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 Interview, Robert Trevino on Beethoven

Robert TrevinoThose of you who caught the inaugural Presto podcast at the beginning of July may recall our guest Rob Cowan’s enthusiasm for the young American conductor Robert Trevino’s new cycle of the Beethoven symphonies with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, released in June on Ondine . (The discussion takes place at 26.20 - 32.35).

I was every bit as taken with the recordings as Rob, so it was a pleasure to speak with Robert in depth last month about how his many and varied teachers have influenced his perspective on the symphonies, the impact of a youthful encounter with Pierre Boulez, his recording plans with the Basque National Orchestra, and why he’s itching to conduct a complete Ring Cycle in a day…

Photo credit: Hakan Roder.

How have you been spending your time in lockdown?

I was just joking with my wife about this: I think I’m the only person in the world who’s been conducting the entire time! In Spain we’ve been doing two TV programmes a week and in Mälmö there’s been plenty of broadcasts too, so I’m actually looking forward to starting my vacation. Our new season in Spain opens on 1st September, and we’re planning to do the Schubert and Sibelius symphonies, so I’ll be taking plenty of music with me – I never really stop studying.

How difficult was it to adapt to socially-distanced rehearsal and performance?

Not so much in Sweden, but in Spain the regulations on distancing were a challenge for section-leaders: the spacing restrictions meant having the concert-master six metres away from me! Fortunately I’d already been preaching about approaching repertoire as chamber music writ large, so the concept of working with what you see (not necessarily what you hear) was already ingrained. With a lot of orchestras it’s generally the front desks driving things, but I’m the opposite – I want the back desk of my string-sections pushing like their concert-masters, so in a way it’s putting leadership in furthest reaches of the orchestra, and certainly that’s difficult in these two-metre conditions. Physically I don’t have to do much different, but I do have to address certain issues and much of that comes down to simple rehearsal logistics: saying ‘OK, in this passage this person leads, because they’re the most central character’. But that’s how music-making with my orchestras tends to work anyway: I’ll often ascribe musical leadership to individuals, and of course that’s usually derived from my knowledge of the score but in these circumstances it’s also derived from geographical issues.

In the trailer for the Beethoven symphonies, you talk about the crossroads between Austro-Germanic interpretations and historically-informed performance: what do you take away from each approach?

I have enormous respect for all the interpreters who’ve come before me, and having had such a diverse range of teachers I’ve taken something away from all of them. In a sense, Western art music is an art-form built on tradition in that the whole craft of teaching is done on a one-on-one basis, very much like the old apprenticeships in Europe. Everything we do in the modern world as musicians is built on what’s come before. Take someone like Boulez, who as a young man declared ‘I am against all things that were in the past - I am now the future that I seek’. Of course he later recognised that even his act of opposition was grounded in the past, and that basic philosophical point is something that one has to acknowledge in order to dive into this question.

One of my teachers was David Zinman, who was very invested in the early music tradition: no vibrato, taking the tempos of the score very literally, and generally being extremely faithful to the printed page. It’s important to recognise that we needed artists like him and Nikolaus Harnoncourt who were prepared to go to the table and swipe it clean. Again Boulez springs to mind: I had a conversation with him in Chicago when I was very young and I said ‘I don’t understand your recording of Pierrot Lunaire – why have you taken such an objectivist approach to an Expressionist piece?’, and he started laughing! But then he gave me the greatest lesson he could: he said ‘Young man, at that time these pieces hadn’t been recorded properly, so my objective was simply to record them in the most faithful, dry manner possible, so that people could engage with what the composer set down. Did you listen to my more recent recording?’ I said that was more to my liking, and he answered: ‘That’s because I’d accomplished the objective I wanted before.’ For me that summed up what we’re doing as musicians: engaging in a constant process of revaluating things and evolving with them.

Another of my teachers was Kurt Masur, who was hard-wired into the East German Gewandhaus style, always insisting that ‘the orchestra must always play very beautifully!’. And then I had Leif Segerstam: a complete eccentric, emotionally, intellectually, philosophically and creatively. So in a way I have both of these things in my blood: that older style of music-making that’s associated with beautiful orchestral playing, and also a very strong commitment to the score. One of my close musical friends listened to our recording and said ’I feel like I could do a dictation of the score from your performance!’. That made me so happy, because that’s my job - but I also want orchestral beauty, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of transcribing this music for modern orchestras.

I adore what John Eliot Gardiner does, having an entire group of musicians who are totally dedicated to that aesthetic, using authentic instruments. But if you’ve got an orchestra of Juilliard graduates playing modern instruments then it’s a little difficult to make it work without adjustments. My wife, who’s a wonderful pianist, says that playing Beethoven on a Steinway is almost an act of transcription, because it was written for fortepiano. But that doesn’t mean you should play it like a fortepiano – you want the benefits which a modern instrument can bring, and that’s something I apply to my work too. You need to make certain accommodations, and it’s often surprising how minute those accommodations need to be: adjusting a tempo from 160 to 156 can be just enough to allow a modern orchestra to sound beautiful instead of harsh.

You mentioned fidelity to the printed page: how much importance do you place on comparing different editions of scores?

