Under the Spreading Christmas Tree: Vladimir Lande talks to Jeremy Siepmann
November 16, 2012
Depending on your reflexes, having a foot in two camps at once is no bad thing. Not, anyway, if your name is Vladimir Lande. Born in Leningrad, as it then was, he now divides his very active musical life between his native city and the United States. But a streak of duality, perhaps essential for a musician, was evident in him pretty well from the beginning: in the instruments he played, in his student days, when he struggled frustratingly to be in two places at once, in his choice of musical media, in his double life in the opera house and concert hall. Though still a young man, he’s been around. When, I wondered, did he know that music had to be his life?
‘Well, most of my family are musicians, so I was surrounded by music from the time I was born, and strange though it may seem, I think I knew by the time I was four or five that music was my calling. So I did the natural thing. I began by composing operas. Fortunately, a few years later I became smarter: I stopped! At the age of five, though, I was composing quite a lot. Mainly I was just entertaining my parents’ guests. For quite a while my main instrument was the piano, and by the time I was around 14 I was playing some of the Beethoven concertos with orchestra. Then came a life-changing event. I fell in love—absolutely fell in love—with the sound of the oboe, and with its sheer expressivity. I never had much of a singing voice myself but with the oboe I felt I could express myself better than on any other instrument. It was actually quite late to take up a new instrument, if you wanted to be a professional, but at 19 I’d already won a Russian competition, and by the time I was 20 I was a member of the St. Petersburg (then, of course, the Leningrad) Philharmonic—quite a legendary orchestra. There I had the pleasure and privilege of working with many great conductors, among them Mravinsky, Yansons, Bernstein, Abbado, Gergiev, Temirkanov and Dmitriev, who’s still alive and active.’
The life of an orchestral player, even in a great orchestra, isn’t always a happy one. Exposure to a surfeit of conductors can be tedious, sometimes downright enraging—as well as inspiring, illuminating, even empowering. Some, most, elect to sit it out. Others aspire to escaping upwards. At what point did Lande start eyeing the podium for something more than cues?
‘Oh, very early on. Whenever I played under a great conductor I was absolutely satisfied with being an oboist. If the conductor wasn’t so good, though, I wished I could have a little more input into the interpretation. So I increasingly aspired to become a conductor myself. And I began to attend lessons, just as an auditor, basically eavesdropping on other people’s lessons—even with Ilya Musin, the great conducting teacher at the Leningrad Conservatory. I never studied with him formally but I sat in on many, many of his lessons. I also started to play in the conductors’ orchestra at the Conservatory, where I could really study what was going on with other students and hear what other teachers had to say. Unfortunately, I never had the time to study conducting as I would have liked since as a member of the Philharmonic I also had to travel—and we toured a lot abroad. And at the same time I was still at the conservatory, studying oboe. It really wasn’t an ideal arrangement at all, so really serious studying of conducting just wasn’t in the stars at that time. Later, in the States, I studied with two great teachers, Gustav Meier and Edward Polochick’
The one constant in all this was the oboe. How (if at all) does Lande feel his experience of the oboe has influenced the development and character of his approach to conducting? Obviously, like all wind players, he has an acute sense of breathing, hence also of articulation. Not all wind players, however, have mastered the oboist’s art of circular breathing. Has this wonderful skill nourished the continuity and variety of his phrasing as a conductor? (Who better than an oboist, after all, to understand phrasing without articulation—through inflection, coloration and temporal flexibility alone?)
‘Ever since I first fell in love with it, the oboe, being one of the most expressive instruments in the world—an instrument that composers trust, and for which they’ve frequently written extended solos—has opened my mind to the wonders of phrasing. What you say about circular breathing is true, but for me, natural breathing is centrally, fundamentally, important for music and phrasing of all kinds. I always think that music is a language. And in a spoken language, if you speak without breathing the other person who is listening to us will start to feel very uncomfortable (so, of course, will you!). And the same goes for music. Breath is as expressive as any other part of our musical vocabulary. If not even more so. I actually think that all music starts with a breath. The great pianist Leon Fleisher often says that the most important thing of all in music is the silence in it. It may sound like an overstatement but I agree with him. Music, I would say, actually starts with silence—the stillness, the metaphorical, anticipatory intake of breath, that happens before the sound begins—and that it ends with the silence after the sound has ceased. Needless to say, this isn’t always possible in a concert hall, let alone an opera house! In music, as in our physical existence, there’s no life without breath. And the breath defines the phrase.’
Among Lande’s various hats over the years, that of chamber player has had a lot of use, most prominently today in the Poulenc Trio. Has his extensive experience of chamber music helped to shape him as a conductor? Does he often find himself conducting chamber music writ large, as it were?
‘Experience of chamber music is an absolute must, I think. You have to know how to make conversation with other musicians. Otherwise the necessary two-way street won’t happen. By two-way street, I mean you have to glean the concepts of the musicians who are playing with you. Having played, myself, with conductors who were widely perceived as dictators, I noticed repeatedly that they’re listening very acutely to the interplay and balance between the various instruments of the orchestra—not just imposing their own concepts but creating a kind of conceptual union, if you like. And I learned from that—though it’s hard to explain. When I come to the orchestra for a first rehearsal, I have my own concept, of course, but so do the musicians. For me to allow them, to encourage them, to play their very best, I have to consider and work with their concepts as well. And I truly believe that this can only really be done through the skills and experience of chamber music. Only then, it seems to me, can you have the transparency and expressiveness that composers really hope to achieve.’
