J-Wire talks to Steinberg

March 13, 2010 by Henry Benjamin
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Pinchas Steinberg conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra this week in a program featuring Franck, Ravel and Berlioz. Read J-Wire’s interview with him….

Pinchas Steinberg photo: Henry Benjamin

J-Wire:   What family do you have?

PS:   My wife and I have three children, one in Holland, one in America and the other in England. Last week, I became a grandfather for the fifth time.

JW:   You travel the world extensively…but where is home?

PS:    For the last twenty years, I have lived in Monte Carlo. Before that I lived in Berlin for five years and before that in the U.S.

JW:   You were born in Ra’anana, Israel but how long is it since you lived there?

PS:    About 50 years. My parents were from Germany and White Russia.

JW:   Are you publicised as an Israeli conductor?

PS:   I have no idea. I don’t publicise myself. Some write American, some write Israeli…but remember it was Palestine when I was born there. I was 14 when I left Israel. I am                 now 64. My family life had been split between the U.S. and Israel.

JW:   Have you ever experienced any anti-Israel demonstrations given that you were born there?

PS:    No, and if I were to, it would be silly because I don’t represent the State of Israel. I was just born there. I represent the music.

JW:   You have a very extensive repertoire. Do you have any particular favourite work?

PS:   This is like asking a father “Do you have a favourite child?”.

JW:    What is the most difficult work you have performed?

PS:   Recently it was at the Paris Opera last September/October. “Die Tote Stadt” – “The Dead City” – by Korngold. It was unbelievably difficult. The orchestra had never played it.

Let me tell you about Korngold. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic. The family was Jewish and moved to Vienna where his father became the successor to Eduard Hanslick, the most famous music critic of all time…a man who used to ‘kill’ Wagner. He was a friend of Brahms and was shooting against Wagner. When Die Meistersinger was written by Wagner, the first version of Beckmesser, Hanslick said it was ‘Wrong, wrong wrong”. Hanslick was the most powerful music critic in Vienna at that time and when he died Julius Korngold took his place. Korngold’s son was declared by both Gustav Mahler and Richar Strauss as being, after Mozart, the next genius. At the age of eleven, he wrote an entire ballet for the Court Opera in Vienna. It was unheard of and unbelievable. Everything was in Vienna. It was the musical centre. Korngold studied with Zemlinsky…another Jewish composer. He then quit Zemlinsky and went to study with Schoenberg. Korngold was such a genius that Zemlinsky wrote a letter to him asking “Is Schoenberg making any progress?” A fine example of a Jewish sense of humour. Then, unfortunately, Hitler and Nazism came. Korngold went to the United States. He was 32 and married with two kids. What do you do? How do you make a living? Hollywood offered him a job to write film music. He had to eat…and he accepted. He wrote some marvellous scores. Even today, we hear his style of music in major scores like Star Wars. John Williams was a pupil under Korngold. He started the big soundtracks with scores for films like Robin Hood for which he won an Academy Award. Even today, the moment you write for movies you are branded as a film composer and you are not taken seriously. But he wrote a violin concerto, world premiered  by Jascha Heifetz who was my teacher. It became a sensation. Why? Because Jascha played it. People put labels on you. The guy was a genius but Jascha’s name was bigger than Korngold’s. So he became known as a film composer. But before he went to the United States, he wrote Die Tote Stadt’. It was premiered in Cologne under the baton of Otto Klemperer. It was an absolute sensation…and then he disappeard.Korngold came back to Vienna in 1958 hoping to re-establish himself but the music establishment ignored him completely. He went back to Hollywood and died a few years later of a broken heart at the age of 68. This was a very long answer but people say that Die Tote Stadt is the opera that Mahler never wrote…remember Mahler said Korngold was the first genius since Mozart. But they were difficult times because of the war and a lot of talent disappeared. Jacha Horensein was musical director in Dusseldorf before the war. He emigrated and he too disappeared. Hollywood offered Schoenberg the opportunity to write film music. He declined and became a teacher of harmony and did not enjoy a good life in the States, scraping the bottom of the barrel just to eke out an existence. We are not talking about some schmegeggies. We are talking about giants. Schoenberg and Korngold changed the face of 20th century music.  I cannot tell you how difficult Korngold’s opera is…from the beginning to the end. But it’s phenomenal. It was a huge risk to perform it. There is an old German saying that “what a farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat” and the public did not know of Korngold. I had to convince the Director of the Paris Opera to perform it which we did eight times. The critics reviewed it as one. They were stunned. You could not imagine the audience’s reaction. They were screaming and yelling “bravo”. It was like a football match.

