Monday, August 23, 2010

English baritone Stephen Varcoe talks about his career and more

On August 4th 2010 I had the pleasure of talking to singer Stephen Varcoe over a glass of wine in the White Hart Bar at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK. Dr. Stephen Varcoe is one of Britain’s most distinguished baritones, known for his performances and recordings of Baroque music, a large repertoire of solo song and for his appearances in early to modern operas. His book “Sing English Song” is designed to give amateur singers, voice students and professional singers insight into Britain’s rich vocal heritage.

PH: Stephen, what were your earliest musical experiences?

Stephen Varcoe: I was born in Cornwall. I think my earliest memories of hearing much music are from age three. My mother, a former music teacher, played the piano a lot and my father played the violin. Their friends would come to our house to play music with them...triosonatas,etc. My parents also had a house madrigal group. I began piano lessons at age six. I can not remember a time when I could not read music. At the age of eight I went to the Canterbury Cathedral choir school, where I remained till age 13. I left my piano studies; singing had become my way of life and my voice could do what I wanted it to. I then moved to the King’s School in Canterbury, where I carried on singing.

PH: Where did you continue your studies?

SV: I was accepted to King’s College Cambridge to study Mathematics and Law. I sang in the King’s College choir, which met six days a week. I changed from Law studies to Land Economy. However, singing had become central to my life and, during my first year at Cambridge, I was encouraged by older musicians to take on singing as a profession. My singing teachers at Cambridge were John Carol Case and Wilfred Brown, both keen exponents of British music; it is from then that English music has remained a great love of mine, as is the English language…and languages, in general.

Having graduated from Cambridge, I spent one year of post-graduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I was able to create my own course program. Well, I did not come away with a diploma but there I studied Lieder, French song, Baroque music and, of course, singing. My voice teacher there was Arthur Reckless; he was so loved by all that the door of his room was constantly opening and closing, with people constantly dropping in to say hello and have “a word” with him.

PH: What about performances?

SV: At that time, four friends and I started an a cappella group called “The Scholars”. We had all been members of the King’s College Choir. I sang with them for 18 months, performing more than 100 concerts; we sang madrigals and early Tudor music and we also commissioned works from composers such as the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson. I had also begun singing with small groups in London. There was a lot of work with BBC radio and in live concerts, too. Choral conductor John Alldis, who specialized in new music, was looking for singers who were excellent sight-readers to perform modern music under his baton and I joined him. We toured Australia and New Zealand performing these works.

PH: And your solo singing career?

SV: Having started doing solo work, I took part in the Gulbenkian Competition of 1977 and won it. The prize enabled me to leave other jobs I was doing and concentrate on building up my solo career. Other important stages were singing in the Schuetz Choir under Roger Norrington (known for his exploration of historical performance practice) and in the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner (famous for his interpretation of Baroque music performed with period instruments). From singing as a member of these choirs, I became a soloist with them. Another conductor important to my career was Richard Hickox. We were friends from Cambridge. I did many concerts with him, including performances at the BBC Proms, where I soloed.

I also found myself doing a lot of work in Germany with WDR, the Cologne radio station.

PH: Would you like to talk about your involvement in Early Music?

SV: Yes. The two conductors who were the major influences on me in this genre were Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner. We performed concerts together, traveled through Europe, appeared at festivals and recorded. Early music constituted much of my work in Germany with WDR and with German ensembles as well as with Sigiswald Kuijken. I have done much work with the American conductor, keyboard player and musicologist Joshua Rifkin: we performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with two singers on each part in the BBC Proms and the B minor Mass with one singer to a part! The latter meant each singer was a member of the chorus as well as a soloist! And I have sung in Baroque opera, Peri’s “Euridice”, Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, etc.

PH: You have made well over 100 recordings.

SV: Yes. I have recorded extensively with Gardiner, Sigiswald Kuijken, Gustav Leonhardt, Pinnock and Hickox – including music of Bach, Purcell and Handel but not just Baroque music. As digital recording came into its own, record companies were make a great number of recordings.

I have a great love of the songs of British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). When I was in my early 30’s I decided I would like to record his songs and wrote to a number of recording companies, receiving refusals from them all. Then, one day, a letter came from his widow Joy Finzi, in which she wrote that the Finzi Trust was interested to record his songs and would I like to sing them? It was an extraordinary opportunity for me. I recorded them with Hyperion and this led on to more recordings with the same company – recordings of English songs, French songs and Lieder.

