A Chat With Argento Chamber Ensemble Conductor Michel Galante

Classic Arts Features   A Chat With Argento Chamber Ensemble Conductor Michel Galante
The Argento Chamber Ensemble, under the baton of conductor Michel Galante, will perform on Oct. 27th at 7:30 pm at St. Bart's Episcopal Church all fragments of Mozart's unfinished Requiem K. 626 along with composer Georg Friedrich Haas's Sieben Klangräume (Seven Soundspaces).

To open the program, acclaimed flutist Paula Robison will perform Mozart's Andante K. 315 for flute and orchestra. The featured choir for the program is The College of New Jersey Chorale with vocal soloists soprano, Tharanga Goonetilleke; alto Silvie Jensen; tenor, Steven Wilson; and bass Peter Stewart.

As a greatly treasured contemporary composer in Austria, Georg Friedrich Haas was given complete access to all of Mozart's manuscripts. Haas isolated all fragments that were exclusively in Mozart's handwriting and on October 27th, audiences will be given the rare opportunity to hear these fragments (some unfinished), without the completions or orchestrations of any of his students.

"Because Mozart died during the composition of his Requiem", says director Michel Galante, "this work can never be heard as the Austrian composer intended. Until recently, audiences heard Mozart's masterpiece as filtered through the orchestrations and completions of lesser composers such as Franz Xavier Sussmeyr."


How did this collaboration come about?

I started programming Georg Friedrich Haas's music in 2006, but I hadn't met him yet. From day one, I was completely convinced that his music was something that was not only beautiful and exciting, but really game-changing, and I tried to convince George Steel to produce Haas's landmark work "in vain" at Miller Theatre. George had an adventurous spirit and recognized the project's potential. In 2008, he agreed to support it, even though hardly anyone was playing Haas in the US at the time. I immediately organized a trip to Basel to visit Haas to discuss the piece. We brought him to New York for the first time in February 2009 for the rehearsals and for a performance of "in vain." By that time, George had left for City Opera, but Melissa Smey was fully in control of production at Miller Theatre, so we were lucky. Miller's production support was crucial because "in vain" is a complex piece to pull off. The performance was a sensation. Ten months later, both Time Out New York and the New York Times listed "in vain" first in their list of the "top ten events of 2009" in New York." Our collaborations with Haas continued in 2009, 2010, and 2011 thanks to the Austrian Cultural Forums in both NY and DC, EMPAC in Troy, and Parkside Armory in New York, and it continues now, thanks to The Reed Foundation.

What will we hear in tonight’s performance?

The audience will experience two multi-movement works for choir and orchestra, one from the 18th century, and one from the 21st century. The audience gets to "time travel" back and forth between 18th century musical style and 21st century musical style throughout the evening, because the performance will alternate between the respective movements of each work.

From the 18th century, the audience will have the rare opportunity to hear the musical fragments from Mozart's Requiem in the exact state in which he left them when he died in 1791. This means that the audience will hear some complete movements, and some unfinished fragments. As far as the experience of listening to musical fragments is concerned, the best analogy I can think of is visual: it's like walking around an exhibit of sculptures taken from ancient ruins, and there are heads and arms missing from the statues. But what's exciting is the authenticity of the experience: no one is trying to glue on a prosthetic arm or head in order to complete the statue for the sake of the museum goer.

From the 21st century, the audience will hear Georg Friedrich Haas' "Soundspaces." In these 7 movements, the choir sings mostly texts from Mozart's letters, but the music is completely modern. Haas planned the overall experience of the concert this way: he was sensitive to the fact that, unlike sculpture aficionados, music lovers may not be used to experiencing pieces in fragmented form, so what he does is guide the listener from one fragment to another using short movements of his own music. The "soundspaces" sound like Haas of course, not like Mozart, but in these soundspaces, the choir is singing and speaking words from Mozart's letters.

Separately, we wanted to perform a short work of Mozart's that is completely intact, so we will play the Andante K.315 with the wonderful flutist Paula Robison.

Can you describe the process you go through when preparing for a performance?

