November 6, 2012
Leon Botstein, maestro and musical adventurer, discusses masterpieces we're missing
Steve J. Sherman

A conversation with Leon Botstein is an adventure in musical exploration. Wherever you start - Beethoven, Bach, Mahler, you don't stay on the well-trodden path for very long. Because Botstein hasn't, instead devoting his career to conducting, alongside the staple repertoire, masterpieces he has sought out and rescued from the dustbin of history. A concert with Leon Botstein conducting brings those explorations to life. As music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and founder and co-director of the Bard Summerscape Music Festival (Botstein is also President of Bard College) he has plenty of opportunities to bring to audiences superb music by composers most audience members have never heard of, and works we've never heard by the usual suspects. And by placing them in close proximity to the great warhorses, as he often does, we understand more about both.

Performing is a mission for Botstein (a recent performance in Fairfax, outside Washington, pushed conductor and orchestra to the limit, as they braved post-hurricane chaos to keep the show on - the performance, he concedes, was not one for the ages, as they were all exhausted and starving, but "bringing music to those people, especially after they had been through the trauma of Hurricane Sandy, that was the important thing"). It is learning, it is enlightenment, it is life.

For the latest in Inverne Price’s “Artists In Conversation” series, Botstein discusses that mission, and the surprising musical locations to which it has led him…

JI: You’ve devoted much of your life to bringing into the spotlight works that are little-known and little-played, and you’ve done it in about as committed a way as possible – very often either at Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra or, also with the ASO, at the Frank Gehry-built hall at your Bard Summerscape Festival, in Bard College. Where did this commitment come from?

LB: I was lucky to have as teacher the violinist Roman Totenberg, who just died at the age of 101, and he did a lot of new music – Milhaud, Barber, Szymanowski. These were people I’d never heard of as a 12 or 13 year old. So it was his example of not only playing the standard repertoire but his incredible curiosity for new music, or for unknown music. An émigré who had come to the US in his twenties, he had this fantastic ability to bring new repertoire to the table, to the student.

'You view a mythic world where you cannot sift fantasy from reality...'

Then also I had emigrated as child to the US with my parents. And when you grow up as an émigré you see a vanished world, a world that has been destroyed in the sense that the entire context is altered. You learn that in a discontinuous culture where the ravages of a war and in the case of the Jews the destruction of an entire community – the European Jewish community – result in a kind of mythical distance between reality and fact. The old world is a mystery you can’t locate, especially in the Cold War age where Eastern Europe was blocked off to those of us in America. So you view a mythic world where you cannot sift fantasy from reality.

You realise as part of this that people’s lives and careers were ruined. Some were unfairly forgotten – there were a few of winners amongst the émigrés – Hindemith or Schoenberg or Kurt Weill, but then there were many more who had once had great careers who couldn’t get a foothold in the US. Same in England with people like Hans Gál. People of enormous talent, players and composers, were displaced. And you realised how fragile, how fickle, how utterly political fame and career advantages may be.

JI: Perhaps some had a particular capacity for self-promotion?

LB: There was this whole huge array of people who had exaggerated images of themselves. And then there were those who were modest people in modest circumstances, yet whose greatness and achievements are daunting. Alexander Zemlinsky died in obscurity in New York in 1942!

JI: So as an émigré child this struck you as unfair? You already perceived this?

LB: I had Totenberg and also the Romanian conductor Jonel Perlea to guide me in this,. But yes, my empathy as a child was to rescue great talents from our own fickle memories and from historical reputations as formed by fashion. I developed a fierce curiosity about that which you could no longer find, which seemed to have been wiped out, that don’t appear in the standard textbooks.

Then, as a student at Tanglewood in 1967 when I was 20 I noticed record jackets in the store with pictures of performers in profound poses – the Karajan phenomenon – and the names of the composers were barely noticeable. There was a tremendous shift of emphasis to the performer and to the endless repetition of the same repertory. And I know already that the history of music was told in an entirely distorted way.

'I became determined to rectify the fact that, in our line of work,
we’ve put most of the things worth reading out of print'

JI: Were there any great early discoveries?

LB: When I trained as a scholar, after having studied the concert-going life of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, I was flabbergasted to stumble upon details of the last concert conducted by Brahms in 1875. It was an oratorio by Max Bruch called Odysseus (a piece I recorded years ago and have done several times). All I knew about Bruch was his Kol Nidrei and the violin concerto. I got curious and began to browse in libraries, and came across one jewel after another! I became determined to rectify the fact that in our line of work, we’ve put most of the things worth reading out of print! It would be like the book industry only having a few novels out there. Or to put it another way, most of the rooms of the museums of the art of which we are curators have been closed. To give a sense of proportion, it would be like shutting all but five of the rooms of the 200 or however many there may be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

JI: Has the fact that recording has become in many ways easier helped?

