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A MAN OF THE WORLD – Jeremy Siepmann talks to the conductor Jun Märkl

October 11, 2010

Born in Munich to a German father (a distinguished Concertmaster) and a Japanese mother (a concert pianist), Jun Märkl was familiar with music before he was born. His musical horizons expanded almost from the moment of his birth. Nothing seemed more natural. ‘Music,’ he now reflects, ‘is such an essential way of expressing yourself that it’s really another language that you learn.’ That said, acquiring it was not always an undiluted pleasure. Nor, despite a precocious start, did performance hold many charms for him. At least not at first. ‘I studied both the violin and the piano from a very early age—the violin from when I was four, the piano from when I was five—and I started playing for people when I was seven, mostly for my parents’ guests and things like that. I can’t honestly say I liked it very much. I was certainly no wunderkind, not at all, but as the years went on I began playing for bigger and bigger audiences.’ The rewards, however, were poisoned by a common affliction. ‘As a pianist or violinist I always suffered very badly from nerves. And that really didn’t change until I went into conducting—which was very late, actually. I was always interested in musical theory, musical history, musicology—the academic side of music generally—so well before university I attended many courses. And though these brought me into contact with composers and conductors, it was actually my piano teacher who really gave me the push into conducting, remarking that my playing was very orchestral in style (I’d always liked trying to imitate voices, or clarinets, and other orchestral instruments, to get the maximum colour from the piano). He also stressed the degree to which I’d be working and making music with many more people than I ever could just being a pianist.’

Jun Märkl

Like most conducting students, Märkl soon discovered that much of the craft, the art, of the conductor cannot be taught—though it can, of course, be learnt. ‘What can be taught is all the theory, the background, the musicological side of things—score-reading, specific conducting techniques and so on. What’s intensely personal, though, is how you put this technique to use, how you move your body, and, most important of all, how you can express yourself. Conducting is a non-verbal language, in a way. Like a dancer, you have to express and reveal what the music is through visual, symbolic gestures. This is particularly important in our German opera system, where very often you don’t have any rehearsal, you just direct the performance itself. Extremely important, too, of course, is the human side, how you approach the musicians—how to criticise them, how to encourage them, how to establish the best possible relationship with them. This, obviously, is not a matter of technique and cannot be taught. It’s intimately bound up with your own personality and you can only learn by experimenting, finding out what works well, and what doesn’t.’

I note the comparison with the dancer. Does Märkl himself consciously choreograph his musical movements? ‘No. No. Not at all. I remember being fascinated by Bernstein’s very active approach to conducting—jumping on the podium, being tremendously extroverted in his movements, all of which was the direct expression of his personality and his feeling for the music. It wasn’t contrived, it just happened. There was nothing choreographed. And of course it all depends what the music is. And on all kinds of aspects of the circumstance of performance. Sometimes I’ll feel a kind of choreography in a particular piece in one performance, and not at all in another. It depends on so many things.’

Bernstein, as it happens, was one of three great conductors with whom Märkl had the privilege of working. The other two were Seiji Ozawa and the legendary Sergiu Celibidache. Each, needless to say, left an indelible impression. ‘Seiji Ozawa is maybe the most gifted conductor I’ve witnessed when it comes to using the body to express one’s musical intentions. He can show with one finger the kind of sound he wants from an orchestra. It’s really amazing. I learned a lot from him about the sorts of things one can do. Celibidache was a very different personality altogether. He was a like a kind of Indian guru, a prophet. Music for him was part of a larger philosophy. Everything in his interpretations, in his thinking about music, was part of a bigger picture. He was always seeking for the truth, in music and other by other means. It was a very intellectual approach. Bernstein, for me, was just a genius, he was so universal in his thinking, his way of making music, whether it was conducting, playing the piano, teaching or composing. Very often, until late into the night, we would sit around his piano as he showed us what he was doing with the score, and what he would be doing the next day, and why…It was hugely impressive, and it influenced me a lot. He really knew all aspects of music and art.’

