Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Talking to Norwegian tuba player Øystein Baadsvik about his career playing solo music on the tuba

Photo: Geir Mogen, Dimensions

On Tuesday January 3rd 2016 I spoke to Øystein Baadsvik in Trondheim, Norway, where he lives. Øystein Baadsvik’s career is exclusively as a tuba soloist. A player with an amazing virtuoso technique, his international career began in 1991 when he was awarded two prizes at the prestigious Geneva International Music Competition. Baadsvik performs with orchestras worldwide, appearing regularly at international music festivals. He has been enjoying playing in duos and small ensembles, also collaborating with jazz- and rock musicians.

PH:  How did you, the player of one of the bass orchestral instruments, become a tuba soloist?

 Øystein Baadsvik: I started off as an orchestral player, that’s true, and that’s primarily what the tuba was invented to do, but I was later inspired hearing very nice tuba-playing by, for example, Michael Lind in Sweden and Americans Harvey Phillips and Roger Bobo. Hearing them prompted me to pursue the melodic qualities of the instrument. There is a certain misunderstanding - that the tuba is limited by its size and design. You would normally think that you cannot do a lot on the instrument, because it was designed to be a bass instrument. Well, it happens to just be a piece of metal and this piece of metal is actually more constricted by your own mindset than it is by the laws of physics. That is the reason  we do not hear so many players performing solos on the tuba: either they simply do not want to do it, or they don’t practise enough to be able to, or they are simply happy playing the orchestral role. So, as with a lot of other things, it is mostly in your head, I would say.

PH: Is soloing on tuba accepted by conductors or orchestras?

ØB: Not always by those who haven’t yet experienced good solo playing on the tuba. It’s very, very new historically. For example, the first major tuba concerto was written in 1954 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Then you have compositions by Paul Hindemith, Penderecki, John Williams (famous for his movie music) and by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, who has also written a famous trumpet concerto. Arutiunian writes very Romantic music. To answer your question, the instrument is much associated with tutti playing that many conductors are simply not aware of its qualities as a solo instrument.

PH: Is there enough repertoire to make a solo career viable?

ØB: A lot of people think there must be very little written for tuba solo, but if I were to play a marathon concert, performing everything that has been written for solo tuba from the 1950s up to now, I would probably be playing a concert lasting many weeks without stopping. There is so much music, but, as with violin music, for example, not all the repertoire has passed the test of time, eventually leaving works by the way to be forgotten. I think that, for tuba players, we are now in that process, with a lot of composers writing music for us. Much of it will probably not survive hundreds of years, but there are some really great composers writing for the tuba and some of the music being written now will accumulate to become the classical repertoire people will associate with the instrument.

PH: Mr. Baadsvik, what was your earliest musical experience?

ØB: I think it must have been my mother playing trumpet as an amateur trumpeter in a wind band in Norway. She used to practise at home and that is something I heard very, very early in my life.

PH: So, you are from a musical family.

ØB: Yes, I would say so. Both amateurs, my grandfather used to play the tuba and my father sang and played guitar. So, I would say that I got a lot of music through my family. I am the first to be a professional musician…so far.

PH: How did you begin your early musical training?

ØB: At age 10, I started playing the euphonium (like a tuba, only a little smaller), an instrument used widely in wind bands.  For some reason, it didn’t click with me, not working out as others and I had hoped it would. Maybe I was too young to understand the beauty of music at that time or I was physically unsuited to play it, or there could have been other reasons. So, I stopped that after two years. Three years on, at age 15, I was given the opportunity to play the tuba in a wind orchestra. That was the only available instrument, so it was the tuba or nothing. I accepted the offer and, two years after that, I started playing in the Norwegian National Youth Orchestra, beginning to play more and more solos and winning a few solo competitions. It was now clear that I was very well suited to the tuba… it was a very, very good match.  I think my singing voice suits the tuba very well, as does the way I think in musical terms and I had a very good teacher. He was a very accomplished tuba player in the Norwegian Military Band here in Trondheim – Elvind Rise – and, after that, I was taught by a very fine player from the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra – Reidar Nilsen. What was important with Nilsen was that he had connections all over Europe: he knew how the tuba was played in Germany, how it was played in England etc., and he was able to get these ideas across to me. I think that aspect of performance is getting easier nowadays: with Internet, for example, a young player can follow what other people are doing the other side of the planet. I think this is a good thing.

