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INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ZINMAN

RUBÉN FLÓREZ BANDE / EUGENIO MOTA CAMPOS / PABLO SÁNCHEZ QUINTEIRO

One of the most exciting Mahler projects of this decade is undoubtedly the ongoing symphonic cycle undertaken by David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich. The recordings -hybrid SACD technology- are appropriately done and issued in chronological order –quite an unusual feature- and they are intended to cover not only the symphonies but also the whole orchestral output of the composer. In the following weeks to the performance and recording of the biggest challenge in the whole cycle, the eagerly awaited Eighth Symphony, Mr. Zinman spoke to gustav-mahler.es about his career, his Tonhalle orchestra and his personal approach to the life and works of Gustav Mahler.

gustav-mahler.es: Would you mind, Maestro Zinman, to tell us something about your musical recollections during your early years in the Bronx, the place where you lived.

David Zinman: I was just a normal kid who played on the streets when we lived in the Bronx. One day my mother went to a concert with a friend (to hear the teenage Ruggiero Ricci play a violin recital) and after that both she and her friend decided that ‘their boys’ should study the violin! I was given a violin, which was not the toy I had been promised. Anyway I started lessons, and practiced reluctantly, and started to listen to the radio, and to classical music. I had 2 violins, one that was kept at school because of the endless teasing from other boys when I wandered about with my case. I was then accepted into the inspirational High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, where my sister was already, and it was there that I formed a love of music, and started conducting and playing. Imagine, how at the age of 15, experiencing Eugene Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski – all of whom came to the school to give classes. I still feel pangs of guilt when I think back to the days when we heard ‘terrible sounds’ coming out of one of the windows in our street, and threw stones up at it, only to realize later that it was Béla Bartók who lived there in 1942!

g-m.es: When and how did you decide to devote yourself to the profession of musical director? Did anybody or any happening play a special role for you to devote yourself to conducting? Also do you agree with the idea that conductors are born not made as Bruno Walter and John Barbirolli used to say?

DZ: I have always loved music, and probably I decided at the age of 15 that I wanted to become a conductor, but it was an evolutionary idea that started at the conservatory but became more apparent when I went to Tanglewood in 1958 when I was 22 years old. Pierre Monteux became my mentor, and believed in me, and subsequently helped launch my career.

Yes, I think I would agree that conductors are (mostly) born and not made.

g-m.es: You worked as assistant to Pierre Monteux who was one of the most influential conductors of the XX century(1). Could you please tell us something about your memories on this regard? How did he influence you? What were his thoughts on Gustav Mahler music?

DZ: Pierre Monteux was certainly the person to influence me most in my early years. He was an extremely professional conductor who was always well prepared; I admired his attention to detail, and these were things he passed on to me. He had a foot in another century, and knew Brahms, although they could never communicate with each other, as Brahms spoke no French, and Monteux would not speak German.

Monteux did not like Mahler, because when Mahler came to Paris to conduct his second symphony, Monteux had prepared the chorus, and Mahler didn’t thank him.

g-m.es: In this context could you please comment on what is commonly said about conductors to the effect that the same piece played by different conductors and the same orchestra will give you several different paintings? Even though they may use the same brushes, the same paints, and also the same canvas, the way they spread the paint and also how they present the color is what brings out the difference in conductors.

DZ: Every conductor has his own ideas, which then influence the sound and balance of the orchestra.

g-m.es: During the sixties and seventies you worked quite a lot with Dutch orchestras; you were in fact chief conductor of the Rotterdam and Netherlands Chamber Orchestras(2) Is it true that Mahler’s music is deeply rooted in Dutch ensembles as it is usually said? Did your interest in Mahler start at that time?

DZ: Yes.

g-m.es: If we are not wrong Baltimore(3) was one of the most hectic periods of your live. You will sure have wonderful memories from that period. Would you mind to share them with us?