The greatest influences on Märkl as a conductor, as an interpreter, were not all themselves conductors. One in particular looms large in his memory. ‘I had a very good piano teacher for a long time, a very well-known pianist, actually, Karl Engel. He played a lot as a soloist but also with great singers, like Peter Schreier and Hermann Prey among others, and he recorded a great deal. He taught me a lot about the different challenges of playing on a smallish scale, as in Lieder, on a large scale, as in big concertos, and all the degrees in between, in chamber music. He opened many musical doors for me.’ And Märkl entered all of them. Though not, perhaps, quite omnivorous when it comes to music, his affinities range far and wide ‘They do yes. Certainly. But of course there are some I prefer to others. I grew in the German tradition of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner—this is my, kind of, core repertoire. But I always had a very great feeling for a number of French composers—Debussy and Saint-Saëns, for instance—and it was a great opportunity to actually go there, to work with a French orchestra, to live there, really to refine my knowledge, my language, and musical language also, in this very special repertoire.’ Was he struck by the difference between French and German culture? Yes, very much so. Especially because I didn’t expect it to be so great. The difference in style, of course, in mentality, they way in which they work was all extremely different. I think the Germans share much more with the English than with the French. It was fascinating and enriching for me to work there, but it was not easy. The German tradition is based very much on structure, and the very close connections between structure and emotions. There’s virtually never emotion without structure, and of course the emotions are often very strong, whether its sonata form or 12-tone music or what have you. In French music there is also structure, of course, but it’s nothing like the first priority. The priority is in colour, the changes in colour, the refinement of sound, the constant changes of sound, the ever-shifting tonal palette—all this is much more important. And it’s here that they find the emotion—but the emotions are not so open as in German music, they are much more covered, more delicately spun.

‘However, I must add that the composers I love most are not necessarily the composers I conduct most. This is necessarily affected by the demands of what you might call the musical marketplace, which these days is oriented towards specialisation—an idea I frankly don’t like very much. I particularly dislike the idea of focussing on one composer only. To make good music you have to know a lot, not only about art but about life. One problem of this fashion for specialisation is that there are branches of the repertoire which one loves very much but is effectively prevented from performing—most notably, in my case, the Baroque. Nowadays that’s very much for specialists—and I like to listen to it, I even do my researches into the field, but as far as public performance is concerned, I just don’t “do” Baroque, which I’d really love to. And 50 years ago I could have. Then, the normal symphony conductor performed Baroque repertoire, and nobody lifted an eyebrow. But after the example and influence of Harnoncourt and others, there’s an awful lot of knowledge and research that has to come beforehand, with very heavy discussions about what is the truth about a certain ornament and so on (in this or that year they did a turn upside down, but 10 years later they did it downside up!).

Jun Märkl

One of the most significant features of the Baroque era was the birth and early development of opera—a realm of the repertoire in which Märkl has distinguished himself many times over. But it was an acquired taste. ‘It was. In fact up to the beginning of university I really hated opera! I thought it was so sloppy, and never precise, and as a young person I really liked doing things 100% right. But later, when I started working with singers, and going into conducting, the German system goes through opera. To learn how to conduct you have to start as a coach in an opera house, teaching the singers their parts, playing the orchestra part in rehearsals etc, so I got a lot out of starting at the bottom and working my way up, and I developed a great love for this metier. It’so emotional, and so flexible. You have to be extremely flexible. And, since music is only a part of the whole thing, you have to cross borders, as it were, you have to think of technical things, about costumes, about interpretation, about literature, and that’s all fascinating. Music is maybe the most important part of the puzzle, but it’s a big puzzle, and you must never lose sight of that.’

