Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Remembering soprano Judith Nelson. Talking to Gideon Meir and Miriam Meltzer

American soprano Judith Nelson (née Manes), born in 1939, was one of the 20th century’s most renowned singers of Baroque music and an important figure of the early music revival. She died May 28th 2012.

Singer and voice teacher of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Miriam Meltzer spoke of Judith Nelson as “a very pleasant and sympathetic person. As a teacher she was honest, generous and intelligent – qualities which I admire and respect.” Meltzer spoke of Judith’s “incisive advice and encouragement to keep moving forward”, thus challenging Miriam to learn new works that are “still in my repertoire of good teaching material.” Miriam Meltzer also mentioned Nelson’s top quality recordings of Händel works.

I recently met harpsichordist/organist Gideon Meir in a Tel Aviv café to hear more about Judith Nelson.

PH: Gidi, how did you meet Judith Nelson?

GM: The first time I heard about her was from British singer Deborah Roberts, who had studied performance of early music with Judith. Then, in 1984, I met harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg here in Israel at an early music workshop, a short while prior to my going to the Bay Area of USA to study with Laurette for three months. She and Judith Nelson were colleagues. Laurette called me up saying I should go to see Judy who was in Israel at the time, that I should attend her classes, go to her concert, present myself and tell her I would be staying in her home to house-sit (while she was still away on tour)! So after attending a fabulous concert in Jerusalem, I did just that. She was very sweet and matter-of-fact about it, told me someone would let me in and that the spare key would be next to the kitchen door! The idea was that I should stay in the house for three weeks and leave on her return, at which time she would find me lodgings with other friends or colleagues. But I ended up staying with the Nelsons for three months (and then again later when I was studying formally at the Conservatory in San Francisco in the Bay Area) becoming a “family fixture”. By this time, their son and daughter were out of the house, the Nelsons were missing their children and I was 22, and still at an age when you like to find make-believe parents. It worked out that way: Judy and Alan became close friends of mine, always very supportive.

PH: What was it like living in the house of this great singer?

GM: For three months, I would wake up to the wonderful sounds of Judy’s singing. Her daily practice consisted of a very free style of warming up; and she always had something to be studied for her next concert – at that time she was singing a Monteverdi opera, among other works. So I would hear her practice and she would hear mine. And, of course, we would have coffee in the kitchen and read newspapers, as in any family situation.

PH: Did you actually hear Judith perform at that time?

GM: Yes. She took me with her to a concert she was performing in the Green Room - a small, elegant and intimate venue in the civic center of San Francisco. (Judith was best in an intimate concert setting.) There she sang the most incredible Purcell songs. Actually, she warmed up for those songs in the car as we were driving over the bridge. Arriving at the center, she went to her dressing-room, put on a blue taffeta gown, came out on stage and sang these gripping Purcell songs from memory! (I heard her practice every day, but she never practiced these songs…)When she sang, there was never a dry eye in the house.

PH: What did you learn from listening to her?

GM: That Judy had the utmost mastery of her repertoire and a free livery of the wonderful texts. Well, she did rehearse with ensembles, but she herself could just wing it. For that reason, her performance was always very fresh, sounding as if she were discovering a work for the first time; you also felt as if you were hearing the songs for the first time. Thus, she was freer and more spontaneous in live performance than in recordings (which she sometimes did at short notice). That evening in the recital in the Green Room I heard her sing “Sweeter than roses”, “If music be the food of love”…all those standards.

PH: Standards?

GM: Well, back then in 1984 (and I had come from Israel) hearing this repertoire was actually a great rarity. There were few recordings of it but also very little expertise in performing them. It was even difficult to obtain scores. You could usually buy the Britten score, with whatever he had omitted and added; these scores had very little to do with Purcell’s original intentions. Her Purcell repertoire was amazing. Some years later, Judy performed Purcell’s masques with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

PH: Would you like to talk about was behind Judith’s performing?

GM: Yes. Judy’s ability to take on different characters during the same performance was amazing – whether comic or tragic. In a comic masque duet she sung with Nancy Armstrong, they brought the house down – Judy could be totally funny! That character skill came through her knowledge of British theatre, enriched by the influence of her husband, Alan H. Nelson, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of California Berkeley. Alan is a world specialist on medieval theatre. Judy had incredible knowledge of what she was singing – of the history, drama, the history of music-making (not only performance practice). Any text she delivered was convincing, simple and virtuosic. With a difficult score that did not look like much on the page, she was the person who could figure it out. For example, Barbara Strozzi was a noble woman and a great singer, but she was not a “professional” composer; Judy managed to get into her mindset – that of the great singer – really doing justice to aspects of the text that otherwise would have been overlooked. Even today, when so much is happening in early music, it seems Judy was right on in those days, and her performance technique was beyond that of her colleagues at a time when performance of early instrumental music was still in flux. If you lived in the Bay Area at that time, you would never want to miss a concert of hers. Judy performed all over the world and very often in festivals – festivals in Malmö, England, the USA, in Latin America, Australia, New Zealand; she was very excited about singing at the Bamboo Organ Festival in the Philippines, where there was a 17th century bamboo organ. I heard her several times at the Boston Early Music Festival and at the Berkeley Early Music Festival. Although Judy’s first preference was performing with Baroque orchestras – and her voice was not very large – she nevertheless sang with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, she sang the Mozart Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony and I remember hearing her singing Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras no.6 with an ensemble of ‘cellists. She also sang contemporary music. Her diction was truly artful: her Italian diction was juicy – not clean and academic – she colored her vowels, her diphthongs were wonderful.

PH: How do you explain her personal charisma?

GM: First of all, she was very much at home on the stage. She looked out at her audience, having direct eye contact with many of her listeners. For performing she would wear contact lenses – one for close sight to read the score and one for distance – to see the audience! Even her occasional memory slip was dealt with intelligently…and she would come off stage laughing! That was the Judy experience.

PH: Where did Judith study and how did she enter the realm of early music in the early days of its revival?

GM: Judy studied at St Olaf College, Minnesota. This was a very important American choral centre. Around 1960, Alan and Judy moved to Berkeley, where she would participate in Musicology classes (the musicologist Alan Curtis was a member of faculty researching vocal music and Baroque opera) and take part in the Collegium Musicum. She displayed great ease in singing, read many clefs effortlessly and had no need of a vocal coach, doing much vocal training by herself. (Judy referred to the voice as an “authentic, original instrument”!) In Berkeley there was much activity in medieval and Renaissance music and it was there that she decided to specialize in early music. The Bay Area was also a hotbed of Baroque musical activity in the 1960s and 1970s, so there were people such as Laurette Goldberg, Susie Napper and Bruce Haynes to work with and try things out. I think Judy did some study with the early (especially medieval) music specialist mezzo-soprano Andrea von Ramm. Andrea von Ramm was convinced that there was no specific way of singing early music, that the context and cultural content were the basis of how it was to be sung. Also, Judy had gone to Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship. She had the ability to go to libraries and find music, familiar with what she was looking at and knowing what she wanted and there she would copy out works by hand. So her work was also musicological. Alan’s sabbatical in Cambridge (UK) brought Judy in contact with Christopher Hogwood and Emma Kirkby and the English early music scene. In Europe, she sang with members of the Kuijken family and Robert Kohnen. Judy was a pioneer in the early music revival, certainly a pioneer in the American early music revival.

PH: Post-war American training focused very much on singing with vibrato. Did Judith express an opinion on vibrato singing?

GM: Yes. She said that automatic vibrato was not a true basis for any style of singing. She knew where to relax the voice and when to exercise a controlled vibrato.

PH: Let’s go back to her recordings.

GM: Here Judy felt she must do the right thing, to please. She was an important artist in recordings of Harmonia Mundi when the company was opening up to the world of Baroque music. She would record duos with René Jacobs. In fact, they would fly her into Paris for a recording before she had even seen the music! Yet she would be superb in the three-day recording session. I particularly love Judy’s recordings of the music of Barbara Strozzi and Luigi Rossi. Listening to these LPs, I remember the gestures and texts that were so convincing in her performance. I believe Judith was the first to record works of Barbara Strozzi and also of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. And her recordings of Couperin’s “Leçons de Ténèbres” and music of Charpentier were indeed groundbreaking. Recording sessions were very exhausting and there was often a physical price to pay; when Joshua Rifkin made his historic recording of Bach’s B minor Mass, with the one-to-a-part choir in which the soloists sang both solos and choruses, (jokingly referred to as the “Piltdown” Mass), the singers tired their voices to the extent that they needed to use cortisone spray to relieve their vocal cords! Judy spoke of that recording experience as almost impossible! An important milestone was the recording she did as first soprano in Händel’s “Messiah” with Christopher Hogwood in London, the first with authentic instruments. Other highlights were her Philharmonia recordings with Baroque oboist Bruce Haynes, in which she actually matched her vocal timbre to the instrumental environment; also in recordings of Händel works with the magnificent Baroque flute-playing of Janet See.

PH: Who was Geneviève Thibault de Chambure?

GM: Madame de Chambure was Judy’s Parisian “angel”, a patroness of music. This lady had a chateau where she staged concerts; there she had some antique harpsichords. She was also the benefactor of William Christie; Judy worked a lot with William Christie in those days. I have the feeling that some of the texts Judy premiered came from Mme De Chambure’s library.

PH: Did Judith do much teaching?

GM: Judy did not like teaching people technique or how to sing, so she never had a regular teaching job, neither did she have private voice students. But, of course, she held master classes all over the world, working much on interpretation and how to use acoustics. She certainly passed on much knowledge through her copies of texts and translations, which are probably still circulating till today. She always made her library available to all and you knew she might have rare pieces there you could not find anywhere else. Judy joked that the early music revival was made possible by the Xerox machine. I still treasure copies of her music and text translations.

PH: Would you like to mention Judith and Alan Nelson’s community activities?

