Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Talking to Italian oboist Paolo Grazzi about style and freedom

On September 29th 2014, I spoke to oboist Paolo Grazzi at his home in Pesaro, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea. Besides being in demand as a performer, Paolo Grazzi devotes time to researching 18th century oboes and to making copies. He teaches at the Verona Conservatory, holding courses in Baroque oboe there.

PH: Maestro Grazzi, where were you born?

Paolo Grazzi: I was born in Mantua, a beautiful small city south of Verona.

PH: Are you from a family of musicians?

PG: Not really. There is a long tradition of playing and loving music in our family, starting with my great-great grandfather, but they were never professional musicians. However, of course, there is that musicality from my father’s line.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

PG: I was very fascinated by orchestral pieces, Romantic music in particular – composers like Smetana…Slavic music. My wish was simply to play music. We had a friend who played piano, we, being my twin brother Alberto and I, and we decided to start playing music, although we had no specific instrument in mind. We began music lessons when we were nine.

PH: What early musical training did you have?

PG: I played the clarinet for a few years, then moved to the oboe at age 12, preferring its sound and repertoire to that of the clarinet. I studied at the local conservatory, finishing my studies when I was 17.

PH: What then?

PG: I started with around one year of orchestral playing - in the Parma Theatre Orchestra, as 2nd oboe, then 1st oboe. I was also looking into oboe repertoire, when I discovered that the most beautiful repertoire was that of the Baroque period –the 18th to mid-19th century. So I decided to play that music; it was then that I heard Harnoncourt’s recordings and was totally “shocked”! This kind of interpretation was so lively and new, the paradox being that traditional interpretation for me was like visiting a museum where you must never “touch the artworks” and you must “keep your distance”, where as Baroque music played on old instruments was livelier, closer to feeling, more powerful and touching.

PH: In what way?

PG: I started thinking that here I could give the music my own interpretation, whereas before I was a little scared of tradition, of teachers, of the great soloists and great conductors. In a sort of way, in traditional playing, one was not allowed to change interpretation in a very radical way, while Baroque interpretation was much freer and would allow for my point of view of the music, yet still taking into account the music’s aesthetic ideas, technical issues, ornaments and everything else that is connected to Baroque interpretation. It appeared to me that it offered a free space for me to develop my own ideas.

PH: When did you start playing Baroque oboe?

PG: At age 17. Alfredo Bernadini and I met for the first time when I was 17 and he, 16. He was already playing Baroque oboe.

PH: With whom did you study?

PG: I taught myself. After some years I went to Brussels to study with Flemish oboist Paul Dombrecht, and, as I had never stopped playing modern oboe, I had the opportunity of studying both modern- and Baroque oboe with Dombrecht. (He is artistic director of the “Il Fondamento”.) It was a very nice experience. I was there for 18 months.

PH: Do you still play modern oboe?

PG: Yes. From time to time…not a lot, but I love playing modern oboe. I still feel at home with it. But, after playing Baroque oboe, it takes me some days to get back into playing the modern instrument. I like the Romantic repertoire, to play it in orchestras rather than playing Romantic chamber music, of which there is almost nothing for oboe. The best instrumental Romantic music is orchestral and I love it very much.

PH: Would you like to mention ensembles in which you have played?

PG: I have played in quite a lot of groups: “Il Giardino Armonico”, the “Accademia Bizantina”, the “Concert des Nations” and “Hèsperion XX”. After quite a long period of not seeing him, I met Alfredo Bernadini again in 1990 and we played a concert together. We realized that we enjoyed playing together very much and that there were ideas in music that would be nice for us to develop together – Alfredo, my bassoonist brother Alberto and I. Two or three years later we got together and decided to record the Zelenka sonatas for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo. This is how Ensemble “Zefiro” was born. We really enjoy playing together, we look for new repertoire and also re-interpret old repertoire and, after some recordings of newly-discovered music – of composers such as Zelenka, Fasch and Luigi Gatti (he was a friend of Mozart and wrote very nice music) - we have come as far as playing Mozart concertos. This interpretation of traditional repertoire is mainly research work.

PH: Do you play them on Baroque instruments?

PG: No. On period instruments, of course…from the Classical period. These instruments are slightly different from Baroque instruments, not in the key system but in the dimensions of the holes and bore. The Baroque instruments are much sweeter-sounding, blending very well with strings. The Classical instruments begin to have a more individual character, standing out in the orchestral setting; they are more solid and their sound is more focused. But they still blend better than do modern instruments. As the instruments developed, their character has become more powerful and more individual, with emphasis on power, due to their being part of the symphony orchestra. I have experienced playing wind quintets with modern instruments and also with Classical instruments. You can never get the sound on modern woodwind instruments that you will with Classical instruments. When playing on modern instruments, I found that the ensemble did not sound like a group, but like five individual instruments. Then, within a short while of playing ensemble music on Classical instruments, I was completely astonished by the difference. I immediately understood the character of the timbre of that ensemble medium, a sound that I had never heard before. Classical instruments are maybe “less friendly” but still they blend well together.

PH: Would you like to talk about the instruments you build?

PG: Yes. I make instruments that are replicas of those made in approximately 1720 by Thomas Stanesby Jnr., an English maker. It is true that English repertoire is not so important for the oboe; the main repertoire is French, German and Italian. But this instrument is very similar to the French Rotenburgh instrument; there was a direct connection between France and England, through French composer Robert Cambert, who went to England in 1671 with some musicians. They brought instruments with them. Among the group of musicians, there was Jacques Paisible (called James Peasable in England). They must have had Rotenburgh instruments as the Stanesby is almost a copy of the Rotenburgh; it is, however, shorter so the pitch is closer to the pitch we use today – a=415 Hertz. The French instruments are lower - around a=400 Hertz, perhaps 405 Hertz (or even lower than 400). It was not easy to copy the French Rotenburgh instrument. The Stanesby is almost a Rotenburgh but with higher pitch, more suited to “modern Baroque pitch”….which is a kind of invention, really. Because there were a lot of kinds of diapason in the Baroque, so, more out of choice than based on historical evidence, we have decided to play this music a half tone lower than a=440 Hertz. One must choose a pitch in which all can play together.

PH: Do you sell your instruments or make them for your own use?

PG: I mainly make the instruments for myself. It is a lot of work to build such instruments. I made around 15 oboes before finding a good compromise between what is both well-balanced and playable. So, it would have been a pity to just make one instrument for myself and then stop. I have a friend who helps me. I gave him all the tools and we work together. I do the final setting of the instrument; this is very important and is not easy - one needs time to reflect and play the instrument, to try reeds and understand the instrument. Fixing the intonation and finding a good balance is a long process. So, the final stage of the work is the most interesting part.

PH: Did you study instrument making?

PG: No. I observed it from Alfredo Bernardini, who also makes instruments and I look around at what other makers do, I ask, read and search. There is nothing very, very difficult about it. And, anyway, each maker has his own way of solving the problems that come up in instrument making. It is not necessary to have one teacher, and probably better to learn from a number of sources. We are lucky, because all the instrument builders I meet are open, friendly and do not seem jealous of others.

PH: Can you say something about your teaching?

PG: Yes. At the moment I am teaching modern- and Baroque oboe in Verona. It is a very nice experience, because the need to explain obliges you to read carefully and to make order in your own mind of all the things learned from friends, colleagues, teachers, books and lectures. Only then can you convey it to students. And it makes my own ideas about music even clearer. Teaching sometimes faces me with some problems that my students solve in a different way to how I might: so I am not only teaching but also learning from my students!

PH: What do you see as the most important 20th development of the authentic movement?

PG: For me it is the approach of "historically informed performance", the term having been used by Bruce Haynes. This is one of the most (or perhaps the most) important musical innovations of the 20th century. It has completely changed our approach to music - not only to Baroque music - also influencing modern musicians and conductors to put new life into performance of all musical repertoire. It has moved the focus more to the importance of the role of the performer in the interpretation of music.

PH: Do you edit music?

PG: No. It is something I have never done. If I edit a work, my idea of the music has been fixed, but I feel that students and musicians should have their own interpretations as taken from the musical source and should not take it from an editor’s input or even from an introduction. I do not feel editing is necessary.

PH: Do you compose music?

PG: No. Well, my “composing” consists in how I ornament music but I am not a composer.

PH: What is your relationship with contemporary music?

PG: I have great respect for contemporary composers, but I do not like modern music.

PH: Do you not play contemporary music?

PG: I have played it and, in fact, I like to play it. Listening to it does not interest me or, should I say, it does not touch me: there is something too intellectual about it, but that aspect disappears when I play it. When I perform it, its relationship with the instrument makes me more convinced. I always think that the composer has to explain his music to me and, if that is the case, there is something wrong with its communicative powers. If I as a player and a musician need an explanation of a modern work, what does the audience need? So I prefer to stay away from it.

PH: Do you do a lot of solo performing?

