Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Talking to recorder-player Kees Boeke

On October 8th  2012, I spoke to recorder-player Kees Boeke in Tel Aviv. Born in Amsterdam, Professor Boeke, no new face on the local early music scene, was in Israel to teach and perform at the 3rd Early Music Seminar (Tel Aviv).

PH: Professor Boeke, do you come from a musical family?

Kees Boeke: Yes, I do. It was a family where there was a lot of music happening. My mother was a professional musician; she spent her life teaching piano, ‘cello and, later, chamber music and singing. She was a very well-respected music teacher and worked well into advanced age. My father started out being an oboe player but left it when he went to university; however, he always remained close to music. My grandfather was a conductor.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

KB: I have lots of early memories. From an early age, I was totally involved in music. (I read music before I could read Dutch.) I started learning the recorder at age five and was a child who listened to absolutely everything. On weekends, my parents would play recordings of operas; they had scores which I would follow. So, from a very early age, I was familiar with operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss, Verdi, etc. Alban Berg's operas left a lasting impression on me. We also heard Lieder at home, with both my parents being into singing. And, of course, I heard my mother teaching her students. You could say I had a varied, all-round listening education. I would listen to music all the time.

PH: Did you go to a music school?

KB: No, I had private recorder teachers and then moved to a teacher who was actually an organist. By age 11, I was studying with Frans Brüggen in Amsterdam. I started learning the ‘cello with my mother when I was 10; she was an excellent teacher and being family presented no problem to my studies with her.

PH: And as a high school pupil and later?

KB: As a teenager, I was already doing my first recordings with Brüggen and I was taking ‘cello lessons with Anner Bylsma. After high school, I went to the Royal Conservatory of the Hague (where Brüggen and Bylsma were teaching) which I finished in two years (1967-1969) due to the fact that I had done so much study during my high school days.  The Conservatory was an amazing place at that time, very avant-garde; that is where early music took off in Holland.

PH: When did you begin performing?

KB: I took part in my first Brandenburg Concerto at age 10 and my first performance of the Telemann Suite in A minor with my grandfather’s school orchestra when I was 15, by which time I was performing a lot.  

PH: Did you do a lot of performing at the Royal Conservatory?

KB: Yes. I had also become very interested in contemporary music and had started composing. It was there that we formed our ensemble - Quadro Hotteterre - in which Walter van Hauwe also played. The group had a long performing career – from 1968 to 1988.

PH: What did you do on finishing your studies in The Hague?

KB: I immediately got two teaching jobs, although still quite young. One was at the Groningen Conservatorium, in the north of Holland, and, almost at the same time, I also began teaching at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where I had been a student. I taught for three years, but then had the need to stop being in schools. So I took time off to freelance.

PH: Did you leave teaching?

KB: Well, not for long. In 1975 I, together with my friend Walter van Hauwe, started teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatorium. We did what you might call “dual teaching” - teaching together. There was a large class of students that took lessons from both of us. All the students would be there for four days a month; in our method, the student does not have a weekly private lesson, but all are present together, they listen to each other’s lessons and the teachers alternate. In fact, we institutionalized this method as a way of teaching and it continues to be used. We called it “block teaching”. The system works extremely well.

PH: Let’s go back to your composing.

KB:  Composing has always been somewhat of a hobby for me. Most of my compositions are for the recorder in one combination or another. For me, it has always been a way of reflecting in music – early or contemporary. I don’t work at it intensively and have done very few commissions. I write when I feel like it. I wrote my last piece in 2003.

PH: You mentioned modern music. Do you perform a lot of contemporary music?

KB: I have. Am not doing much of it at the moment. Am, at present, busier with my work on medieval music. For contemporary music, one needs to invest a lot of time. But I am still very interested in it. I have my own record label – Olive Music – for which we have just issued a recording of the Prime Recorder Ensemble - an impressive ensemble of 13 big double bass recorders, using live electronics, a group based in Lausanne and directed by Antonio Politano.   (Politano had been a student of mine.)  A variety of Italian and American composers, also one from Peru, have written music for this ensemble. It is terrifically interesting music. Antonio Politano and I also had a duo of bass recorders together with electronics we called “DUIX”.

PH: Let’s go back to your connection with very early music.

KB: Actually, I did not start out as a Baroque musician. As I mentioned before, at home I was educated in every kind of music under the sun! Well, in the 1950s, early music basically “did not exist” in the way that we understand it today. Then, through being a recorder-player and meeting Frans Brüggen and friends, the repertoire for recorders was Baroque- and contemporary music. I started doing a lot of research in the field of Baroque music and searched for anything I could find to play on recorders. I also became very interested in Renaissance music, in composers such as Dufay. Here I should mention Kees Otten – Brüggen’s teacher and a very interesting man. He was actually a jazz clarinet player, but chose to focus on Renaissance- and medieval music! His work stimulated my interest in the latter. So, by the time I had explored the Baroque, I naturally started getting more philologically interested in what had happened in the Renaissance, trying to make connections as to how things developed the way they did. So, for me, it was natural to take a step back in time, rather than going forwards. I also changed from playing the ‘cello to playing the viol, giving me more access to Renaissance repertoire. My enquiry into this music developed slowly into the 1980s. Of the many groups we have had, there was a group formed at the end of the 1980s called “Little Consort Amsterdam” – an ensemble with soprano singer, lute player (Toyohiko Satoh) and Walter van Hauwe; I played the viol in it till I decided the viol was not suitable enough and that we should acquire fiddles. So I had a medieval fiddle built for myself and Toyohiko started playing medieval lute-type instruments. We started to perform. I was very excited about the ins and outs of this music, its philological aspects, the texts etc., and I started doing a lot of research on late medieval repertoire. After that, I was one of the founding members of “Mala Punica” a group under the direction of Pedro Memelsdorff. It was an ensemble focusing specifically on the repertoire of the late 14th century. Together with Memelsdorff, I developed more ideas and more repertoire, basically a lot in Ars  Subtilior – the musical style of the late 14th century. I am basically still busy with that field of research, a field in which so little is known and so much needs to be done; there is an enormous wealth of extremely valuable repertoire there.

PH: Is this research connected to a university?

KB: In 2006, at the University of Music in Trossingen in southern Germany, where I had been teaching since 1990, I promoted the idea of opening a department of medieval- and Renaissance music. Studies in medieval music are not widely available in Europe, except at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, where the people there do things in a specific way. I felt we should have a medieval department in Trossingen that was more practice-oriented. It came into being in 2006 and I have been running it for the last six years.

PH: How do you find audiences react to medieval music?

KB: It is hard to generalize. Medieval music is highly specialized and it is a completely different language. Much in the same way as modern music, it is important for the listener to like it on first impact.  A completely unprepared audience will have a hard time connecting with it because it is really so different. However, a non-specialist but interested audience will be convinced by the sheer beauty of it despite perhaps not understanding precisely what is going on.  But if you involve yourself more as a listener, become more informed, immerse yourself in the poetry and the arts surrounding it, it becomes more profound in meaning.  In general, and when we play at festivals, audience reactions are very positive.

PH: This is not your first visit to Israel.

KB: No. I was here last year for the 2011 Early Music Seminar in Tel Aviv and, in the late 1990s and a little later, I taught at the Early Music Workshops in Jerusalem. I have also been here with Jill Feldman, my wife, who has taught many master classes for singers in Israel.

PH: How did you find the standard of students in your classes this past week?

KB: The standard was good, but there are various levels as we have mixed-level groups.  It was also wonderful having eight recorder students from the Guildhall School of Music in London this year. There was a very good atmosphere at the course. I found all the students, advanced and less advanced, to be keen and interested. They asked plenty of questions. If you consider the fact that there were 50 students at the first Early Music Seminar, 80 last year and 120 this year, one sees a big surge of interest. Perhaps for next year they should be more severe in selection. On the other hand, the seminar provides an opportunity for beginners to make contact with early music and to hear how good it can be. This is stimulating for them, so, for that reason, perhaps they should not be separated from the experienced players.

PH: Have you ever performed with any of the Israeli early music ensembles?

KB: No, I have not, except for the concert we performed the other night playing all sorts of consort music with Drora Bruck (musical director of the seminar), Tamar Lalo and Alon Schab, within the framework of the seminar. It was really enjoyable.

PH: What are your future plans?

KB: I’m not much of a planner. Things seem to happen of their own accord. I cannot plan writing a new composition; I only know I probably will, but I do not know what it is going to be. I am very involved with my record label – Olive Music: it takes up a lot of time and it is not a money-making enterprise. I expect we will issue a second CD with the Prime Ensemble. I have also been working with the Royal Wind Music, a big recorder ensemble based in Amsterdam. I did a guided project of Renaissance music with them and we may do a recording. I have more on my plate than I can deal with and, of course, am continuing the research in medieval fields. Now, at 62, I have just stopped teaching in Zurich; having started teaching at age 15, I thought it was now enough. But I continue teaching master classes, which I very much enjoy, as well as more specialized courses in early music, lately having worked in Spain, Portugal, Japan, Korea and here in Israel.

PH: What do you think is happening with the authentic movement at the moment?

KB: I sort-of expected that question. It is very hard to look into the future. Being where I am, I personally think early music activity is too focused on doing Baroque, that Baroque music has become translated into Baroque opera, and that Baroque opera basically translates into Händel. We are dangerously moving away from a diversified picture of early music, even of the Baroque period.  We hear less 17th century music, with the exception of Monteverdi, his music being narrowed down to “Orfeo”, “Poppea” or the “Vespers”, and nothing of his other repertoire. So there is this enormous narrowing down, basically fired by commercial interests, especially in these extremely difficult times when culture, anyway, is not getting much funding. This is totally uninteresting in terms of exploring the past. Early repertoire has become like another performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Whether it is a good or bad performance is something else, as also applies to performing Beethoven’s 9th. Early music should mean excitement and discovery. I will continue to say that early music has to be an avant-garde medium. For example, in the concert this evening to be performed by Rainer Zippering (‘cello), Kenneth Weiss (harpsichord) and myself, we will play pieces by composers only most of whom are familiar to early music people; yet the audience will probably know very few of the pieces on the program. This is the mentality of curiosity on which I insist, also with my students.

