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Helmchen's Symphony Hall Debut

Martin Helmchen
Giorgia Bertazzi
Martin Helmchen

Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020
8:00 PM

Christoph von Dohnányi leads the BSO in Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with soloist Martin Helmchen, Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the world premiere of Jean-Frédéric Neuburger's BSO-commissioned Aube ("Dawn").

Originally broadcast on Saturday, November 14, 2015

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor
Martin Helmchen, piano

NEUBURGER Aube ("Dawn") (world premiere; BSO commission)
BARTOK Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor"

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Christoph von Dohnányi describes his deep connection to Bartók's music, the unique qualities of Neuburger's compositions, and his collaboration with Martin Helmchen:

Martin Helmchen talks with WCRB's Brian McCreath about his education in a newly unified Germany, his work, with his wife, cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, in Rwanda, and finding his voice in Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto:

See transcript below

Transcript of interview with Christoph von Dohnányi:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB with Christoph von Dohnányi at Symphony Hall. Mr. Dohnányi, thank you so much for a few minutes of your time today.


Christoph von Dohnányi [00:00:07] Sure I'm glad to be here.


BM [00:00:09] The notes for this concert, written by Michael Steinberg, mention that the Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta might be one of those pieces where we can look back on Bartók, and we can look forward in Bartók through this one piece. This program strikes me the same way about Christoph von Dohnányi. We can look back, and we can look forward through what's going on in this program. Bartók's music: I wonder whether it has special relevance for you, given your family's Hungarian background.


CvD [00:00:40] Yes. You know, actually, we had, when we were rather young ... During the war, nobody in Germany played Bartók. So, at least it was not really forbidden, but it was not very, very much liked by the regime in those days, as many things were not liked by these kind of criminals we had as a regime in those days. Anyway, Bartók was, for a while, even a pupil of my grandfather. So my grandfather taught him, and he was teaching piano, so Bartók was a pupil of his, a former student of his. And actually, they were very good friends later. And my grandfather was more on the conservative side, and Bartók was fortunately not on the conservative side. So that's actually what happened. But there is a story that actually Bartók came to my grandfather and said, "I don't know how to go on because I don't know what to compose. There's so much music there." And my grandfather said to him, "Go to Vienna. There's a performance of Zarathustra by Strauss and listen to that." And it really, there were certainly a time where Bartok was very close to the early Strauss and the tone poems and these things. Then, of course, I went to visit my grandfather in the United States, where he taught in Tallahassee, Florida, for a while. And actually, we talked a lot about Bartók and this music, this piece we are doing. It's one of the hardest pieces for the orchestra by Bartók. And actually, the story is that Paul Sacher - this piece was written for the Basel Paul Sacher Chamber Orchestra - and after this, Paul Sacher said, "This is too difficult, and that's really too difficult, and please, I will give you another commission, but please write something easier." And he wrote something that he wrote then the Divertimento, which is a beautiful piece also. But this one is a really tricky piece and it's not done very many times because it meets a lot of rehearsal time.


BM [00:02:56] And I wondered, looking at the rehearsal, about the arrangement of the orchestra, which Bartók was very specific about, where the instruments on the stage should be. And I wondered whether that arrangement makes it, um, is it helping the musicians onstage, or whether it actually might make it more difficult?


CvD [00:03:16] No, it's not. We are not doing exactly the Bartók seating. We are not doing that because I do it, that the piano is right in front of me and that makes it easier for them. You know, you have really the orchestras divided by the pianoforte, which I think is right. And the celesta has to be very close to the pianoforte because the celesta player has also to mingle into the piano playing and then bassi in the sides. So this is my, it's very close to Bartók's, but I changed a little bit because Bartók had the piano in front, you know, so that was more difficult than I think for the ensemble playing. But howsoever it is a wonderful piece and a piece which needs time, but it is a very, very lively, great music.


BM [00:04:07] And it has been a while since the BSO has played it, I think it's been something like at least 10 years or so.


CvD [00:04:11] I guess so. Yeah.


BM [00:04:13] Yeah. Jean-Frederic Neuburger is a composer here for the first time with the BSO, but someone that you've known for a long time. And I wonder what it is about his music that struck you as distinctive when you got to know him.


