At the beginning of the ongoing concert season 2020/2021, Daniel Raiskin, a native of St. Petersburg living in Amsterdam, became the new chief conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic. Concerning his joining this position he gave an interview to Opera Slovakia, in which he revealed his artistic intensions with this supreme Slovak cultural institution, and he also uttered his relationship to the Slovak music, especially Ján Levoslav Bella, and his symphonic legacy now going to be recorded with the Slovak Philharmonic. Since he is also a Music director of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (Canada) we asked him on differences between the work with North American and European orchestras and about his opinions on the interpretation of early music. He also confessed his feelings regarding current pandemic.
Do you remember when you stood in front of the Slovak Philharmonic for the first time and do you remember the program of that concert?
Yes, I remember it very well. It was more than ten years ago on March 4 and 5, 2010 and the program was Beethoven’s Coriolan overture and Piano concerto No. 4, G major with Jonathan Gilad as soloist, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, E minor. The concert took place in the historical opera house of Slovak National Theatre because the building of Slovak Philharmonic (SP) was still under the renovation. Shortly after that we went on tour to Germany and Switzerland.
Since then, I returned back to SP at least once per season. Sometimes it was twice or three times including touring in Europe and also to Japan. We produced some recordings as well. So, my relationship with SP is already long and it surely amounts more than thirty concerts (according to the program management of SP it was exactly 31 concerts, edit. note).
So, you came to the orchestra which you know quite well…
Yes, sometimes the new chief conductor is chosen after one positive or enthusiastic week spent with orchestra. I have never had such opportunity of, let’s say, love at the first sight, and it is probably good because it very often derails in a wrong direction. Therefore, I rather prefer when there is a longer relationship before as it was with SP. This can be compared to the very strong friendship between two people that develops into more intimate relationship and finally to the “marriage”.
In the past, about 50 – 60 years ago, the chief conductors stated with orchestras several decades, for example Yevgeny Mravinsky was more than 50 years the music director in Sankt Petersburg, my hometown. Now, the times are more dynamic so that the relationships between orchestras and conductors are not so lengthy but in all my former positions I tended to keep them for longer time. I was a music director in Germany for twelve years, in Poland for eight years, now in Winnipeg it is already my third season and I will surely continue working there for quite a bit longer.
I think, a positive expectation of being in a longer relationship with SP in the future follows from the enough trust and the positive credibility between the musicians, the administration of Slovak Philharmonic and myself, which was built in the past. I am really not interested in coming for two or three years and then moving to another orchestras. For me it is important to build a kind of legacy and to leave something behind me that becomes a serious part of this wonderful institution’s history.
How do you feel the development of the Slovak Philharmonic from the perspective of your more than ten years long cooperation with this orchestra?
During this time, the orchestra had two chief conductors. When I was conducting here for the first time it was one year after the coming of Emmanuel Villaume, then it was James Judd. Each of my predecessors is undoubtedly fine musician, but each of them has his own way of working with orchestra, own aesthetics, which is probably rather different from what I am seeking as principal conductor.
What is the difference?
Well, it is very difficult to say. First of all, Emmanuel Villaume is French, James Judd is British, and I am Russian-Jewish so that each of us comes from the completely different musical and social background. Also, the way how I relate to the Slovak culture and language is very different compared to a Frenchman or an Englishman. I definitely do not speak Slovak but there are many words that I understand, or I can pick up. When I am working with the orchestra, I already often communicate in Slovak with the musicians because it is simple for me to learn many words in your language. In ancient times, some of them were a part of common Russian and they are still used in its more poetic form.
I am a former viola player working in the orchestra for many years in the past. Therefore, the way I work with orchestra and particularly strings is probably different compared to, for example, Emmanuel Villaume who is a former piano player and conducts many operas. Of course, he adores French music much and Mahler symphonies as well. I think, I use to conduct some other repertoire segments.
It would be problematic to speak that the orchestra of SP develops. Better expression should be that it evolves because younger people come as new players, and the orchestra becomes more international. I remember that ten years ago the musicians were almost only from Slovakia and Czechia. Now they are from Russia, Kazakhstan, Poland, even Canada or France – and this is good. On the other hand, it is still Slovak Philharmonic because the majority – about 90% – are still Slovaks. However, the orchestra members from abroad brought certain different impulses and the local musicians took them. This is very good evolvement.
