Thursday, October 5, 2017

Singer and conductor Eamonn Dougan is researching, performing and recording Polish Baroque church music. We met to talk in in Ludlow, UK

Maestro Eamonn Dougan (photo: Peachtree Photography)
On August 16th 2017 I met with Eamonn Dougan in Ludlow, Shropshire, England. An inspirational director and renowned baritone, he is fast emerging as a leading conductor of the younger generation. Eamonn Dougan read music at New College, Oxford, before continuing his vocal and conducting studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Informed by his singing, Eamonn is an engaging communicator with a particular passion for Bach, the French Baroque and 20th century English repertoire, including MacMillan. Today he serves as the associate conductor of the world-renowned vocal ensemble “The Sixteen”.

PH: If I understand correctly, you have a great interest in Polish Baroque music and have made a deep study of it. Would you like to talk about it?

ED: Yes. This is a project I have been running with The Sixteen. It came about when we were approached by a Polish artistic foundation, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (Mickiewicz was a Polish literary figure). It was the institute’s initiative. They sent over some scores to The Sixteen. We had a look at them and decided it would be a worthwhile project. It has actually turned out to be far more than that and has gone from strength to strength: this is repertoire of real worth and music that nobody, certainly in the UK, has ever come across before, except for maybe some violin pieces by Mielczewski. I had never come across Pękiel or Gorczycki or Mielczewski, nor the Italians Pacelli and Bertolusi. Giovanni Francesco Anerio and Luca Marenzio, who spent time in Poland, are fairly known names. It’s interesting to discover that there was a whole swarm of Italians who went and worked in Poland. I have researched the programs alongside a very fine Polish musicologist - Barbara Przybyszewska-Jarmińska. She has been wonderful in helping me devise the programs and in providing scores. I would say she is the world authority on Polish music of this period; she has written an important book about music in Poland in this time. So, with her guiding me, it has been a valuable experience exploring this music...a voyage of discovery.

PH: And you have done several recordings of it.

ED: Yes. Five volumes now and I think it is true to say that there has been a premiere recording on each disc. There is also an incredible story about one of the Marenzio Masses on the disc titled “Helper and Protector”. Till recently, the Missa super “Iniquos odio habui” was familiar only in the form of the Kyrie and Gloria movements, preserved in sources that were produced in Protestant environments and adapted to their needs. The first recording of the whole cycle of the Ordinary, including the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, has been made possible thanks to a copy from 1603 originating from Silesia which, from the 19th century until 1945, was part of a large collection of music manuscripts from the 16th and 17th centuries held in the Stadtbibliothek in Wroclaw. That collection, which after World War II was considered lost, was appropriated by the Soviet authorities and, during the 1950s, secretly transferred to the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz in former East Berlin. Declassified since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is now accessible to scholars and musicians.

PH: Eamonn, where were you born?

ED: I was born in Bromley, Kent. Both my parents are Irish but I was born in the UK, so I have a foot in both camps.  

PH: Are you from a musical family?

ED: After a fashion, yes. There are no other professional musicians, but my mother was, by all accounts, an excellent singer when she was younger and my father was a chorister in the Armagh Cathedral. Music was always on the record-player at home.

PH: What were your own early music experiences?

ED: I started piano lessons at quite an early age. Music was always something that has brought me comfort; it is always what I turn to, the most constant thing in my life. It has always been there. I was at a school in southeast London, not a specifically musical school.

PH: When did you do your serious career training?

ED: It all really started when I went to university: I was lucky enough to win a place to read Music at New College, Oxford, and I received a choral scholarship to sing in the chapel choir there, which is a very renowned institution. I sang under the directorship of Edward Higginbottom, and that is where it all began for me. He was an inspiration and, without doubt, I would not be doing what I do today if it were not for him. There, I did three years as an undergraduate and choral scholar. Once I finished my degree I didn’t feel ready to leave Oxford - I had too much going on, having set up various groups: I had a group I was conducting that was doing some really interesting things, exploring music of the French Baroque, which was a particular passion of mine; this was also Edward’s great speciality, so he was helping me with that. I stayed on in Oxford for a further two years, singing as a lay clerk. Then I met a wonderful singing teacher - Susan McCulloch. She encouraged me to apply to the Guildhall School of Music in London to do postgraduate vocal studies there and I was lucky enough to get in, where I did two years of study.

PH: When did you actually start singing professionally?

