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.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Talking to harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani about performing, the authentic movement, recording and new works for harpsichord

Mahan Esfahani (photo: Bernhard Musil)

On November 2nd 2014 I spoke to harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani at his London home. Born in Tehran in 1984, his father gave him his first piano lessons. He then went on to explore his interest in harpsichord and organ in his teen years. In 2009, Mahan Esfahani made his Wigmore Hall solo debut, then making history with the first solo harpsichord recital ever at the London Proms of 2011. A celebrated soloist and recitalist, Mahan Esfahani has performed much in Britain, Europe, the USA, Canada and Japan.
PH: Mahan Esfahani, what are your earliest musical memories?

 Mahan Esfahani:  My earliest memories are of my father playing on our upright Petrov piano at home in Tehran. I guess I have no memories that are not connected in some way to music. In 1970, Deutsche Grammophon put out a giant set of LPs, which my father bought. It included a lot of Beethoven works - all the symphonies (the bad stuff too, like the “Battle” Symphony) but also works of Verdi. So I grew up hearing a lot of recordings of Klemperer, Ferdinand Leitner (there was the great Leitner recording of “Fidelio”), Wilhelm Kempff, etc.  (This seems ironic today, as I recently signed a contract to record on Deutsche Grammophon!)
PH: So you are from a musical family.

ME: Yes, certainly. On my father’s side, they are all quite artistic: they played music and wrote poetry. My uncle was a painter and my mother is a painter.
PH: Would you like to say something of your early musical training?

 ME: I was five or six and was always asking my father to teach me about music. He taught me some of the rudiments of piano – scales etc. I had such a strong desire to play the piano and could not get enough of it.  After listening to my father’s LPs, I remember once saying to him that I wanted to do “that”. So he taught me to play melodies, like that of the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. When I was probably around six years of age, my father sent me to a piano teacher for lessons. I never needed to be told to practice; in fact, the worst punishment for me was to have the piano locked! I also played the violin from age of nine.
PH: So you did not go to a music school.

ME: No. It was all private lessons. I studied piano throughout my childhood and teen years. At school, I was the musician-clown, playing piano for all the various occasions. However, what I really very much wanted to do was composition. I was really into it when I was about 9 or 10 and all through high school I wrote a lot. Then I discarded most of what I had written, but kept a couple of movements here and there – a couple of movements for string orchestra I had written at age 14 or 15 when we were away on vacation, a few songs, a couple of pieces for piano, a small piece for piano and violin, and some other things. It is all charmingly mediocre.  I never took composition lessons and had nobody to guide me, but I did read books on theory, harmony, modern music and all that.
PH: What kindled your love for the harpsichord?

ME: I was very interested in music history and, at some point, I read a book about an instrument called the harpsichord, found a harpsichord kit, put it together and started playing on the instrument. At age 17, I went off to Stanford University, where I studied Musicology and History. (Actually my parents were intent on my studying medicine, but I really did not want to…which was a bit awkward). In the Music Faculty there were a number of harpsichords. A student friend and I would always meet for dinner on Fridays. My lessons ended around three o’clock and he would study till six. While waiting for him, I would go to listen to the Kirkpatrick’s complete Bach recordings, to a lot of Landowska, Leonhardt, Koopman and Růžičková, George Malcolm and others.  And then I had some lessons. I would contact any harpsichordist coming to San Francisco and ask them for a lesson or two. Well, I was studying Musicology for four years, but, somehow, I was always at the harpsichord practicing. In the corner of the harpsichord room at the university, there was a virginal and I would also play on it. So I just really found my own way into the field. Then there were some summer courses I attended, one of which I took with Ed Parmenteer in Michigan. He talked about ornamentation and that was quite interesting. I took an ornamentation table and put it up in my dorm room and studied it. Then I went to hear British composer Brian Ferneyhough; he lectured on modern music - Serialism and Stockhausen. And I met American composer Lou Harrison, who, of course, has written music for the harpsichord. So I got into modern music, but just on a theoretical basis.
PH: So you finished your undergraduate studies at Stanford. Where did you go from there?