From chamber music our conversation turned naturally to the subject of Weinberg, who, unusually for his time and place, wrote seventeen string quartets, more even than his friend and mentor Shostakovich. How, if at all, do these relate to the symphonies?
‘I think that writing string quartets represents for many composers the ultimate honing of their craft. It’s not by chance that Beethoven wrote many quartets, like Mozart and Haydn before him, and there are many other composers (Shostakovich, of course, as you say, is another), because it’s one of the surest ways of actually hearing the music you’ve written. There are always quartets around to play your music, but you could hardly say the same thing about the orchestras. And Weinberg writes for huge orchestras, very colourful, positively exuberant orchestras, the likes of which weren’t easily available—especially for Weinberg, whose orchestral works were more or less eclipsed by Shostakovich’s. Part of the reason for his relative anonymity is that thanks to Soviet propaganda his name—a Jewish name, of course—was seldom mentioned.’
Admittedly it’s hard to generalise about twenty-two works of such variety, but how would Lande describe Weinberg’s symphonies to the newcomer who has yet actually to hear them?
‘One pervasive element is the very sad story of his life, which stamped his music for ever. Virtually his whole family perished in the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, the music is extremely emotional. There’s a lot of hope in it, a lot, but deep, deep sorrow too. It’s very singing and very singable music—it’s no coincidence that many of his symphonies are written with a chorus, some with soloists as well. Of course he couldn’t escape the impact of Shostakovich. The middle movement of the sixth Symphony, for instance, is very Shostakovichian (or whatever the word should be!). But he also has roots in Mahler. Nor is it a coincidence that Weinberg, like Mahler, was Jewish. Like Mahler, he doesn’t use a lot of actual Jewish themes in his music, but it’s permeated by certain Jewish features. In the Soviet Union, of course, he wouldn’t have been allowed to use a lot of Jewish themes. In the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes he uses actual Moldavian melodies (Moldavia was at that time part of the Soviet Union) but he couches them in Jewish idioms, which is both very interesting and very effective. For me, the lyricism, the irony and the sadness of his music in general is tinged with a deep feeling of Jewishness. Also like Mahler, and Shostakovich, he was a master of orchestration, with his own, distinct instrumental language—quite unlike Shostakovich’s. In this case, Shostakovich was the braver composer. He had no trouble creating new timbres, new tones, original colours, by combining instruments in ways that were unthinkable, certainly unthought of, before. Weinberg was more of a traditionalist.’
And are there particular musical/technical challenges in conducting and recording the symphonies that are notably characteristic of his styles/textures/plotting/pacing etc?
‘One problem, if you want to see it that way, is that there are no traditions for performing Weinberg’s works. If you think of Mahler’s symphonies, there are many different interpretations, many different valid interpretations, that one may encounter, which provide a context in which the conductor can arrive at his own interpretation, a tradition, albeit a very varied tradition, on which he can build. And Mahler himself, of course, had the opportunity to hear and rehearse his music, which was enormously helpful to him. This, for the most part, was a luxury Weinberg never knew. It’s challenging to find those moments, and there are a lot of them, where tempos should relax a little bit or go a little faster, or with more direction—to create something, to read his mind. It’s much easier, of course, to go through the symphonies without doing all this work microscopic work, but if you just simply follow the general tempos, the works lose a lot of their effectiveness; of their soul, their spiritual element—their presentation, their experience, of emotion. One has to remember that when a composer puts in metronome markings there’s no need to follow them all the way through. It’s a general idea. But you have to be sensitive to the music, to the phrase, to connections between instruments etc. In Weinberg, as with Mahler, you have to be flexible. I’ve had the privilege of working from scores often written in his own hand, because much of the music I’m dealing with has never actually been published, at least not in its original form. For instance, in a number of the published works there are numerous cuts, and I’m aiming to reveal as much of the original music as possible, in the way that the composer wanted—I’m trying to understand the process of his writing, to get into his mind and see what was there originally, to see the corrections and amendments he made as a result of his practical experience in rehearsals. It takes a lot of work but it’s work repaid, and I really hope the recordings we’re doing with Naxos will help to give Weinberg his rightful place.’
And finally, if Lande had to summarise what gives him the greatest feeling of reward, satisfaction and pleasure in undertaking this project, what would he say?
‘Weinberg’s music is like a giant Christmas present that’s never been unwrapped. You know, right under the tree, a huge box, containing twenty-two symphonies and more—much of which has never been performed before, or certainly not been performed enough. Yes, there’ve been some performances, and some recordings, but there are so few of them, and a lot of them are done with so many cuts. Also, many of these recordings have been from live concert performances—which I don’t mind at all, of course, but live performances don’t give you the opportunity for exploration that you get in the recording studio. For me, and for the orchestra, this project is an enormous pleasure. Doing something like this makes you feel like an explorer, opening up new worlds, in this case new worlds of sound. And the result, certainly in the case of Weinberg, is simply wonderful. In many ways, with many composers, you do your best to apply your knowledge and skills to capturing the emotional essence of the music. And that’s just one of the things that make this adventure such a joy.’
Truth to tell, there are worse professions.
Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.
Vladimir Lande Biography & Discography
Mieczysław Weinberg Biography & Discography
Previous releases by Vladimir Lande and St Petersburg State Symphony: