ISSN 2605-2318


«Casa da Música is a very unique place in Europe» Peter Rundel


An interview by Paco Yáñez for El Compositor Habla

«...Being conductor, in some way, means a never ending the process of learning, and if you are a conductor of contemporary music, even more»

Widely regarded as one of the best conductors of contemporary music, the German maestro Peter Rundel (Friedrichshafen, 1958) spoke to El Compositor Habla on 21 January at Porto's Casa da Música, an auditorium with which Rundel has maintained a close collaboration since he took over the Remix Ensemble in 2005.
Casa da Música will be one of the main themes of an interview in which we review with Peter Rundel some of the most important issues of recent years, such as those related to the coronavirus pandemic or the most important challenges of today's music. Along with his memories of great composers of the last decades, such as Emmanuel Nunes or Luigi Nono, Peter Rundel leaves us with a message of optimism for the future of music, as well as some names to follow that, in his opinion, will be part of the canon of classical music in the future.

1. Paco Yáñez: Since our first interview was in January 2007, we can say that most of your career as a director has developed since then. How has Peter Rundel changed over the last seventeen years?
Peter Rundel: Being conductor, in some way, means a never ending the process of learning, and if you are a conductor of contemporary music, even more, probably, than when you are only of the classical repertoire, because you are forced to deal with each score which is arriving from now, from the new generation of young composers. So you are attempted or forced each time to dive into another way of thinking and all the whole process of how to put music down, how to realize ideas in music: is a constant changing process, so it keeps you fresh. I hope that I've developed some economy in conducting, more than I was a bit wild as a young conductor. Yes: in a technical sense, I developed some economy. Of course, I collected a lot of experience which is, in a way, nice. Also, the difference is that, now, I feel ready to pass some of what I have learned of my experience to the younger generation of conductors.

«So, what I do more in the last years is also to give some masterclasses to teach a little bit about conducting, which gives me a lot of pleasure»


2. P.Y.: And what do you find in this new generation of young conductors? Are they more open to contemporary music? Any difference with the active conductors since 30 or 40 years ago?
Peter Rundel: Yes, there is a change concerning the repertoire in our music industry, so to speak. I think for all young musicians, if there are players or conductors, they are, in a way, also forced to be more open towards the different directions of music in general. And I think that's because of the education, because they are in a much earlier stage confronted with contemporary music than my generation was, because it's part of the canon of the universities and I think they are, compared to our generation, much more aware of the conditions of the market. So they know, if they want to survive, that they have to be open and flexible and their knowledge has to be a very broad one, concerning repertoire. But, still saying this, those who are really burning for, who have a passion for contemporary music, are rare, there are still rare. That's in a way the same than it used to be.
3. P.Y.: You have said that you have changed very much. You are travelling all the time, so what was for you this period of the lockdown during the pandemic. How did you feel during that period? What did you focused on in those moments you were in your house, that you couldn't move?
Peter Rundel: Personally, in some way I experienced two lockdowns. The first one was in Germany, that, together with Austria, was earlier than in Portugal. And then came the big lockdown here in Portugal. So I experienced both in a very different way. The first one, I really took it as a kind of challenge for me. Everything was cancelled, so I had a lot of free time suddenly and I was sitting down and I was thinking: so but what did you always wanted to do and you never had the time to do it? Or what would you can study whatever you want regardless of if you have a concert or not. Which piece does interest you the most at the moment? So I came to a piece which is not a contemporary piece, which is Jeux (1912) of Claude Debussy, which is the kind of neglected piece which I love very much. And then I went to that piece studying it for some weeks really thoroughly and I thought: OK, what do I do now with my knowledge? And then I thought that maybe it would be a crazy idea, but I would be interested to make an instrumentation for a smaller ensemble, of Jeux, because it's a way, of course, to study it even more, even more to go really into detail; and it's crazy, because, of course, you cannot use this masterly instrumentation for orchestra. You will lose something when you do it reduced. But, on the other hand, I thought: OK, the situation is absurd, anyway so I try something which is a bit absurd but I will, for sure, learn a lot, which I did; so we even performed it with Remix Ensemble last year. And it was also part of my conducting classes, and I think I'm quite proud of it.
The second lockdown was a bit more depressing for me, with more frightening, but with the Remix, as then I was in Portugal, we just developed ideas and some really interesting things online, we made a kind of online concert with these new concepts: it was basically a chamber music program, with this famous subject of specialization, which was the subject of COVID, so we put it into a program, in some way.
4. P.Y.: Concerning your work on Jeux, it reminds to me what Helmut Lachenmann do with his exercises of reducing Bruckner's symphonies in the piano: this way of thinking on tradition, which is very usual in German composers. Precisely, Helmut Lachenmann, together with Pierluigi Billone, Beat Furrer, Toshio Hosokawa, Ramon Lazkano and some other composers wrote a few words for an article I wrote for World New Music Magazine about music in the time of the pandemic, some of these composers having been very critical of how things developed then. Do you think that the pandemic has brought a big change for both music and society in general, or have we perhaps gone back to the way things were?
Peter Rundel: For sure, it changed. It changed a lot. But if we look back, it was just a kind of shock for the society. And then, the Ukrainian war started, so now we have a kind of overall threatening of the global change and as a background of the whole thing. So, of course it changed a lot, specially for the awareness of the society and the different ways people are dealing with their fears of the future or of the present: that's a big subject. And, of course, the music, like always with some delay, is reacting. It takes some time until you feel these things, especially in classical music. But I think if you look to the younger generation of composers, they are very much busy and occupied with these questions of the future of our society and they try to reflect it again in their work.

