On Hunting and Gathering

Thomas Larcher in portrait

Thomas Larcher
(Photo: Richard Haughton)

Thomas Larcher is one of the most important composers of our time. In December the Berliner Philharmoniker present the German premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Introducing an artist who cannot be pigeonholed.

When the sun shines, he cannot stay indoors. Thomas Larcher must go out into the open air, on foot or on his bicycle. “I find it very important to get fresh air outdoors, because I sit so much otherwise,” says the composer. Admittedly, he also lives in a beautiful setting, in the Inn valley of Tyrol in the city of Schwaz, at the foot of a 2,300-metre high mountain, the Kellerjoch.

Larcher’s primary working time is the evening; then he has the inner tranquillity to examine and sort out the sounds he has gathered during his excursions – and, ideally, to transform them into compositions. As in his new Piano Concerto, the German premiere of which the Berliner Philharmoniker will present in early December with conductor Semyon Bychkov and pianist Kirill Gerstein.

A fascinating, nature-like atmosphere unfolds during the first few minutes; you think you hear frogs in the reeds and birdcalls. Gong, bells and accordion are combined with the traditional instruments of the symphony orchestra, the solo violin sings romantically.

This opening is multicoloured and delicate; the soloist is completely integrated into the orchestra’s natural atmosphere at first, until he soars to his first virtuosic passage after eight minutes. “I wanted to organize the beginning so that it is not formally structured like a conventional piano concerto at all,” explains the 58-year-old Austrian. He is not trying to provoke the audience, however, to intentionally offend bourgeois listening habits. Rather, the point is simply to create a musical flow that develops organically.

“I completely discarded the imperative of disturbance that contemporary art is supposed to trigger.”

In the contrast dramaturgy of the traditional solo concerto, the virtuoso and the orchestra are constantly in a competition; in Thomas Larcher’s work, on the other hand, they are partners for three movements and 35 minutes. “I completely discarded the imperative of disturbance that contemporary art is supposed to trigger,” he says. “That’s not my criterion. I want to reach people, I want my music to be heard.”

When new music is involved – new music with a capital “N”, which is celebrated at avant-garde festivals – Thomas Larcher expresses his opposition. “So much is made impossible because of pressure to always be new,” he finds, “since with this attitude I spoil my chances of searching in something that already exists, of recombining, of discovering today’s world using supposedly outdated methods.”

Larcher has practical experience; he began his musical career as a pianist and later demonstrated his talent in arts management as founder of the Klangspuren Schwaz Festival. As a composer, he does not plan revolutions from an ivory tower, he is not subversive to the system; he does not want to sweep away the entire history of music and create his own universe in which the listener must learn a complex set of rules.

His path is different: he draws inspiration “from what was already there”; as a “hunter and gatherer”, he takes up ideas that he gets from musicians, instrument makers or sound engineers. “I am one part of the musical composition,” is Larcher’s philosophy. “And that is also why I prefer to waken the mirror neurons with musicians who play in the traditional concert sector and want to be met by a composer where they know their way around.”

“No, I’m sorry, that is not a simulation. That is tonal music.”

This rootedness in tradition can cause confusion. People would often say to him: “There is this interesting play with ostensible tonality in your music,” he says. His answer is always: “No, I’m sorry, that is not a simulation. That is tonal music.” The detached view of the past, the ironically intended quotation, with overtones of the arrogance of someone who knows better in the meantime, doesn’t appeal to him: “I simply have no use for this meta-sarcasm.”

Although it deeply pains Thomas Larcher that new music circles have remained closed to him, he cannot complain about a lack of success. For example, his Piano Concerto was commissioned by seven ensembles and institutions from seven different countries. The initiative came from two classical music stars, Semyon Bychkov and Kirill Gerstein. They asked Larcher for a work that they could premiere with the Prague Philharmonic in the Czech capital and at Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

That was not possible, however, because at the scheduled time in April of this year, the local hygiene protocols stipulated such a large distance between the musicians that the orchestra could not be accommodated on the stage. The same was true at the London Proms.

Thus, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw had the honour of presenting the premiere. Although no audience could be present in the hall at the Saturday matinee on 22 May, the composer was happy that this date was not cancelled as well. He still hadn’t gotten over an experience during the first lockdown, when all theatres were ordered to close just two days before the premiere of his opera Das Jagdgewehr (The Hunting Gun) in Amsterdam.

Now it’s time to cross his fingers for the scheduled dates in Bergen, Norway, and Copenhagen. But the composer is looking forward to the German premiere by the Berliner Philharmoniker with particular anticipation. “During my time at the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study), I was able to hear the orchestra musicians very often during rehearsals and also at concerts,” he recalls.

“Their work ethic impressed me tremendously, their incredible precision, their commitment, combined with this space in the Philharmonie that is so harmonious for me, in which music is the centrepiece, and prestige is not as important as it is in historical concert houses.”

He already had many contacts with the orchestra during his time as a pianist, in chamber music projects, including with the principal flutist Emmanuel Pahud and with the Scharoun Ensemble. And he has known general manager Andrea Zietzschmann since the early days of her career, with the then newly founded Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

”I act as my own catalyst.”

When Thomas Larcher sits down in front of a blank sheet of manuscript paper, the creative work begins with a “process of filtering out”. Drawing up a blueprint for the new work, a framework that he then only has to fill with musical content, doesn’t appeal to him: “A lot of my work is based on existing ideas, scribbled notes or elements from unsuccessful piano works that can still be used. I act as my own catalyst.”

He follows the trial-and-error method when composing, attempts to maintain an overview and, at the same time, to be consistent in the details. Which results in ongoing corrections – and going through an enormous number of erasers, since Larcher’s work is radically analog, with pencil and paper.

When a work is finished, he throws away as much of the sketch material as possible – “otherwise I only keep rummaging around in the old stuff” – and turns the manuscript over to his publisher. Only there, at Schott in London, is the digital form of the score produced that is necessary for printing.

The “coherence”, which is a key concept for Thomas Larcher, applies to three levels: it must feel “right” to him, but he always has the audience and the performers in mind as well. “I want the musicians to feel that I am taking them seriously. I want to encourage them to apply their creativity, make them feel that they are not being used as machines, that each of them has an important part within the score that is woven into the cosmos of the work and therefore cannot simply be written differently”.

Releasing a new composition for the world premiere is almost always easy for Thomas Larcher, by the way. “There is a longing in me to leave the work behind me in order to be able to go on, into the open air, to something new.”

Frederik Hanssen

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