Sunday, December 18, 2011

Baroque violinist Walter Reiter (UK) talks about his musical life, teaching internationally and the early days of the Baroque scene in Israel

I spoke to Baroque violinist Walter Reiter (UK) December 13th 2011 prior to his visit to Israel to teach in the second Tel Aviv Early Music Seminar Tel Aviv and to lead and solo in the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s upcoming “Celebrating Christmas & Chanukah” concert.

PH: Professor Reiter, would you like to talk about your earliest music experiences?

Walter Reiter: My earliest musical memories are of bagpipe bands and drums where I was brought up on the north coast of Ireland; there the Protestants played bagpipes and drums and the Catholics played Irish music. My earliest ambition, like that of many boys in the village where we lived, was to be a pipe band leader. It was a good lesson as how divisive religion can be: we were one Jewish family among 700 Protestants and 300 Catholics.

PH: When did you start to play an instrument?

WR: My mother was from a very musical family in Vienna. The youngest of five children, she could play the piano fairly well (we had a hired piano in Ireland) and she played the violin very badly. But, as there was nobody to teach my brother and me the violin where we lived in Ireland, she decided to teach us herself. Her sister, who lived in Holland, sent us violins and music and vaguely told my mother how to do it, and that is how we learned the instrument for the first few years! There were some other people who tried their hands at teaching us; there was an Italian ice-cream man, but my mum thought he was useless…which he probably was. When I was ten, we moved to England.

PH: So you continued your music education in England.

WR: Well, it was very unorthodox. As soon as we moved to England, my mother sent us to a really good teacher in London at the Royal Academy. I stuck that for about three years, I guess. The teacher was probably a very good teacher, but I did not really understand why she wanted me to be so disciplined. When I was fifteen, she suggested I enroll in the Academy proper the following year. I said I did not want to and she said she would not teach me any longer. So I stopped having lessons for about four years, by which time I could play some Sarasate and such works, all with lots of flair and very little orthodox technique.

PH: So when was the turning point?

WR: It was not, actually, until I went to the University of Glasgow, where I studied Drama and Philosophy, that I started playing chamber music and decided I really wanted to be a professional violinist. (Glasgow University is near some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and I love walking. More about that later) Lots of people said that, at 21, I should already be playing Paganini, etc. However, I had a really wonderful teacher – Leonard Friedman, a fine musician - who said it was too late for me to become a virtuoso violinist or a soloist, but that I could become a good musician. He said I should forget my age and just do the work. I left the university to study with him.

I came down to London, studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music. By that time I had met Yona Etlinger, who said I should go to Israel. (I had dreamed of studying in Moscow.) So in 1970 I went to Israel and attended one of Ramy Shevelov’s amazing summer courses. I was not really good enough to actively take part in the course; I just took lessons with him throughout that summer. But I was bowled over by the superb quality of playing I heard there and thought that I must be in Israel.

PH: So you moved to Israel.

WR: It was not logistically possible to stay in Israel then, but I was ready to throw away my return ticket and continue studying with Shevelov. I went back to London, graduated and returned to Israel. I studied with Ramy for about three years in all. He was the most superb musician and teacher and I think that were it not for him, I would not be playing the violin today. However, living in Israel was a little difficult in the sense that one could not study and earn money at the same time. But, as luck would have it, I landed a job in the Yehudi Menuhin Festival Orchestra (formerly the Bath Festival Orchestra), which meant about four months a year working and traveling the world; I would rush back to Israel for a few weeks at a time to continue my studies.

PH: You also studied in Europe.

WR: Yes, I studied with Sandor Végh (of the Végh Quartet), for a year in Germany. He was fantastic. I worked really hard there. But I eventually came back to Israel and started teaching in the Rubin Conservatory (today known as the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance) and at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

PH: You have always had a great love of teaching.

WR: Yes. I taught even when a student: it is so inspiring to guide young people through the mysteries of music-making, and it keeps me young too! On my return to Israel I was incredibly lucky: even in my first year I had three or four pupils who were really outstanding. Among those who have made fine careers are Shlomit Sivan and violists Yoel Greenberg (the Carmel Quartet) and Amir van der Hal (IPO). I think one of the motivations for my teaching so much is because of my own completely unorthodox musical training.

For two years, while teaching in Jerusalem, I studied violin pedagogy with Russian-born violinist Felix Andrievsky, who came to Jerusalem from the Menuhin School. What I learned from him has been so valuable. At that time, I began playing part-time in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, too.

PH: Which was when your interest in Baroque violin started?

WR: I had always been interested in Baroque music, having played a lot of it at university. But yes, it was around this time that I started grappling with the Baroque violin; I think I was the first Baroque violinist in Israel! We had a small group of players – we called ourselves “Camerata Yerushalayim” - and I also participated in Bach cantatas every week at the Van Leer Institute. I looked around for a bow: the violin-maker and ‘cellist Yossi Boazson had an East German viola da gamba bow, probably a terrible, factory-made bow, and together we played some concerts. One concert was at Beit Hillel and that was on the very day the Laurette Goldberg arrived in Israel. She was my Baroque “fairy godmother”. Having flown from San Francisco, she arrived at the concert hall straight from the airport with Professor Jehoash Hirshberg; Jehoash had told her that there was not much going on in Baroque music in Jerusalem, but that there was to be a recital that evening. After the concert, Laurette came to me, gave me a big hug and told me she had come to Israel to start a Baroque orchestra and that I was to lead it, adding that I knew absolutely nothing about the Baroque violin and that she would teach me! So that is how it…sort of…started. She brought over some musicians who worked at the Jerusalem Music Centre. All were principals of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of the West. The violinist was Michael Sand, there was the amazing viola da gamba player Susie Napper and there was Bruce Haynes, one of the first people to play the Baroque oboe. They all came over and started a band, but we could not work without them as there were not enough people interested.

At the end of that year, I went across to Paris for the summer to have more lessons with Michael Sand. There, I was offered a job with “Les Arts Florissants”. I decided to take a sabbatical year from teaching in Jerusalem to work with “Les Arts Florissants”. Still based in Jerusalem, I think I went over to Europe eight times that year! However, “Les Arts Florissants” was offering me so much work that we moved to Europe in 1986. I worked with “Les Arts Florissants” and with other groups for three years.

I eventually moved back to London, getting a job with “The English Concert”, where I have been principal second violin for 10 years, eventually also leading “The Sixteen”.

PH: What other interesting things are you doing at the moment?

WR: I am doing a lot of teaching….I have 11 pupils at Trinity College London, and one at the Royal Academy of Music. And I teach in The Hague, where I am sharing the teaching duties of a class with Kati Debretzeni, who had been a pupil of mine in Israel. I suppose I helped to form quite a few of the Israeli Baroque players: Kati, Dafna, Lilia Slavni….

PH: Would you like to talk about your Cuban Baroque music project?

WR: Yes. And if we have been talking about my passion for teaching, I confess my favorite place to teach is in Cuba, where I am about to go on my eighth visit. That started when I met some Cuban people who were trying to play the Baroque violin and, rather like me many years ago, did not really know what they were doing. Incredibly musical, talented and intuitive, they suggested I come to Cuba to teach. I received an official invitation to go there and taught on a voluntary basis. On our first visit there, my wife, singer Linda Perillo - who kind of introduced Baroque singing to the island - and I performed a concert of music by Muffat, Biber and Schmelzer; the people there were so enthusiastic. Their musicians are very well trained: they go through the Soviet system of training, but they themselves are Latin and African, so not at all rigid and also not especially disciplined. (They spend most of their time playing or laughing.) But they have incredible musical intuition and initiative, learn quickly and progress on their own. For example, there was a young man there who wanted to play the theorbo. He got a local instrument-maker to build him one, I found him the strings and the next time I came he could play his theorbo…without a single lesson!

We all got on extremely well and I realized there was great potential there. Here was a place where people just love music (including classical music) and where a huge percentage of people play musical instruments. So I started going over there to teach and direct, and now there is actually a thriving Early Music scene in Havana. They have an early music festival in February, they have organs, harpsichords, and viols and, in fact, some players have now studied at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. On my next visit, I will be going to Santiago to “convert” them there as well. Now my work there is sponsored by the Salzburg “Mozarteum” which has an outreach program in Latin America. On my next visit there in April, I will be teaching Baroque violin for a week and coaching a Baroque orchestra as well; actually two, because one of the arts high schools now has its own! I call it my “Chiquitica (littlies) Baroque Orchestra”! In the second week, it will be music of the Classical period – probably Beethoven’s Symphony no.1 or possibly a Schubert symphony. There will be a concert with the Baroque Orchestra plus a performance of a Classical symphony. Some of the Santiago people will come to Havana …riding 14 hours in a bumpy bus to Havana…all for their love of music.

PH: I would like to hear about your books.

WR: As a teacher, I have decided that students want to know about style and how to interpret the large repertoire of Baroque music. By the end of one-, two- or three years of training, they are not able to sit down in an orchestra and play a Händel oratorio or a Mozart symphony in style. So I decided to put together a compendium of Baroque “Ėtudes”. They are not études at all but a selection of pieces from easy ones to very advanced. It will be in three volumes, one of which has already been published. I am also busy putting together a Baroque anthology for young children. There are plenty of those around, but there is nothing in that field with any air of historical performance practice. There will be four books of that, to be published by Schott Music Ltd. And I am writing a book about how to play the Baroque violin, partly inspired by the fact that a lot of people do not have access to Baroque violin teachers. These players end up imitating things, without necessarily knowing why. The idea of the book is to have a kind of Baroque method, as it were. It is a kind of “do-it-yourself” Baroque violin manual.

PH: And then there is another book.

WR: (hesitating) Ah, yes. The novel….I have been writing it for about eight years. I do that in my “spare time”, that is when I am on tour, sitting in hotels. I hope to finish it eventually…

PH: What is it about?

WR: Love. What else?

PH: What are your future plans?

WR: My diary is very full. We are very busy with the English Concert. We are supposed to be doing an opera every year for the next five years at Carnegie Hall. We will then do the same opera at Theater an der Wien (Vienna). Still leading “The Sixteen”, we have a whole series of Monteverdi recordings to do and we are about to record Händel’s “Saul”; we also do a Händel opera in Buxton (northern England) every year. I lead a group in Norway, which I love, and we are trying to get the ensemble to Cuba to do a joint concert of the B Minor Mass, which has never been performed in Cuba! And I have lots of recitals…

In the very immediate future, I am about to return to Israel to do some teaching in Tel Aviv. There is a lot of interest in Baroque playing in Israel and a high standard of string-playing. Dare I say that in the early days of my playing Baroque music in Israel, there was a huge amount of vociferous opposition to our approach to the genre, often quite vitriolic! I once heard Isaac Stern actually call early music a “crime”? Things certainly have changed!

PH: And you will also be leading and soloing with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in concerts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Would you like to talk about the program?

WR: Well, it is a Chanukah/Christmas program. I will be playing two of Biber’s “Rosary” Sonatas, which I recorded some years ago as well as other Biber works with the chamber group. We will also be playing some Muffat – Biber’s contemporary in Salzburg who had worked with Corelli in Rome – as well as Christmas Concerto. Muffat also studied in Paris and we will play a piece by Rebel “Les Caractères de la Danse” and some “Noëls pour les Instruments” by Charpentier. The Overture to Händel’s “Judas Maccabaeus” provides the Chanukah element and ties in nicely with Corelli, as the two worked together in Rome.

