Thursday, January 9, 2020

Meet Our Maestro: ALEKSANDAR MARKOVIĆ Makes His US Debut

Seattle Opera is thrilled to present the US debut of the talented young conductor Aleksandar Marković (pronounced “MARK-o-vitch”). With Vienna his home base, Marković conducts all over western and eastern Europe; he’s also conducted in Japan, Korea, and Qatar. But working in Seattle is a dream come true for a lifelong Wagnerian who first dedicated his life to music while studying in the US as a teen.
Welcome, and congratulations on your first Eugene Onegin! What appeals to you about Pushkin’s story and Tchaikovsky’s music?
I’ve always wanted to conduct this opera. It’s a piece which is very close to my heart. I must have been in my teens when I first discovered Onegin, and I remember I couldn’t find peace for days—the story disturbed me so. I had watched a documentary about Pushkin, and went and found the poem and read it, in Serbian translation (I grew up in Belgrade). Then when I discovered Tchaikovsky’s opera it blew me away. The first entrance of the chorus, singing gives me goosebumps even to think about it. And the eerieness of the duel scene, the profundity of the letter scene...that incredible central moment in the Letter Aria, with oboe and horn, when she wonders whether Onegin is an angel or a devil, is something you never forget.

I think Eugene Onegin is among the best pieces of musical theater ever created. So yes, conducting it has always been a goal of mine. I believe I understand how all the parts of this opera function; my job now is to put it all together and make the mechanism function, like a beautiful Swiss watch where everything connects and every element has an important function to fulfill.

What kind of opera is Eugene Onegin? American opera-goers who are accustomed to Italian opera might think, at the end of this one, “What?! Nobody dies!?”
It’s not as blood-and-guts as you sometimes get in, say, Italian opera. This work is subtle; it doesn’t go for the big effect. And yet, Tchaikovsky was smart enough to shape Pushkin’s story into effective drama. The scene of the challenge, for example. In Pushkin, Lensky writes a letter challenging Onegin to a duel. It’s behind-the-scenes. But Tchaikovsky knew that needed to be public; in his version the challenge is front-and-center, derailing the big party scene in Act 2.

That scene always reminds me of the party that goes so horribly awry in La traviata.
Yes; Tchaikovsky was by no means a Verdian, but he knew how to make use of the tools which worked for Verdi.

Tchaikovsky wrote this opera just after hearing the world premiere of Wagner’s Ring. You’re a big fan of Wagner; would you call Eugene Onegin a “Wagnerian” opera?
No, but here again you see Tchaikovsky’s genius! He is able to take an influence from something he hears without having to copy it. As in a Wagner opera, Onegin is full of subtle references which reach back and forth across the piece. How the winds play fragments of the tune of Lensky’s Act 1 aria, when Lensky and Onegin prepare to shoot each suggests that what’s going through Lensky’s head is Olga.

Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with Colin Ainsworth
Philip Newton, photo
I’m discovering things like that all the time. I just noticed the other day how Tatyana sings the theme of Gremin’s aria, in minor, when she rejects Onegin in the final scene.

Tchaikovsky adored Mozart. Do you hear Mozart in this opera?
Yes, he studied Mozart a lot, and you hear it in how he strives for transparency, for clear, delicate orchestration. Tchaikovsky was a great orchestrator. He knew how to use all the colors of the orchestra without stuffing the registers in a way that makes it all suffocate.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with the orchestra
Sunny Martini, photo
Speaking of clarity and delicacy...I notice you’re not using a baton!
Yes, I’ve always conducted with a baton, all my life. It was just last fall that I first tried going without it. I found the sound quite different, very warm, and the precision didn’t suffer. Nobody has said, “Maestro, we don’t see you,” or “We don’t understand.” I’m quite tall and I have long arms. So I realized there is not always a need for it. To use a baton just because of tradition makes no sense.