ME: I finished my thesis and moved to Boston, where I began to take private lessons with (Australian-born) harpsichordist Peter Watchorn. And then I worked with Alan Curtis. But of all the harpsichordists I had heard on recordings, I liked Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičkova’s playing the best. She heard some recitals I played and was very encouraging.
PH: How did you start performing?

ME: In 2006 I played a recital in Berkeley, but my first really professional recital - my European debut - was at a festival in Tuscany in 2007. I played a big all-Scarlatti program. Well, I was just 23 and chose to play all the difficult pieces! My performing career just kind-of happened. You give one concert, another concert comes along and then you get called for four concerts…and on it goes until you realize you are making a living from performing. I was, however, never really a part of the “harpsichord circle”.

PH: What does your performance diary look like at the moment?
ME: I play around 75 recitals a year. I’m a recitalist. That’s what I do. I do not really play much chamber music. I don’t play in ensembles but I have played a lot of concertos.

PH: Do you prepare editions?
ME:  Only for my own use. I did, however, orchestrate Bach’s “Art of Fugue” for the Proms a few years ago. I transcribe a few little concert pieces for myself. 

PH: How do you see the solo harpsichord recital stage faring at the moment?
MS:  I would like to see the harpsichord respected as a recital instrument the way the piano and violin are! That’s my goal. If your average concert-goer attends harpsichord recitals as he does piano recitals I will feel I have achieved something. Actually, there have been no problems with the mainstream public. If there has been any resistance, it has been from the harpsichord community itself, which does not accept the harpsichord as a solo instrument…especially when it comes to modern music.

PH: How do you relate to the Authentic Movement?
ME:  I address it with much curiosity. I have always read sources and continue to read them in French, German and Italian.  I think “authentic” is a marketing trick. I believe in authentic performance, but the whole movement has led a lot of people to teach certain mannerisms, resulting in a lot of artists doing exactly the same thing! They seem to have a set of strict rules and anyone who thinks outside of them is shunned.  I think that reading the sources points to the spirit of what this music was supposed to be. I do not want anyone to stand between me and the composer. Well, when working on contemporary music, I often have the composer sitting right next to me by the harpsichord and that is such an advantage!

PH: This brings me to my next question. Do you play much modern and contemporary music?
ME: Yes. I play a lot of modern music on the harpsichord. I think it is wonderful. I also commission works. So I play works by such composers as Poulenc – modern music let’s say – but I also play music of living composers.

PH: What contemporary composers have you played recently?
ME: Well, I recently played a piece by a young British composer called Daniel Kidane. He won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Composer Award and received a commission from the society to write a work for clarinet and piano. He is very good. I have just had a piece sent to me by a German composer called Markus Zahnhausen and am learning a few works by Danish composer Axel Borup-Jørgensen. Then there is Sunleif Rasmussen, another Danish composer. And I have just recorded Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” and Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto for Deutsche Grammophon, coming out in April. 

PH: Do you see playing the harpsichord in today’s concert halls a problem?
ME: No. It has not been an issue till now. Especially for recitals it is a non-issue, in my view.  Modern listeners’ ears become used to the fact that the harpsichord is quieter than a piano. The decay of tone of the harpsichord comes very late and a piano is not that much louder. The piano has a big contrast of sound, which is why you hear it so clearly in a piano concerto. The harpsichord, on the other hand, integrates with the sound of an ensemble.

PH: When you are playing a recital, are you in your own private world of deep concentration or do you sense you are communicating with your audience?
ME: It depends. There are times when a recital is all about communication and there are times when I want nothing more than the audience to just watch me play and I share with them what I am doing for a couple of hours. But sometimes it is a sort of voyeuristic act; the audience is just watching me practice, in a sense.  However, that is also a form of communication. And, of course, performance has got to be about communication. To some extent, I cannot resort to baby talk: I simply have to play the piece for what it is and the people will glean from it what they will, but, now and then, I will underline a point musically. One might resort to unauthentic means to point out something to the listener, and I think that is perfectly fine if the listener gets what the composer is saying.