DZ: The Baltimore Symphony is a fine American orchestra, and I was able to perform all genres of music with it from modern American music, Mahler, Bruckner to classical. I had the opportunity to record almost anything I wanted and to make numerous tours.

g-m.es: Your teaching activities in Aspen have provided you with the chance of working with a lot of young musicians. We know for sure that you, undoubtedly, have conveyed all your knowledge to these young musicians, but did you, in return, learn something from them? Are you really satisfied with your ongoing responsibilities there?

DZ: I always learn from young musicians. I love their fresh approach, and find it extremely inspiring.

I am very satisfied with these responsibilities; it is the highlight of my season.

g-m.es: You have been a keen champion of contemporary music, mainly North American. For instance you are a genuine conductor of Adams and one of the hits in the Nineties was your recording of Gorecki’s Third Symphony with Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta(4) Did your interest in this repertory remain the same during the last years? Are you more interested nowadays in classic and romantic composers?

DZ: I still have a continued interest in new music, although with a European orchestra I tend to perform more classical and romantic repertoire because that it what has been the tradition, what is played so well, and also loved in Zurich, and which they do best. I introduce contemporary works into the programmes whenever possible. It is in Aspen where I have the opportunity to work with many American living composers.

g-m.es: When you first arrived to Zürich the orchestra –in spite of the previous efforts made by peter Flor, Eschenbach, Wakasugi- was not in the best of shapes. Was this the main reason that forced you, so to speak, to request a trial period of a year? How did you find the ensemble from a musical viewpoint?

DZ: I did not have a trial period with the Tonhalle orchestra. When I started as music director it was already a good orchestra, but they did not have enough faith in themselves.

g-m.es: Last year and simultaneously with the release of your Mahler’s Fifth another Tonhalle’s Fifth CD was also available in the market: George Solti’s last concerto(5. A valuable document as it is, it proves that the orchestra was at those days quite far from his current level. May we nowadays consider the Tonhalle Orchester -as for instance Alfred Brendel stated in a recent interview(6)- to be an international first class orchestra? Has it been easy this evolution or did you find unexpected difficulties? Which were, in your opinion, the key factors for this success?

DZ: The Tonhalle orchestra is now a first class orchestra, but it has taken 10 years to reach this point. We worked hard together, and from the beginning the orchestra had faith in me as I did in them, and for this reason it has been a success.

g-m.es: In addition to the accomplished excellence in your orchestra you have achieved something quite important, the musicians adore you, this is something that not every chief conductor may be proud of. Apart from speaking a lot to your musicians we have also seen(7) that you have a deep sense of humour and that you even resort to singing them to get your final result, i.e. how the Mahler music must sound. It is quite remarkable to see how you get the sound you are after, just like in the andante when you sing to them “what Lola wants Lola gets” and the musicians then know what you want. But we were quite surprised when you were trying to get the Faffner sound in the scherzo and they did not know what you were talking about. Evidently they did know Siegfried, however your approach to Wagner leitmotif just to get the low level sound was quite amusing for us. So we now know you are a talkative director. However, do you always get what you want from your musicians?

DZ: Yes, I always get what I want from the musicians, but I do not talk very much. Obviously on documentaries you are shown many places where I am talking, but this is not the case. I do try to achieve what I want by any means possible – mostly with hard work, attention to detail, and lots of encouragement!

g-m.es: In a recent article in Gramophone you stated quite frankly about the terror of the concert’s day(8). Sure it fell like a bombshell for most of the readers. Is it actually a real feeling or maybe something that you impose to yourself in order to improve your concentration? How do you cope with that?

DZ: Every artist copes with concert days in a different way. It is way of hyping myself up and to become totally focused.

g-m.es: Where do you feel more comfortable in terms of conducting, either in Europe or in America? Is there a real difference between both continents as regards the rapport between conductor and musicians?

DZ: Actually there is not all that much difference between the two continents. Each country has a different challenge, which makes it exciting. Obviously I always feel more comfortable where I can express myself in my own language, which may or may not be the case in Zurich!

g-m.es: Exception made for Boston and San Francisco we notice that none of the great American orchestras has a chief conductor born in America(9). Do you believe in that old saying to the effect that no man is prophet in his own land? Can this also be applied to conductors?

