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Jörg Widmann

The 2019–2020 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair

There is visceral power, high energy, droll wit, hyper-emotive Romanticism, and sheer daring in Jörg Widmann’s music. These qualities have won him numerous high-profile commissions from and countless performances by soloists, chamber ensembles, and major orchestras around the world. A much sought-after virtuoso clarinetist and dynamic conductor, he has performed his own works—as well as works by other composers—with Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and a host of other great artists.

All facets of this musical chameleon will be showcased during his residency as this season’s holder of the Debs Composer’s Chair. Widmann’s works were already performed by The Cleveland Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic in October, and last month he led the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In a recent interview, Widmann discussed his composition process, upcoming performances and collaborations, and early impressions of Carnegie Hall.

As a student at The Juilliard School in the mid-1990s, what role did Carnegie Hall play in your musical development?

Of course there were many concerts I attended at Carnegie Hall when I was at Juilliard. But most important to me was what I experienced before I even entered the auditorium—before those doors were even opened. Displayed on the walls are manuscripts of contemporary composers who wrote for Carnegie Hall, or composers whose compositions were played at Carnegie Hall. And I was always impressed by that. It’s maybe the most famous hall in the world for classical music, but it’s also a hall for contemporary composers. As Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” especially for the next generation. So it was important to me, visually, to see these manuscripts, handwritten manuscripts by famous composers. And now to be holder of the Debs Composer’s Chair is both an honor and an obligation to continue this legacy for future composers.

When you were at Juilliard, you had already composed several pieces. Would you have described yourself as a composer then?

At that time, I would not have described myself as being a composer any more or less than I would now—I consider myself to be a musician. When I play the clarinet, it’s one way of making music; when I conduct, it’s another way of making music; and the same is true when I compose. It’s all about the music. So for me, the distinction between these different areas has never been important. I don’t know any artist who likes to be put in a box. Art is about change. So when I play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, I don’t stop being a composer; and when I compose music, of course I’m still a clarinetist as well.

Can you describe your composition process?

My life is structured in a way … The word structured is already wrong, because it’s divided into so many facets. In my 20s and 30s, I could go on tour and play or conduct, and then compose late at night. I cannot do that anymore—I don’t want to do that anymore. What I now try to do is separate touring from composing. It’s important for me to close the door and start writing a new piece without anything else on my mind. Of course sometimes it takes longer to complete a piece. It’s not always so simple—it’s like a human being, something very physical and living. At the beginning of the composition process, I know I need a lot of time. But once I start writing, the process gets faster—it’s almost like I’m obsessed. This is the only thing that is the same in my process from one piece to the next. On day one, I write and then I sleep—and I can sleep well. But already on day two, I cannot fall asleep so easily. The horns, the basses, they go on in my mind. So by the time I’ve finished a piece, I will have hardly slept at all. And I don’t want to. These are the clearest moments for me, where I really can visualize the work, and I can hear it very clearly. At the beginning, it’s not there yet.

Did you always have an interest in conducting, or did it come out of a need to conduct your own works?

In 2009, my piece Con brio received its premiere in Munich by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I was late with the piece, and Mariss called me and he said, “You have to conduct the first rehearsal.” The problem was he called me the afternoon before the morning rehearsal, so I had to take the night train and quickly study my score in order to be ready. As a clarinetist, I had played with that orchestra many times. But to conduct such a wonderful ensemble, you want to have more than one night to prepare—especially when you don’t have any training as a conductor. It turned out to be a nice experience, actually. I recently conducted the orchestra officially with a little bit more preparation time, and we performed a wonderful concert together. Christoph von Dohnányi, another great conductor, saw me lead a dress rehearsal of Am Anfang (In the Beginning), a theatrical piece I wrote with artist Anselm Kiefer for the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Afterwards he wrote me a very kind letter, encouraging me to continue my work on the podium. Since then, I have had the privilege to conduct phenomenal ensembles and orchestras. But believe me, I never planned it.

Do you enjoy it more now that you’ve had additional experience?

To be honest, in my artistic life I only want to do the things that I enjoy. And I have to admit the conducting part has become more and more important for me. I want to present personal interpretations of the music that I lead, whether it’s mine or Mozart’s or Schubert’s. That was one of the major reasons I wanted to conduct classical music. I heard performances—excellent performances—of famous works, but as I was reading along in the scores, I had different interpretations compared to what I was hearing.

Your program with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) this January shows your breadth of styles. As a clarinetist, what is your approach to writing for wind instruments versus other instruments or ensembles?

When I wrote my first clarinet pieces, like the Fantasie for Solo Clarinet, it was a declaration of love to my instrument, about its virtuosity and so on. Several years later when I wrote Five Fragments, I tried to discover things I didn’t know about the clarinet. And for quite some time thereafter, my writing for the clarinet was different. When an orchestra plays my music, the clarinetists are usually the first to go to the library to get the music—they think it will be incredibly difficult because I, too, play the clarinet. But at that time it was almost the opposite. And now more than 20 years after my first solo piece, I feel free again. One could imagine that for a clarinetist like me, it’s easy to write melodic lines. For some time, the opposite was the case. It took me a long time to be able to make the orchestra sing, to make the instruments sing. You know, that’s the thing most frequently said by instrumental teachers. “Sing more.” And I failed to do that in my first orchestra pieces. Then one day I decided to write a piece all about singing, which resulted in Lied for orchestra.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The MET Orchestra perform Lied this June.

I’m really looking forward to this because it’s, as far as I know, the first time The MET Orchestra has played my music. Some years ago, I read an interview—completely by chance—with Yannick, and he was asked what he wanted to do in the future. We didn’t know each other at that time and still hadn’t even met. But he said, “I want to work together with Jörg Widmann.” It made me very happy. But, you know, many people talk and say that they want to do something, and it never happens. Luckily, he decided to include this piece in his program. When I was at Juilliard, I saw many, many operas, so as a listener I’m familiar with the orchestra’s sound. I’m curious to hear how they will sing this piece—not play, sing.

You have held other residences. What makes your appointment at Carnegie Hall different?

In the past, I have had the privilege of being commissioned by the Hall to write new works on several occasions. But being appointed as the composer’s chair is a very, very big honor for me. It’s also an obligation to give something back. It’s not as simple as accepting the position and then having several pieces performed. It’s the beginning of a process, of sharing ideas. Somebody who attends these concerts, I think, will experience something about my musical language, about how I see our time, but also how I see music of the past. I am really trying to combine the Classical, Romantic, and Baroque eras with my music. There are some evenings where you hear my music exclusively, but it’s always important to combine two things that, at first glance, don’t belong together—by the way, that’s the literal meaning of the word composing, to put things together. So this composing process of sharing ideas and putting these programs together has been very exciting for me.