Interview with Robert Trevino from Burkhard Schäfer (19.11.2021)

Interview with Robert Trevino – from Burkhard Schäfer


When Berlioz, Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and a deaf Beethoven beat up a melody together


Robert Trevino (born 1984) is Principal Conductor of the Basque National Orchestra, Artistic Advisor of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. Trevino recently signed an exclusive contract for Ondine. His recording of all Beethoven symphonies with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra was released on this label in 2020. Now Trevino has recorded a new album for Ondine with the Basque National Orchestra. It is entitled "Americascapes" and features orchestral works by US composers who are still largely unknown both on this side and on the other side of the Great Pond. The German music journalist Burkhard Schäfer spoke with Robert Trevino about his passion for the forgotten pioneers of American art music.



Mr Trevino, how did the plan to record this album come about?

I’ll start by saying the project had been on my mind for some time now. In my work as a conductor, I’m asked often to present an ‘All American’ program with guest orchestras. I usually reply that I would be more than happy to do that as long as we stay away from all the ‘usual suspects’, and we give a real artistic image of the American compositional scene now and of the past. My version of ‘All American’ is usually rejected so we end up with a Mahler or Bruckner Symphony. This is no problem as I like Mahler and Bruckner a lot, but on occasion someone takes me up on my challenge and for me that is exciting. So, when thinking to record American music I wanted this general philosophy to go through the entire recording, so much so that the objective of the recording became my philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue as much as the next person, but why not consider, for instance, the Corigliano Piano Concerto, Barber Piano Concerto, or Copland Piano Concerto?!


To what extent did the Corona pandemic play into the production of this album?

As for Covid-19, we did have to record with a lot of distance between the musicians, at the time I think it was 1.65 meters, so that made things very difficult, but I think the results are still very good notwithstanding. Yet, there was one really big problem during the recording, that was the condition of the materials for the Howard Hanson work, they were just in absolutely terrible condition, and the orchestra and I felt more like archaeologists digging for a lost city than musicians. Fortunately, the musicians were as passionate as I was to bring the Hanson work to life, and my friends at the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music were able to assist me a lot in the preparations for this world premiere recording.

Before we talk about the works: What connects you with the Basque National Orchestra? In Central Europe, the orchestra is not (yet) very well known...
It’s difficult to talk about connections between conductors and their orchestras, you should really ask them this question more than me! From my side, when I came to this orchestra as a guest it’s absolutely true I didn’t know nor had ever heard of them nor even the Basque Country, and that was more a reflection of my ignorance than their importance. The General Manager Oriol Roch was quite up front with me about what he thought I could bring and do here: develop an orchestra, oversee a culture change, show a new way to work in Spain, and make this orchestra more known internationally. We agreed to go on that journey together with the musicians. I’ve been here now for 5 years and worked with them for 7. I’ve tried to guide them as best as I can, helping where possible as well as finding others to join us on our journey. What we have now is an orchestra of the highest caliber in Spain, one that is becoming more known in the world, even this very week we were awarded 'Editors Choice' for ‘Americascapes’ by Gramophone Magazine, a first for the orchestra, so that was very gratifying for all of us. They trust me, and support my vision, and help me make that vision a reality. Even more than that, they have now a greater appetite for this type of social/artistic project, and I believe and hope that will continue well past my tenure as their chief conductor.

Ives, Barber, Copland, Bernstein, Feldman, Glass and Carter are widely known US composers, Hanson perhaps too. But hardly anyone knows Loeffler, Ruggles and Cowell. How did you become aware of the composers?
The simple answer to that is research, lots and lots of research. For me the first work I absolutely knew I wanted to record was the Ruggles. I came into contact with Ruggles while a student in conservatory. In a used book store, I saw an October 1927 New Music Quarterly of Modern Compositions published by the New Music Society of California (where Henry Cowell was director). In it was a full Score of Ruggles's "Men and Mountains". I really fell in love with Ruggles and dreamed one day to program his music. The next thing of interest to me was that inscription on the score: "Henry Cowell, Director". I was curious and then looked him up and started to look over lots of scores in the library, and that was it, I was on my way - all those years ago. Going back to recent times, I started to ask myself a simple question, which occurred to me as I began to live in Europe: When did we Americans start influencing European Western Art Music, not including Jazz? That really became the thesis of 'Americascapes'. So, the genesis of this recording is almost 20 years in the making.

Let's talk about the individual works: Where did you "dig up" "La Mort de Tintagiles" by Loeffler? The work sounds (still) very European, doesn't it?

It sounds extremely European to be sure! Loeffler as a composer was proposed to me as a viable candidate for the project by Ondine’s Director Reijo Kiilunen. I’m very lucky in my collaboration with Ondine, the discussions we have are not so much about the specific works but about vision and ideas, aesthetics, and timeline. So it’s a very dynamic process that I enjoy immensely. The one big issue with Loeffler which needed to be addressed once it became clear it’s great music and fits perfectly, was the Viola d’Amore! Fortunately, the Basque National Orchestra has two wonderful solo violists in the orchestra and both were completely ready to take on the task to learn to play Viola d’Amore specifically for the project. With a very fair flip of a coin we agreed that Delphine Dupuy would take it, and she really went all out, getting lessons with experts in France, getting a superb instrument, so I’m really grateful to my colleagues in the orchestra for making this particular work a reality. As a conductor, good ideas are nothing if we have no one to help us realize them.



