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PROFILE | Orchestral Obsessions: In Conversation With Matthias Pintscher

By Tyler Versluis on April 26, 2016

Matthias Pintscher redefines the ego-driven approach to conducting and composing in the 21st-century.

Matthias Pintscher (Photo: Andrea Medici)
Matthias Pintscher (Photo: Andrea Medici)

Conducting composers are not rare in the classical music world, where we can point to living examples like Esa-Pekka Salonen or historical examples like Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner, whose intimate connection between the craft of composing and conducting would shape classical music practice in the early twentieth century. Many would argue that conducting, like composition, is an activity that requires a special vocation to carry out: the actions, norms and protocols of both activities can be taught, but it takes something deeply intuitive to excel in it. Where exactly does this intuition come from? Does it arise from strong convictions and commitment, or is it simply the machinations of a powerful ego, of which we see countless examples today and in history books?

For composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher, the answer is still mysterious, although success may lie in a deeply felt synergy between a conductor and his musicians — and nothing more. “You don’t come in with answers, it’s really a dialogue with the musicians, with the score,” Pintscher says. “You rehearse. You set it up, but then you also have to let go. That’s the most important element of being an interpreter. It doesn’t really matter how much you know; the music has to speak — be unleashed.”

Matthias Pintscher is currently on the cutting edge of the orchestral world — his recent conducting appointments have brought him to France, Belgium, USA, Switzerland, and now to Toronto to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for two concerts on April 28 and 30. Pintscher also has respectful accomplishments in the contemporary music sphere, where he is currently music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the French ensemble founded by the late Pierre Boulez in 1976. But unlike Boulez, Matthias Pintscher is very much a 21st-century musician, having largely dispelled the ego-driven approach to conducting and composition that has notoriously, and maybe unfairly, defined 20th-century classical music making.

Pintscher’s repeated assessment on the conductor-orchestra relationship is one of empathy. The music in a Beethoven symphony stays the same in the score, but the interpretation changes with each orchestra, even when the same conductor leads. “You say the same things to an orchestra, you maybe even look the same, you make the same movements, and it comes out as something completely different because it’s so determined by the soul and style of the orchestra itself. You know more and more about it, but it does not necessarily mean that it helps you to understand the artwork.”

This method of embracing mystery and relationships also applies to Pintscher’s approach to composition, which is deeply entwined with his orchestral experience. “In my very first years, 13, 14, 15-years-old, I was playing two instruments, violin and piano, and playing in my local youth symphony orchestra, leading the second violins, and I was absolutely intrigued by how sound is generated,” Pintscher recalls. “You have an impact on how the entity of the sound is being shaped. And that made me want to sculpt the sound.”

“And naturally I had my first conducting lessons, and a couple months later I stood in front of an orchestra […] and I touched the sound, and that was a fascinating experience, and I was even more fascinated by the fact that I could determine and structure the sound, rather than being the guy with the stick who beats the time.”

This obsession with orchestral sound, with large canvases with which to paint with, is the impetus for Pintscher’s composing. “I consider the orchestra as my instrument,” Pintscher states. “I wrote for the orchestra, which was the opposite of what many of my composer colleagues did, writing a little sonatina for their own instrument with piano accompaniment. I was immersing myself simply in that large canvas of the orchestra.”

The metaphor of sculpting sound, or painting music on a canvas, reveals Pintscher’s deep connection with the world of visual art. His prominent orchestral piece, Chutes d’étoiles, is based on a massive painting by German visual artist Anselm Kiefer. A series of Pintscher’s string quartets are based on artwork by Cy Twombly, also remembered for using large amounts of space in his works. Connections like these are what sets Pintscher’s music apart from the heritage of 20th-century composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Elliot Carter, where musical space was something almost to be feared. The result was often an overload of musical information.

“I think space and perspective are very crucial elements of any composition. Space allows the reader, the listener, the viewer, to include him or herself to what the artist has conceived,” Pintscher says. “I strongly believe that we need to provide that space, and not throw out a one-to-one intention that we are imposing on the listener. We need to find a way how people can find out something about themselves inside a piece of art.”

These ideas provide us with good insight on Pintscher’s own piece on the TSO programme, towards Osiris, which will receive its Canadian premiere on the 28th and 30th. But what about the rest of the concert, which will include Mozart’s twenty-fourth piano concerto with pianist Inon Barnatan, and Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony?

“Mozart relates basically to everything that has been conceived after Mozart,” Pintscher says. “It’s the source of everything. Of musical invention, of depth… anything that music requires, or needs, is condensed in the music of Mozart.”

Mahler’s First Symphony perhaps needs no justification: conductors and musicians love to play it, and audiences love its massive breadth. “I personally love the First Symphony of Gustav Mahler, and it’s one of the works that had a very strong impact on music history, like the first symphonies of other composers. I’m thinking of Shostakovich, or Tchaikovsky, where you feel that the young composer wanted to put so much into these works, it’s like bursting of inventive creativity.”

“And I chose that work because it allows a lot of individual personal creative potential of every single musician involved. I think it’s a good work to get to know an orchestra with.”

Matthias Pintscher will conduct works by Mozart, Pintscher and Mahler with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thompson Hall on April 28 and 30, 8 p.m.

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Tyler Versluis

Tyler is a Toronto based writer, composer, and Doctoral student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.

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