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Interview with Maurice Steger

img  Tobias

How important, would you say, is the business side of being a musician?
Let’s put it like this: There are, highly likely, a lot of excellent players out there. First, it is of foremost importance to get your message across both on stage and in the studio. And then, of course, you need the business side to support you. I’m thinking of agencies, here, for example. They, too, have a lot of artists they’re attending to. But if they are fully convinced of a performer’s potential and if they are doing a good job, then this is of vital importance. Simply put, an artist can be as good as he or she wants - without the business side, he will keep playing in his private home. To me, that’s common sense.

Would you say that the more you actually think about this topic, the more your worries will grow – especially considering the competition out there?
To be honest, I don’t really have a lot of incluence on that. The bigger the company, the more you try and become a guarantee of something good for a wide audience. It would be unthinkable of me going out there and negotiate my salary myself. That’s something real professionals will do for me, simply because I’m playing in a pretty high league. And that is what makes all the financial difference. If it’d be me who’d go out there, I’d have to restrict myself to bread and butter. Don’t you think?

I’m not sure... I’m just curious, originally coming from a different background than Classical Music Take CDs for example. Does it, looking at it from an economic perspective, still make sense to record albums?
If I may speak personally here, my last couple of CDs were released by big companies and, yes, it was interesting economically, because it’s a clear image-boost. There will be a whole new set of concert organisors, who will be interested in you and they will approach you under very different terms and conditions as previously. And that is the divide in classical music. There are tremendously good artists, who lack that little something which could be of interest to a larger audience – and subsequently these channels will not be open to them. They may record an excellent album and it might sell a thousand copies, but they will hardly make ends meet with that. It’s a brutal world. If, for example, I would like to play something I really love and of which I am sure that I can deliver a truly good interpretation, then these big record companies and agencies will regularly answer this with a “no”. And this happens to extremely famous artists as well. Those people (the record companies – tokafi) have to totally believe in the name of the performer, the composer, the program. They also have to believe that they will be able to succesfully launch such a CD and that it might be of interest to a lot of people. It all has to go together.

How do you look back, for example, on the work done by the Claves label in the early stages?

It was absolutely brilliant, of course! I was able to dedicate my first CDs to composers, which even most music journalists would not know. It was a dream repertoire by any means. I was able to present myself perfectly as an artist. I loved it – these were my products. I was never, in any way, narrowed down by them. Claves is a medium sized-label with about 800 recordings and there was never the danger that if I would decide against the well-known repertoire, such as Vivaldi, that they would refuse me this request. I was free to do what I thought fit my profile. Of course, I would think about whether this could also sell internationally, but apart from that, I could basically do as I please. There were no specifications as to how many thousand copies I would have to sell, which would be usual at big companies.

So there are these specifications, after all?

With the really good labels? Yes, absolutely! If I record the Teleman concertos, as I’ve done right now, then it’s a question of basic arithmetics. It will have to go over the counter a certain couple of times, otherwhise “he is not interesting enough to us”. (laughs) Naturally, there is a lot of soul involved as well, but the musical thoughts should go hand in hand with commercial considerations in a harmonious way .

I suppose it goes hand in hand. If a CD sells well, it does show that there is a real interest in your music. As a musician, you wouldn’t want to perform in front of empty halls, would you?
Of course not! Maybe I can go deeper into this for just a second. I recorded a children’s story once, for Swiss German-speaking children. It’s a really nice fairy tale and because it’s for very young children between the age of four and six, it had  to be done in the Swiss-German dialect, because that would be the only language they’d understand. We worked together with Philips on this one, but still we recorded the album exclusively in this dialect. It was a huge company and despite it being a very unusual market, it sold incredibly well in the German part of Switzerland. And if you now compare just this one recording with all of my international sales of the records I did for Claves, then they would probably be about the same. That’s crazy! Every second child over there will know me! And with Claves, you will have a worldwide audience, but only of extremely specialised listeners. As an artist, I can feel the difference (laughs) It’s really crazy and it frustrated me a lot in the beginning.

Have you had any feedback as to how your first release with Harmonia Mundi is selling?
Yes, as far as I know it is going very well. I wouldn’t be able to give you the exact sales figures of each country, though. But they are definitely much higher than anything you could do with a record produced by a smaller company. You just couldn’t compare that.