5. P.Y.: What it didn't changed at all is your loyalty to Casa da Música. In fact, you live now here, in Porto, most of the year. How much of this loyalty to Casa da Música, of this relation, is because of or it's linked to the person of António Jorge Pacheco?
Peter Rundel: Well, it's more than just loyalty. I would have never thought that I would have stayed that long when I started here, but it turned out that the more I work here, it became very clear for me, as it's clear for you and for some insiders, that Casa da Música in fact, by its structure and by its programming quality, is a very unique place in Europe. And I'm completely grateful that, through my work and though my direction of the Remix Ensemble, I can contribute to that. And as this quality stays now for nearly 20 years, not only of programming, but also the concept that Casa da Música has this structure with the choir, the baroque chamber orchestra, the orchestra, the Remix Ensemble, and it maintains to give them interesting work, something which has consequences for the society outside Casa da Música, much more than it would be in the typical concert halls where very famous orchestras come and go.
But, back to your question, of course: this is very much linked to the person of António Jorge Pacheco and always with the help and with the support of the Board of Directors. They had the wisdom not only to build this kind of construction, but also to fill it with programming content which is especially over such a long time span of time: it's amazing, quite astonishing. And I just hope that Casa da Música is valuable to preserve and to continue on this path. And, looking to the future, I think that should be the main task.
6. P.Y.: What has continued since your arrival in Porto is the great stability of the Remix Ensemble: many of the musicians who were already part of this group in 2005, when you became its chief conductor, are still here, and there have been notable additions in recent years, such as Ashot Sarkissjan, who combines his work in the Remix Ensemble with his position as second violin in the Arditti Quartet. How important is this stability of the group for you?
Peter Rundel: Yes, of course: is very important this stability, but also the dedication of the musicians of the Remix over the years is quite remarkable. Because many of them, except of some teaching jobs, they are really focused on the Remix Ensemble. I'm very grateful that it happened here, that they have the conditions to survive with what they earn with this job. Yes, it is a very important factor, of course. It's also important that in a very slowly and natural, hopefully, very organic way, the group is, with the years, renewing itself; so now we have a new oboe for instance, Filipa Vinhas, a young Portuguese player which is really very nice that she came to the group; you have mentioned Ashot Sarkissjan, which is now violinist in the Remix. So both is important: the stability and that the spirit which was built throughout the years is preserved, but it's also to be always ready to change and to transform for the future: that's also important for an ensemble.
7. P.Y.: What do you like most of the Remix, compared with other ensembles you've conducted throughout Europe? Is there are anything special about this ensemble that characterises it?
Peter Rundel: Yes, I think that, as the Remix has a very broad repertoire in the sense also that we always did music of the end of 19th century or beginning of 20th century or so, a kind of pre-contemporary music, so that is concerning the sound world. There is a kind of culture also to be able to play this music. I think this makes the Remix Ensemble special, because the other ensembles don't have the chance to do that so often. We have it, because of Casa Música: that's a big advantage, because we always have this kind of cross relations also to the traditional repertoire and we try to maintain that. I would say this is one of the characteristics. And then, it's just a group whose working atmosphere is remarkably good because very often, if you have groups which are so long together, there are major conflicts that are swept under the carpet and sometimes explode or cloud the atmosphere, whereas Remix is, socially, a very consistent group, with a lot of mutual respect among its members and, often, friendship among its members. This great respect makes them incredibly pleasant to work with.
8. P.Y.: Another group which has really developed very much, I think that even more than the Remix is the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto. The way they play now contemporary music, but also Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner and the traditional repertoire, it has changed it incredibly in the last 17 years and now is one of the most, I think, impressive orchestras, at least in Spain and Portugal. How much do you think that contemporary music has helped them to improve as an orchestra, in general terms?
Peter Rundel: I think that quite a lot. I think that, through the fact that nearly each week they have a piece of contemporary repertoire to play, they were just learning a kind of flexibility and they are now much quicker in the perception of this kind of challenges and I think this is a kind of medicine for an orchestra. It doesn't mean, necessarily, that they will play Bruckner o Mahler better, but it's definitely increasing their kind of alertness, that kind of flexibility. And I think why they have developed so much is just also because of the individual quality of the player players, because I think that, concerning the level of the musicians, there's a very good tendency to come better and better, but also through the work of the chief conductors and of the guest conductors.

