Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Talking to Shmuel Elbaz, mandolin artist and recently appointed resident conductor of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra

Maestro Shmuel Elbaz (photo: Natan Yakobovich)

On October 10th 2016 I spoke to mandolin artist and conductor Shmuel Elbaz at his home in Giv’ot Bar, a small town in the Negev Desert, close to Beer Sheva. A graduate of the Beer Sheva Conservatory, the Faculties of Performance and Conducting of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the Sweelinck Academie (Amsterdam), he founded and led the Kerman Mandolin Quartet in 2000, becoming principal conductor of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (Ashdod) in 2002. He has been guest conductor of several Israeli orchestras, becoming the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s resident conductor in 2016. Elbaz’ world premiere recording of J.S.Bach’s Six Sonatas and Solo Violin Partitas on mandolin has created much interest.

PH: Shmuel Elbaz, with your activity all over Israel, I see you have remained close to Beer Sheva, where you were born and grew up.

Shmuel Elbaz: Yes. I am a “desert animal” and need to be in the Negev. The desert is where I feel the best.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

SE: No. I was the first to take music lessons, but then my two brothers took up music. One brother is a bass player, playing mainstream pop and rock music. Another brother was a drummer in bands, but today is involved in the culinary profession.

PH: So how did you begin your involvement in music?

SE: At age 7, I went to the Beer Sheva Conservatory. I did not know enough to choose an instrument, but there was a most charismatic teacher there – Simcha Nathanson - who developed a school of mandolin-playing, now famous worldwide, from which some of today’s finest mandolin players have emerged. Simcha Nathanson immigrated to Israel from Russia in the 1970s. Actually, he was a violin teacher who made the switch to teaching mandolin; both instruments have the same tuning, meaning that the fingering is the same. He just needed to learn plectrum technique. He addressed the mandolin as if it were a violin. As children, we played classical violin repertoire, including the technical exercises of such great violin pedagogues as Carl Flesch, the result being that the mandolin gradually became accepted as a classical instrument rather than just a traditional or folk instrument. And it was also becoming a solo instrument.

PH: So Nathanson was an important influence on you.

SE: Yes. Knowing him has been a gift for life. It was he who opened the magical world of music to me and who inspired me to choose music as a way of life; by the age of eight, I already knew that I wanted to be a musician.

PH: Where did you go from the Beer Sheva Conservatory?

SE: To the Jerusalem Academy of music.  Actually, I was the first graduate on that instrument, taught by Moti Schmitt (also a violinist, who, years later, became conductor of the Israel Plectrum Orchestra, Rosh Ha’Ayin); that was before the Academy established the mandolin department. Schmitt also advised me to study conducting and I completed a degree in conducting under the tutelage of Mendi Rodan. I then went to Holland to take a Masters in conducting, attending the Sweelinck Academie in Amsterdam, studying with Peter Eötvös, David Porcelijn, Lev Markiz and Roland Kieft. I chose to study there as they ran a course in which every week each conducting student would conduct an actual ensemble or orchestra (and not pianists playing the score).  In order to graduate in conducting there, the student was required to set up his own symphony orchestra, to find and audition players, thus using all the organizational and artistic skills he had learned for his final project. This approach gave me invaluable skills in the field of orchestral management and rehearsal organization.

PH: You returned to Israel in 1997. What then?

SE: I began taking an active part in the Israeli music scene both as mandolin soloist and conductor. The first orchestra I conducted in Israel was the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Idit Zvi, its manager, offered me the opportunity, and from there, there was no looking back. Idit Zvi is one of the people who have influenced my career and I am grateful to her. I then served as visiting conductor with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva, the Raanana Symphonette and other orchestras.

PH: Would you like to talk about the upcoming season of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra?

