised in the work coalesce: the director stages a reflection on religion and conflict, suffering and compassion, and truth and identity together with musicians who are experienced in historical performance practice, with artist Wim Delvoye and his set design incorporating a modern version of the Stations of the Cross, and with the integration of new compositions (including a work by Annelies Van Parys written especially for the project).
It was only after Samir Odeh-Tamimi rejected Pierre Audi's other text ideas that contained obvious religious references during initial meetings about the commission and brought writer and painter Etel Adnan on board, that it became clear that both artists shared a fascination for her poetic work. "I had no idea that Pierre Audi has known Etel Adnan for 30 years and holds her work in high esteem. He reacted enthusiastically and gave me the go-ahead straight away", remembers the composer.
Samir Odeh-Tamimi has also personally known the author (who was born in 1925 and grew up as the daughter of Greek and Syrian parents in Lebanon, went to a French school there and later lived in the USA for a while) for years. "Her way of portraying and formulating things appeals to me. She's a very astute observer." He already set one of her poems, a comment on the events in the Arab world, to music in a 2007 commission by the Festspielhaus Hellerau: Jenin was developed as a literary echo to the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian refugee camp. "The Arab Apocalypse is a work that she wrote between 1979 and 1980 - in one breath, as she says", explains Samir Odeh-Tamimi. "I find it intriguing how she manages to describe this apocalypse (at that time referring to the Lebanese Civil War) in linguistically abstract images. The whole story of the Middle East becomes visible in an unbelievable language that is also very clear."
The musical power of the language in particular motivated him to deal with Etel Adnan's work. "I like texts that carry a rhythm and sound in them. I can examine them in detail with my music", explains Samir Odeh-Tamimi. "In this first part I leave the texts to be spoken. First in French, the original language of the book, and also in Arabic. There are highly complex Arabic words in the text that are very hard to pronounce. That's why I decided to carry on with French and to repeat the Arabic from the beginning. I succeeded in creating a kind of collage from the first and thirteenth poems."
When asked about the meaning of the sound of the language in the various translations the composer adds, "For the subsequent parts of this work that I would like to compose, I will have the poem translated into Greek. I'm sure that it will be a valuable asset soundwise. It's also got to do with the poet whose mother is Greek and who can also speak the language herself." Samir Odeh-Tamimi sees Etel Adnan's poetic technique as reminiscent of her mother's language. "She expresses what she wants to say using very simple means that always repeat themselves. For me, this reduction is the Greek in her coming out and personally really speaks to me. Xenakis' music was also developed in this way: there is an element that is continuously varied while always retaining its individuality."
From this perspective it seems to be logical that Samir Odeh-Tamimi's work arises from its own vocabulary despite its integration in Bach's St. John Passion. "I initially experimented in my head whether it was possible to develop my music from elements of Bach. But I noticed that this was very foreign to me. I would like to create my own music and be faithful to myself", says the composer. This is also true on a textual level: "The St. John Passion is a message of hope and I am able to understand it as this. But I don't have to believe in it from a religious point of view. The idea of Gods in general – in ancient Babylon or Ancient Egypt, wherever – fascinates me. The concept of one God is also intriguing. I am a spiritual person but spirituality doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a conventional religion."
Samir Odeh-Tamimi doesn't want to see the principle of hope as utterly destroyed by his composed apocalypse. "I don't believe in resurrection in a religious sense. My hope is rather that I make people aware of this tragedy, which everyone knows about anyway, and of Etel Adnan's poetry. Adonis, the Syrian poet, says that he believes in her Arab Apocalypse insofar as in his opinion the Arab world is a culture that is doomed to be destroyed, a dead culture. But I don’t believe that. There will be a new form. The Middle East is full to brim with cultural treasures and one can see traces of these all over the world. That is also my hope: that the spirit of this culture is reborn. I know that flowers will once again bloom after this catastrophe."
