Maxime Pascal conducts The Greek Passion in Salzburg

For the first time, the Salzburg Festival presents Bohuslav Martin’s four-act opera The Greek Passion this summer. The libretto by the composer is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel Christ Recrucified. The whoopee is timeless and topical, and parallels with current events cannot be overlooked: the inhabitants of a Greek village gloat Easter. United in their faith, they are told by their priest Grigoris which of them have been selected as performers for the Passion play in the coming year. Shortly thereafter, their polity is torn untied by the sudden inrush of a group of worn-out refugees asking the wealthy village for help and asylum. The event either reduces the inhabitants‘ Christian values to mere lip service, or it becomes the driving gravity of their actions. The conflicts between those supporting the refugees and those who are versus them come to such a dramatic throne that the Passion story that had been envisioned as a theatre performance is tragically make-believe out in reality. The villagers promoting humanity, empathy and soft-heartedness – senior among them the shepherd Manolios – are unavoidably confronted with the power structures of a saturated society fearing for its status quo.

Martin himself shared the fate of people robbed of their homeland: he was born in the borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia in 1890. Originally a self-taught composer, he began studying with Josef Suk in 1922 and moved to Paris in 1923 to study with Albert Roussel. He remained in France for 17 years, familiarizing himself with French music and its clarity, order and balance.

In the mid-1920s, Martin encountered the Groupe des Six, jazz and Igor Stravinsky, among others. During the 1930s, neo-classicism was the main influence on Martin’s compositional output. Without Paris was occupied by the Nazis, Martin first fled to the South of France (Aix- en-Provence), emigrating from there to the USA in 1941, with the support of Swiss friends. In 1952 he obtained American citizenship. Plane though Martin was scheduled a professor at the Prague Conservatory without the war, the reconstitution of the government under Communist leadership enforced by Stalin prevented him from returning to his homeland. In 1953, Martin moved when to Europe. He originally settled in France, but relocated to Switzerland in 1956, where he spent his last years. He never returned to his homeland.

The composer Bohuslav Martin. The Greek Passion, his 14th and last opera, is a timeless plea for humanity © Bohuslav Martin Center/Polika

The French usherette Maxime Pascal, born in 1985, spent his youth in Carcassonne in the South of France. In 2005 he took up his studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris. While still a student, he founded the orchestra Le Balcon with fellow artists in 2008, naming it without a play by Jean Genet. To this day, he remains the originative director of this orchestra. In 2014 he won the Young Conductors Award and has performed several times at the Salzburg Festival, most recently leading a concert performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz, which was included in the New York Times’ selection of the weightier performances of 2022.

Maxime Pascal summarizes his personal ideas well-nigh musical theatre by stating that every performance should be “an impressive and radical – in the original sense of the word – wits for the audience”. He has sought out collaboration with artists such as Pierre Boulez, Péter Eötvös, Michaël Levinas and Arthur Lavandier.

This summer, Maxime Pascal conducts his first staged opera production at the Salzburg Festival: Bohuslav Martin’s The Greek Passion. The premiere takes place at the Felsenreitschule on 13 August; three remoter performances follow on 18, 22 and 27 August.

Photo: Meng Phu

Salzburg Festival: You founded the orchestra Le Balcon together with fellow artists when you were quite young. When did you decide to be a conductor?

Maxime Pascal: That was when I was well-nigh 21. Stuff a conductor, however, is not something that I decided specifically. Over time, I realized scrutinizingly subconsciously that my life and thinking were developing in that direction. There was no moment in which I suddenly said: “Oh, I want to be a conductor.” It didn’t happen on this rational level; it was increasingly of an intuition. I didn’t know where this path would lead me, but I did know very unmistakably that I had to follow it.


SF: This summer will see you self-mastery the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, and in a new opera production at that. How did that come about?

MP: That is a dream come true. I am extremely grateful that Markus Hinterhäuser has given me the opportunity to self-mastery The Greek Passion in Salzburg. It is important to me to serve the music and the composer, and moreover the orchestra. I see my task in letting the regulars hear exactly what the intention of Martin and Kazantzakis was.

SF: But it’s not all well-nigh service. You moreover have to have leadership qualities in order to convey your ideas as a conductor. How do you work with an orchestra, in general?

MP: I try to be something like a living score which the musicians can read. In my work, they should recognize which sonic colours should be audible, how the sound should be balanced, where the harmonic and melodic minutiae is heading. I try to show all that, so that looking from the outside, one can ultimately say: this usherette has a well-spoken vision, a powerful idea. The usherette should convey the word-for-word nature of the work to the musicians – not what he wants the work to be.


