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.

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