Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Very Intimate Connection. Meeting Jeffrey Tate

by Ewa Gorniak Morgan

Listening to live music is always like a journey: you're going someplace, perhaps a different planet, it may be more or less extravagant, or even unknown, you may be doing it for the pleasure or the emotion, or for pure curiosity, but you must return safely. 

Yet before you do, you're in the hands of your guide, needless to say, the conductor, whom you have to trust. Hopefully, he'll steal your heart en route only to give it back in better shape.

The second conversation in a series of interviews with contemporary masters of the baton; 
after John Axelrod in Naples, I meet with  JEFFREY  TATE in Venice.

When Jeffrey Tate conducts Sibelius's 6th Symphony and Elgar's 7th at La Fenice in mid rainy march the magnificent Venetian theatre is full. The atmosphere is somehow special: it feels like a good friend coming back home, though for a short visit only. 

Mr. Tate, currently Chief Conductor at Hamburger Symphoniker, has a full schedule but likes returning to Venice. His gesture is festive but contained and he gets up only once from his habitual conductor's high chair. When the last notes of each symphony fade into silence he keeps his left hand suspended in the air for a while longer, he lowers it slowly and gently as if he wanted to say “wait, don't move yet” and perhaps give you a pat on the shoulder: “so long, my friend!” Only then, the audience can finally burst into ovation.

Ewa Gorniak Morgan: You started as a coach at the Royal Opera House playing the piano. Could you already imagine the instruments behind each key?

Jeffrey Tate: Maybe not as exact as that but certainly in order to be a useful répétiteur you have to know the sound that you are attempting to reproduce. Obviously a piano can never reproduce the exact sounds of an orchestra. However, in the short time when I was actually studying to become a coach I learned that as a pianist I could make sounds that were very close to what a singer would hear and I became quite known for doing it well. You need to know what your expression is and it also depends on what you're playing. It may be more difficult to reproduce the sounds of a Mozart orchestra, surprisingly, than it is to reproduce the Wagnerian orchestra because the latter means big sound and piano can do that well. It is more difficult to play all those colors that Mozart's strings would have... extremely difficult; I never thought I was particularly good at it.

EGM: Is it the natural turn of events to become a conductor after being a pianist? 

JT: It is the old-fashioned way. Just like in the German system - with a small opera house in every little town - if you wanted to be a conductor you had to start like that. It's a natural process, too: you learn about breathing, about accompanying, and also the daily routine of the theatre. Conducting an opera is more demanding than conducting a symphonic concert, therefore if you can master the art of conducting operas first, then you're ready to conduct symphonies. Just think of Karajan or Bruno Walter, name them all... Until about 20 or 30 years ago all the great names came that way. I never thought that I was going to be a conductor, anyway. I enjoyed being a coach enormously and would have been happy to have stayed one. I felt lucky at Covent Garden working at a very high level from the very beginning with people like Solti, Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Klemperer, Josef Krips – it was quite a reputable list. I learned a lot in a very enjoyable way. What happens today is a bit different because a lot of young musicians who want to be conductors go straight in. Though even Karajan himself would have already encouraged that, I am much more comfortable having gone the old path.

EGM: It brings to mind words of an Italian critic which I overheard on the radio lately: “molto talento poco mestiere” [a lot of talent, little artistry] referring to a young conductor who evidently was promising but didn't have enough experience.

JT: If you are young that's what happens. Age brings “mestiere," that is, experience. It is with age that one becomes aware of the mysteries and hidden corners, while when you're young you're more concerned about making an effect on the audience. I started rather late and am an exception to many rules. Having begun as a medical doctor I didn't go through a conservatory at all. As a conductor I'm self-taught and have learned by doing it. I think that these young talents will attend to mystery if it's in them but I don't expect it of them. Young conductors can do things that I can't do having the sort of energy that I no longer have. What you do learn, actually, is that you can get more with doing less. You don't need as much gesture, as much attacking.... You can produce much more of a better music by simply letting it happen. That's very interesting as a function of getting older. Young conductors interfere too much and then there is no mystery.