DZ: Usually it is in some ways, but this is a difficult question to answer. In the USA there are many more American conductors than there have been in the past. People are generally more fascinated and appreciative of what they do not know rather than with what they are familiar.

g-m.es: Going back to Zürich –probably the Swiss city with the more hectic musical activity- is there any kind of collaboration between the Tonhalle Orchestra and the Zurich Opera?

DZ: There used to be a real collaboration between the two orchestras, and at one time they were made up of the same players. Now there is none, except that we invite the Opera orchestra to play in the Tonhalle from time to time.

g-m.es: .- if memory serve us well, this is your third complete Mahler cycle. Could you please tell us about your previous cycles? How did you approach Mahler’ music at that time? Did your thoughts about the composer change as time went by or are they still the same?

DZ: My thoughts are obviously very different now from when I first started to conduct Mahler. I have done 3 Mahler cycles, in Rochester(10), Baltimore and now in Zurich. I have conducted Mahler symphonies all over the world with different orchestras, including Mahler 8 in Aspen. As I conduct more Mahler I change my approach. At first I was more egotistical, and hyper-romantic. After much more thought, huge amounts of reading about Mahler and more studying, I thought much more about what Mahler wanted. I adopted a more analytical approach, listened to many interpretations by other people in order to find my own way, which is, I hope, Mahler’s way.

g.m.es: You have decided to record all the Mahler symphonies after decades of conducting career have gone by. What do you think about those young conductors who strive to conduct and record Mahler’s music whatever the difficulties involved in conducting such a difficult music? Do you consider it to be a dare task? Do you think it is necessary to mature as a conductor and also as a person before we undertake the task of conducting Mahler music?

DZ: Everyone has to make that decision himself. As with everything you have to start somewhere – you just have to go and do it.

g-m.es: Why have you tackled this Mahler cycle in chronological order? Our opinion is that it was a very good decision, although in the mahlerian discography this is rather unusual we do really like it.

DZ: For the orchestra and me it is a question of taking one step at a time. When working chronologically it is easier to understand how Mahler was developing in a very clear way.

g-m.es: Another interesting feature in your cycle is that the recordings have been very carefully paced between each other. This feature contrasts with recent proposals as it was the case in the Berlin’s Mahlerfesttage where all the symphonies were done in less than two weeks, or the recent cycle by the London Symphony where the symphonies are performed and recorded in a single season. Such an unique artistic event as to record a Mahler cycle don’t you think it is somehow sort of trivializing or understating the music, just as if we were playing Olympic musical games?

DZ: Yes, I think that is correct. I think one needs time to understand Mahler symphonies and for the orchestra to maintain the level of playing. I don’t like marathons anyway!

g-m.es: In 1908 a German critic described Mahler’s style of conducting in this way: “Nothing is imposed on the work from outside -not even in those occasions where, either consciously or in the heat of the moment, he does things differently from the way that has been hallowed by tradition. One senses that each and every detail has its own inner necessity, simply because he himself senses that necessity and obeys it. […] Only in this way can the emphasis on individual voices and individual parts allow the melodic links emerge more clearly and the important lines to stand out more emphatically, without ever giving the impression of mere finickiness.” (11) and another colleague wrote the following regarding the same concert: “Under him the work becomes as translucent as glass. With a sharpness of outline such as perhaps no other conductor can achieve. Of course, those who always have to have emotion and exaggerated expression, and for whom the body of strings can never be sufficiently lustrous, may not have got their money’s worth with Mahler yesterday evening.” (12). We would like you to excuse us for such a long quote but we find it really relevant.

We would not like to find ourselves sort of flattering you but we found it quite amazing how close is your approach to Mahler’s symphonies to the style of Mahler’s conducting as those just described above. Do you agree with us? Could we say that in a certain way your Mahler rather renounces to the excesses of subjectivity and just focus on the purely musical values? Has it been an easy task for you to achieve such an approach?