ED: The great thing about being at New College was that we sang six days out of seven - a real crash course. Your musical standards just rise within weeks. That was incredible training. I had not sung at anywhere near that level till I got there. We were working with Christopher Hogwood, René Jacobs - singing for great conductors - as well as for Edward. It was work on a highly professional standard. We were also singing with the Academy of Ancient Music, the King’s Consort and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

PH: When did you begin conducting?

ED: I had started conducting at school, actually. I don’t really know how it began. I just felt this urge to do it and I would go to our local library, which had a music hire section. I would take scores out, also taking home recordings of the works. So, I started looking at such scores as the Duruflé Requiem, the Mozart Requiem and the Fauré Requiem...

PH: Did you study conducting?

ED: Not at that stage. That came later.

PH: After Oxford, I believe you started your London career as a lay clerk in London.

ED: Yes. I started singing in- and deputising in various churches. That’s how you start to get onto the circuit. I then joined some of the smaller groups around London. That helped to support me through my studies at the Guildhall School as well. When I left Guildhall, I couldn’t make ends meet just from singing, so I took a teaching job as well...teaching as a peripatetic singing teacher a couple of days a week. I then got a job conducting a chamber choir. It was a real “portfolio career”. You often find young musicians will perform, teach and do whatever. I had a good church job at the Brompton Oratory in London for six years; it is a huge Catholic church with a fine choral tradition, located right next to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I met quite a lot of colleagues there who were coming in deputising. That, in turn through people I met there, led to colleagues suggesting to Harry Christophers, director of The Sixteen, that he take me into the group. I came into The Sixteen as a deputy, started working with them and was lucky enough that a space came up in the group and Harry asked me to join. After a couple of years, he made me his assistant conductor and then I became the associate conductor.

PH: What about your solo singing?

ED: Well, that is something that has very much taken a back seat over the last few years. I used to do a lot of it, but have kind-of made a pragmatic decision that I am now focusing on conducting. That is where I see my future. You can spread yourself too thin. I used to sing quite a bit of opera as well and, ten years ago, made a decision to stop doing that, too. Once I started conducting more and really wanting to focus on that, I thought I couldn’t be all these different things. That’s when I cut the opera out. Over the last four-or-so years, my solo work has really dropped off as well. But that’s all right. I’m okay with that because conducting is what I do now.

PH: Let’s go back to the question of your studying conducting. Where did you do that?

ED: On the job. Initially. Edward was my big influence. People used to tell me that I looked like him when I conducted...that I conducted like him, that is. You pick it up “on the street”, so to speak. I had worked for some great conductors, but also some people who aren’t very good conductors; so, hopefully, that way you learn what not to do as well. But I reached a point where I knew I didn’t have the conducting technique that I needed and, as I was starting to do some bigger repertoire with orchestra as well, I felt I needed some help. Fortuitously, I met Martyn Brabbins when I chorus-mastered for him at the St. Endellion Festival in Cornwall. He was conducting “Death in Venice” when I chorus-mastered for him. Meeting him was another life-changing moment. He is one of the most phenomenally, technically gifted conductors I know of, as well as being a wonderful man. I watched him rehearse for two weeks. After the first performance, I said to him: “I want to learn to do what you can do.” For many years, Martyn has been running a conducting course as part of the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney (the festival was founded by Peter Maxwell Davies). He suggested I come to study there with him in Orkney, which I did, attending an intensive two-week course doing proper symphonic repertoire - Beethoven Symphony No.1, Brahms No.2, Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”, Debussy’s “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune”, Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture - big stuff I had never encountered before as a conductor.

PH: He was clearly a big influence on your professional career.

ED: Yes. I have been extraordinarily lucky with the artists who have seriously influenced my life: Edward Higginbottom, Susan McCulloch (the singing teacher with whom I studied for ten years) and singing teacher Robert Dean (who has been similarly life-changing). I met Harry Christophers and have worked very closely with him. He has been a huge influence for me and a real mentor figure. And then, as I mentioned, I met Martyn Brabbins. I feel these five people have really shaped who I am musically today.

PH: We talked about your interest in Baroque music, but I understand you do also conduct 20th century and new music.