However both text and composition are a far cry from a meadow of flowers. Light years away as it were, made palpable for the visitors to the world premiere through the portrayals of the blazing sun that pervade Etel Adnan's literary tableau. "This sun always has a different face from one moment to the next", says Samir Odeh-Tamimi. "Sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes it is ugly, sometimes it is red, sometimes it sits in a boat, sometimes it is in a person's hand. It is very strong."
Nina Rohlfs 03/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
To mark the composer’s 90th birthday Edwin Baumgartner paints a picture of Friedrich Cerha’s life and work as a composer and artist for the Wiener Zeitung. You can read the article in German at www.wienerzeitung.at.
Friedrich Cerha talked about his eventful life in a video interview for the online magazine wien.at (in German).
Our three-part series of interviews celebrating Eliahu Inbal’s 80th birthday concludes with the conductor’s memories of his recording successes, and reflections on orchestral sound and the interpretation of works.
Alongside numerous other vinyl and CD productions, the Bruckner cycle with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (hr-Sinfonieorchester), then the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, was the one that really brought you into the public eye and is still considered legendary. How did your relationship with the orchestra begin?
I came upon an orchestra that had lots of opportunities but also lots of problems. Generally the attitude was that the orchestra wasn’t meant to play in the premier league – and I wanted to go straight into the premier league! I had to change a lot of things and unfortunately that meant making some painful cuts. Back then I was very enthusiastic and thought that the orchestra wasn’t doing anything – no records, no tour – and that just wouldn’t do. I started with recordings. The large cycles that we recorded were very important for the orchestra because they were appreciated by international audiences.
How did this opportunity come about?
When I was still with Philips I made recordings with the London Philharmonic and Claudio Arrau, which were very successful. With Bruckner I was the first person to conduct the original versions of the third, fourth and eighth symphonies, which no one wanted to play because they are so difficult. Teldec was keen to record them and this resulted in a complete recording. Many other projects followed including the cycles by Dvořák and Stravinsky. Denon became aware of me because I always conducted a Mahler symphony to great acclaim when I went to Japan. They then released the Mahler cycle with the RSO Frankfurt. I think it was the first digital complete recording and thousands of copies were sold. Later on I also recorded the cycles by Berlioz and Shostakovich, Schumann, Webern and Brahms with Denon. All of that, first the vinyl records and then the CDs, put my name on the map as it were. And it has stayed there ever since.
When a conductor arrives with a recording team and is able to make such great recordings happen, this must also have an effect on his relationship with the orchestra.
Yes, of course. The orchestra developed enormously, as did the tours that we went on with this repertoire. A provincial atmosphere surrounded the orchestra when I first encountered it, and I changed this. When I left the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra it was internationally famous and it still enjoys this level of prestige today.
The recordings also promoted you as a conductor.
Without a doubt. I would put it like this: when a conductor comes to an orchestra there are two situations. Either he is unknown and it all depends on how he presents himself in the first few minutes; or he arrives with a history, he has a name, then he automatically enjoys more authority. I profit enormously from the latter. Some also possess natural authority or charisma but the fact that I was particularly well-known as an interpreter of Mahler and Bruckner thanks to the recordings was doubtless an advantage.
Your work with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra was far from your only long-term post as chief conductor. What is it like for you now when you guest conduct these orchestras with which you have such a close connection?
When I return to an orchestra, which I have worked with for many years the sound changes the moment I stand in front of the musicians. They know what I wanted back then – this happens with La Fenice, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, in Frankfurt, with the Tokyo Metropolitan, Czech Philharmonic. It’s as if I have returned to my family. This contact remains. And the phrase “Inbal sound” is used.
These orchestras differ greatly regarding their individual sound. Do you have an “Inbal-Konzerthausorchester-sound” in your head and an “Inbal-Fenice-sound” or do you wish to achieve the same sound with every orchestra?
That is an interesting aspect because every orchestra has its own quirks. And then I come along with my vision. There is an “Inbal sound”. But it cannot be the same with every orchestra; I would never want to take the Japanese part out of Tokyo for example. I would like to keep the qualities, features and characteristics of each orchestra and profit from them – and on top of that achieve my “Inbal sound”, and of course my interpretation.
