Conductor / Composer Matthias
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Matthias Bamert (Conductor)
Born: July 5, 1942 - Ersiten, Switzerland
The Swiss conductor, Matthias Bamert, studied music in his native
Switzerland, as well as in Darmstadt and Paris, falling in with the
likes of Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen; these associations can be
detected in his own compositions from the 1970s. He spent from 1965 to
1969 as principal oboist with the Salzburg Mozart Orchestra, but then
switched to conducting.
Matthias Bamert’s conducting career began in North America as an
apprentice to George Szell and later as Assistant Conductor to Leopold
Stokowski, and Resident Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra under
Lorin Maazel. This legacy lives on in his hugely popular recordings for
Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic of Stokowski’s arrangements of Bach,
Wagner and Mussorgsky. He was music director of the Swiss Radio
Orchestra from 1977 to 1983, then began making a wider reputation
Principal Guest Conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra and
Director of the Glasgow contemporary music festival Musica Nova from
1985 to 1990, Matthias Bamert became known for his innovative
programming and has conducted the world premieres of works by many
composers such as Takemitsu, Casken, Macmillan and Rihm. Since 1987 he
has been resident in London. His gift for imaginative programming came
to the fore during his tenure as Director of the Lucerne Festival from
1992 to 1998, when he was also responsible for the opening of a new
concert hall, instituted a new Easter Festival, a piano festival,
expanded the programme and increased the festival’s activities several
Although Matthias Bamert has a solid reputation as a conductor of the
standard repertory, he is best known for his work on behalf of new
music, obscure 18th century music, and neglected music from all eras.
He is known to be a quick study, able to master new scores in very
little time, and bring off highly effective premieres in concert and on
CD. A prolific recording artist, he has made over 60 discs, many of
which have won international prizes, and he continues to record
extensively with Chandos Records, in a wide repertoire - Mozart’s
contemporaries with the London Mozart Players, Parry (the complete
symphonies) and Frank Martin (5 discs) with the London Philharmonic
Orchestra, the symphonies of Roberto Gerhard with the BBC Symphony
Orchestra, Dutch composers with the Residentie Orkest Den Haag, a
series devoted to Leopold Stokowski’s arrangements, concert music by
Korngold and Dohnanyi with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as
symphonies of Gossec. He is also known for his participation in
provocative classical music videos directed by Adrian Marthaler.
During my quarter-century at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I
was able to present music by a huge variety of composers. My
series of new-music programs gave the opportunity to showcase
— as I always used to say
— “Mostly living, mostly American
composers,” and the regular programming allowed for not only
the famous and well-known, but also the obscure and unknown
creators. I took pride in playing as many new discoveries as
possible, so one conductor who often popped up was Matthias
Bamert. His series of recordings by these composers always was a
joy to present, and usually the calls to the station were positive and
encouraging about them.
The itinerary of this maestro took him far and wide, but never to
Chicago. So when he landed in Wisconsin in October of 1995 for a
series of concerts with the Milwaukee Symphony, I arranged to meet him
there. A pleasant ninety-minute drive took me to his hotel, and
we bonded immediately over our mutual love of musical discovery.
He had been a composer as well, and indeed I had played one of his
compositions on the air. But this was a past-life for him, and we
spoke mostly of his conducting and his desire to dig into the unknown
reaches of the repertoire.
Here is that very pleasant conversation . . . . . . .
You are both composer and conductor. How do you divide your time
between those two tasks, or do you not do too much composing anymore?
To be frank, I don’t compose anymore. I think there’s something
about composing and conducting that doesn’t go together, and composers
who start to conduct dry up. There are many, many, many examples,
and don’t tell me Gustav Mahler because he only composed on
vacation. That might be one example. Richard Strauss could
be another example, but he could do both.
