Interview with Maestro Benjamin Zander

Maestro Benjamin Zander Speaks about Wagner

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra will perform a rare all-Wagner concert on November 18, 21, and 22. Included are gorgeous excerpts from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, and Götterdämmerung. The fabulous soprano Alwyn Mellor, who enchanted Boston audiences last April, will be the soloist.

In preparation for this very special concert, the Boston Wagner Society asked Maestro Zander a few questions via phone and email.

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra performed an all-Wagner concert seven years ago with soprano Linda Watson. What drew you to Wagner’s music in the first place?

My father was passionate about Wagner’s music and he knew it really well. Once, when he and I were clearing the music cabinet, we came across a six-inch scrap of music with viola and bass clef, but no title. My father looked at it for a while and then said, “I think this is the second act of Lohengrin.” And sure enough, when we looked in the score there was the page with that bit missing! So I absorbed Wagner vicariously in my youth through my father’s love of it. But I came to conducting it very late in life. The idea of a concert of random “bleeding chunks,” as Sir Bernard Shaw called them, didn’t appeal to me. But for the concert seven years ago, we found a way of stringing some of the greatest orchestral moments together in such a way that it made a coherent whole and it had an overwhelming impact both on the players and the audience. Our timpanist, Ed Meltzer, who has played in the orchestra for over 30 years, and has played the entire Mahler cycle with us more than once, told me that he counted that Wagner concert as one of the two or three highlights of his musical career.

There is nothing like the sound of this music played by a huge symphony orchestra in a hall with great acoustics. Now we are going to do it again with another international Wagner singer. I hope all your readers will come and bring their friends. This music needs a large and passionate audience, as much as great players and singers.

Last spring the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performed Act 3 of Siegfried, an extremely challenging task. What made you decide to teach the students this music, whose complexity was greatly increased by the four vocalists?

The person who suggested Act 3 of Siegfried was my life-long musical collaborator, David St. George [the artistic advisor of the Boston Philharmonic and a member of the Boston Wagner Society], who has been a passionate Wagnerian since the age of 13 (“Wagner and puberty hit me at the same time!”). We had been discussing doing an act of one of the operas, and Act 1 of Die Walküre was an obvious choice, but as David pointed out, the orchestra parts in the third act of Siegfried are vastly more interesting. Between composing Act 2 and Act 3 of Siegfried, Wagner interrupted work on the Ring and composed Tristan and Die Meistersinger. When he returned to the Act 3 of Siegfried, his craft and especially his mastery of the orchestration and the treatment of the Leitmotifs had made a gigantic leap in richness and complexity. In the final act, the orchestra plays the predominant role and so the challenge for the players is on another whole new level. It was an experience of a lifetime for every member of that orchestra (the youngest is 11!). Imagine playing Siegfried at that age! And as for me, I got the Wagner bug again quite badly.

You are renowned as a Mahler specialist. Originally, the program for the upcoming November concert with the Boston Phil was Mahler’s Fifth. What made you change your mind and switch to Wagner?

I was so excited about Siegfried and the effect it had on all of us last year. Also, I had found this incredible singer, Alwyn Mellor, and I couldn’t wait to bring her back to Boston as soon as possible. I called her right up at her home in Cardiff and found out she was available for this next week. It wasn’t hard to change from Mahler 5th to a whole evening of Wagner with one of the best Brünnhildes in the world today. Boston has heard me conduct Mahler 5th Symphony quite often; it was time for some more Wagner! I just can’t wait for everyone to hear her sing those first heavenly, whispered phrases in the Liebestod: “Mild und leise wie er lächelt.” It is going to melt every heart in the place. And then she’ll tear our hearts out with the terror and pathos of the Immolation Scene. OMG!

Wagner is one of the very few opera composers who wrote their own librettos. What effect did his poetic librettos have on his musical compositions and vice versa?

I think of the entire thing as one – the idea of a Gesamntkunstwerk. The music is conversational, so you cannot separate the words from the music and vice versa. Every nuance of meaning in the words is represented exactly in the music – it is truly magical. One of the things that people noticed about Alwyn Mellor when she sang with the BPYO is how extraordinarily sensitive she is to the words. It’s part of what makes her such a remarkable Wagnerian. Usually we get a great voice and little else. I think the new generation of Wagnerian singers is realizing what a powerful effect a well-projected text can have on the whole experience.

It is a miracle to me that Wagner wrote the entire libretto of the Ring before he wrote a note of the music!

Interestingly he thought his operas should be performed in the language of the audience, but I much prefer it in German. The sound of the words and the music seem to go together so perfectly. Nowadays with surtitles, we can have the best of both worlds. The music and libretto, because they are created by the same person, are inextricably intertwined. I can’t imagine it any other way but in German.

Wagner made numerous innovations in the world of music and opera. What do you consider the three most important ones?

