When the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was founded 60 years ago, life was barely getting back to normal for the citizens of Munich. The Deutsch-Mark had just been introduced, the time of food ration stamps, the black market, and barter only just ended. The budding Bavarian Radio's Intendant decided that a professional symphony orchestra and a professional choir would suit the broadcasting service nicely. To a cacophonous chorus of naysayers : typical for the Bavarian capital whenever something new is proposed : the BRSO was founded and Eugen Jochum picked as its first music director.
Richard Strauss conducted his last concert with the brand new orchestra on his 85th birthday (a broadcast of music from Capriccio), a year later the BRSO gave its first public concerts, another year later a first small European tour. Karl Amadeus Hartmann's contemporary music series "Musica Viva" came under the auspices of the BR and its orchestra became acquainted and familiar with the musical avant-garde. Conductors like Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Hermann Scherchen, and Enest Ansermet performed modern and French works that few, if any, other German orchestras had in the repertoire at the time.
After eleven years of the Germanic Jochum, the BRSO was taken over by the lyrical, sanguineous Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik. Early on in his 18-year tenure, the orchestra delivered the first recorded Mahler cycle. Guest conductors like Erich Kleiber, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Karl B‹hm, and Otto Klemperer, and Leonard Bernstein furthered and certified the extraordinary quality of the orchestra that programmed music that few other German orchestras touched : Britten, Busoni, Pfitzner, Nono, Janšček , Honegger - and often played the standards better than the traditional philharmonic ensembles. In later years just about every renowned conductor would add his name to the list: Abbado, Boulez, Barbirolli, Fricsay, Ormandy, and Solti, to name just a few.
As a radio orchestra, it was natural that the BRSO soon started amassing an impressive discography and is among the ten most recorded orchestras in the world: which excludes a treasure trove of unpublished radio tapes that still lie in the vaults of the Bavarian Radio.
After Kubelik gave up conducting for health reasons and his designated successor Kyrill Kondrashin died before he could take on the position, the BRSO's new music director became Colin Davis who stayed for nine years (1983-92) before Lorin Maazel guided it through the next decade.
In 2002 it was announced that the Estonian conductor Mariss Jansons would become the fifth music director of the BRSO, a year before he took over another of Europe's top orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. When Gramophone Magazine recently published a poll among music critics of the best orchestras in the world, both of his orchestras were in the Top Six, which meant that the real winner wasn't so much an orchestra (the Concertgebouw took top honors), but Jansons.
In light of the BRSO's upcoming trip to New York I spoke with Mariss Jansons, who I reached at his home in St. Petersburg. Having heard the impressive and surprisingly accessible world premieres of the last two works the BRSO commissioned, I was interested in how heavily he is involved in the commissioning of new pieces for the orchestra and whether there's a particular philosophy behind the commissions.
Jansons, one of the most unassuming and pretension-free maestros out there, answers in his soft-spoken, accented voice:
"I am very much involved, of course, when we commission works for my orchestra. But there is no particular "philosophy" I follow: except that I try to assure that the work is first rate. But once we chose the composer, I don't tell them how to do it, or what. They are completely free to write what they want and how they want to."
"I am doing a Beethoven cycle with the BRSO now, and since there have been plenty Beethoven cycles already, I thought we could spice it up by offering it in tandem with contemporary works. And because of that, the last commissions all have a connection to Beethoven symphonies. But that was the choice of the composers, not our request or demand. J‹rg Widmann and Rodion Shshedrin were very interested in that connection. They asked which symphonies we would like to have the connection with and when they wrote their works they even used an orchestration very similar or identical to that of Beethoven's. The results are connected with the Beethoven symphonies beginning with the instrumentation and they even make use of some motives from corresponding Beethoven symphonies. It is interesting that both composers chose that approach; a result which with I was very satisfied and also very surprised by."
Effective as the Beethoven-link proved to be in concert, Jansons did not have in mind for this connection to make the modern works 'easier' on the audience.
"No, I don't think so... the appreciation of the audience is not an indicator of the quality of music. You can have a connection with the piece, but the piece could be terrible. The importance is to write a good piece."
But can the connection of the two commissioned works: Widmann's Con Brio and Shchedrin's Heiligenstadt Testament: still be understood well when they are removed: as on the New York programs: from their rather specific Beethoven context?
"Yes, these pieces are of course connected with a specific Beethoven symphony, but they aren't connected so much that you must play them with that symphony. The pieces can stand on their own completely. They have their own character, their own form, everything... like a 'normal' piece. They are not good works just because of the connection... of course you can hear the relationship very much, but it is not so significant that you could say 'Oh, you can't play the piece without this symphony'. That's why I wanted to bring them with me on tour, just as modern music pieces, as contemporary as it gets, since both were written in the last half year. And because contemporary music is an important part of the BRSO."
What are the particular strengths of the BRSO and how would you like to show them off to the New York audience?
"For me that's very difficult to say because I'm the chief conductor... to praise them would be kind of embarrassing for me. But objectively, this is a top class orchestra: one of the very best orchestras in the world and everyone in the music world knows it: conductors, musicians, they all recognize it for what it is. But in my opinion the orchestra hasn't been introduced enough into the music world. Certainly not in the United States, where, despite some concerts with Maazel, the name of the orchestra isn't very familiar or associated with just how great an orchestra it is. But now they are doing some very intensive international touring throughout the world: United States, Japan, all the important Festivals: to build up the name recognition. And I'm only talking about the name here, because the quality had always been very, very high."