PH: So how do you feel on stage?
ME: It is probably the only place where I am completely happy. You see, life is much more difficult off stage. On stage it is easy. You do what you want to do. There are no restrictions on stage…for me, at least. You know, I just do what I want. I take a lot of risks; sometimes they work, sometimes they really do not work.

PH: In which case, recording must be a very different ball-game.
ME: Of course it is. You have got to commit something to disc which can bear listening to again and again and again. That is difficult.

PH: Do you find yourself compromising when you record?
ME: Rather than say “compromise”, I would prefer to say “I acknowledge that what you hear on the recording is simply the decision I made at that time”, whereas in recitals, I will make different decisions every time on some things; but there are some things that are obviously fixed – there are fixed variables, fixed posts and there are variables.  In recitals, some decisions depend on what I pick up from the audience and sometimes I might just decide to try something new that day. The performer, the interpreter, if you like, especially in Baroque music  (but actually in all music) has a sort-of position of co-creator with the composer and that will change as I think of new things, discover new things or realize certain mistakes. I think there is a tacit agreement between listener and performer that there are no fixed interpretations. Unfortunately, in the age of recordings, we assume otherwise, but that is just not tenable.

PH: Let’s go back to your composing. Have you returned to it?
ME:  Yes. a little…for enjoyment.

PH: Do you do anything with oriental music?
ME: Yes.  Am very interested in Eritrean music and have been transcribing a lot of their folk music. I also like listening to Turkish music – classical Turkish singing, Ottoman court music, actually.  This is a new-found interest; I like non-western music. I am very keen on Bartok’s music and have started to write some music inspired by Bartok’s style but based on Eritrean music.  These are still early days of my composing, but one is always looking for new material.   And living in London means being in a diverse city; as it happens, I live in an area where there are a lot of Africans.  It is really interesting seeing and hearing their culture.  

PH: What composers are you performing at the moment?
ME: A lot of Rameau, whose complete works I recorded for the Hyperion label; that recording was released last month. Am also playing pieces of Johann Christian Bach, Friedemann Bach, Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach… I happen to be performing the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 tomorrow for the London Bach Society. I am also busy with a work by the modern Czech composer Viktor Kalabis  and a concerto by Hugo Distler, which is really great; also a piece by Jørgensen, whom I mentioned before, and some music by modern French composer Maurice Ohana. Oh yes, and I am transcribing a Bach concerto to be played by mandolin player Avi Avital and myself!

PH: I wanted to ask you about your conducting.
ME: I tried it for a while. It is not my thing. I could be a middling conductor, but as a harpsichordist I feel I could really do something.

PH: What does your average day look like?
ME: I get up around 7 or 7:30, have tea, practise, take a walk, practise, have lunch, practise, more tea, practise, go to the gym., have dinner, then play a concert or go to a concert or play for an hour to an hour and a half before bed.

PH: Do you play fortepiano?
ME: No.

PH: Have you totally left the piano?
ME: I would love to have a piano in the house at some point. Do you know what I would play on it? I would play show tunes – I have a couple of books of Warner Bros. pieces - and some cabaret songs. I would have friends over to sing them…and some Kurt Weill.

PH: What are your future plans?
ME: There are a few big commissions coming up. Then there is a big concert of modern harpsichord music. I shall be spending the next year working on (although not performing) some Scarlatti from a manuscript that has recently been discovered. I am also doing research for a book project on Landowska. And in April, as I mentioned earlier, my first Deutsche Grammophon CD will be issued - the Bach Concerto in D minor, Gorecki, Steve Reich…

PH: An interesting mix.
ME: Yes.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?
ME: I read a lot. I really like Russian literature - Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, for example, As well as a picture of Bach on my wall I also have one of Tolstoy there.

