Conductor Conversation: Baldur Brönnimann and Geoffrey Paterson

Ahead of our performance of Stockhausen’s monumental work Gruppen at the Royal Festival Hall this coming Sunday, we spoke to two of its three conductors about their experience.

It is not often that three conductors are required to conduct one work. How do you go about starting to learn Gruppen and what are the biggest challenges you face?

Baldur: There are quite a few works in the 20th-century that need several conductors. Nono’s Prometeo or Ives’ Fourth Symphony, for example. Stockhausen’s Carré, even, needs four, so in some ways Gruppen is quite an economical piece. The way it is constructed, there is an algorithmic scale of tempi and constant proportions and relations between the three orchestras/conductors. Each group is just a part of this big, evolving organism and one has to understand the relation between the three groups in order to conduct it.

Geoffrey: I was fortunate enough to participate in a two-week masterclass on Gruppen in Lucerne in 2007, studying the work intensively with Peter Eötvös and Pierre Boulez (who conducted Orchestra 3 in the first performance of Gruppen in 1958).  The familiarity with the score that experience gave me has been invaluable in preparing it for this performance, but a piece like this with so much fragmentary detail simply takes time to re-digest. The unusual demand of visual co-ordination with two other conductors is of course a major challenge, but once you get the hang of taking cues and synchronising tempi, the ears are still definitely working harder than the eyes when you are performing the piece.

How does Gruppen rate difficulty-wise in comparison with other works you have performed?

Baldur: The technique of performance and composition has evolved quite a lot since Gruppen was written, so it’s not as hard as some of the music by composers who were influenced by Stockhausen. There are people like Ferneyhough, Dillon or others who write more complex music, technically.

But Gruppen was certainly a milestone in terms of pure technical sophistication. What is particular about it is the pure conducting aspect. As the tempi and transitions are so intricately related, one has to know the piece well enough to do some of it by heart, in order to look at the other two conductors. Also, as the textures are pretty dense and one is constantly busy getting the tempo relations right, it’s sometimes not easy to hear all the details in the tutti.

Geoffrey: There are some things about Gruppen that are very tricky, not least for some of the individual players, but for sheer rhythmic and technical difficulty, it comes nowhere near Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, which I conducted for the first time a couple of years ago.  And when it comes to co-ordination and ensemble, if there’s a work more demanding than La bohème I’ve yet to come across it.

How do you prepare for a performance of Gruppen, and how do you coordinate your efforts with the other two conductors?

Baldur: One has to do conducting sectionals just between the three conductors, then rehearse each orchestra in groups as small as possible, then rehearse the three orchestras separately, and finally it’s tutti in the hall at the real distance. The sectionals are really the key to whole process.

Geoffrey: The score is precise about how the three orchestras should co-ordinate, but the conductors themselves have to agree about who cues whom, and how to beat passages where two or three of the orchestras are synchronised, in order to achieve this.  It’s important that the three orchestras are rehearsed separately in detail before combining them, as once the three are in the same hall the remaining rehearsal is dedicated to working on synchronisation and balance, a task that depends on each individual orchestra being close to performance-ready by this stage.

Does making joint decisions about how to perform the work mean having to compromise artistically?

Baldur: No – the three conductors are there because of the tempo layers, but I personally think that there is also an element of democracy composed in the piece. It’s not just the notes, dynamics and tempi that are constructed according to certain principles, but the conductors’ roles too, and they contribute to making this massive mechanism work. It was composed in the 1950s after all, and for me, there is an element of a social utopia in the use of the different orchestras and conductors. No hierarchy. So no, making joint decisions is not a compromise, but the very essence of the work.

Geoffrey: When preparing a score as prescriptive as this, whose every element, including articulation, dynamics and metronome marks, belongs to its serial structure, there isn’t really much question of compromise.  All three conductors have to be dedicated to realising as faithfully as possible what the composer has written, and when it comes to fixing dynamics and balance, it is the responsibility of the ‘sound director’ (Stockhausen’s term), who sits in the middle of the hall during final rehearsals, to guide the conductors.

What do you admire most about Stockhausen’s writing and this composition in particular?

Baldur: For me, Gruppen is the first piece in which Stockhausen really transcended the purely technical invention and achieved an emotional impact without compromising the principles behind the composition. The shape and conception of the piece is not just impressive, but a lot of it can also be aurally understood without knowing much about the underlying mechanics. After the war there was a lot of theoretical experimentation and a search for a pure musical language, and somehow, Gruppen is one of the first pieces for me to combine that language with an audible form and an emotional and structural impact. It’s a piece that communicates really directly and powerfully.

Geoffrey: I am drawn to the epic in music, and although less than 25 minutes long, through its ambition and physical scale Gruppen certainly qualifies.  There are very few compositions whose visceral thrills are matched by the intellectual fascination they provoke (or vice versa), and Stockhausen’s achievement in creating one puts him in the exalted company of Bach, Wagner and Berg.

Which of Stockhausen’s distinctive stylistic traits are most evident in the work and how will you bring these to light in the performance?

Baldur: Of course there is a lot of construction on various levels. But I hope we can bring the piece alive in a theatrical sense, as well. It’s full of character and sometimes even fun, so we hope to do justice to that aspect.

Got you tickets yet? Click here or phone the Southbank Centre box office on 0844 875 0073.

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