Gregor Tassie in conversation with conductor Constantin Trinks

The German conductor Constantin Trinks talks to Gregor Tassie

Constantin Trinks © Marco Borggreve

The Sofia Opera and Ballet company’s Wagner Festival staged seven operas during July this year; six of which including the Ring cycle were conducted by Constantin Trinks, over just six days! This workload would break many musicians, yet Trinks took it all in his stride despite the often-intensive heatwave which hit Bulgaria this summer – often temperatures were touching 37ºC outside. Despite all of this, he directed outstanding performances achieving the maximum results from his singers, chorus and musicians.

Constantin Trinks made his debut at Bayreuth (outside the main festival) with one of the less often performed stage works by Wagner – Das Liebesverbot and conducted Die fliegende Holländer at Dresden’s Semperoper in both in the 200th birth anniversary year (2013). Regarded as an outstanding Wagner interpreter, he undertook his first Ring cycle when he was the Musical Director at Darmstadt Opera Theatre in 2010, and regularly conducts all the Wagner stage works. He is an enthusiastic conductor of little-known music and has given the world premiere of Carl Orff’s Gisei, and conducted Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, and Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. Among his recordings is the rarely performed Symphony No.1 by Hans Rott ‘Live in Salzburg’, awarded ‘CD of the month’ by BBC and Echo 2017. Trink’s 2023-2024 season includes Stockholm Opera, Munich, Lyon, Naples, Oslo, and next year he will make his debut at Glyndebourne. During a gap in rehearsals, I spoke to Constantin in between his conducting of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal at Sofia Opera.

Gregor Tassie: How did you become a musician and conductor?

Constantin Trinks: My family is interested in music; my parents sang in church choirs or a gospel choir in Karlsruhe, while at home the radio was always on with classical music. My older sister played the piano, and I started to play the piano at the age of six, and then I heard The Magic Flute from a LP adaptation for children, and I was spellbound by the story and the music – afterwards there was a children’s performance in the theatre in Karlsruhe, and the next year I asked for a complete recording which was the old reference recording with Fritz Wunderlich and Karl Böhm. I can’t listen to Karl Böhm anymore in Mozart because it’s too slow and heavy, our understanding of the style has changed a lot since then.

At that time there was a series of short biographies of the most important composers on cassettes using actors like a radio play, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Handel, but there was also an episode of Wagner which had the effect of a flash of light for me when I was 10. From this moment I was captivated by Wagner and I tried to listen to as much as I could on the raido and recorded everything on cassettes. At every birthday or Christmas I got a new recording and soon I had all of Wagner’s operas. The first of his operas I saw in a performance was Lohengrin which attracted me because of its mysticism, and the spherical harmonies with the divided violins still amazes me. Last year I conducted Lohengrin again and I think the first act prelude is one of the best pieces that Wagner ever wrote, it’s a perfect piece of music.

GT : When did you make the step to become a conductor?

CT: My attraction to Wagner was also a general fascination with opera so at the age of 11 I started to go to the opera every weekend, usually twice, sometimes with my parents, or with my friends – the more mature ones! I saw everything, not so much Wagner, but I was absolutely in love with the theatre and with opera.

After having played the piano for several years the piano, as well as the French horn at the age of 13, I made the decision to become a conductor. I am happy to say that I have turned my passion into my profession.

GT: You mentioned Karl Böhm, were there any other conductors that you liked to listen to?

CT: For Wagner, it was definitely Furtwängler in his recordings of Tristan and the Ring, but I am not a great fan of Toscanini, too fast and too clean in a way, not my cup of tea [laughs], Carlos Kleiber of course, is like a God to me. When I was a teenager I got a record of Celibidache and he is one of my favourites, especially when he conducts Bruckner. My teacher Wolf-Dieter Hauschild was from the German kapellmeister tradition, and he was very interested in historic performance practice and recommended his students to read the books by Harnoncourt (Musik als Klangrede: Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis), and I discovered a new music world, so Harnoncourt is a major inspiration. I only met him once but reading his books, listening to his interviews and concert recordings is a big influence.