PH: Do you read them in Russian?
ME: No. I read their books in English, but am going to be studying Russian pretty soon. I travel, also for fun. And I like other cultures. They have so much to offer, not just in language…but also clothing, cuisine, and so on. I like that. When I was a kid I used to go to the airport just to see different kinds of people. I am simply interested in other people.

PH: Mahan Esfahani, many thanks for your time and for sharing so many ideas and experiences.







Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Talking to baritone Yair Polishook about his new Israeli Baroque opera project

Yair Polishook (photo:Dana Pomerni)
On March 11th 2017, I spoke to baritone Yair Polishook in Tel Aviv about his new “crowd-funding” campaign for a new Baroque opera ensemble in Israel. A singer familiar to lovers of opera and oratorio, Polishook’s main focus today is opera, both as a soloist in the Israeli Opera and in foreign opera productions. (He recently performed in a double bill of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Charpentier’s “Actéon” with “Les Talens lyriques” in France under Christophe Rousset.) Yair teaches a little, but has set his sights at conducting. During his studies at the Trinity College of Music (London), he conducted a production of “Dido and Aeneas”.

PH: I understand you have a new project. How did it all begin?

Yair Polishook: The Israeli Bach Soloists ensemble, directed by Sharon Rosner, was disbanded over four years ago. We performed (mostly) Bach works, according to the theory that there were few singers and no choir performing them. This was highly interesting work for us as soloists and as a group. I have been wondering where we should go from there and what ensemble we could form that would be no less interesting. What interests me in particular is opera, so I approached some of my colleagues from the IBS and other singers from the Israeli Opera, with the aim of establishing a Baroque opera ensemble, in which each artist would have the chance of expressing himself/herself to the maximum.

PH: Would you need a large number of singers?

YP: No.  Baroque operas may sometimes require that, but we have found that working with a small ensemble creates a more organic and interesting group…more interesting both to singers and audience. In my opinion, a smaller group makes for more dramatic impact – each singer plays a character in the plot. And I am a “stage creature”; I love theatre (and music, of course) so my world is the world of opera. There are so many Baroque operas, of which not many are performed in Israel; what also interests us is authentic, historically informed performance.

PH: So, no opera chorus?

YP: Well, it is clear that Telemann meant there to be a choir, but we will work only with soloists to try to create this more engaging experience.

PH: Who have you approached?

YP: Daniela Skorka, Einat Aronstein, Shahar Levi, Alon Harari, Guy Pelc and Oded Reich, a real team of “all stars”.

PH: Who will conduct the ensemble?

YP: That will be my job. I studied conducting in high school and then with Mendi Rodan and Avner Biron at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. So, I am interested in extending that side of my career. For the ensemble’s first program I will not be singing but conducting. But it may be that we will sometimes work as an ensemble without a conductor.

PH: What will the company be called?

YP: The Orpheus Opera Ensemble. I chose this name, as the first opera we want to produce will be Telemann’s “The Wonderful Constancy of Love, or Orpheus”.

PH: Would you like to say a few words about the work?

YP: Yes. It is a splendid work that was only discovered in the 1970s. Tel Aviv University has performed some parts of it, but the complete opera has not been staged in Israel. Only two recordings of it exist; so, you could say the work is not well known at all! It’s time to perform it. One of its greatest moments is the aria of lament Orpheus sings after Eurydice has died for the second time, as he has not managed to release her from the nether world. Apart from the music, the opera is very interesting: there is an extra character – the Thracian queen Orasia, who is always full of complaints, hence her extravagant tirade arias… The main character, it is she who sets the whole plot in motion. She is in love with Orpheus and sends a snake to bite Eurydice, thus banishing Eurydice to the nether world. And not just Orasia – all the female characters are strong women, so this is definitely no chauvinistic opera! The opera is based on a libretto by Michel du Boullay. The libretto Telemann used was written by Louis Lully (son of Jean-Baptiste). In aristocratic circles of Telemann’s time, people were interested in multilingual culture, the result being that in this opera the recitatives are in German; some of the arias are also in German but there are also arias in Italian and in French…and each in the musical style of its language! The Italian arias sound like Händel’s Italian style, the French arias closer to the style of Lully.  Telemann also knew Rameau and the queen’s very moving final aria could be have been influenced by Rameau’s style. So, in wishing to keep up with the taste of contemporary society and please his audience, Telemann has compiled an opera that is nevertheless quite organic and very compelling.  

