“MOZART WASN’T A MASS PHE­NOM­E­NON”

JENS SCHUBBE on the al­lure of con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic.

Bulletin - - Contents - Photo: François Volpe By David Sch­napp

Mr. Schubbe, the work of Lud­wig van Beethoven didn’t as­sume the im­por­tance it en­joys to­day un­til af­ter the com­poser’s death. Will it take time for con­tem­po­rary mu­sic, too, to be widely rec­og­nized?

You might say that con­tem­po­rary com­posers are the Beethovens of our time, in the sense that they use their own unique tools to re­spond to their re­al­ity. One of Beethoven's great­est achieve­ments was to com­pose a sym­phony that ad­dressed the state of the world and hu­man ex­is­tence.

Clas­si­cal mu­sic be­came a mass phe­nom­e­non in the 20th cen­tury, while new mu­sic to­day speaks to a nar­rower au­di­ence.

You're right, our au­di­ence is not very large. Yet even dur­ing the time of Mozart and Beethoven, con­certs were ex­clu­sive events that were by no means ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one. I once read a let­ter writ­ten by Mozart's father, in which he de­scribed the world pre­miere of a pi­ano con­certo com­posed by his son. There were ap­prox­i­mately 150 peo­ple at that con­cert, he wrote, call­ing it a highly sat­is­fac­tory num­ber.

Is wide dis­tri­bu­tion a goal worth striv­ing for, in your opin­ion?

Tech­nol­ogy has made mu­sic avail­able to ev­ery­one nowa­days. The down­side of this de­vel­op­ment is that mu­sic is now judged by its success in reach­ing a mass au­di­ence. In my view, peo­ple are ap­ply­ing eco­nomic stan­dards to art with­out re­ally think­ing it through.

As long as we’re on the topic of Beethoven: What is to­day’s equiv­a­lent of the Ninth Sym­phony?

For me, it would be “Re­quiem For a Young Poet” by Bernd Alois Zim­mer­mann. This work is a med­i­ta­tion on a cen­tury, a fas­ci­nat­ing artis­tic over­view. I should also point out that it con­tains ref­er­ences to Beethoven's Ninth – in the form of a cry for peace at the be­gin­ning of the last move­ment.

Con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic can be chal­leng­ing for the un­trained ear. What work would you rec­om­mend to some­one who is new to it?

Stan­ley Kubrick's cult film “2001: A Space Odyssey” in­cludes mu­sic by György Ligeti, for ex­am­ple the 1961 piece “Ath­mo­sphères.” That's ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one. And that's why Kubrick used it – with­out ask­ing the com­poser's per­mis­sion, by the way.

What dis­tin­guishes modern clas­si­cal mu­sic from the works of Beethoven or Mozart?

For me, they have more com­mon­al­i­ties than dif­fer­ences. The mu­sic of the 20th and 21st cen­turies grew out of 18thand 19th-cen­tury mu­sic. Of course, the lan­guage of mu­sic has evolved. Some mem­bers of the au­di­ence found them­selves un­able to un­der­stand that evo­lu­tion – at just the time when tech­nol­ogy was mak­ing it pos­si­ble to re­pro­duce mu­sic.

Can you ex­plain that?

Be­cause mu­sic was be­com­ing om­nipresent and ac­ces­si­ble at any time, the old lan­guage of mu­sic was pre­served. The cul­ture in­dus­try has led peo­ple to be­lieve that it was the only pos­si­ble mu­si­cal lan­guage. That was part of the in­dus­try's busi­ness model.

What should – and shouldn’t – peo­ple ex­pect from a Col­legium Novum con­cert?

Among the things they should ex­pect: We of­fer pro­grams of the high­est artis­tic qual­ity. Our con­certs are never or­ga­nized in a hap­haz­ard way; they tell sto­ries. In our up­com­ing con­cert, for ex­am­ple, we are per­form­ing works that com­posers knew would be their last – mu­si­cal tes­ta­ments, as it were. What they shouldn't ex­pect: mere en­ter­tain­ment. But if you come to our con­certs with an open mind and an open heart, you will feel at home.

When is mu­sic vi­sion­ary, and when is it just orig­i­nal for the sake of orig­i­nal­ity?

It doesn't be­come clear un­til con­sid­er­able time has passed whether a piece of mu­sic merely caused a sen­sa­tion, or whether its vi­sion was pow­er­ful enough to stand the test of time.

Jens Schubbe, 55, has served as the artis­tic and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for Col­legium Novum Zurich (CNZ), an en­sem­ble de­voted to con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic, since 2010. A mu­si­cian and Ger­man­ist, he was pre­vi­ously a choir singer and dra­matic ad­viser in Stral­sund and Ber­lin, among other po­si­tions.

A re­hearsal of the con­tem­po­rary mu­sic en­sem­ble Col­legium Novum.

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