Conductor  Jorge  Mester
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The American conductor Jorge Mester was born in Mexico City in 1935 to parents who had emigrated from Hungary. He studied conducting with Jean Morel at The Juilliard School in New York, also working with Leonard Bernstein at the Berkshire Music Center, and with Albert Wolff. In 1955 he made his debut conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. His opera debut was with Salome in 1960 at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Since then he has conducted many of the world's leading ensembles, including the Boston Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, and the Royal Philharmonic orchestras.

In 1967 he became music director of the Louisville Orchestra, noted for its advocacy of new and neglected music. With this orchestra Mester made more than seventy first recordings of works by such composers as Bruch, Cowell, Crumb, Dallapiccola, Ginastera, Granados, Koechlin, Penderecki, Petrassi, Schuller, and Shostakovich. From 1969 to 1990 he was music director of the Aspen Festival and later became its conductor laureate. Mester was appointed music director of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra in 1983, and in 1998 he added to that post the music directorship of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra.

A noted teacher, he was on the faculty of The Juilliard School for most of the period between 1958 and 1988.

--  Names which are links refere to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

In the course of doing many interviews with composers, I came in contact with the Louisville series of First Edition Recordings.  Under a very few conductors, they presented many world premiere discs of significant pieces, and I was always happy to include them in my radio series.  The second Music Director of the orchestra
— after its founder, Robert Whitney, retired — was Jorge Mester.  He presided from 1967-79, and was asked to return once again in 2006.  More details of his career can be found in the box at the end of this webpage. 

During his first tenure in Louisville, Mester made 72 recordings, and for a long time I hoped to snare him for a chat.  In those days I did not travel at all, and his schedule did not bring him to Chicago.  However, in 1994, he graciously offered to meet with me at O
’Hare Airport during a layover between planes.  We found an unused conference room and settled in to chat about his busy life . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Is there any chance that you do too much traveling?

Jorge Mester:  Too much traveling is for sure.  I am now in Chicago on my way to London.  I have a ten hour layover in London, where I can learn a lot of music, and then three weeks in Capetown, South Africa.  After that I go directly to the Marrowstone Festival near Seattle, and three weeks later from there to Australia.  Three weeks after that I
’m off to Switzerland.  So yes, I do think I travel too much.  I would prefer not to travel at all.

BD:    You would prefer to have one orchestra and just stay there?

JM:    Oh yes, but I don’t think orchestras want you to stay.  They want to know that you are guesting in Berlin.

mester BD:    Are you able to study on the plane and in hotels?

JM:    Oh, yes.  It’s the best way to do it because people don’t know where you are and cannot phone you.  Unfortunately, soon they’re going to have fax machines on planes.  That will be the end of civilization as we know it.  [Both laugh]

BD:    With all of this travel, do you get enough time to study new scores?  You do a tremendous amount of new material!

JM:    Oh, yes, absolutely.  Luckily, I have a lot of time.  I just took a vacation in Palm Springs.  Somebody very kindly lent me their place for two weeks, and I learned three new South African pieces that I’m doing in Capetown, plus I restudied the Shostakovich Opus 99 Violin Concerto which I’m doing with Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, and finished my restudy of the Mahler Seventh.

BD:    All that in two weeks?

JM:    Yes, yes.

BD:    And you really have it all under your skin?

JM:    Well, some I have more under my skin than others.  Of course, having done the Shostakovich and the Mahler before, and it already has resettled.  The other pieces are new to me and I will have them under my skin by the time that I get to the first rehearsal.

BD:    You must have it all learned before the first rehearsal?

JM:    [Laughs]  It certainly makes a good impression if you show up knowing the music!

BD:    I assume, though, that through the rehearsal process they learn it and you learn more about it.

JM:    Well, obviously.  It’s important for people to understand that one always learns something in a rehearsal.  No matter how many times you’ve done a work, if one did not learn something in a rehearsal you’d not be a particularly interesting performer.  Somewhere along the line conductors got places on a different planet from the rest of musicians.  It would not be unusual for a string quartet to restudy a Brahms quartet or a Mendelssohn quartet and find new things, but it’s not expected of conductors to show up questioning and trying to find a new way at a rehearsal.  They’re expected to know the way.

BD:    Aren
’t you supposed to have done your questioning beforehand?

JM:    Yes, but that’s not the way music works.  Music is constantly a question, and I work best with orchestras that understand that.  That means orchestras that are made up of chamber music players, people who are not stultified by having been too long in a secure situation.  I work much better with orchestras that are hungry, who have life and lively experiences.  I’m not a very rigid type person; I am always questioning.

BD:    Without mentioning names, is this what will distinguish a poor piece of music, something you can get to the bottom of and there’s no more to learn?

