Kaplan Welcome to our first special summer edition of “Mad About Music” where the focus is on maestros – with conductors Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel and Pierre Boulez.
Kaplan Over the years, some of our most popular shows on “Mad About Music” have been about conductors – with conductors today we revisit earlier appearances of three leading maestros comparing their views on a wide range of subjects. We begin with Valery Gergiev who exploded on the global scene ten years ago and has since taken his Kirov Opera in Russia to new heights and became principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. Last month he was also appointed Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. But even the most acclaimed conductors sometimes have problems with critics. In fact conductors are always their own toughest critics. So I asked Valery Gergiev how often he was really satisfied with his own performances.
Gergiev There are performances which, after you do it, you start to think that, well maybe this performance was not a must, it was not maybe needed, it was just – believe me, many performers, many artists, if they will be honest enough, they will say that only a portion of what we do is really important, and maybe really successful or really good. I agree that good conductors are critics of themselves. Conductors normally are very egocentric, so they think of themselves of course very highly, but at the same time, subconscious always tell them, well, there were big people in the past, and they were so big, can we compete? So at least I always feel that we have shortcomings rather than advantages.
Kaplan Well, it strikes me that if there is any area where historical comparisons are going to be made, it's in the most familiar repertoire, such as in your first selection today Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony . So let me start by asking you whether you regard this as a particularly difficult symphony to conduct?
Gergiev When conductor thinks that he can “read” the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, and anyone needs it, he is either total idiot, or someone who discovered something about – I mean, something really important. Can you imagine how many performances of Fifth Symphony are taking place every minute, maybe worldwide?
Kaplan I understand there may be so many performances going on all the time, but what exactly is it about this symphony that is so challenging for a conductor?
Gergiev It's one of the best classical symphonies. It's so perfectly shaped. When we speak about Fifth Symphony and Beethoven, we can do the same thing. Well, Tchaikovsky, he's very close to being trivial and even cheap. But how close? That's the question for conductor to answer. Then he's very close to being genius who competes with any symphonist of any time. But again, how close? To Beethoven? or to Brahms – although he was certainly his opposite. This is the question. To never sound cheap, but to sound very generous is one risk; to never sound repetitive – square is another risk you face in the reading of Tchaikovsky. So you have to change something. You have to change the mood of every bar. It's a risk. So you have to interfere in the playing of orchestra, and orchestra has to feel that this is a right thing, rather than a wrong thing. Disturbing the safety of rhythm is not a good thing at all, but it depends which orchestra is in front of you, how much trust they have in you or how much trust you have in them.
Kaplan All right, well then, let's hear a bit of your approach to this Fifth Symphony .
Kaplan The Third Movement from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony . The Vienna Philharmonic led by Valery Gergiev, my guest on "Mad About Music". This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this special summer edition on maestros, we are revisiting some of our prior shows with leading conductors. I was struck by Valery Gergiev's comment that today's conductors are always looking over their shoulders at the giants of the past, so I asked him who was the conductor he most admired.
Gergiev There are a few names, which I cannot ignore, even if I wished. Furtwängler – great German conductor. Not only conducting but also his artistic statement. In a very, very complicated times, of Second World War. Hitler being there, in power. He remained general music director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra which was in a way tragic but still, thanks God, it gave so much to the world of culture, because there had to be someone who would continue one of the greatest traditions ever existed in classical music. So it was him, in very difficult circumstances. I very much respect also his readings of romantic repertoire like Beethoven symphonies, Wagner or Richard Strauss. Brahms, Schubert, fantastic, fantastic readings. They really give me, at least, as much information, as much inspiration, when you think about who was Schubert, who was Mozart, who was Strauss or Wagner, what kind of musicians they are.
Kaplan You know you're not the first to cite Furtwängler for his amazing abilities, but I wonder if you can be a little more specific for our audience. What for example are his musical ideas, or his interpretive ideas that you think makes him such a star?
Gergiev The most difficult thing in conducting is not to slip into mechanical beating. So this restless search for a real tempo, a real pulse, of practically each bar of music, rather than just one tempo for one movement, is something what very few conductors could ever master. Not many conductors will confess, maybe, that it will be something difficult for them to do, but then they will go and compete with Furtwängler, and most probably lose. Because it's kind of God-given gift, a genius quality, which one conductor contributes to the playing of the orchestra – I describe it in the following. You can't possibly imagine this same orchestra play the way they play with Furtwängler if you just remove him from the podium. It is just not possible to imagine they will do the same thing. They will be even maybe more organized, they'll be very focused in a certain ensemble, but they will never deliver this kind of incredible expression which he is able to bring to life once being in front of an orchestra.
