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C:T Talks to Conductor Richard Bernas Interview 570

Posted on 05 November 2006. © Copyright 2004-2014 David Bruce


C:T talks to new music conductor Richard Bernas who works as music consultant to London's Tate Modern art gallery and has premiered countless works including the UK premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's landmark opera 'Greek'.

Tell us something about your background.

I grew up in Manhattan, was a keen pianist and attended a state High School that was largely scientific (I was shocked to discover years later that Bronx Science had the largest number of Nobel Prize winners of any secondary school anywhere). The emphasis on maths and quadruple science meant that, as an Alienated Teenager, I spent more and more time in the music department. When I then moved to London I leapt at the chance to study music academically.



How did you become interested in contemporary music

It was a vibrant time to grow up in New York. It was certainly not unusual to be aware of incredible painters like Pollock or Kline, who were given serious attention even in popular news magazines. And I had been to a lot of Bernstein’s New York Phil concerts and had heard quite a bit of new music there.

After moving to London I had the luck to be taught piano by John Tilbury, who was teaching piano at the school I attended for A levels. He’d just returned from Warsaw and, though he taught me standard repertory, he persuaded the school to give a recital of the music he advocated – Cardew, Feldman, Terry Jennings and Cage. I was knocked out.

Later I found York University a delightful and still-new place, not an Institution. For example, lecturers like Robert Sherlaw Johnson let me prepare their office piano so I could practice for the UK premiere of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes during a student festival. Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Bernard Rands turned up to play or participate at concerts. By the time I left York we had founded a live electronic ensemble (Gentle Fire) and soon had invitations to perform with, for example, Stockhausen in Berlin (the premiere of Sternklang) and the Merce Cunningham Company at Sadlers Wells. Five years later I studied conducting - mainly with Witold Rowicki in Warsaw - and by then working on new works was a natural activity.

In this respect, I think of myself as a traditionalist; when I collaborate with living composers I’m doing what musicians have done during 90% of the history of notated music.

You’ve had a strong association with the theatre, particularly opera, throughout your career – notably Turnage’s Greek, Casken’s Golem and Henze’s Ondine. Do you feel that contemporary opera is an art form that easily communicates to audiences or, as Turnage felt prior to composing Greek, is opera still elitist and irrelevant as many people perceive it to be?

It’s complex, expensive and labour intensive, but there’s something about us that needs opera and dance. I can relate many examples of it appealing directly to untrained ears and eyes, as long as the mind is open. So I hardly think it’s an irrelevant artform.

There is more tradition and weight of baggage in an opera house than in a concert hall, and that will often be the composer’s biggest problem. Rhim, on the contrary, plays with that tradition, alternately exploding it and reinforcing it with passion and intelligence. (I’m genuinely surprised that after the performances of Jacob Lenz I gave at the Almeida Festival that his operas were not taken up by UK houses. I’d love to see Hamletmaschine.)

Ballet is a different, often better case. One can perform concert-audience-phobic-music (there ought to be a German compound noun for this) like the Schoenberg’s Op. 16 or his Piano Concerto to a full house, as long as a master like Kenneth Macmillan or Roland Petit has choreographed it. Henze’s Ondine fills Covent Garden. Is it the mediating eye of the choreographer, the consoling patterns of known dance steps that leaves the door open for difficult or unfamiliar music? I am not sure, but I am glad of the chance to present it to people who would shy away from “tough” music in the concert hall. They get a homeopathic dose of something unfamiliar and interesting.

You have worked with an impressive number and variety of composers - Nicholas Maw, Karlheinz Stockhausen, James Dillon as well as those listed above. What, in your opinion, makes a succesful work, what keeps you interested?

It’s got to be an intuitive response. Some things fit and others don’t. As a performer I avoid having a fixed aesthetic agenda to which each new work must confirm - far too limiting - but without a doubt there are pieces you “inhabit” instinctively.

For example, I’ve done hugely rewarding concerts (and premieres) with Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon but right now I’m preparing scores by Michael Nyman and Joby Talbot for Covent Garden. They also interest me and will certainly extend my technique, but definitely in other directions.

Can you tell us about your involvement with Tate Modern as music consultant? How closely do you think the art and music worlds do (or perhaps should) work together?

This is less familiar territory, so I’ll risk a long answer.

A good museum is the antithesis of what Robert Hughes calls “the authoritarian site like Disneyland” where everything is geared towards engendering a predicted response. You invite the public to take an equal and hopefully thoughtful footing with the art.

The role of visual arts museums with regards to music is not as straightforward as you’d expect. You won’t instantly enlarge the new music public by inserting performances into a contemporary museum. Each venue must develop its own relationship with music. As far as London is concerned, there is a lot of music around and Tate Modern is in easy distance of the SBC and Barbican. So another bundle of concert hall type activity would be redundant.