SE: Yes. There will be eight subscription programs. I will conduct two of them. One will consist of only classical music and the other will intermix classical and oriental works in the same concert: we will, for example, host oud player and violinist Taiseer Elias in a concert that will include classical Turkish, Egyptian, Andalusian and other works alongside works by western classical composers who were influenced by the east. Take, for example, Mozart’s “Il Seraglio”, Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” and Weber’s “Abu Hassan” Overture; the composers of these works were familiar with sounds of the orient from the impact of the Ottoman Empire on Europe. The concert-going audience will be able to compare the original oriental sounds and aesthetic with their influence on European music. It is also interesting for the players, who will become exposed to repertoire which is new for them, to a different kind of interpretation and aesthetic - be it playing in quarter tones, different bowing, phrasing and articulation – giving all a broader perspective on music in general. Based on the vectors of rhythm and melody (and less on the complex elements of harmony and counterpoint) oriental music exudes energy. Appearing alongside classical music in the same program, it is liberating, communicating directly with the audience and creating a special atmosphere not experienced with other orchestras and in classical music concerts.

PH: This is a drastic change in the NKO’s programming.

SE: Not that drastic: under Yaron Gottfried’s direction, this orchestra spent years moving between world music and classical music, constantly engaging in stylistic crossover programs: he brought much from the world of jazz, pop, etc. Oriental music is also world music, be it Andalusian, Egyptian or Turkish; it is not that non-European music has not been played on this concert podium, but this season will be the first season in which music from Arab countries will be performed at NKO concerts.  In Israel, the influence of Mediterranean music is definitely present and felt and our audiences have been exposed to it…more than to, say, Chinese music. It has become a significant part of our cultural identity in Israel.

PH: Are your listeners not put off by it?

SE: No, they are accepting of it as long as it is presented well and on a high level, with suitable orchestration, etc. It opens doors to them, inviting them to enter the magic world of oriental music. This music is indeed user-friendly if one opens one’s heart to it. It is not music that demands previous lengthy preparation on the part of the listener. I personally find this all very interesting as, when I examine classical music I can identify “natural schemes”, musical elements shared by oriental and western music – emotion, psycho-acoustic phenomena, how to create energy and feeling.

PH: What will be focal in your work with the NKO?

SE: To address all the needs of the orchestra and accommodate to the taste of the Israeli concert-goer. For me, the subscription series we present are most important. In addition to those, I am also involved in educational projects – concerts in different places and cities, taking part in festivals, etc. I am very happy with my connection to the orchestra; it is an orchestra I have been admiring for several years and whose concerts I have attended frequently prior to my taking on the position with it.

PH: In what ways do you find it special?

SE: It is a very energetic orchestra with a group of  very young and ambitious players, each a soloist or chamber musician in his own right. This year we have quite an international group of instrumentalists:  joining Israelis we have players from Japan, from Switzerland, from Spain, South America and, of course, from the former Soviet Union. It is an orchestra with a good, healthy signature sound.

 PH: Would you like to say a few words about the NKO’s new musical director Christian Lindberg?

SE: Yes. Christian Lindberg is a Swedish composer, conductor and trombonist. He has been referred to as the greatest trombonist of the last 100 years!  It is most important for the orchestra to have a musical director with such a wide scope and who is so meticulous about music-making. He has already motivated the whole orchestra to engage in serious and intensive work.  He will be with us three times this season, and in the next season, four times. The combination of Lindberg and myself could be seen as a kind of “double power”: when he is not in Israel, I continue and implement the mode of work he wants the orchestra to follow – be it punctuality at rehearsals, rehearsal procedure, work in groups, in sections, intensive enquiry into detail, etc. This is all very good for the orchestra, challenging the players, giving them a sense of vitalness; the orchestra is certainly moving full steam ahead.

PH: You are about to conduct the second concert of the NKO’s 2016-2017 season. I believe its programming has a unique side to it.

SE: True. The concert is titled “Hidden Treasures of the Orchestra”. Here the soloists will all be members of the orchestra and they themselves have chosen the works. It will give the audience an opportunity to experience the great ability of our players. For example, in Dvořák’s “Serenade for Wind Instruments” each of the players in the ensemble is a soloist with a meaningful role. Similarly, Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No.4 will feature three soloists – two flautists and one violinist (our concertmaster); the string ensemble will play standing. Then we will hear Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece No.1 for Two Clarinets with our clarinettists as soloists. I will perform Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C-major. To conclude the concert, the orchestra will once again join to become one organism to perform Haydn’s Symphony No.96; actually, in this work there are also some solo sections. By the end of the concert, the audience will have become familiar with the names of some of the players, their unique personalities and abilities and will enjoy this closer acquaintance with individual players right through to the end of the season.

