Gary Bertini

Gustav Mahler’s musical work is a complete spiritual world in which all human feelings – striving and failing, hope and despair, joy and sadness, suffering and happiness, weakness and strength, fear

The Conductor's Baton

Gary Bertini

The conductor’s baton does not make music, it is completely silent. The musicians make the music. The baton is but a technical projection of the inner ear and musical imagination of the conductor 

Thoughts on Performing Opera

Gary Bertini

Of all the arts, music is the only one whose recipient, the listening audience, has no way of perceiving it other than through the intervention of a performer. The ability to read music while “hearing” it 

Gary Bertini: Influential Figure in Israeli Musical Life

Martin Anderson

More than any other musician, the conductor Gary Bertini brought Israeli music-making to a standard that could readily bear international comparison. Gary Bertini, conductor: born Brichevo, Romania 

Gary Bertini: In the Musical Cultural Life in Israel

Michal Zmora-Cohen

This book (Hebrew) is a musical biography in the center of which stands Gary Bertini, a pioneer in the Israeli musical scene. Michal Zmora-Cohen initiated, planned, and wrote most of its chapters based 

Rinat: Time for Harvest

Harai Golomb

The meteoric emergence of the Rinat choir in the mid-fifties was undoubtedly a watershed in the history of choral culture in Israel in particular, and of our music life in general. It was a feast of

The Conductor Gary Bertini: A Musical Driving Force

Michal Zmora-Cohen

It is customary in the world of music to distinguish between those who create it and those who perform it. This gives the impression that music makers belong to two separate worlds: one creates 

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Bruce Duffie:    I want to talk about your conducting of opera and symphony, and I understand that you are also a composer?

Gary Bertini:    Not in recent years.  No time for that!  But ask whatever you want.

BD:    I was going to ask if you got enough time to compose, so let us start with your conducting.  You are still Intendant in Frankfurt?

GB:    Yes, I am Intendant and General Music Director of the City of Frankfurt, which means that I am the official Music Director of the opera and the Music Director of the Symphony Series of the City.

BD:    Do you tailor your ideas specifically for that city, or could those ideas work in another city in Germany, or even elsewhere in the world?
GB:    That’s an interesting question.  It’s a combination of my personal tastes or views on programming concerts and opera, but influenced by the City — its social make-up, its public, its specific character — which is very specific. Frankfurt has a very strong character.

BD:    So you tailor to that?

GB:    I don’t play in a certain way, I don’t play to the public.  If the public would like a certain type of music, I’m not certain I would do it.  In a way I’m there because I suit a certain taste of the public there, but obviously I have to adjust my thinking sometimes, or tailor out of my ‘cake’ the part that would suit.  I cannot give them another cake, but out of my cake I can choose the parts which I think they would want to have.

BD:    Is your cake all of music, or is your cake the music that you have selected from the vast array from many periods?

GB:    The word ‘cake’ is so wrong for me because I don’t like deserts!  I don’t eat sweets and I don’t like sweet music.  In a way, I’m not a conductor of sweet music.  I don’t think I’m known for sweet performances.  I would not confuse delicate French flavor with desert at all, I’m speaking of certain type of sound.

BD:    Is it more of a stew then?

GB:    No, I think it has a certain formal clarity to it.  What I see in music is this strong expression.  It has to be dramatic in character, but it has to be formal.  This is why I don’t like all music, but I find interest in music written in different periods of musical history.  But in each period there are specific composers who interest me more than others.

BD:    What is it about a particular composer that says yes, you must conduct him or no, you must let him go?

GB:    [Laughs]  Basically it’s become a gut reaction over the years, a sort of instinctive reaction — do I like this score, do I like this composer — and that’s all.   But post factum if I’m asked why, I cannot explain it to myself, and I see that it fits a certain pattern of my taste and my cultural make-up.

BD:    So what are some of the threads that you have discovered post factum?

GB:    I have discovered a combination of expressivity, expressiveness, very strongly expressive music, written by somebody who is using expressiveness within a clear, though not clearly recognizable, but clear to him formal mold of expression.  It has to have shape, and it has to have strength in that expression.  It can’t be music written just in order to make beautiful sounds.

BD:    What is music more than beautiful sounds?