GM: Yes. They helped people a lot. In 1986, Judy was a founding member of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra – the first Baroque orchestra in western USA (the Philharmonia office was a room in their house!), directed today by Nicholas McGegan. She was an important member of the San Francisco Early Music Society. She and Alan helped young musicians with the acquisition of instruments (they helped me with one of my harpsichords); Judy would supply them with texts or robes or invite them over for coaching. When I prepared concerts with fellow students, I would call her and, if she had time, we would go to her home and play the program to her. We were always keen to hear what she had to say; she made nothing of the fact that she was a great artist and that you might be just a first-year student. There was no snobbery about her. In Philharmonia rehearsals, if an artist was having a hard time, she was ready with a hug; and you could see Judy helping with members’ babies when she was not singing! Judy was a very caring citizen – she attended city council meetings and was on education boards, she always had a political opinion and was exceedingly humanistic.

PH: What brought Judith to Israel?

GM: Judy gave workshops and master classes all over the world, and came to do just that in Israel in 1984. This was new to many people here. She returned twice after that. She was a guest of the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Judy worked a lot on text, on finding your understanding of the text, on encouraging you to make a personal connection with the text, first delivering it in speech voice, being convincing and only then placing it in the singing voice. What was important for her in Baroque performance practice was that singing should not be separated from speech. I remember her explaining about word painting and advocating aesthetic choice. As a teacher she was modest…even humble. And an important point: back in the 1980s, Judy picked up on the fact that there was enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge of early music performance here in Israel and she predicted that Israel, in time, would develop into an important centre of early music.
On her second visit she was joined by Laurette Goldberg; they gave some courses together. I was Laurette’s assistant, so I slept on the floor in one of their rooms at the guesthouse and help with whatever was needed in the classes. On her second visit to Israel – Alan had joined her –I showed them around the Old City of Jerusalem. I still remember how moved she was seeing Mary’s Tomb in all its austerity; walking down those steep stairs to it, she became so aware of going far back in time.

PH: What impressions did Judith’s musicianship leave on you?

GM: A lasting impression. I remember her performances as if they had been yesterday. As a younger musician – I was a student at the time and still inexperienced - my friends became her friends. From her we learned the 17th century vocal gestures and how to recognize them in instrumental music. She, herself, was so clear on this that she never faked a song. She had so much knowledge of the styles of late-medieval music, early- and late Renaissance and also of Baroque music; she had engaged in much dialogue on these styles with top people in the field. She was the model of how all music should be performed – in a fresh, personal way and her aim was to share her enjoyment of it. Many of today’s early musicians sing with very fine technique and interesting ornamentation, but the freshness Judy brought to music is something I will never forget.

PH: And as a person?

GM: Judy was good with people; she was curious and compassionate. She was supportive of young musicians and wanted to share her knowledge with others. Five minutes’ of Judy’s support and a hug was something you would keep for your entire life. Judy was a wonderful friend and would call people up spontaneously, arrange a spontaneous meeting. In working on performance, she would sometimes place her hands on the accompanist’s shoulders and, her way of communicating what she wanted – tempo, rhythm, small changes to make a phrase soar, etc. I was present at the various holidays celebrated at the Nelson home, and, of course, Judy would always sing for us - anything from Guillaume de Machaut to Tom Lehrer, to the Beatles!

PH: Gidi, you have heard so much performance by Judith Nelson. What works remain highlights for you?

GM: The Italian songs and Purcell’s songs. When she sang “Sweeter than Roses” she was so very convincing…as if she herself had just been kissed for the first time!

PH: And now that Judy is gone….

GM: Since her passing, I have spent much time thinking and remembering. I would say she is the most evolved person I have ever met. There was some perfection about the way everything came together in her: commitment to her work, to her family, to the musical community around her and to the community at large (to homeless people, to the issue of AIDS, etc.) and she had a wonderfully cheerful personality.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

British early brass specialist Richard Thomas talks about his career and about early brass instruments on today's concert platform

On September 19th 2013, I spoke to brass player Richard Thomas at his London home. Richard Thomas studied at the University of Wales, the Royal Academy of Music (London) and the Schola Cantorum (Basel, Switzerland). As part of his Master of Arts degree, he undertook research into the William Shaw Silver State Trumpets in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Richard Thomas’ interest in the performance practice of historical brass instruments (including the natural trumpet, the keyed bugle, the slide trumpet and cornett) has meant that he has worked with many of the most prestigious early music ensembles. Richard is a founder member and director of the acclaimed sackbut and cornett ensemble QuintEssential, he teaches cornett at Trinity College (London) and at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

PH: Richard, where were you born and do you come from a musical family?

Richard Thomas: I was born in London. All my family is from Wales and we returned to Wales when I was two years of age. I do not come from a musical family. My mother did once have piano lessons but she was the only one who had anything to do with music. I think I am the only person in the family to be musical.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

RT: I remember being in primary school, with all my friends having instruments to learn. The trumpet teacher came along at the start of the school year, in September, and asked who was already nine years old…mainly to make sure pupils had top- and bottom second teeth. As I was not yet nine, I was not in that first selection process. All my friends had instruments and I was probably envious of what they were doing. But I do have a clear memory of my friends turning up to deliver an instrument to me on the very day of my ninth birthday. Other than that, my early memories are of singing at school, either in English or Welsh.

PH: So you started with the trumpet.

RT: I played the brass band cornet to begin with and then the trumpet from about 17. I picked up the early instruments when I was about 21 or 22.

PH: Did you have private lessons?

RT: Yes, but all of the state schools had free tuition for pupils. So, all of my early lessons were free. It was only when I went to secondary school that I had a private half-hour paid lesson with my teacher. Although thinking about it, I remember we still had free lessons at school as well, but they were supplementary.

PH: Did you do much ensemble playing?

RT: When I was at home, in Wales, I played in the local brass band. That is where I learned my trade, as it were. I stopped doing that after leaving university. Here in the UK, a lot of the brass band tradition is entertaining in parks and concerts; playing outdoors to the public is great fun and very light-hearted.

PH: Where did you take higher music studies?

RT: I did a B.Mus degree at the University of Wales at University College in Bangor, North Wales and then started post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1991, for a while, commuting between Wales and London. The Master’s degree had a performance element, also involving a written dissertation and a recital, with the course at the Royal Academy designed for people who were studying elsewhere and also attending the RAM.

PH: How did your interest in period brass instruments begin?

RT: I was involved in a group called “The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain”. The director of music in that group managed to get us concerts in all the big churches in Venice. Our rehearsal venue was the Frari Church, where Monteverdi is buried; so there we were rehearsing daily next to Monteverdi! We played music by Gabrieli on trumpets, trombones, French horns and tubas. That is probably where I got the bug for that sort of music, but I did not yet realize how complex and interesting it was. We went there in 1988 and 1989 with two different-sized groups. The second year we were there, we were four trumpeters, all of whom have gone into the business, one of them being the now renowned conductor Daniel Harding. Then, when at the Royal Academy, I was exposed to some of the period instruments that the Academy had bought. We were encouraged to take them up. That is when I started dabbling with copies of period instruments. They handed out some cornettos and sackbuts for the trombones. But I had already started looking into the natural trumpet because of the subject of my Master’s written work. So I was already interested in the 17th- and 18th century trumpet by the time I started at the Academy. There, at the Academy, I was introduced to 16th century instruments as well.

PH: Where did this lead you?

RT: It led to forming my group, which is called the QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble. It is still going 20 years later and we are busy. The group kept us incredibly busy when we were students and just after we left the Royal Academy. The group really sustained part of our playing careers. We got involved with an organization called “Live Music Now”, which sends musicians into hospitals, prisons, special needs schools and old age homes – places where live music would not ordinarily be heard. This work trained us in how to deal with a wide variety of audiences and how to speak to the public as well. That was a big training ground for us. On the other side of the fence, I am now on the auditioning panels of “Live Music Now”, where I help to find new young groups. It is quite nice to give something back to them now.

PH: What performing are you currently doing on modern instruments?

RT: At the moment, I am at the Globe Theatre. It is slightly unusual to be playing modern instruments at the Globe, because I usually play period instruments there. But the play that I am involved in at the moment is set in the late 1890s and is about the graduation rights for women at Cambridge University. Tomorrow I will be doing a matinee at the Globe and then jumping into a cab to get to Trafalgar Square, where I will be playing Mozart and Haydn (Händel?) at a concert at St. Martin in the Fields. Here, I will be playing the kind of music on modern instruments which I frequently play on period instruments.

PH: And on period instruments?

RT: Last Sunday, there was a performance at Knole House, an English Heritage Elizabethan stately home in Sevenoaks. Our group “The City Musick” played. William Lyons is the director. This is a group exploring music of the “waits” tradition. The waits were professional musicians employed in towns or cities throughout Renaissance Europe. Our group focuses on music performed in London from 1500 to 1700. The next thing we are doing might be the Swan Feast, the Vintners’ Company annual dinner, in November. The Vintners’ is one of the livery companies that are allowed to keep or own swans. In December, we will be playing 18th – and 19th century music, influenced by Thomas Hardy, some Victorian music as well…played on offaclydes, serpents and keyed bugles.

PH: How would you classify those instruments?

RT: They form an 18th -19th set of instruments. Of them I play the keyed bugle, the English slide trumpet and the cornet. I always play the soprano line in this group on whatever instrument is on the top line.

PH: And with other groups?

RT: I will be doing a number of performances of Monteverdi “Vespers” next year – one in Malta, in a project to encourage more players of period instruments there, and three performances of it with John Eliot Gardiner. Those are the headline dates for next year.

PH: What about solo playing?

RT: I played concertos when I was at university, but now I do very little solo playing. Most of my work is in ensembles or orchestral. I have never really explored the solo repertoire as am usually too busy with other things. I am very comfortable being part of an ensemble. However, I did perform the Vivaldi double trumpet concert a number of times this year with a friend of mine. Anyway, as a trumpet player, you are always playing one to a part, so it does feel like solo-playing. There is one piece I am itching to play- and I keep dropping hints left, right and centre – and that is Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.1, the one with the trumpet and piano. I would love to play that. I just need to drop the right hints to the right people.

PH: How are orchestras and conductors relating to the subject of early brass instruments?

RT: There has been a recent shift of late, mainly with conductors asking brass players to use period instruments. A colleague of mine, who plays in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, said that they have been using natural trumpets for some of their repertoire, as have other orchestras. This shift is either player-led or conductor-led; it is not something that has been dictated by orchestral committees. There seems to be a lot of interest in having the different timbres of period instruments in the smaller orchestras or in smaller sections of bigger groups, probably because less volume creates a better balance with period instruments. So there is some exploration of period instruments in modern orchestras. Otherwise, period instruments are played in amongst other early music instruments.