PH: You mentioned involvement in serious rock music. Did I hear right?

KB: You did, indeed! Of course, the development of pop music into serious rock music in the 1960s did not pass me by unnoticed. I followed anything that came along in the late '60s with deep interest, especially what was happening on the west coast of California. I have never felt any difference between musical genius in that particular musical area or  in the so-called classical world of Jazz. Well, music is music and, in particular, serious music is serious music...wherever it is coming from. In fact, there are more similarities between a medieval song and a rock song than between medieval song and Monteverdi aria!

PH: When it is not music, what other interests do you have?

KB: Well, I am very active as an olive farmer where I have been living in Tuscany, Italy for 32 years on an isolated farm with 600 olive trees. I used to make wine as well, but the wild boar were taking over, eating all the grape vines. I love to travel and see new places. (For my work I travel a lot, doing more travel than is healthy!) I am a very busy person and have little time for hobbies.  I still love music, for which I am grateful.

PH: Many thanks, Kees, for your time, for so much interesting information and for thought-provoking ideas.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tilman Skowroneck in Israel

Harpsichordist, fortepianist and musicologist Tilman Skowroneck (b.Germany, 1959) is no new face to the Israeli Baroque music scene. He was recently in Israel to take part in a Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra concert of harpsichord concertos in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. I met Dr. Skowroneck in Maestro David Shemer’s music room in Jerusalem July 13th 2012 (his birthday, in fact), where he was holding a two-day harpsichord maintenance workshop for harpsichordists.

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

Tilman Skowroneck: Indeed yes. My father, Martin Skowroneck, started out as a flautist and then began building recorders and harpsichords. From making instruments for himself, he has become one of today’s most renowned harpsichord builders.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

TS: Growing up in the house of a harpsichord maker meant that initially I had a fairly biased musical diet of Baroque music and not very much else.

PH: And how did your own musical activity start?

TS: I was born in Bremen. With my father being a harpsichord builder, we had several instruments in the house and I started recorder lessons when I was five years old. But it was not my instrument…or I may just have been a little too young to start lessons. We had a little virginal at home and I began playing that when I was five and a half. My music teacher had a decent spinet at his home.

PH: How did your taste in music develop?

TS: When still too young to operate the record-player alone, I listened to records and began to be interested in hearing organ music. Then, in the late 1960s, there was the phase of the records of Gustav Leonhardt and his ensemble playing Bach harpsichord concertos - for one-, two-, three- and four harpsichords. Those really fascinated me. What also comes to mind was my liking for the Bach orchestral suites. I was not yet interested in the classical style – that happened when I was 16.

PH: Did you go to a music-oriented school?

TS: No. From age 5 to 14 I had private lessons on the harpsichord with Jan Goens, the church organist in the area of the city where we lived. There were not many harpsichordists around then and, although an organist, he was interested in the harpsichord. My teacher had a lot of patience with me…I was a headstrong child and did not always practice. I think that he only lost patience with me once or twice in all those years! On the other hand, there were a few things that he didn’t teach me and that needed to be learned later and with considerably more effort.

PH: Did you study the organ with him?

TS: No.

PH: Where did you take higher musical studies?

TS: I began at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, where I went to study with Bob van Asperen in 1979. I had just completed my alternate mandatory service, working in a sailors’ home in Bremen. Working there full time, I ended up quite exhausted by the end of the day and was not doing so much practice on the harpsichord. I thought my playing was progressing well, but had nothing with which to compare it. But Bob van Asperen did not think I was getting ahead quickly enough. In fact, I was given a period of probation with him, which I actually did not pass. In November, he said he felt my playing was not going anywhere, but I still thought otherwise and got in touch with Gustav Leonhardt – a customer of my father and a friend of the family - to ask his advice. He said he would first need to hear me play. I had heard some of his master classes but had never actually played for him. A little nervous at first, I played for him and it was fine. He recommended I study with Anneke Uittenbosch; so, from 1980 to 1983 I studied with her at the Amsterdam Conservatory. Then, interested in a contrast of approaches, I went to study with Ton Koopman for two years. After that, I had one year of tuition from Gustav Leonhardt himself. In 1999, in combination with my doctorate, the subject of which was Beethoven, I went to Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) and took lessons on fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson.

PH: I understand you live in Sweden now.

TS: Yes. I have been in Sweden for 22 years and do most of my playing there. What happened was that, following my studies, I freelanced in Holland for a few years and then somebody called me from Sweden, informing me of a position in the unlikely city of Borås, a community of some 60,000 inhabitants east of Göteborg. It was to help establish “Corona Artis”, an ensemble of six players on early instruments; I was to be harpsichordist and fortepianist. For the first six years of its existence, playing with “Corona Artis” was a full-time job, then becoming a half-time job. We did evening concerts, we helped church musicians in the performance of choral works such as cantatas and we did quite a lot of children’s concerts at schools.

PH: Does the group still exist?

TS: What happened was that there was a shift of policy and the financial backing we had been receiving was then to go to world music. “Corona Artis” was dismantled, although we occasionally play together…either some of us or all the players, taking part in various projects.

PH: Do you give solo recitals?

TS: Yes. I play recitals and also do research.

PH: Would you like to mention something about your latest research project?

TS: Yes. Just last year I concluded a post-doctorate at the University of Southampton (UK) on the subject of 19th century Viennese piano building; this meant looking into negotiations between builders and customers and seeing how the public’s wishes influenced changes in piano construction. Well, we do know that piano construction changed much in the 19th century: the piano became twice as heavy, got twice as many keys, etc. and we have always supposed the Schumanns and Beethoven etc. to have been responsible for that. But the push to bring about change in piano construction must have come from other sources; so there is a new story to be told, tying in with sociology and the history of technology. I am trying to combine a few different aspects there. It is coming out as a book and I am now busy putting the finishing touches writing the last chapters.

PH: Do you also build instruments?

TS: No. That is my father, Martin Skowroneck. He is 85 years old and, at the moment, is busy building a harpsichord. But I do occasionally do maintenance. Of course, I have seen and learned a lot in my father’s workshop and I feel it is important to be able to maintain my own instruments and other instruments built by my father. Maintenance is an important part of keeping the instrument sounding good. It is much to the detriment of a harpsichord if it is not regulated properly. As to the mechanical aspect, I cannot say the task thrills me greatly – it is a lengthy process. Regulating a two-manual harpsichord can take three hours and it is fiddly work. My own harpsichords at home are equipped with bird quills and not plastic plectra; keeping them in good shape is slightly more work-intensive – each quill has a different lifespan.

PH: What about teaching?

TS: I would love to teach more! At the moment I am busy teaching in a masters program for organists in Göteborg . With the historical approach there, I am teaching continuo classes on harpsichord. I am also doing supervision in two different music departments of the University of Göteborg.

PH: Do you compose?

TS: I would like to. It is a matter of having time for it, and I am not trained as a composer. However, I did notice that in England there is to be a competition for composers, for which submissions are due this coming August; I am toying with the thought of trying my hand at writing a piece.

PH: Have you written arrangements?

TS: Yes. An interesting project I was involved in was to do with a ballet written by Anders von Düben – the third generation of a line of Swedish composers; he was writing in the French style around 1700. Having just returned to Sweden from studying in France, he wrote a work – “Narvabaletten” (The Narva Ballet) - to commemorate the Swedish victory over the Russian enemy at the Battle of Narva (1700) and it was a work that needed to be finished very quickly. He missed out a lot of the inner voices in the score; some instrumental parts had beginnings but were not completed. I am not quite sure how the work was conceived. The manuscript was in the Uppsala University Library in Sweden. Organist, musicologist and conductor Hans Davidsson was interested in making recordings of this kind of music. We got our hands on a version of the piece arranged by a Swedish musicologist. Some of the ballet consists of ensemble pieces by French composers. So, there we were rehearsing when the oboists claimed their parts were unplayable. There were also some voice-leading problems. Someone was needed to rework the manuscript in the French style, so I took upon myself to do most of the reconstruction of the score.

PH: Would you be interested to conduct harpsichord and fortepiano master classes here in Israel?

TS: Most definitely.

PH: Now that you have completed your second, large research project, what are your plans?

TS: I feel it is time to give some more recitals. Having been at Southampton University for the recent research project, I did make contact with some of the players there, performing a recital and a double concerto of J.S.Bach.

PH: How does one combine being a performer and a musicologist?

TS: This is not at all simple! It is difficult to fit both into one day as the mindsets are so different. One cannot practise in the morning, then drink coffee, eat lunch and switch over in the afternoon to sitting at a desk doing research, for, in the afternoon, your mind is still working on the music you were playing in the morning. The other way around does not work any better – you end up trying to play the harpsichord in the afternoon with your mind distracted by concepts from the morning’s reading! So what works best is doing a whole week of one and then a week of the other.

PH: How does it work with practicing harpsichord and fortepiano?

TS: Actually, that is a similar problem. A few years ago I participated in a fortepiano-flute recital - Kuhlau, etc. – and I practiced a lot for that. Following the concert, I thought I would now just go over to the harpsichord; but I learned that one needs a break before doing that.

PH: What harpsichord repertoire do you especially enjoy playing at this stage in time?

TS: I am very comfortable with French Baroque music and like to include some in recitals. I also have a real love for music of Elizabethan England - virginal music, especially that of William Byrd. The latter is challenging to perform, although one should not include too much of that style in a concert as not all audiences will want to hear a whole evening of Elizabethan harpsichord music. The exquisite beauty of this English music must be presented in a specific way, so two or three pieces of it in one concert are a real treat.

PH: What about contemporary music for harpsichord?

TS: Strange you should raise the subject. I have just ordered the sheet music of a new harpsichord work by a composer who won first prize for it in an American competition. It is a tonal work and easy for me to access, much more so than most of the music written in the 1960s and 1970s. With my approach to the harpsichord as a “vocal” instrument, I am not interested in music that takes a mechanical/percussive approach to the instrument. The harpsichord is an instrument that can sound very ugly!

PH: How do you see trends in harpsichord-playing at the moment?

