Arvid Engegård is one of Norway’s most prominent conductors and is the first violinist of the Engegård Quartet. He was FS&MM 2015’s jury member (category String Quartet).
Engegård talks about the contemporary repertoire for string quartet, conducting, chamber musicians, and why saying “I just play quartet” is not enough.
Interview: Andreas Dorschel (Germany), the Professor for Music Aesthetic of the University of Music and Performing Graz.
Dorschel: Thank you very much for being with me for this interview. If I look at the day‘s program of February
7th for the string quartets, then I find Schubert combined with works by Ravel, Janáček, Bartók, Szymanowski and Shostakovich. The Second Viennese School and what followed from it is altogether missing. And in all those works that I mentioned there is always at least a close relation to what we call tonality. Do you think that in the eyes of young musicians of today, the tonal tradition of modernity has been stronger or more convincing than the
tradition of atonality?
Engegård: I think that depends on where you are in the world.
D: Well – the musicians come from nearly everywhere in the world.
E: If you think of string quartets, we have a great repertoire in the classic genre like Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.
Yes, but regarding modern music? They chose Ravel, Janáček, Bartók, Szymanowski and Shostakovich but they didn‘t choose Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Nono or Lachenmann. So it seems to be clear that they seem to think that artistically…
E: You are asking why this happens?
D: Yes, why? Today, Shostakovich appears to be a greater composer of string quartets than Schoenberg. If you had
said so fifty years ago, it would have been nearly politically incorrect in the West. You would have been asked: “How
can you say such a thing?“. Think of Adorno. But now Shostakovich has become to be seen as a great classic of
string quartet and very attractive to young musicians while Schoenberg seems to be felt by them as slightly boring.
E: The Lyric Suite by Berg is a classic piece. I don‘t understand why nobody plays it here. It is a very difficult
piece – it shows everything. If I went to a competition called „Schubert and Modern Music“, I would definitely pick that instead of Shostakovich. But I can‘t explain why that does not happen. Personally, I love the Second Viennese School and I miss it at this competition. In my view, it is the most modern music we have.
If you want to deal with a piece in a quartet or as the conductor of an orchestra, the preparation is the same.
D: For many years you have been the Orlando Quartet‘s first violinist. On the other hand, nowadays you are, I
think, primarily a celebrated conductor. In which way are the talents that you need for these two different roles –
chamber musician on the one hand, and conductor on the other hand – different?
E: Well, actually this is not right. First of all, I am a chamber musician.
D: You would still see yourself as that? But you are very noted as a conductor nowadays and have conducted a broad repertoire.
E: Personally, I see both musical roles as very similar.
D: What are the similarities?
E: If you want to deal with a piece in a quartet or as the conductor of an orchestra, the preparation is the same.
You have to know the piece inside-out and you must have an idea how you want it to go. And that is the same in both roles.
D: Not quite so in the perception of the general public. They see the conductor as somebody who never produces a
single tone, standing alone in front of an orchestra; on the other hand, they see somebody immersed in an ensemble,
almost becoming one with the three others because the sound has to blend into a whole. So it is interesting what you are saying as a musician and I think there is a noteworthy truth in it – but it does not accord with public perception, does it?
E: No, but I can only speak for myself.
D: Yes, that is what I want you to do.
E: I have had a period of maybe fifteen years where I conducted quite a lot. But really I want to sit down and make my own sound and be playing. That way, I feel, I am coming closer to the music. With conducting I have two or three days rehearsing and it is so superficial or it can be. Only a couple of rehearsals, a couple of turns through in a day and that is it.
D: And the similarities?
E: The preparation and the goal are the same. If you have a good feeling with the orchestra, you can achieve something similar. When I conduct, I am not so concerned about my own personality and my own stardom. It is the musical result that counts. I mean, my conclusion is – and that is also what my teacher and hero always said, because it was the same for him – that of course you have to master the technique of a conductor, but otherwise conducting is much easier than playing.
D: Conductors might not like that characterization very much.
E: Well, there is yet another matter, the psychology of it, dealing with a massive amount of people – that is, of course, a difficult task to handle.
D: Back to chamber music. How close do you think do the members of a string quartet have to be to each other to
form a really good string quartet? Or do they have to be? Do you think they should be very close, essentially live in
the same place most of the time to do their rehearsing? Or do you think that they can live in four different places and meet occasionally?
E: There is no answer to that because in good quartets you see all sorts of variations. You see people who practise together every day…
D: …and then they are not very good?
E: Well, you need also each individual person. I am generally sceptical about young people who sit in a string quartet and are going to sit there for the rest of their lives. They may miss out on so much personal development.
D: You think they should have some development as solo artists or something like that?
E: Yes, whatever.
