Music & clubs

Screaming symphonies: Matthias Pintscher

INTERVIEW. Musikfest has been underway for a week already. If you haven't been, Paris-based composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher brings his own composition Mar’eh, a must-see, to the Philharmonie on Sep 12.

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Photo by Andrea Medici

Composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher on Mahler, Schönberg and his own composition Mar’eh, coming to this year’s Musikfest.

Calling New York and Paris his home, Pintscher has been the Ensemble intercontemporain’s music director since 2013 and has worked with a plethora of renowned orchestras across the globe, including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

He’ll be performing Mar’eh with the Berlin Philharmonic on September 12 at the Philharmonie. This year’s Musikfest focuses on the ties between Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg. What can we learn about Mahler from a 21st-century perspective?

Mahler has had some sort of significant influence on everyone who wrote music after him – wanted or unwanted, ignored or absorbed. This tremendously huge figure on the verge of where we abandoned tradition, form, harmony. He had the courage to be subjective. That’s always going to be something very appealing. The image of his pencil and ink on the page just going and going. It’s that fluidity which reflects in the music. It’s very natural, very human. It has complexity, and it tells us something about ourselves. It’s light on the surface sometimes, but the image underneath is that abyss of death and heaviness.

Your composition Mar’eh draws from Schönberg’s concept of Klangfarbenmelodie (“tone colour melody”).

Schönberg changed his style many times. I find it interesting to look at artists like Schönberg, like Beethoven, like Picasso, who consciously chose to find a different idiom to express themselves. Take Verklärte Nacht – you need only two or four seconds and you can instantly tell, “Oh, wow! It’s Schönberg.” You can be carried away by this almost over-excessive desire for expression. His music screams!

After rehearsals for Schönberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Mahler asked the musicians to play a C-major triad and walked out. Do you long for C-major?

Be it the C-major triad or the C-minor triad or augmented chord, I’m definitely longing for everything that resonates. Somehow we get misled that only the traditional forms and harmonies have that resonance but that’s absolutely not the case. I can give you examples where you can just take out a bar that is very dissonant and has like hundreds of notes, different pitches, but they really are folding into each other. They create a different understanding of harmony. So, yes, I’m longing for C-major but in a conflicted and transformed condition.

Later in his career, Mahler was showing interest in atonality but never fully committed. Have you ever struggled?

I’m very interested in everything people call complicated. Society has never been more complex than nowadays. So logically, this is being reflected in art. I find it fascinating to approach that music again and again, trying to keep the precision of what makes that music flow to be free so you can’t hear the difficulties we have to make it happen. Staying emotionally connected while still being in control, serving the bigger picture, can be very overpowering.

Like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony marking the breakdown of romanticism, can classical music still be an indicator or factor of social change?

This is one of the most substantial questions, because it goes right to the core of how we understand our role as musicians in society. An orchestra comes together after centuries of developing style and practice to play a piece like Mahler’s Sixth. It is something absolutely magical on a deep level of humanistic understanding. I’m really trying to encourage people to get away from that idea that education has put us in a box. If you listen to a Dvorak symphony, you think you understand because you know how the first theme goes, the cellos and the clarinets. But it’s nothing. It’s just a formal hook. It doesn’t at all allow you to feel the music.

BERLIN PHILHARMONIC: FAURÉ, PINTSCHER, SCHÖNBERG, DEBUSSY Sep 12, 19:00, Sep 13, 20:00 | Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan- Str., Mitte, S+U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz

Originally published in issue #141,  September 2015.