Portugal was a kind of ‘tabula rasa’ concerning contemporary music

Paco Yáñez
viernes, 16 de marzo de 2007
0,0011101 Mundoclasico.com meets the German conductor Peter Rundel (Friedrichshafen, 1958) in his dressing-room in the Casa da Música auditorium, 45 minutes before Remix Ensemble’s concert with works by Edgar Varèse, Emmanuel Nunes and Alban Berg. He talks very kindly with me, like he has always done since the first day I met him in this auditorium, where he leads Remix Ensemble in this period of the Portuguese group of contemporary music.

Paco Yáñez. First of all, thank you very much for this interview that you accepted to have in my last visit to this Casa da Música, on November 2006, in that wonderful concert by the Ensemble Modern, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke. In that time I found you in a great activity, preparing future concerts, in fact I think it was tonight’s one with Pedro Fuigueiredo, and having a time with your former colleagues of the Ensemble Modern. In some way, in that day two parts of your life came together; your period as violin player of the Ensemble Modern and your present activity as conductor. If you don’t mind, we can talk about various steps in your music life, in your career as musician.

You, of course, learnt and played violin for a long time. Which are your remembers of those days? And what does those days gave to your nowadays activity as conductor?, because probably sometimes you even miss that time, I guess.

Peter Rundel. Yes, it’s true. I mean, remembering those days, first of all there’s a big feeling of gratitude, because I was finishing my studies with the violin and I was just very happy to be at the right place at the right moment, because those were special days; politically, in Germany suddenly there was a chance to build an ensemble, a professional ensemble for contemporary music, and I was just ready to go into professional life as a musician, and I was very happy. Like very often in life you are just there, you are around, and they ask you to come and to be guest in the ensemble because in other way it could be that I was not playing, and then I realized this is really what I wanted to do. And, of course, these first years, the founding years of the Ensemble Modern, were really full of enthusiasm and I didn’t really have the feeling of being an employed musician or something like that, but it was something just of being together with friends, or at least with people who had the same illusion and the same ideas. And it was, you know, working and working, a sheer source of joy; and slowly getting into this world of contemporary music. I mean, like so many other musicians, in my studying years I had some small experiences with contemporary music composers but, of course, you’re not really trained. I’m trained as normal classical violinist, and so it meant, in the beginning years, a lot of work, of course, also, but it was fun.

Q. Sure. Because, although you have played as a soloist many times, your main activity as violin player was in the Ensemble Modern, from 1984 to 1995. Do you really think that period is now closed? Don’t you never think about going back to violin again? What about that?

No. Actually there’re some times, you know, some moments of sentimentality when I like to play again; and, of course, privately I take the field from time to time, and I play, and I play with my kids, but it’s extrictly private. I think I will keep it private, because being a conductor, if you are not a genius, like some of my colleagues who can play and conduct just switching on, and they really like to do, is very difficult. For my years to come I want to be really concentrated on conducting and developing the repertoire, because this is a lot of work, and I don’t have the time to practice, you know, if I would have to play violin in public it should be good [laughs]

Q. As I told to Johannes Kalitzke on November, I really think the Ensemble Modern is nowadays the World’s leading ensemble in contemporary music. We have the Asko Ensemble, the musikFabrik, Klangforum Wien, Ensemble InterContemporain... many good ensembles; but, in my opinion, so perfect like the Ensemble Modern no one. I have a friend in Frankfurt now, the young Spanish conductor and composer Nacho de Paz [Oviedo, 1974] who is working with the ensemble and he’s really impressed by the enormous quality of the group, and he says there are some key aspects for that level. He talks about a great work, constant work all the time, a perfect technique in all the members of the group in each instrument, and what he describes as an ‘inner rhythm’, a typical inner rhythm that the Ensemble Modern has, and he says there’re some members of the group, like Ueli Wiget and Roland Diry who have the key, the ‘secret’ of that rhythm, probably because they are members of the ensemble from the beginning. You have been there for a long time, too; which are the reasons, in your opinion, why the Ensemble Modern is so good?

A. Beside strictly professional points like, you know, the quality of each position which is very high there, it’s of course, now, after twenty years or more [The Ensemble Modern was founded in 1980], an enormous experience to play as an ensemble; but it’s not all. I think the main point is really the spirit of the beginning days of the Ensemble Modern, the curiosity to what’s everything which is to come, and the experience and the awareness. And I have to say that this was already from the first years. The awareness of to present contemporary music in a perfect way; because beside the music itself there’re many aspects of how to present the music, of how to organize everything which is around, and there’s a very, very big awareness about this point; and this was always a quality of the Ensemble Modern, they thought about how to present themselves, which places to go, which public to address, to have always a very good light on stage, to have the best possible these days amplification if required, the best possible technical equipment, the best possible sound engineer... All these things which are in nowadays becoming more and more and more important, they really manage to think about that and to include that in their work and to have, as an individual, the responsibility for the whole thing. I think this is the key point, and also it’s too about the organization of the ensemble itself, in the way of the ensemble is the responsibility of all the musician members in every aspect.

