Conductor / Pianist Dennis
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
|A masterful and innovative force
in classical music, Dennis Russell Davies is considered among today’s
most inventive conductors at the forefront of the orchestral, chamber
and operatic worlds. A modern, articulate and versatile artist revered
for his command of both traditional and contemporary music, he is also
recognized as an accomplished pianist and as an acclaimed collaborator,
sought out by orchestras, composers and artists alike for his
Davies has lived abroad since 1980, but maintains an active presence on
the North American music scene as a regular guest conductor with the
major orchestras and opera houses of New York and Chicago. In addition
to his ongoing duties as Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber
Orchestra and Professor of Orchestral Conducting at the Salzburg
Mozarteum, Davies is Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Bruckner
Orchestra Linz and Chief Conductor of the Linz Opera. In January 2002,
he was appointed to a 5-year term to the Board of Directors of the
Music Foundation at Harvard University.
A champion of contemporary music, his support of modern works,
particularly American, is legendary. His close personal friendships
with some of the 20th and 21st century’s greatest composers,
including Luciano Berio,
William Bolcom, John
Cage, Philip Glass,
Hans Werner Henze,
whom he formed American Composers Orchestra), and Isang Yun, have been an
important catalyst for enriching concert and operatic repertory around
Recently, Davies concluded his tenures as Chief Conductor of the Vienna
Radio Symphony Orchestra (1996-2002), and as Music Director of the
pre-eminent American Composers Orchestra (1975-2002). He continues his
affiliation with American Composers Orchestra as Conductor Laureate. He
has had successful tenures as the General Music Director of the City of
Bonn (Germany), Principal Conductor/Classical Music Program Director of
the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center,
Principal Conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Music Director of the
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (1972-1980), and Music Director of the
Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz, California. In addition to his
North American orchestral guest conducting appearances, Davies has
guest conducted some of the most prestigious orchestras in Europe
including the Berlin Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Gewandhaus
Orchestra, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
Dennis Russell Davies was born in Toledo, Ohio on April 16, 1944, and
graduated from the Juilliard School where he studied piano with Lonny
Epstein and Sasha Gorodnitski and conducting with Jean Morel and Jorge Mester.
Bio adapted from the American
Composers Orchestra website, dated September 5, 2003
Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews
elsewhere on this website. BD
Most of the interviews I have done over the years were single meetings,
with the material used on the air on WNIB and sometimes other stations,
as well as in print in various journals and now on this website.
Dennis Russell Davies, however, figured several times in my career.
First, we met for recorded conversations twice — in January
of 1982 when he was conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music
of Virgil Thomson,
Schubert and Dvořák, and again six years later, in December of
1987, when he was at Lyric Opera of Chicago for Lulu [with Catherine Malfitano, Jacque Trussel,
Victor Braun, Evelyn
Lear (as Countess Geschwitz!), and Andrew Foldi]. Besides
these two sessions, he was gracious enough to help arrange and then
translate for an interview on the telephone with Isang Yun. In
addition, we met informally again when he was performing at the Ravinia
After having used portions of the material on the air several times, it
is my pleasure to present this transcript of our entire meetings.
On both occasions, he was forthright and candid about his opinions, and
was pleased to speak of the subjects I chose. Since I was also
involved with Wagner News,
published by the Wagner Society of America, we spent a bit of our first
meeting discussing his relationship with those works.
Here is what was said on those two delightful afternoons . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: It’s very
nice to meet you.
Dennis Russell Davies:
Nice to meet you, too.
the director at Stuttgart
DRD: I’m the
music director at Stuttgart Opera. This is my second season.
start first with Wagner. You made your debut at Bayreuth in ‘78?
DRD: I have
to think back now... That’s
right. I was there three seasons with The Flying Dutchman. [This production had Simon Estes in the title role.]
BD: Tell me a
bit about conducting at Bayreuth. How
is that different from conducting opera anywhere else in the world?
DRD: I would
rather just say what it’s like to
conduct there. Working at Bayreuth is an
experience made in a unique way just because of the incredibly
standards that you confront the minute you walk through the
door and having a discussion with your very first
production. Wolfgang Wagner, who is the Intendant of the house,
is the conductor and stage director’s dream, as
far as a boss for whom one works. He’s supportive.
BD: Of all
intelligently critical, but he’s supportive. Once he’s asked you
to do a work, he lets you know what he thinks the possibilities are,
and then steps back and lets you do it. Then when the shooting
starts, he stands up
again and takes as much responsibility or blame as the people that work
for him. He’s been a
very courageous Intendant. He’s done things like
bring Pierre Boulez
there to revive The Ring with
staging, which was a remarkable achievement. You hear
opinions on all sides, but it was exciting and stimulating, and a very
interesting and beautiful production they did. That
production ran five years. It was interesting to see the change
climate, both from the people performing the piece and the
audience. Boulez and Chereau together really
achieved an enormous breakthrough.
BD: How so?
DRD: First of
all, the man is an
enormously skilled and experienced and sound musician, and his work
with the orchestra was very fruitful.
BD: At first
there were a lot of
complaints from the orchestra members.
DRD: I really
can’t speak to that because by the
time I got there, which was his third season, I had a colleague
there. One couldn’t ask for more from a colleague. He was
supportive and very helpful to those of us who were conducting, and
very kind and very
interested in what we were doing. The orchestra
was playing well, so I can only speak from my own experiences. I
that he took a certain amount of flack, but I also know that Wolfgang
Wagner was directly behind him
supporting him. And, you know, he won.
Right. There was a tremendous
amount of cheering in the last couple of seasons, especially.
Sure. That’s what I mean.
BD: How much
of that is the production
metamorphosing, and how much of it is the public getting used to the
Both. I know that my own
performances changed over the three seasons that I was there, and I
don’t think it had to do really as far as outward concepts.
I felt that what I wanted to do at the beginning better at
the end perhaps, but it wasn’t that. It was just a
matter of learning to go with what you’re presented. We did Flying Dutchman, and to give you an
idea of what Wolfgang Wagner gave as the possibilities, he asked Harry
Kupfer, who is
now running the Comic Opera in East Berlin.
BD: He took
over from Felsenstein?
DRD: He did,
yes. Wait, no... Joachim Herz was the man
who had taken over from Felsenstein. At the time I was working
him, Kupfer was the chief director in Dresden, and has now just
the job in East Berlin. So it was an unusual combination because
he’s German and I am American. At the time I went to Bayreuth, I
something like the second youngest conductor ever to be there, and the
second American conductor.
BD: Lorin Maazel and
Actually, it was Thomas Schippers.
BD: Was it
Schippers? I know
Maazel was very young when he went there in the sixties. [Note: Schippers and Maazel were born three
days apart in March of 1930. Maazel first conducted Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 1960, and Schippers led Meistersinger in 1963. (This date is correct,
despite a later date in some sources.) Davies was born in 1944
and his Flying Dutchman at
Bayreuth was in 1978.]
be. In any case, Wolfgang Wagner let me know that there
existed the original score and parts to The Flying Dutchman, which
hadn’t been played since it was produced in Dresden in the 1840s.
The composer later rescored it and restructured it, and wrote a new
ending with the famous Ehrlösen
Kupfer had from the start wanted to do the original.
