'You will get everything from me': Jörg Widmann on his new Latvian project

It was a grandiose debut for Jörg Widmann as new artistic partner of the Sinfonietta Riga. The clarinettist, conductor and composer presented all facets of his musical talent at the inauguration concert with the orchestra on February 3 in Rīga's Great Guild concert hall.

LSM had the chance to meet the acclaimed musician and composer backstage right after the well-received performance. Exhausted, sweating but visibly excited and happy he answered a couple of questions about the premiere concert, his cooperation and future plans with Sinfonietta Riga.

How do you feel now immediately after the concert?
I have to say it was actually something really gratifying. Something like this happens very rarely. That there is not only such a unity between the orchestra, the conductor and all the people on stage but also how it conveyed onto the audience.

And I found one of the most beautiful things was the way how the audience listened to us today. For almost two hours the people followed us - as I felt in the first part – with almost religious calmness but tense silence. I think that this is almost the best applause for us musicians.

How you would describe your interaction with the orchestra? From an outside perspective it seemed very harmonic, inspiring and empowering for both sides tonight.
The musicians were indeed very enthusiastic and went all along. I am so happy about that because, as you could feel, they were really sitting on the edge of their seats. So it was anything but routine and playing it safely.

There rather was this spirit that something could happen at any moment, where the music goes in a different direction. That is something I really love. And this spontaneity was possible today without it being artificial or contrived.

You received long applause. Did you expect such an overwhelming reaction from the audience?
I have to say that I am very, very touched because the people here in Latvia and especially in Riga have such a tremendous musical tradition. Alone the fact that [legendary Latvian conductor] Mariss Jansons' father, Arvīd Jansons, was working here at the opera. And right here, where we are standing, there is a picture of Mariss Jansons hanging in the artist's room. So there is a huge tradition and I think you can hear that in the
silence as people listen to the music.

It is a fastidious audience, an audience that can not be easily and quickly carried away to cheer. So, to be honest, I really could not have imagined a better debut in this special city, in this special country.

Your debut sets a high benchmark for future performances. What else can the Latvian audience expect now after such a concert?
I consider my task to also work on the sound of the orchestra itself, and to develop and bring out programs. This is not just about my compositions or composing in general, but about creating and putting together programs. For example tonight with Mendelssohn’s Clarinet Sonata, then the Reformation Symphony and in between my piece, which, like Mendelssohn, refers to Bach. I really love references like that.

And I believe that in the upcoming three years the audience can expect to hear combinations or composed programs where the music of our time is combined in a new way with apparently well-known music of the Romantic and Classical periods. So that, I would hope, everyone can hear classical masterpieces differently and in a new way, and perhaps is able to hear a different connection and traditional ties in contemporary music.

Do you have completely free hand and artistic freedom or are there any constraints?
We have a lot of trust in each out but of course you have to discuss things and there are certainly limits. I simply cannot do programs like I could with a huge symphony orchestra. So that means there are restrictions in terms of the repertoire – and this is completely normal. But otherwise the sky is the limit.

Why did you decide to work with Sinfonietta Riga? You are a highly sought-after musician and could have worked together with other orchestras...
I am indeed very lucky to be able to look for and choose my musical families – to say it that way. And I was really fond very early on and immediately from the outset – I do not even know how many years ago I was with the Sinfonietta Riga for the first time – I liked this spirit.

When the orchestra then approached me and asked whether I could imagine working together long-term for several years, I did not have to think twice. I am really looking forward to being able to help to shape this ensemble, which is also very young – there are a lot of young people playing in it.

How often you will be in Riga?
As much as possible but I am of course very much on the move since I basically have four jobs. I am a composer, where I always need longer uninterrupted phases. And this I do not want to and will not change. But I am also a clarinettist and conductor with regular performances. And I am teaching as a university
professor. So my agenda is pretty packed. Thus I told the orchestra straight away that I cannot really live here.

But when I am here, and I believe you felt that tonight, you will get everything from me. This week has been so intense, that I almost reached the limit of my strength. Because I am really giving it all and I think that we all will be looking forward to see each other again when there are a few months in between.

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