First published by English National Opera, October 2019
“Start with the note ‘e’, and you don’t have to make the decision. It’s as good a place to start as any. Then if you write ‘d’, you know where you stand in relation to ‘e’.”
Start with a myth. Harrison Birtwistle often does. The myths he chooses aren’t always simple, the music he writes definitely isn’t simple, but the choice of subject matter, he says, is very simple. He goes for stories that have always been there. Like one note’s relationship to its neighbour, the knownness of a myth is an anchor that lets him roam. “When telling a myth,” he says, “tell a famous one. So everyone already gets what it’s about. That allows me to use the music to do what I would do anyway. It allows me to go for it.”
That’s one explanation for it. Since his earliest pieces, Birtwistle’s music has been a place for gods, monsters and earthy archetypes. “Well, give me another subject!” he retorts when asked: why myths? “What do you want me to write about otherwise? Sentimentality?!” That last word dropped like it’s contaminated. Time and again, he has returned to rituals rough and divine, exploding or rerouting those rituals along the way, merging primitive rites with exquisitely distilled moments of love or violence. He has made pieces out of bible stories (The Last Supper) and mummers tales (Down by the Greenwood Side). He has made brutal characters out of puppets (Punch and Judy), folk balladry (Bow Down, setting the staggeringly cruel Two Sisters), old English legends (Gawain) and newer cinematic legends (The Second Mrs Kong). He’s written cameos for satyrs (the unbound solo saxophone of Panic) and for singing sheep (Yan Tan Tethera). Sometimes, his beasts have a humanity so unexpectedly tender it makes us weep (The Minotaur).
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First published by BBC Music Magazine, November 2019
When Ivan Fischer conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in New York a couple of years ago, a flashmob of local students stormed the stage. They took up positions around the orchestra and joined in the last movement. A similar thing happened during performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, except this time it was an undercover chorus that sprang up from among the audience. “It’s the true meaning of these symphonies,” Fischer smiles, recalling the reactions. “The energy of the crowd, the euphoria. In conventional concerts it’s hard to achieve because these symphonies have become a bit predictable. But a hundred students storming the stage? A tenor or a soprano popping up beside you and starting to sing? The audience thinks, “it might be me!”, and that makes a collective buzz, and that is not predictable.”
The conductor makes his points precisely, playfully, without hurry. He’s a spry 68, sipping an espresso and ruffling the ears of a fat labrador that wont leave his side for the duration of the interview. I’ve come to Fischer’s house in south-west Berlin, where the ground floor features a harpsichord and a Bosendorfer grand (on the music stand: Mozart piano sonatas and the jazz standard Real Book) and up several flights is a Japanese-style meditation room with low lights and a shoes-off policy. Today it’s hot, and Fischer ushers me into the leafy garden where a trio of pet tortoises called Hector, Daphne and Pandora roam the foliage. Berlin is one half of Fischer. It’s where he raises his young children with his wife, the flutist Gabriella Pivon, and where he’s music director of the city’s Konzerthaus. The other half of him happens in his home town of Budapest, where he remains music director of the remarkable ensemble he co-founded 36 years ago. He doesn’t do much guest conducting nowadays, preferring to focus his energies on long relationships with musicians who ‘get’ the way he works: more on that to come.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra is Fischer’s petri dish. Stage invasions and choral popups are commonplace in this orchestral laboratory. Concerts routinely involve rogue spacing, placing and personnel. A rank-and-file horn player might find herself standing front of stage during a symphony, emphasising some usually-ignored inner line. The audience might end up on beanbags beside the players’ feet for true surround-sound. The whole orchestra might sing an encore rather than play it. The experiments are fun and freeing, and they keep musicians and listeners alert.
For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine November 2019 edition