Max Richter’s reimag­in­ing of Vi­valdi’s clas­sic vi­o­lin con­cer­tos prom­ises to meld the fa­mil­iar with the strange, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - PROFILE -

HEN com­poser Max Richter was a boy, his first pi­ano teacher — a well-mean­ing but se­vere old woman — almost knocked the in­stru­ment out of him. There’d be a smack if he played a wrong note, which was rather a dis­in­cen­tive to mas­ter­ing such things as scales and etudes. For a few years he gave up his pi­ano stud­ies, but it didn’t di­min­ish his love for mu­sic. Richter is to­day one of the popular com­posers work­ing in the “in­dieclas­si­cal” style, writ­ing mu­sic for film and dance as well as the con­cert hall.

Another pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of his youth was elec­tronic mu­sic, es­pe­cially the sounds he heard on tele­vi­sion and later came to know as mu­sic by Kraftwerk and Van­ge­lis. He was dis­mayed to dis­cover syn­the­sis­ers were beyond a teenager’s means, but he got hold of a kit in­stru­ment — the sub­limely named Tran­scen­dent 2000 — so he could make his own ver­sions of elec­tron­ica.

“There I was, this 14-year-old kid with a sol­der­ing iron, putting this stuff to­gether my­self,” Richter says on the phone from Berlin. “It be­came a par­al­lel ob­ses­sion, with the whole clas­si­cal mu­sic thing.”

Richter, 48, was born in Ger­many, but the fam­ily moved to Eng­land when he was a boy and he grew up in Bed­ford, north of London. In re­cent years he has moved back to Ger­many, and lives in cen­tral Berlin. If, in a con­ver­sa­tion with him, you’re ex­pect­ing a Ger­man ac­cent, it’s dis­con­cert­ing to hear a voice that’s thor­oughly English in ac­cent and id­iom. Of build­ing his syn­the­siser kit, he says: “It was tran­scen­den­tally dif­fi­cult to do, I tell you.”

There’s a sim­i­lar feel­ing of fa­mil­iar-strange in The Four Sea­sons, in which Richter has “re­com­posed” one of the best-loved pieces in the clas­si­cal canon. Vi­valdi’s cy­cle of four vi­o­lin con­cer­tos takes the lis­tener through the year from spring to sum­mer, au­tumn and win­ter, with mu­sic that is by turns vig­or­ous, serene and un­de­ni­ably pic­turesque.

Richter’s ver­sion dis­penses with about three­quar­ters of Vi­valdi, but the baroque bones of the piece are un­mis­tak­able. It’s as if The Four Sea­sons has been trans­planted from baroque Venice to con­tem­po­rary London or Berlin, with ac­cented rhythms that are a bit like mod­ern­day dance mu­sic.

“It’s an amaz­ing piece of mu­sic, it’s won­der­ful,” Richter says of the orig­i­nal. “But the trou­ble is, you just hear it all the time: on the TV, on ad­verts, in the shop­ping mall. You just get sick of hear­ing it.

“I just wanted to try to re­claim it, re­ally. It’s almost like some land­scape that you love but

Wyou have to drive through it ev­ery day, and you end up hat­ing it, even though you might be in some beau­ti­ful place. My idea was to go off road, and ex­plore that land­scape from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, and to try and cap­ture my orig­i­nal feel­ings for it.

“There are bits in it which are only Vi­valdi; there are bits in it which are only me; and there are ra­tios in be­tween. But mostly what you hear is new ma­te­rial, although it’s all got Vi­valdi’s DNA in it.”

Richter is in Aus­tralia to give the lo­cal premiere of The Four Sea­sons at the Syd­ney Opera House to­mor­row and at the Mel­bourne Recital Cen­tre on Mon­day. The com­poser will han­dle the elec­tronic side of things while Cana­dian vi­o­lin­ist Yuki Nu­mata plays the vir­tu­osic so­los. The vis­it­ing en­sem­ble is the Word­less Mu­sic Orches­tra, with whom Richter has per­formed at the hip clas­si­cal mu­sic club Le Poisson Rouge in New York.

“They play at Le Poisson Rouge. They do this down­towny, clas­si­cal thing, with fan­tas­tic pro­gram­ming,” Richter says. “They are the house band there — it’s a fan­tas­tic group of peo­ple.”