GB:    Yes, but there are beautiful sounds which carry a message and also carry something else behind it.  It’s beautiful, but I don’t know whether beautiful is just beautiful.  If music was a woman and I was asked what sort of woman I would like, I would say it’s not enough that she would be beautiful.  She shouldn’t be ‘jolie’.  She should be beautiful.

BD:    I see.   You want something behind the facade …

GB:    Yes.  Exactly.

BD:    In presenting newer music, you might not know if there is anything behind the facade.  How do you discover that there is something there?

GB:    Well, we often do make mistakes as conductors.  Everybody does public — conductors, critics, whoever.  But also, if we have a real interest for new music — I do have one, I have always had one — then over the years you develop a certain taste and a certain experience of knowing in reading a score.  Sometimes you find that the scores written in our times work in such a way that it’s very difficult to say immediately what it is.

BD:    They’re harder to decipher?

GB:    Composers in the twentieth-century and especially since world war two have been composing not only new works but new ways of writing the music, including notation which creates new patterns, which the eye has to get used to and know how they will sound.  It was easy to recognize a C major chord.  It’s enough over a thirty-line page of full score if you see the C, E and G, you recognize the pattern of C major.  You know exactly how that sounds.  It’s more difficult when it becomes indefinable atonal chords.  You have to get used them; you have to apply the experience of hearing how this will sound and what it would mean.  What does it express?  Does it have something to say?  Is it a combination of sounds which create a pattern which is recognizable in itself and its expression of strength?  With the years, I’ve discovered that I recognize them more and more.  Sometimes I make mistakes.  The day before yesterday I was reading a score which I received here, which I’m supposed to do the first performance of when I come back from the United States to Europe.  I was so enthusiastic about the score.  It’s so beautiful that I had to write immediately a letter to the composer of the really beautiful score.  So you can read scores of today more or less as we are reading scores of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries.

BD:    Then when you take up a new score, are you ever surprised by what you hear, or do you know exactly what it will sound like?

GB:    No, no.  The surprises are always in store for us.  I don’t think one has many surprises as far as the particular sounds in terms of the height of the notes which are written.  This is very clear.  Sometimes there are surprises in texture, in certain combinations of instruments or voices which are used by certain composers.  You see things on the page that you think should sound familiar or unfamiliar, but you can imagine it should be a very interesting sound.  But surprises are always in store for us.  My  main teacher in composition was Arthur Honegger, and he used to say that the most frightening experiences for the composer to sit at the first rehearsal of  the new piece which he had written and discover so many surprises which he didn’t expect — some good and some not so good!

BD:    And then he has to fix it up a little bit?

GB:    Yes, or he learns for the next work!  [Laughs]

BD:    Where is music going these days?

GB:    Hmmm…  I don’t know.  It’s very difficult to know.  There are trends and things in the air in every generation and in every period.  There are influences from all sides but we are in a period in the twentieth century which has opened up the fountains of creativity  and freedom of creativity.  You couldn’t write parallel fifths a hundred years ago.  It wasn’t accepted by the masters of music, but now in our times you can write anything in formal terms.  I don’t know why.

* * * * *

BD:    You’re working with new music and you’re working with old music, and you’re running the music of cities and guest conducting all the time.  How do you divide your time amongst all of this?

GB:    It depends on the year.  Until two years ago it was thirty per cent opera and seventy per cent concerts, and in the last two years it has become about half and half.  I’m doing much more opera now that I am Intendant of an opera.  I had decided not to do much guest conducting of opera, but I have been doing at least one production a season somewhere else.  Last year it was Scala and this year it is Chicago, so it happens somehow.

BD:    I would think that going to a new opera house would refresh you.

GB:    Yes, it does in a certain way, certainly.  You see different people and work with different musicians.  It’s an interesting experience.

BD:    It keeps your mind honed!

GB:    Yes.

BD:    When you are selecting repertoire for the opera houses, how do you decide which ones you will conduct and which one you’ll assign to other conductors?

GB:    Again, it’s a matter of taste.  First of all, music has to be that way and that way for me to like it, but finally it is something very subjective.  Sometimes I appreciate very much intellectually as a musician a certain work, be it an opera or a concert work, but I don’t feel personally taken by it or touched to it.  Ten or fifteen years ago I would have taken such pieces if I thought they were good simply for that reason, but as the years are passing, I choose more and more what I really can identify with very much inside myself, and especially with opera.  We make a plan and then I say this and that I would like to do, and this and that I will not do.  Then among the works or offers, I will say I’m not doing that.  Sometimes my colleagues and my friends and associates will convince me to do one of them because they think this is exactly a piece that they need me for because of certain reasons, and so I do it.  It’s a combination of both.

