Classical Archives 2011 Roundup: December 31, 2011
Rel. 4 Jan 2011
Happy Holidays from Classical Archives! To celebrate the holiday season, and our second full year of service, we are pleased to present the Classical Archives 2011 Roundup – placing a spotlight on some of our favorite Features presented through the year. During 2011, Classical Archives scored a good number of exclusive interviews with some of today’s most active and creative classical artists and composers, conducted by Artistic Director, Nolan Gasser. This roundup features linked excerpts of ten of our favorite interviews – with soloists Simone Dinnerstein, Hélène Grimaud, Jeremy Denk, Daniel Hope, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Joseph Calleja; conductors David Zinman and Leonard Slatkin; and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. To accompany these interview excerpts is a 2-hour Playlist with music from these great artists and composers; as well as a sample of videos.
2011 was a great year for Classical Archives interviews. Through our close connections with our label partners and top classical music agencies – shepherded by our industry insider Joe McKesson – we’ve been able to schedule in-depth conversations between Artistic Director Nolan Gasser and some of today’s most vibrant and influential classical music personalities. Dr. Gasser goes deep in preparing these discussions, aiming to get past the obvious questions into the heart of the musical and aesthetic thinking that informs the interviewee’s projects and achievements. The result is a provocative conversation that reveals insights into the creative process and larger aspirations of these seminal figures of our day. It is in part because of the depth of our interviews that Classical Archives is granted access to so many top-tier artists – including those who elude other media outlets. We hope that you will make reading these interviews a regular part of your classical music life, and that you will share your thoughts and reactions in the Comments section. And stay tuned for some more stellar interviews in 2012!
Below are brief excerpts of some of our favorite interviews of 2011, each preceded by a brief intro, and provided with direct links to the full interview and the interviewee’s page on our site. And don’t forget to check out the Best of 2011 Interviews Playlist for some great tracks from these outstanding musicians.
Nolan Gasser: In preparing this interview, I was intrigued to learn two things about you: firstly, that you apparently didn't play too much Bach prior to working on the Goldberg – seemingly given the powerful shadow cast by Glenn Gould; and secondly, that you actually were a huge fan of Gould's interpretation of the Goldberg when you began working on the piece, as I assume you still are. This is surprising given how vastly different your version is from his: your performance is subtle, legato, and improvisatory compared to his very assertive and highly articulated approach. Can you talk about how, in the process of working through the piece, you came to discern your own distinct vision of how to play this piece - and, by extension, how you came to realize that your manner of playing Bach was, in general, different from that of Gould or anyone else?
Simone Dinnerstein: Well, I had studied Bach when I was a kid. I think it was when I was an early teenager that I became really obsessed with Glenn Gould - and that would then become problematic for me in terms of performing Bach, because I was so just blown away by how he played. Yet everything that he did was so idiosyncratic, and obviously not something that one could imitate. It really made me feel confused about how to imagine the music being played in any other way. A lot of teenagers tend to get pretty obsessive about things, and so I became obsessive about Glenn Gould - and that made me feel tongue-tied as to how to play Bach's music…
NG: "Finger-tied", perhaps…
SD: [laughs] Yes, "finger-tied" - or "mind-tied". As I got older, I started to listen to a lot more Bach - not just keyboard music, but I especially got interested in the cantatas and the Passions and the Mass in B minor. Getting away from listening to Bach on the piano, and focusing more on his string and vocal music, was a really important step for me, in terms of thinking about his music. Very interesting too was studying, as an older student, with Peter Serkin [at Juilliard], because he had a very different approach to playing Bach; he talked a lot about the differentiation of notes - of shaping long strings of notes. Bach tends to have these streams of eight or sixteenth notes, and the question is: how do you shape these phrases? This is quite different from just listening to Gould's playing, and the way he approaches the music.
This began to lead me to another place, as did listening to a recording of Bach played by Jacques Loussier and his trio - which was a real turning point for me, because suddenly I realized that Bach could go in so many different directions, and that it was all "acceptable", or at least extremely malleable. This didn't take away from enjoying Glenn Gould's way of playing Bach, but rather made me realize that there were so many more ways of playing his music as well.
So when I started working on the Goldberg Variations, I went through a lot of experimentation, of playing it many different ways; and it took quite a while for it to evolve into how I've come to play it. It was really a process of elimination: I would try different things - and eventually, certain approaches just did not feel right, while others started to feel natural and right to me. And when it consistently felt that way, it started to take a certain direction - and then I realized that actually this is how I thought of the music, and this is how I felt the music; it's like I had always felt it this way, and yet I hadn't really known it.
NG: So, at a certain point, the music itself started to tell you how best you should interact with it?
SD: Yes, certain things started to feel as natural as breathing or singing - and they were not at all how I'd heard them played. Yet, it felt so right to do it that way - when I was playing it myself - that I decided to really go in that direction. And ever since then, I've been on a certain path with Bach; and I think that my playing is getting even freer. I'm trying to really push those aspects of my playing as much as I can, to take more risks, and to explore - not worrying about whether or not it's right to play this way in the mind of an historian, but instead to think about what feels right to me.
NG: It almost sounds like you're being a sculptor, gradually chiseling the music to where it's wanting to go for you - and finding your true voice in playing Bach.
SD: Yes, exactly.
NG: I'm a bit curious: you began working on this when you got pregnant with your son [in 2001]; do you have any recollection as to how many months of experimentation until you had that epiphany - that suddenly it was sounding like you, and that you were getting in tune with your particular voice in playing Bach?
SD: I think it took quite a long time. I'm guessing it took me about a year to learn the piece, and my debut was in 2002, when my son was a year old. By that point, I felt like I was playing it in my own way - but it grew a lot more after that, even though I was already on the right track.
NG: This seems a very valuable lesson for all the young pianists out there trying to find their own voice - that it really is a process, and that you have to go through the phase of obsessing over your hero, before you rebelling against him or her - almost in a Freudian way…
SD: When we're taught, there's such an emphasis on "tradition", and the training of a classical pianist. I had very strong teachers, and I was very lucky with my teachers - but they all had very strong personalities, and I was a good student, so I wanted to play the way they wanted me to play. Being a student, and trying to become your own musician, is a really scary process - and it was especially frightening for me when I discovered that what I was doing was a bit unusual; at first I wasn't even sure if it was "allowed", if you know what I mean.
NG: As if you might be fined…
SD: Yes; I was still thinking about what Maria Curcio [her teacher in London] would say, or what Peter Serkin say, and then at a certain point, I realized that all the pianists I admire were those whose playing has a strong voice; I can't imagine that they were worrying too much about what their teachers might think. And so I just decided that I had to be brave, and to delve into discovering what the music meant for me - as opposed to defining myself in the context of my teachers.
Nolan Gasser: Returning to Berg for a moment - you've noted how you first encountered the Sonata at an early age, but even then knew that it held a special significance for you, even if you couldn't define it. When you came back to the piece in 2009, did you do so for your own pleasure or curiosity, or did you instinctively know that it was going to be the catalyst for a new phase of your output?
Hélène Grimaud: The latter. I knew that it was the beginning of this new recording idea. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had always fascinated me as I was growing up; it changed Europe into how we know it today. And I always somehow had the intention - though I shouldn't say "always", because I don't recall when the idea actually materialized, probably in the last 6 or 7 years - to concretely illustrate this musically. Of course, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to do this, since there were certainly lots of alternate options - Schubert, for example.
But the Berg was essential, since this Sonata really symbolizes the decadence of the era [early 20th century Vienna]: it's so firmly rooted in Romanticism, yet it also speaks clearly to the next threshold in musical language; and that alone creates a tension in the piece - and a poignancy - which is very compelling.
