In the first part of this interview, Christian Baldini had the chance of asking Benjamin Korstvedt several questions about his research and Anton Bruckner's music. In this second part of the interview, the roles are reversed, and the musicologist is now the one asking the conductor some questions.
Benjamin Korstvedt: I bet your fans would be interested to hear what you as a conductor find to be most challenging about a Bruckner symphony? Perhaps more important, what’s most exciting about leading one of his symphonies?
Christian Baldini: As a conductor, encountering a symphony by Anton Bruckner represents many challenges. The sound world is very different from any other composer. This is music that at times seems to come from another universe, so it takes some time getting not only acquainted with it, but also comfortable, as if learning a new language until you speak it fluently. Its extraordinary dimensions and seemingly quirky sonic structures also are a challenge. One has to build and sustain tension, and learn how to release it, through these journeys; one has to navigate through modulations and find a way to arrive somewhere refreshed, without a sense of exhaustion. I think these challenges are precisely what make conducting his music so exciting as well. There is nothing else like it!
BK: Bruckner’s use of the brass section is one of the most striking elements in the soundscapes of his symphonies. Do the brass players generally relish the chance to play Bruckner? What other instruments play distinctive roles?
CB: Yes, of course, Bruckner is a great favorite of most (maybe all) Brass players. You see, many composers restrict the use of certain instruments, where they end up waiting, counting rests, and occasionally come and play for a few bars, to continue waiting until the next distant entrance. Bruckner really builds blocks of sound with the brass, and naturally brass players relish the opportunity to play these wonderful chorales, fanfares, and lyrical lines that he wrote for them. String players also have various distinctive roles, from the (in)famous Bruckner tremolo (with which he stars all of his symphonies!) to the tender, lyrical singing, to the Wagnerian flourishes (for example in the second movement of the 7th) that might be reminiscent of the Tannhäuser Overture.
BK: People who love Bruckner were often powerfully struck by his music the first time they heard it, like a thunderbolt! Did something that happen to you?
CB: I remember my first contact with his music. On a trip to New York with my father, I purchased a double CD set conducted by Eugen Jochum, which included the 8th and 9th symphonies. It was not the usual path (which for most people might be to begin with the 4th), but I immediately fell in love with the bursts of energy, the lyricism, the warmth and the powerful sonorities that his music presented me with. It was so different from all the other composers I had been interested (at that time I was familiar with most of Mahler's Symphonies, and as a student in Buenos Aires I had been also listening to the Ring Cycle. This music was different, directly, from the start. And it captivated me!
BK: Do you have a special piece of advice for the audience that will help them appreciate the performance?
CB: More than anything else, I like to let music speak for itself. My advice to someone who comes to Bruckner as a newcomer is to not necessarily try to understand it or label it, or to define it with words. Sometimes the best possible option is to absorb it, feel it, let it sink in. And have patience. In the midst of our hectic contemporary lives, sometimes we deny ourselves the calm moments to read a good book, to go see a theatre company performance, to enjoy the live performance of symphonic music or opera. We have everything at our fingertips right from home, Netflix, Spotify, Google Music and Apple Music, and it is easy to forget how special a live performance can be. Give yourselves the chance to appreciate what human beings in front of you can do for you, with their hearts beating faster and slower depending on how they are performing, breathing with the music, shaping a phrase, becoming more and more involved and committed in the performance. Allow yourself to enjoy the vastness of Bruckner's music, as if you were entering a temple or a palace, whose rooms you were not yet familiar with. I think you will enjoy the various presences that you will encounter in this journey.
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