PH: When it is not music, what are your interests?

WR: Reading and writing and trying to keep fit. I love walking and am still “living” a walking holiday I had in Ireland with my son three months ago.

PH: Professor Reiter, it has been most interesting talking to you. Thank you for your time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Professor Andre de Quadros talks about his varied professional life and ideas

On November 5th 2011, I talked to André de Quadros, who was back in Boston, where he lives, after working with young Jewish and Arab singers from Emek Hefer and Shefar’am and holding a conducting workshop in Jerusalem for young Jewish and Arab musicians in Jerusalem. De Quadros is one of the most prominent activist musicians in human rights in the world today. He is professor of Music and Music Education at Boston University and a member of the African Studies Center, the Center for the Study of Asia and the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations.

PH: Professor de Quadros, are you from a musical family?

André de Quadros: I come from Goa, India. Goan communities are very family- and culture oriented. Everyone is expected to sing and dance. My father was a physician, but he was also a champion ballroom dancer. My mother was one of five children, each of whom played the piano or sang. My maternal grandfather was a violinist. My earliest musical memory is probably of my mother playing the piano, with us standing around her, singing.

PH: When did you start learning an instrument?

AdQ: I was sent to learn the violin at age four. In those days in India, sheet music was too expensive to buy. I remember my violin teacher writing out a piece for me every week – a movement from “Dido and Aeneas” or a minuet, for example.

PH: So you had your musical education in India.

AdQ: Yes. I learned the violin for a number of years and then I started conducting. Actually, I began conducting totally by accident and then discovered I had a passion for it. I was studying for a degree in Economics and Statistics at the University of Bombay. One of my friends there was a very fine pianist and he invited me to go with him to a choir rehearsal. He was the choir pianist and needed someone to turn his pages. So I went along as his page-turner! It so turned out that the conductor would not be able to be able to be present at the choir’s next concert. None of the singers agreed to fill in for him and my friend was needed at the piano. They then turned to me. I said I could read a single line of music but had never conducted. The choir members assured me it would be fine; they would just need me to start them off. That was the beginning of my conducting career!

PH: What interests you about conducting?

AdQ: I had never seen conducting earlier on but became fascinated by it as means of communicating, as a unifying gestural language.

PH: Did you then study conducting?

AdQ: Fortunately for me, there was a very distinguished German conductor – Joachim Buehler - on an assignment in India; he took me on as his protégé. I was very happy working with him, soaking up so much knowledge and experience from him. This was one of the most important learning experiences I have had. He really nurtured my passion for conducting and did a lot to develop me pedagogically and artistically.

PH: Where did you take higher studies?

AdQ: After working in India in industrial chemistry, I went to Australia. In Australia, I worked in computing, retail and economic research. There, I decided to study music and took composition and musicology at La Trobe University, Melbourne. After that, I earned a degree in movement and dance; this interested me a lot as a language of gestures and the body. I went on to study at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg on a German government scholarship; following that, an artist’s diploma in conducting from the Victorian College of the Arts of Melbourne…you could say I did 14 years of university studies.

PH: Would you like to talk more about your involvement with dance?

AdQ: I taught dance for a number of years and still have some contact with it. Before teaching the recent course in Jerusalem, I did a project in Emek Hefer with a youth choir – the Efroni Choir- and an Arab choir from Shefar’am. I have been incorporating dance into workshop activities. (My own choir in Indonesia works with traditional dance and choreography.)

PH: You certainly have a wide range of disciplines.

AdQ: I was doing much more orchestral work in Australia. I have worked with choirs all over the world, not only as a guest conductor; I had my own choirs in Australia. I am now the conductor and musical director of the Manado State University Choir in Indonesia. I do a lot of travel, giving courses and master classes, mostly in conducting. This year, for example, I have given a master class/conducting courses in China, Norway, Indonesia and Jerusalem. In February, I am giving a master class in France. Most of the people taking my classes happen to be conductors or, at least, accomplished musicians, as are the people I worked with at the Jerusalem workshop. There is more demand for my work than I have time for. Actually, I go where it interests me to be; there is no routine arrangement.

PH: On what does your teaching work in Boston focus?

AdQ: In Boston, I only work with graduate students who are doing masters- and doctoral degrees in music education. The students are doing various projects in the USA and further afield: one is finishing a doctorate on an American band organization and another one is working on some kind of project in Indonesia; two are writing dissertations on choral music. And I am also in the middle of a lot of my own projects: editing and writing chapters for the Cambridge Companion to Choral Music (to be published by Cambridge University Press) and finishing a book on music education.

PH: I have read that you are doing work on Muslim music.

AdQ: Yes, I do. I am fascinated by music from the pan-Muslim world. One genre that interests me, for example, is the muwashah style, a choral song that originated in the 13th- and 14th centuries in the Muslim Spanish tradition. Indonesia interests me greatly. There are some very interesting song forms that have spread all over the Moslem world; for example, the Sufi tradition, a pan-Islamic tradition (which has connections with Jewish tradition) is both traditional and intensely spiritual.

When I was in Israel, I had the opportunity to interview a Muslim imam.

PH: How do your views on music connect with community concerns?

AdQ: The question is – what are the cultural values of music education? In conservatories we prepare people for the professional world, even where the professional world is diminishing in its capacity to absorb graduates into it and to offer work. We prepare students for a world that is completely modernized. Music conservatories do not prepare their students to work with those who are homeless, with the dying, with people in extreme poverty, etc. If we do see music as having power, we are certainly not carrying that vision into the larger frame. I think that we should be using music to bring people together as communities, to change people, to humanize people, to make them gentle, and more. I have become very interested in community development and community mobilization of the arts. A couple of years ago, I worked with a prison choir in Bangkok; I was both inspired and touched by the inmates’ engagement with music and their need – no, their hunger - for it. So now, together with one of my colleagues, I am starting a choir in a prison in Boston.

PH: And your work in public health?

AdQ: I have been involved in this field for two or three years now, and for the last year, I have been co-developing a project in a shanty town in Lima, Peru. It is a research project to improve the community’s health, working within it through the arts – music, theatre and dance. That is a big part of my work at the moment.

PH: We met recently in Jerusalem. Was this your first visit to Israel?

AdQ: Oh, no. I have been here quite a few times.

PH: What thoughts and aims do you have about being here in Israel and making music here?

AdQ: First of all, I am not an Israeli and not a Palestinian, so I have no vested interests here. Of course, I do have my political sympathies. It was interesting to work with the Efroni Choir from Emek Hefer (Maya Shavit, conductor) and the Sawa Choir (Sawa means “together”) from Shefar’am (conductors: Rahib Hadad, Eva de Majo) and to hear them talking about their thoughts on our work – socially, culturally, politically. One person claimed it was very easy for me to be doing this as I am an outsider and “not here, you are not from the United States and not really from anywhere but you belong everywhere!” Well, I have been an immigrant for all of my life and can communicate in many languages. I am not like a tree that is rooted in one particular location. I am movable and relocatable.

Back to making music here, there are a number of arguments. One is the deceptive view that music can solve the problems of any community. Music can not bring peace to the Middle East (and music can not solve the problems of Sri Lanka, where I will be in three weeks’ time.). However, bringing people together to work together, sing together, play together, to make poetry together, to experience interaction on the human level allows us to appreciate who the other person might be. On the choir workshop day, the young Jewish and Arab participants claimed that “they are like us” and that they did not want the problems the older generation had handed down to given them. In this encounter, we took things further than just singing together: we sang a piece from the opera “Rinaldo” treating it as not just as a piece of classical music, but as a musical activity that gave the young people an opportunity of bringing in their own feelings and emotions. Everyone sang a Sufi song in Arabic and then we created a kind of accompaniment in which these young people improvised, some of them singing a solo of even just a few seconds – for example, one was based on a quotation from the Hebrew Bible; there was quite a lot of interesting experimentation. One young Arab sang a long song in Arabic. The Emek Hefer singers did not understand the words, but that did not matter. The important thing was that all felt safe to use the musical endeavor as a platform for personal expression.

In the Jerusalem conducting workshop, we had seventeen students, five of whom were Arabs. All were either Music Academy students or graduates.

PH: What are your interests outside of music?

AdQ: All my interests, philosophy and lifestyle are integrated: the way I live, the way I eat and work artistically all fit into my entire view of the world, of the environment and art. I am, indeed, very interested in the environment. I read a huge amount – fiction, about science, about the arts. I am interested in politics. I am interested in acquiring languages and would very much like to learn Hebrew, but I do not see I will do it in this lifetime!

PH: Professor de Quadros, thank you for your time. And, many thanks for sharing so many interesting thoughts and ideas.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ivan Velikanov talks about Alta Capella, the first professional early music ensemble to come out of Russia

On October 15th 2011, I met with Ivan (Yohanan) Velikanov on the terrace of Jerusalem’s lively Paradiso Café-Restaurant. Velikanov, 25, is the founder and musical director of the Alta Capella Ensemble from Moscow, four of whose members are in Israel for a short concert tour.

PH: Ivan, are you from Moscow?

Ivan Velikanov: Yes, I am. Our group is based in Moscow, but not all players are originally from there.

PH: How many players are you?

IV: All in all, 13 players, but the number depends on each individual program. We have some permanent members and others whom we call on when we need them. And the permanent members play different instruments, according to what we are performing; we play a wide range of music and from several periods. For example, for 15th century music we need shawms but we do not need violins. When we play 17th century music, mostly on cornets and sackbuts, we need Baroque violins as it is normal for this music to combine these with basso continuo. So you could say our ensemble is flexible. We have a choice of Baroque violinists in Moscow, but when it comes to instruments like the shawm, bombard and cornett, the core of the ensemble provides those. For example, when it comes to the cornett, played in the Renaissance and early Baroque, our instrumentalist Maxim was the only player in Russia. Actually, I have begun playing it now; so you might say there are now one and a half cornett players in Russia! We play music spanning from the 13th century up to the early 18th century.

PH: How long has the ensemble been in existence?

IV: A little over two years. Almost all the players are students or graduates from the Moscow Conservatoire. I, myself, studied composition there and now I am back there studying orchestral conducting. Maxim, with us here in Israel, who plays first cornett, bombard (alto shawm) and other instruments, graduated in orchestral conducting.

PH: How do you create such an early music ensemble in a country that has very little tradition in performing music from this time? How do you find teachers?

IV: Finding teachers is a big problem. There have never been shawm- or cornett teachers in Russia and there still are not. We, ourselves, will be the first generation of professional masters of these instruments in 10 or 15 years. So we are self-made early music instrumentalists, although we have much training in other musical fields. What I do is invite some of western Europe’s finest early music specialists to give master classes in Moscow – such as the great French cornettist and expert in Renaissance improvisation William Dongois; his guidance was very useful, not just for cornett players. The brilliant Italian shawm player Isacco Colombo has tutored us. We have also been to Germany to attend master classes.

PH: So you are the first professional early music ensemble in Russia.

IV: You could say so. There are some instrument makers in Russia who dabble in the playing of early instruments. Do they play authentically? Well, the question of authenticity is a tricky one. How do we know how the shawm should really sound? It is not like the clarinet, whose uninterrupted history allows us to know the styles of playing of the various schools. As to professional playing of early brass instruments, we are the first.

PH: What is important for you to develop in such an ensemble?

