Month: September 2019

Philharmonix: “We Try to Create On the Spot”

philharmonix band group classical fusion

Photo: Max Parovsky

There’s really no such thing as a side-project for those who work in the arts; there are only many different aspects of one’s creative self that manifest in various ways, creating an ever-evolving tapestry of expression and experience.

This seems especially true for Philharmonix, a collective made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic (violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and cellist Stephan Koncz), the Vienna Philharmonic (bassist Ödön Rácz, clarinetist Daniel Ottensamer, violist Thilo Fechner), pianist Christoph Traxler (who’s performed with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Staatskapelle Halle), and violinist/vocalist Sebastian Gürtler (first Concertmaster of the Wiener Volksoper from 1997 to 2008). One could easily label their efforts “gateway” – but I’m not sure classical music, when done well and presented with so much class and intelligence, requires any real “gateways.” If one is curious, open, broad-minded, and leaves preconceptions at the door,  the wonders of the classical world tend to unfurl on their own, no gateways needed. There’s no denying a satisfying integration of entertainment, education, creativity, and chemistry greatly helps, and it’s here that Philharmonix excels. Their 2018 album, The Vienna Berlin Music Club Volume 1 (Deutsche Grammophon), is an eclectic mix of Central and Eastern European sounds, and happily raises a glass to the past while dancing firmly into the future, encouraging audiences to do the same. By turns playful, smart, and brimming with curiosity, it’s a musical fusion for dreaming, and dancing, for cooking, for cleaning, for primping and plying, for smiling, for silence, for living: “l’chaim,” “willkommen,” “rock on,” and “excelsior,” it seems to say, in so many tones and textures and tempi. 

Mental workouts are sewn into the colorful quilts of their creative arrangements; one hears so many, many different sounds from moment to moment. Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” merges playfully with his theme from Peter Gunn; a classy, creative take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has snatches of “Ava Maria”; their thoughtful “Russian Overture” moves from stately seriousness  (with vocals) to a Klezmer-like explosion of energy that references portions of The Nutcracker and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. A charming rendition of “Felix Navidad”, with pizzicato strings, breezy piano, and buzzy percussion offers a lovely respite in an album of intense energy and verve; “Englishman in New York” blends Klezmer, scat, and classical chamber sounds. Then there’s the gorgeous (and for me, wildly familiar) sounds of gypsy in “Gnossienne” and “Balkan Party” – this is the music of my own childhood and cultural background, and I admit to being slightly greedy in the sonic sense of wanting more of it; perhaps their next album (The Vienna Berlin Music Club Volume 2, releasing September 27th through Deutsche Grammophon) will serve that fix, along with a panoply of other delicious sounds. 

What makes Philharmonix special is that they provide not only a valuable perspective to what each member does in their respective day jobs (and it’s worth looking into those, because it changes how you perceive their work in important ways) but a very smart way to listen to past and present; you hear classical works differently after spending time really listening to what they do. This is one side project that doesn’t really feel like (much less sound like) a side project at all; its members sound as if they’ve known one another for decades, playing in one another’s living rooms, at one another’s graduations and weddings and bar mitzvahs, in bars and cars and trains and planes. Their curiosity feels much larger than a concert hall, but at the same time their musical understanding is more intimate than the coziest parlour. 

That ease and familiarity  was underlined in my conversation this past summer with two Philharmonix members. Noah Bendix-Balgley, First Concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2014, and Stephan Koncz, Cello with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 2010, when they were between Philharnonix gigs in rural Austria. While lively and conversational, the pair were were  equally blunt in sharing their thoughts on the role this project has playing in influencing the work they do with the Berlin Phil, and vice-versa. The band plays the Wiener Konzerthaus the end of this month, with performances in Dresden, Luxembourg and the U.K. in December. 

band performance Phiharmonix classical fusion

(L-R) Noah Bendix Balgley, Christoph Traxler, Sebastian Gürtler, Thilo Fechner, Ödön Rácz, Stephan Koncz, and Daniel Ottensamer. Philharmonix live at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in May 2018. (via)

What’s it been like to play for audiences in rural European locations?

SK It’s been quite an experience to play on top of the mountains. As you can imagine, the altitude means the weather is quite spontaneous, so winds came up yesterday just before our outdoor concert, and the clouds were looking quite menacing, so we decided to go inside, to a brewery.

NBB It was also at the top of the mountain, but we had room for a good 400 or 500 people.

SK It was very packed and intimate atmosphere.

… which suits the music you’re doing.