I was thinking more of someone like Skrowaczewski who decided, as you
have, that you can’t do both, so he stopped conducting to
compose. [See my Interview with
MB: Yes, at a
later date. I started out as a composer. You see, when you
get into conducting then what you do all day long is absorb other
people’s music. You do that every day and this is not good for
your own music to just constantly, constantly push all this music in
your head and associate it and recreate it. That is not good for
your own source of music, the music that would flow out of you.
So I don’t compose anymore.
having been a successful composer, does this make you more sympathetic
to new compositions of other composers?
MB: I think it
makes me more sympathetic to music in general. I know how it is
done. I look at that score in a different way than many
conductors who have not composed. I’m not just talking about
conducting contemporary music but also the old masters. You have
an eye very quickly for the form, the structure, the texture. You
know the tricks. To conduct contemporary music, of course, makes
it very easy. You absorb a contemporary score very fast if you
have been a composer.
BD: Does that
mean that you will automatically give more time on your concerts to
MB: I used
to. As I get older [laughs], you know how it is. I still
have great interest in contemporary music but I don’t do as much as I
used to do. I think it has something to do with the age, that it
is a great advantage if you have done a great work
— say a symphony of Brahms — ten
times, each time got deeper and deeper and deeper in it. I
consider that an advantage. That doesn’t mean that I’m just doing
old music. I do a lot of contemporary music, but I’m also doing a
lot of unusual and lesser-known music. I have a very large
repertoire, a very large interest, in general, in the repertoire.
BD: From this
enormous amount of music, how do you decide which pieces you will learn
and spend time with?
MB: A certain
curiosity is in me that always looks for things and thinks, “Oh, that
might be interesting.” Also, one develops a certain reputation so
that when people, like orchestra managers or concert promoters, have a
piece they think, “I’m sure you are the right person.” Or when
the record companies have something that is a little bit off the normal
path, they think of me and say, “Maybe he could make something out of
Something, for instance, like the Parry symphonies? Might you
have programmed one of them but not all of them, but then the record
company decides to do the whole cycle?
MB: No, that
went the other way around. That project of Parry was actually
sponsored, and we did not only the symphonies but also some oratorios
and some symphonic poems. It was the Vaughan Williams Trust that
decided to pay for a series of recordings, and they looked at
conductors and decided that they would not take an English conductor
because all the English conductors would look at Parry through the eyes
of his students Elgar and Vaughn Williams and so forth, while Parry
actually had no English influences. All his influences were from
Europe. He was influenced by Mendelssohn, Schumann and
Brahms. This was his influence, so they thought they would take a
conductor from the continent, from Europe, and somehow they found me.
it’s worked out very well from both sides.
MB: I didn’t
know much of Parry at that time, so I asked them to send me the
scores. When I saw the scores, I immediately realized that this
is really worthwhile music! However, I must tell you that I was
told before we started that project that Parry was a great choral
composer who also wrote some symphonies, but they’re not that
good. But today, after having recorded both choral music and
symphonies, I can say that I think he’s a greater symphonist than a
choral composer. Some of those symphonies are less known — like
the Fourth, which is
absolutely fantastic. This is close to Brahms.
BD: I would
assume they would think of the choral works being better simply because
they were performed more.
right; they were known, and the symphony like the Second was never performed.
It was performed at the turn of the century, and then he didn’t like
the scherzo so he rewrote that movement. That piece was never
played, so nobody knew what the piece was like.
not? Why didn’t the piece get picked up?
MB: I don’t
BD: Now that
you have pioneered them in performances and recordings, are you hopeful
that more people will take them up?
MB: I hope
that, but the Parry symphonies are in my repertoire. They get
proposed to every orchestra, but I have, to this point, performed one
symphony only. Nobody wants them. There’s great interest in
them. There’s great interest in the recordings and they sell
fantastically well, but concert promoters don’t want it.
Interesting that it would have to be the Hallé Orchestra that I
could talk into doing the Fourth
BD: Might it
be easier to get a ten-minute overture, if he had one, rather than a
MB: Yes, in
general. That’s interesting. It’s similar in England with
the Vaughn Williams symphonies. The Vaughan Williams symphonies
sell extremely well on records but do not fill halls. The record
public and the radio listeners public and the concert public are not
identical. That’s very, very interesting.
