The line between high falutin’ art and down and dirty folk has always been porous, says the SSO Chief.

For David Robertson, a concert programme is usually as important as the music. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s artistically voracious Chief Conductor is invariably interested in what was going on in the world around the time a piece of music was written, and the connections he teases out between art, literature and history are the unexpected nuggets that frequently enrich his performances.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra with David Robertson. Photo by Ken Butti

On the surface, kicking off the SSO’s 2017 season with a couple of late-Romantics – the Brahms Violin Concerto with Maxim Vengerov and Tchaikovsky’s popular Fifth Symphony – might not strike you as radical, but take a ride with Robertson on a three-concert journey that passes through Ravel and Bartók and winds up with Ligeti and the whole will likely turn out to be more than the sum of the parts (not that the parts aren’t in themselves rewarding enough).

Of course, there is inevitably more than one parallel to be drawn between the works, but it’s the common thread of folk music that stands out to me – a musical influence that became increasing important as the 19th century drew to its close. “Oh, I think the folk influence has always been there,” Robertson says, warming to the subject over a drink at his hotel on Sydney’s Circular Quay. “The line between what you might consider popular music and what you might consider serious art music has always been porous. And the great thing is that any time music starts getting too rarefied, the pendulum usually swings back so that you get some of that earthiness back into it.”

The consolidation of the German states increasing the potential for the fracturing of the Austro-Hungarian empire contributed to the ideas of nationhood and cultural definition that began to rise in the European consciousness. As French culture was disseminated across the world, and was embraced as far afield as Russia, the German language spread via the Hapsburgs to the Eastern states. Result: Hungarians like Liszt and nationalist composers like Balakirev and his Mighty Handful began to wonder how to make their own art more definite, more individual, and more authentic.

Russian villagers in the time of Tchaikovsky

“But ideas of national identity, whether they be in food or costume or language or music, are not necessarily always driving in the same direction,” says Robertson, wary of any one size fits all definition. “For instance, Brahms picks up the idea of folk music from Joachim and the Hungarian connection, but for him it seems less about making an ethnological point, and more about the wealth of creativity that the Hungarian modes and all this rhythmic activity brings to, say, the last movement of the Violin Concerto.”

Tchaikovsky as well refuses to be crammed into any national pigeonhole, yet he also incorporates traditional tunes and popular dance forms into his work. “That’s true,” Robertson agrees. “It’s impossible to think of Eugene Onegin without hearing the clash of these two civilisations – this wonderful culture with all of this European-looking refinement, and then this land-based society that is portrayed in the sections of rustic music.”

So Robertson sees Brahms and Tchaikovsky as outliers with respect to folk music, even compared to composers like Liszt or Borodin who more consciously examined the popular music they chose to press into service. “All music is folk music, it just depends upon which folk you’re talking about you know,” he jokes. “Brahms and Tchaikovsky realised you could borrow, but for them it was the inflection that was more important. Take a writer like Italo Calvino. On the one hand he collects a whole series of folktales, comparing the difference in the Cinderella story in one geographic place with what it’s like 30 kilometres away in another valley. And yet at the same time Calvino himself can write stories that feel like they’re folktales, but are clearly from his own imagination – an imagination that has been made sensitive by his awareness of these authentic fables.”

Béla Bartók recording Czech singers, early 20th century

It was the same with a composer like Vaughan Williams. An avid collector of folk songs, he roamed the laneways of England until his ear was so attuned he could write a melody that listeners assumed must have been picked up from some ancient rustic over a pint of scrumpy in a village inn. The challenge for men so steeped in the authentic was often how to then pull back and write something original. For Robertson it is the Hungarian Béla Bartók, cataloguer of literally thousands of folk tunes, who is the shining example. “Bartók went out with his Edison cylinders and recorded this music, took it back, and meticulously notated the specifics of each verse and how they were performed, with metronome marks and rubatos. It’s hugely complex. But then in his own music he’s capable of writing things that sound authentic, yet original, because what he’s done is to become fluent in the language.”