BD: Did you
agree to this?
Yes. Then we started looking into it,
and we decided why not take then the original orchestration because the
later version was refined and honed, and I
don’t think terribly successfully. There
certainly is as much validity to playing this original version as there
to playing the later version.
BD: So if the
Metropolitan Opera or Lyric Opera of Chicago asked you to do The Flying Dutchman, which version
would you do?
DRD: I would
insist on doing this, provided the stage
director could agree with me on that.
BD: When you
are contracted as a conductor, how much influence then did
you have in the production? You’re responsible for
the musical material, but how much can you get involved in the visual
DRD: In this
case, Harry Kupfer was there first. He had heard a production I
did of Pelléas
and Mélisande in Amsterdam, and then told Wolfgang Wagner
about me. Shortly after that I was conducting a Henze opera
in Stuttgart, We Come to the River,
and Wolfgang Wagner came to
Stuttgart to see that production. Immediately afterwards asked
me to do The Flying Dutchman
at Bayreuth, which in a way was indicative of
how Wagner thinks. He saw a Henze production, and asked me to do
The Flying Dutchman.
BD: Is Dutchman the only Wagner opera
you’ve come in contact with?
DRD: That was
my first one. I had a couple of friends who said,
“Well, if you’re going to do a Wagner opera for the first time, you
might as well do it at Bayreuth.” [Both laugh] It was a
BD: Would you
ever do it with two intermissions?
Personally, no. I understand people wanting
to make a theater evening out of the piece, but the composed-endings to
the first and second sections are very artificial. It’s just very
weak. It’s like
Wagner just threw in a cadence that started over in that section.
It’s not terribly original. I think today’s public can certainly
sit for two hours and ten
minutes or so. It’s a long stretch and people can do that.
If they can’t, they
BD: Let me
ask you about working in
translation. Would you ever do The
Flying Dutchman, for instance,
in another language?
confront this in
Stuttgart all the time. There’s a great deal of sentiment there
to have as much done as possible in German. The people really
want to hear the text, but you really have to almost go piece
by piece. With these larger structured pieces, like The
Flying Dutchman, of course in Germany we don’t have that
problem. But where the outline
of the story is clear and known to everybody, as in that case, it’s not
really adding anything. In fact it’s detracting from
the word painting and the musical texture, and also for the singers
it’s a difficult thing to learn a piece in one language and have to
relearn it in another. If I were doing Falstaff, I would be
greatly tempted to do it in translation. It’s a comedy, and
people should be able to be able to follow the text
as much as possible. But if you’re doing Simon Boccanegra, you’ve got a
pretty obscure text to start with. It really
has to do with what you’re trying to do as far as theater is concerned.
BD: Tell me
about the acoustics at Bayreuth. When you stand in
front of the orchestra, you have this hood over you completely.
Does that screw up your acoustics in
listening to it and getting balance right?
Boulez was very helpful to me when I
first went there. He said, “Just remember that it’s like
swimming in very deep water. As long as the water
will come up to your nose it is fine. Just don’t let it get over
nose.” In other words, as long as
you can still faintly hear the singers, then the orchestra’s not too
BD: But you’d
have to readjust, as in any other
Yes. You simply can’t make balance from
BD: Do you
rely on a musical assistant, or do you step outside a bit to hear it in
DRD: I end up
just relying on my own good
common sense. Some of the players who’ve played there for a long
say, “We know this acoustic very well and you have to play very
loudly,” and it’s fine. They can play with quite a big
sound, but the minute they start forcing, it sounds like a forced
sound. You let the orchestra big, but even there in that room you
still have to see to it that nobody forces,
and that the brass especially plays with a good, round, firm tone and
not a hard, pinched sound. If they start to blast, it just sounds
hard. It doesn’t sound too loud, but it’s a quality of sound.
BD: So then
you look at a trombone player the same way
you’d look at a soprano, in the way of forcing?
right. You really want to try to have people play with a
good, firm, warm sound, but without playing too loudly. The
pleasure is that the orchestra doesn’t really
ever have to worry about being basically too loud.
In some theaters you must take every fortissimo passage down
automatically when a singer is singing. You don’t really have to
that in those acoustics at Bayreuth.
BD: Have you
done other Wagner operas?
DRD: My first
season in Stuttgart I had a production
of Tristan and Isolde, and
this June I do my first Meistersinger.
We have a very good Ring in
BD: Who’s the
conductor of that?
Originally it was my predecessor there,
Silvio Varviso. It was a production of Ponelle’s, and right
now I asked Gustav Kuhn. He’s been doing the production, and also
a very good young conductor in Karlsruhe named Mr. Prick, who is doing
several productions. [Laughs] Difficult name, huh?
When he was in
California they’d put an E in and call him Perick, but in Germany
there’s no problem. He’s very good.
BD: Do you
enjoy conducting Tristan?
DRD: It’s an
extraordinary experience, of
course. Götz Friedrich was the producer for this production
in Stuttgart. It’s one of the ultimate pieces from the entire
western music for an orchestra to cut its teeth on. The orchestra
in Stuttgart and I got to know each other when I picked up that.
BD: Do you
schedule extra rehearsals for a Wagner
piece, more than, say, a Bohème
or a Traviata?
DRD: At the
house, obviously for a
more difficult piece you have more time.
BD: Would you
put the same kind of a
rehearsal schedule for Tristan
would for Lulu?
Probably, yes, but it’s quite an experience to learn to do a
piece like that.
BD: How do
the voices adapt to the
stage in Stuttgart? They can adapt in
Bayreuth because the acoustic is designed so specifically...
DRD: Yes, but
even in Bayreuth, beginning singers
have to learn how to sing there. There’s a tendency on almost
everybody’s part to
sing too loudly when they first start. From the stage the room
looks rather big, and the
sound of the orchestra is coming right up at you. It’s this
reflected sound that comes from the pit back to the stage, and then out
behind the singers, which is why the audience can hear the singers so
clearly. The louder an orchestra sounds to a singer, then of
course the more he thinks he has to give, and it takes a while for
them to learn. Usually after the first orchestral rehearsal on
we have a lot of tired voices and sort throats, and people are saying,
“This new conductor has
the orchestra playing too loud.” Always it takes a while for
them to adjust.
BD: Then they each
have to sit out in the house and
DRD: A little
bit to listen to their
colleagues. Also, you have to
be frank that there are some sections in these operas where
I’m sorry if the singers are covered, but that’s too bad. There
are moments when the orchestra does
really take over. We know what the vocal line is, and it doesn’t
happen very often, but there are a couple of places in Tristan where some nights the
singers have it and other nights
they don’t, and I’m not going to cut the overall basic sound for four
or five measures. Generally, of course, you learn to make a
sound and a balance where the orchestra has a good, healthy sound and
people come through, but there are certain moments in the third act of
Tristan where they just have
to surge through.
BD: How much
care can you as a conductor take of the
DRD: Oh, a
BD: Are you
conscious of this when you’re working?