IV: The music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance offers much opportunity for improvisation, more than we could hope to do as yet. In fact, what is written down is more a recording of improvisation than composition itself. In the 15th century, the tenor line might be written out, but even that was not always necessary as many works were based on well-known melodies. We need to be flexible enough to play many styles from many countries.

PH: You have much fine music teaching in Russia. How do the great masters relate to this newly developing field?

IV: They are steeped in their own tradition and their work is to pass on this strong musical tradition. If a conservatory professor of modern violin hears or senses (perhaps in the sound or bowing) that the student is playing Baroque violin, he will feel it his duty to stop him/her. For them, the huge range of medieval and Renaissance music is categorized as “pre-Bach”!

PH: What, then, is the situation in Russia regarding Renaissance music?

IV: We are the pioneers. As to early trombones, we now have the first sackbuts in Russia. I purchased four in Switzerland and gave them to four of our players to learn. They do not tell their trombone teachers, but their teachers have picked up their new approach to brass playing, wondering why they are playing so softly, when orchestral trombonists need to produce fff sounds! Renaissance instruments demand different techniques, a different way of thinking, in order to give the music its correct meaning. The players need to adjust to smaller mouthpieces, to a different use of lips and muscles.

PH: You have also founded a Renaissance festival.

IV: Yes. The first one was just this last April. It mostly consisted of several days of classes (Colombo was teaching there) and it finished with a concert in which we played together with the tutors. I feel this is a very important step in our development.

PH: This must be new to the Russian concert public. Are your concerts well received?

IV: Audiences show curiosity, just as they might if there were a concert on Japanese instruments or any other exotic instruments. People are curious and do ask questions, especially about the instruments. But beginning to perform to Russian audiences is no simple matter. We can not change styles of playing to create a more familiar musical environment in order to “win over the public”; and the other extreme is playing “music for musicians”. So the musical direction of a group such as ours is a delicate issue at this time of early music development. However, I really want to expose the rich gamut of early music to the Russian public.

PH: So what instruments do you play?

IV: I started with the piano as a child but, from age seven or eight, I have wanted to be a composer. I still play piano but had never intended to be a professional pianist. I play harpsichord and organ and I play the organetto – a small portable pipe instrument, pumped with one hand and held on one’s lap…and it has a dynamic range - this instrument was played only in the 14th- and 15th centuries and can be seen in paintings, such as frescoes of Giotto. I bought my organetto in Germany and took some master classes with Guillermo de Pérez, a great exponent of the instrument. There is much polyphony one can play on it, even with one hand. It sounds wonderful with strings – we have a fiddle player. And, as mentioned earler, I am now playing some early brass. We early musicians can not limit ourselves to one instrument.

PH: Ivan, do you sing?

IV: I am currently studying the singing of medieval music with a very fine singer – a Russian woman who has studied at the Basel Schola Cantorum.

PH: Would you like to talk about your composing?

IV: Yes. The life of a composer is very difficult, especially if one does it to the exclusion of other musical activities. At age 14 and 15, I studied composition and musicology. Composing is emotionally so difficult; I actually underwent a crisis and stopped writing. But nowadays, I do compose sometimes….even for our ensemble. For example, I wrote a piece for cornett and theorbo for our players.

PH: In what style is your music?

IV: I do not permit myself to think about style. A composer considering that nowadays will be lost. It is not natural for a composer to choose.

PH: Let’s talk about your performances at the Yehiam Renaissance Festival (October 16th to 18th)directed by harpsichordist Marina Minkin..

IV: Our performances have two separate themes: one is music “Outside the Castle” and the other, “Inside the Castle”. In the first, we will perform authentic Alta Capella music - music of the 14th-, 15th- and early 16th century on shawm, bombard (alto shawm), slide trumpet and percussion. We will perform on the terrace of the ancient Yehiam fortress. In these concerts, will explain a little about the instruments and works and I will also be singing. The program will include works from Landini, to Dufay sacred music, to the anonymous dances collected by Italian Renaissance dancing master Domenico da Piacensa. Our second program will consist of 16th- and 17th century music with continuo – organ or harpsichord. And here, coming back to improvisation, we will be playing music such as sets of diminutions (improvisations written down) for the entertainment of the Yehiam festival-goers that did, originally, have didactic aims. In a Palestrina madrigal or Lasso’s “Suzanne un jour” the ornamenting of the top line is a musical, stylistic and emotional process.

PH: So you have two very different programs.

IV: Indeed. Both musically and instrumentally. In the second program, I will play not percussion but continuo, Maxim is playing not bombard but cornett, George is playing not shawm but recorder and Alexandra is not playing slide trumpet but natural trumpet. In the “Inside the Castle” program we will present music that is more “gallant”, more delicate, and, as I said earlier, much written down improvisation – works of Bassano, Frescobaldi, and more.

PH: Ivan, thank you for being available to talk on your short and busy Israel tour. I wish you all much success and hope to hear the ground-breaking Alta Capella Ensemble here in Israel again soon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guy Morley (UK) talks about playing the trombone and sackbut

On August 24th 2011 I met with brass instrument player Guy Morley in a street café in Ávila, Spain. Originally from Manchester UK, Morley, aged 23, is a member of the “Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro” sackbut quartet (UK). Translated as “The New Light and Shade”, the ensemble’s name refers to the style of Renaissance Italian art; the group was formed in 2009 at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK.

PH: Guy, are you from a musical family?

Guy Morley: Yes. My father is a horn player in the Liverpool Philharmonic and my mother is a violinist. (My mother has always been very supportive of my music, helping me get through my teenage years, when I was considering giving up playing altogether!) My younger brother is studying at the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. He also plays trumpet in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and aspires to be a professional trumpet player.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

GM: One of my earliest memories is of my father waking us up in the mornings playing the horn solo from Richard Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel” or the horn call from “Siegfried”.

PH: When did you start music lessons?

GM: I took up the trombone at the age of eight, studying with Barry Dakin, a wonderful trombonist. Though young, I was a tall child and big enough then to reach the positions. I joined the local youth brass band at age ten and played with it up to age 18. I attended the local comprehensive school, where we had an excellent music department staffed by committed teachers. It was only at age 18, when I attended an open day at one of the music colleges that I decided to take higher studies in music and make it my profession.

PH: So you went on to a music college.

GM: Yes. I am still studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, where I have just completed my fourth year. I went there with the aim of becoming a teacher, never imagining I would be of the level to become a professional performer.

PH: What exactly are you studying there?

GM: I study modern bass trombone with Robert Hughes, Alwyn Green and David Vines; I have been predominantly a modern bass trombone player for the duration of my studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

PH: So when did you begin playing early brass instruments?

GM: In their second year, all trombonists at the Birmingham Conservatoire are required to play the sackbut as a second study instrument. I play tenor sackbut (pitched in b flat) and bass sackbut (in f) but tend to play the bass more. In 2009, our sackbut teacher Sue Addison suggested that Martyn Sanderson (a member of our quartet) and I take up a bursary to spend two weeks at Dartington Hall taking part in master classes and workshops. There I met Daniel Serafini and Patrick Kenny, who joined Martyn and myself to form “Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro”. We are all students at various conservatories in the UK. This was the beginning of my deep involvement in early music, and, without the Dartington Hall experience, the sackbut might have taken a back seat for me. As a modern bass trombonist, I had simply been unaware of early music brass playing. As we progressed as an ensemble, many doors opened to us and the interest keeps growing. Not only playing early instruments, we are also very interested in all aspects of period performance – from medieval- through to Renaissance music, the Classical period and the Romantic style, with the German school of Brahms and Bruckner. I would not like to pigeonhole myself only as “a modern bass trombone player” or only as “an early sackbut player”. The four of us feel this way.

PH: And you are also members of “Camerata Antica”.

GM: Yes. The four of us play in this London-based ensemble There we are joined by cornetts on top of sackbuts, which, when well played, produce a lovely singing quality of sound.

PH: The sackbut is certainly different to the modern trombone.

GM: Yes. The use of the lips and slide are common to both. One of the biggest differences is, obviously, the instrument itself. The modern trombone is a lot larger than the Renaissance sackbut, the latter having a very small bore in comparison to the large-bore instruments played in a symphony orchestra. The mouthpieces are different as, of course, is the repertoire. In reading early manuscripts or even modern editions of early works, there is very little written in terms of directions on the page; this really hones your sense of musicality and you have to look into the music yourself and try and work out what the composer intended. We always aim to model our sackbut playing on how a vocalist would sing the text, so everything is really shaped and phrased in terms of the text – we try to bring out strong and weak syllables, feminine endings, cadences etc. – trying to emulate the singer as much as possible, to add color to the voices rather than contrasting them. In all the early choral works, sackbuts and cornetts were used as an addition to bolster the voices. In the Monteverdi “Vespers”, however, the composer wrote separate cornett and sackbut parts, but in a lot of early music these instruments are required to double a relevant voice and this approach is seen right up to Haydn (The Creation), Beethoven and Mozart (Requiem).

PH: What about tuning?

GM: It is to do with knowing the tuning system that they would have used at the time of music played – the quarter-comma meantone being the most common temperament used in the 16th- and 17th centuries; one needs to make sure thirds are low enough, how keys are used at that temperament and where the best tuning is going to come from on the instrument. For example, we find that most of the early music is written in what we call “simple keys” (like g major, c major, f major). Having the slide is an advantage in the same way as having a string would be to fine tune the notes in whichever temperament is being used.

PH: Are you tuned to a = 415?

GM: No. Our sackbuts are tuned to a = 440 .Original pitch might have been a = 465 or a = 466; a = 415 is the Baroque pitch. Playing sackbuts in Baroque music poses its own problems; we add crooks to extend the instruments, taking the tuning down a semi-tone in pitch. This poses problems; it sometimes means “relearning the instrument” and one is also required to transpose at sight. As a modern trombone player one is required to read from a number of clefs, but as an early trombone player one has to learn many more. This is an important skill when playing in groups and this flexibility makes us “sellable”.

PH: Talking of sellable, how do you see the early music concert scene in Britain?

GM: In the two years we have been performing, we have not noticed massive changes in that time. We, ourselves, are very busy with performances in two ensembles (we also play with “Camerata Antica”) in several cities here in the UK, giving us a general overview of the early music scene. We have given concerts in Manchester. Our sackbut quartet performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and at the Brighton Early Music Festival this year, where we took part in the “White Night” Festival (music performed till the early morning hours) in the slot following on from “His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts” who were doing the Monteverdi Vespers (quite a daunting idea for us!) It was a fantastic experience. And we are very happy that Andrew van der Beek has hired us to play with singers this week in Ávila for concert commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomas Luis de Victoria.

PH: And the British concert audiences for whom you perform?

GM: Period performance has only really been going for the past 25 or 30 years. It is still a relatively new concept to a lot of people, but the concerts are very well received as a lot of these people have never had the opportunity to see these instruments. Audiences are curious and very appreciative. We try to recreate how these instruments would have been played in the Renaissance, Baroque or earlier and people do like it and take an interest in the instruments and specific styles of playing.

PH: Do you record?

GM: We did a recording at a church in Walthemstow

PH: Do you teach?

GM: Yes. I do peripatetic work for the Birmingham Music Service. I do all manner of brass teaching, from the cornet (not to be confused with the early cornett), tenor horn, French horn, trombone, trumpet and baritone. We have to be adaptable as we do a lot of Wider Opportunities teaching, whole class instrumental teaching. There are many deprived areas in Birmingham; the schools pay for the children’s music tuition and we teach groups of up to 30 pupils. I have a real passion for teaching. Having had such outstanding tuition myself, I would like to replicate that and pass it on to young players.