How would you want the relationship between yourself and a label to look like? Do you want it to be restricted to business questions or do you actually want them to get involved with artistic questions as well?

Artistic discussions are my goal, of course. But I am fully aware that I will have to record the big, virtuoso concertos. I will gladly do that as well. After all, that is the compromise I will have to agree to as an artist. One should never think: Okay, I will now record those wonderful Matthew Locke suites, or something totally spaced-out and then want a big company to accept that. I could have stayed exclusively with a major record label. But then I would have had to record Grieg, Mozart arias or Folk songs with a symphonic backing and I really didn’t feel like doing that. That would have meant ensnaring the audience, but I’m not interested in that. I am interested in playing the repertoire, which was written specfically for my “nice instrument” and within this repertoire there is still a divide between the famous and less famous pieces. But I wouldn’t want to take things any further, to the point that I’d be playing entirely senseless material.

Some of those big companies were actually founded by highly knowledgeable fans or producers, who would drop by the studio occasionally and approve or disprove of the interpretations. Is that something that still happens?
With Harmonia Mundi, they checked what kind of repertoire the orchestra and me had been playing over the last few years, the way in which we committed ourselves to Telemann. (laughs) They also had a look at how many people visited these concerts and how the media reacted to them. And then they said: Okay, let’s do it. And only after having listened to the finished product did they decide it was going to be a Maurice Steger CD record and not just a historical edition with an old painting on the cover. They kept all options open in that respect and I’m fine with that. I did not enter those sessions with the thought or the expectation that I’d be able to fulfill my vision 100%. I considered it a mission from the label to record this repertoire and how exactly this was going to be sold to the public was something they thought about when the tape landed on their desk. So they effectively secured themselves in a very professional way. And there is something else to consider: As artists, we work on creating a musical experience. And the ideal situation is to have professional support from the side of marketing, recording and organisation to be able to excsluively concentrate on this. And in this regard I trust the smart and trustworthy people at Harmonia Mundi wholeheartedly.

But there was definitely a co-ordination with regards to the live repertoire?

You just have to be a little smart as an artist as well. Of course, I try to carefully synchronise my studio and live programs. It would be slightly unintelligent to not play Telemann, now the record is out. It’s a natural thing and the labels strongly depend on it, because artists who don’t play concerts can not sell records. Especially considering the slump in CD sales. Wherever an artist plays, he demonstrates his presence and without this, you wouldn’t be able to effectively promote your albums.

It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, if the live concert becomes the most important thing in an artists’s life, does it?
That’s the way it should be! And then you have to talk to your agencies and ask them to convince concert halls that Telemann is the right thing to play. And then you have all of this promo material, which is devoted to Telemann, so it has to coincide. Otherwhise, you couldn’t achieve any good results. There are some who take this to extremes, such as Cecilia Bartoli who sings the same repertoire for a whole year, because she is promoting her album. One could regard this as a tad exagerated, but it’s the only way if you’re connected to a PR-machinery as she is.

How would you rate the importance of the internet with regards to your profession?

It’s a very difficult question. For one, there are many different “sections” on the internet. And then there’s always the question what you want to achieve. For me, the web is primarily a source of information. But you should never believe that if you have a site up and running, that you will immediately start selling huge amounts of records. And the reason is that you’re drawing a different audience. Five years ago, I talked to my agency and we were discussing whether to continue contacting listeners in print or if we should concentrate on the web page. I then gave the order for the site and decided to simply have a look at what would happen. And suddenly all of the “grey-haired” fans, who had been flocking into concert halls, no longer attended. They simply didn’t know about them anymore, as they had no internet connection five years ago. Two years later, we realized this and immediately wrote a letter, appologizing for our lack of communication. Now, we combine our efforts. And I don’t think there is any cultural organisation, which relies solely on the net. Our audience is conservative and it is so all over the world.

I notice the same thing with regards to the difference between a print mag and an online publication, the difference between actively pushing something in someone’s hands or putting it out there so potential reader can find out about it...

It is something different, isn’t it! I mean, the big advantage you have is that you can work at tying an audience to you. But the audience, which could come to a recorder concert can not be bound to a medium. And my audience is, without any doubt, more conservative than yours. It’s in the nature of things, wouldn’t you say?