How do you develop your interpretation – how do you find your key to a work?
There are things that are easy to understand: analysing the score, the structure, is the same for all conductors. But then the spiritual and emotional content needs to be taken into consideration. The meaning of the music: what story is it telling, what does it want to imply. This is when the person Inbal comes into play and I have to be in harmony with the score. Let’s take Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 as an example. I have conducted it many times but now I take another look at the score and explore what it is saying to me and what that means to me. New aspects emerge each time because times change, I change, the world faces different problems. This is all reflected in the music. And of course there is no right or wrong. It’s individual and that’s what makes the interpretation. Another conductor will discover something else in the music. And that’s fine, otherwise it would be boring.
We’ve also spoken indirectly about where you have lived – today you live in Paris. That does not seem like an obvious choice: your wife is German, your children partly grew up in Germany.
That may be due to sentimentality. One’s student years are very important, very formative – romance and of course the material itself that you studied combine. The desire to live in Paris again someday was always very strong. I lived in Germany for a long time until 1990 and after that considered moving back to Israel but my wife didn’t want to. And so we returned to Paris.
You are conducting a lot of concerts around your birthday. Are you fulfilling yourself with them?
I am happy with my current experiences. Getting to know new orchestras and returning to many I already know well gives me great pleasure. All that I now wish for is quite banal: health and a long life so that I can see my children – and grandchildren – for a long time to come.
We wish you that too from the bottom of our hearts!
Nina Rohlfs 01/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
In the second instalment of our three-part series of interviews to mark Eliahu Inbal’s 80th birthday, the conductor looks back on his apprenticeship years in Israel and Europe – a period when he encountered important teachers and musicians.
Mr. Inbal, as a young conductor in Israel you met Leonard Bernstein. How did this meeting come about?
At that time I was concertmaster of the army symphony orchestra and assisted the conductor – this was my military service. People had already heard of me in this role, I had a reputation as a gifted young man. Suddenly I get a call from the Israel Philharmonic: I am to visit them the following day and conduct for Bernstein. I had the flu and a temperature but I went anyway and conducted Coriolan. Bernstein took me to one side and said: “You have the talent to become a great conductor. You must go abroad and study!” Thanks to his letter of recommendation I received a scholarship. Bernstein was therefore extremely important for my career. I can’t say what might have happened if I hadn’t met him. Maybe I still would have forged ahead as a conductor somehow but I have him to thank for the fact that I went abroad and studied there. He was also important for me as a role model, just like Karajan was a model for others. At that time I also experienced a range of great conductors in Israel.
And you visited the rehearsals.
Yes, unofficially. It wasn’t allowed. I slipped through a window in the room and hid. A few years later when I was conducting the Israel Philharmonic myself I showed them the window I used to creep through. That’s how I witnessed Bernstein, Kubelik, Markevitch, Fricsay at work, many great conductors and soloists too of course. That was my inspiration and my school because of course you learn during rehearsals. And playing in the orchestra is an even better schooling. There you get to know exactly how it works – what is important, what is wrong, what is efficient or what is more of a hindrance. I learnt by doing.
I read that you were shocked to hear French orchestras when you came to Paris.
Shocked is perhaps an overstatement but they did sound very different, without the patina, the fullness of sound. I grew up more with the Viennese sound. And when I conducted French orchestras as a student at the conservatoire I already tried to teach them this sound. Orchestras are very different, sometimes even within the same city or country. I teach them what I need for the repertoire that I am conducting. When I conduct Debussy or Ravel with a German orchestra I have to demand different things than I would in France. And vice versa: when I conduct Bruckner with French orchestras I demand different things than I do with German orchestras that automatically bring something with them thanks to their culture. That still holds true today.
Your time as a student in Paris had a great impact on you, particularly as a result of several encounters that you had there.