SK It does. It felt wonderful in fact, to be near the audience, and they felt close to us,

NBB … and that wouldn’t have happened outside.

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Ödön Rácz and Stephan Koncz. (via)

That intimacy seems especially important to what you do in Philharmonix. How did you choose the repertoire? I hear a lot of the Hungarian music that was part of my childhood.

SK We are seven people — two half-Hungarians, myself and Daniel Ottensamer the clarinettist, and  bass player Ödön Rácz, he’s fully Hungarian. So it’s like automatism — we want to play Hungarian folk and gypsy music. Actually, that was our first big influence at the beginning. We came together in order to play the music we can’t usually play in the high and mighty concert halls with our orchestras.

NBB We were just driving from our last concert to our stop today in Austria, it was a couple hours of driving, and we had Ödön putting on various CDs, it was this huge mix — that’s the epitome of what we’re about — and we were saying, “Oh, we can use that sound for a new track!” or, “We can take this riff!” or “We should use that bass line!” We’re always looking for some sort of musical spark that gets us excited about playing something together and that’s the nice thing: we get to decide what we’re playing and how we’ll play it, because it’s our own arrangements.

SK We spend time with fantastic works by great composers yes, but obviously those composers were inspired by all the folk sounds and other contemporary works surrounding themselves back then. As with us, now we live in the times when we are surrounded by music; never in history has there been such access to music! So if there’s work being written and performed, and we’re inspired by it, we can’t just sit and play only our symphonic repertoire, or chamber or solos. The field of sounds is large, and we need to explore everywhere…

NBB … and not only as listeners, but as performers. We want to try our hand at a lot of different styles, even if we don’t know a lot about them. We try to dig in and make it as authentic as possible. If we’re playing a piece in the swing style or something that has more of a pop grove, things like that, we want to find the essence of what makes this music tick, and how we can get that across to an audience. It’s what we enjoy doing and what we do when we get together.

It feels as if because of this intimacy and immediacy, you have a lot more free reign for experimentation. How much improvisation you allow yourselves within this framework?

SK Quite a lot.

NBB At first when we’re starting with these, a lot of what we do is typical development: we’re working on a new program or new pieces to add to a program. Stefan and Sebastian will come to rehearsal with a new piece — or the skeleton of a new piece — and we start rehearsing, to see what happens. People throw in ideas or other references to other pieces, so that’s part of the process to come up with our end product, but it’s never really an “end product,” because in the concert we still want to surprise each other, and throw in different things. The best part is how audiences react to that, because if somebody tries something interesting we‘ll enjoy that, and that joy comes across to the audience. It’s really spontaneous, and happening the moment.

SK And that mood affects the programming. We’ll play two sets and sometimes it’s just made up onstage, depending on how the audience reacts to certain thing we do. We’ll see the audience needs certain tunes or a piece to wake up with or whatever, so we adjust accordingly. The program is not so written in stone. Of course since we are trained musicians we expect a certain level nevertheless, but it’s a relaxed thing, it’s hard to describe. It’s far more exhausting to play a Philharmonix concert than normal, but, I never feel more relaxed onstage than with these guys as well.

NBB We feel audiences can really tell the difference in whatever style. If we have a program and (musicians) are tired and going through the motions, in many cases, whether it’s classical or something a little more broad, an audience responds to that — they know if that sound is really together or not. And we feel it too. So it’s important we can always try to deliver energy from our end.

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Noah Bendix-Balgley performs with Philharmonix in Beijing in 2018. (via)

Whose idea was it to start this project?

SK I mean it’s a mixture of friends from the sandbox, We’ve all know each other for a long time now; Daniel and I go back to playing together as kids. In the beginning I think one of the first ideas came from Ödön — he wanted to play his Hungarian folk music and couldn’t – he’s with the Vienna Phil. Like, what can you do about that folk music there? Well, you need an ensemble. so we went from that point. And now, for almost three years, we are doing this set-up, and it’s a wonderful voyage.

The international mix of members you have, and style you play in, harkens back to another era in some ways, It’s modern but it’s so old-school. How conscious were of that as you formalized this collective?

