Sascha Goetzel

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The Viennese conductor of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra on their new CD Music from the Machine Age

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The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Sascha Goetzel, burst onto the recording scene last year with their ear-catching CD of Respighi, Schmitt and Hindemith. Now they’re back with another imaginative programme, Music from the Machine Age, on the Onyx label.

Sascha GoetzelWhat inspired your latest disc of inter-war ballet music?
It grew out of the first CD, actually, which had dance-inspired pieces by Hindemith, Respighi and Schmitt. I don’t like patched-together CD programmes; for me a CD nowadays should be a piece of art, with a cover reflecting the music and a concept. On this second disc, all these ballet pieces were either not well received at their premieres, or not even premiered at the time. I also feel that between the First and Second World Wars there was a lost generation of composers in Vienna: so I wanted to bring some – like Schulhoff, represented here by music from his ballet Ogelala – back. The idea is that this era was a machine age, a transformation of humankind and society, sadly climaxing with the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How did artists express this new violence? In paintings there was Cubism, Picasso and so on. In music there’s this barbarism; composers put into music feelings that weren’t allowed to be shown. That’s what art can do: really show what we feel within.

So how did you choose which ballets to include?
Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite – impresario Sergei Diaghilev wanted to do it at the time but then refused because it was too barbaric. Holst's Perfect Fool is ballet music for an opera, tackling the elements of the earth, but it was received so badly that they didn’t put it on any more. We also have Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. Bartók was so far ahead of his time and influenced many composers, including Stravinsky. This piece was too extreme, too wild, the theme much too erotic for its time; but I think the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra has already developed an enormous precision and enormous passion for this music. 

Audio clip

In the booklet notes, the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in 1913 is described as a watershed moment after which ballet took on a much darker hue. Is this a work that the Orchestra often performs?
No. The Salome on the first CD was composed by Schmitt in 1907, before Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Stravinsky later said that Schmitt's work was probably the most influential piece in the early 20th century, so when you have the orgiastic bands at the end of Salome, you already hear those famous Rite of Spring rhythms. On this CD, we’ve picked up after the Rite. The Schulhoff, for example, is a crazy, frenzied minimalistic piece. The original is about 35 minutes altogether, and I wanted to make this suite out of it to bring it back to the concert hall. One section is for percussion alone – his unique language is like 1970s/80s American minimalism. The CD is packed – over 80 minutes. I always said at the beginning that if anybody dares to listen to the whole CD in one without a break he’ll have to go to the pub immediately, because it’s so intense. But that’s also what we wanted to give to the listener. This extreme intensity that I imagine there was at this time – people were dying on the streets, others were partying, the monarchy was collapsing in Europe, machines were taking over.

And what’s your next project going to be? A similar project to the first two CDs?
No, no. You know, these took months of planning, and they're pieces of art really, that you cannot copy. The second CD was a little bit stimulated by the first, with what went before and came after The Rite of Spring. But the next CD must be something different, completely different. We already have some crazy ideas, but I’m not sure yet where it will head to. 

The 40th International Istanbul Music Festival takes place 31 May-29 June 2012

Audio clip: from Schulhoff's Ogelala Suite