First of all I also went to lots of rehearsals and saw interesting conductors at work, from whom I learnt a lot. Messiaen taught me something important: his music analysis class was completely different to what I had previously learnt because he didn’t start out with the structure of the motifs but with the colours and sound combinations. That was a different aspect, a different perspective. At that time Nadja Boulanger was probably older than I am now and instead of doing practical exercises, she talked about the philosophy of music, about her thoughts and preferences. She did not like Richard Strauss for example, or Wagner. But among other things she taught us interesting facts about Stravinsky. With Louis Fourestier, my teacher at the conservatoire, we also dealt more with the view on music: what you should look out for in a score, how to perceive it and organise it so that you can conduct the music. Then I went to Celibidache in Siena and he had a very scientific style. Even one’s movements should follow certain principles. Everyone did his exercises, the whole class with 20 active students and 40 passive. Of course it’s absurd because conducting movements are something very personal. But it teaches you discipline and structure that you are able to arrange yourself in the movement. Celibidache also had a very firm opinion on score analysis. By contrast my other conducting teacher Franco Ferrara in Hilversum, with whom I had already taken lessons before I went to the conservatoire, was very spontaneous. He used his instinct. When he was observing a student, he knew what that person’s strengths and weaknesses were and worked with everyone differently.
So you learned your conducting trade from very different teachers.
Yes, the two extremes – Ferrara and Celibidache – were very good for me. Together with Fourestier, who conveyed a very successful didactic method of score learning, it resulted in a comprehensive training. And the most useful thing was that I always had an orchestra at my disposal. In Hilversum for example, there were five radio orchestras at that time – one for each political party. A pianist can practise on the piano, as a violinist I could practise on a violin, but what about a conductor? In my opinion you cannot practise in front of the mirror. In my life I have never practised conducting movements and gestures. Instead I took the score and thought about how I would achieve what I wanted, then everything else came naturally. The way a conductor uses his body has to emanate from the nature of things.
Surely a lot of prerequisites have to be fulfilled in order to conduct from within oneself.
I had brilliant teachers from the very beginning, from primary school right through to the conservatoire and the classes with Celibidache and Ferrara. I already mentioned Mr. Blumenthal at primary school, and Josef Tal, Edith Gerson-Kiwi, Abel Ehrlich in Israel – they were all fantastic teachers. Having the opportunity to learn from these people was a godsend because I believe that teachers can have a big influence. A teacher can make sure that a pupil learns good technique and if he’s got musical talent, this will be brought out through this technique. Other teachers are able to establish interpretative roots. Unfortunately when my son was learning the viola I realised that there are also teachers who cannot teach anything sensible and who don’t really have any kind of method.
Did you ever consider teaching more intensively yourself?
No – I still think of myself as a student. I am always learning something new. Maybe when I am 90 I will say: Right, now I know something, now I can pass it on to others.
Nina Rohlfs 01/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
Part one of the three-part series of interviews to mark Eliahu Inbal’s 80th birthday.
There are not many conductors today who can look back on more experience than Eliahu Inbal: already by his mid-twenties he had become an internationally sought-after guest conductor, and in the decades that followed he shaped the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonieorchester des Hessischen Rundfunks Frankfurt), Orchestra del Teatro la Fenice, Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Orchestra of the Konzerthaus Berlin, Czech Philharmonic and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor.
Conducting engagements with these orchestras, with which he is still closely affiliated, remain an integral part of his still intensive concert activities. And so it was that we were able to meet Eliahu Inbal in Berlin one month before his birthday, where he was conducting the orchestra of the Konzerthaus in three concerts. In the first part of our interview he tells us about his childhood and the early stages of his musical career in Palestine and Israel.
Mr. Inbal, you turn 80 on 16 February. But I have heard that you have two birthdays. How does that work?
