Conductor Markus Stenz has an affinity for openness, attracted equally to the uncertainties of live performance and the innumerable potentials of interpreting a score. Talking to him before his live-streamed performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on 24th September, with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, of whom he is currently Principal Conductor, one got the strong sense that he has always thrived on change.

Markus Stenz © Kaupo Kikkas
Markus Stenz
© Kaupo Kikkas

In the late 90s he explored contemporary music as conductor of the London Sinfonietta, and as Kapellmeister of the Gürzenich Orchestra he spearheaded the novel “GO Live!” project, which offered audiences recordings of concerts – immediately after the performance finished. Now travelling as far afield as Japan and Korea, where he is Conductor in Residence with the Seoul Philharmonic, he shows no sign of resting on his laurels. We caught up with him to talk live streams, contemporary music and the philosophy of Beethoven.

DR: Recently you conducted new works by Jörg Widmann and Detlev Glanert, and this upcoming season, you’re programming Ligeti, Messiaen and Pascal Dusapin. Is your relationship with modern music an influence from your days in the London Sinfonietta?

MS: It’s something that has never changed. It all stems from my genuine curiosity for music. I think the biggest asset these composers have is that they can speak to us with total immediacy. There is nothing that is between us and their time, and that makes the living composers different from any music from the past that we conduct.

You obviously revere the great classics as well. Is it important for you to have that contrast between the challenging contemporary works and the established classics?

I think you’ve summed me up in a nutshell. I really try to make a point that, whether we listen to the milestones of music from centuries ago, or whether we listen to today’s composers, we are in a time when that is possible to be a pluralist. To visit music from the past and maybe come up with interesting combinations, or build bridges for people to visit the past through the ears of a contemporary composers, or vice versa.

Beethoven’s 9th is a hugely famous piece…

For all the right reasons. Because there is of course the catchy tune in the last movement, but also there is an extra dimension. Anybody who listens to the other Beethoven symphonies gets a wonderful treat of orchestral music. But here we have Beethoven entering the realm of philosophy, and also the total idealist Beethoven who just wants to storm the world with this idea of the “Ode to Joy”.

Would you care to talk a bit more about Beethoven as a philosopher?

The way I see it, Beethoven, just like his inventing of music, goes beyond what he can notate. Just like with his chamber music, piano music or other constellations, he went to the extreme – stretching the musical imagination. Here, in the ninth, he stretched the imagination of what you can do in a symphony. There’s a choir in the last movement, and they chime in with one of those incredibly powerful thoughts: if you praise joy, you might be able to change the world.

Whatever he put down, I think he did to perfection, despite the fact that at this point he was probably going way beyond the limits of what people thought was possible on an orchestral stage.

When you perform famous pieces like this one, how do you hope to present something to the audience that is fresh?

Let’s stay with the Beethoven symphonies. What makes them so eternally fresh is the fact that the music is just full of ideas. In Beethoven’s time, because he was in a sense writing contemporary music, there are so many things that he didn’t need to notate – things that people would do automatically. Many phrasing things, microdynamics or rubati, beat hierarchy – things that make the music pulsate. For a while these things were lost, but now we live in a time when it is very easy to be informed, or to at least approach the music with a certain knowledge of the fashions, standards and instruments of the time. All these kinds of things add up to a picture of an extremely vivid work, with many more possibilities of what technically you see on paper with 21st-century eyes.

© Catrin Moritz
© Catrin Moritz

I’ve seen you talk in the past about being true to the original idea, rather than just what’s on the score. How does one go about doing that with a long-dead composer? 

It all comes down to imagination: the imagination that any performer or interpreter puts into reading music of the living or the older composers. Pick any given “specialists” for historically-informed performance practice, and then compare their recordings, and what you’ll get is distinctly different outcomes, all based on the same kind of research. You won’t end up with a blueprint for an autopilot performance. You end up with the possibility of the performer’s imagination kicking in. All these choices that make music spring to life are things that you can live in the moment. You can also revisit the score in five or ten years time and come to a completely different playing field. That’s more or less what I mean when I say “Play the idea. Play the idea before it had to be notated.” Even if you end up in a corner which might have upset Beethoven, or a corner that would be completely wild, it is nonetheless a possibility that a performer’s skill can produce. It’s all incredibly stimulating and very much a creative process.

The way you’re describing it, it sounds like you’re channelling, becoming a prism through which the ideas of the composer are refracted.

I don’t know who I can attribute this quote to, but: “The notation is already the first translation of the idea.” The original idea is just a musical thought, and the notation kind of defines it. But does it grasp fully, or is it already kind of a limitation, the moment you write something down?

When you go to the US in October, you’ll be programming works by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Wagner all together. Do you find that you have a special connection with composers from your native country?

For sure. Like with everybody, the things that you encounter in your adolescent years somehow build a kind of core repertoire that you cherish. For me, certainly the music of Wagner has entered that core and I love Mendelssohn for his sheer disarming charm and effortless music. You always have the sensation that you are flying when you dig into Mendelssohn. I think that programme is very much, “Let’s praise the Romantic era!” And with three different aspects: the flying Mendelssohn, the profound Wagner and Bruch as a vehicle for Romantic fantasy. I’m really looking forward to that programme.

You have a great love of Mahler and will be conducting the Third Symphony in December. Tell me about your relationship with Mahler.

How many musicians have you met who will tell you they’ve had a life-changing experience with Mahler? I’m not on my own there. Mahler has this way about him. I once stumbled upon the last 20 minutes of a live broadcast of the Second “Resurrection” Symphony, not knowing what music it was. But I was completely bowled over by the end. I had this distinct notion that this was the way music should be. It was completely overwhelming in all its emotions, and completely beyond anything that I’d heard before. It was powerful and poetic, and that’s more or less what many people experience with Mahler, including himself. He was saying, “My music should be the world.” And that’s what those 20 minutes of the live broadcast did to me, I thought, “This is the world.” Mahler is that one composer who always provides profound experiences. I can’t praise him enough.

What are your feelings about the Third?

The Third is this powerful statement. Mahler takes you through the advent of summer, through the beasts in the forest, through the Nietzschean philosophy in movement four through the childlike, bell-like movement five, through the last movement which he subtitled “What love tells me”. By this he meant love as agape, love as an idea to unite all mankind. He found the perfect music for the sequence of all of these items.

What do you make of the current trend towards live concert streaming?

I think it’s a beautiful thing because it does what we musicians aim for: we want to create the live moment. Ask any performer what they cherish most and it really is this moment of recreating a piece for an audience, to talk to people through music. If you were to compare the perfectly polished results of a beautifully edited recording where everything falls into the right place, there’s an incredible value to that. But I think in general creating something for the moment... is very much an unfiltered approach. I love unfiltered music-making, that’s what’s in it for us.

So you prefer the openness of a live event rather than a rehearsed, polished recording?

I don’t know. Make no mistake, there is the perfectionist in me who absolutely loves this idea of, “OK, we need to get those five minutes perfect, with all the inner voicings, all the layers, with all the sonorities and all the micro-dynamics.” There is something incredibly rewarding about reaching that goal for a perfectly edited recording, particularly when you listen back to it on your home stereo. But being on stage, being a performer, creating the moment: that is something that is very strong in me as well.

See here for our full archive of Markus Stenz's video performances on Bachtrack At Home.