PH: In what direction would you like to see your professional life going?

GM: I definitely want to continue teaching. I would like to see myself as a performer and I know the other ensemble members would as well. I would not choose to play only early music just as I would not choose to play modern orchestral music exclusively. I hope to be adaptable enough to fulfill the demands of both fields.

PH: Outside of music, what interests do you have?

GM: Apart from listening to music and attending concerts, I am a keen Blackburn Rovers (professional football team) supporter and play in a football team. In the summer I play in a cricket team in Birmingham. I live on the border of Derbyshire, the border of the Peak District, and like to go walking in the hills, altogether enjoying the various kinds of marvellous countryside in Britain - from the Scottish Highlands down to Dartmoor.

PH: Many thanks, Guy. It has been a great pleasure talking to you.

Friday, September 9, 2011

From violin to serpent: Andrew van der Beek's journey from string playing to becoming a renowned player of early wind instruments

On August 25th 2011, Andrew van der Beek (UK) and I met to talk in a café close to the precincts of the ancient Cathedral of Avila (Spain).

PH: Andrew, are you from a musical family?

Andrew van der Beek: Not especially. However, my father was a Church of England clergyman, which meant that singing was part of his job. My mother, a teacher, played the piano rather badly. But we did have a collection of 78 gramophone records and my parents knew the value of music, and, in fact, of all culture: they encouraged literature, music and the appreciation of painting and sculpture. My two sisters both learned the piano but did not show particular skills.

PH: What is your musical background?

AvdB: I have no musical qualifications beyond Grade 4 violin. However, I did attend a very musical boarding school in Canterbury. The school had a strong choir tradition; from time to time, we actually sang in Canterbury Cathedral and I remember taking part in a Choral Evensong which was broadcast on BBC radio, this being was unusual for a school choir. We sang a lot of Tudor music – Tallis, Gibbons, etc. – and the style really struck a chord with me. I felt an immediate rapport with this music. The school also had a madrigal group which sang the secular music of that period.

PH: Did you set your sites at a musical career?

AvdB: No. Not being a pianist, I felt there was no possibility of doing that, so I specialized in sciences, went to University College, London and took a degree in Geology. At the same time, looking back, I spent much of the time of my undergraduate years organizing chamber music concerts, as well as singing in choirs.

PH: So you took up the career of a geologist.

AvdB: Well, not exactly. I did not want to be a professional geologist doing work in remote parts of the world like Arabia, Alaska or the North Sea. I had an interest in publishing and journalism and decided to become a scientific journalist, working for not a geological- but for a chemical magazine, learning the editing skills needed for rewriting the articles “illiterate” scientists had sent in. I worked in that for a couple of years.

PH: Did you continue with music?

AvdB: Yes. During that time, a friend of mine I had known from home, who knew I was interested in early music, was sharing a flat in London with some people who had a recorder consort, and they invited me to come and listen to the group. I had never played a wind instrument before, not even a recorder. What I did not realize was that this meeting was a trap set for me, as the players had just lost their bass recorder player and they had a concert coming up in two or three weeks. The players had strategically left a bass recorder right next to me, later inviting me to have a blow of it. It suited the size of my hands; I was fit and had enough air to blow the instrument. Having been a bass singer, I could read the bass clef and managed to join in on that first session. I thought it was wonderful – so much more natural and comfortable a position than that of the violin and better suited to a person with large hands. One of the consort players was also interested in other Renaissance wind instruments and he brought along a recording of the Manitoba University Early Music Consort. On one track, there was a quartet of crumhorns. I discovered that crumhorns had a wonderful sound – like the skirl of the bagpipes or a Spanish organ. I remember how very well in tune that crumhorn quartet had played and thought I must go and find one of these instruments. There is a shop in London called Musica Rara that had one in stock. Crumhorns were only made in Germany then, in East Berlin, and the person who ran this shop was German and knew the ins and outs of going to East Germany to purchase the instruments.

PH: When was this?

AvdB: About 1970 or the very end of the 1960’s, at a time when it was not easy to trade with East Germany. Having started on bass recorder, I decided to buy a bass crumhorn so I could fulfill the same harmonic function should a crumhorn quartet spring up. Another person in the recorder group was also interested in crumhorns; he went and bought a higher one.

PH: And other Renaissance wind instruments?

Yes. Then I took up the racket (it looks like a large pepper pot), a 16-foot instrument of the range of the double bass; it produced a marvellous buzzing effect playing beneath other Renaissance wind instruments. It can also be played softly beneath viols, as one has a lot of control over the volume on it. Its sound is never really loud, but its presence is always felt because it is an octave below everything else. Anything above it manages to fill in the missing harmonics.

Then another friend, Joe Skeaping, told me of a young musician called David Munrow, who was teaching an early music class at Dartington Hall. We drove down to Dartington and met the vibrant, enthusiastic David Munrow. There were people with a number of different instruments in his class and we formed quite large groups. We had a whole crumhorn quartet. I played the racket. This was the ideal opportunity to learn about yet other instruments. I learned that the curtal, also called the dulcian, (a Renaissance bassoon) was a slightly more versatile instrument than the crumhorn, with a larger range and more dynamic possibilities; the crumhorn is a wind-cap instrument - you blow into a chamber with the reed inside - whereas, in the curtal, you tongue the reed in your mouth, making for better control over intonation. So I ordered a bass curtal direct from a factory in West Germany, travelling there to take delivery of it, at the same time, bringing home some instruments from there that David Munrow had ordered, including a great bass racket!

PH: Were by you now only busy with music?

AvdB: No. I was still on the staff of the “Chemistry and Industry” magazine. But I was being offered money to perform. Joe Skeaping had a group that had a residency in a Tudor-themed restaurant in Mayfair, London. His trio played there every night, the players dressed up in doublet and hose. Once in two weeks they called me in to take over from one of the players; I earned seven pounds for an evening’s work there, wandering around in costume and playing bass crumhorn. It was nice to be paid to play music!

Then a big opportunity came my way thanks to David Munrow, who had a very successful group called “The Early Music Consort of London”. They were doing prestigious work – recordings and “proper” concerts in London concert halls, and I was thrilled when he asked me to join the group. He had had a bass wind player in the group, but, due to a personality clash, had asked him to leave, and I filled the position. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That was in 1972. I then had four very happy and exciting years playing in the Munrow concerts whenever the music called for a wind consort. And Munrow was inspiring - all energy and vitality. We did a lot of recordings and television programs (some now on YouTube) with David Munrow. Sadly, David Munrow took his own life in 1976.

By this time, I had given up my job as editorial assistant, but luckily, having the editorial skills, I could do freelance work for publishers of scientific books, and there was a need for science editors. Having the use of a wonderful Tudor house in a remote area on the border between England and Wales, I would take myself there and work very intensively from morning to night, finishing each editing job in doubly quick time in order to have more time for music.

PH: You must have built up a portfolio of different musical skills by now.

AvdB: Yes.

PH: So when did you start playing the serpent?

AvdB: The sackbut player Alan Lumsden, who had played in David Munrow’s wind consort, and Christopher Monk, who had made it his life’s work to restore the serpent and the cornett to living instruments, wanted to form a serpent trio. They both played this bass wind instrument and they thought I might be interested to play it and that I would be quick to learn it. (I had never had the patience to practise 12 hours a day and become a soloist, but I was quick at learning to play new instruments.) Indeed, I was fascinated by the serpent, and it is an instrument that certainly presents a challenge to the player. Christopher lent me an old instrument from about 1830 which he had restored. The serpent, originally used for playing with choirs in French cathedrals, has existed from around the early 17th century right up to the time of Mendelssohn – its heyday – and later. It later survived as a sort-of folk instrument. The serpent is pictured in a French encyclopedia of musical instruments called “Harmonie Universelle”, published in 1630 by Marin Mersenne, but it is not mentioned in an earlier German book, called “Syntagma Musicum” (1615) published by Michael Praetorius.

PH: So what is this unusual instrument?

AvdB: The serpent is a long wooden tube - two metres long – with a brass-type mouthpiece you buzz your lips into. The wooden tube is carved in a shape that is convenient to hold, placing the finger holes fairly much together. The six holes are in two groups of three. The player uses the different harmonics, as in the playing of brass instruments. It is not ideal acoustically, and the player has to make a lot of adjustments with the lips. It needs a lot of “coaxing” to play in tune. The “g” on the third harmonic, for example, comes out like an f sharp and one has to slightly open other holes to get it in tune. The f at the top of the bass clef is always very out of tune, which is annoying, as it is perhaps the most frequently played note on the serpent! The adjustments to it using the lips are tolerable on a long note but tricky on a run…that is when some notes need “disguising”.

PH: Did you perform as a serpent trio?

AvdB: Yes. A humorous idea, as the instrument is best suited to playing quietly below a choir, as it did originally. Indeed, it fills in the inadequacies of the bass voice, with a lot of fundamental in the tonal spectrum. It does not, however, have many high harmonics to give it brightness; and it is not, of course, a solo instrument. (Its sound was once compared to the roaring of a bullock!) Nevertheless, Alan Lumsden, who had been an orchestral trombonist, did manage to make a nice sound on the top notes. We called the ensemble “The London Serpent Trio”, the name having a humorous touch, as there were well-known groups such as “The London String Trio” or “The London Wind Trio”. And “London” made it sound important!

PH: What repertoire did you play?

AvdB: We played mainly 18th century wind trios - works, for example, for three bassoons, three-part Renaissance polyphonic music and recorder trios and we arranged Baroque- and Classical trio sonatas (two solos plus the bass part). In fact, we transposed a lot of works and were always busy making our own arrangements.

PH: Would you like to talk about the performances of the serpent trio?

AvdB: Yes. We would present a full evening’s concert in two halves, but they were not confined only to playing. Christopher Monk was a very entertaining speaker and he gave a history of the serpent and talked about its history and construction in a colorful and humorous manner. We performed in music clubs and festivals; we did quite a lot of work for radio and television Because of its unusual shape, audiences were always interested in the instrument. We did three tours of the USA in the 1970’s. That was a marvellous opportunity for me in my 30’s. We played at Yale University all three times (the university has a very interesting instrument collection). We played in the Detroit Institute of Arts in a Sunday morning program they called “Brunch with Bach”, where the audience was issued with plastic plates and cutlery so as not to disturb the music while eating. We played in the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston – a superb Renaissance palace bought and brought from Italy; it was like being in Florence!

PH: For how long did the LST exist?

AvdB: As such, till 1990, when Christopher Monk died at the age of 69. But we went on playing with other artists. The first was Clifford Bevan, who had been pianist and arranger in a professional jazz group called “The Temperance Seven”. He was also an orchestral tuba player. Then there was Phil Humphries, a trombonist. We still kept it as a trio. (Alan Lumsden had gone to live in France.) I then decided to move out of London. I had been playing in the trio for some twenty years and felt it was time to hand over to someone else. That person was Stephen Wick, a very good tuba player, who also played the ophicleide, which is the metal version of the serpent from around 1830, an instrument that looks rather like a bass saxophone. The ophicleide (“keyed serpent” in Greek) is fully keyed so the finger holes can be much larger and no longer need to be placed in two groups of three.

PH: Do you still play the serpent?