JM:    It is depressing to do a piece by, say, Joachim Raff.  Once you hit the bottom line there, there’s nothing underneath!  That’s what’s so wonderful about doing Mendelssohn and Mozart and Brahms and Beethoven.  There’s always something there.  For example, I just finished doing the Tchaikovsky Fourth.  People said, “Not the Tchaikovsky Fourth!  Oh, my God, I don’t want to hear the Tchaikovsky Fourth again!”  And yet, specifically because I had gotten so bored by it when I was very young, I had not done if for twenty-five years.  I did it for the first time in twenty-five years just two weeks ago, on the same program with violinist Bobby McDuffie in Aspen, and boy, did I discover new things when I was restudying that piece!

BD:    So it
s good to put some space there?

JM:    Oh, it’s wonderful!

BD:    We seem to have so much standard repertoire that comes up and comes up and comes up yet again.  Should we try to ban all of these popular pieces for a period of, say, five years?

JM:    The only reason to ban them is if you’re subjected to them when they’re performed by rote.  But if you have a questioning ensemble and an electrifying performance, then you have something exciting.  For example, I can’t imagine anything more exciting than going to a Carlos Kleiber performance and hearing music being formed on the spot!  That, for me, is the ultimate.

BD:    Do you strive to do that in your own performances?

JM:    Yes.  It was something that took me quite a while.  Many years ago, I studied at Juilliard with Jean Morel, the greatest conducting teacher of them all.  I started in 1952 as a student of his.  He was — as his name proves — very French, and I think in the French soul there is a love of clarity, precision, and fine distinction.

BD:    The same kind of thing we find with Boulez today?

JM:    Yes, which I love!  For example, his Wagner is the best.  What Morel never talked about was the intervention of instinct in performance, and of that part of the brain that is Apollonian.  This started with me when I first saw Carlos Kleiber.  He was a great influence, and yet I’ve never seen him live!  I’ve seen videos of his performances, and there’s something about the way he approaches music that was revelatory.  I suddenly realized that now, given my advanced age I could actually start relying on the part of the brain that’s instinctual, and let the performance happen rather than make it happen.  And it’s been fun.  It’s been wonderful and it’s been a complete change in my direction.

BD:    So then is all your work done at the rehearsal, or do you leave something specifically for the night of performance?

mester JM:    One of the secrets of conducting is the pacing, from the first rehearsal through the performance.  I’ve always been pretty comfortable with that.  I don’t think I’ve ever peaked before a performance.  What surprises orchestras is that one can go from the kind of intellectual rigor that you have to apply to rehearsals, and suddenly make the leap at a performance to something where they almost are in charge.  There are orchestras that can’t handle that.

BD:    Does the level of orchestral proficiency change that?

JM:    It certainly has to.  If you have an orchestra of young people, they don’t quite have the self-confidence to be able to transcend that past the threshold into the next.  It requires an orchestra of great maturity and trust to be able to do that.  But when you find that chemistry, it is just the most unbelievable thing to let go at a performance!

BD:    When you’re music director of an ensemble, does that trust build up over time?

JM:    Oh, yes, yes!  I remember one of my great experiences in my younger days was with the Louisville Orchestra, where I stayed for twelve years.  During that time we did a lot of standard repertoire that had never been done there.  I did the first performance of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony with them.  They’d never done it before...

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But it couldn’t be completely new to them.  They surely would have heard performances or recordings of it.

JM:    Of course.  Obviously they were great musicians, but they’d never actually sat down, rehearsed it and performed it.  In my eighth year, we had already done Mahler One, Two, Four, Five and Seven, but we had never done Six.  When we did Six, that was a moment that changed my life.  We read through the whole piece and I didn’t have to open my mouth once because we knew what each other was doing.  I said, “You know, after all these years, this is the pay-off.”

BD:    But then you did rehearse a little bit.

JM:    Very little.

BD:    Really???  Right through the performance?

JM:    Yes.  In fact, I may have cancelled half a rehearsal.  It was just... [smiles] that was it.  You know, we had done it!

BD:    It was the experience with you and the experience with the other Mahler symphonies so it all came together?

JM:    Correct.  It all came together and I remember that. 

BD:    Now you say you have a sweep from the beginning of the rehearsals through the performance.  What happens when you have two or three or four or five performances of the same music in a weekend?

JM:    That depends on the circumstances, on the stamina of the group and on their self-confidence.

BD:    Does the interpretation grow even through all of that?

