Arguably the most successful composer of his generation, Matthias Pintscher’s résumé reads like many musicians’ wish lists. His works have been commissioned and performed by nearly every major performing arts institution in Europe and North America, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and Opéra Bastille, and they have been championed by no lesser maestros than Hans Werner Henze, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Pierre Boulez. Increasingly in demand as a conductor, Pintscher, 40, will make his debut with the Juilliard Orchestra this month in a concert that includes his own music as well as works by Debussy, Ravel, and Hindemith.
Pintscher’s music is characterized by intensely detailed and expressive gestures and uniquely captivating sonic environments. Often inspired by art and literature and defiant of categorization, it offers a listening experience that is complex and fascinating. In a recent conversation with The Journal, he explained his programming choices. “I decided that I would put an emphasis on French repertoire, and I’ve picked one of my pieces, Osiris, which sounds French, because I practically grew up in France,” he said. Born in Germany, and maintaining a residence in Paris, Pintscher has made New York his home base for four years. “I was always intrigued by French architecture, because if you look at a detail of a huge building you understand something about the aura and spirit of the whole piece of art. My writing in the last 15 years has been strongly influenced by French music, [though the influence] goes way further back than Debussy. I see a lot of things I have in common with Couperin or Lully in that a small detail explains a lot about the energy of the whole work.”
Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, which are both on the program, were composed within years of each other—1905 and 1908, respectively—and though the two composers were contemporaries and are often grouped together as pre-eminent Impressionists, their music is very dissimilar. “It is so interesting, the deeper you get inside their textures and aesthetics, the more you understand that they have nothing in common,” Pintscher said. “I love Ravel—approaching it from a composer’s mind, it’s just unbelievable to study his work. Everything is so logical, everything makes sense. You can understand how his pieces are put together. With Debussy, there are lots of surprises. At any moment you can take a huge detour.”
Pintscher’s own work, the 23-minute Osiris, had its premiere in 2008 with the Chicago Symphony under Boulez, and is an expansion of a shorter work, Towards Osiris, that had been commissioned by Simon Rattle for the Berlin Philharmonic. During its conception, Pintscher drew inspiration from a work with the same title by the 20th-century German visual artist Joseph Beuys that drew its inspiration from an ancient Egyptian myth. In the myth, Osiris is murdered by an enemy and then magically re-animated by his devoted wife, Isis. His second life is only long enough for the pair to conceive a child, and after his death, his enemy rediscovers his body and, enraged, has it dismembered. The loving Isis gathers the pieces and gives them a proper burial. Moved by her display of affection, the gods resurrect Osiris as god of the underworld. Beuys played with images from the myth by arranging unassembled pattern-pieces from a man’s suit on a large piece of untreated canvas.
These ideas appealed to Pintscher because he was moved by the story of Isis and Osiris and also, he said, because “the formal aspect—to create an entity of sound that consists of many small, individual elements—was a very intriguing process.” He chose to present all the material in the work near the beginning as a single mass. “Then I dissect this tuttisound and take out all the objects and develop them and show them all individually and then put them back together at the end. They are the same as at the beginning, but seem to be in a very different state or condition.”
For Pintscher, composition comes slowly. “I think very theatrically, so I start with a collection of musical items. That could be a combination of colors, or a specific series of harmonies, a rhythm, a melody,” he said. “I start collecting these objects, which of course are totally informed by the instrumentation, and put them all in front of me. If you are a theater director, you start putting all these characters which have no shape yet on stage and let them walk and talk to each other and interact. Some characters leave because they are just too weak or die, and others are growing or maybe even killing others just to become stronger. Gradually, all these bits and pieces come together and form something energetic, and I start to see a path and write a plot.”
However, Pintscher cautions that the dissection of his work will not lead to an understanding of it. “I’m always trying to tell people to pay attention to a single detail, because it can really draw you in, and to try to become part of the sonic world. It’s the same with a Dvorak or Bruckner symphony. You can’t understand it. You can analyze it because we now have the tools to put it in a frame. We think if we can analyze a piece, we can understand it, but that’s only the starting point. You can only see or hear something in a piece of art what you yourself have to offer.”
Pintscher describes with wonder the feeling he gets upon the podium, which is the same as when he first conducted an orchestra at age 16. “I was surrounded by this body of sound; I was touching the sound and found it fascinating that you can change and shape it through your imagination.” He hopes, of course, that the performance is not thrilling only to him. “When we go to the theater, it’s like we are waiting for something, a phenomenon. There are moments of the extraordinary, and when they happen, everyone is part of it. That’s the reason we’re musicians.”