Composers Connect, the last event in the Cleveland Orchestra’s current season on Saturday, June 6, features the music of four of the orchestra’s former Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows, Marc-André Dalbavie (1998-2000), Matthias Pintscher, who will also be on the podium for the concert (2000-2002), Susan Botti, a Cleveland native who will also assume singing duties (2003-2005), and Johannes Maria Staud (2007-2009).
We reached Matthias Pintscher last week by phone to talk about how he finds conducting and composing to be complimentary, and how he defines himself as a composer.
Mike Telin: It is a pleasure to speak to you and we are looking forward to your return to Cleveland.
Matthias Pintscher: Thank you and I look forward to being back in Cleveland. I have many fond memories, and the people are so proud of their orchestra. I remember my very first trip; I landed at the airport and I told the taxi driver that I needed to go to Severance Hall. He asked me why, and I told him that I was a composer and they were playing one of my pieces, and he looked back at me and said, it is an honor to drive anyone who is connected to the Cleveland Orchestra. Yes, the people are so friendly and very proud of the orchestra.
MT: You have had a very non-traditional educational path, and I was reading that composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Luigi Nono recognized your ability at an early age.
MP: I was privileged to meet all these great people such as Henze, Nono, and lots of wonderful conductors at a very early age, Claudio Abbado was an early supporter of my work. He brought me into his room and said, Matthias, I had a look at your scores and this looks really difficult, but we want a piece from you. I was in my early twenties. So this is how it happened, people trusted me, but I also worked very hard.
MT: You are quoted in many interviews as saying that you find composing and conducting to be completely complimentary, but I have not found an interview where you say why and or how you find them to be complimentary, and I am wondering if you could give me some insights?
MP: Yes I would be happy to. First, I am not playing an instrument any more. I used to be a violin and piano player. As I am not playing anymore I could not keep going as a composer without having music making in my life, so now that is defined by my conducting. I rather like to say performing not conducting. I never was intrigued by being the one who was in charge and telling other people what to do, and I find it fascinating that I can encourage people to release beautiful sounds and put it all together. They inform each other very clearly by having all of these practical experiences with how you structure a rehearsal and how you notate a score and being as efficient as you can in the process of telling the music, and allowing the musicians to free themselves within these sounds you provide. There is never enough rehearsal time, whether it is standard repertoire or new music. I want to provide a score that contains as much detail as possible so that we don’t have to comment on it. I try to be as precise as possible in the score and then allow the musicians to provide their own personality.
MT: You have said in many interviews that you are a composer who is not bound by rules, so I am wondering how you do describe your music?
MP: This kind of question is always the hardest to answer. I think it is a hard question because this is why we decide to write music and to express ourselves in sound but sometimes we don’t want to describe what our sounds are like. I clearly see myself in the context of music that is aiming to speak to people, including the musicians because they are the instrument of the composer. I see myself in the tradition of Schumann, Janacek, Schubert and even Monteverdi. Every musical gesture and every harmony and every phrase is longing to talk to us. The greatest quality of music is very important to me. I am not a formalist. I never go about laying out a piece by creating a form and then pouring the music inside that form. I always start with the sound events, certain harmonies or certain patterns or other combinations, and that forms the little catalogue of musical objects, if I can say so. Then I put them all onto my table and then all of a sudden all of these little characters start talking to each other as if they were on a stage. My score is a stage and these idioms are the communicators and you see what they are saying to each other and then you start constantly shaping the plot or story. Then the story becomes more defined. I always start with my characters. If I were a playwright, I would create the characters and then they would create the story. Also to get back to your point, I am doing so many different things in my life, the performing, the traveling, the writing, and the teaching and lecturing, I think what gives me the most pleasure today is sitting down and really studying scores. All of a sudden all of music history begins to unfold. I am getting closer to understanding why a late Beethoven symphony needs a different attitude from an early one. To begin to see how the late Schubert is so closely linked to early Bruckner. To see all of these connections. How the Vienna school slowly transforms into the second Vienna school. How all of these elements begin to explain themselves, and that makes me so happy. Composing is very tough, and performing too. You never feel ready and you never feel like you are doing a sufficient job. So just sitting there in your study, studying a Schubert symphony is the ultimate pleasure.
MT: Thank you, that was a great commentary on how you see yourself and on what you do, both as a composer and a conductor. Next week you will be conducting not only your piece, but also three pieces by other composers who will also be here for the concert. First, have you worked with any of them before?
MP: I know Marc-André extremely well, and I am close friends with Johannes Maria. We are of the same generation, so we practically grew up together and we have shared a lot of concerts. I know Susan from a long time ago, because she was singing and is singing again in my piece, which I wrote for the Cleveland Orchestra. At first I only knew her as an excellent singer and in due course I discovered that she is also a very fine composer. Because I live in Paris and Marc-André also sends a lot of time there, we are sort of Paris buddies.
MT: And now you are in New York. Was it more then finding a job that prompted you to live at least part time in the United States?
MP: I have always been fascinated by New York as a city. I have lived in Frankfurt and in Paris and for a time in London. But now I have so much work here in the states. I am writing for many American orchestras and I am doing a lot of conducting here. I am now involved with the New York Philharmonic in various capacities, and so it was a logical step for me to move here. I also have a teaching post at NYU, so there is a lot of work here, but it really is just great to be here. It is a wonderful city, and it makes the traveling to all of the continents very easy. I still have about 50% of my obligations in Europe and elsewhere, but that is fine because I can deal with everything from here. Right now I am very happy and it is very exciting. It has not really hit me yet, I am still taking it all in.
MT: Tell me a little bit about with lilies white.
MP: This music is about space, but it is also about antiphony. I am always so inspired when I go to St. Marco, and thinking about how the music of the Gabrielli brothers would have sounded. Also a friend of mine introduced me to the music of William Byrd, and I was instantly struck by the intensity of the beauty, the colors and also the simplicity of his music. He also wrote his own poetry. He also orchestrated it for a string consort. I also wanted to build a bridge to some text that I found by the British film director Derek Garmen. It was one of the first documentaries on AIDS victims in the early 90’s. He was describing the last room that he was staying in at the hospital, describing all of the walls and the echoes. The Byrd is also a death lament. It is about the death of a woman he was in love with. So there are two laments about loss. I thought I could build a bridge between these two, one from the very early Renaissance and one from today. Having the music echoing through the eight cellos that are surrounding the boy soprano singing the songs and they kind of form that consort ensemble sound, but that sound is constantly challenged by the orchestra sound.
I really look forward to coming to Cleveland, the end of season concert, and in fact I saw everyone a few days ago when they were here. They all seem very excited about the concert and it made me very happy. It is going to be a thrill.