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David Zinman Exclusive Interview: August 1, 2011

David Zinman
Richard Strauss: Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche; Also sprach Zarathustra
Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra


ARTE NOVA Classics
Rel. 20 Apr 2004

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On Tuesday, July 12, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with renowned American conductor David Zinman, since 1995 the director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra – where he has garnered high critical praise and impressive sales for his unique and often groundbreaking recordings of such standard repertoire as the symphonies of Schumann, Mahler, and especially Beethoven. With the latter recordings, for example, Zinman defied the early skeptics by demonstrating the validity of adopting Beethoven’s original metronome markings, offering a lighter approach to phrasing and pulse than is commonly heard with these works – in turn yielding fresh and infectious renderings that audience embraced in the millions. In this insightful and broad discussion, Maestro Zinman reviews his rewarding association with the Tonhalle Orchestra and the path that led to their impressive and innovative recordings. The two also discuss the Maestro’s evolving repertoire interests – following his earlier and celebrated association with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, some upcoming projects with the Tonhalle, his love of teaching, his sober views on the current state of American classical music, and much more. Our feature also includes a 1-Click David Zinman Concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of David Zinman videos. Don’t miss this important and fascinating discussion with a true giant among modern conductors!

“Seeing the original manuscripts [of the Beethoven symphonies] 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.”
– David Zinman

Nolan Gasser: David Zinman, welcome to Classical Archives. To begin, since the “big day” was just this past Saturday [July 9], allow me to wish you a belated Happy Birthday!

David Zinman: Thank you very much.

NG: You celebrated this banner year – your 75th, if you don’t mind me sharing – with a Gala concert by your own Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, along with a star-studded array of soloists [Alfred Brendel, Julia Fischer, Radu Lupu, and many others]; I was able to view online an excerpt from the concert where the orchestra surprised you with its own version of “Happy Birthday”. I imagine that came as a bit of a shock – coming on a downbeat where you clearly expected something else entirely…

DZ: Yes, the “Happy Birthday” came at the top of the second half of the program – which was supposed to start with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture [Op.92]; it was a bit shocking, because it was in the “wrong” key, and I immediately thought, “Wow, did I have a stroke or something?” But then I realized it was “Happy Birthday” [laughs].

NG: Well, it’s nice that you caught on quickly – and I have no doubt that the musicians were sincere in their well wishes for you. Indeed, you and the orchestra seem to share quite a happy partnership: the orchestra must be thrilled with the dramatic rise in profile that they've witnessed under your direction; and you yourself stated that in Zurich you are "the most comfortable" you've ever been with an orchestra. If you can summarize it, to what do you attribute this symbiotic relationship between you and the Tonhalle – which is now slated to continue to at least 2014?

DZ: First of all, we've now been together for 16 years. But aside from that, it's the respect I feel for them and the respect they feel for me – and we get along, you know? It's like a very good marriage: there are no barriers between us, and that's been a good thing. Of course, we've worked very hard together; I've often said to them, "Look, I am your boss, but I'm also your friend – but I'm also your boss!" So, you have to be strong when you need to be, and friendly when you need to be, and we've always had that kind of relationship. It’s a real pleasure working with them, and now I'm reaping the results of all the hard work. We have a large shared repertoire that we've done over the years: through our recordings, we’ve done all the Beethoven symphonies piano concertos overtures, the Missa solemnis [Op.123]; all the Richard Strauss tone poems; all the Mahler symphonies; all the Schumann symphonies; and soon all the Schubert and Brahms symphonies. It’s a great relationship, and we share the bond of this great repertoire.

NG: I imagine it is like a good marriage: when it’s working well, both sides are all the richer because of it; and having to deal with such an outstanding repertoire can only be a good thing for both sides of the equation! We will certainly talk about some of the repertoire that you've mentioned, and the recordings that you’ve done, and will be doing, with the Tonhalle.