Kaplan Well, I think we should put your theory of Furtwängler to the test. What music best demonstrates his skill?
Gergiev The "Great" symphony of Franz Schubert. We call it No. 9 , sometimes we call it No . 7 , but number doesn't matter; the quality of symphony and the quality of interpretation. Amazing. I believe in every movement there are so many changes of tempo. First, fantastic theme with horns are playing, and then, in the Second Movement, also it's very, very, it seems to be very settled but then it becomes so desperately dramatic. And again, the Third Movement, it's not just going like a clock, you know, da-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-DA, it has the, you know, it has a bite, it has a freedom, it has a fire, and it has a style, so it's very Austrian. Schubert was really a shy man, but hear how this shy man sounds in the hands of Furtwängler.
Kaplan An excerpt of the Third Movement of Schubert's Ninth Symphony . The Berlin Philharmonic led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a selection of conductor Valery Gergiev when he appeared earlier as a guest on “Mad About Music”. As he had stressed how important trust was if a conductor was going to push an orchestra to take risks, I asked him about the other side of the coin: what conductors do that make things go wrong with orchestras.
Gergiev Cooperation with orchestra is very important. Orchestra should never feel that conductor hates the music. Because if they start to feel it, they become totally – let's say – abandoned.
Kaplan Did you say that a conductor would be hating the music he's conducting?
Gergiev Well, sometimes you feel that conductor maybe doesn't like the music.
Kaplan Why is he conducting it?
Gergiev Well, that's a good question. But we are all professionals. It's a very good word, but it's also a very dangerous word. Some people think they have to simply professionally do it. They go and do it. Maybe some of them just beat the time, some of them are fantastic professionals, they will beat time very well. But do they really love the music, and why they love it? The answer is go and listen to a Furtwängler recording or Toscanini; I addressed to the same spot, that any young conductor who will hear, he will be disturbed, maybe by a couple of pizzicato played not together. But if he's really gifted young man, he will have to be shocked by the depth of reading of Brahms Fourth Symphony , for example.
Kaplan As Valery Gergiev described it, there was much in Furtwängler's approach that reminded me, frankly, of Valery Gergiev, so I asked whether he regarded himself as the Furtwängler of our time.
Gergiev Not, certainly not. Well, you see, I don't think I'm the smartest man, but smart enough to understand that I cannot be compared to conductors like Furtwängler. My own way, although, I will defend, and I will think it was the last thing I had to do, ever, if I just was to follow an orchestra. I think it makes it totally unneeded today if conductors, and there are like maybe thousand conductors, if they are there just to serve, to accompany – I mean – we are not in a restaurant, where we just bring a menu and someone will tell us what to do. Conducting, music directorship, means that you in fact lead, and you sometimes decide, and sometimes you, if needed, attack; if needed, you will maybe defend composers. Sometimes you have to do something outrageously unusual, that the people will notice that there is this musical idea.
Kaplan Valery Gergiev on the fascinating relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. When we return, we'll continue to explore that topic and many others with Lorin Maazel, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this special summer edition of “Mad About Music,” the spotlight is on maestros as we revisit appearances of three leading conductors. We just heard from Valery Gergiev, Music Director of the Kirov Opera in Russia, and now we turn to Lorin Maazel, who became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic three years ago after leading more than 150 orchestras, making more than 300 recordings and serving as the Music Director of Orchestras of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Munich and the Opera House in Vienna. With that vast experience, I thought that Lorin Maazel could shed some light on the subject I had just discussed with Valery Gergiev, namely, the conductor's complex relationship with the orchestra and what makes it go sour.
Maazel Well, I think the main problem in the relationship between music director and the orchestra he has been asked to guide, is the vanity of the conductor to the extent that it is overblown. There will be increasing friction with his colleagues in the orchestra because that simply doesn't wear well in the long run. And orchestras are also a captive audience – conductors that go on forever telling jokes or explaining what the music is all about eventually become very unpopular and rightfully so. I'm someone who's interested in making music. I get along well with the music I'm making and love to perform and I think I communicate this to the folks around me and I find that it, a good relationship is really based on mutual respect.
Kaplan When other conductors talk about Lorin Maazel they often describe someone who probably has the most advanced clear technique in conducting – impossible to miss what you want. How does this show up in making the music any better, though?