EGM: You started with a piano which had to represent the whole orchestra. If orchestra is an instrument how would you describe it? Is it an instrument at all?

JT: It should be. Your function as a conductor is to produce that instrument; it has to be a unity. It is singular thus you are quite right saying “an instrument.” You have to produce singular purpose which will produce the effect of one singular instrument. When you achieve that, then you can start to mould. I like to say that conducting is a little bit like making pottery on a wheel, you actually feel music between your fingers and at a certain stage you can mould the sound.... but one needs to get to that stage first, of course.

EGM: What happens when you add voice to it? What's the relationship between music and words?
JT: It depends very much on the music, you can't generalize. Some things are basically the voice with a musical aura around it, so one has to be discreet. In other instances, the orchestra becomes very relevant, a good example is Strauss, and it's equally important to the voice for the drama. When I'm conducting an opera I always make sure that the voice is in the full front, with the orchestra present but rather subordinate, so that the singer can produce the best sound possible. I'm very angry with conductors who keep the orchestras loud enough to make the singer force the voice, while for that sound to be beautiful it has to be least forced possible. It's fundamental for singing that the voice should speak naturally and freely. It can be very tough to create the balance between the voice and the orchestra but it's possible, even with Wagner. I enjoy that a lot and lay an enormous importance on creating enough room for the voice to speak properly. In fact, you have to do the same thing within the orchestra: the woodwind instruments also need space to produce a beautiful and not a forced sound.

EGM: Do you let the words carry you?

JT: Both music and words are equally important. It's not really a battle in the sense of “prima la musica dopo le parole.” If the words didn't exist the music would be unlikely to exist; they have to be equal. The word influences the way you phrase and the dynamics, it adds color to the voice and carries the meaning. In Italian repertory the direct connection between meaning and melody is less clear than in German one. When you get to Strauss, the melodic line is formed by the way the word is accented. In Italian opera one finds a more generalized approach to meaning which is probably why I've always preferred the German repertory. I greatly enjoy this very intimate connection between word and sound.

EGM: You must be talking about lieder...

JT: I love lieder. If I went on playing the piano, which I never did quite well enough, I would have loved to be an accompanist. The lied is the most pure example of the combination of music and words. If you said: could you live without the orchestra? I probably could. But, could you live without Schubert lieder? I probably couldn't. There is nothing more wonderful than Winterreise

EGM: And Four Last Songs?

JT: The Four Last Songs don't really fall in the category of lieder the way Schubert's songs do. Strauss is a good lieder composer but not a great one, in my opinion. The Four Songs are wonderful because of their total aura in the orchestra sound, in the nostalgia and the extraordinary color that surrounds the voice. That's very, very special. But they do not necessarily explore the meaning as deeply as Schubert or Schumann does. Strauss is a difficult character. He was a man of enormous gift who squandered this gift so often. I love performing Strauss and I feel a great affinity with him. This excessive gift, however, combined with slightly vulgar elements make him immensely human but not exactly a Mozart or a Schubert.

EGM: You once said in a BBC interview that as child you used to sit by the piano and improvise placing a book you were reading on the music stand instead of a score. That is an intimate connection, too.

JT: It's been a long time since I've done that. It's really a personal matter. I've always been interested in drama or, if you like, in what words mean and the emotion connected with words. I was interested in acting which is about how to stress a word to give its full emotional form. As a young man I did quite a lot of it. As a répétiteur I wanted to learn how music affected words. Music is a little bit of a straitjacket for the word. When you produce a play you can choose which words to stress but you can't do it as a conductor because the composer has already done it for you. Your duty is to find out what the composer means in a way that he stresses a word and in the speed that he gives to the sentence where the stress lies. You're a little hampered, but you must discover the truth. That's what intrigues me about producers of operas as opposed to the producers of plays: they're much more constricted because the composer has actually produced it for them. If a new production tries to put an opera in a different light it is quite often against what the composer has made the word in the sentence do. You have to be very careful. People who impress me most are those who can bring a fresh light to bear without distorting what the composer did to the text as such.