NG: It's pretty striking that already at the age of 23, Berg had such a clear conception of his place in that historic and cultural context. One hears echoes of Wagner and, of course, the influence of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg - much more here than in some earlier works; but you also hear what's to come in Berg's own output, especially the dramatic expressionist language of his vocal music. Were you already a big fan of the Second Viennese School [the name attached to the early 20th century works of Schoenberg, Berg, and fellow student Anton Webern] - and already well acquainted with works like Berg's [opera] Wozzeck, the Lyric Suite and the Violin Concerto?
HG: Yes, I had been for a long time; and Berg was always my favorite among the three. I always felt very close to this world; and with the Op.1 Sonata, everything that Berg had to bring to the world is all there; it's incredible.
NG: Yes, it's amazing how wild and progressive the harmonies are, and yet how clear the actual discourse is; it's a phenomenal balance in that way.
HG: Yes, absolutely; it's really a reconciliation of opposites. So there they were - Berg and Liszt, at the core of this Austro-Hungarian world. And then with Mozart, the program goes both historically and geographically a bit beyond the confines of how we normally define this period of history. But that also interested me: to make a kind of "musical promenade" along the Danube. And for me, it could only have been that Mozart sonata [Piano Sonata No.8 in A-, K.310]; it couldn't be just any Mozart sonata, but the one that I consider the most intensely dramatic; the one where he drops the mask, and speaks most forcefully in the first person.
NG: Yes, it's the most reminiscent of Don Giovanni of any of his piano sonatas.
HG: Absolutely. And for me, it's fully resonant to Beethoven's Tempest Sonata [Op.31, No.2], it's the most Beethovenian of all his works; and you have this incredible contrast. If you look at the score: in the development of the first movement, you have this fortissimo - first of all, it's the only original fortissimo in any of Mozart's solo piano pieces! But not only that - you have four bars of fortissimo followed by four bars of pianissimo without any transition whatsoever; and then again, immediately afterwards, you have eight bars of fortissimo: that's completely unheard of for Mozart! The tension and the agitation in that piece, and the briskness of the contrast, are just incredible. There is also a tense, haunted quality in the Finale as well - which again is very much like Beethoven's Tempest; it's like a ghostly reminiscence of something that used to be. It's all very striking, and speaks already to the next generation of composers.
NG: The term Sturm und Drang ["storm and stress", a German literary and musical movement of the 1760s-80s] is sometimes applied to this sonata: and, of course, one of the highlights of this approach is this sudden contrast of forte and piano, as you find in some of the sonatas of C.P.E. Bach, and early Joseph Haydn. And this is a wonderful example of Mozart embracing this aesthetic.
I listened to a number of performances of this sonata - indeed, one of the best things about Classical Archives is the easy ability to listen to multiple interpretations of a work. Yours is so unique, and what I really hear in your performance of the Mozart, and more than in most, is that Sturm und Drang intensity. It almost reminded me of Schubert's Erlkönig, with the intensity of your left hand chords in the opening of the first movement, and the way that you play with tempo throughout the work. That sort of proto-Romantic expression is so natural in feeling, and yet it's so unlike what we're used to hearing with that sonata.
HG: Well, thank you - I take that as a huge compliment. Yes, I do feel that Mozart is played way too straight - I mean, of course, I shouldn't generalize; there are many interpretations out there. But his music is often approached with a reverence or correctness, which goes directly against the grain of what I think Mozart was all about. I don't know about you, but I've always felt that Mozart's music often borders on hysteria; even in the "happy" Mozart - and, of course, there are moments of true tenderness or lighthearted fun in his music - along with the joy, you feel that the music is on the verge of disintegrating into something completely mad. I'm sure my Mozart is near impossible to some people, but that's also okay.
NG: I actually believe that it's the duty of professional performers not only to introduce us to works that we don't hear a lot, but also to help us find new meaning in works that we do know very well. There's no doubt that you have done that with all of these works; but with the Mozart it's especially important, because his works are often approached as sacrosanct: you're supposed to play the eighth notes steady, and you don't change up the tempo, etc. But what you're showing us is that it's absolutely natural for the musical narrative to flow with this kind of varied drama and intensity - and that gives us a whole new way of thinking about Mozart, infused with this notion of hysteria. I mean, how could you not be hysterical when you have that much genius within you?
HG: That's a very good point; and what you're saying means a lot to me - I'm deeply appreciative. In the end, as you suggest, there's no such thing as "intrusive" music, it's just different for everyone. All you can do is to be honest in your playing, and to approach the music in the only way you believe it should be done. When practicing, one is always aware of exploring different options: with phrasing, tempi, dynamics; you always know how many different possibilities there are, but in the end, there has to be only one possible way for you - otherwise it doesn't mean anything.
Nolan Gasser: There are a growing number of "classical" composers - yourself, John Corigliano, Philip Glass, among others - who write concert works, but who are also finding the medium of film to be attractive. What's nice, I imagine, is that the director already knows your music and your style, so he's not trying to impose, as a typical Hollywood director might, by saying, "Here's what I want: this part should sound like a big John Williams / Star Wars passage"; but instead, saying, "You do your thing - that's why I hired you."
David Lang: Yes, that's exactly right. I got hired to do what he already knew I could do; and that was really relaxing.
NG: And are you finding that you're now looking for more film projects to do in the future - that perhaps there is something about the film medium that sparks your creativity differently than in an abstract concert piece?
DL: I don't think of it that way. The way I'm trying to live my life after the Pulitzer is to take on the most interesting, most enjoyable, and most rewarding projects possible. So, I can really imagine a film job being offered to me that I would really want to do; and another that I would not want to do. My principal goal now is to find those projects that are going to stretch me: that are going to be fun and interesting, that are going to make me work a little bit harder, and maybe that will take me someplace I couldn't have imagined going before.
NG: We'll come back to that life-changing Pulitzer in just a bit; but I want to continue on with some of your current activities - so people can get a sense of the diversity of your current projects. Another thing you're doing a fair bit of now - which also has a visual component - is working with dance. For example, you collaborated in an interesting way with two choreographers, Jessica Lang and Pontus Lidberg, on an earlier-written chamber work called Forced March…
DL: Yes, this project was for the Guggenheim's Works and Progress season; they found those two choreographers and gave them my music. It was a really interesting collaboration, because I had nothing to do with it [laughs]! I just sat back and watched them do something.
NG: I saw that each choreographer took a very different approach, and that neither was told what the other one was doing - which I though was very interesting.
DL: Yes, it was a great project, actually. In a way, it's like using dance and choreography as a means to analyze music; that's the way I looked at it: they both had to choreograph the same music, and then the concert allowed us to see how different their versions were.
NG: It seems like Jessica took a more analytical approach - counting out the beats, for example; whereas Pontus adopted more of an overall aesthetic and emotional approach.
DL: Yes, he was much more poetic, and she was more rational about it.
NG: It's nice to know that your music can inspire both approaches. This is a balance that you've talked about - and one I think all creators think about: between technique and expression; and it's reassuring that two different choreographers could latch onto both.
DL: That's the great thing about it: the minute that your music is recorded, it's available for millions of people to do all sorts of things with it - whether great or ridiculous. So, I'm really lucky that choreographers like my music; there are some pieces of mine that have been choreographed by maybe twenty or thirty different choreographers. When I see them - posted on the Internet, or at a concert - I'm actually finding out the way people hear my music. The way a dancer hears it is very different from the way a musician hears it; and certainly different from how I hear it. It's fascinating to see all the different versions of a work, and I really welcome them all.