Q. So it’s a very high professional organization. Anyway, Ensemble Modern is a living ensemble which is refreshing constantly. Their recent recordings [Lachenmann (Ensemble Modern Medien), Kurtág (Hänssler), Joneleit (Wergo), etc.] are a good example of the outstanding level of the Frankfurt based group, like any of their concerts. But in the last years Ensemble Modern have lost, as players, because they use to come back as conductors, many fantastic musicians, like Ingo Metzmacher, Franck Ollu, Cathy Milliken, Peter Rundel, etc. Although sometimes I think the best artistic period of the Ensemble Modern was on the ‘90s, I’m always impressed by them, by them amazing perfection and musicality. How do they manage to support this level of excellence? Do you have so many good students and players in Germany, or do you have to ‘import’ them from abroad to feed the Ensemble Modern to be always on top?

A. Of course, I might be the wrong person to answer these questions, because these are things that happened after I left the Ensemble Modern; but, you know, looking from outside, I would like to say two things. If you have a certain spirit, and this is not only for the Ensemble Modern but for other orchestras and other ensembles, even if some people leave and other come, you know, there’s a chemistry around it and it’s something that could be a kind of tradition, and I think the Ensemble Modern manage to maintain that, even with the young members, they see how the old ones are doing the things and they try to adapt themselves, and this happen in all the good orchestras. For example, the Klangforum, which is also a really a very nice ensemble, I admire them highly, they manage really to stay together now for twenty years, I mean, the same members, and you may say: well, they can be tired or whatever, but you hear it. You hear it, because the quality of their chamber music playing, the quality of the string playing, for example, is very high, it’s really like a string quartet, you know, this is amazing; and this is because of being together for a long time.

Q. Many composers talk about it. The same Helmut Lachenmann told to me the same thing about Klangforum’s string players last year in Madrid, their outstanding section of strings.

Well, going back to your career; time passed and, in 1995, you leave the Ensemble Modern and you begin to be, mainly, a conductor. Why? When and why did you decide that step forward, into conducting in your case?

A. [Sighing] This is much more concerned about going on. I mean, the Ensemble Modern was for me, in certain point of my life, a way to go on to, let’s say, unknown things, and probably because of my nature, which is very curious, I wanted to know things that I didn’t know, mainly in contemporary music. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t accept to be a violinist, I love to play the violin, but it was just a way, you know, to go on; to go into another field, to take even more responsibility about music results, and I had the feeling that I might be able to do it, so it was a try, in the beginning. And then I was very lucky, of course, that my colleagues this time in the Ensemble Modern they really gave me a chance, like they did before with Ingo Metzmacher, and after me with Franck Ollu, they really gave me a chance to conduct them. So I was very lucky to be immediately able to do concerts and to conduct.

Q. Of course, you have conducted before those days; in fact, you had conducting lessons with Michael Gielen and Peter Eötvös, two great maestros and contemporary music conductors, and with Jack Brimberg in New York too. Which are your remembers of those lessons? Anything you could say you have learned or adopted to your style as conductor from those maestros?

A. Of course, I’m influenced by many people in some way, because I’ve played many years under many very good conductors. But I would say the important thing about conducting is really to find your own personal language, the sign language, everything. You have to be in harmony with your body, so, of course, every conductor will do things differently; but these people you’ve mentioned and many others they are very good examples of being authentic for themselves, and in that way I admire them and I respect them. And, of course, there’re some details you see when they are conducting and you say this particular thing is really very convincing, so of course you learn things that you try to adapt, but it’s always transformed I think.

Q. Well, you have studied conducting in Europe and in the USA. Which differences did you find in terms of your preparation to be a conductor? Any different mentality between the two continents?

A. I have to say that you’ve mentioned Brimberg who is a composer, so I’ve never studied conducting with him. It was, you know, Theory, Composing... I’m not a composer, but I studied it. So I really can not judge it correctly, in that time I was just a juilliard as a violinist; and I went to look to some conducting classes, but for what I saw there I’m not authorized to judge it.

Q. OK. And it’s possible that your sympathy for American composers like Ives, Feldman or Zappa, that you conduct really very well, comes from that days in America. Or is it a love from before?

A. No, I did it before. I mean, in my younger years, like so many others of my generation, of course, I heard also rock’n’roll and pop music, and so and so; I don’t have any problems with this kind of music, and this is the reason why I think I’m opened to these non-European influences in contemporary music, so I’m very open to that.

Q. OK. Because Zappa, Ives or Feldman, the American music, is just a little part of a vast and diverse repertoire of Peter Rundel as conductor. From Renaissance to the last World Premieres, your repertoire is about five centuries. Anyway, I guess you have some preferences about composers and historical periods. Which are your favourites, those you love much more?