AvdB: After Christopher Monk’s death, I bought the serpent that he had leant me from his widow. It is a lovely old instrument, made in England in around 1830. With a few bits of brass on it, the maker’s name is stamped on it – “F.Pretty, maker”. Pretty was a well-known London instrument maker of the early 19th century. The instrument also has the dealer’s name on it! People have offered to buy the instrument, but I am not selling it. It has been part of my life.

I took part in the first recording of Mendelssohn’s “St Paul” on original instruments with Das Neue Orchester (Cologne). However, I am sometimes asked to play it for carol services at Christmas, possibly because, following its heyday in Mendelssohn’s time, it lived on as a folk instrument in West Gallery Choirs of English parish churches; the band of a village church would have included the serpent, along with ‘cellos, clarinets and old boxwood flutes (depending on what players were at hand) providing there was no church organ. I suppose it was found in villages because it was the kind of instrument a village blacksmith or carpenter could make fairly easily.

PH: It is also mentioned here and there in literature.

AvdB: Yes. In Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) “Under the Greenwood Tree” a group of locals laments the “passing” of the serpent, with a harmonium being brought in to the parish church by an incoming young school mistress, and the Gallery band is being put out to grass. “Old things pass away ‘tis true; but a Serpent was a good old note: a deep, rich note was the Serpent”. And I do think the instrument does have unique characteristics because it is so simple and can be played in a vocal, cantabile and sensitive way. Modern valved instruments can sound a bit mechanical in comparison.

PH: Have modern composers written for the serpent?

AvdB: The Scottish composer Judith Weir (b.1954) wrote an arrangement of “Cherry Ripe” for the London Serpent Trio. In British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ (b.1934) opera “Taverner”, there is a serpent in the stage band. I was the player of it at Covent Garden and also recorded it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen.

PH: Andrew, there is that amazing photo of you holding a contrabass serpent.

AvdB: Commonly referred to as the “anaconda”! That instrument had been restored by Christopher Monk and I played it. The owner wanted to sell it, so I was photographed with it for publicity.

PH: Andrew, many thanks. This has been most interesting. Many of us are curious about early wind instruments and know too little about them. You have given us much information.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

British conductor Timothy Brown talks about his career till now, his future plans and about conducting professional- and amateur choirs

On the morning of July 1st 2011, I called British conductor Timothy Brown at his home in Cambridge (UK).

PH: Maestro Brown, are you from a musical family?

Timothy Brown: Yes, indeed. My mother was a trained singer. My maternal grandfather was a school master, but he sang professionally: he performed popular songs at what was known then as “concert parties”. He had a huge repertoire of light ballad songs by such composers as Roger Quilter. I grew up hearing that repertoire, have my grandfather’s sheet music of all these songs here and still play them. My mother’s family was very musical: they all played instruments. One great uncle was a good pianist; another, a fine violinist, was killed in the war. A great aunt was a very good pianist and singer.

PH: What are your first musical experiences?

TB: My first musical experience was hearing my mother sing. One of my first memories was of hearing a recording she used to play - a very early vinyl recording - of the last four songs of Schubert sung by Lisa Della Casa. I have memories of lying on the floor listening to records played on my father’s wind-up gramophone. I remember hearing music of Richard Strauss; then there were operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, performed by the local dramatic society. Another memory - at Westminster Abbey there was an amazing violinist called Marie Wilson and I have never forgotten her playing in the St. Matthew Passion.

PH: Did you sing as a child?

TB: Yes. I was a chorister at Westminster Abbey, where one was inundated with much wonderful music. One of my earliest memories as a chorister there was singing at the funeral of Ralph Vaughan Williams. These kinds of memories make a huge impact on a small boy.

PH: Did you play any instruments?

TB: When I was seven, I started learning the piano and then took lessons on the viola. I was not such a good pianist but enjoyed it a lot and became a very good sight-reader. It was at school that I learned to sight-read my way through music, leading me to become a good score-reader, a skill helpful to me when I became a conductor.

PH: As a young adult, where did you sing?

TB: I became a choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge, which was an amazing experience. We made many recordings.

PH: And from there?

TB: I went to Oxford to become a teacher-trainer. While I was there for a year, I sang in the choir of New College, at that time also becoming a founder of a group called The Scholars, the next generation down from the King’s Singers (in whose first recording I sang in Cambridge.) The Scholars still exist; I only sang in the ensemble for three years because I became a serious school master, first teaching at a local school near Cambridge and then at an independent boys’ boarding school called Oundle, which was very famous for its music. That was quite close to Cambridge, so I started to conduct a local choral society in Cambridge and then the local orchestra in Cambridge. When my job at Clare College, Cambridge was advertised in 1979 I became director of music at Clare College.

PH: Would you like to talk about your work at Clare College?

TB: Yes. It meant running the college choir, being in charge of the music students, lecturing in the university, and so on.

Going back many years, many Cambridge University choirs had boy choristers singing with the students; the boys came from the town. We have heard that the boys were brought in from the streets to sing and that the choir – or should I say, the treble line – was completely dreadful. In the 60’s, this practice was abandoned. So it was fortunate that the college went co-educational in the early 1970’s, affording the availability of a top line of women sopranos. A wonderful Australian conductor called Peter Dennison got the mixed choir going. Then John Rutter took over, raising it to a new level, working with it for three or four years. In 1979 they made an official appointment of director of music to run the choir and I was the first holder of that post. So, when I arrived at Clare College, there was a choir and it was really quite good. John Rutter had already made a recording with the singers. I was lucky to step into that kind of environment, where there was already a sense of standard. Essentially, I have just worked along that line, also developing the choir’s outreach, travelling abroad with the choristers, making recordings, DVD’s, and so on. I think the choir has now reached a good standard and I hope it will remain so under my successor.

We were, basically, a church choir, singing three services of choral evensong a week (a tradition of Anglican cathedrals), leaving the students with time to do other things. That was the repertoire we sang and we aspired to be as good as the choir of King’s College (next door to us) or as any cathedral choir. I, actually, was interested in exposing the choir to other sorts of music, and so we started to sing secular music, our first recording being one of madrigals. I also wanted the singers to work with orchestras and with other conductors; so, very early on in my time at Clare College, we started to work with other conductors. Because of the nature of the choir being quite small, we focused much on Baroque music, using specialist Baroque conductors. So began an association with René Jacobs, a musician famous all over Europe for his Baroque recordings. We did all sorts of projects on a regular basis with him, and, indeed, made one recording with him of Händel’s “Messiah” with the Feiburg Baroque Orchestra. That was an immensely successful initiative, as it introduced students to professional orchestral playing of the very highest level, and this has led some of them to go on to professional music-making through their connections with people like René Jacobs, Roger Norrington and Ivor Bolton. These connections opened up wonderful opportunities to do exciting things, like touring abroad with orchestras, taking part in the BBC Promenade concerts, and so on.

PH: So are you are no longer at Clare College?

TB: Actually, I am still at Clare because we have this rather nice tradition that, if you were a Fellow (a member of the academic teaching staff at the college) for more than 20 years, you automatically become a Life Fellow. And, indeed, I have continued to do some teaching there, but have not been involved with the choir for some months. This means I can now travel around and do more freelance conducting.

PH: You seem to be very involved in working with amateur choirs.

TB: Correct. I have always prided myself on my interest in amateur choral singing. As a child, I was lucky enough to live in a large house which had a room big enough to host a choir. My parents formed a choir, so I grew up hearing this local choral society sing in my parents’ house once a week. Amateur music-making had become important and relevant to me from early on in my life. I sang in the local parish church choir along with my parents. When I was in Cambridge as a music student, I took over from Sir Andrew Davis (then a music student) the conducting of a little choir called the Cambridge Granta Singers (taking its name from the Granta River, which runs through Cambridge); they were a very amateur group of singers, but lovely people. This small choir met weekly and that is where I cut my teeth as a conductor. Then there was the Cambridge Village College Choral Society – a network of choirs that met in what was known as “village colleges”; this was the result of a very important national educational movement. Founded in the 1930’s, the director of education turned schools into an adult centre at times when the children were away on holidays. There were a number of these centres all over Cambridge, and the organization appointed somebody to run the music at one of them. This person decided it would be a good idea if each of these places had their own little choir. The suggestion was taken up, and the small choirs would also join together once a year to sing a major work. The first conductor of this large organization was Sir David Willcocks. When I was a student at Cambridge University I conducted one of these small choirs, also preparing them for the large choral work to be performed. I later came back to be the overall conductor of this organization. I am still a patron of it and actively associated with it.

In 1979, a chance ‘phone call led me into the conducting I do of amateur choral societies, this eventually leading to my coming to Israel. The Europa Cantat, a large international choral organization, bringing people to sing together once in three years, was due to meet in Leicester. The conductor originally to have worked with the choir took ill, and, at the very last moment, the conductor to take over from him – Andrew Parrott - was also taken ill; I was asked to take the reins. Thus began my long association with the Europa Cantat, leading to my coming to Israel to conduct at the “Zimriyah” World Assembly of Choirs in Jerusalem in the 1990’s, early this century and, then again, last year. I conducted a one-day “Hallel” (Israel Choirs Organization) choral workshop quite recently in Abu Gosh (near Jerusalem).

I have always enjoyed working with amateur musicians, and believe that it is incredibly important that professional conductors be associated with the amateur choral music movement. Too often, amateur singers are left to amateur conductors and, much as I respect amateur conductors, they do not always have the skills necessary to get the best out of singers. I have always felt it a kind of social responsibility to work with amateur singers. Actually, I am about to run a course for amateur singers in Shrewsbury (UK). For years I used to conduct an annual choral group that met in Austria. This year, having left my position as director of music at Clare College, I have been associated in a consultant capacity with the choir of Robinson College Cambridge, a choir run by students; I go in to help the students and choir develop their skills. This week, I will be doing a recording with them. This choir is, of course, a very different ball game to the Clare College Choir – it is much less professional and the CD will not be a commercial recording. But it is enourmous fun! I actually think that, as a professional musician, I have gained a huge amount from working with amateurs and am convinced that every professional musician should work with amateurs: it keeps one’s feet on the ground.

PH: How do you find audiences in Britain and other countries where you perform?

TB: English audiences are fairly reserved; if you perform in London, they are very reserved and, I must say, quite difficult. English audiences are quite cerebral: they do not show their enjoyment very easily. You may do a very good concert for them, but you might end up with one or, possibly, two rounds of applause and, very seldom, a standing ovation. So, I always find performing in England quite heavy-duty. People here just do not like expressing themselves in an interesting way, by and large. I would say that English audiences are far the most difficult that I know; Scandinavian audiences are similar. For me, it is much more fun going to the Continent to perform, where people are prepared to express what they feel. There, several rounds of applause or a standing ovation are common and this is very rewarding when you have worked hard for a couple of hours, singing a big oratorio. It is rather nice to get a response like that. America, too, is very good. Israeli audiences are very responsive. When I was in Israel in December 2009 with Clare College Choir performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, we found the audiences extremely responsive and very warm. You can kind-of feel that when you walk into a hall: there is an atmosphere that audiences express. Israelis, given who they are and where they come from (and it is not surprising) are very volatile in their expression.

I always feel that audiences have a responsibility towards performers. When they are unduly passive, it is a bit dampening to the spirits of the performer.

PH: Do you teach conducting?

TB: Not really. I give classes from time to time in conducting.

PH: How do you explain the large number of great conductors who emerge from Cambridge University?

