Coming off the podium after Wednesday morning’s Milwaukee Symphony rehearsal, conductor Matthias Pintscher was shaking his head.
“The orchestra is in top shape. My God,” he said. “It’s a dream orchestra. It’s a very European sound. Even when they play loud, it’s stunningly beautiful. There’s a flexibility, a refined richness. Even in the contemporary piece, they’re immediately getting the technique and going a lot further.”
About that contemporary piece – Pintscher wrote it. towards Osiris, which opens this weekend’s program, represents the compositional side of his life as a musician, although he says that everything closely relates to everything else.
Does a composer know his own work better than anyone else can? “I don’t know. There’s no rule to it,” Pintscher said. “I know the piece well, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.” He notates his scores precisely, “but the players will find something of their own, and you have to see what they find.” And if the things they find differ from one orchestra to another, or one day to another, “that’s the beauty of performance. Nothing ever stays the same. Nothing is reproducible.”
Pintscher’s theme for this weekend’s program is “French and beyond.” Debussy and Saint-Saëns are familiar to most concertgoers, and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy is “the most French music ever written by a Russian,” Pintscher said. As for his own work, although he is German by birth, he cites French composers as his major influence, “all the way back to Couperin,” who died in 1733. “There’s a consciousness of detail that determines the architecture which I think is typically French. It speaks to me.”
Although Pintscher is now the artistic director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Paris institute for experimental music that often uses electronic instruments, he largely avoids them in his own compositions. “Maybe it would be different if I were 20 years younger,” he said. “I admire it in others, but it’s not for me.” Instead, he finds inspiration in “trying to extend the realm of sound” that conventional orchestral instruments can produce.
Where is his style going next? “If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you,” he said, laughing. But for the past 10 years or so, he’s been exploring how delicate and soft his sounds can go, “and I feel like I’ve done that now. I think about Beethoven, who would do something in one style and then throw it overboard to start over with the next quartet or the next symphony. I admire that, but I don’t think I have the guts.”
And when he has time off from conducting to work on composing, he finds that he can’t just get rid of the sounds of past masters. “Beethoven and Mahler in particular, that stays with you,” he said. “You can’t just wash that out of your system in a day.”
Pintscher, 48, came of age in the pre-internet era; if he wanted to learn about the operas of Schoenberg or Berg, for instance, he had to check a recording out of a library or read the score. Young conductors, he said, now click YouTube as their first recourse to study a piece, but he advises, “Look at the score and see what’s written.”
Similarly, in an era of software that will instantly transcribe music played on a keyboard into notation, he still composes with pencil and paper. “Faber Castell No. 2 is my tool,” he said with a grin. He doesn’t instantly get to hear a synthesized imitation of what his thoughts would sound like played by a full orchestra, but another benefit of being an active conductor is that he doesn’t have to guess. “I have the ears to hear everything,” he said. “It took decades.” His experience in front of orchestras also has taught him how to notate his ideas more simply, “so that I don’t need to take the time to explain.”
That particularly applies to this week in Milwaukee. “I love this orchestra,” he said, coming back to his first theme. “It’s so responsive, and there’s so much care for the shape of the sound.” The MSO is already past the technical hurdles of his own piece, “and we’re preparing to feel everything in the moment.”