TS: For a while I was so busy with my own activities that I was not really following trends, as were many of my colleagues. But, of late, I have been listening to many players on YouTube. Harpsichordists tend to post recordings of their playing on YouTube at all stages of their studies and careers. I have discovered some amazing performances by people one has never heard of. So, with a bit of creative searching on the Internet, one discovers some gems. It is a medium allowing for many players (of a variety of levels) to be heard. I am pleased that players are daring to record their playing on YouTube and CDs. But, of course, it is not easy to be a unique performer, to have something special to say with your playing.

PH: Do you sing?

TS: Well, I have sung in choirs and I don’t “not sing”, but no, it is not a focus of mine.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

TS: I like to cook. I do like gardening, time permitting (but am a lazy gardener). I enjoy the outdoors although we are not spoilt for sunny weather in Sweden! I am interested in model trains and I used to draw quite a lot, but seem to do less of that nowadays.

PH: Tilman, many thanks. It has been most interesting talking to you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

British countertenor Patrick Craig talks about his career and the world of countertenors today

British countertenor Patrick Craig has spent the last 16 years singing with the Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall’s Musick and as a singer of St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir (London). He also conducts his own ensemble -Aurora Nova – Britain’s leading all-female choir that sings in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Guest conductor of The Cardinall’s Musick and the Cecilia Consort, Patrick Craig has also conducted, taught and lectured at Tallis Scholars summer schools in Oakham, Seattle and Sydney. On June 20th 3012, I met with Maestro Craig in a café atop a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea in Le Marche, Italy. We met again in Jimena de la Frontera (Spain) on April 23rd 2013, where Patrick was teaching a week-long choral workshop for amateur singers.

PH: Patrick, are you from a musical family?

Patrick Craig: Yes. My father was a chorister, as I was, at Lichfield Cathedral in the Midlands, England. As an ordained priest, my father needs to sing in his work. As a small child, I grew up being aware that my father sang and I started singing in the parish church choir even before becoming a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral. My mother is a pianist and she also sings. My parents met at Cambridge University singing in a choir…they met through music. Educationwise, my brother took the same direction as I (only two years ahead of me) as a chorister - he was head chorister at Lichfield Cathedral; we both attended the same school and the same college. Today, my brother is a school headmaster.

PH: Would you like to talk about your time as a boy chorister?

PC: Yes. I enjoyed singing solos. I was a high chorister and sang solos such as that in Allegri’s “Miserere”, which goes up to a high “c”. (My brother was a low chorister and we often sang duets together). We received a lot of musical training in the cathedral, although I would not say it was the best vocal training I have had. It was technically a little old-fashioned. Things have moved on a lot since then in terms of the information given to children on how to sing. I did, however, learn a lot about instrumental playing at the cathedral school.

PH: What musical experiences influenced you greatly when very young?

PC: As a small child I was taken to concerts of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. One of my earliest musical memories is that of sitting on the stage at the Birmingham Town Hall (they encouraged children to sit close to the players) hearing ‘cellist Paul Tortelier playing a solo. Actually, the ‘cello had been my first instrument, before I started learning the violin. Hearing this very expressive ‘cellist performing the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto made an impression that has stayed with me. As choristers, we had to sing a lot of church music. From that time, the sense of singing in a community has always been a big thing for me. As a chorister, I learned a lot about teamwork.

PH: What secondary school did you attend?

PC: My mother, working full-time as a special needs teacher, was determined to give me the best possible education. I attended Shrewsbury School, one of the top public schools in Britain. I had a music scholarship, and this helped with the financial side of my school education. The school had not previously enjoyed a huge musical reputation, despite having a good music department; however, the music side took off in the time I was there, with opportunities growing. We went on tour to Europe with the choir. Shrewsbury School provided me with a fast-track music-learning experience: there, I was arranging music for competitions, listening to a lot of music and I was playing several instruments. I entered the school as a pianist and violinist (as a violinist I led the orchestra but never became a solo violinist as I did not have much vibrato technique; thinking about it now, I should have become a Baroque violinist!) I also took organ lessons but kept my piano-playing going. For my last two years of secondary school, I was sent to study the piano with Frank Wibaut in Birmingham; he was one of the top concert pianists in England and was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music (London). Taking my piano studies on a more serious level made an important impression on me. Then, one day (I was 15 at the time) I saw a notice on the school notice-board announcing that there was a harp available. (I had loved the instrument ever since singing Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”, which we performed every year. I still remember the very glamorous harpist who would play each year…a magical creature who played barefoot, accompanying us treble voices.) So I seized the opportunity and began playing the harp, which I still do.

PH: Do you own a harp?

PC: They are very expensive instruments to buy and, after I had left school, my mother hired a harp for me; it was an old harp and the wood was starting to rot. I watched it slowly deteriorate until it eventually exploded from the tension of the strings. My mother decided it was counter-productive to hire these old instruments and she bought me a Japanese harp, the one I still have. This was a big financial investment and I took playing it very seriously.

PH: Did you continue to learn the harp?

PC: Yes. When a student at Cambridge University I took harp lessons, despite the fact that I was an organ scholar, giving me many opportunities to play at university. That was very special – there were only two harpists at Cambridge University then. I was a student at Selwyn College there, where my brother was a choral scholar. For one year, I conducted him in the choir. (This was a challenging situation. He was very sporty and would often turn up late for rehearsals.)

PH: Let’s talk about your career as a countertenor. How did it begin?

PC: At age 13, I went down from singing treble to alto; I never got to explore my lower voice, as I did not think my voice had broken. When I was 18, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist told me my voice had not broken. Sadly, I carried on thinking my voice had not broken till I was 22 years of age. I went right through school and university speaking in falsetto, quite a traumatic experience in an all-male school, and then taking university choir rehearsals in a high voice. A speech therapist at Cambridge told me that I had “this other voice” and that I could “start using it tomorrow”! I told her that I was established with my present voice and that I was not sure I could change that. However, before moving to London, I decided to try to use my lower speaking register and did intensive speech therapy in Cambridge. For two weeks I visited the speech therapist every morning, using pitch in music to hear my voice now placed two octaves lower than how I had previously been speaking. In the afternoons I had to go to the shops, to call my parents etc., to practice using my “new” voice. The friend who accompanied and supported me during those two weeks, Lucy Winkett, has referred to my story in her book “Our Sound is Our Wound”. I then went to London with a new speaking voice identity. This is certainly not how most countertenors start their careers, but it is a big part of my story!

PH: At what point did you actually decide on a professional singing career?

PC: Had I been born many years earlier, I might have ended up singing in a cathedral (not necessarily in London) as a lay clerk, combining that with a teaching role. I like children. I took a history degree at university and just assumed I would be a history teacher, having no intention of becoming a professional singer. Then a weird thing happened: my tutor at university forgot to put in my application for my teaching degree, a one-year course necessary for me to take in order to go into the profession. This changed the direction of my whole life and I had to do something else; I went to Wells and sang in Wells Cathedral choir for a year. It was then that my singing teacher, Nigel Perrin, suggested I go to music college. So, my history tutor's negligence was rewarded with my entering an environment where there were lots of opportunities and I could pay for music college by taking on all sorts of singing jobs that would not have been there many years ago.

PH: Who was a major influence on you as a countertenor?

PC: I would say it is Michael Chance. He came to Cambridge University when I was there, singing solos in Bach Passions and the B minor Mass. I found his singing compelling…he had a very masculine-connected, rich sound. Hearing him sing made me think that I would like to be doing that.

PH: And Alfred Deller?

PC: Oh, very important. Last year was Alfred Deller's 100th birthday. He was the singer who relaunched the countertenor voice, a voice previously very much hidden away in cathedral choirs. He was  very meaningful to what I and many other countertenors do now. Today there are hundreds of top countertenors; this has all happened in the years from when Alfred Deller became famous. I wanted to mark Deller's 100th birthday at St. Paul's. In the 5 o'clocj Eucharist on the very day of his 100th birthday, I sang the "Esurientes" from the Bach Magnificat and I soloed with the choir in the whole of the "Agnus Dei" from Bach's B minor Mass, both  classic Deller pieces recorded by him. It was a grand and very emotional event. I was so happy we had marked him on the actual day; like so many great singers, he had sung at St. Paul's having come from Canterbury Cathedral. His was not a loud voice, but it had lots of blade and carried well. For me, there is something about the countertenor sound that really suits the St. Paul's Cathedral acoustic. (We now have four very fine and different countertenors singing there. Deller himself spoke of countertenors as being different from eachother.) I think Alfred Deller stood in the same place as I stand in the Cathedral choir, so I do sense his presence. And Deller was then the first singer (a countertenor too, in those days!) to perform on Radio 3 just as it was starting in the 1950s; he was not yet well known.

PH: Today you are greatly involved with the music and activities in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

PC: Yes. I have been singing in the choir there for sixteen years; that is my salaried job. We sing from 4:30 to 6:00 in the afternoons – that includes a half hour rehearsal and then Evensong. Then on Sundays we do three services; in addition, of course, there are many extra services we are invited to do. I have also taken on other responsibilities at St. Paul’s: I am an assistant librarian, I proofread all the service papers and I teach singing to some of the clergy. My community centre is very much that job.

PH: I hear you have made a major change in the musical life of the cathedral.

PC: You could say that. When I started out at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1995, there were no women doing anything there in the liturgy – there was one female verger, no female servers and no female clergy. I found that odd after being at university in a choir that was half men and half women. Actually, in my last year at Cambridge University, I put on a concert of music for women’s voices, a program on the theme of the Virgin Mary…some wonderful music, including the “Ceremony of Carols”, in which I played the harp part. Then, in London, I thought it would be amazing to carry this idea on and run an all-female choir. So I brought in a choir of 18 women – Aurora Nova - to sing a service when the cathedral choir was on holiday. As you can imagine, we got a lot of publicity following that first Sunday the women’s choir sang. The Guardian newspaper published a small article and a picture of the groundbreaking event. This choir has now been in existence for 15 years and has sung over 100 services across 40 Sundays. The members, some of them top singers from the The Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars, are singers I work with regularly; they have real energy, are able to meet on the day of the service and learn much material in record time…some of it being music that is rarely performed.

PH: And the other ensembles of which you are a member?