A. Well, that’s always very hard to tell. But, concerning the tradition, the classical music, I realize, as I get older, that really my home and the basic is, you know, the central-European classical music, and this is also what I’m developing in terms of repertoire, and I do it more and more. I’ve just did the Figaro in Vienna, and I’m trying to developing that repertoire too, and all the big German tradition, actually also the romantic, I love Schumann, I have a great love for Schubert, probably one of my dearest composers, and many others, you know them. There is so many, many beautiful music! I also love Debussy and all the French tradition, you know, I’m really mad about that...

Q. And contemporary music, of course.

A. And contemporary, of course. I manage to develop also close relation, also personal relations with many of the leading composers.

Q. In fact you have also in your repertoire Spanish contemporary composers too. We can find even among your recordings some of Spanish new music like that of Manuel Hidalgo or Sánchez-Verdú. Which is your opinion of those young Spanish composers you have worked with? Is it just a relation with those you live and compose in Germany or is it any more?

A. Not so much, I have to say; but this is probably just a limitation of myself and the market also, which is very, very isolated. I regret that, really, because very often is a kind of luck, you know. I know Manuel Hidalgo for many, many years, I think near thirty years now and Mauricio Sotelo also, and I just met them in a very early stage and I followed in some way their career. And of course, Sánchez-Verdú who I know and who is a younger example; but in some way it’s for me hard to see what’s really beside these people who have links to Germany or Austria, to see what’s really going on with new composers in Spain.

Q. Finally, in this part about conducting. Could you describe yourself as conductor? Any key aspect in your style of conducting? You really conduct all kind of music: orchestral one, chamber music, opera, choral music... How is Peter Rundel in every repertoire and style?

A. You know, probably it’s strange or simply it may be a weakness of mine that I don’t want to exclude anything. For me is really very nice to change the medium, so to speak. I like very much, you know, the work you can do when you work with a small ensemble, that is like chamber music, you are not the ‘big boss’ but you are a kind of part; it’s totally other role you have as a conductor, and of course this is very close to my self understanding as a musician, because it has to do with my history. I really want to continue to do that. But, on the other hand, the orchestra is something crazy and wonderful too, you know, and of course as a conductor you need a different attitude to be able to conduct an orchestra. And then, in the opera as director you have the whole house, where you are part of it, and it’s also again a different role. So I hope I will be able to continue in these three fields.

Q. And composition?

A. No. For me this was never really a question. I wanted to understand as much as possible about composing, and for some years, and actually not long enough, I studied that, in some way, but just for knowing more as conductor and to prepare the music for conducting. I never had really the ambition of composing, because I really consider myself as a medium, like an actor, like a director; and I’m very happy with that.

Q. And finally, after this long way, you came to Porto [Portugal], to the Remix Ensemble, that is a group with a chief conductor, as it’s your case, because we have lot of examples of ensembles with no head conductor. Why did you find Porto and the Remix interesting to come? Because sometimes it’s really a risk to go into an ensemble that is in the founding years. And, of course, on the other hand, it’s a great field of work to you.

A. Mainly because of the group. I was invited the first time as a guest, not as chief conductor, but as a guest; and I was very, very surprised about the quality of the group. And then I came back and it was a very good relationship developing; that was a time in which Stefan Asbury wanted to leave this position, so they asked me and I liked very much the situation here, you know, at the border of Europe, that it was, a little bit, for many years a kind of ‘tabula rasa’ concerning contemporary music, which is a fantastic field to start something and being in the position of leading an ensemble and to communicate this kind of music to a new public; try to develop a public; educate. All this really just makes a lot of sense for me. If you compare this with the situation in Vienna or Berlin where, you know, people go to the concerts and they think they know already what they expect, they are all experts and you know... And the freshness this project has is very attractive to me.

Q. Yes, for sure. In fact, this morning, talking to Emmanuel Nunes, I found him very enthusiastic about this project. He said this is the first really professional high level ensemble in Portugal, and he has now a project of working together with you. But like in this case of Nunes, I know you have some links with other Portuguese composers, you and the Remix and this Casa da Música. Which is the relation between the ensemble and the Portuguese contemporary music scene?

A. Yes, of course. And this is something we have to develop for the next years. Hopefully there will be a generation of young composers whom will be inspired by the ensemble, whom will write pieces for this ensemble. And we are really looking for chances to include more Portuguese young composers in our repertoire. Apart from that we also had some projects with young composers for they have the possibility to hearing their music, and of course this will be a process for the coming years. We are very aware that also apart from being in the international new music scene we have a big responsibility here in Porto, too.

Q. And about players too, I guess. Do you have any program to prepare young players for going into the ensemble? Any kind of academy...?