PH: What can you disclose about Concert No.7 of the current season?

SE: It will be a crossover program titled “Maestro Elbaz’ World of Wonders”.  The idea is that I will present works from my different musical worlds in the concert hall, combining east and west in a broad variety of works. Professor Taiseer Elias will be the soloist; he will play both oud and violin. In some of the works I will join him on the mandolin. We will also have someone playing the darbuka (a middle eastern goblet-shaped drum).

PH: I understand the audience is in for a season of diversity and innovation!

SE: Yes. For Program No.8, for example, “When the Public Decides” the audience will choose the program from a long list of overtures, choral works and symphonies. Another new project this season will be for young composers from the Buchmann Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) to compete in writing a three-minute piece. The three most outstanding works will be performed by the orchestra in our subscription season, quite an honour considering each concert is performed eight times and all over Israel! This way we also meet the new generation of Israeli composers, from whom we hope to commission larger works at a later stage. Talking of young talent, in Concert No.5 - “A Rising Star” - we will give the stage to the outstanding 14-year-old ‘cellist Danielle Akta, an Israeli artist already busy with an international career. Each NKO season will now feature a rising star, introducing the audience to the next generation of up-and-coming young artists.  So, with all these new ideas and young promising players, we are working very hard in the hope of attracting new listeners in addition to our regular audience members.

PH: Where does the kibbutz come into all of this?

SE: The orchestra was originally formed to offer musical events to kibbutz communities and to provide opportunities to kibbutz orchestral musicians. We maintain the tradition of performing our concert series in several kibbutzim, but nowadays have only two or three kibbutz musicians in the orchestra. We do, however, make a point of performing works by composers who have come from the kibbutz movement, composers such as Michael Wolpe and Arieh Rufeisen. 

PH: And where does Netanya come into the orchestra’s programs?

SE: With Netanya, a city that has immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia etc., we have made a several valuable connections with the city, its inhabitants and its cultural life. We are active in its suburbs, with its local dance group and within its community. Last Purim, for example, the orchestra played Andalusian melodies and orchestral arrangements of festival songs; we came in fancy dress costumes and it was all most jolly. We also play at the annual Netanya Guitar Festival and cooperate with “Tremolo” – the Israel Percussion Center.  Whoever is active in Netanya’s culture connects with the NKO in one way or another. Not long ago, we appeared outdoors in the city centre in a happening in which the orchestra was “looking for a conductor”. Passers-by (including the mayor) took up the baton and the orchestra played under their direction. And we recently took part in the Netanya International Clown Festival. Then there is our outstanding educational project, in which all primary school children in Netanya attend a series of explained concerts, receiving visits of our players in their classrooms and engaging in pre-concert study. I am amazed to see full concert halls of school children, listening intently, involved and informed. As a result of the success of this project, the orchestra now also appears in the same educational capacity in other towns – in Kfar Saba, Bat Yam, Petah Tikva. This year, I added another dimension to our educational programs; “Integrated Sounds” hosts four Arab musicians in musical dialogue with us between east and west, in which the children learn about the similarities and differences between the two musical worlds. In the end, both groups join forces to play a joint work. The program has received much praise.

PH: The NKO, in which case, addresses many sections of the community.

SE: Yes. What once began as cultural pluralism here in Israel has ended up becoming a series of cultural ghettos, with each ethnic group focused on its own niche and not open to others. I feel that my mission is to break down those barriers. In a concert about to take place in Independence Square, Netanya, we will present two superb singers – one opera singer and one who sings piyut (Jewish liturgical poetry) – each singing her own repertoire, repertoire of east and west, then singing together.

PH: Let’s go back some years. How did your musical life turn to directing an Andalusian orchestra?

SE: In 2001, I was approached by the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (Ashdod). The offer came as a shock to me; this was not a style of music with which I was familiar or had been engaged in, I was not attracted to it and was hardly aware of its existence in Israel. The Ashdod Andalusian Orchestra had been the first Andalusian orchestra in Israel; its conductor was Dr. Avi Elam-Amzalag. I became its musical director in 2002.With a good dose of curiosity and open-mindedness I began the job, gradually becoming drawn into the style and reorganizing the orchestra. I began writing music and arrangements for the orchestra, acquiring familiarity with the repertoire, with the orchestra’s subscription season, the players and the ensemble. In time, I found myself totally involved in it and my strategy of serving as guest conductor in the various classical orchestras became less of a focus temporarily but was certainly not abandoned. Looking back, I am happy about this period with the Andalusian Orchestra as am now feeling completely a part of the gamut of music-making in Israel. I can use this material, set it against other styles, use it to produce more original programs that are not purely classical and write arrangements in the style.    

PH: Your musical life seems to constantly connect east and west.

SE: My musical background and early performance were exclusively in classical music – classical mandolin and conducting – but, as chance would have it, the episode with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra that began as something short term and ended up as a 13-year-long project meant a lot of involvement in oriental music. Today, having generally returned to the genre of classical music, I am left with that extra dimension – a whole world, in fact – enabling me to connect east and west and show what is so remarkable in the meeting between the two. In contrast to the trend in which each genre has been isolated into its own separate niche, on the concert platform I like to show the colours and beauty that exist generally in the varied art of music, and it is good for the different audiences to get to know each other.

PH: So have you left the field of Andalusian music?

SE: Not entirely. This year, for example, I was asked by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion to create a series of four concerts of Andalusian music. The orchestra has decided to broaden its repertoire and to reach out to new listeners. For this series, there will be 80 players on stage - not the typical Andalusian ensemble, which generally consists of a small group of authentic instruments.

 PH: Maestro Elbaz, thank you for your time. I wish you much joy and satisfaction in your work with the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra.  




Saturday, October 1, 2016

Talking to JanJoost van Elburg (Holland) about his career in choral conducting

JanJoost van Elburg (photo: Sander Heezen)

On August 17th 2016 I met with Dutch conductor and singer JanJoost van Elburg in Ludlow, Shropshire, UK. JanJoost van Elburg (b.1962) studied conducting with Barend Schuurman and singing with Jelle Drayer, Margreet Honig and Ghislaine Morgan. Recent and current conductorships include The Renaissance Singers (London), The Reading Bach Choir, the Bartholomew Consort (Oxford) and the Lelikoor (Amsterdam); he serves as vocal coach for the COQU Vocaal Consort (Utrecht). Van Elburg has been invited to work with such ensembles as “Cantiones Sacrae” (Dundee) “Polyhymnia” (New York), the Monteverdi String Band (UK) and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. He has directed “Grand Baroque” projects at Exeter Cathedral.  As a singer, he has performed with such ensembles as the Tallis Scholars, the Netherlands Radio Choir, Capella Pratensis, Capella Coloniënsis as well as his own ensembles. He holds workshops and lectures on such subjects as Renaissance- and Baroque music, madrigals, Flemish polyphony, Tudor music and choral conducting. On the board of the “Le Pavillon” Foundation for contemporary music, Van Elburg initiated and is principal tutor of the annual DESCANT International Choral Conductors’ Course in Amsterdam, where he lives.

PH: JanJoost van Elburg, I see you have a great love affair with England.

JanJoost van Elburg: I do indeed. It flows from several canals. I had a British uncle, which started my love for the English language. My work, however, frequently brings me to England: in the early 2000s I sang several concerts with the Tallis Scholars, working with Peter Phillips at the Tallis Scholars Summer School and, as of 1998 have led many of Andrew van der Beek’s “Lacock” courses (as I am this week). In 2003 I started working in London, conducting The Singers of London and the Renaissance Singers, I conducted the Reading Bach Choir for several years and I still conduct the Bartholomew Consort in Oxford. I have directed a few of the “Grand Baroque” projects at Exeter Cathedral; in one we performed Muffat’s “Missa in Labore Requies”, one of those incredibly large-scale pieces with three orchestras, two choir, eight soloists and six natural trumpets. Another very grand work I directed there was a Biber Mass, with two organs and two or three choirs. It was great fun. These large works are not performed often, but Blackdowns Early Music Project (which supports “Grand Baroque”) dares to produce these works because it believes in presenting them and I am very grateful that they do.  So the love affair with England hasn’t stopped yet.