«I think that, again, it is due to Casa da Música's own policy that really very good conductors come here and, moreover, people who like to work, who don't just come to Porto to celebrate something or to have a good time; they are conductors who work very hard, and this has paid off.»


9. P.Y.: We saw it yesterday with that amazing complicated piece of Emmanuel Nunes, Nachtmusik II (1981, rev. 2000), conducted by Sylvain Cambreling. Most of the best conductors in contemporary music come to Porto, both with the Remix and with the Orquestra Sinfónica. It's only António Jorge Pacheco who decides these conductors?
Peter Rundel: Of course, we talk about and we exchange opinions, but absolutely I'm not advising at all, so to speak. I think António does it also in connection with the orchestra itself. This is very important: he makes propositions, of course, as he has very strong opinions, but then it has to work with the orchestra, and like everywhere else, I think it can only work like this: you need the feedback of the orchestra, as they know the best with whom they want to work and who comes again. Of course, António Jorge Pacheco is someone who knows a lot about this, which is very important: it is crucial that the people who are in charge of the orchestras are, first of all, capable of doing this kind of broad repertoire, and Sylvain Cambreling is a very good example, as is Stefan Blunier, the current chief conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto; and then, again: to have people who really come to work seriously at Casa da Música.
10. P.Y.: In general terms, which are the most important challenges for Casa da Música for the next years?
Peter Rundel: I think what Casa da Música could improve, but I think they are very aware of it, is just to improve the politics of communication, I think that's very important. The work here is amazing, what is happening here is really outstanding, but I think it has to be communicated even more to the society of Porto. I think this is, basically, very important; also, concerning mass and social media, what today is so important for the people can understand what is happening here and not only that, but for they feel that they are part of it.
11. P.Y.: It could be good, also, to take Casa da Música’s groups, like the Remix or the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto, more times to Spain, to Europe, to play this kind of programmes.
Peter Rundel: Of course. This is a very strong wish, and it's happening, but is not so easy, not only because of Casa da Música: is not easy, but in general, it's something which is in the music industry much more than the 20 years ago, as you know, for all the economical reasons. For instance, concerning contemporary music groups, now you have a kind of flourishing landscape in Europe: everywhere you go, you have an ensemble for contemporary music. So, there must be really strong reasons to be invited. So you have to bring something really special when you go out.
12. P.Y.: In 2007, when we had our first interview, you were conducting Emmanuel Nunes’ Dawn Wo, (1971-72), and I also interviewed Nunes that weekend, and he told me that Peter Rundel was his ideal conductor. Which memories do you have, personally or artistically, of Emmanuel Nunes which could made a great impression?
Peter Rundel: With Nunes it was even a kind of friendship. He was, just from the beginning of my career, not only as a conductor, but starting as a violinist in the Ensemble Modern, with his music and his personality part of my experience, so it's just part of my life. And it happened that, through our work together, that we became closer and closer, and I conducted a lot of his music, and we just found a good way to communicate and I think, and it's not only that, after some experiences, he really trusted me, but he also trusted the Remix Ensemble. So it was really a kind of very special collaboration which happened. I really like his music: the richness, the complexity, the ideas, the temperament, the humour in his music, which is hard to bring out, it's not easy music to work with, not at all. But, for me, it was my experience that it always paid off, and also for my musicians, which enjoyed it, so I hope that we will be able again to communicate that today in the in our concert [on the afternoon of Sunday 21 January, the day this interview was recorded, Peter Rundel was conducting the Remix Ensemble in a programme that included works by Péter Eötvös: Fermata (2020-21), Vasco Mendoça: Three Speeches and a Technique (2016-23) and Emmanuel Nunes: Duktus (1987)].
13. P.Y.: As far as I knew him in person for several meetings, Emmanuel Nunes was very charismatic, very intelligent; he had really an incredible mind, but he was also, or because of that, very demanding. How it was working with Nunes in the rehearsals? Because I remember that not everything was good for him.
Peter Rundel: There’s no question about: is absolutely right what you are saying. Yes, he was demanding, but me and the musicians we were not afraid. We didn't feel too much pressure and anyone wanted to give our best. Of course, I studied his music really thoroughly and I did try to realise it in the best way, and I think he really appreciated that, he felt that we really wanted to give our best. With all what you say: his ambitions, his expectations, there was also a great sense of humour in Nunes, and we shared that also. So, in fact, we had a really very good time also when we get together, I have to say.
14. P.Y.: You have given the premières of some of the most important late pieces by Emmanuel Nunes, like his opera, Das Märchen, and his scenic piece La Douce, as well as you have conducted pieces such as Duktus, Dawn Wo, Nachtmusik I (1977-78)... Which pieces by Nunes that you have conducted you like most? On the other hand, which of his pieces that you didn't conduct you would like to?
Peter Rundel: To start with my favourites, I have to say that Duktus is one of my favourite pieces from his ensemble music, for several reasons. I like very much Wandlungen (1986), which I've never conducted, so that's still something hopefully to come. The piece we heard yesterday evening, Nachtmusik II, is also a piece which is on my list, as I have not yet conducted it, but I think I would love to do it.

«There are many, there is a lot of great music by Nunes. Musik der Frühe (1980-84) is a fantastic piece. The whole Lichtung (1988-2007) cycle is something really what should be done again, somewhere, soon.»


