Interview with conductor John Warner

Interview with conductor John Warner
Photo of John Warner © Benjamin Eolovega

I encountered conductor John Warner in China, during the Beijing Music Festival (BMF) this year. He was conducting the Mahler Foundation Festival Orchestra, a resident ensemble this year at BMF: I heard performances of Mahler's Fourth and First Symphonies while I was there (you can see the programmes here). The Fourth was arranged by Warner himself; the First by Iain Farrington.

Lovely to meet you and it was equally lovely to hear your concerts in Beijing! Could I ask you first of all about your orchestra – the Mahler Foundation Festival Orchestra? How did it come about? And what is the link with Marina Mahler? 

I first met Marina Mahler in 2017 at a performance I gave of Mahler 9 at a festival in Steinbach am Attersee, the site of her grandfather’s first ‘composing hut.’ We have been friends ever since and I am a great admirer of the work of her Mahler Foundation, which she was just launching in 2017. I founded the Mahler Foundation Festival Orchestra as a way of putting the ideas of Marina and the Foundation into practice—namely to use Mahler’s music, vision and innovative spirit to inspire and unite audiences worldwide around the contemporary arts, environment, youth, and music education. To form the orchestra, I brought together some of the best musicians from across Europe, including Spain, Sweden, the UK, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. 

You made your own arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – what was the initial impetus for this? From a personal viewpoint I found your arrangement for chamber orchestra fascinating, the reframing of one’s expected experience, and the new detail that one heard were all benefits. Plus, I loved the imagination you showed – the doubling of piano left-hand and double-bass instead of double-bassoon a case in point. But what did you yourself take away from making this arrangement? 

 It was partly out of necessity, because I first made the arrangement for a tour of Mahler’s composing huts I do with my Orchestra for the Earth each year. That project takes us to small venues dotted around the remote Alpine locations Mahler sought out to compose in, so I needed to rescore the symphony for a chamber orchestra that would fit into the venues. But there are artistic reasons as well: Mahler’s orchestration, especially in the Fourth, is so chamber-like and so classical that it really lends itself to a smaller ensemble. It’s not a replacement for the original, just another perspective. There are some existing arrangements but I had always felt that there were substantial things I would do differently. It was quite an enthralling experience to make my version (and then revise it for this tour): I had to think about every note and colour in Mahler’s score and find a way of conjuring it up with smaller forces. That’s quite a good exercise for a conductor! 

Your programming seems to reflect the stated aims of the orchestra, which are in the first instance the works of Mahler, but also climate change (Song of the Earth) and, indeed, hope (Project Infinitude) … on an environmental level, what part do you think music can play in the area of climate change and people’s attitudes? 

I believe very strongly that engage over climate change with audiences in a neutral forum like a concert, bonding over our love of music rather than clashing over politics, is a valuable one. It’s a route to consensus. The rationalism of science is essential, but we need to think emotionally as well, and that is what culture is for—reaching hearts and minds. I’m convinced for that reason that it is in the cultural sphere, not the political, that the struggle for a habitable planet will be won or lost.  

Nature Herself also appears in both Western works (Mahler, Messiaen Oiseaux exotiques) and in Faykueen Wang’s Quantum Oceanarium as well as in, for example, the vast open spaces of the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony (in Iain Farrington’s arrangement). But how would you explain these three different viewpoints of the world around us to someone? 

The germinating idea for this programme was birdsong. Mahler’s First opens with a kind of cuckoo call, out of which he spins an entire symphony, and I wanted to pair this rather free, emotive, impressionistic evocation of birdsong with Messiaen’s aggressively literal one in Oiseaux Exotiques—a piece I also wanted to play because it includes the song of a Chinese bird as well as those from India, Malaysia, and the Americas. Messiaen’s piece is of course exquisitely crafted, but in a way it lets the birds (18 of them!) speak for themselves. Mahler takes his inspiration from a birdsong and then runs free with it. And to complete the programme I commissioned a new birdsong-inspired work by young Chinese composer Faykueen Wang, whose piece does something neither Mahler nor Messiaen did: it took us out to sea.     

I’m also interested in the link between The Song of the Earth, with its use of texts by two Chinese poets, and a very Austro-German basis. This link between East and West – what do you find so stimulating about it? 

It was Goethe who penned the idea of ‘world literature’ (literature that extends its reach beyond its own culture), and in this symphony I think Mahler creates a piece of ‘world music’ in that sense, a piece in dialogue with another culture in a deeply sensitive and moving way. I think for me and many others, this piece has been a gateway into Tang Dynasty poetry and the extraordinarily rich literature of China more widely. And speaking of Goethe, it always strikes me as significant that after finishing his Eighth Symphony with the closing scene of Faust—the self-appointed pinnacle of German literature—Mahler turned to something as far away from that as possible for Das Lied. It was as though he had become saturated with his own culture and needed to reach out into the unknown. He claimed to be “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world,” and I think it was his own sense of otherness that he saw in this poetry from a millennium earlier, and from a culture unimaginably distant for a nineteenth-century European. In many ways that ‘otherness’ is more important in the piece, the Abschied especially, than its ‘eastness’ or ‘westness.’   

When you juxtapose modern works with Mahler, is the intent for the juxtaposition to be symbiotic? Should the listener hear Mahler differently after the new works, and how? And can Mahler colour the way we hear their music, both from our previous experience of Mahler and also in our expectations of the Mahler piece later in the concert? 

Mahler was fanatically interested in the new, and of course his works were seen as quite radically contemporary in his lifetime. You can see from the concerts he programmed as a conductor, in New York in particular, that he had an insatiable appetite for exploring modern music from all around Europe in a way few musicians did at the time. So I think it is entirely in the spirit of his music to programme it alongside new works, and I think the latter sharpen our ears for when we hear Mahler. His music is so remarkable, and still sounds so contemporary, that it is quite a daunting prospect to programme anything alongside it, but for that reason I think asking a composer to write a new piece to accompany a Mahler symphony is a guaranteed way to inspire their best work! And as well as the world premieres, we played the Chinese premieres of some true contemporary classics. A highlight for me was playing Mahler’s Abschied, with its imagined colours of Chinese music, alongside Huang Ruo’s concerto for the sheng, a truly authentic and ancient Chinese instrument. I’ve no doubt Mahler would have written for the sheng if he’d ever come across one, and would have been thrilled to hear his music alongside Ruo’s piece, played by the incomparable Wu Wei.  

You seem to be very imaginative when it comes to working with the material of Mahler’s music, including a virtual Mahler 2 that appears on YouTube. Where do you think all of this flexibility and imagination might take you in the future? 

 I’m not sure that’s for me to answer! I love this music and I find it endlessly inspiring to programme and to conduct. I also think there is something about it, quite intentional on Mahler’s part, that makes musicians play on a higher level, both for his music and the rest of the programme. That makes it perfect for building a culture in a brand new orchestra like this. It was remarkable how quickly the ensemble bonded. By the time we were onstage in Beijing it was like we’d been playing together for years, but with a sense of risk and spontaneity that comes from the newness of the whole project. It was one to remember.