Liszt, Chin, and Schumann with Masur

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ken-David Masur leads Schumann's Symphony No. 3, the "Rhenish," as well as the American premiere of Unsuk Chin's Mannequin and Liszt's Totentanz, with piano soloist Louie Lortie.

Originally broadcast on November 7, 2015

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Ken-David Masur, conductor
Louis Lortie, piano

LISZT Totentanz, for piano and orchestra
CHIN Mannequin (American premiere; BSO co-commission)
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish"

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Ken-David Masur previews the program with WCRB's Brian McCreath:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB and I'm with Ken-David Masur here at Symphony Hall. Ken, thank you for a few minutes of your time today.


Ken-David Masur [00:00:07] Oh, my pleasure.


BM [00:00:09] The first piece on this week's Boston Symphony program is "Totentanz" by Franz Liszt. And I just wonder, first of all, whether Louis Lortie is someone that you have had experience working with before.


K-DM [00:00:19] We have not worked together. However, I've met him many times. I went to his concerts and, you know, never heard him actually do Liszt, which I know he he loves doing. So I was very happy when I found out that we're going to be collaborating together. So I very much look forward because we have known each other. And the last time I think that I saw him, he he was not a conductor yet, so now there's going to be the pianist-conductor, you know, if something happens, he could probably stand up.


[00:00:57] But he's going to be very busy, of course, playing this piece, which is, you know, such a Liszt piece, if you can say that, in that, of course, you know, he's [Liszt] played it probably in many different versions during his lifetime. And then we have several. And then this one with orchestra. And he took it extremely seriously. You know, we might be looking at it as this showpiece. But, of course, he, in his own way, grappled with death and things like that. And while we could look at him as sort of the Paganini of the piano, dealing with the Dies irae and other death themes, the "Totentanz" was something that he was very serious about musically and expressively speaking. So it's not just a little ditty showpiece, even though it has that in its nature. But to him, it I think it was actually much more.


BM [00:02:11] And thematically, it really keys up the next piece, this new piece by Unsuk Chin, "Mannequin," which has a sort of terrifying little story behind it. Do you know why Unsuk Chin chose this story by ETA Hoffman, "The Sandman," to sort of build from in her new piece?


K-DM [00:02:30] You know, I actually don't know. I should have asked her! We've known each other, and of course, we've talked about the piece a little bit, although there were, because it's so complex, quite a number of questions that took precedence over this. However, this is very interesting and I would like to know as well! But the fact is that this is the first time that she's going in that direction of looking for this type of material, if you will, to set to music. So I know that much. Why? I am not entirely sure. Maybe it's in the program notes. You will have to come to the concert, Brian! [laughs].


BM [00:03:14] I'll plan on that! [laughs]


K-DM [00:03:14] And I'll get my own copy as well.


[00:03:19] But what, of course, is interesting is the story, as you mentioned, "Sandman," and then this nature of E.T.A. Hoffman. We mostly know E.T.A. Hoffmann from "The Nutcracker." But already, if I may, at least, you know, I don't want people to kind of get into this soundscape of Tchaikovsky, but storywise, you have, always, you have these dreams. You have it in "The Nutcracker" story. You know, this dream, sort of nightmarish, and here you have something that's even more grotesque. And I think she captures it beautifully, in that you are completely disoriented. You know, you have four movements here with with the Sandman and the child and sort of the child going to bed. And all of a sudden, these ghostlike, or these spirits lurking, and you're in this - you're on your way to, not Neverland, but something much, much worse, you know, so...


BM [00:04:28] Yeah, I mean, it is a kind of freaky story that is a scary thing. You said that you've known Unsuk Chin for a while. How do you sort of place her music? How do we sort of figure out how to grab on to the way that she writes? How does it strike us in the ear compared to other contemporary composers, from your perspective?


