Oct 4, 2013

Manfredo Kraemer in conversation with William Littler

WL: Do you remember how you started to learn the violin and whether it was  your idea?
MK: It was not my idea. My desire was really to learn the organ. I still think of it as the King of Instruments. I grew up in a humble but music-loving family in Cordoba (Argentina), heard some old organ recordings of Bach when I was four or five and started singing in a boys choir. The conductor finally said it was time I learned an instrument and offered to teach me the violin. My mother played so we already had an instrument at  home.
WL: When did you decide  you wanted to play the violin professionally and what was your goal, to become a soloist, an orchestral musician?
MK: The decision came quite late, when I was 19 or 20. Before that playing was an enjoyable hobby. When I decided I wanted to play seriously, there weren't any outstanding teachers in my city so I went first to Buenos Aires and then to Germany, where I studied at the Hochschule in Koln (Cologne). I found the solo experience boring. I didn't want to be a diva. I wanted to be a musician among others and found chamber music fascinating. Although I played for three years in the symphony orchestra in Cordoba I discovered that orchestras have a very regulated life. As a freelancer I don't know what will happen tomorrow.
WL: What attracted you to the period instrument movement? Do you still play the modern violin?
MK: I was always attracted to things that were not in the mainstream, such as contemporary music, tango and so on. I still have a modern violin and play modern music from time to time but I usually prefer a baroque violin. I just tune it up. I'm in love with the sound of gut strings. I don't like the antiseptic, chrome sound of metal strings. Even Heifetz played with gut A and D strings; only the E was metal. Today in Europe there is a movement back to gut strings.
WL: What changes have you seen in the period instrument movement since you began?
MK: The movement began with a desire for authenticity, to try to play the music as it was at the time and I still like this idea. The approach of the early players sounds a bit rigid now; we have become a little freer, willing to put more of ourselves into the music. But there has also been so much scholarship and publishing that students are becoming lazy, accepting pre-digested ideas.
WL: Have you noticed differences between the way period instrument orchestras and modern instrument orchestras work? And does a conductor make a difference?
MK: A musician must play the way he feels but modern instrument players sometimes take a baroque bow and think they are playing baroque. I've played in groups that don't have a conductor but still have a chief. I like the idea of being a little bit democratic, so everyone has an input and a feeling of responsibility, but you need someone to make the final decision. My ideal group would have a basic agreement on musical taste so you don't have to discuss everything. You find a level of non-verbal communication. 
WL: When you come to perform with an ensemble what is your approach? How do you work in rehearsal?
MK: I like to play through a piece and then examine special parts. I don't find being perfectly in tune and together a very interesting goal. That is where the music-making should start, not end. I find bow articulation very important, the bowing technique and choreography. What looks good probably sounds good. I work a lot on how to shape and end a note, relating it to vocal music. I come to rehearsal with a general idea but I hope I am open to what happens.
WL: A major record executive in the United States once famously said, 'show me an orchestra that likes its conductor and I'll show you a lousy orchestra.' As a music director do you think it is important to keep an  orchestra happy? And how do you do it?
MK: I couldn't work under conditions where the musicians fear me. I have worked with people I hated and I  don't think that is the way a group works well. Look at Alexander the Great. His troops respected and loved him. He slept in the same tents and was in the front of the battle. He didn't put himself on a higher level. I like the idea of a natural heirarchy.
WL: What responsibility does an orchestra have to its audience? Do you see yourself as an educator?
MK: I don't take for granted that the audience is well-educated in the music. We have 20 times in rehearsal to understand a piece. The audience  has one. We have to help the audience to follow us. I like to explain things--of course not in English. I am confident that if you play it properly, the music will communicate to a learned or unlearned audience.
WL: At this year's Boston Early Music Festival I heard the phrase ''the Amtrak baroque orchestra,'' referring to the way so many players use the train to travel back and forth, playing in a number of orchestras. How important do you think it is for an orchestra to have a permanent ensemble?
MK: It certainly helps to make a particular sound. What we also call a telephone orchestra can produce the danger of becoming globablized, extremely flexible but general. I think it is valuable to have differences. It is an interesting life to be an Amtrak player but you have to work to preserve difference.
WL: I remember a very old recording of Bach Suites by the full Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky. Now that there are so many period instrument orchestras do you think it is appropriate any longer for modern symphony orchestras to play baroque music?
MK: Modern orchestras should not play this music any more. They do not have the proper instruments or the knowledge. They have enough to do. When modern instruments do play this music the strings should at least have baroque bows.
WL: Do you enjoy working with choirs and vocal soloists?
MK: I like very much working with singers. We can learn from each other. Singers are not always trained well to sing baroque music and do not always realize that in the baroque repertory the word must be in front, something that disappears in bel canto. And they do not always realize that in Bach's vocal music they are instrumental parts for voice.
WL: What has it been like working with Tafelmusik?
MK: I was happy with the acoustics in the renovated hall (Trinity St.Paul's Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall) and happy to find a united group with a particular period sound that was at the same time very flexible. They are very professional, very well organized and they share responsibilities. Also, they have very good wind players.
For tickets to George Weston Recital Hall on Oct 8, please click here


Mandredo Kraemer
William Littler
Baroque Austria