PC: I sing with the Tallis Scholars, which I joined in 1997; I have done 750 concerts with them over that time. They do about 50 a year, most of them abroad. We go to the USA twice a year, to Japan every other year and we have been to Australia. We also do “hit and run” concerts in Europe, flying there one morning and returning the next. The Tallis Scholars have been going for almost 40 years. (I still feel I am one of the babies there.) Singing in it has been quite a formative and solid part of my career. Quite soon after joining that, I started singing with The Cardinall’s Musick, which is a newer early music group run by Andrew Carwood, who now happens to also direct the music at St. Paul’s Cathedral; he is the first non-organist to direct music at St. Paul's. Carwood’s approach is different to that of the Tallis Scholars. He likes the group to be more soloistic…it is more about individual voices than about total blending. He also likes to place the music in a historical context. Whereas the Tallis Scholars give a very formal, strictly disciplined presentation, Andrew Carwood likes to turn around and talk to the audience, explaining about the works on the program, providing background information. I really like this approach, but both ways are valid. I have done much recording with both groups. The Tallis Scholars’ glorious years of recordings were the 1980s, but they slowed down somewhat after that time.

PH: Let’s talk about your solo singing.

PC: In 1992, I went to study at the Royal College of Music in London on a post-graduate singing course. I spent two years there. In those days, there was a countertenor teacher – Ashley Stafford – who has continued to be my singing teacher till today. There were only two countertenor students at the Royal College at that time. I chose the regular singing course (rather than the early music course, as was expected of countertenors). There I took classes in languages, movement, drama and different genres of song; opportunities for me were broadening very quickly. I had not been singing for very long, so, technically, I was on a bit of a fast track. In the meantime, Ashley Stafford was changing his own direction and training to become an osteopath! This meant that my singing lessons became a little sporadic. During my time at the Royal College of Music, I performed in two Händel operas. The London Händel Festival also needed countertenors for solo roles; I had to step up and suddenly found myself being viewed, doing broadcasts of Händel operas on the radio and big festival performances. That was a steep learning curve for me. I then did most of my solo singing soon after leaving the Royal College of Music, having more time then than I do now. I was frequently asked to do a lot of solo work before Christmas and Easter –  Messiah and the St. John Passion, etc. – in works that have countertenor soloists. Nowadays, the Tallis Scholars go to the USA every year before Christmas and before Easter, so those time slots have become less available for me for solo work. My solo options now mainly come from St. Paul’s Cathedral, because we do big performances of such works as the St. John Passion,  Messiah and Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass and I am one of a rota of four for the solo alto parts. I still  do the occasional solo role for a choral society concert, but I do not get to “exercise that muscle” so much nowadays. However, I do love my working life and feel no need to add more activities. St. Paul's Cathedral is flexible about my ensemble work and concert tours with both ensembles.

PH: And recitals?

PC: I did some recitals at the Royal Academy, where students were required to build up recital programs, but that has never been a big part of my career. I do not see myself as a recitalist.

PH: You are now at the height of your singing career. Did you imagine your career would go in this direction 20 years ago?

PC: Well, I must disagree with you on that point. The truth is that 20 years ago I was at a high point and have been lucky to have remained on that plateau. My jobs with St. Paul's Cathedral, The Tallis Scholars and The Cardinall's Musick have been running in tandem for 15 years or so. It has been quite consistent, with the solo work falling off a bit due to my heavy work load.

PH: You are enourmously busy. Do you ever feel you would like more time for yourself, to live a slower-paced London existence?

PC: That will happen when I retire. Things are still at a somewhat manic pace, but what I do is to squeeze the "ordinary" life in somehow - theatre, friends, etc. London is brilliant!

PH: Do you teach?

PC: Yes. I have taught music consistently since leaving music college. It is a very good way for singers to supplement their income. Doing a teaching day fits in well with the hours I work at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I taught in schools; one of the schools was the Harrow School in London, an all-boys school. For a while I was the only singing teacher there. The Harrow School has the curious tradition of always having a countertenor voice teacher, whereas most of the boys there are tenors or basses! I taught there for about four or five years, but today only do private teaching. As I mentioned before, I teach singing to London clergy and feel I have something to give there.

PH: There are many "schools" of singing, but your approach seems to be based on a much wider, more flexible and dynamic concept.

PC: That's true. A lot of singing teachers I know have a set technique on which they focus, giving them  real structure to their teaching, which is very directional. Such a method is Estill  Voice Training, a very specific and different approach to singing and totally alien to me. As I mentioned earlier, my singing teacher is a trained osteopath; for him, singing is first of all about body integration...singing with the whole body and understanding how it works. But also, the idea of my- and his basic technique is a stripping away of artifice from the voice. I am interested in releasing the natural, God-given instrument, whereas many schools of singing "impose" a technique on the voice. For me, singing technique is trusting what you do and not the constant worry about "fulfilling specific instructions". I perfectly understand the need of those rigorous singing techniques when singing a Wagner opera, but I am lucky to be singing the kind of music using release. I do have stamina as well. As to the "dynamic concept", Ashley Stafford, my singing teacher turns up to each lesson with a new idea. I have been studying with him for 12 years and we are always moving on. He has a very creative mind.

PH: Your world of singing combines cathedral music with the most specialized ensemble singing. Where does running a workshop for amateur choral singers fit in with that?

PC: For me it is the same mission; there is no barrier between the two. In my daily work, I work with people who may go at a faster pace, coping with more information, but, for me, any concert  is about communication, about saying something, about discovering something together with the audience. A week like the Jimena de la Frontera workshop is about passing on knowledge, not just through a singing performance but also by adding layers of  information. I feel that, in making music, we are going into the music to discover something about the way we think, who we are and what we are doing here. Communicating carries me into what I do.

PH: Do you still write arrangements?

PC: No. Sadly, I did not really pursue that. In the early days of Aurora Nova, before I was more familiar with the existing repertoire for women’s voices, I arranged a few pieces of church music that I really liked for the choir, such as Benjamin Britten’s “Jubilate in C”. I have carried on using these arrangements but also use the repertoire for women’s choir and am now connected with composers who commission works for the choir. Arranging is a very time-consuming activity.

PH: Do you compose?

PC: No. I have never composed. I have never been called upon to do it but would like to try one day.

PH: Watching you conduct, it is clear to me that you have a good sense of movement. Do you dance?

PC: I love dance and go to quite a lot of dance performances in London – often to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, where they stage a lot of modern dance. I especially enjoy modern dance. I recently went to see the Pina Bausch Company, which is doing a big festival in honor of the 2012 Olympics in London. I found it moving. But I have never trained in dance, apart from movement classes at college. One of my teachers there said I had a good imagination for movement, but I have never pursued it. However, it is a field that interests me very much. I have a feeling that the voice and dance are very closely connected; for me, they are the two most thorough expressions of human emotion. Using your voice is using your body. Well, if I am reincarnated, I would like to come back as a dancer!

PH: Observing your work as a choral conductor, I have noticed your interest in the various non-musical connections of the music being studied.

PC: Yes. That is something I learned from singing with The Cardinall’s Musick. It is very much the approach of its director Andrew Carwood, who is a true Renaissance man. He is very well read, has an amazing memory for facts and has inspired me to go into interpretation of a work, of the kind where you bring in the social history surrounding the music. (Actually, I read History at Cambridge University. I took several courses in Social History, a field that deals with the “little” people who do not get mentioned in history books.) For me, to link the sociological aspect to music is very interesting. Much music has been sponsored by the rich and famous, but a lot of the composers have come from more lowly backgrounds. I find the linking together of context – where the music was heard, where it came from and its emergence - helpful and informative to both performer and audience. It is nice to have time to explore this side. When Andrew Carwood has been absent, I have stepped in and done the presentation in concerts, also conducting and singing in them – big, step-up concerts for me. I have also used the historical background approach in Tallis Scholars summer workshops in England, America and Australia. It is nice to go back to my undergraduate studies and bring historical aspects into music.

PH: Let’s talk about the world of countertenors of today.

PC: I feel the countertenor world has changed hugely during my 20 years in the business. Whereas I was the only countertenor in my second year at the Royal College of Music, there are now 11. I think the countertenor world has exploded in my time. It goes back to Alfred Deller, who, as mentioned earlier, began his career at Canterbury Cathedral Choir and then moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he sang for 15 years. Similar to my own way of life, he used the job at St. Paul’s to serve as his  base in London, from where he ran the Deller Consort. I feel I have inherited that opportunity. With fewer around, there were many more opportunities for countertenors 20 years ago.

There are a lot more young countertenors out there today and with a really high standard, with the teaching of teenagers more prevalent. Teenage singers today are so confident and so are 21-year-old singers applying for jobs. The standard of the sound of countertenors has improved very much over the last 20 years, as has their ability to become more spectacular. I have countertenor acquaintances who are pursuing solo careers…such as Robin Blaise, a friend of mine, who travels the world as a soloist. There are many more like him who have stepped up a level and I admire them hugely. Nowadays the countertenor is being used in opera in a way it could not have been when I started out, due to the volume of sound needed to register in opera houses. The truth is that the countertenor voice has gained in “glamour rating”. Not necessarily in a good way, music has become “youth-oriented” and that suits the countertenor singer. The countertenor voice flourishes early and does not need the years of maturing that the bass voice does. The fact that the countertenor voice has the most impact in the singer’s 20s and 30s suits the current music scene. And there are superstar countertenors out there cashing in on that and enjoying many opportunities for recording. There is a turnover, as they do not last so long in the limelight. Well, I am also a part of that scene; it is nice to see the countertenor voice being more accepted in general classical terms.

PH: How do you see your own future as a countertenor?

PC: Ultimately, I do not feel my countertenor voice will see me through to retirement, but I might be wrong on that, as it is going very well at the moment.

PH: What plans do you have for the immediate future?

