How did you come to work as a conductor?
My first piano teacher, the exiled Viennese Walter Wasservogel, recognized me, even though I was only 12 at the time, as a future conductor, since I evidenced universal interest in the connections and constructions within music. In 1972, I finally asked Hans Swarowsky if I could study conducting with him. He asked me why I, as an aspiring violinist, would want to do this. I responded by saying that I had questions about music that had up to then remained unanswered: for example, how one could judge the quality of music, or how one could distinguish good music from bad music. He seemed to like my answer, since he took me on as pupil.
I went through a complete study of conducting, always being encouraged by Swarowsky, but I never actually intended to take up the career of a conductor. I was at the time too certain that conducting was not a directly musical activity, but rather only one of transmission. I wanted to make my own music, not recreate that of others. Swarowsky’s death in 1975 certainly further contributed to this decision.
Later it became clear to me that I had to conduct my own works, and as I in 1987 together with friends founded the Ensemble Wiener Collage, dedicated to new music and to modern classics, I accepted the necessity of also involving myself as conductor. Since that time my conducting activity has continued to increase in significance, also because it promotes the rapid realization of many projects that seem important to me.

As composer you also conduct your own works. How is this different from conducting the works of other composers? Are you stricter, or perhaps more flexible regarding the interpretation?
During rehearsals for one’s own work, one checks the quality of the composition. With the work of other composers it’s rather a matter of representation, of interpretation. One doesn’t (at least at the beginning) »interpret« one’s own work: it’s something integral, a part of oneself.

Have you ever changed anything while rehearsing a work of yours? What motivated such changes?

The experience of actually hearing can lead to the improvement of details, for example those of articulation, or to the refinement of dynamics, or even to the recomposition of individual sections. I have undertaken changes to my works when I instinctively sought for better solutions to a compositional process, regardless of whether my piece was conducted by myself or by someone else. When I conduct, this process can be accelerated, but that conducting does not necessarily lead to changes in the text of my score.

What distinguishes a conducting composer from a colleague who »only« conducts?
Every composer is principally concerned with his own work, with the presentation of his ideas and with trying out and presenting his work. An analytical view on masterworks of the past is indispensable for the development of those ideas. He shares such analysis with the conductor, who needs it as basis for his interpretation. It is therefore natural that a composer would begin to conduct.
Apart from this, every composer is confronted with the fact that it is difficult to find adequate interpreters for his work. This then leads some composers to conduct their own works, and starting out from this situation then to conduct other music. Individual intentions can however sometimes distort the unprejudiced view of the works of one’s own contemporaries.

Is it possible that the ongoing professional occupation with the works of others could hinder one’s own creative activity?
There is hardly a composer who occupied himself so intensively with the works of other composers as Gustav Mahler. Despite this he achieved a completely personal style and created totally individual music. The only hindrance was factor of time, which led to too many interruptions in the creative process. Mahler had only three summer months free to compose, during which he sketched his works. In the rest of the year he worked on the side realizing the scores.
My own time for composition is even more limited. Because of this and due to continuous interruptions my works tend to take a long time to be realized. There is much that can only be presented as »work in progress«, which I release for performance as provisionally completed, and then further evolve.

You also conduct youth orchestras, in workshops and in international courses. Is the work here fundamentally different, perhaps more »pedagogical«, than that with your own Ensemble Wiener Collage?
The work of the conductor is always an act of transmission, of transmitting interesting and masterfully composed music. When dealing with instrumentalists and singers who have not fully completed their studies it is sometimes the case that technical help is necessary in the matters of playing technique and orchestral ensemble experience: how to relate to one another and how to make music together.

Orchestras were for centuries led from the harpsichord or by the first violin. It was the increasing size of the orchestra that made the conductor as we know him today necessary. What, in your point of view, is the principal function of a conductor, apart from that of »beating time«?
It was not only the increasing size of the orchestra but also the progressively more complex scores that made the conductor necessary: he has to keep the ensemble together, providing a common tempo and a rhythmic backbone, while using his ears to control intonation and balance. His knowledge of style, his experience, and his feelings for musical connections shape a performance. These functions are basically similar for every piece, and the conductor should be able to transmit every piece that he takes on. A considerable amount of musical education is required to convey works written in different styles. But today many conductors begin with a limited part of the repertory, in my case with new music and the modern classics.

In the last decades the chamber ensemble has emerged as the new form of the small orchestra. Couldn’t such ensembles work without a conductor? Where does their significance lie?
The chamber ensemble emerged as a substitute for the orchestra due to economic pressures around the time of the First World War. Today it is a very interesting variant between orchestral and chamber music. It is characterized by many tone colors and by the possibility of exactitude. Various works can of course also be played without a conductor, but a greater amount of rehearsal time will then be necessary. Therefore it’s often economically more sensible to hire a relatively expensive conductor than to finance at least twice as much rehearsal time.

In the popular view good conductors are seen as magicians or animal trainers. What, in your opinion, makes a good conductor?
A good conductor is concentrated on transmitting good music to ambitious and active orchestral musicians.

René Staar in ChinaDo you think that the expectations of our contemporary world, its multimedial superficiality, bring forth »performing conductors«? How much show is necessary, and how much show can one allow?
Everything that serves to better present a work, particularly the gestural aspect, helps and is also necessary. What serves only the self-presentation of the conductor is show and rather obstructive to the performance.

What influence on your activity as conductor is there in the fact that you, being also an orchestral musician, frequently work under other conductors?
Through this one finds out what an orchestral musician really needs from a conductor in order to play well. One learns the standard repertory and learns what significant conductors pay attention to and how they deal with the orchestra.

Given this experience, are there things that you as conductor would never do?
I think it’s very damaging when one disparages works, composers, or musical colleagues in front of the orchestra, even though one might not really admire these. Doing this, one doesn’t just deprive the orchestral musicians of the opportunity of forming their own opinion. They also lose their respect for the rehearsal and finally also their respect for the music that they are to perform, and every effort to achieve a satisfactory result suffers. The musician asks himself why he should make an effort at all, when the conductor doubts the quality of the collective effort, including the quality of the composition.

Are there models for you, conductors that you admire?
As a student I had idols, but this was relativized by the thorough analytical procedure I encountered during the period of study with Swarowsky, and gave way to a rather functional view of conducting. Nevertheless, there are many conductors, whose work I admire.

You conduct many premieres. How do you prepare yourself for a new score? Have you ever experienced surprises during the first rehearsal of a new and complex work?
An unplayed score is studied by starting from the large and then working down to the small. After one has informed oneself about the style and character of the score, the next thing is to get an overall view of its global structure by breaking it down into different sections. After this one can get into the importance and relative significance of individual structures, themes, motifs, and cells, and then finally into musical details such as articulation, phrasing, and tone color (instrumentation). Most new scores, including those which look very complicated, are simpler than they are generally thought to be. With increasing experience one can quite rapidly reach a first overview.
I hope I won’t have to conduct scores that bring no surprises at the first rehearsal.