How do you think the younger generation’s technical way of thinking can be reshaped?
Pinchas Steinberg: Today’s young musicians were born in a technologically -dominated era, and this can result in the loss of one’s soul and, thus, of music itself. While these young people play their instruments flawlessly from a technical perspective, they have no ‘living relationship’ with the music. For me, music is an emotional experience, and the collaboration with orchestras provide us with opportunities to express ourselves via the notes the composer originally wrote. I can communicate to another person in an email or text message, but then what I convey is merely information. If the members of the young generation of musicians only strive to play each note perfectly, without error, all they do is convey information to the audience, and the expression is lost. This loss of emotion and contact applies regardless of geographical location or the type of instrument musician plays: the problem is caused by the world we live in.
Pinchas Steinberg. Photo: Liszt Academy / László Mudra
So, it is not the number of gifted musicians that is the problem?
Not at all! People don’t change: what changes is the environment in which they grow up; but talent is talent and that will always shine through. What’s tragic, though, is that there are gifted people who do not get the ’food for the soul’, as I call it. What they receive is soulless information.
And in a way, it’s a waste of talent, isn’t it?
Absolutely. I’ll give you an example: Today, as I was rehearsing with the Liszt Academy Symphony Orchestra, the celli were playing a phrase, and the 1st violins were supposed to accompany this melody. I stopped to ask them: “How can you accompany them like this? Can’t you hear how beautiful this music is? You have no contact with the music, you are only playing the notes!” But the notes tell us nothing, and what’s left is organised noise, not music. You must make the orchestra understand what they composer wanted to tell us, what the composition is all about. And I try to get this expression out of the orchestra and transmit it to the audience. Only if I manage this is the music interesting. It is also crucial that the musicians themselves add their own personalities to the performance. But only up to a certain point, as they are all individuals and interpret the piece individually, so it is my job to make the orchestra express the music in the same way. When students go to study to become professional musicians, the emphasis is placed on their technique. This is, of course, essential, but it is only a means to an end, just a part of the whole picture. You cannot play Mozart and Brahms the same way, and if you do, you won’t completely understand these musical geniuses. Music education involves understanding everything about a composition: the era, the historical context, people’s lifestyles at the time. All these influence the birth of the composition. Having learnt about these, it will be much clearer why a certain piece was written at a certain moment in time. It is the responsibility of the music university to instil this mentality, but the students must also work for it. If you are thirsty and want to drink, you will find water. So, if a music student is curious and wants to understand what they are playing and why they should be playing it a certain way, then they will have to discover the depth of a piece beyond their university studies.
Has anything changed since previous generations or since Liszt’s time?
Everything has! Philosophy, literature, … when we read about Liszt’s era, we exclaim: “Wow! How interesting!”, though then, of course, it was nothing special. He lived in a creative world, while we now create computer programmes and various technologies. Young people have become increasingly indifferent towards classical music, and in a way, I sympathise with them: there is mass production, and also here, in Budapest, a dozen concerts are held every night. But what are these concerts about? We often forget that we have even been there as soon as we leave the concert hall. My son, who is not a musician, once went to hear the English National Opera and found it so boring that he said he was never going to the opera again. I told him that I was conducting an opera in Paris in six months’ time, that he should come to it and listen, and if he was still of the same opinion, he was right not to go to the opera again. Well, he went with me to Paris and he came up to me following the performance utterly exhilarated. I was able to show him an entirely different image of the same profession. He was lucky, but those who aren’t can be disappointed for a lifetime.
What has been the most memorable music moment in your life?
I am old enough to have lived through many different times. What I experienced in the past was completely different from anything we have today. But perhaps I can tell you about a very memorable event. When I was a child, my father took me to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to see Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. When I walked out of the theatre, I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I didn’t want to see anybody, I just took the experience with me and will never forget it, because the music was absolutely incredible. Sadly, my last such experience was a very long time ago.
Pinchas Steinberg. Photo: Liszt Academy / László Mudra
How can you pass on your Weltanschauung to today’s musicians?
The message I want to pass on to them is my work. What I try to do is open a door and reveal a different world to them behind it, as I did with the Liszt Academy Symphony Orchestra. I don’t let them play on if I’m not happy with what I hear. I used to be a violinist myself, so I’m familiar with the technical side of the performance. I tell them how to be expressive and play with emotion, how to make music, and they themselves then can hear the difference. As a guest conductor I often feel as if were Santa Claus, bringing new presents every time.