An American Premiere with Håkan Hardenberger and the BSO
Saturday, June 18, 2022
The Swedish trumpeter is the soloist in Jörg Widmann's "Towards Paradise," a BSO co-commission, and Andris Nelsons conducts Mahler’s vision of nature, life, and transformation, the First Symphony.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Håkan Hardenberger, trumpet
Jörg WIDMANN Towards Paradise (Labyrinth VI), for trumpet and orchestra (American premiere; BSO co-commission)
Gustav MAHLER Symphony No. 1
This concert is no longer available on demand.
Hear Håkan Hardenberger describe the genesis and challenges of Jörg Widmann's Toward's Paradise in the audio player above.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall in Boston and very pleased that Håkan Hardenberger is back here with us, first long trip, I guess for you since the pandemic started, Håkan, thanks for your time today, I appreciate it.
Håkan Hardenberger Thank you. It's so nice to be here.
Brian McCreath You are a regular visitor now to the BSO. I think we can safely say that you've been here something like, roughly five times over the last 10 years, plus a tour that you did with the BSO. We'll come back to all of that later. You're here for this American premiere of a commission that the BSO did with Leipzig, Towards Paradise, by Jörg Widmann. I want to ask first for broader context, how much you knew about Widmann's music before this commission came. He's a big name, so a lot of people know his music. How much were you familiar with Widmann's music before this commission really came up?
Håkan Hardenberger Yeah, I had heard many pieces of his and liked it, and some pieces in particular. When I heard his First Violin Concerto, I really felt the urge, as one sometimes does, that, "Oh, this composer has us to write something." And so that was a piece that really, really got me onto his music. And then when you hear something like that, then you listen to a lot of other things. But I'm really happy that he decided to write for the trumpet. The trumpet also has, it seems, to bring out an autobiographical urge in the composers. It's something I can safely say after all these years. There's something naked and honest about the trumpet that seems to force them to not hide, if you see what I mean.
Brian McCreath I love that. And yes, you would be someone to speak to that, given the number of pieces commissioned for you, some of them shared here with us in Boston. So when you were brought into the commission, tell me about just that process. Was it Andris who connected you and Jörg as the sort of protagonist of this commission?
Håkan Hardenberger It could very well be, it's hard to tell where those things start. I knew that Widmann was on my wish list, and I also know that he was kind of composer-in-residence with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. But I remember going to a concert with Andris to hear Jörg both play and conduct his own pieces, and that was the first meeting. But then we had a meeting, as late as February this year in Munich, when he was about to start the process. And that was very, very important because we had a whole day, and it became, like, a sort of, well, introduction. I played a lot and he had a lot of questions, and you also understand each other as persons, after a day, a bit more, and this, I think, is very, very important. And I think then it became clear to him what direction he was going to go with this piece.
And then he must have written in complete trance. I saw an interview with him where he said he hardly slept. And he wrote quite fast because already in late April or May, I had the first hints of what this was going to be. And he also recorded this sort of computer version, and it was the bit which is a quasi una ciaccona, it says. It could very well be Bach, but without being a pastiche or cliché or kitsch or anything, if you understand, I mean German in a very, very, very good sense, if you see what I mean. And it sort of goes through a process, that whole ending. And I played this to Andris, and we were both very, very excited about what this piece was going to was going to become.
And I think, not only does he understand my instrument very well, things that when they came and I thought, well, this is too much, I thought, when I saw it on paper. But then, very often it would be so well in the instrument that, only after a few days, I could actually do it. I've had to extend my range, though, because, I mean, I could always play up to an F. But I would always tell composers that E-flat is enough. For instance, in my warm-up, I always go to a high E-flat. And now, he wrote, I mean, there's basically a high F on each page. So I thought, "Well, I better make this a more natural part of my being." So I've incorporated the high F in my warm up at the tender age of 60.
Brian McCreath Well, and again, for our listeners, some context, that's the high F above the staff, the one that is a few ledger lines up on the staff if anyone reads music. And as you mentioned to me before we turned on the recorder, also down to the low F, which theoretically doesn't even exist on the trumpet, so he's stretching you in both directions. And so I wonder, after that initial introduction to his ideas and the sort of direction he was going, how much input did you have? How much did he come back to you and say, "Is this possible, will this work?" And you would say, "Try this or do this differently"?
Håkan Hardenberger Not much. I think that day in Munich, it was almost like he had a big music paper, and he was making a lot of notes. It's almost like he collected a catalog and then decided what to use and which ones he liked most, and many, many ideas, and many he did not use at all. And then, no, once he got going, there was not so much. I mean, it was only tiny little things. Could we do this a little differently? I mean, there were very, very small things that was changed in the process.
Brian McCreath And somewhere along the way, maybe on that day, the topic of Miles Davis came up, and Miles in the way that, in his later years especially, he would turn his back to the orchestra. He would point his horns straight at the ground. I remember seeing those and thinking, what in the world is he doing? But there was something he was doing, and tell me about how that filtered into Jörg's conception of the piece as you understand it.