BD: Do you
conduct the same for a live concert as you do for the recording
MB: There’s a
certain technique of recording. A recording artist has a
technique that is something very different. It is very difficult
because it’s like you have to turn it on and turn it off, ‘it’ being
the orchestra. You have one second in front of the orchestra to
immediately inspire these people who are in their sweaters and have
microphones around and newspaper on the floor because they just have to
wait for everything to be ready. This is not a creative
atmosphere when making a recording. It’s very difficult for a
conductor, when the red light comes on, to just be right in the middle
and create whatever you would create in a concert. In a concert
it comes naturally.
of the sweep of the live performance?
MB: Yes, and
the feeling of the moment and the audience. Music is
communication, and it’s very hard to communicate with a microphone.
BD: You don’t
envision an audience behind you?
but how can you tell that to a hundred people in the orchestra to think
of an audience now? [Both laugh]
BD: As the
conductor, are you playing the orchestra like an instrument, or is it a
collection of instruments that you are cooperating with?
MB: That’s a
difficult question. You’re the best conductor if the orchestra
doesn’t feel that you’re constantly leading. You’re the best
rider of a horse if the horse has the feeling it does what it
wants. You don’t put a grip on an orchestra, but you let it play;
you let musicians play, but they’re always under control.
BD: Is it
safe to assume that you exert more grip in the first or second
rehearsal, and then as they progress you ease off?
different from orchestra to orchestra, as it’s different from piece to
piece. There are pieces where they need more of a direction, and
pieces where they feel more at ease.
BD: Is all
your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something for that spark
of the evening?
interesting you ask that. I had the incredible fortune that in
younger years I was assistant conductor to various conductors, to old
masters. I was very fortunate that my first job with an American
orchestra was with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell in
‘69. That was his last year. I was able to be there, and
George Szell was one of the masters who gave everything at a
rehearsal. He was absolutely mesmerizing in those
rehearsals! They stay in my memory. A rehearsal of George
Szell was a work of art; it was perfect in its way. It is said
that the concerts, then, didn’t actually add much more. That was
it for me when I was a young conductor. Anything he conducted was
always magnificent, but the year afterwards, when George Szell died, I
went to New York to become assistant conductor to Leopold Stokowski who
was exactly the opposite. Rehearsals were business. A
rehearsal was like cleaning yourself. It was just straightening
out things, putting on a tie, doing just the very mundane things, and
then the concert was the mystery. In a concert anything could
BD: So he took
risks then in concert?
MB: Oh, he
took risks! A conductor who takes risks creates a tremendous
tension in the musicians because they don’t know what’s going to happen
next. So it’s electrifying, and that projects to the audience.
BD: So do you
have to walk that tightrope to make sure they’re going to be interested
enough to respond to you but not wonder what the heck you’re going to
MB: It is
something like that. Rehearsal should be interesting, but it
should be interesting in a very efficient way, that you don’t lose it
any moment. You don’t say a word that is not necessary, and
anything you ask them produces a result. If you say, “Do that
short; do that long; do that louder and here a little more viola,” then
if you play it and it sounds better you don’t have to explain
anything. The orchestra members realize that you know what you’re
doing. But the magic should be saved for the concert.
BD: I see.
MB: It’s like
a present then. A concert is a present that the conductor gives
to the orchestra, and the orchestra gives to the conductor.
happened to the public?
MB: Oh, they
enjoy the present! [Both laugh] They enjoy the exchange of
presents, but I’m just talking about what happens between a conductor
and an orchestra.
BD: Then is
the audience just a spectator, or is the audience participatory and
are incredibly important because you feel them. The orchestra can
see the audience. I can’t. I have them at my back, but you
feel them. Audiences can be incredibly inspiring.
BD: You never
wanted a rear view mirror, like in an automobile?