PH: Do you play with any Renaissance- or Baroque orchestras?

RT: I play for The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment when they do Renaissance music – Gabrieli or Monteverdi - and with a Baroque group called “Florilegium”, which is run by Ashley Solomon. I have a period orchestra myself called the “Meridian Sinfonia” (called thus because I am in the Greenwich area) and I also do a lot of “orchestral fixing”.

PH: What is that?

RT: It’s a slang term for orchestral management. A conductor will ring me and say that he wants an orchestra for a concert that their choir is doing. I will tell them how much it will cost; if they agree to the price, I will put all the players together. Orchestral fixing involves booking the orchestra, making sure everyone is there, getting the right players, checking orchestrations, checking budgets and then paying everybody. It is all freelance, but the artists I ask do tend to mostly be the same people. The early music freelance world is quite small, so the pool of players is not very large and then, within that, you kind-of know who likes playing with whom or who plays best in certain repertoire. We are quite busy this year, with concerts in Worcester and London and occasionally out in Essex.

PH: So that is a period orchestra.

RT: Not just. I will also offer it as a modern band. We have concerts of Respighi and Britten coming up and also the Verdi Requiem next year. It is the same umbrella. I am the constant and know the players who perform different styles well, with a few of them playing both period- and modern instruments.

PH: You are seeing a lot of early music played in Britain.

RT: Yes. But the same music has been played here for decades; pieces like “Messiah” and the Mozart “Requiem” etc. have been performed by amateur choirs up and down the country every weekend for decades. The change now is that they are more confident that they can get a period orchestra if they so wish. So the period instrument movement here has got more outlets, more places where these players can earn a living. Much of the music they are playing has been performed a lot, but formerly on modern instruments.

PH: Would you like to talk about amateur performers and attitudes to new repertoire?

RT: That is the tricky thing. The difficult thing is to get new composers and unusual repertoire performed. If one is being booked by a choral society – amateur music-making, and especially singing, is very prolific in Britain – it will tend to do pieces that we will have seen a number of times. If my group is booked for a festival, we can take a bit more of a risk with different repertoire, because that is what festivals often expect; festivals tend to present a mix of the familiar and the unusual. Regarding early music, very occasionally you get a conductor of a choral society who wants to try unfamiliar repertoire of a known composer or the double whammy of an unknown composer and something unusual to perform. Those are the times when it is interesting for us from an exploratory point of view.

PH: So who is open to performing unusual works?

RT: It is the period orchestras such as “The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment” who push the boundaries of unusual repertoire. It is normally orchestras which have funding that can take those risks.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

RT: Yes. I teach the modern trumpet in two places local to me, I teach cornetto at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London) and I have been teaching at the Birmingham Conservatoire as well. This year I will be giving classes in Birmingham on editing, performance practice and ornamentation – a general early music course.

PH: Do you compose music?

RT: No, but I do edit repertoire from original sources for my group to perform or for anybody who commissions me to do editing; of course, editing ties in with the many years of my interest in finding “new old” repertoire.

PH: I am interested to hear about your use of flatt trumpets in the Purcell performance at Dartington Hall, Devon, this last summer.

RT: The Purcell Funeral Music is scored for four flatt trumpets. The origin of the word “flatt” is a little obscure, but we think it means they could play in minor keys. The harmonic series of the natural trumpet – in the “a”-fixed length of tubing – according to the principles of physics, gives you a major triad in the second octave and then a major scale in the third. The flatt trumpets are fitted with a slide, meaning you can lengthen the tubing to enable the player to lower the major third to become a minor third. Ordinarily, you would have needed to change the length of the whole instrument to change key but you would still have only been able to play the harmonic series notes. So the flatt trumpet means you can have modulations and the funeral march of Purcell’s Funeral Music, although not modulating in a wildly adventurous way, does go into keys in which normal natural trumpets could not play. The invention of the slide trumpet at the end of the 17th century was quite ground-breaking and innovative.

PH: Were there many works played on flatt trumpets in England at the time?

RT: We think we know that the trumpet-playing Shore brothers – John and William - played them; Talbot’s description of a flatt trumpet is based on an instrument he borrowed from John Shaw. We know you need four of them but we do not know who else owned them at the time. The music we today know as the Purcell Funeral Music was originally composed for a play called “The Libertine”. It was then re-scored for the funeral of Queen Mary and played again at Purcell’s own funeral. However, the repertoire for the flatt trumpet is very, very limited and sources are a little ambiguous about in what other works the trumpets may have been played. Interestingly, the development of trumpets took a step backwards after these flatt trumpets: it then went back to the fixed length, closed instrument until we get to the 19th century, with the invention of the piston, the cylinder and valves.

PH: Are flatt trumpets difficult to play?

RT: Yes. They are notoriously difficult to play because they are slide trumpets. It is a real challenge and an accomplishment to get players to play them well.

PH: They must be hard to come by nowadays.

RT: Definitely. The person who was commissioned by Andrew Pinnock in 1994 to make some flatt trumpets for the 1995 400th anniversary concert of Purcell’s death only made 11 of them. Those instruments are now scattered all over the world. Two of them are in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum and there may be one or two others in France. The one bass instrument is in Spain. For the Purcell concert in the summer, I borrowed a couple from another maker; the two from Switzerland were brought over to Britain, as was the one from Spain and I picked up two in London. It is probably an unusual occurrence to have five flatt trumpets in one place today! There is someone in Switzerland who is making some, but because the repertoire for the flatt trumpet is so tiny, you need to know that you have enough work on the instrument to justify buying them.

PH: Do you play jazz?

RT: No, but I have a friend who is a superb jazz player and I go to listen to his group a lot and enjoy it very much. However, I am teaching all my trumpet students how to play jazz at a very elementary level so that if they do choose to play jazz later on they will have the tools to do so.

PH: Do you play instruments other than brass instruments?

RT: Well, since having worked at places like Hampton Court and the Tower of London, and having known some of my City Musick colleagues for 20 years, I have now taken up some of the instruments that they have been playing – I play some recorder in ensemble with them, the hurdy gurdy, the bagpipes, I will do a bit of percussion if needed and the crumhorn, just to augment the ensemble or give myself a break. Because City Musick focuses on music of the waits, we all play a number of instruments in concerts. In my cornett and sackbut group, we each only play the one instrument.

PH: Richard, when it is not music, what interests you?

RT: Silence…I love silence. When I am at home, I tend not to have music playing. Peace and quiet is great. I have an allotment and, although I am not an accomplished gardener, I will go and sit at the allotment with a flask of tea to just enjoy the peace and quiet and the unusual wildlife there. Having said that, there is never peace and quiet there because, as soon as you get rid of all the traffic noise, you hear the all the birds, the wind in the trees and all the other sounds that living in the city cancels out. I enjoy the lack of industrial noise. This must hark back to the fact that I grew up in the country, where the noisiest thing in the world is countryside silence.

And I have a taste for the usual brass-players’ delights - food and drink and being in and around others who enjoy the same thing. I also like cycling and have done some long cycling trips. Ideally I would like to also cycle to work, but that is not feasible.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Talking to Stefan Schuck, conductor of "Sirventes-Berlin"

On September 26th 2013, at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (Israel), I attended one of two concerts performed by “Sirventes Berlin”, an a cappella group of virtuoso singers. It was the first Israeli tour of the ensemble, which is directed by its founder Stefan Schuk. On September 29th, Stefan Schuk and I met to talk on the verandah of a café in Jerusalem’s Old City.

PH: Maestro Schuck, would you like to talk about your musical background?

Stefan Schuck: Yes. I studied Church Music in Frankfurt – organ, piano and conducting – also taking another degree in orchestral- and choral conducting. Then one of my teachers suggested I go to Berlin to join him as assistant professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and to also conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Choir together with him. This is a one of the best large amateur concert choirs and working with it was very good training for me. I then received the post of professor of choral conducting at the Rothenburg High School of Church Music (near Stuttgart). In March 2013, I left the job in Rothenburg in order to concentrate totally on work with my two ensembles in Berlin – “Sirventes” and the “Hugo Distler” Choir, the latter an amateur community choir. In our performances, I try to work in an informed style, using period instruments for accompanied music and authentic tuning systems.

PH: What was behind the choice of repertoire sung at the Abu Gosh Festival?

SS: I would normally choose more “colorful” repertoire for a festival, that being a bigger mix of sacred- and secular music. Hanna Tzur, the director of the Abu Gosh Festival, thought that the particular works we ended up choosing would arouse the festival-goers’ curiosity as to a-cappella music. There was a definite line running through both programs: the first started with a Christmas motet by Josquin des Prez (1450-1521). Then there was a piece by the late Renaissance composer Sethus Calvisius (1556-1615), who was a director of music at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, two works by Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), who was a cantor at the same church and, finally, to Bach, who was choirmaster there for 27 years. Among the works we performed at the second of our concerts at the festival, we sang music by Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785), a pupil of Bach and we performed some later works.

PH: Tell me more about “Sirventes”.

SS: Established ten years ago, “Sirventes” is a group of professional singers, most of them freelancers, most coming from both the major professional choirs in Berlin. We have some 32 singers, with eight usually singing in each concert or at Noon Song. I select singers according to what we are performing and in consideration of their own other performing schedules. For example, we have female altos and male altos. For very early music, such as that of Byrd, I have the male altos sing, but for Romantic music, I will choose to have female altos. For the Abu Gosh program, we had one male- and one female alto. I do not have a permanent leading soprano; in the concert you heard, the first- and second sopranos changed around so as not to exhaust one singer. The demands on the members are very great. We do not have a lot of rehearsals and, because we perform so often, I need the singers to be flexible. That is the reason they sang a few pieces at the festival without me to conduct them: this gives them the opportunity to listen to- and rely on each other. The singers are all well versed in early music, several having studied in important early music academies like the Basel Schola Cantorum or the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and they are knowledgeable about style and the use of ornamentation. They are fast, skilful readers (especially important for getting contemporary works together quickly) and if I ask them, for example, to sing in mean tone temperament, they will all know exactly what to do. My task as the conductor is to bring them together in the same manner of singing, of sound production, in a tempo that serves their breathing and the music itself and to create a good balance of voices.