PH: Would you like to talk about your work in teaching?

SV: Yes. What I love to do is coaching singers, with the emphasis on interpretation rather than voice production. I do that one day a week at the Royal College of Music (London), also teaching at Clare College, Cambridge. I also hold master classes in several locations – at universities, in schools and at Dartington Hall (Devon). I encourage the students to find the right “sound” for the song at hand, to communicate with their hearts and in the spirit of the language of the song.

My wife and I also host song days and song weekends in our barn at Ansells Farm. Some have a theme. These attract a variety of keen singers – students, amateurs and teachers.

PH: Let’s go back to the subject of interpretation.

SV: I recently completed a PhD in communication in song at the University of York, this subject being central to my teaching and the focus of my own singing. The research is about historical performance and goes right back to Aristotle, the psychology of reception on the part of the audience and the use of imagination on the part of the singer. It meant reading dozens of books by singing teachers, composers, actors, directors, philosophers, psychologists, etc. The bibliography runs to about 280 books and papers; it was a process whereby one book led onto many more, actually, a never-ending search process. My writing deals with the singer’s precise feeling for a song, who the singer is in the song, who the singer is addressing and whether the audience is “present” or not. It has to do with the theory of acting, with theatrical concepts, who the actor is and to what extent the singer inhabits that role. Of course, the singer’s own personality and imagination are involved. A lot of singers are happy to settle for a general emotion; I, however, am convinced that the singer needs to be more specific in order to convince his/her audience.

PH: What role does your audience play?

SV: A very active role. Firstly, the people present at the concert are there out of choice. They are attentive and supportive, they are important to the “partnership”. I would rather sing to a small attentive group than to a larger less involved audience.

PH: What is on your performing program at the moment?

SV: I am playing the Ferryman in Benjamin Britten’s “Curlew River”. The performance will be in Suffolk, where it was premiered in 1964.

I will be performing in “Celebrating Grainger 2011”, a three-day event from February 17th to 20th 2011 at the Kings Place Concert Halls, London that will mark the 50th anniversary of Australian composer Percy Grainger’s death.

PH: Stephen, when not busy with music, what other interests do you have?

SV: I love gardening. One favorite annual outing for me is to the Great Dorset Steam Fair to see to see the huge collection of working steam traction engines; historic machinery and industrial archeology interest me. I also enjoy making things. I recently made some big oak doors for our house.

PH: Stephen, many thanks for your time and for this interesting discussion.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tzvi Avni - Israeli composer and teacher

Tzvi Avni is one of Israel’s foremost composers, whose works are performed worldwide. A central figure of Israeli music, he is the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Life Achievement (1998), the Saarland State Prize for Life Achievement (1998) and the Israel Prize (2001). On July 12th 2010 I had the pleasure of talking to composer and teacher Professor Tzvi Avni in Tel Aviv.

PH: Tzvi, when and where did your involvement with music begin?

Tzvi Avni: I see it all as somewhat of a miracle. At the age of seven, I arrived in Israel from Germany with my parents in 1935. When I was eleven, my father was abducted and killed by Arabs. Till today, I do not know where he was buried. At age 13, on my bar mitzvah, my mother wanted to buy me a present. Interested in music, I requested a musical instrument. We went to the large Kowalsky music shop in downtown Haifa where she bought me a Hohner hand harmonica. This simple, non-chromatic instrument, similar to a mouth organ but richer in musical possibilities, became an important means of musical expression for me and I started composing melodies on it. Not having learned to read music, I devised my own simple form of musical notation. At age 14, I began working and, with my savings, bought myself a mandolin. Again I devised my own notation, this time, a form of tablature. I then bought a Baroque soprano recorder. Playing these instruments by ear, there was always the fervent need to compose. When I joined a youth group, I played for the other members who danced – that is why I have never learned to dance. The youth leader was a kibbutz member, a man who had originally come from Berlin; he started to take me to concerts and was adamant that I should go to study music seriously. This was a new concept for me: I viewed people who played the piano as princes, as higher beings! Well, in our building, we did have an elderly, German-born piano teacher whose pupils all played Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca for all to hear. As the result of the youth leader’s suggestion, at age 16 I was sent to learn to play the piano and to learn to read music with a teacher at whose home one could also practise; we had no piano at home. The piano teacher was impressed with my progress. With the compensation money for my father’s death, I went out and bought my first piano at age 18. I went on to study piano with a Mr. Neumann, a serious piano teacher in Haifa, taking music theory lessons with various other teachers. My dream was to become a concert pianist, but I was beginning to understand that I had started too late to make a concert career. However, I was still busy composing intuitively – a sonatina, a rondo, variations, etc.