And of course, the concert hall has been renewed so that in 2012 the orchestra moved back to its own house. This had a big impact in the new functionality enabling regular streaming and recording. Great gratitude should be said to the management of SP having invested in this organisation with a very modern looking forward to the novel technology. Now, in the times when so many orchestras are scrambling due to the lack of such possibilities, we pick the fruit of them because we are able to enlarge the audiences via on-line streams in a very high quality on a weekly basis. Many orchestras cannot do that because in the current pandemic time it is very expensive to obtain the appropriate technical equipment.
Thus, there are evolvements in many directions but not in the one which I see, let’s say, in terms of the musical ideal. This is something I will be now working hard with musicians. For me, there are certain really important directions in the way how the symphony orchestra functions. It should be kept in mind what can be brought to the forefront, how much energy comes from the orchestra to me and how much I am able to give to it. This is our starting point now, and I think, all I have brought to the musicians in the last few months, I can bring more and more also in the coming years, and take care about it.
Recently you mentioned the special sound of Slovak Philharmonic several times. Could you compare it with the orchestra in Winnipeg, Canada, where you are now working as musical director?
It is rather simple; these orchestras are very different although they are almost of the same age. Both were founded after the Second World War, the Canadian one in 1948 and SP in 1949. The first big difference is that the orchestra in Canada is much more international as it is traditional in the North America. Even though there are many French and British Canadians there are also Russians, Hungarians, Japanese, Koreans, and others. The second difference is the size. Instead of SP with the orchestra consisting of 120 musicians, the orchestras in North America, if we are not talking about the New York Metropolitan Opera, usually keep smaller nucleus, the so-called core of about 70 people. If more musicians are needed for the large-scale pieces, extra people must be hired.
In SP I have a luxury of playing with the large string section. This affects much the way how the balance between the strings and the winds is built up, which in turn becomes more compact. In Canada it cannot achieve such depth as we can offer here but on the other hand, the American orchestras have much more punch, which comes from the traditional American jazz music. Therefore, the sense of rhythm and gravity concerning especially the brass and the percussion sections is very different from the West European tradition. When I rehearse some contemporary music, American repertoire or whatever very rhythmical, with the Canadian orchestra a good feeling is achieved usually very quickly.
Furthermore, the American orchestras use to rehearse very short and intensively with no subsidence because everything, including too long rehearsal, costs money. When the concerts are on Thursday, Friday and Saturday there are one rehearsal on Tuesday, two rehearsals on Wednesday and dress rehearsal on Thursday. And after these concerts, there is sometimes another rehearsal on Sunday morning, the only one for the evening concert for families, children, or the pop evening show. In the North America, the balance of investment and revenue is much emphasized so that the atmosphere during the rehearsals is very driven and speedy, like everything in Canada is more executing than in Europe, it does not matter if in Slovakia, Germany, Netherlands, or Sweden.
However, in the old-world mother Europe there is a lot of tradition and, therefore, also a different financial model. Hence the concept of the orchestral work is different, more concentrated to the longer building up process. Unlike America here is much more time for the real trying out of the various ways how to achieve the right musical expression, for making experiments. I can conduct certain phrase and think “Well, this is not working, let’s try it differently” – and there is enough space to do it. In Edmonton, Ottawa, San Antonio or Portland I do not have such luxury, but I need to stand in front of the orchestra with the very clear concept and I must be able to show precisely what I want.
Orchestras in North America, also in Japan, are skilled in the ability to play exactly right away what you are conducting. However, this is working well only if the conductor is very precisely clear with his intention what does he want to achieve. But if he does not like the result because the concept might not work there is really little time to change it. The organisation of the work with the orchestras in the North America has many positive features, but the luxury of the real profound rehearsal in Europe I enjoy more. Anyway, it is difficult to compare since the models are so strictly different.
Are there differences also inside Europe?
