Conductor / Pianist  Dennis  Russell  Davies
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


A masterful and innovative force in classical music, Dennis Russell Davies is considered among todays 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 interpretive skills.

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 esteemed Fromm 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 centurys greatest composers, including Luciano Berio, William Bolcom, John Cage, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Hans Werner Henze, Francis Thorne (with whom he formed American Composers Orchestra), and Isang Yun, have been an important catalyst for enriching concert and operatic repertory around the globe.

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 Festival. 

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.

BD:    You’re the director at Stuttgart now?

daviesDRD:    I’m the music director at Stuttgart Opera.  This is my second season.

BD:    Let’s 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 high 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 your decisions?

DRD:    He’s 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 Patrice Chereau’s 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 in the 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 know 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.

BD:    Right.  There was a tremendous amount of cheering in the last couple of seasons, especially.

DRD:    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 production?

DRD:    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 with him, Kupfer was the chief director in Dresden, and has now just recently taken 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 was something like the second youngest conductor ever to be there, and the second American conductor.

BD:    Lorin Maazel and then you?

DRD:    Actually, it was Thomas Schippers.

daviesBD:    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.

DRD:    Could 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 (redemption) Motif.  Kupfer had from the start wanted to do the original.

BD:    Did you agree to this?

DRD:    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 is 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 aspect?

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 marvelous experience.

BD:    Would you ever do it with two intermissions?

DRD:    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 should try.

BD:    Let me ask you about working in translation.  Would you ever do The Flying Dutchman, for instance, in another language?

DRD:    We 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?

DRD:    Again, 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 your nose.”  In other words, as long as you can still faintly hear the singers, then the orchestra’s not too loud.

daviesBD:    But you’d have to readjust, as in any other theater?

DRD:    Yes.  You simply can’t make balance from the pit.

BD:    Do you rely on a musical assistant, or do you step outside a bit to hear it in the house?

DRD:    I end up just relying on my own good common sense.  Some of the players who’ve played there for a long time 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?

DRD:    That’s 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 do 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 Stuttgart.

BD:    Who’s the conductor of that?

DRD:    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 there’s 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 repertory of 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 that you would for Lulu?

DRD:    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 the stage 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.

daviesBD:    Then they each have to sit out in the house and listen?

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 singers’ voices?

DRD:    Oh, a great deal.

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 many times.

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 there 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 gets 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?

DRD:    Of 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 the orchestration?

DRD:    It depends on how your orchestra is trained to play.  In a way it’s the same problem
— or opportunitywith 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 the ear.

BD:    So the back stand fiddle player is actually going to know that there’s something wrong on stage, and maybe delay slightly?

DRD:    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?

DRD:    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.

BD:    You’re standing 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 instead of 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.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re 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 they go home.

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 repertoire?

daviesDRD:    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 who don’t know music very well.

BD:    Is it as elliptical as everything else?

DRD:    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 resources like the Met did a piece like this.

BD:    Did the public like it?

DRD:    We’ve 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 or Bohème also come to Glass?

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?

DRD:    They would for this piece, and I want to get them in there.

BD:    Then maybe they’ll come back for Bohème.

DRD:    That’s 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?

DRD:    It’s 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 a great 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?

DRD:    I suppose it could be.  We find this all along.  You find people 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?

DRD:    Right now, as 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, recordingshelping 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.

BD:    Perhaps 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?

DRD:    Well, 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 demands.

BD:    So the public won’t go away saying that it was just an unmitigated disaster?

DRD:    [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 a perfectly wonderful performance can be greeted with a very resounding chorus of boos as well as cheers.  You just learn to go along with that.

BD:    Will you be returning to Bayreuth?

DRD:    Perhaps 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?

daviesDRD:    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.

BD:    Supposedly an educated opinion?

DRD:    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.

BD:    Is 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 elitist?

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 opera house?

DRD:    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.

BD:    Because the public demands it?

DRD:    Well, it’s part of their tradition.  The theater is as much the taxpayers
right to have as are the sewers.

BD:    We haven’t grown up with that tradition here.

DRD:    We 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.

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  Do you really feel that you’re a foreigner in Stuttgart?

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?

DRD:    That 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?

DRD:    My orchestra is 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 of 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 want 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 theater?

DRD:     They’ve gotten very involved in the theater, and it’s meant a great deal to them.

[At 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.]

BD:    Let’s start with the easy question.  Where is opera going today?

DRD:    I just saw Nixon in China at the Brooklyn Academy 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 operathat 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. 

BD:    How?

daviesDRD:    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 very much.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???  Why?

DRD:    Simply 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?

DRD:    No.

BD:    Do you want to?

DRD:    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?

DRD:    It 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 very contemporary 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 to it 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,
La-de-da-de-da, with 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. 