PG: Not a lot. Mainly chamber music…I like to be in small groups performing Baroque repertoire. This allows me to have close communication with the other musicians, “improvising” in the sense of “input” while playing, as a form of conversing with the other musicians. I believe one can play using this kind of “musical speech” in small groups. Of course, a large orchestra does not enable one to engage in such a way with the other musicians. Chamber music is nice in that way as you do not need to make decisions about everything ahead of playing, to mark everything into your music before performing it. Chamber music allows me to improvise. Each concert has a different history; this is very interesting and exciting for me.

PH: You are coming to Israel in October to teach at the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar. Will this be your first time teaching there?

PG: Yes, it will be my first time teaching in Tel Aviv. I taught master classes in Jerusalem some years ago and performed with “Zefiro” at the Academy of Music. Then later, together with my brother, I performed with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

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

PG: First of all the family – my wife, my sons, daughter and our 2½-year-old grandson. My other passion is sailing. I have now just come in from working on my boat. Sailing gives me a feeling of freedom that I like a lot. Every year we cross the Adriatic with some of my family; we go to Croatia and sail off the islands of Croatia. Maybe one day I will sail into Israel!

PH: Paolo, you have given us such a good glimpse into your professional life and approach to music. Many thanks.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Singer Jill Feldman talks about her career, the early music movement and about training young singers

On September 26th I spoke to singer Jill Feldman at her home in Arezzo, Italy. An early music and Baroque specialist, she is known for her exceptional technical skill and her ability to convey the meaning behind a text.

PH: Professor Jill Feldman, where were you born and where did you grow up?

Jill Feldman: I was born in Los Angeles, California and was there for the first 17 years of my life. From there, I started moving north in California – first to Santa Barbara, where I went to university and then I moved to the San Francisco Bay area during the “flower” generation where I stayed until my departure for Europe in 1980.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

JF: No, not at all. There are no other musicians in the family. My grandfather used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera recordings as well as recordings of Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein. But, of course, there was nothing German allowed in our house. We were raised as reformed Jews in Los Angeles and there was no German music in the house, not even Bach and especially no German Lied. I discovered the entire German repertoire later, quite by accident, when I was 19, and I absolutely love it all now.

PH: What was your first musical training?

JF: I took piano lessons from the age of 8 till about 14, at which point I did not feel like being that serious, so I started singing music from American musicals. My piano teacher then taught me how to accompany myself on the piano with that material. I became rather anti Classical music because of my political activities - anti Vietnam, etc. I was anti society, with opera and symphony representing society. The music I thrived on in this period was San Francisco rock and roll from the Psychedelic Movement (groups like “The Grateful Dead”, Jefferson Airplane” and musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.)

PH: And your university studies?

JF: At the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was a Dramatic Literature major, specializing in Shakespeare’s plays. I had an excellent Shakespeare professor in college for two years and he sparked my brain. It can sometimes take just one teacher to do that! And Shakespeare was also my best teacher. It was there that I started singing again and addressed playing piano anew and seriously. My piano teacher was a Hungarian called Erno Daniel. He had been a student of Dohnanyi (who had studied with Bartok). So I was playing the piano, but I have very small hands and came up against those limitations. I was also becoming far more interested in singing, switched and became a General Music major, with an emphasis on vocal studies. At that point, I became interested in early music, meaning the English Renaissance and the early Italian Baroque, the latter because the Shakespeare plays are placed in Italy. The music of 1550-1600 became my passion. Also, while still at university, I taught the music part of Shakespeare courses at the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

PH: So you then moved to the San Francisco Bay area.

JF: Yes. When I moved to the Bay Area, I started singing with Philip Brett’s choir and had my first solos there. Philip Brett was a British specialist in English Renaissance music of Shakespeare’s time. (A professor at the University of California, he did the editions of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons for Stainer & Bell). I was studying voice with Lillian Loran. She was of a Russian background, but had studied in Italy with an Italian opera singer. She would say: “Well, okay, but here is a standing room ticket to the opera”. There I heard wonderful voices. So, due to her great patience, I became hooked on Italian opera.

PH: Who else influenced your career?

JF: When still at university, a very important thing happened to me. I had gone to study Shakespeare at a summer course in Stratford, England, and was invited to spend the free week in Salzburg by some German and Austrian friends of mine. So, against the will of my family, I went to Germany and then to Salzburg. It was then that I heard a solo recital of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I was 19 and did not speak a word of German. This event changed my life: it changed my preconceptions about the German language and opened my mind to vocal music in general. I owe Fischer-Dieskau a lot. He was a great artist. He opened my mind, and mine was a hard mind to open!! I was very stubborn.

PH: So what next?

JF: I went back to San Francisco and lived there in and around the Bay Area for 8 years, singing with Brett’s chorus, getting my first solos and singing my first operas. I was then awarded the Alfred Hertz Memorial Scholarship to study in Europe for a year with an early music specialist. So I went to Basel in 1980, living there and studying with Andrea von Ramm. I have lived in Europe ever since.

PH: How come?

JF: Well, in my last year in the USA, I sang in a master class for a certain William Christie. Having remembered me from that master class, he called me when I was in Basel and invited me to Paris to join his ensemble – Les Arts Florissants. I thought it was crazy as I was specializing in Italian music and only spoke high school French. But Christie told me not to worry. I packed my bags, and with Andrea von Ramm’s blessing, moved to Paris and joined the ensemble, with which I sang for 6 years. There I learned French and French style and got a lot of experience. Singing in that ensemble in Paris really launched my career in Europe, although I had been singing for 10 years. I moved to France and became a specialist in French music…much to my own surprise!

PH: Where did that lead your career?

JF: I sang Baroque opera and was also a recitalist. Singing recitals came out of a great love for a more intimate setting and from that one recital that had changed my life so much. I gave a lot of recitals of French, English and Italian 17th century music. At that point, I also started to sing in German. It took me longer to perfect my German as I had started so late. But my passion was for French and Italian music and, of course, 17th century English music – Purcell, Dowland, John Blow… I was a specialist in the 17th century.

PH: Would you like to talk about your own teaching?

JF: Yes. I have always taught and, when I was living in San Francisco, I used to take my students to my teacher Lillian Lauren if something came up I did not know how to handle. If there was a problem I had never encountered, I would watch her teach my pupils for an hour. So she also taught me much about pedagogy. And I also brought her with me to Jerusalem, where I began teaching at the Jerusalem Music Centre in 1986. As a successful singer in Europe, I was also asked to teach summer courses in France. I started teaching at the Conservatory of Strasbourg and, in 1986, I was invited to join the faculty of the Royal Music Academy of The Hague as a guest teacher to teach French music. I am still there, teaching there once a month…one of those guests who never leave! And also, till last year, I was teaching at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Zurich; there, I taught the whole repertoire, which was really nice for me, not just early music, but also the Lied and “melodie” and Italian lyric opera. I taught there for eight years as a full professor.

PH: You have taught much in Israel.

JF: Yes. My first visit was in 1986. I taught at the Jerusalem Music Centre and at the the Early Music Workshop for 12 years, sometimes coming to Jerusalem 2 or 3 times a year. And I did concert tours of Israel. I stopped all this in 1998, when my daughter was 5 and started school. And I did not return to Israel until 2 years ago, when Drora Bruck invited me to teach at the Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar, which she runs with her superb organizational skills. I am about to return to teach at the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar. I would like to mention that one of my students at that first course in Jerusalem (in Ein Kerem, actually) was Miriam Meltzer. Miriam was already an accomplished singer at that time and had taken courses with Emma Kirkby and other early music specialists. We knew at that time that it would never be enough to just have occasional courses in early music in Israel, so I tried to convince Miriam to teach. She is now a prized voice teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

PH: Do you compose or edit?

JF: No. I have always been an interpreter, but I stopped singing five years ago. One needs to know when to “turn the page”.

PH: Do you write in words?

JF: Very occasionally I will write a small article.

PH: Let’s talk about the authentic movement and where you stand with that.

JF: Of course, I was part of the second generation of it, as I see it. The first generation was in England with people like David Munrow, Alfred Deller and Thurston Dart, then in Holland with Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Brüggen and, of course, Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Austria. I was the generation just after them, but was very lucky, as, at the time I started my interest in early music, there were very few people doing it. Therefore, I had a lot of chances that would be much harder to get now. So I feel I was there…in the second generation of the movement, at least in singing, just one generation later. Its influence has spread into a consciousness throughout all repertoire now. I think people realize that we also have to question performance practice of Berlioz or performance practice of Schubert or Beethoven in the same way that we question performance practice of John Dowland. That consciousness has been raised.

PH: What is your advice to students training to be early music singers?

