BY CHANTAL NGUYEN
Last month, we teamed up with Musica Viva to chat with Signum Saxophone Quartet and composer Jessica Wells about their national tour, which features Jessica’s arrangement of Kurt Weill’s virtuosic and fiendishly playful 1924 Violin Concerto.
This month, we sat down with Canberra-born violinist Kristian Winther as he wrapped up headlining the Weill concerto for Signum’s tour. Kristian reflects on the way his performance of this piece evolved with each leg of the tour, and what it was like collaborating with big-name saxophonists.
Hi Kristian! Let’s start at the beginning. Had you played the Weill Concerto before this tour?
No! But I grew up in a house where both my parents were very involved with opera. And my mum had put on three of Kurt Weill’s chamber operas. So I always had the music around in the house, and through my mum’s various CDs I heard the violin concerto. And I was taken by it! I was a teenager, so a lot of it I didn’t really understand. But it was very interesting to me, and I’m amazed to get the chance to come back to it.
Musica Viva had looked into it, and it seems nobody had played it in Australia since the early 1990s. It’s been at least 30 years!
What else was it about the concerto that leapt out at you?
It was the Notturno movement, which is the most similar to Weill’s later music – his more accessible ‘Broadway musical music’. It’s really crazy, a lot of fun, and very ironic. There’s not really anything else like it!
That was the movement I listened to a lot as a teenager. As I got older, I started exploring the rest of it. As we do with any piece of music, we latch onto one or two movements and sort of explore outwards from there.
I’m always dipping my toe into things. Purely listening to try to find out where I’m up to with certain pieces. For example, there’s the Schoenberg Phantasy for Violin and Piano, which I always found really inaccessible. So every now and then, I’m relistening with the score to see if it makes more sense to me – and whether I can make sense of it to the audience! Because it doesn’t matter if I think, ‘Hey this is great!’. If I can’t make an audience feel instantly involved with a piece, there’s no point playing it.
That’s the way that I work. I won’t do something until I know that I can make the audience like it.
As you prepared for and progressed through your tour, how did you find the collaboration with Jessica (pictured below) and Signum?
I’d never worked with either before!
The collaboration began in 2019, because this was one of the many COVID-cancelled projects. Jessica sent us each the arrangement as it was hot off the press, each movement. We’d look at it – more for the saxophone quartet guys to check out because my part stays the same, basically.
We weren’t informing Jessica, she was doing her own work – really incredible work. It was three very disparate elements that have come together for this very unique performance.
When did you start rehearsing with Signum?
That was another thing interrupted by COVID! My partner, the violinist Anna da Silva Chen, and I were both living in Cologne. We’d only been there three months, and we came back to Australia and couldn’t go back. We never went back. One of those cases!
The whole idea was, ‘Oh, I’m in Germany – I can go and rehearse with them!’. So we made all these plans, and then of course it just became impossible. We only ended up rehearsing just before this tour, but it was a very easy process.
What was it like playing with a sax quartet rather than your usual backing orchestra?
To say ‘usual’ is funny, because the last few concertos I’ve done have also been with chamber orchestras in reduced versions. I did a reduced version of the Beethoven Triple Concerto and of the Reger Violin Concerto, so this is now normal for me – bizarrely! But in general, this is a very complicated concerto, there’s a lot going on at once.
It can be really overwhelming in the original version with the wind orchestra and percussion and double basses. Having this saxophone version brings a lot of clarity, and makes it easier in many ways. Also, because of the sort of duets and interplay between the orchestra and the soloists, it’s much clearer that it’s chamber music in this setting. That’s been an interesting thing discovering in these reduced versions – the chamber music in all of them.
You talked about wanting to draw an audience instantly into a piece. How did you notice the response to this concerto?
Before we did the concerts, I still had some reservations about whether or not the audience would really get into it. But they have! It’s been such a joy for me that they’ve really enjoyed this piece.
Weill was only 24 when he wrote this piece, and it’s remarkable what a complete soundworld he’s made. There’s never a moment where one bit feels similar. It’s like he’s created an entire planet, which is complete with all sorts of trees and plants and animals, which are all different to anything you would find anywhere else, and yet everything makes sense and nothing is in ‘funny face’ or deformed. It’s all just so well thought out.
How did the performance of the piece develop over the course of the tour?
It’s crazy! After our performance, we were like ‘Wow this is a strange piece, we can feel it and believe in it, but don’t necessarily understand it’. We thought, ‘Yeah, after two or three performances we’ll get it and it’ll be fine’. But I still feel the same way! But not in a way which creates a disconnect for us or the audience.
It’s very interesting that you can have this whole experience with a complete piece of art, and yet not really be able to accurately describe what that experience is. As we played it more and more, we’ve all come to really love it. Still, there’s an elusive quality to it which is really endearing – and bizarre.
It’s like spending time with a person. You see the person at various intervals and in various different places, and you interact with them and come to really like them a lot, and you understand their outlook on life. But you still don’t actually know them. That might be as close as I can come to describing it!
What do you hope the audiences took away from this program?
The program is for the most part very accessible [including Gershwin, Bernstein and Bach]. This was the one piece where it was a little more challenging. But to ask the audience to be prepared for a challenge implies that they’re not already prepared for a challenge.
It’s 2022, and this piece is nearly a hundred years old. People are starting to realise that this music isn’t going to bite them. I don’t think we need to warn people about things anymore. That’s been an interesting issue the past few years I’ve been playing…there’s no need to put warning labels anymore on pieces that are a hundred years old.
It’s exciting you think Australian audiences are ready and have an appetite for “challenging” music.
Yeah! If we’re going to call Schoenberg challenging, then we might as well call Mozart challenging, because everything is relative. As everyone knows, a lot of Mozart’s music would have been challenging in his time. So either we call everyone challenging or, you know! We have opera which has subject matter that is violent or sexual or talks about race and gender in really extreme ways, so it’s bizarre we would call a piece of music for violin and piano ‘challenging’.
So now I think it’s just up to the small amount of media that exists in Australia for classical music to stop referring to it as that. We’re so used to thinking of it that way in general. Maybe we need to think about how we think about it!