I (personally) particularly like the four short "Evocations" by Ruggles. Who "was" Ruggles and what significance do the "Evocations" have in his oeuvre?

Yes, it’s one of my absolute favourite pieces on the recording. First, I want to say that this is music of extreme concentration of sound and material, it’s as dense and austere as it gets. That being said, my big desire to record Evocations was my lack of satisfaction at the treatment of Ruggles’ music in general. First, it’s music largely not performed, second, people approach it (as they do the music of Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern) as ‘Objectivist Music’, and it’s not! It’s music of the ‘Expressionist’ period, and that means it has to have more soul, warmth, passion, and extreme fluctuations of mood and sound. These four pieces each evoke new worlds and emotions. He was such a perfectionist and composed at such a glacial pace that we have very little for orchestra by him. I have a dream to record the rest of his music because for me it’s absolutely fantastic.

How can it be that such a fantastically beautiful piece as Hanson's "Before the Dawn" has never appeared on a recording before? What was it like for you and the orchestra to be allowed to make the world premiere recording here?
To be frank, it’s easy to understand: Hanson isn’t performed so often anymore, and when his music is occasionally performed it's generally the symphonies. In some ways Hanson’s contributions as an educator and conductor completely overshadowed his compositional aspirations. We have to look no further than the likes of Bernstein, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Boulez (the list goes on and on) to find examples of composer-conductors struggling to place one activity in the forefront. In each of these cases, each composer/conductor had to find their own solution for the difficulty. Lastly, the parts were in such disarray that I think for such a short work most people probably felt the effort outweighed the result. For the shortest work on the album, it was in many ways the most difficult to pull off. In the end, it’s  exactly right, a beautiful piece that finally has found its place in the world.

The "Variations for Orchestra" by Cowell are also a real discovery to my ears. Am I right in saying that the work (with its final fugue) is a little reminiscent of the late Hindemith? What do you say about the work?

I love Hindemith, but when it comes to ingenuity in composition, Cowell is a beast of a creator. Cowell is almost completely unrestricted in his artistic impetus, he has no scruples to break a rule, bend it, or simply act like it never existed - a radicalism in composition. When we recorded the finale, I remember telling the orchestra, imagine Berlioz, Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and a deaf Beethoven got together and decided to beat the death out of a melody until Beethoven could hear it clearly. The score, which is written by hand, looks as if it was through-composed by Cowell, with harsh scratching-out of voices, and sloppy corrections in the score. It’s hard material to work with but in a way, it’s like having the frenetic energy of the composer in the room by seeing his handwriting.

There is one more thing that interests me, but I don't know if I can ask you another question. It concerns the cover artwork of the CD. I (personally) think the artwork is great! Finally, no picture with boring sunsets, mountains, rivers, lakes, and American prairies. Instead, a visibly relaxed looking and casually dressed conductor in front of very prosaic building cranes. That's what I call style! - Did you have a say in the design?

I’m happy you like the cover! Yes, I have a ton to say about the covers with Ondine, again thanks to our wonderful collaboration. I like the "boring sunsets, mountains, rivers, and lakes" especially when they have a clear relationship with the music, but this album does not contain music of ‘nature’. It is music of the ‘city’, an urban, developing America. If some people don’t like the cover, that’s fine, too. All I can do is offer an authentic and sincere approach to my life and art. In defense of the cover by the way, it's a reflection of what I see as an ‘American’ character. First the rising up of skyscrapers, all glass and metal, is a distinctly American characteristic that now Europe and the rest of the world very securely have in their architectural language. Take a stroll through Frankfurt, Paris, Milan, Shanghai, Dubai, etc. This comes directly in line with the narrative of ‘when did America start to influence the world of Classical Music’, so in visual terms it’s the parallel of the skyline of America influencing the skyline of the world. The smiling and the leather jacket are unique to this album, too.  If you look at my other albums, you’ll see I’m more formal. It’s a funny thing, but ‘casual-ness’ in clothing I always associated with American ‘pop’ culture. When I moved to Europe, I really tried to step up my clothing to suits, ties, etc. If you go to the Vienna State Opera, you’ll see a lot of suits and people being formal, and of course the same is true of the Metropolitan Opera. But I just went and got some of my casual clothes that you’d find me wearing in the streets. It’s really a photo of the authentic me: the optimistic American conductor working in Europe. I didn’t have to go put on my black Stetson Cowboy Hat on to make it American! And yes, I do own a Cowboy Hat, I am from Texas after all.


Thanks for the conversation, Mr Trevino.


The interview questions were asked by Burkhard Schäfer,

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