Nolan Gasser: Okay, so let's dive a bit more into the Ives recording, which deservedly has garnered a lot of attention and high praise. I've seen written several times how your love of Ives' music goes back many years - at least back to your days at Oberlin Conservatory [where Denk received his Bachelor's Degree]. Of course, many American musicians identify with Ives - that "crafty crank", as you aptly call him - especially his unique and often irreverent approach to musical discourse, as we've talked about. But you've also spoken, and written quite extensively in your CD notes, on the wider story behind this rugged individual: the tenderness, the nostalgia, the metaphysics, the literary puzzles, the joyful, sassy, raw experience of music-making in his work. I'm wondering - do you think that a performer needs to be a bit of a missionary if he's going to tackle these pieces?
Jeremy Denk: I'm sorry to say, yes - I think one does have to be a bit of a missionary, because there's a lot of reflexive anti-Ives, or at least a somewhat dismissive, sentiment out there; even colleagues and other musicians roll their eyes when they hear the name Ives. They say, "Oh, the insurance salesman…" [Ives famously maintained a successful career in insurance, while composing in his spare time]. It surprises me because I've always felt such a wonderful attachment to his music; it seems to me that Ives' music had much more integrity and sincerity than a lot of American music from the early 20th Century, coming from a more profoundly American wellspring. For example, [Samuel] Barber is a composer I've never felt a real attachment to; it's obvious to me why Barber is more conventionally popular, and why Ives is more of a renegade - but I guess the renegade element of Ives is part of what I love about him; certainly, this is part of what makes it complicated for people to react to his music, to absorb it, and enjoy it.
NG: It seems true that anyone who would have the audacity to record the Concord Sonata needs to not only have great "chops", but also this kind of emotional commitment - and the ability to explain his eccentric approach to an audience: the bombastic use of ragtime themes, the quotes of "Bringing in the Sheaves" or "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean", as well as the quiet, intimate moments between the outbursts. So, how does one get the audience to pull back the scrim a bit and get beyond what's obvious in Ives' music?
JD: Well, it's true what you just said - that one of the classic Ivesian shapes is to first create a chaotic explosion, to be then followed by a quiet epiphany - a total dissolution, and then somehow a moment of repose. This is true of Ives in general, in the sense that he tends to make the beginning of his pieces rather difficult to take, and he likes to gradually unravel the mystery of the main theme over the course of the movement - to make simplicity the epiphany of the conclusion, which is such a recurring notion in Ives; and that's fairly easy to explain to an audience.
If you want the audience to understand all this, you can play them the tunes, and say, "Listen carefully: everything in here is a chaotic improvisation upon this idea - but gradually you're going to hear it more and more clearly. If you follow the process, you'll hear the piece as a series of wild improvisations, gradually giving way to the theme itself." And people can react to this, even though it's different from their normal expectations of musical form, in which one gets a theme followed by its development. It just takes a little attitude adjustment.
Also, you have to give the audience an expectation of a certain level of dissonance, one that they can actually revel in, to enable them to hear the beauty of certain dissonances. You can talk about certain kinds of chords that Ives loved; as an organist, he loved big, complex chords, and you've got to be able to really chew on them - to appreciate them for their very Ivesian way of resolving - or not resolving.
NG: I think this is what makes Ives such a revolutionary: it's not just the types of materials he uses, but also the overall discourse he undertakes; it's a very different approach to form, a transcendental or philosophical kind of dialogue, as opposed to the more conventional [Sonata form] exposition-development-recapitulation.
JD: Yes, this is one of the most important things about Ives: unlike someone like Prokofiev, who wrote wonderful music by stretching sonata form, Ives took sonata form and just threw it in the wastebasket; he had no use for it in his materials. Not all composers in the early 20th century were courageous enough to recognize this possibility, or to invent their own forms. But Ives did invent forms for his own purposes, one for each movement, in fact; and that's hard work.
NG: Perhaps the fact that Ives didn't need to make his career as a professional composer gave him a greater sense of freedom to take on these kinds of risks.
JD: True enough.
NG: You mentioned how it's easy to play a simple theme and explain to an audience how it might be "buried in the canons" at the beginning, and then slowly break free. Do you actually carry out these pre-concert demonstrations when you play Ives?
JD: Yes, I often give a talk, especially before the first sonata, but sometimes before for the second sonata as well - partly because some of the tunes are a bit lost to history. A little bit of context is useful, but it also allows me to lay the groundwork for the piece. I know how audacious and outrageous some of this music may sound to people who have no experience with it: they don't know that when Ives writes a rag, he's basically trying to destroy the piano; or that every measure is going to be in a different meter; or that there's an overall sense of chaos; or that you get the feeling of a party going well past its proper ending; or that the music can be experienced as a kind of assault… Clearly, Ives didn't wanted people to be able to relax too much while listening to his music; but I also don't think that he wanted just to attack you with dissonance. I think he really believed that all this was part of a more joyful and profound experience; that the sounds you were hearing were not just interesting, but had something deeper and more important to say.
NG: In many ways, Ives seems to be both an author and a painter when he composes; his works are almost like snapshots, or a photo album, of these different moments. It seems so important for him as a composer to reflect on his own surroundings - almost like a time capsule. If we want to understand late-19th century New England, we could certainly do worse than listening to Ives.
JD: Yes, a time capsule is a beautiful way of putting it - a kind of reminiscence in a Proustian way of time past, a whole reconstruction of a childhood, and a way of music making that's forever lost.
NG: Indeed, and I've read of the personal connections you hold between Ives and Proust. Speaking of Ives' intentions with regard to the audience - we know that he was concerned about his own legacy, even doctoring up his autobiography to make himself appear more of an innovator, historically speaking, than he actually was. But in the process of writing these sonatas, do you think he knew that a century later, his music would receive this kind of exegesis?
JD: I wonder about that too. It's obvious that Ives was thinking of posterity, though I think that this may have begun after he started to become better known. At the same time, he did send scores of his symphonies to Mahler and contacted other famous musicians during his early years. I guess I have to believe that during those twenty years of composing nights and weekends he had an idea that he was doing something extraordinary. He clearly knew he was doing something more substantial than most other composers of his day; plus his idol was Beethoven. So, yes, I think he had some idea. He was tremendously frustrated that no one seemed to be able to make heads or tails of his music, and hurt by the incredibly reflexive dismissal by his contemporaries.
It's also true that he doesn't help his own case, because his music requires so much time to "solve: when you first look at a score by Ives, it can seem like a complete chaotic swirl; he forces the performer to grapple with all the notes on the page - to figure them out, to find the sense of them; that's a crucial part of the whole interpretive process. Similar to Schoenberg, you have to really "believe" in the notes of an Ives piece, even if they're completely confusing to you at first; gradually they begin to make themselves clear. This element of his music clearly prevented him from being beloved by his friends and colleagues in the first two decades of the 20th century.
Nolan Gasser: Beyond the Bruch, you also give us - much as you did with your Baroque Journey CD - this wonderful smorgasbord of shorter works and movements by various other composers who in some way fell within the orbit of Joachim: four works by Brahms - the "Scherzo" from the F-E-A Sonata ["frei aber einsam" ("free but lonely"), a collaborative work written for Joachim by Brahms, Schumann, and Albert Dietrich], two of his Hungarian Dances [Nos. 5 and 7] and the "Wiegenlied" [Op.91, No.2]; then a wonderful work by Clara Schumann, from her 3 Romances for the Piano [1.Andante molto]; Dvorák's "Humoreque" [Op.101, No.7]; and a Lied of Schubert [Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D.774]. Again, so many choices, and it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall witnessing your process of elimination; any particular stories of the method to your madness in whittling it down to these choices you'd like to share?
