In occasion of finishing the last season of the seven-year period 2009 – 2016 dedicated by the world-respected conductor Emmanuel Villaume to the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra as its chief conductor we summarized in the interview his work at this position including the difficulties in the artistic work during the reconstruction of the Slovak Philharmonic residence – Reduta building in Bratislava. He also presented us a view on the character of symphonic and operatic conducting and touched the philosophical quests hidden in the music by Gustav Mahler. Just Second Symphony “Auferstehung” by this composer E. Villaume conducted in the last two concerts of this season in Slovak Philharmonic on May 19 and 20, 2016.
During the press conference in Slovak Philharmonic you said a rather notable idea that the artist must always renew his position. What does it mean in detail?
An orchestra or an opera house constantly needs an innovative energy. I think, for the symphonic orchestra it is very true that it can quite easy fall into routine. Of course, on the other hand, the administrative stability and the plan for the institution which can cover even more than several decades are also needed. For the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra it has been very important to have professor Lapšanský at the head. He has secured the remodelling of the Reduta, the financial situation and he has provided the stability over many, many years so that the institution should be put on a specific artistic project. Anyway, there is still a danger of falling back into repeating the same methods and if there is not the appropriate sparkle, there is also not the appropriate energy in the relationship. As long as – for example the chief conductor or the music director of an orchestra himself undergoes an evolution which reflects at the same time as an evolution of the orchestra, this is very good. But if during all this time the same programme or the same tricks repeat again and again people get tired. Depending on the real situation, such creative evolution should work certain amount of time, maybe from six to ten years. Then, the next step is being a chief for life. However, this had not worked very well, for instance, even for Karajan in Berliner Philharmoniker during the last years of his engagement there. These were very controversial years. Yes, I definitely would have loved to stay maybe one two or three more seasons, but I think, the seven years, which I spent here, was an adequate time and it has been a nice cycle. In my case there is also the reality of the time I can dedicate. I think this orchestra would deserve the chief conductor who can do a minimum of concerts per year. The way of my schedule is now rather demanding so I could not find those weeks for the rehearsals and concerts.
You were seven years conducting Slovak Philharmonic orchestra. Which impressions did you have when you met it for the first time and what was important for its improvement?
I think Slovak Philharmonic has always been a very important institution in the world of music. In this orchestra I always liked the involvement of the players in the music making the specific attitude to it. I also loved to work with the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus. The purpose was to channel the energy, to organize it and, maybe, to try cultivating the sense of details, style, phrasing, which would be even more elaborate. And I think we have been able to do this over the years through the experience of going off the Reduta to the Historical Building of the Slovak National Theatre and then back to the modern Reduta. It has been a painful experience but a very interesting one because it did oblige to work on certain details. Technically, the acoustics of the National Theatre where the orchestra is on the stage is extremely dry, so that the details of the sound are very exposed. Therefore, for the listener, the thinks which somehow could work in the old Reduta could not work on the stage of the Slovak National Theatre. It was like going through jury regime or through cure. I had to say myself “Ok, now I need to do those exercises, otherwise I am in trouble”. This is what we have done all over those years and I hope, very successfully.
You are also successful opera conductor. Could you say, what is the difference between operatic and symphonic conducting?
I think fundamentally there should not be too much difference. The greatest conductors have been both opera and symphonic conductors as well: Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, nowadays Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado or even Pierre Boulez. I think, Boulez has became a better conductor once he worked more with opera – I think, he even said this himself. He was one of the greatest composers and conductors always looking for that balance. So very clearly, an opera conductor has to have a sense of narration and drama, tension over an arch of an act or a full evening and an ability of reacting to the situation whatever curve bowl is sent this way because of all accidents. For instance, the singer needs to go little faster or slower or the scenery does not change at the right speed. At such situations the conducting needs to be adapted. So these qualities of adaptability and the sense of drama are extremely valuable and importable to the symphonic conducting. On the other hand, a symphonic conductor needs the ability of working more specifically on the sound of the orchestra, on the alchemy of the various relations among the instrumental groups, i. e. winds, strings, percussion. This kind of integrity and discipline in the clear and pure orchestra playing is something what can be very valuable for the conductor going in the pit of the opera house. The routine opera conductors who have not confronted themselves with certain symphonic repertoire sometimes neglect this type of the integrity level needed for the orchestra playing. And again, Mozart writing symphonies was the same Mozart writing operas and just this can be heard when somebody conducts his symphony without knowing him as operatic composer. In such case the interpretation is usually less brilliant, less deep and definitely less dramatic compared to that by good opera conductor.