DRD: Yes, I’m
very conscious of
it. It’s a communication that you
have with the singer from the pit. Again, you learn that from
experience, and it helps to have an experienced orchestra. Part
of the pleasure of working in Bayreuth is
that you immediately have an orchestra that’s played all those pieces
BD: Is there
ever a case where they will
try to play the old Knappertsbusch way, rather than the new Davies way?
DRD: After a
while you learn to appreciate
that and understand it. Some of these people have been
playing 25 or 30 years, and when they’ve got another fresh-faced kid up
with the latest inspiration on how this music should be played there’s
a lot to be learned on both sides. It
helps if you can maintain that kind of attitude when you go in.
It’s really something. When you lay a beat down, there
they go, and they listen to each other and they’re conscious of their
own orchestral sounds. So a good conductor learns to take what he
back before he starts making a lot of changes. There’s not two
orchestras in the world that sound basically the same, and so it’s very
important for you to have a concept of your own direction and style
and idea. I’m a pianist, and if I’m playing a
sonata on a piano I have to learn to play that piano. I can’t
just go in and insist that this piano is the one I have at home.
To do that makes for a very unfortunate sound many times,
and it’s the same with any good orchestra.
BD: You feel,
then, that you’re playing the orchestra?
course. You can always tell. No
two conductors sound the same with the same orchestra, but at the same
time you can always tell which
orchestra that is. If Stern picks up any
one of two or three
different violins, it’s still him, and at the same time you can tell
which of violin it was. It’s the same with a good orchestra.
BD: Have you
looked at Meistersinger yet?
DRD: Oh, sure.
BD: How much
chamber music can you really get out of
depends on how your orchestra is
trained to play. In a way it’s the same problem — or
opportunity — with
Tristan. There is so
much chamber music between the stage and individual
voices in the pit, and the more the players know the piece and are
trained to play that way, then the more subtle your performance can
be. Let’s face it, you can lay down a beat, but if the
singer is late or has a theatrical problem or has something in his
throat and doesn’t respond, then does the orchestra respond directly
with you, or does it also listen? There’s countless
numbers of times that I’ve been saved from some kind of potential
disaster because the orchestra knows enough to both read the beat and
BD: So the
back stand fiddle player is actually going
to know that there’s something wrong on stage, and maybe delay slightly?
Sure. Absolutely. You also give the
kind of beat that is generous enough that it has to be interpreted with
what a player hears.
BD: Is there
a prompter in Stuttgart?
Sure. Well, I say sure, and then I can also
say that’s one of the major fights that’s been going on in some of the
opera houses these days because a lot of the producers are trying to
do away with it. They don’t like that box sitting there
in the middle of their set.
there giving a beat, and when the singer is looking at you, that’s
fine. But what if the singer is looking down at the prompter
at you? Do you ever try to get their attention, or do you scream
at them in rehearsal?
DRD: No, I
don’t scream. I usually assume that
they’re getting what they need.
BD: So you
trust the singer more then?
DRD: You have
to. Every day in my life I
thank my lucky stars that I’m standing where I am, and I don’t walk out
on the stage and have to use my voice. [Laughs] If the
public heard my voice they’d be thankful
as well. It’s a very exposed position to be
in. It’s a very, very complicated thing to do. Imagine
getting up and clearing your
throat every day, and wondering if it is there or is it not
there. It’s your own body, for heaven sakes!
If I have a sore throat, I can still conduct. Singers are using
their own bodies as their instrument, and it’s extremely delicate.
the Music Director in Stuttgart?
DRD: My title
is the General Music Director of the
Stuttgart Opera. I have a colleague who’s called the Opera
Director, and it’s a cooperative venture.
BD: How much
input do you
have on the balance of the repertoire during the season?
DRD: I have a
lot of input, but I’m also a
performer. I’m responsible for the orchestra, and as much as I
can take on as far as responsibility, I
have. From time to time, my position there has also been
filled by people who do their performances and that’s it. Then
BD: Do you
know that in two or three years you’d
really like to do a certain production, and so you nudge that into the
DRD: I’ve nudged
some things into the repertory
already. The first new production this season was the Philip
Glass opera, Satyagraha,
which we did on our own production. It’s a new kind of theater
and a new kind
of music. It’s a music that has a very strong appeal, especially
to young people and to a lot of theater people, and to a lot of people
don’t know music very well.
BD: Is it as
elliptical as everything else?
Yes. It’s Philip’s music, you know. It’s long sections of
fifteen minutes or ten minutes of the same
harmonic structure with subtle rhythmic changes. What was very
important there, and what we did
which I was so pleased with, was that a major state theater with
like the Met did a piece like this.
BD: Did the
public like it?
got an entirely new public coming to
that kind of production. It sold out. We can’t sell enough
tickets to the thing.
BD: Do the
people who come to Traviata
Bohème also come to
DRD: Some of
them, but a lot of
people who wouldn’t go to that come to this, and I think that’s very
much what we want to see. My hope is that this is going to be a
cross fertilization. We have in Stuttgart a very
strong Wagner and Strauss tradition, and at the same time there are a
lot of young people who in their entire lives never
set foot inside the opera house.
BD: But they
would for this new piece?
would for this piece, and I want to get them
maybe they’ll come back for Bohème.
exactly my hope. Plus the fact that
we have enough subscription people who get into this other piece that
allows them to experience it.
BD: Is this
new Glass opera more accessible, say,
than an opera by Berio?
more accessible, let’s say, to a
public that knows its rock and roll and knows its pop music
tradition as far as harmonic development. The
only thing that’s threatening in this music is the idea that it’s
non-developmental, so it’s threatening many times to serious
musicians, or to people who have developed themselves enough to the
point where they have certain expectations for what music is. I’m
not putting that down; I’m just
saying it’s sometimes difficult for these people who’ve
developed themselves enough where they can understand and appreciate
Henze’s direction, then suddenly to be confronted with music that
doesn’t require that at all. It doesn’t even particularly require
instrumental skill to play. That can be very threatening to
people, because it’s a little like some of John Cage’s music, where
people say, “A child of seven could do that.” Well no, a child of
seven couldn’t, but some
very highly skilled people find themselves
threatened by that idea, and threatened by the fact that people like
it. They say, “Well, if they like that, why am
I killing myself with this other stuff?”
BD: Is it
something like a chess player feeling very
bored when he goes to play checkers?
suppose it could be. We find this all along. You find
who’ve developed themselves to appreciate a certain serious music up
and to a certain point in history, and then won’t
go beyond that. They’re threatened by a lot of things.
To me what’s interesting is to show what makes music similar, not what
makes it dissimilar. The connection between Monteverdi and Henze
for me is very important, not just different. Between all these
people, there’s a common tradition
that is more similar than is different.
BD: So where
is opera going today? Is opera going in
Philip Glass, or is opera going in Henze, or is opera going in all
of these directions?
far as the United States is concerned, our opera and serious music in
general is coming to grips with its traditions and its roots. The
question could be made broader. We
now understand that to do serious music and serious art requires
technical and financial resources that are not there if they’re not
substantially and heavily endowed, and the public is going to be
presented with some very clear choices in
the not very distant future.
BD: Is the
electronic industry — radio, television, recordings
— helping or hindering?
