To speak with Jörg Widmann is to encounter a mind that’s almost furiously at work and especially aware of his craft as viewed through the lens of Western history.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Jörg Widmann’s a man on a mission. He’s one of the busiest composers, conductors, and performers on the new music scene today, after all, so the intensity of a conversation with him – lots of ideas flowing out in concentrated sentences – doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. But the urbanity, charm, and thoughtfulness of his comments is remarkable. So is his lively memory.
“You know” – he peppers his conversation with this phrase – “the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) played on a music cassette I had when I was a child and it was the first music cassette I can remember,” Widmann says with a laugh. I had just mentioned that his Trauermarsch, to be played by the orchestra on subscription concerts starting on Thursday, will be the first music of his the BSO will perform. “It was Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Bassoon Concerto. I almost destroyed [the tape] by listening so much,” he continued, “but I really admired what a great, great orchestra it was even then. And it’s really a great honor to have them playing Trauermarsch.”
Indeed, hearing Widmann mention this early obsession gives a little insight into the character of a composer local audiences may not know too well. Happily, that’s set to change: in addition to playing Trauermarsch this week, BSO music director Andris Nelsons tapped Widmann to write a piece for the BSO’s forthcoming partnership with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (of which Nelsons becomes director next season). It’s set to travel to Leipzig and Boston and it’s hard to imagine that Nelsons, already one of Widmann’s big champions, doesn’t have additional plans to feature his music in both cities in coming years.
Only forty-three, Widmann’s seemingly ever on the go. That his life is music is clear: to speak with him is to encounter a mind that’s almost furiously at work and especially aware of his craft as viewed through the lens of Western history.
“You know, it happened in the 19th century that these different things came up – the Maestro, the Virtuoso, the Strange Composer who writes all sorts of stuff in the strange place,” he says with a knowing flash of humor in his voice. I’d just asked him about how his experience as composer and performer affects his creativity. “To me, it’s never felt so natural, this specificity. To me, it still feels very natural to know both ways. I’m not simply somebody who says, ‘Oh, I love the music of the past! Let’s take it!’ It’s not an easy thing for me. It’s even more difficult for somebody like me because I love the music of all times. To me, a Schumann piece, a Brahms piece, a Purcell piece can be equally contemporary as a piece that is written in our time. Or, in our time,” he adds, mischievously, “sometimes it’s much more old-fashioned than the music of the 17th century!”
Perhaps – but not Widmann’s, even as his catalogue boasts a striking number of archaic genres. There are waltzes, marches, and humoresques to go alongside string quartets, trios, concerti, and orchestral works. But his adaptations of these types of music usually look decisively to the future.
In Lied, for instance, a sumptuous study of Schubertian melody, echoes of Mahler, Strauss, and early Schoenberg (not to mention Schubert and Wagner) abound. You’re not about to mistake it for a forgotten Liszt tone poem – the flecks of percussion (like bowed cymbals) and its subtle, dense dissonances, among other things, don’t allow that – but it’s an exquisite demonstration of something that simultaneously embraces the icons of the past while also being thoroughly of the present day.
Other pieces, like Widmann’s five string quartets, run in a completely different direction, channeling the experimental sound world of Lachenmann and the grizzled energy of Xenakis. At the same time, there are works like Souvenir bavarois, a riotously nostalgic fanfare written for the Cincinnati Symphony, that sounds a little bit like something Shostakovich and Johann Strauss might have concocted together in the wee hours after downing one too many pints in a pub. How does one reconcile these disparate strands?
The first part of the answer to that question goes back to Widmann’s career as a performer. “A big part of what I write has to do with the fact that I’m a musician, a clarinetist, myself,” he says, “and that I’m on stage and that I perform regularly with other people – chamber musicians, orchestras, other people. And I think it’s always been like that since I started playing the clarinet at the age of seven. For me, [mixing old and new, different styles, etc.] was very natural.”
But there’s a more fundamental, aesthetic investigation being done, too. “In general, I’m interested in the question: ‘are these old forms still valid?’” Widmann tells me. “The piece maybe does not give an answer,” he concedes. “It may ask different or new questions. But I’m interested in these questions, let’s put it that way!
“In this case” – he’s speaking of writing Trauermarsch – “it really happened. Sometimes you want to write a certain piece, but then the music goes in a different direction. So that’s a difficult moment in composing because you think, ‘Well, I had this idea. Should I be faithful to this idea? Or is the piece more right than my original idea was?’ And most of the time, the piece is more right than I am! But, you know, to really accept that fact, that’s the process of composing.”
