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Grief, Faith, and Transcendence, with Lintu and the Boston Symphony

Conductor Hannu Lintu leans back in a light brown leather chair and looks to a window out of frame. He's wearing a black long-sleeve shirt and he has short, silver hair. There's a piano behind him covered in sheet music. On the floor, there's a large violet rug, upon which his dog lays.
Veikko Kähkönen
Conductor Hannu Lintu

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Encore broadcast on Monday, November 20

Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu leads the BSO in Peter Lieberson’s Drala, inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist term describing life-source, as well as Schumann’s brooding and majestic Symphony No. 4. Leonidas Kavakos returns to Symphony Hall to perform Alban Berg’s final finished piece, the Violin Concerto, written in response to the death of Alma Mahler's daughter.

Hannu Lintu, conductor
Leonidas Kavakos, violin

Alban BERG Violin Concerto
Robert SCHUMANN Symphony No. 4

Leonidas Kavakos appears courtesy of Sony Classical, a label of Sony Music Entertainment

This concert is no longer available on demand.

In a preview conversation, Hannu Lintu describes the connections among the three pieces on this program, the story behind Berg's Violin Concerto, with its dedication to Manon Gropius and the meaning behind the Bach chorale embedded in its last movement, and why his Finnish musical background draws him to Schumann's Fourth Symphony. To listen, use the player above and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Hannu Lintu, back with the Boston Symphony for I think the third time now. So a really fascinating program. Hannu, thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Hannu Lintu Oh, it's absolutely my pleasure. Great to see you again.

Brian McCreath I am so fascinated by this program, the way that the pieces work together on the program. And it makes me wonder where the thinking began, Which piece was the sort of first element that came into being. I guess maybe I would propose that it was the [Alban] Berg violin concerto that Leonidas [Kavakos] maybe wanted to do and built from there. But I don't know. Tell me more about how this program got started.

Hannu Lintu Yes, well, program planning process usually is very, very complicated and everybody must get something. And first of all, we need to keep the soloist happy. And I think originally he suggested this, the Berg concerto and couple of other concertos. And usually at that point, they let the conductor choose when the soloist has made his or her suggestion. So I chose Berg, because it's a piece which I deeply love, and I think it's one of the best written scores, not only in concerto repertoire but in any repertoire. You know, I sometimes read it even though I don't have to conduct it just because it's a great score to read, because everything is perfect. Anyway, so I was really happy to see that on his list. So I chose that. Then usually the conductor gets to choose the main work. I mean, the one which is after the intermission. And I suggested very simply [Robert] Schumann [Symphony No.] 4, which was very simply accepted. So no negotiation. So that was it. So obviously, it has been a while since they played the piece for the last time.

So maybe it's something they wanted to do, but also it has a connection to Berg, because I mean, Schumann is a sort of mid-Romantic. He is not early Romantic but isn't late Romantic, I mean, it's not Wagner or Mahler, but it has a very strong German heart. And what happened in German music after that, you know, the music became more and more romantic, Wagner took over, then Mahler, and then the second Viennese school. And then everything they did, Berg, Schoenberg, Weber was in the spirit of German romantic music. So although the Schumann Fourth is from 1840s and this concerto is from the 20th Century, their spirit belong together. So I was very happy about this combination. Then there was a long gap in the negotiations. And then I remember Tony Fogg, the Artistic Administrator here at the Boston Symphony asking if I would like to do something American to open the concert. And American, to me, it sounded so fresh and just a novel idea, you know, and also it was a challenge how to find an American piece which speaks with Schumann and Berg.