NBB We’re very conscious about trying to get the atmosphere and the sound of the particular style. So we have a piece on the first album, “Rose Room”, inspired by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and that sound, the bass and everything, is us trying to get to the essence of, “What was that sound?” We try to find that. Or with Hungarian gypsy things, like the Brahms Hungarian Dance arrangements, we usually defer to Ödön for that; he has very specific knowledge about to play the rhythm and approach notes and timing, all those things to make it authentic. So maybe that’s what you’re hearing, that sense of an old sound, going back to the roots and core of the style in that piece. For other pieces, ones with more of a pop influence, we go for something more modern and mechanical sometimes. We think about that and really do work on that when we rehearse. We do the same thing when we’re playing the core classical rep too, you try to play a different sound for Mozart than you do for Beethoven, than you do for Shostakovich. With the rep we do as Philharmonix, we can go much further and try out some really crazy things with our instruments.

SK And the performances with Philharmonix have largely, speaking only for myself, really influenced my core classical repertoire.

Philharmonix band rehearsal musicians music live performance

Rehearsing before a performance at Wiener Konzerthaus in 2018. (via)

I was just going to ask you how this this project has influenced how you do your day job.

SK Both show us how to perform onstage, because we feel that once we do our research, so to speak, on the roots of folk for instance, once we’ve done this for Philharmonix purposes, then this knowledge translates to most classical core performances, because classical composers made references to the pop music of their time, much more so than we allow ourselves to acknowledge now. It’s good and much freer because somehow if you have done the research, you can base your freedom on knowledge; you feel free because you have figured out what the base is for all of this.

You’ve given yourself permission to explore the creative things that aren’t always encouraged within some realms of the classical world.

SK It gives more confidence onstage. Beethoven himself was one of the most famous improvisers of his time, the way he composed sometimes was free improvisations, so as a performer if you hear, “Okay, he improvised this bit, and the root of it is that” then you more comfortable onstage.

NBB For performers and for audiences it’s in that moment, rather than being exactly prescribed how you take that timing, vibrato, things like that — it’s in that moment you can be more free.

SK The holy grail for performing classical is really to make it sound as if it’s been written in the moment. That’s the grail as a performer. We’re not the composers but we need to represent it as though it was just now composed to the audience. So people see it and feel it immediately, As a performer of classical music and for Philharmonix that’s what we do there: we try to create on the spot. This is the daily bread of every jazz musician, but for us, it’s a new stick in the game.

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Ödön Rácz and Stephan Koncz (via)

Would you ever consider adding a cimbalom?

SK Today as we did our field research on our car ride, we listened to various types of folk, and the cimbalom is one of the heroes of Hungarian music, honestly.

NB We try to recreate other instruments with what we have, so for example Sebastian likes to imitate muted trumpet, and sometimes we do a thing where you hit a string with the wood of the bow to imitate a dulcimer, or imitate the pan flute sound. All these things broaden what our instruments can actually do.

SK I’m still thinking about the cimbalom and how we get that, though; to me, the sound is extremely unique…

It has that very identifiable ping. There’s nothing quite like it.

SK Totally! With the new album where our instruments imitate pan flutes, we tried to get the colour right, but it’s kind of old-Europe sounds with that cimbalom, and there isn’t the intention for this old Europe. It happens like this in Hungarian music, because the gypsies nowadays, they still play this romantic Brahms sound, in a way, but it’s just one of our styles that we like to be active in.

Philiharmonix stage Vienna concert performance music

Performing in Beijing in 2018. (via)

What do your Berlin Philharmonic colleagues think about this exploration?

NBB They might be a little jealous, I don’t know! One of the nice things about being in the Berlin Philharmonic, in addition to being an incredible orchestra and having this really urgent and vibrant approach, is that we have time to pursue other projects, Stephan and I are doing a lot of concerts in Philharnonix and other projects as well, but our colleagues are also doing things, like playing Baroque music in their free time, or tango, or jazz, or conducting and composing, so there’s a very open attitude to people going out individually to pursue creative activities themselves, with the thought that, “Okay, you go on a tour with your Baroque tour for two weeks; when you come back to the orchestra it will be invigorating, you’ll be refreshed and inspired.” What you do within the orchestra after that will be positively influenced by that activity. It’s very good the whole orchestra has this. A lot of musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic are very serious about other musical projects outside of the orchestra that nicely complement what we do in it.

SK The funny thing about the Berlin Philharmonic is that, whatever colleagues do on the side, they do it intensely. People do everything in an extreme way, and I think it makes the music better in the end.

 

Saimir Pirgu: “Don’t Forget That You’re A Human Being”

Photo: Paul Scala

If there’s one quality that can be applied to Saimir Pirgu, it’s bravery, though perhaps “ballsy” is a better word.