Aus­tralian au­di­ences will have another op­por­tu­nity to hear Richter’s take on Vi­valdi. The Aus­tralian Bran­den­burg Orches­tra will next year present The Four Sea­sons on pe­riod in­stru­ments: baroque-style strings, that is, not the elec­tronic key­board. Artis­tic di­rec­tor Paul Dyer will be swap­ping his harp­si­chord for a syn­the­siser, and will dis­cuss the de­tails with Richter while the com­poser is in Aus­tralia.

Like many mu­si­cians who came of age in the era of recorded mu­sic, Richter ab­sorbed sounds from ev­ery­where: elec­tron­ica, pop, punk, the clas­si­cal tra­di­tion and mod­ern com­po­si­tion from Stock­hausen to the Amer­i­can min­i­mal­ists. He stud­ied in Ed­in­burgh and at London’s Royal Academy of Mu­sic, and with Lu­ciano Be­rio in Florence. Be­rio was a for­ma­tive in­flu­ence. The com­poser was a pi­o­neer of elec­tronic mu­sic and of sound-col­lage ef­fects: el­e­ments that Richter would one day use in his own mu­sic.

“I think his mu­sic is a very com­plete mu­sic,” Richter says of Be­rio. “It feels like it has the whole of mu­sic his­tory inside it: pieces that quote bits of Mahler and Ravel and the Bea­tles, and speeches from Martin Luther King.”

Richter’s first solo al­bum was a 2002 suite of com­po­si­tions called Me­mory­house, a work that fea­tures orches­tra, elec­tron­ics and field record­ings, and has a cultish sta­tus. It was per­formed live for the first time in London ear­lier this year in a sold-out con­cert with the BBC Sym­phony Orches­tra. In other com­po­si­tions, he’s used texts by Haruki Mu­rakami, Czes­law Milosz and Franz Kafka, the last read by Tilda Swin­ton. Among his film scores are mu­sic for Ari Fol­man’s Waltz with Bashir and Lore by Aus­tralia’s Cate Short­land.

His the­atre mu­sic in­cludes a bal­let, In­fra, for the Royal Bal­let, with chore­og­ra­phy by Wayne McGregor and staged with large-scale an­i­ma­tions by Ju­lian Opie. He later ex­panded the bal- let score into a 45-minute work, and this longer con­cert ver­sion will be per­formed with The Four Sea­sons in Syd­ney and Mel­bourne. Richter and McGregor are work­ing on another bal­let to­gether, this one about Vir­ginia Woolf.

How has Richter brought a con­tem­po­rary voice to such a well-worn clas­sic as The Four Sea­sons? He is cer­tainly not the first mu­si­cian to riff on the com­poser known as the Red Priest (Vi­valdi was a red­head and a cleric).

Richter means no dis­re­spect when he de­scribes Vi­valdi’s great­est hit as “pat­tern mu­sic”. Its mod­u­lar con­struc­tion and mo­tifs are sim­i­lar to more mod­ern forms of mu­sic he ad­mires, such as elec­tron­ica and min­i­mal­ism.

“I’ve taken the rhyth­mic seeds of the var­i­ous move­ments, and in­ten­si­fied them into a more con­tem­po­rary way of think­ing about pulse,” he says. “The fast move­ments in Sum­mer ex­ist in a dance mu­sic uni­verse, re­ally, but us­ing Vi­valdi’s work as the core of it.”

In Au­tumn, he says, he has cut and pasted Vi­valdi like a col­lage or film. Win­ter has glassy sur­faces that “sound elec­tronic, but are all made with the strings”. Melody and rhyth­mic zest pre­vail through­out Richter and Vi­valdi’s The Four Sea­sons, and the lis­tener has the sen­sa­tion of hear­ing the fa­mil­iar anew.

“It’s tricky to say, but it cer­tainly feels like a fa­mil­iar land­scape and you recog­nise sign­posts along the way,” he says. “It’s like walk­ing around a sculp­ture and try­ing to see it from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.”

Max Richter has been in­flu­enced by elec­tron­ica, pop and punk, as well as the clas­si­cal tra­di­tion

Vi­o­lin­ist Yuki Nu­mata

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