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Leon Botstein Interview—Martinů’s Opera “Julietta” at Carnegie Hall

American Symphony Orchestra: The Key of Dreams

Leon Botstein, music director

March 22, 2019


Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů

For decades, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have consistently put on the most innovative and exciting classical-music programming in New York. Usually thematic in nature—the ASO’s first concert this season in October, A Walt Whitman Sampler, featured a rare live performance of Vaughan Williams’ expansive A Sea Symphony—the annual slate also features an annual performance of an obscure opera, usually from the 20th century and often overdue to be heard by audiences.


Last season was Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, an unabashedly modernist and explicitly socialist work rarely presented in New York (or anywhere else, for that matter). On March 22 at Carnegie Hall, Botstein and the ASO present Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta, which many consider his operatic masterpiece. Botstein recently discussed Martinů, choosing operas to resurrect and what’s coming in a few months at his other job, running the annual Bard Music Festival, which looks at the musical world of a single composer each summer.


Kevin Filipski: With so many worthy but underheard 20th century composers from which to choose, how did you pick Martinů?

Leon Botstein: First of all, it’s the quality of the composer, the significance of the composer and the consistency of his music. Over the years, interest in Martinů has grown. There are the orchestral works, of course, and he was an avid opera composer. Two of his operas stand out: his last, The Greek Passion, and Julietta, which is considered his finest opera, a real masterpiece. The more you look into it, the more you see how unusual it is. I like to think of Julietta as a psychoanalytic opera, with extremely innovative use of speech and music, and melodrama and dialogue. It’s really a fantastic piece. I didn’t really know much of its performance history, and it’s never been done in the U.S.

Sara Jakubiak sings the title role of Julietta 
(photo: Ashley Plante)


KF: Julietta was originally done in French. Why perform it in Martinů’s original language, Czech?

LB: This is a long back-and-forth. If I remember correctly, I retranslated it from French into Czech. The original story and novel are French. A Martinů scholar has done a new critical edition for the Czech version. Given its performance history and Martinů’s own relationship to the Czech language, he was quite like Janáček, who believed that the actual sound of the language was a crucial element. In Martinů’s case, it’s his own revision of the original version: if you will, an analogy might be made between Beethoven’s Fidelio and LeonoreFidelio is what we play on the stage, but it’s Beethoven’s distillation of his complete work on this project. The Czech Julietta appears to have the same status. There’s a feeling that Czech is sonically more effective and that this version is the final statement by the composer.


KF: I know you have a list of many worthy operas you’d like to perform. Can you explain your process of choosing them?

LB: This opera was definitely on my list. There’s a whole fantastic repertoire of Czech opera, and two Smetana operas have always been on my list: Dalibor and Two Widows. In Martinů’s case, Julietta and The Greek Passion, as I said earlier, have been on the list of operas that need a fresh look and a fresh hearing. Julietta has been on my mind for awhile: in the 90s, I had the honor of working with Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, for whom Martinů wrote his piano concertos. He was a good friend of Martinů and lent me his own score of Martinů’s piano concertos and encouraged me to look into more of his music. For many of us, Martinů was a name but just in a general sense, not for any specific work. There was a tremendous output—he was tremendously prolific—but not anything that was so far in view that you could follow the trail, like Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for example. When I was preparing for the Dvořák Bard Music Festival (1993), I stumbled on a whole bunch of names that I didn’t know anything about, including Suk and Martinů. Suddenly a whole Czech tradition opened up in the 19th and 20th century. My first encounter with Martinů was with the symphonic music: a few seasons ago I conducted his sixth symphony. 

Leon Botstein (photo: Ric Kallaher)


KF: Speaking of the Bard Music Festival, what’s on tap for this summer?

LB: This summer is Korngold, which will be fascinating, because he’s somebody who had 2-1/2 careers. He was an opera and chamber music composer before the mid-1930s, and he was also a phenomenal prodigy. Die Tote Stadt, which we’re doing a concert performance of, was one of the most highly performed operas in the early 1920s. He was a sensation, and his serious opera is Das Wunder der Heliane, which we will perform in a staged version. So we’ll look at Korngold’s career, and in the process, we’ll also hear how he was engaged in operetta along with his contemporaries. We’ll show how he took music he wrote for movies and turned it into concert music, because he really didn’t make a big distinction between them. And we’ll do a serious sampling of his orchestral and instrumental output. 


KF: In this fragmented culture, how does serious music stay relevant for audiences?

LB: There are essentially two pillars of our art forum that seem to do well. First, it’s the new: new work, new names on the scene and premieres; in that category I would put new artists like pianists, violinists and conductors. So in that sense it’s a new performer and new composer-based structure. Then there’s the standard repertory, what I would call a Ferris wheel, which goes around and around. We’ll see a lot of it in the Beethoven year (2020 is the 250th anniversary of his birth) and it changes almost not at all. What’s vanished completely is the third absolutely essential pillar, maintaining the vitality of the rich history of this art form, which is what we do with Bard and the ASO It’s the hardest thing to bring across. We’re in the business of engendering curiosity, not having an aesthetic war of, say, tonal vs. atonal. That kind of nonsense is no longer relevant. What is relevant is to get listeners to hear music with a sense of curiosity and not nervousness if they don’t recognize something. You have to build trust with the audience, which is what we are doing with Bard and the ASO.


American Symphony Orchestra: The Key of Dreams

Carnegie Hall

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