Saar Berger bids farewell

Saar Berger in conversation with Wolfgang Sandner

Wolfgang Sandner: Mr Berger, you are leaving Ensemble Modern in January 2024 after sixteen years. Are you leaving with mixed feelings?

Saar Berger: I’m leaving full of emotions. In my sixteen years as a member of Ensemble Modern, I have experienced so many wonderful moments, gained so much, and been a part of so many events. It was not an easy decision for me.

WS: What ultimately influenced your decision?

SB: The decision had to do with my appointment as a professor at the Trossingen University of Music in 2019. I absolutely love teaching and have been active as a pedagogue for many years as part of the International Ensemble Modern Academy, but also privately, at various masterclasses and festivals. I wanted to pursue this further and had the full support of my colleagues and the management of Ensemble Modern, who granted me a kind of temporary special status for three years. During this time I was able to work more flexibly and concentrate more on the work in Trossingen, where I had a three-year probationary period. Of course, I would have liked to do both in the future. But being a full member of Ensemble Modern doesn’t allow for a full-time teaching position.

WS: Parallel to your professorship in Trossingen, will you still have time to play as a soloist and perhaps continue to play with Ensemble Modern from time to time? What does your future look like in this respect?

SB: Yes, in addition to my work as a horn teacher in Trossingen, the horn itself will always be important to me. I can’t do without it. Even when there were no concerts, projects or rehearsals, I was always in Schwedlerstraße, practising alone until late at night and early in the morning. That was my secret office time. I was always curious about new developments, new repertoire, and that will never change. Maybe I’ll even have more time for my passion, expanding the solo repertoire and commissioning new works. Needless to say, I am very sad to leave Ensemble Modern. It’s a fantastic group and I love it dearly. I am happy that we are planning a farewell concert in March with my colleagues from Ensemble Modern and horn players from the International Ensemble Modern Academy who have studied with me over the years.

WS: You have been in Germany for almost twenty years now. Back then you had the opportunity to go to the USA on a scholarship, for example to Juilliard. But you chose to stay in Germany. Was it for musical reasons?

SB: Yes. I was in love with the German sound, the entire musical history here in Germany. That’s why I studied in Berlin and Frankfurt, why I’ve been with Ensemble Modern for so long and why I’ve become part of this culture and this musical system. I can continue that by teaching: developing things further, with a new musical language, new pieces, new people.

WS: Do you still remember your first project with Ensemble Modern?

SB: When I first came to Ensemble Modern in 2006 for my probationary period, my first project was a tour with George Benjamin. At the time I didn’t know if I would fit in. There were many challenges and obstacles. In a small group like this, everything has to click. I had no idea if I’d even suit the group. That was a big question mark for me.

WS: When you joined, Ensemble Modern had already been around for over twenty years and had become one of the most important ensembles for contemporary music, although the term »contemporary« was interpreted very broadly. How do you see the development of the ensemble? Is it a continuum, maintaining a consistently high standard? What has changed?

SB: The ensemble has never really been at a standstill in terms of development. The way of making music has always maintained its fire and enthusiasm. The perseverance, openness, individuality and cooperation of the group across generations is remarkable. There is such an incredible wealth of experience, ideas and reflective thinking going on, also among the younger members, who bring new energy and vitality with them. What I find great is the respect for one another. But most importantly, it’s about the people. It is not just about being able to play well, being technically competent. The conversations, the social gatherings, that’s what makes the group what it is. You are very involved as a member of Ensemble Modern. For example, for four or five years I was on the board, which is elected every year. Everyone, including our artistic management, the office, is unbelievably aware and there for each other. This also lends a sense of continuity and strength to the ensemble. The group is free to make changes, day by day, to make a decision, to change the atmosphere, the feelings, everything. Decisions are always made collectively. I find that fascinating.

WS: You started in Frankfurt with a two-year probationary period, and you weren’t sure if you would fit into the ensemble. I could imagine that as a novice in such an ensemble of individualists you would need a mentor, someone who could serve as a role model, whether on a personal level, in terms of working style or musically. Did you have anyone like that?

SB: I can call the whole group a mentor. As mentioned, everyone is so different and individual with their thoughts and feelings. I learned something from everyone. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect. There is no such thing as perfection. But even in good and bad moments, there is dialogue going on. Being open can resolve issues very quickly. I have only ever benefited from this kind of teamwork.

WS: Over the years there have been many new projects with Ensemble Modern. Which of them were particularly important to you, which left a lasting impression?

SB: There have been many, and they have all been very different, with small ensembles or large orchestras, chamber music and also solo projects. What I like most is being on stage all by myself. As a young horn player or student, I was always a little afraid of that. I didn’t know if I could move properly on stage. Now I really love being on stage by myself and being able to communicate and interact with the audience.

WS: As a soloist, you can’t hide behind the sound of other musicians ...

SB: ... exactly. It’s a challenge, for sure. And there’s something like that for everyone in the group. But working on projects with Jörg Widmann or Heinz Holliger is really something special. Or the world premiere of Yann Robin’s ›Doppelgänger Concerto No. 2‹ for two horns and ensemble just recently at the Philharmonie in Essen, which was one of my last solo activities as a member of the ensemble. I was so happy, so fascinated by this new piece, and again so proud to play it with the group. It’s a great work, very virtuosic. There are so many fantastic projects that I will never forget: also with our brass group, with Valentín Garvie at that time, with Uwe Dierksen and Sava Stoianov, the double CD ›Calls, Studies & Games‹. And then there were the radio and video productions. I loved all these projects so much.

WS: I would like to talk briefly about the audience, which has always found it very difficult to embrace new music. Do you feel that something has changed, that contemporary music is more accepted?

SB: I think the public has become more open. As musicians, we have more to offer the audience ...

WS: ... and as a result have ensured that people are more open to new music?

SB: Yes, I really think so. We and the ensemble offer a great deal and are very versatile in our possibilities, with film and dance, with improvisation and jazz, in large and small ensembles, with and without singers, with and without voices, with texts and literature from different eras. We reach a wide variety of target audiences. That is incredibly important. But people themselves have become more open and want more. There are many orchestras around the world that have adopted new music as a matter of course. And you can influence people through music, even without speaking the same language. I think that the range of what is on offer has never been as strong and as active as it is today. And there is something about this offer that is captivating, like a beautiful flow that you can get into. It’s not about new music or classical music, it’s about a sonic journey. We are creating opportunities for people to realise that all this is there and waiting for them. And everyone can decide for themselves: do I like it or don’t I like it?