PH: I see that Bach motets are an important part of the “Sirventes” repertoire.

SS: Yes. They are endlessly interesting and among the most difficult works there are for singers. To today, nobody knows for what occasion “Singet dem Herrn” (Sing to the Lord a new song) BWV 225 was composed. (There are musicologists who have suggested it might have been a training piece for Bach’s choral singers but, considering Bach complained about the quality of his boys’ choir, I cannot accept this theory. I think this motet is too marvelous, too complicated and certainly too large a piece for pedagogical use). It remains the best known and most performed of his motets. The other Bach motets were used for music played at funerals of people of the Leipzig upper class.

PH: Do you record with “Sirventes”?

SS: Yes. In fact we are about to make a recording of a cappella works of Homilius. As I said earlier, he was a pupil of J.S.Bach. Next year is the 300th anniversary of his birth. For the recording we will have 16 singers in order to achieve a good blend of sound. We will have three days of rehearsals, a concert and then three days of recording. This is very interesting music, being of the “Empfindsamer Stil” (Sensitive Style), a style developed in 18th century Germany. No longer Baroque in style, but also not yet Classical, this music is very complicated; one must find the right musical language to create its specific purity, refinement and intricacy. Actually, Homilius’ music was rediscovered not so long ago in Germany. An edition of his a-cappella motets only came out some three years ago. This will be the first recording of some of those motets.

PH: I understand that “Sirventes” has an Israeli connection.

SS: Yes. The Tel Aviv composer Joseph Dorfman (1940-2006) wrote a very demanding cantata “Dass sie leben” (May They Live) for our ensemble with solos (a role for Jewish cantors), to be performed at an ecumenical church day in Berlin. A historic occasion, this was the first time the Protestant- and Catholic churches in Berlin joined forces to take part in the same festival. Dorfman’s text is written in Hebrew, Russian, German and Yiddish, it uses texts from the Bible and some very moving texts by the poet Itzhak Katzenelson, who perished in Auschwitz. The message of the work is that all nations and religions should live together in peace, making music and living together. The work is highly complex. We performed some concerts of it in synagogues in Germany, with cantors from the Berlin Reform Synagogue. This project took place shortly after “Sirventes” was formed.

PH: I am interested to know what Noon Song is.

SS: About five years ago, I was invited to Trinity College, Cambridge, where I became familiar with the wonderful English choral tradition of Evensong. I traced the origins of Evensong to an early Lutheran tradition in Germany. This early German polyphonic tradition, however, has been totally lost. Even the music for it has been lost. I did manage to find some very small pieces of this sung liturgy, but most is lost. On returning to Berlin, I introduced a new kind of service, something similar to Evensong, and called it Noon Song. This service now takes place every Saturday at 12 o’clock at the Hohenzollernplatz Church in Berlin. For it, I have translated the English liturgy into German, we sing two Psalms as large a-cappella motets and maybe a Bach motet. Performed by our highly professional “Sirventes” group, this service is unique in Germany and has proved very successful, with the church normally full to capacity. We work with an extremely large repertoire. Much of the music we sang at the Abu Gosh Festival comes from works we perform at Noon Song. In these services, we sing Bach motets, of course, and Romantic works, such as those by Mendelssohn but also a lot of English anthems – Britten, Howells, Sullivan, etc., and a lot of Byrd. However, my main aim is to do mostly German a-cappella music; this repertoire is seldom sung nowadays – music of the generation between Luther and Bach, composers such as Johann Walter (1496-1570), Sethus Calvisius, etc. – nor are there many recordings of it. One reason we do not hear this repertoire is that either choirs do not have the capability to sing it or church choirs are not required to tackle it.

PH: Where do you find scores of this repertoire?

SS: The Berlin State Library is very comprehensive and I spend time there. There is also a huge treasury of church music manuscripts stored in Naumburg Cathedral, in eastern Germany. It was forbidden to be worked on during the Socialist regime, but, in the future, a huge amount of music will come to light from this archive. Also, today there are a lot of manuscripts from various libraries available on line, making them very accessible and I can make transcriptions of them. I am excited at the prospect of what we will be able to do with all the manuscripts lying dormant in libraries. Together with the musicologists of a Stuttgart publishing house, I am working on making playing editions of much of this music.

PH: Do you sing new music at Noon Song?

SS: This started off being quite problematic. However, I have made a practice of inviting composers to come and hear us singing at Noon Song, the result being that many contemporary composers have written works that we have premiered and that are now part of our repertoire.

PH: Let’s go back to the Abu Gosh concerts. I was fascinated by a most unusual work - “Unicornus captivator” by Ola Gjeilo, and I enjoyed Sirventes’ imaginative performance of it.

SS: Ola Gjeilo(b.1978) is a Norwegian pianist and composer now living in the USA. He is involved in film music and jazz piano. He has written some very fine choral pieces. He came across this wonderful ancient, mystic text when a student in Switzerland. It is a good setting; he writes very traditionally but still has his own unique style. Evoking a colorful series of images, he mixes Gregorian chant with some interesting rhythmic influences. The text compares Jesus with all the beasts mentioned in the text. I love the piece.

PH: Maestro Schuck, this has been most interesting. Many thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing “Sirventes” again in the not-so-distant future.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Judith Davidoff and Myrna Herzog talk about upcoming performances

Dr. Myrna Herzog, founder and director of Ensemble PHOENIX, is busy with rehearsals for two major upcoming performances in the very near future. Visiting her at her Ra’anana (Israel) home on September 20th 2013, I found it a beehive of activity, with three members of the New York Consort of Viols there, having flown in to Israel the same day. I had the pleasure of a short conversation with the consort’s musical director Judith Davidoff, who established the New York Consort of Viols in 1972. An international recitalist, teacher, lecturer and researcher, Ms. Davidoff plays early fiddles, viol and ‘cello. She was recently honored with the “Special Early Music Outreach Award” by Early Music America.

PH: Ms. Davidoff, I am delighted to meet you. Would you like to talk about the concert you will be performing on Monday September 23rd 2013 at the Renaissance Festival at the Yehiam National Park in the Western Galilee?

Judith Davidoff: Yes. The New York Consort of Viols has sent three members of our quartet to join up with two members of Ensemble PHOENIX. The five of us are going to present a program I put together a few years ago called “The Road from Valencia”.

PH: What lies behind the idea of the program?

JD: The program traces the travels of Jewish Sephardic musicians who were forced to leave Spain in 1492. Some recent research has discovered that at least two of those musician families went from Spain to Italy and further afield. Their journey to Italy took them to northern Italy where the two families – the Bassanos and the Lupos – were given residencies in small palaces. While they were there in Italy, they (probably the next generation - the dates we have are not all that convincing) were invited by the court of Henry VIII to go to England and join his instrumental ensemble. It turns out that Henry was very fond of Italian Jews in his ensemble. So, some of the Bassanos and Lupos went to England.

PH: How did you fit this episode of history into one program?

JD: The first three quarters of the program feature Spanish music, Italian music and English music that they would have encountered, composed or heard in their travels. The last section of the program focuses on the Diaspora, with (modern) contemporary works that have been influenced by Sephardic music. The three works played in this second part of the program are by Flory Jagoda (b.1925), David Loeb (b.1939) and Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984). There will also be a narrator, who will give some readings, among them, “The Edict of Expulsion” and the letter from the court of Henry VIII inviting the musicians to join his ensemble.

PH: Do you have enough time to rehearse?

JD: Well, Eliav Lavi (lute, readings) and Myrna Herzog (bass viol) have already rehearsed together, we three from New York – Lesley Retzer (treble viol), Lawrence Lipnik (tenor viol, voice) and I (bass viol) – rehearsed in New York, and tomorrow, all five of us will meet together and spend the day in intensive rehearsal.

PH: Many thanks, Judith Davidoff.

Myrna Herzog and I then talked about the PHOENIX production of “Venus and Adonis” or “La Púrpura de la Rosa” (The Blood of the Rose) by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, the first opera of the New World, an opera written in Peru in 1701. It will premiere at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on September 26th, 2013. Taking part are members of VOCE PHOENIX: Alon Harari (countertenor), Hadas Faran-Asia, Revital Raviv, Michal Okon, Taliya Dishon, Liat Lidor and Ella Rosner (sopranos) and Eliav Lavi (tenor). Instrumentalists of Ensemble PHOENIX: Marina Minkin (harpsichord), Sunita Staneslow (harp), Eliav Lavi (Baroque guitar, theorbo), Alberto Fernandes (violone), Rony Iwryn, Nadav Gaiman (percussion). Stage director: Regina Alexandrovskaya. Myrna Herzog will play the viol and the schryari and is in charge of musical- and general direction.

PH: Myrna, would you like to talk about your love of opera?

Myrna Herzog: Yes. Well, let’s start with the fact that I had wanted to be an actress and, in the past, I studied theatre. After having changed my vocation to Baroque music, Baroque opera became my great love. And all the more so when doing opera in languages that I understand and know well. My dream has been to conduct Spanish-, South American- or French opera. French and Portuguese are both my first languages.

PH: How did this opera project begin?

MH: Years ago, when I was in New York, I found a score of the opera. I made a copy of it, took it home with me and was hoping I would some day have the opportunity of performing it. This opera is particularly interesting, being the first opera ever written and staged in the New World. Then, one day I was approached by Hanna Tzur, director of the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, who asked me if I knew the opera and if I would be able to conduct it. I said that I could and that I had the score. This request was like a present for me!

PH: What were the first stages of the project?

MH: I translated the opera into English (rather than Hebrew). Performing and lecturing quite a lot in South America nowadays, I used my connections there; they sent me a new transcription of the opera. Diana Fernández Calvo sent it to me and I made a revised version of it (I cut it slightly to fit into the time slot of Abu Gosh concerts) and prepared it all from scratch.

PH: This is home territory for you, isn’t it?