JF: I think it is a mistake for them to specialize too soon. I am very happy to teach early music courses to young people, but I do not think they should sing only that. I have actually had students coming to me in tears because their teachers were forcing them to sing Schubert. My answer is “You could do a lot worse!” (Schubert is one of my favorite composers.) I believe that they should have a wide scale of musical knowledge and, for that reason, we are starting to blend vocal departments so that they do not just teach early music as against lyric singing. There is no difference in vocal technique; it is a question of style. Of course, I am a specialist in several styles - from medieval, Baroque and Classical music - one style, just as one conductor would be Wagnerian and another, a Verdian. Although I specialize in a style as a singer and teacher, I can teach the whole repertoire and prefer working with people who have open minds and who are willing to work in a wide range of repertoire until they are old enough to know what their voice should be and to what their voice is suited to be doing. Of course, there are different kinds of voices: some are better for agility repertoire whereas other voices cannot do agility and are better for a more lyric vocal style. People should not make those stresses too soon. I think it narrows them as musicians.

PH: How do you find attitudes to early music singing?

JF: There is still a terrible preconception that people sing early music because they cannot do anything else; that is very boring and old-fashioned but the attitude still exists, especially here in Italy. So we still have to fight to convince them that there is nothing different: a voice works or it does not work. Then there is style and, of course, there are stylistic differences. That does not mean that a Mozart singer is less important than a Puccini singer. They just have different kinds of voices; the Puccinian usually cannot sing Mozart…and the Mozart singer may not sing Puccini very well. So the same goes for Händel and, going even further back, Purcell: it is a certain kind of mindset and it demands certain stylistic comprehension. People should not be so threatened by the concept of early music; it is really not that scary!

PH: When teaching master classes where do you place the most emphasis?

JF: Well, it depends on the context. I never can avoid technique because it is usually connected to whatever problems the student is having with the repertoire that he/she is trying to sing. So I end up doing a lot of technical work. I always try to work in coordination with whoever the main technical teacher is so that we speak the same language and do not get in the way of each other. Basically, there is not that much to know about singing but there is a lot to get a feel for. However, as I said before, the voice is either working correctly or it is not. At present in Israel, you have a lot of people teaching in the old German or Russian schools. Those are quite different from the Italian school I have studied. However, I have had some training in the German technique. But “all roads lead to Rome!” They all lead to the same place but there are different ways of getting there. It is a question of vocabulary.

PH: You are known as a singer who places much emphasis on the verbal text.

JF: That is true. Most of the repertoire that I sang and listen to is heavily text-based. Of course, there is music that is not that way that I also can also appreciate – some contemporary music, for one thing, which may not have anything to do with text – but coming out of the 17th century and declamation in Italian, French, English and German (with my experience of having hated the German language and then falling in love with it) I tend to gravitate towards music that is based on text. So I do not train singers to “make sounds” – I train them to express text. That is my school. In fact, the technique of my teacher’s teacher, Toti Dal Monte, an Italian lyric opera singer, was based on “la voce parlata” (the spoken voice), the coordination of breath and speech. I get very disturbed when I cannot understand a text being sung, especially in music where it is so important.

PH: Have you been involved in contemporary music?

JF: Yes. Of course, the combination of early- and contemporary music is very successful because composers writing contemporary pieces tend to gravitate towards aspects of control of the voice that are necessary for singing earlier repertoire; for example, control of vibrato, comprehension of text and not going just for sound. And there is also intonation, which lyric singers do not tend to work on enough. I have sung a lot of contemporary music, including several pieces my husband Kees Boeke wrote. But, in my earlier years in San Francisco, when I was 18, I went on tour with a contemporary ensemble performing works by Californian composers. That was one of my first European tours, singing in these strange pieces. I loved doing that. And the very last recording I did was of the songs of Charles Ives, which I love!

PH: When it is not music you are busy with, what do you enjoy?

JF: The outdoors. I love to hike in the mountains and to go camping. My husband and I go tent camping all the time. This year we were in Corsica and Sardinia and we tend to camp a lot in France. The camping trips include longs walks. My walking days are temporarily curtailed due to my breaking an ankle on a walk this last winter. But I love to be in nature, in the wilderness. At home we have olive trees and make olive oil. I also love art and go to see it in museums and churches. (We live in the right place for that.) I am also taking drawing classes, but am not very good at it. Am also still working on my languages. And I love theatre. When I am in London I go to Stratford and to the fantastic new Globe Theatre, where they are now performing in the original pronunciation of Elizabethan English. They also use music from the period. And when in Paris, I see whatever theatre Peter Brook is directing there. We travel a lot. And the great love of my life is my daughter, who is studying at university in the USA, so I visit her.

PH: How would you sum up your career so far?

JF: I feel like I have been extremely lucky because I did not start out with high aspirations…I did not even like lyric opera in the beginning! But I got to do amazing things and to sing with very, very great musicians. So, as a singer and a teacher, I am a very lucky and fulfilled person. I love teaching and transmitting my knowledge and experience to the younger generation.

PH: Jill, many thanks. It has been most interesting talking to you. So many of us have been touched by your performance and enriched by your teaching.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Talking to British countertenor Nicholas Clapton

On July 29th 2014 British countertenor Nicholas Clapton and I met at the White Hart Bar, Dartington Hall, Devon, UK. Nicholas Clapton made his singing debut at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1984. His career has embraced repertoire from the medieval to the contemporary in concert halls and opera houses from Santiago to Singapore. Particularly at home in the heroic castrato repertoire of the 18th century, he has performed more than 30 premieres and has long been a countertenor pioneer in the performance of Romantic song. Mr. Clapton has an international reputation as a teacher.

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

Nicholas Clapton: Not in a professional sense. My father had a very fine treble voice and sang in his local parish choir. He never learned to read a note of music. He always loved the stage and did much amateur acting. My mother wanted to play the violin but her parents did not have the money to send her for lessons. Somewhere in my grandmother’s family there was a professional violinist.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

NC: As a small child we had an old 78 wind-up gramophone. We did not have many records but I used to love playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” (loving its loud ending!), Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 and quite a lot of Beethoven symphonies. As a performer, my first memories are of singing in the school Nativity play. Our headmistress, being an intelligent woman, devised a play where we did not have to remember any words, so we could not forget any! She had someone narrating and the children were taught to mime the story. It worked brilliantly. As to the Three Kings, there were three children to sing the parts, only the other two went sick and I had to sing all three parts. I was eight at the time, but vividly remember the feeling that people were really listening. I absolutely loved that and have never lost that love. It is almost “power” of a certain kind, intangible but very special.

PH: What was your early musical training?

NC: I sang as a boy from then right into my mid-teens. My voice did not completely break till I was 16.

PH: Where did you sing?

NC: I sang in a weekly choir at Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire, a beautiful old Benedictine abbey that became a parish church after the Reformation. That was a good parish choir. I did not sing in a cathedral choir because I was from the wrong social class. In those days you had to have money to sing in a cathedral choir. We were a baker family and bakers’ sons did not go to the cathedral school. We went to grammar schoolinstead. I sang a lot at school. We had a fantastic music teacher, a lovely man called Norman Crowhurst. He helped me a lot with my singing.

PH: Did you play an instrument?

NC: When I was 12 Mr. Crowhurst said I should learn an instrument. I did not want to do the violin and I was already kind-of playing the piano very badly. With too many clarinettists in the school, he suggested I learn the oboe and I did. We had a school orchestra in which I played. I think my crowning glory was probably playing the Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe at a school concert, a very difficult work. That was on modern instruments, of course; the early music revival had not yet really started. I did a lot of oboe-playing while I was singing as a boy and then after (when I could not really sing at all) continued playing till was in my mid-twenties. Because my voice was late breaking, I did not really sing much when I was at Oxford University. I played quite a bit in the university orchestra and with a quintet all through my student days. I was at Magdalen College and not a member of the choir.

PH: So did you not sing at all at Oxford?

NC: I sang a little bit in another college Sunday choir, not least because the dinner was much better than at Magdalen! But I did not sing seriously at all because my voice had not really settled. I was sort-of singing countertenor in a way but nothing with any great efficiency.

PH: Did you study in one of the music colleges?

NC: No. I never set foot in any music college as a student. All my learning has been private. I have missed out on a few things, like the connections you gain, courses in acting etc., but I think I did escape bad singing teaching, a lot of which still happens in the music colleges worldwide. And countertenors then, certainly (and even now sometimes) were regarded as singing oddities. Many teachers did not know how to handle countertenor voices. Also, there were colleges that would simply not accept us as students.

PH: When did your countertenor singing really begin?

