Tag: Brahms

Gerald Finley: “Lieder Is A Fountain of Artistic Joy”

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Photo: IMG Artists

Years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerald Finley for the first time. It was a conversation about three major role debuts he was making within the space of a year, ones which included the lead in Aribert Reimann’s King Lear at the 2017 edition of the Salzburg Festival (a process he characterized at the time as “emotionally wringing”). The interview marked the first cover story of my writing career, and the first of many subsequent conversations, on and off the record, about various aspects of theatre, music, performance style, and of course, singing.

Starting out as a chorister in Ottawa, the bass baritone went on to study at the Royal College of Music before being accepted into the prestigious UK-based National Opera Studio. Finley’s career marked by a talent for blending sharp music insights, studious vocal practise, and instinctual theatricality. With every role (be they in the operas of Mozart and Puccini or those of Adams and Turnage) Finley’s multi-hued artistry expands, his voracious creative curiosity reaching new and fascinating corners. Noted for his portrayal of Don Giovanni, Finley has performed the role in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv, Budapest, and at the Glyndebourne Festival, opposite Luca Pisaroni as Leporello.

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Gerald Finley as Iago (opposite Jonas Kaufmann) in the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Otello, 2018. Photo: W. Hösl

Finley has performed in many prestigious houses, with Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Wiener Staatsoper, and the famed Salzburg Festival among them. The focus on German-speaking organizations is particularly noteworthy in light of our most recent conversation; as you’ll read, Finley wasn’t always so confident in such locales, vocally or otherwise, and it took him what he admits was a long time to mature vocally. As he told Bachtrack‘s Mark Pullinger in November 2019,

At one point I had Mozart, Handel and Britten on my CV – there was nothing in between, nothing lyrical, nothing Italianate – and that’s a real struggle when you’re trying to audition. I set myself some hard targets, like Hans Sachs, and I had to learn how to release the sound. Hopefully things are maturing and I’m getting better and keeping the voice fresh.

That freshness has revealed itself in some wonderfully memorable performances over the years. He did, in fact, get to Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (more than once), as well as Amfortas in Parsifal; other noted roles include the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, the tormented Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs and the very black Bluebeard in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Finley is also an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary composers, singing in several world premieres, including Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1998, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie in 2000, and the song cycle True Fire by Kaija Saariaho (who dedicated the work to him), under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in 2015.

 

Finley made a comically memorable turn as Verdi’s Falstaff (complete with a costume that made him seem four times his size) with the Canadian Opera Company in 2014, and a scarily sociopathic Iago in Othello (opposite tenor Russell Thomas) as part of the COC’s 2018-2019 season. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden recently marked his 30th anniversary with the company,which coincided with his performance in the ROH production of Brittten’s Death in Venice; classical writer Alexandra Coghlan praised Finley’s “sketching character after character in deft musical lines.” Along with working with celebrated conductors (including Mariss Jansons, Sir Antonio Pappano, Kiril Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle, Colin Davis, Vladimir Jurowski, Fabio Luisi, Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Bicket, and Bernard Haitink), Finley was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2014; three years later, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to opera.

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Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

As a personal aside, I have distinct and fond memories of Finley’s performance as the lead in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell; I was fortunate to see him perform it live at the Metropolitan Opera in a production from their 2016-2017 season. Finley’s robust Tell was a perfect echo of the character’s aching struggles (inner and outer), a seamless combination of great musicality, finely-crafted vocality, and a very keen, highly watchable theatricality; his was a deeply visceral portrayal, one that underlined the very real historical stakes while revelling in Rossini’s deceptively simple score. Finley is set to reprise the role this May at Bayerische Staatsoper, but before then, he can be seen on the stage of The Met (as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte), as well as in Montreal and at Carnegie and Wigmore halls, where he’ll be performing a range of beloved lieder.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