PH: Who will do stage direction?

YP: Shirit Lee Weiss, whom I have known since 2010, when we were working together in Menotti’s “The Telephone” and have worked together ever since in productions of the Meitar Opera Studio and the Israeli Opera. She is outstanding in guiding each singer to understand the character being portrayed, and, on the other hand, seeing the opera in its larger meaning.

PH: And instrumentalists?

YP: We have decided to collaborate with “Camera XV”, an ensemble formed at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv), a group only existing for some five years, and running its own programs. Half of the ensemble has departed for studies further afield, so we are enlisting some more fine players – Tali Goldberg, Smadar Schidlovski, Daniel Tanchelson, Inbar Navot, Marina Minkin, Netta Huebscher, Inbar Solomon, Yigal Kaminka, Amir Bakman and Nadav Ovadia.

PH: And a home for the company?

YP: We have decided to be totally independent, in order to show what we can do. I hope that, in time, once we are up and running, we will have a permanent “home” in which we can work. We are presently looking for a place in Tel Aviv.

PH: What for you will be of prime importance?

YP: Communication with the audience. I am there to speak to my audience, an audience very different to that of Telemann’s time. The most communicative element is theatre. Music can be very beautiful, but I want interesting characters and opera narrative that will be fascinating and attractive.

PH: When do you intend to debut the company?

YP: Next season, i.e.2017-2018.

PH: So how can we help the ensemble get onto its feet?

YP: By going into Headstart, a site helping a variety of individual projects to get established. The idea is very simple: as yet, we have no budget or donors, but instead of waiting for them to appear, we want to ask people to buy tickets ahead of time for our first performance, to pay its expenses (lighting, sets, etc.) and to know that we have enough people interested in coming to hear us. You might call it reversing the order of things. A single ticket costs NIS 150, two purchased together will cost NIS 250. It is an opportunity to support us and believe in what we want to achieve. And we have some other interesting options: you might like to try a voice lesson, a conducting lesson (buy a ticket and lesson together), attend an open rehearsal (always interesting) or engage a private performance for some special occasion – 40 minutes of music with two singers, for example.

It’s very simple: you go into the site, there is a film clip about us. You buy your tickets and, most important,  when purchasing tickets your credit card will not be charged…only if we reach the amount we need to start the ensemble. But time is short: we have only to the  end of March to achieve our goal!

PH: Thanks for the information, Yair. I wish you all much success in the venture!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Talking to violinist and teacher Grigory Kalinovsky at the 2017 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Photo: Anna Kari

On February 4th 2017 I spoke to violinist Russian-born Grigory Kalinovsky at the Dan Eilat Hotel, where he was performing at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival and also tutoring some young outstanding violinists taking part in master classes. Hailed by the Vancouver Sun as a “superior poet” and by Gramophone for his “heart and indominable will”, Grigory Kalinovsky studied at the Manhattan School of Music, becoming a member of faculty there on graduation and prior to his move to Indiana. A devoted educator, he is professor of violin at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, teaches at international summer festivals and holds master classes across the USA, Europe and Asia. Performing as a soloist and chamber musician, he collaborates with such artists as Pinchas Zuckerman, Shmuel Ashkenasi, Ralph Kirshbaum, Miriam Fried, Dora Schwarzberg and Paul Coletti. He has recorded with pianist Tatiana Goncharova. Their Shostakovich CD for Centaur Records was hailed by Maxim Shostakovich as a “must-have for any Shostakovich connoisseur.”

PH: Grigory Kalinovsky, is it your first time playing at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival?