MH: Definitely. It is a privilege for me to work with material that is theatre in music, especially where the text is so familiar to me. Working with the performers I can explain the metaphors in it, how the words sound, etc. It is wonderful to take all its dramatic content, work with it and transform it into superb music. This is really what I like doing best! Theatre is my world.

PH: How is it shaping up?

MH: The result is very good. I am enjoying encouraging people to stretch themselves to their maximum limits of expression. That is where it becomes very fascinating: people have interesting personalities, with which they bring out the emotions expressed in the opera. I have the privilege of a first-class team of singers: Alon Harari-Mars, Hadas Faran-Adonis, Revital Raviv-Venus, Michal Okon-Belona , Taliya Dishon-Cupid, Liat Lidor and Ella Rosner are nymphs and Eliav Lavi-a peasant. And we have a very strong continuo section – all players are mentioned above.

PH: I have not heard of the schryari you will be playing. What kind of an instrument is that?

MH: It is a very noisy Renaissance instrument. It will only be used for the military scenes.

PH: Can you say a few words about the director?

MH: Regina Alexandrovskaya is from the Israeli Opera. She is wonderful - she has a fantastic imagination. The opera is nearly fully staged; it is not a concert version. Performing it as a concert version would be very unfair to Velasco, the composer.

PH: John Blow also wrote an opera called “Venus and Adonis”.

MH: True. This, however, is completely different from Blow’s version of the “Venus and Adonis” story. Well, it is the Spanish version, which means it has lots of passion, lots of amazing rhythms and it is very sensual, of course.

PH: How many performances will there be?

MH: The premiere will be at the Abu Gosh Festival September 26th. After that, there will be three more performances, one in each of the three main cities, with the support of the Spanish Embassy, the Marc Rich Foundation and the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport: December 5th at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem, December 7th at the Mar Elias Church in Haifa and on December 11th at the Enav Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv. And for the two performances not in churches, we will have a lighting specialist - Dania Zemer.

PH: I wish you the very best of luck with these two interesting projects.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Talking to British harpsichordist and conductor Steven Devine

On August 5th 2013, I met with Steven Devine in Devon, England. Born in Yorkshire, Steven Devine is the harpsichordist of London Baroque and co-principal of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He has built up a fine solo career on harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano and, as a music director, has appeared worldwide with a variety of orchestras and opera companies. As of 2003, he has been professor of fortepiano at the Trinity Conservatoire (London).

PH: Maestro Devine, do you come from a musical family?

Steven Devine: Sort of. All my family has always been interested in music, though none were professional. They all knew and loved music. My paternal grandmother, however, was a fantastic Methodist church organist. As a young woman, she had lost the finger of her left hand in an accident and decided this was the chance to develop her third- and fourth fingers. She is now 101 and very occasionally still plays the organ.

PH: When did you show an interest in music?

SD: I was five. My family picked up on it and developed it. They bought me a piano and sent me for lessons when I was six. I had a lovely piano teacher and did well.

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

SD: Initially not. But when I was about 11, my piano teacher suggested I try for Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. I was accepted and that is where it all really started. I loved the school, its ethos and all the music there. We were in the heart of Manchester, with many opportunities to attend concerts and other cultural events in the town. I focused on piano there for about four years. Then, at 14 or 15, I had a “crisis”. There were many amazing pianists there at that time, I did not feel like doing all that practice to keep up with the standard; I had also discovered football. Not quite knowing what to do with me, the school staff sent me down to the harpsichord room. (The school was forward-thinking to have such a thing!) There I met a teacher called David Francis who was the right man at the right time. He was incredibly enthusiastic about music, especially Baroque music, and he understood how to pass this and a lot of knowledge on to a teenager. He always let me do things I wanted to do and try things…quite an alternative educationalist in many ways. So, while the school was rigidly academic, I had these moments of freedom with him. He was and still is a very fine harpsichordist. Towards the end of my school career, he took me to his concerts and I got to see the life of a professional musician.

PH: Did you leave the piano?

SD: No. When already quite ensconced as a harpsichordist at Chetham’s I still did a lot of piano accompaniment. I was a “free agent” and played in everything. Here I should mention pianist Peter Lawson, who still teaches there. He coached one of the chamber ensembles in which I played and talked very much about “piano sound” – such an important issue.

PH: Having finished school, where did you go from there?

SD: I went to Oxford University, which I did not really enjoy. I loved the academic studies but I do like tying them into the practical side. The university, at that stage, had not really joined the two. After my schooling at Chetham’s, it was a shock to me not to have any reliance on practical music-making. With some of the students being among Oxford’s most outstanding organists and singers, here we were in the lecture hall studying the music of Schütz and listening to dreadful recordings from the 1950s and 1960s! The scores were in the library and I remember asking our teachers if we could play them, to see what the music suggested to the player and audience...but the answer was “no”. Much as I enjoy academia, I found this approach ridiculous. On receiving my degree I left.

PH: Where did your career take you from there?

SD: I was very lucky. Actually, I went to the Dartington Hall, met Antony Rooley, Evelyn Tubb and Emma Kirkby and we did a series of projects there and I continued to work with them for a time. At the same time I went to Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent. I had been there with my parents at age 12 and was fascinated by all the keyboard instruments in this Georgian stately home. I then went there to help every year as a summer job. When I left university, I was offered a job there, accepted it and went to live in Kent. I am still connected to it, being the Director of Development.

PH: Could you say a few words about the museum?

SD: Yes. It is the most amazing place. It was set up by private collector Richard Burnett and his wife Katrina. Burnett’s idea was that the instruments should not just be on show – they should be played. If, for example, if you play Chopin on a Chopin-style Pleyel piano, what does the instrument tell about the music? There are two Conrad Graf pianos there – how does Schubert’s music sound played on a Schubert-style instrument? This approach has been among the most important influences in my own playing. So, the public visiting the museum hear the instruments played by me, by Richard, staff and guest artists. We have group visits – we give them supper and entertaining talks. There were years when we had 20,000 visitors a year. We are going through an interesting time now: the future of the museum is somewhat undecided. It is, indeed, one of the most astonishing institutions for performance practice; the instruments tell us a lot, as do our intuitions and scores. The world of music benefits from it all.

PH: Are you also a technician?

SD: I am. I tuned instruments at Dartington Hall for a number of years. I learned these skills at the museum. Doing repairs, restoring, voicing and tuning instruments were part and parcel of daily life there – being sensitive to the speed the quill touches the harpsichord string or the hardness of the hammer on a piano.

PH: And what about your performing career outside of the museum?

SD: I have a good solo harpsichord career and a career playing chamber music on early pianos. Am very lucky to have a recording agreement with Chandos Records for whom I recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” two years ago (of course, on harpsichord.) I am the harpsichordist for an ensemble called “London Baroque” and co-principal with Robert Howarth for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Robert Howarth and I also conduct a lot.

PH: What about contemporary music?

SD: My line of work I have doesn’t always invite it. As a conductor, I am only usually booked to direct music written before 1800. But when just out of university and making my way as a harpsichordist I commissioned some works and still do occasionally. I play some contemporary for myself – it’s nice to keep one’s hand in.

PH: Do you compose or arrange?

SD: I play the clavichord, own two very beautiful instruments and love exploring the sound of it, playing some ethereal, exploratory pieces. You could call them free improvisations…not pastiche at all. I have written a couple of choral pieces. For the last 10 years, harpsichord-builder Colin Booth and I have been performing an annual program of music for two harpsichords. Running out of repertoire, I have arranged concerti grossi and other works for two harpsichords. I do, of course, transcribe from manuscripts; the nature of this work requires us to do so, with a lot of early music is still in libraries.

PH: Did you study conducting?

SD: I did at Chetham’s. Being a harpsichordist you are frequently at the front of ensembles and I direct Baroque works from the harpsichord. (I directed a lot of oratorios when I was at the university but missed playing the harpsichord!) Now I spend a bit of time in Germany as an opera conductor. However, I would not want to give up on playing to just concentrate on conducting. Actually, I conduct events of the annual Royal Albert Hall Christmas Festival. There we have carols for all to sing and we perform Händel’s “Zadok the Priest” and other orchestral favorites. Pre-Christmas concerts are a big thing in England… and important: for some people they are the only concerts they attend in the year. It is a lot of fun and so nice conducting to a hall of 6000 people. I have a wonderful team there. The choir sings beautifully and the Albert Hall organ is the second largest in the United Kingdom.

PH: Do you play the organ?

SD: I used to, but do not so much now. I am not in practice, but occasionally play for family weddings. It is not something with which I feel particularly comfortable.

PH: Would you like to talk about your recitals and recordings?

SD: Yes. I enjoy the many opportunities I have of being a keyboard soloist. I toured performing the Goldberg Variations for a couple of years. In addition to recording them, there is the recording of the Italian Concerto and French Overture I did - Bach harpsichord Works, Volume II. Next year is the anniversary for Jean-Philippe Rameau and I am doing a recording of his harpsichord works.

PH: Does your performing include fortepiano?

SD: Most definitely. I have always had a hankering after piano repertoire. It was lovely to be surrounded by 104 keyboard instruments at Finchcocks, many of them early pianos, and to develop my own thoughts on them over the 10 years I lived there. By the time I was 22 or 23, I was able to let the instruments “teach me” how to play them. I teach fortepiano (and harpsichord) at the Trinity School of Music and try to instill that approach in my students there. We need questioning minds and to let our own feelings go with the music.

PH: What repertoire do you especially like?

SD: I like whatever project I am working on at the moment. In 2015, I will hopefully be performing the Brahms Horn Trio with a horn-player called Anneke Scott and violinist Matthew Truscott, a new thing for me. The colors in that are so special. I will play it on an early piano which will help to create those colors.

PH: Let’s go back to your teaching.

SD: I am very fortunate. I was acting head of Historical Performance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London) last year. I also teach early piano and harpsichord there, working with first study pianists to give them an introductory course in harpsichord and fortepiano. I want to raise their awareness to the kinds of instruments played by composers… the different mechanics, what is different to the modern piano, what the performing issues are, etc. Though I do not take private students, I very much enjoy young artists coming to meet me at home to talk about performing and music, to be challenged and to chat through music.

PH: Do you work with amateurs?