Maazel That's for time to tell. But I'm also someone who's very keen to encourage an orchestra to give its best and I think one does that by putting the musicians at their ease technically so that they know where they are at any given moment and not wondering about the beat or they're not confused, or, or troubled on an ongoing basis by what they see, what they're being asked to do. Because a musician put at his ease can then concentrate his energies on beauty of sound, on intonation, on ensemble with his colleagues, matching colors, all the wonderful things that a great orchestra can do given the chance to do it. So that's one of the main jobs of a conductor – to put his musicians at ease. At the same time, to challenge them musically. Not to challenge them by giving them curve balls and they're not quite knowing what to do next.
Kaplan Now with all the serious listening you have to do for your profession, when you're home relaxing, do you just put music on and have it in the background and having it flow around?
Maazel Well, we all have weaknesses. My weakness is the guitar, which as a violinist I had always thought that I could learn. After all, Paginini was an excellent guitarist. So was Berlioz, but he wasn't a violinist. And I discovered that I would have had to spend years developing a right hand technique; left hand of course is made to order because of the violin playing. So, I love to hear great guitar playing, we have records of Romero and Yepes and of course John Williams whose renditions of Bach are absolutely stunning.
Kaplan The final movement from Bach's Suite BWV 995 , composed for the lute but played here on the guitar by John Williams. This is Gilbert Kaplan with New York Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel. You've had so much experience conducting yourself and influencing others, I wonder who are the conductors, though, who most influenced you?
Maazel Directly influenced, was I by the greatest of Italian conductors, Victor de Sabata, whom even Toscanini admitted was one notch further along. A monster musician, a superb composer, marvelous pianist – concert pianist – and a conductor beyond all belief. Total recall and total mastery of the score and the wildest fantasy, musical fantasy I've ever encountered. The recording that we all believe is the definitive recording of Tosca was with Maria Callas, was conducted by Victor de Sabata. And I got to know him quite well years later. He was kind enough to invite me to conduct at La Scala where he was artistic director; and I asked him how he made the strings sound so stupendously powerful at the moment right after Scarpia's death. That F-sharp minor section when they play in unison. And he said, "Well, Lorin," he said, "I just thought that they would make an incredible sound if they were to record standing and so I had them stand up – we cut." Because you know that Scarpia is there dying and Tosca is screaming at him "Die a damn death!" [" Muori dannato !"] and when he finally collapses and expires she says very succinctly, " Or gli perdono !" ["And now I forgive him!"] and then this crashing F-sharp minor chord [sings tune], one of the most staggering moments in opera literature, all played on the G-string, and this is the sound he made.
Kaplan The concluding moments of Act Two from Puccini's Tosca with soloists Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano and the orchestra and chorus of La Scala under the baton of Victor de Sabata, a conductor who greatly influenced my guest on today's "Mad About Music," Lorin Maazel. Toward the end of his career, Georg Solti was asked, "What's left to do?" And his reply was, "I just try to get better every day." How are you different as a conductor today say than you were 20 years ago? Have you gotten better?
Maazel Well, we all flatter ourselves that we improve. And I was convinced that I would never suffer that delusion, I would never impose that upon myself, but I'm afraid that I have come to the conclusion that I am really a better conductor technically because I followed Georg Solti's advice without knowing that he had offered it, or had described his own motivation, in keeping going. Indeed, I try to get better with each performance without trying to achieve perfection, no one can. So I think I'm technically better; but you know people age differently, some people become very bitter and nasty and short tempered, whatever, and others become mellow and laid back. And that seems to be my case – I'm very fortunate to belong in that category. I've just become a lot more mellow than I was 20 years ago and I'm enjoying my life enormously and enjoying music making a lot more, I think, because I'm freer to and I think I communicate that, or so I'm told.
Kaplan Well then I'd like to just ask you one final question and it concerns musical legacy. Your own legacy. Conductors are often described for either their contribution or their approach and I can think of Herbert von Karajan standing for perfection of sound; or Toscanini extreme fidelity to the score; Leonard Bernstein with a sort of shameless unbridled passion; Boulez, a clinical purity. You've already been described as having perhaps the foremost technique, but that doesn't say anything in the music. Would you like to take a stab at describing what you think your own musical legacy might be?
Maazel Well, it would be very presumptuous of me to speak about myself in terms of legacy. I know that as a younger person I was quite proud of the fact that I had helped break the youth barrier. Because after the Second World War, there were no conductors out there under 45 who were accepted as conductors and I did make my debut at Bayreuth when I was 30, conducting Lohengrin . And also the first American to do so, ever to appear at that house. Also, I think in my person there may be a curious fusion of, of the Toscanini approach, extremely conscientious attempt to follow the conductor's, the composer's intentions, combined with this kind of unbridled passion that I found in de Sabata.