15. P.Y.: I remember the performance of Lichtung III (2006-07) at Casa da Música, on 23 October 2010, with yourself conducting the Remix Ensemble and the computer realisation of Ircam to spread the music throughout the Sala Suggia: a truly incredible experience and one that we were able to share with Emmanuel Nunes himself in person, two years before his death, at a concert celebrating the ten years of existence of the Remix Ensemble at that time.
Peter Rundel: Yes, it is an incredible work. I conducted the whole Lichtung cycle in Berlin, as part of the Musikfest, but many years ago, in September 2007. There's a lot of good music by Nunes and I really hope to bring more of it, but is not easy, because of its difficulty sometimes and also because of the exquisite but very demanding instrumentation sometimes: that makes very difficult to program it, because you always have extra costs, extra musicians... and this kind of "extra work" which you have to do makes it difficult to programme. But I really hope that his music is going to be part of the canon of the repertoire of contemporary music.
16. P.Y.: Apart from Emmanuel Nunes, as you have this long relationship with Portugal, which other Portuguese composers do you think that we should pay attention to?
Peter Rundel: Some of the composers in residence in Casa da Música, like Vasco Mendoça or Igor C. Silva, which are composers really to follow. Many, in this generation, like Gonçalo Gato: there are a lot of interesting Portuguese composers, and I have to say that is also one of the consequences of the work which was done here, in Casa da Música, over many years. This is something that we can see after five or ten years: the flourishing of all these young composers which were benefiting from being fed here with good music.

17. P.Y.: Going back again to your early years as conductor, in 1993 you conducted, together with Ingo Metzmacher, Luigi Nono's Prometeo (1981-84, rev. 1985) in the Salzburg Festival, of which we have that wonderful EMI (5 55209 2) recording which for me is, still today, the reference for that piece which Massimo Cacciari called Tragedia dell'ascolto. What do you remember of Nono personally? Do you have any special memories of the Venetian composer?
Peter Rundel: Yes, I have it, but I must confess that my contact with Luigi Nono was very brief. At that time, I was not conducting Prometeo, but playing the work as a violinist in the Ensemble Modern. It was in August 1988, at the Berliner Philharmonie, with Friedrich Goldmann as first conductor and Ingo Metzmacher as second, as part of the programme of the Berliner Festwochen festival. Luigi Nono was there, with the Experimentalstudio Freiburg in the electronic sound direction, and it was the only time I saw him in person. It was very impressive, but also a bit confusing, because he was not well, he was ill at the time, very ill. We were rehearsing and at one point he interrupted the rehearsal and started talking to the musicians, to all of us, creating an almost mysterious situation, because he didn't talk in the usual technical terms that composers usually talk to the musicians; he didn't say: this is too loud or that has been played too soon, things like that. No, he talked about Friedrich Hölderlin, he talked about poetry... but in a way similar to his own music: with completely free associations. Sometimes he didn't even develop complete thoughts; he simply said names.
18. P.Y.: As with the islands in Prometeo.