It was interesting when I was at the same time for eight years (2008 – 2015, edit. note) the music director in Germany with Rheinische Philharmonie in Koblenz, and in Poland with Artur-Rubinstein-Philharmonie in Lódz. The Polish orchestra is much bigger, as large as SP, and the German orchestra was about 77 – 80 people. German orchestras are like German cars, sometimes maybe too well organised, and it could happen that some difficulties may appear in the creating of certain musical tune flexibility, which is needed especially for the interpretation in the realm of Slavic music, for example, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. By performing them, the German orchestras tend to sound a little bit like march… On the other hand, in the Polish orchestra playing a Beethoven symphony I would miss this German precision.
So, the sound of orchestra depends much on the cultural heritage and the kind of tradition in its home country. For me it is a fantastic process being able to bring in the orchestra of SP some sense of rhythm like rock and jazz musicians have. My son is the jazz percussionist and also from observing him I know how it matters when this metrical fundament is really straight and clear. Then, the incredible pieces of architecture can be created, but if the fundament is shaky, even a simple cube will crack. And when I go to Canada, I try to extent the breath of music for feeling it large, maybe more chainless.
Which pieces are you planning to perform with SP in the actual and next seasons?
From the Slovak composers, in my inauguration concert I conducted Suchoň, I was supposed to conduct Cikker in November, but, unfortunately, I could not come. But in my next concerts I will perform the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra by Eugen Suchoň, then Concertino for Piano and Orchestra by Ján Cikker with Jordana Palovičová and later the overture to Wieland der Schmied by Ján Levoslav Bella. As a chief conductor of the Slovak orchestra, I embrace the opportunity to play Slovak music. I will do it because it is important and also enriching for me, discovering the whole new repertoire.
In the building up of the orchestral world repertoire I always try to serve at least three objectives. The first one is to choose the work that will help to develop the orchestra in the direction important for me. This objective is fundamental especially at the beginning of the relationship between the orchestra and the new chief conductor. I think, we are going to perform the symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn with the increased regularity because the orchestral technique needed for the high quality playing of this music helps to build a fundament for the interpretation of works by Brahms, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and others.
The second objective is the thinking about the listeners, but not only in terms that they want to hear only the pieces they know because in such case we would play just Bolero, Peer Gynt, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and other most popular highlights. Of course, it would be self-destructing not to offer the pieces the audience loves. However, it is needed to make the people curious and interested in some discoveries.
So, if the concert program contains really popular piece, in its first half I can afford to introduce something less known, less beaten, which the audience would like very much if encounters and faces it. For example, in June the Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky will be performed with the Slovak Philharmonic choir, but in the first half of the concert we will offer the Bella’s overture to Wieland der Schmied and the Joan’s aria from the first act of Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orléans sung by the mezzosoprano Oleksya Petrova. Both these pieces are much less popular than let’s say Eugen Onegin or the overture to Tannhäuser.
And the third objective is that I would like to conduct the music that I really feel for. I think, not only me but each conductor feels his own affinities and interests to the certain musical works, and for his evolvement it is very important to perform them. Through the rather long relationship with SP, I learned that it relates very well to the certain segments of repertoire. I mean, the orchestra can play Mahler’s symphonies very good, Shostakovich’s symphony in a fantastic quality, and it creates great Tchaikovsky. And it also has a high affinity to that wonderful realm of all Czechoslovak music, of course.
But, for example, I love the very rarely played symphonies by Glazunov. The first of them will be performed in April together with the Khachaturian suites from Spartacus and the mentioned Cikker’s Concertino. We are even thinking to start a recording cycle on Glazunov symphonies. So, next to the golden horses of the symphonic repertoire like Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth or Brahms‘ First there are also some really curious compositions which the SP has not played before.
How did the pandemic influence your plans in SP?
In the present situation, which I consider will accompany us in some extent also in the coming couple of months, it is needed to react quickly. For example, the program for my inauguration concert was supposed to be Tchaikovsky’s Violin concerto and Brahms‘ Piano Quartet orchestrated by Schoenberg. However, the soloist Vadim Gluzman could not come so that we performed Haydn’s Symphony 41 and Brahms‘ First Symphony. We also had to change the program of the February concert – a bit “Hungarian program” will resound: Brahms‘ Second Symphony and Second Piano Concerto by Franz Liszt together with Fantasy on the Motifs of Rákoczy March for orchestra by Ján Levoslav Bella.