Having left his native Albania as an ambitious teenager intent on a singing career, he graduated in singing at the Conservatory Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano, and was singled out by conductor Claudio Abbado at the tender age of 22 to perform the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Three years earlier, however, he sang for another famous opera figure: Luciano Pavarotti. And what an introduction it was. In the midst of his studies at the conservatory, the great Italian tenor, who was visiting the area in the early 2000s, had requested to hear a few of the school’s students. Pirgu launched into “Uno furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a well-known work arguably made even more famous by Pavarotti’s famed performances of it. (What’s more, Pavarotti had named Nemorino (Donizetti’s famous dolt of the opera) as his favorite opera role of all time.) In a 2017 interview, Pirgu recalls Pavarotti aking with wonder at the end of his performance, “Who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” It would mark the beginning of what has become a very busy career.

The tale underlines Pirgu’s no-nonsense personality and ambitious approach. With a full calendar and appearances at such renowned houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, and Teatro Regio di Parma, Pirgu has also performed in some unique locales, including, this past summer, with the Greek National Opera at the ancient site of Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis. Listen to Pirgu singing and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve turned on something from another era; his flexible, mellifluous sound conjures up ghosts of opera yesteryear, and is beautifully suited to the lyrical Italian and French repertoire he focuses on. That doesn’t mean he’s a fossil, embraces intransigent historicism, or only appears in old-style productions; quite the opposite. Pirgu has appeared in some very modern productions (as you will see) and has some strong thoughts about the role of the director and singer relationship. There’s no denying his 2015 album, Il Mio Canto (Opus Arte), recorded with powerhouse conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is a wonderfully vivid display of the sort of old-school vocal fireworks and deep lyricism at which he excels; comparisons have, therefore, predictably been made between he and historic tenors like Giuseppe Di Stefano, but, as you’ll read, he takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on the task at hand.

Saimir Pirgu opera tenor performance stage music Naples Puccini

As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Teatro di San Carlo (Naples), 2019. Photo: Luciano Romano

Earlier this year he appeared at Royal Opera House Covent Garden as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he previously performed at Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and Staatsoper Hamburg. Over the years, he’s tackled a number of chewy Verdi tenor roles as well, including Macduff in Macbeth (at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona in 2016), Gabriel Adorno in Simon Boccanegra (Naples, 2017), and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (Parma, 2019). This is particularly intriguing, since Pirgu’s career has been so firmly centered around what might be considered the “grounding” roles for tenor repertoire: Puccini’s Pinkerton (from Madame Butterfly), The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Verdi’s Alfredo Germont (from La traviata) and Donizetti’s Nemorino (from L’elisir d’amore). I’m keen to see (and hear) him tackle meatier sonic things; I want to hear his Riccardo, Macduff, Adorno live, as well as his Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, because I think Pirgu’s vocally come to a place where he not only can do it, but he should. With a dashing, old-school stage presence and remarkable vocal heft and flexibility, Pirgu is a tenor to watch, follow, carefully listen to. 

Despite his bold, ballsy approach, Pirgu has been careful in choosing his roles. His move into French opera has been watchful, with past appearances in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roméo et Juliette and Werther; he closes out 2019 with a role debut as Gounod’s Faust with Opera Australia, a role he’ll be performing again in Zürich in May. His next performance is in La bohème at L.A. Opera on Saturday (September 14th) – he sings the main role of Rodolfo in the Komische Oper Berlin production – before singing Don José in Carmen at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Next year he’ll be tackling his very first Lensky in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma production of Eugene Onegin under the baton of James Conlon, with whom he has worked many times, and with whom he is currently working in Los Angeles. All of this bodes well for a tenor whose voice is exploring intriguing and beautiful possibilities.

We recently spoke about the challenges and joys of new and old productions, his thoughts on the pressures singers face within the digital realm, and why having the right conductor makes all the difference.

mozart opera stage tenor

In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

You’ve worked with a variety of directors, some of whom take modern approaches, others the so-called “traditional” approach. Does either approach affect you creatively? I saw the Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto in Amsterdam and thought it really captured what that opera is all about.

It was very intelligent, that production. I agree that people say, “Oh but it’s not the real story!” or “It’s not the way it usually is!” but… a new director who wants to say something, what he can do? He just has to experiment like this in an intelligent way, to suggest that the opera is not just one thing – it can be another idea, it can be another thought of what the story can be. I don’t like to say that I like old-fashioned or Regie or whatever, for me it’s just a case of asking, is it intelligent or not? Is it beautiful or not? And the answers depend on if the director is prepared to show something to the public. I’ve worked with both styles. When I did Don Giovanni with Zeffirelli in Verona it was this massive wonderful production with original costumes it was amazing; the colors of that production and the costumes, it put you in this old-world epoque.