PH: Not living in the UK, how do you work with the Bartholomew Consort?

JJvE: We start rehearsing on the Friday, work through the weekend and give a concert on the Sunday. This October they will be coming to Amsterdam to do the concert there.

PH: What is the Blackdowns Early Music Project?

JJvE: Established in 2004 in Culmstock, but also giving concerts in Exeter, Wellington and other places nearby, it draws together groups of experienced singers to perform less-heard, pre-1720 works.

PH: What was your first musical experience as a child?

JJvE: I think the very first significant musical experience that made my mother decide that she had to do something about it was when I was probably five. We were at the museum in The Hague, where they have old instruments. In the main hall a harpist was playing. We walked by and listened and I was completely mesmerized. After a few minutes my parents wanted to leave and I decided I didn’t want to and started screaming and disrupted the whole thing. They were forced to stay for as long as I decided I wanted to.  I seem to remember – or, at least, that was what I was told – that the harpist enjoyed the fact that he had such an impact on such a little child.

PH: To where did that experience lead?

JJvE: My mother thought they should do something about it, so I started playing harp at age six – a tiny harp – and I had a very, very severe teacher who came from Russia, I think. She was too stern for me. I tried it for two years and then gave up as I wanted to be playing everything except the exercises and runs I was supposed to practise.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

JJvE: Yes – I say this with hesitance. My father played the harmonium and I remember him playing the piano when I was young. My maternal grandfather conducted choirs and was a good singer and I think that is the background to my own musicality. My sister plays in an orchestra, but the rest of the family are medical people…not really musical.

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

JJvE: Our system in Holland is very bad; there is just about no music at schools but I went to a conservatory where I learned theory and sight-reading and enjoyed that very much. I also played the recorder from age eight and continued for several years, playing the usual recorder repertoire, including Jacob van Eyck’s “Fluyten Lust-hof” with all the ornamentation. Then puberty hit and I was bored with the recorder. My father passed away when I was 14 and I really wanted to do something else. I picked up the guitar and played bass guitar in a band and then left it for a while. Music was still attracting me but there was nothing I could do really well at that stage.

PH: So how did you get to choral music?

JJvE: When I was 16 and 17 I sang in a church choir for a short time. Then I abandoned that. In the early ‘80s I started singing in choirs again. My sight-reading was still quite good. (Actually, I had only gone to a choir audition to support a friend who was feeling very scared about auditioning.) And then I was asked to help four people who were preparing to sing at a wedding. Helping them learn the material seemed to go easily for me. I enjoyed it very much; it had opened up a new world for me. So following the teacher training course I took, I went to study conducting in Rotterdam, as I had been singing in a choir in Amsterdam conducted by that teacher and I loved the way he worked.

PH: When did you study voice?

JJvE: At the same time, but it was not my main focus. I thought it very important for a choral conductor to be able to sing; I mainly studied singing in order to understand how the instrument works, to be able to show what the mistakes are and how it could be done better. That is why I never settled into one voice part. I think it is useful for a choral conductor to be able to sing in all ranges and, luckily, I have a voice that can do that. When I sing properly I mostly sing countertenor. That feels easiest to my voice.

PH: Have you done solo singing?

JJvE:  I have done a little solo singing. That requires different preparation and I never thought I was good enough to start a solo career. So I have done it where needed – if soloists have dropped out, but not really as a solo career.

PH: When did you actually start appearing as a choral conductor?

JJvE: Quite early on – around 1986.

PH: Have you done orchestral conducting?

JJvE: Yes. At the moment I am working at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam (next to the Anne Frank House), where they have their own orchestra run by Daniel Boothe. We do a Bach cantata service every month at the church.

PH: Tell me more about music in the Westerkerk.

JJvE: We try to get some “mystery guests” from time to time. This year we had Phillipe Jaroussky. We did not publicize the fact and people entering the church were gobsmacked when he walked in. So we had a Bach cantata sung by him. It was wonderful and his fee was not more than what other solo singers would take.

PH: Which ensembles have had the strongest influence on your career?

JJvE: In the very early 1980s, it was the professional English choirs, like The Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen and the Hilliard Ensemble. I thought “this is really good” and I really liked Renaissance music because of its inner balance and incredibly soothing quality; the structure in it is just wonderful – complex and simple at the same time. The way these ensembles on the English scene performed it – led by Paul Hillier, Harry Christophers and others – was opening up a new world for me.

