Wesley Horner: Do you miss your days as a harpsichordist?
Ivor Bolton: My harpsichord days still exist, but not at the same level as at one point. There are so many great young players nowadays. And I’m not practicing six hours a day like these kids, these virtuosi. But I had a few good innings, as it were, on the harpsichord, and I enjoyed it. And I still like to play my own recitatives for Mozart operas and so on. This is something that means a lot to me. So I feel comfortable in that. I could probably rustle out the Brandenburg Fifth with a bit of provocation, and with some notice, some of the Bach harpsichord concertos.
But my recordings have stayed around quite a while and have been reissued. And I sometimes get phoned up to say, ‘Would you like to play this?’ And I say, ‘Well, it’s not really my thing anymore.’ The fingers need a bit of retuning. But I’m happy that people still remember me in some ways for doing that.
Wesley Horner: You’ve recorded the Linzer Symphony of Mozart before. How will you walk on stage and make it fresh in this performance with the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg?
Ivor Bolton: We’re a large chamber orchestra, but we constantly renew ourselves, sometimes in terms of personnel, but also in the way we approach things. Even without a conscious thought, it evolves, and my priorities subtly change over the years.
Also, one gets more ambitious with this orchestra. The capacity of the Mozarteum Orchestra has really grown over the last 10 years. It’s something we feel very proud of. It was a very famous orchestra with a great tradition. But we also want it to be at the cutting edge of tradition, and for tradition to light the fire of our hometown repertoire.
And we try and learn to play in our acoustic space, the Mozarteum’s Large Concert Hall, better and better over the years. Every orchestra that plays in a regular place gets more familiar with it. But you should never be familiar to the point of contempt, where we assume we know how to do it.
The Mozarteum’s Large Concert Hall has a very beautiful acoustic. It’s a 750 or 800‑seat hall that can be filled by a reasonably sized orchestra. It can cope with a liederabend perfectly, it can cope with string quartets perfectly, and also with a chamber orchestra perfectly. But it cannot cope with the chamber orchestra just going full pelt, willy‑nilly. It needs a little bit of adapting. And so that’s one practical thing, to deal with the acoustic.
Another thing is our sense of development as an orchestra, to try and get the sense of structure of this music. One advantage I would venture to suggest we have vis-à-vis some of the classical orchestras is that this music is really played a lot by us, not just – it’s a lazy phrase to say, ‘in our bones’ – but it is played a lot by us.
Often with classical orchestras they start off with Bach, then they do a little bit of Handel, then they do the 18th century, and then the next thing they’re recording Brahms and Mahler. This is not bad. It’s quite a good way. But sometimes the journey is rather fast. It doesn’t involve sitting and living with the music for a long time. So there are advantages to both approaches.
Wesley Horner: Before you pull the score off the shelf and walk into rehearsal with, say, the Linzer symphony of Mozart, do you tell yourself, ‘I think I’ll try something different this time’?
Ivor Bolton: I don’t just pull it off the shelf. I bring it up a few weeks before, and think about what I wasn’t satisfied with last time, often with phrasing being under‑shaped and more imagined than real. And I think one should remember there’s always somebody hearing this piece for the first time.
Also the classical dialectic form is very important. I learned so much from Murray Perahia in this, in terms of the various parameters of the classical dialectic, in terms of pitch tessitura, which on a most obvious level, lets us favor the piano and clarinet often, because they had wide pitch‑range possibilities.
So this is a parameter of classical dialectic that one needs to accentuate in the performance, not just ignore. You can let it happen and it will still be there. But you need to draw attention to this.
Wesley Horner: Is there more flexibility on stage during performance with the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, because as their chief conductor, they are your orchestra?
Ivor Bolton: Yes, I think so. And we rehearse a lot. We rehearsed even though a lot of this program is our core repertoire. We had a generous rehearsal time, far more than what we get in most countries.
Implicit in your question is that we try, when we revisit a familiar piece, not to just go through the motions and say, ‘This is our repertoire, therefore we know how to play this.’ There comes a point in life where one should be able to do that. But when one doesn’t have to, that’s quite good to revisit and reexamine.
Wesley Horner: During the performance, when will you know, ‘This is working.’
Ivor Bolton: I hope very soon. But you never know. That’s why live performance is fantastically stimulating, because you can never guarantee you can turn it on and have the best performance of your life. We’re all human beings, we all are fallible, and we’re all variable as well.
You try and learn from your experiences. You do a countdown on the day of performance, to try and arrive at your best point by whatever time the concert begins.
I think if you have a good rehearsal period it should be up to a certain level. And from your own experience, you do that. But sometimes one tries too hard. Then you’re full of dynamism at 6 o’clock, and one hour later at the performance, you’re past your best.
