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The Music of My Country – Portuguese Conductor Álvaro Cassuto Talks with Jeremy Siepmann

December 3, 2010

Álvaro Cassuto

Álvaro Cassuto, widely acclaimed as Portugal’s foremost conductor, has long since proved himself a citizen of the world. Born to German parents in Oporto in 1938, he feels equally comfortable in the Latin and Germanic traditions. Educated in Portugal, Austria and Germany, and resident for 18 years in the United States, he is both a conductor and a composer, as well as holding a degree in Law from the University of Lisbon. Associated in his early 20s with some of the most influential composers of the 20th century, his conducting teachers included the legendary Herbert von Karajan. After serving as Leopold Stokowski’s assistant with the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, winning the coveted Koussevitsky Prize and making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he conducted numerous orchestras, including the National Orchestra of New York, of which he was Music Director, as well as serving as professor of music at the University of California. In 1986, Cassuto was invited to return to Portugal, where he founded the New Portuguese Philharmonica and in 1993 the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra. Outside Portugal he has appeared with the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and dozens of others around the world.

He is a serious man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Conversation with him is liberally nourished with laughter, often self-deprecating; he has a keen sense of irony, and an unshakeable sense of purpose.

His entry into the world of professional music, however, was unspectacular. We’re used, in the world of instrumentalists, to pianists of 5 or 6, violinists ditto, flautists in their teens etc. But prodigy conductors (let’s say pre-teens) are very rare. ‘Yes they are. And I certainly wasn’t one of them! I learned to play piano and violin as a child, but without any professional goal or ambition. When I was a teenager, though, my interest in music focused on the orchestra as an instrument, and on composition. I studied music theory and developed a great interest in the avant-garde, concentrating on the 12-tone technique.’ And for characteristically rational reasons: ‘When I started composing, most Portuguese composers were pretty traditionalist. They knew about Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, but the Second Viennese School was totally outside their sphere of interest or experience. So I thought that someone should look into that, and I became very interested. There was still something very revolutionary about it, at least in this area of Europe. So, since no one else seemed interested, I became Portugal’s first 12-tone composer! I went to study in Darmstadt, in Germany, which was the Mecca for new music at that time (this was the late 1950s), I attended all the courses there for two summers, and studied with Stockhausen, Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Messiaen, all of which, of course, was tremendously exciting. And in 1959 (I was then 20), I had my first work performed.’

The principal influence on Cassuto the conductor could hardly have been more different: the afore-mentioned Herbert von Karajan. ‘Karajan influenced me enormously—well before I actually studied with him. But it was an influence of a very special kind. It was principally the style, the character, that I most admired in his performances, both recorded and live. The incredible vitality—and the sound that he got from an orchestra. I didn’t find anything like this in any other conductor I knew. I went to all of his concerts that I could when I was studying in Germany. And even later, as much as 20 years later when I was in New York, I remember him conducting all four Brahms symphonies in concerts at Carnegie Hall. The sounds that he got out of an orchestra were simply overwhelming. This is something that no-one can teach anybody. He taught by influencing someone rather than by actually explaining things. As many great conductors have said, the technique of “time beating” can be learnt in a couple of hours. But the technique of “conducting” takes a life-time.

‘So much depends on the kinds of orchestras one’s working with. When I started my career I got a chance to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, but it was too soon. I wasn’t ready for a great orchestra. I’d conducted mostly in Portugal, and with orchestras of lesser quality, where you have to spend time correcting wrong notes, wrong dynamics, wrong phrasings, and all kinds of technical things. But as you progress through life and conduct better orchestras, you can afford to take for granted that the musicians know what to do; you don’t waste time, and you don’t interfere with the musicians. You have confidence that they know what to do on their own. I remember, in this connection, attending a rehearsal of Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic, many years ago. I was sitting with his assistant, who was also my conducting teacher at the Berlin Conservatory. Karajan would sometimes stop the orchestra and simply say to them “Once more”. The orchestra would play, but Karajan asked for nothing specific; didn’t ask them to change anything in particular, didn’t make any suggestions at all. “Once more” was all he’d say. Then, sometimes, he would give very general directions, saying, maybe just “Development Section”. Some of the orchestra would start in one place, some in another, and eventually they would all come together. Needless to say, this puzzled me very much, and I asked my teacher to explain. “Why doesn’t he just tell them what’s wrong? I mean, isn’t he wasting an awful lot of time?” And my teacher said “Oh no, no, no. You don’t understand. He doesn’t want to tell the musicians how to play; he wants them to find it out by themselves. The initiative must come from the musicians themselves, not from him imposing anything on them.” And I think that’s really something very wise. To develop a way of handling an orchestra so that the musicians themselves take the initiative in doing what you want them to do, without you having to say “No, no, no, no, no! That’s not at all what I want you to do. I want it another way altogether.” That way you get a negative result from the orchestra, because the musicians feel that they were in the wrong. They feel criticised and demeaned. So you have to turn things around. This can’t work, of course, when you’re conducting an orchestra for the first time. As I said, it’s something that has to be developed. But even with a new orchestra, the conductor must find some way of building their self-confidence. And this is the kind of thing I mean when I say that learning the art of the conductor, the art of the conductor’s technique, is really a lifetime’s pursuit.’

