Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Talking to countertenor Andrew Watts (UK) about his career, today's singers and performing early music in the 21st century

On August 13th 2015, British countertenor Andrew Watts and I met to talk at Dartington Hall, Devon (UK). An artist performing widely and known for some daring performances in contemporary operas, Andrew Watts enjoys Baroque music. In an interview with Jonathan Lennie in 2012, the singer, he spoke of Baroque music as keeping him “grounded”. In February 2016, Watts will play the Cherub in the premiering of Elena Langer’s “Figaro Gets a Divorce” with the Welsh National Opera.

PH: Andrew Watts, where were you born?

Andrew Watts: I was born in Hammersmith, London…a pure British man, I suppose.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

AW: No. I come from a footballing family. My father was a professional footballer back in the ‘30s, 40s and 50s,in  the days where a football player had to have a permanent job as well. My mother runs a restaurant. I am from a real working-class, normal family. I think that both my parents appreciated music, but they weren’t practitioners. Mine was a talent that was spotted, someone said I should have lessons and my parents thought I should try it.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

AW: My earliest musical memories would be from the age of five or six by going to school, and there being a man called Frederick Hodgson, who was head of music at the junior school I went to. He also happened to be a countertenor. He has long since died. He wrote a history and anthology of songs for countertenors. I had no idea he was a countertenor until I met him 20 years ago. After that meeting, I went to sing a concert at Hampton Court Palace and he was there. He was a great friend of James Bowman and Michael Chance. He was also a church musician.

PH: So is that where you had your first musical training?

AW: Yes. At that time in Britain, we received free musical tuition at school. I was seven and had always wanted to play something. I started off playing the clarinet, then the saxophone and the piano and the guitar, and then singing. At the age of 12, I won a music scholarship to Eton, but didn’t want to go there. It was too far away and too traumatic and my parents couldn’t afford it. It would have paid all my fees, but to clothe me and have me there was just something we couldn’t do. And I am very glad it did not happen: there is a sort-of pattern of Eton and other private schools, with people coming out in a certain way. I come out as myself, as my own type of singer rather than a traditional choral scholar singer.

PH: How was the transition from being a boy treble to your countertenor voice?

AW: There wasn’t much of a transition. I just kept doing it. My speaking voice suddenly disappeared and went from a high squeak to what it is today. The singing voice just stayed and developed and I never really had to make a choice. (I have a fairly hefty, ugly baritone voice, so the choice was clear.) Anyway, I had never heard of the countertenor voice till I was 12. Someone said to me “I think you are a countertenor”. I answered saying I did not know what that was and went to look it up!

PH: So where did your music education go from there?

AW: I went to the Royal Academy of Music at 16, where I studied two days a week, with the other three days a week at school. I was between a junior exhibitioner and a full-time student. Then at 18 I became a full-time student on scholarship at the Royal Academy, with the clarinet as my principal study.

PH: So, where did singing come into it?

AW: My piano teacher at the Royal Academy suggested that I stop playing the clarinet because he thought I sang better than I played clarinet. That was when singing became more of a direction. I studied with Geoffrey Mitchell, himself a countertenor, in the days of his involvement with the John Alldis Choir and the BBC Singers. He was a contemporary of Alfred Deller, so he knew what he was doing. He is now also one of my closest friends and a mentor; in fact, he conducted the music at my wedding eight weeks ago. He comes and sits in on recording sessions and operas and checks that I am not making mistakes and getting it right. He knows my voice better than anybody.

PH: Is he the artist who has influenced you the most?

AW: Yes, I suppose he is and in every aspect of my life. He introduced me to good wine as well as good music.  He has played a very instrumental part in my development. Another person would be Neville Bower, who was a concert pianist. He was head of music at my grammar school. He was very “old school” in his approach. We played piano duets together, he arranged pieces for me; in fact, when he retired and started composing, he wrote several song cycles which were dedicated to me and which I have performed. My gift to him was to do an entire song cycle of his at the Wigmore Hall; he was there, which was lovely. He died three or four years ago.

PH: With whom did you study in your later training?

AW: With quite a few teachers. I had a little singing teacher in Vancouver called Selena James. And every so often as of the last 10 or 15 years, I have been taking lessons in London with a man called Russell Smythe. In fact, I am seeing him twice next week in preparation of my appearance at the Proms…to keep the machine oiled. It is always another set of ears. I do so much teaching myself that it is good to have someone else to listen to me.

PH: Would you like to mention something of your extensive performing career so far?

AW: Well. I have never not sung. As a boy, I sang in my local parish church choir. I sang my first oratory at age 16 in “Acis and Galatea” for the Reddich Choral Society, Birmingham.  Operatically, I made my debut in the English National Opera 14th February 1992, singing the role of Arsamene in Händel’s “Xerxes”. I was the understudy. Last season I repeated the role in my own right, which is quite nice 20 years on. My performing career has been a mix of contemporary- and Baroque music, of song and recordings. I have also been involved with the Gabrieli Consort, recording with them. I have even recorded the Allegri “Miserere” with them as first soprano…down a semi-tone, but it was there. Still, a fairly traumatic task!

PH: What are your thoughts about being a countertenor?

AW: I’m so glad to be a countertenor. I don’t think I would cope as the more traditional singer. I like the fact that the countertenor is still slightly strange. And when you are built like a big bloke, they sort-of wonder what the hell is going on and where this noise comes from!

PH: Still today?

AW: Yes, I really think so. There is always that element of surprise of not expecting that kind of voice to come out of a person when you see him.