DRD: I don’t
think they help, frankly. Theater is theater, and electronic
reproduction of that is exactly what it is — simply
a way of
hearing something that has to be seen. To my mind, for that
matter, a concert is the
same thing. A concert is a concert; it is a theatrical event, and
it’s all very well to have a recording of a piece of music, but that
has nothing to do with the piece of music. A piece of music is a
living event, and from concert to concert that piece of music lives
and breathes and changes and develops. It has to do with watching
people play those instruments, and has to do with interacting with the
public. That’s very, very important to me.
an impertinent question... If you’re doing several performances
of an opera, do you ever find that maybe one in the middle was
just an absolute disaster?
yes, to be frank, but you hope that
what was a disaster for the performer can still be, and often
gets to be on a standard that’s way beyond what your average public
BD: So the
public won’t go away saying that it was
just an unmitigated disaster?
[Laughs] I’ve heard people say that after what I
thought was a perfectly thrilling performance. You learn to go
along with that. Both at Bayreuth and Stuttgart, we have a public
that is well-versed in
its traditions, so I’ve learned that what can be
wonderful performance can be greeted with a very resounding chorus of
boos as well as cheers. You just learn to go along with
BD: Will you
be returning to Bayreuth?
at some time. I’ve certainly
enjoyed the work there, and I was there with a three-year commitment,
but not in the foreseeable
future. It’s family considerations that pretty much preclude my
doing that. I’m in Germany doing opera the entire
season, and Bayreuth is during vacation time. I have three
children between the ages of seven and fifteen, and they have
requirements and needs, and one has to take some time off. So I
look forward to going back there, but that would be in a number of
years when, perhaps, my present
working situation won’t be what it is right now.
BD: What is
the role of the critic?
DRD: I’m not
really clear what the role of the
critic is anymore.
BD: Was it
clearer, say, 30 years ago?
DRD: I think, for
instance, when Virgil Thomson was writing, he made it very clear, and
I’ve met some other people who’ve made it
clear over the years. One of the difficulties I have with
today’s reporting in general, is that so much time and space, air time
and ink, is given to music as
a re-creative art, and not enough time is spent with it as a creative
art. For those young artists who are starting out in
concert careers, they learn very quickly that if they play a new piece,
they can first of all be quickly stereotyped as a player of new
music. Second, there’ll be a rather superficial account of
the piece itself, with nothing said about the performance.
Whereas if they play, yet again, the Chopin Second Piano Concerto,
there’ll be columns and columns.
BD: Is this
the fault of the
managing editor of the paper, or the expectation of the public?
DRD: No, I
think it’s a confusion. Being a
performing artist and being a reporter both require having a point of
view. If a person who’s a
reporter, or in this case a critic, is someone who’s being asked to
share an opinion, first of all should make it clear that it’s an
opinion. It’s not necessarily a fact, but it’s an opinion.
Supposedly an educated opinion?
Supposedly an educated opinion, but the words “in my opinion” are
extremely important in any critique
of an event. A description of the event itself is
very useful, but also it’s very important that people
understand what the person who’s writing about what the person who’s
performing, and what they think music should do, and what they feel an
event like that should be.
criticism different in America than in Europe?
DRD: Only in
the sense that in Germany
the theater, being a state theater where music is more heavily but
completely publicly financed, you get the same kind of investigative
reporting that you do here for things that the taxpayers pay for.
In other words you find yourself on the front
page of the second section, or on the front page of the first
section. If things don’t seem to be going right, or if some
things will be going right, it’s news of
the same value that something with the local schools would
be, or something with the highway program. It’s
public financing, and that changes your attitude about it all.
BD: It’s less
DRD: In a
way, yes. It becomes everyman’s
business because his money is going to pay for it.
BD: Does that
help to bring more people into the
No. [Laughs] On the other hand, Stuttgart being a
town of about 600,000 people, there’s four full-time orchestras there,
and there’s a theater.
the public demands it?
it’s part of their tradition. The theater is as much the taxpayers’
right to have as are the
haven’t grown up with that
haven’t grown up with that
tradition. It’s not necessarily the only way to do it, but it
does change the idea of whether or not we can afford this or
that. For me as a foreigner I am very aware
of that there.
surprised] Do you really feel that you’re a foreigner in
DRD: I feel a
certain responsibility because I
feel German conductors have to be encouraged. There’s the same
problem there that there is in the United States with it.
BD: If they
offered you a post back here in America,
would you jump at the chance?
depends on what kind of post it would
be. It would have to be equivalent of what I have
now. It would have to be something pretty important.
BD: How do
you divide your time between orchestral
concerts and opera performances?
the state orchestra of Baden-Württemberg, and it’s the orchestra
for the ballet and the opera. Then we do a series of eight pairs
concerts during the season. So I do a certain number of evenings
in the theater, and I do a certain number of those concerts. I
also do enough
guesting. Right now I’m pretty much only doing concert guesting,
because doing opera away from home is a big, long-term project that
takes time. In fact it was one of the reasons that we
decided to move to Europe, because I enjoy doing opera very much, and
there was little or no opportunity in the United States to do it.
There I was being asked by major houses to do it, and it meant being
away too long.
BD: Does this
now work in reverse? Is it harder
to get big conductors to come to Stuttgart because of the time factor?
DRD: No, but
you have to be able to plan it far enough
ahead of time. You have to find people who understand that and
to do it. We insist that people are there and rehearse.
They can’t come in at the last minute. But my situation at that
time was particularly of family problem. When you have kids, you
don’t want to be away for six weeks. Now I do that kind of
rehearsing at home.
BD: Do your
kids come and watch daddy conduct at the
They’ve gotten very involved in the
theater, and it’s meant a great deal to them.
this point, the time had come when Davies had to leave, and we agreed
to meet again when
he returned to Chicago.
The following interview took place a month shy of six years later.]
start with the easy question. Where is opera
DRD: I just
saw Nixon in China at the
on Friday. It was opening night there. It’s a
beautiful piece, beautifully composed. I think there was
something very touching about seeing Pat Nixon sing that beautiful,
expressive aria. People sense or
have a feeling that in spite of all the
bombast and in spite of all the histrionics that one naturally
associates with opera — or at least certain
kinds of opera — that there’s
something at the same time compellingly honest and direct when singing
about these emotions. Not only will the great
operas of the past continue to be preserved, but I think people are
going to continue to find ways to make it appropriate
for contemporary society. I’m very optimistic. One of the
difficult things, of course, is the cost factor, but I think that will
gradually come in hand.
DRD: When enough
people realize that it has to be paid for. It has to be paid
for in a different way. I really think in ten or twenty
years that there’ll be massive social subsidies for activities like
opera because it’s important to lots of people, and the potential
audience for it is huge.
BD: Is this
gimmick of supertitles in the theater
helping to expand that audience?
DRD: I think
it is, though I personally don’t like it
[Surprised] Really??? Why?
because I think it diverts attention from
what should be going on, on the stage. However, if nothing much
is going on on the stage, then probably the
supertitles are just as well. I have a lot of problem
with the “you go here, and you go there” way of staging
opera in the first place, or having a singer show up relatively late.
BD: Have you
done any directing yourself?
BD: Do you
No. [Laughs] I need an
active director. I need someone with ideas, and someone who’s
willing to have at the music as well. There’s too
many benefits that come from that kind of teamwork.
