Friday, May 18, 2012


An iconoclast who worries about being normal.

From the earliest days of his career, German conductor Ingo Metzmacher has been a champion of modern music. As music director of the Hamburg State Opera, he made it a staple of the programming, even producing a recording of selections from New Year’s Eve concerts titled “Who’s Afraid of 20th-Century Music?” Metzmacher has left his mark in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich and Salzburg with productions of modern operas such as The Rake’s Progress, From the House of the Dead, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos. For Prague Spring, he will be conducting a challenging program with the Czech Philharmonic: Janáček’s Jealousy, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Herewith, his thoughts on the program and the art and practice of modern music.

How and when did you become interested in modern music?

My father was a cellist and he loved Romantic music, so I grew up with chamber music from Bach to Reger. When I decided to go into music, I needed something for myself. I was lucky to meet some people who introduced me to modern music, and I was fascinated. The history of modern music is the history of liberation from certain sounds and harmonies, the so-called “nice sounds.” I like that very much, because it’s what I was looking for – liberation for myself.

Is it difficult being an advocate for an art form that’s not always well-received?

I like this idea. I don’t mind having resistance sometimes, because it’s nice to convince people of something you believe in. It’s actually a great process. I’m very suspicious of myself if I become too conformist. I don’t like the mainstream, I want to walk a bit on the wild side.

How did you put together the program for your Prague Spring concert?

Well, it started with Pelleas und Melisande, which I did with the Czech Philharmonic two years ago. But the idea was to create what I call this magic triangle. Because I think the music from Bohemia and Moravia, and from Hungary and Romania, and Vienna, where it all came together with the German influence – this is really the heart of music in Europe. I mean, this is where most of the energy came from, for centuries. So it’s no wonder that this area produced these three enormous figures – Janáček, Bartók and Schönberg – and I’m really happy to put them together in one program.

What is it that makes this part of the world special?

It’s because of the different cultures which mingled, and also the very strong folk music element. I’m thinking even of Brahms coming from Hamburg, where you have mainly Telemann and Bach. Brahms came to Vienna, and he went most probably to a pub, and heard gypsies playing, and he thought, “Oh, that’s great, I’m going to write some Hungarian dances.” There was this melting pot of very lively musical traditions – from the people, not only the composers.

Is that still true?

I think that’s one of the troubles of late 20th-century music – composers completely cut the roots to so-called popular music. It never happened before, this is the first time. And it’s not good, it doesn’t work. Even Beethoven and Mozart were picking up tunes from the street, like Charles Ives did. So I think there was something wrong when popular music and so-called serious music went apart. I don’t know why it happened, but it’s a pity.

The pieces on your Prague Spring program all have powerful psychological undercurrents. Do you try to bring that out in the music?

Of course. What interests me for example is this effect of playing on the bridge – the so-called ponticello – which for strings means that you play the pitch, but by going near the bridge you underline the overtone spectrum. So you hear more of the inner world of the pitch; it’s like you go into the psyche of the sound. It makes people uneasy to hear ponticello, which is very often used for mysterious moments, anxious moments, fright. It’s used a great deal by both Bartók and Schönberg in their pieces, and I always love to emphasize it.

How has it been working with the Czech Philharmonic?

I think it’s a unique orchestra, because it’s the only orchestra in the world whose name is really right. There are only Czech people playing in the Czech Philharmonic. All the other orchestras are now globalized. Even the Vienna Philharmonic has I think an Australian trombone player. But the Czech Philharmonic has a very special sound which you don’t find anymore in the world. It’s very local, very rooted in this city and country, with a very clear tradition of Czech music-making.

And how does that manifest itself?

It was astonishing for me when the orchestra played Janáček in rehearsal. It sounded right immediately, from the start. We have a concert in Dresden on Sunday where we’re going to do the Dvořák piano concerto, and I’m very curious to hear how they will play it – because that’s their daily food, so to speak. I don’t know if I can tell them anything about how to play it; rather, I will learn from them, because they know how to do it. Which is actually great, to encounter this kind of tradition.

What accounts for that facility?

It’s in the genes, most probably, because the music is from here, and they feel it, and there’s kind of an undercurrent – they just know. This orchestra doesn’t play much Janáček, they’re not an opera orchestra. But they feel it immediately; it’s close to their hearts. It’s like when I hear Bach or Brahms, I feel immediately it’s very close to me. It has to do with the culture, the food, the weather, the language – everything.

What do you hope the audience will get from your Prague Spring performance?

An adventure. It’s a special event to hear these three pieces performed together, and I think we will create some excitement.

For more about Ingo Metzmacher:

Photo: Anja Frers

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