Kaplan And with that, our visit with Lorin Maazel concluded. When we return, we'll hear from Pierre Boulez whose career as a conductor is flourishing but he is also regarded as one of the foremost composers of our time.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan, and if you've just joined us, we're in the midst of our summer special edition of “Mad About Music” where the focus is on maestros. Earlier in the show we revisited appearances by Valery Gergiev, Music Director of the Kirov Opera in Russia , as well as Lorin Maazel, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Now in our final segment we turn to Pierre Boulez. While guest conducting every major orchestra these days, he is for many music lovers best known as a composer, and having just turned 80, perhaps the high priest of modern music. I put to Pierre Boulez a question that I suspect many of you would like to have asked yourself. And it's basically this: what has gone wrong with composing in the past 50 years and why is the audience that appreciates new music so small?
Boulez The audience for contemporary music was always small. Contemporary music is not always performed and because I must say that performers are not very courageous. They don't dare to do something because they are afraid that the public, the audience, will react. But myself, I am not at all against the reaction of the audience. If they want to disapprove, they can disapprove, and maybe these people who listen to contemporary music and who are not pleased, maybe later they say, "maybe I was wrong, maybe I should listen to that again."
Kaplan Well, let me sort of throw an idea at you and see what you think about it. One of the reasons that's often given by people who don't embrace contemporary music is there seems to be a law that has been passed by the contemporary composers that it is against the law to write a beautiful melody, with any of the traditional harmony that one has grown up with. And I think that you would agree this is not a characteristic of most modern music. Or almost any modern music. Now why is that melody, as we know it, has been banned from music?
Boulez That's not banned at all, that's the same argument always! And that's a different type of melody, different type of harmony, and then, if you know how to listen to it, you recognize the melodic line. That's simply a kind of new territory, and you have to get familiar with it, that you can recognize really the melodic aspects.
Kaplan So you would make the case that contemporary music has in it real melodies, hum-able melodies, which you might leave the hall being able to reproduce.
Boulez Well, I think, if you ask, I don't know the last string quartets of Beethoven, or even in Mozart, some symphonies, and you know, if you want to, to whistle the G-minor Symphony, you would have some problems, I suppose.
Kaplan: [Whistles the melody]
Boulez: Well, the beginning of course! But then after the beginning, please go on.
Kaplan All right! Then let's talk about the group that is writing today, leaving yourself aside, of course. Who among the composers of the last 25 years, say, do you think will endure?
Boulez Well, in the last years, also in my generation, let's say, I can't give you names. I'm not really, you know, a man who can decide for the future. But I think the names of Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, Ligeti, Bertwistle will remain, certainly because they are important moments in the development of the 2nd half of the century. Like, for instance, in the first half, you will have somebody like Stravinsky, Bartok, the three Viennese -- Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – Varese also for some works, and Ives for some works.
Kaplan All right, then let's turn away for a moment from contemporary music to your role as a conductor. And here your standing as a revolutionary may be in jeopardy. Because while you certainly are performing contemporary music, you are also recording a complete Mahler cycle.
Boulez Well, why not? That's what I mean, you know, I consider that music is one, and not various things. Is one, because I don't think that contemporary music should be separated from the repertoire. And I think – I mean, I am faithful to the saying of Alban Berg, who said, “I would like that classical music will be performed like contemporary music, and I would like contemporary music to be performed like classical music.” And for me, you know, the conductor is not something special. When I conduct classical repertoire, for instance, Wagner, I have done quite a lot and some in Bayreuth , it gives me some ideas about myself, first, and also about the new works either I am writing or I am conducting by people of my generation or people much younger than me, even.
Kaplan Well, you know, music – particularly new music – can bring about violent reactions, and I'm thinking of the fist fights that broke out in the audience at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Now I see on your musical selections, you brought us something by Stravinsky. Tell us about your view of Stravinsky and why you brought this particular piece.
Boulez Well, I think Stravinsky is a very important figure, one of the most important figures in the 20th century, and you know, one speaks always about Rite of Spring . But I chose Les Noces , by Stravinsky also, which is for different instrumental organization. And in Les Noces he had quite a lot of difficulties to find the right instrumentation. And then he discovered, years after, that the instrumentation should be with four pianos and percussion, and of course the choir and the vocal soloists. But this combination is really exceptional, first, the voices on the one part and all these percussive instruments on the other side, and then also it proves that he was not satisfied with using always the same type of tool for all his works. That's the first reason why I chose Les Noces. The second reason is that Stravinsky was obsessed by unity – rhythmical unity. So after 70, almost 80 years, I think that Les Noces has kept its power, unique power, as a sound, and as a rhythmical realization.