CvD [00:04:30] You see, we did a concert where he played the piano in Paris, and he played the Fourth Beethoven Concerto in a very special, but for me, very convincing way of the young generation approaching, not doing all these, you know, trying to go back, but trying to know a lot about the past. And I liked it very much how he did this piece. And then I just got to know that he actually also composes. And since he's such a marvelous musician with a great ear and great intelligence, I said to him, "Why don't you play something for me?" He played a piano sonata. Then I got some other pieces he did for chorus and orchestra, and so on. And actually, I liked it very much. So I said, "Let's try where we can do something together." I called Boston, called Tony Fogg, said Tony, "How about having a commission of a 10 minutes piece?" And he said yes. And I said, "Do you have the money for it? It's not so expensive, for sure, he's a young composer." And so then Tony said, yes, and we do it. And there we are.


BM [00:05:42] And when you received the score and you opened it, you began looking at it. Are there elements of this score that you recognize, "Yes, this is the Neuburger that I got to know in that Beethoven concerto."


CvD [00:05:56] Yeah. You know, it's a very sensitive ear he has got. And actually, he's by no means a twelve tone [composer], he's a very atmospheric composer. So he's more, I think, an admirer of Debussy, he's coming from this kind of an influence, with a very sensitive ear and quite a bit of experience already in composing. And a wonderful musician. So what I hear is somebody, it's a very personal language. It is trying not to lose the tradition of the French music without getting into only what we call "Tonmalerei," only, you know, kind of describing sounds, you know, it's of course, Aube is the dawn, you know, it's the morning. It is actually very atmospheric, but not film music.


BM [00:06:56] Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, the tiny bit that I heard, it sounds beautiful, and atmospheric, also very meticulous.


CvD [00:07:05] Absolutely. Yes. He has a great imagination and I think also knows a lot about the instruments. And he really studied orchestration. He really knows how it sounds and he knows if a musician asked him something, he answers, and he has the answers ready, you know, and many times you do a first performance, and you notice the composer does not really know what he wrote down, but this guy really knows what he wrote down.


BM [00:07:34] And I always find it remarkable when someone is as young as Jean-Frederic Neuburger that he is that in touch with the instruments throughout the orchestra.


CvD [00:07:46] Yes. Right. I mean, we are happy if there's some people around, like he is.


BM [00:07:51] The pianist that you have with the Emperor Concerto in the second half, Martin Helmchen, is also someone whom you've worked with a lot and have, I think, is it fair to say that you've been an advocate for him? I wonder what it is you you heard in his playing early on that drew you to be a strong collaborator with him.


CvD [00:08:08] You see, he is a such an honest player. He's really no fake. You know, he's really there. And he does the music and his wonderful intelligence is somehow combined with a strong emotion, emotion in playing and feeling music. But knowing that music is this dialogue as artist, this dialog between head and heart, you know. So it's really one of the, for me, one of the main young artists and young pianists. He's caring about the structure. He's caring about the form, he's caring about the colors. And he's really working very, very hard, and a wonderful talent.


BM [00:08:57] As I mentioned, the program to me feels like the Christoph von Dohnányi who is always looking forward. And yet there are elements of this program that reflect your past. And one thing, I don't know if you're aware of this, I noticed in the program that the Saturday performance, there was a gift made to support the performance in memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I just wonder how that strikes you when you run across an instance like that that connects so strongly to your past.


CvD [00:09:23] I think that's wonderful. I didn't even know that. But that's very wonderful because he was really, by the way, he was a good musician, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, really quite a good musician. He was a very special sight reading pianist. You know, he could really sight read very well and was a musical man. And we did a lot of music together. And so it's wonderful if he's alive and even combined with the music event.


[00:09:57] Christoph von Dohnányi, thank you so much for a few minutes of your time today.


[00:10:00] Thank you so much. It's great to be here. Thank you.

Transcript of interview with Martin Helmchen:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath, I'm at Symphony Hall with Martin Helmchen, who is here with the Boston Symphony to perform the Emperor Concerto by Beethoven. Mr. Helmchen, thank you for your time today.


Martin Helmchen [00:00:09] It's great to be here. Thank you.


BM [00:00:11] You have a long relationship with Christoph von Dohnányi. And I'm interested in how that relationship began. How long have you worked with him?


MH [00:00:18] I think the first time we've worked together must have been about five years ago in Paris with another very good friend of mine who brought us together was Didier de Cotenie who was the manager of Orchestre de Paris. And he's a great matchmaker for young soloists and conductors and for chamber music and everything as well. So he thought we should get to know each other. And that was a very important week in my life because it was the Dvorák Piano Concerto, which I love to play very much, and which I got to know in a recording that Maestro von Dohnányi was conducting with András Schiff. So that was already a very emotional thing, the collaboration. And since then, he has become the most important supporting figure for me that I probably had ever.


