200percentmagMatthiasPintscherConductor Matthias Pintscher:  What it is like to conduct an orchestra in full rotation.

The performance of ‘Répons’ by Pierre Boulez was staged at Gashouder, a circular venue with no pillars. The French composer / conductor wrote the composition in the period of 1981 to 1984 for six instrumental soloists, ensemble and live computer electronics. ‘Répons’ is a combination of the performers’ traditional instrumentation with real-time manipulated sound. It was performed at Holland Festival by Ensemble Intercontemporain with musical direction by the German composer / conductor Matthias Pintscher.

The composition’s title ‘Answer’ refers to the medieval ‘responsory’, a sung dialogue between soloist and responding ensemble. This dialogue came to life by staging it in a circular venue and by the configuration of the audience and the musicians. The audience sits around the ensemble of musicians and the conductor. Six soloists sit around the audience on a platform. Two pianists, a harpist, two percussionists (a vibraphone player and a xylophone player), and a cimbalom player. The live computer electronics is coming from six loudspeakers placed between the soloists who have a monitor next to their instrument that shows the conductor who is filmed in the centre circle.

The audience was offered a magnificent Dolby surround sound experience surpassing of what we experience in the cinema. This ‘spatial’ music could be experienced when the six soloists started to join the ensemble in the middle and at the end of the composition when only the soloists were performing accompanied by the live electronics. Some of the notes that the soloists played were sparse, but the touches on their instruments, for instance the pianist, were firm making it sound like a soundtrack of a thriller (David Fincher’s ‘The Game’ comes to mind). After the interval the audience was asked to move to the tribune on their left to listen to the performance of the entire work for a second time.

Usually the conductor has the orchestra playing in front of him in an arc spanning less than 180 degrees. In this performance he has a pianist and xylophone player sitting on the backside of him. 200% met with the conductor Matthias Pintscher after the concert.

200percentmagXylophone200%: What it is like to conduct an orchestra in full rotation?
Matthias Pintscher: ‘Répons’ was conceived in 1980s and it has been performed many times in a lot of spaces like this. It is fascinating score as it really is a concerto for the soloists, for the ensemble instrumentalists and for the conductor. This score is really tailored for Pierre Boulez himself like in his style of conducting and his gestures. It is impossible to conduct this score with a baton because it would freeze your hand.

At the moment Boulez is not conducting anymore which is an incredible moment for us to carry the history of this piece and also to envision changes. You look at it again and try to find what is written on paper just like we naturally do with a Beethoven or Bruckner score. We [musicians and conductor] look at the score together and we have to refind the art work itself on what is written on paper.

200%: As it is a long piece it requires also a incredible amount of concentration for a conductor.
MP: Absolutely. Everyone is staring at you and wants help. If I miss one sign the whole thing will fall apart. There is a lot of pressure for the conductor. If you make one mistake it can have a disastrous consequence.

200%: It is also difficult as you don’t face all the musicians as some of the soloists are playing at your five and seven o’clock position. You have to turn around and gives them signs.
Yes, that’s why they have monitors to connect with me. It requires a lot of rehearsal time. It’s also very important to rehearse the piece in the exact distance between the conductor and the soloists. A couple of days ago we played in Paris and the distance was even further which makes it very hard to make eye contact with the pianist who is sitting somewhere on the second balcony. So you have to rely on what you rehearsed and on the signs. You can’t change a lot in the choreography which is also a pity because, ideally, you want to reinvent it in the moment, and respond to what is happening but the soloists need a sign from the left hand and not from the right hand. If you do it with the right hand there is total confusion. This piece is very specific of what is required in terms of the visualization of the gestures.

200%: You performed the same piece twice tonight. Was there in the interval, a half time discussion like there is in football where the coach says, “ok, we need to adjust this and improve that when we perform the piece for the second time?”
MP: I love that analogy [laughs]. Yes we had a meeting in the interval because now with the audience in the hall it changed the acoustics completely. The instruments on stage were all amplified so we really had to balance it out. We had a meeting how we had to adjust the specifics of the acoustics with the people in the hall. That is something you can’t not rehearse. It’s jumping in the cold water. So, I’m the coach and I have all my kids sitting around me “listen guys this is how it goes” [laughs].

Written by Thierry Somers