Daniel Hope: Well, as you suggest, it was not very pleasant being around me at that time, because to have to whittle down great works of literature in this way is nothing I'd wish on anybody. The structure of a CD is very important for me; it should be like a journey for the listener, with all the right changes and contrasts from piece to piece. Some may put on a CD and listen to only one or two tracks, but I like to imagine him sitting down for the whole thing, taking in this rich musical or historical journey. I never just throw tracks together; they all need to be part of a larger concept.
It was a major challenge in this case because of the various idioms and different styles of the works; but there were always certain pieces that stuck out for me: the first of the Clara Schumann Romances, for example, is just a beautiful, magnificent piece; it was a piece the Clara and Joachim played together many times on tour, including once for King George V of Hanover, who apparently went into ecstasy when he heard it.
There was always a special reason for including each piece. The "Scherzo" of Brahms, for example: as you know, there's the wonderful story of Joachim arriving at the Schumanns' house, listening to these four movements, and having to identify who wrote which movement - and guessing correctly; each movement was of course based on the F-A-E - or "frei aber einsam" - motto, which was such a representation of the Romantic spirit. I could have done both of Brahms' Op.91 songs, but I went with the "Geistliches Wiegenlied" [spiritual lullaby] because to me it has an almost religious depth of feeling which I find so mesmerizing - and doing both songs would have been overkill and would have altered the harmonic structure I wanted for the disc.
So, it's a question of gut instinct and deep thought, while trying different things out - and hopefully come up with the right selections and the right order.
NG: It does seem to have been a challenge - but likewise, as you say, a great opportunity to create for the listener a certain way in which we can hear this entire period, and the legacy of Joachim in particular. By the way, I imagine that it must have been painful not to include any Robert Schumann on the CD.
DH: Very painful. And yet I felt that Brahms had to be the central figure; and if I wasn't going to include his Violin Concerto, I had to have a substantial collection of other works by him. Also, there's not that much violin and piano music by Schumann, other than the violin sonatas - unless you get into the transcriptions. Also, in defense, we do have Clara Schumann. But if I could have included the second movement of the Schumann Violin Concerto, that would have made me very happy too.
NG: Yes, again, way too many choices - perhaps there can be a Volume 2 of this collection.
DH: Well, the CD is in fact just one aspect of this project: this whole year, and much of the next two years, will be devoted to five or six different programs based around Joachim. I'm currently on tour in Germany playing one of these programs, and only a few of the pieces match the CD - because in a concert setting, I can play different things, such as the Schumann Piano Quartet [in Eb, Op.44], or the entire F-A-E Sonata, or more Dvorák, and so forth. With the CD, we're limited on time, but with a set of concerts, one is not so limited, and the potential for variation is enormous. And that's very exciting for me.
NG: That's very fortunate for your fans in Germany and Austria - as I look at your concert schedule. Do you know if you'll likewise be coming to the States at some point soon with this program?
DH: Yes, in fact I'll be at the Music@Menlo Festival this summer, as well as to the Aspen and Santa Fe Chamber Festivals, to do the Joachim program.
NG: Well that is terrific; as you may know, I had the pleasure of interviewing [Music@Menlo Artistic Directors] David Finckel and Wu Han, and their concerts take place just down the street from our offices here in Palo Alto - so I will definitely stop by and say hello.
NG: One last question on the CD: as we've discussed, the real focus here is Joachim, and you present two wonderful jewels by the man himself. Obviously, Brahms is a central figure in the program - as is the Bruch Concerto, but these works by Joachim seem to have an air of centrality on the CD (not least by being the 6th and 8th of 12 tracks). In hearing these two pieces - and especially the Notturno - one clearly senses that this was not a man bent on dazzling, at least not overtly; he was not a Paganini, as you say, but rather one interested in the reflective, the noble, the tempered, and the elegant in expression. Am I right that this was a big part of your vision in making this album - to share this identity of Joachim with us, and to underscore his considerable impact on the aesthetic trends of music in the second half of the 19th century?
DH: Yes, very much so; this is the vibe that I get from listening to the few recordings that we have of Joachim's playing - but more importantly, by listening to or reading the eyewitness accounts, whether by Schumann, or his pupils: they say that when he played the Beethoven Concerto, particularly the second movement, it sounded as if he was improvising; it had a freedom that was quite extraordinary, and yet it was always measured. And I have this sense of him - this nobility, as you say; I deliberately chose pieces that represented two completely different times in his life. The first, the "Romanze" [from 3 Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op.2], was written by a young man who had just arrived in Weimar; he was Liszt's concertmaster; he chose to impress, but in his own way - with elegance and a beautiful sound. With the second piece, the Notturno, you see what happens just a few years later, when he left Weimar for Hanover, and immersed himself into the orchestral world - and came into close contact with Brahms and Schumann; he becomes a totally different person. Yet, his humility remains - as does his motto, "free but lonely" - which gives him a kind signature that he really embodies.
Nolan Gasser: You were clearly bucking the trend to attempt such a “performance practice” approach with a modern orchestra – as opposed to a period ensemble. I’ve read how you were inspired in part by conductors you heard while you were working in the Netherlands – people like Frans Bruggen and Jaap Schroeder; I also read how you took to heart some historical anecdotes – for example, from Berlioz about the traditional use of ornamentation in the winds that he tried to eradicate. Can you talk about what specifically inspired you to “re-hear” Beethoven; and I also wonder if you consulted with Jonathan Del Mar – the editor of the critical edition you used – or other scholars as you approached the actual recording process?
David Zinman: First of all, Jonathan Del Mar’s critical edition was not yet complete when we made the recording; they were still in his manuscript form. We obviously were lucky enough to get copies, and to get the changes he had put in his edition before they were published. I used most of his changes, but of course he didn’t agree with all of my ideas either. I remember once getting a postcard from him saying, "I am listening to your performance of the Second Symphony, and having a whiskey; I need another whiskey!"
But seeing the original manuscript gave me tremendous inspiration: it’s wonderful when your fantasy can be stimulated by the score itself, by putting aside everything you ever knew about a work, and approaching it as brand new – taking the metronome markings at their face value, and absorbing whatever scholarship you can find; for instance, I had read something by [American musicologist] Neal Zaslaw about ornamentation by 18th and 19th century orchestra players, and this was another thing that stimulated my fantasy. All of those things went into it – and are still going into it, because whatever I've learned since then, I also put into it. And yes, reading that Berlioz excerpt about when he went to Meiningen [in Thuringia, Germany] and had to suppress the ornamentation in one of Beethoven's symphonies – that really stimulated my imagination!
NG: Indeed, you've talked about these interpretations as being an “experiment”, and not something you were 100% clear on even in your own mind; part of what makes the music sound so fresh, I’d argue, is that you're learning as you go what really works best.
DZ: Right, exactly. And having the good will of players who are willing to experiment along with you – that's invaluable. Just this year, I conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which is a period orchestra, and it was interesting to see that without my telling them anything, they were already doing half of the things that I wanted them to do; and I learn from those experiences as well.
NG: In fact, you just answered my next question – specifically, what was it like to conduct the Seventh Symphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment [on December 31, 2010 and January 1, 2011]? You mentioned how the players were already intuiting many of your ideas, but what else was surprising or special about this experience?