[Laughs] That would be lovely. No, but do audiences realize
how much they can inspire an artist? Do they realize how much
they can improve a performance by being a good audience? I think
you’re working with the orchestra, especially an orchestra you have a
close connection with, do you ever find that maybe you’re peaking too
soon and you want to back off or even cancel a rehearsal?
Yes. This is something very important — rehearsals
have to be very well-organized. I learned from George Szell that
when you come to the end of the rehearsal, you need to have exactly
achieved what you wanted to do, that everything is rehearsed, that the
amount of time corresponds exactly to the work you want to have
done. There are moments where there is too much rehearsal time,
so then I will give them half of the rehearsal off. Let’s say
everything is ready for a concert and you have another rehearsal.
If you start rehearsing again, one rehearsal is not enough because then
you would have to take everything apart again. If you have three
more rehearsals, it could go back.
BD: So you’re
the one that decides when it’s ready?
MB: I’m the
one who guesses. [Both laugh] Only the concert will show,
and this is what comes with experience. As a young conductor, I
remember not knowing in a rehearsal what had to be rehearsed.
This means what comes along from in the concert just through
concentration or through playing it once. So in a concert, then,
I would find out where I actually should have rehearsed or what I
shouldn’t have rehearsed. But as you know, be more experienced
with an orchestra and you find out what you need to rehearse.
BD: If you
have a series of three or four performances of the same program, does
each performance get a little bit better or are they all duplicates?
MB: I try to
make them better. That is actually not an easy thing to each time
be inspiring, each time create again the moment when something very
important is happening. I don’t know whether I succeed, but I
certainly try to get every concert to be better. Why repeat
something? In music there is no repetition. If you do music
once more it has to be more.
BD: But you
have a difference audience.
MB: Sure, but
you make music with the musicians. You have to offer them
something more or something different because that is what comes to the
BD: The joker
is that when you record something on a flat plastic disc it’s always
going to be exactly the same.
why it’s important that we have live concerts where the audience is
there and knows that it’s created right now for them. It’s the
moment that is right now that will never come again. This is what
should be special in a live concert.
BD: When you
come to the first rehearsal and you know what you want to do, are you
ever inspired by the orchestra, or do you ever discover something the
way they play it that, “Oh, this would be a good idea,” and you adapt
that to your own interpretation?
yes. A good orchestra is a tremendous inspiration to a
conductor. That’s why it’s so wonderful to conduct a good
orchestra because they add. They bring something and then I bring
something and then they bring something. It goes back and
forth. You inspire each other.
BD: Is that
different when you’re music director, as opposed to being a guest
conductor for just a week?
MB: There are
people who are born to be music directors and there are people born to
be guest conductors, and most of the conductors are something in
between. I love to guest conduct. I find it absolutely
fascinating, like here in Milwaukee, coming from a different orchestra
that I don’t know, with a different program. I have four
rehearsals. I start rehearsing and immediately try to figure out
the orchestra and what it needs. What do I have to do?
Where do they need encouragement? Where do they need
disciplining? Where do they need what? This is so
stimulating. It’s the one who figures out first that is always
the strongest. [Laughs]
BD: You or
BD: So you
better get it first?
Yes. [Both laugh] I have some experience, and it’s
something that is very challenging.
BD: Is there
any way to prepare for this — to have tapes of
their last concert, perhaps — or would you rather
just come in cold with the music?
MB: No, I
come in cold. It’s a human experience. It’s the way you
look at each other. An orchestra is an orchestra. It’s a
collective, but every musician in an orchestra wants to be treated as
an individual. Everyone needs something else. There might
be one solo wind player, and when he plays his solo you realize that
you have to look away because staring at him makes that person
nervous. There’s another one who is like a child and you have to
hold the hand and carry him through the solo. He needs
that. Another one needs a rather strong, regular glance to know
that, hey, I’m here. Everybody needs something else, and to
figure out immediately what they need is the interesting thing.