D: Should they also, preferably, have a mature age when they come together?
E: There are no rules for that either. There are people who come together when they are children and stay together and perform very well.
Shostakovich and Bartók have by now become like Mozart – old classical music.
D: Regarding the competition, how do you think does the combination of Schubert and modern music work? Do these two sorts of music which are set apart by around 100 or 150 years shed light on each other in some way, or do they just stand next to each other and, in that juxtaposition, have nothing to do with each other?
E: I was surprised by how little modern music there is here because I was expecting a couple of works by Schubert and then really contemporary music. I don’t consider Bartók, Shostakovich or Szymanowski modern music. I do consider Schoenberg and Berg modern music and then the music of today. So I was surprised because I was expecting much more revolutionary things.
D: Do you think participants should perhaps be forced to play them?
E: They all bring along something. Most participants bring something from home, from their own countries, and that is of course interesting. Everybody is getting to hear some pieces they would not get to hear otherwise. But generally it is rarely new music.
D: Do you see any features in Schubert‘s music that make the contestants struggle? Aspects which are either not obvious to them or which they are not doing too well with? Or, alternatively, is Schubert easy and very familiar to them?
E: Schubert is very difficult for everyone.
D: What are the difficulties?
E: Basically, stylistic difficulties. With the three or four great late quartets players can cope. But when they have to perform earlier pieces like they all had to do in the first round, they struggle.
D: Do you think the earlier pieces are in a way more difficult?
E: Yes, much more difficult.
D: Because the musicians are not so familiar with them?
E: The early pieces are not so familiar and not so „modern“ somehow. They require stylistic taste and are, maybe, even more difficult than Haydn. Of course, Mozart is extremely difficult. Schubert is a little bit like Mozart, or at least the difficulties are similar.
D: If you could take decisions, what aspects of the Graz contest could improve? What would you change if you
were the manager of this competition?
E: I am very impressed with the whole thing. But as I said, I am surprised you call it „Schubert and Modern Music“. I did not have that feeling. I think the first round could have been early Schubert as it was, maybe not all of them playing the same piece. And then it could have been Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite or something else substantially modern. This was what I had been expecting.
D: So you think it would have been better for the early Schubert they should have had a choice so that not the
same pieces were played all over again? And then some modern piece which is really challenging and modern in a strong sense?
E: Shostakovich and Bartók have by now become like Mozart – old classical music. A change for more radically modern music would improve the competition. – Nonetheless, from the participants‘ point of view, the main thing is that you as a quartet can show how good you are. In that way I thought the program was good. I trust the quartets really had a chance to show what they are up to.
You show your own personality, you have individuality but you are still focused on the group. All those aspects are crucial to excellent quartet performance.
D: The competition itself distinguishes between four criteria which of course overlap. On which of them do you think the contestants did best? The fist is „Musikalische Gestaltung“ – how do they cope with the works musically? Then there is „Technisches Können“ – mastery of technique. Thirdly, there is „Künstlerische Persönlichkeit“ – are they personalities as artists? Finally, there is „musical partnership“ – do they try being soloists or do they really form ensembles in a strong sense? For which of these aspects did you think it was most obvious that they were fulfilled, that performers had had the proper training, and which was perhaps the quality most lacking and, for you as a juror, most in demand, as it were?
E: In this regard, the groups were very different.
D: So, for instance, some were good ensembles but perhaps technically a bit less good?
E: About ensemble playing, I would say, all groups were very conscious. Throughout, there was quartet playing going on.
D: So the spirit of ensemble was strong?
E: Yes. I do not mean to imply they did not play well technically but I had a feeling that there was a focus on
D: How do the different qualities interact?
E: The best groups play best technically. And then it is very difficult to get all their personalities into a frame where things are perfect. You show your own personality, you have individuality but you are still focused on the group. All those aspects are crucial to excellent quartet performance. They all try to achieve that. None of the groups were four soloists sitting down to play on their own. That did not exist. As for those who did not manage very well technically that had a lot to do with individual development. My conclusion is simply: The better all the four of you are, the better you are going to play. You are going to be together and you can balance it out. So that is why you maybe can start quartet playing too early if you are not already yourself. It can take the focus away from your own development. If you say: „I just play quartet“ – that will not be enough.
D: We are now moving towards the finale. Let us talk, in a general fashion, of those who have qualified for the third round.
E: Who will be the winner we do not know. There are only human beings in the jury. I think that one of these groups is fantastic but I would not be permitted to tell you which.
D: Of course, do not tell me.
E: And otherwise I think two of the other ones have great chances.
D: Thank you very much! Then I can only hope that the right quartet wins. Perhaps it will be the one you have in mind.
Feel free to download the interview as PDF.
For more interviews with the our laureates check out the documentation of the competition!