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The BSO Debuts of Mallwitz and Vinnitskaya

Joana Mallwitz and Anna Vinnitskaya, pictured onstage mid performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mallwitz leans towards the piano, one hand extended in front of her, the other holding her conductor's baton close to her chest. She is wearing black pants and a black shirt and her hair is cut in a blonde bob. Vinnitskaya sits at the piano, hands poised over the keys. She is wearing a black and white geometric patterned skirt. Out of focus behind Mallwitz and Vinnitskaya, members of the audience sit in Symphony Hall, watching the performance.
Hilary Scott
Joana Mallwitz conducts Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Anna Vinnitskaya

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time, Joana Mallwitz conducts Kodály’s "Dances of  Galánta" and Schubert's Symphony No. 9. Anna Vinnitskaya, also in her BSO debut, is the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 1.

Joana Mallwitz, conductor
Anna Vinnitskaya, piano

Zoltán KODÁLY Dances of Galánta 
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1
Franz SCHUBERT Symphony No. 9 in C, "Great"

This concert is no longer available on demand.

In an interview with CRB's Brian McCreath conductor Joana Mallwitz previews the program, reveals which piece of music sparked her desire to be a conductor, and talks about her new position as Chief Conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchestra of Berlin. To listen, use the player above and follow along with the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB at Symphony Hall with Joana Mallwitz here in Boston for the Boston Symphony for the very first time. But Joana, thank you for your time today. And is this your first time in Boston at all?

Joana Mallwitz It's my very first time in Boston. Also the first time, of course, working with this orchestra, working in America, actually, with an orchestra. So a lot of firsts for me.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Have you been to the United States in any other capacity before this?

Joana Mallwitz I've been to the United States, but not working myself... but sometimes accompanying my husband, who has sung in America a few times, or just, yeah, holiday-wise or visiting friends. But now, first time to work.

Brian McCreath Tell me about your experience of the Boston Symphony before now. Have you ever heard them in person when they've been on tour, or have you just known them through recordings?

Joana Mallwitz Well, I know a lot of the really legendary recordings that have accompanied me for many years, but I've also heard them live once in Frankfurt with Maestro Andris Nelsons. And, you know, of course, that was fantastic and such an incredibly wonderful orchestra.

Brian McCreath Well, and now you've had the chance to go through several rehearsals with them. And what's your impression of the orchestra here in Symphony Hall?

Joana Mallwitz Well, of course, as a conductor, I must say, this orchestra and then also in connection with this hall, it's a dream come true. And they have a beautiful, lush, glamorous sound. They are just fantastic musicians. And the rehearsals were very focused, very concentrated, very quick. So I like it a lot, to work this way. So it was a great time.

Brian McCreath Wonderful. So I'm curious about your background, your path to this point in your life. We'll get to your now new position in Berlin. I want to talk about that. But tell me about early on and whether there was a moment that told you, "I want to be a conductor." I don't know quite what your path was towards this point. Was there a moment like that for you?

Joana Mallwitz There was definitely a moment. So actually, I've been making music my whole life, although I'm not from a family of musicians. But the piano was always there. I played piano and violin since I was three years old and kind of grew into this music world. But I also had lots of other interests and never really considered being a pianist as a professional, as a job. But that completely changed when I was a teenager. And for the first time in my life, I came in contact with symphonic music and opera. This is what I didn't know as a small child.

And the first time I saw the score of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, that was actually the moment. And then there were a lot of moments of discovering works, like seeing "Tristan [und Isolde]" for the first time, seeing "Sacre [de Printemps," or "The Rite of Spring"] for the first time, all these incredible symphonic and operatic works. And from then on it was just clear to me, I will spend my life with this music, whatever job [Mallwitz laughs] comes with it. And this appeared to be the the conducting.

Brian McCreath That would be the job that's probably most involved with those scores. [both laugh]

Joana Mallwitz Exactly!

Brian McCreath But, wow, I'm so fascinated by this. Can you even describe what it was about Schubert's "Unfinished" [Symphony] that grabbed you in such a defined way?

