(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

07 Nov 2021

Interview with Anna Handler

25-year-old Anna Handler is currently studying conducting at New York’s Juilliard School and is assisting Kirill Petrenko here in Baden-Baden with rehearsals and performances of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa. We talked to her about off-stage music, her love of the Russian language and a special gift.

What exactly does the assistant to the chief conductor do?

I constantly check the balance between the orchestra, the choir and the singers from the auditorium, from the listener’s perspective. My duties also include conducting the off-stage music. The wind players stand behind the stage or in the gallery and I watch Mr Petrenko via a monitor so that we can get the music from behind the stage to sound in time. It’s not easy, and it’s not a situation you can simulate in your studies.

How did you prepare for the work?

I started by looking at the plot and the vocal parts. For this opera, Tchaikovsky took his inspiration from Alexander Pushkin’s poem Poltava, which tells the story of the Cossack hetman Mazeppa. In 1709, he fought alongside the Swedes against the Russian Tsar in Poltava in what is now Ukraine – and lost. Tchaikovsky transposed Mazeppa’s story and emotional world into sound.

Can you explain that in more detail?

I am fascinated by how Tchaikovsky turned Pushkin’s words into music: what words were particularly important to him? What instruments did he set them to music with? Or what words did he highlight musically? That’s what makes studying a score like this particularly interesting.

So you worked very much from the text?

The intensive study of the text helped me to internalise the piece in a short time. I also had help from native Russian speakers to understand the exact meaning of the text. I can read Cyrillic, but it was still a challenge for me to understand every word and to master the pronunciation. Some of the terms and phrases are also very poetic, it’s kind of like trying to translate Goethe with Google.  In the end, it allowed me to immerse myself much more deeply in the work.

Do you have a favourite part?

The beginning of the third act, the Battle of Poltava, depicts the battle between the Swedes and the Russians. Here the orchestra plays alone and in a highly virtuoso manner. After the battle music, we hear a majestic hymn to the Russian army. This is followed by a chorale taken from Russian Orthodox church singing. I imagine that the Russians retreat at this point, reflect and pray. It is a very special pleasure for me to explore another culture, another mentality, in this way. And I must confess I was already in love with the Russian language before, so I am very grateful for the chance to be able to work on this music.

What is it like working with the Berliner Philharmoniker?

I am so happy to be part of a major production where everything is performed with the utmost perfection and you get a sense as a young person of what it means to work at this level. I am at the beginning of what will still be a long journey in the music world. But to get a glimpse into the world of the Berliner Philharmoniker, to be allowed to have a little taste of it, is a great honour.

Don’t miss it!

We present Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa in Baden-Baden on 10 and 12 November. Get your tickets here. The programme will also be performed on 14 November 2021 at the Philharmonie Berlin and broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall. Buy tickets

Photos: Monika Rittershaus