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American Orchestras Are More Open To Experimentation

Translation of a chat with Hudobný život (Musical Life), published in its 7-8, 2022 issue.

Photo: Chelsea Majkut

Andrea Serečinová: As we were setting up this interview, I recall your text message upon arriving in Slovakia. “Hi, I am home again.” That is when I first thought of a potential topic for our chat: identity. How does it manifest in your profession, and, generally, in music. Where do you feel home after almost twenty years of close contact with American culture and American lifestyle?

Martin Majkút: I still spent most of my life in Slovakia... Those roots are strong and since I neither left under duress nor was I expelled, Slovakia means mostly beautiful memories. I am idealizing it, naturally. I noticed this with every stay: my first week feels fantastic. Then things start getting on my nerves that bothered me while I still lived here. At least to a degree I already feel like an observer. I do not have this “country-as-certainty” feeling anymore. It is a land I understand better than any other. However, living abroad for this long, my values have shifted significantly enough that I am merely a guest here. Such is the fate of an emigrant: he is never fully domesticated in the new country (even though I have always been welcomed with open arms so far everywhere in the USA) but becomes a stranger in his old country.

AS: You used the word “emigrant.” You hinted there at something that our generation perceives as having a certain political undercurrent. In contrast to the emigrants of yore you did not leave under emotional duress or under dramatic circumstances. You can come back to visit family and friends and you can maintain professional contacts in Slovakia. Do you feel that difference? Do you think of it sometimes?

MM: The character of departure has an enormous impact on emigrant’s philosophical outlook. When I arrived in Tucson (my first stop in the USA), I met a local group of Czechs and Slovaks. They were intelligent and friendly but politically completely elsewhere. When they left Czechoslovakia, they had to come to terms with the fact that they will most likely never see their home again. Velvet Revolution changed all of that, but their mindset was already set. This older generation, they were hardcore anticommunists for whom not only eastern Europe but also Scandinavia, even Great Britain were “communist” countries. They were all Bush Jr. supporters back then. My generation is comprised of more globe-trotters, for whom national identity is secondary. We also tend to not see social programs as the road to communist hell. We never fully unplugged from the old country. We did not need to.

AS: Does it mean that you do not feed your occasional homesickness with music chosen for that purpose?

MM. I am trying not to wear my identity “on my sleeve” (as Americans say). I picked that country voluntarily and I want to be a good citizen there. I carry Slovakia in my heart, but I am not going to put a Slovak flag bumper sticker on my car (nor will I put the American one there for that matter). However, the pandemic did make me experience what many immigrants must have felt in the past. Slavic music and that of Mitteleuropa – including Viennese and Hungarian music – suddenly acquired a new meaning for me. The physical unreachability of the motherland caused this music - so self-evident in the past - to start attracting me in a new way. This new intensity did not let up even though I did make it to Slovakia since then. I did Dvořák’s New World Symphony recently – it was after a pause of many years because I was avoiding it. I thought my heart was going to break during the Largo. I heard Dvořák’s homesickness more intensely than ever before. Next year, I will do Novák’s In the Tatras again. It is the piece I opened my very first season in Oregon with…

Photo: David Johnson

AS: We are familiar with several iconic immigration stories from the past century. These histories pertain to great names of European music, resettling on the other side of the ocean. Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Martinů, Rachmaninoff… It was not easy for them – perhaps only Stravinsky embodied the American dream. Why is it so?

MM: I think it is because, in general, composers are introverts. Finding a place in a new society is difficult when all you seek is calm and solitude and when being in crowds feels draining or even terrifying. A vast majority of conductors, on the other hand, belong to the extrovert camp. We love company – the bigger the crowd, the better! We are successful communicators; often we are unable to resist the temptation of being the center of attention. For a conductor, finding oneself in a new societal context is an exciting challenge. Stravinsky was therefore an exception to the rule - even though Rachmaninoff, Martinů, and, to a degree, even Prokofiev knew how to play this “game” too. For Stravinsky, however, it was likely something completely natural. He became a cosmopolite the moment he entered Paris, and he had no trouble figuring out how to “play the American tune” either. And, as we all know, this tune is very bold, and it is played in the emphatic forte dynamic! I do have to mention one particularly refreshing exception to this conductorial rule, which is Kirill Petrenko, Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. His introversion is practically stuff of legends.

AS: Workwise, you move between the East and West coasts of the USA, regularly bridging over a large geographic area. Do you encounter the issue of identity, of distinctiveness when communicating with orchestra members in different parts of the United States? Do they react differently? Do you have to be mindful of certain behaviors?

MM: Yes, cultural differences are present here as well (to my delight!). In New York, I feel “halfway home.” The communication here is much more straightforward than on the West coast. The West coast is very polite, respectful, and sensitive. A great emphasis is placed on not offending someone by mistake. New York is more genial, more brazen, and more “improper.” We Slovaks are even more straightforward and, for example, Russians, they certainly do not mince words even by Slovak standards. That kind of communication is vulgar from an American viewpoint. When rehearsing, I try to “tune into” the local wavelength. It is not a pretense – my goal is to communicate in the most effective manner.

In the American West, everything feels more egalitarian. The working environment is less distinctly hierarchical and more informal. To tell somebody, “Bad, once again,” that is taken rather gravely. You must express the point politely, so that the dignity of a person is preserved. It takes a bit more time, but it is better than having a player who gets pouty and stops giving their best.

At the same time, players in the West have less of an issue discussing matters with me when they think there exists a better musical solution to a certain element than what I am offering. This I welcome because, ideally, we should all feel a sense of ownership of the work. If everyone adopted this model, there would be fewer frustrated musicians in the world. However, I feel that this conductorial approach, when we “invite” players to participate in the creative process, is seen as weakness in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, it is changing over there too. The traditional dictatorial conductor is probably not welcome anywhere anymore.

Photo: Leon Volskis

AS: This could also answer the question of what perspective we can gain comparing the American environment with ours, in the orchestras of Central Europe?

MM: I would like to add that the atmosphere during rehearsals in the USA is less formal. Perhaps more important still is the fact that American orchestras are less conservative. “This is how it is played” – something that frustrates me quite a bit in Central Europe - does not exists here. Reflecting on it, I often ponder that, with Central European orchestras, it is better to play repertoire that is unknown to them. American orchestras are more open to experimentation. If I want something done differently, their first reaction is not “what kind of stupidity is this?”. They give the conductor the benefit of the doubt – an opportunity to prove to the orchestra that his view is reasonable.

One final observation: American orchestras are more “rhythmical” and European ones have in general a more beautiful sound. It is a consequence of differences in music education.

AS: In your environment today, what is considered an “American” music? I mean, in addition to the names that resonate with us, be it Ives, Copland or Gershwin…

MM: A great change – and probably a lasting one – happened during this pandemic. There is a much greater emphasis on contemporary repertoire and there is active support of women composers as well as minority composers. In 2015, contemporary composers made up 11.7 percent of the repertoire of American orchestras. Today, it is 21.8 percent. One fifth! That is great. Underrepresented composers (which includes both women and minorities) made up 4.5 percent in 2015 and it is 22.5 percent today. That is a dramatic difference, practically a tectonic shift… This number will likely trend down, but my prediction is that it will never again become so “white and manly” as it was before the pandemic. American music today is, to a large degree, a contemporary music.

AS: We both finished reading Kundera’s Ignorance recently – in a matter of fact it was partially my inspiration for our chat. To wrap up our conversation, I would like to move from the topic of identity to Kundera’s popular music-adjacent detours. In Ignorance he posits a theory of the “dirty stream of music” that is killing music as such. What he means is how music gets framed in popular media and, also, the way various genres of music are a constant presence in our living spaces, creating an unrelenting noise. To what degree is the discussion of commercialization and contamination present in the American milieu?

MM: A fabulous book, thanks for sharing it with me! I have not read Kundera in a long time, and it felt fantastic to come back. Music has certainly devalued. I often imagine how medieval peasants must have felt when they came to church for Sunday Mass and heard polyphony. What else could it be for them than the proof of God’s existence? Today, silence is a luxury and music too often a background noise. However, let us also look at the positive side: despite that “dirty stream of music,” it has preserved its magic. Not every teenager writes short stories or paints but almost everyone attempts to play guitar or to sing. Music expresses something that we are unable to describe in any other way. It gives us access to a different experience of reality. As for the commercialization of music, it is a statement of fact in the USA. I do not think it is any better in Europe, however. The way I see it, commercial music is like newspapers. One reads but does not remember what the next day. It was only important in that very moment. “Art” music is like a novel. It requires concentration and time. However, a good book or a good symphony will not be forgotten.

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