BD:    I hope that there are sometimes you will feel you are very glad you were talked into that!

GB:    Yes, there is actually such a piece this year.

BD:    When you come to a concert or an opera and you rehearse, is all your work done in the rehearsal or is something left for the night of the performance?

GB:    Oh yes, very much so.  The rehearsals are there to create a very clear technical, musical, professional basis for the performance to take place the way you want it, and to communicate with the musicians or the singers in such a way that there is an understanding of those sides of what we’re doing and how we are doing it.  But then there are miraculous and mysterious things that happen on the night, and if nothing more than just the rehearsal result would happen, then the music would be lacking in something very valuable, probably having to do with the soul of music.

BD:    Does something miraculous ever happen in rehearsal, or does the miracle only happen when there’s an audience?

GB:    No, it happens in rehearsals sometimes, too, but the rehearsal is almost never just a run-through.

BD:    Even a dress rehearsal?

GB:    A dress rehearsal, yes.  The dress rehearsal is sometimes better than a performance.  But like all artists, we have our own little superstitions.  We don’t like general rehearsals to be perfect because we’ve got perhaps to have something left for the performance.

BD:    In the case of the opera, you do the same piece maybe seven or eight times.  How do you keep the interest and the excitement level up on the second and the fifth, and the last performance?

GB:    Oh, believe me, it is harder for us.  You cannot allow yourself to let your guard down on the second, third, seventh and eighth performance, because it is so complex.  Even in a concert, any night something can happen.   This is the major difference between human beings performing live every night and the recording which will play on the gramophone or CD disc.  The recording is exactly the same every time as when you play it the first time.  We are human beings, and our failures and our mood and our exact concentration and the corresponding concentration of your partners to the performers, singers on stage, the orchestra, the pit will vary.  Every musician, every chorus member, everyone is playing an important part, and the result is complex.  It is the essence of what happened to those one hundred, two hundred people together in that particular instance, and as such can never be repeated.  They can be beautiful both today and tomorrow, but in a different way.  It’s not exactly a hundred per cent the same.

BD:    How do you bring that kind of intensity then to the recording which will be repeated identically every single time?

GB:    It is a problem. I can promise you it is a very, very big problem. I don’t want to remember names, but I’m certain there are conductors or pianists or singers who are exciting in a different way on stage, and their recordings are actually different. It’s a problem, especially as long as the record is not representing a live performance. It is just like photography. You are to have a photo of yourself, and usually it represents one instance of your life. Every time you see that, the photo doesn’t change but you have changed in the meantime.

BD:    Hopefully you have changed?

GB:    Hopefully or not… well, hopefully. Change is always for the good we think, we hope, but the photograph is representing its perfection in perfection of something very much alive. It was one of us alive in a certain instant. The record is not a synthetic in the sense that it’s not true. It represents truth, but in a way which doesn’t represent instant truth but the bigger moment. It represents the period of life in which this record has been made. This is why certain recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, for instance, which he made at the age of 40 and then at the age of 60 and then at the age of 80, are completely different. They represent Rubinstein not on the evening of that performance but the result of his thoughts and feelings around that period of his life.

BD:    A studio recording might have been assembled from a number of different takes. Does that make it a fraud?

GB:    It’s not a fraud at all. It’s different takes of the same person in the same period at the same time of his life, which means it was within a week or whatever. It’s not over a long period, but it’s an expression of truth. It’s not a fraud at all. At the same time it doesn’t have the spontaneity and the excitement of the one unique instant. So maybe it’s the greater truth or the life truth, I don’t know.

BD:    In an opera performance, do you feel that some of the audience are coming to see if that high C is going to be exactly in tune or not?

GB:    The real opera lovers are fanatics about that kind of thing. In certain countries I know it very well. In Italy and Germany where I conduct very often, they really come to hear the same performers six or seven times and they will compare the way a certain note — not only the high C — has come out on that evening and how that was done, and so on. The beautiful thing of really great artists is that it’s never exactly the same or technically can be perfect both times or three times or four times, but it will be different. It has in a different way of sounding. The note is delivered in a certain way and has a release, and so on.

