British composer Sir George Benjamin was still a teenager when he was credited with a talent of Mozartian proportions – by no lesser figure than Olivier Messiaen, his teacher at the time. In the meantime, the erstwhile wunderkind is one of the world's best-known composers, with a varied oeuvre of chamber music, big orchestral works and even three operas to his name. During his period as Artist in Residence at the Elbphilharmonie, he will be performing a range of his work.
Benjamin is not only a brilliant composer, he's also a totally affable person with a great sense of humour, as came out clearly in our set of »Five Questions«.
In November 2018 you were opening your „Multiversum“ residency at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. How was the process of developing the programme and choosing the pieces for this residency?
Discussions about this project started in about 2010, so plans are coming to fruition after a long period. Since then many things have happened in my life and in my work – amongst them the composition of two large operas, both of which are featured in the programme. Now that the events are imminent I want to say how honoured and delighted I am to have my work presented in Hamburg in this way, particularly by many of my most beloved performers and in this illustrious new hall.
You began composing already at the age of seven. How did that happen, what was your motivation?
Very simply I fell in love with classical music at that age, and developed one ambition in life – to become a composer. Many children feel a similar impulse, often with almost fanatical force; I simply carried on and had the great good fortune to encounter wonderful teachers during my development.
I had the great good fortune to encounter wonderful teachers.
I think it is great, that this building honours and presents music by composers of our day.
You often speak about your two roles as composer on the one hand and conductor on the other. In this case you once said that you do not want to be perceived as a composing conductor. Nevertheless, as part of your Elbphilharmonie residence, you conduct almost all the concerts yourself - has your attitude towards this topic changed?
It is true, that in my residency in the Elbphilharmonie, I conduct all the concerts – but this is a special year for me and it is a special project. If you were to look at 2017, I conducted only one concert the whole year. I was writing an opera – I do not conduct. So now, having finished an opera, I am doing much more. It is very hard to come from conducting and to go back to composing. When I am writing a big piece, my life stops. I enjoy these periods in between pieces, when I allow myself to travel and to make music with others. I would hate to stop it entirely, because it is something I value very much. However, the writing of music is the most important thing for me.
What connects you to the music city of Hamburg?
I think this is already my 5th time In Hamburg. One of my most beautiful experiences was – when in 2001 I had the great honour to conduct the last orchestral piece of György Ligeti – the world premiere of his horn concerto – the Hamburg Concerto. But this season is by far the biggest project in that town.
Which possibilities for new music does a house like the Elbphilharmonie have to offer?
To keep music alive, it is essential to play new music – recent new music or music from a hundred years ago, which is still modern, like Webern. In a fantastically beautiful and visionary new building like this, it is all the more important. But it’s not just out of charity – it is also a joy to play new music. And I hope, for the majority of listeners it is an especially intense and exciting experience. In some ways different, from hearing music by composers that are more familiar or by composers that are dead. So I think it is great, that this building honours and presents music by composers of our day.