TB: One of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of Cambridge University is that, without being immodest, I would say that we probably have the best and most talented collection of music students anywhere in the world. And yet, and I am talking about performers now – singers, instrumentalists, composers, etc. – the academic course at Cambridge is very cerebral, very academic and not-at-all performance-based, although, just in the last four or five years, there have been efforts to make performance somewhat more central to the course; but it is still rather peripheral. That is a peculiar anomaly; nobody quite understands it. There are no conducting courses given as part of the faculty, except in a very small way for choral conducting in the final year. With most of the best music-making going on being associated with the college chapels, with student-run orchestras or student-run choral groups, nobody can believe the students do not really have much training in conducting. People think they are professional musicians, but actually, very often, these young conductors are students of Theology or Economics or History or Modern Languages. This is even more remarkable when you think of the extraordinary talent that comes out of Cambridge. If you run down the list of fine contemporary British conductors – Andrew Davis, John Eliot Gardiner, Mark Elder, Richard Hickox, Nicholas Collon, Robin Ticciati, to name a few – they are all from Cambridge. These people learned their craft somewhat informally! They were not really taught how to conduct, but had very good students around with whom to work.

PH: What are your future plans?

TB: At Cambridge, you can remain a lecturer up to age 67. However, my feeling was that, having started in 1979, 30 years was enough for me, and, possibly, for the choir. I felt it was time for them to have a new pair of hands, new vision and new ideas. So I consciously made the decision to leave at age 63. This would also mean more opportunities and time for me to do new things. On my resignation from Care College in October 2010, I was immediately fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to Switzerland to conduct the then Swiss Chamber Choir. When I arrived there, I actually discovered the choir was disbanding. However, the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra was very anxious to have a choir to work with: they saw what I did while I was there working on the Brahms Requiem and invited me, there and then, to form a new choir. So, much of my time since Christmas 2010 has been spent setting up this new professional choir called the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, a professional chamber choir of 32 singers. We met for the first time at the end of May, had a very successful beginning and I look forward to a whole series of concerts with them next year. I will now be spending half my time in Zürich and half in Cambridge. So I am going to be very busy and hope to also continue travelling the world conducting. I am looking forward to a new life – you might call it “life after Clare.”

My new professional life will also include coming back to Israel. I am going to be working with Maya Shavit next January, I hope, and the British Council is hoping to use me in a project. Then, later on, I will be bringing a university-based choir from Cambridge to work with Avner Biron and the Israel Camerata Jerusalem to do seven performances of the St. Matthew Passion in March 2012. I very much look forward to returning to working with groups in Israel, which I always find very rewarding.

PH: Why Israel?

TB: Well, I am quite a political person. I have always thought that music was an incredibly important healing activity and have always believed that people can come together through music. There is that very famous story of Christmas on the front line, where the British troops heard the Germans singing the Christmas carol “Stiller Nacht” (Silent Night) and joined in; both sides walked into no-man’s-land and there was a temporary truce while they shared Christmas through the singing of that carol before returning to their lines to resume killing one another. I think this is a very symbolic moment. I remember, in 1982, being at a competition in Arezzo (Italy). After the competition, sitting in the market square having a drink, we heard a choir in the piazza singing folk songs. The choir then stopped for us to sing one, they sang another, and so on. Eventually, when we started talking, we discovered it was a choir from Argentina, with whom Britain had been at war for several months.

I love travelling, love meeting foreigners and I am very keen to come to Israel and make music, even though there is, of course, political pressure on artists from abroad not to come to Israel. One organization tried very hard to dissuade me from going to Israel to conduct the Christmas Oratorio or, indeed, from bringing a choir. I was perfectly confident about coming to Israel and do not wish music to be used as a political tool to divide nations. I feel that Israelis deserve to have the benefit of its national musicians. As long as I have anything to do with it, I shall continue to travel to Israel and, indeed, to travel, when I can, to the West Bank. Over the last few years, I have conducted both the Christmas Oratorio and Mozart’s Requiem in the West Bank.

A few years ago, I spent a week at Yad Hashmona, a village in the Jerusalem Hills, working with Israeli choral conductors and I heard about the political situation as expressed by Israelis; I understood what their concerns were. Then I moved directly to the West Bank and was working with musicians there for a week; I spent that week listening to the concerns of Palestinians. It was a very wonderful, educational experience, because I came away understanding that there was right on both sides, that this is an incredibly complicated political situation and that there is a very difficult equation to be reached. Both sides deserve our sympathy, understanding and support. So I feel even-handed: I want to come to Israel to make music and, equally, I want to be in Palestine to make music whenever I possibly can.

PH: When it is not work, what are your interests?

TB: Looking out the window, I see my rather lovely garden: gardening is important to me. I grew up in the mountains of northern England – in the Lake District – so hill-walking is a great love of mine. I am very interested in politics, as you will have noticed, and concerned with social matters to do with underprivileged people.

PH: Maestro Brown, I thank you so much for this informative and highly interesting interview.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Meeting with violinist Yasuko Hirata

On May 25th 2011, Baroque violinist Yasuko Hirata and I sat down to talk.

PH: What were your earliest musical experiences?

Yasuko Hirata: I was born in 1970 in Tokyo. At age six, I began learning the violin with a private teacher. My maternal grandfather was an amateur violinist. (I now play his violin.) I attended a regular school, moving on to become a student at the Kwansei Gakuin University.

PH: Did you enroll in music school?

YH: No. My father was against my taking a music degree, so I studied Economics but I did join the university orchestra, becoming its concertmaster. Playing in the orchestra was intensive, demanding daily practice. We toured Germany and Holland with the orchestra. A person assisting us in Holland, a piano student at the Conservatory, told me about music studies there at the time, informing me that student fees were quite cheap and that the Dutch government was supporting all students at that time. This student’s family became my “Dutch family” and we have stayed in touch. It was because of this family that my parents felt fine about letting me go off to study in Holland.

PH: Did you leave Japan for Holland?

YH: Not immediately. Back in Japan, I took a job at the JTB World Vacations Travel Agency, planning European package tours. After one year of full-time work there, I had saved enough money for one year’s study in Holland and applied to study at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague as a student of modern violin. I passed the entrance exam but would be obliged to take a four-year course. It was then that my father agreed to pay for me to do the full course at the Conservatory there.

PH: Would you like to talk about your studies in The Hague?

YH: Yes. I took a BA in performing modern violin (my teacher was Professor Theodora Geraets) and teaching it. I knew nothing about Baroque music, but would talk to Japanese students studying Baroque music there. However, I was not yet involved in the Baroque music scene. So many well-known Baroque artists would be sitting in the cafeteria but I did not even know who they were!

PH: Did you then return to Japan?

YH: No. In the meantime, I had married. My Israeli husband was studying lute at the same school. (He now works as a physicist.) We remained in Holland for one more year after completion of my studies. I played in ensembles and continued to teach mathematics and Japanese at Japanese Saturday schools there.

PH: When did you move to Israel?

YH: We moved to Israel in 2000. It was not an easy time for me. I was at home with my small daughter and the Intifada was raging outside. But I started to play with pianist Irit Rimon and with harpist Adina Haroz, and we performed some duo concerts. So, for a while, I was doing two recitals a year.

PH: When did you make your way into the field of Baroque music?

YH: It was by coincidence. When studying in The Hague, I liked playing the Bach solo sonatas. The Conservatory there has a very strong Baroque music department and encourages players of modern instruments to play Baroque music in a manner close to the style. Viol player and instrument maker Amit Tiefenbrunn and my husband were friends in Holland. When we visited Amit here in Israel, he showed me a Baroque violin he had made and asked me to try it. Then he suggested I join the Barrocade Ensemble, which is what I did. I have learned much about performing Baroque music from the Barrocade players as well as from other Israeli colleagues and guest players from abroad. Am now playing a different Baroque violin built by Amit. The Baroque bow is the work of Eitan Hoffer. I feel indebted to Amit for this change in my career. I then started to play with other ensembles – the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the Israeli Bach Soloists and frequently with PHOENIX. Myrna Herzog, PHOENIX's musical director, took me on as first violinist for the PHOENIX chamber music series; I am so enjoying playing chamber music with her excellent musicians. Year in, year out, she creates interesting programs. I appreciate those many inspiring musicians who are giving me the chance to perform interesting programs; the friendships that have come out of it give my life color and excitement.

But it was no easy adjustment. Starting to play Baroque violin was so different: the violin was almost slipping off my shoulder; the bow is different and felt difficult to control, as are tuning, the manner of playing and intonation.

I feel I am still learning the Baroque art of playing, the rhythms and character of its dance music, its structures and styles. When I sense the rhythm and “groove” of it physically I feel like I am “in Luna Park”. It is so much fun! When the music is sad and touching I am emotionally involved, sometimes performing with tears in my eyes. Music has such power!

PH: Have you put aside the modern violin?

YH: Most definitely not. I played with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble for a while, but I really prefer playing chamber music. Am now a member of a piano trio, with pianist Oleg Yakerevich and ‘cellist Hamutal Tsur. And, at home, I give private lessons on the modern violin.

I should say that since playing Baroque violin, I feel I understand structure and musical language better and am playing the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms quite differently to how I played it before. I hope I am in the right direction of change…I may be playing differently again in a decade!

PH: How do you view the Baroque scene in Israel?

YH: I enjoy being part of Baroque music in Israel. It is developing fast. I love to play with others, but it is not easy to live off it. There is a specific Baroque audience here. It is very nice to see them listening carefully and enjoying the music.

PH: Do you perform in Japan?

YH: Yes. When I was there, I played for schools and kindergartens in the south of Japan (where my father lives) on a voluntary basis. I have been written up in local newspapers several times. So, most of the children in the area know of me: they tell me how much they enjoy listening to me and they thank me. This is very heart-warming. My father is now happy and proud about my career…but it was a long, hard struggle with him. In the future, I would like to perform in Japan with my Israeli colleagues!

PH: When you are not busy with your profession, how do you like to spend your time?

YH: There is always a lot of practicing to be done for the next concert, but I make time for gardening. I really love flowers. They react and change. Looking at the beautiful greenness of trees and the colors of flowers gives me peace of mind. When I was in Japan last year I took a course in Ikebana - Japanese flower-arranging. I now do it with flowers from my own garden here. It demands energy and concentration. I would like to continue learning about it.

As a mother with a family, there is always plenty of work at home, as all mothers do. And I do not want to be absent too much from home; the balance between work and family is important. I need my family’s help and understanding to be able to work.

Sometimes I play ping-pong with my children.

When I am tired, I watch Japanese dramas on the Internet. I also like Japanese pop music and listen to it, singing along, when driving…and I drive a lot. I have to practice for the next Karaoke in Japan!

PH: How do you see the future?

YH: Till now I have been very busy preparing for performances. I would like to devote more time to studying Baroque sonatas and strengthening my knowledge of the Baroque era and its music.

And I hope to share a lot of exciting moments and special experiences with audiences.

PH: Yasuko, it has been most interesting talking to you. Many thanks. Looking forward to hearing more of your superb performances.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Talking to Maestro Gabor Hollerung

On May 31st 2011, I had the pleasure of talking to Hungarian conductor Gabor Hollerung in Tel Aviv. Conducting orchestras in the world’s great concert halls, Maestro Hollerung (b.1954, Budapest) also tours with his ensembles, was awarded the prize for the best conductor in the 1984 Bela Bartok International Choir Festival and teaches. Well known to Israeli concert audiences, Maestro Hollering was in Israel to conduct the New Israel Vocal Ensemble (Yuval Ben-Ozer musical director) in “Gypsy Songs: From Brahms to Kusturica” (Irit Robb-piano).