EGM: Words endowed by meaning are related to the past while music moves forward and that creates a conflict?

JT: I never thought about that. Words carry a lot of baggage behind then, that's true, but also music does. If you listen to Strauss, Wagner, or Mozart, they carry the baggage of their time as well; it's not related to now but to then and that you can't stop. Don't forget that as a conductor I'm a reproducer, not a creator. I have to look back into what was the composer's mindset when he wrote the music, so, perhaps, I'm always tied to the past. If I were a writer I could give the word the relevance of now. I admit I'm not a great avant-gardist and am very rarely happy with what I'd call a complex modern school; though it's technically interesting to do, it doesn't move me. In that way I'm a conservative, I stopped with Britten, Shostakovich, maybe Henze. I'm a retrospective conductor, I deal with the past.

EGM: Words may change their meaning but emotions don't change...

JT: That is absolutely true and that's why we go on performing. The set-up may seem completely artificial but the emotion involved is alive just as in Così fan tutte. That's why I do it and one has to ask themselves “why?” in this busy world. I'm in a funny business that makes me feel outside of what's happening. I am able to recreate the music of the past and earn my money doing it which is an amazing thing. I feel very privileged.

EGM: But you also like Lutoslawski...

JT: I love Lutoslawski. I actually met him once at a festival where his piece Paroles tissées written for Peter Pears was first performed. I sat next to him and his wife at a fantastic concert of Brahms with Richter and Fischer-Diskau, then we talked. I found him a wonderfully distinguished man and a great person. Lutoslawski's 4th Symphony is one of these pieces that I carry around in my bag with me to perform as often as possible.

EGM: How close is conducting to composing? How much of a composer is in a conductor?

JT: You have to have compositorial insights to conduct well. When I was much younger I tried composing but what came out was a sort of a pale imitation of somebody, it was never the truth. That's the profound difference. The composer has to compose to express himself. Conductors can compose, but listening to the symphonies by Furtwängler or Klemperer you can hear their mind ticking. These are very clever, very musical people who know what it is about but it's not necessary for them. As far as I'm concerned I am a conduit, or a vessel, that tries to reproduce somebody else's thought. I am necessary, so to speak, because if I didn't exist the composer would have a problem. 

EGM: If you found yourself on a desert island and this island were Venice, though of course we know that it's far from being a desert, how would you feel?

JT: I love Venice. It's one of my places. It's so magically different from anywhere else on this planet. This is the way life really should be. This should be the city of the future: we all go on boats, there are no cars, all you hear are human voices, footsteps, you hear a drop of water or someone opening a shutter. If you are aware of sounds as I am, it's a magical place. We all know about the visual side, which is also fantastic, but for me this is the most human place. When I come here I feel extraordinarily alive and correct. If this place can exist then we aren't quite so bad as a human race. I sometimes get very depressed about what we're doing to the planet killing species and ways of life. Venice is an example for us all. I wish we could recreate it in other places but we can't, it's an organic thing. We are lucky that Venice exists and that nobody destroyed it.

EGM: You've returned to play at La Fenice many times.

JT: It means a lot to me. I've been here often and they are good to me. I love being here. It seems the right place for music. This is the city where culture is absolutely central to the way the city thinks and that for me as a musician is a wonderful thing.


Photographs of La Fenice theatre by Michele Crosera, courtesy Teatro La Fenice
Photographs of Jeffrey Tate courtesy Artists Management Zurich 
Painting by Robert Morgan, La Fenice - Watergate, 2013

Special thanks to Ireneusz Janik, Music Library at Academy of Music in Lodz

Ewa Gorniak Morgan can be reached at [email protected]

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