PC: Many. There is the Tallis Scholars’ 40th anniversary coming up next year. The Cardinall’s Musick is still touring with concerts of the entire sacred works of William Byrd. I would like to study more conducting technique, as I am now getting more opportunities to conduct orchestras at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is very exciting. On the Sundays of July, we do a series of orchestral Masses. I will be directing the last of those this year (2012) and will be using the City of London Sinfonia, a professional orchestra. This will be quite a learning curve for me. The orchestra players do not know me and are going to want to see what I can do! Then there is a big event for me for the Olympics: on July 29th I will direct Gounod’s “Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile” – a big Gounod 45-minute work. I will be doing the upper voice version of it with Aurora Nova, together with the orchestral part (it is frequently done with organ accompaniment). It should be quite spectacular! This is the biggest future plan on the horizon!

PH: Is there a lot of competition in the kind of work you do?

PC: All these jobs are greatly sought-after. A lot of people are interested to be doing what I do. There is a raft of people - many of them very young and confident - ready to step in if a job becomes available but work possibilities are not increasing. The recording world has shrunk a bit and YouTube has changed things. However, we must be ready to embrace the latter and other opportunities offered by the Internet, such as Facebook.

PH: And long-term future plans?

PC: I think I would like to gradually shift the emphasis from singing to conducting and possibly run a regular church choir, involving my interest in sacred music, in liturgy, and to be a director of music rather than a singer.

PH: You were an organ scholar. Do you see yourself as an organist in your future plan?

PC:  I would need to get back to doing a lot of work there and that needs time. It would be useful for a church job, although I do not enjoy it enourmously.

PH: In 20 to 30 years time, what do you imagine you will write in your memoirs? What will characterize them?

PC: They will not be musically- or intellectually focused. They will be about the people, the friends the stories. I am bad at remembering individual concerts. The concerts I remember are when something unusual happens! (When I was a student performing the Durufle Requiem, a man in the audience had a heart attack and fell into the aisle. Our conductor did not see it and we continued singing. Mind you, for a music-lover, this is not a bad way to exit the world! Such wonderful music.) My memoirs will centre around the bigger experience of being part of the music world.

PH: Patrick, when it is not music, what other interests do you have?

PC: I am quite a pop culture person. I love good American- and British television. I keep up on dramas; at the moment the current trend is Danish dramas, which I find really thrilling and enjoyable. Have already mentioned dance performances. I also really love going to the theatre in London. Through a friend of mine I get to go to press nights at the National Theatre; so, at a reduced cost, not only do I get to see amazing shows, I am also able to “stalk” all the celebrities I see on television! These are dream nights not to be missed. I also like to cook both for myself and for friends. I do not do too much entertaining as, with travelling a lot, I need my own space. And I enjoy all the different cuisines when travelling.

PH: Patrick, many thanks! It has been most interesting talking to you and hearing about the many sides to your professional life.

Friday, May 18, 2012

When music and literature meet:Nava Semel's novel "Screwed on Backwards"

Music and the power of art in human survival are at the heart of Nava Semel’s recently published novel “Screwed on Backwards” (2011, Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan). The novel comprises two narrative sections. One story takes place in the 1930s in a northern Italian village in Piemonte under German occupation. Three people live in a remote farmhouse – an elderly mother, her opera singer daughter Madalena and Tomaso, a six-year-old foundling they have taken in from an orphanage in Turin. Then there is a school teacher, an ardent Fascist, who is in love with Madalena, and a young Wehrmacht soldier, a Nazi who also falls in love with the beautiful young singer. On the farm, there is a neglected barn considered out-of-bounds; of course, this outbuilding allures the child, firing his imagination. One day, Tomaso senses the presence of another person there and fantasizes that the attic is inhabited by a captive princess. He begins to attach notes and small gifts to a rope for the princess, his offerings disappearing by the following day. This “interaction” becomes Tomaso’s private world into which he retreats. But, as the book’s title conveys, he is not, for some physical- or emotional reason, a child who is accepted among those around him and his imaginary world might put the family in danger.

Parallel to this story, another sequence of events unfolds in an intensive care unit of a hospital in Israel, where a nurse is sitting by a comatose man. His identity is a mystery to her, but he has a manuscript with him, in which the above story is told. The nurse spends nights reading aloud from the shabby pages in the hope that the patient will awaken and identify himself; is he one of the people involved in the events of wartime Italy? Who is her patient and where does he fit into the puzzle?

The second part of the book is narrated in a more poetic style by the man who is now comatose – a Jewish musician and Madalena’s lover. Madalena, the young woman had taken music lessons from this Jewish maestro and, when war broke out, the orphanage was a place to hide their illegitimate child. Tomaso’s daily interaction with his imaginary princess is, in effect, with his own father whom he has never met.

References to musical- and non-musical sounds are thread into the fabric of the text throughout, some factual and realistic, others poetic and figuratively woven into the memory strata of the book. ‘The most beautiful sound to Tomaso’s ears was that of the opening of the buds of the rose bush’ (p.114). In the first part of the book, mention is made of the fine quality of Madalena’s singing voice and of Tomaso’s liking for Verdi’s opera “Aida”: ‘When Madalena sings, Tomaso forgets everything… The young boy especially liked the story of “Aida”, the foreign princess who had been taken prisoner in Egypt…’ (p.34) Horrified to learn of the tragic fate of the lovers in Aida, Tomaso decides that Verdi was especially “screwed on backwards”, but instead of feeling a sense of fraternity towards him, in fact, a dislike of him welled up within him’ (p.50). And music belongs to the parallel story. In the chapter titled “Hushed Song”, there is discussion on whether to play the comatose person rock ‘n roll or trance music or the “Lacrimosa” from the Mozart Requiem together with the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. ‘This young nurse is, indeed, devoid of all musical aptitude, but she is certainly able to play her patient a hushed song’ (p.36) ‘The nurse drums on the patient’s arm…increasing the drumming, matching the rhythm to the pulse – her pulse’ (p.63).
Semel’s returning to Verdi’s “Aida” again and again, and on different levels, constitutes an important connection between the book’s characters. ‘He thrust into my hand a worn music notebook which he had pulled out from the drawer of his table, urging me to open it. This was the original score of “Aida”, as written in Verdi’s own hand, and his most precious treasure’ (p.183).

On May 13th 2012, Nava Semel and I met and talked. I was interested to hear more about the musical element that prevails supreme throughout the pages of “Screwed on Backwards”.

PH: Let’s start with the story. How did it originate?

Nava Semel: Six years ago, I was on a lecture tour in Italy. I was invited to give a lecture in memory of Primo Levi at the Fossoli Camp, a concentration camp where Italian Jews arrested by the Nazis were taken before being sent to extermination camps. I was feeling very emotional talking about the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi and this was Human Rights Day. Resulting from that event, I was sent to Piemonte to give more talks. My interpreter was a very pleasant young Catholic woman who had a liking for Hebrew songs. As we drove along the highways of Piemonte, I taught her some Hebrew songs. We made a detour to the small village where she had grown up; she wanted to pay her mother a short visit. While she was with her mother, I went for a walk around the picturesque village, with its prominent chimneys and tiled roofs – it was a romantic, pastoral spot from which one could see the snow of the Alps. When looking at one of the sloping roofs, I imagined a film. In my mind’s eye, I saw a person lying below one of the sloped roofs there peeping out at me through a crack. It was like a flash of lightening in my mind. When my interpreter Maria Theresa returned, I asked her what really had happened in this village; she immediately understood what was behind my questioning and answered that Jews had been saved there. My gut feeling was that a story had awaited me in that village, presenting itself as I was wandering around there; it was as if it were waiting for someone through whom it could be told. That very night, I heard the opening words of the book; I heard six-year-old Tomaso saying “There is a principessa (Italian: princess) there…”

PH: How did the element of music find its way into the book?

NS: Music very quickly became part of the fabric of the novel. I began hearing sounds and voices. The moment it was “revealed’ to me that Madalena was an opera singer, I began hearing Verdi’s music to “Aida”. The story was given a kind of orchestration in my mind (as well as in the minds of some of my readers). And, of course, in the second part of the book, I literally began to hear the work Salomone Levi was composing. From writing the book, I am changed person when it comes to musical awareness….I hear so many more of the sounds around and within me.

PH: What is the significance of names you chose for the characters?

NS: I was not aware of it at the time, but I do, indeed, pay homage to two people here – one is Primo Levi and the other, the Italian Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. The choice was a subconscious choice at the time! I should add that the Levi tribe, one of the twelve, was a tribe of instrumentalists. David and Solomon were both musicians whose artistry has been of great inspiration for me: King Solomon wrote the most romantic book, “Song of Songs” and King David, the Psalms, the most desperate of books. My book “Screwed on Backwards” gravitates between two poles – love and despair. The love between Salomone and Madalena was inconceivable in those times: as of 1938, the union between Christians and Jews was forbidden, not to speak of parenting a child together.

PH: This is definitely the story of love.

NS: Yes. The book focuses on what a person is willing to go through for love. Throughout the story, Madalena comes up against endless obstacles for her love. I feel the need to apologize to her for what I have put her through. I salute her for what she was willing to do for her lover: she lost her child, she lost her reputation, she was considered a prostitute for the Germans, and as if that were not enough, she had to have a German living in the house and to carry on intimate relations with him.

PH: How does this love and suffering connect to music?

NS: The music is consolation, despite the fact that Madalena will never be able to sing again; neither will she find comfort in “Aida”. But “Aida” is Tomaso’s consolation, and it is also, paradoxically, a consolation for Hans Dieter, the German soldier. And “Aida” is surely the source of Salomone Levi’s survival, for whom the padre has left pages in the attic where the musician is hidden, even ruling up pages for him with music staves, and suggesting he write another work. This is an impossible idea for Salomone.

PH: So Salomone learns to survive without music.

NS: No. From the moment Tomaso begins to bring him small offers via the chimney – fragments of the world, shards of inspiration, such as a yellowing rose, autumn leaves, all of which he is deprived – the sounds of the outside world are restored to him. And on the subject of autumn leaves, how can an Israeli be familiar with the crackling orchestra of autumn leaves? The experience was mine when living in New York 20 years ago. Following months of a difficult pregnancy, during which I was cooped up inside our apartment, with the outside world only reaching me through “filters”, my mother arrived in October to help me with the newborn twins. She suggested I go out of the house and take a walk. Within a quarter of an hour, I was in Central Park – now a veritable palace of mounds of autumn leaves, the wind whisking them up here and there. It was there that I heard the musical resonance of dry leaves. With a sense of urgency, my legs began to carry me off straight into the piles of leaves, crushing the leaves as I went, my own body orchestrating the experience. It was one of the most wonderful concerts I have ever heard. The world of nature, in all its musical splendor, reveals itself as a player, an orchestrator, in which various instruments play together – the air, the wind, treetops, autumn leaves, etc. In “Screwed on Backwards”, Salomone crushes leaves in order to hear them and sense their smell and the air outside.