By way of comparison, Robertson likens the work of the previous generation of Hungarian composers – men like Erkel and Liszt who incorporated so-called ‘gypsy’ music into their own – to setting a newly-discovered opal in a formal piece of jewellery. “People might go ‘Ooh, look, it’s an opal’, but Bartók says, ‘No, this is a gem unlike any other, so let me fashion something for it that’s unique’”.

The SSO will play the rarely performed Four Orchestral Pieces, a work which Robertson sees as typifying Bartók’s transition from the old Lisztian ways, to the new and uniquely Bartók. “One of my favourite movements is the Intermezzo, which sums up the fragility of this oral tradition passed down through love of community,” he explains. “Bartók and Kodály came along and notated it, but otherwise it was just there. For Bartók, I think, this is the essence of what makes human life poignant. This is why a piece like the Concerto for Orchestra is so immensely sad at certain points. What must it have been like for him to read in the newspapers about all of these places where he had been collecting songs on the ground being destroyed during the war. It must be the same for linguists watching fragile bits of language disappearing.”

György Ligeti

You can’t really imagine a cultured aesthete like Maurice Ravel tramping through a Basque cornfield in a quest for authenticity. He may set a folk song on occasion, but in quite an arty way. Yet embarrassed as he might have been by the ubiquitous Bolero – “he thought it was such a lame melody,” reckons Robertson – there is something tangibly traditional about that endlessly repetitive rhythm. “The genius is in the way Ravel exploits it,” Robertson enthuses. “My particular favourite is the way he has the melody flirt with the rhythm all the time. Sometimes it’s lined right up with it, and at other times it arrives just before the rhythm cadences. That makes it seems almost as if the drum – which can only define time – and the melody – which can define both time and pitch – are having this incredibly flirtatious dance. It really mirrors the way humans interact when they’re being seductive.”

Robertson’s folk tour of Europe comes nearly up to date with another unusual piece, György Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto. Momentarily floundering, I enquire what a Hungarian is doing writing a Romanian piece? “That’s the thing, isn’t it?” Robertson replies. “I think of him as a Hungarian composer, but when I went to Romania it was explained to me that both Bartók and Ligeti are Romanian. Of course, this was pre-1989, so there was a lot of nationalist rancour.”

If at times Bartók and Ligeti feel generations apart, Robertson isn’t so sure, seeing the hand of politics behind many of the later composer’s stylistic choices. “I don’t see the differences as that extreme,” he admits. “People felt that the relatively young nation of Hungary needed to define itself in music through the Eastern bloc, and that took on a fraught political significance, which was loaded with all these conflicting ideas. The Concert Romanesc has one note in it that was deemed to be decadent and Western – in other words not according to the Socialist idea of man as defined by the Soviets – and so it was soundly rejected. Just a single note in the clarinet, in the last movement. It’s very soft, but it’s a little dissonant note.”

Nowadays, it can be difficult to see where all this nationalism and preservation of traditional music has led us. “I’m not sure what constitutes folk music anymore,” Robertson confesses, citing the commercialisation of what we tend to call ‘world music’ as partially to blame. “You can take any type of music and give it a beat, and that supposedly makes it international enough now that everyone can understand it.”

So perhaps the question is more like how do you define yourself as a composer vis à vis an international classical style? “Tan Dun is someone who very definitely picks up folk music, but he’s extremely aware of the artificial nature of what folk music can be,” says Robertson. “I think the really interesting point today is, ‘where is the authenticity in the expression?’ More than folk music, I think people are looking for something ‘organically grown’, not music smothered in the trappings of modern global culture. The irony is that the systems for distribution and diffusion of most music nowadays are entirely linked, so it’s hard to say where anything is coming from. It’s an interesting time!”

David Robertson conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Brahms (with Maxim Vengerov) and Tchaikovsky on February 17 and 18. The SSO plays Bartók, Ravel and Ligeti, as well as the world premiere of Nigel Westlake’s Oboe Concerto with Diana Doherty between February 20 and 24.