NC: I already knew that I loved singing, had known that from when I was a child, and it was a great sadness to lose that voice. With my voice breaking, it “slithered” around…very distressing. When I was still at college, a friend organized for Mary Beverley, one of the earliest figures of the early music singing world in England, to give a concert. I went to hear her and was entranced. A year or so later, I went and had some lessons with her. Her teaching was rather unusual. She taught me some useful things which, most importantly, as a young singer, did me no harm. Some years later, in the early-middle ‘80s, I was working in the library of the Royal Academy of Music, by which time I was already singing in various good London choirs, when I met a very fine harpsichordist called David Roblou. He was beginning a new ensemble “Combattimento” and was interested to have me sing countertenor in the group, but on condition that I have some coaching from the other keyboard player they had, David Mason, a harpsichordist but really a very excellent pianist. That was in 1983. “Combattimento” made its debut at Wigmore Hall in 1984. There I made my professional debut singing Purcell’s “Music for a While” (in the original key…far too low!). I had lessons with David Mason for about 12 years. I also auditioned for the Britten Peers School for Advanced Musical Studies at Snape, where they were, for the first time, opening the Aldeburgh Festival not with a Britten opera but with a Handel opera (as it was the Händel centenary year). I can still see Peter Peers sitting there 30 feet away, looking through me (rather than at me). They offered me the role of Unulfo from Handel’s opera “Rodelinda”; that was very good. The other significant thing that happened that year was that in August I had a ‘phone call from David Roblou saying that the English Bach Festival had a problem: they were putting on Handel’s “Teseo” in Siena in the Palazzo Civico (inside which there is an extraordinary 18th century opera house), the countertenor was sick and there was only one week to the dress rehearsal. It was a secondo part they offered me – King Egeo - and David asked if I could learn it – three arias and about 500 miles of recitative! In short, having just moved house and with only an electronic keyboard at my disposal, I learned the entire opera in four days, in time for the complete run-through that took place prior to the dress rehearsal. And this was a Baroque gesture production! I had to dance a minuet. When I was paid, I remember blowing half my fee on a beautiful Italian sheepskin jacket.

PH: What about competitions?

NC: In 1985, I went off to take part in the Francisco Viñas International Singing Competition in Barcelona. (Francisco or Francesc Viñas was a very famous Wagner tenor from Catalunya.) We were two countertenors in the competition and the judges liked us both, so we shared the first prize. There had been a huge scandal the year before about giving a countertenor the prize! Some of the judges had said that this was “not a voice”. So the competition then invented a special prize for countertenors. There was also an open competition for the singing of Mozart and, competing against large ladies and little tenors, I was very happy and surprised to win first prize with a piece of Mozart nobody had even heard of – “Già dagli occhi” from Mozart’s opera “Mitridate, re di Ponto”. Altogether, 1985 was a big year for me.

PH: Peter Pears seems to have left his imprint on you.

NC: Yes. In 1986, all kinds of things happened. Asked back to Snape, I sang The St. Matthew Passion under Philip Ledger; this was the last concert Peter Pears attended before he died four days later. (He was running a Bach course a week before he died!) Peers was an intensely passionate man, as well as a wonderful singer.

PH: Let’s talk about you as a teacher. When you teach, you spend much time talking about breathing and posture and, of course, about words. Would you like to talk about your credo on singing?

NC: Yes. Well, there was a very, very famous castrato singer called Gasparo Pacchierotti who said: “He who knows how to breathe and pronounces well knows how to sing”. Therefore, you have got to breathe properly, you have got to talk clearly and your singing will be good. To quote another great singer, Joan Sutherland once said “Singing has to be simple, but that does not mean it is easy”. As to the basic concept, so much of what I have learnt as a singer and as a teacher has come from Diane Forlano, a wonderful American teacher who lived in England for many years and who taught me for the best part of two decades. Her whole philosophy of teaching is based on the above-mentioned ideas. Her teaching is based on “For God’s sake fill your lungs and say the words. Don’t fiddle with the noise. You have no direct connection with the noise. Don’t touch the sound. Leave it alone. No, no, no…I am supposed to be listening, not you.” (The great thing about Americans as teachers and students is they believe in being direct.)

PH: As a countertenor, you perform a lot of repertoire that other countertenors do not. This seems to be very much a feature of your professional life.

NC: Yes. Well, I also do not make a sound like a lot of countertenors make. I was never taught by someone who was a countertenor first off. David Mason had studied singing as a countertenor as a second study at the Guildhall School of Music. He was really a pianist. My other two teachers were sopranos. Diane Forlano has been a dramatic coloratura in the USA. So I have not been taught to sing “like a countertenor”. I have just been taught to sing. What I have always wanted to do was to show that the countertenor voice does not have to live in this supposed historical confinement of the early music “thing”. A lot of music we sing of that period was certainly not designed for our kind of voice at all. A few of the Handel oratorios might have been, but a lot of Purcell and Dowland works were not written for the falsetto voice. And then I thought “I am going to sing whatever I want to sing” because I can, because I do have an unconventional countertenor sound and, indeed, I think I certainly have an unconventional attitude as a countertenor! Although the singing Purcell and Dowland can keep anyone satisfied for a lifetime, I wanted to do something else. I wanted to see how, not least, the performance, the learning and singing of Schubert, Strauss, Wagner, Brahms, Fauré and Debussy and other 19th- and 20th century composers would affect my singing of Bach and Handel, my supposed core repertoire. And it does. It has helped free me up a lot…to sing as a “singer”, rather than just as a “countertenor”. I remember David Daniels, my esteemed colleague and a very fine singer, saying many years ago: “I don’t wish to be remembered as a good countertenor. I wish to be remembered as a really good singer”. That is very important. We are not just some freak of nature that got brought in by the cat.

PH: I have heard you singing early 20th century English music. Would you call this a specialty of yours?

NC: I love it. Absolutely love it. When I was a teenager, I completely fell in love with the music of Vaughan Williams. I adore it and always have done and I think that provided a basis for looking at all kinds of repertoire like Warlock, Finzi, Quilter, etc. Quilter really speaks to me; he was an unhappy and tortured gentleman who wrote fantastic music.

PH: Let’s go all the way back to the authentic movement. Where do you see yourself and what happened and is happening with that?

NC: I think people who specialize in early repertoire would no longer want to use the word “authentic”. I think it has been much misused and was used as a kind of brute instrument to beat down other ways of doing things. I, for one, would never wish to be without recordings like Mengelberg’s “St. Matthew Passion” or Colin Davis’ performances of “Messiah”, because they have an incredible validity and strength. And for me, now, some of the earlier years of what I think most of us would prefer to call the “historically informed” movement dictated that singers should imitate the way instruments played. A lot of the vocal ensembles were directed by instrumentalists, which always struck me as very odd, tying in with the great myth that singers are too stupid to direct anything. In the 17th- and 18th centuries there was a lot more written in tutors about how to play instruments than how one was to sing. One can make all sorts of wrongful assumptions about how people sang from the way instruments were played and I think that was an unfortunate limitation to the possibilities of singing, particularly in the early days of the movement. It has been fascinating for me to see how those things have changed and how some singers have continued to grow, develop and change and allow their voices to become complete instruments. I think we can be informed by history but we should not be dictated to. I think that is the way I would sum it up. We do not really know what voices sounded like and have no right to believe that we would go back to 1720 in a time machine and listen to Farinelli sing, and like it! We have to be so careful not to mislead ourselves. There is a good book by a very fine and extremely intelligent English tenor, John Potter, called “Tenor: History of a Voice”, in which he writes that documentary didactic sources were written by people talking about what they wanted to hear but not necessarily what they did hear.

PH: You sing with quite a lot of vibrato. What is your take on early music and vibrato?

NC: I think this is another topic that has got very twisted. It might have been Mozart who said that “the human voice vibrates on its own but it does not need to shake”. If you approach singing from the idea that it is an extension of rhetorical speech, which is basically what I do, if you go into rhetorical speech, if you really are delivering the emotion that is behind the text you are trying to explain or give to people (that is what we do when we sing), your voice can often start to vibrate on its own. Vaughan Williams talked about listening to people preaching out in the open air when he was on folk song expeditions in Scotland. Their voices would start to “cantillate”, as he called it – to vibrate in speech. I myself heard just that in a Welsh Methodist chapel, where the voice of the minister giving an emotional sermon in a Welsh (of which I understood not a word) took on a vibrato. I was fascinated by this phenomenon of a human voice so full of emotional power that it vibrated on its own. And that is how the sound happens; if you do not have vibration you have no sound, no energy, you have no light, no heat…you have the end of the universe. Gone. So I think vibrato, or a vibrant shimmering sound, is an essential part of the human expressive instrument which reaches its summit in the singing voice. I do not “use” vibrato: vibrato happens when I sing. I am not putting it on; it happens because of what I am doing with the text and with my body.

PH: What are your teaching activities?

