The American-German conductor Jonathan Stockhammer on Jazz music, the Pet Shop Boys, Georg Friedrich Haas and Rolf Riehms’s latest orchestra work Die Tode des Orpheus, which he recently premiered with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in Saarbrücken.
You conducted the world premiere of Rolf Riehm’s new orchestra work Die Tode des Orpheus in November 2017. Please tell us something about this composition.
When I think about Orpheus, the first thing that comes to my mind is this beautiful, celebrated mythological figure with an amazing voice and a determination to overcome tragedy – and then in the end he fails because of his humanity. It would seem like a poetic, very classical subject. However, it is interesting that Riehm’s piece is everything but that.
The title of the composition is “The Deaths of Orpheus”, so there is an emphasis on his end, or better put, any number of horrible fates he may have suffered. This piece speaks again and again about loss and dismembering. At the same time, it is a very social, politically conscious piece.
In what way?
Even having been a relatively keen follower of world news for some three decades, any number of recent events and horrific calamities have made me feel extremely disquieted. For example, I personally wasn’t prepared for the election of Donald Trump. Many of us had a hard time sleeping,and we experience a mix of insecurity and impotence when we read about the gruesome slayings of ISIS or the escalation with North Korea. It feels as if a certain filter, even if it was fundamentally an illusion, has been stripped away.
That grotesqueness is all in Riehm’s piece. It is a very dark and violent kind of music, so it is in “harmony” with the times that we’re experiencing right now. For all of these reasons I find it a very striking piece.
Have you been in contact with Rolf Riehm to talk about this specific piece?
No, I have not. I think that it is a better service to a work to do some things on intuition and let the composer correct you if he or she is still alive than to ask for every gesture. And Riehm’s Die Tode des Orpheus
also is not a piece that leaves a lot to imagination. It is extremely clearly notated and structured.
You have also conducted many works by Georg Friedrichs Haas. What was the experience like when you conducted Koma?
Yuval Sharon, one of my favorite directors and a deeply sensitive human being, came to hear Koma
in Schwetzingen. After the performance he said: “I could not talk to anybody after that. I was just so devastated, so moved and transported by this piece. It was just indescribable”. And I think that is very true.
Why is that?
The idea of having absolutely no light leads to an entirely different listening and playing experience. It gives a new kind of vitality to the composition. The idea is that the audience is deprived of all visual information, just like a person who is in a coma. That way the audience becomes the patient in a coma. This work allows the audience to experience it almost as if they were the subject. As soon as there is no light, the ears no longer perceive music coming from the pit. It sounds like the music is around you, behind you and above you. So it places you in the middle of the action, it makes you feel extremely vulnerable and very attached as listener.
What do you find particularly striking about the music?
There is such an incredible understanding of form. You feel like every moment is compelling. It has to be that moment, and it has to go in that place and it has a kind of universal logic to it. The experience of conducting that work was overwhelming for me. Only my very favorite composers Mahler and Debussy move me that way.
You have an enormous range of repertoire – from Beethoven and Brahms to modern and contemporary music to Jazz and the Pet Shop Boys. What are you looking for in your projects?
It might sound very selfish to say it that way, but I’m looking to not get bored. The most fortunate thing in my last 20 years is that I had the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of music.
Before I started working with the Pet Shop Boys, I had only heard a few tunes by them. Through my contact with them I began to appreciate the depth of their lyrics and the coolness of some of their patterns and their style. It expanded me a lot.
Working with Chick Corea and Gary Burton was the same kind of thing. I’m no jazz expert. I can barely figure out a few passages on the piano of jazz harmony. But working with them or working with Peter Erskine woke me up to not only to a different style of music, but also to a different way of making music that helps me a lot in my classical music rehearsals and the way I look at music.
Photo: Marco Borggreve