Interview mit Duo Burgos & Gerzenberg

Sophia Burgos, Sopran (USA)
Daniel Gerzenberg, Klavier (Deutschland)

Duo Burgos & Gerzenberg gewann den 2. Preis sowie den Sonderpreis – Beste Interpretation der Auftragskomposition „Lied“ (2017) von Isabel Mundry der Sparte „Duo für Gesang und Klavier (Lied)“ beim FS&MM 2018.

Im Gespräch mit Christian Utz and Thomas Glaser erzählt das amerikanisch-deutsche Duo über seine philosophische Konzeption ihrer Programmzusammenstellung und darüber, wie es ist, wenn man gegen seinen musikalischen Instinkt ankämpft.

Christian Utz ist Professor für Musiktheorie und Musikanalyse an der Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Graz (KUG) und Mitherausgeber zahlreicher Publikationen. Thomas Glaser ist Musikwissenschaftler und wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (Post-Doc) an der KUG.

You have to be able to mentally go from one character or story to the other and make sense out of these changes.

The story, for me, really has to flow. I cannot so well keep a program together if the stories differ tremendously. We spent hours trying to think of how to put the program together.

– Sophia Burgos

CU: Congratulations and a very warm welcome! How long have you been working together?

SB: This is only our second competition, we have been working together for about a year or a year and a half.

CU: A question about your programming: Was it a conscious decision in the finals to group the songs by Isabel Mundry, Franz Schubert and Andrew Haig symmetrically around a centre, i.e. the song by Christian Jost Der explodierende Kopf?

DG: The program in every round followed a specific idea. Regarding the first round, we knew the poem of the premiered work from the lied composition competition (Den gelben Astern ein Lied), but not yet the music. We only received the score after the submission of our final program.

SB: Therefore, we came up with the idea “Let’s program something around this song”. We knew that Selma Merbaum died in a concentration camp, our choice was Die Blumensprache by Schubert and Schallrohr by Jörg Widmann, a speechless and very violent piece.

DG: The second round had a joyful and funny character…

SB: …we also had a lot of interesting repertoire like Stravinsky (The Owl and the Pussycat); we loved this piece and started realizing that a lot of communalities between the songs in our program were animalistic. But it also turned out that many of them were actually either telling stories or that the pieces themselves had this kind of child perspective to it.

CU: When you speak about the first two rounds, it occurs to me that your main focus was on the content (the theme) of the songs. Were musical considerations of any importance?

SB: For the most part, we were looking at connections in the text.

DG: Regarding Der explodierende Kopf by Jost, it was first the title that attracted us most. But there were also musical considerations: for instance, rhythmical connections between the song by Charles Ives (Memories) and Schubert’s Die Taubenpost. For this reason, we played both songs after one another.

SB: Besides that, you have to be able to mentally go from one character or story to the other and make sense out of these changes. The story, for me, really has to flow. I cannot so well keep a program together if the stories differ tremendously. We spent hours trying to think of how to put the program together.

Duo Burgos & Gerzenberg in der Finalrunde des FS&MM 2018

© KUG/Johannes Gellner

Thomas Glaser (TG): Regarding the topic of “death” in the finals: Is the last song Reset (text: Daniel Gerzenberg, music: Andrew Haig) supposed to be a kind of resolution after the two Schubert lieds and the lied by Christian Jost (Der explodierende Kopf)? The final round’s theme is very clearly stated in these lieds and the final line of Reset reads “Ein neuer Mensch”.

DG: My text is basically referring to the idea of how the future is going to look like in relation to artificial intelligence and how mankind possibly is going to intertwine with technology. It is the fear that human beings are going to be mirco-chipped in order to erase their memories.

This subject is related to suicide and parental oppression, as for example discussed in Jost’s song on the text by Franz Kafka. In this case, resolution does not aim at the creation of a new human being, rather the song is about the continuation of a certain fear about the future.

CU: How does „Lied“ by Isabel Mundry then fit into this? You did not know this song beforehand and could not integrate it into your conception based on the content.

SB: It actually fit very well and paralleled the last piece very nicely. But that is because of how we interpreted it.

DG: It happened that Andrew Haig’s piece is comparable to the piece by Mundry in its use of several sounds. Although there are two different sound worlds, I could see interconnections. Both, the pieces by Jost and Haig, use extended and experimental piano techniques. And you have to take into account that the topic of the poem by Inger Christensen – its central metaphor is “ice” – is the human intervention in nature. And human manipulation of nature is the link to Reset.