PH: How do you see the countertenor scene of today, with so many different kinds of countertenors performing?

AW: I think it is fantastic. We have begun to embrace a period of time that allows us to be more open to countertenors just being “singers” rather than being countertenors. In the old days, the orchestra would need to play quietly to accompany a countertenor, but I stand in front of an orchestra of over 100 players and am quite happily heard. The countertenor school, once very UK-Britain based, has now moved on, with lots of German-, Italian-, Spanish- and other countertenors. It is really interesting…quite an exciting time.  And they are all as different as chalk from cheese. Some I like a lot and some less, but it is their choice to sing in whatever way they do and I sing the way I do because I like it. It matches my personality, rather than being an effect of a noise.

PH: Do you consider yourself mainly an operatic singer?

AW: Yes. I do, actually. That is what I mainly do. I’m a good actor, a good singer and I like the combination of the freedom that opera gives you to play in a room. I also like rehearsing opera and the operatic form itself. That said,  I am equally comfortable singing concerts and recitals. The concerts are slightly more formalized but there is still the imagination that is necessary to convey a mood or character. I think it is deathly boring if you are sitting through an oratorio – “Messiah”, for example - and you hear “He was despised” as just a beautiful tune, when the question is “What does it mean?”  When I was around 20, I sang it for my first singing teacher, who reacted saying “very good, very good” and asking me write “no cornflakes” over the top of my copy. On asking him what that meant, he said that the way I had sung it was about as interesting as reading the ingredients on the back of a packet of Cornflakes! He then said that there would always be one person in the audience who has never heard it, who has never heard you sing it, so you must make it alive, make it original and commit to yourself. And that is how I think of performing: you have to invest a little of yourself and imagination in it rather than just pressing on and singing.

PH: How do you find British concert audiences?

AW: Very warm. I think they are quite discerning. They sort-of know what they want and what they like. They take a while to warm up to something that is new, I suppose. In terms of my own singing, I think that 50% like what I do and 50% don’t. You can’t change people’s minds; you just have to do what you do and in your own way. Some people might say that they don’t like my singing of Dowland songs, but that they do like me singing other repertoire. It is exactly the same when it comes to people employing me to do what I do: if they like it they will employ and if they don’t, they won’t. But it would be nice to hear audiences being more spontaneous and less restrained in the concert hall if they like something they have just heard! You can perform in the Wigmore Hall and it is deathly silent; you don’t get anything back. Emotionally, the Brits are way behind the rest of the world, even in our politics.

PH: You perform a lot of modern music.

AW: Yes, I do. I can read anything – am a good sight-reader; my first job leaving music college was to work with the English National Opera on a project called Opera Lab. There, we had five singers and twelve composers who would write us music and we would sing it. My agent said: “You can read anything and sing anything” and she sent me there. It’s interesting to meet composers who write for you. I have been very lucky over the years in that there have been over 40 world premiere works I have performed. It’s all very exciting: you can meet with the composer to hear their thoughts on the work and ask whether your interpretation is getting close to the ideas behind what is written. This can be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time!

PH: Would you mention some of the composers whose works you have premiered?

AW: There have been many amazing composers, such as Sir Harrison Birtwhistle (I have performed 4 operas of his and he has written a song cycle for me), Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Olga Neuwirth, Lisa Lim, Unsuk Chin, etc. In fact, I will be premiering a new work next week at the Proms by Raymond Yiu, a young composer from Hong Kong. And, as mentioned above, I am about to do a new opera by Elena Langer, a very fine composer.  All that part of it is fascinating because you get to create the “benchmark”, I suppose. You seek ownership of these pieces in years to come by being known as having been the first to sing them. It’s rather a nice legacy.

PH: Do you yourself write music?

AW: No. Actually, I have. I once wrote a little Requiem Mass for my father’s best friend’s child who died. If I were to compose some pieces, am wondering whether they would not simply sound like works I have sung. But if I were to just thrash out some improvisation at a concert, would anybody know it had just been made up on the spot and what would the critics say???

PH: Do you write in words?

AW: No. But I like words. I have written some poetry over the years and am quite a good letter-writer, but only personal letters.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

AW: Sure.  I love my teaching. I teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and in the Opera Studio of the Hamburg State Opera; I also have some private students. Teaching is something I have always done and about which I am passionate. Even teaching here at Dartington Hall for one week reminds one that it is possible to make anybody a better singer and that it is possible to enable people to sing better. My teaching takes me to some of the best singers in the world and some of the worst, so I see and hear a cross-section. I don’t teach technique, because I don’t think that one technique fits all (some people need different skills) but I think that the interesting thing about singing is the linguistics necessary to teach it. I can teach it in a way that a two-year-old child can understand or I can teach it in the way a neuroscientist will understand. You have to choose your words carefully and to know who is able to accept what you are saying, what your words may be at that particular moment. I think I first started teaching when I was about 13…a bit of clarinet, a bit of piano and flute; I have been teaching singing from the age of 14 or 15. 

PH: How would you like to see the training of countertenors?

AW: I would like to think that the training of countertenors is no different than that of other voices, for the simple reason that the countertenor voice is no different to that of other singers. We all tend to think it is a special voice. Yes it is, but every voice is special and I think that good singing is good singing, whether you are a countertenor, bass or coloratura soprano. One needs a whole grounding in technique, in repertoire, in languages and musicality. Regarding the latter, one cannot be taught musicality: you have to be open to feel some kind of emotion before you can be musical. I am surrounded by colleagues who are maybe not the most musical at times and I think about keeping one’s own high standards rather than going down to the lowest common denominator. As you know, some performers you hear are incredibly musical and some are just very mechanical and have no emotion. For me, what is important is the mix of all the skills at the same time…and to take risks. You must take risks as a performer, as a singer. It’s not just about singing your version: it must be live and original.