On a human level, this is a wonderful thing that goes on between
orchestra and conductor.
you’ve got to keep all of these various orchestras sorted out in your
[Laughs] When I see them, I remember them.
BD: When you
are invited back to an orchestra and you remember this or that player,
will that influence your choice of program material?
does. It will, yes. It’s sort of interesting when you come
back, then the relationship is totally different because you have
credit. The first time you have no credit. When you go
back, then suddenly an orchestra will feel that you are part of them;
you’re a friend. Most orchestras I conduct now as a guest
conductor I have conducted before. There may be three or four a
year, maximum, that I’ve never conducted.
mentioning names, has there been a situation where you never want to go
back to that orchestra ever again?
yes. I’m now in a position where I conduct only the orchestras I
like. It’s very pleasant to reach that point. I can’t
conduct more than I conduct now; I’m completely full, so why not just
do the ones I like?
BD: Do you
like being booked solid?
[Sighs] I have three areas of activities. One is the guest
conductor bit that I have been talking about. I’m also Music
Director of the London Mozart Players, which is one of the really good
chamber orchestras in Europe, and then I am running one of the big
festivals in Europe, the Lucerne Festival. We don’t do opera like
in Salzburg or in Edinburgh or in Bayreuth. We just have the
instrumental festival with visiting artists and visiting orchestras,
but as such I think it’s more or less second to none. Last summer
we had two concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic and two concerts with
the Vienna Philharmonic. We had the Concertgebouw. We had
the Philadelphia Orchestra with Sawallisch. [See my Interview with
Wolfgang Sawallisch.] We had the Israel Philharmonic with
Zubin Mehta for two concerts. [See my Interviews with Zubin
Mehta.] We had St. Petersburg for two concerts and we had the
Russian National Orchestra for two concerts. We had the Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra. Then we had those famous youth orchestras
— the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra with Claudio Abbado,
and the European Community Youth Orchestra with Rostropovich. In
our weeks this is the greatest concentration of top orchestras in the
BD: Can the
public absorb coming to so many concerts in such a short time?
MB: It’s an
international festival, so they come from all over. I think it is
amazing. There’s no other place where you can hear those
orchestras, one after the other, and those artists.
Music Director of this festival?
MB: Oh, no,
no, no, no, no! I’m the Director, which means I do not only the
music, but I do everything — I fund-raise, I do
the budget, I do everything.
BD: So you
then decide which orchestras will come and which will not?
MB: That I
will, but I run the company, too, which means every morning, regardless
of where I am in the world, I get the mail of the Lucerne Festival
faxed to me. Here in Milwaukee, every morning at nine o’clock I
speak to my three main people at the festival.
BD: You have
your daily briefing.
Right. I dictate letters, I do correspondence, I call, and then
at ten o’clock I’m at the rehearsal. It is three o’clock in
afternoon for them. They call me and it’s nine o’clock
here. But I travel, so when I’m in Australia or in Japan it’s
much more complicated. But I’m in contact every day, and so every
two months I go there for a few days. Actually, from here I fly
directly to Lucerne for three days. Then I go back to London,
where I live.
BD: Do you
like globe-hopping all over the place?
yes. In 1996 I traveled three times to the United States, one
time to Canada, one time to South America, one time to Australia, one
time to New Zealand and one time to Japan. They were all
[Laughs] Someone who would look at this schedule, they’d say,
BD: In the
end, is it all worth it?
MB: I love
it. It’s much too good. It’s so good I have such a hard
time having vacations because conducting a lovely orchestra in a good
program at an interesting place is better than vacation.
BD: Do you
leave enough time to study new scores?
to. There are always long airplane rides.
BD: So you
can study on the airplane?
yes. I can study anywhere. It’s a question of
concentration. If you can concentrate somewhere and if you like
what you are doing, you have a tremendous capacity to work. If
you don’t like what you’re doing, then you’re constantly tired.
completely understand! You’re looking at someone who really
enjoys what he does.