NC: I teach one day a week at the Royal Academy of Music (London), either teaching Academy students, or we have an agreement there with King’s College, London, which is another constituent part of the University of London, that they send some of their undergraduates there for lessons. I teach them singing and work with all voices. I think one should not only teach one’s own voice. I also teach at home. Students come to me. I have been having a lot of fun lately teaching the students on the music courses of Brookes University (Oxford); they come with all sorts of backgrounds, like music and theatre. One girl was studying music and Japanese and at the moment I have a very good tenor who has a background in musicals, Broadway, etc. And then there is the teaching I do in Hungary. I did a whole stint of teaching master classes at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and I hold a master class in a small city in Hungary called Esztergom, where there is a Liszt week every year; our final concert is part of that Liszt week and we sing some Liszt songs in it (too seldom performed). I have also taught at Dartington Hall International Summer School 18 times in the last 20 years.

PH: Do you produce performing editions?

NC: I have done editions for my own use when I recorded cantatas by Nicola Porpora some years ago. We did most of it from manuscripts…from the days of photocopies made from originals!

PH: Let’s talk about your writing.

NC: Well, it came about like this: I was doing a concert at St. John’s Smith Square in London with some colleagues of mine from the Royal Academy. There was a reception afterwards and I got talking to a very nice lady, originally from Germany now living in London, called Barbara Schwepke. She turned out to be a publisher. She had started a publishing company called “Haus” in Chelsea, which began as a publisher of biographies. She asked me about musicians about whom no biographies had been written. So, because he was someone about whom I had been thinking for a very long time and listening to his singing, the artist who came to mind was the last castrato from the Sistine Chapel, a singer called Alessandro Moreschi, of whom no biography had been written. I suggested writing his biography and she answered me by saying a contract would arrive in the post! So I wrote it – “Moreschi, the Last Castrato” (London, 2004). It is a monograph of 150 pages. A few years later, it was enlarged with a new edition and we added four supplementary chapters. The first was a new chapter of mine. You could call it a travelogue; it was about once again going to Moreschi’s town in the Roman hills, where the townspeople were putting up a plaque on the house where he was born and I also wrote about visiting his grave to lay flowers on it. Then we added an article on the psychology of castration, an extraordinary article written by an American Freudian analyst; an article about the recordings that Moreschi made, from an acoustic point of view by Professor David Howard of York University and, finally, a very well-written article about the history of the different versions of the Allegri “Miserere”. The book was then renamed “Alessandro Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato”.

Around that time, my second book was published, a musical history of Budapest – “Budapest, City of Music” (2009). I have come to regard Budapest as my second home over the last 20 years. I am also on the point of publishing a small book about singing – “Thoughts on Singing”. (I object to the huge tomes of 500 pages about singing, with their gruesome diagrams of dead larynxes and people’s torsos chopped in half, accompanied by exercises people do not understand.) That should be available by Christmas 2014.

PH: What are your future plans?

NC: Some more writing. I intend to continue a big book about the countertenor I started some time ago. I also want to write a biography of probably the most technically vocally gifted singer the world has known, namely Farinelli. He had such an interesting life as well as a fabulous career. I am now 58 and hope to keep singing for another 10 years at least, if my body allows me. Gasparo Pacchiarotti I mentioned earlier once said “the problem for us singers is the more we understand about how to sing the less our body lets us do it”. And I will keep teaching as long as possible.

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

NC: I love gardening. It uses a different part of my brain: you have to do shape, colour, space, texture, scent etc. I love it. It is hard work but very therapeutic. It makes your knees hurt and your brain rejoice. I have a big garden at home which I have done with my bare hands, turning it from a very well-kept but really rather stiff plot of land to something that I hope has a bit of shape. I also love reading, particularly 19th century novels, and not necessarily the great classics. I am reading Stanley Weyman at the moment; he wrote historical novels of a sort-of sub-Alexander Dumas genre. They are not great literature but great fun. I am nuts about antiques. And I love jewellery - an interest inspired by the fabulous jewellery I have seen at the National Museum in Budapest; I like rocks and stones and gold and silver. I also love cooking…and I am quite good at it!

PH: Nicholas, thank you so much. It has been most interesting talking to you.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Baroque violinist Anton Steck (Germany) has much to say about the interpretation of Baroque music

On July 31st 2014, I met with German violinist Anton Steck at Dartington Hall, Devon (UK). Anton Steck
was born in Freudenstadt, south of Karlsruhe. Following studies in modern- and Baroque violin in Cologne, he served as concertmaster in “Musica Antiqua Köln” and in “Les Musiciens du Louvre” (France). He has performed and recorded widely with both ensembles. In 1996, Steck co-founded the Schuppenzigh Quartet, in which he plays first violin. From 2005 to 2008 he was concertmaster of “Concerto Köln”. Anton Steck made his conducting debut in 1997 with the Händel Festival Orchestra (Halle) and has been artistic director of this ensemble since 1999. He has received several international prizes for his recordings of Mozart Violin Sonatas KV 55-60 and sonatas of Johann Georg Pisendel. Anton Steck’s world premiere recording of works by violinist Wilhelm Bernhard Molique, with the “l’Arpa Festante” Orchestra and Christoph Spering, was released in January 2013. Since 2000, Steck has been professor of Baroque violin and conductor of the Baroque Orchestra at the National Academy of Music, Trossingen (Germany). He plays on a Jacob Stainer violin (1652) and an Alessandro Gagliano violin from 1701. Anton Steck presently resides in Cologne.

PH: Professor Anton Steck, are you from a musical family?

Anton Steck: Yes and no. My father, born in 1921, started out to become an actor. At that time, actors had to be able to sing and dance – to be entertainers. So my father did sing. He later gave up the idea of being an actor, moved from Munich to the Black Forest, where he met my mother and they started a family. So then he just sang at home.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

AS: I was born in Freudenstadt, a town south of Karlsruhe, and not a big musical centre at all at the time. (Things have progressed there and the town now has some festivals.) I started playing the violin at age five and did my first real concerts together with my sister (on piano) when I was thirteen. My first solo was a Bach violin concerto. Then at 16, 17, 18 we formed a group playing early music, but on modern instruments. We had a very small poorly-sounding German Sperrhake harpsichord from the 1950s, the only one we could get our hands on, but it was convenient, being easy to transport. It stood in the living room of a friend of ours and every weekend we took it out and played some Telemann or Bach, chamber music with three or four people.

PH: When did you start playing Baroque violin?

AS: I began playing Baroque violin in Karlsruhe. In 1988 there was the bicentenary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s death and that was my first year of playing Baroque violin. I was so surprised when I heard C.P.E.Bach’s music for the first time, a style of music I had never heard before. In 1989, I decided to completely stop playing the modern violin, taking studies in Baroque violin at the Sweelinck Conservatory (Amsterdam), which had a big early music department. That was where Gustav Leonhardt and other great Baroque musicians were teaching. My violin teacher was Reinhard Goebel, founder of “Musica Antiqua Köln”. He taught there only for two years, but they were the very two years I was a student there.

PH: And following your studies?

AS: At the age of 25 I became concertmaster of “Musica Antiqua Köln”. By then I was performing a lot of chamber music, orchestral music and soloing.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

AS: Yes. I love to teach. I have been teaching for almost 17 years. I first had a small position in Karlsruhe and I now have a professorship in Trossingen, a very small town on the southern edge of the Black Forest. The University of Music, Trossingen, has the biggest department of early music in Germany: they have 29 teachers and 22 harpsichords of different styles, for example. It is indeed a luxury position because the regional government (aware of the international success of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – Freiburg is situated at the foot of the Black Forest) saw the potential in having a school for early music there and, precisely 20 years ago, created more positions for early music teachers at the school and funded a new building.

PH: Trossingen is a very small town.

AS: Yes. There is just one cinema there and it shows one movie a week! But our students are so busy with their studies that they do not really miss city attractions. They mostly arrive at the Academy latest at 8 o’clock in the morning and leave around 10 at night. We have some 80 students, from all over the world, who experience playing the whole gamut of early instruments – there is a trombone class, a trumpet class, flute, viol, violin, harpsichord, fortepiano, lute, oboe; you can study cornetto and dulcian…whatever you want. We have the biggest period clarinet class in Germany. What is most distinctive there is the new B.Mus. program students can take in Baroque Orchestra, the only degree of its kind in Europe. It began two years ago and is beginning to be known: in addition to their weekly 1½-hour individual instrumental lesson, students on the program have another six hours in which they are taken through the whole Baroque orchestra repertoire: we go through the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the B minor Mass, instrumental music, we accompany the clarinet class, and more. I lead that course; the other two artists teaching it are Werner Matzke, first ‘cellist of “Concerto Köln”, and renowned British violinist John Holloway. We have just had some lovely concerts together and this has been an incentive to students not in that program to be more involved in early music.

PH: How do you see what is happening with the new generation of Baroque violinists?

