From April 5-7, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present a program compromised of Strauss’ Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Messiaen’ Les offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings); and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet joins the NJSO for Debussy’s Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra. Mälki is the Music Director of the Ensemble intercontemporain and was previously Artistic Director of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra.
For your debut with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, you will be conducting Strauss’ Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration.) What are your major impressions of these pieces? How do the two pieces differ from each other?
I think that the titles themselves are quite a precise and quick indicator of the spirit of each work: it's obvious that the stories they are telling are very different from one another! Don Juan is the ultimate virtuoso piece, whereas Tod un Verklärung is a dramatic, and in my opinion, a very beautiful and profound piece of music. I find it extraordinary that Strauss wrote something like that at such a young age. We could of course reflect on both pieces confronting life on earth not being eternal (which, of course, is something that even Don Juan faces in the end), but that would be a much too big a subject here! In any case, the orchestral writing of Strauss is amazing.
You will also be conducting Messiaen’ Les offrandes oubliées (The Forgotten Offerings.) How will this piece contribute to the mostly Strauss program?
We can find the otherworldly connection there to the subject of Tod un Verklärung, even if the harmonic world is of course quite different. Messiaen was deeply religious, and what we can almost always hear strongly in his music is the feeling of a deep conviction - and one doesn't have to have the same one in order to appreciate it. A strikingly original work written by another very young composer.
What is one of your most memorable conducting experiences, and why?
It's not a simple task to choose one single occasion, especially since the later ones could not have existed without the earlier ones! For me it's always first and foremost about the music itself; it's also about a strong connection with the musicians when the performance is taking place. When these elements coincide, special moments can happen.... I feel very fortunate having been working with some of the finest orchestras in the world on the greatest repertory that exists!
What exciting performances do you have coming up in the future?
I'm really looking forward to returning to the Chicago Symphony in October this year. I'm also happy to be doing more opera: can't wait to get to conduct The Makropoulos Case by Janacek at the Paris Opera in the fall! Also, one life-long dream will come true when I will conduct the Marriage of Figaro for the first time, in the not-so-distant future...
What was it like to be the first woman to conduct at La Scala in Milan?
Historically, it's of course a very important step, and when I heard that that would be the case, I was deeply honored. Seeing the opera pit in that house for the very first time was a special moment as well, as I was thinking of all the amazing conductors that have been standing there facing all those legendary singers... but as soon as the work starts, one is so emerged in it that this kind of thoughts go to the side - fortunately! But it's such a beautiful house, you really do feel the history there, and I missed it all as soon as I had left it...
How did you originally come to be involved in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra?
The manager of the orchestra, Roger Wight, came to listen to some concerts of mine, that's how I met him and learned more about the orchestra.
What thoughts go through your mind right before you step on stage for a performance?
At best, it’s just a state of pure focus and positive expectation!
What kind of music did you listen to growing up and how did those artists’ affect your career interests?
I did hear a lot of classical music at home and I was very strongly affected by it, but I did not decide about a professional career until in my late teens, when I heard some major works for the first time in live performances. Growing up, I was listening to a lot of rock and pop music as well (and I still enjoy it), which I think is pretty normal these days among my generation of classical musicians, even the composers. (Perhaps my interest in contemporary music comes partly from a very natural coexistence of such extremes?)
Any specific classical music recording that you couldn’t live without?
Again, picking just one is impossible! There are some old favourites that I may not listen to for years and then one day for one reason or another I find them again (like the old recording of La Bohème with Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting)... Perhaps I'd say basically anything that Carlos Kleiber did - they are all true treasures.
Performances take place on Friday, April 5, (8 pm) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark; Saturday, April 6, (8 pm) at the State Theatre in New Brunswick and Sunday, April 7, (3 pm) at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. A Classical Conversation begins one hour before the performance on April 5 in Newark.
The Orchestra’s April 5 concert at NJPAC is a “Friday Night Out” LGBT event; the NJSO will host a post-concert champagne and dessert reception—set to the jazz-age sounds of the Michael Arenella Trio—for ticketholders who are LGBT community members and friends.
Tickets start at $20 and are available for purchase online at www.njsymphony.org or by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476).