Grigory Kalinovsky: Yes, it is my first appearance at the Eilat Festival, but certainly not my first visit to Israel. For several years now I have been giving master classes at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music and the Israel Conservatory of Music as well as at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

PH: What was your earliest musical experience?

GK: My father was an opera singer in Leningrad and, from age four, I had a teacher come to teach me music at home…not any specific instrument – solfege and ear-training and a little piano. When I was five I started violin lessons. I went to a neighbourhood music school, where I had a wonderful teacher – Tatiana Liberova- with whom I studied till I left Russia in 1989, emigrating to New York.

PH: Did you study in New York?

GK: Yes, I did conservatory studies with Pinchas Zuckerman and Patinka Kopec at the Manhattan School of Music, finishing my bachelor’s degree as well as my master’s with them.

PH: I understand you started teaching quite early on.

GK: Yes. I have always loved teaching. I first started teaching privately, then joined the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program and then taught in the college program, teaching there till about three and a half years ago, when I left for Indiana.

PH: Let’s talk about your performing. Are you currently soloing more or playing chamber music?

GK: Recitals and chamber music. I haven’t played solo with orchestra in a while. It takes too much time and effort (with three kids and 22 students!)

PH: Here, at the Eilat Festival, you figured prominently in chamber music concerts. Would you like to talk about your chamber music involvement?

GK: I got most of my chamber music training after graduating, basically playing with other teachers at chamber music festivals. In Russia, there was not much training in chamber music. So, I was lacking the skills, but picked them up pretty quickly and I love playing chamber music more than anything else. Now I play chamber music at the school and at festivals I am invited to attend.

PH: Do you have permanent groups with which you play?

GK: I did have a permanent group in New York. We had a clarinet quartet (clarinet, violin, ‘cello, piano). Over the years, we played in different combinations – clarinet trios, violin trios, etc.

PH: Playing here at the festival, how well did you know these other musicians?

GK: I met all for the first time here.

PH: How much rehearsing did you do?

GK: The standard number of rehearsals for a festival: there were two (with Amir Katz) for the Schumann A-minor Sonata op.105 and three for the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A-minor op.50 (Amir Katz - piano, Hillel Zori - ‘cello) we had three…well, two rehearsals and one run-through. But the artists do know the pieces. It works if people are experienced chamber music players, know the works and can “read” each other.  Of course, there are pieces you can’t put together like that. But, in the case of the Tchaikovsky Trio, for example, if you know what you are doing it “plays itself”. I have to say that the colleagues were amazing! Amir Katz is a superb pianist and how inspiring it was to play next to Hillel Zori’s ‘cello sound.

PH: Would you like to talk about your current work as a recitalist?

GK: Yes. Nowadays, I mostly give recitals in conjunction with master classes at Indiana University or at summer festivals. Next week I will be in Oklahoma to run a master class and to play a recital with my good friend Tatiana Goncharova – we played together for over twenty years while I was living in New York. On my way back to the USA, am flying through New York, will have a 6-hour layover there to have a rehearsal with Ms. Goncharova in Manhattan, then flying back home. (Have never tried rehearsing after a 12-hour flight!) Then we meet again in Oklahoma. Then I have another recital coming up with her at Indiana University.

PH: And I understand you have a recording with Ms. Goncharova coming out soon.

GK: Yes. It will come out in March on the Naxos label. It includes all the sonatas for violin and piano by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). Weinberg was a Polish Jew who fled to Russia, where he spent the rest of his life. He was a very close friend of Shostakovich and a protégé of his. Shostakovich considered him one of the most important composers of his generation. Many years ago, my father actually sang in one of his operas! I have a newspaper clipping of Shostakovich’s article on the premiere, in which he mentions my father’s name.

PH: Can you say a few words about the Weinberg sonata project?