PH: Do you feel you are recreating a work each time you perform it?

AW: Yes, but, also at the same time, for the older repertoire, while blowing the dust off it, I think you have to gear the music to suit your own voice and personality. You can’t change your voice to fit into a mould; the issue of whether you have vibrato or not, whether you sing in chest voice, in high voice doesn’t matter, as long as you are conveying something and it is your personal way of doing it.

PH: What is your approach on how countertenors should perform early music?

AW:  The truth is that we have no idea how it really sounded; we only have written records. In fact, I think we are far more skilled now than the castrati  were. Some of them made horrific noises. (We read how people threw carrots and cauliflowers at them in theatres.) You just have to be live and to be now; I don’t think I seriously think about “recreating” it but one needs to stay stylistically within the parameters you are allowed to.

PH: Are you pleased to be an artist performing after the peak of the  authentic early music movement?

AW: Yes. I think we have moved on.  We are within a style but the sound has changed: it has become much more alive and much more direct. You don’t feel you are going to a museum anymore. There are now better players and better singers and we can do anything. Also, volume levels have increased, with bigger ensembles existing. We are also moving away from only using gut strings.

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

AW: My brain is always active. I like to travel, I like to cook, to watch TV.  I collect pictures of streets. It’s just a little thing I do when on tour. I am fascinated by what goes on behind stores in places like Madrid or Milan or wherever. In the streets you see the culture of the people. I’m interested in buildings and architecture. I’m obsessed by the restoration shows on TV.  And I have a little dog, I have a husband and I have a cottage in Suffolk to which I like to disappear. My husband is a very keen gardener, so we have a beautiful garden. I like to walk in nature…lots and lots of walks. And, with so much going on in my life, I’m sometimes very, very, very good at doing absolutely nothing! I think it was David Hare who said “I’d like to be taken out of myself and prefer not to be put back in”. I can identify with that.

PH: This has been most interesting and insightful, Andrew. Many thanks. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Kathryn Tickell talks about Northumbrian music, about the fiddle and the Northumbrian pipes

On August 11th 2015, I met Kathryn Tickell in the bar of Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon, UK.  Today’s foremost exponent of the Northumbrian pipes, she is a fiddler, composer, performer and recording artist, Ms. Tickell was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2015 for her extraordinary career.

PH: Kathryn Tickell, where were you born?

Kathryn Tickell: Well, this is a bit of a strange question, as everyone thinks I was born and brought up in Northumberland (the northernmost county of England) because everything I do musically is about Northumberland, but I wasn’t. I was born in Staffordshire. (You get born wherever your mother happens to be at the time.) My parents had moved away from the northeast of England, looking for work. We left Staffordshire when I was 6 months old, so I really have no memory of that or any connection to that area. Then we moved to Lincolnshire, which I do remember. But I think that the fact that I lived away from Northumberland when I was small has actually been crucial to what I do.

PH: Why?

KT:  Because none of my cousins, who have all lived in Northumberland all their lives, have gone into the music. They are not so concerned about the traditions. But because my parents had moved away (my mum was only 18 when she had me) and she was very homesick and so was my dad, I was brought up sticking to the Northumbrian traditions and memories of where they came from (as do all transplanted communities) far more than if we had actually stayed there. That’s what happened to me. My parents were so strongly connected to the northeast and they weren’t there, so they talked about it a lot more than if we had actually stayed there. Also, every single holiday we would go back to Northumberland to the village. There were generations from that area on both sides of the family. So, although we were living in other places, I was always brought up that Northumberland was home. My grandparents there were interested in music. I would play tunes for them and they would ask me for certain tunes that they remembered.

PH: What music do you remember hearing at home?

KT: My dad sang all the time. He sang border ballads, songs of Northumberland. My mum played the concertina and we had the Northumbrian Pipes Society Tune Book, in which a lot of the tunes are written about places; so my dad, who can’t read music, would be looking through the book and find, for example, “Sweet Hesleyside” and my mum would play the tune, because Hesleyside was a place he remembered from his childhood.

PH: When did you return to the northeast?

KT: When I was seven, and it felt like I was going back to where I was from.  It was “going home”. That has been pretty fundamental to me.

PH: What was your earliest training in the pipes and fiddle?

KT: They didn’t really do training at that time. (Now you can do a university degree in folk music). There wasn’t really any accepted means or form of tuition. However, I did get my granddad’s piano when I was five (he moved from the farm to old people’s bungalows and the piano did not fit in, so I got it). I learned to read music in my piano lessons. Then I started playing the tin whistle, which meant I could then play the traditional tunes that my mum and dad knew.  But I really wanted to play the fiddle and got a violin at school (back in the days when the government gave you free music lessons) and was having school lessons in the classroom, just sawing away at it. I remember the first day I got the fiddle, bringing it home and trying to pick out by ear some of the tunes that I already knew.  I just put up with the school violin lessons because that is how I got the violin, but what I really wanted to play was folk music.  As far as “training” in folk music goes, I was lucky, because my maternal grandparents are from a very rural area and a lot of their friends they went to school with, people in the family, were the traditional musicians – the older generation. So I already knew them and would go to their houses, sometimes my granddad would take me, I would just get my fiddle out, they would get their fiddles out and we would just sit and play for hours. So I learned by osmosis, really, by playing those tunes with them and when you play a tune so many times with somebody you just pick up their way of playing it. Sometimes I now play those tunes differently with the band, but if I go back to the village (my uncle doesn’t play much anymore) occasionally at new year, he will get his accordion out and a couple of other people in the family will get instruments out and I then play those tunes exactly as they do, as I originally learned them 30 or 40 years ago. That was the training – just to be in with the real tradition-bearers, as I would call them now. (At the time it was just my uncle Alan or my granddad’s friend. I didn’t even know it was called “folk music” or “traditional music”. It was the music that was around me, so that is what I played.)