BD:    Even if the delivery is the same, how much is different because the member of the audience is different each time?

GB:    Maybe, probably! Do we know how anybody hears really? After all the scientific knowledge we have of how we hear, what do we hear, and so on and so on, when I ask someone how they like that voice, they will say they find it terrible or they find it fantastic or it’s beautiful. Then if I ask why they don’t like that voice, they try to explain to me this and that, and finally I don’t know how they hear it. Only in my brain knows what I hear, and I cannot tell whether I tell hear it the same way — even if both of us will hear the same page. We both hear the C natural and it’s a C natural, but…

BD:    And you both hear a certain color?

GB:    Maybe a certain loudness, yes. But for example, let’s take loudness. We will both hear that it is loud or it’s soft, but whether your brain registers exactly the same number of decibel vibrations is unknown. We hear the same number of decibels, but is it for you in your feelings in your inner ear, louder than for me, or exactly the same loudness? This means how sensitive your inner ear is — not musically. I’m just thinking simply in pure terms of loudness or softness. It is the same about color, not just big sound. The color of that voice is inside, but what it is I don’t know. Do we see exactly the same color outside? I don’t know. We both call it blue because we know it that way, but whether it is the same to each of us is unknown.

BD:    And then of course we do not know how much I’m wrapped up in it, and how much you’re wrapped up in it. We allow some of it to penetrate ourselves.

GB:    Certainly, certainly.

BD:    Is there anything you can do to help penetrate more senses of the people behind you on any given night?

GB:    [Chuckles] I would love to. If I knew I could, I would be very proud and very happy because this is the point of the exercise. This is exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make music in such a way that the people behind us — or in front of us — feel everything that we’re trying to make them hear. All our efforts are made towards transmitting and communicating with the public, with the people, with the listeners, with the music lovers, with human beings because they need music. Every human being needs it, and we’re trying to transmit to communicate with them, and give them something of that magnificent world of music. If I thought nobody there out there is moved or reacts to it at all, I would be very, very miserable. What would I be doing it for?

BD:    Obviously they’re moved because at the end you get the applause.

GB:    The point is to know that at that particular moment, when there is this modulation, that thing happening, and I go mad because it’s so beautiful. I must believe that there is someone there who feels the same way about it.

BD:    Do you not feel them in your back as you’re conducting?

GB:    [Matter-of-factly] I don’t, I don’t.

BD:    Are audiences different from city to city or country to country?

GB:    Oh yes, certainly.

BD:    Do you then mold things a little bit for them?

GB:    No, no, definitely not.

BD:    The music is the music is the music?

GB:    The music is the music is the music, and we carry ourselves around when we go from city to city.

* * * * *

BD:    When you conduct a different orchestra, do you try to mold that orchestra to your taste, or do you try to bring out what that orchestra can give?

GB:    It’s a combination. Every one of us musicians brings himself into the game and into the play, and the musicians with whom we work are very dedicated. One recognizes the definite personality of the group of musicians who you are with, and the individual musicians. Then you try to think about the work and the way to mold it so that what you feel to be the best of the musicians in front of you can come to the fore and grow into a performance.

BD:    Do you ever find a group of musicians that are so good that you can actually plum all of the depths of any piece of music?

GB:    This is not only a matter of the quality of musicians of an orchestra. It has many other things, including the time allowed for rehearsal, the possibility in certain circumstances to change habits within a short period of time, to create a completely new approach or not. Then is there is the thing which is essential to know, and it is that the really great works of art have unknown depth. It is like the ocean. Even when I’ve been performing, say, Mozart now for thirty years, there are works that I’ve performed again and again and again and again, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to come to the end of discovery and uncovering and bringing everything there is in a work of Mozart, or Beethoven for that matter.

BD:    Is this what makes it great — that there so much depth?

GB:    Yes, definitely. It is not just beautiful sounds. It is beautiful, but that’s just the beginning.

BD:    So the beautiful sound is the point of departure, not the point of arrival?

GB:    I would say so. In order to make it sound beautiful, it’s already a lot of work and not every musician can do it. Not every violinist will make a beautiful sound, or not every pianist, not every conductor, not every orchestra in general, not every singer. But you’re right!

BD:    Working on the level you work, I assume that there is a certain amount of competence and beauty that must be there.

GB:    Absolutely.

BD:    Then you take off and interpret?

GB:    Yes, yes.