My official birthday is on 16 February. A violist at La Scala who could read horoscopes wanted to know exactly when I was born, at what time. I asked my mother and she said, “Oh that’s easy, it was at sunset on the evening of the Shabbat.” I have a watch that can determine which day of the week a certain date is. The watch said Sunday. So I rang my mother again and said, “I was born on a Sunday“. And she said, “No, it was Saturday evening but according to Jewish tradition, after sunset is already the next day.” That’s why I have two birthdays: the calendar day would actually have been the 15th but the time of birth is sunset. My uncle who was a great Rabbi said, “That is a sign that he will be a spiritual person.”
I read a lot about you to prepare for this interview but I did not find very much about your background, about your family.
My parents came from the Orient, my mother from Damascus, now Syria and my father from Aden, then under British mandate and now part of Yemen. My father worked in Palestine for the British Administration. I therefore had some contact to British culture and still own a British passport.
Is it true that there is a special story behind your name?
Yes. My original surname was Josef. And since Josef is also a first name it always led to confusion. When I made a definite decision to become a conductor I thought I needed a surname that isn’t a first name. That’s when I chose Inbal. Inbal is the clapper in a bell and that suits a conductor well. I’m the clapper and the orchestra chimes, not me.
How did you first discover music? Did music play an important role in your family?
Yes absolutely, but only liturgical music in the synagogue, choir, singing on my own. That’s where my whole musical side comes from. However, when I was at school – and I started school a lot earlier than was normal, I was two years younger than everyone else in the class – a music teacher stood in for another teacher. He brought us sheet music and I began to compose; it was then that I discovered secular music.
Why did you then start learning the violin?
When I was about seven years old my uncle helped me to make a kind of guitar-cum-violin from plywood and strings and I began to play. After that my sister took me to the conservatoire where my sense of hearing was tested and so on. They immediately made a scholarship available to me and gave me a violin. That is how it started.
The 1940s and 1950s was an enormously turbulent time in Israel, both politically and musically – just thinking about the history of the founding of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, for example.
Bronislaw Huberman, the great violinist, knew in advance what was coming. He went to the large orchestras in Central Europe in 1932/33 and told the Jewish musicians they had no future there; they had to go to Israel. And so it was that the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, later renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was founded with the best talent from Central Europe in 1936, the year I was born. The members of the radio orchestra in Jerusalem were also refugees, one can call them that today – musicians who fled the Nazi regime.
And who shifted their whole musical tradition from Europe to another place.
That’s right. Like I said, I have oriental parents and one could wonder why I have such a connection to Bruckner and Mahler. Indeed, from a musical perspective I grew up in the midst of an absolute abundance of Central European tradition! All my teachers, whether they taught harmony, counterpoint, composition, all came from Germany. My violin teacher Lorand Fenyves, a quite brilliant violin teacher and leader of the Palestine Symphony, came from Hungary. I learnt musical analysis from the great composer Josef Tal, counterpoint with Abel Ehrlich. Even in primary school there were lots of teachers from Germany, such as my English teacher Mr. Blumenthal, a larger than life personality. He didn’t just teach us Shakespeare, rather about the principles of life.
You say that your family background is oriental. Does that also play a musical role for you?
Very much so! It gave me an extreme sensitivity for colours, for intonation, and this has stayed with me throughout my life. However back then we also had a wonderful gramophone that was a veritable piece of furniture and it still worked purely mechanically. I had my early musical experiences through this gramophone, and more so through the radio. I would listen to the Jerusalem broadcaster Kol Israel every day before I went to school. I was captivated by this western symphonic music, and it became my music.
Part two of our interview will be published on Elihu Inbal’s birthday and will focus on his apprenticeship years as a young conductor in Israel and Europe.
Nina Rohlfs 01/2016 | Translation: Celia Wynne Willson
The Berlin festival MaerzMusik will present a world premiere on 18 March that defies categorisation. Described by the project’s creators as a “musical exhibition space”, the concert installation will showcase the artistic forces of the Zafraan Ensemble, recorder player Jeremias Schwarzer, concert designer Folkert Uhde, visual artist Chiharu Shiota, composers Stefan Goldmann and Samir Odeh-Tamimi and the vocal artist Salome Kammer.
alif::split in the wall is a multilayered perceptive experiment for both the audience and performers. Through the combination of installation, performance, club atmosphere and concert situation the Radialsystem changes into an accessible, living organism. A landscape of pulsating tubes can be walked through or around, explored on one’s own and experienced from different perspectives. The dramaturg Ilka Seifert spoke to Jeremias Schwarzer, who developed the project’s concept and is the artistic director of alif, in the run-up to the premiere.
