An Interview with Robin Ticciati

By · Title Image © PETER ADAMIK · Date 4/12/2018

Robin Ticciati’s friendliness and openness seems indomitable, yet have none of the routine amicability that other frequently-interviewed musicians adopt. He develops his thoughts patiently while speaking and asks himself lots of questions, too. Bruckner’s relatively seldom played Sixth is part of the unusually broad repertoire that Ticciati is conducting in his inaugural season as principal conductor at the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, which stretches from French baroque, via Mozart, Berlioz, Schoenberg and Wagner, to Jörg Widmann and the German premier of Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No. 2. There’s also a striking fondness for rarities such as Duruflé’s Requiem or Messiaen’s “Chronochomie.” In the concerts I’ve seen so far, the orchestra’s sound has gained in warmth and liveliness compared to Ticciati’s perfectionist predecessor, Tugan Sokhiev.Over two short meetings in Berlin, we talked about chamber music, Carlos Kleiber, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and “Der Rosenkavalier,” which Ticciati will conduct for the first time at Glyndebourne Festival, where he’s also artistic director.

VAN: APART FROM PIANO, YOU ALSO STUDIED VIOLIN. DO YOU EVER GET A CHANCE TO PLAY YOURSELF?

Robin Ticciati: I actually gave up the violin completely and migrated to viola. But I definitely want to play piano more, perhaps I’ll do a project with the academy students at the DSO. With all the mental work, I have a desire to touch the keys, to remember what a subdominant “feels like.” I also keep feeling more and more that chamber music gives you the most direct access to composers such as Brahms or Dvořák.

YOU WORKED FOR A LONG TIME WITH A RELATIVELY SMALL ORCHESTRA, THE SCOTTISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA, WHERE YOU WERE PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR FROM 2009 UNTIL THIS SEASON.

In my final week there we played Dvořák’s Ninth, which I’d spent a lot of time with. Sometimes I missed the sound of a larger string section, but a lot of it worked very nicely because of the chamber setup. With these absolute masterpieces, you often forget to listen for the composer who wrote them. Because we think we know it all so well. Then it’s important not to interpret them like blockbusters.

THE HISTORY OF MUSIC IN THE 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES WAS SHAPED BY ENORMOUS CONTROVERSIES: BETWEEN BRAHMS AND WAGNER, FRENCH AND GERMAN MUSIC, SCHOENBERG AND STRAVINSKY, EVEN BOULEZ AND HENZE. TODAY, HARDLY A SINGLE CONDUCTOR COMES TO MIND WHO LOVES BRAHMS BUT REJECTS WAGNER, OR VICE VERSA. HASN’T SOMETHING BEEN LOST IN TERMS OF THESE CONFLICTS AND TENSIONS?

You mean that our taste in music has been gentrified?

MAYBE. IS THERE A “GREAT” COMPOSER WHO YOU REJECT, OR WHO HAS AT LEAST REMAINED FOREIGN TO YOU?

Shostakovich. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place to start yet…

Photo © FABIAN FRINZEL AND AYZIT BOSTAN
Photo © FABIAN FRINZEL AND AYZIT BOSTAN

I THINK A LOT OF HIS LATER WORKS ARE GREAT: THE CHAMBER MUSIC, OR HIS SYMPHONY NO. 14 FOR EXAMPLE.

I also think the Symphony No. 14 could be a good introduction. But when I conducted his First years ago, I felt like a charlatan. With some performances of Shostakovich, I feel like his music serves the questionable side of our profession.

YOU HAVE A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP WITH ANOTHER CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE OF THE 20TH CENTURY, JEAN SIBELIUS. IN APRIL, YOU’LL CONDUCT HIS LAST SYMPHONY.

Because I thought in this season, there have been some new things for me, but there are also some things I wanted to do again. There will definitely be a Sibelius moment with the orchestra and me at some point, were we will do it in depth. And from the feeling of the sound they have, the strings: the burning that they have, the sostenuto, the power that one needs. I felt it when we did the violin concerto with [Christian] Tetzlaff.

I OFTEN FIND THAT HIS STRUCTURES CAN BE HARD TO UNDERSTAND. WHILE IN AMERICA AND ENGLAND HIS WORKS HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED UNDISPUTED MASTERPIECES FOR A LONG TIME, IN GERMANY PEOPLE TRADITIONALLY ARE COOLER TOWARDS HIM. WAS HIS MUSIC ALWAYS CLOSE TO YOU?