PH: Let’s go back to a connection you made between the Jewish musician, the musical score and survival.

NS: This element comes into the book on a number of levels. Back in Turin, before his shop was shut down, a Jewish bookseller named Jacobo, fearing his shop would fall into Fascist hands, gave Salomone Levi Verdi’s original handwritten manuscript of “Aida”. When Salomone flees from Turin to the village in Piemonte, he leaves it behind in the apartment. In the year he is hidden in the attic, this fact worries and tortures him; he wonders whether the manuscript had been torn up or ruined or whether a music-lover had entered his apartment and taken it for safe-keeping. Levi was aware that there were Fascists and Nazis with a taste for culture and hoped that that fact would mean the document had been preserved. But the most tortuous thought in his mind was that the German Nazi taken into the house to be Madalena’s “lover”, much as she resented him, thus saving Salomone, was also cultured and a music-lover; the German was constantly requesting that Madalena sing “Aida”.

Salomone Levi survived the Holocaust. The fact that Madalena and her mother managed to save him was a major acheivement in those days. And Levi’s work – his book – survived. Who knows how many works written at the dark time of the Holocaust did not remain – paintings, music, diaries, etc.? If it were not for Theresienstadt and the love of music the Nazi captors had, works such as Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Hans Krása’s children’s opera “Brundibar” would have been lost. It is a fact that camp prisoners, aware of the fact that they might perish the following day, came to hear these musical performances. So if my book could represent so many works that did not survive, that is meaningful.

PH: So where do we come into the experience?

NS: In experiencing music, literature and theatre, the listener, reader and observer are actually taking part, creatively adding something of their own. Hearing music, the listener is “playing” the music in his mind. A person involved in reading is indeed “rewriting” the book onto his own personal map.

PH: Writing “Screwed on Backwards” has proved to be a musical experience on many levels.

NS: Yes. Many levels. And, for me, Hebrew is a very musical language. In writing “Screwed on Backwards”, the Hebrew language became a musical instrument for me. Just as Salomone Levi heard music in his mind, I heard music as the novel was being created. I do read music but consider myself a layman in music. When composer Oded Zehavi and I met after he had read the book, he was curious to know what music I had heard in my mind, the sounds from which my inspiration had come. He came to the conclusion that the music playing in my head was that of Arnold Schönberg. Perhaps one day I will hear the music that Salomone Levi wrote and know that that is the music I was hearing! What I do know is that for months I was living with the novel’s “soundtrack” playing in my mind.

PH: In conclusion, how would you summarize the process of artist himself in the book?

NS: One of the dangers of being an artist is that of hubris. All of us creating can so easily become excessively proud and arrogant. Salomone Levi, from being a confident musician at home performing on the stage, receiving standing ovations, ends up lying down in an attic. It is here that he begins discovering the world anew, rethinking it, also from the point of view of music. He senses are now limited - he can see Tomaso only in snatches, he cannot hold Madalena. The only things that reach him are sounds and voices, sounds and voices he had ignored till then. The wind, carrying Tomaso’s voice to him through the chimney has become his friend. The rain becomes his new orchestra. The falling leaves serve as new inspiration to compose. Salomone now understands the score played out by nature and is able to then write a work in hiding, using the instruments at his disposal - imagination and his heart. This is another example of the artist able to create in the direst of circumstances.

Novelist, playwright, film script writer, librettist and poet Nava Semel was born in Jaffa, Israel. Much of her oeuvre bears reference to the Holocaust. “Screwed on Backwards” is her seventeenth book. Her works have been translated into ten languages and have won international prizes. In 2007, Nava Semel was granted the “Literary Woman of the Year” Award of the city of Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Talking to violin-maker Florian Leonhard at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival

On March 17th 2012, violin-maker Florian Leonhard and I met in the lounge of the Princess Hotel, Eilat. Based in London, Florian Leonhard has been making violins for 30 years. His lecture on the violin and its history was one of the events of the 7th Eilat Chamber Music Festival.

PH: Mr. Leonhard, you are based in London, I believe.

Florian Leonhard : Yes. I have been living there since 1985.

PH: Where were you born?

FL: I was born in 1963 in Düsseldorf, Germany, but my family then moved to Darmstadt near Frankfurt because it was a kind of artists’ town. My father had studied at the renowned Düsseldorf Arts Academy.

PH: Darmstadt is also an important place for contemporary music.

FL: Yes. We did, indeed, attend many of the concerts of the annual festival of contemporary music there; so I grew up hearing a lot of modern music. I do not necessarily enjoy it so much nowadays. But as a child, you listen to music and just take it in. So I think I really understand contemporary music, but feel that a lot of it is not of a high quality…as in some modern art.

PH: I believe you have done a lot of painting.

FL: Yes. Here again, I am not a great fan of abstract art. I see much of it is an excuse for having no skill.

PH: Do you still paint?

FL: Unfortunately, I do not have much time for it at the moment. I was, in fact, so passionate about painting that I did not want to earn my living doing it. It would mean painting what the art market wanted. When I was growing up in the 1970s there were huge investments in art, usually modern art, in works that eventually will not be worth so much, being meaningless and lacking in skill. It comes back to the music scene: we admire someone who can do something new and original.

PH: So let’s get back to music. Are you yourself a violinist?

FL: Not really. I played the ‘cello till age 17, when I was happy to stop and not to have to practice every day. But I did take violin lessons for a year because I thought I should understand how it is played. It is technically so different to the ‘cello: the hands are twisted, the bowing is much lighter: the bow rests on the strings, whereas you really “grip” the bow when playing the ‘cello.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

FL: Yes. My mother learned the violin in Vienna, but then she decided to study medicine and German literature. She then became a German literature teacher and a wonderful mother; she saw to our education, health, sporting activities, etc. And, in the wider sense of education, our parents took us traveling, to museums, giving us a cultural education and the wherewithal to enjoy life. I am still aware of the confidence, happiness and direction such an upbringing gives one in adult life. Those first 20 years of life are shaped by these things. I am grateful to my parents for this. And my parents never pushed me in any one direction; they watched and monitored as I found my own direction.

PH: What made you choose the profession of violin-making?

FL: Having decided not to be a professional painter, I was actually very interested in surgery, medicine, chemistry and physics. I wanted to become a surgeon. I had my own microscopes; but I also enjoyed working with my hands – putting things back together and making them work. I still remember one Sunday morning at home (I was 16 at the time), how, having removed my mother’s violin from the table in order to lay it for breakfast, I began to examine the construction of the violin; my father, observing, saw how fascinated I was, as my eyes moved over the instrument, taking in its detail in depth. Seeing a future for me that would combine a lot of my interests and qualities, he said “Why don’t you become a violin maker?” I answered that I was going to study medicine. He left it at that, never mentioning it again; but, slowly, over the next two years, it gradually became clear to me that I was absolutely passionate about becoming a violin-maker.

PH: Where did you study the craft?

FL: I was advised by local violin-makers that the best school was in Mittenwald in the German Alps. There, one took seven semesters of study; the school has an intake of six students per class (from all over the world) – I was one of 1200 applicants. In 1981 there were a lot of people wanting to learn violin-making. The course was free and the experience meant total immersion in the subject. It it was tough and demanding, with discipline required to a degree that can not be sustained by every student. Looking back on it today, I have to say that it only covered the rudimentary basics, but it was certainly a good start.

PH: How did you proceed after graduating?

FL: My dream was to work for the most important violin maker, expert and dealer – W.E.Hill & Sons in London. The company had a long-standing reputation – in his diary of 1666, Samuel Pepys referred to Mr. Hill as “ye violin maker”. In 1862, the actual company was formed. After my studies, I was lucky enough to become workshop manager there. When the company unfortunately closed down in 1991, I set my sights at replacing W.E.Hill & Sons in some way. Sad to see an empire disappear, I sensed the importance of recreating the ideal environment in which research would be carried out, fine instruments would be constructed, great players would come to look for an instrument suited to their needs, to have them adjusted and serviced and where experts would be in the stores to serve them for the next generations.

PH: Is there a personal aspect to your profession?

FL: Most definitely. There is the psychological side of the job: all players sometimes need to have a chat about their violin (their “baby”) and I feel I have become close to many of today’s great players and that we have a warm, trusting relationship. I enjoy this. It is based on mutual professional admiration and respect.

PH: Do you deal in violins of the old master builders and, if so, how does that influence the instruments you build yourself?

FL: Yes. I work with Stradivarius violins, of which you can find five or six of them in my safe as well as instruments made by other old great Italian masters of almost 300 years ago. We restore them, opening them up and analyzing them, we adjust the sound and sell them to players who are often helped by syndicates who provide the money for the purchase. My ear was so attuned to the super fine sound of these instruments that I found that, on making my own violins, I have always measured the standard of my own violins against the level of quality of sound and response of those old instruments; so, for 28 years I was not satisfied with my own instruments and did not want to sell them. But I have finally found the way to make the instruments to my own satisfaction.

PH: Are we talking about a secret formula, as referred to in connection with the Stradivarius?

FL: No. First of all, it really is about understanding what piece of wood to choose. The latter is a sense that develops in time – a matter of feeling, of your hands and your ear. One needs to sense how the wood will respond, how much it should weigh, etc. You learn to hold the piece of wood and decide whether to use it or not. I handle thousands of pieces of wood before selecting the right one suited to making a violin. So the choosing involves quite a lot of work and expertise.

PH: From where does the wood come?