You gathered the artists participating in alif, you will direct the concert and also perform yourself, you account for the idea of this exceptional project. How did it all evolve?
The idea was born in 2012 when I was invited to Kyoto/Japan for a couple of concerts and a three week residency at the Goethe Institute. At the time Stefan Goldmann was a scholarship holder at the Villa Kamogawa. When we met there we talked about “trance” as a state of consciousness that is often sought by the audience of nightclubs or electronic music performances: a state of mind that is supposed to dismantle a “personal” consciousness into something greater, or collective. What I was particularly interested in was how someone skilled in this field can create a situation that at first glance is very different from what an audience of “classical” music expects. Generally speaking people attending nightclubs very rarely go and see classical concerts: I wondered what the intersection of what the night clubbers’ want and the setting of (contemporary) classical music performance might look like.
Reflecting on Chiharu Shiota's installations added another important aspect as they evoke something that also fascinates me in Ai Wei Wei's site-specific artwork: their works are “symbolic” in a very vivid sense because they address certain societal or political issues exceeding their specifically artistic identity. At the same time they can provoke very personal memories and an intense psychic involvement originating from the spectator's very own history. This shows that the artwork is effective on very diverse levels: it triggers various realms of perception and different relations. Contemplating this kind of installation – such as Chiharu Shiota's “The key in the hand” for example – stirs up plenty of personal, as well as collective memories. By exploring the installation in time one shifts between various stages of alertness and levels of association.
The idea that I was eager to work on was the conception of a musical artwork whose form of presentation is based on characteristics commonly associated with the visual arts: a long-lasting performance that can be entered and exited and re-entered, which invites the audience to constantly redefine the relation between the spectator and the artwork.
What exactly are you trying to explore through this particular artistic format?
I used to call the project “a theatre of consciousness“. There will be a variety of artistic approaches that simultaneously affect different levels of perception. Electronic music, arranged instrumental music, Chiharu Shiota's installation, the configuration of the exhibition space, and Zafraan Ensemble's musical performance generate a range of sensations that continuously complement each other and connect in different ways. The way of joining all these disparate elements – which images and associations emerge, which individual “pathways” along the various modes of perception one decides to follow – will crucially differ amongst visitors. Everyone will experience the work in their very own manner.
The title – alif – refers to a Sufi parable. What is the story about and how is it represented in the installation/performance?
It tells the story of a young student who repeatedly writes one single letter: the first letter of the alphabet; the alif. The teacher encourages him to practise the other letters too, but the student just says: “I still haven't got it!” and continues to practise the alif. While the other students steadily learn all the letters of the alphabet this one student goes on writing the alif. After he drops out of school the teacher almost forgets about him but one day there's a knock on the door: the student has returned to say, “I think that I've got it now!” He goes to the blackboard and draws the alif in one single line: the board and the wall behind it burst into two pieces.
The story describes the repetition of an essential and spiritual practice as a means to get to another reality. The iteration of something that seemingly stays the same creates an empty space, which at one point is invaded by a completely different, powerful reality.
For me, the story therefore describes the phenomenon of dissolution of the Individual – the purpose of all spiritual exercise – in regards to two modes of temporality: the endless repetition on one hand and the sudden irruption of “another reality”. They relate to each other but this relation is indeed enigmatic: first of all it is uncertain if and when the manifestation of a final understanding or even an epiphany is achieved through the repetition of spiritual practice. Then again when it happens, it is so “different” that reality as we knew it – and that exercising was part of – must burst and show this “split in the wall”.
