Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews February 04, 2019

Steinberg: “the characteristics of an orchestra are not determined by its nationality”

The world-famous conductor, Pinchas Steinberg is coming to Budapest soon. The city is an open book for him, since he has conducted in the Hungarian capital several times and he is always happy to return. On 27&28 February and on 2 March he is performing together with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Bizet, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky-Ravel on show in Müpa Budapest.

You have been to Budapest many times, you know some Hungarian orchestras well. Do you prepare differently to conduct the BFO then any other orchestras?

Pinchas Steinberg: Each orchestra is different. And it depends also, who is the main conductor of a given orchestra. Because if an orchestra is good enough, it is educated to be very flexible. If they are flexible, that means that they can follow the conductor any time, they can play in different ways. For example, if it is a Hungarian orchestra it does not mean that they play Hungarian. Absolutely not. The characteristics of an orchestra are not determined by its nationality.

How does a good conductor work with a flexible orchestra? How far does he want the musicians to follow his own ideas about the piece they play?

P.S.: I can only talk about my own way of conducting an orchestra. When I work with an orchestra, the first thing is that I know what I would like to hear. I ask them to do certain things, I give them advise how to do it. And when they do it, I see how well I did explain what I wanted. So this is how we prepare for a concert. About the Festival Orchestra I fortunately know that they feel and understand the music and the task, so I am sure we will have a great work together, although I worked with them a long time ago. Of course, what Iván Fischer established with his orchestra has very deep roots. But I am not Iván Fischer, so I have my own ideas about the music and the pieces we play. When I come to Budapest and meet the orchestra, I will tell them my ideas and I will explain them how I would like them to play. And only after that can we start rehearsing.

On the upcoming concert the orchestra will play three basically different pieces, as well in terms of the style, as the historic age they were composed: Bizet, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky–Ravel. What do you think, isn’t it difficult for the audience to follow these big jumps?

P.S.: As I don’t belong to the audience, I can only tell you what the musicians feel when they perform a concert like this. I give you a comparison. If you go to a restaurant, do you always eat the same food? Of course not. It is the same with the music. You offer different tastes to the audience. All three composers give different tastes to the listeners. That makes a concert exiting.

When Bizet composed the Symphony in C Major, he was very young. As a rather experienced conductor, how far do you have to understand the young composer’s soul? Or is it enough to feel and know his music?

P.S.: Of course, it is very important to understand what the young musician thought and felt when he composed that piece! How could I conduct it otherwise? It’s absolutely important! But do you know that this symphony disappeared for a long time? It only was discovered much later by chance. It is a very interesting piece as Bizet as a very young composer used still the classical style. We say: like Haydn. But it’s not Haydn, it’s Bizet. With his kind of spirit – and very French.

After listening to a Bizet symphony, the last composer who would come into mind is Shostakovich. It might be the case that I don’t know something important connecting these two marvellous musicians. What we really know about Shostakovich is that he was one of the most passionate artists.

P.S.: Yes, this is true. The two composers were completely different. The idea behind Shostakovich’s cello concerto was most probably to bring the soloist into the first rate. To show what this wonderful instrument, the cello can do. Of course it is a completely different style and a different world. We can say, it is almost our time, when Shostakovich wrote it.

The Stalinist Soviet Union is fortunately far away from us. However, can the audience feel But how far is it to feel in this concerto in what kind of political era the composer lived?

P.S.: This is a very difficult question. Of course, you can recognise some tension and fear when you listen to his pieces, but if one wants to talk about music, it is really hard to find the right words. Music is a phenomenon you have to listen to. It has to press you or touch you, if it is played well. The wonderful soloist, Alexander Kniazev will be able to give back what the composer felt when he wrote that music.

The last piece of the concert is therefor especially interesting, because two musical ideas from two different composers are united in it. Why did Ravel have to work on the “Pictures of an Exhibition”, which already was composed by Mussorgsky?

P.S.: Well, it was originally written for the piano. When Ravel got the piano piece, he could hear in his phantasy that this was a perfect piece to rewrite for an orchestra. It would be much better if all the colours of the pictures could be presented. As he composed a symphony for the orchestra, every movement became a different picture. It is perfect for the orchestra, because of so many instruments giving all the colours of the exhibition. This could not happen on the piano. Ravel was a real genius at instrumentation. He wrote a masterpiece! Let me be honest, Mussorgsky was a great composer, but I am very happy that he did not try to write it for an orchestra, because Ravel was a much bigger talent for the instrumentation than Mussorgsky.

More information and tickets for the concert are available here: 27 February, 28 February, 2 March.