"Perhaps because of the 'Radio' connection it is not so strongly and popularly associated with the kind of quality that a Philharmonic might have. In people's perception, somehow, there might be an association of lesser quality with a 'Radio Orchestra'. But Radio Orchestras are no longer any different from Philharmonic Orchestras in how they play concerts in front of a live audience. The times of just playing studio concerts without an audience or a small audience are over. The concertizing business is identical now."
"But yes, there is a difference in the repertoire: and that does make a difference and it is a great advantage. Because their repertoire is so very broad, this orchestra has to play all kinds of music. And they play a lot of contemporary music, for example. If you include their work with Musica Viva, then this orchestra is number one in playing contemporary music... playing more of it than any other world class orchestra."
"Musica Viva is something very special for us, it's a big tradition. Inevitably, the played works aren't always very high quality pieces by composers... but there are many types of interesting music they are exposed to. And it helps with the orchestra's reaction time. They are very quick, because they play many, very different kinds of music. For them it's not difficult to react immediately to different styles of music, technical difficulties that exist, and different composers... they know this all very well. I must tell you, for example, when I did the Widmann piece, there were many, many specific instructions by him, asking them to play in specific ways. I was thinking 'My God, so many things which you really must explain to the orchestra', but they reacted so quickly that I was thinking... 'My god, if I should have to do this with some other, very, very good philharmonic orchestra, it would take twice as much time'."
Mariss Jansons had touched upon it before, but now I ask him about a point that is obviously very dear to his heart: The ongoing discussion about a new concert hall for Munich. Currently, the BRSO splits its time between the smallish 1200-seat Herkulessaal (restored and inaugurated only in 1953 but already any comprehensive revamping prohibited by landmark protection laws) and the acoustically challenged, oversized 2400-seat Philharmonic Hall at the Gasteig.
There are proposals: to the usual chorus of naysayers: to turn the unused lot behind the Royal Stables (Marstall), right next to the opera, into a new hall with a capacity of 1800. Once started on the topic, Jansons perks up and speaks with remarkable verve.
"How important is a new hall? Well, it is really a question of 'to be or not to be'. I think it is ridiculous that a city with such a tradition, such possibilities, such culture quality doesn't have one: I'm talking not perhaps even about a 'very good hall', but not even one good hall. Because all the other halls, well, you can't speak about it at all... At the Gasteig, the acoustic is terrible, players can't hear each other, the woodwinds don't hear the soloists who play up front..., the Herkulessaal is very old, it looks ugly, the sound's not bad but with very limited repertoire, everything is else: chamber orchestra and so on: is impossible. There's no proper hall at all. And I think it would be crucial for Bavaria, for Munich. How long can you still live like this? Our orchestra's interest its very connected with the interest for the new hall, of course. While a new hall would be an important thing for all of Munich and Bavaria, for us it is important because it could be our home. Which we need. We need somewhere where we feel 'this is our concert hall, our home; a place where we can leave our instruments, our tails, everything.'"
"Right now it's like we live without our own home. It's as if you didn't have your own apartment and every evening you would you go to a friend's place. This evening you stay with this friend, tomorrow with another friend: and you don't know in advance if you can go to this friend in the next year because that friends' mother is coming or his wife might be coming and so he can't host you. You can't plan anything... it's ridiculous how we live. From one hall to another: it's really like life without an apartment. And for such a world class orchestra, one of the best, to have such conditions I think is ridiculous. Perhaps you read that Gramophone rating? I'm not speaking abut the rating per se. But all 20 orchestras that have been mentioned in this rating, they all have their own hall. Only one orchestra doesn't: and that's our orchestra. Is this not terrible?"
Terrible and ridiculous as he evidently finds the situation, he won't even let the question come up as to whether a decision against a new hall: at the Marstall or elsewhere: might influence his decision to stay in Munich.
"You know, I am a fighter. And because I am a fighter, I do not think about such things. I am optimistic and looking forward and I hope that this will happen. Because if such a thing doesn't happen in Munich, where could it happen? If Munich, this leading city of culture, can't do to this, what can you expect from other places? I can't say that the hall will come for sure, not at all. I have my doubts. But I am fighting and I am looking forward to the fight. Therefore I don't want to answer such questions about my future being connected to the hall at all. I think it is not nice, it's not right. It's a little like a prima donna, a princess that says 'Ah, if you don't give me hall, then I leave you'. No, that's not it at all."
We move on talking about Shostakovich and Sibelius, the latter of which there has been fairly little with him: or any of the other orchestras: in Munich. Part of the problem is that Sibelius, unlike in England, the US, Russia, or the Scandinavian countries, is a very hard sell in Germany and Austria. Jansons speculates that that might have to do with the mentality of the listeners and the amorphous structure of Sibelius' works.
"Germans like Bruckner, a clear structure. Perhaps there is no connection with Sibelius' feelings. Sibelius is spontaneously unclear, it can be episodal, it's difficult to follow. Of course he has in common with Tchaikovsky these wonderful melodies that are touching and cordial, but not as many. Perhaps people don't like to wait so long for the Tchaikovsky moment?"