Like Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Gustav Mahler in the past and Esa-Pekka Salonen today, Matthias Pintscher faces the joy and challenge of juggling careers as both an internationally known composer and conductor.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “It’s a huge advantage or privilege to be working in several capacities, because they are so clearly informing each other mutually. But it’s a huge struggle, because all the composers of the present and the past have struggled with trying to keep the two disciplines somewhat balanced, which is never achievable.”
In recent years, the German-born Pintscher, 48, has followed Mahler’s model and has reserved parts of his summers for composing — not on the banks of Lake Attersee in upper Austria as Mahler did, but in his air-conditioned home in New York City. The result is usually one substantial composition per year, such as his 2014 orchestral work, Idyll, which was co-commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. “I think that’s perfectly enough, because luckily my works have been played and kept alive by other interpreters and myself so I’m not constantly forced to produce something to be heard and to deliver one world premiere after another,” he said. “That’s a wonderful, wonderful position to be in.”
Pintscher will be seen in his capacity as conductor when he rejoins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for concerts May 30-31 and June 1. The programs will feature the subscription series debut of the Joffrey Ballet, which will perform two works alongside the orchestra on the Orchestra Hall stage. Each dance employs the music of Stravinsky: Stephanie Martinez’s Bliss!, set to the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Commedia, set to a Suite from Pulcinella. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I think the Chicago Symphony has done this a couple of times with that sort of configuration, but it’s the first time with the Joffrey.”
Also featured on the program will be two pieces by Ravel: Mother Goose (1911) and Pavane pour une infant défunte (1910). Although Pintscher has lived since 2008 in New York, where he teaches composition at the Juilliard School, he feels a strong association with France and Paris, where he settled in his 20s and lived longer than anywhere else. “I dream in French,” he said. “My default setting is French.” As a result, whenever he guest conducts, he almost inevitably includes French repertoire, as he did during his CSO debut in April 2018.
This set of concerts will open with the overture to Rossini’s beloved opera The Barber of Seville. According to Pintscher, it was a request of CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti. “I smiled and said, ‘Con grande piacere, Maestro!” One of the first pieces that Pintscher conducted at the age of 14 or 15 was a Rossini overture.
Since 2013, Pintscher has served as artistic director of the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, which was founded in 1976 by Boulez, a longtime principal guest conductor and later conductor emeritus with the CSO. One of the leading contemporary music ensembles in the world, the 31-member group is in residence at the Philharmonie de Paris and tours extensively. The conductor praised the Ensemble Intercontemporain’s “remarkable flexibility” and its openness to a vast diversity of musical styles and expressions from the 20th and 21st century.
In addition, Pintscher serves in an assortment of residency positions, which allow him to build a rapport with the respective institutions that would not be possible by simply guest conducting. “The appeal is probably continuity,” he said. “It’s mutual trust. It’s the fact that you like each other, and you pick something up from where you left it when you stand in front of an orchestra over and over again. A title means being invited to also add your two cents to the artistic structure, the artistic profile of an institution, to encourage an institution to be more daring, more innovative, to be bold.”
He is concluding a nine-year tenure as artist-in-association with the BBC Scottish Symphony, which he describes as a “love affair from the very first moment.” He has led the orchestra in a wide range of works from J.S. Bach to Bruckner and Ligeti. “I absolutely cherish that relationship,” he said. He is also serving as the 2018-19 creative chair of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, where he has curated chamber-music concerts and led performances of his music. In June, he will lead the orchestra in one of his new works that will feature chorus and baritone soloist. In 2020, he will serve as music director of the Ojai (Calif.) Music Festival, which names a different musical artist to that rotating position each season. “Relationships are good in my eyes,” Pintscher said. “I’m a people person. I’m interested in other people’s stories and ideas.”
In these positions and as artistic director of the Ensemble intercontemporain, the conductor-composer has been an ardent champion not only of his own music but also that of an array of other contemporary composers. But he does not believe there is some general rule about how much contemporary music an orchestra should perform.
“I’m a contemporary composer,” he said. “Of course, I’m the first one to fight for and stick for the music of our time. But it should be based on quality. You can’t just fill the season with contemporary works just for the fact that they are contemporary or just give out 15 commissions to composers just because that’s necessary or cool or both.” Instead, he encourages ensembles of all kinds to build ongoing relationships with a small group of composers they believe in. And those composers will in turn nurture and bolster those groups in return.
What is most important, Pintscher said, is that musical organizations of all kinds devote themselves to innovative, thought-provoking programing. That can be a contemporary work, but it could also be a fresh take on a Beethoven symphony or an imaginative approach to a Bach passion. “I think it should be smart programming,” he said. “It should be programming that even leads some questions unanswered.”
TOP: Matthias Pintscher leads the CSO in his Symphony Center debut last season. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018