PH: What about the Dutch scene?

JJvE: Yes, but that was later music in the hands of the like of Jos van Feldhoven and Ton Koopman, who are still active today. Actually I am going to work with Ton Koopman this coming Autumn; I will prepare the B-minor Mass with the choir of The Hague Conservatory for him. We will then go on tour to the United States.

PH: What artists or ensembles do you find inspiring?

JJvE: At certain stages in one’s studies or musical career you hear performances that have suddenly sparked off a new idea that carries you on for a few years. Then you hear another one – it’s a string of people, really. For example, at the moment, someone I find very inspirational in the way he sings and works is the German baritone Dietrich Henschel. I work a lot with Paul Phoenix and Charles Daniels, both fantastic singers. I recently did a concert with Daniels and “Vox Luminis” – a Belgian vocal ensemble of young singers. “Vox Luminis” has a new approach – a warm, perhaps less academic- but more human approach; there are some very beautiful voices in it and the members have a very natural way of singing, which I really like.  So I did a Charpentier project with them. It was fantastic to be able to work with them. Another artist who has inspired me is the Dutch baritone Max van Egmond.

PH: Now that the hysteria of the authentic early music movement is behind us, what is your approach to early music performance?

JJvE: The early music movement has been around in the Netherlands for a long time, with the great “rebellion” taking place in the 1970s.  In the past I religiously followed the principle of very clean, transparent singing. I have lost the idea of too “sterile” a sound, now finding a fuller-blooded vocal sound more to my liking.   It is people who are performing and so the individual qualities of these performers should shine through. If we then combine their voices into a unified sound, it becomes more realistic in a way, a more living sound. I have heard early music performances that were absolutely perfect, but so boring, and I didn’t like that. For an example of how I do choral works: in the St. Matthew Passion I did, I did not choose for the mezzo-soprano to sing “Erbarme dich” because it would be too easy, simply too beautiful. I chose the countertenor to sing it because he has to work quite a bit harder to make it work. To me, that is more where it comes from. To me this aria is so related to Peter himself – it is Peter himself speaking, uttering a heart-rending plea; it makes much more sense then when the violin offers him soothing comfort. That adds an extra layer to the music. That is how I now approach performances such as the Matthew and St. John Passions.

PH: Do you broach the subject of vocal vibrato nowadays or do you not?

JJvE: I do, I do, yes When choosing a soloist, I normally choose one who already fits the picture I have for that certain role. For instance, with the B-minor Mass I am presently preparing with students in The Hague, where some of them have a tendency to add vibrato to every note, I ask them not to do it or to limit it, explaining why. A bit of a “fight” sometimes ensues, but vibrato should function as a form of ornamentation, to add warmth to the tone, as a means of expression.

PH: How do you find the attitude of the young musicians you work with to early music?

JJvE: It varies a lot. Those I work with in The Hague have chosen to study early music, so they find it completely normal to work along those principles. In Bulgaria I worked with a professional orchestra of very young players; they told me they all hated Bach. Bach was bad music…all of it! I found this amusing and interesting.  When I then asked them why they had chosen this project that said they wanted to understand why I like it! We started working on the Bach Magnificat and it sounded awful at first; we all agreed it sounded awful. We then started working on the way they were playing – how they were using the bow, where to cut off certain notes, how to make the music more dancelike – and gradually they started understanding the principles, grasping the light transparency of the dance. Actually, they started to like it, begrudgingly admitting that they thought it was good. I like that very much and find these moments the best when they “get it”, not just doing what I say, and then they can do it that way themselves.

PH: Are you coming across different approaches to singing early music?

JJvE: Yes. Working with Bulgarian singers, for example, they come from a different background and they also have different vocal techniques. When they sing early music it is with a different voice and it works differently, but this doesn’t mean it is wrong; it’s just different and this adds to the quality. When you have altos from Bulgaria you won’t find them in western Europe and you won’t find English countertenors in Bulgaria. The original language has an influence on the singer’s voice production, hence a certain fullness and sharpness of tone quality in singers from Russia and eastern Europe.