I don’t know what are the most important contributions of this musical giant, but certainly the fact that Wagner expanded the whole harmonic vocabulary, especially in Tristan, must rank very high. He took music into a completely new place, pointing the way forward for the next generation of composers, including Schoenberg, Debussy, and Berg, as well as John Williams and all the Hollywood film composers. Perhaps no other composer has been so innovative or so influential. Another innovation is the treatment of the Leitmotif. People don’t realize the extent that the Leitmotif idea pervades our lives. You might hear a musical phrase on TV in the next room and then you go out and buy a sofa! What is astonishing is that in his mature operas Wagner developed the idea so far that the most subtle psychological development of character is worked out in the slight modifications of the Leitmotifs. It’s truly miraculous. There are 196 leitmotifs that have been identified in the Ring. I will explain about 9 of them in my pre-concert presentation with the orchestra and then everyone in the audience will be able to follow the story through the music. Amazing!

Another achievement of Wagner, beyond, I believe, that of any other creative artist other than Shakespeare, is his ability to create a completely different and self-contained world for each of his operas. Not a bar of Meistersinger belongs in Tristan and no part of the Ring could be inserted into Parsifal. No other composer does this. When Hans Sachs is momentarily tempted to act out his love for Eva, a girl one third his age, Wagner slips in a few bars of Tristan’s music as a warning to Sachs of the chaos and mayhem that will occur in Nuremberg should he give in to the temptation. Breathtaking! And as if that wasn’t enough, Wagner, in order to bring his vision to life, had to invent a new kind of orchestra, with new instruments like the Wagner tubas and bass trumpet. He also had to invent and develop a new kind of singer – singers whose huge voices could soar over a gigantic romantic orchestra.

As you know, Bostonians do not take to Wagner’s music easily, as opposed to residents of other major U.S. cities such as New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and so on. Why is that?

Boston is one of the most musical cities in the country. And yet we still don’t have an opera house. All those cities that you mention have major opera houses. You can’t cultivate a Wagner audience unless people can get to hear the operas in the flesh. There is probably some positive impact being felt from the MET HD presentations in cinemas, but it simply isn’t the same. We have to hear it live in a good acoustic. Boston is a national leader in chamber music, orchestral music, early music, contemporary music, choral music, youth orchestras. Opera is next.

Opera lovers often are afraid of Wagner’s music. In your opinion, what is so fearful about this music?

The Ring operas are very long (actually very, very long). Also they are not conveniently broken up into arias, quintets, and choruses, which provide variety and relief in operas by, say, Mozart and Verdi – it’s all continuous. You have to be willing to invest in the story and get involved. Only one person sings at a time and nothing is repeated. There are references to other parts of the story. It takes some dedication. But the rewards are enormous.

I suppose the greatest fear people have is the fear of getting lost. That’s why I feel it is important to explain as much as I can about what is going on in the introductions at the BPO concerts. I don’t want people to get lost. My experience with the concert seven years ago as well as with the Siegfried last year, is that the audiences and the players adore this music and find it a totally engrossing and thrilling experience. So let’s spread the news!

Your parents escaped Germany during the Nazi era. Do you have any qualms about performing Wagner’s music, which was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes?

This is one of those unfortunate confusions of history. Last time we played a Wagner concert seven years ago, the first bass player of the Israel Philharmonic came all the way to Boston to play in the Boston Philharmonic, because he had never had the chance to play Wagner’s music in Israel! Wagner wasn’t a Nazi. The Third Reich used his music for propaganda. But then they also used Beethoven for the same ends. Of course I am disturbed by the close relationship that existed between members of the Wagner family and Hitler, but we can’t blame Wagner that Hitler loved his music. He loved Beethoven’s too! Wagner’s operas deal with ancient stories and myths; it has nothing to do with Nazism. Was he anti-Semitic? Of course he was. He was also a very difficult personality, but that didn’t prevent him from composing some of the greatest music ever written. H. L. Mencken said that Meistersinger was “the greatest single work of art ever produced by man.” Nietzsche said that he couldn’t imagine surviving adolescence without Tristan. This is an essential part of our artistic heritage. It is music that has to be heard.

I think it is possible that people have misunderstood Wagner’s message. They think because the music is often loud and the singers sometimes seem to be hectoring us, that it must be glorifying power and greed. But it’s the opposite! The final message of the Ring Cycle is that greed, selfishness, and the pursuit of power lead only to destruction. Love is the only true path for mankind. It is a beautiful and uplifting message.

One of the things that I love about Alwyn Mellor is that she is can sing as softly and delicately as any Mozart singer and also soar over the spiritual rooftops. I am asking the orchestra to do the same. Wagner takes us into the deepest places that we are capable of entering. It’s true the emotions created by Wagner are very disturbing, as they are supposed to be. If we want to be entertained, we listen to a Haydn symphony. If we want our soul to be stirred, we go to a performance of King Lear or hear Wagner.

It is not an experience for the faint of heart, but for everyone else it is a glorious and riveting experience.