The programs for this season’s Christmas and New Year concerts were also completely different from the original plans, but anyway there were some pleasant surprises for the audience. Nevertheless, I still do not know which of the pieces originally planned for this season I will really conduct.
You are working with SP on the record of symphonic music by Ján Levoslav Bella. How do you feel the music of this composer?
I consider the relationship with any orchestra from the country which is new for me as a wonderful opportunity to learn a completely new realm of music culture. For example, during my years in Poland I conducted a vast amount of Polish music, until then unknown for me. In Germany it was, of course, different because the core repertoire for the symphonic orchestras is German. In Canada I conduct a lot of new music by both Canadian and American authors that I have never known before, also because every January there is a large contemporary music festival.
Of course, I knew some Slovak music by the composers of older generation: Ján Cikker, Eugen Suchoň, Alexander Moyzes, but Ján Levoslav Bella was a complete discovery for me, I have never heard about him.
You know, in each deep crisis some silver lining can appear. The pandemic completely turned the plans of SP, especially that connected with the Bratislava Music Festival, but without these changes we could not find a free week for the recording. Just when we were arranging the optimal terms the Music Centre Slovakia has finished a new edition of Bella’s orchestral works. Program manager of SP Juraj Bubnáš is very well oriented in the Slovak music, he sent me a selection from his great collection of recordings and the scores. So, I was reading them and also about Bella himself – his role in the setting up of the musical education system in Slovakia, his relationship with Richard Strauss documented by the letters, about the successes of concerts presenting his music in Prague and generally – about him as the seminal figure in the history of Slovakia.
Maybe he is not of such magnitude like Brahms, Strauss or, for example, Glinka who is considered a real founder of Russian classical music school, but Bella wrote a lot of really good music that deserves much attention and effort to play it in the best possible quality.
It is very easy to say “Oh, you know, this is really not the first-rate music” and then to perform it only because it must be done… No, you will never know how good such music is unless you really perform it in the best possible way. And just this can be done through the opportunity of recording, which is very important not only for the entire orchestra but also for this kind of projects. During the recording process there is enough time for trying out various interpretation details, repeating some problematic places, in fact to play the music good, better, the best, absolutely fantastic…
And the most rewarding moment came after the recording session when the musicians working in SP for 30 – 40 years came to me and said: “We played this music over the years many times before, but only now we really understand and like it.” I think, for Slovak musicians it should be a fantastic feeling to play 150 years old music by Slovak classic composer, which sounds great. We can play it on tours, for example to open the concert not with the Smetana’s Moldau but with the Bella’s overture and feel the pride about it.
When are you going to finish this recording?
Now we have already recorded about three quarters of CD containing Bella’s entire symphonic output and in April there will be probably another session where we will finish it. I think, we are going to release a high-quality recording according to the mentioned new edition, which will also contain his seminal work studied in all Slovak music schools, the symphonic poem Destiny and Ideal. Although there are some recordings of this piece in the Slovak radio, even in SP archives, it was recorded rather rarely. However, with the Slovak Philharmonic we are now bringing the original version of Destiny and Ideal for the first time, containing all the available material. And this was really very rewarding process.
Have you thought to record the Bella’s opera Wieland der Schmied?
I conduct opera regularly, but I have heard that many changes are going on in the Opera of the Slovak National Theatre related to the new directorship. When it settles maybe there is an opportunity to establish some cooperation and I can also conduct some opera. In fact, I would like to. Maybe not Bella right away but later I consider it quite possible. It would be also interesting to perform a concert version of some opera in the SP.
As a music director in Winnipeg, you are highly experienced in the North American music which is rather little known in Slovakia. Are you planning to conduct some American works in SP?
Of course, there is a huge amount of excellent North American music, no matter if we are talking about such giants like John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Philip Glass, or an older generation including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and that whole cohort of composers escaped to USA before the Second World War like Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the authors of American film music, which all comes from Vienna, by the way.
However, there is a work entitled Metropolis Symphony by the outstanding contemporary American composer Michael Daugherty, often called the american symphony cowboy. This piece is absolutely phenomenal, and talentedly written symphonic cycle of very attractive contemporary music inspired by the Superman comic book. In this work there are involved the elements from Cuban and Latin music, as well as the influences of Copland, Bernstein, and others.
