In a February 2016 Guardian article, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja wrote of staid programming in classical music, “Wouldn’t some madness be preferable to this normality?” Her latest project, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, is called “Bye Bye Beethoven.” This is not a coincidence.
VAN: If you could, would you take a year or two off from playing standard repertoire?
Patricia Kopatchinskaja: I wouldn’t just take a break for a couple of years. I’d go further: standard pieces should be used only as exceptional, rare elements in programs. There are enough recordings out there already.
Recording was never a focus of yours, was it?
Well, because there are plenty of fantastic recordings out there! We’ve documented everything—it’s all available, like books that anyone can read if he wants. The classical music industry is so far behind. If someone does anything that’s even just a tiny bit different, it becomes a huge, heated discussion. In theater they’ve been modernizing things for decades. People will quote Shakespeare and [Elfriede] Jelinek in the same breath, it’s the director’s decision. It’s almost impossible to do something truly new there.
How would you suggest improving things?
Contemporary music shouldn’t get only a small slice of the budget, like, Oh, let’s commission a new piece and play it sandwiched in between two other comfortable, relaxing pieces. You know how it is. New music should be the focal point, old pieces are allowed but only in exceptional cases.
There are a lot of contemporary music festivals and alternative concert venues out there. Isn’t it possible that the major halls are simply too big?
No, I don’t believe that. I think it has more to do with a certain institutional inertia in the orchestra. Learning new pieces takes time, more rehearsals and probably more money…more flexibility. But you could excuse a sextet from the orchestra and tell them, Here’s a Helmut Oehring piece, go ahead and rehearse for as long as you need. After that, take a look at this Olga Neuwirth piece, then one by Gubaidulina and then maybe we’ll do some Beethoven. Flexibility applies to the ensemble formations as well.
Of course there are plenty of venues out there, but so many of them have a kind of alternative flair. I’m talking about the highest level, the places with the most money—they can afford to be more courageous.
It’s a question of values. It’s as if we’re all sitting in a car, driving along, and everybody’s looking out the back and saying how beautiful it was back there—and no one is looking out in front to see where we’re going.
In comparison with pop musicians, classical performers rarely make statements on the political issues of the day. Is this related to the obsession with the past?
Of course the two things are related.
Are any classical musicians talking about politics these days?
We do need more argumentative, hot-headed musicians, such as [Teodor] Currentzis. His Mozart recordings are breathtaking. Go for it, do your own thing. Combine Mozart with your own perspective, your own worldview. I usually play a Turkish cadenza in Mozart, but these days I’ll be playing an Armenian cadenza. If the topic is war, then you can play Biber and Crumb, but with projections of live reporting from Syria. That’s relevant. But Dvořák and Bruch, over and over and over… it feels like we’re in music school and there’s a different competition every day.
As a magazine we’d like to write more about important topics too. For a long time, the main objective of music journalism was to grade performers on their interpretations.
Yes! You have this constant critiquing of the way musicians play the same piece: Yeah, and he played a little slower, a few new colors—is that OK? Oh, look, now she’s playing barefoot. Who cares? What is this, a mental institution? It’s insane. Violinists play Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Dvořák, Bruch, Vivaldi, I can count the pieces on my fingers. Only a few people are doing interesting things: Caroline Widmann, Pekka Kuusisto, Leila Josefowicz, Tetzlaff; Barbara Hannigan, who dedicates her entire being to contemporary music; Salonen, Thomas Larcher, Fazil Say, who are composers too. It’s nice to see exceptional people, and they don’t play to empty halls either. I don’t want new music to stay in a ghetto, it needs to be heard on the main stage.
Would you say that you’ve done some time as a part of the more backwards-looking side of the industry?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve always played modern pieces as encores. I’ve shaped my cadenzas in a way that is kind of disorienting for the listener. My interpretations are not standard. And in terms of contemporary music, I’ve always played it; I worked a lot with contemporary composers, people have written pieces for me. I’m not at all someone who’s played along.
Who in the industry is responsible for its future?
Us musicians, first of all. We’ve gotten too comfortable. We play what we know because it takes time to learn new music. We’ve gotten use to reproducing. I can’t make another museum analogy! That has nothing to do with art, there’s no development there. There aren’t many interpreters out there who really have something unique to say about a piece.
The musicians’ job is to say, I want to play a new piece. Let’s ask this composer—I’ve worked with him before. I’ll play Beethoven, but only if it’s a late night concert in an alternative venue. Maybe that’s extreme, but I’d like to see everything turned upside down. ¶