By Cristina Schreil
The work is titled “Ghost Trio.” Yet in describing it, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter bounds with her characteristic liveliness. She says it’s a “masterpiece as poetic as it is intellectually challenging, and a great joy to play.” Mutter paints the new string trio—which she commissioned from composer and longtime collaborator Sebastian Currier—as a vitalizing new addition to string repertoire. The project is close to her heart: Mutter not only commissioned the piece (it is written for and dedicated to her) but emphasizes how this work is a culmination of a decades-long relationship with Currier. She’s championed and performed his work since commissioning “Aftersong” in 1994 and the 2007 violin concerto “Time Machines,” both of which she also recorded.
The world premiere of “Ghost Trio” took place on March 12 at Carnegie Hall. Mutter performed with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and pianist Lambert Orkis. It was part of Mutter’s six-city North American recital tour, which culminated with a reprisal performance of “Ghost Trio” at Chicago’s Symphony Center on March 17. The world-premiere performance also aligns with Currier’s 60th birthday.
“Ghost Trio” is the composer’s first work for string trio. Comprising nine short movements, the contemporary work also acts as a conduit to the past. Namely, Currier argues that the string trio is very much a “relic of the 19th century” and plays on this concept by inserting brief fragments of trios by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. They appear “as fleeting apparitions, like ghosts from the past, creating brief flashes of sound, gone before one can even fully perceive them. I think of it as the auditory equivalent of seeing something in one’s peripheral vision,” Currier says.
I caught up with Mutter in early March, following the announcement that she is one of the 2019 Polar Music Prize laureates, and right before she embarked on her North American tour. She shared more about working with Currier, recurring themes, the new string trio’s fascinating aspects, and how she and Currier’s shared love for experimentation and boundary-pushing has endured over the decades. “We haven’t really reached the end of possibilities,” Mutter muses. For listeners, that’s a gift.
How did your relationship with Currier begin?
Sebastian Currier has been one of my favorite composers since the early ’90s. That was when I ran across a piece, “Clockwork,” a fabulous piece for violin and piano, which [Lambert Orkis] and I subsequently played around the world to great acclaim from the audience; they just loved his music, which is extremely cleverly written. His understanding of rhythm and energy between these two instruments is quite extraordinary. That led to a long-standing collaboration: I then commissioned “Aftersong,” which was a piece for violin and piano, and the violin concerto “Time Machines.” Interestingly enough, he revolves about the issue of time quite a bit in these pieces. It’s a fabulous violin concerto, which deals with backward-going time, with compressed time—some of it you actually play backward, like a slow recording. It’s really cool music with a unique touch. His way of orchestrating and his offbeat accents give his music a very unusual and a little bit of a disturbing pulse. But, it’s also a very exciting pulse—which he also does in “Ghost Trio.”
How would you describe ‘Ghost Trio’?
Currier has given a wonderful explanation for the title [explaining how this] deals with a lot of the more well-known piano trios of the past. So, we suddenly hear excerpts of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Beethoven. It always puts a smile on our faces because that is how he’s referring to the past. That’s why we’re excited to present Sebastian’s “Ghost Trio” with Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio [Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1 (“Ghost”)] in Chicago. By the way, Beethoven never named his trio during his life period “Ghost Trio.” But, it just seems to be a wonderful couple. Currier alternates very slow, serene movements where time basically stands still in his “Ghost Trio” with these incredibly vital outbursts, little stem cells of quotes from well-known pieces. They are very often led by the piano, but sometimes the violin starts alone. It’s definitely a trio.
How have you prepared for the world premiere?
It requires an ensemble kind of being able to mind read, particularly under the duress of having very little time to put the trio together. I have studied with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott in Munich a bit and I will now on the upcoming recital tour rehearse with pianist Lambert Orkis, so it’s always been two people rehearsing; only really shortly before the premiere will we have the opportunity to dig in with all three of us. And, it’s nine movements, so it’s quite a challenging, big trio.
How does this add to existing piano trio repertoire?