BD: For you
as the music director, where’s the
balance between the dramatic and the musical sides of the opera?
changes constantly. I did a
marvelous production of Figaro
in Stuttgart with the producer Peter Zadek, who has a big reputation in
Germany as a very avant-garde
and controversial theater director. It was his first opera, and
it was a wonderful experience. It’s the first time he
ever brought a theater piece of any kind out on time, without lots of
postponements and all of that. We did a new German translation, a
one which outraged a lot of sensibilities, and I think Mozart would
have been delighted. It was exciting working with him on what the
language means, how to say a word, how to sing a word. I remember
him coming to a sitzprobe
[literally a seated-rehearsal, usually the first time the singers work
with the orchestra], which almost never happens. The
producers usually don’t have time to come to the sitzprobe because
that’s when they’re doing lighting or something else. But he saw
that he was free for it, and things were going along
swimmingly. About a half hour after he was sitting there,
we came to a point where I stopped and he said, “Excuse me, Dennis,
but I have to say, I don’t understand one single word.” That was
his only comment at the rehearsal, but suddenly the singers were free
to forget about what it was
they were up there for, namely to make pearl-shape tones. We have
to realize that opera is
an amalgamation, a teamwork between a wonderful text and a wonderful
music. I subscribe to the fact that the composer is
a greater genius than the writer, but you’ve generally
got two geniuses, and you’ve got to try to find a way to make both of
them understood and appreciated.
BD: Even in
something like Rossini, where it’s
established that the librettos are poor?
DRD: Well, I
don’t see any point in saying,
people not understanding what they’re saying. It’s actually one
of the reasons I don’t like
super-titles. I much prefer opera sung in the language of the
audience. I’d rather it be translated, and I’d also rather that
the singers be understood in what they were singing.
you insist here in Chicago that Lulu
No. I have no trouble doing it myself in
German. I speak German fluently.
BD: But the
3600 people behind you don’t.
DRD: Yes, and
they miss a lot. But it’s
up to the audience to insist on those things. One of the
problems these days is that many of the singers
just don’t want to do it in more than one language. There’s
obvious reasons for that. It’s hard, but it used to be that most
singers knew their roles
in the original language and in the language of the country they worked
in. Of course singers who don’t speak Italian but
who’ve learned the roles will say, “I understand every word I’m
That may be. They may know about what it is they’re singing, but
the word does not mean the same when you don’t speak it and when you
don’t understand the nuances. I’m kind of alone in this area, and
something I’m not going to be able change. As I say, it’s up to
audience. In Germany it’s a continual controversy
because there’s always a wave. There’ll be a wave of doing pieces
in the original language, and then, ten years later, suddenly everybody
starts doing them all in German.
BD: But in
Germany you have a background of doing
about a third of the repertoire in the language that they speak,
because it’s the original. So they’re used to listening to an
hearing all the words.
true, but you’ve just opened up another can of worms because
there’s a lot of American
and English operas that should be played, and it would be delightful
for the audience
to hear them in their original language.
BD: Then how
do we expand the repertoire?
a way I think what Ardis
Krainik is doing here in Chicago, and especially with a
season like she has now, there’s a lot of risk-taking involved.
BD: Are the
risks paying off?
DRD: I think
she’s getting the rewards that she should for it. From an
artistic standpoint I have no
doubt, and I have the feeling as I look at the house on nights that
we’re playing Lulu, there’s
lots of people out there, and they
certainly are enthusiastic. So from that standpoint, and from the
written word in the press, it’s a success.
It’s what we make art and music for — to be a
of contemporary society.
Dennis Russell Davies conducting at Lyric
Opera of Chicago
with Malfitano, Trussell,
Braun, Lear, Foldi; Ljubimov
1992-93 [World Premiere] McTeague
(Bolcom) with Heppner, Malfitano, Nolen, Golden; Altman
1994-95 Rake’s Progress with Hadley,
Swensen, Ramey, Palmer; Vick
1996-97 Un re in ascolto
(Berio) with Lafont, Begley, Desderi, Woods, Golden, Harries; Vick
1997-98 Amistad (Davis)
with Young, Doss,
Quivar, Jones; Wolfe
1999-2000 [World Premiere] A View from the Bridge (Bolcom)
with Malfitano, Josephson, Rambaldi, Nolen; Galati
2004-05 [World Premiere] A
Wedding (Bolcom) with Malfitano, Hadley, Doss, Harries,
Flannigan, Lawrence, Nolen, Cangelosi; Altman
very much a proponent of new
works. How do you decide which new works you’re going to stage,
and which new works you’ll postpone until next year, or not do at all?
Germany, that was a much easier
decision because the apparatus of the opera house functions in such a
way that I was Music Director and there was also an Opera
Director. This was when I was in Stuttgart where the chief
dramaturg of the opera, Klaus-Peter Kehr, also had a lot to say.
We would look at a new piece and it would be looked at from
so many different sides — including the quality
of the music — and if it hadn’t been
written yet, the reputation of the composer and what he was likely to
do as well as if it was what he wanted to do in the first
place. Generally, if it’s a new piece, we took apart the
concept, and the dramaturg would get in and
say, “That’s dandy, but that’s not going to work in a theater.
That’s just not very well conceived.”
BD: Would you
then make suggestions for revision, or just
go on for another piece?
DRD: If the
piece was already done and it wasn’t
dramaturgically going to work, we’d go onto another piece.
what do you look for? I realize I am asking what makes a piece of
hard to say. I’m afraid that’s not a question I can
answer. If I could, I’d be a poet, but then I’m not sure
even a poet can answer that. In cases like this, when I don’t
know what to say, I like to refer to that wonderful Aaron
Copland quote, something to the effect of, “If a
writing man puts out two
words about music, one of them is sure to be wrong.”
[Laughs] Then let’s hit it from another
angle. What kinds of things contribute to making a piece of music
DRD: Certain works
that speak to me that perhaps
would speak to someone else and vice versa. But there’s a
general consensus about certain composers and certain ways of
in music that have struck a responsive chord, and people want to hear
that. It means something. If I could define it, I’d
probably try to do it.
great opera companies and
symphony orchestras of the world only do the great masterworks, or
should they also do the next level, and perhaps the next level beyond
an easy question. They never have
done just great masterpieces. For one thing, it takes a
long, long time before a piece can really be recognized as having those
qualities. It takes lots of playing, just as it takes lots of
playing before one can really do justice to a piece. When I think
of the current run of Lulu,
last night at the fourth performance I mentioned it to several people
in the orchestra, and we all felt tremendously at ease
and tremendously confident, and were very, very sure about the flow of
the piece. It really sounded like a piece that everybody had
known for a long time and were simply sitting down to play. That took a
rehearsal and three previous public performances, all of which were
good, but I think the performance last night was probably the best one
BD: Will the
next one be even better?
DRD: It has
every possibility of being better.