Joana Mallwitz Well, the score was given to us in a lesson in Hanover at the academy [Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media]. It was a program for young people who were still in school. I was, I think, 13 years old, and I was sitting over these notes, this music, and we were reading and analyzing them, and I just never wanted to stop reading. And then I did ask my parents for my birthday present to give me the score. So it was my first score. I still have it at home. The little yellow one. I wrote on the first page, "This is my first score and I hope to conduct it someday!" or, "It would be the first piece that I will do later with an orchestra!" Like, little teenager dreams for me. But I carried this score around like my favorite novel, and I just kept reading and I thought, "When I imagine those sounds and I imagine very intensely, how is this music sounding? It feels like I will fly away." So I never wanted to stop reading.

Brian McCreath I love that story! That is so fantastic. That's really wonderful. And now it has led you to what has been pretty big news, especially in Germany, in Berlin, that you're now the Music Director—or Chief Conductor, I suppose is the title—of the Concert House Orchestra of Berlin [Konzerthaus Orchestra of Berlin], one of the historic orchestras of that city and of that country. And so tell me about when that opportunity became clear to you as what you were going to be able to do. What was your initial reaction to this opportunity coming to you?

Joana Mallwitz I met the Konzerthaus Orchestra for the first time, I think, two and a half years ago, and it became very quickly apparent that both sides wanted more. [Mallwitz laughs] Let's say it like this. And then immediately I was invited back for a second program to get to know everyone and to do more repertoire with them. And back then, already it was decided, yes, that this is the place where I want to be, and also from their side, this is who they want to get as the new chief conductor. And yes, now we have just started into our first season together with lots of programs already. And yeah, it has been a very intense time, lots of work. Actually, it was perfect because we were—there was so much to do that we just started working, working, working, and then you get to know each other quite quickly on a very deep level, right? And had some really nice concerts. And now after Boston, I'm also returning to Berlin for our next concert week.

Brian McCreath And one of the things that you do there is, I think it's called the Expedition Concerts, and I love the idea that you do a little bit of talking and demonstrating about a particular piece of music and then the orchestra plays the whole piece of music. And tell me more about that. How did you begin to try to reach that point where you could discern maybe what some of the audience want and how you might open these doors to them, to music that they may not have heard or maybe that they've heard before, but want to know more?

Joana Mallwitz So actually, I did not really think of it from this point of view, but I developed those expedition concerts nine, ten years ago. I did them in Erfurt, I did them in Nuremberg, and now I'm bringing them to Berlin. And they were created purely from this wish of, you know, I have all these moments sitting over a score and analyzing a piece and thinking, "Wow, I want to show everyone this. Look at this bar! Look at this harmonic! Look, it's this rhythm!" And honestly, every Expedition Concert is always a bit different because I mostly talk about stuff that's interesting to me personally [Mallwitz chuckles] and what I find fascinating about the work. Sometimes [it's] more about harmonies or about analyzing the piece, sometimes more about the composer and maybe other pieces that influence this one. And the most important thing is, of course, coming together at the end of an Expedition Concert and always playing the whole thing. So everyone gets to make music and also experience this music from beginning to end.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. With this particular program that you're doing with the BSO, tell me how these different pieces came together with the Kodály "Dances of Galánta." I suppose Ana might have had something to say about the concerto—

Joana Mallwitz Yeah!

Brian McCreath —The Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and then Schubert's [Ninth Symphony]. I'm interested, especially given that Schubert played such a role in your beginnings as a conductor, how these pieces came together on the program.

Joana Mallwitz So the Schubert was my wish, and I was very grateful that the Boston Symphony Orchestra accepted it and said, "Yes, let's do this, for the first time that you come to do the Grand C Major Symphony." Schubert is so close to my heart. It's one of my most dearest and almost holy composer, and this piece especially, the symphony, and...Yes, I'm very happy to work on this music now with this fantastic orchestra.

Brian McCreath Tell me more about Schubert being "almost holy." I mean, that's a wonderful way to put it. And in this piece particularly, there's sort of this combination of almost perpetual motion and beautiful lyricism. And tell me what the power of this piece is to you, what it is that attracts you so much to it.