GK: For various technical reasons, the CD is only coming out now, but we actually recorded it in 2010 It is very good music. Of course, when you take music written over a composer’s lifetime, there must be some unevenness of quality. We start with opus 12, the last work on the CD being written 10 years before Weinberg passed away. But it is all very interesting music, very diverse. The last piece – Sonata No.6 – was only discovered when I was already starting the project: I received a letter from the publishers to say they had just discovered a manuscript - Sonata No.6 -  in the archives. So, nobody had ever seen the music. In fact, when I started looking at it I saw things that were not actually playable. It was clear Weinberg had not worked on it with any performer. It was typeset for me and we figured out a few small changes to make it playable. I did not go for technically easy solutions, but, as I said before, there were just a few things that were simply not possible on the instrument. It is an absolutely incredible piece, written on the death of his mother – probably the most unique of the pieces, very short…under 10 minutes, very dark, very profound. It begins with a violin solo of a page and a half of running eighth notes (with different harmonies). It took me a while to realize what this was: one of those sensations when you lie awake at night and hear all the clocks in the house.  By the way, a lot of his sonatas have big piano solos – of several minutes – unusual for such sonatas.

PH: Was Weinberg a pianist?

GK: Yes. He studied as a pianist at the Warsaw Conservatory.   To write something that complex for piano he would have to be. Sonata No.4 starts with a three-minute-or-so piano solo. Sonata No.5, dedicated to Shostakovich, has a huge piano cadenza (Shostakovich’s Violin and Piano Sonata does, as well!)

PH: What else have you recorded with Tatiana Goncharova?

GK: The other CD we did a few years before that was the Shostakovich disc you mentioned above in the introduction. It includes Shostakovich’s Sonata for violin and piano and transcriptions of the opus 34 Piano Preludes. Nineteen were transcribed by violinist Tsyganov, who was a close friend of Shostakovich. I commissioned the remaining five from Lera Auerbach, who is one of today’s most prominent composers.

PH: Do you yourself play new music?

GK: Sometimes.  I have played some of Lera’s music, for example. Also, at Indiana University, I played two concerts of music of university composers – a work by Don Freund and another by Claude Baker, both wonderful pieces.

PH: What about Baroque music?

GK: Well, I teach it, obviously. No violinist can do without studying Bach. I haven’t performed Baroque music in a while. Before leaving New York, I did a Vivaldi concert in the Zankel Hall of Carnegie Hall. However, the older I get the more I appreciate the authentic style of playing…when it is done well. I feel like you have to know what you are doing in order to do it properly. I don’t have a Baroque violin, but I did buy three Baroque bows for my studio so my students to try them, see how it feels and get an idea of the Baroque idiom.

PH: What is your opinion of the standard of performance in the Eilat Chamber Music Festival?

GK: It is of a very high level. Wonderful concerts. What I heard was very inspiring. Really great musicians.

PH: You were also tutoring young players in Eilat. What age group were you teaching?

GK: The whole spread: one 10-year-old girl from St. Petersburg, then a 17-year-old Israeli boy (who is actually auditioning to study with me in Indiana), a university-age student of Hagai Shaham (Tel Aviv) and a girl of similar age from Malaga, Spain.

PH: How many lessons did each student on the program receive?

GK: Officially, we were supposed to give each student three lessons, but I gave them four where I could. They came with works prepared. It was a kind of master class, which is all you can do in such a short time span.

PH: What violin do you play?

GK: My current instrument is a late-1690s (Italian) Gioffredo Cappa violin. I have had it for 12 or 13 years. I use a Sartory bow. I have also just commissioned a violin from Collin Gallahue (USA), a wonderful contemporary maker I just met this last summer. I was very impressed with his work.  He is a student of the great violin builder Zygmuntowicz. I have always wanted to have a great contemporary instrument I could loan to my students for when they have an important performance. And at some point, many years down the line, I will retire and want to sell my Cappa, so it would be great to have another inspiring instrument to play. There is a three-year waiting period for a Gallahue instrument and I am looking forward to seeing the result!

PH: Professor Kalinovsky, it has been wonderful hearing your concerts at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival and most interesting talking to you. Thank you for finding the time in your busy schedule here.