Probably, yes. Even though I find the recorder to be a decidedly modern instrument. It has a wonderfully supple sound, without being as “spent” as the flute. So I am kind of surprised that it hasn’t as yet caught on with a younger audience...
But it is slowly starting to happen! We’re bringing things together now, taking new material into concerts. This can not be a business, it’s more of an idealistic project. But I can definitely say that younger people are coming to my concerts more and more. I am against excluding the elderly only because the internet should happen to be “en vogue” and some are simply unable to adapt. That would be a great pitty. So, for the time being, we have to take the hard road and do both – print it on paper as well and send it by post. But it is of extreme importance to raise a new and fresh public for Classical Music and the recorder.

I witnessed a Dorothee Oberlinger concert here in Münster, in collaboration with Dorothee Hahne. And they played mediaeval material in conjunction with modern compositions. Is that something you could envisage for yourself as well?
I find these kind of programes to be highly intelligent. Even though it is nothing new in itself, bridging this divide can be very sensible and exciting to boot. Simply, because it is not the kind of standard repertoire anyway, which has made Classical Music and Romanticism famous. The difference between a mediaeval and a modern piece may even be negligable for an average listener, because they’re both unusual in their own way. So I find these combinations to be very homogenous. Electronics can also be mixed with mediaeval music, even if it may look strange from a historical perspective.

The public is much more open in this respect than some seem to think, anyway...
I agree. We should never underestimate our audience and always try and guide them in new directions. This is very important. I suppose Dorothee Oberlinger was able to do this, because she had an organisor there who was supportive of her ideas and did not pressure her into the Classical repertoire. And as an artist, that is what you need. You need “windows” within which you can operate and present your art. Many different aspects come together to enable this kind of event and I’m always glad if it works out – it would be impossible to do such a thing at the Cologne Philharmonics. And you couldn’t sell it to the Deutsche Grammophone, because they’d never commit to this kind of risk. But you could probably release it via a small label, which addresses a specialised segment.

You’re absolutely correct – she mostly releases on Marc Aurel...
Yes, a very small label. And just the right thing! The big record companies are already claiming that those smaller outfits are competing with them more and more. And all of those thousands of tiny labels make for one big force as well. One should not underestimate them. These projects are totally justified and if it were up to me, I would support them even more. It’s a lot better than doing these boring things. But then again, as an artist, either that decision passes you by or you’ll need to give in.

Have there ever been requests from the side of electronic acts, asking for a collaboration?
Oh, yes! Of course – I am sort of a very wild artist. I performed three world premieres in the last couple of years and whether or not that is little or a lot, doesn’t matter. In all of these cases there were only a few concerts all in all and I don’t want to take this to a higher level. The same goes to the requests of electronic acts, even though I might find the music to be exciting and even though I would be attracted by the challenge. I still wouldn’t do it. And the reason is that I would probably have to adjust my schedule drastically to the occasion, because it’s not my area of expertise. So I will deny the request, but point them in the direction of other artists and tell them that Dorothee Oberlinger did a great prorgrame or ask them to contact Conrad Steinmann, who is excellent at playing these mediaeval pieces. I would be inferior to them, actually. I mean, I have similarly intilligent constructs when it comes to my oeuvre, but in different genres. And I would never agree to do something like this as a mere guinee pig, without knowing 100% that I would do a good job and that it would be fun. In this respect, I would say that I’m modest. I don’t need to do everything, after all.It’s a question of honesty and I will tell composers, who want to write a piece for me, the same thing.

A composer who does play an important role, though is Telemann. Where does your enthusiasm for him come from?
Well... the enthusiasm... (laughs) You were the only one who actually wrote that I loved Vivaldi, but Telemann slightly less... (laughs) I was very impressed by that. My enthusiasm for Telemann... It’s the music you learn when picking up the recorder as a child. I never played a piece by Telemann , I didn’t like it at all! I thought it to be slightly daft. I never really established a connection with him, even though there was a lot of music that I loved. I loved improvisational music, loved early Italian music. That is what I would call the repertoire of my heart. It was only secundary influences that led my to Telemann. I once had to play one of his pieces and it got noticed, maybe because there was something in my performance which substantially differentiated it from other interpretations. But it was absolutely something that came to me from external sources. He’s not my clear favourite in any way. I thought about it a lot and took on a second and a third of his works and then some chamber music or a concerto and then got in touch with the “Telemann-institutions”, such as the Berliner Barock Solisten or Reinhard Goebel, a good friend of mine for many years. That is how I mananged to reach the tip of the iceberg from all the way down.