Joana Mallwitz I guess, of course, what exactly you hear in this music, it is very different from person to person. This is what makes a masterpiece, right? That everyone can find some truth for themselves. What I find fascinating about this symphony is... For example, in the first movement, the first line that the horns play, it is on the one hand so simple, and on the other hand, everything is in it. It's like an idea, an idea that's bigger than all of us. And throughout this first movement, when things start happening, it's also when life gets more complicated. Things are thrown at you, new harmonies, new transitions. And we always come back to this idea. And then, especially in this magical part, when the trombones play it—well, it's not exactly the motive of the horn, but it all comes back to this. It's the same rhythm, and—well, it's the same element, the same idea. And the trombones kind of go very insisting, but very tender. They remind us, "Remember. Think. You have to look inside. You have to come together." Whatever you see in this idea, it is like this reminding. And later in the first movement, when things get really dramatic, the trombones again come in with full force and they have to say, "No, come back to this idea!" And there's such a feeling of unity in this music, and especially in this first movement.

And then you have at the end, the last movement where I feel, again—this is actually one of my favorite places, at the very, very end when this crazy fourth movement which is like, tempo-wise and activity-wise, it's very exhausting to play for everyone in the orchestra and it's like so many things happening on such a short time—and in the end, when already form-wise the movement should come to an end, instead, Schubert takes a new run. He invents something new and again, he, like, throws new harmonies at you, like fate is trying to bring you away from your path. And then the orchestra says, "No. We will consciously, consciously decide to be happy," which is for me, the part where they all play these C's, just the note "C, C, C." Actually, that's [Mallwitz laughs] also "Si, si, si!" It's like, "Yes, yes, yes!" in Italian, right? That's kind of fitting. But such a focus on consciously saying, "No, we are going... We're going home." [Mallwitz chuckles] "We are staying together. We are celebrating and enjoying this pure joy and not being distracted by all these harmonic fights that go on before." So, I mean, I could talk forever about this symphony, but it's, for me, it's one of the greatest masterpieces ever written.

Brian McCreath That is so beautifully put. I can't tell you, that is such a wonderful way to describe what happens in this symphony, so, so clear. The "Dances of Galánta" are such a challenge, at least outwardly, as I watch and hear you with the orchestra, a challenge simply because it could go anywhere at any time, it seems. You know? Now you have complete control of the players, they're right there with you, but it does seem like almost anything could happen at any time. How did you kind of come to your way with this piece? Was there a particular experience in Hungary or was there a teacher that showed you the way with this piece, or recordings that you absorbed? How do you know which way to go in this piece that seems to have infinite possibilities?

Joana Mallwitz I think for this piece especially, you have to try it out on stage. You have to do it again and again because it will always present itself a little bit differently. And it's a dance, you know, it's different. Of course, it's motifs from a small village from his childhood. It's folk tunes and it's dances. And that's how it is when you go dance on the stage. It matters at what point in your life are you, at what mood you're in today. So I guess in this piece, it's this element, which applies to every piece. You always you have to study the score, but then you also have to experience and get to know it like you get to know a person on stage. But here I think this element is extremely important.

Brian McCreath Fantastic. Is this the first time you've worked with Anna Vinnitskaya?

Joana Mallwitz No, we have worked together, actually, just a few weeks ago in the Elbphilharmonie [concert hall] in Hamburg. But that was with Rachmaninoff, the Third Piano Concerto.

Brian McCreath And how would you describe what she brings to pieces like the Tchaikovsky First [Piano Concerto]—probably with Rachmaninoff, too, But in this piece particularly, the Tchaikovsky First [Piano] Concerto, what is it that sort of distinguishes the qualities of her playing?

Joana Mallwitz I would say what is really, really special about her is that she plays these virtuoso concertos and she can play it, and she plays it with such a, like, beautiful grand sound, but she makes everything sound fluent and cantabile. It's like a real cantabile. It doesn't sound like hard work. And I mean, that's quite incredible to be able to do that.

Brian McCreath No doubt. That's a great way to put it. Joana Mallwitz, it's so good to have you here and I'm glad that your first week has been fun so far. And we're looking forward to the concert. Thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Joana Mallwitz Thank you. Of course. Thank you.