FL: Mainly from the European Alps from where, traditionally, all the good wood for violins has come. In Canada and China there is a lot of pine, but it is the European alpine pine which is right for violin-making. It is both light and strong and, most importantly, flexible. The lightness of weight promotes fast response, and flexibility promotes warmth of sound and the ability of the wood to vibrate and send the sound frequencies outwards; the wood’s strength is needed for resistance. Clarity and the core sound (the centre of sound, around which overtones form) are important. The overtones are important; if you cut them out, you are left with a very boring sound. The richer and clearer the play of overtones the instrument has, the more colors the violinist can express and the better the information reaching his listening audience.

PH: And regarding the player?

FL: The violin should be a good-sounding instrument, but it should also be able to make the life of the musician easier. A soloist preparing a large concerto – say, of 45 minutes – has, first of all, to practice for a few hours a day. A poor violin will make practising difficult, not to speak of the 45 minutes of concentration and memory on stage, of bowing and fingering. If you think about this, it is an incredible feat. And, of course, the player wants his instrument to allow him to be expressive; he wants it to have a range of colors, to respond to where you place the bow, to bow speed and bow length.

PH: Let’s get back to the listener. Can the audience judge how good an instrument is? Will listeners naturally go for the sound of an older instrument?

FL: This is a complex issue. An experiment, much talked about in the press in recent months, was carried out in a hotel room in the USA. A few orchestral musicians, concealed behind a sheet, played to people on violins of different standards (including Stradivarius violins). What was interesting is that half of the experts there listening found the non-Stradivarius violins to be better-sounding. I think this whole test is questionable – in 10 minutes’ playing it is so difficult to judge the quality of an instrument. Even hearing each different violin for an hour remains a very dicey and subjective test. So, there will never be conclusive evidence as to whether the new or old instrument is better.

PH: And the player’s choice?

FL: A player will naturally go for the old, much played and “well massaged” instrument because the intonation the violin has in its wood and its “memory” is something the player can just tap into intuitively, deriving much pleasure from it. This is what counts. I see that most great players choose something of the standard of the Stradivarius over a modern instrument. Even if today we make instruments on that level, we have to wait till they are fully matured to get that well-rounded sound. It is a bit like wine: drink a tanning rich wine after two years and it is horrible, but after seven it can be just divine! Although I make my violins of very light wood and the treatment of the wood seems to be good - giving warmth, sonority and clarity - you still have to work harder in playing them than if you are playing a Stradivarius; and players do not need convincing when it comes to that!

PH: Do you make bows?

FL: I personally do not make bows. My main expertise is old Italian violins going up to, say, 1930; my main field is the 17th-, 18th and 19th century Italian violin, this in itself being a very broad field. This expertise means writing reliable certificates for these pieces, helping to authenticate them. I have a bow-maker in my shop, making very fine bows, and I do consult with the greatest bow experts in order to offer my clients the most excellent bows.

PH: Do you work with Baroque violins?

FL: Interestingly, all the 16th-, 17th- and 18th century violins I deal in are, or I should say were, indeed, Baroque violins. A Stradivarius is a Baroque instrument; built at the height of the Baroque era, it was developed, in particular, by the Amati family, into being the perfect, Baroque-shaped instrument, with a Baroque attitude for ornamentation, shaping, etc. Today’s market, leading the ear in this digital age to liking more clarity and sharpness, higher tuning, etc., is so that the money is more in the modern manner of violin-playing. That means that all these originally Baroque instruments are today set up according to the more modern, post-1800s standard: the neck is often slightly longer, the finger-board is much longer, the bass bar is longer than that made in Baroque times and the bridge is shaped a little more efficiently so that it vibrates more quickly and with lightness. Strings nowadays are mostly made with nylon cord wound with several different kinds of metals and the e string is a metal string, which would have been a pure gut string in Baroque times.

PH: But if a Baroque violinist comes to you requesting an authentically Baroque type violin, what will you offer him/her?

FL: We can take an instrument that is no longer set up as Baroque and convert it completely back to being a Baroque violin. I, myself, have also made some Baroque-style violins that sound really quite marvellous. A Baroque set-up is less tight; it is very responsive because of the strings, the shape of the bridge and the lighter bass bar. The truth is that we can now build Baroque violins that are so good that we do not necessarily need to only play only on older Italian instruments. And a Baroque player nowadays does not make enough money from performing and recording in order to buy a Stradivarius violin. It is rare to find a Baroque musician playing on a Baroque set-up Stradivarius.

PH: So how does today's soloist manage to get a Stradivarius?

FL: Young budding soloists will often seek to play a Stradivarius or instrument of that standard. These players have to find syndicates or wealthy people to buy them this instrument. However, most of those wealthy people are not so familiar with the Baroque music scene: they go for more modern repertoire and would rather see their young player performing concertos on a Stradivarius or Guarneri in a very large concert hall. That is why I have, sadly, never been asked to convert a Stradivarius back to the Baroque instrument it was originally. But I make copies of such instruments with the characteristic Baroque neck, the Baroque fingerboard etc., and they work very well. Another option is to buy a cheaper kind of old Italian violin, like a Grancino, converted to a Baroque instrument set-up.

PH: Do you make early bowed instruments?

FL: No. Only the “modern” violin family. But I did once make one tenor viol, very richly inlaid, etc. I love all the carving involved in these instruments. The viol is tricky – but what a sweet-toned, beautiful instrument! I enjoyed making it, but that is not my main field.

PH: Do you have Israeli clients?

FL: Oh yes, yes. As of 2003 I have been the violin consultant and expert for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. We are in constant contact by email, but I come here once a year to meet with them and I will be spending two days with the IPO this coming week. I also work with most of the Israeli violin dealers and makers with regard to authentication and any other advice they may want. If players here want to have a violin repaired I advise them to whom to go and what questions to ask (the latter is very important). The Jerusalem Quartet has bought instruments from me and we enjoy a good friendship. Then there is Guy Braunstein, now concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, also a close friend of mine. Israel has a strong culture of violin-playing.

PH: What do you think of having a chamber music festival in Eilat?

FL: I am so glad it takes place here. Eilat is always associated with water sports and sun; this music is our “sunshine”. The festival should be an ongoing event, with full halls. There is so much pleasure for those attending the festival and meeting many old friends. I was invited to attend the festival by friends and by another violin maker. And the sea and sunshine do make a superb setting for the festival.

PH: At this stage of your career, how do you see yourself and your goals?

FL: I have made a name and reputation. I have been really passionate and in love with my profession all along and have had the energy to excel in it. I am now enjoying sharing my knowledge. Money was never a driving force with me (I was not born a salesman), but I am selling well now because I have a product that people want to buy.

PH: How do you see today’s soloists?

FL: What disappoints me is that some have little intellectual interest in fields outside of their own. However, I do see that there are real virtuosos who have a wider and richer scope. For example, my good friend the violinist Leonidas Kavakos is intensely interested in many different things, and you can hear this expressed in his music. As to myself, violin-making is just one of my many interests.

PH: Would you like to mention some of your other interests?

FL: This answer could take an hour, but the concert hall beckons, so I will try to be concise. As mentioned earlier, there is biology and there is literature – I love Russian writers, for example, old German writers, English- and French writers. I read philosophy texts and like to discuss them. I am passionate about painting, art and museums, theatre and ballet. I like to travel in order to learn about other countries, their people, religions, etc. And then there is sport – skiing and sailing, in particular. I have a skipper’s license and enjoy sailing with friends. In my spare time, I really appreciate being with friends who have interests other than music.

PH: Florian Leonhard, many thanks for your time and for sharing so much interesting information.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Israeli conductor Yaniv Dinur talks about his work and ideals

On February 3rd 2012, Dr. Yaniv Dinur and I met in the music room of my Jerusalem home to talk. Born 1981 in Jerusalem, Yaniv has conducted orchestras in Israel, the USA and Europe.

PH: Yaniv, what were your first musical experiences?

Yaniv Dinur: I should start by saying I was born into a musical family. My aunt was my first piano teacher and my mother studied Musicology. We had a piano at home. There is a picture of me as a baby sitting on my mother’s knee, playing on the keys of the piano. This must have been among my first musical experiences. Both my brother and sister studied the piano with our aunt, but today have chosen different careers.

PH: Where did you start your piano tuition?

YD: I was a pupil at the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music. My aunt, Olga Shachar, was a wonderful teacher. I did not get special treatment just because I was her nephew and she was most demanding. She really encouraged and developed my musical intuition and I owe her a lot. For the duration of my IDF army service, I was in the Outstanding Musicians Program as a pianist. I went on to study with Professor Alexander Tamir at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. After graduating from the Academy, I studied with two Russian teachers – Tatiana Alexanderov and Mark Dukelsky - who taught me together, one seated either side of me. They really changed my musical world: these lessons added a new dimension to my playing – both technically and musically. Tatiana and Mark were collectors of historical recordings, and listening to them drew my attention to the interpretations of great pianists and conductors of the past; it was there that I heard recordings of renowned artists such as Josef Hoffmann, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, conductor Felix Weingartner and also of Rachmaninov both conducting and as a pianist. These really made an important impression on me, especially in the specific kind of sound heard then.

PH: When did your interest in conducting begin?

YD: When I was 16, I started studying conducting with Yevgeny Zirlin in Jerusalem. He was an excellent teacher, gave me a very good basis and taught me much about the profession. Under his guidance, I completed two degrees in conducting at the JAMD. After graduating, I went to study conducting privately with Professor Mendi Rodan. This was also a unique experience; actually, I never actually conducted in his lessons – I would go to his home, where we would sit at the piano and discuss scores. He was such an expert on the orchestra in general, and on stringed instruments, in particular. I learned so much from him. He was a special person, with his own particular brand of humor!

PH: I understand you went to the USA in 2007 for further studies. What influenced this decision?