PH: How did you come to learn the Northumbrian pipes?

KT:  There was somebody doing a Saturday morning kind-of folk music workshop in a local arts centre. Most people went along with guitars, fiddles and accordions but the man who was leading it played the pipes. At some point every Saturday morning he would take me and a young lad aside to listen to us – perhaps for 10 minutes – and just give us a quick couple of tips; then we would go back in with everybody else and I would get my fiddle out again. And whenever I would go to play a tune to my maternal granddad (he didn’t play any instrument, but he really knew the music and he had been brought up with it) he could hear if I was doing something incorrectly. He didn’t have the musical language to tell me what it was that was wrong or how to make it right, but he would say “that bit…there is something not right there” and I had to kind-of figure it out. When I corrected it, he would say “that’s right. That sounds good. You sound just like” whichever piper he was thinking of.  That’s how I would know I had got it right. So there were plenty of people around to comment if you did something very wrong and give you a hint about how to do it right. But, mostly you just learned by being there.

PH: Did you have any later conservatory or university training?

KT: No, no. But I did piano to grade 8 and violin to grade 8, because I was getting the lessons at school, and also, because I loved music, I assumed I would do O-level and A-level music to complete my school studies.  But then I discovered that the music we did in the school music lessons had absolutely no connection at all to anything I did musically outside of school. What we were learning at school seemed to me to be a cross between mathematics and a crossword puzzle. There was nothing that chimed with me at all. Also, the music teacher at high school was not the best I now realize in retrospect.  And yet today I still refer back to certain things we learned in those lessons; now I can see how it fits together. But I did think of going to university, assuming one should do music because that is what you love, but this is quite a long time ago and, when I went to do auditions and interviews at universities, most of them just wouldn’t have me because the instrument I played was not a recognized instrument, and I was told: “That is not a musical instrument”. They would have taken me if I had wanted to play classical violin only or if I were to reapply and put piano down as my main instrument. (I had given up the piano at age 13.) Good tuition on the classical violin would have been really helpful, but I didn’t take kindly to being told that the instruments on which  I played and the music that I loved were not acceptable.  So I didn’t go to university, which is probably just as well because I wouldn’t have made the most of it. I had had enough of education at that point. Going to university seemed to me just a “rite of passage”. If I were to go now, boy would I make the most of it! I would love to do Composition and really immerse myself in it. I have not got the time for it now. 

PH: But have you had any training in Composition?

KT: Yes, since then I have had formal training in Composition.  I have gone to people and paid for their time and private lessons  – nothing very organized, actually. There was one piece that I was writing for a classical ensemble and I got a bit stuck with it, so I found somebody who knew how to do those things and went to his house three or four times and found a way through that piece. And, about 15 years ago, I came here to Dartington Hall. Somebody had advised me to apply to the Advanced Composition course. Judith Weir was leading it (Not brought up listening to classical music, I had never heard of her). It was one of those courses where you apply, send samples of your work and she would choose eight people to be on the course, so she could work with them in depth. She chose me as one of the people and I was absolutely terrified! I thought it would mean all sitting at desks with pencil and manuscript paper and harmonizing Bach chorales. But it wasn’t and she was very inspiring and very respectful of my music, where I came from and she thought that I had something to offer with that. And also, the Schubert Ensemble of London was there to play through some of the music the composers were writing, so I got to try some different things that were outside of my normal musical experience and to hear somebody play it. And again, the ensemble was really supportive and the players were saying they could hear a musical voice that they hadn’t heard before. I think it was the influence of the folk music coming through, however hard I was trying to write something that was “totally contemporary classical”. You can’t help it when that is your voice. You can do all the things they tell you to do, but you are still going to have the “accent”, and I think that is a strength!  That was a really helpful course.

PH: Do you write down your compositions and arrangements?

KT: That depends who I am composing and arranging for. I didn’t used to, but, obviously if it is for classical musicians, you have to and I have written things for orchestra: I did a piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which was exciting, because it is a huge orchestra.  For my present group – The Side – where there are two classically trained musicians, I write out a lot more things. At the beginning, they wanted things to be written, so I had some things that were completely scored out for them, with exactly what I wanted them to play, but I always knew that that was not the way I wanted to band to work. What’s the use of having good musicians with their own ideas and then you’re telling them what to play. So I always said to them that even though I have scored out a part exactly, this is only the beginning of it and that they can feel free to change and embroider it. However, if someone goes too far from the form, we will not be playing as a team. When she came into the band, Louisa the ‘cellist, actually thought that we went on stage and made it up as we went along; she has been quite astonished at how much rehearsal there is and how precise the arrangements are.

PH: When putting a piece together, how free can you be with the band now?