It may or may not be. In fact, I was
talking with the principal cello
from the orchestra who called me about something else this morning, and
were talking a bit about it. He said, “Didn’t you think the
premiere was better?” So for him, opening night was more exciting
or more interesting. It’s all very subjective, but what
I’m leading to is that one of the problems for newer pieces is the lack
of a second, third, fourth, or fifth performance. Many
times works are played once or twice and then left for a long
time. I just had the experience of conducting a wonderful piano
concerto at a concert of the American Composers
Orchestra in New York. Robert Taub played, and it was the Piano Concerto of Vincent Persichetti,
who unfortunately died this past
August. It was its third public performance in 25 years. I
was speechless when I heard it. The piece is wonderful.
It’s brilliant for the orchestra, brilliant for the piano, very
accessible for the audience, and yet people who were sort of into new
music liked it as well. It was not pop stuff.
accessibility to the audience something that’s important?
No. It has nothing to do with whether or
not a work is great, but it has, perhaps, something to do with
how long it will take before an audience is willing to accept it.
One doesn’t have to look back very far in history to see these
examples. When Mendelssohn wanted to conduct Schubert’s
Ninth in London, the musicians
refused to play it because they said
it was unplayable and not worth the effort. You know how
many times we’ve heard stories like that in modern times, so
that’s nothing new. [Note: See
the Lexicon of Musical Invective
Slonimsky, which is “An anthology of critical assaults on
composers since Beethoven’s time.”]
BD: Are there
pieces, though, that are not playable,
and really are not worth it?
DRD: Oh, I
think there probably are. I try to use
good judgment before I schedule a piece. Generally when I do a
piece I’m committed to it, and it comes off in a performance.
I’ve come across very few pieces that I absolutely wouldn’t play a
second time, but there are some.
trying as much as you can to expand
the repertoire into contemporary music. Are you also looking for
those gems that are hidden away in libraries that haven’t been played
in 200 years?
it’s not just contemporary music. There’s a lot of wonderful
music that doesn’t get
played. During my first season at Stuttgart we scheduled all the
Schubert symphonies, and it was the first time that some of them had
ever been played on the series of that orchestra. When I was in
Chicago the first time with the
Chicago Symphony [in January of 1982
when we did the earlier interview above], I scheduled the
Schubert First Symphony.
That was the first time the Chicago
Symphony had ever played the Schubert First
Symphony, which is a
lovely and engaging and attractive piece. There’s lots
of music out there that musicians don’t know, and they enjoy
advice do you have to other conductors
who want to do the same kinds of things?
should do them. One of the problems is that there are a lot of my
colleagues who aren’t particularly interested
in doing the same sort of thing.
BD: Do the
programming and to hell with the board of directors?
DRD: I don’t
suggest that you ever say, “To hell
with the board of directors.” One can’t,
and one shouldn’t, but people who are committed to helping a cultural
the financial and organizational side are generally more open than
that, and are willing to be talked to. They just have to
see a little bit of success with it. The one thing they don’t
like to see is empty seats.
BD: Does that
contribute to a different musical
climate in Germany as opposed to America?
DRD: There is
one difference, or maybe it’s two
differences that come from the same thing. Fundraising isn’t an
issue, of course, because the cultural activities of a big nature are
all subsidized by the city or state in Germany, and this means that
just more activity. A city the size of Chicago in
Germany would have, certainly, three or four full-time symphony
orchestras. When you look at the comparable cities to Chicago,
you see that.
BD: On what
kind of level?
DRD: On a
very good, very high level. In Stuttgart, which is much, much
smaller — it’s
a city of half a million, which is a state capital — at the time I was
there my orchestra was the Staatsorchester
which played for the opera and the ballet and did concerts. Then
there was the Radio Symphony Orchestra, and there was the Stuttgart
Philharmonic, and there was a Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. All of
these maintained full seasons, and of those, the
Staatsorchester and the Radio Philharmonic were absolutely first class
orchestras. The Stuttgart Philharmonic wasn’t yet, but had very
good players and was getting better. And of course, the chamber
orchestra is world renowned. That kind of activity can only
there’s a solid financial basis, and not one that’s based just on the
largesse of the listeners.
BD: Is there
ever a chance there’s too much new music
trying to get played?
suppose, but that’s always been the
case. We have the benefit now of hindsight, so when
we go back into the eighteenth and nineteenth century we’re playing
only those pieces that have managed to claw their way to the top
— generally through their good quality or through their
the appeal of the language.
BD: And their
their staying power. There are some
that have fallen by the wayside, and it’s always fun
to go back. There are continual attempts to rediscover past
masterpieces, but generally the ones that have fallen by the wayside
have come back a bit and then they fall away again.
there’s no great, huge work that is
laying around undiscovered?
DRD: I can
several, but they’ve been written in the last ten years. You’ve
had some of them here in Chicago. I
was thinking specifically of William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and
Songs of Experience which was done at Grant Park.
advice do you have for young composers coming along?
clever thing to do as a
composer is to insure performances of your music by knowing as
much as you can about the instruments that’ll be playing the music,
if possible, to be performing the music yourself, to be involved as a
performer and to be involved in the practical aspects. That’s the
traditional way. All of the great composers of the
nineteenth century were performers who played their own music, and
that’s how their music got presented to the public. The
idea of a piano genius sitting up in a tower writing a piece to be
performed in a symphony concert in Carnegie Hall is pretty
illusory, and probably not all that good an idea in the first
place. Some of our more successful newer composers — like
Glass and Steve Reich
— are examples of people who wrote music for
themselves to play because they just were tired of waiting around for
somebody else to ask them to write something.
BD: Here in
Chicago this season we’ve got both a Glass opera and
an Alban Berg opera. Are these two different
prongs of the same direction that music is going, or is it two
probably two different directions. It’s pretty clear that music
notation for hundreds of years could be followed, and could
be described as getting more and more complex, more and more detailed,
with less and less left to the imagination and the inventiveness of the
performer. The composer saying to himself, “I’m going to
write this down in such a way that some idiot can’t come along and do
it wrong.” Now, composers like Glass, and to a certain
extent some of the other minimalists, have come along and have done it
again the old way. They’ve made a music that has plenty of room
for invention and fantasy of the performer. In fact, it needs it
cries for it.
BD: When you
get into a piece that is
electronic, are we then going to the extreme in that other direction
where there’s just
one way to do it?
depends on how the electronic pieces are
organized — if it’s with live instruments, or if
it’s a piece just for electronics. Then that piece is
finished. Then the composer
has absolute control. In a way it’s been a frustration
for certain composers to have a concept of a piece of music, and then
to have it played but not the way they
imagined it. That is difficult. Other composers are
thrilled when they
hear a piece of theirs interpreted. I have always felt that
once a composer signs his name and puts a date on the piece and hands
me the manuscript, I’m interested to know what he has to say about it,
but he’s essentially had his chance.
BD: So then
it’s in your hands?
it’s in my hands, and it’s a re-creative art that comes into play.
BD: Do they
ever interfere too much at rehearsal? Do you
ever ask them to leave?
No. I never have.
BD: Do you
ever wish they’d leave?
DRD: No, not
really. I’ve had some pretty bizarre behavior,
but it’s really understandable when you think about the whole idea of
creating a piece and putting something of yourself out there like
that. It’s a very exposing and precarious position to put one’s
self in. Then you put that creation in the hands of somebody
else, and you’re powerless to do anything about what happens
BD: So then
you’re back to the performer
again. If the composer really wants to do something with it, he
his own conductor?