What is your intention in contrasting two composers who produce and present their music in very different contexts?
First of all, their backgrounds are not as dissimilar as you may think. The son of composer Friedrich Goldmann, Stefan Goldmann is of course well versed in contemporary classical music, while Samir Odeh-Tamimi started his musical career as a keyboard player in Arabic dance hall bands...
In this particular project, Stefan Goldmann's music represents the principle of repetition due to its durational quality. Samir Odeh-Tamimi's intense, energetic musical language emphasises the “here and now” and demands attention in the present moment.
How do you want to make these various states of perception between continuity and eruption, between inward and outward attention come alive?
The musical parts oscillate between more expanded or “flat” sounds and parts that are more “short-phased”. They are placed and articulated in very different manners. Additionally, the visitor is permanently confronted with Chiharu Shiota's work which strongly dominates the space. Visitors can choose themselves how to harmonise their perception with these various rhythms. The relations experienced by everyone in a unique personal manner become themselves a significant part of the installation, which is also emphasised by the fact that one can choose individually when to leave the performance.
In what way is the performance defined by its duration, its expansion in time?
The scheduled duration of four hours is – besides perhaps Richard Wagner's operas – everything but conventional. This alone forces the listener to take a stance: do I want to see an extract of the performance or “the whole thing”? It will soon become evident that certain elements of the performance reoccur in similar, yet never identical forms. It is thereby hardly possible to keep a general view – necessarily “the whole” is only perceptible as a reflection of its components. This in itself activates perception, as of course everyone is looking for some relations and “meaning” in the part they chose to witness. The plurality of what is offered – maybe even the alleged monotony, which is also an important aspect of the perception of the performance – produce a quite personal image, hence an individual “story” that everyone will follow separately during the whole performance and in each singular moment.
How important is improvisation?
It isn't improvisation as it is commonly understood. There will be material that is developed during rehearsals without a pre-written score, especially when it comes down to the parts that communicate with Stefan Goldmann's electronic compositions.
Could you describe working together with the different contributors?
Samir Odeh-Tamimi, Stefan Goldmann and I have regularly met since spring 2015 to exchange ideas on the musical concept. In addition to that I meet with Folkert Uhde, Ilka Seifert and Chiharu Shiota every couple of weeks. The structures of the performance evolved gradually over time. Now that the musical material has been produced almost entirely, we have started to work on a concept for the order and proportions of the different parts. At the same time we start practising with the musicians who will not only play as a large ensemble, but also in smaller line-ups or even solos. The specifications of the space, the interaction with the electronic parts and Chiharu Shiota's installation will be worked on during two final rehearsal sessions, which will take place in February and again right before the premiere in March.
Interview: Ilka Seifert | Translation: Zoë Herlinger
18/03/2016 and 19/03/2016, 19:00 – 24:00
Berlin, Radialystem V
A recording of the celebrated production of Arthur Honegger’s dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher with the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona under the direction of Marc Soustrot with Marion Cotillard in the title role was recently released on CD and DVD.
The actress convinced audiences in the concert performance with her thrilling embodiment of Joan of Arc. Set to a libretto by Paul Claudel, Honegger’s scoring of the material incorporates a speaking role for the main character who appears alongside a brilliant ensemble of singers in the production in Barcelona.
Originally commissioned by the Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein and premiered by her in 1938, the hybrid work (partly oratorio and partly opera) uses a wide range of musical expressions. Imaginary folklore and choral music can be found alongside parodic echoes from jazz and baroque music.
The Telegraph was impressed by the recording: “This imaginative collaboration between Honegger and the poet Paul Claudel, conceived originally for the dancer/actor Ida Rubinstein, is performed here under Marc Soustrot with terrific presence, the work’s ethereal reflectiveness countered by passages of down-to-earth realism in a vivid theatrical experience.”
Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher
Marion Cotillard, Xavier Gallais, Barcelona Symphony & Catalonia National Orchestra, Marc Soustrot
Alpha Productions, ALPHA 709