I heard it throughout my childhood, it was there when I was 13 or 14 years old in the interpretations of Colin Davis. of I played symphonies one and three in youth orchestras. At the start of his Seventh, you feel what it must feel like for a child to see light for the first time. And with his Symphony No. 5, he said: “God has thrown down a mosaic from heaven and asked me to piece it together. I get excited by that sort of grappling.

ADORNO WROTE OF SIBELIUS THAT HIS THEMES “ARE SOON BEFALLEN BY MISFORTUNE, RATHER LIKE A NEWBORN BABY WHO FALLS OFF THE TABLE AND INJURES ITS BACK. THEY CANNOT WALK PROPERLY.”

Maybe that’s true. They’re all misfits, actually, but wonderful misfits.

RICHARD STRAUSS SAID THAT HE COULD DO MORE THAN SIBELIUS, BUT THAT SIBELIUS WAS THE GREATER COMPOSER. YOU CONDUCTED “ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA” IN YOUR INAUGURAL CONCERT AT THE PHILHARMONIE IN BERLIN, AND YOU’RE STARTING THE REHEARSALS FOR “ROSENKAVALIER” IN THE SUMMER. WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO THIS OPERA?

It’s something like the Mount Everest for conductors.

HOW SO?

There is so much in these three hours that every bar is filled with the possibility for the most precise physicalization for a conductor. In order to speed up, take time, whee to give a two and where not to give a two in the waltz. It is the most incredible minefield. It just becomes an obsession.  

DO YOU KNOW THE FILM OF THE PERFORMANCE WITH CARLOS KLEIBER WHERE YOU CAN SEE HIM IN THE BOTTOM-RIGHT CONDUCTING THE ENTIRE TIME?

Have I seen it? Have I been totally depressed by it? I mean, the only way to look at that is to marvel—with that piece, the combination of understanding physicality, memory, relationship with the stage, the sound of the orchestra.

If you analyze his relationship with the players, I find it devastatingly powerful, and quite dark. The moment where someone takes half a demi-quaver out, he shoots them down with a stare: You are not worthy to play in this moment.

ISN’T IT ULTIMATELY ABOUT THE MUSICIANS FEELING FREE?

I feel, they play with total freedom, because they respect him so much. But everything is controlled.

WHY DO YOU THINK KLEIBER DISLIKED CONDUCTING, OR IN ANY CASE CONDUCTED SO LITTLE, IN HIS LATER YEARS?

I guess that one part of it surely is, that if you feel the responsibility and care so much about a piece, then—if I talk about an Everest for a conductor—I guess that every piece, every bar becomes this torment.

DO YOU KNOW THAT FEELING YOURSELF? MUSIC-MAKING AS A BURDEN?

I mean, it’s very tiny, but maybe it’s the seed of something. I used to be a conductor that would do a week’s concert and then have a weekend or something and then went into the next week. So I didn’t really know any differently. And now, with this time I’m talking out after projects, I get back and actually about four days after I stop, I feel this intense tiredness that turns into rebirth. In other words, I now know what it’s like not to run on empty.

Photo © FABIAN FRINZEL AND AYZIT BOSTAN
Photo © FABIAN FRINZEL AND AYZIT BOSTAN

HARNONCOURT ONCE SAID THAT AFTER APPEARANCES, HE FELT AS IF HIS SKIN HAD BEEN PULLED OFF.

Interesting, that sound very raw and painful and drastic. I think of Sir Colin Davis’ phrase in a course when I was 14 that has stuck with me: Salmon swim upstream in order to lay their eggs, and when they lay their eggs they just turn on their side and just float downstream.

CREATIVITY AS A PROCESS OF EXPENDITURE, OF EXHAUSTION?

So it’s a very long way around getting to your question, but I know more and more how much I want to give to the musical process. And the orchestra here, of course, is such a catalyst, because there’s this drive. When you said the word “burden”—for me it’s just joy and excitement about the music. So it’s not a burden, but I am beginning to be more and more aware of how much it means, how much responsibility there is. And that’s something I don’t want to take lightly. ¶