K-DM [00:04:51] Oh, boy, it's so difficult to say. But she, especially in this piece, and she's written mostly for large orchestras, has found this great way of creating colors in the orchestra and sound scapes, if you will, that really immediately take you to a different world. And you're convinced you're not here anymore. You're somewhere else. And the colors, the pairings, the fact that you often can't tell what instrument is playing, that's the idea, that she's not using the instruments in its traditional form for you to understand, "Ah, here's the oboe playing!" Or, "Here is the clarinet," you know, which is what, of course, earlier composers or, still, composers now would do to get a certain effect. And especially in this piece, she finds these ways to, for instance, pair divisi double bass - divisi meaning, you know, that they're separate. Normally they play together as a group, and here you have different voices, even within the double basses paired with two bass marimba players and that same grumbling low frequency region, and then paired with the timpani, so that you can never tell who's playing where, you know, when it blends, and this is just one example of how, and she does that in every range of colors and frequencies, high and low and middle. And it gives you this incredible effect of being immersed in this organism.


[00:06:49] And in fact, you know, I like to use organism for this piece because there is something so unpredictable about this. And that is what scares us, I think, in dreams anyway. You know, the unpredictability of something coming to the fore and you know all that. So I think that's what we're trying to create and get out of her music, is that suspense. And there's this feeling that, you know, something will come out any moment. In fact, this piece is just so perfect timing, you know.


BM [00:07:30] Well, yes, indeed. Halloween having just passed. But I totally hear what you're saying, I mean, I was sitting in rehearsal literally wondering what I was listening to. What instrument is that? I'm so used to be able to tell these things that, in fact, I managed to catch a couple of minutes with your colleague Moritz, who showed me the score just to show me what some of those things were, and I was like, "Oh, I get it." So, yeah, there's all kinds of unexpected colors going on.


K-DM [00:07:55] Yeah. And the orchestra really, you know, has been invested in this. There's so many percussion players as well. You know, you have a large orchestra with percussion with very interesting, unusual sounds. You would never hear in an orchestra. But rather than it being a certain effect, I think it's used just to heighten that tension and that intensity. So I think it's very exciting. It's going to be great to see how the the audience will react. And I think it's going to be a wonderful success.


BM [00:08:28] Does the piece, "Mannequin," by Unsuk Chin, does your work with that piece this week, sort of cast Schuman's Rhenish Symphony into a slightly more vibrant light itself, it being also something of a picturesque piece, maybe not quite as literally. But does your work with Unsuk Chin's piece have this sort of spillover effect with the other works you're conducting on the program, specifically the Rhenish?


[00:08:57] I think absolutely. I think that this program in general deals with what's real and what's not. And with Schumann, as we know that he, you know, started hearing voices and started, as people say, going mad, I'd like to think of it more as, he was having these hallucinations that, you know, were coming from another world. And he tried to understand what that meant. And so I think it's very similar to the Sandman story. It's similar to, actually, the Totentanz, you know, trying to understand what's on the other side. And all three composers and all three pieces deal with this topic. So the Schumann can be interpreted in many different ways: the fact that you have five movements instead of four for your usual four movement symphony, you have this this grand feeling of a coronation or even just that you can imagine being in the big dome in Cologne, even though it wasn't finished yet, you know, him, basically with music building from the ground up, and, you know, you hear this fugal style in the fourth movement with the trombones. It's this grand feeling of building this dome. And it's such a great, great effect. And so, then, he adds at the very end - it's kind of hard to get out of this feeling, but, for some reason, after that, that very solemn ending of that fourth movement, you wonder, okay, now what? And to me, you can look at that last movement, which is so carefree, very dance-like, very jovial, looking in two different ways. You can say, either I've just opened the doors, I'm leaving, I was a tourist in the Dome. And now I'm going out. And what's happening on the marketplace? Ah, OK, there's some jugglers and townsfolk, and of course, all of a sudden people are dancing and so forth.


[00:11:26] Or it, of course, could also mean that you are stepping into, you're kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. You think you're stepping into your front lawn and you know where you're going and all of a sudden there's something completely else. So I think that's what this last movement has, this feeling of stepping out into something that seems familiar. But it really isn't. But regardless, it is full of joy. And it's carefree. It's just like letting it out. And there's really nothing of the sorrows and of the concerns of what came before.


BM [00:12:16] That is so interesting to hear your perspective on that, especially because I always think of Schumann's music as being, in some ways, and I don't mean this in a bad way, but there's there's so much that goes on in his music that's sort of bait and switch. He takes you in a certain direction, and at the last second, he veers into a different direction. And it makes, to me, it seems, it makes the music particularly sensitive to interpretation. And I wonder whether there was a particular mentor of yours or even a recording or a set of recordings. How did you lock into a way of approaching Schumann so that those interpretive challenges can kind of make some sense?


K-DM [00:12:56] You know, I find it every day,  bits and pieces. You hear either an interpretation or you talk with musicians about it. Just the fact that I like to look at a new score. I've done this symphony before, but I like to not see the old markings so that you can look at it with fresh eyes and kind of make sense. Maybe your sense of phrasing is different now, or your sense of tempo, or to make even the ending, you know, the timing. And it's a combination of things. You want to always look at, of course, what came before. Tradition and honoring that. And then also what convinces you of that? I think in general, just to figure out what musically convinces you. And certainly what's great is that I know that I'm doing it differently now than I did before. And I will continue do so. That's what's great, you know, being a musician; we all evolve.


[00:14:10] And so for me, this piece, I think what I have learned is that you can actually take a little bit more freedom. You want the character of Schumann to not come about as this serious man, even though he had concerns and so forth. But a man who really was observing the world around him and was so happy when he wrote this symphony, so thankful and happy that he got this job in Düsseldorf. And it doesn't matter how short lived this was, but the fact that we have this testimony from that time, I think, is great, because everybody was surprised how quickly he finished the symphony. He was always one of the composers that took a little longer, wanted to go over it, you know, wanted to probably show his wife, show his friends, you know, "What would you think?" And he just wrote it and finished because it was just in one spur of the moment, from that first moment - click! - and it just came out. And I think, with that knowledge, to me, that changes everything because the feeling of the symphony has this, you know, it just wants to go and wants to go out and be carefree. And so that is how I approach it this time, much more than maybe the first time.


BM [00:15:43] That's fantastic. I love that. I have one more question for you; it's kind of a wide open question. And, you know, you may have a variety of answers. I don't know. I've always wondered, especially with conductors, the life of a conductor is relatively solitary, really, when it comes down to it. You travel a lot. You're in different organizations at different times. Your job is like no other person's job. I mean, the orchestra players get to sort of the talk and compare notes with each other about what's going on. But you're in a position that's just kind of you at any given moment. When you're done with a performance, whether immediately after or later on, how do you know how it went? It's that kind of a simple question. But on the other hand, it's maybe kind of deep. But how do you evaluate and sort of track yourself and sort of know how you're doing?


K-DM [00:16:35] Wow, you're asking deep questions now, or I might take it deeper than that.


[00:16:42] I think it depends on what you really value in the performance. It really does. And because I know that I value different things now than I did before, such as, just this feeling of thankfulness. You know, when I was just starting out, it was always about just perfection, you know, and trying to get everything in the right place and everything, which is not a bad thing at all. But especially with the Boston Symphony and this wonderful orchestra, just to be in the moment, and then to create, and also to know that you have four performances, and to look forward to them being all different, going back to organism, different organisms, if you will, that is such a rewarding feeling for me. I feel so privileged to be able to do that, to experience that. And so for me, in hindsight,  of course, I'm gonna be very happy if, first of all, I feel the composers are being served. And here you have a living one, which is even more important. When Unsuk came up to me after the first reading and she was just so thankful, and she's like, "Wow, I couldn't believe that it could sound like this." And of course, it's the orchestra, they like looking at new pieces. And I know they spent time on this, so it's great. It's a very gratifying experience to do that and to serve her as a living composer and finding out what it is that we can do better now in the process of the coming days. And then afterwards, just not worrying too much. Learning from your mistakes always, but not beating yourself up for them. I have to say, I'm so fortunate. I feel that I have wonderful colleagues here and that I want to hear from them, of course, because [they're] wonderful musicians, great suggestions and thoughts, especially on repertoire they've done. I love talking with with members of the orchestra who've done the standard pieces with so many other conductors. And that's what I'm enjoying. So to me, it's looking back at your performance, you feel incredible relief, and thankfulness and at times exhilaration. And I think that's the main thing to me, just that you let that overshadow any shortcomings while still being humble enough to learn, continue and to kind of mark for next time. Let's say if we're done with the fourth performance, you always mark for an "Aha." And you continue to mark down so that is something that I hope I will continue to do.


BM [00:19:48] Wonderful. Ken-David Masur, thanks for your time today.


K-DM [00:19:50] Thank you. Thanks, Brian.