I first have to learn the music and prepare myself psychologically, then together with the musicians we work out the piece in rehearsal. The preparation process differs according to the project. This performance is unique because it flip-flops between two very separate musical worlds: the music of 1791 and the music of today. The challenge of this is to shift gears constantly between the two styles. The solution is to be able to emotionally inhabit the musical worlds of both composers in a full and total way. Then switching between the two is faster. I've studied Mozart's music since I was a child. Though I've only been studying Haas' music for six or seven years, his music is truly contemporary so in some ways it is even more immediate to me than Mozart's. Also, after conducting eight of Haas's works multiple times, some of them large scale works; I really feel that I carry his sound inside of me. I can recall it instantaneously. I also have terrific collaborators for this project: one of them, the choral director, John Leonard, is excellent and he and I have worked on this project before. He is preparing the choir as we speak.

What is it like working with a living composer?

This can be the greatest privilege a musical performer can have. You are like a midwife: a composer may spend nine months composing a piece, and you get to bring the piece to life in a matter of hours. If you work carefully and conscientiously with the composer, together you may realize something really extraordinary and unforgettable. But it has risks too: if you misfire, you can destroy or misrepresent what the composer worked hard to imagine. I am mainly a composer myself, so when I see a page of music, I'm aware that that the composer may have thrown away thirty pages of music just to be able to produce this one page. It's serious work. No one should do it unless they take it very seriously. But it's also the most exciting activity I can imagine.

Was there a defining moment or breakthrough when you decided that music would be your life?
No. I always knew music was my life. Just like all artists, I've had trials along the way, but music is the reason I was put on the planet. That's always been clear.

What is one of the most memorable performances you’ve experienced, either as a musician or a concertgoer?

Salvatore Sciarrino's opera "Macbeth" at Lincoln Center in 2003. The memory of it haunts me to this day.

Any specific classical music recording that you couldn’t live without? / What are your ten desert-island discs?

The collected DVDs of Carlos Kleiber conducting. I watch them over and over. If you turn off the volume, you can still tell what pieces he is conducting.

Three things you can’t live without:

Can I give you two? Human relationships and the arts are the two things that really matter to me, probably in that order.

What impact does an audience have on your conducting, whether in a recording or concert?

The conductor has to always try to imagine what the audience is hearing out there in the hall. He adjusts the balance of the musicians with his bodily indications, according to what he imagines that the audience is hearing.

Who are some of your inspirations and heroes – musical or otherwise?

Beethoven is the most inspiring figure in all art and of all time. In 1802 he wrote a letter to his brothers detailing what it was like to live with deafness, which already at that point was very, very advanced. He lived until 1827. Imagine that day after day, week after week, and month after month for over two decades, he continued to write the most bold, complex, profound, and masterful music, without the aid of being able to hear it, and with the knowledge that he never would hear it. It's mind-blowing, especially when you hear the music, which is such an emotionally full blooded experience.

What is it that interests you about 20th- and 21st-century music?

The potential of sound is what's most interesting in contemporary music. Today, it would be very hard to imagine a composer like Beethoven writing in total deafness, or Bach writing the Art of the Fugue, because that music was based on abstract relationships and hierarchies that could be articulated on paper. Now, culturally, we all experience music mainly through loudspeakers, not usually through musical training. I don't say it's better or worse, it's just different. There are terrific musicians who don't even read music, and create unique musical experiences on their laptops. As a society, we've become much more sensitive to the quality of sound because the producers of the recordings we hear everywhere have total control over the way music sounds. The exact same harmonic chord progression played by an acoustic guitarist means something completely and totally different when it's played by a distorted guitar fed through a Marshall stack. In contemporary classical music, this has led to two things: first, the composer-performer is returning because composers have found it necessary to be in direct contact with sound production. Second, a greater number of composers are creating their own sounds electronically and mixing them with live instruments. It's an exciting time in contemporary music. We've just scratched the surface of the creative possibilities ahead of us, which are limitless.

This concert is presented by St. Bart's and sponsored by The Reed Foundation. Tickets can be purchased at the website at www.stbarts.org , or by calling the concert office at 212- 378- 0248.

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