This Week at the MSO: Composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher

06.07.12
Matthias Pintscher
ThirdCoast Digest

By Tom Strini

Weber, Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bernstein — composers all. And conductors, too. You don’t see much of that these days.

Matthias Pintscher, the Milwaukee Symphony’s guest conductor this weekend, is a throwback. Pintscher, a youthful 41, will lead the MSO through Webern’s Im Sommerwind; Stravinsky’s Firebird (complete ballet score from 1910); Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano (featuring MSO principal clarinetist Todd Levy); and the U.S. premiere of his own Ex Nihilo.

Pintscher’s score is still warm from the printing press. He composed the 12-minute work for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which gave its first performances in January, with the composer conducting. Pintscher, a German-born, New York-based citizen of the world, is the Scottish Symphony’s “Artist in Association.” (The MSO originally announced Pintscher’s larger Towards Osiris for this program; Ex Nihilo replaces it.)

A number of Pintchser’s works reside on YouTube (including Towards Osiris, but not Ex Nihilo — it’s too new.) I sampled several; the music struck me as atonal, gestural, free-roving and mostly delicate.

The gestural, free-roving part applied to his conversation, as well, conducted late Wednesday afternoon at Clear at the InterContinental Hotel. Pintscher’s enthusiasm for all things musical is charming, and he is very articulate. The bowl of pretzels and nuts on our table proved more illustrative than nutritious, as Pintscher placed three pretzels on the table to demonstrate his approach to composition.

“These would be my materials,” he said, of the pretzels. “They’re like characters in a play. I develop them a little. After a while, they start to talk to each other. It takes a lot of work to conceive the characters, to define the qualities of the individual objects. Then you conceive the drama and get more specific about the plot. But you always remain open detours and surprises, because that’s where the real music is. And there you are.”

During this discourse, he moved the pretzels around some. They ended up in a neat stack. Note that all this is metaphoric; the drama in Pintscher’s music, at least that without text, is abstract, not narrative. The “characters” aren’t necessarily themes. They might be a complex of shifting clusters, or a quick gesture. But they are identifiable.

“In Cy Twombly’s paintings,” Pintscher said. “The eye always attaches to something. I do that, too.” (He’s intent on viewing the excellent Twombly at the Milwaukee Art Museum during this — his first — visit to Milwaukee.)

Pintscher was born in Marl, Germany, in 1971, and played the violin as a youth. At 16, he went to the Detmold Hochschule für Musik,  Hannover.  In 1990, he met the influential composer, Hans Werner Henze, who invited him to study at his summer school in Italy. Pintscher received his first orchestral commission a year later. He won many prizes, scholarships and fellowships, and his career as both a conductor and composer accelerated quickly in Europe. He lived in London, Israel and in Paris before moving to New York in 2008. He’d spent some time in Cleveland in 2000-02, as composer in residence with the Cleveland Orchestra.

“From the time I was 13 or 14, I was fascinated by all things French,” he said. “I think you can hear the relation to France in my music — through Debussy and Ravel, of course, but also from French architecture. The consciousness of detail is a very French thing — you can look at one detail of French building and get a sense of what the whole thing is like.”

He spoke at some length about his Hérodiade Fragmente,  for soprano and orchestra. In the key detail, just two clarinets play a single note each, a quarter-tone apart.

“That’s my harmony. Sometimes, you have to cut out a window and let the music become extremely simple,” Pintscher said. “A composer must be aware of how to stretch and compress time. Harmony does that much more than tempo.”

Pintscher spoke of a certain type of freedom, of letting go. It applies, in his mind, to both composing and conducting.

“My composition students are often very intent on their systems and generating notes,” he said. “But really, everything is about resonance — about releasing the sound. You can’t force sound out of an orchestra. I’m obsessively precise about notating the music, but that’s only so the player can transform it through great freedom.

“I’m not the prototypical composer who locks himself in a room. I like performing and building relationships with musicians and orchestras. It nurtures my writing.”