I know Michael myself and I conducted this symphony in Canada, Germany, Belgrade, and other cities – the audience loved it everywhere. So, this is the work, which I really would like to bring to the Slovak spectators. Maybe I combine it with some Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, or with the fantastic music of Armenian American Alan Hovhaness, for example one of his symphonies, maybe with Charles Ives symphony or brilliant Barber’s Violin Concerto. There is a lot of American music, which should be little by little performed here.
In Amsterdam you spent a lot of time watching the rehearsals with Nicolaus Harnoncourt who is one of the pioneers in the historically informed interpretation of early music. During the interview with the conductor Václav Luks in occasion of Vivaldi’s opera Arsilda premiere in the Slovak National Theatre he was speaking a lot about its interpretation principles. I also asked him, are these principles applicable also for the newer music. He replied, “Absolutely, because they are all natural, and they do not provoke any contradiction”. Do you agree?
No, I do not. Unfortunately, this is the mistake, which can be seen in the work of conductors like, for example, Roger Norrington who applied the ways of conducting Monteverdi, Bach and classicistic Vienna repertoire to Berlioz and Tchaikovsky. This is not working simply because the humanity has developed, and its way of life is different compared to the time when the early music was composed. Neither the environment, in which the music of Bach’s Matheus Passions was created, proceeded, played, and felt, involved the human development up to the time when Mendelssohn rediscovered them. And after that the mankind also made several other huge leaps of development.
Therefore, the same principles of articulation cannot be applied to the music by Tchaikovsky, although he adored Mozart, and Mozart also cannot be played by the same way as Bach or even earlier music. This is not working also because the musicians of SP do not come to the rehearsal of Bach’s suite in a horse driven carriage, but they take tram, bus or car. The way how the people connect now is much different from they did it 250 – 300 years ago…
I spent many hours watching not only the rehearsals of Nicolaus Harnoncourt, but also Ton Koopman conducting the famous Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra or Frans Brüggen with the Orchestra of the Eighteen Century. All of them often talked about the points of energy attack and relaxation. However, such processes are related to the way how the humans understand these symbolic terms in our life today.
Brüggen conducted Schubert or Haydn symphonies with the completely different sound than the music by Bach no matter it was the same orchestra. The same did Harnoncourt, although some features of his early music interpretation evolved when he conducted Brahms with Berliner Philharmoniker or Schubert with the Chamber Orchestra of the Europe, but he would not tend to repeat exactly the same principles, also because the musical instruments have developed.
I love the performances of baroque music with the symphonic orchestras that are not used to play it. Our Christmas concert was opened with the Bach’s Third Suite. For the orchestra that often plays the huge symphonies by Mahler or Shostakovich this is not the regular repertoire. We played it as a concert piece, but regarding this music with an ideal of its purposes, it was originally intended as a dance entertainment for the court. However, despite our different use the people can relate to its energy, regardless the modern piccolo trumpets were used instead of natural ones, modern strings instead of baroque ones, and the cembalo has not come to us from the Bach´s time, but it was built two years ago – so we played Bach living today.
I did not try to restore a historic sound and bring the people 350 years back because anybody who attempts this cannot know how correct it is. But for sure we tried to approach this music differently from how we played, for example, Kaiser-Walzer in the New Year’s concert.
I think, the people skilled in the historically informed interpretation probably disagreed with some particular points I did with Bach, but they surely acknowledged that I am bringing his music much closer to their opinions compared to the way how we play, Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich etc… I try to put the new knowledge from historically informed performance of early music into the way I interpret it anytime I am doing Bach, Haydn, or Mozart. And the orchestras are usually opened to this effort because it creates a different soundscape.
You have already mentioned the logistic problems due to pandemic. May I ask you, how did you feel the onset of Covid-19 as a human being?
People like me use to work under the enormous pressure and the speed. At least in a last couple of years this was meaning for me a lot of travelling from one orchestra to another, changing continents, and absorbing a huge amount of repertoire. The work rhythm was in fact really like drumming in rush, but in the beginning of March when the pandemic suddenly appeared, for me it was like hitting the brakes in the car driven at 200 km/h for the immediate slowing down to zero.