JM:    Sometimes you get to a point where there is no additional flexibility available.  It depends on the group.  If you have a group that is energetic enough, sometimes you can keep going through the performances.  Orchestras are very interesting.  For example, three weeks ago I conducted the finals of the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition in Salt Lake City.  It turned out that there were six finalists, and by just absolute serendipity, four of them played the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto.  So after the first rehearsal with the first soloist, we rehearsed it with the second soloist, but the orchestra was still playing the first version.  That was a very interesting experience for me because you realize that once you’ve rehearsed something, orchestras tend to cast it in stone.  In the same way it’s also very difficult to come in and take over somebody’s opera production, because once they’ve performed it one way
even if they may not have liked the way the first performance wentthat’s the way it goes.  It’s very interesting psychology.

mester BD:    So you had to change the concerto four times?

JM:    I had to change it four times, and it was wonderful!

BD:    You were then adapting to each pianist?

JM:    You have to do each pianist’s interpretation because I was there to serve their needs.  Their need was to win the competition their own way.  I think one of the really highest experiences of conducting is to accompany.  It’s not accompanying, actually; it’s conversation, and for me to do that, to listen to the dialogue and go with it, is so much fun!

BD:    Are you just holding it together, being an ombudsman between the orchestra and the soloist?

JM:    No, more than that.  I’m conversing with the soloist.  He or she starts — or I start — and somehow it goes in a direction that you don’t know.  One of the things I do not like to do is to rehearse with soloists before the orchestral sessions.  I’ve only done it once in my life, and it was a mistake.  That particular pianist told me, “Here in the Emperor I’m making a rallentando, and here I’m making an accelerando.”  I actually listened to what this person was telling me, and found that it didn’t happen during the rehearsal!  [Both laugh]

BD:    You were waiting for it?

JM:    I was waiting for it, and I looked silly because I was doing what I was told to do, and it didn’t happen.  I prefer to listen to my instincts and listen to the soloist; then it’s a really wonderful experience.

BD:    When there’s no soloist and you are conducting a strictly orchestral piece, are you really driving the bus?

JM:    Again, it all depends.  I think an orchestra expects experience, it expects direction, it wants to have a fresh look.  But at the same time you also rely on their energy, their intelligence, their experience and their schooling, as well as their tradition.  So it all depends; it’s a question of chemistry.  It’s like the experience between lovers.  When you first meet, you don
’t know which direction it’s going to go.  There’s something that tells you, every step of the way, where it’s going.

BD:    When you are making music for the audience, are you and the audience essentially making love?

JM:    I have to tell you that I usually don’t feel the audience as a factor.  It’s not that I try to ignore them or that I don’t care what they think, but I try to be very specific in my conducting.  For example, if I were being televised and you turned off the sound, you might be able to guess what piece I was doing.  That is attractive to an audience.  I’ve tried this with my students.  I say, “Okay, now you get up in front of the other students, and see whether we can guess what you’re doing.”  For me, a kind of generalized, homogenized, all-purpose beat that is not specific to any particular moment in the music, is not conducting; it’s time beating.  My relationship to the audience is that I try to conduct the musical moment through my gestures to the orchestra, and the audience becomes involved as a result of both the visual and aural experience.

BD:    So you want to bring them along?

JM:    I think it’s a unit.  But I’m not doing it for the audience; I’m actually doing it for the orchestra, to bring the music, visually, to life.  Does that make sense?

BD:    Sure, but can you feel if the audience is cold, or if it is really alive and electric?

JM:    Sometimes I’ve been so surprised.  I’ve thought I’ve given a very moving performance of something, and I hear somewhat bland comments.  Other times, I think that my mind was not a hundred percent there, and I was thinking somebody crashed into my car and how much is it going to cost, and then people tell me it was one of the deeply moving experiences of all time.  You don’t always know how you’re communicating, especially if your back is to them.  Obviously, if you are playing a violin concerto, you will know since you
’re facing them.  You can always tell by coughing, too.  If you are in a quiet passage and people are coughing, you know you’re failing somewhere.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have this huge repertoire to choose from, and indeed, you have probably a larger repertoire than most since you’re willing to explore new scores.  How do you decide which ones you’re going to present and which ones you’re going to have to postpone for a while, or even decline?

JM:    It’s a function of the availability of preparation time, the kind of audience one is performing for, the venue and the occasion.  Obviously, if you’re conducting an orchestra that specializes in contemporary music, that’s what you’re going to do.  In Louisville, I had the occasion of not only doing all of these recordings, but also of doing standard repertoire.  So that was different from being a music director of a place that’s had absolutely no contemporary music, or has had what they would think of as too much contemporary music.  So programming is a function of the circumstance.

BD:    You’ve been a champion of new music, so do you try to take new music almost wherever you go?