And about a year ago, I was in New York conducting the New York Philharmonic, and I met somebody from the publisher, Schirmer, who is representing Peter Lieberson's music. Peter is not among us anymore. I used to know him and I respect his music a lot, and I also recorded some of his music earlier, "Neruda Songs" and the cello concerto called "Six Realms." And so I always liked the Mahlerian, Romantic element of his music. Anyway, this guy from publisher Schirmer wanted to have coffee with me in New York after my rehearsal, and this is what the best publishers do. I mean, people always ask, "What did the publisher actually do? Because, I mean, they just publish, but then what do they do to those pieces after they're published?" So they sell them. So this person came to me and we had coffee and he gave me a list of about half a dozen American orchestral pieces, which he said would suit my musical temperament, which is actually quite flattering, because it seemed that he knew what kind of a musician I am and what kind of music I like, you know, and what my musical strengths are. And after I got this question from Tony Fogg about an American piece, I went back to this list which I got from the publisher a year ago, and I noticed that there a piece by Peter called "Drala," and I got the score immediately and I listened to it. And yes, it seems to be a piece into which my musicality might work in a good way. So this publisher, actually, he sold that piece to me, and that's what publishers do. So I think we have a connection between Schumann and Berg, and then on the other hand, with Berg and Lieberson, because Lieberson represents this Bergian, Mahlerian romanticism, but at the same time, he has his own very personal and very modern voice. So I suppose this is the story in a nutshell.

Brian McCreath That's a fantastic story. Is it just coincidental that the Boston Symphony had premiered "Drala" and not done it since, or was that just a coincidence in your in your searching for the right piece by Lieberson?

Hannu Lintu That I noticed later when I got the score and I noticed that there it is, premiered by the Boston Symphony and conducted by Seiji Ozawa and I didn't know. And also didn't know that they actually haven't played it since. Some other American orchestras, yes. It was recorded by the Cleveland Orchestra about more than ten years ago. And it isn't played much. But there's a reason because it's an incredibly difficult piece for the orchestra to play. But I thought that since there are still members in the orchestra who played the premiere and they are aware and they know his music, they know it's difficult, they know the musical language and their technical skills are amazing. So I take the risk. It wasn't a risk, but let's say that with a German orchestra, I wouldn't, because they wouldn't know the composer and they wouldn't find the right kind of angle to his music just like that as these people do.

Brian McCreath What strikes me about the Lieberson and then also with the Berg, that for all the difficulty that you describe, the technical challenge that it is for the orchestra, it has to go beyond that. It's a spiritual piece, it taps into a spiritual element. And I wonder how you do transcend all of that to get to that point. And is this part of what you're describing when you say this piece fits your own musicality?

Hannu Lintu When you conduct and perform and play pieces like that, you can't be too much involved in spiritual elements because you do have to put it together. You have to be very practical. But with the best music, like Berg especially, who is very meticulous about how each note should be played, you know, the length of each note, the dynamic of each note, the vertical dynamic of the score, the horizontal lines, how they should be phrased. Everything is there. I mean, there isn't a single note with which you have to guess how it should be performed because, and he even never heard it performed himself. He died before it was premiered. So certainly he probably would have made some changes, probably mainly in balance, because it's sometimes incredibly loud. The orchestra is incredibly loud. But maybe the point is that the soloist should be drowned. It doesn't matter what the reason is, now the soloist is going to be drowned anyway. But so I think with the best scores, if you just perform what the composer intends in the score, most of the spiritual element is achieved already. I mean, we don't stand there on stage and talk to, you know, spirit of Beethoven or, you know, some forces from another universe. I mean, we just we just do our best as musicians and we try to perform beautiful sound where it's needed, ugly sound where it's needed, balance where it's needed. But I do not deny that there is a spiritual element in making music, and it's mainly about connections on stage and a connection between musicians, and that creates, you know, this kind of feeling that something spiritual is happening. But with these two very difficult pieces, I just trust the composer. And Mahler is another one of those composers that if you just trust the score, then everything else is useless. Everything else is just, I mean, nothing else is needed.

Brian McCreath Right, right. And the thing with the Berg, though, especially listening to you in this rehearsal that you just did, unlike most other concertos, there is such a dramatic narrative element to this. It is as close to opera, to me, as a concerto might get. And when that really becomes clear, I mean, the first part of it, this sort of portrait of this young woman, almost, tempestuous but beautiful and intense. And then the second part of it, the tragic part where the Bach chorale kind of comes out of nowhere. It's not like everything stops and there's all the sudden a chorale, it emerges. It's so operatic, it must feel very different to conduct from other concertos.