PH: Do you compose?

JJvE: I used to. I used to write music for theatre productions. That was in the ‘80s. I haven’t written so much for choirs, just a few small anthems.  But in order to write music and bring it out in the world I felt I would need the proper training for it. At the conservatoire we learned about composition and we produced some pieces but I never thought they were good enough. However, at a summer course on new music for singers I introduced one of my own pieces, but not under my own name. This was on purpose because I wanted the singers to feel free to say what they thought. They thought it was a “nice piece”; I never told them it was mine.

PH: On the same subject, do you perform contemporary music?

JJvE: Yes. Not so much, but I do. It was a few years back with my Amsterdam chamber choir, the Lelikoor. For St. Cecilia’s Day we wanted to have a few more new compositions on the subject, so we asked some young poets to write texts and a few young composers to set them to music. That created some interesting pieces, some of which we performed at the concert. (I think two of them will probably not be performed again; they were not good enough…) However, with my chamber choir we perform music from all periods, not so much the big Romantic repertoire because it requires a large orchestra and a different line-up. Most Romantic music is not suitable for a chamber choir, but we have performed Brahms and I do perform Saint Saëns and Ravel.  Of great interest was a work we did by Rudolf Mauersberger; he wrote a piece after the destruction of Dresden, referring to it. He had been leading a boys’ choir there; they lost everything, including some of the boys.

PH: And future plans?

JJvE: In October I am going to conduct Swiss-Dutch composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, a fantastic piece. The Mass was mostly written for himself. Am also going to be doing the Requiem by Ildebrando Pizzetti. I have been asked to work with a composer who is very, very, very post-avant-garde. Am a bit hesitant about doing that, so have not yet said yes.

PH: Do you edit?

JJvE: Yes, I do. Particularly for early music. It’s great fun figuring out the mensural notation. Sometimes you think “How is this possible? Why doesn’t it work?” and it turns out that the same composer has written two settings of that particular piece – one, for instance, in 1591 and then one in 1596 – but both are incomplete. In which case it is impossible to make one edition unless you find out that there are actually two versions of it. It’s like a puzzle…I love it.

PH: Another of your many connections to England is the enquiry you have made into the Eton Choirbook.

JJvE: Yes. Actually, I am going to give a lecture on it in New York in September. The Eton Choirbook is the only choir book in England that never left its college; it has been there from 1500 till now. It is a collection of music which is very particular for that time period, which is before the time the principles of Josquin reached England. It is a post-mediaeval book with Renaissance ideas in it, but not really developed. So it is a very specific sort of style – incredibly complex, incredibly virtuosic. Some of the pieces last 17 or 18 minutes. They are text-based, but it can happen that you sing one syllable over 350 notes…by which time you can’t even remember what word you were singing! That’s where it goes wrong and that’s what they found out – that it was a bit of a cul-de-sac. Things improved when Josquin’s principles reached England; then you get composers like Tallis and Byrd, more familiar names than the likes of Robert Fayrfax, Edmund Turges, Robert Wilkinson and John Browne.

PH: This week you are working on the Monteverdi “Vespers” with many amateurs. Do you enjoy working with amateurs?

JJvE: I do, I do. Yes, and I hope that comes across. I like to explain how things work, I like the development from total chaos into some sort of clarity and I enjoy working with people. In some of the professional choirs I work with I have no contact with the person behind the voice and that’s not really for me.  I need that contact, otherwise I can’t cooperate. Some people are very good at just conducting voices, but I can’t.

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

JJvE: Art. I was trained as an artist – in drawing and architecture. I would like to have more time to spend on the art and to actually be doing some again. I have bought the equipment, so I can start painting again at any moment and I am really looking forward to that moment. On a different level, I am interested in group dynamics – people working in groups of 12, then 24 and then 48 as a balance – and how people feel responsible for their own input in the group or whether they simply take from it without contributing. It is fascinating how that works. Another interest of mine is symbolism; I have come across a lot of symbolism in the Eton Choirbook. It is fascinating to see the meaning is of all the little miniatures in that book; they are artistic and that connects with my interest in art.

PH: Maestro van Elburg, many thanks for your time. It has been most interesting talking to you.