He’s taking up a pretty large chunk of your discography, isn’t he?
It’s something that has grown over the years and I have learned to love his music as well. And it is only natural that he should take up so much space in my repertoire, simply because he wrote so many pieces for the recorder. He’s an ingenious composer and knew every little part of his trade like no other. And that is a remarkable feat!

But would you say that Vivaldi is closer to your heart?
Not any more! But when I was playing him a lot, which is maybe six to seven years ago, I became famous for his big recorder concertos. It was simply a question of demand - I played him on the occasion of my examn as a soloist and after that, I had two to three requests to play virtuoso Vivaldi concertos. Then, too, I had to play these pieces and was only free to choose a second work, maybe a more modest one. Things were happening and that’s how I got to perform so much Vivaldi on stage. And I must say that I did love that, yes. Now, as time has moved on, I actually prefer Telemann, because it’s less aimed at these incredibly fast passages. Plus it takes quite a bit of clever thinking and decision-making as to diction, musical content, accentuation in order to avoid the music sounding bland, trivial or even academic. The latter is actually very important, because I wouldn’t exactly call him a party animal! (laughs)

And is Telemann on your mind when it comes to your upcoming recording projects?

When you put out a succesful CD, a lot of orchestras will approch you and tell you they really, really liked your interpretation and wouldn’t you want to perform the bassoon double concerto with us (because they’ve got a brillant bassoonist) or the viola double concerto? That’s how these projects start to happen. And that is also why, yes, Telemann is scheduled again for the future. But I have quite a bit of other music in my head, which has little to do with Telemann. (laughs)

On a more general level: What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?

In a first step, interpretation means being able to correctly read a musical texture. And that is where most already falter, at least in my opinion. In a second step, it is about deciding what I want to do with it. The basis for this decision can be information, (historical) sources or playing recommendations. And then it is about finding out what your own input is, which passages are highly personal, which are “normal” and how you can combine the two in order to reach the listener. The thoughts which go into this are of a diverse nature, it’s never: I like it this way, let’s just do it! That wouldn’t work! Not in real life, anyway. We just don’t have three solo repetitions before playing a Telemann concerto, most likely we’ll have a third of that, meaning just one. And if you only have an hour, it is of vital importance to be able to express clearly what you want to do with this piece. Sometimes, I’ll only be able to realize a certain percentage of what I would like. If I’m playing with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, I might even be able to realize 100%. The question is what the essential points of a work are, what its main message is.

So it’s both an intuitive and an analytical process?
I have to keep stressing that even though I am very intuitive person and although everybody keeps saying that I’m playing intuitively, this is not really true when it comes to interpretation. Interpretation is much more analytical in my opinion, it is a clear knowledge of where you can do what. And the personal level, which some refer to as “musicality” and which touches them, which is this thing which can not be fully explained, works best when everything else is perfect. There are so many musicaly talented people out there, but you just can not tell what they want to express through their playing. No, it’s a very analytical process. Actually, I do not even bother with these upper 10% of magic, because I just hope that it will be there. Rather, I attend to the “lower level”, in order to be able to play well. The personal input is not part of the interpretation to me.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it – if you put too much emotion into your music, nothing will come across at all...
Exactly! This might actually be different in France or Italy, which is an exciting fact. A musical performance is not perceived in the same way across language borders. The opinions diverge a lot. And it is of equal importance to play “beautifully” in front of Italians and Germans. Nowhere else but in Germany will you find such a clear interpretation. It corresponds with the language. You start a sentence and you can be sure that it will end at this or that moment. And when I play with the Akademie in Italy, it’s something very different compared to when we’re performing in Germany. Or take Fabio Biondi – in the North of Europe, he is just one of many baroque musicians on the scene, while’s he’s an sbsolute super star in Latin Europe. And it’s exactly these interpretational approaches, which sometimes don’t correspond with national tastes.