But first – the term "maverick," may have lost some of its punch through over-use of late, but I would dare say it's fitting in your case: you've never been afraid to buck trends as a conductor, or speak your mind, or stand up for principle – even if it raises some eyebrows in the musical establishment. This includes a long history of ambitious and new music programming, for example, during your fourteen-year stint with the Baltimore Symphony [1985-98]. As such, there’s almost a hint of irony that you’ve found such a good fit in Zurich – which even by your own account is a conservative environment musically – something confirmed not only in the recordings you’ve just mentioned, but also by looking at your recent concert programs. So, thinking back to 1995 when you were first asked to assume the head conducting post: at this high point in your career, what was it that gave you the confidence that this would be the best next step for you?

DZ: I think, principally, that I had already sown my wild oats in Baltimore, so to speak. I was very dedicated to American music there, and I performed and recorded a tremendous amount of it. But once I felt I’d done enough of it, I could then go on to do something else that I hadn't done enough of – which was to put in recording all my thoughts about Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, and Bruckner – and to be able to focus on repertoire that hadn’t been such a focus in Baltimore. Of course, I had always conducted these works, but it finally arrived to the point where all my ideas could reach fruition in this way. I had been performing all the Beethoven symphonies over the years, but it happened in Zurich that all my ideas coalesced at a time when I was able to make use of them: I had a chance to record all the symphonies, and that was kind of ground-breaking for the orchestra – and for me.

NG: Yes, indeed. Okay, let’s explore how you’ve achieved this mutual success in Zurich: you’ve clearly raised the quality and profile of the orchestra, you've presented wonderful concerts in Zurich and on tour in Europe, the US, and Japan; but it’s mostly through your recordings that you’ve not only made Tonhalle a prominent name, but also have managed to be a bit of a revolutionary with some staples of the repertoire – and most dramatically with the Beethoven symphonies.

I read the 1988 New York Times article, where you lamented how there was no record label that was interested in trying out your “experiments” with Beethoven. Was it tough to convince the Tonhalle Board and musicians to indulge your “theoretical ideal”, as you called it – and I'm also wondering how did [the record label] Arte Nova get in the act?

DZ: It’s an interesting story: first of all, the orchestra was always receptive to these ideas of mine – of performing the Beethoven symphonies with period horns, trumpets, and timpani; of using short phrasing, and Beethoven’s original metronome marks, etc.; they were interested in all of that, and found it exciting. But I was also very fortunate that around 1997 Trygve Nordwall – the intendant [administrative director] of the orchestra – was asked by Arte Nova to suggest a conductor to record the Beethoven symphonies: the label had earlier agreed to record them with another conductor, who then backed out at the last minute. Trygve said, “How about recording them with the Tonhalle and David Zinman?" And they said, "Okay, let's do it." It was as simple as that! The recordings turned out well, and the CDs were released at a low price; we sold a lot of copies – especially in Japan, where young people were looking for just that kind of thing.

NG: Indeed, the record sold amazing well: over one million copies of the complete symphonies; did that stun you?

DZ: Of course, it did surprise me – though once I heard the recordings, I knew they would do well, because they are in a niche all of their own: it's not an actual period orchestra, but a lot of period principles are used; and those who discovered the recordings found them exciting

And it’s very interesting to me that this set started us on our recording career: we were then able to convince Arte Nova to let us do all of the Strauss tone poems, and then the Schumann symphonies. Eventually, Arte Nova was bought out by BMG – and then BMG combined with Sony; and so all the records since then have been released through Sony.

NG: Staying on Beethoven a bit: it certainly seems that you've been vindicated in your “experiments” ­­– in tempi, instrumentation, and especially in aspects of phrasing – not only by the great record sales and various prizes you’ve garnered for them, but also by the praise that you've received from many of today’s top conductors. For example, I saw Alan Gilbert's video praise [see right column] calling you “one of the most important interpreters of Beethoven working today”; and indeed, Alan is bringing you out to conduct the NY Phil for the “Modern Beethoven” series in March of 2012. I imagine this is pretty sweet revenge for all those naysayers back in the late 1980s?

DZ: [laughs] Yeah, it is. But I keep changing, and I've made more discoveries since then, so now it'll be interesting to see if I can do this kind of thing with another orchestra besides my own. With the Tonhalle, I'm preaching to the choir; but it's a little different when you have an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic. Still, they seem to want to do this – so we'll see what happens.

NG: I'm sure that they're very eager to work with you; they want to feel what it's like to take those scherzi at such a nice clip, and to use different kinds of phrasing, and strive for different sonorities.

Now, 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?

DZ: 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.

NG: It just makes you step back for a moment and marvel at the fact that here's this one man, Beethoven, whose music can withstand so many different approaches, and still call us back – so many years after his death – to find new ways of hearing and exploring his music; it is really quite astounding what the human imagination can come up with.

So, since the Beethoven series, you and the Tonhalle, as you've talked about, have gone on to other “standard” repertoires: the symphonies of Schumann, the complete tone poems of Strauss, the complete symphonies of Mahler – all of which have garnered great praise for bringing out this unexpected freshness, as if “heard for the first time”, as the critics like to say. You’ve also mentioned, and as I’ve read, that your next recording project is the complete Schubert symphonies.

DZ: We’re half way through that now.

NG: Yes, I know that you've completed the First [in D, D.82] and Second [in Bb, D.125], and the Eighth [in B-, D.759 (‘Unfinished’)] and Ninth [in C, D.944 (Great’)] [in fact, the latter two are numbered by Zinman as the 7th and 8th – since the symphony traditionally named the Seventh in E, D.729 is only a fragment]. Of course, we’re all big Schubert fans, and I'm personally very excited to hear these recordings –particularly the less-often heard early symphonies. Can you talk a bit about your approach to the Schubert symphonies, and how it relates to the kinds of decisions on phrasing and tempo that you made with Beethoven?

DZ: Well, with Schubert, of course, we don't have metronome marks – so that's a big difference. But one gets a clue given that the 1st and 2nd symphonies are heavily influenced by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: in fact, the First actually quotes the main theme of Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus [Op.43], even though the shape of the first movement is taken from Mozart's Hafner Serenades [K.250]. So, things like that are going to influence you, of course. And once you realize that the first six symphonies were essentially written for Schubert’s “house” orchestra – an amateur orchestra, essentially – you see that he was really just experimenting with what he learned from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

But then suddenly it all changes with the last two symphonies – they are in another world altogether; and they were tremendously influential to people like Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mahler, Bruckner, and everybody else who read them; it’s a new world entirely, and one that's specifically his own. Yet, they still come out of the early 19th century.

So, in my recording of the ‘Unfinished’, for instance, you’ll hear a much faster tempo for the first movement – because I really believe it's an Allegro; and the second movement moves as a brighter Andante [“walking tempo”]. As for the C Major Symphony, I think people will find it interesting to hear the way we do it; I haven't heard it all put together yet, so I’m curious myself.

NG: And aside from tempo, anything else that might seem a little surprising about your approach to these two late symphonies?

DZ: Yes, there will be some ornamentation in it that people might be a little shocked by; but you’ll have to hear it.

NG: Very exciting. You’ve also mentioned that you have the Brahms symphonies coming out soon? And then what’s on the docket after that in terms of the next great collection?

DZ: We actually recorded the four Brahms symphonies last year – which will come out on Sony in September. After we finish the Schubert cycle, we're going to record Das Lied von der Erde and that will be the end of the Mahler series – unless I can also record the song cycles and [the choral cantata] Das klagende Lied.

NG: Great. So before we leave the subject of the Tonhalle, I’d love to touch upon another of your innovations there, of a different nature – and that’s the “Tonhalle Late” series, where three times a year you welcome only young people to concerts that start at 10pm. I guess they include a few orchestral works, and then break open into an all-night “rave” of dance and electronica music – sometimes featuring members of the orchestra themselves. I saw the video where you explain that your own son, then 16, was the inspiration for this type of event, which you started in Baltimore. So, now, after 7 years of pushing, it’s now happening in Zurich, and has become a real bit hit! Can you share with us your approach to programming these events?

DZ: Well, first, I'm not involved in the rave portion at all.

NG: Yes, I figured that might be the case [laughs].

DZ: The symphonic part is usually just the normal concert that we would do – for instance, if we're playing Mahler's Sixth that week, we play Mahler's Sixth; if we're playing Messiaen's Chronochromie, then we play Chronochromie, etc. The idea is an essential one, and it did indeed come from my son, who said, "Dad, I don't go to classical concerts because none of my friends go to classical concerts;" then I asked, "Why don't they go to concerts?" and he said, "They don't want to be seen with their parents.”

NG: As the father of a 15-year old, I hear you.

DZ: So it was simply that idea: when you give them an opportunity to have their own evening, and a kind of life-style that suits them – for example, the concerts don't start at 7:30pm, but at 10:00pm, and so they could have already gone out to a movie or to dinner; and then after the concert they can dance until 4:00 in the morning, or just hang with their friends. It's a different kind of social event, and that's why it works.

NG: And do you now see more young people attending the regular season since you've been doing the post-concert raves?

DZ: It’s a slow impact; I'd like to say that suddenly all our concerts are filled with young people, but you have to understand: the prices for the Friday night concerts are much lower, and something they can afford; it's very hard for them to afford the normal subscriptions price, unless they get a rush ticket – which means that they have to stand at the back; so it's a different situation. But I do believe that they will eventually start enjoying the regular concerts later on.

NG: When they’re more gainfully employed!

DZ: That's right; and at that point, they won't be so shy about coming to the Tonhalle.

NG: Yes, it’s all about education, and you only get that by being exposed to the music over a period of years – whether Mahler or Messiaen – so that it's not completely unfamiliar when they eventually can afford the higher ticket prices. I think these youth-centered concerts are such a great idea, but I actually don't know of any orchestras in the U.S. that are following suit; why do you think this is the case: America is such a youth-oriented culture; why has this not caught on more among American orchestras?

DZ: I think maybe they just don't have the energy to go out and get sponsors to pay for it – because it costs money: for the party, for the hall, etc. We have a sponsor – Credit Suisse Bank – and that's what makes it happen for us. Also, in the States they may not have the personnel: we don't plan the party ourselves, we hire someone to do it – but that takes money. I did it once in Baltimore, but it was never done again, because it was too expensive. It is, however, catching on a bit in Europe – I know, for instance that it's being done in Frankfurt, and they did it in Leipzig as well.

NG: Well, I sure hope it catches on here in the States eventually; it may be challenging in the short-term, but it’s necessary in the long-term – because if we don't get young people aware of the power of an orchestral concert, it will be increasingly difficult to sustain them.

I know that you're currently enjoying some well-deserved R&R at your beach home in Cape May Point, New Jersey – from where I read your interview with the local newspaper discussing your views on the troubled state of American orchestras and classical music in general – as well as the continual decline in music education, and the aging of the audience, etc. I also read an interview in 2004, where you were asked if you’d ever consider coming back to lead an American orchestra, and you doubted if you’d be happy in that capacity. I wonder if that’s still the case, or if perhaps you at times feel motivated to try to shake things up back here in the States?

DZ: I'm sorry to say that I think things are even worse now; plus I'm 75 years old, and for me to take on that kind of challenge is a bit hard to consider – unless something really wonderful opened its mouth and swallowed me up; but I don't think that's going to happen. When you read about orchestras like Philadelphia going bankrupt, I mean it's really scary! And it's scary when you see that New York City Opera can't survive. I'm a bit depressed about the situation, I can tell you that.