JM:    Yes I do, because I find that a diet of chocolate cake all the time is a little bit indigestive.  I enjoy good music no matter what it is.  I don’t want to do contemporary music that I don’t enjoy, because I wouldn’t do it very well.

BD:    This is what I’m getting at.  If you have a bunch of new scores, how do you know which ones you’re going to want to do?

JM:    I cannot answer that.  I was in charge of an incredibly wonderful project in New York called the National Orchestral Association New Orchestral Music Project.  It’s kind of a catchy title, and the purpose of that organization — which went broke, unfortunately, at the end of the third season — was to identify new music that had never been performed before.  We had the money to pay for parts and to pay for a reading, and the pieces that I liked the best we would then do in performance at Carnegie Hall.

BD:    So you would read a hundred scores and perform twenty?

JM:    Mm-hm.  I did, I think, forty-five world premieres with that organization alone, and as a result of this a lot of composers got their New York Times review plus interest from publishers.  I don’t know how I came to choose those scores because I had to choose them before I read them.  I had to program them and have the program ready to go.

BD:    So it wasn’t a case of reading the hundred and then selecting the best twenty?

JM:    Right.  I didn’t read all of the hundred.  I had two different juries who were anonymous, and the scores were anonymous, so there was no chance of any politics whatsoever.  I chose the juries to have representatives of every school of composition so that we wouldn’t have just one point of view.  It’s the same thing I did in Louisville, in fact.  Nobody can look at the scores I did in Louisville and say, “Well, Mester believes in such and such a point of view.”  I tried to present as wide a spectrum as I could, and I did the same thing with those juries.  They eventually pared down the scores to about twenty-five, still anonymous; I did not know who the composers were.  Then I chose them, so I don’t know...  It’s an instinct and it’s also a question of forty years of being in the profession.


BD:    Having conducted so many new works, what advice do you have for someone who wants to write orchestral music these days?

JM:    I don’t know.  There’s no such thing as advice.  It’s the same thing when people ask me to advise them about a conducting career.  There is no way to know; just be at the right place at the right time.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, it’s got to be more than just dumb luck!

JM:    Well, you obviously should be well-prepared, although that doesn’t often mean very much.  I think you have to be in the right place at the right time.  I had one student
John Nelsonwho’s a wonderful conductor.  He was studying as a conducting minor with me back in the sixties at Juilliard.  He asked, “What do you recommend that I should do for a career?”  I told him, “I don’t know.”  Even then I said I don’t know!  But he was at that time, and continues to be, a great conductor.  He got himself an amateur orchestra and chorus in Connecticut or New Jersey someplace.  He was particularly known at that time for his choral conducting, so he prepared a choral program — a very unknown piece by Handelwith this amateur chorus that performed at Carnegie Hall, and it was a stupendous success.  The following year he was able to convince the board to do Les Troyens in a concert version with professional choruses.  Later, when Les Troyens was being done at the Met, the conductor quit in the middle, so who did they get?  John Nelson.  Do you think I could have told him how to do that???  So there’s no advice!  There’s no advice.  I cannot give anybody any advice.  Study hard and all that, but you can get that advice out of a how-to book.

BD:    Do you have any advice for audiences?

JM:    To create an audience is the responsibility of the presenter.  People try to blame the audiences for the terrible situation in music, and that’s not the case.  The presenter has to prepare the way for the audience to want to come.  People will come!  They’ll come.

BD:    The presenter — is that the management of the symphony, or the symphony itself?

JM:    Whoever it is!  Whoever is in charge of doing this.  They have to find a way to convince people to leave the pleasures of home, to find a parking place in a dangerous place in the city, to go and sit in an uncomfortable seat to hear something that probably sounds better on their hi-fi.

BD:    So why the hell do we do it?

JM:    We do it because when it’s good, it’s exciting!  And it’s human, you know.  So my advice to audiences is find somebody you want to follow.  Also, I think the idea that one does not applaud between movements would have been a surprise to Beethoven.  When somebody liked the second movement, they repeated it right there!  This whole thing of not applauding has to do with the nouveau riche who were, I think, browbeaten and brainwashed by the intelligentsia into thinking that a concert was such an overwhelmingly serene and spiritual experience that applause would only ruin the message of the composer.  That’s baloney!  Composers still want, and will always want to have the audience love their music!  Love it!  Beethoven was overwhelmed with happiness when people asked for a piece right then and there.  Mozart wrote all the time about how he loved it when people wanted to hear the piece again.  So this affectation by the audience became one of the wedges that started driving audiences away from concerts because the people felt so stupid!  They didn’t know when to applaud or if to applaud.  They didn’t know whether they were enjoying it!  They should be told, “It’s okay to enjoy it!”

mester BD:    It seems, then, you’re much more of a populist about all of this.

