Conductor / Composer Matthias Bamert
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 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
-- Names which are links in this box and below
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
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 . . . . . . .
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?
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
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
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?
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 contemporary
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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?
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?
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
and think, “Oh, this would be a good idea,” and 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
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 the
BD: So you better
get it first?
[Both laugh] I have some experience, and it’s something that is very
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?
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?
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
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.
Someone who would look at this schedule, they’d say, “That’s nuts!”
MB: That’s me.
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
* * *
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?
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 concerts?
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
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 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 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
BD: I don’t know
that we could ever lose it completely because we have so many round, flat
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???
BD: We seem to
have 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 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
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.
* * *
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.
BD: The same Muzio Clementi that wrote all the piano
music we played as kids?
He met Mozart and they had some competition where they out-did one another.
BD: Like Liszt
[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
BD: That’s a name
new to me.
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.
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 Ernst von Dohnányi.
We recorded his Second Symphony.
BD: I would think
that Christoph would want to do that. [Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi
is the grandson of Ernst.]
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
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.
--- --- --- --- ---
© 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.
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.
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.