Kaplan An excerpt from Stravinsky's Les Noces , the English Bach Festival Percussion Ensemble led by Leonard Bernstein, the first selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. Now, let's talk about interpretation as a conductor. Mahler perhaps more than any composer has such a wide range of interpretation. It may be true of others, but for his music at least it seems to bring out these extremes. And I read somewhere once, perhaps it was a critic or an analyst, describing this range, and it had you at one end and Leonard Bernstein at the other end, where Bernstein was described as being hot-blooded, passionate, and you were described as being clinical and cool. Do you regard that as remotely accurate?
Boulez Well, I think that's a question of subjectivity of the man who wrote that, or the woman, I don't know.
Kaplan Well, but more speak of your own approach….
Boulez You see, I don't rely only on myself emotionally when I conduct. You cannot just be emotional about it, or so in my opinion. Because then the structure is not anymore there, the important moments or the secondary moments are not different shaded enough. I look at all these types of combinations of expressions, and then after I can say when I am aware of that, then I can be more emotional because I know what it is inside, and I think the more you know the score, the more intuitive you can be. That's a paradox. But I mean, for me, intuition is not given. On the contrary, intuition comes as a supplement of knowledge.
Kaplan Well, your most recent release of Mahler is his Third Symphony , and that, as you know, ends with one of the most sublime, soaring adagios, this long structure you were talking about, a beautiful melody, the very thing I was suggesting modern music rejects. Now, when you're conducting that last movement, we're talking about structure, we're talking about emotion, surely there, that music must just wrap its arms around you in a very personal way.
Boulez Yes, certainly, but I mean, I cannot really avoid, for instance, to see that the last melody, with a brass, is exactly the same pattern as the beginning with the strings in a different speed. And then if I'm not aware of that, I cannot really begin this melody in the strings at the very beginning if I don't foresee in front of me the very ending. So I have this horizon in front of me when I begin. But I have always this intuition, which is really established by analysis. And that is my way of looking at scores. You know, I like precision, detail, organization, and then when I have that under control, then I can begin to fly, really.
Kaplan The concluding moments of Mahler's Third Symphony , the Vienna Philharmonic and on the podium, Pierre Boulez. This is Gilbert Kaplan and on this “Mad About Music” summer special on “Maestros” we have been revisiting appearances not only of Pierre Boulez but earlier in the show Valery Gergiev and Lorin Maazel, both of whom talked about where they thought they fit within the spectrum of conductors. I asked Pierre Boulez who, of course, is also a composer, how he would like to be remembered.
Boulez Well, I mean, I did the best I could. That's all what I can say. You have to be modest, and the more you are aging, you see what you have accomplished, and what you would like to have accomplished, and certainly, we were a very radical generation, immediately after the war, 1945, I was 20 in '45. So we were extremely radical because the situation of the world was a very radical one. Do I regret this radicalism? No. I don't regret it at all. Because I think, you know, it pushed us to find new solutions and we did not accept at all old solutions. The more you go in life, the more you have this exchange between the realism and utopia. But utopia should be always there. And at the conclusion, you know, the more I go to the end of my life, you know, I am really the more aware than ever that utopia is the main incentive in life, and then reality is accommodating this utopia to normality.
Kaplan I have to just ask you a little further on that, because I would like you to comment, if you can, on Boulez the composer. Schoenberg, they always say, 12-tone. Beethoven, elaboration of the Scherzo. Stravinsky, unbelievable rhythm and combinations. Is there a musical idea that you think you have focused on that might be stamped Boulez?
Boulez I think that I have to – sorry, I think that's synthesis. Because, you know, I am not typically French from this point of view. But I tried to join things, which were very separate before, as I mean, the Viennese tradition was especially the most recent one with Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, the Stravinsky and Bartok solution, and you know, the French tradition with Debussy and Messiaen. And I am in the meeting point of these three streams, let's say, and I would like to be considered like one of the first who tried to synthesize these worlds which were far apart, and which are closer in my world, my own world.
Kaplan And on that note, we conclude our summer special on “Maestros.” I hope you've enjoyed our visit with Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel and Pierre Boulez. You might want to mark your calendar now for our second summer special, on August 7 at our usual time, Sunday evening at 9:00 PM, when our focus will be on the piano – and the music most preferred by leaders in fields ranging from politics, the art world, to Hollywood. Until then, have a good summer. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”