Tradition is often based on the text a particular musician was working from at a particular time, so that’s one area where I like to maintain a healthy suspicion of traditions. Bruckner is a case in point: if you listen to a Celibidache recording and follow along with a modern edition of the score, some of the tempo choices seem inexplicable. But if you seek out the exact editions in circulation at the time, you find that they were missing numerous crucial markings: Bruckner’s symphonies are like a puzzle which only works if every piece is aligned correctly, and these guys were trying to solve that puzzle whilst missing some basic vital information. People say Bruckner is so open to interpretation, but I disagree - you actually have more interpretative freedom in Mahler, even though he bombards you with instructions! In Bruckner if you want the musical text to speak properly in the context of the other movements, there’s generally only wiggle-room of five to ten tempo-markings, so it’s easy to see why Celibidache came up with the tempi he did in order to make everything work as a whole. That’s why it’s important to become as familiar with all of the source-material as you can, so that you understand why other people did what they did in order to solve certain issues.

How do you prefer to programme the symphonies in concert - individually, or as a cycle?

When I proposed doing the Malmö Beethoven cycle in two weeks rather than over a whole season they were really shocked at the idea, but being a competitive person (in the sense of being competitive with myself) I now want to conduct the lot in one day! I’d need two orchestras, and in fact I’m doing a Schubert cycle in Spain like this next season: all the symphonies over two concerts, with the orchestra split so they get some respite. And I’d love to do The Ring in a day-and-a-half – I think a lot of people would like to hear it like that, but I’m not sure how many orchestras would want to play it!

But when I’m working on any of these symphonies individually I’m still thinking of all the others: I want my Seventh to have a lot more meat on it, yes, but then I have to think about what I’m going to do when I get to the Eighth. That’s why I was keen to record a cycle, because I want everyone to think about how these symphonies progress - not only in terms of the size of the orchestra but also the intensity, phrasing and structure, and that whole process of evolution that culminates with the Ninth.

I’m always thinking in the context of other composers, too. Take the last movement of the Ninth, and its reference to ‘Contessa, perdona’ from the end of Nozze di Figaro: why does that happen? It’s very simple – both centre on the idea of redemption. There’s also a strange passage in the Ninth which is scored for low strings, clarinets and trombones, just as Schiller’s text references ‘the old ways’, and for me that’s Beethoven referencing the older composers like Monteverdi. I wanted that moment to sound like a baroque ensemble’s suddenly stepped up on stage. And you see Beethoven’s influence on later composers everywhere too: I was doing an online lesson on Mahler’s Fifth recently with conducting students from the Royal Academy of Music, and I asked if anybody had recognised the other Fifth Symphony in the room…That opening rhythmic motif is straight out of Beethoven’s Fifth!

What are your upcoming recording plans with Ondine?

The plan is to do an American disc with the Basque National Orchestra, featuring composers like Henry Cowell and Charles Martin Loeffler - there’s this whole generation of American composers who’ve often been overlooked, and they’re the ones who are responsible in many ways for the successes of Bernstein, Barber, Copland and Ives. The other thing is a Ravel project: Ravel was of French nationality, but culturally he was Basque, which is often misunderstood. Here in San Sebastien, twenty kilometres from the French border, one understands the distinction quite clearly: if you speak to a person in the French region of the Basque country they’ll say ‘I’m French, but I’m also Basque’, and if you go to someone in the Spanish region they will say ‘I’m Basque, but I’m also Spanish’. It’s an interesting nuance, and certainly there are elements of Ravel’s music that are Basque, not Spanish. We’ve spent the last two years going through all his orchestral music and piano concertos, so now we feel we have a very particular way of doing Ravel.

You mentioned Boulez returning to Pierrot Lunaire with a different objective - do you see yourself doing the same with the Beethoven symphonies?

Let’s address the elephant in the room: I’m a 36-year-old who’s recorded a cycle of works which is the pinnacle for elder statesmen conductors. But Beethoven had written so many of his symphonies by the time he was my age – I’m not trying to equate myself with him, but keeping that in mind certainly helped! I looked on this project not as ‘my Beethoven cycle’ but as ‘my first Beethoven cycle’, because I don’t want to close myself off to the possibility that my interpretation might change. Sometimes people are keen to record things because they want to put their stamp on them, or think they've hit on a way of doing things that surpasses all other interpretations, but that’s really not my motivation. The tallest person in the room isn’t me, or Karajan or Harnoncourt or Gardiner: it’s Beethoven! But I love recording because it allows me to share what I’m doing right now with the maximum number of people, and it’s wonderful to have a document to re-evaluate in five or fifty years’ time.

I’m constantly re-evaluating everything I do, and that process will only stop for me when they put me in the ground. Because conductors are essentially conduits of information, we aren’t limited by physical capacity as we age in the way that instrumentalists are. My wife jokes that she never imagines me retiring - she sees me dying on the podium, and that’s genuinely what I would prefer! Abbado famously died with a score by his bed – I think it was Schubert’s Unfinished, a piece he’d conducted and recorded so many times – and that really resonated with me. I wouldn’t like to have a moment where I’m not doing this.

Kate Royal (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Tuomas Katajala (tenor), Derek Welton (bass-baritone)

Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Trevino

Available Formats: 5 SACDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC