Saturday 5 December 2020

Making music in complex times: conductor Cornelius Meister on his recent concerts in Scotland, his work with the opera in Stuttgart and national differences in performing styles

Cornelius Meister conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020
Cornelius Meister conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020

This Autumn German conductor Cornelius Meister was due do a recording and a concert with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) at the end of November, and was scheduled to return to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This latter was cancelled, and then the concert in Scotland was turned into a recording, and finally the day before we were due to talk on Zoom, I learned that Cornelius was already in Scotland, two weeks before scheduled. Such is the life of an artist in our present times. And whilst our conversation focused on his performances in Scotland, we also touched on the challenges and rewards of running an opera house during the present crisis, the joys of exploring composer's works in complete cycles and the importance of national differences in performing styles.

Cornelius is a conductor who has popped up on this blog already, as I reviewed his recital disc with soprano Aida Garifullina and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien on DECCA [see my review] and Tony caught his performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 from the Berlin Philarmonie with the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin [see Tony's review], whilst his UK appearances included the 2017 revival of Katherina Thoma's production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne [Matthew Rye on Bachtrack described it as 'an account of Strauss’ score that managed to be both transparent and sumptuous.']

The week before I spoke to Cornelius, new isolation rules were coming in which would have put his project in Scotland in jeopardy, and the orchestra had lost their conductor for earlier recording projects so on the Friday (the day before the new isolation rules) Cornelius managed to catch the last viable flight from Munich to London (having taken a taxi from Stuttgart where he had missed the last flight by 15 minutes). So, when we spoke he was preparing for a pair of recordings with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, due to be released on the orchestra's website on 4/12/2020 and 18/12/2020.

The repertoire for the recordings included Beethoven's Symphonies nos. 6 and 7, Mozart's overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail, music by Penderecki and a new piece by Christopher Gough (who is the orchestra's principal horn) Three Belarusian Folk Songs (this work dedicated to the recent situation in Belarus, and the third song based on a protest song which has been connected to the movement in Belarus) Cornelius comments that he was very happy with the standard repertoire, and that you could wake him up at 3am and he would be able to conduct it, and he is always free and open to new repertoire.

Cornelius Meister conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020
Cornelius Meister conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020

Cornelius has developed quite a close relationship with the RSNO, he first conducted the orchestra four years ago in a programme including Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 which was performed several times and, as sometimes happens with a new orchestra, from the first minute he felt a familiarity, and he is looking forward to returning. [See the review of that concert on].

In Stuttgart, Cornelius is music director of the Staatsoper und Staatsorchester Stuttgart, a post that he has held since 2018.

Like other opera companies they closed, on lockdown, earlier this year and in April responded with one to one concerts (one performer, one audience member) which Cornelius thinks was a special experience for both. Since June the company has been able to perform with 99 audience members, and this increased to 500 in September (though to reach this figure with social distancing the opera house would have to seat 3000!). The Summer also included concerts for the elderly, with the orchestra performing outside and the audience watching from their balconies.

And, of course, they have had to close again. But that does not mean that the work of the opera house ceases. Cornelius has been using the closure time to have rehearsals with the soloists from the company's ensemble (the staatsoper has 40 singers on fest contracts). Cornelius feels a strong responsibility both for their development as singers and as colleagues, so he is working with them on roles, either new ones or for operas planned for the Spring. This working with the singers is a duty as music director, but for Cornelius it is a lovely duty. He is a pianist, so can accompany the singers meaning that such sessions include the minimum of people and there is no false officiality, and the one to one format permits far more in depth work than the usual one or two formal rehearsals before a performance.

Cornelius Meister and Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Cornelius Meister and Staatsorchester Stuttgart

That he is a pianist is a useful skill as music director of the opera, as besides conducting the opera he feels he needs experience in all parts of the operatic process, from working with the singers, to playing through the score, to understanding the technical necessities of the staging as well. It is much more than just conducting the performance.