A. As you know, there’s a Remix Orchestra, which is exactly this idea to play together. The Remix musicians are the leaders of this orchestra and they work together very closely for several years in a very successfully way in this orchestra. And the best students from this orchestra, if Remix needs more musicians, they come. Of course we try to have as many Portuguese musicians as possible.

Q. So I see you are really happy with this project. And, apart from this, you have a wonderful new auditorium here in Porto for the Remix Ensemble. You have many guest conductors too, Kaspar de Roo, Stefan Asbury, Franck Ollu, Reinbert de Leeuw... What do you want with these visits, with this constant work with different conductors? Because talking with Johannes Kalitzke he told to me that it’s very important to have a ‘sound culture’ in the ensemble. Are you working in a concrete style or direction in that sense? It could be you are thinking about Ensemble Modern as a model because of you past? Any special idea of ‘sound culture’ for this ensemble, or this is something that just grows with the time?

A. Yes, of course I have an idea of ‘sound culture’, but the best for an ensemble and for an orchestra is to have the more possible flexibility in terms of ‘sound culture’. This means to have an awareness to find the right sound for every piece and you have to be able to change it from another piece, specially in contemporary music. If you are only playing Mozart or Brahms it might be something different; but really even there too. It’s just to develop the ability with the musicians, together, to adapt sound to what is demanded from a composition.

Q. And talking about tonight’s program; we have noticed something very special, that is we have two conductors in the same concert. Pedro Fuigueiredo will conduct Varèse and Nunes, and you will conduct second part, with Berg. Why this unusual division between two conductors?

A. Well; this is basically, talking about Portuguese musicians, we want to encourage the Portuguese players and also the Portuguese conductors, and Pedro is one of the very few who are able to lead this ensemble, and this is the first chance for him, so it’s a very important concert, I think. So it’s just to encourage the local talents.

Q. And who decided the pieces in this program? Because it’s a very specific program, very well designed really and thought very specifically for wind players, in concrete. Some of the works, like Nunes’s Dawn wo and Berg’s Kammerkonzert has even the same wind players. Who decided this program; you, you with Pedro; how do you manage this point?

A. In this case it was me with Emmanuel Nunes; and, you know, it’s an exchange between good friends. And Antonio Pacheco too, who is the manager of the ensemble, who knows a lot also and who always has very good ideas. I bring my ideas and I think it was a dream of Emmanuel to have Alban Berg with his piece together. And, of course, like very often with programs we had also practical reasons, because the strings section of the Remix Ensemble is in this moment on tour with Pascal Dusapin’s opera [The Remix Ensemble’s strings section was playing that day, in Paris, Pascal Dusapin’s opera Medea, a composition that was played in Porto on January the 17th and 18th under Franck Ollu’s conducting]; so we wanted to do something for the winds and it’s a very nice program and I’m very happy with it.

Q. Talking about Berg’s Kammerkonzert, Theodor Adorno said it was a piece for showing the composer’s talent and his enormous technical resources, much more than a piece for the soloists, in fact the piano and the violin don’t have a very special role like in other concerts we know pretty well. But which is in your opinion the role of the conductor in organizing Berg’s Kammerkonzert? Because no instrument has an special bright, but all of them have a very demanding playing and in a very continuous way, too. How do you manage to everything is clear?

A. It’s exactly what you say; it’s a very complex piece in the sense of contrapuntal style and techniques. I think it was like an obsession and very important for Berg, because it was planned as a gift for his beloved Schönberg, and he wanted to be, in some way, in a kind of competition, so good constructor like Schönberg was. He wanted really to show him how much he have learnt and what he was able to do. So, the result is a very dense score, with a lot of polyphony, and this is the main work, first of all to make it transparent and understandable in all the process that is really not simple. And, on the other hand, of course, it has this kind of fin de siècle charm character. The first movement, basically, is a kind of waltz; last movement is a kind of march very sophisticated. So, it’s not just preparing every detail, it’s too having that kind of feelings. And I think this is the main work.

And, finally. Which are your next projects with the ensemble? Any recording? Talking about you too, apart of the Remix, any world premiere? Which are your future works?

A. Future work... I’m mainly looking very much forward to create Emmanuel Nunes’ first opera, in Lisbon, based on a late fairy tale of Goethe, sung in German. And I’m already waiting for that for two years, because it was two times delayed, the production; but hopefully will take place in January ’08, and this is very important, of course. And I’ll do some work with Stockhausen, with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, a big project also in ’08, that is very important. And beside that a lot of classical repertoire, also with the orchestra here in Porto. And, of course, I just come from listening to all the first recording of Emmanuel Nunes’ music played by the Remix which I think it could be, hopefully, very good.

Q. OK. So thank you very, very much for this conversation and I hope everything will be right in the concert, which is just in a few minutes.

A. Thanks to you, I hope it too.
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