But this Rigoletto from Michieletto… and the one I did in Zurich with Tatjana Gürbaca: she just had a table and we went up and down and around it. There was just one big table in the middle. It was difficult to do. It showed me the directors have ideas. You can transmit it to the singer and we can do our best to give the best to the public, but if the idea doesn’t come through, then it doesn’t matter if it’s old-fashioned or if it’s a new production – it’s always the same: it doesn’t have success. People today are not stupid; they see television, musicals, online. And in the opera world, if the production involves everybody in the overall idea, of course they have a wonderful experience. And that’s the case with Barrie Kosky’s production of La bohème – it’s between people, it’s not just showing costumes or stage design. 

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

You mentioned the competition with other media, and I wonder about digital influence. Some singers have told me the livestreams and HD broadcasts add another layer of pressure; one singer said he felt he was competing with Hollywood.

Today it’s important to look good. It’s our society. It’s not anymore about us, it’s about looking good, dressing well, so people … it’s a bit superficial – may I say that it is, yes. Sometimes a cover of a magazine is more important than a live performance, so you’re spending hours and hours and months in rehearsal, but with the cover on a magazine it doesn’t matter, it’s more important to have that image, than the real world. In the opera world, that doesn’t always work because we have direct feedback from the public; if you sing well, they applaud and if not, they don’t. So we have to be careful. The image has become very important and it’s why a lot of opera stars publishing pictures of what they drink and eat and how they dress, because they know the public now has changed, and is more like, “Okay, let’s see what the soprano is wearing at the party.” I’m sorry, for me it’s a bit superficial, but I know it is also the reality today. 

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In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

You mentioned audiences applauding or not, but they vary greatly, being wildly different between North America, Germany, Australia and Greece, for instance. Every audience you perform for will be different based on cultural awareness, exposure, expectations. What’s that like to deal with as an artist?

It’s not easy. In Italy and Spain they want to hear the voice first. If you’re a good actor, okay, it’s a plus, if you have stage presence, that’s okay too, but they want to hear voices, they want to hear: can you sing or not? And other parts of the world they’re more focused on acting and performance – it isn’t solely about singing. So it’s difficult to know what the public wants. I’m more concerned to sing in Italy, for example, because I know they will judge how I sing. Of course if you act very well it’s a plus in your interpretation but for them it’s important how you sing, the sound of your legato. I’m not saying for London or Amsterdam it’s not important, but they want to see a show; they see the whole performance differently. They go to the theatre to see the opera; they don’t go to see Pavarotti or Callas only. Whereas Italians will go for a specific singer. They want to enjoy that. So it’s different. The culture in Japan and other countries in Asia, they’re very nice and very silent, and really listening. You don’t understand if they like it at all until the very end when they do huge applause; they don’t want to disturb your performance.

Musician friends of mine who’s toured there have noted that the quality of listening from audiences in Japan and Korea is incredibly high; that can be both great and nerve-racking.

Yes, it is. And the lines after the concerts are huge! You may have sung a three-hour opera but people are willing to wait an hour or two for an autograph or at a CD signing. It’s a different culture. You have to be prepared. 

That preparedness has shown itself in your careful choice of repertoire over the past while. What has it been like to explore, and where do you want to go with French and Italian work?

I’m enjoying my lyric repertoire right now, i have the feeling the voice is stable in that repertoire and every time I do it I’m getting better and better. It gets good feedback too. I’d like to do both French and Italian repertoire for as long as possible – first, because i like it, and second, because it’s the healthy thing to do. You keep going when you have wonderful results. So why not? I will not move to other big repertoire – I’ve always been careful about moving around with rep – but I’ll keep doing it too. It’s the only way I know, and it’s what gives me success, so why change?

Within that repertoire, your version of “È la solita storia del pastore” at Wigmore Hall was really special. Would you do more? 

I think I will be doing more this year. It depends how you book yourself and if you have a new program and … it depends. It’s time now to do a series of concerts, I am thinking that, it’s just a question of timing. It takes all of time and it’s a lot of stress for a singer to do a recital series around the world. You sing a lot of arias and you get tired very easily.

But I would imagine there’s something satisfying about it artistically that is different than being in an opera.