For the Spring, the company plans Verdi's Falstaff, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier amongst other operas, but time will only tell whether these are staged, in concert or what. Planning in the present circumstances is difficult, but Cornelius is philosophical and points out that we are simply returning to the situation in opera houses a 100 years ago. When Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was music director at La Scala, Milan he was used to announcing programmes just two weeks in advance, something which shocked the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic when the conductor moved to New York. The solution that the New Yorkers came up with was that they would know when the concert was and with whom they were doing it (Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic will be giving a concert on such-and-such a date) but not what they were going to perform. This is a situation that Cornelius feels we may need to return to. And he cites the example of Massenet's Werther, which the company was performing just before lockdown at the beginning of this year. They lost their tenor, but were lucky that tenor Matthew Polenzani was able to stand in because he had already had cancellations.

Cornelius' responsibilities in Stuttgart cover not just the opera but the orchestra too. With the orchestra, he has already given cycles of symphonies by Schumann and by Beethoven, he and the orchestra are in the middle of a cycle of Mahler symphonies and a cycle of symphonies by Brahms is planned for this season. It seems that he is fond of symphonic cycles! 

Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde staged at the Staatsoper Stuttgart this Summer
Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde staged at the Staatsoper Stuttgart this Summer

He points out that when he was younger, he had to learn the music like that, in cycles. But there is also his desire to bring out, for the audience, the links between the works so that with Mahler you can pick out so many combinations of influences between the different symphonies, the audience can make links from the first to the last. And this Summer, because of changes and cancellations, the opera house was also able to give audiences a staged version of Mahler's symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (performed in the chamber reduction by Arnold Schoenberg).

And with composers like Brahms and Schumann, there is the possibility of giving audiences the chance to listen to all the works over a weekend. And, this sort of concentration is interesting is good for the orchestra as it enables them to get deep into the composer's style.

But, Cornelius also loves programming in the opposite way, focusing on a single work and bringing out the links between it and the music of other composers. He loves combining music of different eras too, Romantic music with contemporary, the symphonies of Haydn with 20th century neo-classical music. And he adds that it is always good to change things and may be he will have a different opinion tomorrow!

If you check on Cornelius' repertoire page on his website it lists not only a remarkable number of works, but also a striking variety of composers. Whilst his core interest is the Austro-German symphonic repertoire, there is much else besides (Martinu's six symphonies, RVW's Tuba Concerto). He admits that as a conductor he is always curious.

Cornelius Meister (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Cornelius Meister (Photo Marco Borggreve)

He started conducting at the age of 17, and at 21 conducted his first performance at Hamburg State Opera. In those early days he could not select the repertoire, he would be offered a performance and could only say yes or no. Some pieces came as something of a surprise, and later on when he was able to exercise more control of his repertoire he was happy that he was able to stay curious.

Sometimes when he first takes a look at a work his reaction is 'I don't understand this' (he would never say a piece was bad, simply that he did not understand). Almost always, if he takes more time then he finds something in the piece to make it interesting, though sometimes this means waiting for a year. And he points out that when he was 15 he did not understand the symphonies of Mahler but 10 years later he could not wait to perform the music as many times as he could.

Cornelius' operatic training was largely in the German system, yet in recent years he has been performing in a very different house, the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I was curious about the differences he found between the two operatic systems. His first comment is that he is happy that there are differences. He enjoys the fact that systems, musical styles and schools are still different over the world. He is not a fan of a global, one-dimensional way of music making. When he is conducting, whether it be opera or symphonic music, he likes to feel what city he is in.

He did 14 weeks at the Met last season and the season before, doing a series of Mozart operas, with different singers in the casts so that there were rehearsals during the run with different singers. He likes that fact that it sounds different compared to working in opera houses in France, Germany, Italy and the UK. 