Finley’s distinct gift for German art song is beautifully expressed on a recording for Hyperion Records he and pianist Julius Drake made of Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, released in autumn 2019. The pair previously recorded Schubert’s famed Winterreise cycle (2014), songs by Samuel Barber (2007) and Maurice Ravel (2008), and did a live concert recording at Wigmore Hall (2008). Schwanengesang (or “swan song”) is a song cycle written by Franz Schubert written at the end of his life in 1828. I’ve written about Schubert’s love of the writings of Goethe, but in this particular cycle, Schubert used the poetry of three writers, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl; his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, was the one who cannily named the song cycle thusly, following the composer’s premature death in November 1828. The works deal with themes of hope, love, longing, disillusion, and disenchantment, their sounds gracefully moving between sombre, sensual, and stark. Brahms wrote his Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) in 1896, using portions of text from the Lutheran Bible. Writer Richard Wigmore observes in the album’s liner notes that the songs were “(d)esigned to comfort the living, and indeed Brahms himself” – the composer’s longtime confidante (some might say more) Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke earlier that year, and he wrote them partly in full anticipation of her passing, though he was also feeling the first effects of the cancer that would take his life a year later. Wigmore characterizes the works as “profound, unsentimental testaments to (Brahms’s) sympathy for suffering, stoical humanity, his belief in the virtue of hard work, and the enduring power of love.”

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Johannes Brahms, 1889.

Finley and Drake capture these themes with vivid clarity on the album. The opening track, “Liebesbotschaft” (or “message of love”), in which the speaker asks a little stream to send his message of love along to his beloved, sees Finley carefully modulating his chocolatey-bronze bass baritone, sensitively complementing, than contrasting, dense sonic textures amidst Julius Drake’s rippling, breath-like piano performance. On the famous “Ständchen” (“serenade”), a song in which the speakers asks his beloved to bring him happiness, Finley lovingly caresses every syllable so delicately so as to make the listener lean in, as if being told a very private secret. The meticulous attention paid to blending clarity and expression, particularly in the Brahms works, is miraculous; nothing sounds wooden and hard, but rather, silken, and fluid, with just the right amount of sensuality in phrasing and tone. Albums like this remind me why I love classical music, of its transcendent power to so often say what spoken language cannot. Finley’s deep dedication to the art of song is entrancing and he has a true and brilliant partner in the acclaimed Julius Drake. I had long wanted to discuss lieder with Finley, and the duo’s beautiful Schubert/Brahms album provided the perfect excuse to enjoy another lively conversation with a deeply dedicated and authentic artist.

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Gerald Finley as the Gondolier in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

I read that you were afraid of Schubert for a long time – is that true?

Oh yeah!

Why?

Well, because he’s so simple. The thing about Schubert is that he is basically such a natural melodist and really gives the idea these songs have existed forever; I think to make them one’s own if you like, to have one’s own connection and one’s own version, and putting one’s own version into the world, takes a lot of confidence. The main thing about it is that I felt it would reveal all my technical insecurities and failings, and … I think it’s only really in the past decade really, that I’ve felt those sort of things have ironed themselves out. Put it this way; I always felt I could sing Schubert but I never felt competent enough to actually do it. I always shied away from the types of repertoire which would reveal my weaknesses rather than my strengths.

Now it seems as if, having had so much experience with the music of Schubert, his work has become a part of your artistic identity… 

Very much, but it’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the culture of the language, and of the poetry, and the culture of the German history therein. Many young singers direct their early careers into German houses because that’s where obviously lots of work is, and they have the privilege of learning German and being in a German environment for the early parts of their careers, and for various reasons I didn’t do that – I actually rejected a place at the Hamburg State Opera when I was 26, because I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t vocally prepared for that. So I kind of negated my opportunity to become immersed in the German environment and that entire musical world and experience. So my German became something I would learn on the way doing concerts, doing tours with orchestras; until my mid-30s I actually never appeared in a German opera house. It took a long time for me to become comfortable with the language. It did happen, eventually – I was invited to festivals in Austria and did Papageno in and around Germany, so that helped a lot to bolster my German confidence. 