BM [00:01:05] Well, I mean, and someone of Maestro Dohnányi's stature would be important to anybody who who he's supporting. But tell me more about why he in particular - I imagine many conductors are very attracted to your playing - but why has he been such an important supporter?


MH [00:01:20] Yeah, but before I had met him, I had people I've collaborated regularly with, of course, and great friends. But he has been the most important one for me to open doors that would have maybe not not opened at least as quickly, and especially for all these big debuts in the US with these phenomenal orchestras and in great places. So I really owe him a lot. And also, on the personal level, I feel that there is a there's something very special in it with somebody who is approaching 90 years by now and still such a young person at heart and in such incredible shape, but has seen most of the last century and this is such a rare thing to be close to somebody that you have so much admiration and respect for. And who has so much greater view of the world and art and humanity and everything, and is at the same time so supportive in such an easy way and fun to work with and spontaneous onstage.


[00:02:28] And then also this old Bonhoeffer connection is particularly important for me because Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my greatest heroes and one of my most admired persons in German history, I'd have to say. So, being so close to somebody who sat on his lap and who is a direct nephew and godson also is, in a way, a little bit unreal for me, but very impressive. And we've been talking a lot about many things that I could talk only with him.


BM [00:03:01] Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I don't know if you were aware of this, that the Saturday night performance, there was a gift given to the BSO in support of the performance in memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


MH [00:03:13] I didn't know that.


BM [00:03:13] Yeah, so it was nice to mention it to Mr. Dohnányi yesterday as well. And I agree that he has this history in his own family and in German culture that's just amazing. So I can understand why his influence would be so important.


[00:03:28] And of course, the musical branch of the family just as much, the Dohnányi branch. So it's a completely unique family. I think not only in Germany.


BM [00:03:41] Yeah, well, you grew up in West Berlin, but then you studied in East Berlin, after the wall came down. And I wonder what that was like, whether there were things that you were surprised at, because that was such a strong divide. What did you find when you began interacting more with those who had been in the East?


MH [00:04:03] Yeah, in my case, I always had lots of ties to the East because, actually, the bigger part of my family was in the East, even at separation times. So we had been going back and forth regularly, which we could living in the West, which the Easterners, of course, could not. But we had that freedom to visit our relatives as often as we can, both the siblings of my father and more direct relatives of my father's side and my grandmother's side in different places. But they were both living in either Brandenberg or Saxony, so the former GDR states. So I had been in touch, but still it was extremely exciting after the wall came down because that school that I went to was a very Socialist concept. It was one of the things that survived after the wall came down, modeled after these Russian special schools for music and sports, where as a school kid, you are already something like a student and you have the musical subjects together with the general subjects in the same house and in the same time schedule. So no separation between mathematics, chemistry, English, and music theory, orchestra playing, sight reading, all these things. So that was the type of school that we didn't have in the West and extremely precious for me. So I owe a lot, most of my early musical education to this very school.


[00:05:37] And then, as so much of the cultural heritage of Germany lies in the Eastern states like Saxony, I would have missed a lot if the separation had gone on, and I would not have had these opportunities to perform and study naturally in these places like Dresden and Leipzig and Weimar, where it's a kind of core region of German culture and I mean not only in music, but also in all kinds of other fields of art.


BM [00:06:08] Well, so the kind of education you had, it sounds like music was just interwoven with everything else. And yet now when you look around and you see education systems, I mean, it's sort of a common discussion in this country that music is sort of left to the side. And I wonder what, I mean, I would think, of course, maybe it's obvious that you would want music to be a valued part of an education. But tell me more about the value of it. What is it that music does for a young mind in that setting?


MH [00:06:38] For me, the most striking thing always is that I think holistic is the right word, that intellectual education and emotional education, finding ways to express yourself as an individual and find your voice, your stylistic approach to things, and then in chamber music to learn how to interact with others with the skills that each of you have is to me, such a fundamental human thing that I can't even really think about the question whether it is importance or not, because it is so, so natural.


[00:07:19] And I like this concept from antique time so much that when science started to grow in old Greek times, there was no separation between the science and the arts, that this is a kind of modern concept, that these are supposed to be different fields. People were much less... education, I think, was much less specific. Education meant that you know a lot in every field and that these things are not different worlds, but science and art are interwoven and just part of a human education that is important as a whole.