BD:    How do performances by other conductors affect your performance, or do you just study the score within yourself?

GB:    No, I hear other conductors perform. I’ve listened to records, not only of my colleagues of today, but especially our masters of the previous generations. It is very interesting to see what other musicians discover or do in a piece, even if you do differently. To a certain point, obviously when I study a score for myself, I just study it and that’s all. Then I have a certain view, and it’s very interesting. I’ve been able to listen to other performances of pieces I am performing — or recording for that matter — and discover beautiful performances, but I cannot identify with it. I have my own inner pace, let’s call it inner breath which I have simply to follow. There is a famous story and I don’t remember who was the first to say it. A young conductor performing a piece before his teacher was asked, “Why do you do that so slow here, so fast here and make this transition like that, and so on? That’s not good.” The young conductor asked, “How can it not be good? I listened to a recording of Furtwängler and that’s exactly what he does.” The reply of the master was a very simple one, “But that was Furtwängler, that’s not you!” [Both laugh] There is a misunderstanding. As the old Jewish saying, “What is permitted to the Rabbi is not permitted to the simple people!” It’s not a social difference. It hasn’t to do with the fact that the great Furtwängler has the right to do anything and the young conductor does not have that right. It has to do with the fact it is Furtwängler, which means it expresses him and it is his natural pace. When you try to imitate it, it’s not natural. It’s simply something affected, and a pale imitation.

BD:    So that is where Furtwängler arrived, and you must arrive wherever you arrive?

GB:    You will arrive wherever you will arrive! You don’t have to arrive at imitating Furtwängler to perfection. You have to learn from what he does — what can be done and way it can be done — in order to develop your own view and your own natural way.

BD:    Some of these works you’ve conducted for a long time. Has your idea toward any one of these pieces changed a little or a lot over the years?

GB:    Some of it a little, and some of it a lot, yes. Some of it not very much, but a little, yes. It depends on the work.

BD:    Can we assume that every time you come to a new performance, even a familiar work, you go with a clean score?

GB:    Yes, but the interesting thing is that I can take the same score but I will not do the same thing. When I come to a new performance — not in the same year, but a few years later — of a work which I’ve done, even if I’ve recorded it, I don’t listen to the recording. I cannot. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes I take my own recording and I listen to it once and then just leave it, but I don’t even want to hear it. I just want to know I will react again.

BD:    Is it you that’s grown, or is it society that’s changed over these years.

GB:    I think both. I am part of society too. [Both laugh] I’m not simply someone standing on the mountain tower outside of the world! I’m also the world.

BD:    You’re bringing to the public works that have been written fifty, a hundred, two hundred years, or even three hundred years previously. How do we keep the message coming, or is it even the same message or a different message that the public in the 1990s is getting from a work two hundred or three hundred years old?

GB:    The basic human message is the same. It’s very interesting. One talks a lot about the basic human feelings, emotions, needs, and they are things which have not changed. The passions and emotions which moved people in ancient Greece or in Renaissance times, or the Classical or Baroque era, are today the same feelings. Human beings are hurt, are happy, are unhappy; they strive for happiness, strive for better things in life. And when I say ‘better things’, I’m not speaking only about material things. There is a need for a feeling for achievement, and to achieve your own life.

BD:    Better understanding?

GB:    Better understanding with other human beings, acceptance, love, hate, and so on, envy, fight against evil within other human beings, or the evil in ourselves. This has always been, and music expresses some of those things. It does basically express most of those things.

BD:    When you’re on the podium do you feel you are a little part rabbi?

GB:    Yes, I certainly am! [Both laugh] But I feel like someone who has been given the gift, or the privilege to be able to bring to life an enormous mystery. Music is one of the most specifically human creative things because only man could have created music. It is the only thing which man has created out of nothing in the sense that it’s an art which is totally nonexistent in nature. I know we speak about imitating the birds and cries and so on, but that’s an extremely remote thing. Music is a completely, entirely human creation, and it has been created probably because of human beings need transmit a complexity of emotions and thoughts and feelings, and to communicate on a level which all other languages which we use cannot do.

* * * * *

BD:    Coming back to the opera house, let me ask the ‘capriccio’ question. Where is the balance between the music and the drama?