And you know, there have been a lot of really good German lieder singers, and to be part of the lieder fraternity is really something I longed for. I learned Wolf and Brahms and I did my best at Schumann for a while, and enjoyed it all very much, but Schubert being kind of the father of those, I realized it was going to take some time to get to the core, but it did happen, where I felt could really go to that altar for the father of lieder, and say, “Here’s my humble offering of what you have written!” 

And of course Fischer-Dieskau was the main thing, my first recording was his Volume 1 of Schubert – so yes, it confronted me very much: what business did I have even attempting it?! I kind of got over it and realized, and still feel, Schubert has been my friend, he’s somebody I look to for inspiration. He demands I really think carefully about what it is to be an artist, because (the music) is so relatively clear on the page, and one this almost blank emotional canvas to treat the verse differently and to infuse the words in a way which will give meaning. There’s a feeling as soon as you record it, that the version you have in your head and heart at that moment… well, you will suddenly think, “Oh! But I could’ve done it this way!” So that’s why keeping performances scheduled in the diary is really wonderful, those versions will change and develop. And hopefully, going to other artists and seeing how they handle (the same material) – it’s really inspiring to develop. I don’t know whether painters go through the same thing, where they redo canvases all the time or decide they want to add various elements or develop a theme – but there we are, that’s why lieder is such a fountain of artistic joy now, and I feel that vocally I’ve been able to sort of finally mature into it.

Performing these pieces one has to be willing to enter into a specific place, or places, as you know, and being human, one’s not always in the mood or one’s tired, or there are other things going on – it’s not easy, but there are similar challenges in doing opera performances. What changes for you, going between your recital work and your opera work? How do you navigate those changes?

It’s a mindset, really. First and foremost, lieder is an intimate art form – it’s really thoughts which are, you know, nurtured out of a poet, and you get the feeling there’s a very personal relationship between the composer and the poetry they’re setting, that the way they’ve been inspired and reacted, or want to bring certain elements of a poem to the fore, takes quiet contemplation, it’s a very mindful thing. My very good friend and colleague (tenor) Mark Padmore says the difficulty of doing lieder recitals is that it was really meant to be sung amongst just a few people, and again, it’s really a very intimate art form, almost a private thing. What you’re asking audiences to do is give up elements of their busy lives and come into a space where they can become very quiet and very thoughtful, and think, not about what’s on the surface of their lives, but to delve a lot deeper, and a share a poetical journey, a psychological situation with a recitalist, in a way that is pretty demanding.

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Mark Padmore as Aschenbach and Gerald Finley as the Elderly Fop in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

We do put demands on audiences, and it could be the cause of decline in audiences for lieder because it takes special listening skills and patience, and a certain acceptance that, okay, particularly for non-linguists, there are a couple pieces they may feel estranged from, but at least they’re there, listening to beautiful piano playing and hopefully good singing. So we’ll keep doing it, to keep people give them that opportunity to get involved with the best parts of their soul.

There’s something healthy about having that demanded of you as a listener. I want that to be demanded of me when I go to concerts, because otherwise I don’t feel I have a very satisfying experience.

Indeed! And to your question about the differences between lieder and opera for the performer, really, opera is such a collaborative event, you, the singer, are at the top of the iceberg as it were, you appear above, on the top 10th, or more like 2%, of a wealth of creativity and musicality and theatrics and administration too, so your voice and portrayal is a culmination of a h-u-u-u-ge team effort.

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Gerald Finley as Iago in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

And yes, you have to deliver the goods and focus on your character, and give your vocal performance the absolute top level in extremes, and that’s really not what lieder is about… it’s not much teamwork, other than with your fellow musician, and it can be chamber of course, as part of a string quartet or with a guitarist or flutist as well as the piano version, so I like to think that perhaps you are your own stage manager and production team and artistic personnel (in lieder recitals).

There are people who are endeavoring to bring out the essence of the presentation of lieder in a more theatrical way, like having staged elements, and I find that a revelation – because why shouldn’t people be inspired by beautiful, fundamental music? I tell you what: pace Barbara Streisand, if a pop singer got hold of a Schubert song and did something amazing with it, you’d be finding people saying, “Well, that’s a cover version, but where’s the original?” Hopefully! Or the other way around, take a Joni Mitchell song and rewrite it as a Schubert lied or Brahms lied, and… yes, I think we just need to be a little more accepting of how people are trying to just make sure these elements of inspiration can be shared by all. 