BM [00:08:05] And yet, one way that you, one of the really big ways that you have taken forward your ideas of education and development, how music helps people is by this project in Rwanda, of all places. What is behind that?


MH [00:08:19] Yeah. The idea started with with my wife, who's a cellist, doing pretty much the same thing as I do, traveling the world with with concerts, who had something like that in mind for a while, and big love and fascination for Africa. And via common friends, somehow we heard about an existing music school in Kigali, in Rwanda, that, which was for us the special thing, was run by local people and not by Westerners, and is teaching African traditional music and Western European classical music in the same building, the same institution. And we found that very fascinating. So Marie's wish, my wife's wish was to be somehow closer to the life-changing, fundamental power that music can have, and not only move in the kind of high art spectrum that we normally are in as performing soloists. So, that seemed a great opportunity to support something where people don't have naturally access to music education, which is pretty much given in the West, which is a great achievement. But for these kids, also young adults, it makes a complete change in their life, whether they've never heard of Bach before or learn how to play Bach pieces. It's just much more fundamental than what we normally deal with here. And it's been an exciting way over a couple of years now to support the school and to see other initiatives in the country grow now, the first little orchestra that also has many, many local people in it. And we try to go as often as we can and play concerts and raise funds and help with knowhow and teach and all these things.


BM [00:10:06] A couple of things fascinate me about this, because one is that Rwanda was, of course, torn apart by this awful, awful civil war. And so, your experience, growing up in a divided country that came together, I wonder if there's a way in which that context helps you to understand what's going on in Rwanda.


MH [00:10:24] I always feel when I'm there that this genocide that they had 20 years ago is so unlike anything else that we've had in Europe in the last 70 years, of course. And so it was so outrageous that I feel strange to even compare my own experience that I have to anything that these few surviving, one will have to say, surviving people have gone through. So it's a fine line sometimes whether we should ever mention things that have to do with the past or not. And I don't really feel that my own background really helps me with that very much. It's a very sensitive thing, but it is a great situation to have people for whom music can be a very deep therapeutic element, and where, as I said, music and contains a life completely and still this political stability that they have. So this is what made this country a great place for us to work, because there's a certain sense of stability and what we can build and what we can support, and still such a deep need in people that is much more desperate in many ways than what we experience over here.


BM [00:11:50] Well, the other thing that fascinates me about this school in Rwanda and your work with it is that African music is absolutely, fundamentally different as a language. It's just built completely differently. And I wonder whether your interaction with that music in some ways stimulates you in unexpected ways with the music you play maybe here in Symphony Hall?


MH [00:12:11] Yeah, absolutely. No, I mean, the fascination for African traditional music is around a lot, not only in in contemporary music like Ligeti and then other composers who have been very interested in African patterns and and styles of music, but, of course, also the incredible influence for jazz and rock music that has shaped so much of what we listen to everyday and we don't really know about it. How many of these roots lie in African music? So that is one very fascinating thing. And but then, of course, the aspect that music is so universal and these different styles that have grown in different ways on different continents still appeal to other people in different ways. So that even people who have never heard a Beethoven piece before, of course, they don't understand many of the factors that also make it great. But they get something off the most important chord that is in the music. And you can see an immediate emotional reaction to a lot of Western music. And of course, with understanding then that deepens a lot of the experience. But there is already something that just vibrates in us as human beings, no matter what style of music we are listening to. And that's a very rewarding experience to see that life in this work.


BM [00:13:46] Yeah, well, and I think many in this part of the world are stunned if they first encounter Indian Raga or African. I mean, they don't understand it at all, they don't understand what might make it great, but they love it and they don't quite know why.


MH [00:13:58] Yeah, that's the effect, yeah.


BM [00:13:59] Well, we should take at least a minute or two to talk about the piece that you're playing, the Emperor Concerto. And you clearly, by virtue of attending the school that you went to early on, you you clearly were really serious about the piano very early on. And I wonder when your sort of first encounter with the Emperor Concerto was, I imagine, through a recording or a performance, whether you remember that at all.