Peter Rundel: Exactly! So it was very peculiar, but it was nearly a kind of religious, mystical moment, not very long, and then we went to work again. This was my only personal experience with Luigi Nono.
19. P.Y.: This kind of experience is very similar to what other people who worked with Nono tell us: it was common for him to verbalise music in this way, illuminating it from other artistic, literary and philosophical disciplines. Among the works of Luigi Nono, of which you have already conducted many, which are the ones you like the most, and how much difficult it’s to work with his scores, because we have a new and more detailed edition of Prometeo in Ricordi, but for many years, conductors had to work with handwritten scores, which could be really complicated, in Nono's case?
Peter Rundel: Yes, it's very different for piece to piece. Of course, Prometeo is a great piece, but I have to say that I like also the very early pieces of Nono. One of my favourite pieces, definitely a piece I would love to do, is the Composizione per orchestra n. 2: Diario polacco '58 (1959, rev. 1965). It’s a huge, enormous piece, but what is very interesting to me is that in his later years he made a version which is with tapes and electronics, which was done only once and never again, and I would be very interested to this, to reconstruct this version again. Concerning notation, yes, of course, it's a problem, but it's also very inspiring, because this kind of notation which leaves so many questions open because you have to finish. This is Nono, we know, so you have to fill the gaps with your own imagination and it will be always different, and this will be also Nono. So it has to be different in another place, with another people. This was his revolutionary philosophy and we should keep that also.
19. P.Y.: In your years as a student of conducting you had among your teachers Michael Gielen and Péter Eötvös, what did you learn from each of them, as they are two teachers with very different ideas of what conducting is?
Peter Rundel: With Michael Gielen it was very easy: it was about reading scores, analyzing and talking about it, it was very much that. He was a great practical of musical theatre, as he was a really great opera conductor, with an amazing repertoire. With Péter Eötvös, he was an amazing conductor, great ears, a great composer, but for me, personally, it was very important to work with him because he was somebody who paid attention to how to communicate, how to use your body to characterizing music, because Michael Gielen was not interested in your body at all; for him, you just have to understand what you're doing, and if you don't know what you're doing, don't start to conduct, which is also very important, which is very right: if you have a clear in your mind, it will come. But not each body is so gifted that is immediately doing the right thing, so with Péter it was very important that he gave me tools to express myself through body language and body motion that this was very important so.
20. P.Y.: Michael Gielen and Péter Eötvös had long experiencing, as you told, in music theatre, in opera, ensemble music, orchestra… and you, quite the same, are conducting in all those fields. But in which do you feel more comfortable? Which you like most of this?
Peter Rundel: I love opera, I have to say it. I think I could do much more, if it would be, because I adore it. To be in contact with the singers, I loved it very much, to accompany them, and also the flexibility of opera, which you have to develop all time. If you are conducting opera, this is very important for all the other music you play.

