Sanderling and Philharmonic: A Matter of Chemistry

Ever since Kurt Sanderling’s 1984 debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, local critics have described his musical relationship with the orchestra in such terms as love affair and romance . So, when Sanderling was asked, late last week, about his first impression of the Philharmonic, the East German conductor’s answer came as no surprise.

“It was,” he said, relaxing in his dressing room following a Saturday morning rehearsal, “love at first sight.”

Added the 76-year-old Prussian-born musician, who begins a two-week podium stint tonight at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: “I can feel great warmth from the orchestra, too, which makes working with them so nice. I spend more time in Los Angeles than anywhere else in America.”

The Philharmonic musicians bear out his words. Said Ronald Leonard, now in his 15th year as principal cellist: “It’s pretty universally agreed in the orchestra that we play the best we’re capable of with him. Everything seems to click. There’s a chemistry that can happen between an orchestra and conductor, one of those rather magical things.”


Just what is the secret of Sanderling’s success?

“He’s a very warm person,” according to violinist Michael Nutt, a 24-year orchestra veteran. “He knows the history of the music we’re playing. He knew Shostakovich, for instance, so when he told us stories about a Shostakovich symphony, we understood the music better. He has terrific insight, has experienced it all and that comes through the music. Making music with him is absolute fun.”

Indeed, while Sanderling’s performance manner is often described as stern and no-nonsense, his rehearsal demeanor is anything but.

The players’ laughter flows easily in response to his soft-spoken quips, though he quickly turns serious when the nature of the music calls for solemnity. He frequently creates visual images to capture the spirit of the music, telling the musicians that in one passage, for instance, they should imagine themselves climbing a mountain and then beholding a beauteous sight, and in another, should feel the sadness of a lost love.


“I don’t think about using humor,” he explained. “I only try to say to the orchestra what I am feeling, and try to get the same feeling from them. I use the images and associations to help, too. I could say: ‘This has to be played with rage,’ and they would understand that better than if I said, ‘Play this forte , and use your bows harder.’ Music is not written only for the people listening, but for the people playing.”

The program Sanderling and the Philharmonic perform tonight, Friday and Sunday lists Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), with mezzo Jard van Nes and tenor William Johns.

The conductor believes that the “Lied” is one of the most important works of this century, expressing the resignation Mahler and other masters of the era experienced in the face of life’s difficulties. “An important musicologist in Leningrad said that this work is the ‘requiem for idealism.’ I think that’s a very fine description.”

Sanderling’s program for next week consists of the Fourth Symphonies of Schumann and Tchaikovsky. His recording of the latter was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque in 1956.

“I hadn’t played the Tchaikovsky for about 10 years. I was astonished that, when I took out the score and tried to find out what the composer meant, I had almost the same feelings that I did 40 years ago,” he reflected. “Maybe I am not so wise now! I’m changing some details, though, because I have more experience now than I did 10 years ago.

“I like this work very much, but I don’t think it’s always played the right way,” he added. “Especially the last movement, which is often played in a merry way and is actually the tragical finale of a tragical symphony.”

Sanderling comes by his understanding of German and Russian composers naturally. He began his career as a pianist and coach with the Berlin State Opera, then fled from the Nazis in 1936 to stay with relatives in Moscow. He subsequently held the posts of conductor of the Moscow Radio Orchestra, music director of the Kharkov Philharmonic and permanent conductor, with Yevgeni Mravinsky, of the Leningrad Philharmonic. In 1960 he became music director of the (East) Berlin Symphony, retiring in 1977.

Following in Sanderling’s footsteps is his son Stefan, 24, a Leipzig student who was an L.A. Philharmonic Institute conducting fellow last summer, and at the moment has returned to Los Angeles to visit his father.


“We have discussions about music,” said Sanderling pere . “But he hasn’t had any lessons from me--he’s not my pupil, he’s my son. And,” he added, eyes twinkling, “every son knows better than his father.”