The conductor of the Remix Ensemble of Casa da Música says that Porto is a city “with self-confidence and character”. He likes the simple food of the small restaurants and always takes Portuguese coffee in his suitcase when he returns to Frankfurt.
Peter Rundel, the maestro of Porto’s Casa da Música’s Remix Ensemble, is a man who is not afraid of musical boundaries. This is a man who learned to play the violin and the classics, played jazz with Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, and participated in a musical project with Frank Zappa, when he was dedicated to contemporary music.
He recounts all of this sitting in the Casa da Música, or the “Casa”, as he always refers to it, drinking coffee, a habit that has become ingrained. His Porto adventure actually began because of a “small disaster”, but what came next was a revelation.
Let’s start with the “disaster” then. Peter Rundel had already been to Portugal, but in 2004, when he was invited to conduct a concert by the Remix Ensemble, which he knew little about. The Casa da Música was still under construction (it was inaugurated on 15th April, 2005) and for Peter it was “an exotic place in musical terms, I had no idea what went on here”. He exchanged ideas with António Jorge Pacheco, today the artistic director of the institution, and prepared an excellent programme. “But it was a difficult time in my life, I was overloaded with work, and I decided to cancel a concert a month earlier, something that I never do. I was really in some kind of panic. I sent an e-mail and received a very angry reply. The way the e-mail was written impressed me so much that I thought that here was someone who really wanted to do something and I respected that. Then I thought I had to come to Porto and
meet him and do the concert.”
He came and became “hooked”. “It was a great job, I was impressed with the quality of the musicians and the music. I won’t say it was love at first sight, but there was good chemistry with the musician and with António Jorge.” They got on so well that he was invited to run the Ensemble and he accepted.
This love-affair is ongoing, says Peter Rundel: “Of all the jobs I’ve ever had in my life, this is one of those that has given me the greatest satisfaction. Not only musically, but also in relation to working with the people from the Casa. From when it opened, this became a very special place. Not only in my opinion because I live here, but I’ve spoken to lots of people from elsewhere and I think that in Europe, from all the concert halls that have been built, this one is special”.
It is not special only because of the architecture of Rem Koolhaas, who created a building that is now one of Porto’s hallmarks. There’s so much more: “There are no other concert halls in Europe that work like this one. Normally, they just invite people that come and go, and the artistic policy here is totally different. After the initial years, they decided to invest in local productions. There’s the Remix, the Symphony Orchestra, the Baroque Orquestra, the Choir and a good educational department. That’s unique. The Casa doesn’t just invite and pay musicians from outside for productions that are made everywhere. But I think that the people from here don’t fuly understand how unique this is”.
Mixing old and new
When he has any free time in Porto, the conductor of the Remix Ensemble likes to explore the city, and he finds “the mix of the old and new”, the coexistence of old architecture with more recent designs, fascinating.
“Another good thing about Porto is it’s not ruined by tourism, being on the edge of Europe and far from the business of globalising tourism. It’s a big and strong city, but you get the feeling that it still belongs to the local people. There’s a feeling of self-confidence and pride, the people identify with the city.”
And of course, there’s the food. “It’s simple but very good. One day I was in a café near here, nothing fancy, and the food was so good that I said to my wife: if we want to eat this well in Germany, we would have to pay a lot of money. And we find this in any part of the city. People know what good meat and fish is, it’s not a fast food culture.” And then there’s the people: “frank, modest, decent, they don’t make noise. I really like the Portuguese”.
As for the rest of the country, he knows the Alentejo, where he spent some time with his family. He knows Lisbon, where he spent two months producing an opera by Emmanuel Nunes, and he thinks it’s beautiful. But, “to be honest, I like Porto more, it’s still a kind of museum”. He’s embarrassed to admit that he hasn’t explored the banks of the Douro, but he intends to soon.
From violinist to maestro
An enthusiast of the Casa da Música, the German conductor has even gone to one of the popular clubbing nights, “just out of curiosity, but that’s not for my age”. Born 54 years ago in Friedrichshafen, he studied violin with Igor Ozim and Ramy Shevelov in Cologne, Hannover and New York. He was already a well-known violinist but opted to conduct orchestras, having studied with Michael Gielen and Peter Eötvös, venturing into contemporary music. He was always curious and liked exploring all types of music. “I like classical very much but there was a moment when I thought that couldn’t be the “be all and end all”.
It was that curiosity and that love for good music that led him to work with Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, two great names of jazz. The project with Frank Zappa was something else: Peter Rundel was part of the Ensemble Modern, in Frankfurt, a contemporary music group who shared a liking for the work of the mythical North American musician. They made The Yellow Shark, in Los Angeles, recorded on CD in 1993, the year that Zappa died.
Peter still plays violin, but only in private, with his family – his wife is a harpist, his daughter plays the cello and his son is connected to the music world as a sound engineer.
Much like his appreciation of old and new in the city of Porto, he also likes variety in music. He knows that contemporary music is more difficult for the majority of audiences and knowing the classics helps understand it. “But I still believe that a great work of art has to be capable of communicating in itself. If it doesn’t have that quality for speaking for itself; if you need to know lots of things beforehand, then it isn’t great art. I’m not saying it has to be understood immediately. That’s impossible because art is too rich and complex; but there has to be something that touches your perception, that makes you want to know more.”
The German conductor likes working with composers, which is naturally possible in the case of the contemporaries. “It’s a fantastic advantage if we can work together.”
For example, he has a fantastic relationship with the Portuguese Emmanuel Nunes, who he has known for 15 years: “We’ve done various pieces together and it’s still absolutely fascinating to have him close and be inspired by his ideas. It’s a kind of exchange. I really like working this way”. The physical presence and intervention of the composer doesn’t limit his freedom in conducting the piece, quite the opposite. “Sometimes, I’d like to have Mozart and Beethoven sitting here, it would be fantastic.” Who wouldn’t?
By Ana Sousa Dias