The Theatrics of Sound

Classic Arts Features   The Theatrics of Sound
Peter Czornyj, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's new Vice President for Artistic Administration, talks about those moments in performance that go beyond understanding.

Peter Czornyj joins the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra as Vice President for Artistic Administration, a position in which he will work closely with Music Director and Conductor David Robertson in programming future seasons and selecting guest conductors and soloists. As the one who is responsible for oversight of all matters that relate to the artistic side of the SLSO, Czornyj periodically finds himself involved in less-than-aesthetic concerns. "You can be merrily planning your dream programs for two years from now," he says, "and suddenly you need to put out a fire that will occupy you for the next few days — whether it be a scheduling problem, an indisposed soloist, or a contractual blip that needs some very careful monitoring."

Despite the occasional disruption, Czornyj finds his way back to the pleasures found in "the exhilarating aura of the performance," which he first experienced as a 12-year-old. That moment propelled him into a life in music: as a pianist, cellist, singer, executive producer for Deutsche Grammophon as well as for his own independent label [Glissando], artistic advisor, author, and, previous to his SLSO appointment, as the artistic administrator at the Cleveland Orchestra.

Playbill: Can you tell us about your first great concert experience?

Peter Czornyj: Great concert experiences stay with you forever, don't you find? I'll never forget the first concert that I actually took myself to. It was one of the most exciting experiences imaginable for a 12-year-old with an interest in music, growing up in the south of England. I saw and heard Mstislav Rostropovich play Britten's Cello Symphony and was bowled over by the riveting sincerity of the music-making, so full of emotion and personal conviction. It just changed my life.

Playbill: When did you know that music would be your life?

Czornyj: It all happened that summer, the tumultuous summer of 1968. Everything seemed to suddenly make sense following that amazing musical experience. I'd been a less-than-eager piano student for about four years up to that point. I realized then that music — and not just churning through the Czerny exercises — was what this was really about. From that moment I was fascinated by many forms of classical music.

But I believe this fascination actually allowed me to appreciate more fully the popular music of that time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and amazing jazz artists such as Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth. I think this was because I was beginning to understand how musical compositions are constructed. But most of all, I recognized that, whatever the type of music, the emotional response to the music — the overriding enjoyment of it — depends on how you make yourself receptive to the music's powers of persuasion, whether it's Schumann, Stravinsky, or Lennon and McCartney.

At the same time Pierre Boulez was the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. So much new and exciting music that I heard at that time was in many ways impenetrable from an intellectual standpoint, but enormously stimulating as an aural experience — the theatrics of sound. This convinced me then, and continues to do so today, that music is all about immediacy — the exhilarating aura of the performance — and not necessarily about understanding what's going on.

Playbill: The tough job, then, is how to make those amazing experiences happen.

Czornyj: I first gained insight into the question of 'How does it happen' through conversations with my cello teacher, the principal cellist of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and an enormously tolerant teacher. He motivated me to grow as a musician and a listener. I loved to chat with him and his fellow orchestra musicians about the previous week's concert. How was the rehearsal experience? How do they play that Nielsen symphony with such ease and abandon and make it seem so effortless? I just enjoyed hearing the talk about how the performance happens and how it comes together. Much of what they said is unprintable, but I felt the energy and the excitement that makes a performance from those wonderful interactions with musicians.

Playbill: You've talked about how you grew receptive to all kinds of music, but share with us a composer who is a favorite.

Czornyj: I have always had a deep fascination for the music of Benjamin Britten. There is something in his music that always resonates in me. When I produced a recording of Britten's War Requiem — actually an audiovisual production for television, CD, and video conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in the mid-1990s — I felt I was reconnecting with my musical-emotional roots, and doing something that had the potential of being meaningful for a lot of people.

To be able to work with David Robertson now and the wonderful Saint Louis Symphony musicians and chorus on this moving masterpiece is going to be a very special moment at the close of my first season with the SLSO. I invite everyone to enter into the richly intense, expressive world of Britten's music, as I will once again. If there is anything that re-creates that aura of the first encounter, or even a first love, then it will be this one.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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