DZ: Well, the sound of the woodwind instruments is quite different; and the strings are playing with gut strings, and with period bows, which is also very different. What I found so interesting was just talking back and forth with them about how they approach the music, and what they’ve learned over the years. For example, it was great to talk to the timpanist about his sticks and the drums he had – which were copies of period timpani; or with the horn player about the “stopping” of the instrument – how they are able to do that; and what things were difficult and what were easier, and so forth. At one point in the rehearsal for the concert– which also included some Mendelssohn [three movements from A Midsummer Night's Dream] and Webern [Clarinet Concerto in F-] – I asked the first cellist, “Do you ever vibrate?” And he said, “Oh yes, we can vibrate, and sometimes we actually do.” It was very funny. It was also interesting to hear what adding more vibrato did for certain passages – and where in the bow they might play, etc.
NG: Well, the sound you create with the Tonhalle is certainly very striking compared to the more “traditional” recordings we’ve heard of the Beethoven symphonies – by Furtwangler, Bernstein, Von Karajan, and the like – by virtue of the natural horns, the lack of a heavy vibrato, and by avoiding the “sostenuto” [sustained] approach to phrasing. I like very much the metaphor you’ve used: comparing the sound you want to that of the fortepiano – whereby it doesn’t become too saturated.
DZ: That's right. And then, of course, the faster speeds were possible because of that lack of saturation; Beethoven’s metronome markings could actually be realized! For me, speed is always a matter of pulse – you can play it very fast or slower, and if the pulse is clear, it sounds “normal”. All of these things were discoveries I made over the years – and are put into practice when I perform Beethoven.
Nolan Gasser: And indeed, that's a perfect segue to talk about the third release as part of this anniversary year, which is the collection of four world premieres – by Wolfgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Sebastian Currier. You've worked with all three composers before, and so I'm curious about your expectations and directives in commissioning these works. Let's start with Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel [‘Light Play’; track 1], and the Mozartean orchestration that you asked for – can you tell us a bit more of the backstory of this commission?
Anne-Sophie Mutter: The backstory is in fact the Mozartean orchestra [that is, a smaller, string-dominant orchestra with limited brass and percussion]; I wanted to limit the composer in the instrumentation accompanying the violin; I wanted to get to know Rihm’s thought process on what one does in 2010 with a Mozartean orchestra with the violin as the principal musical voice. I’m actually right now on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony performing both Rihm pieces – Lichtes Spiel and Gesungene Zeit [‘Sung Time’, commissioned by Ms. Mutter in 1991], along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto [in E-, Op.64]; having not played Lichtes Spiel since its premiere last November, it was tremendous to hear how the piece has matured since then. As the subtitle [Ein Sommerstück, ‘A Summer Piece’] states, it’s a summer night’s piece – it’s a rather ethereal, almost romantic work, which reminds me of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream [Op.61], with wisps of different harmonies in the orchestra.
Rihm, like Anton Webern, loves to write two or three different instructional words over every note: little swells, con vibrato, senza vibrato, flautando [flute-like], you name it… It’s like walking in a jungle at night, and there are all these sounds and smells and lights; it’s an incredibly intense piece, especially considering the small size of the orchestra: with either 6 or 4 players per section, so long as it’s equal in number, because it’s all written divisi [divided]. The piece is tremendous in its cadenza-like, improvisatory mood; it’s so refreshing to play it every evening. Rihm wasn’t able to come to the premiere in New York, but he was at the European premiere last Friday; he suggested that we take the tempo changes even more dramatically, which makes it sound more improvisatory – and thus quite different from Sebastian Currier’s piece, Time Machine.
NG: We’re going to move to Time Machine in just a moment; but staying on Lichtes Spiel for a bit: it strikes me as being a real stand out on the CD, though they’re all great pieces. Rihm in general has a broad range of style in his output, but this piece is particularly lyrical – I especially loved the scherzando [playful] section in the middle. And it’s true that even with a Mozart-sized orchestra, he manages to create such a diversity of timbre.
ASM: Yes, it’s just amazing how Rihm is reinventing, in a way, the violin once again. As much as it is written in his cryptic musical language, it’s very different from Gesungene Zeit: it’s more varied in character; and though Gesungene Zeit has a huge orchestra, I would say that Lichtes Spiel is no less colorful or imaginative, even without percussion and brass (other than French horns). It’s quite impressive what he’s able to do with just a few notes here and there, like Mozart.
NG: Right – “Not too many notes”, as Mozart might say.
ASM: Yes, I like that; no showing off, just saying what needs to be said.
NG: Most composers would say that writing a piece is but solving problems; and sometimes having a particular challenge to solve – like a limited instrumentation – is what gets the creative juices flowing, as solutions and inspirations are found that wouldn't have been otherwise.
It’s also interesting that you conceived of this commission to be juxtaposed with actual Mozart violin concertos.
ASM: Yes, absolutely! And it fits very well with the Mozart concertos, though I have to say that it also fits fabulously well with Mendelssohn – especially given my very personal association with A Midsummer Night's Dream; those two really seem to be in a “brotherhood of spirit” – just written in different centuries. But the pairing of Lichtes Spiel with the Mozart concerti will take place again next year – where we can once again hear how the same-size orchestra has evolved between the 18th and 21st centuries.
NG: Certainly, that too has long been part of the arc of music history – that one generation looks back and “speaks” to another; and given our technological advantages, it's a lot easier to look back now than it was in the 18th, or even in the 20th century.
You earlier touched upon the other large concerto-like work on the new CD, Sebastian Currier’s Time Machine [tracks 4-10] – and it should be noted that all of these works were premiered as part of your 2010-11 season as Artist-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic. It’s quite a contrast with Lichtes Spiel; it also sounds very difficult in several sections, though quite beautiful in others, especially the last movement [“Harmonic Time”, track 10]. I've read Currier’s extensive liner notes; he really has quite a plan with this piece – with every movement dedicated to a different conception of time.
ASM: Yes, they are fabulous liner notes! It’s actually one of the few times when I’ve read liner notes that are so accurate and to the point – it’s a both an eye- and an ear-opener; it’s not just waxing away poetically about the piece, but rather a wonderful analysis of it.
But you’re right: it’s very different from Lichtes Spiel. It’s a 12-part concerto in 7 movements, which couldn’t be more diverse or mind-bogglingly interesting – not only in its orchestration, but also rhythmically. This man is just all over the place – it’s amazing! Sebastian has such tremendous ears; he hears anything. I pride myself on having a good pair of ears, but Sebastian is relentless. This kind of collaboration with a living composer is often very challenging – and frightening.
The whole thought process behind Lichtes Spiel is rather elaborate, including in the elaborate use of micro-tones; you know, [cellist Pablo] Casals once said that “intonation is interpretation”, and I find that utterly fascinating that one would take it as far as Sebastian has in this piece.
And, of course, there is this whole concept of time he introduces: delayed time, compressed time, overlapping time, etc. The most uncomfortable movement is [the third movement, track 6] “Compressed Time” – it’s the most difficult 1½ minutes I’ve ever spent on stage [laughs]: it’s like you need 8 strings and you have to move over all of them at the same time… this was a live recording, and I really was slightly afraid of these 1½ minutes!
NG: I guess that was his goal: to compress everything, including the technical challenges for the violin.
ASM: Exactly. And then you have “Backwards Time” [track 9]: how he lets things reverberate through the orchestra; and especially how he treats the harp, and how he throws the theme back at you…
NG: This is indeed a fun movement: I’m sure everyone has heard that sound of a record going backwards, where the accent comes at the end; it’s a clever devise.
