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
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,
Ginastera, Granados, Koechlin, Penderecki, Petrassi,
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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.
Right through the performance?
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?
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?
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
went — that’s the way it goes. It’s very interesting
BD: So you had to change the concerto four
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
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
BD: Sure, but
can you feel if the audience is cold, or if it is really alive and electric?
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
* * *
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
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
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?
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?
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 Nelson
— who’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 Handel —
with 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!”
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
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?
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
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
And then there’s the image-makers. You have a man like Arvo Pärt,
for example — whose music I love — is
“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.
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?
Well, it all depends. If I haven’t seen my daughter — who
is six years old — in 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.
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
BD: There was
a wonderful cartoon in the newspaper — Calvin and Hobbes — and
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!!!”
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
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
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
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
JM: It sets a
standard that you can aspire to, that is not impossible to achieve.
BD: So am I to assume then that you think the technical
quality of orchestras has improved over the last forty years?
Can you imagine what a Berlioz orchestra must have sounded like in Berlioz’s
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
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.
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?
When I go there for that particular purpose, then I’m all there.
BD: Then you
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...
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 things — 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...
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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]
You mean you don’t want to be an automaton? Or an auto-baton???
— that’s good! Very good! [Laughs]
BD: One political
question, just as a side note... You’re going to Capetown?
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
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
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.
* * * *
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.
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.