JM:    If
populist means to make people feel that they themselves can judge what they enjoy, that’s a populist.  I’m not a populist in saying that music is good for the masses, or that everybody should understand it or feel it or enjoy it.  Concert music was never written for ninety-seven percent of the population.  It was written for three percent of the population, even when it was being written by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

BD:    Should it be for a little greater percentage now?

JM:    It should, and it’s listened to by a greater percentage because when you have the superstars like the seventeen tenors who perform at the same time, that’s a media mega-experience.  But it’s still hard to sell tickets for a concert.

BD:    Then are you optimistic about the future of concert life in America?

JM:    I’m optimistic about anything in America, because I think that the American spirit is alive and well.  As I travel around the world, I realize there’s something unique about the American soul, and that is it’s a can-do soul.  The most moving part of the American psyche is the can-do way of looking at life.  It’s always fresh and it’s always forward-looking, and I love it!

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

JM:    I’m more optimistic than I was during the dry years!  [Laughs]  I think that a lot of great composers must have died during the Second World War.  It decimated the pool.  How many thousands of musicians must have died in those concentration camps or on the battlefield?  Whatever happened and whether there are other psychic forces that came into play because of the destruction of the war and the futility of life, there was this period where it was like being in the Sahara Desert after a drought.  You had just absolute garbage being written by composers.

BD:    And yet, you conducted some of that...

JM:    I didn’t do too much garbage.  I did music that, somewhere along the line, spoke to me somewhere.

BD:    You’re really consigning quite a bit of creative activity to the trash heap of history.

JM:    As it should be!  If you want to listen to Telemann, go ahead!  [Laughs]  There were a lot of Telemanns after the Second World War, and it took a while for new people to be born.

BD:    Have we emerged from the darkness?

JM:    I think so.  There’s a lot of music that I love now, but there was a lot of music I did not love twenty years ago.  But yes, I think there’s wonderful music being written now.

BD:    Without naming names, is there any of the music that you didn’t like which has really found a foothold?

JM:    I don’t think so.  I have not overlooked any music in my programming that somehow has become a foothold.  And a foothold, you know, is very tenuous in any case.  But I don’t see the music that I have not performed being performed by a lot of people over the twenty or thirty years that I’ve been active.  I’m not patting myself on the back; I just think that I was always an iconoclast.  I never spoke truths simply because they were held universal by a lot of other people.  I always had my own opinions and went by them.  I don’t regret the musical decisions that I’ve made because I was always guided by my instinct and by my knowledge and by my pleasure.  That’s the only way you can be guided whenever you choose repertoire.

BD:    This brings up a favorite question of mine.  Where is the balance between an artistic achievement and the pleasurable aspect of music?

JM:    There are several levels of pleasure, obviously.  One of them is just a purely hedonistic pleasure.  Anything of Mozart’s is a hedonistic pleasure for me.  When Mozart sounds right, my body is floating in the air.  There’s also the intellectual pleasure of encountering a masterpiece and attempting to divine its mysteries.  And of course, there’s always pleasure in that because it’s not like eating popcorn; when you’re full, you’re finished, but you can never get full with the masterpieces!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Even if you heard a masterpiece every day, wouldn’t it become a little on the stale side?

JM:    No.  I can tell you, I can listen to Mozart, and maybe even the same piece of Mozart, for the rest of my life.  For me, there’s no question about it.

BD:    Once again, without naming any specific names, are we getting composers in this re-emergence that are going to take their place on the level, maybe not of Mozart, but almost to Mozart?

JM:    I’m not a divining rod, and God knows I’ve been wrong a million times, but the music business has changed so much.  And it’s the music business.  You have the jet plane and you have the media who are hungry for what you call — pardon the expression —
product.  And then there’s the image-makers.  You have a man like Arvo Pärt, for examplewhose music I loveis in now because it appeals to the sensibilities, the need for spiritual transcendence.

BD:    Then let’s take a slightly different name, say, Gorecki.  Some of his things that are now all of a sudden hugely popular, and very much
in, have been around for twenty years.

JM:    Right.  But Gorecki is a media event.  That Third Symphony?  I tell you, I cannot stand it!  Sorry!

BD:    So you will never program it?

JM:    I will never perform it.  It bores me to tears.  Sorry.

BD:    So if the management says, “We’d like you to conduct and we want this to be the end piece on the program,” you’d say no?

JM:    Mm-hm.  Well, it all depends.  If I haven’t seen my daughter
— who is six years oldin a couple of months, I will go and be with her instead.  You’re going to get a lot of calls [at the radio station] because I said I don’t like Gorecki.  I’m sorry!  I don’t like that piece.