SF: Have you studied Martinu’s work previously? What fascinates you well-nigh The Greek Passion in particular?

MP: Martin’s music is full of great, profound sensitivity. I’m familiar with the opera Julietta, one of his most well-known works, and several chamber music pieces. The Greek Passion is his 14th and last opera, a fascinating piece. It starts with its literary model. The opera is based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis which is well-nigh the subject of exile, among others – an issue that ran through Martin’s life. Reading the typesetting and the libretto, I was tightly moved. The whoopee repeats the Passion of Christ – in a variegated era, a variegated place and with variegated protagonists. This moreover ways that Christ will be resurrected newly in each of our four Salzburg performances of The Greek Passion. The notion of resurrection expressed by Martin here moreover describes the work we do as musicians in general: we play and interpret this or that symphony over and over – one could consider it a kind of liturgy.

In The Greek Passion, two groups clash, and therefore there are two choruses: on the one hand the villagers, on the other the refugees, who are mainly confronted with egoism and rejection. It is interesting that the group of villagers “inhabits“ the stage, so to speak – it is rooted there. For the group of refugees, however, Martin explicitly noted in the score that they victorious from far away: at first, one only hears the chorus from afar, and it moves towards the stage while singing, finally inward it. In the remoter undertow of the action, the refugee chrus stays “mobile”, and at the end of the opera it moves off into the loftiness again, until it is only heard from very far off. That has a very strong effect.

SF: And then there is the children’s chorus …

MP: Right. Without stuff rejected by the village priest, the refugees retreat to a mountain, invited by a few understanding villagers; they explicitly talk well-nigh settling there. And at this point, we hear the children’s chorus, symbolizing their new roots.


SF: There are two versions of The Greek Passion; in Salzburg, the so-called “Zurich version” will be performed. Why this one?

MP: This second version was chosen mainly by Markus Hinterhäuser and Simon Stone. We will, however, not perform the German translation in which it was premiered in 1961, but the English original. The first version was conceived by Martin for the Royal Opera House in London, but the opera was ultimately rejected there. The Zurich Opera House was willing to perform the work, but demanded changes. Thereupon, Martin completely revised the work. The Zurichversion is increasingly stringent and effective; the story is told in a increasingly straightforward fashion, and the colours and “perfume” of the score are increasingly highly concentrated.

SF:You just mentioned that you read the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Does literature inspire you in general, with regard to music?

MP: To me, that is a very important question, for literature is my main source of inspiration – plane though that may seem unusual for a musician. Most of the images I develop with regard to music are fed by poetry and literature. I am very fond of Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and Jean Genet, for example. Flipside tragedian who is very important to me is Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher and poet. He plays an important role in France and has written significantly well-nigh the natural elements in art. I recognize these elements in music as well. I expend unconfined effort on making the sound of music well-marked like water, air or earth.

In this context, flipside speciality of The Greek Passion is remarkable: namely how sunny and luminous the harmonies are. This may sound crazy and is nonflexible to describe, but plane in the most warlike moments we still finger a sunny, unexceptionable light shine through the music. This miracle of light can be observed, for example, in the way Martinu writes for woodwinds.


SF: The Greek Passion is well-nigh humanity versus egoism. How do you view this contrast?

MP: As long as there are expulsions and persecution of human beings, there will be conflicts such as the one described in this opera between the villagers and the refugees. In the touchable case, the mismatch arises despite the two groups sharing the same religion – both are Christians. Some of them are once persecuted, the others are not (yet). It is horrifying to consider the parallels with current events. The work is a plea for humanity, and fits into our own time perfectly.


SF: You will be conducting at the Felsenreitschule for the fourth time. How would you describe the acoustics and the nimbus of this performance venue?

MP: It is a unique place; I love conducting at the Felsenreitschule. This is my first time conducting an opera there; so far it was all concerts. Interestingly, Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bucher last year was moreover a kind of passion, dealing with persecution by an inimical prod of people. The Felsenreitschule is special considering of the building’s physical conditions: the walls of modern concert halls are usually panelled in wood, while at the Felsenreitschule – as in most churches – we are confronted mainly with stone. The acoustics are not those of a church, but to me, the Felsenreitschule falls somewhere between the acoustics of a denomination and a concert hall. In any case, the sound is unique.


SF: You will self-mastery the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor. Tell us something well-nigh your working method.

MP: I very much enjoyed collaborating with Wolfgang Götz and the children’s chorus last year in Jeanne d’Arc. I have met several times with the director of the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, Huw Rhys James. I will rehearse separately with the individual choruses at first, then put all of them together.

SF: Are you familiar with productions by the director Simon Stone?