Håkan Hardenberger I remember just mentioning it. I mean, Miles always comes up. For a composer, it seems quite scary to write for the trumpet because of Miles. I mean, I know several composers who... Luca Francesconi, who ended up writing a wonderful trumpet concerto, he resisted for a long time, he said, I cannot possibly write a trumpet concerto because I am in awe of Miles Davis. And it sort of hinders them almost.
And this thing with playing to the floor, it was just me guessing basically why Miles would do it. I mean, the trumpet is very directional and very, very quick to project in comparison to a violin that projects upwards and spreads slowly into the room. The trumpet goes very fast. And also working, maybe he was working with amplification and things. I think now and again, he just wanted to have immediate feedback on his own sound. I think that's why he was doing it. I don't know that this was the case, but I can imagine. And of course, it makes an effect, sound-wise, also for the audience. And visually, I think Jörg is also using it. The opening, very opening phrase when I come walking on playing and I... It's about solitude, of course, and how you are in solitude. We have maybe more doubts than you have otherwise. And he uses the bowing down and playing to the floor of the couple of points when the phrase suggests this doubt.
Brian McCreath And again, for radio listeners, this will be a little less evident. But you do walk through the orchestra. You're pointed in different directions at different times in some kind of a dialog with the other instruments through the orchestra. And then, as you say, there's even elements of isolation and loneliness. Do you have this connection of this piece to the experience of the pandemic, does that does that sort of resonate with you as well?
Håkan Hardenberger Yes, of course. I mean, I think he's, you know, too intelligent to call it a "pandemic concerto," something vulgar like that. But of course, we've all been through a time of solitude, contemplation, you know, not only negative, but also sadness, compassion, rejection. I mean, all these things are in this piece.
Brian McCreath These things come up in the piece. You are sort of welcomed and alternately rejected by some of these partnerships that you entertain through the course of the orchestra.
Håkan Hardenberger Exactly.
Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. I do want to pause for just a moment to go back to something you said a minute ago, just to acknowledge it, that you described Miles as having this effect on composers that's really intimidating. I want to parallel that with Beethoven, who had that effect on 19th century composers, and I love the idea of Beethoven and Miles sitting side by side in that pantheon, you know, the greatness of these musicians and the effect they have on all of us. But anyway, that's my own little editorial comment along the way.
But when it comes to playing this piece, clearly incredibly demanding, a long piece, you said that as you got used to it, you found it - I'm going to paraphrase - more possible than it might appear at first when you look at the music. But you do only rest for a couple of minutes at a time. You're really playing the whole time, almost, through this piece. And I just wonder how, with all the other pieces that you've commissioned, new pieces that have come your way, where does this stack up in sheer challenge of getting through the piece with some of these others that you've done?
Håkan Hardenberger Oh, it's right up there. I mean, Aerial by HK Gruber, or Bret Dean's Dramatis Personae, they're no walk in the park, either. But this is the longest in minutes. It's also, it's very long, stretched phrases, often a slow, basic tempo, even if you play fast within it. And there was no way of practicing that. But that's been the experience also with those other pieces mentioned. You can practice the components and the sections, and you can do all your tricks. I mean, mine is that, once I know the piece more or less in detail, I start to practice it from, I take a section at the very end and then I add from the end, something I learned actually the first time I studied the Brandenburg Concerto, so, to sort of try to make sure that you can come through it stamina-wise. But with this one, that all seemed... But you can also not in your practice room practice with the amplitude that you then have when you play those phrases with an orchestra. If you practice like that, you end up killing yourself. And so what I did was that I practiced the sections and made sure I didn't waste too much energy doing that. And then I trusted that I would be able to do put them together in a concert performance.
Brian McCreath I wish I had known that technique years and years ago when I was really playing all the time because the idea of practicing the end of something that is really challenging when you're fresh instills that in your brain. It kind of sets that as the template in your mind so that when you come to that when you're tired, you have this template to draw from. And this is what it feels like when it feels good.
Håkan Hardenberger Yes. And technically also, I mean, I've always been someone who works on the small, small, small details in the music really to not waste any energy in the wrong direction, so that each little note doesn't cost too much. They should be played with the intensity they deserve. But technically nothing should go to waste.
Brian McCreath Earlier, you said that the trumpet brings out the autobiographical in composers. And beyond that maybe veiled pandemic reference to how this piece works. Is there anything more that you would say about Jörg's writing in this piece as a reflection of that idea?
Håkan Hardenberger Great composers have this quality, but in this case, I'm almost stunned by it. I mean, not only does he get the instrument as such, he gets me. It feels almost like a sort of testament or something. I mean, it is a big responsibility, a piece with the title Towards Paradise. It's not something to take lightly, and I know that Andris feels similar about it. And he actually, when we first performed it in Leipzig, he even made a little speech to the audience, referring to Mendelssohn, that they also played, that was, you know, when Mendelsohn's pieces were first performed, it was a moment of importance, and the same with this piece.
Brian McCreath That's great. You've given me the idea in my mind of the great portrait artists, like Sargent, here we think of in Boston, one of the great portrait artists who captures the essence of someone in their oil and canvas. And you give me the idea that maybe Widmann has captured a lot of you in in this particular piece.