It’s the interaction with people that’s a great thing of performance. That’s where I think classical music is never dead. Everything’s been recorded a thousand times more than anybody can listen to in one lifetime. I’ve got more CDs on my shelf than I can ever listen to if I started now until I die. This is just impossible.
But live performance is something that has the human element involved, and the personalities of the players. And it’s not the same as recorded music. I think that’s good. If you pin it down, then it’s dead.
Wesley Horner: Mozart wrote the Linzer symphony in just four days. Any insight into the qualities of the piece, it having been written so much at the last minute?
Ivor Bolton: So last minute. I think it’s just a rhythm of life. It’s interesting that he spent days journeying from Vienna to Salzburg and back. So the pace of life on one level was much slower. But he had the ability to write a piece that is quite different from composers nowadays, when many modern composers can take two years to write an opera. So there are many seemingly contradictory poles in life and speed.
And the idea of writing for posterity was probably not so much in Mozart’s mind as it is to a composer now.
Then there’s the idea of what is ‘high art.’ It’s demeaning to say, ‘It was just a job.’ But on one level it was a job and a means of survival, a way of putting bread on the table for him, which, as we know from Mozart’s tragic life, was not an issue ever totally solved for him.
It was a combination of his irrepressible personality all bound up with his talent. But he could write at high speed.
Ignaz Holzbauer and Michael Haydn were fantastic composers. But not every work is a gem, not every work of Mozart is a gem. So you have to drill through a lot of rock to find a diamond. I think we should remember that when we are sometimes very critical of modern composers. You have to commission a lot of works to maybe find one that’s going to stay with us for the next 200 years.
Wesley Horner: Is classical music here to stay?
Ivor Bolton: I get sometimes tired of hearing things about, ‘Classical music is sort of fossilized, awful and dead.’ We’re still trying to vitally recreate and reinterpret. I think it’s a sign of outward success when people come to the performance. Of course it’s a minority interest, but the world is full of minority interests. Not everybody goes and watches soccer, for example, even though it’s the biggest interest. But not everybody is going to a soccer game.
Wesley Horner: And that’s OK.
Ivor Bolton: Yes, it’s OK. We should tolerate all minority interests. I think sometimes we have a reflexive reaction in the UK that classical music is only for rich people or something like this. This is just totally false. You look at the background of the members of my orchestra. They all come from very varied backgrounds. And, of course, the opportunity to study an instrument is something we should give everybody.
Also, I think if you develop an interest for classical music, you’re never bored in life.
Wesley Horner: They say that studying classical music helps you no matter what you pursue in life.
Ivor Bolton: Of course it is. Just playing in an orchestra develops teamwork in the same way as being on the sports side. You have a very clear sense that your contribution, if it’s not good enough, will really affect people badly. If you don’t do your work, if you don’t go away and do your private practice and you screw up in some major solo or during an ensemble because you’re late with your entrance, you’ve really let down a lot of other people. It develops a sense a social behavior at a very quick level. People make it most clear if you’re not shaping up.
One thing is talent. Another thing is laziness. If people have talent and then are lazy then people are entitled to say, ‘You can shape up and do a little better.’ We don’t criticize sportsmen for that sort of attitude and making demands. Classical music is about making demands and not excuses. But then the rewards are huge.
Wesley Horner: You have this tremendous history as a keyboard artist. Can you draw parallels between playing the keyboard and ‘playing’ the orchestra, as its conductor?
Ivor Bolton: The bass player at the Age of the Enlightenment in London, Chichi Nwanoku, said, ‘I remember many years ago we used to do chamber music together.’ When I started conducting, she said to me, ‘You’ve got to remember, Ivor Bolton, the orchestra is your instrument. You’ve got to learn how to play us.’
I think that’s it. It’s not just technique. That’s only one element of it. You really have to have a very cohesive vision and the psychology to get these people working in the right way, at the right time, and at the right point.
Wesley Horner: Just getting them to start and stop together is a good beginning.
Ivor Bolton: There’s a classic story of London orchestral players with some rather elevated‑sounding maestro who says what we he wanted and he says it at great length. Then some player at the back of the viola section says, ‘So, you want it long, then?’ One can be easily deflated by the nuts and bolts. Sometimes it’s good to be pricked like that, to get to the practicalities. Sometimes people are of great genius and fantasy, but they can’t start a piece. But they can do many other things.
In the case of some conductors, they have such respect from their colleagues, because they’re not looking just for pure technical prowess. They will solve those problems for them, within reason of course.
Many people, I’m sure you can name them, are very limited technically but have some inspirational quality. Maybe people have said the same about Furtwangler, that he was not the clearest conductor.
But I think there are many ways to be a conductor. Many ways work and many ways don’t work as well. So you need to have something very specific to offer that people can identify with to get them off to working.