Jonathan Pasternack: out with a new CD and leading the UW orchestra

Jonathan Pasternack.

Brooklyn born, Northwest trained conductor Jonathan Pasternack is out with a new CD on the NAXOS label. His recording of Brahms’ First Symphony and Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarian Suite with the London Symphony hit shelves last month. the recording stands apart from others because of Pasternack’s sharp, rhythmic focus. There is no dawdling. The music breathes, pants, and grabs listeners. Part of this effect comes from the ordering of the pieces on the CD. Bartok’s suite opens the disk in violently and this piece leads right into the pulsing fury of the the first movement in Brahms’ symphony.  Of course, the playing the LSO is superb.

In addition to a new recording, Pasternack took the job of steering the UW symphony and its other orchestras this year. the conductor isn’t using the University of Washington’s changing music department as an excuse to program standard repertory for the season’s symphony’s concerts. His line-up includes Stravinsky, Nielsen, Ives, Penderecki, and on Thursday Pasternack and the orchestra tackle Dimitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony.

After Pasternack and I learned we were neighbors in the same Seattle non-neighborhood we knew we had to get together to talk about music, his new recording and the UW Symphony.

Zach Carstensen: How did you land the LSO, Bartok and Brahms recording project?

Jonathan Pasternack: It’s a great question. When I was in Portland I was working for the Oregon Symphony. I was their staff conductor. That was the end of James DePriest’s time. He had a very generous donor who gave money for him to record whatever he wanted to record. His producer of choice was a guy named Michael Fine. I worked very closely with Michael. He got to see me conduct and he said when the time comes we have to do something together.

I followed up from time to time. I started doing more things in Europe. He helped me get private funding for this project. He did the introduction with London because it is an orchestra he recorded with.

ZC: But don’t you also have to convince Naxos?

JP: Yes. The first step was Naxos. We were talking about repertoire and if chose the right repertoire maybe Klaus [Heyman] will put it on Naxos. It was a huge list of repertoire because his ambition is to record everything.

I found some stuff I really wanted to do and I kept pitching things. Klaus kept saying things like “I promised that to Leonard Slatkin” or “Marin Alsop is doing this. Pasternack you should do something Eastern European.” I wanted to do Janacek but that was the Slatkin project.

Then I thought if Naxos is just putting this out and not paying for the recording then I should get to do whatever I want to do. This is my debut so I could pick something that is unknown but it didn’t just grab me.

I thought maybe this is your only recording ever, pick something and put your artistic stamp on it. Say something to the world. Brahms is the closest composer to my heart and Bartok is one of them too so I thought they would be an interesting match.

ZC: Why the pairing? What is it about Brahms’ First Symphony and Bartok the Miraculous Mandarian that make them complimentary or antagonistic disk mates?

JP: First of all, they are two of the most important composers ever for a variety of reasons. For the Bartok there isn’t a lot of heavy analysis in the literature on the piece, but I think it is a very symphonic work. When Bartok was developing his style one of his major influences was Brahms — also Wagner, also Stravinsky. Brahms was also strongly inspired by Hungarian music — this is very loose. They are both very energetic and very dramatic. These are two works I would be very comfortable putting on a concert program together.

ZC: Your take on them is much different. There is a lot of forward lean to the rhythms and they are crisper — especially in the Brahms. That style matches the Bartok.

JP: That is a very interesting point. Both of the pieces have incredible rhythmic vitality. My perspective on Brahms is just like my perspective on Beethoven is that if you want to get at the heart of the music you have to get at the rhythmic vitality and the rhythmic structure of the piece.

ZC: You are doing cool stuff at the UW too. You are conducting the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 this Thursday and a Haydn symphony. Is there anything else on the program?

JP: No I think that would have been too much.

ZC: You are doing the Penderecki Viola Concerto too.

JP: The Penderecki is on a program with the Pines of Rome. Don’t forget the Nielsen Fourth. Its on a program with Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto and Ives. For that concert I thought here are very unique compositional voices in the 20th Century from three very different places.

ZC: What process do you go through to get to a point of saying you want to put Nielsen on a program with Ives and Prokofiev?

JP: So I see Nielsen as a tonal pioneer and probably not given enough credit for really going in his own direction tonally. He is still using traditional idioms like the symphony but his use of modal harmonies, he just has a different take in how harmony is structured over a piece of music. Prokofiev also tonally has his own thing. I wanted to do a Nielsen symphony and I really wanted to do a violin concerto with Elisa Barston and this was the concert. She really wanted to do Prokofiev.

ZC: Do you think people spend too much time trying to read between the lines with Shostakovich and maybe not as much time enjoying the music for what it is and the fact that Shostakovich really was a genius composer of the 20th Century?

JP: Yeah, I think so. It is a little facile to call Mozart the child prodigy, Haydn the nice grandfather of the symphony, Brahms the gruff guy with a beard who had longings for Clara Schumann, and Shostakovich the would be pioneer who was put down by Stalin. It’s too easy to say those things.

Shostakovich describes the 11th Symphony as the most Mussorgskian of his works. It is an interesting thing to look at it through that lens. If you look at the opening, that gorgeous opening it sounds very churchy. It sounds like it is maybe from the deep dark Russian Orthodox music which is a place where Mussorgsky got a lot of his ideas and sound character.

Shostakovich has devices that he uses in all of his symphonies and the Eleventh is the one symphony where you are acutely aware of the devices that he is using.

ZC: Why do you think more people don’t like this symphony?

JP: I think people don’t necessarily know what to make of it. Maybe it hasn’t been passed down as a breakthrough piece. The Tenth was written the year Stalin died. I think the Eleventh is a more mature work for Shostakovich. Stalin is gone and although there is still the dictatorship he is freer. I also think his secretive, subtextual style in the Eleventh has finally reached a maturity where he could express these multiple layers of meaning.

ZC: I would think this is a hard symphony for a conductor and orchestra. You have this huge sound picture and if you aren’t careful it can fall apart and become really dull for the audience.

JP: This is the first I am conducting the piece. One of my mentors is Neemi Jarvi and he did a Shostakovich cycle and he has a certain approach to the large musical canvas, the lengthy music, which is very — I wouldn’t say fast paced — but well paced. The music doesn’t have to just sit there. He doesn’t believe in slow music. The pulse can be slow but it has to have some forward motion. Peter Eros used to say: “slow in music is not beautiful, slow is slow.” I agree with that.

Pacing is very hard in this piece. There are also some technical challenges in this piece too. Some very fast stuff. The tempos don’t function if you do them exactly as written. It just doesn’t work. You have to find the dramatic pacing that works.

ZC: Have the students taken to the piece pretty well?

JP: I think so. It’s a very tiring thing to play. I am not sure many of them have been able to look past that. The technical and emotional challenges that it poses too. It is a draining piece. In rehearsal we did one movement here one movement there, but when you put it together and you can only do it once and you are exhausted.

Jonathan Pasternack conducts Haydn, Symphony No. 92, “Oxford”and Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905” tomorrow, 7:30 PM, at Meany Theater on the UW Campus.

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