AS: They are having it much easier than we did. At the end of the 1980s, we had a hard time finding music, books about early music and treatises. Not much was published. You had to wait for weeks till you got your hands on a certain book or it meant going to a specific library to get information. Nowadays information is basically on-line and can be downloaded. Sometimes I feel it has become too easy now. On the other hand, the practical level of today’s students is most outstandingly high compared to what it was when we were starting out. We also had other problems, like playing on really bad gut strings. The subject of gut strings has developed over the last 20 or 30 years; there are now much better strings available. And I have a very good feeling seeing more young Baroque players looking for orchestral positions. In our time, that was impossible: there simply were just a few Baroque orchestras. Playing ensemble music meant getting together with friends to play this repertoire. Nowadays, there are many Baroque orchestras. And another thing: in my time, we learned music of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Mozart. We just worked with one Baroque violin, and that was it. Nowadays, students have to play Mendelssohn and even Bruckner – technically much more demanding music – and very often they do not have the right instruments for that, especially when it comes to bows.

PH: How do you see trends of playing early music, now that the authentic movement has passed its peak?

AS: I must say that I have a very special way of looking at it. Regarding all the information we have collected over the last 40 or maybe 50 years, we have created a certain way of playing Baroque music. I do feel we have got somewhat stuck when it comes to interpretation, color and finding new ways of interpretation, as we have been repeating the things our teachers have been doing for the last 30-40 years. In my opinion, we now understand about 15% of what was written in the treatises of the time, when it comes to color and interpretation. There is still a lot more work to be done. In a way, people get very comfortable with “knowing how it should be done” and this is a dangerous rut I find because, as the treatises go for the “correct” way of doing things the player must find the differentiations, that detail which is not written down and lies between the notes. If I read the writings of Johann Mattheson, a very strict, boring German theorist with no sense of humor, he nonetheless says that every bar has to be taken at its own tempo and that every bar has to be in a different mood. If Mattheson in 1739 spoke of the maximum of emotion, and this was in the in the mid-Baroque, I cannot believe that this music should be dry. Daniel Speer was another musician, who in 1698 listed 50 elements, such as “low”, high”, “expressive”, “dry”, “short”, “long”, “1,2,3” (sequences), “effects”, “affects” etc., saying that all these 50 elements must appear in every piece we play. So today’s Baroque musicians and researchers could really also try for something very different. For me, playing this repertoire does not mean dry repetition or metronomic performance. Well, indeed, they did not have a metronome at that time but a pendulum and a pendulum gives you a swing. A swing has a beginning, a peak and a lowest point. This is what I try to do with Bach and the other Baroque composers. 18th century music, of a different emotional expression to that of the 19th century, finds emotion in every individual figuration, as each figuration is connected to a different harmony. Every tonality has its own color and its own mannerism. That is why Bach is so extremely colorful: he can change the atmosphere within a half bar! His music is compact and very loaded with energy.

Here is a story that illustrates this realization: Gustav Leonhardt was interviewed by an Amsterdam newspaper on his 80th birthday. “Well”, he said “very late in my life I discovered that Baroque music was actually the most expressive music ever written, but I am too old now to re-record the entire repertoire. That is for the next generation to do.” Leonhardt knew exactly what he was talking about and he has pushed the door open for the next generation.

PH: So, what do you see as the role of the performer?

AS: As a performer, you have to decide what kind of style and tone you want to produce on stage and this, for me, is absolutely connected with the performer’s character. With two artists presenting absolutely opposing interpretations of the same piece, there is no right or wrong in music. I, myself, go for a rather expressive style.

PH: Do you write music?

AS: Only in a very particular sense. I write cadenzas for violin concertos. I never play a cadenza that has been written by any other violinist. I do this kind of composing because there is material on which to base the cadenza. I did not study composition, a background needed for becoming a serious composer.

PH: Do you write about music?

AS: I do. I write for press, program notes and sometimes liner notes for CDs. But this is problematic because you write something and then, two years later, you would really want to rewrite it as you know much more about the subject.

PH: Do you edit?

AS: I do. Some years ago, I discovered half of a Biber chaconne and edited it. Of course, a few years later I had many new ideas and observations on it. I also wanted to edit one of the Geminiani solo sonatas for violin. The manuscript had suffered water damage in World War II. We have an old edition of it from 1911. I made an edition of the sonata and recorded it on my Geminiani CD.

PH: Has the edition been published?

AS: I could not decide to publish it as I am a musician who needs to change things daily in order to be satisfied with what I am doing. I think it was Goethe who said “You have to change in order to remain the same.” If you try to remain the same person and the same musician for ten or twenty years, the world around you changes, and, all of a sudden, nobody is interested in you anymore. But I admire people who put out reliable editions or books, such as David Boyden’s wonderful book “The History of Violin Playing from its Origins to 1761”, first published in 1965, still a good text despite new information we have found over the last 30/40 years.

PH: Would you like to talk about conducting?

AS: Conducting is a very interesting thing because it is very different to playing the violin or even to leading a group from the violin. Conducting from the podium, you stand a little more distant from the players, you do not have to cope with playing an instrument and you have a total view of the ensemble, giving you a nice way of being in contact with your musicians. Actually, for instrumental music with soloists and singers, I prefer conducting from the podium. For Concerti Grossi , I would rather lead from the violin. I also love conducting Baroque opera.

PH: Would you like to mention some of your present activities?

AS: Yes. Two years ago, in a library, I found two Romantic (1840s-1850s) violin concertos by violinist and composer Bernhard Molique, this style of music normally not my cup of tea because it is a very different technique from Baroque music. Molique was a German, working in Stuttgart. A brilliant violinist, he later taught composition in London. In these concertos, the composer had put in all the fingerings, those being completely different to fingerings used nowadays. I tried them out and found them so logical. Those mid-19th century fingerings are totally an integral part of the music: they are used to interpret the music, and not just technically, like fingerings we have learned in the Carl Flesch scale system, or whatever. I was so astonished by this. I worked on the pieces for two years and finally recorded them two years ago. This is a completely different style and, through these pieces, I saw that the 19th century has also to be reread. I am continuing on that subject also with my string quartet, the Schuppenzigh Quartet.

PH: Where does the name originate?

AS: Ignaz Schuppanzigh was the violinist who did the first performance of all the Beethoven quartets. He was a close friend of Beethoven. His quartet of performers was the first permanent quartet of players in Vienna.

PH: What repertoire does the Schuppenzigh Quartet play?

AS: Up to Schubert, maybe a little later, but not much later.

PH: On what instruments?

AS: On period instruments, but with different bridges and, of course, classical bows. Also the necks of the violins were different around 1800 as compared to 1700, with development and constant changes taking place up to the 20th century. There are still some very fine original bows from the Classical period, but there are not many left from the Baroque.
So there is a lot going on in my life – teaching and performing, also performing with my wife, harpsichordist Marieke Spaans.

PH: At what age do you think children should begin learning violin?

AS: This question has been much discussed. There are those people who say children should not start learning an instrument so early so as to be free to enjoy their childhood. But when it comes to violin playing, you have to start at an early age because the body can change and adapt up to the age of eight. After that, your body and your bones change less and it becomes increasingly more difficult because of the way the violin is held.

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

AS: With 24 hours in a day, I have very little time for hobbies. I have played chess from age eight and I do play on quite a high level. I very much love playing chess but have no time to attend a club and comply with all the regulations of a chess club. But I play chess on my computer, sometimes when traveling on trains.

PH: Professor Steck, it has been most interesting talking to you. Many thanks for giving of your time.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Richard Boothby talks of his career as a viol player and about Fretwork

On July 28th 2014 I met with Welsh-born viol player Richard Boothby in Devon, UK. Following studies in Salzburg with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Richard Boothby founded the Purcell Quartet in 1984. He was a founding member of Fretwork in 1985. Since then, his career has been bound up with these two groups, with whom he has recorded and toured, performing the broadest range of repertoire for viols, from early to contemporary music. Performing solo recitals, he recorded the three Bach sonatas for viola da gamba with Shalev Ad-El for the Chandos label, enthusiastically received. Boothby has given many recitals of suites of Antoine Forquerey and is professor of viol at the Royal College of Music, London.

PH: Professor Boothby, what were your early musical experiences?

Richard Boothby: I suppose they were listening to records with my parents. I remember they had a recording of Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. My brother had recordings of “A Hard Day’s Night” and of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album and I became familiar with those. I started learning the ‘cello when I was at school in South Wales. In those days, the 1960s, there was free instrumental tuition for all school children. When I went to secondary school at age 11 we could choose between violin, clarinet and ‘cello. In my mind, I had confused the ‘cello with the oboe and was then too proud to say I was not expecting anything like that instrument when given a ‘cello! But I liked the ‘cello very much and carried on with it.

PH: When did you start playing the viol?

RB: When I was at Manchester University studying Music, a university course (Musicology) rather than a conservatoire course, I was given the chance to play the viol. We did a lot of playing there, all the same.

PH: Where did you go from there?

RB: I went to London and studied with Charles Medlam for a few years. He had strong connections with Salzburg and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I applied to the Mozarteum and received a scholarship to go and study for a year with Harnoncourt in Salzburg. That was 1980-1981.

