Peter Eötvös, who passed away on 24 March 2024, was one of the most remarkable artists of his generation. In February 2020, WFIMC Secretary General Florian Riem spoke with him at his residence in Berlin.

How do you divide your time between composing and conducting?

I have actually almost stopped conducting, especially standard repertoire. Only my own music, and some works that really interest me I still conduct. This year I am composing a lot- I am preparing three operas: one for Berlin Staatsoper, one for 2022 in Geneva and one for 2023 in Prague.

One of the pieces we recently performed here was the opera “The Golden Dragon”…

Yes! It is a very successful work, it was just played in three German opera houses: in Mönchengladbach, Würzburg and Dresden. And its really interesting how different orchestras play my music: the ones who perform a lot of new music have a completely different approach than, for example, the Staatskapelle Dresden, who sounds much more like a classical orchestra.

Recently premiered „Aurora“ is your first piece for double bass solo with orchestra. How does one see an Aurora and then come to write a double bass concerto? and why with Accordeon?

This piece is actually not an „illustration“, not a painting of an Aurora. Its rather an impression….In 1971, I was flying over Anchorage in Alaska when I saw an incredible light effect through the aeroplane window: it was the aurora borealis. I have never ever seen anything so powerful or such a blaze of colour in motion. It was not only beautiful, but also extremely powerful, almost threatening and simply monumental. In my composition Aurora, I have attempted to reproduce the impressions of this moment, when really I felt myself as an element of this cosmos.
Aurora is my first piece for solo double bass. Up until now, I always used the lower registers of this instrument and was astounded that the double bass could also soar up into the highest ranges, sounding as powerful and colourful as the aurora borealis itself. Accompanying the solo double bass is a small string orchestra and an accordion, as well as two additional orchestral double basses, which are are placed in the concert hall to form a triangle with the soloist.

Did you know the soloist, Matthew McDonald, before you wrote the piece?

The piece was written for him. I met him years ago when he was a member of Ensemble Modern. „Aurora“ is a commission by the Berlin Karajan Academy, specifially for Matthew. It was premiered in December  2021 in the Berlin Philharmonie and was a big success!

You will also conduct Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer´s Orchestra. Did you know him before? Have you performed together?

I conducted a concert with him once. This is actually a funny story. We first met in the composer Stockhausen´s house when he was still married with Elena Bashkirova; then again a few months later in Paris, at Ensemble Intercontemporain. I was the Music Director of the Ensemble, but Daniel Barenboim was supposed to conduct, with Gidon as a soloist. Barenboim had just recently married Elena Bashkirova, who herself had left Gidon Kremer. Because of this, Barenboim cancelled, and I had to jump in…This was in the 80s and we have not played together since, but I really appreciate him and his music.

The work you will conduct with Kremerata is called „Levitation“ and is based on a dream of yours. Do you still have this dream sometimes?

Yes, I still now and then have this dream- its like floating, being suspended in the air. I lift up my feet, bent my lower legs backwards, and start flying across my house… its a very nice dream, good feeling, but not possible in reality…. (laughs). In the next movement, you hear a storm. Flying objects, kind of like in a Chagall painting: flying phone boths in the storm…. Then there is another movement based on Petrushka, or rather Petrushka´s spirit, after she has died. Its very beautiful and quite funny.

Tell us a bit about your academy for composers, please.

We have a very special mentoring program for young composers. You see, in the 19th and 20th century, composers were also conductors/musicians; otherwise they could not survive. Today, the two professions are separate, but I want to bring these two closer together again. So in my academy, we have two pairs: two composers and two conductors, who work together in the mentoring program. The composers write three compositions, who are performed by the conductors. Conductors have much more publicity, but they must learn to know what it means to be a composer, they should know the way composers think. And of course the same way is true for composers, who should learn from the conductors. Then, we have some great masters visiting the academy. We had Holliger, Dusapin, Lachenmann, Paisello, Benjamin and Olga Neuwirth- really the greatest among today´s composers.
The academy also tries to get concerts for its students. So I am very happy that a new work by Hankyol Yoon, who is currently at the academy, will be premiered in Korea.

Speaking of Korea, what is your ”relationship” with Asia?

I have a very strong liking to Asia. My second wife was Taiwanese. Then, in 1970 I was in Japan with Stockhausen and spend about 6 months in the country, so I have a bit of Japan „in my blood“. Isang Yun I met in the 70es in Berlin; I knew him quite well. And, yes, Unsuk Chin I know already for a long time: actually we just had dinner together a couple of weeks ago.
In Korea, I only know Seoul; I conducted the Seoul Phil a couple of times. I was very happy with them. You know- Korea is very close to Hungary when it comes to the temperament of the people. And I find Koreans more open in their behaviour, in their gestures- more open than Japanese or Chinese, not as distanced and less closed. 
And of course, Korean food, like Hungarian food, is very spicy, which is really perfect for me.

Conductor, composer and teacher, Peter Eötvös was one of the most important personalities in recent music history. Opera was always the most appealing thing for him, and so Eötvös wrote stage works that were accessible and understandable to audiences, and all them are regularly performed. Peter Eötvös died on March 24 at the age of 80.

Péter Eötvös, born in 1944 in what was then the Hungarian part of Transylvania, was always considered to be extremely polite and eager to engage in dialogue. The roots of his open-minded thinking can be found in his childhood, when the borders in post-war Hungary were narrow and the young Eötvös' hunger for forbidden Western music was great. He became acquainted with Anton Webern's pieces as underground culture, while his role models were Stockhausen, Boulez, Miles Davis, and Béla Bartók.

At the age of 14, Zoltán Kodály accepted Eötvös into his composition class at the Budapest Academy of Music. At the age of 22, a scholarship took him to Cologne, where he quickly made contact with the musical avant-garde of the time, both as a pianist in Stockhausen's ensemble and as a sound engineer at the WDR recording studio. His breakthrough came in 1978, at the age of 24, when Pierre Boulez brought him to Paris for a concert: Eötvös was appointed musical director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, soon traveling the world as a conductor, and increasingly becoming known as a composer.

In Cologne, Karlheinz Stockhausen became his mentor, encouraging his artistic development, and including him in his ensemble as a keyboard player. Eötvös gave hundreds of concerts with Stockhausen around the world, including month-long performances at the World Expo in Osaka in 1970.

His encounter with Japanese culture broadened his horizons in a lasting way. It was reflected not only in the experimental works of the early 1970s, but also in his later operas, including the one-act opera "Lady Sarashina", based on the records of a Japanese court lady from the 11th century, and "Tri sestri" ("Three Sisters"), based on the drama by Anton Chekhov. This work, which premiered in Lyon in 1998 in a production by the Japanese director Ushio Amagatsu and has since been performed in over thirty theaters, marked Eötvös' breakthrough as an opera composer. It was followed by a considerable number of stage works, for which Mari Mezei, the composer's wife, often wrote or arranged the libretti.

Eötvös has been supporting young composers and conductors at his international Péter Eötvös Institute since 1991. His educational goal: openness to the world. And: a bit of circus. Because, according to Eötvös, it may be the basis of all arts. "What they do is actually life-threatening. And this function of comsbining mortal danger with art should be a basic principle for all the arts. I should take what I compose just as seriously as the artists in the circus. They always have to repeat, if they make a mistake, they have to climb up again and try again. They can't leave things as they are or say, aha, that didn't work- so this applies to all the arts." 


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