Ensemble Modern on Tour with Sir George Benjamin

A Conversation with Sir George Benjamin

In the late summer, Ensemble Modern and the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, expanded to encompass full orchestral forces, will present three different programmes with Sir George Benjamin and Anna Prohaska as soloist, to be performed in seven concerts in Berlin, Cologne, London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. As a composer and conductor, Sir George Benjamin has contributed to the development of contemporary music during recent decades in ways that can hardly be overstated. In May, he received the renowned Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in recognition of these contributions. At the same time, 2023 marks an anniversary for Ensemble Modern and Sir George Benjamin: their first collaboration took place 30 years ago. Jagdish Mistry spoke to him about the upcoming tour and its featured works.

Jagdish Mistry: We would like to talk about our upcoming tour in September. And we have two anniversaries: the International Ensemble Modern Academy has existed for 20 years. And then our work with you! It’s been almost thirty years.

George Benjamin: Was it 1993?

JM: Indeed. 1993 in Badenweiler and Frankfurt. I was in my »trial year« at Ensemble Modern. So that was the first time we met as well [laughs].

GB: We also went to Vienna, Basel, and Berlin. It was a gigantic tour. I’ll never forget it.

JM: Absolutely. Over the years, we have done many big tours and nevertheless, this is even bigger. It’s amazing because, as is still our mandate, we keep meeting new composers every time. This time we are encountering two new composers: Elizabeth Ogonek and Dieter Ammann.

GB: In the large-scale programme we will exclusively play orchestral music by composers of our time. Elizabeth Ogonek’s and Dieter Ammann’s pieces are very recent, the work by Unsuk Chin is only a few years old; and then there’s the new score by Francesco Filidei.

JM: Tell us a little bit about Elizabeth Ogonek.

GB: I met her in Tanglewood, when she was very young, about ten years ago. I’ve now and then followed what she’s been doing and I’ve seen a personal and highly poetic sensibility emerge. A composer with a lot of imagination and a feeling of multiple perspectives. Her piece ›Cloudline‹ is mysterious in atmosphere. It sets a scene; it sets a mood. Have you listened to it?

JM: Yes, I heard a recording of it ...

GB: What did you think?

JM: Exactly the same. She has an extremely fine sensitivity for orchestral colour. And also the ability to make ideas emerge one from another.

GB: I’m very pleased to present music of this young American composer.

JM: And what about Dieter Ammann?

GB: I’ve known about Dieter Ammann for quite a few years. He’s been a very prominent figure on the contemporary music side of the Lucerne Festival Academy for quite some time. He shares the responsibility of the Composer Seminar with Wolfgang Rihm. I worked with the wonderful Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in 2019 and there I conducted his piece ›glut‹. What’s striking about this piece is its colossal orchestral hedonism – as its title might suggest! It is written for a large orchestra with an exuberant degree of virtuosity. Plus, the sound itself is extremely colourful, fantastically imagined. I think it’s a most unexpected type of piece in the orchestral landscape today.

JM: Wonderful. Let’s talk about Francesco Filidei. This is a brand-new work which is probably being written right at this very moment. This was a recommendation from us, but do you know his music?

GB: Yes, over the years I have listened to several of his pieces and the quality and precision of sound that he gets from an orchestra is remarkable, and his work also seems to me full of personality.

JM: The work for soprano and orchestra actually goes with your piece, a very early one called ›A Mind of Winter‹. Can you tell us something about the genesis of that piece? After all, we are talking about a piece written more than 40 years ago.

GB: I know. Isn’t that appalling? I wrote this piece as a student when I was just 21. It’s a setting of ›The Snow Man‹, a short poem by the great American poet Wallace Stevens. It’s the portrait of a radiantly beautiful ice and snow-covered landscape with a mysterious figure at its centre. I am particularly happy that both the Filidei and this piece will be sung by the wonderful Anna Prohaska, whom I have admired from afar for many years, and at last we are able to work together. She will also have a very important role in my new opera, to be premiered in Aix-en-Provence this summer.

JM: Which leaves Unsuk Chin’s piece ›Spira‹. How does that come into this?

GB: It’s an explosive orchestral showpiece, conceived with tremendous imagination. I discovered her music serving on a jury at IRCAM in Paris in the 1980s. Everything was anonymous and there were 350 scores, but this was the one that really caught my eye. And this is Unsuk 30 years later. The same voice and the same very specific and individual personality, but with the mastery of experience of writing for orchestra. Have you heard ›Spira‹ as well, Jagdish?

JM: No, I haven’t heard this piece, but I recently heard another piece by her, a concerto for sheng and orchestra. And that was also absolutely extraordinary. Somehow … the very exotic character of the sheng was totally integrated into the whole orchestra sound. Whatever she does, it always has a dynamic quality.

GB: In summary, there are two mainly quiet pieces in this programme - the Ogonek and my own score – while the first and last pieces are exuberant, multi-coloured tributes to the modern orchestra, to the 21[sup]st[/sup]-century orchestra. And as for the Filidei, we just don’t know, I haven’t seen a bar yet – so, we must wait and see.

JM: [laughs]

GB: It’s fine. Tolerance for composers! [laughs] Composing is hard, and at the moment we are many months away.

JM: Moving on to the smaller Ensemble Modern programme, we have your versions of Bach …

GB: Yes, two movements from ›The Art of the Fugue‹, which I transcribed for small ensemble. It was Pierre Boulez who asked me to make this arrangement for a concert at the Cité de la musique in Paris around 15 years ago. The idea was to present this Bach transcription next to his very beautiful ›Mémoriale‹, both scored for an identical group of players: solo flute, two horns and six strings.

