Jan Michael Horstmann was born in Frankfurt am Main, son of the actor Malte Horstmann and the dancer Dagmar Horstmann. His early education included studies in piano, clarinet and music theory, and he pursued conducting studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg with Prof. Klauspeter Seibel and Irving Beckmann. He has served as Deputy chief conductor at Theater der Landehauptstadt Magdeburg, and conductor of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. He makes frequent appearances as Guest Conductor with various national and international orchestras and theaters, and also as a pianist for chamber concerts and lied recitals. Since March 2004 he has been Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of Mittelsächsische Philharmonie Freiberg, and in this capacity plans to present several of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s works over the coming seasons.
The following interview with him was conducted by Troy Dixon near the end of October 2005 and first posted in November 2005.
Q: How did you first discover Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his music?
At the age of fifteen, I heard about a wonderful production of “Die tote Stadt” at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf. I went to see it and was so overwhelmed by this unique and colorful language, by the theatrical power and wonderful melodies, and by the richness of the orchestration that I watched this piece about five or six times.
Q: Did your experiences with “Die tote Stadt” (and Korngold’s music in general) influence your music studies or career decisions?
My career decisions were already fixed by that time, but I learned much about the time of “Jugendstil”, and about composers like Zemlinsky and Schreker. I was so fascinated by Korngold’s opera that I wanted to know more about music from that time, and understand why I did not know about it before.
Yet at that time, Korngold was surrounded by emerging atonalism, twelve-tone music, and other post-romantic, twentieth century music styles, which seem opposite to his own late-romantic approach.
Q: How would understanding the music of Korngold’s contemporaries help you understand his own music better? Wouldn’t this contextual issue present a problem for audiences trying to place Korngold in his time-period?
Not at all. On the one hand you can see the same musical roots from his time in Vienna, such as comparing Schönberg’s “Pelleas” or his “Verklärte Nacht” with Korngold’s Sinfonietta op.5 and the String Sextet. So it is interesting to trace their developments to see how differently they continued in their ways. Just as in the world of dance, to give an example, the same roots are present in works of John Neumeier and Pina Bausch from the early seventies, and yet there could be no greater difference between their later ways of working. On the other hand, isn’t it admirable how Korngold kept his own remarkable, typical style in this time of newly emerging musical styles around the world – Webern here, Stravinsky there, Ives on the other side?!
Q: What attracted you to his music that makes you want to promote it in your concerts?
In my concert programs I always try to relate well-known music to music that is well worth playing and hearing, but not in the repertoire. My concerts always have themes, with connections between the different pieces. So in a concert called “Wunderkinder” I set on the program the second symphony of the young Mozart, a piano concerto by Mendelssohn and the Korngold “Sinfonietta” (op. 5) that he wrote at the age of 13 – three gifted child composers. I think Korngold’s music is the best you can choose if you want to convince the audience from a small town like ours that unknown composers are worth being discovered.
Q: Why do you think Korngold’s music is a good starting place to introduce audiences to unknown composers?
In the past, every time I performed music by Korngold, members of the audience came to me afterwards asking how it could be possible that they never heard of a composer like him. The audience always trusts names they already know. So in order to convince them that there is something besides Brahms and Beethoven, I always try to combine well-known pieces – which draw the audiences to the theater – with pieces like Korngold’s to astonish them. And the music of Korngold is so colorful, and speaks so directly to the heart and all the senses of the listener, that hardly anyone can help but fall in love with it.
Q: Do you think Korngold’s association with Hollywood will have the same “negative” impressions today – as it did toward the end of his life – for German audiences who are just now discovering his music?
I think just the opposite. I once opened a concert of film scores with the Suite from “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, and everyone loved it and said it was good and also worthwhile to include this side of Korngold in his oeuvre. And, what I think is important, a bit similar to Kurt Weill, Korngold never denied his roots when writing film scores. Once when I conducted a concert in Bonn, I came to the hotel after a rehearsal and flipped through the TV. Suddenly I heard some film music, and even before I could see Errol Flynn smiling with his small beard I knew it must be “Robin Hood”. Korngold’s film scores are so much richer and more colorful than others!
Q: What do you hope audiences take away with them after hearing your performances of Korngold’s music?
I hope the audience at least takes away a new name of an unknown composer in relation to the experience of listening to this wonderful music. In the best situations they would write me to ask for more performances of his music, as it happened here already in Freiberg and Döbeln.
Q: What piece of Korngold’s do you personally enjoy most and why?
I think I enjoy “Die tote Stadt” most, because I am at home in the theatre (both parents worked on stage) and the combination of musical language and dramatic sense is incredible in this piece. It is a big dream of mine to conduct it, someday!!
Q: Were you able to see the recent production of “Die tote Stadt” at the Salzburg Festival? I would be curious to know how it compares to the first performance you saw 20 years ago.
Unfortunately I could not see “Die tote Stadt” at Salzburg. My greatest dream is, of course, to conduct this marvelous opera myself. I am always working very closely with directors and set designers, and I think “Die tote Stadt” is a good piece to collaborate on and create some “Gesamtkunstwerk”.
Q: You have performed some of Korngold’s chamber works, and conducted some of his orchestral works – do you have a special approach to performing or conducting Korngold’s music?
I love to work with an orchestra (and with singers, too) on different colours, and a big spectrum of dynamics, what we call in German “Wechselbad der Gefühle”. And Korngold’s music is full of these ups and downs, colours and emotions.
Q: What do modern musicians and audiences owe to the music of Korngold, especially having been “forgotten” for so long?
Musicians owe it to composers like Korngold to perform their music, to study it and play it with the same love and respect as they do Brahms and Beethoven, and to set their works in a good context, for example in great symphony concert programs together with works of well-known composers to show the world that there are real masterworks yet to be discovered. And the audiences must listen with open ears to these works; with a curiosity to discover new aspects of a world most of them probably believed they knew already.
Q: Regarding your plans for programming Korngold in future concerts, is there anything you would like to say?
I am very happy to have just recently presented the Symphony in F-sharp in a symphony concert on the one hand, and shortly to give a portrait concert of Korngold where I will give the audience an impression of his life, his circumstances and his style, to make them enjoy this wonderful music, to think about it and reflect how such music could disappear for so long a time.
Interview :Troy Dixon (23 Okt 2005)
Originally posted November 2005 — reformatted April 2012