DRD: Or his
BD: You made
a number of recordings. Do you
conduct any differently in the recording studio than you do in the
concert hall or the opera house?
BD: Not at
DRD: I don’t
BD: Do you
find the recordings satisfying?
DRD: I liked
very much the old way. What
was happening at the end of the seventies, this direct-to-disc
process was, just for a brief moment, a window on what
is a bit of a murky situation. If it was direct-to-disc, of
course an entire side of a record had to be produced in real
time. In St. Paul we did some wonderful recordings. For the
Schubert Fifth Symphony,
actually both sides were done in real time, even the pause
between the movements. The needle
was brought away from the record, but the thing kept going. We
had to play the first and the second movements straight
through, and the third and the fourth movements straight through.
It’s an extraordinary recording
just from that quality.
BD: Once it
was there, you had to live with it?
DRD: You live
with it. You won’t find anything amiss there. The St. Paul
Orchestra is a great orchestra, and back then it was,
too. The interesting thing about the Appalachian Spring
recording that eventually got a Grammy Award, was that it was
also recorded in real time as a direct-to-disc recording. There
was something that happened technically that just didn’t cut
properly, and we had, thank God, a digital back-up. So it was
released as a digital tape recording, but in fact the process when we
played it, I swear to you that there’s
not a single splice. For me, the recording process was very
dramatically changed just briefly. Suddenly you were doing a
performance, and the audience was the orchestra itself, and you.
In spite of all the
technical possibilities, I know lots of my colleagues have become
interested in recording the
concerts live. I have felt this, too. If you have multiple
performances of a program,
take it down two or three times and you can make a little
interchanging. You’ve got essentially the qualities of a live
performance, and you can get rid of any annoying things that
happen. For me, the cut-and-paste process is not that interesting.
BD: When you
go into the recording studio, can’t
you say, “We will do a whole movement,” and maybe do it twice and let
it go at that?
DRD: Yes, you
could do that, sure. Probably one should do that, but if you’re
recording a piece that hasn’t been performed, you never do it.
BD: Do you
ever feel that you’re competing
against your recordings or other recordings?
No. Well, I suppose I am. My own,
no. Other recordings I’ve found to be a very big problem,
especially in the traditional opera repertory, and it is a problem
everywhere. Lots of people own recordings now.
There are recordings of almost everything out, mostly sung by first
singers, some by first class singers singing out of their
Because of the convenience of the microphone
and what one can do with a recording, they are singing pieces they
perhaps couldn’t sing on the stage.
BD: Does that
become a fraud?
No. It’s not a fraud, it’s a recording. They made the
recording. But the problem, of course, is that you won’t hear
them singing the piece live on the stage. At the same time, the
public has a distorted idea of what it is that’s possible to do on the
stage. I’ve seen and can cite several instances of
this. I won’t because I don’t want to get into personalities,
but it has become a problem, especially in
an opera situation where people are less willing to understand that
we’re dealing with
live theater. They want to have that same, great, high B night
after night, and they don’t listen to anything that happened before or
after. It’s a problem.
BD: Let me
ask another balance question.
Where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the
entertainment value, and does it change from piece to piece or moment
I’m not sure I know how to answer that
question. There’s a
place for both and there are elements of both even in the most
disparate of works. It takes a great deal of ability and
ingenuity and straight out talent to be able to even do a decent job
on really light works, light pieces, and they have a place in
the repertory. At the same time, if you do something very
dark and sinister and demanding on the audience, there is a
certain entertainment value also in that. A good listener will
try to see to it
that he has both experiences and can deal with both.
BD: You’re the
Music Director in Bonn.
Being an American, are you going to try to get a few American pieces
played every year?
every year, but there certainly will be some
played as it becomes appropriate, just depending on what the
particular programmatic needs are that season. I have played
several American pieces in Germany, but I
think I’ve played more German pieces.
as long as you bring a few American pieces, because we are bringing so
many German pieces over here.
DRD: Not that
many new ones.
that’s true, but the old solid repertoire.
Well, I think that’s as much ours as it is
theirs. We have every
right to call Beethoven our composer as the Germans do, and we do.
belongs to the world, or at least to the western tradition.
but if he doesn’t belong to the Japanese, he
doesn’t belong to anybody. Not a day goes by in the
month of December where you can’t hear a Ninth Symphony somewhere in
Japan. In fact, the length of the compact
disc was predicated on the insistence that they be able to get a
Beethoven Ninth Symphony on a
single disc. That’s why it has to be 73 minutes. [Both
laugh] The only thing is they didn’t reckon with the
repeats, and when I do the Ninth
it takes a little longer, so I’d have
a problem with a compact disc.
BD: Do you
like the fact that the compact disc is now
revolutionizing the way we listen to music?
DRD: I don’t
know if I would accept that as a statement of
then let me ask if it is revolutionizing
DRD: From an
artistic and acoustical
standpoint, I don’t find enough difference
between the compact disc and the really
fine records that were being put out, just strictly from an audio
standpoint. I don’t find the difference so great that
I can personally appreciate it. The disc is a good
idea for lots of other reasons. It’s more permanent, and the
fact that you can listen to a piece many times is certainly a swell
idea. Personally, I like the way the records look and
feel and even smell. Would you rather have a book shelf in your
house, or have everything
reduced to some kind of computer thing where you flash it on a
screen? Personally, I like the books. There’s something
about recordings. I’ve
always liked the way records look, and I like the old record
jackets. There have been real technical breakthroughs
on the quality that was coming through digital recordings on the discs,
and all those problems as far as longevity could also be dealt
with. It is true, however, that you can take a compact disc and
it against the wall if you want to. [Both laugh] I’m not
sure that’s a good idea, but it’s here and
people seem to like them. And why not? If that’s what
people like to invest in, they should go ahead.
You’ve just made a recording of Akhnaten
Philip Glass. Tell me a little bit about that.
DRD: Akhnaten was the second Philip
Glass opera that
we produced in Stuttgart, and it was a commission by the Stuttgart
opera, so it was the company that made the recording. We recorded it
DRD: No, it
was in studio. Over three years we played probably 35
to 40 performances, so we knew the piece really well.
BD: Is the
recording, then, a reflection of the best
No. The recording is a recording. That’s also one of the
points that I’ve always appreciated about
Karajan. He was one of the first people to really
recognize that the art of recording and the art of playing in a
concert are two different things.
BD: And yet
by your own admission you conduct the same.
BD: Are you
pleased with the recordings you’ve made?
Yes. There’s not that many of
them, but some of the ones I’ve made I think are pretty good.
BD: Is it
different to approach a world premiere rather than something that
you’ve done before or someone else has done before?
always different. First of all, if
you’ve done it before, then you have your own experience to fall back
on. Basically, the first time with a piece, the learning process
is pretty much the same. You have to sit down and study.
BD: Do you
leave yourself enough time to
Yes. When I was younger I needed less
time than I do now. It’s a paradox. The more experience you
gain, the more
time you need.
BD: Does that mean
you’re finding more in each score?
Probably. It’s interesting.
