Bamberg Symphony Orchestra has been commissioning brand new encores from living composers. We talk to chief executive Marcus Rudolf Axt about the project.
Where did the initial idea for the encore! project come from?
This was a funny coincidence. When I came up with this idea after having asked several composers if they were interested, I presented it to the orchestra's board and one of the players told me that he had already been thinking about a similar project some years ago. So, there was something ‘in the air’ about these encores. Bamberg Symphony players love doing encores on tour and they were looking for new interesting pieces. They had performed the final movement from Ligeti's Concert Românesc for a while – which fits perfectly as an encore – but we were keen to find something new, something fresh.
What makes Bamberg Symphony Orchestra an obvious choice for the project?
The orchestra tours quite often and has a tradition of playing encores. Of course, we also regularly commission new compositions but these are usually bigger orchestral pieces and concertos. We recently co-commissioned a new piece for choir and orchestra from Esa-Pekka Salonen, for example. We have a special audience in Bamberg who are open to new music. Principle conductor Jonathan Nott presents new works with the orchestra regularly and he explains why he chooses particular pieces in short speeches during concerts.
How did you choose which composers to commission for the project?
It is a strictly personal choice, based on my own taste and knowledge. I wanted to secure a big variety of personalities, ages and styles, so the list goes from Hans Abrahamsen to Hans Zender. There are obvious names like Mauricio Sotelo, Jörg Widmann and Kaija Saariaho, but also some wildcards like Emily Howard and Charlotte Seither. While I was in discussions with my favorite composers, they would sometimes suggest somebody else and so the list became longer and more colorful. We’ve got David Philip Hefti, Poul Ruders, Simon Holt and David Lang this season and there is already a score from Erkki-Sven Tüür on my desk for next season.
What brief do you give composers?
There are two separate proposals to choose from. One involves writing a short, entertaining piece like the ‘classic’ encores – things like Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances or Strauss’s Polkas that can be performed after many different concert programmes. The second asks for a postlude to a big romantic piece, like a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, a Stravinsky ballet or a Strauss tone poem. In this case, the size of the orchestra should be identical to the previous piece. Both ideas are quite a challenge to work with.
Some of the encores have already been performed – which have stood out for you?
The latest one was An Icicle of Moon by Simon Holt. It was six and a half minutes long but it only felt like three. I believe this is the feeling an encore should create – something short and entertaining, but in a serious sense. Simon's piece is so special because it is for a Schumann-sized orchestra, and its formal and energetic design makes it fit to any kind of Viennese classical music. I could imagine putting it after Beethoven’s Fifth, or even before it as an opener. Next month we will have a piece by Poul Ruders, who wrote an encore to be performed after Smetana's Ma Vlast, an iconic part of Bamberg's repertoire. Poul wrote something very enchanting, citing Ma Vlast’s themes well as those of The Bartered Bride, so I'm very looking forward to how this will sound.
What has the response from audiences been like?
So far, only the world premieres have been announced in the evening programmes. I have noticed the audience talking about the pieces and discussing their opinions after the concert. My strong belief is that this project will bring about a sympathy campaign for new music as a whole and will show audiences in Bamberg – and worldwide on our tour – that contemporary composers are not necessarily complicated artists in their ivory towers, and that they are able to write challenging but accessible music.
Which composer, dead or alive, do you dream of commissioning an encore from?
Stravinsky. He definitely had the right sense of humour and would have written something breathtaking! Also Dutilleux – I can imagine him writing an encore for Mahler’s 9th Symphony.