PH: Your interests also lay in the plastic arts.

TA: Most definitely. In my youth in Haifa I did much drawing and painting and had considered studying art. But the moment came when I needed to choose the medium that was more important to me and I chose music. I continued painting for a while. However, I found music a more emotional expression.

PH: So you were moving more in the direction of composing.

TA: It was not so simple. When composer Abel Ehrlich came to teach in Haifa, I began studying music theory more seriously with him. However, my formal studies with him were one thing and my own compositions entirely another. I went on to study at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and there took composition with Mordecai Seter for three or four years. It was clear then, as it still is today, that Seter was the most influential and important teacher of my life. Despite my late start, it was he who drew together all the threads of what I had been learning. I should also mention that I studied orchestration with Paul Ben Haim, leading me, among other things, to write many song arrangements for Israeli radio. In the meantime, I had left practicing the piano, completed my military service and was married at 22. My wife was very encouraging of my composing aspirations.

PH: How did you earn your living at that time?

TA: In 1958, I accepted the job of director of the Lod Music Conservatory. However, that same year, on completing my studies at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music, Odeon Partos informed me I would not be receiving my diploma as I had no school matriculation certificate. So I went and completed my matriculation studies. I then took the position of directing the library at Heichal Hatarbut (the Mann Auditorium).

PH: Did you study overseas?

TA: Yes. In 1962, I decided to travel abroad. My wife, Pnina, and I went to the United States for two years. There I approached Edgard Varese, requesting to study with him. Varese, having heard works of mine, insisted I was already a composer, adding that, anyway, he was not willing to teach me his “tricks”; but he did advise me to go and study electronic music. Then and there he picked up the telephone and called Otto Luening at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, gave me a glowing recommendation and arranged for me to receive a bursary for studies. Vladimir Ussachevsky was the main teacher there. During my two years in the USA, I also spent two months in Tanglewood studying with both Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss. These were very avant-garde times in America and my compositional style was much influenced by what I was hearing and experiencing .

PH: So your writing was to undergo a number of drastic changes.

TA: Yes. Before traveling to America, I was busy furthering the previous generation’s style of writing “Mediterranean” music. I was writing works in classical forms. But in America I was faced with a myriad of new ideas and different approaches as well as with the possibilities offered by the medium of electronic music. I made a great effort to free myself of classical forms, I distanced myself from tonality and modal thinking; my approach became more abstract. On my return to Israel at the end of 1964, I needed time to see where my own style was going. “Meditations on a Drama”, composed in 1965 and premiered in 1966, a much performed orchestral work, was the first work that took me into a new phase of composition. I received the ACUM Prize for it. (ACUM is the Israeli non-profit organization administering the rights assigned to it by its members – authors, composers, lyricists, poets, arrangers and music publishers.) My approach had become more abstract in its harmonic combinations; use of color and timbre were gaining more importance for me. These changes are paramount in “Five Pantomimes”(1968) for chamber ensemble, each piece of this work taking inspiration from celebrated paintings. This work was first performed at a workshop for young composers at Beit Lessin (Tel Aviv) an event I had organized. And, of course, there have been new developments since then. My writing has gone from Impressionistic to more Expressionistic; it has become less oriental and was beginning to be somewhat more influenced by elements of Jewish music. My interest in Jewish mysticism is expressed in Epitaph-Sonata no. 2, for example, which derives its inspiration from the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

PH: Have you written for theatre or ballet?

TA: I have composed several works for ballet….for the Bat Dor Dance Company. I love dance and connect easily with it. I have also written music for radio dramas and a little for art films.

PH: And vocal music?

TA: Yes. I have composed a lot of vocal music, much of it on biblical texts.

PH: What about music for children?