GB:    Music is drama first of all. But if you ask me between music and the words, then I will say that the words are the vehicles on which the music propels the inner meaning. So it’s very difficult to separate them. As an example, I am very identified with Mahler for the last ten years. I am because I feel extremely strongly for that music, and Mahler was himself an opera Intendant. He was an Opera Director. He conducted operas most of his life, probably more than concerts in terms of number of performances, certainly. However, he hasn’t written a single opera. The only opera in which he has a part is Die Drei Pintos, which is originally a Weber composition that was developed, finished and orchestrated by Mahler when he was a young man.

BD:    He took it and put it together!

GB:    He put it together, yes. I’ve performed this work, and I think the only recording existing is mine.

BD:    Is that at all Mahler, or is it really just Weber being finished?

GB:    No, no, it’s Weber with a lot of Mahler to it. Many pieces were pure Mahler, but what I wanted to say is that Mahler has never written an opera. He has written Lieder in which he uses text and music. It was probably the greatest Lieder writing since Schubert and Schumann. And he has written symphonies, so his major works in which his drama is being put on stage, so to speak, are symphonies.

BD:    You don’t feel that Das Lied von der Erde is opera?

GB:    No, no, but his Lieder are very small operatic, dramatic happenings. The Lied von der Erde is the big form of that, and the symphonies are enormous, dramatic scenic creations in which no words, no stage is necessary. It is the music which puts in front of us a tragedy, a drama and creates a cosmos, a cosmic picture of human tragedy of a human being.

BD:    Half of his symphonies do demand words.

GB:    Yes, but this is the classical example of the words, the vehicle where the music carries the drama, or the meaning of it.

BD:    Have you recorded some Mahler?

GB:    Yes, I’m in the middle of recording a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies for EMI, which is Angel in the United States and Toshiba in Japan. I’m told my recordings sell extremely well in Japan.

BD:    Is there any account for that?

GB:    Yes. I’ve been conducting in Japan for ten years, and then slowly the public has built sort of a fan base. There’s even a fan club on my name in Tokyo, and they asked me back many times to do Mahler symphonies. I’m actually going out in November with my orchestra, which is the West German Radio Orchestra of Cologne. I’m going to Japan for two weeks to play three Mahler symphonies, and three months later again to play another three Mahler symphonies, and six months later again. So within twelve months we’re playing in Tokyo and Osaka the whole Mahler cycle repeatedly.

BD:    Will you do the Tenth also?

GB:    Yes, everything and Lied von der Erde. Symphonies 1 – 10, but not the completed tenth, the original fragment, the Adagio.

BD:    Why not the completion of that work?

GB:    I feel extremely awkward about that. I think that Derek Cooke did a marvelous job. I admire it very much, but I have an almost mystical feeling that whatever is left it meant to be so. We don’t know exactly what he would have done had he completed it. There were even some experiments made in other completions, including about fifteen years ago in England someone completed the Schubert Unfinished Symphony.

BD:    What about the Mahler symphony with the extra movement that is usually left out?

GB:    The Blumine? No, this I don’t do because I think that the composer, when he was alive, had the right to decide what he feels was right for his work.

BD:    Perhaps on a recording should you maybe put that in as an anhang?

GB:    [Thinks a moment] Maybe. I’m not very convinced that this should be done. Many composers have written movements or fragments which they’ve decided to leave out, and I feel they knew best for themselves, whatever our judgment is.

BD:    Do composers really know their works best in every detail?

GB:    That’s a different thing. Paying attention to the public can be very important, and we know that many composers do react to this. This is not to speak of Bruckner, because he made revised versions because the public didn’t react. His friends wrote to him about this or that, and again, he had the right to make changes. It’s his privilege and right to then to react to reactions and do something about it. But some composers sit and don’t do anything about it. That’s it! That is the way it should be.

BD:    What advice do you have for a composer writing today?

GB:    I think he has to be truthful to himself.

BD:    What advice do you have for young conductors coming along?

GB:    Again, to be truthful to themselves first of all, which means to really make sure that they don’t do too much too quickly because it’s very difficult. They must really know at least as much as the musicians whom they pretend to lead.

BD:    [Somewhat shocked] “Pretend to lead”???