ASM: Right. Yes, I'm very impressed by the piece, and I can't wait to play it around the world – and to hopefully introduce Sebastian to more than the usual “new music” crowd; the world needs to see more of him. As an aside, I’m very happy to be able to include in the additional CDs [of the 40-CD box set] his chamber piece, Aftersong, which I commissioned in the late-1990s.
NG: It’s true that Sebastian Currier doesn't yet have the name recognition enjoyed by the other two [Rihm and Penderecki] composers on the CD; these recordings will certainly help.
ASM: He's still young, so it also has to do with his age. Sebastian is in a profession where he still needs us poor, mortal performers to spread the world; but whereas we eventually start to slow down, he’ll probably just get better and better. So, don’t feel too bad for him.
NG: No, certainly not – and I’m sure that having had two works performed regularly by you, he's not doing anything but smiling.
ASM: Let's not forget that when it comes to playing a contemporary piece, it’s great if after all of the struggle, you still love playing it. I'm not saying that it has to be comfortable, but at the end of the day – after months of head-spinning studies, it's great if you still admire a piece, and feel connected to it, and want to replay it along with your fellow musicians. If a composition has that kind of thought, structure, and skill within in – if it has a “classical” form about it, and isn’t just a few ideas knitted together – it will grow on you. In this way, it will be gratifying to play and replay, and not merely receive a one-time performance.
Nolan Gasser: So, shifting gears now: beyond building up the international status of the ONL, you're back on the path to building up the status of your own American charge, the Detroit Symphony. There’s so much to discuss here – but given all the drama, we should at least touch upon the saga that just ended back in April, and is now come full circle as the Detroit Symphony begins its 2011-12 season next week, with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique of all pieces! So, do you think the dust has settled and grudges have been pacified to make for a spectacular season; and what in general are your hopes – and perhaps concerns – about this coming season?
Leonard Slatkin: Well, I can't say that everything is totally behind us – because when you have a six-month strike, you have residue. But I would say that most people are really ready to move on now; we have learned a great deal from the work stoppage, and we have taken many things to heart. For instance, we’ve learned that pricing makes a big difference here in Detroit – so we've adjusted our prices down significantly for most of our concerts; we’ve also issued what's being called a "sound card" where, if you're a student, you can get into any concert during the whole season for just $25 – so long as there are tickets. That’s not $25 per show – it's $25 the whole season!
NG: That’s terrific.
LS: In addition, we are also instituting community initiatives. As you know, Detroit has a troublesome downtown district, where the hall is located. But we have one of the great concert halls in the world [Orchestral Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center], so we will never abandon it. But we also know that we have to reach out to our suburban public; so we'll be going into various surrounding communities – playing in schools, auditoriums, churches, synagogues, etc., in the hopes that the folks who attend these concerts will come to know us, and will then venture forth to the downtown hall. Also, the orchestra members themselves will be more heavily involved in the decision-making processes – and I suspect we're going to reevaluate everything from the ground up. That doesn't mean that we're “reinventing the orchestra” – which is an expression I really hate, because you don't reinvent an orchestra. You simply take what you have and find a way to make it more relevant to your various audiences.
The season itself begins tomorrow [September 26], with five concerts that we’ll play in five different areas within the community: three of them in Detroit itself, and two of them outside. Then the season proper starts [on Sunday, October 2], as you point out, with the Symphonie fantastique – and then we're off and running!
I think the folks who are still a bit bitter about the past months will likely see the positive outcome that the strike produced. Will all of them be “on board” with the direction we’re hoping to take? I don’t know. It would be nice to say “yes”, but it’s doubtful. We have many vacancies to fill in the orchestra – we’ve had several retirements, and several people left to go to other orchestras; so we’ve had to deal with all that, and there's still a lot to do. So, to answer your first question: there are still things that must be taken care of post-strike, but most of us are simply moving on to what we think will be a very exciting season – and a very exciting future for the orchestra.
NG: Yes, I’m sure it will be – and it does seem that those difficult months during the strike gave all parties a chance to re-evaluate how important the orchestra was and should be in the life of the community. I am aware of some of the vacancies – including your concertmaster [that is, the first violinist, a key orchestral post]. Given what you’ve said about the importance of the string section to the individuality of the orchestra, I image this will allow for a big change.
I’m also quite intrigued by the move of the Detroit Symphony into the surrounding community – which I understand the members of the orchestra began initiating on their own during the strike itself, as a way to align themselves with the community.
LS: That's right – and again, we all learned a great deal not only from the orchestra, but also from the community, as to what is necessary to make this institution more valuable for the community. Remember, we're an exportable item as well – and that's why taking ourselves outside downtown is important. It's also why recordings are important; it's why we stream videos of our concerts now – which we can now do under the new contract. There are many new things in the Detroit Symphony’s future that I believe will be truly spectacular; and I will walk into tomorrow's opening rehearsal as excited as I was when I walked into the first rehearsal of the ONL three weeks ago.
NG: That’s terrific; and I imagine that the response from the community – at the high schools, churches, and synagogues – has been pretty positive. I guess we'll have to wait to see how it actually impacts ticket sales.
LS: Yes, we’ll know a bit this week; and we'll know a lot more by the time we get to January, when everything will be up and running full-time.
NG: This saga – including the economic woes that led to the DSO’s tough bargaining position last year – brings to mind the larger issue of the overall state of American symphonies, if not of classical music in general; and not just in the US – as the recent cuts in Holland attest that you recently addressed [see attached video]. I know that this is a topic that you care deeply about, and that you’ve recognized the need for American orchestras to devise at least a new financial structure, if not other types of changes. Can you talk about your sense of what steps are needed, not only in Detroit, but also elsewhere in the US to improve the state of classical music; and perhaps your overall level of confidence that we can keep classical music healthy and growing in the future?
LS: That’s a big question; let’s see what we can do.
The obvious – and the not incorrect – answer is: education. You hear about audiences getting older; but I'm not so sure, as I do see a growing interest in classical music among younger people. In my view, rather than trying to be everything for everybody, arts institutions should instead define who they believe their audience is, and maximize their efforts to reach that target group first. For example, there are 40 million piano students in China – forty million! At a certain point, many of them come to study in the United States. The majority of them do not become musicians, but instead go on to do something else: they become doctors or lawyers or physicists; regardless, a great number of them remain in the US. The point is, however, that they've had this intense musical training in their backgrounds, and music remains a big part of their lives.
My sense is that we should actively go into these communities, as well as into areas of the Latino and other populations where the local education systems places value on music – in a way that we generally seem not to in the broader nation; and to develop these communities as the future audience. This does not mean that we should segregate or specialize, but rather maximize the number of people who already have a musical interest in their backgrounds, and to reach out to them in a constructive way.
What we also have to do is to make sure that the parents of young people actively support arts education in the schools. Kids will go to music right away, that's never a problem for them – but it's the adults. We're forty years into the gradual decline of our various arts educational processes, and so you have to reach the parents. How people choose to do that is an individual matter, but there are ways – and I will be doing many of these here in Detroit. In fact, I'm going to be giving a presentation to TEDx [a locally organized installment of the TED (Technology-Education-Design) conferences to share innovative ideas] in a few days – and it will be exactly about that. So again, education is the big key!
Another thing is never dilute your product – something that I frighteningly see in too many cases; for example, adding constituent elements such as visuals to what should be a purely aural concert. Music is meant to challenge; it is meant to be primarily in the abstract, it is meant for the audience to create its own imagery. But more and more we're moving in a direction where that aspect is being taken away. If you ask a young person about a song they're listening to, chances are that they are only going to talk about the video – and we shouldn't have that. It's fine to educate, to inform, and to entertain; but audiences have to meet the orchestra part way by doing a bit of work themselves – and that comes in the form of listening with your eyes as well as your ears, and creating your own imagery.