Our conversation turned to the composers he’s been championing on Naxos—not only Freitas Branco but also Joly Braga Santos, the latter on the Marco Polo label. Are they, I wondered, household names in Portugal? Or has Cassuto himself been responsible for bringing them to the attention of Portuguese audiences?

‘They are household names, yet their music is rarely played. This is a serious problem. We have a saying in Portugal that “No house Saint produces miracles”, reflecting the fact that the Portuguese, in certain important ways, don’t sufficiently believe in themselves, feeling that anything good must come from abroad. So while Mahler, Stravinsky and all the international modern composers are performed in Portugal, Portuguese composers are neglected. Actually, I think this is something that happens to all small countries, For instance, how many Swiss, how many Dutch composers can one name off the top of one’s head? How many Danish composers, apart from Nielsen? And how many of these have achieved international renown? It’s very strange. I’m not in a position to analyse this phenomenon, but it exists, and it’s harmful when it comes to the international distribution of good music. Only now are the works of Freitas Branco being printed in proper scores, with individual copies of the parts. And this is the result of our recordings, all of them made using manuscripts, badly written by copyists and full of mistakes that needed correcting. This state of affairs obviously hasn’t helped the cause of Freitas Branco abroad. Who wants to work in these conditions? My great hope, of course, is that the combination of our recordings and Naxos’s fantastic international distribution will continue to make this music more familiar. A number of conductors and orchestras around the world have now shown a real interest in this repertoire, and many people feel that the time has come for it to be published, in reputable editions, and brought to the attention of audiences everywhere. And I must say, it’s very gratifying to see these results taking place.

Is recording a process that he actively enjoys? ‘I do, very much. But there’s a big difference between recording and performing something in public. When recording a work you can do it one section at a time, really concentrating on the technical issues that these three or four or five minutes of music contain. In a concert, of course, these are easily absorbed into the much bigger framework of the composition as a whole. The kind of fine tuning that goes on in a studio isn’t possible in concert. It’s a wonderful thing, in the studio, to really concentrate on everything and get it as near as possible to the way you ideally want it. In a concert, sometimes this is lost, because there everything is important, everything demands your attention. Of course there’s the handicap that the sound in a recording is never the same as in a live performance. And in a concert there’s always that element of improvisation, the chance of doing something on the spur of the moment. It might work or it might not but it’s one of those exciting features of performance that hardly ever happens in the studio. I enjoy recording very much because it accords very much with my way of thinking and offers the chance of achieving perfection, or as close to it as possible. When things go wrong in a public concert there’s nothing you can do about it.

In the case of Freitas Branco, how would Cassuto describe him? In terms of style and emotional/dramatic/psychological characteristics. Does he occupy a significant place in the story of 20th-century music? ‘He certainly occupies a significant place in the story of 20th Century “Portuguese” music, but in international terms, his importance is naturally “obscured” by such giants as Stravinsky and Shostakovich. But doesn’t this happen to most composers who happen not to be the “number one” of their time? In emotional/dramatic/psychological characteristics, he was a late Romantic with a clear preference for “Classicism”. This reveals itself mainly in form. The music falls into specific patterns, maybe Sonata forms, variation form, whatever, and it’s all very clearly constructed—built like a cathedral. You get a good sense of balance and structure, and he also uses the orchestra in a very compact, Romantic-Classical way, like Brahms or Dvořák or Tchaikovsky, rather than like Webern or even Schoenberg, or the neoclassical Stravinsky.

What, for Cassuto, are Freitas Branco’s finest works? And what makes them so? What are their greatest qualities? ‘Two works spring to mind immediately: his tone poem Vathek and his Fourth Symphony, both of which, as it happens, are included in the December 2010 Naxos release. Their greatest qualities are those which basically mark all great works: inspiration, and the exact relation between the music and the form, the architecture. I’ve been familiar with Freitas Branco’s music throughout my professional life. As a matter of fact, at my first concert, when I was 22, I conducted the premiere of the complete Vathek—in 1961, almost half a century after it was written! My happiest discovery this year was to find it a much better work than I thought it was in my youth. 50 years after not understanding it, I now feel I really do. I’ve come to know and recognise lots in it that I didn’t see or hear before—in terms of sheer quality, and my abilities to perceive it. Of course time doesn’t always have that effect. There are some pieces—the Grosse Fuge of Beethoven, for instance—which I feel absolutely confident I’ll never understand. Not even if I live another 50 years. But I’m well aware that the problem is mine not Beethoven’s!

‘Coming back to Freitas Branco, though, I feel that with this recording project I’m doing something very important for the music of my country. And I feel very honoured and happy to have this wonderful collaboration with Naxos. It’s very rewarding indeed, and something I could not have done if I’d remained in the United States.’

In itself, along with so much else, it has justified his decision to return home. Since when he has never looked back.

Álvaro Cassuto Biography & Discography


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