MB: You look
BD: Let me
ask the big question — what’s the purpose of
MB: For many
people, music is something they listen to. For me, music is
life. It’s something that is my life, and for people like me,
then we’re kind of missionaries. You want to share that with
others. And the purpose? I think it’s just life. That
is absolutely essential. It’s more than something you listen
to. It’s much deeper, much more universal.
BD: Are the
concerts that you conduct for everyone?
MB: Oh, yes.
As I said, I’m a missionary. I’ve done a lot of children’s
concerts, I’ve done a lot of television shows, and with the London
Mozart Players we do school concerts. We do community work; we
play in old folks homes; we play in hospitals. I have worked for
radio; I’ve worked for television. I have always tried to get an
audience as wide as possible.
BD: Would it
make you happy to have everyone on earth come to these kinds of
[Laughs] That everybody would enjoy classical music would be a
fantastic thing. It’s probably completely naïve, but I think
the world might be a better place.
BD: I think
you’re absolutely right. We can hope for that, but how do we get
more of the football fans and non-listeners into concerts of classical
MB: It’s an
interesting situation we are right now in as classical music is in a
very changing situation. On one side you have more orchestras
dying than I can remember, being it here or being it in Europe or being
all over. On the other side you have the Three Tenors concerts,
those mass appeal of “classical music” that make for some people
— for very few people — a lot of
money. But most people in classical music actually lack the
money. We have to leave the ivory tower. We have to play a
much, much more important role in the community. We have to show
the people, we have to show cities, the towns where we work that what
we do is of great relevance, of great importance and of great interest
to them. We artists have to become much more active. We
cannot just do beautiful concerts and expect that everybody would
come. It’s like a radio station. We cannot just broadcast
and not care whether somebody’s listening and receiving. We have
to go out and really do something about the people who will
listen. We have to communicate to them, otherwise the
twenty-first century will not be a good thing for classical
music. We have to see that very realistically. Subsidies
are going down. Sponsorship is stagnating. It will be
Darwin; it will be the survival of the fittest, and this is a very
dangerous thing for culture. At the end of this century we’ll
have to do a lot of re-thinking and thinking what we want to do, and
what do we want classical music to be in the next century. We
have been doing the same thing for a very long time, and each time,
every few years, there was again money missing, and then we try to fix
it in some way. Then the problem came back a few years later and
then we fixed it in another way. But this is short-sighted.
We would have to find solutions to the basic problem and find new
BD: Are you
optimistic that you will find the solutions and the new directions?
afraid it will have to get worse before it gets better. We all
have to get scared more until our creativity will start going in that
direction, because it will be survival. Then we’ll be able to
find new ways because classical music is a wealth, a cultural wealth
that is just absolutely incredible and cannot be lost. It has to
be. It could even have much, much greater impact than it has
now! It is interesting the impact it has in Japan or, as I hear
in the latest reports, in China, where I must assume that western
classical music must be incredibly fresh to them. So why is it
not as fresh here? What can we do that it gets that freshness
again? It will be interesting.
BD: Maybe we
have to lose it to realize what we’ve lost and then get it back?
MB: We don’t
want to lose it completely, but it’s possible that times will have to
get even harder.
BD: I don’t
know that we could ever lose it completely because we have so many
round, flat plastics.
[Laughs] Yes, but the real thing is still better. It is
said that a live performance compares to a CD like love to pornography.
BD: One of
the ways to keep music alive is to keep the creative process, the new
pieces, coming in. What advice do you have for composers who want
to write for the orchestra, either the chamber orchestra like your
London Chamber Players or the standard symphony orchestra?
MB: Here I
think times have never been better. Well, not never been, but
let’s say in this century because certainly the composers have become
so much more user-friendly. They are much more eager to
communicate. They’re much more interested in being understood
than it was twenty years ago. When I was younger and composing,
the Darmstadt and all this highly intellectual stuff was in, and that
is now passé. Today the composers are much less inhibited
and just write to communicate.
mock horror] So there’s nothing wrong with a good tune???
BD: We lost
that in the sixties and seventies.
before, yes. But contemporary music now is much more
communicative, and also the audience is more open. In the
sixties, contemporary music — mainly in Europe
— was done in festivals of contemporary music. These
were ghettos of contemporary music because nobody else wanted it.
Today you see so much contemporary music in our subscription concerts,
and if the dose is right the audiences will take it. And if it’s
presented in an effective way, everybody in an audience is interested
in what’s new. They watch the news. In the morning they get
the newspaper. When they buy a book, they buy a best-seller, and
a best-seller is always a newest book, not Shakespeare or Milton.
When they go to watch a show, it’s not an old show; it’s always the
newest show. When they want to be informed about sports or
science or anything, it’s always the newest, what is being done right
now. However, in music they go to a concert and they’re only
interested in what was presented a hundred years ago. We have to
tell them that this is part of your education. You want to know
what is going on now. You want to be informed. You have to
know how a composer today writes. You don’t have to like
it. You don’t like everything you read in the newspaper, but you
read it because you want to be informed, and music is part of it.
You have to know how a composer thinks about the music he
creates. This will be a composer who knows about Bosnia and about
the rainforest and about all the problems you live with.
BD: Let me
play devil’s advocate just for a moment. If you spend your day
hearing about Bosnia and beating your brains out at work trying to sell
widgets, don’t you want to come to the concert hall where it will be a
refuge from all of that which has been pounding on you?
MB: No, but
as with a show or with a book, you want to know what’s in today, what
is an expression of today. That doesn’t mean everything has to be
depressing or very serious. It can also be light.
BD: So then
the concert can have both. It can have the new piece and also the
big war horse?
MB: Oh yes,
as a combination. But a lot of the standard repertoire is not
that cheerful. The Eroica
is not a particularly cheerful piece, especially the beginning, the
first two movements. [Laughs] And there are many others.
BD: Then let
me ask a balance question. In music in general, where is the
balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?
that’s difficult. I think culture should be an enrichment.
Now, that can be both. It should enrich you. It should give
you fulfillment. It should add something to you. If you
work all day long, you go to a cultural thing at night which can be a
concert, a play, an opera, an exhibition. You want it to bring
another, a new dimension to the end of the day. You want to be
enriched by that experience. That’s what it should do, I
think. I certainly feel enriched.
BD: Are you
pleased with where you are in your career now?
MB: I’m very
pleased. I consider myself very, very lucky with all the things I
can do. If I would be less advanced in my career, I’m sure I
could be happy, too. If I would be even further I would be happy,
too. To have what I have, to do it the way I’m allowed to do it
is really a great privilege.
BD: I assume
there are more recordings coming out?
mentioned the Parry, which was a big project. There have been
other things, like the Rawsthorne Piano
Concerto and Philip Sainton things. When I took over the
London Mozart Players, Chandos asked me to do some Mozart symphonies
and I declined. I said, “There is absolutely no point. The
markets are swamped.” There is much, much, much too much Mozart,
and if the audience goes to a store and they have a choice, then they
would take a famous name in any case. So I had the idea that we
should do a series called “The Contemporaries of Mozart.” It is
fascinating that if you look in the music at the Renaissance or at the
Baroque or the Romantic Period, they all were international.
There was an Italian Baroque, there was a German Baroque, there was a
French Baroque, there was even a Spanish Baroque. There was a
little bit of an English Baroque. If you look at the Romantic
Period from Russia, Spain and Slavic countries, everywhere there was a
lot, but in the Classical Period, we are told there are only three
composers, and they all lived in the same town. That can’t be
possible. There must be a lot of music all over Europe during the
Classical Period, during the time of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but
they were lost or they were overshadowed by those three masters.
So I went and researched a little bit, and we have put out the first
record of three symphonies by Clementi, who was a contemporary of
Mozart and lived in London.
BD: The same Muzio
Clementi that wrote all the piano music we played as kids?
Yes. He met Mozart and they had some competition where they
out-did one another.
Liszt and Thalberg?
Yes. [Both laugh] The second record was Krommer. Two
wonderful, big symphonies that have never been recorded.
BD: I know
some of his chamber music...
nobody knew the symphonies and they’re really meaty, wonderful.
Then the third record was symphonies of Carl Stamitz. These are
the three that are out; I unfortunately do only two a year. The
one that comes out next is five symphonies by Michael Haydn, the
brother of Joseph, who was concertmaster in Salzburg where the young
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was second concertmaster. Mozart didn’t
like him because he was always drunk. Then recorded but not out
yet is music by a Spanish Catalan composer with the name of Carlos
BD: That’s a
name new to me.
Absolutely. Nobody knows him! He doesn’t write Spanish
music or Catalan music, it’s absolutely minuets and standard pieces in
the Viennese-Italian style. Compared with Mozart, they are a
little bit more Italian. Then next month, I am recording three
symphonies by Ignaz Pleyel, and in the spring we record four symphonies
by a German whose name was Anton Rossler, but during Mozart’s time it
was much more advantageous to have Italian name, so he was Antonio
Rossetti. [Both laugh] Hopefully that’s going to continue
as the years will go by. That’s one project. Another one I
started is a series of Frank Martin.
BD: Is he
special to you because you are both Swiss?
MB: I knew
him! I think he is underrated. A fair amount of pieces of
his have been recorded, but there has never been a cycle. There
has never been a statement of a conductor. So, back to the London
Philharmonic and there are three records that are out. The fourth one
comes out next month, and also next month I will record the final,
BD: All of
these records and projects are on Chandos?
MB: All on
Chandos. About two years ago, since I was assistant conductor of
Leopold Stokowski, I was asked to record a Bach-Stokowski disc, which I
did with the BBC. That was extremely successful and it sold
tremendously well. So they asked me to do another one called
“Stokowski Encores,” so there are a number of encores. There are
pieces like the first movement of the Moonlight
Sonata and The Girl with the
Flaxen Hair. [Laughs]
BD: I have
such mixed feelings about that. I respect them because those
arrangements are what kept some of these pieces alive in the twenties
and thirties, and yet to hear them now it’s like doing Mozart on a
amazing! There is also a Handel overture, and The Starts and Stripes Forever.
It’s just a mixed record of Stokowski encores. That too, sold
very well and we just recorded the third Stokowski disc, which is
Mussorgsgy with his arrangement of Pictures
at an Exhibition and a wonderful synthesis of Boris and some interludes of Khovanshchina. I don’t know
when that comes out, but now they’re talking about doing a
Wagner-Stokowski because he has arranged a fair amount of Wagner.
BD: There is
a chunk of Parsifal and a
chunk of Tristan as I recall.
Right. Then maybe two years ago I started some Korngold. We
did the Sinfonietta and got a
Gramophone Award nomination,
but unfortunately didn’t win. But I will continue the
Korngold. We started, just a month ago, a new mini-cycle, which
is Ernest von Dohnanyi. We recorded his Second Symphony.
BD: I would
think that Christoph would want to do that.
[Laughs] No! He had plenty of chance, you know. [Both
laugh] There’s also Symphonic
Minutes, and that will be a three-record set. Then I’m in
a series of the John Field Piano
Concertos with Miceál O’Rourke, the Irish pianist.
There’s one record that’s out.
BD: If they
were to come to you now or a few years from now and say, “We want your
Beethoven cycle,” would you do it?
MB: I would
hesitate. I conduct a fair amount of Beethoven, but I somehow
need to do some more. There are some that I think I would be
tempted, but there are some, like the Sixth,
I still have great difficulties with.
BD: Thank you
for all that you have brought to us and all that is still to
MB: Thank you
for coming up to Milwaukee to meet with me.
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© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, on October 27,
1995. Segments were used (with recordings)
on WNIB in 2000. The
transcription was posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.