The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Matthias Pintscher Composer: Matthias Pintscher
© Thomas May

From his experiences playing within and conducting orchestras, Matthias Pintscher brings an enriched perspective to the art of composition - and in particular to the prospect of composing a violin concerto for the 21st century. He gravitated early on toward a life in music, playing violin and percussion in a youth orchestra in his native city of Marl in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (where he was born in 1971). Pintscher began composing while still in his teens, at the same time embarking on a parallel career as a conductor. A significant early mentor was the eminent German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012), who invited him to attend the annual summer school and festival he founded at Montepulciano in Italy. Pintscher also studied conducting and composing with Péter Eötvös, who, along with Helmut Lachenmann, was another important influence on his artistic development. Christoph Eschenbach has additionally been a major champion of the composer. (In 2010 he led an acclaimed program introducing Pintscher's Hérodiade-Fragmente to Washington audiences.)

In 1997 Pintscher's music was featured at the Salzburg Festival, and his opera Thomas Chatterton, commissioned by the Dresden Staatsoper, received its premiere the following year. Since then Pintscher has established himself as a major figure on the international new music scene: a composer "with a virtuoso sense of sound, most of all, capable of surprises," in Lachenmann's estimation, and "one who knows, and yet wants to know." His catalogue includes commissions from the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic (for an earlier violin concerto, titled en sourdine), Paris Opera, the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra (where he served as composer in residence from 2000 to 2002). Given Pintscher's strong connections to music institutions in the United States - last September he began teaching composition at Juilliard - it's not surprising that he has chosen New York City as a home, dividing his time between there and Paris. 

Pintscher has produced works for large orchestra, for chamber ensembles, and for the stage. Alongside this compositional activity, he remains equally committed to the sphere of conducting. In 2013 Pintscher took on the reins as music director of the acclaimed Ensemble InterContemporain (founded by Pierre Boulez in 1976), and he has also had a close association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. "My thinking as a conductor is informed by the process of my own writing, and vice versa, of course," says Pintscher. Elsewhere he observes: "I'm incredibly happy to be around people and need to have this exchange with people. And I can fulfill or even endure the role of composer only if it's constantly nourished by information that I exchange with other people - with colleagues but also with an orchestra."

Mar'eh was written in 2010-11 on a co-commission from the Alte Oper Frankfurt, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, where Vladimir Jurowski led the London Philharmonic in the world premiere on September 11, 2011, with Julia Fischer as the violin soloist. In 2012 Pintscher unveiled another new concerto at the Lucerne Festival: Chute d'Étoiles, ("Falling Stars"), a concerto for two trumpets, which he created as part of the prestigious biannual Roche Commission presented at Lucerne. That work's subtitle, "Hommage à Anselm Kiefer," ties the work to an installation, also called Chute d'Étoiles, by the German artist and sculptor Anselm Kiefer which impressed Pintscher when he came across it at the Exposition Monumenta 2007 in Paris. The reference moreover points to the deep engagement Pintscher shows in his creative work with parallel investigations in the visual arts. The composer, an avid art collector, frequently refers to the vocabulary of visual art when discussing music and, besides Kiefer, has been inspired by such artists as Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys, Alberto Giacometti, and American minimalists like Agnes Martin. 

In an essay on the composer titled "The Clarity of Sound Colors," the arts writer Stefana Sabin traces out the connections between various Pintscher compositions and an artwork by Beuys on the myth of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god associated with the afterlife. She points out that two other pieces by the composer - Osiris and the orchestral study towards Osiris - are  "closely interwoven with such works as Pintscher's violin concerto Mar'eh," adding, "one could say that individual motifs from the Osiris material merely give material form to guiding principles of Pintscher's aesthetic. In this sense Osiris is only one approach of many, an attempt at what Pintscher has been trying to do throughout his life as a composer: to give a voice to a nameless sadness, to hearken to the vibration across the abyss, to spread out polyvalent landscapes of memory - and to capture the echo from the ‘last space' [referring to the title of still another Pintscher composition]."

Several of Pintscher's works also reflect his ongoing fascination with language and in particular with Jewish intellectual and spiritual ideas. The title Mar'eh is a Hebrew word that can mean appearance, vision, face, or sign. Pintscher remarks that it can additionally signify "the aura of a face, a beautiful vision, something wonderful which suddenly appears before you. I came across this word when I thought of the fine lines which [violinist Julia Fischer] can spin with her instrument, this very intensive yet light [way of] playing." Fischer is one of the two personalities to whom the composer inscribes the concerto: "in memory of Luigi Nono for Julia Fischer." The former is the influential postwar Italian avant-garde composer Nono (1924-1990), to whom specific reference is made in the score's inscription "presenze - memorie - colori - respiri" ("presences - memories - colors - breaths"), which might serve as a motto for the overall aesthetic predisposition of Mar'eh

Cast in a single movement lasting about 23 minutes, Mar'eh calls for a characteristically large orchestral complement, including four separate percussionists. The latter preside over a virtual sub-orchestra of tuned and non-tuned instruments, including the mysterious blend of three tamtams and gongs that underlies the very opening of the piece. Pintscher's Ravel-like exactitude and precision in his orchestration can be seen in the specificity of his score instructions. The percussionists use a panoply of attacks to generate their sounds: hard and soft mallets, a double bass bow, a jazz brush, even their hands or palms, for example, while - as we hear at the beginning - the alto flute produces its soft staccato by covering the mouthpiece entirely with the lips, "holding it between the teeth." A trio of flutes, using techniques Pintscher experimented with in a flute concerto, play a prominent role, "constantly answering the violin part in chamber music style," as the composer notes. 

Meanwhile, the soloist, who sets the slowly floating events of the concerto in motion with a sustained chord, is asked to play her notes with a very "flutelike" sonority, "a bit on the bridge," with the "F more present than the E" (of the multiple notes simultaneously produced). 

Also immediately apparent is the subtle dynamic range, tending toward the very soft, that is a hallmark of Mar'eh. The effect is to make any increase in volume all the more striking, almost vehement in force. In the midst of this large orchestra the solo violin remains nearly always present, with only rare pauses, occasionally playing cadenza-like passages alone or with minimal accompaniment. "I have tried to shape the whole in a very songlike fashion," explains the composer, "so that the violin starts at the beginning and draws a line - or its vision - through to the end, in the most varied registers, often quite high, where it can only be continued in harmonics. I wanted this continual pacing out of a line. In the attempt to create horizontal arcs of sound, I was concerned with always giving the sound a direction in perspective."

The result is what Pintscher terms a virtuosity that is not extroverted but "about introspection, which can perhaps be called ‘concentric virtuosity.'" In Mar'eh, he continues, "My wish was to allow these many small particles [of sound color] to come together in the illusion of a large, light, transparent mass which permeates from the beginning to the end... The sound has a direction, not in the melodic sense, but in that the sound always continues, is never interrupted. It is about the direction of sound in space and time."