In April the Noord Nederlands Orkest (North Netherlands Orchestra, NNO) will present the brand new piano concerto Pastiche, composed by Vladimir Martynov at the request of Ralph van Raat. On 2 April I will talk to the composer and the pianist during a free rehearsal in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam, where Pastiche will be premiered on 4 april. I interviewed Martynov for the magazine of NNO, this is the English translation.
The Russian composer Vladimir Martynov (Moscow, 1946) had colourful development. He was the son of a musicologist, was taught piano as a matter of course and soon became interested in composing. He enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition. Already during his studies he wrote his first pieces, chamber music, small-scale solo concertos and choral music, in the atonal tradition of composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern.
From Schönberg to electronics and rock music
In 1973 he joined the electronic music studio of the Alexander Skrjabin Museum in Moscow. For Soviet composers this was a welcome meeting place for avant-garde musicians; celebrities such as Gubaidulina and Denisov also experimented with electronics here. In the same period Martynov studied musicology, with a particular interest in ethnomusicology. He specialised in the folklore of Caucasian peoples, Tajikistan and other ethnic groups in Russia, about which he published extensively.
Martynov also studied medieval Russian liturgical music and European polyphony from the Renaissance. He has published several collections of works by such composers as Guillaume de Machaut, Andrea Gabrieli, Heinrich Isaac and Guillaume Dufay. He also wrote about theology, religious philosophy and history. During this time he embraced the form of minimalism so typical of the former Eastern Bloc: a static, spiritually inspired style without the exhilarating pulse of American minimalism. With its slow pace and lack of bars, this music breathes the same timeless quality as early music.
From rock music to Gregorian chant
As if all this wasn’t adventurous enough, Martynov also formed the rock group Boomerang, for which he composed the rock opera Seraphic visions of St. Francis in 1978. Around this time he became a teacher at the Academy for Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad, a city about 75 kilometers north of Moscow. In the eighties he wrote a lot of church music and after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 he initially continued to concentrate on Christian themes, such as in Apocalypse (1991), the Stabat Mater (1994), and the Requiem (1998).
Nowadays he composes secular music again, although his bent for spirituality floats unabated through his notes. In 2009, the London Philharmonic Orchestra premiered Vita Nuova, an opera about opera inspired by Dante’s book of the same name. In this book Dante describes the transformation from earthly to heavenly love. In his version, Martynov says he investigates the question of whether it is still possible to write ‘opera in our modern age’. From his conviction that there is nothing new to say, in Vita Nuova he combines Gregorian chant with style quotes by Mozart, Wagner, Mahler and Strauss.
La Grande Bellezza
In 2014 Martynov composed Beatitudes for the Kronos Quartet, which was used in the Academy Award winning film La Grande Bellezza. Now we have the brand new Piano Concerto Pastiche, which he composed for Ralph van Raat and the Noord Nederlands Orkest. The title refers to the opera genre of the same name, says the composer. ‘In a pastiche arias from all kinds of famous operas were glued together. According to some, this would show a lack of respect for the composers concerned, but nowadays such a method is very common. The principle of a pastiche is to give the listener a kind of déjà vu. I don’t use literal but style quotations, for example of romantic and classical music.
While composing he listened to CD recordings by Ralph van Raat: ‘I did not know him, but had been considering the idea of writing a new Piano Concerto for years. By listening a lot I tried to find out what his taste is, how he plays, what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I took his preferences and possibilities into account and tried to use the sound of the piano as authentically as possible. I have the feeling that we have in common our great love for the pure piano sound.’ There was no personal contact, composer and soloist meet for the first time in April, when rehearsals begin. Martynov: ‘Of course I did consult with the orchestra about the lineup and the duration of the piece.’
No struggle but peaceful coexistence
Martynov wrote Pastiche with the general sound of piano and symphony orchestra from the nineteenth century in mind. Yet the piece has only one movement instead of the usual three. Moreover, there is no traditional ‘struggle’ between orchestra and soloist. ‘Of course the piano and the orchestra each have their own material and function, but it is rather a question of peaceful coexistence than of mutual competition.’ In his new concerto we search in vain for elements from folklore or old liturgical chants. ‘That would not be fitting, it is performed in a concert hall intended for symphonic music.’
He finds it difficult to assess whether his piece was successful: ‘The most important moment in the composing process is when you have an incursion that you can work out further. There is nothing like this wonderful, sweet moment – not even a good performance or a nice review. When you finish a piece you are always satisfied with it, but only when it actually sounds you can ascertain if it meets what you originally had in mind. That always remains exciting.’
The public rehearsal on 2 April and the premiere of Pastiche on 4 April are part of the Minimal Music Festival in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The concert is repeated on 5 April in Oosterpoort Groningen, and 6 April in De Doelen Rotterdam