ED: Yes. I have always tried to make sure that I don’t do just early music and I have actually conducted quite a few world premieres of new works - works by Gabriel Jackson (with The Sixteen), Eriks Esenvalds and Nico Muhly, the latter two with Britten Sinfonia. In the coming weeks, I am going to be conducting the world premiere of a piece by Thomas Hyde at a festival in Belgium. The whole festival will be based around Magnificat settings. We commissioned a Magnificat from him for The Sixteen and will be highlighting it alongside some older settings of the text. Tom and I were actually at school together. Even as a young lad, he was obsessed with composing. He is now a professional composer and a fellow at King’s College, London, also teaching at Oxford University. And now, some 25 or 30 years after meeting him again, I commissioned him to write a piece I am premiering with The Sixteen.

A lot of performance of new music has come through The Sixteen. We are very lucky to have a close association with composer James MacMillan which, especially over the last few years, has been a joy to develop. About three years ago, James set up his own festival - the Cumnock Tryst - in his hometown of Cumnock in Ayrshire, up in Scotland. I have been directing the Festival Chorus there for the last three years and am going back in October to do another year. The Sixteen has a training scheme for young singers, called Genesis Sixteen, supported by the Genesis Foundation; it is run by philanthropist John Studzinski. A patron of the arts, he has been supporting The Sixteen and funding this training course. So, for the past three years, I have taken a group of Genesis Sixteen singers up to Cumnock Tryst and they have performed there, either as soloists with the Festival Chorus or doing a program on their own. James wrote a piece for us which we premiered there. It was amazing to do a MacMillan premiere. Next year I am going to be conducting the world premiere of a big piece he is writing for brass band, string quartet, the Festival Chorus and tenor Ian Bostridge. It is hugely exciting to be lined up to conduct a work like that.

PH: This week you are in Ludlow directing mostly amateur singers at a Lacock choral course. Do you like working with amateurs?

ED: It is something I have always done. I do love it and get a lot out of it. I like to work hard and I like to work people hard - that’s what I am here to do. I’m enjoying this week, because I like sharing this Polish Baroque church music, music that not many other people do. I think that’s part of my job with this music, to spread the word of it. Being a singer and having studied singing for so many years now, I love working with singers. I feel I know how to make improvements for people. I know what I am talking about. I know what’s “under the bonnet”. It’s about speaking the right language and, because of the wonderful teachers I have had - Sue McCulloch and Robert Dean - I feel I have been extremely well taught and it’s lovely to be able to impart that knowledge to people and help them improve their singing, whatever standard they are at. It is very gratifying for me when you give an exercise and you can hear the improvement immediately.

PH: Do you write in words?

ED: I don’t have that much cause to, really, but I enjoy it when I do it. The most recent things I have had to write are the liner notes for the Polish CDs we have been recording. But most of my time is taken up with learning music and a great deal of administration. When you are a conductor, 90 per cent of your time is actually spent in setting things up, rather than actual music-making! So, the time spent in music-making is to be cherished.

PH: Where do you stand vis-à-vis the Authentic Movement?

ED: long have you got? I have been brought up with it. It has changed a lot in the last twenty years if I think back to when I was a student, working with Chris Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I think when you have the opportunity to perform this music with all the right elements - the appropriate bows and violins, instruments strung the correct way -  then it is wonderful, but I am not exclusive at all. I’m very happy to do Bach on modern instruments. My preference would be to do it with period instruments, but I am by no means exclusive. I’m not a musicologist, but I’m not a purist either. For me, it is much more important to just be doing the music and, honestly, I’m not enough of a specialist. There is a lot more I need to learn about the whole Authentic Movement in terms of doing stuff with instruments, but I’m very happy to be guided on that by people who know more than I. So, this week having David Hatcher guiding the instrumentalists has been fantastic. He has taken a lot of things I have suggested and actually changed some of them because he has a better idea of what instruments work well with which parts. For the Polish recordings, I go to the experts and get their opinions on how to do things. I would much rather ask their opinion and tap into their expertise.

PH: You perform many different kinds of music. Do you have any preferences?

ED: Put it this way: for me, the greatest music to perform is that of Bach. I can’t go a year without doing performances of Bach.

PH: When it isn’t music, what interests you?

ED: My children, my wife. I’ve got a young family - two boys. One is seven, the other two. My wife is a singer as well. She is busy. It is important for us to make time for the family. Quite simply, that’s where I spend the rest of my time.

PH: Maestro Eamonn Dougan, it has been most interesting talking to you. Many thanks for making time during this very busy week of music-making.