Hannu Lintu What is the most powerful thing with the chorale in the end, that it's already existed before you hear it. It is there already, here and there. But certainly in the second movement, because there are two movements, and obviously the climax of the first section of the second movement is the death of this young girl who was the daughter of Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, and an architect called Gropius. And she died. She was really young, Manon, when she died. And there's death and then everything after that moment, even in the score Berg put "Höhepunkt," which just means, this is the high point of the movement. And that is her death. And everything after that is after death. And that's where the Bach chorale begins. And I think it's meant-- Bach has this incredible ability for consolation of some kind, you know, it is meant for us who were left behind, and especially for her parents, Manon Gropius's parents, as a consolation, but also trying to tell to us that ultimately death can be a beautiful thing as well. The first moment, yes, as you said, it is describing a young girl, but somehow through a very thick glass or somehow like in a mist, I mean, glimpses here and there. There's a Viennese waltz in the second part of the first movement. Of course, we are in Vienna. And then the beginning is one of the most original beginnings. And I think that the first movement is also, you know, divided in two. So, two movements, both divided in two. And the first part of the first movement is just creating the atmosphere for the drama. I would say that it's an introduction. Then there is a portrait of this girl. Then there is as beginning of the second movement, the approaching illness, the death of the girl, and then the second part of the second movement, the afterlife.

Brian McCreath For Schumann's Fourth Symphony, the piece that you decided as an anchor that you suggested for this program, I don't know if it had to do with the way the other two pieces also sound, but there's a such a definite narrative arc to Schumann's Fourth, different from his other symphonies because it is so connected, one thing leads to another. It's almost as though it's an early prototype of the way that a lot of people write music now with themes coming back. Was that part of why you thought about the Schumann Fourth?

Hannu Lintu Schumann wrote four symphonies, and of those four, the fourth is nearest to me. I find it easier because there is this flow. In the other symphonies, you know, there's first movement and then lots of coughing and then the second movement and then somebody then, you know, blows the nose, and then we go to the scherzo. And they are magnificent movements, but because I'm a Finnish conductor and Sibelius is our sort of symphonic God and Sibelius worked, through all his symphonic career, he worked himself towards a one movement symphony. In the Second Symphony, he already puts the third and fourth movement, somehow, he ties them together in the same way Beethoven is tying together the scherzo and the last movement of his famous Fifth Symphony. And then later Sibelius in his Third Symphony, he did the same thing in the Fifth Symphony, first and second movement all together. Finally, the Seventh Symphony is a one movement symphony. And I'm not the only one who thinks that that's his greatest symphonic achievement. And somehow I think that is the reason why I appreciate the Fourth Symphony the most.

Of course, the musical material, I mean, you mentioned, it's very similar between the first and the last movement. They obviously belong together, whereas the middle movements are more . . . there's a very, very strange, slow movement. It doesn't really even begin properly before it's finished. And then the scherzo is a very Schumannesque, very German type of scherzo. But even that is tied to the introduction of the last moment. So it's not really played continuously. I mean, there is a pause between first and second movement, for instance, but there is this tension. They somehow belong together. But yes, this kaleidoscope of the musical materials he's using, how he's using the same material in several movements, makes it very, at the same time, very challenging, but also a very charming symphony. It has huge drive. You know, it's an exciting piece. And of his symphonies, you very often hear how "Schumann, he couldn't orchestrate. Why couldn't he just compose songs, because he just couldn't," you know, "symphonies are not his," because there's always some problem with the orchestration. It's very thick. There are always things which are lost because he wasn't Richard Strauss or he wasn't Mahler or a great orchestrator. And of course, Mahler was the one who re-orchestrated Schumann symphonies, because he thought they don't work.

They do work. But you have to balance a lot. And with Schumann, there's always, and that takes lots of rehearsal time, and the conductor must balance and explain to the orchestra which things are important and which things are not. And the funny thing is that there are two versions of this symphony. And the first one is actually even more modern in its shape and in its sort of musical inventiveness. But his wife didn't like it, you know, Clara thought that, "Oh, Robert, Robert this is much too modern. So, I mean, you need to recompose it." And poor Robert, he recomposed it. But I still think that the first version is also very, very good. So there are two valid versions of the symphony. But the second one is most often played, and that's what we chose to do this time.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. Hannu Lintu, it's really great to have you back at the hall and I appreciate your time and all of your thoughts today. I appreciate it. Thank you. 

Hannu Lintu Thank you very much.