PH: And following your studies…

RB: I returned to the UK and started a career. Actually, it is very difficult to just start out just like that on an instrument as esoteric as the gamba. For many years I worked in the Early Music Shop in London. For a time I worked with harpsichord builder and restorer Mark Ransom. Learning about harpsichords and their tuning was useful as I was playing a lot of music with harpsichord. As performing demanded more of my time I worked less at these jobs, finally devoting my time solely to performing. I was doing a lot of solo recitals but my career really took off when I founded Fretwork and the Purcell Quartet. They both became successful groups.

PH: Do both groups still exist?

RB: The Purcell Quartet stopped a few years ago, but Fretwork is very much in existence.

PH: Where does Fretwork perform?

RB: Anywhere and everywhere. We have played all over the world.

PH: Does Fretwork join other ensembles?

RB: We have sometimes joined with vocal groups such as Stile Antico, Red Byrd and I Fagiolini and sometimes we have a solo singer, but mostly it is just the four of us – Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise, Richard Tunnicliffe and myself.

PH: In addition to the early music repertoire for viols, Fretwork seems to be interested in modern music.

RB: Yes. We started with just one contemporary piece…then a few more and, eventually, contemporary music became a bigger and bigger part of what we do. Nowadays it is unusual for us to do a program without some contemporary music in it. In fact, we sometimes do a whole concert of contemporary music. For example, we will be performing in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, a festival focusing only on music of living composers.

PH: Has there been a changeover of players in Fretwork over the years?

RB: Yes. I am the only “surviving” founder member of the group.

PH: Do you research viol music?

RB: In the early days of Fretwork, with parts not so available, we had to copy out a lot of music we wanted to play from collective editions. But things have changed enourmously in 30 years. We do some research, but a lot of previously unknown music is now available to players. If we come across music in editions we do not like I will produce my own edition.

PH: Do you publish your editions or are they just for your own use?

RB: We started producing computer set parts and a former member of Fretwork Bill Hunt has carried on with Fretwork Editions, producing scholarly- and practical editions of a lot of viol consort music – Lawes, Jenkins, Dowland etc., a huge variety of works.

PH: Do you find there are enough audiences in the UK interested in hearing all the viol music that has been unearthed as well as modern viol works?

RB: Yes. There is a good audience for the music we play. Different programs and different soloists attract people to come and hear us.

PH: Would you like to mention your teaching.

RB: Yes. I teach at the Royal College of Music, at Dartington Hall and every year I teach at the Marnaves Summer Baroque Course in France. The latter, run by Lucy Robinson and Andrew Wilson-Dickson, is a course focusing on solo- and consort viol playing.

PH: Is the UK producing a new generation of viol players?

RB: Yes. There are a great many very good players coming up. It is very encouraging. Jonathan Manson, a wonderful ‘cellist and viol player teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, is doing a very good job at encouraging his ‘cello pupils to take up the viol while they are at the Academy. Because of that, several good viol players have come from the Academy. What is surprising is that not more viol consorts have emerged in the UK. Even in Europe, where there are many, many viol players, there are very few viol consorts. It is a shame. There is a lot of room for more consorts.

PH: Do you compose?

RB: No, I don’t.

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

RB: I am fairly interested in politics. I like food and cooking. My wife is Italian and I spend quite a lot of time in Italy, which is always very nice.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Talking to British conductor Jeffrey Skidmore

On June 16th 2014, I met with Jeffrey Skidmore in Monteconero, Sirolo (Italy). Jeffrey Skidmore is one of England’s most highly regarded conductors, known for exciting programming that is both challenging and accessible. Skidmore read music at Magdalen College, Oxford, then returning to his native Birmingham to lead “Ex Cathedra”, an internationally acclaimed choir and early music ensemble, which he continues to lead today.

PH: Maestro Skidmore, what are your early musical memories?

Jeffrey Skidmore: When I was perhaps eight years, a pupil at our local Birmingham primary school, I remember the teacher calling me out to the front of the class at the end of a lesson and requesting I sing a song. Another memory: we had a radio at home – one of those big boxes; I remember tuning in and hearing King’s College Choir (Cambridge) and being mesmerized by that sort of sound.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

JS: There were no trained- or professional musicians in the family. But I think all my family is very musical. Both my parents sang beautifully. They had an ear for music, as did my brothers. I had the fortune of meeting the right people and having some training. But it was not quite as easy as that.

PH: Can you explain that?

JS: The family immigrated to America in the late 1960s. My younger brother, now a scientist working in a hospital there, would have loved to have become a professional musician; he is very musical and plays the classical guitar, but he just did not have the right opportunities. My wife is a musician. We met at Oxford. Our children are very musical. My son is a professional ‘cellist on the London music scene.

PH: Let’s go to your early musical training.

JS: In those days, school children received free music lessons in England. Many of those teaching us were members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I was supplied with a violin and started having violin lessons at school. I did not like it very much. I then started having trumpet lessons with a fantastic teacher who was a trombonist in the CBSO. I also had recorder lessons.

PH: Was it to be the piano for you?

JS: No. But I was considered a musical child and it was a physics teacher from school who decided to give me some keyboard lessons. A local organist gave me free piano- and organ lessons. The school music teacher, Walter Jennings, approached my parents to say I needed to have a piano at home. My family, including two brothers and a sister, had to put up with my practicing. I still use the piano today for reading scores.

When I went to grammar (secondary) school, all the class sang in music lessons. We were also each requested to sing on our own. We did not know we were being auditioned; Walter Jennings, the teacher, was the local parish church choir master. I think I was the only pupil interested when he talked about the Reformation and counterpoint, the concerto, Venice and cori spezzati. In fact, I was all ears. Understanding all that background was becoming very important to me. He asked me if I would like to be a chorister. There were both boys and girls in the choir, so, in addition to the music and the music teacher, there was that extra attraction of the girls! Now retired, Jennings is still a friend. He and his wife come to our Ex Cathedra concerts.

PH: So was singing what attracted you in all these musical activities?

JS: Yes. I did come to realize that singing was the thing I loved and wanted to do. When I was 16, my parents emigrated to America. I went there too, but came back the UK and lived with friends. This was the end of the ‘60s, the time of “flower power” and “freedom”, a great t time for an adolescent male to be on his own, with no parental rules or regulations, and it suited me to be an independent spirit. By then I knew I wanted to become a singer.

PH: What were your first steps into the singing profession?

JS: I was 17 and went to audition as a professional singer in the Birmingham Cathedral Choir. The organist and choir master was Roy Massey, at the time certainly one of the best organists in the country. He accepted me and inspired me to go even further with choral training and discipline. From there, I got a choral scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.

PH: Who were the people who influenced you most in Oxford?

JS: I trained under Bernard Rose, one of the giants of English choral music - a great musician and teacher and a very interesting man. And then there was David Wulstan, who started a group called “The Clerkes of Oxenford”. That one group started the whole business really: all the singers passing through the Oxford tradition have sung in this ensemble. From that one group “The Tallis Scholars”, “The Hilliard Ensemble”, “The Sixteen” and others emerged.

PH: Who else has been an influence on your musical life?

JS: There have been lots and lots of other people…in all sorts of personal ways: I have learned much from people I sang with as a young singer in Birmingham Cathedral, from people I sang with in Oxford, and from everyone who has sung in Ex Cathedra.

PH: Did “Ex Cathedra” originate on your return to Birmingham?

JS: No. We had started before that, in my gap year. When I was accepted at Oxford, I remember writing to David Wulstan there. I had heard recordings of his group. Wulstan wrote back asking if I would like to sing with them. I told him I had my own group (Ex Cathedra) but that I would like to sing with his ensemble. “The Clerkes of Oxenford” was one of the most influential early music groups in England at that time.

PH: Did you run any groups of your own in Oxford?

JS: Yes. As a male alto, I have also sung and soloed in many groups and consorts, but I also started a consort of singers in my first year at Oxford. Emma Kirkby was a soprano in it, Paul Elliott was the tenor; countertenor David James was also a member – all big stars of the future.
I graduated from Oxford University 1973-1974.

PH: And then you returned to Birmingham.

JS: Yes. I went back to Birmingham and took a job as a professional singer at Lichfield Cathedral, which is in a very beautiful Gothic town just outside Birmingham, and I was happy to go back and continue developing “Ex Cathedra”.

PH: Why Birmingham?

JS: It is my home town, a wonderful city, but not a very “popular” town in a sort of way. Birmingham is a young city, only 100 years old as a city, but very vibrant, with a focus on learning and education and it has a wealth of wonderful venues. There are many beautiful churches and the council has invested a lot of money in regenerating the city. There is Birmingham Cathedral (built in 1715), a very small, beautiful cathedral and the only Baroque cathedral in England. There is St. Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter and the Oratory, the latter founded by Cardinal Newman and built in the 19th century. It is a beautiful marble box with absolutely perfect acoustics. And then we have the Town Hall, which was built for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, a major choral festival which existed from 1784 to 1912; this venue was a choral centre in the 19th- and early 20th centuries. Some major works were written to be performed at the Birmingham Town Hall, including Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” and Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the council built Symphony Hall, a modern concert hall, considered by some as having the best acoustic in the world. It was built for Sir Simon Rattle, who came to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

PH: Let’s get back to Ex Cathedra and how it has developed over the years.