BD:    I was wondering if it had musicality in it before it became a huge hit. 

mester JM:    That particular piece just doesn’t speak to me, and the fact that it’s now a bestseller and has sold a million copies doesn’t mean anything to me.  A lot of stuff that sells a million copies doesn’t mean anything to me, and there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t sell any copies that means a lot to me!  I don’t need to be politically correct.

BD:    Are there a few things that sell a million copies that have great meaning for you?

JM:    Sure, the 1812 Overture!  That’s a beautiful piece!

BD:    There was a wonderful cartoon in the newspaper
Calvin and Hobbesand they’re listening to a record.  The little boy says something like, “Great sound effects!”  The tiger replies, “Yeah, it’s cannons,” and the boy is truly astounded.  He says, “Real cannons in the concert hall???  Gee, I thought classical music was boring!!!” 

JM:    [Laughing uproariously]  I remember that one!  I like that a lot!  [See my interview with artillery expert J. Paul Barnett, who has designed firing mechanisms and replicas of the appropriate cannons used at music festivals around the world, including the 150th birthday celebration of Tchaikovsky in Leningrad, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you conduct differently at all in front of microphones than you do in the performance hall?

JM    I just had the opportunity to do a recording with my orchestra in Pasadena.  We did Also Sprach Zarathustra and Saint-Saëns’ Third.  I remember the producer getting up and telling the orchestra, “This is the time for you to really let go.
  Most orchestras will get nervous in front of the microphone, but the fact is, if something goes wrong, you can fix it!  So this is the time, actually, to really live dangerously!  So for me, when we’re making a recording, that’s the time to be reckless.  You can always fix it.  If it doesn’t work, we can do it in two more takes.  We can fix it.  But if you’re careful in front of a microphone, you’re killing the whole thing.

BD:    Is there a chance that recordings, because they are fixable, get so fixed that they are too perfect?

JM:    With digital processing it is scary to see what one can do.  You can fix almost anything; there’s almost nothing you can’t fix.  However, if you don’t have a basic product there, you can’t make it sound into something else.  In other words, if you have an orchestra in Podunkville with whom you are recording Zarathustra, you cannot make it sound like the Chicago Symphony because you cannot fix style, you cannot fix intonation and you cannot change string tone.  You can add reverb, but there’s an energy that you cannot impart to a performance.  You cannot give it shape if, somewhere along the line, it doesn’t have shape.  But you can make it sound better than any one particular tape of that particular group.

BD:    In other words, you can make it sound the best they can possibly be.

JM:    The best they can possibly be — you can certainly do that.  And you can always play one particular passage well sometime in your experience.  So if you’re recording for a whole week, there is a chance you might play that passage well enough that you can mistake that group for a better group.  But it is a fallacy to think that this group, therefore, performs on that level.

BD:    Does this, then, spoil the audience when they then come to the concert hall and expect that kind of note-perfection?

JM:    It might, yes.  At the same time, audiences very often enjoy the experience more than they enjoy the perfection, so that the perfection might not be as important as people think.  The perfection has become the end in itself, but in a sense it’s changed the way music is performed on a technical level.  If that perfection is available on the record, people then strive to achieve it.  It’s like the four-minute mile; the fact that recordings have been so perfect has helped make orchestras better.

BD:    It sets a standard?

JM:    It sets a standard that you can aspire to, that is not impossible to achieve.

berlioz BD:    So am I to assume then that you think the technical quality of orchestras has improved over the last forty years?

JM:    Oh!  Can you imagine what a Berlioz orchestra must have sounded like in Berlioz’s time?

BD:    [Laughing]  Pretty raucous!

JM:    Oh, man!  It must have been something!

BD:    It must have sounded like those cartoons of Berlioz conducting!  [Example shown at left.]

JM:    That’s right.  It must have been unbelievable.

BD:    Do you think that he’s pleased now that it sounds this good?

JM:    He has to be.  He always wanted it to sound good.

BD:    Is it going to continue to sound better forty years from now?

JM:    You can never say that it’s not going to be better because things have always gotten better.  [Laughs]  But better in which direction?  If you squeeze the soul out of it or if you take the personality out, that is what’s happening in music now with the so-called international sound.  When you have traveling orchestras and traveling performers, and everybody’s listening to each other’s records, people are imitating and eventually everybody starts sounding the same.

BD:    So the technical ability of the typical orchestral player, then, has gotten better.  Has the musical ability of the typical orchestral player also gotten better?