BD:    Couldn’t you insist here in Chicago that Lulu be translated?

DRD:    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 singing.”  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 it’s not something I’m not going to be able change.  As I say, it’s up to the 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 opera and hearing all the words.

DRD:    That
’s 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?

DRD:    It’s risk-taking.  In 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 forto be a vital part of contemporary society.

Dennis Russell Davies conducting at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1987-88  Lulu 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

BD:    You’re 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?

DRD:    In 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 dramaturgical 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.

BD:    Musically what do you look for?  I realize I am asking what makes a piece of music great...

DRD:    It’s 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.

BD:    [Laughs]  Then let’s hit it from another angle.  What kinds of things contribute to making a piece of music great?

daviesDRD:    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 expression 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.

BD:    Should 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 that?

DRD:    That’s 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 dress rehearsal and three previous public performances, all of which were good, but I think the performance last night was probably the best one so far.

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 we 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.

BD:    Is accessibility to the audience something that’s important?

DRD:    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 by Nicolas 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.

BD:    You’re 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?

DRD:    Yes, 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 discovering it.

BD:    What advice do you have to other conductors who want to do the same kinds of things?

DRD:    They 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 organization from 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 there’s 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 happen if 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?

DRD:    I 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 immediacy or the appeal of the language.

BD:    And their staying power?

DRD:    And 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.

BD:    So there’s no great, huge work that is laying around undiscovered?

DRD:    I can think of 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.

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

DRD:    The 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, and, 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 different directions?

DRD:    It’s 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 and 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?

DRD:    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?

DRD:    Then 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?

DRD:    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 next.

BD:    So then you’re back to the performer again.  If the composer really wants to do something with it, he should be his own conductor?

DRD:    Or his own performer.

*     *     *     *     *

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?

DRD:    No.

BD:    Not at all?

DRD:    I don’t think so.

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 Chamber 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?

DRD:    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 class singers, some by first class singers singing out of their traditional fach.  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?

DRD:    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 to moment?

DRD:    Again, 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.

daviesBD:    You’re the Music Director in Bonn.  Being an American, are you going to try to get a few American pieces played every year?

DRD:    Not 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.

BD:    That’s understandable, 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.

BD:    No, that’s true, but the old solid repertoire.

DRD:     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.

BD:    He belongs to the world, or at least to the western tradition.

DRD:    Sure, 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 fact.

BD:    Okay, then let me ask if it is revolutionizing anything?

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 throw 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.

BD:    You’ve just made a recording of Akhnaten by 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 last season.

BD:    In performances?

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 performance?

DRD:    No.  The recording is a recording.  That’s also one of the interesting 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.

DRD:    Yes, it’s true.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings you’ve made?

DRD:    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 either you’ve done before or someone else has done before?

DRD:    It’s 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 study?

DRD:    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?

DRD:    Probably.  It’s interesting.

daviesBD:    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 audiences today seem to have a good deal of success coping with. 

BD:    Have you recorded any of his pieces?

DRD:    I’ve only recorded the Double Concerto with the Hollegers.

BD:    Did they commission that?

DRD:    Either they commissioned it or it was written for them.  It was just their piece, in any case.

BD:    When someone commissions a work, or it’s written with some single or performer in mind, how does that preclude it going to other performers?

DRD:    Usually you have very clear contractual implications.  If it’s an orchestra that’s commissioned a composer, they 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 development, kind of a co-production.

BD:    Then it gets it heard more!

DRD:    That gets it heard more, and gets the piece out and around.

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.

BD:    They should go in tandem?

DRD:    There 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 come to, but in all ways it’s inferior to the experience of hearing a piece live.

BD:    [Gently pressing the point]  Always?

DRD:    [Matter-of-factly]  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.

BD:    Then perhaps you have a better balance than other conductors?

DRD:    It’s 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 years, would she have the ability, then, to go out and sing Traviata?

DRD:    Sure.  Sure, she would.  Why not?  Lulu is a difficult but not impossible piece.

BD:    It’s not a voice wrecker?

daviesDRD:    Certainly 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?

DRD:    The 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, and you can re-hair the bow regularly.  If you ruin the voice, it
’s gone forever.

DRD:    You’re 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 masterpieces.

BD:    So now we’re coming to a point where Lulu is an acknowledged masterpiece?

DRD:    Slowly.  Slowly.

BD:    Have the performing standards gone up in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years?

DRD:    I 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 there.  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.

BD:    What’s 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.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

DRD:    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 life that 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 also have a chance to be socially very productive and very active.  I feel unbelievably fortunate that I can pursue this career. 

BD:    Is the biggest problem you have just not being able to do all that you would like to do?

DRD:    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.

DRD:    Well, 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 2013.  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 website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.