Saturday, January 30, 2010

Talking to conductor and musicologist Leon Botstein

On January 12th 2010, I had the pleasure of interviewing American conductor and musicologist Leon Botstein in Jerusalem. Born in Switzerland in 1946, Maestro Botstein edits The Musical Quarterly, is president of Bard College (New York), and is musical director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

PH: Maestro Botstein, what were your earliest musical experiences as a child?

LB: I was the youngest child growing up in a multi-language home and we moved to America; I was a left-hander but, as was a practice in those days, was made to change to writing with my right hand, the result of all these changes being that I became a stutterer. The problem actually had the result of rendering music as a natural outlet for me, a non-verbal language. So my entering the world of music was via my hearing experiences. Coming from a well-to-do, Eastern European, assimilated home, we were provided with a “good education”, meaning Hebrew school and after-school lessons in languages not taught at school – in our case, German – and, as a child, I also expressed the desire to study the violin. I then developed an ambition to be a composer and spent my teen years composing, this continuing on into my early college years. Improvisation also interested me and, as a first year student in college, I made some extra money playing piano improvisations for dance classes. By now, I also had my eye on conducting but had no training until later on.

PH: Not the usual way into a conducting career.

LB: Certainly not. I did not follow the conventional career track. I was not a “Wunderkind” virtuoso moving into the world of conducting. And, to add to that, since the destruction of European Jewry, it has become unfashionable for musicians of that background to be intellectuals, pursuing a comprehensive academic education and joining performing careers with academic work. (Mind you, it still exists in early music.) I feel that performing has become “Hollywoodized”, with emphasis often on the athletic ability of the performer. Of course, there are exceptions – Andras Schiff, Alfred Brendel, Ernest Ansermet, to name just a few.

PH: You have been the musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra for some seven years now. Would you like to speak about developments that have taken place in the JSO over that time?

LB: Well, the JSO is basically a state orchestra and this is the first time in its history any private money has been channeled into it, enabling it to buy instruments and music and to tour - last year, for example, opening the Bach Festival in Leipzig. Despite that, the orchestra does not get enough state support and it has become a political battleground since my arrival. There is also, in some quarters, a belief that one has to “dumb down” the musical agenda for the public: the Discovery series has been cancelled and so have the pre-concert talks, despite the fact that these were enjoyed by large enough audiences! The public needs a larger choice of works in concerts, just as museums show a variety of art! There is a “masterpiece syndrome” here, preventing us from performing a host of excellent works less known. This is the Jewish state – culture and education should be of highest priority, unimpeded by constant controversy. I had never anticipated one could make enemies by doing the right thing! As an outsider, a non-Israeli working with the JSO, my duty is to the musicians themselves, to improve the quality of performance and I can say that the orchestra has never sounded better. At last week’s Schubert concert, the players – somewhat flabbergasted at first - showed flexibility, adjusting to different tempi that were new to them. We have performed some excellent Copland and Mahler on tour and there have been many JSO concerts broadcast in the USA over the last five years. I see all these as triumphs.

PH: You have touched on Israeli audiences. How do you find them as listeners?

LB: I very much like the audiences here. They are very attentive, they seem very thoughtful and are far more interested in seldom-performed works than one would think, considering the “bourgeois Musikkultur” in certain circles of Israeli society. In fact, I find Jerusalem audiences are wildly curious to hear different repertoire! I would like to see more publicity in the field of more ticket sales and to see more young people in the audiences.

PH: We generally associate you with orchestral conducting. How about the realm of early music?

LB: Actually, I played violin and vielle in the Collegium Musicum, the first early music ensemble in Chicago, conducted by the distinguished musicologist Howard Brown. As to early music performance today, I feel we have entered a better phase, whereby there is much improvisation. There was a period when the whole practice of early music was extremely rigid. One issue is that of period instruments, but the unsolved issue is a perceptual one, whereby how we hear sounds is conditioned by the acoustic environment in which we operate, in which our concept of balance, speed and quality of sound within the acoustics of our concert halls can not be equivalent to those of people of the 16th- and 17th centuries.

PH: So the reading of a score and its message is more complex than many concert-goers might imagine.

LB: Yes. This brings me back to 19th century music where we must ask “what was the expressive intent of, for example, metronome markings” in 1820, for example, when life was so much slower, when time was not standard, with every clock inside one particular city being different. So what would the perception of “allegro” or “allegro con fuoco” mean for people then? And how do we replicate the impact of Beethoven? By using the same tempo markings or not? As you get closer, how do you render the expressive gestures?

PH: Where does the audience come into the interpretation process?

LB: Well, we are about to perform Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, not often performed here; in Israel; most of the Israeli audience has not read Byron, whereas the composer and most of his audience would have. The symphony is narrative but the expressive rhetoric has changed, meaning that if I take the first movement “lento lugubre”, as Tchaikovsky marked it, the audience would be asleep in their seats. So our job as interpreters for the present day audience is indeed a complex task.

PH: On a totally different subject, would you like to talk about Bard College and Al-Quds University’s joint program?

LB: Yes. Partly as a result of my being here all these years, I thought, as an American, that creating a combination of culture and education would be a constructive gesture. Sari Nusseibeh and I created a three-pronged joint program, an honors course at Al-Quds for 500 students – a liberal arts education in the Anglo-American style, giving two degrees – the first dual degree program between an American- and Palestinian university. There is also a teacher training program for high school teachers in order to improve their quality of education and, thirdly, to build a high school under the jurisdiction of the university. I am not a politician: education will not cure anything but it will definitely not harm.

PH: Let’s move to your work in Musicology. What are you working on at the moment?

LB: I am writing a chapter for a book on Alban Berg. Another large project is a collection of my essays to be published by Yale University Press but I am not sure that that is worthwhile. I gave up on a project that I would like to return to - a book on the history of listening as a historical activity. And then I have been invited to give the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley; I need to write those as they are for publication. I am publishing a piece for a collection of a colleague at Cambridge - a speculative analysis of what I call “the end of the age of recording”. The golden age of the master recording has come to an end. We have lived through a period of time when technical advances in sound transmission allowed us to think that the recording was an adequate surrogate to live performance, or even better! The worst psychosis if this was Glen Gould who believed the studio was the perfect environment for the sanitized, clean, edited recording. We are now witnessing the death of the “high fidelity fetish”, greatly to the benefit of the revival of live performance. Unfortunately, so many conservatory students have been accustomed to learning a piece not by reading the music but by listening to a recording of it, and they end up adopting only one way of performing it! There is a wonderful story of a Jewish journalist by the name of Soma Morgenstern who, in a Vienna streetcar, first met Alban and Helene Berg sitting there, both reading a score of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony; the making of music begins from reading the score. If you perform a Mahler symphony nowadays, the audience is much more familiar with it than were audiences in the 1920’s and this is through their having listened to their favorite recording of it over and over. I have written an outline of this argument and called it “The Eye of the Needle” (the needle referring to the gramophone needle).

PH: Maestro Botstein, I am most grateful to you for giving of your time and for sharing so many ideas.