GT: You mentioned Bruckner – are you interested in symphonic music?

CT: Of course, I am, I wished that my repertoire is more balanced. I had two conducting positions in Saarbrϋcken and in Darmstadt and at that time I conducted both opera and concerts, and still now as a freelance conductor I conduct both opera and symphonic repertoire. This season and next season it is very much based on opera but sometimes it has been 50/50. In the future I would like to do more symphonic music and a bit less opera. I have a fairly wide repertoire from the baroque to contemporary music. In opera my main focus is Mozart, Richard Strauss and Wagner while in symphonic music my focus is Beethoven, Schubert, Robert Schumann, Bruckner and Mahler. I am more a Brucknerian [laughs]. I like the Slavic music school a lot, Tchaikovsky and the Czech school of Dvořák and Janáček. Also I did a wonderful opera Schwanda the Bagpiper by Weinberger [recorded with the Dresden Staatskapelle on Profil].

GT: Over the years, conductors like Mravinsky, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Karajan, Solti, Haitink worked with a single orchestra for decades and now conductors seem to have as many as 2 or 3 orchestras worldwide. It seems to me that one can make a lot of money and have a fanbase worldwide, but isn’t the music quality affected? The tonal quality of most orchestras seem to share the same universal sound. Only a few orchestras such as in Dresden, Berlin or Prague have preserved their tonal quality.

CT: The Vienna Philharmonic keeps its true tone, too! I would say for me it might be too stressful as a conductor to have 2 or 3 orchestras on different continents. I think that you can develop a great deal with your own orchestra. In fact my hope in the near future is to have a symphony orchestra because I want to develop my symphonic signature.

GT: In Glasgow we have a conductor Thomas Søndergård who has developed a much-improved tone quality, and this has enhanced the reviews and the audiences have gone up. In general the orchestra gets better.

CT: I think that our lives have a different tempo, from the pace of 50 years ago and it’s for the orchestra to decide if it is to work for a long time with the same person – I don’t think there is the same patience anymore. Being with the orchestra for a very long time is like a marriage and one has to solve similar conflicts in the orchestra.

GT: Do you think musicians have too much power?

CT: Well, I don’t think so in those words, but I think it’s much better to be partners rather than slaves to dictators as it was under Toscanini and Fritz Reiner – he was a very impressive conductor but thank God times have changed. I think music should be like chamber music so as to develop some things together in our love for the music. If there are conflicts the most important thing is to talk about it and avoid campaigns or intrigues. Always when I come to Sofia, they were very happy and they work very hard. The first time I came here in 2015 everything was very new, but now we have a wonderful relationship, and they understand my ideas and the style of Wagner’s music so much better.

Constantin Trinks

GT: There are only 74 players in the orchestra, I don’t know if it is a problem with money, but I know that if you do a performance in the UK, you simply book more players. Is it a specific problem here?

CT: It’s simply the size of the pit, the space is too small to accommodate more musicians. One could accommodate the original number of woodwind and brass, but only at the expense of the number of strings. However, the result would then be very unsatisfactory, because the proportion between the strings and the wind instruments would be totally unbalanced.

GT:  What do you think about modern opera productions?

CT: I think theatre and opera always has to tell us something, so opera productions have to be modern in a way. But in Germany, for example, there is always the expectation from the press that the stage director – whether for theatre or opera – has to bring something ‘absolutely new’ to the stage. This cannot work well in every case.

GT: Do you think it is good for opera directors to create controversy?

CT: I think trying to do something different for its own sake is not a good approach. Works of art only exist on paper at first, scores are like a blueprint that needs to be brought to life. You always have to treat them with respect. I often listen to recordings of colleagues from the past, but the most important thing is to have a dialogue with the score yourself and thus find your own reading.