JM:    Yes, but it depends on the country and it depends on the orchestra.  There are countries where musicians are very flexible, and there are countries where many of the musicians are not so flexible.  I’ve had experiences where there’s infinite flexibility with the musicians, and given their technical ability and their understanding of style of different kinds, there’s nothing that they cannot do.  There are other orchestras that are stuck in tradition where they wouldn’t change.  There’s a lot to be said for tradition, but a lot of what they said about tradition is stuff to fill pages in newspapers.  They talk about how, since Mendelssohn conducted that orchestra, there is a tradition.  Give me a break!  [Both laugh]

BD:    None of the guys sitting there today worked under Mendelssohn!

JM:    Even the next day they couldn’t remember what Mendelssohn said!  Give me a break!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve also done quite a bit of opera.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

mester JM:    It’s mainly joys.  When you work with American singers, there’s nothing they cannot do; also the British singers and Australian singers.  There are obviously a lot of European singers that are wonderful, but you cannot actually put on many opera performances in Europe without having Americans in there.  They’re trained well, they have beautiful voice production, and they are flexible, malleable and open to good direction by the stage director as well as by the conductor.  What’s painful about opera is when you have singers of the old school who have learned their music really badly, and then can only sing it the way they learned it.  A few do not even read music.  They’re still there!  I’ve just done a production of Cavalleria and Pagliacci with people who had learned it wrong.  Everything was wrong stylistically, and technically with the wrong notes.  They can never change it, yet they’ve had success because they get up there and they can do it.  But you get into rehearsal and it’s not a productive situation; you cannot move and transcend and go into some kind of new point of view.  So that was not a happy experience.

BD:    You just felt you were marking time?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti, and my Interview with Judith Blegen.]

JM:    Just marking time and doing the best I could to foresee where an unmusical phrase would be turned, because there was no way it could be musical.  On the other hand, when you’re working with Mozart singers and people who know the style, it
’s wonderful.  I just did Rosenkavalier and they knew it.  You do the trio and you’re in heaven because you know that it could go this way or it could go that way, and they’re all listening and they know.  That was the best!

BD:    How much do you as the conductor get involved with the stage director?

JM:    I’m not a visual person.  I feel that I very often am blind.  If somebody asked me about the color of the room, I wouldn’t know the answer. 

BD:    But you could tell them what kind of sounds were ambient in the room.

JM:    No, not even that.  I don’t have a hi-fi set at home.  So when I’m thinking of staging, I have never studied stagecraft as such.  Very often I’m surprised at the solution that a stage director has for a particular place in an opera.  I would have done it completely different, but it works so well that there must be tons of stuff that I don’t know about staging!

BD:    You say you’re not very visual, and you don’t pay attention aurally when you’re not listening to music.  Can I assume then that you’re a poor audience at concerts?

JM:    No.  When I go there for that particular purpose, then I’m all there.

BD:    Then you pay attention?

JM:    I pay attention.  I get turned off really fast when it’s boring.  But when it’s not boring, oh!  It’s a great thing.

BD:    Let me hit you with the big philosophical question...

JM:    [Jumping in]  I thought this was all philosophical!  [Both laugh]

BD:    It is, but what is the purpose of music?

JM:    Oh, my gosh!  I don’t know.  I’m at O’Hare Airport on my way to Capetown!  I don’t know if I can answer that! [Laughs]  No, I don’t think I could answer that question.  I’m sorry!

BD:    That’s all right; I’ll let you dodge it.

JM:    No, no, no.  It’s not a question of dodging!  I just don’t know what the purpose of music is.  I don’t want to give you the usual thing
s — it ennobles the soul, and all of those things.

BD:    Then let me hit it from a slightly different angle.  Why are you in music?

JM:    I’ve loved it since I was a little boy.  There are certain composers who I adore beyond words; Mendelssohn, for example.  To think that he wrote Opus One, Opus Two and Opus Three Piano Quartets when he was ten years old!  It’s such fabulous music.  In my experiences as a quartet player, the joy of playing a tune, the joy of blending tones, the kind of machismo of great bowing — all of those things are things that I just adore!

BD:    Do you still try to make time to play quartets?

JM:    I don’t have time anymore.  I used to have time, before my daughter was born.  My last performance, in public, was with the Emerson Quartet, who I think is the greatest quartet that ever lived.


BD:    So you made it a quintet?

JM:    We did Souvenir de Florence...

BD:    ...which is a sextet...

JM:    ...a sextet, right.  That was my last performance.  I said, “This is it.  My daughter has been born.  I won’t have time to practice the viola anymore,” because with my traveling, any time that I have, I just want to play with my daughter.  I sold my viola.

BD:    [Amazed]  Really???

JM:    Yes, yes. 

BD:    I just can’t imagine not having it sitting there in the closet.  I never play my bassoon any more, but I always have it in my home.

JM:    I’m going to be sixty years old.  This is my first daughter and she’s six years old.  I’m never going to have that experience again.