Speaking of shared inspiration, the baldly emotional nature of lieder translates into the demands it makes on singers: you can’t hide.

That is actually one of the challenges of the technical aspects. Often the frustration about being a younger singer is that one hasn’t quite got the technical lability to be as free and honest in vocal terms. There are lots of wonderful musicians who are doing beautiful things with their voices but it means less, and that’s what we’re after, of course, is “the beautiful voice.” For me, my heroes are Fischer-Dieskau and Tom Krause and Hermann Prey, or José Van Dam doing Mahler; you’re not worried about how they sound, you’re worried about how they feel, but the reason you do that is because their voices are in such perfect shape! It’s like suddenly their instrument is serving them – that’s why it’s a rare thing, because we singers spend our whole life trying to figure out how to sing in order to be free, to be free from all that. 

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Gerald Finley as Bluebeard and Angela Denoke as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo : Marty Sohl / Met Opera

It’s a fascinating pairing on this album. What was the thinking behind including the music of Brahms? The linguistic and musical poetry is so different from that of Schubert. 

Essentially, I mean, in a kind of a very facile sort of conceit, the Brahms works were among the last things he wrote. He was at a time when he was in deep mourning for Clara (Schumann), and … well, to hear that Brahms… he was always at his best when he was thinking about hard things, big challenges, and the richness of the writing is so extraordinary. So in terms of periods of life for both composers, you know, really they are the two respective “swan songs,” effectively. I always feel Brahms is somebody who thought he knew where the spiritual elements of his life lay; you get it in the Requiem, of course, and certainly in these songs, and in the late string music. It’s all very dense and full of passion, and we feel that. I mean, Schubert knew he was dying of course, Brahms a little less, even though it was late in his life; he knew his time as a composer was reaching its end. So you get this kind of creative surge from both composers, and that’s really what attracted us to doing these works.

From Brahms’s overall output came many beautiful songs, but these ones are one huge level higher –  the use of the language, the biblical texts, was very much something which encapsulated his fervor for the human potential of love and forgiveness, and relating to toil. As a socialist approach, it was, “death will comfort those who have toiled,” but also, “those who’ve lived comfortable lives is why there’s fear but there is still hope that the comfort of death will be here for you” – and that’s remarkable as a thesis. So yes, in these Brahms songs, death is treated with great… hope, and love, I’d say. The idea of being in a marvelous revelry of celebrating life – “What was it? Life was love; the greatest of all these things is love” – so I do feel Brahms was an extremely passionate person, behind all that grizzle.

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Gerald Finley as the Hotel Barber and Mark padmore as ASchenbach in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

That sense is especially noticeable in the final song, “Wenn ich mit Menschen” (When I am with people), which draws together spiritual longing and human logning, the epic and the intimate, in this great expression of acceptance and understanding.

Completely! The elemental earnestness of it – “Ernste” – I almost feel if you didn’t get it in the Requiem, then yes, you will here. One’s life can have a sense of accomplishment if you have loved – and he loved through this music, and certainly in life… 

Clara.

Yes, Clara for sure, and his mother as well, which was a big element. We know much less about Schubert’s love life and I suppose that makes him slightly more mysterious as to what his thoughts on love were, except for the fact that if you delve into the songs, for instance the Serenade, really, it’s a marvel of positive thoughts in a minor key, and negative thoughts in major keys, it’s just extraordinary how he goes against convention in thinking minor is more fulfilling than major keys. There’s lots of wonderful mysteries, shall we say, about Schubert’s music in that regard. He did struggle with the idea of being recognized too, as a composer of any worth, and from that point of view it’s also, you wonder, was he ever appreciated? Did he ever feel his music had any worth? And for me that’s the melancholy aspect of not just him but many people — Beethoven not hearing the applause, for instance – but the whole idea is that these composers are wearing their passions in their music, and thank goodness for it. 