PH: When did you start performing in public?

ØB: Very early on. I think I did my first solo concert just one year after I had started playing the tuba. It was in the countryside outside Trondheim, where I grew up – a small town of about 2000 inhabitants. Despite its size, the town had four wind bands, two choirs and a number of traditional fiddle orchestras as well! So, almost everyone in the village played an instrument or sang – a very vivid musical environment.

PH: Where did you take higher studies?

ØB: In 1986, I moved to Sweden to study with Michael Lind. There, I was working in a symphony orchestra, starting off my solo career (I met my wife there), then moving back to Norway after almost ten years. Actually, I only studied with Lind for a short period of time, but took a lot of private lessons with other teachers; I went to the USA and studied with Harvey Phillips, Roger Bobo and other very accomplished tuba players there. John Fletcher (UK) was one of my mentors.

PH: Did these teachers encourage your solo career, or did they see you as most tuba players in symphony orchestras?

 ØB: Actually, I picked my teachers carefully, choosing those who had had solo experience from before, teachers who respected that kind of playing. This is not always the attitude of tuba players: some see solo work as a side interest for your spare time, but not anything to pursue as a career. My teachers, however, were very open-minded when it came to that. Michael Lind, for example, had been running a solo career all by himself, likewise Harvey Phillips. John Fletcher was a fantastic solo tuba player, but was reluctant to go for that career as he had a full-time position in the London Symphony Orchestra. He also did question whether the tuba really was a solo instrument, but he was still open-minded enough to teach solo playing to students like myself.

PH: So, would you say that it is not yet a routine career?

ØB: It’s an evolution and that is what it’s all about. I really feel I am a part of some kind of evolution, standing on the shoulders of those before me who developed the instrument to a certain degree; hopefully, I am able to take it a few steps further. I know that I have been inspiring other young tuba players to grab onto what I have discovered and probably they will pass this on further. The evolution is moving incredibly fast, if you compare it, for example, to the development of older instruments.

PH: Do you see a new generation of solo tuba players emerging?

ØB: Right now, unfortunately, I don’t see there being young players who have had that same appetite for the classical works, wanting to 100% dig into that solo repertoire. But, on the bright side, I have seen a lot of fantastic innovations, where people, for example, are bringing the tuba into jazz; not only are they playing jazz, they are playing totally new types of jazz. Here in Norway, we have several very accomplished tuba players who are having great success in jazz, rock- and folk music, not only providing the bass line but also letting the tuba do some melodic work; and the way they play bass is totally different to how you would on an electric bass guitar or double bass. This is just Norway, but, of course, in the USA you have a lot of brass bands consisting of a couple of saxophones, maybe a trumpet or two, a drummer and a sousaphone or tuba. These bands are very popular nowadays; there are several in New York playing at parties, outdoors and in clubs. This is also really a specific way of using the tuba.

PH: I hear you play a lot of chamber music.

ØB: Yes, I do. I very often play with piano. I have a few pianists with whom I work fairly regularly; we do concerts in different corners of the world. I also do some tours where I perform in different universities in the USA, playing with different pianists on each campus; so it’s rehearse in the morning and concert in the evening…the same the next day, and so on. This is very challenging but also very rewarding, because you learn so much from playing with different great musicians.

PH: Would you like to mention works that have been written for you?

ØB: Yes. There have been many. In fact, Christian Lindberg’s tuba concerto was written for me and I think I have premiered close to 60 works for tuba by different composers. A violinist/composer called L. Subramaniam - India’s greatest player of traditional violin music - has just written a double concerto for Indian violin, tuba and symphony orchestra. We have already recorded it and will now record some new pieces as well to complete the CD in Bombay in February.  Being part of the fusion movement back in the 1970s, Subramaniam has also worked with many artists, such as jazz musicians Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and Hubert Laws, merging, for example, Indian music with jazz.  The tour that I am doing with a pianist in Sweden early in February will include another world premiere – a piece written by American composer Andrea Clearfield. And in the USA in July I will premiere a piece by Japanese composer Das Fujikura. I am practising on that now, too.