It’s definitely a wonderful present to the existing piano-trio repertoire because for one, it’s not like in Beethoven’s time—very piano heavy and where the cello basically only enhances the left hand of the piano. This trio clearly is for three virtuoso instruments. [Currier] pushes forward. That’s exciting because we enlarge, also, our technical scope of things. I have to say there are some difficulties probably having to do with the fact that sometimes the violin passages are treated as if [written for] piano. But the struggle, I guess, is like in Beethoven’s writing—part of the aesthetic concept. The friction, you know? The kind of sand in the machine, which makes it more human and more exciting to listen to and to watch.
What do you admire most about how Currier writes for violin?
Like the work of any other great composer, the inspiration behind it. And, of course, Sebastian is also one of these guys who writes in a very logical manner. Themes recur. It’s the traditional understanding—you need a theme and eventually it’s going to lead somewhere and you will come back to it; you will treat it differently, you will vary it; you come up with new ideas, but they are all interlinked through these nine movements. They have a very organic growth. What I’ve never really connected to is music that makes interesting little blurbs but really is not paying homage to an architecturally driven thinking process—which is much more difficult to keep going for 25 minutes than a collection of bits and blurbs. Currier is able to, from the stem cell, create something that has an incredibly unavoidable drive and a core inner story. That is true for all the pieces he has written. That’s just him.
What was the timeline from you commissioning this work to the premiere?
That was extremely luxurious. I think we had his piece for quite a while, which I find ideal. Technically—and I’m not overdoing this—[this trio is] really extremely demanding. Also, Sebastian loves to push the tempi in his Allegro movements. So I’m very glad all of us received the score in time so we could go through different processes.
With wine—you decant it, and the sediments are settling. With music, you also need to have time to have things settle. To look at it a second time around and a third time. That luxury he’s always given us, or me, in the case of the violin concerto. I cannot tell you how wonderful that is, as opposed to a piece which, yes, of course, you can play it if you haven’t lived long with it, but that’s just not my style.
Already in the world premiere you really want to show as much of the depth of the piece as possible, and for that there’s no way around it: You need time to study for months and months, where maybe I play something else and then I go back to a few of the movements and passages. I went over passages I think three times—the ones that were technically really demanding. I changed fingerings and bowings until finally I found something which seems to work. We’ll know more at the premiere if it actually does. [Laughs.] But if it doesn’t, music is always a work in progress. With Sebastian there’s almost never anything that has to be rewritten because it is too outrageously out of reach.
Having so much time to hone the piece does sound like a luxury.
Absolutely. It’s great if from time to time you get a contemporary piece and can really go under the skin of it.
What is vital about contemporary music to you?
I think the excitement of contemporary music for us performers cannot be overemphasized. It is such an invigorating and challenging and enriching process. I can feel that the audience, who connect extremely passionately—particularly with Sebastian’s music—are really out there. We need to program contemporary music more often. These voyages into different Star Wars–like galaxies, they are so important—for us musicians, for the composers—to drive music further, to really give a sense, also, of the musical taste of the time in which we live and to connect to all sorts of listeners who are maybe not really that interested in classical music. But, these crazy new sounds and clusters and eruptive fragments might be what hooks onto them. So, I salute Sebastian to be doing what he’s doing for so many decades with a great concept of what music can be. He’s not one of these commercial guys. He really writes what has to be said. If it’s successful it’s great and if it isn’t, it doesn’t really frazzle him. He goes on to stay very seriously committed and also a witty composer. That’s a great component.
Congratulations on the Polar Music Prize. Are you a fan of your co-honoree Grandmaster Flash?
I’d never heard about Grandmaster Flash other than when we suddenly became Polar Prize–winner peers. I looked very closely into what he has done, particularly in the ’80s, and I’m very impressed. I wasn’t aware of where the DJ philosophy originated. Today’s DJs are definitely of another philosophy and level. Grandmaster Flash, that is quite amazing, what I have seen in videos—how he talks about enhancing music and giving it his own viewpoint and really creating something original and new. Definitely creative. It’s not just fading in and out and making sure the harmonies are a match. It’s rather impressive stuff. I’m very glad this gives me the opportunity to enlarge my understanding about music and what one can do!