Håkan Hardenberger I don't think that was an intention of doing that. But of course, if you feel that, if you're an actor and you feel that you are, you have parts in here, so you're close to that role that you're playing, it becomes easier to play. It's obvious.
Brian McCreath That's great. As mentioned, you've been to the BSO now a number of times. I mean, five appearances plus a tour in the course of 10 years is the way some, you know, violinists or pianists work with orchestras. So I wonder if there are other orchestras with whom you've had this close or regular collaboration over the years. And kind of what it means when you're coming here to the BSO that that is your history.
Håkan Hardenberger Well, I'm very grateful for it because I waited many years to play with the Boston Symphony. And um, I've always liked to work like that, all through my career, to have relationships with orchestras. And I was just with the Stockholm Philharmonic, and there, they told me it was the 38th time that I played with them. And so, it's wonderful to have this and I just enjoy every second of playing with this orchestra and with Andris. So, yeah, great gratitude.
Brian McCreath And we hear your colleagues in the trumpet section right behind us practicing Mahler One, the the offstage parts for that. Any thoughts about how Mahler One is the companion piece for this concerto on this concert? Anything kind of strike you about that?
Håkan Hardenberger Well, only that the off stage will be marinated in trumpet sound.
Brian McCreath With the concerto, you're starting off stage and you end off stage and just again for for the listeners who won't be able to see this, you're starting on one side of the stage and you end offstage, on the other side of the stage, you have a whole actual journey that happens during the course of the piece. And yeah, Mahler One has the offstage trumpets, kind of a, as you say, marinate the offstage in trumpet sounds.
Well, Håkan Hardenberger. It's really great to talk with you about this piece. I'm so excited to hear it, and I'm glad you're back in Boston, and hopefully we'll see you a lot of times more after this. So thanks for your time today.
Håkan Hardenberger Thank you very much.
Transcript of Andris Nelsons interview:
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall, and back in town is Andris Nelsons after a little time away. Andris, I'm so glad you're back and doing an amazing program with Jörg Widmann's new trumpet concerto and Mahler's First Symphony. Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with me about it today.
Andris Nelsons A great, great pleasure to be back, yeah.
Brian McCreath The Mahler First is one that we've talked about before, and I remember you're telling me that you started really listening to that piece when you were doing martial arts. And it was sort of that that opening nature sound was something that was sort of helping you at that point. But tell me about Mahler's First with this concerto. Is there a reason you wanted to do Mahler One with this new Widmann trumpet concerto?
Andris Nelsons I think yes and no, as we say, because the piece was commissioned by Leipzig Gewandhaus and Boston Symphony Orchestra as a co-commission. And we already performed it in Leipzig, and at that point, I think we were not exactly sure how the piece would be. But I think there is a link between, which I always have found for me, Jörg Widmann being one of my favorite composers, he continues this line, which maybe sounds strange: Mozart, maybe even Schubert, you know, go to Mahler, Berg, this line of composers. And his writing also, you know, he's quite Mahlerian in some ways. You know, he writes the, let's say, poly-dynamics, knowing the score so well. By the way, he's conducting now, and so this is more link to Mahler.
Brian McCreath And when you say poly-dynamics, you mean that there's one level of volume in one part of the orchestra, and another in another part of the orchestra at the same time. Is that kind of what you mean?
Andris Nelsons Yes. Yeah, that's great. When you look to the score of Mahler, it's very interesting to read what's there, and interesting to follow how he manages, micromanages the balance issue. And of course, Jörg, I think, has this intensity of soul crying, you know, and these huge culminations which are scarily like, I don't know, like Berg's Wozzek or something. And then there are moments that are very transparent, like Bach, almost. So this is, I think in any case, it's a great, two great pieces in the concert and two great heroes. And the third hero is Håkan, of course, because the concerto is one of the concertos, which I think will stay as a very, very, very significant piece of art.
And also, I find there is music where you listen, and each time you listen, you're not sure what is the message, and you don't understand, and more, you listen, sometimes, and you realize [that] the further you go. But there is music, also, where you listen and maybe you don't understand so much the first time. The second time, third, four, and so on, it opens your eyes more and more. And I think Jörg's piece, as for me, most of them are like that. You know, you need to open the door to get used to the atmosphere, sit down, and enjoy. And enjoy to tears. You know, there are moments with tears in your eyes, you know? I remember, with his music, always the feeling that it's a journey, where you are going to at some point want to cry, some points you'll laugh. It's very, very interesting. And of course, Mahler's First Symphony is another journey.
And as you said, I started to be introduced to this symphony by accident, because I was looking for some kind of music - and that was at that time still cassettes, you know, audio cassettes - where would be some kind of a nature sounds. And there was a person who was not a musician, he just said, "Look I have a cassette, and this is, you know, just try the beginning. It sounds almost like nature. And there are some birds or something." And obviously there were no birds. But you know, the opening, the first sounds... [sings] It is, you feel like you are surrounded by nature. And obviously it went much more than just the meditation music for me. After, of course I studied all the symphonies.