BD:    Are you at the point in your career now that you expect to be at this age?

JM:    Oh, I don’t know.  I don’t know!  There’s so much music I want to learn yet.  I don’t know what point in my career I am, but I’m having a great time.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

JM:    It can be.  It depends, again, on the circumstances.  It can be either ecstatic or it can be a real drag!  With my orchestra in Pasadena, which is composed of the greatest musicians in southern California, and therefore in the world, we have ecstasy every time we get together.  I
’ve been there eleven years and we’ve done Shostakovich Four, the Mahler Ninth, Harmonielehre of Adams to open a season, you name it.  At the very first concert I ever gave there, Bobby McDuffie played the William Schuman Violin Concerto!  You get with these fabulous musicians and they can do anything.  And they want to play; they want to be there and they can do anything!  It’s fun.  You get with a bunch of people who are thinking about their boats and about going surfing, and you don’t want to be there.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to new music for a moment, when you see a new score, do you get a feeling that this one will work or this one won’t work?

mester JM:    Yes.  If it’s a brand new score, you never know until you do it, and of course I’ve had to choose.  When I was in Louisville, I didn’t have the wonderful, comfortable experience of choosing from among works that were commissioned, because the whole program was based originally on choosing composers and playing the music that they wrote specifically for that occasion.  By the time I came along, the commissioning project was no longer in existence and I had to choose from scores that were sitting around.  That’s a tough thing to do because you’re looking through these mountains of scores and trying to decide which ones — and I’m putting this in quotes
— are “worthy” of being recorded.  

BD:    Then you’re really looking for a secondary thing, namely the recording.  Does the concert then become almost inconsequential?

JM:    That is one of the challenges of programming.  As I say, programming is a function of a particular venue and location.  When I arrived in Louisville, there was a sense that there was so much contemporary music had been played that audiences were starting to drop off.  I had to find a way to put a new balance in the diet for the audience and still be able to prepare the recordings.  That orchestra was so proficient with contemporary music that we were able to make a large percentage of our recordings without ever having performed them.  It was amazing!

BD:    I would think that would not quite do justice to those pieces.

JM:    Obviously, if you get a chance to perform something fifteen times you get a different perspective than if you never performed it.  Nevertheless, there was no choice; it was a given.

BD:    Composers often say getting a first performance is not particularly difficult; it’s that second and third performance which is really tough.

JM:    It was interesting that with this National Orchestral Project, one of the years we tried to do a second performance of things.  We found less interesting music than when we had to find a first performance.  I think music that was performed and never performed again was not that interesting.

BD:    So something that was interesting was picked up by other orchestras and got that second performance?

JM:    Yes.  Somehow these were kind of stillborn.  They had their moment of life. 
Stillborn, I guess, is not the exact word, but it died soon after birth.

BD:    Do you regret leaving all of these scores on the shelf?

JM:    I don’t regret it if I have no way of performing them.  Think of all the scores that I’ve done for the first time; you know, premieres.  I would have to perform every day of the year in order to do all these pieces so as not to keep them on the shelf!  There’s just no way.

BD:    [Like a sports-coach]  Yeah, you can do it!

JM:    Thank you for your confidence! [Both laugh]

BD:    [Peevishly]  You mean you don’t want to be an automaton?  Or an auto-baton???

JM:    Auto-baton — that’s good!  Very good! [Laughs]

BD:    One political question, just as a side note...  You’re going to Capetown?  

JM:    Yes.

BD:    Would you have turned down that offer if it had come two years ago?

JM:    Yes, absolutely.  I did, in fact, turn down a couple of invitations in years past.  This invitation came to me after the whole change happened, so I’m happy to go there.

BD:    I hope you have a lot of continued success all over the world!

JM:    I hope I have continued success in just one place!  Then I don’t have to go all over the world.  [Both laugh]

BD:    That’s right.  Where is home for you?

JM:    I don’t have one right now; in fact I don’t have a domicile.  It
’s a very strange experience.

BD:    Where are your wife and daughter?

JM:    They’re in Switzerland, but it’s not my domicile.

BD:    Let me thank you for all of the music that you have given us.

JM:    Thanks for taking the time to come all the way out to O’Hare to talk to me.


To read my Interview with Norman Dello Joio, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Peter Schickele, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Vincent Persichetti, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Antal Dorati, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Janos Starker, click HERE.

To read my Interview with György Ránki, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Earl Wild, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Hugo Weisgall, click HERE,

To read my Interview with Gerard Schwarz, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Hunter Johnson, click HERE.

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a conference room at O’Hare Airport on July 14, 1994.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB the following year and in 2000.  The transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2009.   More photos and links were added at the end of 2015, and subsequently.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, 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.