The same might be said of opera itself in the wider world of music. I wondered whether Märkl’s experience of opera had had a significant effect on his conducting of purely orchestral repertoire. And the other way round. ‘Oh, absolutely, yes. Because apart from anything else, in opera you have to learn to make music in any circumstances. No matter what the context, you have to convey the emotions unequivocally. Even if it’s technically messy, you’ve to get across the story and all the emotions that go with it. And this necessary flexibility and spontaneity has helped me a lot in the symphonic repertoire. After all, a lot of so-called symphonic repertoire, concert hall repertoire, is derived from opera—think of all the overtures and ballets. And though purely orchestral, it too has a story about it, and a theatrical history—and it all belongs to the emotional ‘plot’ of the opera. But the experience of opera helps to animate the interpretation of repertoire with no operatic connections at all. Likewise, it’s very good for orchestras, as well as conductors, to have experience in both spheres. To educate an orchestra, to let it grow and develop its own specific language, if I can put it that way, you need it to have the symphonic experience, which affords the luxury of time—of rehearsing a bar not once or twice but 10 times or even 20 times. For an orchestra to develop real precision, colour and a character of its own, the symphonic experience is invaluable. But ultimately, all these things, these aspects of performance, are really inseparable.’

Among the orchestras with which Märkl has developed particularly close relationships are the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and the Orchestre National de Lyon. His collaboration with the latter on Naxos’s complete Debussy cycle has won plaudits for all concerned around the world. My assumption that this was the fulfilment of a lifelong love was largely correct. ‘Yes. You could say that. I started really quite early with The Children’s Corner, and then I played a lot of the Debussy Préludes, both volumes, so I was very busy discovering Debussy, but then it changed a lot when I went from the piano to the orchestral repertoire. And I was just amazed at the richness of his colours, and that was for me the ideal of Impressionist music. When I went to Lyon, to work with this orchestra, Debussy was absolutely at the top of my priorities, and I was very glad that I could mount a big project, over six years, exploring him from all different sides, different angles; to watch him, to see where he came from, what came after him. And I now believe firmly that he is the most important French composer of the 20th century.’

The most important, and one of the most misunderstood; the most commonly misrepresented. ‘Yes, I believe that too. Usually people are much more drawn to Ravel, many of whose works are showpieces for the orchestra. Debussy seems, on the whole, more uncomfortable. His structures are more complicated. And it was he who changed the language of French music completely. He was the one who overturned Wagnerism in France, indeed Germanic influences generally; who redefined the French musical aesthetic, both through his composition and his writings about it. Without Debussy, Messiaen and Boulez and those who came afterwards would not have been possible. The extent and power of his influence is still underrated, I think, in the minds of most music-lovers. His example was ground-breaking, and it shook up the musical world. I think one common misconception is that Debussy is primarily an Impressionist composer. That colour and atmosphere, and a certain vagueness, a certain fogginess, are more important than structure in his music. My impression is that the exact opposite is true. He was very keen to make the rhythmical structure of his music clear. The rhythmical structure of Debussy’s music is much greater than we tend to think. He was very much a sonic architect. And a very demanding one too. I would like the listener’s attention to be focussed on the clarity of the structure, the clarity of the sound, so that they really can hear everything that’s happening, all the inner voices etc. Debussy is extremely clear about what he wants—almost every note has some indication of how to play it, and the colour it should have. The performance of his music must reflect this. It must be extremely precise.’

Few would dispute that Debussy wrote great music for orchestra. But was he a great orchestral writer? If so, what were some of his greatest contributions to the art of orchestration? ‘In the beginning, though he had some very good ideas, he was not yet really a master of instrumentation. But he learned a lot, especially from the Russian composers, and from Wagner too, and he developed into a virtuoso orchestrator, whose example influenced Ravel. He redefined the whole French approach to writing for the woodwinds, for instance. The woodwind often dominate the structure, with the strings providing a very sophisticated, fine-spun aural net, if I can put it that way. The trumpets and horns are generally very melodic, the equal of the woodwind, and the writing is often much more like what we imagine from the winds than from the brass. Orchestrally speaking, among many other things, he set up a model of orchestration for the rest of the 20th century.’

