Conductor / Composer  Matthias  Bamert

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

bamert


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 across Europe.

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 times over.

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 sayMostly 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 . . . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:    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?

Matthias Bamert:    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.

BD:    Actually 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 Stanisław Skrowaczewski.] 

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.

BD:    But having been a successful composer, does this make you more sympathetic to new compositions of other composers? 

bamertMB:    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 contemporary music?

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 Brahmsten 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 that.”

BD:    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.

BD:    Obviously 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.

MB:    That’s 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.

BD:    Why not?  Why didn’t the piece get picked up?

MB:    I don’t know.

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 Symphony.

BD:    Might it be easier to get a ten-minute overture, if he had one, rather than a full symphony?

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 microphones?

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.

BD:    Because 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?

MB:    Maybe, 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?

MB:    It’s 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?

MB:    It’s 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 happen.

bamertBD:    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 do?

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.

BD:    What 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 involved?

MB:    Audiences 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?

MB:    [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 they don’t.

BD:    When 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?

MB:    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 audience.

BD:    The joker is that when you record something on a flat plastic disc it’s always going to be exactly the same.

MB:    That’s 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?

MB:    Oh, 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?

bamertMB:    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 the orchestra?

MB:    Yes.

BD:    So you better get it first?

MB:    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.

BD:    And you’ve got to keep all of these various orchestras sorted out in your head?

MB:    [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?

MB:    It 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.

BD:    Without mentioning names, has there been a situation where you never want to go back to that orchestra ever again?

MB:    Oh, 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?

MB:    [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 world.

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.

BD:    You’re 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.

MB:    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?

MB:    Oh, 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 different trips.

BD:    [Laughs]  Someone who would look at this schedule, they’d say, “That’s nuts!”

MB:    That’s me. [Laughs]

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?

MB:    Seems to.  There are always long airplane rides.

BD:    So you can study on the airplane?

MB:    Oh 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.

BD:    I completely understand!  You’re looking at someone who really enjoys what he does.

MB:    You look like it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the big question
what’s the purpose of music?

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?

bamertMB:    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 concerts?

MB:    [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 music?

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 peoplea 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 directions.

BD:    Are you optimistic that you will find the solutions and the new directions?

MB:    I’m 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.

MB:    [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.

BD:    [With mock horror]  So there’s nothing wrong with a good tune???

MB:    Apparently not.

BD:    We lost that in the sixties and seventies.

MB:    Even before, yes.  But contemporary music now is much more communicative, and also the audience is more open.  In the sixties, contemporary music
mainly in Europewas 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?

MB:    Mmmm, 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.

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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?

MB:    You 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.

bamertBD:    The same Muzio Clementi that wrote all the piano music we played as kids?

MB:    Yes.  He met Mozart and they had some competition where they out-did one another.

BD:    Like Liszt and Thalberg?

MB:    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...

MB:    ...but 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 Baguer.

BD:    That’s a name new to me.

MB:    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, fifth one.

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 modern piano.

MB:    It’s 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.

MB:    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.

MB:    [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 come. 

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.

Award - winning 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 like 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.