KT: Occasionally I play them a tune and they then have to work something out. They are fine with that now. And then, sometimes I would give Louisa my line, so she had the tune to see but not to play, and maybe a chord progression or a bass line, so she had something to go on. She may even choose a bit of the tune but play it half time or quarter time underneath me doing the bass melody. It’s quite creative. We are all finding ways to work together. Amy, the accordionist, and I are using more notation than we normally would  and the others two are using less than they normally do.

PH: Is all your composing based on folk music?

KT: Yes. That’s the thing I have come round to. When I started to compose I was trying to get away from the eight-bar melodies and the traditional forms. I wanted to break out of that and push myself to get away from those, but whenever I did, it was still informed by the traditional music that I had grown up with. But then also, I think I was trying too hard to be something that I am not, which was good at the time, because it pushes you to be different, but I realize now that if people are asking me to compose for a classical ensemble, it’s because they want something with a folk music influence. So I am now much less hard on myself about trying to eradicate all of that. And also, it’s nice to get a bit of tune. I was hoping that the players of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain would go back to their rooms and play this bit of tune, having something to take away with them, that stands on its own and that they could play together. So there is a little underlying motivation there to expose them to folk tunes.

PH: Going back to your playing, I understand that performing is in your genes.

KT: Yes.  My dad loves performing…you can’t stop him! He is not trained and has no musical knowledge, but he can perform. He has that ability to perform anywhere, to stop traffic basically, and he regularly does it. If he thinks of a song, he can be in the middle of a street and he will start reciting or singing something, drawing people to him. He’s not doing it on purpose…he just does that, and my granddad was the same with storytelling. It’s just something about some magnetism that they have, which I don’t have to the extent that they did. But sometimes I can feel it coming through, a little bit of this power that they had.

PH: Would you like to talk about your early performances?

KT: Yes. To start off with, when I was probably about ten, I used to play (it might have been) the penny whistle, my dad would sing and my mum would play the concertina. We would play a couple of tunes, accompanying my dad probably in unison. We would perform a couple of very small things at the local village hall, if they need it – for raising money or church things, those very small-scale performance opportunities where nobody gets paid to do it and there are a lot of amateurs there, each doing ten minutes or so. That’s how I started performing and it was important. Then I started playing the pipes and went into a few of the competitions. We didn’t have exams or anything in piping but there are competitions that have been going for many, many years. In those competitions, you are expected to play in traditional style. You don’t go messing around with fancy notes and jazzy things – you play in style. I was starting to win those when I was about 13. I had won all the major competitions, so then people started asking me to play solo - again, a few tunes for a charity event – but gradually I started doing things where they would pay expenses. A man called Alistair Anderson, who plays the concertina and Northumbrian pipes, was already a professional musician. That was quite an eye-opener to me, to see someone who was a solo instrumentalist going around playing in folk clubs. (Most instrumentalists accompanied singers or played in a band.) I thought that maybe I could do that, although I hadn’t really thought it through.  However, Alistair started taking me and a couple of the old traditional players I had learned from to festivals at which he was playing; so, as well as his own playing, he would bring in the older generation and the younger (i.e. me. I was about 16 then.) Through doing that, I started playing at a few folk festivals outside Northumberland.  There weren’t many young people playing traditional music in England at that time, so I was noticed, I think, because of my age and I was playing very traditional music from a specific area.

PH: How did you make the transition to a career?

KT: In an interview for a folk music magazine I was asked whether I was going to do this as a career. Having never really thought about it I said yes, and was then very worried about going home and telling my parents that I wasn’t going to go to university, even if I had been accepted. I was going to give this career a go. Actually, they were not fussed, they themselves had not studied at universities and it seems they had already thought I might take folk music on as a career, although they didn’t want to put the idea in my mind. Well, I thought that my decision to be a professional musician would mean that it would happen miraculously and that lots of people would ask me to do concerts, but of course they didn’t.  So I didn’t have very much work and I didn’t have any money, but then I met a man who was working as a booking agent. It wasn’t his main job, but he booked tours for a few musicians and he booked a few solo tours for me. Nobody had really heard of me, but Alistair Anderson said I was all right and I was only charging 15 pounds per performance; a folk club can risk that.  I must have done okay because I was booked again. I think that being a soloist was helpful in those early times; if there had been two of us I don’t think they would have risked that money. So I worked very, very hard for a few years just soloing in folk clubs, a very good apprenticeship, and then I got a band.

PH: What advantage does having a band give you?

KT: With a band you can start exploring more of the harmonies and all the things I was kind-of hearing in my head but couldn’t do in solo playing. And also it is so much nicer being with a band. So there was no looking back from there.

PH: Your programs have been very varied.

KT:  I think that over the last 15 years or so I have done quite a lot of different projects and I like a challenge.  So if anything comes in where somebody asks me to do things I am not quite sure how to do or what I could possibly bring to that project, my rule is that I always say yes to those because you have got to put yourself out of your comfort zone. When you are a bandleader you are in charge, so you can make sure there is nothing in the repertoire that you can’t do. Obviously, you will bring to the band things you want to play and that you can play but putting myself in other situations is good. Yet following  every time I do a bit of a way-out contract I then, quite unintentionally, come back and do something very traditional. There must be something in me that wants to explore those wild extremes, like jazz, for example, but then I need to refuel, to get the batteries recharged up again and go back to the tradition. And then I can go off and do something else. Looking back on my career, some of the projects I have done have been wildly off course. I think this tendency has been a bit annoying for some of my very loyal audience members, who might just wish I would play nice tunes on the pipes. But, on my website, I am always very clear about stating if a program is not traditional Northumberland music, which annoys the promoters, but you have got to be honest.