SD: Actually, a great deal. It is a uniquely British thing in terms of the amount of exposure and musical events organized by- and for amateurs. Amateurs are such an integral part of the musical fabric of Britain. At the various workshops, one can work with professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs and try out so many ideas…and make them work! I am very lucky to work with a semi-professional orchestra of period instruments in London called “Linden Baroque”. Exploring Baroque instruments and sometimes little-known works, they work very hard. We perform three concerts a year, of which I direct two. The only difference between them and a professional orchestra is the starting point. By the time we finish our rehearsal process, audiences are very happy to pay money to hear Linden Baroque’s concerts. I have worked with quite a few amateur singers in Kent. When professional musicians talk, they speak a self-perpetuated “mythic” language, but when you work with amateurs you have to say exactly what you mean and what you think!

PH: Do you want to talk about concert audiences?

SD: People go to concerts for a variety of reasons. I think the idea of audiences nowadays being less discerning or looking for lollipops is a bit of a myth. And, frankly, if people pay money they expect a certain standard and quality of performance. I think audiences have not really changed over 900 years. When it comes to early music, some audience members might like to hear drums and funky rhythms and there are a few artists who will go along with that, although most will not. As to coming to hear lesser-known works, that depends who presents them. For example, there is a wonderful musicologist and harpsichordist-conductor called Peter Holman who has a group and festival in Suffolk. He has built up such a loyal following up there that he will pack the place out with 500 enthusiastic listeners to hear the most obscure 18th century work he has discovered. He can do anything he wants as his audiences trust him to give quality, even if it is something they do not know. For me, personally, the most rewarding audience can be 40 people coming to hear me in a harpsichord recital and who will possibly also want to talk to me about the music or instrument because they are passionate about them. With the subject of audiences, economics are involved, but people will always want to engage with us whether in a concert or by listening to a recording. But we, as artists, do have to adapt, just as Bach had to adapt to fashions.

PH: What plans do you have?

SD: I have repertoire I would like to explore, there are many people with whom I would like to engage and make music.

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

SD: I have lots of interests…among them, walking, sport, food, wine and being with my family.

PH: It has been most interesting talking to you, Steven. Many thanks.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

British pianist Peter Lawson talks about his life in music, about teaching and performing contemporary music

On August 27th 2013 I spoke to pianist Peter Lawson at his home near Manchester, UK. Born in Manchester, he studied piano there with Derrick Wyndham and Sulamita Aronovsky. Peter Lawson has appeared as soloist with most British orchestras, has recorded for radio and given recitals throughout the UK as well as in Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg, Japan and Russia. With a repertoire extending from Baroque music to contemporary jazz, his commercial recordings reflect a special interest in 20th century music. Mr. Lawson plays with the Equivox Trio, Tango5 and with recorder player John Turner, with whom he has recorded much British music. A senior tutor of piano at Chetham’s School of Music, he also teaches piano and contemporary piano at the Royal Northern College of Music, both in Manchester.

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

Peter Lawson: To the extent of enthusiastic amateurs, yes. My mother and father both played the piano. I would say that my father was a good amateur. He read music well and could play Rachmaninoff preludes…more than recognizably, I would say, but not to the highest level. He played popular classics, like Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. My mother relied more on her ear, which was quite good. So, generally, it meant that there was music in the house when I was growing up. Some things stick in my mind, mostly from what my father played - Gershwin in particular.

PH: When did you start learning the piano?

PL: My father taught me a few things and I doodled at the piano on my own. But at the age of 7 or 8, I started lessons with one of the few local piano teachers. He was not the most brilliant teacher, in the sense that he was a bit of a piano-teaching factory, with lots of pupils – children and some adults – and he taught them to a very modest level. What I got from him was fairly basic. On the other hand, he did not seem to instill any awful habits and, when music became more serious for me, I felt I did not have to undo too many bad habits. I remained with that teacher until going to the conservatoire at age 17.

PH: Why had your parents not looked for a better teacher for you?

PL: Why I was not pushed by them into studying with a specialist teacher was because, as people with a typically sedate British middle class background, they probably were not inclined towards that sort of education. And, when I was around 14 or 15 – at the age young people start to think about what they might do when they leave school – I was always going to be a chemist. I did not study music at school. I took science for my A Level exams, but then, by the age of 16, I realized that to study chemistry at university you needed quite high-flying academic credentials. At the same time, my love for music and the piano had grown; so, suddenly, this so-called chemist became a potential pianist.

PH: So you went onto higher music studies.

PL: Yes. I went to the local conservatoire, which was then called The Royal Manchester College of Music. In those days, it was relatively easy to be accepted in Britain. I think the powers that be looked for signs of potential rather than actual attainment. (These days, students need a very high level of both.) This conservatoire was and still is a very good place to study. I worked on my first degree for four years. My teacher was Derrick Wyndham; he was very sober in his approach to teaching but he taught the craft of piano-playing and musical awareness to a very good degree. I think his philosophy was that if you had what it takes, you would find your own way forward. He left me to my own devices, which, possibly for me at the time, was not really the best.

PH: So you finished your first degree. What were your plans?

PL: I was 21 when I graduated. I was considering going into school music teaching, but then decided to continue on to post-graduate studies. I was assigned to work with a Russian teacher – Sulamita Aronovsky – who had just arrived in England. In fact, I became her first British student. It was suggested that she would be a good teacher for me, though I did not know of her at all. She turned out to be very good. Unlike Derrick Wyndham, she was a very pro-active person. She gave me a good shaking, saying I had the talent to go further and that I had more to give. So I started to work very hard and, with her encouragement, learned a lot of repertoire. It was then, when in my mid-20s, that I went in for some competitions – one in Geneva, the Busoni Competition in Italy and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. My teacher probably never thought I would win one, and I certainly could not imagine winning one; but it is not always the winning that is the important thing – it is the taking part, the effort and what it teaches you en route. I think the competition experience taught me a lot. Coincidentally, when I went to Brussels at age 25, I certainly did not win that tremendously demanding competition, but I did meet my wife there, proposed to her after three days and she accepted!

PH: When did you start performing?

PL: Like most musicians, you are given performance opportunities as a student, even as a young student, and you get the experience, possibly without the pay. I think it’s a gradual process as a musician. As a post-graduate student, I started getting a few more opportunities to perform outside of the college from people I had met and through my own efforts. My performing has never progressed to the point where I could make a living from playing but I would not want to make a living from performance anyway.

PH: When we chatted earlier, you mentioned having played the double bass.

PL: That is a short, simple story. When I was a student, you were required to study another one or two instruments in parallel to give you a more balanced education, to encourage students to take blinkers off and experience other forms of music-making. (In Britain, that has since changed. Students learn one instrument). Not having played another instrument, I had to choose an instrument which I felt I could learn with some facility and also enjoy playing. Getting to a modest level on the double bass is probably easier than on some other instruments. And because I love jazz, it was an instrument that straddled the divide between classical music and jazz. I played the double bass for a few years, did not touch it after that and eventually sold it. The instrument never really figured largely in my professional life.

PH: Would you like to talk about your current performing career.

PL: I do relatively few recitals a year. Because I have broad musical interests, I have never been drawn to only playing one kind of music or music in one sort of format. I like doing all sorts of things. Consequently, my playing experience has covered quite a wide range of things: I have done my fair share of solo recitals, concertos, commercial recordings fir EMI and Virgin, recordings for BBC radio, I have played in dance bands, on cruise ships, in folk bands, have done some accompanying and also audition accompanying.

PH: What about chamber music?

PL: Funnily enough, not much. I have not done regular playing with a chamber music group…the odd chamber concert here and there. It is not top of my priorities. My daughter Annabelle, however, is a pianist living in London. She has a piano trio – the Lawson Piano Trio which is hugely successful.

PH: You play a lot of contemporary music and have many thoughts on performing it. How did that start?

PL: A good question. I seem to remember, as a child, that a couple of family members gave me some sheet music of popular music of the time…it was fashionable pop music of the 1960s. I sat down to play it and enjoyed it. I have a pretty good ear and can work with those sorts of scores and make something of them. So my interest in popular music began when I was a teenager. It’s a commercial form of music-making and a fairly small step into looking at jazz and more improvised music. Since my teen years, I have always played modern music and, in fact, my very first piano teacher suggested I should play a little sonatina by a Scottish composer called Kenneth Leighton for one of my exams. I was not familiar with the composer but remember playing the piece and being very excited about it. In fact, I have since played more music by him. I think my love of contemporary classical music stems from that. I have always been curious to look for new things. As a student I would go into a library to look for works I didn’t know, take them home and sight-read them. If I found them too difficult, I would take them back and exchange them for something else. This made me a good sight-reader and it kindled a kind of curiosity within me. I feel very strongly about passing that curiosity on to my students. Ultimately, it is curiosity that will lead them on; the notion of exploring and not being afraid to try new things is very important for any musician. If you develop an interest in contemporary music from a young age, that will stay with you. It is like trying all the different kinds of food offering today from all over the world; musical repertoire should not remain a restricted diet. Musicians tend to be a very conservative bunch.

PH: Are you an improviser?

PL: Yes, but would not improvise on stage! I enjoy it and it rubs off on some kinds of music I play. It probably also rubs off on classical pieces I perform because of the play of rhythms – the heightened sense of rhythm that jazz brings to your music-making. I would like to feel that improvising is a benefit to whatever one is playing.

PH: Do you compose or arrange music?

PL: No.

PH: Would you like to talk about audiences, audience reactions and your communication with the listeners?

PL: It is hard to make pronouncements about audiences if you don’t spend three or four days a week giving concerts. I don’t feel I am the person to compare British, French and American audiences. I have met courtesy at the very least but usually enthusiasm from audiences. I suppose a lot of the most rewarding concerts I have done have been with more specialist repertoire. Because I play a lot of contemporary music, and have received some very good reviews for it, I am often asked to play specific repertoire. If that is the case, it might be that the audience listening is a particular segment of the general concert-going audience, shall we say, and you would expect them to react more favorably. I do quite like to talk to my listeners and enjoy that in a smaller setting; those more intimate events are almost an open invitation for people to tap you on the shoulder and communicate. I like that! The notion of playing on a high stage, where your audience is ten feet below you, stretching one hundred yards into the distance – that divide between stage/performer and audience – is what I really don’t like. My ideal is to play almost on the flat and have people seated close to me.