MH [00:14:23] I think that must have been Wilhelm Kemp's recording. I'm almost sure about that, that we had on an old vinyl record of my father's little LP collection. And it was one of these things that just appeared to you right away as a kid. It's one of these pieces - that's why it is so famous - that you just cannot be indifferent to, even if you don't know so much classical music yet and has definitely added to that very early wish of mine to become a professional musician. And so I remember this quite, quite vividly. And sometimes it difficult to get rid of your old impressions because this memory is still so strong of how you got to know a certain piece that it might be difficult to get rid of it if you want to find your own interpretation. But, I've also now played this piece quite a bit. Not as many as some of the other Beethoven concertos, but very regularly over the past eight years, I would say, and it's slowly becoming more and more my own, I feel. Because especially with pieces that you've heard dozens of times from your childhood on, it can be tricky. And you have to very consciously try to make a tabula rasa kind of situation with the score, with the music, and really find what the music is telling you personally and how it's growing from your own stylistic and pianistic background. And that's a lifelong process, which is great.


BM [00:15:59] And is this the first time you've done it with Maestro Dohnányi?


MH [00:16:00] It is, yes.


BM [00:16:02] So, I'm talking to you just after you've rehearsed it for the first time. What do you sense that he is bringing to this that might add to this, this finding your voice?


MH [00:16:12] Yes, it is this fascinating feeling that I always have when we, the two of us, work together that this background - he doesn't need to force things from this background that he has. Things come out so naturally in such a, again, holistic way with his grand personality. And still, having been close to people who know some of the 19th century, knew, at the time, some of the 19th century composers. So he has had encounters and and talks with people who had talked to Brahms. So there's such generous and natural attitude towards this language that just intuitively teaches you a lot as a listener. And, of course, even more as somebody who is blessed to play along.


BM [00:17:07] Yes, "to play along!" [laughs]


[00:17:07] This is your first concert at Symphony Hall, so when you arrive at a place you've never been, how long does it generally take you to feel comfortable in a hall? And is there anything, if you have a chance to play alone in the hall, is there any particular music that you always go to to just see what's going on in the hall?


MH [00:17:30] Not particularly. It is always a magical moment to have a hall and especially a hall like the legendary hall like this for yourself. So I didn't have that yet, but I'll have that tomorrow before the concert. Little time to practice and try to feel the acoustics and the instrument, how it feels onstage. That is always, always a magical moment, just as much as an empty hall after a concert with all the vibrations that still linger. And of course, in that case, it's an awesome moment to arrive in a hall that you've read so much about, seen so many pictures of, heard many recordings that were made here. And then also to see the old shape of the old Leipzig, Gewandhaus is very interesting for me. As I vaguely mentioned before, Saxony feels like a second home area, next to Berlin. And Leipzig is a very important place for me, too. So there's even more with that old connection. So it's very special to arrive here.


BM [00:18:43] That's interesting to me, because you were born and grew up well after the old Gewandhaus was gone. And yet, so it sounds like maybe as you were growing up, that this sort of spiritual presence of that old building remained in Leipzig.


MH [00:18:59] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. This is probably, I don't know, the orchestra where I feel that the heritage and the old tradition is kept alive, both in a natural way, it's just there, and also actively with a lot of care and attention.


BM [00:19:19] The Gewandhaus Orchestra.


[00:19:20] The Gewandhaus Orchestra and the whole, although the old building, I think there were three. I think it's already three.


BM [00:19:26] Yeah. Yeah. Exactly right.


MH [00:19:27] Even though the old ones aren't there anymore, but still the spirit of the probably old buildings one could fairly say, and of the Kapellmeister who they had and the tradition going back to Mendelssohn, you can just grab it with with your hands, you feel, yeah? But you don't have the building anymore and there is something missing, so that's why it was particularly fascinating and emotional to see how this hall looked and to imagine how that would have been in old Leipzig. It's fascinating. And now with this new connection, with the two orchestras, with another one of my great friends, Andris Nelsons, is something extremely inspiring and exciting, I feel.


BM [00:20:17] I am thrilled about it myself. And, you know, there was I've been to Leipzig. So I've seen the new Gewandhaus. But the orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra has played here a few times. One of their visits, a few years ago, I remember stepping out into the hallway during intermission and one of the management of the Gewandhaus, whom I had met before, came running up to me. They were absolutely supercharged with the presence of this hall. It was as though it spoke to them in some way.


MH [00:20:45] Yeah, I can only imagine. And a building is important, yeah? I mean, you don't need it, as Leipzig teaches us, to keep a tradition alive. But buildings do talk a lot. And just by seeing this, there is something that you learn about old Leipzig and what it will have been like and sounded like at the time, that otherwise you wouldn't have. So it's it's a fantastic thing.


BM [00:21:12] Martin Helmchen, it's a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much. And thank you for the time today.


MH [00:21:16] My pleasure. It's great talking to you. Thank you.