PH: Who are your audiences?

KT: I think some of them come from people who like traditional music and have been with me since I was doing the folk club work; some people are ex-patriot Northumbrians (or have family from there) and come for that reason and along the way I have acquired  some people who were just interested in different sorts of music and who are prepared to give something new a try. There is not a huge youth following. Most of my audiences are made up of middle class, middle-aged people.

PH: Do you have any contact with the new generation of musicians?

KT: Yes.  Teaching at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I do a lot of work with young musicians - mentoring them and teaching them.  I think that I have an influence on them and then they go out and make their own careers. Well, it’s ironic that I teach at a university, but it is kind-of interesting. I am a lecturer on the Folk- and Traditional Music degree course, so I do some one-to-one teaching of pipes or fiddle and I do a lot of work with the ensembles, especially in the later years of the course. With the more experienced students I do arrangement and composition work with them. I have taught different modules, such as Traditional Music, Historical Contexts. All of these things are good because they make me set down the knowledge that I have. When you have grown up in the tradition, you don’t realize how much knowledge you have amassed. Some student might ask me about a little-known Northumberland musician, such as John Robson, and it turns out that he is a relation of mine! Then you realize that the people you grew up with are the people the university students hold in this high esteem as the tradition-bearers. Some of the people I learned from have been dead for 20, 30 years, so they are already “legends” almost.  And, being brought up by my dad and all the singing, I now realize how much I have learnt about the song traditions.

PH: How do your performance ideas germinate?

KT: My blessing and my curse is that I have too many ideas. I tend to have an idea, think it through completely and, once I have it all sorted out – exactly what the idea would be, how much it would cost, how I would make it happen, what the instruments would be, who I would look to do it -  it goes to the back of my mind.  Some ideas sit there for decades, some will never be realized and for some of them you just wait for the catalyst, like someone who comes into your life to make it happen. There are too many ideas and too little time.  The Side has come from a few separate ideas that culminated and have come together to become this band.

PH: What immediate plans do you have?

KT: I have a new youth band that I am going to be starting, which is going to be pretty heavy-duty mentoring. (I had a youth group I worked with for twelve years; the momentum is there now and that’s the time to let someone else work with it. Now, reaching 18, some of the players will go to the university, some will go out as professional musicians and some will do something completely different.) This new group will be a springboard for young people into a professional career as a musician. That’s what I am looking forward to.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

KT: I like reading and do it when I get the chance. To be honest, there is not very much time in my life. I like being at home with my family – cats and dogs and children, my partner, just being part of that.  I like cooking and drinking wine.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Talking to British harpsichordist, organist and conductor Laurence Cummings

On August 10th 2015 I met with British harpsichordist, organist and conductor Laurence Cummings 
in Devon, England. Born in 1968, Maestro Cummings is known as one of Britain’s most exciting and versatile exponents of historical performance. Director of the
London Handel Festival since 1999 and of the Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen since 2012, he is musical director of the Orquestra Barroca Casa da Musica Porto and a trustee of Handel House in London. Residing in London, Laurence Cummings is professor of historical performance at the Royal Academy of Music (London).
PH: Laurence Cummings, where were you born?
Laurence Cummings: I was born in Birmingham UK, in a little place called Sutton Coldfield. We are very proud as the town is mentioned by Falstaff in Part One of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

LC: My grandmother was a self-taught pianist. She played in Birmingham at her local cinema and then in a dance band. She got me interested in the piano. We used to go to church and I sang in the local church choir.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

LC: I remember my grandmother showing me where the notes were on the piano and I also remember very clearly when I became a chorister in the local parish church and the vicar’s wife teaching me lots of things about church life, my becoming a probationer, then a fully-fledged chorister.

PH: How did this influence your musical development?

LC: We were very lucky because, although it was the local parish church, it had a very strong choir. From there on I became interested in church music and started to play the organ. I was already playing piano.

PH: As a child, did you go to a music school?

LC: No, but I went to a school that had a strong music department and that was the reason for choosing that particular school. I was very aware that music was what I wanted to do and there I practised on the organ and did a lot of singing.

PH: Would you like to talk about your formal musical training?

LC: Yes. I had my first formal piano lessons at age 6 or 7. I carried on singing in the choir and I turned to the church organ when I was tall enough to reach the pedals, at about 13.

PH: As a child, did you go to a music school?

LC: No, but I went to a school that had a strong music department and that was the reason for choosing that particular school. I was very aware that music was what I wanted to do and there I practised on the organ and did a lot of singing.

PH: Did you have a specific musical career in mind?

LC: Yes. As a teenager, my dream was to become a cathedral organist. Then, later, attending Oxford University, where I was an organ scholar at Christ Church, I got that experience there and absolutely loved it. But it was also at Oxford University that I had a big “epiphany”, where I realized that historical performance was so fascinating. I really loved it and I also fell in love with the harpsichord. That was a major change, but I still continued to play the organ.

PH: When did you start learning the harpsichord?

LC: I started the harpsichord when I was at the university. I had played it at school, where we had not a very good instrument (our teacher used to call it the “clatter box”). It had been made by the woodwork department, but it did the job. I experienced that when I was at school, but when I went to university there was a very good instrument and I really enjoyed playing that. I was about 20. I played the harpsichord in a student production of “Alexander’s Feast” and, playing the harpsichord in that wonderful chorus “The many rend the skies with loud applause” I got that “light-bulb electricity charge” and a strong sense of that being what I most wanted to be doing.