Indeed, the backstory of Trauermarsch is nearly entirely about the workings-out of the compositional process. “I wanted to write this piece for Yefim Bronfman and the Berlin Philharmonic as a four-movement concerto with, you know, a short funeral march-introduction,” he says. “So I started writing that. And every day, I got more obsessed by this funeral march. It took me pages and pages and pages to realize that my piece will be a funeral march and the second movement will never start – or the third, or the fourth! It was more right to write the funeral march. So that’s why it’s the funeral march today.”
While its title may conjure up the shadow of Mahler – and Trauermarsch takes on (after a fashion) the great funeral march at the beginning of that composer’s Fifth Symphony – not to mention Wagner and Beethoven, the piece also boasts the discreet influence of Brahms. In particular, the Second Piano Concerto’s low, opening B-flats inspired Widmann to reconsider Trauermarsch’s overall sonority and to tune the orchestra’s low strings down a whole-step to that pitch. “It makes a subtle, but significantly-different, sound,” he explains.
Writing the solo part for Bronfman, who’s a frequent chamber music partner of Widmann’s (as well as the dedicatee of his Carnegie Hall-commissioned Elf Humoresken), also helped determine the score’s content, and not just in expected ways. “You know, [Bronfman] sits at the piano and he does the hardest things, the most difficult runs, and it’s kind of effortless,” Widmann marvels. “And that influenced me a lot here. He has this wonderful, delicate touch on the piano and, at the same time, he has this wonderful strength and impact when he plays forte. And this fact contributed to how I wrote for the orchestra, actually, because, for another soloist, I probably would not have written such a large-scale orchestration. But here I knew…the orchestra is kind of like waves in the sea, it goes over him sometimes, but I know he has the strength to really fight against it. And, at times, it’s really a struggle or a fight between him and the orchestra. But I knew I could write like that for him and he is really the ideal performer of this piece.”
Widmann’s especially touched that the Boston premiere of Trauermarsch will juxtapose his score with the Brahms German Requiem. “To me, the programming and pairing with the Brahms Requiem is, first of all, an honor,” he discloses, a sense of wonder apparent in his voice. “But I think for the audience, too, it will make perfect sense. I love programs like these. Here, of course, it’s this very strong connection, because you’ve got this funeral march and the Requiem. And both are totally different. But the mourning aspect in both is so clear. So, in each piece…it becomes important which kind of hope is expressed and what’s the idea of Paradise, of relief, of transcending.
“In Trauermarsch, there are some really very simple moments when all this funeral march is dark, the world is really for a moment – sometimes only for a second, once for about a whole minute – it’s a dream of something else and of a different beauty and of maybe even the presence of the dead, that they’re still with us. And, you know, in the Brahms Requiem, we get different answers. But the music asks similar questions.”
Best of all, for Widmann, seems to be the fact that Andris Nelsons will be on the podium. For Nelsons, Widmann has nothing but praise: “He’s such a wonderful and fascinating conductor but, at the same time, a wonderful human being, and, when he comes into a room and he starts making music, it opens everybody’s hearts – it’s heartbreaking in the best sense!”
When I asked him to expound on his experience working with Nelsons, who I’ve found since his arrival in Boston to be a terrific purveyor of new music, Widmann was quick to agree. “Oh, he’s exceptional. Fantastic,” he said. “And he helps so generously. You know, in every kind of music, not everything is easy-going. So there are some places that really just need the help and support of a conductor. And the piece he did of mine in Birmingham” – the Violin Concerto; Nelsons was director of the City of Birmingham Symphony from 2008-15 – “it’s one of my not-easy-listening pieces, but he helped in such a tremendous way, with his whole body. And I think you can read, as an orchestra member but also as someone sitting in the audience…it’s so clear what he wants and where the music goes – which direction it goes in.
“Also, with chord progressions,” Widmann continues. “He’s one of the very few conductors in the world who really understands – you know with the conductors today, they can all conduct rhythms, but that’s the simplest part of conducting. He has a sense of harmonic progressions in all repertoire. I can only speak for my music, but he understands it so deeply. So, for him, he can start already on another level when he goes in front of the orchestra for the first time because he already has a harmonic vision of the music at hand.”
As for how he hopes next week’s audiences will approach Trauermarsch, Widmann is typically forthright and practical. “First, I hope they hear the wonderful combination [with the Brahms]. That helps already a lot,” he reiterates. “It’s really intelligent but at the same time emotional. And I hope, that although [my piece is] a different language, for sure, that people can just listen to it as music. You know, the perception can change. If you hear maybe some futuristic or modern aspect in the Brahms or some traditional aspect in my piece and it really starts to interact, then I’d be most happy.”
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.