The first months were really difficult for me because some kind of denial appeared in my mind – I could not listen to the music and even look into the scores; I was really trying to shut off. But later on, I started to play and practise viola again – after twelve years – I was reading a lot, doing a lot of administrative work especially for my Canadian orchestra and almost every day participated in some on-line meeting or conference.
On the other hand, since I travel a lot being very often away from home, the reward of this situation was the possibility to be really with my full family for long weeks and months – I have two grown up children, my son is 22, my daughter 17. We spent this time really like having breakfast together every day, making discussions, trying to support each other – sometimes also being annoyed with each other because we are not accustomed to staying together so often – but being such a long time together with all my beloved was really great.
I was also cooking a lot because I love it and usually use this as a relax, especially after turning back from the long tour. Then I make shopping and I even produced several videos in the kitchen with my daughter using my old batons for cooking shashlik. By this way I want to bring people some fun, hope, positive energy and optimism because in the first months of pandemic many of them felt being down, hurt, negative and hopeless.
And another reward was that I started thinking more, doing a lot of self-reflecting, learning new repertoire, but especially much better understanding what is fundamental and what we can live without.
I also think that after reaching some new normal – probably after vaccination – we will not return to the same state as before the pandemic because the way how we respond to the important things has changed beyond the point that we can get off or forget. Therefore, it is not possible to return back to the former status quo. This is a new reality, in which some things became clear also for me, including professional ones.
For example, I think that such crosswise going forward and back all over the world on a weekly basis, for example two weeks in Canada, then one week in Europe etc., is going to be changed because the meaningful way how to fit ourselves into the universe has almost disappeared. We became only a small element of this huge mechanism. I mean, in the future we will spend more time in one place or area and when we will need to go somewhere else, like in Asia or in America, then we would stay there longer. Everybody wants to feel himself as a person.
So, after that difficult period at the pandemic beginning, I was really lucky that in the middle of August I could start working with orchestras I am associated with. Making music little by little again brought the sense of normality at least in my head, but it is still complicated going-through process, during which it is not clear what is going to happen in the coming days. Now it is necessary to be ready for the changes and trying to help each other as much as possible.
What would you wish to the readers of Opera Slovakia for the year 2021?
I would like to wish really to everyone who enjoys classical music the brightest possible year 2021 with a lot of light, peace, and new hope, staying in a good physical and mental health, and that the year 2021 will be definitely much better than the one we hope to quickly start forgetting. I would like to thank to everyone who has not given up but stayed involved and connected to our work and to us as musicians, following us during the real concerts with audience or listening and watching our offerings through the on-line and off-line formats.
Christmas and New Year are special times when the families, friends, and other communities usually get together closer trying to embrace, hug or comfort each other. Unfortunately, the last time we could not do this because it is not safe. Therefore, I hope that here, in the Slovak Philharmonic, we created a kind of musical hug during our Christmas and New Year’s concerts. Let the music we performed evokes the senses of comfort, hug and embrace in everyone.
I am not a young boy and I can already reflect many past years. For us as human beings I have never felt so incredibly divided and polarized society in the world for very various reasons, whether in Western or Eastern Europe or even within the European Union, rather not talking about the North America in the last four years with Trump. Therefore, for the whole year 2021 and later I would, anywise additionaly, wish to everyone finding more and more kindness for each other, more spots in our hearts for our neighbours and sources for better agreement among us, not always thinking about our standpoints but also giving more space to others.
I think the music we perform usually helps very much to this effort because the people can have totally polarized opinion about something and even refuse to speak in turns, but after coming to a concert and hearing music by Bach, Beethoven, and other giants, they enjoy it separately and together at the same time, and by this way they create the unbelievable magic unity. This is the gift given to them by the incredible beauty created by us. So, my greatest hope and wish to all of us in 2021 is to feel a bit more embracement and kindness for each other. This creates much positive energy and opportunities for opening our souls, which will result in becoming more productive, secure and heathy. I think, the role of arts and particularly music is going to be huge in the coming year of healing and getting back to a normal life, now deprived for many months.
Interviewer: Ján Marták