PH: Maestro Hollerung, do you come from a family of musicians?

Gabor Hollerung: No, I do not. As a child, I learned the piano. My mother has a great love of music and I am grateful to her for making sure I did not neglect my piano practice!

PH: At what age did you decide to make music your career?

GH: I studied in a science-mathematics oriented school, but at age 18, I made the decision to take up music as a profession. I studied choral- and orchestral conducting at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music (Budapest), with further training with Kurt Masur (we became great friends), Eric Ericson and Laszlo Somogyi, the latter in Vienna. (Somogyi left Hungary in 1956.)

PH: Would you like to mention some of your conducting appointments?

GH: Yes. From 1979, I was deputy conductor of the Miskolc Symphony Orchestra. On the faculty of the Janus Pannonius University in Pecs (I taught choral conducting and music theory) I conducted a women’s choir, at the same time conducting the KPVDSZ semi-professional orchestra. Since 1989, I have been principal conductor of the Dohnanyi Budafok Orchestra. (Budafok is a part of Budapest, near the Danube. Its orchestra is supported by the local municipality.) When I started working with this orchestra, the players working under me were literally teenagers. Receiving professional status in 1993, the orchestra became the youngest professional orchestra in Hungary….and the players are now young adults.

I have been musical director of the Budapest Academic Choral Society since 1980. The choir has won a number of awards, one of them being the “Choir of the World” title at the Llangollen International Choir Competition (Wales).

PH: You are very involved in choral competitions.

GH: Indeed. In 1988, I created a choral competition with a revolutionary new concept in Budapest. It has developed into an international series of choral events – “Musica Mundi” – taking place in Italy, Germany, Israel, and the USA. The highlight of the series is the Choir Olympics, the aim which being to create an event based on Olympic ideals, bringing people together in song and fair competition. I am one of the musical directors of INTERKULTUR – International Musical Competitions Foundation.

PH: Let’s go back to your interest in teaching.

GH: I have been teaching conducting in Hungary and abroad since 1986. One of my most interesting projects is the conducting workshop I run every summer in Taipei (Taiwan.) Conductors (students and working conductors) from several Asian countries collect there to take master classes. We have a good choir and a small orchestra in situ. Every year, we choose a specific work; this year we will focus on Handel’s “Messiah”. I place emphasis on in-depth reading the score and on the understanding of styles, not just performing the technicalities of the music. This is especially important in Asia, where European music is not as strong a musical background as it is in Central Europe.

PH: You have been to Israel many times.

GH: Yes, and I am always happy to be back and working here. I have conducted the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (I once stood in for Kurt Masur) and I was the principal guest conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra for a number of years. I loved this work. I was also artistic consultant to the no-longer-existing Tel Aviv Philharmonia Singers. And now, it is a pleasure to be conducting the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble, some of whose members were in the Tel Aviv Philharmonia Singers. I am familiar with the choir situation in Israel.

PH: What is your feeling about Israeli concert audiences?

GH: Interesting you should ask. They react; they are excited by the music. However, they do not applaud for long. But one sees and senses their involvement. I was quite aware of the audience’s enjoyment at the “Gypsy Songs” concert yesterday at the Jerusalem Music Centre. In Europe, audiences seem less emotional, but they often applaud for much longer.

PH: Would you like to talk about the “Gypsy Songs” program and the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble?

GH: Of course. The content of the program was chosen by NIVC director Yuval Ben-Ozer, even the Hungarian music. This ensemble is made up of some of the best available choral singers in Israel. They are disciplined, professional, work efficiently, open to ideas and are pleasant. And they were well prepared for me when I arrived to take up rehearsals. (I did correct their Hungarian pronunciation here and there.) I do feel at home with them. The truth is that they did not believe they would be able to sing the very fast tempi of some of the songs…but they did!

PH: What do you like to do in your spare time?

GH: The truth is I do not have much spare time. But I do enjoy listening to music for the pleasure of it. I am also a keen stamp collector. My orchestra players and choir members are all “my children”; there are many nice social occasions for us to be together.

PH: Maestro Hollerung, many thanks for your time and for sharing the various aspects of your professional life with us. We look forward to seeing you back in Israel before too long.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Talking to Gideon Meir - harpsichordist and organist

On February 19th 2011, I met harpsichordist and organist Gideon Meir in a café in the bustling city of Tel Aviv. Born in Tel Aviv in 1962, Gidi continues to reside there.

PH: Gidi, do you come from a musical family?

Gideon Meir: Most definitely. My late mother was one of the most musical people I have known. She studied music as a child but did not continue with it as an adult. My father is a ‘cellist, having performed and taught for many years. He studied with some of the 20th century’s greatest ‘cellists – Antonio Janigro, Pablo Casals and Diran Alexanian. Through him I feel a certain link to the “older school” and I see myself as a member of the “old school” (for better and for worse.) My father is my greatest critic. In fact, I have had the privilege of both my mother and father not just being “proud parents” of an artist: if they liked my playing they said so and if they did not, I would receive detailed criticism. That is something I really appreciate.

There was always music at home – a lot of chamber music played by my father and his colleagues – and a lot of discussion about music between them. My father was also director of the Tel Aviv Conservatory for ten years. So I interacted not only with my own piano teacher but knew many of the other local music teachers and gained a lot from that, some of them also attending my recitals. My grandmother was also a devoted music-lover. She loved music more than anything else and went to as many concerts as her busy schedule permitted, often taking her grandchildren with her. Many children receive a concert-going education from their grandparents, but if your grandmother is Golda Meir (world leader and the first woman prime minister of Israel) you are in for a special kind of experience. As a child, I met many great musicians with her, both hearing them as performing artists and at her home. When she lived next door to us, she frequently came in to hear my father’s chamber music groups or to enjoy my playing. And she bought me my first harpsichord. Golda Meir was a tremendous public speaker, speaking freely from the heart, never reading her speeches off the page. When I asked her how she did it, she said “I take time and quietly think about what I want to say. Then I look at those sitting there and get a feel of my audience.” I do the same with my musical preparation. I often think of her when addressing my audiences freely and personally.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

GM: My mother used to say that as a small child I would stand at the piano, hardly tall enough to see above the keyboard, plunk notes and announce that I would now “play something in the manner of Debussy” or “in the manner of Scarlatti”. She said my playing was true to those styles but I don’t remember it.

The earliest recordings I remember hearing were Handel’s “Water Music” (to which I would dance) and my acute love of the Wanda Landowska’s playing of Scarlatti and Bach stems from hearing recordings of hers from the age of three or four. So I already loved harpsichord music – music that did not exist anywhere near us; it was a faraway dream.

I remember, at age three, how the French pianist Gisele Kuhn, a colleague of my father’s staying in our house, sat me on her knee and taught me to play “Au clair de la lune”. And I have memories of my father playing the Bach solo ‘cello suites; I love these pieces.

PH: At what age did your music studies begin?

GM: At age four I had expressed the desire to play the harp, but what Tel Aviv family would consider giving a four-year-old harp lessons? I started learning to play the piano at the age of eight, which was a little late for me. I had wanted to start earlier, but we were in the USA for three years and I began to take lessons on our return. On television I had seen children playing the violin by the Suzuki method and was attracted to it, but my father disliked the harshness of tone and poor intonation of their playing and refused to have me taught like that. I wanted to dance ballet and was also not granted that. My father decided it would be best for me to start with the keyboard.

For ten years I studied piano with Malka Mevorach, a very great person and educator. I really loved her, and we maintained a warm friendship till her death five years ago. She believed in music education as an end in itself and that everybody had the right to music education. She enjoyed teaching everyone, not just the best and most talented. I spent many hours around her, not only in my own lessons. She never forced me to play pieces I did not like, nor did she make me play scales (which I loathed) or technical exercises, other than working on the technical aspects of pieces being studied. And she never ridiculed her pupils; if I wanted to make the piano sound like a harpsichord or like Landowska’s Pleyel harpsichord, she never saw it as funny. I was in the habit of ornamenting Mozart’s slow movements (I had learned from reading Landowska’s book) to the amusement of some of the teachers of the Conservatory, who regarded it as useless. She also helped me choose repertoire that interested me. When I played 16th century pieces that demanded ornaments with which she was not familiar, we would together look them up in the table of ornaments. She was not a teacher who simply dictated to her students how to play. At age 12, I brought a copy of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to a lesson, requesting to learn to play them. Malka did not say they were beyond me, but just that they take a long time to learn. We started with the bass line theme, analyzing it, then learning the ornaments and, eventually, I was able to play some of the movements.

From Malka I learned a lot about methodology: that each student is different, needing a separate approach, that you have to love all your students, that if teaching someone is hard-going you can always find a way and that you can always find something in each person you teach or touch through your music. She taught us that if you love your music you love your audience and that music should be simple and immediate in its communication with the listener, never sounding beyond the listener’s understanding or capability and that music is a message from heart to heart and should be direct, simple and free of mannerisms; that performance is not about you but about what you communicate. In fact, she said that performance was all about the listener.

PH: Where did you take further studies?

GM: In 1980, between finishing school and doing my compulsory army service, I went to London and studied harpsichord with Maggie Cole, a wonderful player and a no less wonderful person. I was fortunate in being able to practice on the collection of incredible antique instruments at Fenton House. (I always play on antique instruments wherever and whenever possible.) There was an early music concert in London almost every day - at the Wigmore Hall and other venues - and they featured top artists in the emerging early music scene in London. It was there in London that I first heard the viola da gamba played, the young Emma Kirkby and Sigiswald Kuijken; this was very different to the music I had heard in concerts growing up in Tel Aviv. Years later, on returning to London, I visited Fenton House and I was granted permission to play Handel’s own harpsichord for an hour. That was a great joy and I hope to return to play a concert there on it. I am very fond of the instrument and of Handel’s music.

In 1984, a friend informed me that the American harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg was coming to Israel from San Francisco to conduct master classes at the Jerusalem Music Centre and suggested I play for her. I prepared a Bach suite and Couperin “ordre” (suite) on my own and played them to her. She was enthusiastic about my playing and, after a couple of weeks, suggested I come to study with her in the USA. A year later, I became her assistant: that meant assisting her with the Baroque program, doing secretarial work, running after people for rehearsals, also teaching harpsichord to pianists and playing examples in her classes. All of this provided me with valuable experience. I worked with some incredibly gifted students. Laurette Goldberg was an interesting person. Not an old-school conventional, she would address concert audiences and she taught me to explain about music to audiences, to sing them a theme or a ballad on which a work might be based. Laurette also dabbled in musical productions – mostly concert series in the Bay Area – and I learned much from those (sometimes the hard way.) The Bay Area was a rich haven of Baroque- and early music. Laurette was the musical director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and I attended most of its rehearsals and all of its concerts (sometimes as an usher.) I would go to Laurette’s recitals, sometimes turning pages for her. In 1987, I returned to Israel.

PH: Would you like to mention other harpsichordists who have influenced you?