LB: In the early years of digital there was a wacky effort to record without rehearsal as much out-of-the-way repertoire as possible and that did as much harm as good. I have to often tell singers and players not to listen to those recordings!

JI: You have been conducting neglected masterpieces for many years now – which have stayed with you as the unforgettable discoveries?

LB: So many, and often they have changed my views of the staple repertory. For instance, my whole perspective on Aaron Copland was changed by preparing Regina by Marc Blitzstein. We think of Copland as quintessentially American, yet working on Regina made me realise that Copland is a kind of refracted view of American music.

Other favourites? Hartmann’s symphonies. Popov’s First Symphony, which made me rethink Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin – it was gratifying to be Grammy nominated for that one for my recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. The oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri by Schumann. The Book With Seven Seals, and the opera Notre Dame by Schmidt. Suk’s Asrael Symphony. I’d love to do these again! And soon we’ll do on stage the first performance of the Tanayev Oresteia. Bruch’s oratorios are just terrific. I could fill many concert seasons, easily, with little-known works which require no apology.

JI: You enjoy programming the rare works next to very famous ones, which of course gives context. But do people rank them against each other, do you think?

LB: We have a nasty problem in our business, which no other art form has – it’s as if you have a wife or lover and the first question someone asks is, “How does she compare to Greta Garbo?” But no-one reads a book and puts it down because it isn’t Middlemarch! We hang paintings with ease in our galleries, homes, museums that are not the Mona Lisa.

But when you do set works alongside each other you can get a wonderful sense of the rhetoric of music, its communicative logic, its grammatical and syntactical, mechanisms. I’m doing a program in New York entitled “What is a masterpiece?” and we’re featuring three symphonies all written or revised within a year or two of each other – the First Symphony of Heinrich Hertz-Sonneberg who was a friend of Brahms, a little-known symphony by a very famous composer which will be Dvorak’s Fourth, and then a famous symphony by a famous composer which will be Brahms’s Fourth, all in minor keys. Now there’s no taking away from the fact that the Brahms is a great piece. But is it better? Who cares? Who asked?

'The idiocy of textual faithfulness, it’s a historical fraud'

JI: Does taking this historical view – should it – affect the playing style?

LB: Oh, when you look at modes of interpretation it gets even worse! In the theatre world people will do incredible things to Hamlet or Macbeth, cut them, interpret them in ways that will outrage conservative or bore radical theatregoers at either extreme. Critics will spill enormous amounts of ink considering these issues. But in music the range of interpretation is so constricted – the idiocy of textual faithfulness, it’s a historical fraud. And they all sound the same!

JI: A historical fraud?

LB: Nobody in the Nineteenth Century thought that the printed text was an entire and complete set of instructions for the performer. That nonsensical idea was created in post-World War One Twentieth Century modernism. Yet a Chopin text or a Schumann text was a map for the performer, it says where everything is located but not exactly how to get there. Just because there’s a dynamic marking – that’s the most important instruction from the composer but not the entire set of instructions.

So the kind of connection that enables musicians to shape a piece to its particular audience is in danger of being lost. Expressive gestures change in music just as acting in a silent film looks grotesque to us now, whereas it didn’t to the audience that first watched it. The vocabulary of expression does change. So the fingerings in a Mahler score, they tell you something about the expressive vocabulary that Mahler was using. When you imitate that now there’s a slight danger of rendering the work antique. That’s the quandary period instrument musicians face. If you want to communicate what you believe the argument of the music was to its contemporary audience you might have to use different means. Don’t forget, Elgar orchestrated Bach as did many others. Liszt himself embellished what he played, whether it was a Beethoven sonata or whatever. Pianists improvised between movements and to before starting a piece. So there’s a world in interpretive practice which we now shun as a form of immorality or prostitution.

But that’s exactly why people still remember the great conductor Celibidache because at least he had the guts to do something interesting. I once heard the most distended Don Juan from him and I was on the edge of my seat! There was a Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony on the same program which is still going on! Totally fascinating! I was with a very well-known conductor who was outraged. I was thrilled!

JI: Do musicians ever resist this kind of approach?

LB: Only if you go to a deeply conventionally-minded orchestra in their conventional repertory. I got in trouble once with a German orchestra that was not going to do the Beethoven Eroica in the way that I thought it should be done. They were used to an older-fashioned romantic style which I disagreed with. But usually musicians are relieved when a conductor actually has an argument to be made. If your arguments are good and not arbitrary and you treat the musicians as respected colleagues, they’re game.

Leon Botstein is represented by Inverne Price for PR. For enquiries please contact James Inverne ( Tel: +44 -0- 7870 203181) or Patricia Price (

Leon Botstein conducts Carl Czerny's First Symphony, with the American Symphony Orchestra -

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