JM: I see.

GB: The first is a canon at the unison, while the second is a complex fugue where extraordinary things happen to the subject. It’s not only augmented, then doubly augmented, but also presented upside down and combined with itself in the most unexpected ways. It’s a tour de force of contrapuntal thinking. I have scored the slowest statements of the subject in a slightly unconventional way, trying to evoke the sound of an organ by exploiting parallel upper partials.

And then the programme also has a string quartet by my hugely gifted former student Saed Haddad – I’m really pleased there's a piece of his in the programme – while the rest of the repertoire is classics of the early 20[sup]th[/sup] century …

JM: Absolutely.

GB: … which, I find, are not played very much these days. Contemporary music ensembles concentrate on living composers and new pieces, as they should, but as we get further and further from the roots of modernism in the early 20[sup]th[/sup] century, these pieces sometimes don't find their way into programmes. So here, in contrast to our orchestral programme, we have three great masters of the early 20[sup]th[/sup] century: Varèse, Ravel and Schoenberg.

JM: Yes.

GB: The Varèse ›Octandre‹ is a marvellous piece. Uniquely in his output, there's no percussion. It's the nearest to chamber music in his catalogue, yet his full personality comes across in this brief trio of movements for wind, brass, and a double bass. Ravel’s ›Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé‹ were in part inspired by Schoenberg’s ›Pierrot Lunaire‹, and in some ways it’s his most advanced piece. The syntax and discourse are more unpredictable, less rooted in dance rhythm, than his normal style. The harmonic idiom is breath-takingly subtle and the timbral combinations – achieved with the mixture of four winds, string quartet, piano and voice – are phenomenal.

JM: Which brings us to the »problem child« of that programme.

GB: Well, it's not a problem child, but an amazing piece. It's a very important piece; the Chamber Symphony is Schoenberg towards the conclusion of his tonal period, where you can feel the language rupturing.

JM: Absolutely. I just call it this because for us musicians, especially that string quartet sitting at the front, with a complete wind section behind us, it’s very difficult.

GB: Yes, there are so many wind instruments, and the two horns make a lot of sound. In part one senses the aim to magnify the intensity of polyphonic invention in late Mahler, where an orchestra of up to 100 is employed – while here the strings are merely a quartet with double bass. Yes, it is a challenge to play this piece. It often seems that Schoenberg is imagining a full orchestra while he's writing, and he did indeed publish a large orchestral version later in his life. The piece is bursting with vigour, ingenuity, energy and contrapuntal density. It's volcanic, isn't it?

JM: What makes it so volcanic is that the piece is such a compression of the idea of a symphony, right? You mentioned Mahler, it's exactly Mahler, but in 20 minutes! He's piling it all up one on top of the other more than ever.

GB: The contrapuntal exuberance is extreme. And you lose track during quite long paragraphs of any sense of key – and then suddenly like a magnet you'll be pulled back into some form of cadence or functionality. He just needs to snip the ends of these phrases and we're in free floating harmonic territory, no longer grounded in key and in the phenomena of the triad anymore.

JM: Absolutely. I've always had this feeling that this piece works far better on recordings because you can really balance it selectively. While in concert it’s very difficult to find a kind of whole sound.

GB: We also have to think of where we're playing. The Mozart Saal in Frankfurt has a quite clean acoustic, while the Wigmore Hall in London has a wonderfully generous sound. So, I don't think one should decide everything in advance. It's the first time I conduct this piece and so it'll be something of an adventure for me as well. And whatever my capacities are as a musician, I'll do my very best to bring this remarkable piece vividly to life.

JM: And then we come to the last concert in Amsterdam … It’s a Benjamin concert. We are playing ›Into the Little Hill‹ and ›At First Light‹ by you, these are both works that we've done a lot with you, and still I'm looking forward to this, because they really are very incredibly important works I think, and we have grown with these pieces with Ensemble Modern. We also played them at the end of May at the Award Ceremony of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in Munich. Herzlichen Glückwunsch! For this prize, which is absolutely, in my opinion, overdue.

GB: No, no. I'm just utterly delighted and I was completely astonished and very happy when the word came to me. When I was a student, I would never have believed that I would do more concerts in Germany than in any other country. But none of this would have happened without Ensemble Modern, who were the door that opened the extraordinary musical life of Germany to me 30 years ago. Throughout that period, we have collaborated a huge number of times. ›At First Light‹ was played on our first tour together – and I wrote ›Into the Little Hill‹ for you.

JM: We also have György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto.

GB: It's wonderful to play this magical piece by this unquestionably great composer from the second half of the 20[sup]th[/sup] century during his centenary year. You knew him very well, didn’t you?

JM: Yes! I have just one more question for the end: do you have any opinion about touring nowadays?

GB: Are we talking about the carbon footprint?

JM: Exactly. I mean, it’s a very difficult question for us musicians, because we make our living by playing for various audiences as much as possible all over the world.

GB: I would be heartbroken if that came to an end. It's essential that things circulate, not only for audiences and performers, but for the health of music. And particularly for new music, it's so important that ideas circulate and that pieces get played and that the different styles of performing, different ways of approaching music, of playing the same piece, get heard in different cities. I have noticed on the schedule that almost all of our journeys are now going to be made by train, which is a striking development. But if you were just to stay in Frankfurt - and my compatriots in London - something big would die in the story of music.

JM: Yes, absolutely. There's no kind of neat solution or neat answer to something like this. But we should try to minimize our carbon footprint on this earth. Perhaps that’s a good conclusion. Thank you so much, we are very much looking forward to our concerts.