Yes, it’s a different mentality of singing. You need to have stamina to last through all these arias! You sing more than ten or twelve of them, not including encores. You have to be prepared, and you need a lot of stamina. It depends on the repertoire of course – between lieder and arias, it’s a different scale entirely.

And sometimes that scale involves comparisons. There have been comparisons between your voice and Di Stefano, for instance.

It’s very human – when (Tito) Schipa was singing people would say, “Oh, Del Monaco is better, or Corelli.” It’s human to compare. But the thing is, if you are god in our business, there’s a reason you’re working. Nobody gives you anything for nothing in this business, especially the public.

Conlon Pirgu singer conductor

With conductor James Conlon.

Chemistry powers so much in the industry too. What kind of a difference does it make to have that quality with a conductor? 

I’ve worked a Abbado, Muti, Harnoncourt, all of whom are completely different, but because I was a violinist before, it made it much easier to understand what they wanted. The conductors can treat the singers sometimes like an orchestra, not all the way, and not all of them have the knowledge of the singing, they read the score and say, “Okay, you have to sing what’s in the score,” and then you have some conductors who aren’t listening to the singers, and a lot of conductors who do listen to the singers, down to the last second. So it depends who you have in front of you, and it depends of course on how good those conductors are, but all the legendary conductors have to spend a lot of time studying singing, piano, violin, orchestration — they’re full with knowledge, so it’s odd if they come to singers unprepared. I’ve been blessed to work with so many great ones, and I’ve learned a lot about music. The most important thing is to be patient, and to listen, not to say something, because always you will learn something with them. Being an artist means there’s a lot of energy inside us, and you have to deal with that, it’s part of your business, but don’t forget that you’re a human being; that helps a lot in terms of other relationships in the theatre.

Lera Auerbach: “It Only Matters If The Connection Happens”

composer conductor artist poet Auerbach Russian

Photo: N. Feller

Lera Auerbach is inspiring, and at first glance, more than a little intimidating.

A multi-talented artist, the Russian-born, US-based artist has a range of creative talents: she paints, she writes poetry, she conducts, she is a pianist and a composer. Auerbach’s relentless creative expression is epic in its scope but equally intimate in its manifestation. Gramophone’s Stephen Mudge has rightly observed that “(h)er texts have a universal dimension, rejecting religious dogma in favour of global spirituality” and though written in relation to Auerbach’s awesome, overwhelming Requiem (Dresden: An Ode to Peace), premiered in February 2012 (on the occasion of remembrance of Dresden’s destruction on February 13, 1945), it’s a feeling well applicable to large swaths of her oeuvre. Her works feel incredibly personal, as if one is peaking into a diary, and yet call to mind a very cosmic, broad sense of universal human experience. Her output includes chamber music, symphonies, requiems, concertos, solo piano work, and operas, and she’s worked with a range of gifted artists, including violinists Leonidas Kavakos, Hilary Hahn, Daniel Hope, Julian Rachlin, cellists Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, choreographer John Neumeier (with whom she has created three ballets), and organizations like Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Staatsoper Hamburg, Lincoln Center, Nuremberg State Theater, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, the Netherlands Dance Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada.

The aforementioned Ode to Peace, written when she was composer-in-residence with the Staatskapelle Dresden, incorporates forty language and integrates elements of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Its final movement is based on the famous “Dresden Amen” (a sequence of six notes sung by choirs during religious services in  since the early 1800s), a pattern used by Bruckner and Wagner as well, which the composer herself sets in six prayers within the framework of a large fugue. She told Opera News in 2014 that “when you face the abyss, that’s when your true self emerges.” Along with Dresden, Auerbach has been composer-in-residence with São Paulo Symphony, Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra, MusikFest Bremen, and Norway’s Trondheim Chamber Music Festival, which, as you’ll read, hosted a deeply memorable experience of her acapella opera, The Blind. Written in 1994 when Auerbach was a student at the Aspen Music Festival, it received its premiere in 2011 in Berlin, and was subsequently staged in New York in 2013 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck (the man behind Pelléas et Mélisande), Auerbach’s opera necessitates its audience members being blindfolded for its one-hour duration. The work is a good example of the kind of fearlessness with which Auerbach approaches her work, and the fearlessness she hopes audiences bring, or at least, a quality she, as a creator, hopes to inspire.