Finally, I think that we have to create a much healthier environment for individual and corporate donations. One way to do this is to pursue more specific, targeted giving. Rather than just saying, "We need another five million dollars," you have to say what you need this money for – explain how a company, or an individual, benefits from something making this contribution.
So those are the areas I think we would have to work on, and things we've learned in part from our strike.
Nolan Gasser: Before we get into the musical content, however, I’m curious about one thing: most classical recordings have liner notes, which attempt to elucidate not only the individual works on the disc, but also their collective connection to some larger vision or narrative; but it’s quite rare that the artist involved provides this elucidation in the form of a 23-minute video – as you have done [see Promo video on right column]. Now, I know that you’re no stranger to speaking on camera, but was this “video-lecture” your idea? And if so, what was the inspiration behind it?
Pierre-Laurent Aimard: I’ve always felt that when you prepare a project like a concert or a recording, the audience will hear it for the first time and will hopefully sense what ideas you wanted to communicate; but they will likely not feel or understand all the layers that you’ve approached it with, through years of preparation. Of course, some spoken words during a concert can help, and I’ve often done that – for instance, when I want to share a new work that is unfamiliar to the audience; and it’s also true that I’ve done this sort of thing previously for television and radio. In this case, Deutsche Grammophon presented me with the opportunity to produce an EPK [electronic press kit], including a video; they know that I’m always eager to communicate my ideas about a piece or a repertoire. We live in a world where there are many ways to communicate – including via new technology; but we can use this platform as mere marketing, or we can use it to present an artistic message that helps us communicate something important. And this video became such a chance for me.
NG: I agree that it's incumbent on us, if we want to get our message out, to make use of every medium; and we certainly have different ones than our predecessors. Your video is very effective – not least when you make the suggestion, or challenge, to the audience to listen to both discs as a whole; you then proceed with a detailed and very insightful explanation of the entire program. This type of video-lecture is not very common among new classical releases – perhaps you’ll start a trend.
So, two separate discs, each of which presents Liszt in context with surrounding composers in a distinct way: Disc 1 culminates with the monumental B- Sonata, via preparation by three other 1-movement sonatas [by Wagner, Berg, and Scriabin], each of which in turn is aligned with a late, progressive character piece by Liszt that shows affinity with the techniques and aesthetics of these other sonatas: via form, motivic usage, and especially intervallic relationships. It’s easy to see an inspiration for the other three sonatas, but selecting the corresponding character pieces seems like quite a research and analysis exercise; can you take us through your selection process?
PLA: Sincerely speaking, there is always a mix of intuition and reflection in the choice of pieces that make up a program. For this disc, I wanted to highlight what it means to write a sonata in one movement, to highlight this particular challenge, and to make it sensible to a general audience – since, of course, not everyone is a musicologist or a music analyst. The goal was to show how each of these other sonatas reveals some dimension of the Liszt Sonata: for the Wagner [Piano Sonata in Ab, WWV85 ('Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau Mathilde Wesendonck')], it is Liszt’s connection to and continuity with the Wagnerian music drama; in the case of Berg [Piano Sonata in B-, Op.1], it is his use of form; and in the Scriabin [Piano Sonata No.9 in F (‘Black Mass’), Op.68], it is his use of harmonic language, motives, and virtuosity. Of course, there are many other dimensions as well in each case; but I wanted to create a program that was at once quite varied, but that also has a strong sense of unity.
NG: Now, with regard to the character pieces by Liszt with which you precede these sonatas: all three show some remarkable connections to the sonata that follow. For example, you discuss the use of the ascending minor 6th in both the Wagner Sonata and Liszt’s La lugubre gondola [S.200], as bearing a connection to the “Prelude” to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; and this connection becomes even more palpable toward the end of the Liszt piece, when you hear the reference to the “Tristan” motive quite clearly. Another striking case involves the link between Liszt’s Nuage gris [S.199] and the Berg Sonata that follows: you discuss the prominent use of the ascending 4th (perfect and augmented) in both pieces; and I was also struck by how the end of the Liszt piece – rising up to the F#, passing from the C below [that is, up an interval of a augmented 4th] – perfectly presages the opening of the Berg [which begins with the successive 4ths: G-C-F#]. It must have been a glorious moment for you to realize, “Aha, this is exactly the piece I need to precede the Wagner, or the Berg, or the Scriabin.” Did you already know of such connections, or did you need to run through lots of music to find just the right link?
PLA: No, of course, it takes a lot of time to make such selections. At the start, I only saw the program with the sonatas, but then noticed that something was missing – and that the program as such was a little short. I wondered, “How can I frame the program in a way that makes for a better connection between the sonatas?” This also provided me with an opportunity to present more pieces by the late Liszt – who I adore and respect so much. Choosing the piece that, as you say, shoots perfectly to the next one in the program – that connects to a similar harmonic language, or that creates a unifying frame, or raises certain ambiguities – requires quite a lot of time: to select the right piece in the right order, through trial and error, et cetera. But this is what truly grants strength, beauty, and richness to a program – it’s what transforms an evening. What makes the difference in a great program is the presence and the order of the pieces, and the slight adjustments you make to give each one it’s proper space: to enlighten the program from one piece to the next. If this is done successfully, you enter another dimension. It’s like placing paintings in the frame of an exhibition in a museum: for instance, placing a painting in a context like the Barnes Foundation [an educational art and horticultural institution near Philadelphia, containing an extraordinary collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings], requires a difference resonance than if you place that same painting in another exhibition.
NG: I think it's fair to say that you are a pianist who has embraced the challenge – and the imperative – of designing a recital that is not just a nice collection, but has meaning above and beyond the individual pieces. For example, one recalls the many creative programs you did at Carnegie Hall [his “Perspectives” series during the 2006-07 season]. Of course, it's not for nothing that Liszt himself is often credited as being the father of the piano recital. And with this program, it does almost feel like an exhibition – where we're traveling on an historical as well as aesthetic path through these various composers.
But before we leave Disc 1, I was actually a bit surprised that in the video you spend relatively little time discussing the seeming “raison d’être” of the disc – Liszt’s own B minor Sonata. Many argue, and you agree I think, that this is perhaps the composer’s masterpiece – but it’s also a herculean task for any pianist. I spoke not long ago to your fellow Deutsche Grammophon pianist and compatriot Hélène Grimaud – who as you may know also recorded both the Liszt and Berg sonatas on a single disc…
PLA: Yes, I noticed that; but by then I had already organized my program – and I didn't want to change it.
NG: I don't think you should have! You both bring something extraordinary to the piece – and that's one of the beauties of this repertoire: that every individual performance brings out something new. When I spoke to Hélène, we discussed the enormous architecture of the piece and its dizzying use of perpetual variation, but also the challenges of sustaining both stamina and focus during this 30-minute arc of non-stop playing. Can you talk about your approach in handling this task?
PLA: What makes this piece so special is its mix of Romantic narrative drama and fantasy, on the one hand, with very strong form, on the other; it embraces at once both sonata form and the full four movements of a traditional piano sonata. You have this very strong architecture, but you also need to keep the declamatory nature of the narrative. It’s likewise important to bring out all the extreme drama of this piece, and also to alternate between what is more “composed” – like the “Fugato” [at the start of the fourth section, Allegro energetico] and what is more “improvised” – like all the small cadenzas; and yet, without interrupting the overall flow. That is, the way to guide the architecture of this piece is completely different than in a big Beethoven piano sonata, for instance.