PH: You finished university. What came next?

LC: I went to the Royal College of Music and did a post-graduate degree in harpsichord.

PH: With whom did you study?

LC: I studied harpsichord and fortepiano with Robert Woolley. Then, when I left, I went to take harpsichord lessons with Jill Severs.

PH: What were your earliest performance jobs as a professional musician?

LC: When I graduated, Mr. Handel was very kind to me. I got several Handel offers in a row as a répétiteur and continuo player. One was with the London Handel Festival, with which I am still associated, now being its musical director; the other was with the touring Opera Theatre Company of Ireland. I would put the harpsichord in the back of the stage car and we traveled all around Ireland performing Handel’s “Tamerlano”. I was having a great time but, today, looking back, it could not have been a more perfect first job, getting to travel, discovering the beautiful Irish countryside and also hearing the fantastic Irish singers…and just having a ball, really.

PH: With what other ensembles did you perform later on?

LC: I played with Harry Christophers and “The Sixteen” for many years, also with “Les Arts Florissants” in Paris. Those are the two groups I have worked with. I was also freelancing.

PH: So where does your own conducting come in?

LC: It came about when I began directing more from the harpsichord myself.

PH: What about your singing?

LC: I have always sung for fun, but I do have a duo with lutenist William Carter, where we do some lute songs. Occasionally I sing in public, usually as an encore. If you are accompanying a singer for a recital, it is fun, just for the last piece, to join in. I love singing and feel it is so important that everyone should sing and everyone should dance. They are two important things in life.

PH: Here, at Dartington Hall International Summer School, you are working with two amateur choirs. How do you feel about that kind of work?

LC: It is wonderful working here with both the big choir and the chamber choir. The sense of achievement, even in a short rehearsal when people realize they can do it, releases so many positive things. I find that kind of work very exciting. I love choirs and choral music. I do several things through the year working with amateur musicians both in England and in Germany. And usually the time frame is quite limited, which is exciting and working like here at Dartington, where you rehearse daily, is even more exciting. Inevitably with human learning processes, we learn and forget a bit, learn and forget, but in a day-by-day schedule over five days you find your own sound and I find that very rewarding. Amateur musicians are, by definition, people who love the music. It is fantastic to work with so many people who are so committed and want to learn.

PH: With what are you busy at the present?

LC: At the moment we have a festival with the London Handel Orchestra. As mentioned above, I direct the London Handel Festival. Am artistic director of the Göttingen Festival in Germany and conduct the Göttingen Festorchester. Both are fantastic orchestras and I love working with them. In Göttingen we are doing a series of live recordings of operas that we have put on; we have released a recording of Handel’s “Siroe” and “Faramondo” and we are about to release a recording of “Agrappina”, our last opera of last year. That is an exciting thing to be doing. I am about to go to Glyndebourne to work on the tour of “Saul”. It’s lovely to have lots of variety with groups.

PH: So opera is currently predominant in your professional life.

LC: Yes. It combines a lot of my loves – you have the instrumental music and also you are working with singers all the time, which I find very inspiring and fascinating. And I love the drama of the theatre and the challenge, I suppose, of bringing these pieces from several hundred years ago to life on the stage today.

PH: Do you compose?

LC: If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said “no”, but I was asked to write some music for a play – it turned out to be four minutes of music – and, though not claiming to be a composer, I did in fact write the music. The play was by the 19th century French dramatist Alfred de Musset, the English translation of it being “A Door Must Be Kept Open or Shut”; it is a comedy of manners between a baron and a countess. They live in adjacent buildings and he admires her from afar. They are obviously in love with each other but the etiquette of the day does not allow them to say that. So the music I was writing was salon music. The play took place in a tiny art gallery in Knightsbridge (London), so the intimate venue felt like a salon. Writing for a play means keeping to the existing story, a very different task to writing an opera, where you are creating the drama. I found it a very interesting process because, of course, I have worked with composers over many years. At university I studied composition to a certain extent, learning the techniques of composition and I understand how to write music and orchestrate. But, of course, the big thing is having your own voice rather than writing in the style of somebody else. I found it challenging but discovered I could either do it on a certain day or I could not! I would sit down at the keyboard and it would all come out or I got stuck! I don’t think it is a change of career for me.

PH: Do you arrange music?

LC: When it is required. What you tend to do in terms of Baroque opera is to deal with the situation that sometimes there are scenes missing or that there are different versions of things or you have to arrange the existing music for the forces that you have. This can mean reducing forces or amplifying them. I am not averse to adding instruments in. That is the kind of arrangement I do.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

LC: I love teaching. I don’t have many one-to-one harpsichord students now because I travel a lot and it is difficult to have the commitment. Then there are harpsichordists interested in directing from the keyboard who come to me for guidance, so we work together. The difference between directing from the harpsichord and conducting from a podium is that from the keyboard you are making it all come together through the harpsichord sound. It is a very democratic process really, encouraging people to listen very carefully to each other. As a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music, I coach groups and take the orchestra there, also helping students who lack conducting experience.

PH: Does your teaching there focus on Baroque music?

LC: Not just. It is usually Baroque music, but often with modern players. It may sometimes be their first experience at playing Baroque music and with the idea of the style, the note shapes and the rhetoric of Baroque music. The latter is foreign to them, because a lot of modern playing is about making the best quality sound for the most time you can.

