Composer George Benjamin: The angels that I called

“Ultimately, the conductor is about becoming invisible,” says George Benjamin. The sentence would probably not sign many Maestri. But the 58-year-old Briton has a different view of the profession than many of his colleagues. He is a composer who also conducts. “My job is not to explain to the orchestra what it has to do, but to listen to the musicians. But I have to know the score really well. Then a give and take can develop, “he says. “What the musicians need, I only learn by listening.”

George Benjamin had written music as a young boy and then performed with his classmates, he was a pianist, played drums in various orchestras and at the age of 16 he left Paris for Paris to become the last pupil of the great Olivier Messiaen become. Four years later he attracted international attention with his symphonic work “Ringed by the Flat Horizon”. He was a student at Cambridge.

But his multiple talent has not gone to head George Benjamin. Whoever encounters him experiences a restrained gentleman who speaks in a low voice, who takes his time for his answers, who weighs words because he is concerned with precision and imagery. As in his compositions. They are often seductively toned and extremely well-orchestrated, conjuring suggestive moods with polyharmonics. In short, they approach the audience in a sensual way.

As in architecture, it first needs a foundation

At the same time, Benjamin’s music is more complicated than it appears at first hearing. “Spontaneity in contemporary music is just as much an illusion as it is in architecture,” says George Benjamin. “I really appreciate the freedom we have as composers today. But in order to be able to write music as it seems to me, I have to create my own rules. This invention process takes a long time. “

Like an architect, he explains, he needs an idea first, then a mold, finally concrete construction plans and a foundation that will no longer be visible later. “Once this process is completed, however, the scaffolding disappears, as in architecture, and the viewer sees only the finished work.”

George Benjamin has no trouble letting go of his scores, releasing them to the music world when they’re done. “I even enjoy listening to my works when other conductors interpret them. I have wonderful memories. Sure, if it’s a bad performance, then of course I’m suffering. But I have to take the risk. “

Benjamin has a long history with Berlin

When he is sitting at a new composition, he often fails for months to take the pleasure of taking the baton in his hand. Because as a composer he is a slow worker and therefore needs the exclusive focus on working with the music paper. If the premiere is done, he gladly accepts guest engagements. “This is a great pleasure, after a long, quiet phase at the desk.” Most of the time, he conducts his own work or works by other contemporary composers. But his repertoire now covers the entire twentieth century, sometimes even trips to Berlioz or Mozart.

George Benjamin has a long history with Berlin. In 1993, he first worked with the German Symphony Orchestra, then in 2002 Kent Nagano brought him to the orchestra as “Composer in Residence”. This in turn resulted in the 2006 debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker, who have now offered Benjamin a residence for this season. At the Philharmoniker’s first music festival, he will conduct a program that combines his orchestral piece “Palimpsest” to Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand as well as pieces by Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti on Sunday and Sunday. And on September 12, he performs his chamber opera “Into the Little Hill” with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra . Two months later, the music theater play “Written on Skin”, his greatest success, which has been reenacted by 20 stages worldwide since its premiere in 2012 in Aix-en-Provence , finally follows. Not in Berlin.

The 21st century angels are strict with humans

“I have to be patient,” commented George Benjamin smiling the question, why probably none of the three metropolitan opera houses has requested from him. All the more he looks forward to the two evenings with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the Chamber Music Hall and the Philharmonic respectively. For he likes concertante performances of his operas. “It’s different from the theater, of course, but the pieces can also make a big impact in the concert hall.”

Although it urged him to the dramatic, the dramatic, early on, George Benjamin hesitated for a long time to write an opera. “Because I had to find a way to tell stories, without copying the naturalism of the cinema.” With the playwright Martin Crimp, he had finally found his partner in his mid-forties. Together, they developed a technique “that allows one to respect the artificiality of a situation in the opera house and at the same time bring the subject close to the viewer.”

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In “Written on Skin”, for example, the story takes place in the Middle Ages, but there are also three angels who observe and comment on the event. “These are real 21st century angels who are very strict with us humans,” emphasizes George Benjamin, “a bit like the chorus in Greek tragedy. In the meantime, they also dive into the plot as minor characters. “A role model for Martin Crimp was Wim Wenders’ film” The Sky over Berlin “. There is also a similar meta-level in “Into the Little Hill”, where the performers tell the story of the Pied Piper of Hameln, on the one hand, and become part of the characters they report about on the other hand.

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