YD: Two years previously, I went to Canada, with the help of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and its CEO Gideon Paz. The purpose of this trip was to attend the Summer Music Institute in Ottawa. The program, which also offers coaching in string-playing and chamber music, is run by Pinchas Zukerman and there is a wonderful orchestra there – The National Arts Centre Orchestra. That year, the conducting course was run by Finnish conductor Jorma Panula and it was a great success. Zukerman invited me to come back the following year, and this time the course was run by Kenneth Kiesler, an American, who teaches at the University of Michigan. On completing the 2007 workshop under his guidance, I decided to follow Kiesler and study with him in Michigan. I spent three years in Michigan, completing a doctorate in conducting. The course itself rose above all my expectations, but adjusting to Kiesler’s approach was no easy task for me. My career had been developing very nicely and I had already had much conducting experience for my age: I had conducted the Israel Camerata Jerusalem when I was 19, being the youngest person ever to conduct an orchestra in Israel. I had travelled Europe conducting many orchestras – in Portugal, Russia, Italy and in Ireland. I had won the Yuri Ahronovitch First Prize in the 2005 Aviv Conducting Competition in Israel. You could say that I was a little arrogant when beginning the course in Ottawa – I was an experienced conductor and was, indeed, familiar with the world of conducting. Kiesler, however, took upon himself to teach me new things, things I was not accustomed to, and it took me a little while to open up to this new experience. But it was there that I discovered new sides to the profession that, till then, had not been familiar to me. Kiesler’s approach certainly changed my way of thinking.

PH: Can you elaborate on that?

YD: Yes. For him, the most central issue is that the conductor should be the visual expression of the music. That means that every little detail of the music…to the point of one conducting movement being suitable to the key of C major and a different movement to interpreting E-flat major! This is most important, because it has a direct effect on orchestral musicians and, therefore, on the quality of the sound they produce. Producing a forte sound does not require large conducting gestures, rather, intense movements. Indeed, if the horns are to play an interval of a fifth, my gesture will be different than if they are playing a fourth. In other words, everything you do as a conductor must be tailored to the music. The important question is how one gets to that. It is a matter of developing a very expressive body language and of reaching the stage that you do not need to “plan” each movement. Kiesler’s advice was “You have to be vulnerable to the music.” This is a very beautiful idea, but suggesting it is easier than putting it into practice. I think that it is only recently that I have learned how to do this myself: to forget all and free myself in order to be open to having the music exert its influence on me. Only following that process can you convey the music to the players, letting yourself be the music. Needless to say, this approach has changed me very much and done much to form me as a conductor.

PH: Did you only conduct orchestral music in Michigan?

YD: No. As doctoral students, we were required to conduct complete opera productions. I conducted “Armide” by Gluck and Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring”. It was there that I fell in love with opera and I am really looking forward to conducting more operas. What was wonderful was being in a university town (Ann Arbor) where these opera performances were part of local cultural life and took place in the centre of town. Ann Arbor is a really international cultural centre. It has a fantastic concert hall – the Hill Auditorium - and many of the world’s greatest orchestras come to perform there. While I was there, I got to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and some of the world’s most famous conductors and soloists. Being in a place like that for three years really changes your life.

PH: What other conductors have influenced you?

YD: Another great musician who has influenced me immensely is Pinchas Zukerman. He is simply a magician. I learned a lot from watching him rehearse the orchestra, from discussing music with him and studying his own personal markings on orchestral parts. We are frequently in touch and I learn something new from him every time we meet.

I also conducted the Miami New World Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s musical director, invited me to spend two days studying with him. We met later in Michigan, also in Israel, and the time I spent with him was most valuable. We talked about how best to learn a score. Tilson Thomas said that, when learning a new work, he asks himself four questions: what is happening in the work, why is it happening, what it means and what I am going to do about it. I also ask myself these questions when learning a new work or reviewing a familiar work, and discover many new things this way.

And then there is Daniel Barenboim. As a young boy, I grew up listening to recordings of him and attending his concerts in Israel. He has been a role model for me from an early age and I had always wanted to meet him. Last December, I finally did. I spent a month in Milan, observing his rehearsals at La Scala. I was amazed at his incredible knowledge of the orchestra and at how he would build the “big picture” of a work by working thoroughly and persistently on every small detail. It was an unforgettable experience.

PH: What were your plans following completion of your doctorate?

YD: To have my own orchestra. At this time, I am a candidate to be musical director of two orchestras in the USA – one in Florida and one in Minnesota. It is quite a lengthy procedure, taking from 18 months to up to two years; this is different to the European- or Israeli procedure. I know the Florida orchestra had 250 applications, the number being narrowed down to five! Following interviews, the five are invited to be guest conductors – my concert with them will be in October and only at the end of the concert season they will make their final choice of new musical director.

Following my studies in the USA, I have been guest conducting in Israel.

I also took part in a project called the “National Conductor Preview”, organized biennially by the League of American Orchestras. Following applications, they choose a few conductors to conduct an orchestra (a different orchestra each time). Representatives of many American orchestras attend the sessions to hear these conductors. I was chosen to conduct last year. My participation has led to my being invited to be guest conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in 2013.

And I will also be going to Sicily to conduct. This will be my first time there.

PH: Would you like to elaborate on your current projects in Israel?

YD: Yes. I recently conducted the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra for the Young Artists Competition; since 2003, I have been conducting the JSO for that annual event. It is important for me to be part of this project that promotes young artists; beyond being a duty, it gives me great pleasure to work with young people and to add to their knowledge. This year’s competition was for pianists. We performed both Liszt piano concertos; it was enjoyable and interesting to perform both concertos in the same concert, as well as Chopin’s second piano concerto. I really grew up with the JSO; my grandparents would take me to their concerts. At age 21, I began conducting the JSO, so I know the orchestra well and the players know me. Working with them is literally “coming home”.

I also have concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra coming up in May of this year. There are two programs. One will be on Lag B’Omer (a joyous holiday which children celebrate sitting around bonfires); we will perform works to do with fire: Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite, de Falla’s “Ritual Firedance” and Beethoven’s “Prometheus” Overture. The second program will include the “Firebird”, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.4 and some movements from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”. I conducted the IPO last season. Contact with the players was very pleasant and totally natural; am very much looking forward to working with them again.

And another exciting venture: the Conservatory of the JAMD has asked me to establish a studio for young conductors. Till now, this has not existed there. (As a young person, I studied conducting there privately.) The Conservatory is aware of the importance of this discipline and intends to make conducting an integral part of studies there. I will be teaching the course and am very excited about it.

I will also be teaching a course of eight sessions at the External Studies Institute of the JAMD. I have called the course “Good Performances, Bad Performances and the Fine Line Dividing Them”. We will confront questions of what makes a good performance and of whether there is such a thing as a bad performance. We will work on some musical analysis; the course will focus on a different composer each time. One session will be devoted to discussing singers and another, to conductors.

PH: Let’s talk about audiences. Do you find differences between Israeli audiences?

YD: Yes. Indeed. I mainly sense a difference between Jerusalem audiences and other Israeli audiences. The Jerusalem audience is tough: it is very genuine in its reactions. Jerusalem concert-goers will make it clear if they don’t like what you do (not in any extreme way) but if they like what you do, they are “on fire”. Outside of Jerusalem, life is different, the man-in-the-street is different, and so it stands to reason that audience reactions in the concert hall will be different.

PH: What about working with different orchestras?

YD: American orchestra members are usually very polite and quiet in rehearsals. If not, they risk losing their jobs. Here in Israel, it is very different, as it is also in countries like Portugal and Italy…freer, noisier and more Mediterranean in atmosphere. However, despite all that, the standard of performance is frequently high.

PH: What issues are important for you in particular in today’s musical world?

YD: One of my fervent desires is to bring young audiences to concerts. This is very high up on my list of priorities and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of doing this. I began working towards this when I was in the USA and will make it my mission to do wherever I end up. Wherever I conduct, I always make contact with the local university, I meet students, give a lecture, often on the connection between music and other art forms. This is a field that has interested me since my teens. One hears many people lecturing on the connection between music and dance or music and painting. However, a lecture I gave in Chicago, and also here at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, for example, focused on the connection between music and architecture. I also talk to the university students about the upcoming concert and invite them to attend. Till then, some of them have not even been aware that there was an orchestra in the town. Of course, I end up seeing them at concerts and am happy about that. What is important is to approach them in the environment of their schools and interest them in the concerts. When I have my own orchestra, I will be able to invest more energy in this important community activity.

PH: How about bringing young people to concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra? The average age of their audiences seems to be very high!

YD: I intend to. The IPO does have youth concerts. In fact, it (and many other orchestras) has a very fine educational program – many concerts for young children and high school pupils, prior to which the pupils are taught about works and styles on the program. The IPO also gives family concerts, explained concerts for adults, the “IPO in Jeans” series, etc. But no orchestra I know of includes a program to involve adult non-music students or, indeed, relates to this age group. Including them will be advantageous not only to the students but also to the orchestra. Orchestral players are certainly influenced by who is seated in the concert hall and whether the hall is full – they play infinitely better to a full hall.

PH: What about early music?

YD: Till the previous summer, I had little to do with early music, when my curiosity regarding this repertoire took me to Vienna to take a course in conducting early music with the Austrian pianist and conductor Manfred Huss. We worked with an orchestra of period instruments. For the first time, I conducted Händel’s “Water Music”, and from the harpsichord. It was an amazing experience! I very much liked the mellow, rich sound and lower tuning of the early instruments. This does not mean that I will now conduct only early music, but I found it enriching and learned much there about musical interpretation. I hope to play the harpsichord in the future…not as a soloist, but in Baroque ensemble music.

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

YD: It is difficult to work on the piano and also at conducting. They both need so much time. I do get to the piano now and then. At the moment, the piano is suffering. But I do miss it and will return to practicing, time permitting.

PH: Apart from music, what interests you?

YD: I really like writing. Before I went to the USA, I would write a lot of short stories. A few years ago, I even won third prize in a countrywide short story contest run by the army radio station. Being in America put an end to that temporarily; but I miss it and hope to continue writing at some time. I also love action films – I am addicted to the Dexter TV series!

PH: This is a far cry from conducting! Who is Dexter?

YD: Dexter is an atypical hero who works for the police; he analyzes blood in order to catch killers. The twist is that he himself is a serial killer…but a serial killer with a conscience. The episodes are excellent – full of humor and suspense.

PH: Anything else?

YD: Coffee. I love coffee. I would not say I was an expert on coffee, but I do have a taste for good coffee. When I was in Italy, I went crazy over the coffee there. I could not sleep at night, but it was worth it.

PH: Yaniv, many thanks. It has been very interesting talking to you. I wish you much joy and success in your career.