The all-piano album Preludes And Dreams (2006, BIS Records) is equally fearless in terms of scope, virtuosity and emotional weight, and is a particular favorite of mine. With its haunting blend of classical (snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth are clearly discernible in some passages), Russian (Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and Shostakovich), and early 20th century sounds (notably Kurt Weill as well as Schoenberg), it is at once melodic, dissonant, lyrical, and jarring, Auerbach writes (and performs) gripping combinations of eerie chords and sweeping, symphonic runs. The album is a good example of her approach: take her or leave her, but you cannot forget the forcefulness of her expressivity. As has been rightly noted, she “isn’t trying to do a backflip in order to please an audience.”

Exploring the sheer volume of her work the last few months left me feeling a little daunted at the prospect of meeting her at this year’s edition of the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where she led a concert of her works with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra. As it turns out, I had little to fear. In person, Auerbach is engaging, charming, and very intense conversationally; she looks right into one’s eyes as she comfortably offers waterfalls of personal insights and thoughtful observations. With strong opinions on audiences, expectations, and engagement, Auerbach’s combination of committed artistry and earthy personality mean she’s constantly in demand: she’s currently in the U.S. with stops in California, Iowa, and New York, returns to Europe mid-month for performances in Germany and Belgium, then returns again to the US, and then again back to Europe. It was a blessing to catch her between gigs in her busy, buzzy creative life, and certainly offered a whole new way into the art of an immensely fascinating figure in contemporary music and art. Confident, yes; intimidating, no. Excelsior, Lera.

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Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestrat at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

What’s been your experience working with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time?

We have had a great time together. I really enjoy this orchestra – they’re very serious, committed musicians, very creative. It’s been good music-making, with a good attitude. I really enjoyed it.  And it’s special for me, because normally when I come to conduct, it’s usually standard repertoire – sometimes, depending on the program and presenter – but at the Enescu Festival it’s an entire concert of only my music, which is very special.

What does that feel like? Are you overwhelmed, excited, nervous?

It depends on the particular circumstance. Here, when you meet musicians who are focused and serious and want to do their best, it makes everything very easy, actually. I get up on the podium and I feel at home, even though I’ve only just met them. You can tell from the first rehearsal, the attitude, the quality. In some ways, it’s weird to say it’s been easy, because making music is always complicated and challenging in many ways, but as long as life doesn’t get in the way – things that are not musical don’t get in the way – then it’s good, and that’s the case here. In the first half of the program there are soloists from the Boulanger Trio, which is also wonderful, and in the symphony there’s a part for the solo theremin with Carolina Eyck, one of the greatest theremin players in the world. It’s been a very fruitful time, but yes, it’s been intense – we only had a few days to prepare the program, but it felt creative and immediately with the right chemistry.

That’s a blessing, especially when the timing is pressed.

And it’s usually pressed, it’s a question of how it’s passed.

orchestra bucharest auerbach enescu festival

Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

But so often chemistry is something you can’t totally create – either it’s there or it’s not.

Yes and no. There are times when you walk in front of an orchestra and the moment you walk in you see people looking at you like… you are the last person they want to conduct. And there is still a lot of prejudice against women conductors and composers, and against contemporary music. They’d rather do a Beethoven symphony for the zillionth time and couldn’t care less about doing anything creative. But, what I believe is, in every musician, there is always some inner magic which led this person to become a musician in the first place. Orchestral jobs can be frustrating; sometimes it becomes a routine for some people unfortunately, but you can always connect to this magical place which led this person into creativity and being in music. You can break the walls. So when they realize that you’re there not for some ego boost, you’re not there to tell them what to do or how to play their instruments, you’re there actually for music, and that your only wish is to create the best performance together – they connect to this. You can overcome the most skeptical players, you can really unite them into and bring music-making together and forwards.

The experience of music also – the way it’s experienced – is something you directly examine in many of your works. You force people to rethink things they take for granted, like how they experience sound.

Yes and why we do, and the reason for going to concerts.

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Photo: N. Feller

You really seem to understand and appreciate the role of theatre. Is that consciously something you’re thinking about when you create, or does it naturally seep in?

I think any performance, whether it’s purely concert music, abstract, or actual theatre work, any act of performing has a certain quality of being a ritual. There is a certain theatricality. The moment you walk onstage, we can say, “Oh this is pure music… ” but the moment you’re onstage, it’s theatre. And by “theatre” I mean, it’s a reality that can transport the audience somewhere else. The moment you’re onstage, you’re communicating something to the audience, whether it’s a concrete message or an abstract idea, but you need to tell a story –even though the story may not be in normal sentences. It’s a story of emotion, of connection, of memories, it’s something that goes into the subconsciousness. Any type of art is a form of storytelling; one way or another, we cannot escape it. So even the most abstract forms of art, such as music ,are forms of storytelling, because they need associations and audience members. There is no way to avoid it, but there is a way to increase it. And I think that’s what going to concerts is about: connecting to something within yourself, your own story you still don’t know or remember or need to discover, and this is why it can bring tears or joy or whatever. If you think about it, it’s somewhat absurd: you go to the hall and hear these vibrations in the air which is music. All it is is vibrations in the air! And all of sudden you start crying or you’re so moved, or maybe you’re disturbed, or questioning reality, but it’s all happening because of this connection.

The live experience is so intimate that way – I find I sometimes literally feel those vibrations from the floor, the seat, all around me. There is something transcendent about that, but at the same time, very personal.

That’s true.

It’s interesting what you said about storytelling too. I teach radio documentaries every winter, and I always remind my students to tell a story in sound, don’t just use talking to do it. Some audiences just want a straight oratorio, opera, to be told how they should feel and when. 

I think audiences are audiences; they’re a group of humans who come for different reasons. Some come because maybe they want to be seen in the theater. Some come because they love music. Some come because they’re curious or because somebody gave them tickets. The reasons that bring them can be very different, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because you can create this transcendental experience or maybe something that opens doors, I would say, because ultimately it’s up to the person who’s experiencing it, what sort of a journey it will become. Maybe somebody who isn’t prepared but has curiosity and has done some research can appreciate certain qualities on a different level, but again, it almost doesn’t matter; it only matters if the connection happens or not. If it’s a boring concert or maybe not the most generous performance, if it is not really connecting the audience, then it can maybe do more harm than good. It’s individual.

I hate to say this audience is better than audience. First of all, one never knows  who is in the audience. Secondly, I had an experience with The Blind – we had an experience in Norway, it was done during the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival; there were different dates for different audiences, and one concert was specifically for teenagers. It was high school students, regular high school, and the stage director, he kept saying, “It’s going to be a total disaster! How do you make room full of tenagers not to peek through a blindfold for one whole hour?” Because the moment you remove it you lose the experience of it, but I tell you, they were the best audience of all! Not only did they keep the blindfold on, they didn’t want to leave afterwards. They stayed for another hour after it ended; they had so many questions about the production. They were so excited, and they were regular teenagers – not music students, not artsy – just normal, and they were the best they were completely quiet, mesmerized. I think it’s an act of arrogance to look down at any audience; it’s up to us to transport them into this realm.

When I interviewed Vladimir Jurowski last year, he had this smart phrase, “expectation of ecstasy.”

One of the most memorable premieres in my life was one he conducted, which was of my requiem, “Ode To Peace” in Dresden. After this performance, at the Semperoper, there was no applause. It was absolutely… it was so magical. You had this complete auditorium, silent. Everyone stood up and held a minute of silence – it was the entire audience. They felt it and did it, and it was really incredible. And I think, really, applause would just destroy this magic. I had goosebumps when it happened.

For certain works and artists – including your work – I want to sit with it and contemplate; I think it’s important to not be reactive, even in for things that are joyous.

With The Blind, everything happens around you; you don’t really know if it’s ended, there is no visual cue, of course. It ends in silence. When we started (the premiere was at Lincoln Center), we measured the length of time between the piece ending and the audience taking their blindfolds off and applauding, and I think the shortest was a minute-and-a-half, which is already a long time; the longest were the teens in Norway. That was seven minutes. Actually the person who broke the silence then was the stage director – he got nervous, because when you take the blindfold off, you’re in the fog with the dry ice, and they were running out of the dry ice! So he started applauding to cue them, but again, it was this moment of incredibly powerful silence after the performance. 

Sometimes that powerful silence defies description, though it’s interesting the New York Times characterized your work’s themes as largely revolving around loneliness and isolation.

I think it’s what this particular opera was facing, it addressed the themes of loneliness and isolation in our modern times; on one hand, we are more connected than ever. With our gadgets we are always busy; there is a sense of being constantly surrounded by noise and communication and technology, but at the same time we are lonelier than ever and we struggle with understanding each other on a personal level, face to face, where people actually have a conversation, not through gadgets but with real people, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling and connecting with one another. That’s what this opera was addressing. We’re not blind in a physical sense but blind emotionally; we have trouble connecting and understanding each other. I mean, loneliness is one of eternal humanity’s questions, and of course, how the outside decorations are influencing things, whether it’s technology or whatever –if it changes this, or if it’s helping, hurting – it’s all questionable.

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