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Marek Janowski

An Interview with Marek Janowski


By Joel Kasow

MONTE CARLO, 20 May 2002 - Culturekiosque had the pleasure of speaking with Marek Janowski earlier this season in Monte Carlo's new concert hall, the Salle des Princes in the Forum Grimaldi, a large auditorium with lots of wood and sound that gets better as one goes higher. Maestro Janowski was in the middle of a series of four Brahms concerts, featuring the symphonies and concerti, one each per programme.

Born in Warsaw in 1939, Marek Janowski is of German-Polish parentage and grew up in Wuppertal, close to Cologne. He may be one of the last conductors to have followed the no longer fashionable career model, starting as "coach (korepititor) in Aachen for a year, then two years in Cologne. "Then I had the possibility to conduct performances, without rehearsals. My first job as second (or third) conductor in an opera house was, I think, in 1964 in Dusseldorf for two years. Then I came back to Cologne as first Kapellmeister - the guy after the Music Director in the hierarchy of conductors - after which I went to the Hamburg Opera during the last years of Rolf Liebermann. Then I got my first directorship in the small city of Freiburg, and after in Dortmund. During all these years I also did a lot of guest conducting in other opera houses, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg. After four years in Dortmund, I decided to free lance. At about this time, the end of the 70s and start of the 80s, I came to the United States and conducted at the Chicago Opera, San Francisco Opera, Metropolitan Opera a few times. In 1984 I took on the music directorship of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (at that time the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique) in Paris."

Culturekiosque: Was Paris your first major orchestral position?

Marek Janowski: Yes, and the orchestra at that time was not in very good artistic condition. It was a huge orchestra - 140 players - designed to play many different things in parallel, one group a classic program, another a modern program. It took several years to get a real cohesion, but over the years it worked. In 1986 I took on additionally the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne as Music Director for their concerts, but not the opera. I gave that up after four years but stayed on with the Parisians for a total of 16 years, a very long, enriching relationship, and during these years I increasingly left opera aside. The development of stage directing during the last 15 years is such that I was not able to follow the philosophy, especially in Germany, which, as you know, is rather terrible and has become something absolutely usual. In the United States it is much less like this. In the early 90s I decided to finish with opera in the pit. From time to time I do an opera in concert. I have to say that from time to time I miss a little bit this repertoire, but not the opera world.

CK: Would you consider doing a staged production if you had a stage director that ….

MJ: My choice, yes.

CK: Do you have any people you would like to work with?

MJ: They're all dead.

CK: Tell me about your recordings, because you've done an incredible number of operas, including a Ring Cycle, Schweigsame Frau (the only recording), Fidelio, the Weber operas (the only Euryanthe and the most coherent Oberon).

MJ: At the time of the Euryanthe recording, it was basically intended by EMI for Klemperer, but a year or year and a half before he said he wouldn't do it or wouldn't like to do it, and that offered me the chance to take over. It was my first recording after the Penderecki Teufel von Loudon. I've also done several recordings with the Orchestre National: Messiaen, the Roussel symphonies, Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, and (I think) a very good recording with Barry Douglas of the Reger and Britten piano concerti. My recording activities have reduced. In the manner of 20 or 30 years ago, the business is finished. They need to find other ways to make recordings.

CK: Do you have any plans with the Monte Carlo Orchestra?

MJ: Not at the moment, but looking at the development of the orchestra, I would say if there's a possibility in a new form of recording, I think the orchestra would be up to the required standards.

CK: How do you feel about recording live?

MJ: You mean with patchwork sessions immediately following. Maybe, but not at this point, perhaps in a year or so. In the next few months, there will be a release with the Berlin Orchestra of Hindemith's last opera, Die Harmonie der Welt, on Wergo.

CK: Oh, I would have thought it would be for Decca's Entartete Musik series …

MJ: Yes, but that fell apart and Schott [the music publisher, of which Wergo is a division] took over the project.