PH: I am interested to hear about your teaching and the unique teaching environment in which you work.

PL: Well, it’s strange, in a way, compared to many people, because I have taught at one school nearly all my professional life. As a post-graduate, I got a couple of teaching jobs in good schools but teaching fairly average students. I was very happy with that, but, through a lucky break, I got the chance to fill in at Chetham’s School of Music for someone who could no longer teach and I have stayed there. That is a very particular school because it caters to students aged 7 or 8 up to 18. The sole proviso for them being students there is that they have great musical talent. There are no specific academic attainments they need in order to be accepted and, although it is a very expensive school, for British students the fees are subsidized by the government. So it is not a school you can turn up to with a lot of money in your wallet and buy yourself a place. To be there you have to be musically very talented. A small school, started some forty years ago, it has about 300 students, most of them in the older age group - 16 to 18. It is one of five specialist music schools in the UK and the standard of playing there is phenomenally high…breathtakingly high. I like it for two reasons: for its outstanding level of playing and for the fact that, although a small school, it still caters for a very wide range of academic needs. Although the majority of students do go on to study music either at university or conservatoire, a number of them, including some of the best players, go to study other subjects - medicine, law, mathematics, etc. What I like is the fact that students are aiming in different directions and are open to stimulus from a whole range of things. With a standard that is continuously rising, we also have students from Europe and the Far East. It is a wonderful place. I have a full-time job there and also teach another half day at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I take a contemporary piano class, partly to oil wheels for the transition from our school-aged students at Chetham’s to being conservatoire students. One other role I have at Chetham’s is doing some career advisory work that helps students progress from school to conservatoire.
PH: What are your thoughts on competitions?

PL: Well, I feel they are a fact of life. Everything we do is a sort-of competition. Certainly, students have to be able to cope with the competition idea. I have always tried to encourage my students – the excellent musicians, first and foremost – to demonstrate their good musicianship through the piano. That is my main aim and I have always felt that if students are taught to appreciate music in its broader sense and encouraged to apply your curiosity and initiative to what you are studying, they will give themselves the best chances of making a career. They, of course, also need a good sprinkling of luck. A competition might have its place, in short term, giving them a push up the ladder of success. I think that, without that combination of drive, initiative and curiosity, longer term, they will fall down the ladder again. Although I see competitions as one of those things that are a part of life, I don’t see them as important as some of my colleagues do and will not insist that my students do them; but if they want to want to, I am quite happy to go along with it.

PH: So what is your message to students going for a performing career in the years to come?

PL: I desire to encourage them to see new music as the only way to allow music to survive. Young musicians certainly need to feel they are part of a “new music creation business”. If we are just going to rely on Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, however good they are, it will die.

PH: Do you work with amateurs?

PL: Not really. I don’t have any private students. I will occasionally give a one-off advice session to a pianist, but have no time for private work. However, at Chetham’s we do have a piano summer school for children and adults and I have contact with amateur pianists in that situation. I do enjoy teaching adult amateurs: they have a commitment, which not all young students do, clearly a desire to progress and, hopefully, the intelligence that can take on more adult concepts. The fact that they are playing music that is maybe not at the highest level does not really affect how you can pass on advice and how they can receive it. (It does happen occasionally that an adult amateur will come along and only want to hear praise. This is where it is very difficult to be honest and to give practical advice.)

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

PL: Photography and the countryside. We live on the edge of Derbyshire near a national park. It is very hilly and most beautiful; the countryside there is quite wild. I like hill-walking and the challenge of it. And, because I like photography, the two things go together quite well. I try to go walking once every week or ten days. In fact, I plan to go out tomorrow if the weather forecast is okay.

PH: Peter, many thanks for allowing us a glimpse into your musical world and for sharing so many interesting thoughts and ideas.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

An Interview with Maggie Cole

On August 13th 2013 I spoke to Maggie Cole at her London home. Maggie Cole enjoys an international career playing and recording on harpsichord, fortepiano and modern piano. As well as teaching privately from her home, Ms. Cole has been a faculty member at the Dartington Hall International Summer School for the past two summers and is professor of fortepiano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London).

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

Maggie Cole: What I would say is that on my mother’s side, with many relatives still living in Chicago - her home town, there is a deeply musical vein running through the family system, but, in my immediate family, it was not really happening. There was an inherited piano sitting there at home and my much older brother played a bit of jazz on it. My parents were not players; they were listeners. I popped into the scene and really wanted to play.

PH: What are your earliest memories of music?

MC: Sitting at the piano at age four, the actual feel of the piano and figuring out I could play things on it. I remember the sound and feel of producing little melodies myself and I remember a kind of excitement in moving them around the keyboard (I did not know the word “transpose”).

PH: What music did you listen to as a child?

MC: The really honest answer is that, around the age of 10 or 11, and right through my teens, I was involved in listening to some jazz and pop music…the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the black American musicians – Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many more; I just loved it. I could already play the piano and could pick out the songs I had heard on the radio. For me, there did not seem to be any big separation between classical- and popular music. I was very aware that there was Mozart on record being played in our house and my dad adored listening to opera on Saturday mornings - strangely, no later than Mozart! A big musical listening experience was my piano teacher introducing me to Glen Gould’s playing; at that time, people were very excited by the fresh sense of discovery in his playing. My teacher thought he was the finest Bach player around (not everyone did!). I loved playing Bach and remember feeling really excited about what I heard on those recordings.

PH: When did you start piano lessons?

MC: I started at four because I begged for lessons. I grew up in a very small, safe town called Nyack, New York, north of New York City, where a husband and wife were the local piano teachers. The wife told my mother that I was too young to start, that she had never taught anyone my age and that I would have to wait a couple of years. My mother remembers that I stamped my foot in rage. The teacher then said she would give it a try, I began and we got on very well. I was with her for 13 years (too long, actually) but none of us knew much about music education. Actually, there was one year, when she and her husband were away in France, that I went into New York City to study at the Juilliard Preparatory School, and I did not like it one bit! It did, however, give me the taste of a different teacher for that year.

PH: Where did you continue your studies?

MC: At age 16, I went to Switzerland with my mother…for reasons a little too complicated to go into here, but finishing school was not one of them. In Geneva, I had the good fortune to study with a man called Louis Hiltbrand at the Geneva Conservatory for two years; he had been a student of Dinu Lupatti and was the person who had taken over his teaching studio following Lupatti’s death. Hiltbrand’s work felt like an amazing, direct line to Lupatti. Personally, this was a difficult time in my own life, but Hiltbrand was a magnificent teacher and I totally adored him. His was a very different approach to piano teaching and music making, which I badly needed.

PH: So, at age 18 you returned to the USA.

MC: Yes. I was all ready to go for auditions at the Eastman, Curtis and other schools. In the throes of a kind of crisis, I, however, I could not see any possible reason to play music any more. I took myself off to England, but the first thing I did on my arrival was to rent a little upright piano, having no plans to take lessons. Playing it was my love and for relaxation and enjoyment. For two years, I did lots of other things – I cleaned houses and waitressed. I was interested in dance and did a huge amount of dancing in London, taking a hard look at whether I wanted to do that professionally… modern dance, rather than ballet. I decided it was not my calling. After a few years in England I returned to the United States.

PH: With what objective?

MC: Of getting a good liberal arts education as young Americans do. I was 20 - a little older than the other students - but enjoyed being a more mature student. I was at a small university in the mid-west. In about my third month there, I walked into the music building, opened a door thinking I would find a piano in the room, and found a harpsichord. I had a few basic ideas about the instrument but had never seen or played one. I was hugely excited and sat down to play every piece of Bach, Scarlatti and Rameau I had played on the piano. With that I was back to music. There was an incredibly good teacher there. She was modest about her harpsichord-teaching, as she was the organ professor, but she knew a lot, was wonderfully loving, guiding and not authoritarian. After a few years with her, as well as enjoying a lot of other subjects, I realized that I was very serious about the harpsichord and decided to return to England.

PH: Did you return to England in order to study there?

MC: Yes. I first studied with a wonderful grande dame of the harpsichord in Cambridge – Mary Potts. It was fun and interesting working with her. She had an original instrument (that was new to me). She was very kind, but too complimentary, and I needed to learn. Then, by luck, I met a man who was the keeper of the early keyboard instruments at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He let me practise there as I did not yet have an instrument of my own. He would hear me practise and one day suggested I meet his wife. I went to their home for supper and played her some little Bach piece. Sharing her thoughts, it was that night that she said two such illuminating things that, on the spot, I asked to study with her. That is how I met my great teacher Jill Severs, with whom I studied privately for three years. Many fine harpsichordists have been through her hands. She is a very fine player to this day and her teaching was sharp and pin-pointed…exactly what I needed. After a little while, I was suddenly out there performing.

PH: Did you continue studying?

MC: My learning has continued largely through working with remarkable colleagues and I keep learning from them. Maybe I would not have had that benefit from conservatory training – to be performing and learning in such a closely knit way. To work really intimately with people like Steven Isserlis, Michael Chance, Nigel North, Nancy Argenta and many others has been every bit as much my training as any formal lessons have been. I feel very lucky to have worked with some extraordinary people. Apart from in Geneva, I never took the conservatory track. Now, funnily enough, I teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London).

PH: Do you still see yourself as a pianist?

MC: Yes and no. I now deeply understand why I was never going to be suited to the modern piano world. As much as I left the modern piano at 18, mostly due to family problems, there was something that was never going to quite work for me about the number of hours a pianist must practise to do the kind of repertoire written so well for the modern piano. Life seemed too confined with this kind of regime. As well, I grew up with a Steinway piano that always felt too tough, too heavy and too thick. The piano was too much of a battle for me with my particular physical make-up and with what my ears wanted to hear. At a young age, I had absolutely no idea that my ears were seeking earlier keyboard instruments and the actual physical sensations of playing them.

PH: How did you start playing the fortepiano?