GT: Of the current conductors, which do you most admire?

CT: Thielemann definitely in this repertoire. I also like Antonio Pappano very much. There is no real consensus today on the performance style of late romantic music, although there are clear guidelines, in my opinion. When I conduct Bruckner or Wagner, I feel like there are certain parameters that are critical to that particular style. Each era has its own distinct style, and one can read musicological books on how to perform Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical music. But after Berlioz that changed completely.

I believe this has to do with the French Revolution era, when hierarchies were leveled, and equality prevailed as an ideal. Now if I perform Bach or Mozart according to this ‘ideal of equality’ they sound terrible. In the late romantic style, this equality – the legato, the sostenuto playing – is absolutely necessary and of stylistic importance.

On the other hand, when Wagner is performed in a ‘baroque’ manner, his long, endless phrases break down.

Never before in the history of music have orchestras played music from so many different eras and in so many different styles as they do today. This is a great challenge for all musicians, conductors included, trying to do justice to each style.

GT: How do you find the standard of the orchestra here?

CT: I first came here eight years ago; they struggled a lot with the proper sound. Today the sound is a much richer and bigger one. Now they sound like a real Wagner orchestra! All sections have found the right sound quality, the horn group for instance is really excellent.

GT: There is a great singing tradition here in Bulgaria, but why do we hear so little about their conductors, violinists or pianists? Is there no tradition in these musical specialists?

CT: I cannot tell for sure, of course. I know the tradition of music education during Soviet times was excellent and today it is still very good. I think that unfortunately many excellent Bulgarian musicians leave the country for money. Here in Bulgaria the salary is not very high, so if you are a brilliant violinist you had better go to the west [laughs] and play in an orchestra in Germany or wherever.

GT: Every year we have orchestras who tour the UK which come from all over Europe; in the last season we had orchestras from Estonia, Armenia, the Baltic states and Iceland, but I have never heard an orchestra from Bulgaria – it would seem that the Bulgarian orchestras are not so good.

CT: If we could help to bring more excellent conductors to the orchestras, but money is an issue [laughs] in our life.

GT: How do you like Plamen Kartaloff as a director? I find his original productions very interesting, even the Ring of ten years ago with its spectacular cosmic staging, and the present one especially in which he has the Valkyries on red horses in Die Walküre.

CT: Oh, it is a pleasure coming here, I think he is amazing, he is a visionary, thanks to him, one can now say that there is a Wagner tradition here. He fought against great obstacles, regarding money and to believe in his own ideas, to believe in his singers and that they can make it especially those who have never sung in German or in a Wagner opera, suddenly to sing these five-hour works is really a challenge and still is a challenge after so many years. I admire him for his courage and his ideas, his courage remains, sometimes I wonder if the singers are in the right balance, would you say the balance is OK? Acoustically?

GT: I sit in the stalls and its fine, I also spoke to colleagues upstairs in the grand circle and they all said the sound is clear with voices heard perfectly from the back of the stage.

CT: Yes, I like working here, the only problem is that the opera here works on a short-term plan and my diary is already full when he phones me to ask me to come for a certain project. But I definitely like to return on a regular basis. Maybe it was an exception to conduct six operas within just a few weeks. Tomorrow when we play Parsifal it’s the opening for Bayreuth too with Parsifal, I hope it goes as well as the previous performances because this title is the least rehearsed one. Owing to technical problems we had to do the general rehearsal already eight days ago. Tomorrow it’s going to be a really hot day I think. In the pit we have ventilation but no real air conditioning, so it is not easy for the musicians and for those seated under the stage. But thanks to the fantastic commitment of all the musicians, I’m sure everything is going to be fine.

GT: Thank you for your time and I look forward to tomorrow’s performance and wish you well in the forthcoming season.

My reviews of Constantin Trinks conducting at the Sofia Wagner Festival in July 2023  are here: Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal and Götterdämmerung.

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