DZ: It has not been an easy task, and usually one is criticized. By all accounts that is what Mahler wanted. Monteux once said that Mahler conducted rather like George Szell in an objective way, and I am pleased you noticed this!

g-m.es: Now we would like to talk about your musicians? Have you really found that they sort of had preconceived ideas regarding the mahlerian scores as different from your own viewpoint? Are you now in a position as to say that you have fulfilled your goals and consequently these recording reflect, in a high percentage, the idea of Mahler that you aimed to convey?

DZ: The musicians in my orchestra are good professionals, and have no set ways. They have played with many conductors. They are an open book and continue to be so. I will never reach perfection because nobody ever does. This time I am happy with the result.

g-m.es: How important is the biographical Mahler background to you? Pierre Boulez for instance did not find it relevant at all, however Leonard Bernstein fashioned the image of Mahler to his own interest. May we have your thoughts on this subject?

DZ: Reading a biography of Mahler is most important to his music. I continue to be fascinated by his life’s story and especially recommend books by Henri-Louis de la Grange.(13)

g-m.es: Do you love all Mahler’s symphonies the same? When it comes to conducting Mahler which is the one you love most of all? Which one do you find to be the most difficult to conduct?

DZ: I think the symphony I love the most is No 4, but there are moments from all the symphonies that I adore. I also love the slow finale from No 3, the Andante from No 6, the second movement from No 8 and the first and last from No 9 – they are all incredibly important to me. Probably the most difficult is No 7.

g-m.es: Whenever you conduct the First symphony do you always include the Blumine? Why did you include it in the recording?

DZ: I do not usually include ‘Blumine’ in concerts when we perform Mahler 1, however we thought it would be nice for people to have the possibility to listen to it. It can be inserted into the symphony but I don’t think it works particularly well.

g-m.es: In the Sixth Symphony you have opted for the order Andante-Scherzo, as endorsed by the critical edition of the work. Could we say that your choice for this order has it been exclusively based on this fact or may also think that there have also been sort of musical aspects that support your decision on this important matter.

DZ: This is the first time I have done the movements in this order in Mahler 6. It is based on my reading that when Mahler conducted this symphony he did it this way.

g-m.es: All the Mahler lovers await eagerly your upcoming performance and recording of the Eighth Symphony. Do you consider it to be the most complex of them all or perhaps it is just a different kind of complexity?

DZ: Mahler 8 is a different kind of complexity. It is just huge, and therefore another type of genre.

g-m.es: Famous Mahlerian conductors have been quite reticent toward this work and for many Mahler lovers it is not the most appreciated symphony. Has the time of this work yet to come?

DZ: Mahler 8 has always either been popular or not. Immediately after Mahler’s death it was performed often, because it made a good festival theme. At one time it was one of the most performed symphonies, now it is more a question of the financial issue to put it on.

g-m.es: How would you rate this work? Why is it so different to the rest of Mahler symphonies? Would you agree with those who might feel reticent to its lyricism and beauty and based on that they dare to say that it is not as sincere as the rest of his symphonies?

DZ: I think it is even more sincere than a lot of his other symphonies. It is a unique work, comparable with ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. It was what he was always striving for – expressing his feelings about love, art, life and death.

g-m.es: We would love to know your personal opinion on why Gustav Mahler undertook to compose such extrovert and overwhelming work? Could it be seen as a forced attempt to build a magnificent huge masterwork or is it simply the result of an unique inspiration; unique even within the context of the whole Mahler production?

DZ: I think this was Mahler’s attempt to deal with inspiration. It was perhaps a call to God to create something new – the fulfillment of life, and a love poem to Alma.

g-m.es: Do you also choose the voices in your Mahler recordings?

DZ: Yes, mostly.

g-m.es: Do you think that your previous recording of Richard Strauss works have been helpful to record Mahler afterwards? Was it a logical step, or it did not make any difference at all?