He also enjoys learning about different musical styles. When he conducted concerts of music by Beethoven and Richard Strauss in Paris, the way the orchestra played the Beethoven and Strauss gave him hints at the French ways of music making, illuminating their style of playing French music too. And he is pleased that different orchestras in different countries sound different. There are French orchestras still using French bassoons, the Vienna Philharmonic is still playing on instruments that only they use. When he is asked questions about types of instrument, such as timpani or bass drums, he always wants the orchestra to stick to what is traditional for them. He regards it as learning from each other, it is not a one-way process. 

This leads into another intriguing area on his CV, his work with period instrument orchestras, notably La Scintilla at Zurich Opera House. In fact, Cornelius studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg where there is a long tradition of period instrument performance. They read Leopold Mozart's violin manual and Quantz's flute one. These are good sources, it is clear what Leopold Mozart and Quantz were thinking about, but more difficult is how do you apply this knowledge in the 20th or 21st centuries.

And Cornelius is always interested in early styles of performance when playing music with modern instrument ensembles. Playing Haydn on with a modern orchestra, it is still important to pay attention to the articulation. Whilst performing with La Scintilla he learned a great deal. The period transverse flute was a very soft instrument, so that balance becomes different and the aria with flute in Mozart's Die Zauberflote became a very different thing because of these changes in volume.

When I ask Cornelius if he always wanted to be a conductor, he says that he started quite early and that conducting means starting early and getting experience. He comes from a musical family and his father, Konrad Meister, was a professor of piano and at the age of two or three Cornelius began to learn the piano, then later added the cello and then the French horn, before going on to learn conducting. 

By the age of fifteen he became sure that music would be a part of his life which he could not be without. He has wide interests, philosophy, law, science, sport, but it became clear to him that he did not want to spend more time working on things other than music. He now feels very lucky that his hobby is his job, after a long day rehearsing he still has music in his ears and that is a good feeling

Cornelius Meister conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020
Cornelius Meister conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020

Looking forward he has been thinking about travel a lot. On the one hand travel is not good for the environment and people should do would they can to save the environment. On the other hand, in the present political climate it helps everybody in the world when there is a close relationship between different regions and between different nations. It is not a good idea for us to separate ourselves from each other. So often xenophobia is high in areas which have the lowest numbers of foreign people living there, areas without close relationships to other cultures.

And he feels that in the opera and symphonic world it is important to stay open to influences, to other ways of life and such openness does not really come from video conferences, you have to meet, to create cultural exchanges. 

Cornelius Meister and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

  • 4 December 2020: Penderecki: Adagio for Strings, Christopher Gough: Three Belarusian Folksongs, Beethoven Symphony No. 6 'Pastoral'
  • 18 December 2020: Mozart: Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 'Turkish' (with Francesca Dego), Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

Both concerts are available via the RSNO's streaming website (paywall).

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Rediscovering Handel's keyboard music for a new generation: Pierre Hantaï's disc of the 1720 Suites de Pièces - CD review
  • Christmas CD roundup: carols ancient, modern and medieval, Christmas in Puebla,  a Georgian trilogy and much more - CD review
  • A record dedicated to those who believe in ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.’ - Bryce Morrison on Nelly Akopian-Tamarina's Slavonic Reflections - CD review
  • In Motion: United Strings of Europe's debut disc features three contemporary works alongside two classics in a strongly coloured programme  - CD review
  • Revolving Rondo: Nils Klöfver's engaging recital explores the work of virtuoso guitarist composers from the 16th century to the present day - Cd review
  • From Handel's contemporaries to a forgotten Malcolm Arnold opera: I chat to conductor John Andrews about reviving neglected music  - interview
  • Ohrwurm: recorder player Tabea Debus delightful debut recital on Delphian  - CD review
  • A theatrical family & a damaged dancer: Christoph Loy's new production of Rusalka at the Teatro Real, Madrid - opera review
  • Beautifully conceived and performed: La vanita del mondo, Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse in Italian oratorio arias  - CD review
  • Short and not entirely sweet: Prokofiev by Arrangement from violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Yulia Chaplina - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony - Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet - CD review
  • Home

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