CU: That is almost a philosophical concept. You also received the award for the best interpretation of the song by Mundry. What were the biggest challenges in this piece regarding performative aspects?

SB: You definitely have to speak to the piano.

DG: Difficulty in the piano part resides in its two different segments: a key-based segment and another one using strings. It took time to read and find the chords on the keyboard, Mundry writes a lot of pedalling trying to catch the resonance of a chord. Furthermore, the rhythmic structure is so complex that it is difficult to link piano and voice in performance.

CU: How did you rehearse this song? What was your approach?

SB: We started talking about the text first, researching the author and the genesis of the poem. We also spent a lot of time on working on the rhythms. We figured out the ‘skeleton’ of the piece without any singing or playing, just by reading the score.

After that, each of us spent some hours individually gathering comfort with the musical material. Finally, we came together for a rehearsal, starting very slowly and trying to find out where the piece gives us space to communicate with each other.

Lied von Isabel Mundry
© KUG/The Schubidu Quartet/Thomas Raggam

DG: Once we figured out how the music ‘works’, the next step was the interpretation itself. I came up with the idea that the musical elements can display the ‘sound’ or the colour of the elements set in the text. For instance in measures 17–18, the word “chrom” made me think of the underlying chords as sounding like chrome.

Another thing I would like to mention about the difficulty of the piece is the technique of scratching the strings. This sounds differently on every piano – a fact Mundry mentions in her score – …

SB: …and when you do not get to use the instrument you are going to perform on, this technique is difficult to practice and to perform.

TG: Let’s stick to the Mundry song for a little while. You gave us some insights into your technical approach to this contemporary piece. Compared to this song, how would you describe your technical and interpretative approach to Sehyung (Sergej) Kim’s Den gelben Astern ein Lied?

SB: Obviously, this song is aesthetically very different and composed in a different contemporary musical style. It does not require hours of ‘choreography’ in the piano, but it is very heavily emotional. So a lot of the work that we did was trying to talk about where the poet is coming from and trying to relate to someone in her position; actually a very difficult task.

The entire piece is talking about the effect that this one flower she is seeing has on her and the way that it looks at her, the way that it beams at her. We really felt that we have to dive into this sensitivity.

DG: The difficulty of the piece was to keep calm and to perform the ostinato in an almost meditative way. In this song, it is tempting to ‘grow’, both the piano and the voice. And it was challenging to work against your own musical instinct, for instance highlighting an ascending scale by a crescendo when no change in dynamics is indicated.

SB: The hardest thing for me was the phrasing, to keep everything in the breath. First you have to find out where it makes sense to take a breath, without even singing the song. You have to think where are all the places where you could take a breath, so that it still makes sense.

TG: To conclude, what is your impression of this competition and its organisation? Can you think of any minor or even major aspects that could or should be improved?

SB: I have to start by saying that this is an incredible competition as are the organisation and the team. All these people make such a big difference. They space things out in a proper way. To combine Schubert and modern music is somehow a beautiful, stimulating and harmonious blend. Practice rooms are available, you do not need fighting for rooms. The jury gave such caring, thoughtful and honest feedback and spent so much time talking to us. That is hard to find; people who are honest with you, but also care.

DG: I underline everything that Sophia said. Even the way we were being judged always felt right and always felt fair.

SB: Only one minor complaint: It was a bit annoying to have a long time span following the reception before the jury announced that we have to prepare the Mundry piece. We would have greatly benefited from getting the new piece right away and not having to wait through the entire reception.The reception for the semi-finals was very, very long.

DG: On the other hand, learning a piece that you probably do not feel comfortable with in a very short time is an essential skill that you need to have. What art can you bring in that piece? From this point of view, the jury’s announcement could not have been more challenging.

CU/TG: Thank you very much and all the best for your musical future.

Florentinersaal, Palais Meran – Austragungsort der Kategorie „Duo für Gesang und Klavier (Lied)“

Florentinersaal im Palais Meran, Austragungsort der Sparte „Duo für Gesang und Klavier (Lied)“
© KUG/The Schubidu Quartet/Thomas Raggam

The difficulty of the piece was to keep calm and to perform the ostinato in an almost meditative way. In this song, it is tempting to ‘grow’, both the piano and the voice.

And it was challenging to work against your own musical instinct, for instance highlighting an ascending scale by a crescendo when no change in dynamics is indicated.

– Daniel Gerzenberg on „Lied“ by Isabel Mundry

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