Nolan Gasser: We’ve talked a bit about what has struck the critics so strongly about your voice – your light, elegant timbre; your dynamic control; and the very distinctive vibrato of your voice – which has aligned you in their minds to older singers like Giuseppe Di Stefano, Jussi Björling, and Franco Corelli; as opposed to some more recent, heavier spinto tenors – perhaps like Rolando Villazón or Ramón Vargas. I actually liked what [conductor] Riccardo Chailly said, that you have a voice that can balance that sound from earlier in the 20th century with the musical taste of today. So, were you naturally drawn to these earlier singers – even [Enrico] Caruso – more than to your older contemporaries, or was this something that you and Paul Asiak explored by virtue of what was naturally heard in your voice?
Joseph Calleja: First of all, when were the operas composed that my colleagues and I sing? They were written in the 19th century, which was much closer to the age of when these great singers performed than we are. I think of someone like Caruso who was considered a pioneer by changing just a few small things: like instead of singing the high c in falsetto, sang it using the “voix de poitrine” [chest voice]. But these 30 or 40 years of the “Golden Age” – Gigli, Schipa Corelli, Del Monaco, and the rest; to even suggest that we know better how to sing this repertoire than they did is extremely cocky and arrogant! Some of the greatest conductors and the majority of the greatest singers of all time were working during these years. So, if we want to give the same level of excitement to our audience – to blow them away – that is what you have to study. And, of course, some of the exaggerations of those years we can do without, like Gigli’s sobs and the excessive use of portamento; but if you combine the excitement they created, and the importance this era gave to the voice, and combine it with today’s palette of beautiful staging and sets – that is, if we bring the best of the old and the new, opera can become, literally, mind-blowing.
And there are also contemporaries of mine that I love, like Roberto Alagna – who has few peers from any era, especially in the French repertoire: his Faust, his Romeo [from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and even his Don Carlo [by Verdi]; and also Juan Deigo Flórez, with his Rossini and Donizetti: you don’t get more old-fashioned than his approach to singing – and I mean that in the best possible way. And yet there are many tenors who try so hard to be modern, with their absolute fixation on darkening the voice as much as possible; I think this is incorrect. Even a singer like Del Monaco, who has a naturally dark voice – he was always trying to sound as bright as possible; his darkness was achieved from his timbre, and not by manipulating his voice to sound that way. And more often than not, with very few exceptions, singers who attempt this sort of thing end up with vocal problems; and it’s to be expected, since they’re using incorrect vocal production.
[Placido] Domingo has been singing for 35 or more years, and has a naturally dark, burning sound; but if you listen to him, you can hear how he’s always trying to lighten up his sound to make it more light and “solar”. He’s never tried to darken his voice or make it sound more like a baritone.
NG: Clearly, you have an aesthetic that prizes the older, lighter, and more elegant style – and yet it's also something that is a natural part of your voice; how nice that the two are so aligned. I’m wondering – are there any particular aspects of your voice that are challenging you these days as you try to reach these aesthetic ideals?
JC: There are two things in my voice that I’m working on: first, a balancing of the registers, which is always a battle for a tenor; and second, to achieve those “pinging” high notes – which I have now in a way I didn’t five or six years ago. Also, for a while I had a common symptom of a young, healthy voice: a very, very fast vibrato. What people don’t remember, thought, is that every major voice for the past 100 years – bar none – had this fast vibrato in their early years: Björling, Corelli, Gigli, Domingo, Pavarotti, even Caruso; the thing was, however, that most of them were not singing professionally when they were 24. The proof is in those rare recordings – like the Italian arias sung in Swedish by Björling when he was 22 or 23 – which I have at home; and I’ve had people say, “Oh my God, he sounds just like you!”
The challenge, though, is that you can’t remove the vibrato by forcing the voice – which many singers try to do; instead, you do it by slow development. That spark of a natural healthy voice is what gives it that “ping” – it’s what gives the voice it’s carrying power and it’s character as well. Of course, if you don’t work on it or learn how to better support the voice, it can become a problem. I hear so many singers who try to remove their vibrato; they force their voices, or shout. They may remove it for a period of time, but then they lose their staying power – they lose volume, and the voice becomes three or four times smaller than it should be, and they lose the facility to sing in the top part of the voice.
It’s a very complicated thing – but it’s just about aging well. It’s like if you have a bottle of Bordeaux wine – 2005 was a great year; but the true potential of an ’05 is not for the next 10, 15, or even 20 years. If you opened an ’05 in 2008, or even now, it might be fine – but it’s premature. But if you wait for 10 years, it’s going to be absolutely fantastic!
NG: Although, a nice thing about opera, as opposed to wine, is that we get to enjoy that tenor voice, even if it’s not quite at full maturity.
JC: Yes, there's no harm in tasting part of the barrel, as long as you don't empty it!
NG: Touché. So, for you the key really is listening to what is natural in the voice, and not forcing something that goes against its nature – as you’ve witnessed with some of your contemporaries.
JC: Yes, that’s right. Now, I have to be honest and say that I have my off-nights too – I have moments when I’m sick, or having an allergic reaction, or am jet-lagged; so, of course, it’s not always easy to do what is best for the voice, even with the best of intentions. Even with the best technique and the best preparation, things don’t always play out the way we want. That’s the beauty, though, of a live performance: we all know how difficult it is, but when we achieve greatness, it’s that much more amazing.
NG: Sure, because, it you were consistently delivering the same quality performance, we might as well just hear a recording.
Finally, Joseph, let’s return briefly to your stage career – which is clearly most important to you. Ever since winning Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition in 1999, you've been in near constant demand, and have taken a pretty logical path for a lyric tenor – starting with Donizetti, Bellini, some lighter Verdi [La Traviata, Rigoletto] and Puccini [Madama Butterfly, La Bohème], and then began moving to such heftier roles as Faust and Adorno in Simon Boccanegra. Based on this album, and our conversation, it sounds like you’re ready to tackle some even heavier roles, like Mario in Tosca – and I see that you’ll be performing the role of Nadir in an upcoming performance of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers in Berlin this December. Any other roles that you’re anxious to see enter your repertoire?
JC: The answer I’d give would probably be: none – and I’ll tell you why. It’s always going to be my voice that tells me what I should sing, not vice versa. It's not my age, or time, or even my desires; it’s how I’m sounding at a particular moment in my career. And so I try not to entertain these kinds of thoughts. Of course, I’d love to sing Otello some day – who wouldn’t? But I don’t want to hurt myself by trying to imagine singing music that perhaps I’ll never sing. Instead, I concentrate on what I’m singing right now, on my immediate repertoire. As for upcoming roles: I’ll sing soon Tosca for sure; [Massenet’s] Manon is also in the near future; but [Puccini’s] Manon Lescaut is still at least 10 or 15 years in the future.
Now, you might ask me, “But wait, you just told me that it’s the voice that decides; how can you say that you’ll sing Manon Lescaut in 10 or 15 years?” I use time as an potential indication, not as a sure thing – as some artists do: “Okay, so if I’m singing this now, so in 6 years I’ll be ready for that.” No, in 6 years you might be ready – you wait and try it, and then if you’re ready, you book it. That is the philosophy I use – again, I treat time as an indication of when I might be ready. But I don’t commit myself until I have sufficiently grown as an artist – I’ll try it with a piano, or in a small setting: and if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
NG: So, if you were offered by the role of des Grieux in Manon Lescaut by the Met or Covent Garden in three years time, you’d say, "No, I can’t make that commitment"?
JC: In fact, I was just offered the role of des Grieux by the Salzburg Festival, and I said “no” – because my voice is not yet ready for that.