Translation of radio interview with Leon Botstein,
Music Director and Principal Conductor, American Symphony Orchestra; and
Conductor Laureate, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra /Chairman, CEU Board of Trustees
Media outlet: Hungarian National Radio’s Bartók Channel
Program: “Új zenei újság” (“New Musical Journal”)
Date: June 19, 2011
Interviewer: Szilvia Bece
Critique by: Kristof Csengery
Leon Botstein conducted the orchestra of Concerto Budapest. Szilvia Bece interviewed the famous conductor.
You arrived to Hungary with a beautiful program. The audience can expect an evening full of emotions. Les Preludes by Liszt expresses ideals, emotions, and struggles to its listeners. The Ideals strengthens the feeling of commitment. Were these two pieces juxtaposed because of their emotional power?
The Hungarian audience knows well that Liszt wrote several symphonic poems. He was a great innovator, an extremely original musical mind who had the capacity to tell wonderfully exciting stories in a musical form, of course, using these ideas. Let me put it this way: His pieces are like mental movies. They create a definite picture in us. Les Preludes is one of the most perfect examples of musical storytelling. I can only say that it is simply perfect and beautiful. The spiritual drama is expressed by the other piece, Ideals, which was inspired by Schiller’s poem. There were not many others who could capture poetry nicer in music than this. Schiller’s poem connects Liszt and Mahler, since Mahler also took to this poem a great deal. Mahler premiered his first symphony in Budapest. As we know, he was the director of Budapest Opera House at this time. He conducted symphonic concerts also in the Hungarian capital and he performed both Les Preludes and the Ideals. Mahler admittedly studied Liszt’s symphonic poems deeply and used what he had learned from them consciously in his own works.
The audience of the first performance, however, did not welcome Mahler’s first symphony with great enthusiasm.
This is true, but people should not think of music history through the eyes of the critics. They only had, and have, one goal—selling themselves. The reason why Mahler’s piece was dismissed at first is that it was quite a radical symphony. Musicians know that audiences of music can be rather conservative. Interestingly, our attitude toward going to the cinema is completely different. We are able to accept and appreciate a film made with new and unfamiliar technology much easier than a piece of music.
The Hungarian audience is perhaps open enough already to Mahler’s pieces. But what is your experience in other countries? Is Mahler still too monumental? Is he still too difficult to understand?
As to Mahler today, I think he is overplayed. What is fresh and new about the symphonies and the songs by today has in a way been overexposed. In other words, it is like a photograph that has seen too much sunlight and gets a little faded. However, we should be able to understand again this composer who portrays infinite emotions and powerful forces—one who, like Liszt—handled the orchestra brilliantly.
Now over to our critic, Kristof Csengery.
Central European University, by its popular name, CEU, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Among the events organized for this illustrious occasion, was a concert in Budapest. Who should perform at such an event? An excellent orchestra is needed. CEU found this in Andras Keller’s orchestra, Concerto Budapest. So far, there is nothing extraordinary in this. However, it is more than striking to note the conductor of the concert. The American Leon Botstein, who was born in Switzerland, is not merely one of the important leaders of CEU. But with his work, career, and—moreover—with his whole personality, he symbolizes something that transcended the importance of this evening: theory and practice, science and art. Botstein, 65 this year, is a music scholar, editor of the prestigious international journal, Musical Quarterly, rector of the American Bard College since 1975, author of books and articles, a conductor committed to rarities, and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, all in one person. This is not the first time he visited the Hungarian capital.
I heard him conduct just a decade ago, in the spring of 2011, at the forefront of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, with a program matching his artistic philosophy, consisting of rarities including Szymanowski’s Concert Overture and Dohnanyi’s Symphony in D Minor. Botstein’s performance this year elegantly connected CEU’s 20th anniversary with two other anniversaries: the bicentenary of Franz Liszt’s birth and the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. In the first part of the concert, two symphonic poems of the Hungarian composer, Les Preludes and the Ideals, were performed. In the second part, Mahler’s first symphony was presented. The concert took place in the National Theater. It is a pleasant and elegant location for a representative, festive evening. However, since the acoustics of a play theater is different from that of concert halls, the choice of venue also raised certain problems. Partly because of its smaller size and the soft materials used for its interior, the National Theater has blunt and dry acoustics, which interfere with the full resonance of a big symphony orchestra, reducing the effect of the performance of both Liszt’s and Mahler’s pieces.
How can one make a virtue out of these disadvantageous features? It is not a coincidence that Botstein is an intellectual conductor. He knew the answer. Under his command, in the two Liszt symphonic poems, mainly the layers of the sound and the subtlety of the chamber like instrumentation prevailed, sensitive inflation of the notes had a role as well, and careful articulation of melodies became important. That is, the conductor adapted to the circumstances and his flexibility brought values to the surface which we rarely notice in these pieces. Otherwise, Botstein conducts without a baton and without any show elements, but with simple, manual means—but very precisely and carefully. It is hardly surprising that one of the greatest virtues of this style of conducting is an analytic approach. Among the two Liszt symphonic poems, the dramatic structure of Les Preludes is more conventional, and thus it is easier to get across. But quite laudably, the conductor was able to revive the beauty of the more complex structure of the Ideals, inspired by Schiller’s poem. And to top it all, those who followed the text of the poem—projected in English for the foreigners in the audience—could notice how elaborately Liszt’s music illustrates Schiller’s sublime thoughts, which were so well-suited for this occasion.
Human sensory organs can adapt to unfavorable circumstances with time. In the second part, the dry, blunt acoustics of the hall were greeted as a familiar feature and obviously, this is partly why Mahler’s first symphony was effective and lively. Concerto Budapest, though not always perfect, played confidently, devotedly, and with musical inspiration throughout. The lyrical trumpet solo in the Blumine movement, which was left out from the final version of the symphony, was beautiful. The strings sounded with exuberance in the first and last movements, the horns clanged, and in the scherzo Botstein created sarcastic moments with the help of harsh tones and strong contrast. In the famous “Frere Jacques” march, clumsiness and the klezmer sound—augmented by the squawk of the clarinets—sounded as authentic as the unworldly nostalgic home poetry of the middle part. In “Auf der Strasse Stand ein Lindenbaum” the high-pitched violins sounded ethereal. We could hear a gradually ascending performance that became richer and hotter every minute. So we did not marvel that Leon Botstein, this music scholar who seemed dry rather than passionate at the beginning of the concert, reached the last chords of Mahler’s first symphony with a huge passion and zest, fully capturing the pathos of Mahlerian catharsis.
Out of the three channels the Hungarian National Radio operates, the Bartók Channel broadcasts classical music and culture. “Új zenei újság” is a weekly Sunday morning program, with the participation of renowned Hungarian music critics. A musical event is chosen every week to report about: interviews are conducted, critiques are given, and a short part of the chosen concert is broadcast within the program.