Personal Essay: “Flowers, Meadows, Hills”… And Walls

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Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Tischbein

Walls have been on my mind over the last few weeks and throughout the year. Their physical forms have made the news, in past and present iterations, with invisible counterparts revealing divisions within the worlds of culture, politics, and self. There is an odd, illusory comfort to them, the notions of order, permanence, stability they imply allowing for realizations of often staunchly-defended functionalities so delicate they may crack at the slightest hint of perceived disorder. One hates to admit wanting certain forms of them.

This winter I have naught to look at in my minuscule back garden but a high fence, erected at my request this summer. I’m still tossing around the merits of planting things around its wooden edges come springtime; I love (and painfully miss) the feel of soil on my hands and running through my fingers. Looking at a blank fence now brings memories of the cute, strange, unexpected buds that would poke through the old one that ran the perimeter of the immense garden behind the tiny house where I grew up. I remember looking out the kitchen window and being awed and perplexed by the unsymmetrical lattice patterns their insistent tendrils would make in the late afternoon sun, the greens, reds, and rust browns dancing in the shifting light. It made the fence oddly pretty, made spring seem somehow less distant.

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Bud against a fence. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Walls and their winding, decorative counterparts have always existed in the world of classical culture. Division and debate have occurred (and continue) on the stage, in the pit, in the boardroom, on the bus and the metro — in bars, parks, galleries, galleys, bedrooms. Though there is the strong (and not incorrect) belief that art is the ultimate dissolver of walls, such a divine theory often fails when put into human practise, our foibles making such manifestation a challenge, even in ideal circumstances. We, and the connections we form, are a dynamic part of creation: human thoughts, words, and actions place slats, tear them down, replace them, tear them down. The energy created from that creation-destruction cycle sharpens the intermeshing wires of existence (class, wealth, race, gender, geography, health, age), and colour the way we experience concerts, operas, each other. The dissolution of walls demands true openness, curiosity, risk… a hunger for authenticity, something one may speak about at length but which can only find true manifestation in life. In short: talk is cheap. In my conversation with Lera Auerbach at the Enescu Festival earlier this year, she underlined the importance of this quality and its relationship to art — as an experiential rite of passage, and broader life journey — more than once, making me think harder still about all the walls and fences both in and outside of music, and writing. What if authentic connection is the ultimate “wall” to be crossed? Is it possible, in art and in life?

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Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

Famed German writer Goethe, whose work I referenced this past summer in relation to German composer George Katzer and his “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), tackled various types of walls throughout his wide range of poetry and novels. His works teem with characters who seek some way to live with authenticity – in spirit, in self, in practise. “Szene” takes this theme and goes further, using Goethe’s words to question, prod, and mock the then-contemporary East German regime under which it was created, satirizing its bureaucratic control of artistic exploration and expression. The chamber group ensemble unitedberlin, who performed “Szene” at the Konzerthaus Berlin in June as part of a larger program, was founded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was a richly resonant and very timely choice to feature Katzer’s work as part of the group’s thirtieth anniversary concert, not only because of Katzer’s own history, but because of the rising political and social tensions within Germany itself. They are wars in which Schubert would have, I suspect, recognized and understood.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)

I’ve been thinking a lot about his lieder lately, not least because of thinking back to a concert of Schubert lieder by soprano Golda Schultz in Berlin this past summer, as well as a recent conversation with baritone Gerald Finley in relation to a recent (gorgeous) recording he made of the composer’s Schwanengesang with pianist Julius Drake. To say the composer loved the work of Goethe is putting things mildly; Schubert set no less than eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, with at least a third of them written when he was still a teenager, between 1814 and 1815. As music writer Kenneth S. Whitton noted in his book Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond (Amadeus Press, 1999), “The musicality of Goethe’s words unlocked Schubert’s unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life…”. The composer died in 1828, having never met his literary hero, but before that, he composed a song for a scene from Faust, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel”), written when Schubert was seventeen. One of the most famous and beloved of Schubert’s lied, the work deals with some very real societal walls. The tale of the heroine’s seduction and subsequent abandonment by the titular anti-hero, followed by her trial and execution for the murder of her child, had a terrible resonance; stories of infanticide by desperate, socially-outcast unwed mothers (who dealt with very real walls of their own in the times in which they lived) were not uncommon in the poet and the composer’s day.