You conducted 77 concerts with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Which of them were the most impressive for you?
The concerts were grouped to the cycles and I would not have just one which I could single out. For instance, Mozart Cycle was very interesting and I liked to work with some soloists from the orchestra. It was always a lot of fun to have the members of the orchestra in the front of the stage. I love the Mahler Cycle and also all the work I did with the chorus. So it would be very hard to single out one concert but I liked this general development, the history which we have built together. This is something I am proud of and I will always share it very much.
Haven´t you have intensions to do an opera in Slovakia?
This is difficult question in the sense that it concerns the logistic of my schedule as I expended my work much. It is demanding to do the two carriers of both symphonic and opera conductor simultaneously. The opera conductor gets booked three to five years in advance and for symphonic one it is about one and half to two and half years. For me it is very hard now to find a balance between my duties as a music director in Dallas Opera and a music director of the Prague Philharmonia. Moreover, I reserved my guest positions and time for the Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. Unfortunately, this is a regret I have, I could not conduct the opera here because all the time spent here I needed to dedicate to the Slovak Philharmonic.
Which kind of symphonic repertoire do you love at most?
Obviously, I love Bruckner, Mahler but I also feel a great satisfaction when working on Mozart or Haydn. I enjoy very much the repertoire of Ravel, Debussy and I like to work with choruses. For conductor it is very important to possess a very large spectrum of works he can do. Contemporary I probably feel proximity to the late romanticism or to the so called impressionism in music but I like also the expressionists. Generally, I would say, it is the end of nineteenth century and the first phase of twentieth century. Bu this is not unusual for the conductors because these works are technically extremely rewarding and satisfying. I enjoy doing also a lot of contemporary music and classicism, sometimes also pre-classicistic music, for instance Jean Philippe Rameau. I like to venture in new territories.
You just mentioned Rameau. In which extent do you work with early music?
The one regret is that I don´t have appropriate knowledge and specialty in early music. It uses a language which is in many ways different compared to the classical romantic and obviously modern one. I love to listen baroque music played on ancient instruments but I haven´t got enough knowledge for doing it. Anyway, sometimes I venture into this world, for instance Bach or Rameau are of my interests but I think it is better to leave this music to the people who really know how to do it. I will always prefer an interpretation of Bach or even Rameau, Telemann or Vivaldi with certain personal gesture but this might not be just that so called historically informed if it is boring. The quality of the performance involvement is highly important for me.
Your last concert in Slovak Philharmonic was devoted to the Second Symphony of Gustav Mahler. It is the first great one of him. What is important for the interpretation of Mahler´s music?
Mahler music is like basking in the onslaught of sound and reacting musical forces. It is very complicated because of the balance between all components exploiting all possibilities of the chorus, orchestra, soloists, backstage orchestra, organ… Everything you can think about is there. I think, the crucial is the mental understanding of the relationship between the psychological tension, the psychological unrest of the anxiety exposed there and the search for some truth which is going to be on various levels: human, ontological, spiritual, and in the case of Mahler Second Symphony there is also a religious quest and research. So, such psychological, philosophical and ontological challenge connects all these aspects together and just this is very difficult to implement beyond the technical aspect of conducting. Then in the Second Symphony there is a giant pool of various styles between the lightness of the second movement, the grotesque of the third movement, the tragic of the first movement and the spiritual and conduce aspect of the last movement. It is really strongly difficult to shift the members of orchestra and choir very quickly from one mood or quality to another throughout all ninety minutes of symphony duration. During this extended time it is also really tremendous to hold the concentration of all choirs and instrumental groups.
Thus, could you finally summarize that, according to your opinion, what is the Mahler´s Second Symphony about?
As I said earlier, an answer should be that it is definitely about spiritual questions and, I think, in all the face of this symphony there is also an element of doubt. Even in the apotheoses at the end I still hear a little of this doubt and an effort of the composer to find at least certain peace with himself. It is the searching of the life meaning and reconciliation not only with God but also with himself. However, the answer is also in the search. That is what the piece for me means.