BD: This past
summer you had a wonderful
experience with Isang Yun. [My
interview with Yun took place during this time at the home of Lou
Harrison, and Davies provided the translation for us between German and
English.] Tell me about working with his music
and having him there.
DRD: This was
the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz,
and it was interesting because Yun was 70 years old. Lou Harrison
is resident in Santa Cruz and he was also 70. So we had these two
composers at the festival, one a Westerner who writes predominantly in
Eastern style, and the other an Easterner who writes predominantly
in Western style! It was an astonishing experience. I’ve
known Yun’s music now for about five years, and I find the music very
expressive, demanding instrumentally, but at the same time very
eloquent and direct musical statements. It is music that
seem to have a good deal of success coping with.
BD: Have you
recorded any of his pieces?
only recorded the Double Concerto
BD: Did they
they commissioned it or it was
written for them. It was just their piece, in any case.
someone commissions a work, or it’s written
with some single or performer in mind, how does that preclude it going
to other performers?
you have very clear contractual
implications. If it’s an orchestra that’s commissioned a
usually have rights to it for a certain period of time, and/or first
performer’s rights and certain important cities if it is an orchestra
that tours. One of the more encouraging developments
is this idea of consortium commissioning, where works get commissioned
for several orchestras to play. That’s been a very healthy
of a co-production.
BD: Then it
gets it heard more!
gets it heard more, and gets the piece out and
BD: And yet
we’re dealing with things which can
be recorded, and then it becomes almost universal instantaneously.
DRD: Yes, but
I really feel that music
is meant to be heard in a room with some people playing and other
people sitting and listening. I’m not a big fan of substituting
the recorded experience for the live experience.
should go in tandem?
are places for recordings. It’s an information
source for people who are unable to get around to have a chance
to hear a piece. It’s a way to hear something you otherwise can’t
to, but in all ways it’s inferior to the experience of
hearing a piece live.
pressing the point] Always?
BD: Do you
like being a specialist in new
music? Even if you aren’t, that’s how you’re regarded.
DRD: That’s a
funny and a bit of a
provocative question. The careers of the conductors who are 35
and 40 years before me would have been considered to be abnormal if
they weren’t doing pieces by their contemporaries. Contemporary
music in my performing life does not take up a very great amount of the
actual time that I’m conducting or performing as a pianist. When
I was in Stuttgart I had a repertory of
about 40 to 45 different operas, and of those I would guess ten
probably were what could be described as contemporary, or avant-garde,
and the rest were mainstream repertory pieces.
perhaps you have a better balance than
more or less the right
balance. One of the curious things is that it is somehow
considered to be a bit odd that one does new music at all, and for me
it’s one of the great blessings in my career that I have so many
composers with whom I’m friendly and have collegial
relationships. For me, music is very much a part of a
living process. I like that very much, and at the same time I
don’t like the connotations that people somehow think if you
can play difficult music you must have some kind of mathematical
brain, or you must be some kind of very organized mastermind. The
plain facts are that doing new music
requires certain skills that every performer and every conductor
absolutely should have, or I would say that their work is a bit
suspect or perhaps a bit fraudulent. Nothing is required that is
abnormal or unmusical. It’s like
the reputation that Lulu had
for singers. Someone like
Catherine Malfitano comes and sings a Lulu
of surpassing beauty and
elegance and musicality. She can and does also go out and sing
the big normal, romantic repertory, and sings it
marvelously. That’s what more and more people are beginning to
do and are beginning to see.
BD: But if
she only sang Lulu for a few
she have the ability, then, to go out and sing Traviata?
Sure. Sure, she would. Why not? Lulu is a
difficult but not impossible piece.
BD: It’s not
a voice wrecker?
not; not if you know how to sing. One of the problems with
certain new pieces is that many of the newer works — such as Lulu and Wozzeck — suffered from having
people who had already lost a great deal of
the quality in their voices, and took on these works because they could
still bring to the dramatic things that were needed.
BD: And the
pieces themselves got blamed?
audience basically didn’t know the
difference, and the piece got short changed. When you
hear Fischer-Dieskau sing Wozzeck,
you know what I’m talking
about. Do you think Fischer-Dieskau ruined his voice singing
Wozzeck? Not on your
life, and with him you hear how the piece is supposed to
sound! It’s the same with Lulu,
and it’s the same with
lots of new music. Gidon Kremer has not
hurt his ability
to play the Beethoven concerto by playing Schnittke. It’s sort of
a ludicrous idea.
BD: But there
we’re dealing with a metal string and
a horse-hair bow, and if the string breaks you can put a new string on,
can re-hair the bow regularly. If you ruin the voice, it’s
dealing with the intellectual and
emotional qualities of an artist. That’s what we’re dealing
with. In terms of vocal technique, if anybody’s a
voice-wrecker it’s Beethoven. Let’s talk turkey
here. How many singers could survive
singing Leonora constantly, or Wagner, or Otello? Desdemona is a killer
if there ever was one, and no one really talks about that
particularly. They’re acknowledged
BD: So now
we’re coming to a point where Lulu
BD: Have the
performing standards gone up in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years?
would like to say yes, and then I hear old Toscanini
recordings or read reports of performances in the nineteenth and
eighteenth century, and I realize virtuosos have always been
It’s not a situation like a track meet where someone
runs a hundred yards demonstrably faster than it’s ever been run
before. There are other aspects to it. Perhaps the
standards have changed.
BD: How so?
DRD: I’m not
sure, but I think that they have
certainly changed. Technical proficiency is generally
more widespread than it probably was at one time. But just from
talking to musicians, it’s interesting. When you go through the
process of auditioning new members for an orchestra, it gives you an
idea that it’s not all
so cut and dried.
the ultimate purpose of
music in society?
DRD: I don’t
think we can speak of it in terms of a
purpose. It seems to be a natural outpouring that fills a
definite need. For me it’s certainly one of the
purest subjective forms of expression there is. It probably is
the purest. There’s no confusing the honesty or the emotions if
it’s put into a piece of music, and the fact that it can mean
many things to many people is a testament to the honesty of the emotion.
Is conducting fun?
Yes. It’s lots of things besides fun. It’s wonderful work
that I can do, because you
have the opportunity to make a lot of people happy or informed or
better adjusted to their surroundings. You have the chance to
work with musicians and sometimes help make their work more
enjoyable for them. You have a chance to bring works of art to
perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be. You have a chance to work as a
curator for treasures with a past from all over the world. You
have a chance to be socially very productive and very active. I
unbelievably fortunate that I can pursue
BD: Is the
biggest problem you have
just not being able to do all that you would like to do?
Sometimes the problem is that I have too
many ideas and then getting them down to the practical.
BD: Thank you
for being a conductor.
that’s very nice to say.
© 1982 & 1987 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in Chicago on January 6,
1982, and December 8, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in
1986, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1994 and 1999, and on WNUR in 2005 and
A copy of the unedited audio of the second conversation was given to
the Archive of Contemporary Music
at Northwestern Univeristy,
and audio copies of both have been placed in the Oral History of American Music
project at Yale University. Davies was also the translator for my
Interview with composer Isang Yun. This transcription was made in
2015, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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.