21. P.Y.: Which opera, that you have not yet conducted, would you like to conduct?
Peter Rundel: There are a lot... I could say Leoš Janáček. I've never conducted Alban Berg's operas either, nor those of Alexander Zemlinsky or Claude Debussy: there are many operas that I still have pending.
22. P.Y.: Of the living composers, which of them do you think that definitely will be part of the Canon of the great music?
Peter Rundel: Peter Rundel. Again, we had to few of them in Casa da Música as composers in residence. For example, last year we had Enno Poppe, and before that, in 2022, we had Rebecca Saunders. There are many more, but of this generation I would mention Enno Poppe and Rebecca Saunders.

23. P.Y.: Returning to Casa da Música, one of your most successful concerts took place just before confinement, when on 7 March 2020 you yourself conducted Heiner Goebbels' Surrogate Cities (1994). We could say that Goebbels' music is very much of our time: a kind of fusion with urban music from the United States, Arab music, European avant-garde, electronics, amplification... it's like a planetary, world music. Do you think that the presence in classical music of these new media, as well as this hybridisation of styles, could shape the music of the future?

Peter Rundel: It's a really complex question to answer, because it touches on many subjects. Heiner Goebbels in Surrogate Cities, very concretely, he reflected very critically and observed the influence of, let's say, the idea of exotic, the idea of even the imperialistic behaviour in musicology, in music, which is colonist: it's a very concrete observation, so I would not characterise it as a kind of world music. On the other hand, of course there is a constant and specially more in our world now, with the way everything is, through the Internet, available or seems to be available, a constant cross and change between the genres of music and between different cultures, which I think which is unavoidable and which was always subject of culture: this kind of creative exchange. Of course, it's important that one is respecting or tries to understand as much as possible the music of the culture with which we are not familiar with, but it's also a kind of very human thing that we are always fascinated by what is not us. And that's really part of our culture and part of our humanity, even. I think it's not about eating it, but it's about trying to understand, to love, to respect it. Then we will, as a society, be benefited from it. And this applies also to music.
24. P.Y.: Are you optimistic about the future of music, about those young generations you are working with?
Peter Rundel: Of course! I have no idea in which form the music will survive, but I'm absolutely optimistic that it will survive. I don't know if in 20 years these idea of contemporary music ensembles will be absolutely essential, maybe it has to be transformed to be part of the future, but the music will survive. 

We thank Paco Yáñez, who conducted this interview in person at the Casa da Música in Porto, for his excellent work on an essential document that will remain for future generations as a testimony of a way of doing things. Our thanks to Casa de Música for the facilities offered to carry out this interview.

The photos that accompany this interview are by Rui Oliveira and Alexandre Delmar courtesy of  Casa da Música


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