TA: Here I should mention “The Three-Legged Monster” (1994) for narrator, piano and small orchestra , a musical story that takes children and adults on a tour of orchestral instruments. The story was written by my late wife Hanna Yaddor-Avni, mother of our children, Shiran and Eylon.

PH: Where do you see your style at the present?

TA: My style today is a continuation and development of my writing of the 1970’s…let’s call it “post modern”. It focuses on expression of emotions. Take the work written for the Offenburger Streichtrio (Offenburg String Trio)- "Credo" - a soul-searching, brooding piece whose ending is, nevertheless, optimistic.

PH: Would you like to talk about your career in teaching?

TA: I began my teaching career in elementary schools. For eight years I taught school music – no easy task in a classroom of 40 children. In fact, for one year I taught Hebrew songs in an Arabic school! When directing the Lod Music Conservatory I taught theory as well as teaching in a school in Ramat Gan. I was bent on finding interesting ways of teaching music theory to children. At a concert a few years ago a man approached me – he had studied theory with me at the Lod Conservatory and today is now a professor at the Weizmann Institute; and he still remembers the theory lessons he learned with me! After my return from America, Mrs. Yocheved Dostrovsky-Kopernik, then director of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, asked me if I would be willing to teach electronic music in the Academy’s new laboratory. Happy at the prospect, I spent time familiarizing myself with the newly acquired Arp synthesizer there, took on teaching a number of subjects, yet still directing the music library in Tel Aviv. Conductor Mendi Rodan consequently offered me a full-time teaching job at the Jerusalem (Rubin) Academy of Music and Dance. I was made a professor as the result of works of mine being sent to other universities.

I have always enjoyed teaching. In a one-semester course I teach called “Introduction to 20th Century Music” I talk about its roots in Romantic music – Impressionism and Expressionism –referring to painting and the arts in general. I, myself, am fascinated by how and where new styles spring up. And giving composition students musical- and meaningful direction gives me much satisfaction, as does hearing their compositions performed. Today the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance boasts a fine theory and composition department, some of its own most gifted graduates being among its teaching faculty. Its composition students enjoy many opportunities to have new works performed.

PH: What have you been writing recently?

TA: I have just completed a concerto for piano and chamber orchestra – my first and last! It was an exhausting job. Even checking it for errors has been a huge undertaking. It was commissioned and will be premiered September 1st 2010, opening the Duisburg Philharmonic’s new concert season. I will be present to hear my concerto sandwiched between Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” Overture and Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, in a program of Jewish composers! By the way, when earlier on I mentioned freeing myself of Classical forms, here I have composed the first movement in sonata form, the second an ABA form and the third, a rondo…but have used the forms loosely.

PH: Is today’s Israeli music characterized by specific tendencies?

TA: No. Composers are each writing in their own individual styles and I think this is a good thing. This post-modern age is like a children’s playroom – each of us visiting it chooses the "toys" he/she wants to play with from the selection there. Many of the younger composers are using minimalistic elements. But there is Impressionism, Expressionism, also post-modernism (for better and for worse.) However, there are many talented Israeli students and composers writing much music.

PH: Do you think today’s young composers have more courage to try new ideas than those of previous generations?

TA: This is a mine-field. The avant-garde is passé and one problem is that everything “new and different” has already been tried and done; having that kind of “courage” could mean “imitating” rather than “creating”. What really counts is relevance, is whether the composer writes music that has impact, music that is expressive and personal, music that presents ideas or a different way of looking at things.

PH: So where is music going?

TA: Who knows if we are not approaching the breakdown of the use of musical instruments. The public is now so conditioned to hearing electronic sounds! Technology is taking over our lives at a frantic pace. A Mozart symphony at a concert might end up being performed with microphones magnifying the sound! On the other hand, there is the search for authenticity, as we see in early music, for example.

PH: Tzvi, back to you. Apart from music, what interests you the most?

TA: As mentioned earlier, the visual arts are the second passion of my life. I love to look at art works and spend time in galleries. I have brought my love for music and the visual arts together in several works that have been inspired by works of 20th century artists – Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, Dali, Miro, Ardon, and others. In works such as “Program Music 1980” and in solo pieces for flute, oboe and clarinet called “Anthropomorphic Landscapes” I focus on “music painting”.

PH: Tzvi, many thanks for your time and for sharing so many interesting ideas.