MC: It crept in. It was starting to appear on the world concert scene, although later than the harpsichord. I had the chance to play on Christopher Hogwood’s Viennese fortepiano replica of about 1795 and then a chance to play it in a concert - in a Mozart violin sonata, I remember. That particular piano completely caught my fancy. Then I started playing other fortepianos, both originals and copies, and I kept finding them to be not very satisfying. So I would go back to Hogwood’s, borrowing it or hiring it. I ended up doing some recording on it. As I continued to explore it, I would remember my feelings about Mozart and Haydn from childhood. The sensation and musical results of playing Classical repertoire on this instrument really felt like coming home. It was what I had always heard in my head as a child and was not getting on the modern piano. But I knew that, if I was going to be serious about the fortepiano, I would have to purchase my own instrument.

PH: How did you go about finding one?

MC: This is a magical story. I visited my aunt and uncle from Chicago. Amateur ‘cellists, they were in Prague for a quartet-playing week. Paul McNulty, one of the most highly revered fortepiano builders, and nowadays there are quite a few of them, lives outside of Prague and I took a side trip to the village where he lives and works. I spent an afternoon playing the instrument that was there and, at the end of the afternoon, I said to Paul that I needed to commission one. When he told me it would take three years to deliver, my heart sank, but I asked him to put me down on the list. Driving back into Prague, we chatted and I said to him that I thought I had heard through the grapevine that Mitzuko Uchida owned one of his instruments. Yes, he said, adding that it was the same kind as I had just been playing at his workshop. I told him that she only lived a mile away from me in London and that rumor has it that she did not like the instrument. He confirmed the rumor and said that she was the second person not to like it! Trevor Pinnock had commissioned it, owned it first, did not like it and had sold it to Mitzuko, who had it sitting there for two years unplayed. McNulty said she would probably only sell it when he sold her an instrument she did like. On my return to London I called Mitzuko and went to visit her. She took me to the mews where she kept her instruments, pronounced that I “would never like him” and left me to play on it for an hour. There was something in this piano for me. It had not been played and needed to come alive again. I asked her whether if I paid for the moving, took it home for two weeks and liked it, she would sell it to me. She immediately agreed, still insisting I would not love “him”! So I took it. Two weeks later, after playing it a lot, it was now really awake and the sound had all developed again. A good friend Melvyn Tan, an artist with a huge reputation as a fortepiano player (he has now, interestingly, gone back to the modern piano) confirmed that it was a beautiful- and beautifully made piano and said I should buy it. A technician who looked at it said the same thing. So, instead of waiting three years to get a Paul McNulty fortepiano, it took only three months!

PH: So the fortepiano became an important part of your performing life.

MC: Yes. I formed Trio Goya with violinist Kati Debretzeni and ‘cellist Sebastian Comberti. I have done much solo playing on it, many song recitals with singers are really interested in singing specific repertoire with the delicate, more responsive fortepiano as well as much duo work.

PH: Do you play in other groups?

PC: Yes. I regularly play with a group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Sarasa Ensemble, a loose collective of lots of musicians. We choose players according to who is best suited to the repertoire of a specific program; we are never usually more than six or seven players for any one concert. Our repertoire can range from very early Baroque- to late Classical- or even early Romantic music. We just recently toured, playing the Dvořák Piano Quintet on an original 1875 piano, with what we all agreed was a great result. I think we really found something new about that piece. For me it was a thrill: I do not play music of that period very often and had never played that work before.

PH: And solo work?

MC: Yes, both on fortepiano and harpsichord.

PH: Let’s go back to the harpsichord. Would you like to talk about your harpsichord recitals?

MC: Well, it goes in phases for me. When I began performing, there was a huge flowering of the harpsichord recital in England and Europe, with a lot of excitement around it. I was part of that and performed as a soloist all over the world. I still do, but now give fewer recitals in a typical year. This is partly because my range of interests has expanded, but also because there is perhaps less demand for the solo recital nowadays. Actually, at one stage I asked myself if I really like doing harpsichord recitals: it is so terrifying sitting on the stage all alone with a harpsichord; you cannot hide behind anything with an instrument that speaks in such a direct way. And yet, every time I give a recital I remember how exciting it is, how special the repertoire is and how you have this wonderful freedom just to take the music whichever way you want to take it. I had the chance to give a recital in Moscow at the end of December 2012 - a full-length harpsichord recital in a newish hall there. The program included one piece of contemporary harpsichord music. I just found it so thrilling to play to that Russian audience on that freezing, snowy night. Looking outside, I saw so many people coming to the concert hall. It was so touching. And they clearly enjoyed it very much. This was a strong reminder to me of how much I like doing solo work.

PH: Perhaps we should now talk about contemporary harpsichord music and your performance of it.

MC: Sure. I think what is interesting is that the harpsichord has attracted so much new music for a long time. It’s not just recent. It goes right back to the Manuel de Falla Harpsichord Concerto and Wanda Landowska’s commissioning of concertos from composers of her time, such as Poulenc’s “Concert champêtre” and the Manuel de Falla concerto. I would say that we have a really enormous repertoire to draw on; I receive lots of pieces from composers who would like me to look at their music and perhaps play it. I choose only pieces to which I feel I can give my heart and soul. I think it is important for me to keep in touch with what is going on now, but I also really like the idea of the harpsichord as an instrument of our present time and not just associated with the past. Contemporary harpsichord music does not need to pay homage to the past. There are many young composers who see the harpsichord as a fascinating instrument for which to write and they seem to be breaking free of recognizable, early gestures. I am full of admiration for my female colleagues who devote themselves almost entirely to playing contemporary harpsichord music…extraordinary, wonderful, exciting things…often with electronics. That is how much there is! I tend to play more solo contemporary harpsichord pieces, but I would like to get into that slightly wilder area.

It is always interesting to speak with living composers, to really be able to find out their intentions and to be able to contribute to the process of a piece being created. I have had that opportunity a few times: in a piece supposedly finished, I have been able to point out a design flaw and get it fixed! The French composer Henri Dutilleux (who recently died at a very ripe old age) wrote an extraordinarily beautiful and large piece for harpsichord, double bass, oboe and percussion that I played. He came to a rehearsal of it and listened to what we were doing. That was a little scary, but just to have him there and hear his small comments (improvements to make, but adding strongly that we had absolutely captured his piece) was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. He also wrote a heartwarming note onto my music. Of course, we really never know with our dead composers exactly how they heard their music or wanted it performed.

PH: I would like to hear about your interest in teaching.

MC: I do teach a lot. I have loved teaching one-on-one since I was 12. Over the last 15 years, I have really discovered how interested I also am in group teaching. It started when I got a job teaching at a Spanish summer school about 13 years ago. It was historical-performance based, though modern performers were made very welcome there. I would often have a very big group and I did not know so much about steering a big group through two weeks of exploration and study when I started. I have just come to really love this and I do quite a bit of group teaching now.

PH: Have you anything you would like to say about today’s audiences?

MC: A huge subject. I am not going to speak about trends. It seems that we, as performers, are all forever trying to dream up ways to make classical music appealing to the young and to educate the next generation; I am involved in that. Regarding the general concert audience, it is always very touching to me that people still want to leave behind television and all their other distractions, and actually step out, pay money and come and give themselves to a concert. But, more and more, I do seem to understand that this medium is a real conversation between player and audience. We can not do what we do unless people also make this effort and commitment to being there. I am full of gratitude to all of those people who turn up.

A particular thing for me is that I truly enjoy playing in very small, out-of-the-way places and particularly love playing to audiences who do not have masses of music available to them. London is, of course, an exciting place to play in, with its many venues and many opportunities to hear wonderful music, but I find that my really memorable moments of performing have been in very remote places, such when I performed in northern, northern Norway. People, hungry for music, had to come by boat, making that effort to get there. And I would not say it was an uncritical audience – there were some very discerning listeners present who were just so pleased to have live music come to them.

Then there is another audience that, for me, stands out. In the USA, with my group Sarasa, I do outreach work with young offenders; they are an extraordinary audience, an amazingly special audience to me! They have not made the choice to hear us, but they very quickly become extremely present and are very active and creative in their response as audience members. Our sessions together turn into collaborations in which we get to hear their rap, poetry and other forms of expression. They bring a kind of listening that is altogether different from the concert hall.

PH: Do you compose?

MC: I don’t. I often improvise – alone and sometimes with other people – but I do not write anything down…and have no desire to. But when it finally comes to the concert, and I’m playing, at that moment I never feel I am playing somebody else’s music and I never have. The minute I finish playing, that sensation disappears and the notes are back on the page! Music is such an ephemeral art form. Uniquely, that performance is never going to sound like that I do, before or after it. It can only be mine and the audience’s for that one time.

PH: Do you have any interesting plans you would like to mention?

MC: Oh, always. My next couple of trips to the USA will be musically very interesting…harpsichord recitals which include a brand new piece and two Bach Partitas that continue to fascinate me. And then there will be a group concert with a singer in a program that will be new to all of us. Trio Goya has its first Wigmore Hall concert coming up – something that we’re very excited about. And there are things brewing in Portugal – a new collaboration with a modern pianist who has become very interested in the fortepiano. We have done some 4-hand playing together and there is a bubbling idea that we might become a 4-hand team, which I have never had. Actually, I have tried a few times but it was never the right person; here, I have the feeling this might be the right one! That would be heavenly.

PH: When it is not music, what do you enjoy doing?

MC: As strong as my interest in music, and possibly stronger, there is my interest in people and psychology and what makes people feel well on this earth, in what makes them feel like they have a place and a contribution to make. This is a hugely deep interest and, therefore, has led to a lot of study in different forms – study of personal psychology and group psychology. Working with young people, or, actually, people of any age, it can mean trying to see clearly where the person is in their creativity and what the next step is in exploring a little more freedom, expression, communication, sense of wholeness – there are many ways of talking about this. You can put it into any language: it can be the language of the harpsichord, the fortepiano, dance, rap or whatever. For me it is always about enabling growth and health and, finally, community.

Then, my vegetable plot is of great interest to me. It is one of these English allotments, and they are big. Although I am in no way an expert, it is my relaxation and I never worry about my hands there! If I went back to studying I would probably study Botany. I also read a lot...mostly fiction, but some non-fiction. I love the outdoors – I am a big walker.

PH: Maggie, talking to you has been fascinating. Many thanks for your time and for so much interesting and enriching information.