I saw you at one point making a fist...
Yes, you make a fist, you stretch your fingers out, you make a sweeping have more expressive potential. Nothing gets in the way. I’m not saying I won’t use a baton again depends on the piece. With something that’s rhythmically precise, like Rossini, it’s very useful for the proper lightness and precision. But I feel very well doing Onegin without it.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with Jay Rozendaal
Philip Newton, photo
You’re young, as conductors go, and we’re honored to be presenting your US debut. Tell us a little about your journey so far.
I studied piano when I was young, and came to the US to study piano for a summer festival, when I was a teenager. I wanted to learn English and experience a new environment. But it was in the US that I decided that classical music would be my vocation.

I wanted to get the best education possible as a conductor, so in my 20s I went to Vienna, where I studied in the famous class of Leopold Hager. We were at the Vienna Staatsoper almost daily...after classes all day long we’d go and stand through Meistersinger! It was intense, but it was great.

What surprises me about that rehearsal, you’re so pleasant! Training in Vienna, you must have witnessed those old-school dictator-style Maestros...
Times have changed. Conducting used to be a profession where you constantly had to exercise authority. I believe authority has to be natural. Authority isn’t about being unpleasant to people; authority is something you radiate. If you come in front of people and you’re able to get their attention immediately, without having to reinforce it, that’s natural authority. Combine natural authority with great preparation, and a respectful attitude towards your collaborators, and you operate more efficiently. Let people know when they do a good job! Correct someone if they need a correction. But do it constructively. The moment you make somebody feel fear, or insecurity, you have gambled away their full potential. They may yet perform well, under tension; but they will never give you their heart. And I want them to give their hearts into what they do.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal with Michael Adams
Philip Newton, photo
And have your American collaborators met your expectations, so far?
Before coming here I knew this orchestra is great. I heard about Seattle Opera back in the ‘90s, when I was studying piano on the east coast; Seattle’s Wagner productions were very famous, people were talking about them all over the country. Because I was a Wagnerian, ardently in love with that music, Seattle was like a Mecca for me. I had a book I really liked about Wagner’s Ring, with a big photo of a Seattle production on the front. So coming here and standing in front of that wonderful orchestra is a dream come true.

I find this house to be one of the best organized, most professional, most efficient places I’ve worked. I’m not buttering you up, I’m giving honest feedback. The vibe is great; everybody is supportive, kind and respectful. There’s a great constructive energy. The singers are wonderful, they’re intelligent, they have beautiful voices, they have brilliant personalities, they’re well-prepared, they listen, they work, they learn something new every day. Every day I come to work and can feel the production growing.

I understand that European orchestras typically have more rehearsal time than in America.
Yes, here we have about half the time. But they’re extremely professional and well-prepared. They pay such careful attention—to me, to tempo changes, to the singers—that we’ve done the work with incredible speed. The chorus, too—they’re great singers, with beautiful voices, their energy is good, their acting is convincing, their diction is clear—in Russian, which probably none of them really speak!

This production has played all over North America. Would European audiences consider it too safe, too traditional?
I don’t think so. In Austria sometimes productions are traditional, sometimes more modern. The only thing I don’t like is when a production fights the music, or contradicts the composer’s intention. This production does the style justice, and yet it’s very well thought-through. It may look traditional; but it allows us to explore the characters in a very real way. The themes are universal, and absolutely contemporary.

In a way, this story is worse than one which ends with death. This ends with the mutilation of a spirit. Onegin arrives at the end at the very bottom, he realizes that he missed his one chance at happiness. Death at least would bring an end to things. But both Tatyana and Onegin, both young people, have to live the rest of their lives knowing the dream is gone and it’s never going to return.
Aleksandar Marković in rehearsal
Philip Newton, photo
Tchaikovsky was setting Pushkin’s story, which concerns a missed connnection between a man and a woman. But the composer himself didn’t have much experience of heterosexual love. Does it matter? Does his emotional experience color the music he wrote?
You hear a duality in Tchaikovsky’s music. There was an official Tchaikovsky and an unofficial Tchaikovsky. A public and a private individual. And the tension between these two lives is what makes his music so explosive, so sweeping, so incredibly expressive. You always have a feeling Tchaikovsky needs to tell you something, but cannot. In addition to his elegant side, all the dances, there is this tension, this frustration and anger which I think comes from not being able to be who he was, officially. He diverted much of that energy, that urge, into his music.

Seattle Opera’s Eugene Onegin plays January 11–25 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: