Xi'an: Fischer and the Warriors
The day after leading the National Symphony Orchestra in a concert attended by the political elite in the dusty mid-sized city of Xi’an, China – “mid-sized,” in China, meaning 8.4 million or so – Ivan Fischer, the NSO's interim chief conductor, is surveying a mound of terra cotta shards in a hangar-like enclosure about an hour from town.
“They should leave them like that,” he says.
The terra cotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang are one of the world’s marvels. What they don’t tell you before you come is that the warriors, when first excavated (several thousand of them since they were discovered in 1974), are lying in a heap of fragments that have to be painstakingly reassembled. Is such reconstruction authentic? Is what we are seeing “real?” It’s this that Fischer is addressing when he stands by one of the excavation sites and says it might be preferable to let people see the warriors as they actually exist when they are found, before they are rebuilt.
And it’s this kind of question that he’s addressing when he talks about ways to present works of the past so that they come alive for audiences of the present.
“I am very concerned about the future of the symphony orchestra,” he says, sitting in a little coffee house on the hot, dry grounds of the excavation site, while the orchestra members mill around exploring the three huge pits where the warriors are found.
(read more after the jump)
Orchestras, Fischer says, are too inflexible. The instrumentation hasn't fundamentally changed for 120 years. But in seeking a radical new model, he seems to be looking more to the old than the new. He doesn't talk much about new music, though he observes that Daniel Kellogg's piece "Western Skies," which the NSO is playing on several of its Asia programs, may have been a fitting piece to bring to China since it is about sound and color rather than narrative or dramatic development: good, perhaps, for a new audience who may be listening more to what the music sounds like than to what it is doing. And he mentions some of the new new-music ensembles that combine different musical influences with the classical tradition.
As far as his own concrete ideas for change: "I am not ready yet to say," he says. But what he talks about with most animation are early-music ensembles, like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who will join him next season in New York for half of a Beethoven cycle (the Budapest Festival Orchestra will play the other half). He's intrigued by the idea that a conventional symphony orchestra may be ready, conceptually, to join forces with an early music group in some way (as he mentioned in an earlier interview). And he observes that early-music performance has come so far that, where once performers were primarily concerned with returning to some idea of what the composer originally heard or intended, many performers are now more concerned about establishing a communicative relationship with the audience -- which may actually be closer to the spirit of how the music originally functioned.
What, after all, is "authentic"? What is this music trying to do? The warriors of Xi'an have it both ways. Hundreds of them stand reconstructed, facing a visitor with implacable serenity, every face individually shaped; hundreds more lie in pieces in the pits in just the form that they were found. There isn't a single right answer. But Ivan Fischer appears keenly aware, at the moment, of the complexity of the jigsaw puzzle of possibilities that faces him.
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