Marek Janowski
Marek Janowski

CK: You have the most extraordinarily wide-ranging repertoire, from the German Romantics, or pre-Romantics depending on where you categorize Schubert, through Bruckner and Strauss. I don't know if you do much of the 12-tone school …

MJ: Part of it.

CK: And incredible amounts of French music, which is unusual.

MJ: Shall I say that it was forced upon me because of my artistic obligations in Paris. From my basic training, I'm not really very close, of course, to French masterpieces. There's no question about that. I was not too close to the "1B" range of French music that you find in the German repertoire, but a couple of things are really good: D'Indy, Roussel who is completely forgotten. I wouldn't say this is up to Bruckner or Strauss, but it is a very particular, very Latin language of music-making and I enjoy it. From time to time, now, after the recordings of the Roussel, I sometimes program the 3rd and 4th symphonies, which nobody does anymore. In his lifetime, he was considered in France to be more important than Ravel, for instance. I've done first performances here along the Côte d'Azur of some of the Messiaen works. Of the older generation of contemporary French composers, I have a rather profound trust in Messiaen and Dutilleux, and I will definitely continue to perform their works.

CK: How do audiences here [in Monte Carlo] react ?

MJ: It's an approach to music-making that they have never experienced. In some of those pieces, you do an entire evening of Messiaen for an audience of 400 or 500 people, but these people are really enthusiastic. Perhaps in two years, it will be 600 people. It's the only way you can do that.

CK: How do you go about getting the audience to follow, because in southern Europe there is basically a lack of a symphonic tradition that does exist in Germany and northern Europe, perhaps Paris even though Paris has not yet managed to build a proper concert hall.

MJ: By doing it, doing it, doing it, again and again and again. And then there is word of mouth propaganda. It takes endurance, sustaining, will, determination.

CK: How often do you conduct in the United States these days?

MJ: Almost not at all, except for last season when I was in Pittsburgh and Washington, and in late autumn of 2002 I will be in Boston and Minnesota.

CK: What differences do you notice between Europe and the United States with respect to musicians, audiences?

MJ: I have had quite broad experience in the U.S., especially in opera. I would say that Europe in general, even the south of Europe, takes greater risks with contemporary music, not by constructing from time to time a contemporary program or festival (which they also do) but in a normal program, with the first half, for instance, a Brahms piano concerto, and terminating the concert with two pieces by, for instance, Dutilleux. In the U.S., in my experience, that would be more risky than in Europe.

CK: Because there is little funding that does not come with strings attached.

MJ: Absolutely. It's the fact that the U.S. has built up a music tradition over the last 120 years as opposed to 500 or so years in Europe. There's a tiny difference.

CK: Tell us about Dresden. You're now conducting the Dresden Philharmonic.

MJ: Yes, the city's orchestra, unlike the Staatskappelle which is the orchestra of the state of Saxony. I started last season [September 2001], at the same time I began here in Monte Carlo. My stay depends, however, on a promise to build a new concert hall. The Staatskappelle plays in the new opera (built seven or eight years ago) as does the Philharmonic. There is the Kulturpalast which dates from the mid-1960s and serves as a concert hall. It is absolutely enormous, basically a multiple-choice building, so the acoustics are not very good. In my contract, there is a written promise that in the next two or three years there will be either a completely new hall or total demolition of the building, with a new hall constructed within the existing walls. That will be decided definitely towards the end of this year. If the city can't keep its promise, I'll leave.

CK: What works, symphonic or operatic, that you have never conducted would you like to conduct, and which works do you never want to conduct?

MJ: I have never in my life, to my great regret, come across Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and I would like to have done it. And believe it or not, I've never performed Fliegende Holländer. It just never happened. The other way around, what would I never conduct? In terms of operas, it would be difficult to name a work. Symphonically, with all my enormous admiration for Bach, whose work I have performed (the Brandenburg Concertos, accompanied the piano and violin concertos), but never one of the Passions, if I were to be invited to conduct this music today, I wouldn't do it, because I don't feel that I have the right approach. I've also never done the B Minor Mass, but that I might do.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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