JW:  Were you happy with the performance of the SSO?

PS:    I am never happy with my performances. The moment I am happy with my performance, I quit. I mean it…because I can always do better. I have conducted the Symphonie Fantastique many times, but every time I do, I study it as if I have never conducted it before in my life….and I always find new things in the score. If you conduct a piece in a 1-2-1-2 manner, then that is how you will hear it and you can look at the orchestra and they are half asleep. Then I would think Oi Vey! What am I doing in this profession? When I took over an orchestra in Geneva, the administration asked what was I going to do differently? I replied..for me to do a concert, I give people something. If they walk out of the concert hall and I have touched them and they don’t forget they have been at my concert, I have achieved something. If they walk out of the concert hall and forgotten about what I have done and they head off to have coffee and talk about this and that, I have lost.

JW:   Was it my imagination or did I hear snippets of Gershwin during the Ravel Piano Concerto?

PS:   Not at all. But it is the other way around. Gershwin went to Ravel. He composed on the piano. He could not orchestrate. But Ravel was a genius at orchestrating. He said Maestro I would like to take lessons from you in instrumentation. And Ravel looked at him and said: ‘Tell me something, how much money did you make last year?’ Gershwin replies “About $400,000″….to which Ravel responded “What! I should take lessons from you!”

JW:   Was  ‘Die Tote Stadt” your career highlight? If not, do you have one?

PS:    Not for me. If I go anywhere and see the musicians sitting at the edge of their chairs giving everything they’ve got…this is my highlight. I am not impressed by big names and big orchestras. I have conducted all of them. That’s not what it’s about. Some people might think, for example, to conduct at La Scala would be the dream of their life. I was there just two weeks ago. Great concert. Great response from the public. I put my work into it…it was accepted…and that is the way it should be.

JW:  A question many people are fond of asking…What are the top five orchestras in the world?

PS:   Music is not football. The team that scores the most goals is the best team. How do you judge an orchestra? This is marketing and publicity stuff and is totally insignificant. If someone can tell me how to judge it, then maybe I could give you an answer.

JW:  You have conducted all the world’s great orchestras. Why are you unknown to us here in Australia?

PS:    Very simple. I was not invited.

JW:    Are you still in touch with what is happening musically Israel?

PS:  No. Not really. I have conducted the Israeli Philharmonic many times. But in the last few years ..no.

JW:   What was it like to study under Jasha Heifetz?

PS:    Tough. But it was like opening a book for the first time. You learn things and you learn ways of thinking about music that nobody has every told you. It was mind-blowing. He was incredibly tough and he was merciless. I was playing the Brahms Sonata in a master class and he stopped me and asked me what I was thinking at that moment. I replied: “Well Mr Heifetsz…” to which he responded “Exactly.. you weren’t thinking about anything…I heard it”. He was absolutely right. You always have to anticipate what you are going to do next. I hear it so many times in concerts that people describe as being boring. I am not talking about the visual aspect of it. Some of my colleagues are running around and are very animated. What do I get from what you are giving me?…that was Jascha. If you had ever seen him perform..he stands like a piece of wood but you think…how can a human being play like that? His sounds were amazing. I studied with him for three years.

JW:  How long did you work with the SSO for the Fantastique concert?

PS:   Not long. That is the trouble with being a guest conductor. You never get enough time. You play the first movement and then you have to fix what needs to be fixed but that does not leave sufficient time to work on the interpretation. There is not enough time. It’s almost impossible as I mentioned before to be satisfied. Solti told me he hated orchestras because “they kill my dreams”. I can never hear from the orchestra what I hear between my own ears. The SSO was great. They played for their lives. But that is something else. The way I hear it in my ear, I very rarely hear it from the orchestra. The Sydney Symphony could play much better. It always depends who stands on the box. I worked with the Berlin Philharmonic for five years under Karajan. In 1972 I got goose pimples playing Tristan. I joined when I was 25 and some of my older colleagues told me they had played in Bayreuth under Victor de Sabata and the Tristan he conducted they will never forget. They told me they felt it was not them playing because the conductor made them play like they had never played before. The Sydney Symphony has varying levels of ability, normal for any orchestra. I have heard concerts by many of the world’s great orchestras which were forgettable. It all depends on the conductor and I believe the Sydney Symphony is capable of great things. Each one of them has to know they must to the best they possible can. Otherwise it is routine and routine is the death of everything.

Pinchas Steinberg leaves Australia today for Prague…and another concert.

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