Claude Debussy

Wagner’s influence was pervasive. Not even Debussy could resist him in his youth, though he later scorned him. How much is this early interest detectable in his orchestral works? ‘Oh quite a bit, I think, in his early works, and even up to Pelléas et Mélisande, where in one orchestral interlude you can hear the bells of Parsifal—which he was clearly re-introducing there on purpose. He had a very deep knowledge of this repertoire—especially Parsifal and Tristan und Idolde. But after that he found Wagner’s influence so overwhelming that he had to pull back, and find something new. So Pelléas was really the turning point. After that he changed.’

Listeners expecting only Debussy in the Märkl/Naxos cycle are in for a refreshing, indeed an illuminating surprise. Märkl, as we’ve seen, likes to see things in the round. Not only in performance does context alter content. It can fundamentally deepen and expand the experience and perception of the listener. ‘We’re trying here—and working on a large scale—to give a lot of insight into Debussy the musician as a whole, trying also to give insight into a lot of the piano works. If you confine yourself just to those works orchestrated by Debussy himself, that might be accommodated by two or three CDs. But for us it was very important to include, as well, orchestrations by people who were very close to him, like Ravel, like Caplet, for example, students and friends who knew him too, and later, even contemporary composers, composers of our own time, who’ve orchestrated of some of the piano works. And this demonstrates how even today, Debussy’s works are so important that today’s composers are still exploring and learning from them. So in this cycle that we’re doing—8 CDs!—you really get a big picture of Debussy (every note we present is by Debussy): a portrait of the composer and his significance that stretches over a whole century.’

Debussy, however, is far from being the only composer who excites Märkl’s flare for the big picture, for seeing (and hearing) things in the round. It comes as no surprise that he is a committed Wagnerian. However, if you read that between 2001 and 2004 he conducted Japan’s first-ever complete Ring cycle with the NHK and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestras, this is not strictly speaking true. The truth is less simple and more exciting. ‘The fact is that there had been performances of The Ring in Japan before that, but they were imported completely from abroad. Distinguished German and Austrian companies would travel to Japan, give a couple of performances and then depart. There was virtually no Japanese involvement in the productions. The knowledge, the know-how, the understanding how to do this, how to perform, how to really make it work, was never part of the Japanese experience. And to make this all happen is not of course just a musical phenomenon, but a budgetary, technical, dramaturgical question. So what I was trying was to work with Keith Warner in Japan, with Japanese colleagues, who worked together to produce their own Ring cycle. Our aim was to give them the necessary knowledge and leave that with them. Now you can’t in today’s world produce the Ring cycle with all the singers being of one nationality. You can’t have a cast of just German, or British, or Japanese singers, that just doesn’t work nowadays. You have to have an international cast. Ours, however, was quite significantly Japanese, and I hoped that that would help the orchestra, who had to learn how to survive a five-and-a-half hour opera, and the technicians, who had to change the sets in the short interludes of Das Rheingold, which is really challenging. My hope is that building on this experience, the next Ring cycle in Japan will be with a Japanese conductor and a Japanese stage director.’

In the meantime, as the ever-active Märkl looks ahead to his own professional life in the next few years, he knows just what directions he hopes to take. ‘Well the Debussy project, which will come to an end late this year or early in the new year, has been a very big thing for me, very important, and I’m working now on a big Schumann project. Here we have a great composer with a very large oeuvre, of which relatively little is known to most music-lovers, maybe even most musicians. So there’s a lot to discover there. Wonderful music, not easy sometimes, but wonderful. And we should know it. And another composer I really want to explore is Bartók. So that should keep me busy over the next five years or so!’

And there’s already a slot for Debussy in Märkl’s Schumann project: his beautiful arrangement for two pianos of Schumann’s bewitching Studies for Pedal Piano. Life is indeed a continuum.

Jun Märkl Biography & Discography

Read other interviews by Jeremy Siepmann:
MAESTRO’S MUSINGS – Jeremy Siepmann talks to the British conductor Andrew Penny
A Pilgrim’s Progress – Jeremy Siepmann talks to the conductor Ryan Brown


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