Or take John Cale, who purportedly broke down crying on stage once. To me, that is the point where it becomes embarassing and egoistic...
Of course! I guess I’m too much of a Northern type for that, I find this sort of thing silly. I’d feel embarassed as well. But in Brazil or in any other Southern American country, it would have an entirely different effect.

Do you enjoy playing in Switzerland?
Yes. I mean, it’s my home country and I get to play some material, which I wouldn’t perform in other places. Sometimes, I will play really nice church concerts or occasionaly repertoire you might compare to that of Dorothee Oberlinger in Germany. In Switzerland, I feel, we have a country where a lof of those influences we talked about come together. You have the Italian Swiss, the French Swiss and the German Swiss and these three don’t always work together like compatriots because of the different languages spoken and because of their different mentalities. Each part of Switzerland has its own style and its own taste. And that is also what had a strong impact on my different ways of thinking. It’s just a much less homogenous place, if you compare it to Germany. There are many different forums, making things colourful and exciting.

To get back to the question of interpretation: How much should the biographical background of a composer be part of the over-all approach?
The biographical information of a composer in the concrete context of the piece and how he stumbled upon a certain idea is of major importance. To me, it doesn’t really matter whether he had four children or twenty. But it does matter to analyze the social surrounding of someone like Telemann, Vivaldi or Locatelli. You can approach these from various angles, even from an art-histrorical one or a political one – always asking: Why did he write something and would could he have meant by this? That’s the reason why there’s a huge difference between Bach ans Telemann, even though they lived almost at the same time: Their environments were very different and so were their employers.

Christian Thielemann, the conductor, answered the same question as to the composer’s opinion: “Have you ever given him a call?”

Well, Tielemann has a different position, of course. For one, he is staging music, which was written considerably later and secondly, some of these late romantical works have been performed so often, that everybody will be asking: What can Tielemann possibly add to that? At some stage, this reaches a point where it’s not really serious any more. Which doesn’t mean that I’m calling it bad – quite to the contrary, I think it’s excellent! And maybe they don’t even have to check these historical sources quite that much. Rather, they will have a look at what their colleagues did earlier, say, thirty years before. It’s much more about realising your personal vision.

Has it ever happened that you were listening to someone else playing a piece very differently from yourself, thinking: This is the way it is supposed to be!
Oh, yes, quite often! It’s always a question of personality as well. Sometimes, what you are playing has to do with the image superimposed on you. I have very often sat on my chair, utterly touched by the music. And this still happens with the recorder. There are many colleagues out there whom I consider my friend. But it doesn’t work in a way that I will hear someone play a piece on a certain way, which I really enjoyed and then go home and try and do the same thing. It wouldn’t work. There are many people, who follow a certain ideal, but it’s no good in my opinion. What has changed gradually, though, is my attitude towards collaborations. I have played Telemann with 30 orchestras and then you will develop a different feeling towards the material, instead of just getting a few friends together and start a loose session. You will achieve very different results in this way. You will also realize much clearer, what the problems and the effects of the music are. I played with a big symphonic orchestra this year and I must say that it was very exciting, but you had to find very different means to make the music unfold, compared to working with a specialist like Reinhard Goebel. In the latter case, it is entirely clear right from the start, what he wants. But working together while preparing a live performance does a great deal to shape your personality. Much more than listening to a record or attending a concert, even when it’s of a good colleague.

As a final question: What was it that you liked about the recorder?
It’s such an incredibly simple instrument. You can hold philosophical, physical or constructional arguments agaonst this view, but it still won’t change the fact that it is, in its very hearts of hearts, an incredibly simple instrument. And yet it is so hard to make it sound beautiful. That is what makes it so fascinating. You start practising and it sounds rediculous. It is the most amazing challenge to create a small, but personal musical universe with this instrument.

By Tobias Fischer

An Italian Ground (Claves)
An English Collection (Claves)
La Castella (Claves)
Vivaldi: Concerti (Claves)
Telemann: Solos & Trios (Claves)
Portrait (Claves)
Tino Flautino (Philips Classics)
Telemann: Flute Quartets - with Musica Antiqua Köln (Deutsche Gramophone)
Telemann: Recorder Works (Harmonia Mundi)

Maurice Steger

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