NG: Yes, while it’s so important for us to maintain an optimistic outlook, it's actually getting harder and harder. At the same time, there are some wonderful outreach projects being initiated by generous American artists; and some orchestras are in fact thriving.

DZ: Sure – look at San Francisco, Michael [Tilson Thomas] has done a tremendous job there, and I think Alan [Gilbert] is trying very hard to do something in New York – and when you're dealing with enlightened people, it's great. But unfortunately, there are not enough such enlightened folks, you know? And that's just the way it is – and so I'm happy that I'm with the Tonhalle Orchestra until 2014, and then I’ll retire and see what'll comes my way. Who knows – maybe I'll head towards education, which I think is really necessary.

NG: Yes, I know that education has always been important to you. One post that you held for quite a while, of course, was as the Artistic Director at the Aspen Music Festival [from 1999-2010] – where you founded the American Academy of Conducting. I know that you’ve been doing some conducting training in Zurich, since you left Aspen – but I’m wondering if you’ve contemplating getting involved with another key music festival, either in the States or elsewhere?

DZ: Well, in fact I'm contemplating something in Europe at the moment; I haven't signed the contract yet, but assuming I do, I will indeed be teaching there – and that would be really nice. Essentially, I’m very dedicated to the training of young conductors, and I think a lot more has to be done: I have some good ideas about that, and already in Zurich we started a Master Class program – which we do at the end of every season, and they’ll continue to do that even after I'm gone.

NG: It’s always important to plan some kind of a legacy, which you most certainly are doing. By the way, we ourselves at Classical Archives are increasing our connection with music festivals – currently doing partnerships with both the Verbier – via – and the Music@Menlo festivals; so we’ll be anxious to learn about what festival you’ll be involved in the future – and perhaps we can re-connect in that regard as well.

In the remaining minutes, I want to quickly come back to a topic that I mentioned at the start of our conversation – and that was the work you did at Baltimore with a large focus on new music. I see that there is a periodic new work in the schedule with Tonhalle, including some joint commissions with, for example, the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg; and with other orchestras that you conduct, like the Royal Concertgebouw, for a work by Mark-Anthony Turnage. But clearly the pace is certainly less than it was; perhaps indeed you've sowed those oats, but given your success with new works – not least with the stunning sales you gained with the 1992 recording of [Henryk] Gorecki’s Symphony No.3 [more than a million copies sold]. Are there any other ambitious plans to change the balance with new music, in Zurich or elsewhere?

DZ: I'll likely continue to perform about the same pace of new works in Zurich for my remaining three years – and mainly focusing on European composers. But we're also starting a program where we invite composer- conductors to work with the orchestra: for example, last year we had [German composer] Matthias Pintscher; and next year we have [American composer] John Adams. Plus, there’s always a new commission I do every year or two with the Berlin Philharmonic; we did one last year with [French composer] Marc-André Dalbavie and now with [Swedish composer] Anders Hillborg. And a few other things as well – such as performing John Harbison’s Symphony No.6 with the Boston Symphony this coming season; plus something with [British composers] Thomas Adés and Mark-Anthony Turnage, as you mentioned. But essentially, I’m winding down from this sort of thing, and my “proselytizing” work is becoming less and less.

NG: It sounds like you're keeping just enough variety to keep it interesting.

DZ: Yes, it is. And also, after I leave the Tonhalle, I’ll pursue other projects as well: I want to do more opera, as well as make recordings of works that still need recording.

NG: Indeed, there's never a shortage of good musical projects to undertake.

Finally, Maestro, one last, very important question: I saw on video that stunning performance of you singing Tom Lehrer's song, "Alma" [see right column]; so I'm wondering – when we can expect a new recording of “David Zinman Sings Musical Parodies”?

DZ: That’s easy – never [laughs]!

NG: Fair enough; thanks so much for a great discussion.

DZ: Thank you very much – it was nice talking with you.

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