PH: What genres do you play, apart from classical repertoire?

ØB: Funny you should ask that right now, because two months ago, I was given the opportunity to play a concert here at an event in Trondheim. The concert organizers said: “Here you have some money (I think it was like 8000 US dollars). You can do whatever you like with it, but it should be something you have not done before due to lack of time or money, so it has to be new.” As it happened, I had a lot of rock songs lying in my drawer, like ballads and up-tempo things. They hadn’t been played because I had not had the opportunity to play them before. I also didn’t have a band, for example, and had never had time to pull it all together. So, here I had the opportunity to put together a concert of rock music with lead singer and a fantastic complement of drums, electric bass, keyboard and electric guitar. That was quite an experience. Well, I have been playing jazz over the years, with small combos and doing concert tours with US jazz pianist Chick Corea, for example.  Also, engaging in more fusion-like projects and, of course, the Indian style that I have been checking out lately with Subramaniam. I am very curious when it comes to different musical styles and do think that I have learned very much from trying out many, even when it also comes to putting  classical music together.

PH: What about early music? Do you play it?

ØB: I do. However, the tuba was invented in 1835. It must be the only instrument whose exact birthdate is known: September 12th, 1836. That is when the German musical instrument inventor Wilhelm Wieprecht took out a patent on it. Although there is no early music written for tuba, that doesn’t prevent us tuba players from playing, say, Baroque music. We simply “steal” the music from other instruments – ‘cello, viol or other instruments – and with a clear conscience! And anyway, Baroque composers often did not designate on what instruments a work should be played. In which case, it works beautifully. We can take, for example, Bach flute- and ‘cello sonatas. I have played Vivaldi… more for fun than for anything else, but, hey, I’m in this for fun! I have a friend - Tormod Dalen - living in Paris, who plays Baroque ‘cello. He makes fun of my playing Baroque music on the tuba, but I guess one has to live with that.

PH: What teaching do you do?

ØB: I don’t have a regular teaching job anywhere. There is no time for that, but I do give occasional master classes. This is very interesting. I really learn a lot from teaching and, after 30 years of doing it, being able to help quite a few students with their specific problems. You can split the work up into musical issues and technical issues. The technical issues relate to how to hold the instrument, correct breathing, how to press the fingers correctly, how to shape your mouth and how to place your tongue. Surprisingly enough, all of this technique has not really been fully standardized on our instrument. You would think that, after 150 years, we would have agreed on how to sit, how to breathe etc., but the consensus is slowly getting there. When I go to China to teach there is a totally different approach to what I see when teaching in the USA, for example, so this is something I do hope the Internet can contribute to standardizing. Then, there is the musical aspect of teaching -  purely about how to phrase and even some simple musical rules that get forgotten and need to be brushed up, one of the most important being that every phrase must have a destination. You cannot simply just start to play without knowing where you are going.  Without that, the audience does not get the music’s “punchlines”. There are a lot of simple rules like this I use in teaching.  

PH: Do you edit publications?

ØB: Yes. Over recent years, the publishing industry has changed tremendously since digitalization; distribution has changed so much. For example, I myself have a publishing company that is run by a colleague in the USA; he has 6000 to 7000 publications for winds. The way it is distributed nowadays is via PDF or it gets locally printed on demand. This development, of course, has led to the downfall of a lot of publishers. I do publish quite a lot.

PH: Do you write articles?

ØB: Yes, occasionally. I did more of that earlier on, but I do sometimes write, for example, when a student has a problem common to many players, to which we find a good solution. That’s when I tend to write a few lines in order to help others.  I usually post it on Facebook or on other social media. Also, when sitting on competition juries, I very often get many ideas. One of the last subjects I wrote about is the “selfishness of performing”.