But when there is a definite dialogue between the arts (or with the architecture) the results are authentic and fascinating. Site specific and exhibition specific projects are the best way of developing a programme. Playing a Mozart concerto in the Turbine Hall (the number of people who wrote asking to do that was disturbingly large) misses the point.

Examples: in the last years of his life, Satie was a great friend of Brancusi. Brancusi’s heads of Socrates and Plato were the result of his hearing Satie’s drame symphonique Socrate, so presenting them in proximity during a Brancusi retrospective worked perfectly.

During the recent Kandinsky retrospective I presented those works of Schoenberg’s that convinced Kandinsky of the possibility of a fully abstract art. I also conducted the two strongest “Blue Rider Almanac” pieces, Herzgewachse and Pierrot Lunaire. We researched the original performance of Pierrot and reproduced its circumstances – musicians hidden behind a screen, speaker in 19th century Pierrot costume, some indications of movements gleaned from (the mainly highly critical) reviews – which were revelatory. When the musicians are concealed, the whole work becomes a 40 minute hallucination; You can’t, for example, visually follow Schoenberg’s ingenious chain of doublings, so the arrival of the piccolo, bass clarinet etc adds to the hallucination – just who is playing what? It became a floating world the Pierrot figure inhabited, not a concert performance, but hardly an opera either.

I enjoyed using that kind of curatorial approach to renew the impact of a classic.

There are instances where music can teach you about seeing. I curated Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston (at the Royal Academy) in which the composer demonstrates exactly how he scrutinizes Guston’s images. Each sound object is gently rotated, the components of the relationship are subtly altered at every inexact repetition – and there are a lot of inexact repetitions, the piece lasts over four hours – showing us in real time terms how Feldman contemplates an object. A great lesson.

Unfortunately, there’s only been one big music commission so far, Rebecca Saunders’ Chroma which she wrote for the Turbine Hall.

I thought it important to work with a classically trained composer whose response to the medium of space would be different from that of a Sound Artist like Bill Fontana (whose amplified Millennium Bridge was remarkably beautiful, by the way). I wanted to see how that sort of composer’s technique would be challenged and/or expanded by extra-concert-hall circumstances. Rebecca placed fifteen musicians placed around the Turbine Hall in duos and trios, playing a variety of tempos and musics for twenty minutes. The piece was repeated seven times over three days; the BBC recorded the last four performances and the composer’s remix was broadcast on Radio 3 during the same week. As well as an objectification of the material, the museum lost its walls.

It was BBC webcast for one year following the broadcast, which is becoming an increasingly important addition to the whole public events programme. An impressively large number of people visit http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/archive/ . By the way, the archive contains some fine Wolpe performances from our centennial event and should soon have video and sound documentation of the Cage Musicircus I curated in May.


As you might have gathered, after years of performing I have got a little tired of the proscenium arch and its rituals. I like works that encourage the movement of audiences. Sometimes I have placed each musical work in a different gallery and asked the audience to walk between them. The idea of space as an element in music has interested me since I played in the premiere of Stockhausen’s Sternklang (5 antiphonal groups spread around a park). Conducting motets by Giovanni Gabrielli and talking about this parameter with Luigi Nono - we’d hoped to commission him for an Almeida festival - reinforced my appetite for the concept.

Not too long ago opera houses were criticized for being museums. Now it’s a condition we might well like opera houses to aspire to, since museums have re-invented themselves so successfully in the last 25 years. I think the next step is to persuade the concert halls to take the same trajectory and up their game; I can see that starting to happen in some places.

Do you find it more challenging to conduct a contemporary work or something from a previous epoch, Mozart for example?


On a straightforward level I will usually have fewer difficulties “getting” the work of a contemporary composer. We’ll share some values, or at the very least, contexts. But I’ve also found that many concepts are shared between compositions of different eras, which is when it starts to get interesting.

The experience I had balancing polyphony in Bach’s Cantatas and (most especially) Motets helped me sort out how Elliot Carter’s Syringa should work. Bach requires complete equilibrium between a number of equally interesting and vivid parts and rehearsing this with choirs explained to me how best to articulate Carter’s lines and groups

Similarly, I learned a great deal about pacing recitative when working on 20th century operas like Rihm’s Jacob Lenz and Britten’s Death in Venice, both of which display a wide variety (in Rhim’s case, kaleidoscopic) of recitative flowing into and out of formal structures. That gave me insight into the ebb and flow of Mozart’s accompanied recitative when I conducted Idomeneo, one of his most experimental operas.

So it’s a two way street.

What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?

Ideally in our production and conduct we should show society a better model of behavior. This is an unreservedly Modernist answer, I fear.

What are your plans for the future?

As well as conducting and working towards a few large scale events (on the scale of the Cage Musicircus) for Tate and other museums I am getting more interested in R&D. Now I am talking to Goldsmith’s Digital Studios about some interactive projects which would use existing scores – some fully, others only partially notated - as instruction manuals towards future research.


How can people find out more about you?

Surely this is enough!



Interview by David Bruce © Copyright 2004-2014

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