PH: The rhetoric of Baroque music is a big focus of yours.

LC: It is, because I think that our duty is to move the soul of the listener, to transform. That we know from the treatises with all the details we have to do as well. Handel actually wanted people to leave a performance “as better people”. His making them better sounds a bit arrogant, but I think it is an 18th century sensibility feeling that we can all improve ourselves. He wanted his music to be part of that process, to allow people to come to a concert, be moved by the music and to leave as better people. The rhetoric of Baroque music is so detailed: everything you play will be saying something. The more you can get in touch with what you are saying the more you will inform the listener. Of course, the listener does not have to be aware of all the details; rather, we should take the listener on the journey. From affect to affect we take the listener through what I think is an emotional journey. The rhetoric is the tool to do that.

PH: Now that we are beyond the early music authentic movement, how do you see the performance of Baroque music today?

LC: I think the scenario at the moment is a very healthy one because it is no longer groundbreaking to perform on original instruments and also a lot of modern instrumental players are fully aware of stylistic things. So I work a lot with symphony orchestras; whereas 20 years ago, I would have needed to ask players not to use vibrato, to be sparing with the bow, I don’t have to say that now. They just know that intuitively. (That was the case when I worked with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra – we did “Messiah” and “Israel in Egypt” – which adapted to the style well and I have very fond memories of working with the players.) I think we are now in a position where we know what we don’t know, which is exciting because there was an element of evangelism with period instrument playing and I think we have got through that. It is no longer a question of “you are either doing it right or you are doing it wrong”. We are now so much aware of the possibilities and it is always fascinating for me to look at the different Baroque orchestras that have sprung up and that are now coming of age. A lot have been going for 30 and more years. They do make very distinctive sounds and the gestures they make are very different. And, of course, they have all read the same source material, informing their playing and their listeners, which is exciting for me, as it means that there is no right or wrong way of doing it. So long as people are open to that fact, they will be broadminded about Baroque music. There is always more information coming up about stringing, etc. People do research and this makes for a different sound. In the same way, I always think that in performance we always say more about our own age than we can about anything else because we ourselves are living in the year in which we are living. If you look at period dramas on television, you can always tell at what time in modern history they were made, despite the correct costumes and details. We just have windows into the past; we can never have the whole thing, but it is all the more interesting because of that and, of course, it makes us realize we have to be very spontaneous.

PH: How do you see the young generation of players contending with the current music scene?

LC: It is very challenging for them because, of course, funding for the arts is at a critical point in most of Europe, and I think young musicians are very brave and are doing such interesting work. Ideals are so strong and they do interesting projects.

PH: How do you view changes on the recording scene today?

LC: What is a healthy sign at the moment is that recording nowadays is much less of a money-spinner than it was; so, someone putting up the money himself to record is committed. However, some of the smaller recording companies are doing some very interesting work, also recording works not previously recorded. Nowadays, we hear many recordings of live performances, which is very exciting. Moving away from the recording studio is positive, taking us away from the ideal of “polish-perfect” recordings which lose the spontaneity of the live performance, where you just “go for it”. I, personally, would much rather hear a piece recorded with one or two mistakes but with panache and fire, rather than something that is terribly safe and clinical, because you have to ask yourself where the music is. It is all about life and spontaneity.

PH: What about modern music? Do you engage in it in your professional life?

LC: I have played some contemporary music but don’t do a lot of it. There is quite a lot being written for the harpsichord now. Whenever asked to perform it, I usually agree because it is a challenge. I enjoy doing it but it takes a lot of time as harpsichordists are used to the refined 18th century touch, to getting all the ornaments correct and in the right place and making a beautiful sound, etc. We are not so used to all the drastic rhythm changes taking place in contemporary music. I, personally, need to set aside a lot of time to learn these works. But when you get it right, there is a real sense of accomplishment.

PH: Do you perform solo recitals?

LC: Yes, I do occasionally. I am doing a solo organ recital on a very good organ in Leeds in November, playing some English- and Italian single keyboard works (no pedals). I occasionally do harpsichord recitals. I have a chamber group – the London Handel Players – and very often I do a solo piece within a program. I also sometimes accompany myself singing in one of those programs. I find it a nice thing to do…and a bit unexpected for the audience.

PH: Would you like to mention future plans?

LC: Yes. Well, I am very lucky, because the Göttingen Händel Festival has its 100th anniversary in 2020, so we are already planning that far ahead. We have a rather ambitious plan for it – to perform all of Handel’s operas in some way or other during the course of that year. This is quite a challenge, but we are obviously looking for collaborative partners. Other than that, I have plans to conduct the Zurich Opera and in Gothenburg, where I am going to do some Mozart…the first Mozart opera I will be doing, which is exciting.

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

LC: I love walking and travelling (not just travelling for work). Have just been to Barcelona on holiday for six days and had a brilliant time seeing the Gaudi buildings and all the fantastic things Barcelona has to offer, this time with the opportunity to explore a little. (When going there for a performance, am there for a day: you travel there in the morning, see a little of Barcelona, rehearse, do the concert and leave.) I love reading and get to do it on journeys. I have just moved to a house with a garden; gardening is my new thing. I am still quite fresh to it, but am fascinated by it. It is interesting that many composers have been interested in gardening – Handel and Telemann corresponded about planting seeds and even sent seeds to each other. So I think there is something about germination that is associated with music.

PH: Maestro Cummings, many thanks. This has been most interesting.