Aleksandar Marković about his relationship and work with Sinfonia Varsovia

The interview was conducted on 12 February. After the Russian invasion on Ukraine the organizers have decided to change the program of the orchestra’s Anniversary Concert: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 will be replaced by Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. Martín García García’s interpretation of this piece brought him the third prize at the last International Chopin Piano Competition.

Róża Światczyńska, Polish Radio: Maestro, you were born in Belgrade, studied the piano in the United States, but the beginnings of your professional career have been rooted in Vienna in the class of the famous Austrian conductor, Leopold Hager. What persuaded you to become a conductor rather than a musician?

Aleksandar Marković: I decided to study conducting when I was only 15, because of my love of the repertoire, great symphonic works, and opera. I knew I had to become a conductor to perform it. Music has been very important and always present in my home since I can remember. My father is a professional musician, my mother is very musical. I learned to play piano as a child and went on to study it in the United States. However, later I chose Vienna as the best place to study conducting. I was accepted to the class of Leopold Hager so I was in an international environment which enabled my further artistic development. Vienna gave me also a chance to listen to many eminent musicians and get to know the repertoire. We used to have lectures during the day and in the evenings we would go to the Musikverein or to the Opera, where my professor used to conduct quite often.

It has been almost 20 years since you won the International Grzegorz Fitelberg Competition for Conductors. How important did it turn out for your future and what were the turning points of your career after that point?

There have been several milestones in my career since the competition. I set myself some goals to meet before I turn 30, like winning a major competition, having my own agent, and taking up my first important position. All of these goals have been achieved.

Shortly after receiving my master’s diploma in Vienna, I made my professional debut at the Musikverein and a few months later I won the Fitelberg Competition. It all happened at the right moment: the first prize boosted my self-confidence as an artist and set me on the right track.

After the competition I worked in Poland for a short time, but I soon entered an open competition for the post of the chief conductor of the Innsbruck Opera. I was selected from some 150 candidates. The three years that I spent at the Tyrolean theatre were very important for my musical development.

After I had left Innsbruck, I was offered the position of Music Director at the Brno Philharmonic after my very first concert! It was another beautiful step in my career. I felt full of enthusiasm and a sense of acceptance from the musicians who wanted to work with me simply for my musical merits. I was also fortunate to have worked with a lot of prestigious ensembles all around Europe and in the Far and Middle East. Two years ago, I made my debut in the United States.

This September, you are to be appointed the principal guest conductor of Sinfonia Varsovia. How did your collaboration start?

I have always admired Sinfonia Varsovia for the incredible brand it has made for itself. It has been known in musical circles as one of the most active, excellent, and flexible ensembles. It is truly a special orchestra. I listened to these musicians before in Vienna, so I knew how they could sound. It made my first encounter with them even more exciting. It was during the Folle Journée Festival in Warsaw that I had a chance to conduct the orchestra for the first time. Two concerts with two different programs on the very same day. This was a big challenge as the repertoire of both concerts was very wide, ranging from the Scheherazade by Rimski-Korsakov, through Polish contemporary music, up to the accompaniment for the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and Caprice Basque by Sarasate.

Overall, it was a very colorfully arranged program that not only gave me a chance to get to know the orchestra’s abilities through performing those varied works, but also surprised me with the speed with which the musicians were able to move through them. I will never forget the moment when I raised the baton for the first time. The tone the musicians produced from the very first sounds of the Scheherazade was noble and cultivated. First the trombones, then the woodwinds and the solo violin came… Suddenly, I realized I was among real greats! From that moment on I fell in love with Sinfonia Varsovia. It was a very intense experience from the very start.

Some say that the first 5 minutes are crucial for the communication between the conductor and the orchestra. That’s when the relationship between the musicians is going to be established. When did you feel there was a good rapport between you and the orchestra?

You know, as a conductor you cannot do anything without the players. So, the most important thing is to convince them to play and give their best. I believe this is the only way to make real music. I think we came to a mutual understanding with the Sinfonia Varsovia very quickly, which allowed us to make music almost immediately. Yet this chemistry must come from both sides, only then can you co-create and shape the performed program. The crucial thing about the relationship of the conductor and the orchestra is mutual trust and respect. Both sides must have confidence in each other to be able to rely on each other and to give the work their 150 percent unconditionally.

I remember fondly the final concert of the Sinfonia Varsovia To Its City Festival – your second meeting with the orchestra, an evening with the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Chopin, with Szymon Nehring at the piano. What are your impressions from that performance?

For me, it was an extremely emotional event. I first met Maestro Penderecki back in my Innsbruck days. He came there as a guest conductor and conducted his own Fourth Symphony alongside Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Then we went for lunch and talked about his music, his way of composing, his daily routine. It was a very valuable experience to have met such a great contemporary artist.