GM: Yes. In San Francisco, I became friendly with harpsichordist Katherine Silver. She was a “fiery” player, who, like me, preferred the exciting personal approach to playing to “dry, historical performance practice.” She always suggested I meet Lisa Crawford and hear her playing. Some years later, in 1992, I went to the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin, Ohio, to attend the summer program there, but especially to meet Lisa. I first heard Lisa Crawford’s playing when she performed a Bach sonata for violin and harpsichord: the harpsichord was so alive, so perky…like fireworks, like sparks flying! I needed to learn how she produced those sounds. So I took some private lessons with her. She was the first tutor I had studied with to use technical explanations in reference to sound: her approach was that you look for the sound you want to hear and you find a way of producing it, rather than just accepting the way the harpsichord sounds. She spoke of the rich possibilities of the instrument. After two weeks of chamber music coaching and lessons with her, I told her I must come and study with her! She was planning on taking a sabbatical and said we would have to be quick about it. “Wait here a moment” she said and went off to talk to the dean. She came back and asked if I could return in two months to study for an Artist’s Diploma. Some people complete it in one year. Lisa let me to do it over two years, which was a great privilege. I received the Dean’s Talent Award of the Oberlin College Conservatory. Oberlin was a very rich experience. And I thought it would be heaven to be in a small town, with nothing more to do than practice and play.

But things did not start too smoothly in Oberlin: during the first month I was there, I was in a car accident, broke my neck and could not play for a while. Starting to play again, I chose Handel, but could only play a few notes at a time. That year, Israeli composer Yeheskel Braun had presented me with a wonderful gift – his “Four Pieces for Keyboard” that he had written for me and I had promised him I would premiere the pieces. (After my performance of them, Yeheskel Braun dedicated the pieces to me. I love them and make a point of playing them in concert every couple of years.) But here I was recovering from my injuries! The Artist’s Diploma program required four recitals in two years. (As a result of those demands, I am now able to perform five different recitals per year.) As an Artist’s Diploma student, all I had to do was play: I took harpsichord lessons and attended a studio class which required students to perform and criticize the playing of other students. Students usually played once a month; I played every week. One very useful workshop was the “continuo clinic”. I was also available to play with whatever players or ensembles needed a harpsichord player and this offered me the opportunity to get plenty of experience. I also took secondary organ lessons with Mr. David Boe. He is a marvelous organist. There, I fell in love with the organ.

For years, I had wanted to return to playing the organ and now study with Arin Maisky, organist of the Immanuel Church in Jaffa. I remember hearing Arin’s late father Valery Maisky playing the organ there.

PH: Let’s go back in time to the beginning of your harpsichord performing career.

GM: Yes. My first harpsichord recital was in the San Francisco Bay area in the fall of 1985. My Israeli debut was at the Immanuel Church in Jaffa, with my teacher, friend, by then, also my colleague, Malka Mevorach present.

PH: Why the harpsichord?

GM: I love much of the piano repertoire – in particular, music of Mozart, Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, but was never in love with the piano timbre. I am fascinated by that wiry, twangy harpsichord sound, of which I never tire, the subtleties that can be achieved with imagination and the endless search for physical ways of drawing different sounds from its plucked strings. It means tapping into my own personal vocabulary of imagery: associations like water, oil, sand, parchment, silver, gold, bronze, leather, paper, silk, warmth, cold, etc. The repertoire of the harpsichord has always been my out-and out favorite – Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Couperin, and more.

PH: Would you like to give an outline of harpsichord concerts you have performed over the last 25 years?

GM: Yes. I must have played over 60 programs over the last 25 years, mostly solo recitals, some focusing on a single composer, others on a theme. I have performed several single composer programs of works of J.S.Bach, D. Scarlatti and Handel. Some of the themes I have used in concerts are: “Music from Paris”, “Music of 1733 – Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and more”, “Intimate Music from the Rooms of Louis XIV”, “Friends – Scarlatti and Handel”, “German Music of the 17th Century”, “Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonatas”, “Homage to Landowska”, “Homage to Malka Mevorach” (my piano teacher. This included Mozart and Haydn sonatas played on the harpsichord) and “Homage to Katherine Silver”. (After learning of Katherine’s death, I remembered all the pieces we had played to each other and I had the need to play them and remember her through them.) I have performed three different programs of Elizabethan virginal music (in which I sang ballads set by Bull and Farnaby and recited Shakespeare texts). Then there were programs of duets for two harpsichords, multiple harpsichord concerti, Bach viola da gamba sonatas, Bach flute sonatas, Bach and Handel oboe sonatas, Scarlatti and Flamenco, French music on the subject of birds, and more.

PH: You create programs with a difference, not the run-of-the-mill recital. The last concert of yours I heard included a strong Spanish element.

GM: Yes. I love Spanish music, dance and culture. For years I have been dreaming of putting together Spanish music with Spanish dance. In fact, this idea inspired me to start learning flamenco dance myself and I have become a very devout amateur flamenco dancer. I have had the privilege of working with the best of the flamenco dancers here – with Sonia Garcia and Dana Arnon - in the Felicja Blumenthal Festival and the Guitar Festival. Putting Spanish dance together with music is painstaking work, even to find the right music. Now that I myself dance, having studied and worked with Sonia Garcia and cooperated with Dana Arnon, I know what works and what does not – what music wants to be wed with dance and what already has all it needs within it.

PH: What do you mean by that?

GM: With Domenici Scarlatti’s works, I believe some of his simpler pieces were intended as dance pieces and some, even, as sight-singing exercises. His patron, Princess Maria Barbara, who became queen of Spain, was considered a great singer and dancer in her circle. It is difficult to imagine that Scarlatti, who was so close to her as music master and in friendship, did not provide her with top class pieces to which to dance. The more elaborate sonatas have so much sound-painting of dance and movement within them that they are too dense for choreography, or in Sonia Gracia’s words, “no necesitan adornos” (in no need of further embellishment). Pieces that are suited to dance gain an extra dimension through choreography.

PH: Playing with dancers must be different to playing solo.

GM: Indeed. It becomes chamber music: you have the percussion element of the footwork (zapateado) and, sometimes, castanets, creating rich rhythmic counterpoint. The physical movement, itself, changes, becoming very rich. What I find very special about working with dancers in the Spanish programs is that we begin by practising in my living room with the harpsichord, an intimate experience of playing and dancing, but when we bring it to the concert hall, we seem to maintain the same kind of intimate feeling of this meeting of art forms; I hope audiences get a sense of that. Working with a dancer makes me play the pieces differently. When you play for dancers, you have to be incredibly accurate with rhythm and tempo to give the dancers the stability to allow them to be expressive, to give them the confidence to do the utmost with their bodies. You need to sense to where the movement is taking you. There is a building up of tension in flamenco dance and one can not let this intensity drop! In addition, the player needs to know and understand dance gestures and the style of dance, in effect, to be a part of the choreography. Actually, I hope some day to do my own choreography of some of the pieces. When playing the same pieces alone on the harpsichord, I use much more rubato and flexibility of tempo in order to convey the shapes inherent in dance. It is certainly interesting to do both.

PH: Do you teach harpsichord?

GM: Yes. Some of my students have done well, winning scholarships and taking studies at music academies in Israel and abroad. I am proud of them and we remain friends for life.

PH: Would you like to talk about Baroque music in Israel nowadays?

GM: I am very pleased to see its development; there are many people in the field and the quality of performance is improving. I find it frustrating that there is not yet enough variety of different instruments being played and I am sorry there are not enough opportunities to teach it.

As to its performance, playing period instruments, reading from early editions or the use of historical performance practice is certainly not enough. Some aspects of the “old school” need to be present - as in Bach or Frescobaldi’s time - where interpretation is a deep study, encompassing not only musical- and technical preparation, but also an understanding of social history, literature, appreciation of the fine arts, a love of nature and, above all, an interest in human nature and all things human. A one-rehearsal concert can never give musicians the chance to express this and themselves and will “rob” the audience of what it deserves.

PH: Do you think local audiences are developing a taste for Baroque music?

GM: I think so. In fact, I think local audiences have always liked Baroque music, but they are now beginning to understand more: they hear many performers and are now deciding what they like and what they do not like. A problem in Israel is the business aspect, making it difficult to put together a program with more than two or three performers. As a keyboardist, I particularly like large ensemble playing. I, however, do not feel comfortable inviting people to play a concert and sharing losses! And if you are not a non-profit organization, you are not eligible to receive financial support. Also, the media tends to write more about larger ensembles than about the solo artist. I always transport my own harpsichord to recitals, because I care about the quality of sound and playing.

PH: Are you giving organ recitals?

GM: My debut as a concert organ recitalist was with four works which opened the protest concert in the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem, on February 16th 2011. Hopefully next year I will be doing some chamber music that will include organ solos. To play a whole solo organ recital means including larger works. That will take some time yet.

PH: What are your future plans?

GM: To become an organ recitalist. Also, I have been studying flamenco dancing for the last three years and have all intentions of continuing it for many years to come. Having only studied some Baroque- and Renaissance dance (with Carol Teten), I would like to study it in depth, read dance notation and to be able to draw my own conclusions as to how to dance it. And there is so much more instrumental repertoire to learn and perform.

PH: And your personal “credo”?

GM: When I work with colleagues, I like to experiment. I think of everything in art as experimental. For example, I was happy with how I played the heavy, virile Sarabande of the Buxtehude Variations in the organ recital at the Redeemer Church. However, on my way home and on the following day I started to think about playing it entirely differently – perhaps gently, with a softer registration. What I say to colleagues or students is that, when warming up in a different hall, do not try to reproduce the tempo at which you have rehearsed – acoustics change and with them, tempi. I can not help but agree with my father and his colleagues that the same piece will be played differently each time you play it.

I teach my students to listen to themselves. Listening to one sonority influences how you place the next, creating music that grows from one moment to the next. The written text is not an end in itself. In fact, once playing it, you do not know how it is going to end. I like learning from actors, painters and dancers. I worked on a performance with the actress Shula Adar – it was a one-woman show based on the writings of poet, author and playwright Leah Goldberg; I played pieces between her monologues. Shula said that knowing one’s lines and the plot still does not mean you know that, in character, how the plot will develop. And so it is with music – an interesting interval or a contrapuntal moment will take you somewhere new.

So, practising is never boring. My father taught me that one should practice very, very slowly but with all the music’s expression. A performer should never become cynical. The tempo should suit the instrument: some harpsichord pieces should be played very fast in order to get that jangly harpsichord effect, especially French repertoire, and we often hear this music played too slowly. On the other hand, too much harpsichord music is played too fast, not allowing for the appropriate sound to develop. Rhythm should be “forged in steel” before you can allow it to fluctuate. Each phrase has a high point and a weight of gravity. So this must be manipulated. I try to avoid regular metric accents: they are too obvious and obstruct the flow of the music. The right accent at the right time makes a phrase bloom; too many accents can kill a phrase.

We can not play if we do not allow ourselves to be moved by the music we play – I sometimes shed a tear, myself. You must hear and only then play. Sound travels fast but silence must be created. (Landowska said you need to observe rests plus add a breath.)

A concert is a festive affair. The artist should dress accordingly. I have memories of my father taking trouble to be well dressed before going on stage. And the performer must always be aware of the fact that the audience is hearing the concert for the first time. Lisa Crawford said that a concert was only a moment in time and (to quiet our nerves) that “a concert is only a concert”. For me, the next concert is always the most important one!

PH: When it is not music, how do you like to spend your time?

GM: Apart from dancing and reading, I paint in oils and work with stained glass. I love animals and can spend hours with my cat. I love travelling and meeting up with friends. I even go to concerts here and there!

PH: Gidi, many thanks for your time and for sharing so much of your experience, wisdom and insight.