GB:    All of us pretend to be able to lead a group of musicians. When there is a young man, if he’s extremely gifted, will command respect of his fellow musicians, and then it’s wonderful. But in order to command that respect, he has to have integrity, knowledge, talent and a certain type of modesty — not modesty in the sense of weakness, but modesty in terms of knowing that those people see how he is conducting. They are musicians who know a lot and have spent many, many years playing their instruments and making music. It’s a long way, and to go, and that is one of the differences. Conducting doesn’t come quickly, because when you finish studying that’s when you start conducting, and then all you do is start actually learning to be a conductor!

BD:    So you really learn by doing it?

GB:    Yes. You have to know an enormous amount of things before you start doing it, and then you learn by doing, and you discover all the other aspects of conducting.

BD:    I assume you still discover things every day?

GB:    I do. I continue to learn every day.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences?

GB:    To really love music, and to try and discover the beauty behind just the face.

BD:    It seems that here in America we are getting more and more people for classical music, though it might be a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population.

GB:    Yes. I don’t conduct enough in the United States in order to make a judgment, but I sort of feel that. I know that there are a lot of young people in Europe — in France and Italy and Britain and Germany — coming more and more to concerts. The public for symphonic concerts has not diminished, and for opera not at all. Although I would say still a majority of the public are people of adult age. The young people, however, are seen everywhere in concerts.

BD:    We are replenishing?

GB:    We are replenishing, yes. I don’t believe that music — classical music I mean — will ever lose its place in society. It has an important role in society, and every society, whatever the percentage is that follows regularly, will need it and want it.

BD:    Should we try and go after a bigger and bigger public — even the public that attends sports or rock concerts?

GB:    I don’t think we should create a barrier. We should fight against a clear separation of those who go to rock concerts or to sports, and those who go to classical music. One can go to sports and go to classical music. Some young people have the ability to like popular music or jazz or rock of quality — which is just a repeated arithmetical pattern which brings in a certain type of excitement which they feel is different — and at the same time love classical music.

* * * * *

BD:    Is conducting fun?

GB:    Oh, yes! I don’t think it’s fun like eating a pancake — if one loves a pancake — but it is certainly a joy. It gives great joy. It’s fun, and joy if it’s good. Sometimes it’s torture, but then isn’t everything that is worth something?

BD:    Are there certain recordings that you’ve made with which you’re particularly pleased?

GB:    [With mock horror] Oh, that’s a terrible question! I’m never pleased.

BD:    You’re not pleased at all???

GB:    No, I’m never pleased completely. I can tell you that at the moment I’ve listened to the sample copy of a recent recording and I was extremely happy with it. Two months ago I listened to the completed edited master tape of another, and that was a moment of happiness. Certain passages in it gave me a lot of happiness.

BD:    Have you made some opera recordings beside the Weber/Mahler?

GB:    I didn’t want to record opera until now. Besides Die Drei Pintos, I have recorded a short opera by Donizetti, Il Campanello. But that’s all in opera. I don’t know yet if I’m going to do more. I want to look for the right conditions to do that. Until now I haven’t been able to separate between the necessity of the stage of the dramatic event of opera and putting it on disc. I was asking myself how one can bring that dramatic moment, which is a fusion of musical performance, singing and the visual aspect, which is extremely important and very strong. The drama, the acting, the designers, the costume, the lighting… But I will be changing my mind. I’m in the process of changing my mind about it.

BD:    Perhaps you will be doing some videos?

GB:    Maybe, yes, that’s one of the things.

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago?

GB:    Oh, it’s much too soon to say! I like very much the people here. I’ve had a marvelous contact but I don’t know yet what my plans will be for the next years. I am so full. For the last few years I have been coming every year once to the States for a shorter period. But what will happen in the future, we’ll have to see.

BD:    Do you find it is easy to say no to an offer?

GB:    If you like the people or if the offer is attractive in some way musically and human, then you have the greatest difficulty in saying no. This is why I prefer that my representative, my agent should say no when he knows I cannot, so that I don’t have to confront that situation.

BD:    Singers have to allow time to rest to make sure their instruments are in good shape. Do conductors need that same kind of rest or a different kind of rest?

GB:    We think we don’t but eventually we do. It is not the same kind of rest because we don’t use such an important and delicate part of ourselves like the human voice in order to perform. But basically we need rest. We need rest not only physically. We need to rest our mind, and our spirit needs rest in order to be fresh and able to tackle the enormous task.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago, and thank you for chatting with me. I appreciate it.

GB:    Thank you.



© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his apartment in Chicago on September 12, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week, and again in 1992 and 1997. 

Original publication

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