DZ: In some ways it was a logical step to record Mahler after Strauss, but on the other hand it made no difference at all. Both composers had such different personalities. Strauss was worldly and lived a modern life, and Mahler lived up a mountain! However both were men of the theatre.

g.m.es: You are not very assiduous to opera pits. You have never been prone to conduct Wagner’s early operas and later dramas and your approaches to Bruckner are quite unusual. May Mahler be conducted without having previously performed both composers?

DZ: Of course it may, but I have performed both composers. I have studied the complete works of Wagner, but only performed excerpts. My knowledge of Wagner, Bruckner, Liszt and Schumann has helped me with my interpretation of Mahler.

g-m.es: You have conducted and keep conducting both American and European orchestras. Do they approach Mahler on the same way or the conductor is the only relevant ingredient? May we come to the conclusion that Mahler’s music has finally been "globalized"?

DZ: Yes I would agree that Mahler’s music is now ‘globalized’. It really depends on the conductor, and one cannot generalize about differences of approach between American or European orchestras. I do think however that because of the huge number of recordings of Mahler symphonies now available, there is definitely a deeper understanding of Mahler’s style all over the world.

g-m.es: In 2007 you completed your sabbatical year. Have you finished your memories’ book? Can you please tell us about the structure you have followed?

DZ: I have not yet finished my memoires, and I may never manage to. The structure is simple really. It is centered around 3 days in my life in 1942, with flashes backwards and forward in my life, therefore incorporating many people and events who were and are important to me.

g-m.es: If we look back and try to make a summary of all your musical achievements, would you mind to tell us if there is something left behind that you will undertake in the near future?

DZ: I will continue to record with the Tonhalle orchestra for as long as I can. We are planning a Schubert cycle after the Mahler, and I would love to record the 4 symphonies of Brahms before I die.

g-m.es: And finally if, in the past, you were given the opportunity to chose another profession would you still choose to be a musician?

DZ: I would probably always chose to be a musician, because I have never been anything else. Maybe I would have liked to become a medical doctor…!?

The authors are very grateful to Silke Zimmermann and Pippa Pawlik. Without their cooperation and enthusiasm this interview would have not been possible. Also on behalf of all the readers of gustav-mahler.es we thank you very much, Mr.Zinman, for sharing your precious time with us. We would like to congratulate you not only as a top conductor but also as a great singer. The song Alma, in the documentary, as composed by Thomas A. Lehrer, and also as sung by you (we did enjoy the satiric lyrics) is really brilliant and great. We did enjoy it very very much.

We wish you, maestro Zinman, all the best of luck and as well as all sort of successes in your future endeavors.

1 David Zinman worked with Pierre Monteux from 1958 to 1962.
2 Principal conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra from 1965 to 1977 and principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 1979 to 1982.
3 Principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1998
4 Nonesuch 075597928228
5 Decca 475 9153
6 Gramophone 86(1040):p.41
7 “Going against the fate” DVD RCA Sony 88697435449.
8 Gramophone 86(1040):p.21
9 Michael Tilson Thomas is the principal conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra since 1995; James Levine is principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 2004. Alan Gilbert will start his tenure as main conductor of the New York Philharmonic in the upcoming season 2009/2010.
10 Principal conductorship with the Rochester Philharmonic from 1973 to 1985.
11 Max Löwengard in the Correspondent.
12 Heinrich Chevalley in Fremden-Blatt. Both texts (11) and (12) quoted in “Gustav Mahler: A new life cut short”: Henry Louis de La Grange pp.286-287, Ed.OUP 2007.
13 The four volumes biography of Gustav Mahler from Henry Louis de la Grange published by Oxford University Press comprises ‘Volume II, Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897–1904)’, (1995); Volume III, Vienna Triumph and Disillusion (1904–1907), (2000) and Volume IV, A New Life Cut Short (1907–1911) (2007). The first volumen is in preparation.

ver 'entrevista con David Zinman' en castellano (Spanish)

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