JS: A lot of years of development! It has been going for the last 45 years. Ex Cathedra was sort-of amateur to start with, with friends taking part because we loved doing this music. Then there came the point where I was so busy I had to decide whether to give up teaching and do full-time freelance conducting. That’s what I eventually did in the early ‘90s and I have been doing it ever since. Ex Cathedra consists mostly of singers; we have cooperated with such groups as Fretwork, His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Hanover Band, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, etc. At one stage we also formed our own period instrument orchestra – the Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra - the first period instrument orchestra in England outside of London. All the leading players of the time have played with- or led this orchestra at some stage – John Holloway, Simon Standage, Catherine Mackintosh and eventually Micaela ‘Mica’ Comberti, who became our leader. Mica was a wonderful artist. After playing second violin in “English Concert” and second violin in the Salomon Quartet, this was her opportunity to be leader and she accepted the role happily. For 20 years, we did some wonderful work together, with lots of recordings, and we explored much repertoire that nobody else was doing, in particular, French Baroque music. We were the first group in England to really tackle that style. Nobody was trained to do French Baroque and, even today, people are slightly intimidated by French Baroque style: there is so much to learn, with so many stylistic elements. (My son plays ‘cello in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Last year, they performed Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” at Glyndebourne, conducted by William Christie. I went to a lot of the rehearsals and to the performance and observed how even an orchestra of that sort of level had to learn how to play French Baroque music in style.) One of the high points for Ex Cathedra and myself was the ensemble’s 40th anniversary in 2010. For that we performed Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius”, all with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. We were defining our Birmingham heritage.

PH: Where does Ex Cathedra mostly perform?

JS: We are based in Birmingham and also do concerts outside of the town. The Midlands has some excellent venues. This is the heart of England. People just do not know the depth and wealth of what is going on there.

PH: You have mentioned the fact that you love consort work.

JS: Yes. In Ex Cathedra, we also started a small consort of our own called “Le Nuove Musiche” to perform works like Monteverdi madrigals with two violins and continuo, etc. – all that kind of early 17th century repertoire. I used to sing and direct it from the alto voice.

PH: And as time went on?

JS: I did more and more conducting and worked with other groups…and then stopped performing. I was teaching and my voice was not in very good shape.

PH: And on the subject of teaching…

JS: Teaching is what I do. Everything I do is teaching. I suppose because I had some inspirational teachers I feel it is my role to pass on what I know to other people. When I left Oxford University I wanted to be a teacher. So I taught music in various schools in Birmingham, in the Midlands and Staffordshire…real cutting edge, hard core secondary school teaching, dealing with all sorts of children. Some were very interested, some were not. But I was a “missionary”: I wanted to convert them, to show them what I was taught to see. It was very, very hard work, but I had some great times. It was a tough job, but I am glad I did it and it changed the way I see the music business. I enjoy working with the best musicians and also with amateurs, the challenge being to give each what they need. In fact, it is the same process as teaching children at school: you take them on a journey and try to make things better or more interesting. So I am quite happy to work at any level with any people, as long as there is a “journey”. I have been very lucky to accompany singers on lots of journeys.

PH: Talking of journeys, you mentioned having spent time in South America.

JS: Yes. I have had several trips to Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil to research music there.

PH: What kind of music?

JS: Colonial music. Some of it is Baroque, some late Renaissance and some early Classical. Brazil’s music is largely early Classical repertoire and early Romantic, whereas there is late Renaissance and early Baroque music to be found in Bolivia and also in Mexico. There is some marvellous music in South America and I have had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people there. There is so much material to discover there but there are also a lot of very talented people working on that repertoire. Because of all the political upheaval in South America, and with Europe dominating, people have denigrated colonial music, but now, with time, they are realizing that together with some really bad things going on in the region – slavery and exploitation – there were also a lot of good things and, most importantly, that these good things also form a part of their history. There is some excellent music from South America which we are beginning to appreciate.

PH: Do you see yourself as a musicologist?

JS: I’d like to think I do those “musicological things”. I am not just a musicologist. I know a lot of very distinguished musicologists. My musicological enquiry helps me understand performance issues. And because I know something about musicology I know the right questions to ask, what the issues are, what instruments and temperaments to use, etc. So musicology is a very important part of what I do. I am a “performing musicologist” if you like.

PH: How does this work tie in with your work with Ex Cathedra?

JS: In clarity of style. I think one of the things that Ex Cathedra is good at is getting style right. Our Renaissance music does not sound like our Baroque music and not like our Classical music. We really get inside style. I hear a lot of groups for which everything sounds the same. Style is important.

PH: Does contemporary music play a role in your professional life?

JS: A massive role. Ex Cathedra has made several CDs of contemporary music and actually commissions one or two new works every year! For next year, a leading Scottish composer, James McMillan, is composing an oratorio for us. And in 2016, Sally Beamish, a famous British composer, is writing us a new setting to a Shakespeare ode for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. So we perform a lot of modern music.

PH: Can you pick out one of your CDs of modern music?

JS: Yes. We made a CD of music by Alec Roth (UK). He wrote a 40-part motet for us (based on that of Tallis) about moon landings – a sensational piece of music. When you are singing it or listening to it, it sounds as if you are floating in space.

PH: Let’s go to Ex Cathedra’s recent live performances of contemporary music.

JS: In 2013 we did Stockhausen at the BBC Proms (an eight-week London summer festival), which surprised everybody; we received world coverage, and it was glowing! The previous year, we joined the Birmingham Opera to perform Stockhausen’s “Mittwoch aus Licht” (Wednesday from Light), as part of the Olympic Games cultural celebrations. Stockhausen wrote an opera for each day of the week. This one has five acts. Our scene “Welt Parlament” (World Parliament), written for 36 singers, consisted of 45 minutes of a cappella singing. It is phenomenally difficult but the project was well funded, so we had a lot of rehearsals. When we began working on it, all of us hated Stockhausen. We found it unbearable. By the end of the process we absolutely loved it. It ended up being one of those life-changing musical experiences!

PH: It must be very different working with living composers and their music.

JS: Yes. For me, working with living composers gives one understanding of how they themselves think and work. You can then apply that to composers who are dead, even to the music of a composer like William Byrd, about whom we do not know much. We try to work out what the composer intended and then we endeavor to recreate that.

PH: What is most important for you when performing modern music?

JS: Beauty of sound. Modern music must be performed beautifully, not just correctly. People sometimes learn the notes of these works (a task difficult in itself) and, especially when it comes to singing, the performers may not necessarily have beautiful voices. If you do it with beautiful voices, the music becomes much more accessible.

PH: Do you compose?

JS: I used to compose a lot when I was 17 and 18 and still have those early pieces at home. Then I stopped because it took too much time but also because it was very personal. I do arranging and quite a lot of editing of French Baroque music and Renaissance repertoire. But something in my mind thinks that when I start to slow down, I might well start doing some composing again. I have things going on in my head but I need time – composing takes me a long time to do.

PH: What are your future performance plans?

JS: What I really want to do is return to English music. You really need to do your own music. You can only really get inside it if you are of that nationality. I think there is still a lot to discover about Purcell. His music has been performed and recorded a lot. For me, he brings together English Renaissance polyphony and Italian music. So I am hoping to “say something new” about Purcell. That is one of my aims. I also want to do a lot more French Baroque music. Lalande, for example, Louis XIV’s favorite composer, wrote some 60 “grands motets” that have not all yet been performed. This is strange, wonderful music and it suits Ex Cathedra. And the other thing is that I am planning a kind of succession: I want to have an influence on young conductors, to give them an opportunity and hopefully, over the next years, to find the right person to take over from me. I am not looking for a clone, but for someone who can take us in new directions yet still maintain Ex Cathedra’s range of educational work and interest in contemporary- and old music; we have amateur- and professional singers and we work with students. It should be someone – a very special person - who will keep all of that going.

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

JS: I like lots of things: travel, food, wine, cooking, sport. I play less sport nowadays but still enjoy cycling and swimming. I like gardening and I read as much as I can.

PH: What do you think you will write in your memoirs one day?

JS: Something like… “I am my own man”. It is very important to me to do what I want to do and I need to be free to do that. I have been fortunate to be able to have control over what I want to do. Being in Birmingham has given me that freedom: I have been able to experiment and do repertoire that other people could not really afford to do. We are quite well funded in Birmingham, so I have been able to “carve out” a musical life there due to that freedom.

PH: Jeffrey, this has been very interesting. Many thanks for giving of your time.