When I was invited to conduct the Sinfonia Varsovia in March 2020, we decided to perform The Dream of Jacob by Penderecki. On this occasion I prepared this piece for the very first time. However, on the day of my travel to Poland, when I was just about to leave for the airport, I got a call from Sinfonia Varsovia that the concert has been cancelled because of the pandemic. A few weeks later Maestro Penderecki died. I was devastated to have missed the chance to perform his music in his presence. Conducting his Chaconne at the concert in 2021 was a very personal statement of my regret of an encounter that had not taken place. The concert was a tribute commemorating the late composer.

Working with Szymon Nehring was also fantastic. I remember vividly how the musicians responded to all his nuances and his rubato. It was one of my best accompaniments – Sinfonia Varsovia followed every single passage and every gesture of the soloist. And then came Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. I felt something very important was about to happen between Sinfonia Varsovia and me. This is probably when our long-lasting collaboration began in spirit. The performance added an exceptional dimension to that moment and the whole meeting was one of the turning points in my career.

Recently you have conducted the final concert of the Witold Lutosławski “Chain” Festival. The program included 20th century Polish music. I know you are passionate about contemporary music. Were you aware of these compositions prior to the festival?

I strongly believe that Polish works from the 20th century are among the most interesting in European music. I have always been interested in contemporary music. When Sinfonia Varsovia came up with a proposal for the concert, I found it both delightful and challenging, as the program was complex and relatively long. I knew only Lutosławski’s Livre pour orchestre, as I had prepared this piece for the Fitelberg Competition. The rest of the works were new to me. Take the Hafiz Songs by Szymanowski that I immediately fell in love with – a fantastic piece rooted in the late romantic tradition, half-way between Richard Strauss and Scriabin. We also performed pieces by Constantin Régamey and Andrzej Dobrowolski. It was a very complex and demanding program. The orchestra was fantastic as usual, they perfectly captured all the details of the scores.

We are talking just before the birthday concert of Sinfonia Varsovia that you are supposed to conduct. It has always been a great event for the orchestra and for musical life in Warsaw in general. How did you react when you were offered to conduct this performance?

I was very honored. I was already engaged to conduct that concert in March 2020, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. I was very happy be offered this opportunity again. Appearing in the fantastic Great Hall of the Grand Theatre with the most eminent orchestra I know in Poland is a dream come true. And I feel really excited and happy about this.

You are going to conduct Krzysztof Penderecki’s Chaconne again, along with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Martín García García and Symphony No. 4 by Robert Schumann. Almost all of them are pillars of the orchestral repertoire. How important are they to you?

The program is finely balanced and tonally related, both the Concerto and the Symphony are in D minor. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is symphonically conceived and opulent, with very dense piano and orchestral parts. I performed it a few times with different pianists, so I am glad I have a chance to do it again.

We’ll start the concert with the Chaconne, which contains a profound statement by Krzysztof Penderecki. Last time when I was preparing to perform this piece with the Sinfonia Varsovia, I came across an amazing discovery. I realized that Maestro Penderecki used rhetorical figures of the Baroque in his work. The main theme of the piece, reminiscent of what Bach often did, consists of four notes connected in the figure of the cross. I am sure this is not a coincidence. It is a tribute to the memory of John Paul II. There are a lot of messages hidden in the Chaconne that make it a real mystical experience.

Schumann’s Fourth is a wonderfully put together work. The composer picked up the ideas that Beethoven used in his Fifth Symphony. The attacca transition between the Scherzo and Finale is a profound experience. I have always loved conducting the Fourth and can’t wait to do it with Sinfonia Varsovia.

What programs would you like to focus on in your work as the future principal guest conductor of the orchestra? What repertoire would be the closest to your heart?

Throughout the 22 years of my career, I had the opportunity to work both on symphonic repertoire and operatic works. I love all the big works of Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Mahler, almost all whose symphonies I have already conducted. I feel very much tied to the late German romantic tradition. However, I also like the Slavonic repertoire, I’ve conducted many pieces by Scriabin and Tchaikovsky. While working in Brno I learnt a lot of Czech music as well. We will certainly propose very interesting program to the Polish audiences and strive to deliver sweeping performances.

I’m going to hold you to that! Congratulations on this success and I’m looking forward to another meeting with the orchestra. Is there anything special that you would like to wish the orchestra on their birthday?

I am very proud and honored to become the principal guest conductor of the orchestra, which I consider absolutely exceptional. I wish the musicians continuous joy in music-making, wide recognition, support, and appreciation at home and abroad. I’m thrilled that Sinfonia Varsovia is getting a brilliant new concert hall and residence and congratulate the players, the management, and the city of Warsaw on such an important step. Exciting times lie ahead!