LSO Principal Oboe Olivier Stankiewicz on Berio, Ligeti and new music

LSO Principal Oboe Olivier Stankiewicz talks about Berio and Ligeti and new music ahead of LSO Futures, the Orchestra's biennial festival of contemporary music ....

What was it that first made you want to explore contemporary and 21st century music and what is it that really draws you to this repertoire?

As far as I can remember I have always been interested in contemporary repertoire. I’ve always seen it as something interesting and fun, where there is a lot of margin to experiment with and explore different and new ideas. I think that what really got me into it though was a class on musical culture I took when I first arrived at the Paris Conservatoire. I’m not even sure I was aware when I applied for it that it would be about contemporary music, but I chose to attend and the teacher was absolutely brilliant, really creative. He had this real interest and fascination for the repertoire, and since then I have always tried to work closely with composers, to practice new repertoire and to analyse the great contemporary works. 

For me, it’s the music that talks the most about us now, and as contemporary performers we are in the best position to make interpretative choices about this music. We are in a state of mind which is as close to what the composer might expect from a musician in regard to his music. Many people see contemporary music as something very constrained because of the requirements of the notation are sometimes very specific. On the other hand, I see it more like a territory of freedom, we can actually make decisions and make choices without being afraid of being wrong because it is our music, the music of our time. 

Can you remember when you first heard the Ligeti and Berio pieces that you will be performing on 13 March, and what was it that first struck you about them?

 Gyorgy Ligeti

Well, they are two very different pieces! I first came across Ligeti’s Atmosphéres for the first time when I was studying. I actually, by chance, came across the score before I heard it, I think my mother had gone to some lectures and had borrowed the score from someone, so I happened to have it at home. I looked at it and it’s really music you can’t hear just by looking at the score – I mean you can imagine a little bit but you can’t have a clear idea of the precise sound it will make, it is such dense music. When I finally listened to it I was really struck by the amazing orchestral effects. I think this piece achieves a character that continues on from the work of Debussy, it’s really treating the orchestra as a sound mass rather than individual idiomatic elements – there is no sense of melody, and there is no rhythm and It really creates a unique texture an soundworld.

The Berio Sinfonia I came across a little bit later than the Ligeti, and what I first noticed was the richness of it, and the ability to combine numerous materials and ideas that refer to non-musical aspects in an engaging and sometimes very humorous way. I find what is interesting about the Berio is that it is the first piece I can think of that reaches out from strictly musical territory to question not only musical history, but, our relationship to musical heritage. It was the first piece to develop the ideas and concepts behind the aesthetic of postmodernism. The references to Martin Luther King give the work a political edge as well – I don’t think the Ligeti is a politically and socially implicated piece, but the Berio really is, and I can’t think of many examples of such politically involved pieces, and from that point of view I find it really interesting.

Are there any particular moments in either of the pieces you find especially memorable?

In the Ligeti it is hard to find a specific moment because it is such a slowly evolving sound. What is striking in the Ligeti through is the idea of transitioning from something mellow to something very differently shaded – for example there is a moment when the flutes go up very, very, very high and it suddenly drops down to the basses, you suddenly realise how the sound has evolved to create this big gap. But that is the only moment I can take out of the Ligeti, because of the process and continuity, suddenly you realise how far you have gone from your original idea. 

Click the score above to hear an extract of Atmosphéres

In the Berio it’s very different because it’s really a succession of moments, there’s so many moments that are even sometimes overlapping and superimposing. I find it is always very funny to hear bits of pieces you recognise emerging in the middle of the texture. You hear bits of Mahler 4, Debussy’s La Mer, La Valse by Ravel or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and other great works it’s really fun because you suddenly hear fragments you remember overlapping  it’s a very interesting musical experience.

For you what are the main challenges when performing contemporary repertoire?

The first thing is that you need to be unafraid of using your instrument in manners you wouldn’t usually. It’s about being able to create effects that are very far away from your usual technique, without creating physical tension. For a lot of contemporary techniques you must be as free and relaxed while playing things that are completely off the wall as you would if you were playing Schumann or Mozart. Another challenge is to be able to take some interpretative distance when studying these scores – sometimes they are incredibly specific, and you can have very precise notation of what you need to do physically. I think that a really great musician is someone who can bring to the surface the life that is inside this music – when technique comes in-between sometimes it’s hard to see where the living, the human content is in the music. For me, it’s exactly the same as other music, great performers of Mozart are those who can see beyond the style to see life.

For some reason people tend to see contemporary music as very much a specialised thing, it’s interesting though that Berio himself said that he never intended to write for specialised technicians in contemporary music, he wrote music for musicians and I think that’s the way we should see it. 

 Olivier Stankiewicz, LSO Principal Oboe

In the LSO Futures evening concert you will also be performing the world premiere of LSO Panufnik composer Elizabeth Ogonek’s Sleep and Unremembrance, what can you tell us about this work and how it relates to the rest of the programme?

Well it is a very challenging work – for the orchestra to play that is ... I actually think in terms of listening it will not be a hard piece for audiences to grasp and to enjoy, the music is hyperactive and rhythmical and orchestrated in bold bright colours that are in my opinion very attractive and reasonably accessible. I think within this programme, perhaps it relates more to the sounds of the Berio Sinfonia rather than that of the Ligeti. Elizabeth really throws a lot of techniques at the orchestra in this piece giving a sense of nervousness and unpredictability, but actually I think it would make a very good introduction for someone wanting to get into contemporary music.

 Elizabeth Ogonek, LSO Panufnik Scheme alumnus

Why do you think it is so important for orchestras to commission works from young composers and support these artists in their work?

Well I think that it is pretty obvious, we can easily imagine why it is important to create new repertoire. I’d like to change slightly the question, I’d like to say why is it important that orchestras adapt to new composers, and why it is important – I think this is actually one of the great things the LSO does. The orchestra is very willing and open to experimentation, to play in unusual fashions, to changes of staging basically and to go beyond what we as orchestral musicians might usually be expected do. I think it is when we switch the dynamic and the orchestra goes towards the composer than the other way around, because that’s when the interesting things are going to happen. 

LSO Futures (9–13 March 2016) is a series of concerts, events and workshops exploring the music of composers who push the boundaries of the classical genre to its limits.