Setting such subject matter to song gave Goethe’s words — and its horrific reality — an especially disturbing resonance, one more fully realized in “Gretchen im Zwinger” (also known as “Gretchen’s Plea”). Music is not merely an echo of text here but experience, one that transcends the limitations — the walls, if you will — imposed by the verbal. This transcendence has real-life roots, however, giving these works an earthiness that roots them to lived human experience and suffering. One does feel the soil of the earth in his compositions, and rightly so.

Equally human are his Suleika works. Johannes Brahms once said of the first of its two parts (written in 1821) that it was “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The lied are based on Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Divan), written between 1814 and 1819 (an expanded version appeared in 1827), with the Book Of Suleika being one of its twelve sections, and one of its lengthiest. Inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafez and greatly aided by translations of said work by historian Joseph von Hammer, West-östlicher Divan was the final major cycle of poetry Goethe wrote before his passing in 1832. Along with Schubert, other composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, set verses from Suleika to music; there’s a musicality to the words that beg for sonic expression:

How your wings in gentle movement-
In my breast awaken longings —
Flowers, meadows, hills and forests —
Stand beneath teardrops of your soft breath.

Yet your mild and balmy blowing
Cools my eyelids’ painful aching —
Oh, for sorrow I would die —
When I could not hope to see his face.

Hurry, now to my beloved —
Speaking softly to his heart, (oh,)
Careful never to distress him —
Hiding from him all my torment.

As it turns out, The Book Of Suleika (which means “seductress” in Arabic) may have not been written by Goethe at all, so much as edited; there is suspicion (however contentious) that the actual writer could have been Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Married and thirty-five years the poet’s junior, von Willemer and Goethe engaged in a passionate correspondence when the poet was at his height of his fame, despite being married to Christiane Vulpius, regarded as his social and intellectual inferior – a woman with whom he knocked down walls himself, living scandalously unwed for eighteen years before marrying and having five children with her (only one survived). Vulpius suffered a series of serious health challenges (including a stroke) before her passing in 1816. We don’t know what she made of the predictably large galaxy of worshipful fangirls who threw themselves at her husband; it would seem Goethe himself was always “in love” (in a clichéd fashion) and cycled through numerous affairs (physicalized and not) before, during, and after his marriage, his writing ever expanding in incredible breadth and scope. As writer Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, “(f)or Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!””

The dividing lines between artist and behaviour can sometimes be very hazy indeed, let alone its connection to the actual art being produced amidst such circumstances, but Suleika offers a meta-narrative (however inadvertent) in the form of a small if captivating bud poking through some rather tall fences, ones with slats labelled “genius,” “worship,” “art”, even up to our own time. It’s in such unexpected invasions one can find the truest sort of authenticity, or so I’d like to believe. In the notes for Hyperion’s immense Schubert: The Complete Songs box set, pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson writes:

Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman’s voice since the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne’s and Goethe’s fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasize alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? […] Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.

After attending Schultz’s concert earlier this year, I remember looking down to see various markers on the Berlin sidewalks, plaques indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood. I’ve walked across and on them innumerable times, but something about that night — the sight of them, with the sound of Schubert still buzzing in ears and vibrating in heart, combined with my walled view now — renders them more poignant. Physical walls fall, others become more fortified.

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In Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Maybe it’s good to look back – and while we’re at it, around, up, and down – at the ground, the pavement, the plastic, at the base of the posts we’ve so keenly laid slat after slat  across. Is it a chaos we’re afraid of, or our own perceptions – us– being changed? Perhaps it’s time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find the cracks that let the green through, and time to be unafraid of feeling our hands in the warm soil once more. Nothing real grows otherwise. 

Philharmonix: “We Try to Create On the Spot”

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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.

 

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