This continues the interview with Marc Minkowski.
Sitting in the small backstage dressing room of Salzburg's Grosses Festspielhaus during a rehearsal break, Marc Minkowski and I move on from Bach and his new recording of the B-minor Mass to talk about the vast repertoire for which Minkowski isn’t known to those who only follow his recordings: Bruckner’s “Nullte” Symphony and Wagner’s The Feast of Pentecost (“a very moving and problematic piece, best done in the [Dresden] Frauenkirche”) were on his programs recently; there are plans to do Wagner’s Fairies; he did John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (“one of my favorite pieces”); and volunteers how much he likes performing Gershwin, Bernstein.
Given that Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is successfully doing Brahms and Les Musiciens recently recorded Bizet (see review), I wonder how far into Romantic music the HIP bands can or should advance and what it is they can bring to it that is special. “We’re doing [Stravinsky’s] Pulcinella next year,” chuckles Minkowski. “In some pieces, some combinations of instruments are really magic, and very different to reproduce in the modern symphonic sound. I definitely think there is some interesting work to be done with Brahms, and even with several composers of the 20th century the use of gut strings can be very interesting. In Pulcinella I’m trying to find some instruments that are a little less round and a little less massive than today. If you listen to the disc of Stravinsky, the sound is so razor sharp and so full of life; that’s the sort of thing I try to reproduce. If you have a freelance orchestra that is so good and get some soloist to play some of these pieces, they can be quite wonderful. Or consider Berlioz; there’s an incredible range of colors using old instruments. But for me it is very important that the people are extremely good, that they have time to rehearse and to research what we want to achieve; but certainly a modern excellent symphony orchestra would also do it very well.
“Just recently I’ve done a Haydn symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra and I had a great time. Of course, it’s not the same sound I have with Les Musiciens du Louvre (because we are also recording the complete London Symphonies in some months), but they know their Haydn very well, they have their tradition of playing, and they’re very at ease with it. But many other modern orchestras completely panic when you bring Haydn.” When I tell him that it’s Dennis Russell Davies’s goal to “wrestle Haydn and Mozart back from the clutches of historical performance-practice groups” he empathizes, but says that he prefers to do it if the orchestra has a culture of playing Haydn already. “But being a teacher to an orchestra, that’s too heavy when you have to explain everything. Some of my colleagues can do it well, but it’s not at all my thing. It’s not just a question of time, but also of patience. Sometimes they want to learn, and sometimes they want to but can’t. But generally, yes: no segregation of Haydn.”
On the question of how he motivates an orchestra to perform above its usual standards—his orchestral concert with the Bavarian State Orchestra last season was one such standout event—he can’t think of something special. “It just happens. I am just what I am and I go there to make music in the way I want to do it and people follow me. And most of the time it works. Not always,” he adds laughing.
Will being music director of the Sinfonia Varsovia bring new music to his repertoire and recorded output? “We should practice a little more together before recording, I think, because we need to know each other better, but we are thinking about Gershwin and some other American music, which has worked very well. But also Polish music, of course, like Penderecki and Górecki. We’ll have to see, but something different from Les Musiciens it will be, that’s very important.
“There is something I’d like to say,” he interjects before I get on with my questions. “I am not usually thought of as American, but I actually am half American through my mother and have dual citizenship. My grandmother was the American violinist Edith Wade (a student of George Enescu’s, Carl Flesh, and Fritz Kreisler’s, who made her New York debut at Aeolian Hall in April of 1915). Through her I am actually a descendent of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame). But for some reason, I perform very rarely in the United States—something that will hopefully change in the future, because it’s an important part of me.” So if Peter Gelb called you up, you wouldn’t say no? “No,” Minkowski says, and smiles from ear to ear.
His repertoire choices are not different from his choices of what to record, except that he doesn’t get to record everything he plays in concert, of course. “When I have a very important project, though, it helps to have a recording project like this crazy St. Cecilia project. Haydn, Purcell, and Handel, all of which have anniversaries this year. And then I wait for a lot of repertoire until I am ready to do it. That’s why I waited so long for Mozart—and Beethoven.” Upcoming projects are the Haydn, possibly a Vivaldi program with Nathalie Stutzman, and perhaps some Berlioz. When I ask him if there are still a few composers he feels could be brought out of neglect through his advocacy, he’s ambivalent. “I did a lot for Offenbach, a lot for Rameau, a lot for Handel. Maybe Gershwin,” he adds after a while, “because you always hear the same things, but there are other interesting parts to his output. But really, I would like to record famous pieces now.”