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Ingo Metzmacher in interview with Colin Anderson

"We must turn this century's music into accepted repertoire," declares Ingo Metzmacher. But how? "By clever programming, play it again and again. You have to give people the opportunity to hear it, and if you constantly play these things with conviction...". Playing again in Hamburg, where Metzmacher is General Director of Music and thus entrusted with the city's opera and concerts, is Berg's Wozzeck. "It's an incredible achievement because Berg puts a strict form around this fragmentary theatre piece without which he couldn't have written Wozzeck - it holds the piece together. Even if you don't know the form you have an unconscious perception of it which makes us able to follow the piece - otherwise we'd be lost. The diversity of the musical language, which changes from very funny and ironical to sentimental and then becomes highly dramatic, is amazing."

Metzmacher admits "the first one-and-a-half acts are extremely difficult for the orchestra in terms of ensemble playing. It's an exhausting piece for everybody because so much is happening in a short time. There are parts in the opera's first half where the rhythmic developments in the orchestra are independent from each other, where I as the conductor am in the middle and can't follow one or the other - the orchestra really has to know it." Do we miss the visual aspect? "No. I find opera and television difficult. You get only one view of the production compared with seeing the show in the theatre. The intensity of our staging will get through on CD." [EMI CDS 5 56865 2, 2 CDs]

Metzmacher's EMI discography is dominated by the symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann. "It's honest, expressive music from Mahler and the Second Viennese School but in his own way. He was prevented from taking part in musical life in his best years, living in Germany under cover. I have admiration for his courage which you can hear in his music - very clear, strong and full of passion; his Adagios are incredible. He developed the form of the symphony, not just writing several movements and calling it symphony. I try to promote him everywhere; I hope people will recognise his importance."

Included as an integral part of Metzmacher's recorded Hartmann cycle is a twentieth-century mix of Berg, Dallapiccola, Ives, Martinu, Messiaen, Nono, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Metzmacher "would love to do something about Zimmermann's music, another very important German composer". He mentions a Nono project "but it's frightening people off. Perhaps one has to wait and find different ways. I think record companies lose their influence and they're not so important anymore."

Additional CDs devoted to Henze, Ives and Nono make `A Tribute to Benny Goodman' - Arnold, Bernstein, Copland - look conspicuous. "That was fun," he confides. And the `big band' tracks? "Somebody told me what I have to do because it's a different kind of conducting. I picked it up quickly and it was nice. I'm completely open to that". How about West Side Story in Hamburg then? "Or Porgy and Bess. Why not? I would rather do that than conduct operetta because they are really...". Metzmacher's excellent English lets him down here. Agreeing he means Lehar and the like, I suggest operetta belongs to a particular era and doesn't easily transcend it. "Exactly, that's my feeling - I find it difficult to make it live again. But the musical? I have a big love of Oklahoma because I once sung in it! We haven't programmed it yet - but maybe!" Metzmacher conducts Verdi and Wagner too. I suggest some people underestimate Verdi because they compare him to Wagner and miss Verdi's individuality. "I think exactly as you put it. It's all nonsense. They wrote differently, but they're both very strong composers - that's what matters."

Metzmacher refers several times to "the German tradition" which he clarifies as "clear, forward music-making, very honest, not a big show for yourself. Klemperer and Fritz Busch are my ideals". You haven't mentioned Furtwängler. "I haven't, no! I'm starting to discover him but I don't know...". Michael Gielen is a contemporary influence. "He's from the German tradition, he learnt from Erich Kleiber. I've tried to follow this tradition although it was broken through the war. I'm glad I've met and worked with Gielen because he's the only one who's experienced it."

Any new CDs? "No!". Metzmacher's ironic laugh tells its own story... "but there's a plan of recording a New Year's concert for the millennium. When I tell the record company the programme they will decide. It'll be in the tradition of Vienna - all short pieces, but from the twentieth century". So the millennium's 2000, not 2001? "Ah, that's a sophisticated question! Everybody thinks 2000 so you have to go with it." Metzmacher nominates "Stockhausen definitely, Nono, Boulez, Ligeti and Henze" as surviving the twentieth-century cut, "maybe Berio, but I don't know his work very well. I haven't done enough Birtwistle and Carter to judge - I only know it's very hard to play and conduct!"

With fewer recording plans it's "perhaps a chance to come back to live music. A concert with a well-thought programme can still be a very special event which no record can replace". And building and keeping audiences? Pre-concert talks are now prevalent, but composers like Birtwistle and Carter prefer no chat - their music should speak for itself. "They're right! I do an introduction for every concert I conduct in Hamburg. I just tell the audience what makes the music fascinating for me, why I want to conduct it and I play examples on the piano. You have to find a way of opening the door for people who wouldn't go otherwise. In England, because of your different tradition to the continent, I think there are really fresh new ideas of how to take music forward. I can imagine how difficult it is being a composer today. Where to start from? How to find your own language? I have sympathy for people like [Mark-Anthony] Turnage and [Benedict] Mason - these are the two I know. In Germany I have the feeling that people are circling in their own world and they don't find a way out."

Metzmacher intends to "slowly change the core of programmes and make people curious by using modern communication systems like the Internet. I don't think we're dead. We're at the end of a period which didn't bring much. There's always a chance in a crisis of finding a new way out; and there's a younger generation of conductor who are closer to the public. It's a constant battle to convince how rich twentieth-century music is. I believe that once we have passed the millennium barrier people will look back on this century because it's history and try to know more about it. We have lots of work ahead to achieve that goal."

Colin Anderson

N.B. The millennium concert that Metzmacher mentioned, which at the time we spoke had not been confirmed for recording, was indeed taped by EMI and is released on 3 April. "Who is afraid of 20th century music?" is on EMI CDC 5 56970 2. From 01 January 2001 the question posed may be answered from a genuinely 21st century perspective!

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