PH: What do you mean by that?

ØB: When you listen to someone playing, you, as the audience, want to receive something. The very nature of playing an instrument is about giving. You have an idea, an emotion or a story you want to tell and, through your instrument, you give this to the audience. It’s an unconditional gift. The audience can take it or leave it. But, in many competitions, it’s actually the opposite. You can hear in the competitors’ playing that they want to receive something. They are on stage in order to achieve something, such as jury recognition, perhaps a grand prize, financial gain, glory and honour etc., and it is all about them getting something. This contradicts the very core idea of making music, so the music-making becomes very selfish. And so my last article was about this dilemma that we often experience in competitions.

PH: Do you do a lot of recording?

ØB: Yes, I think so. As to solo tuba repertoire, there is nobody who has done more recording than I have. At the moment, I have ten solo CDs out. I am planning three more; the Bombay one is half done, there is one with the rock project and then a disc of new repertoire for tuba and piano.

PH: How do you manage to keep up with your large and sometimes new repertoire?

ØB: I think that this is really one of the biggest challenges for a musician…to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. Ideally, you should practise a lot of works simultaneously – one hour practising this piece, another hour practising the next piece. For most people this is hard, because you tend to want to finish one work, focusing deeply on it and then continue on to the next piece. Very often that is not possible. In my present situation, I have to practise on the February repertoire and the works for Israel (January 21st-29th). The week before Israel, I will be playing with the Krakow Philharmonic in Poland, and I need to practise for that, too. Well, some of it is “maintenance”, keeping the old material fresh, but it is strange how fast a work deteriorates if you have not played it for a year. You really have to be able to jump from one thing to another several times per day, and that does not come easily to me.

PH: Will this be your first concert tour of Israel?

ØB: Yes. I will be soloing with the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. I’m very curious. We are doing seven concerts.

PH: Would you like to talk about some of the unique works you will be performing?

ØB: One work will be a very nice tuba concerto by the orchestra’s musical director Christian Lindberg (who will be conducting the program); this is one of the classics that I believe will, in time, become part of the core repertoire for the tuba. I have also  written a tuba concerto; however, another composition of mine – “Fnugg Red” – will have its world premiere in Israel.

PH: Would you like to talk about the work?

 ØB: Yes. “Fnugg Red” was composed as a variation on a theme called “Fnugg”, which I wrote many years ago.  (“Fnugg” is Norwegian for “snowflake”). And…I don’t know…maybe because it is very light and very different in weight from the tuba…. The music was also inspired by the Australian didgeridoo, and I use the tuba in the way they play the didgeridoo. Another technique in the piece is something called “lip beat”, a technique I myself invented, creating rhythms that do not sound like specific pitch on the instrument; they sound more like a drum or other percussion instruments…a little fun thing I have added to the piece. There is also some inspiration from American fiddle music. (Aaron Copland wrote a piece called “Rodeo”, in which there is some elements from this American fiddle, bluegrass tradition.) Plus, of course, I have incorporated Christian Lindberg’s virtuosic trombone playing into the whole work. It’s going to be great fun to play. I hear from Christian that the NKO is a fabulous orchestra, so I am really looking forward to that.

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

ØB: Radio-controlled airplanes: small model airplanes comprising a motor, propeller and receiver; you have a transmitter in your hand, with which you control the ‘plane. This is what I do for relaxation. And of course, being a Norwegian, you don’t get away from skiing, and there is also fishing in the fjords, another of my hobbies.

PH: Øystein Baadsvik, thank you so much for sharing so many aspects of your very unique musical life and career.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Talking to violinist Shunske Sato about performance, repertoire and teaching

Photo: Yat Ho Tsang 

On December 8th 2016, I talked to violinist and violist Shunske Sato at his home in The Hague. Born
in Tokyo in 1984, he moved to the USA at age 4, then winning the Young Artists Prize in 1997 and making his New York recital debut in 2000. Recently returned from performing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Shunske appears widely in Europe and the USA as soloist or concertmaster, also performing chamber music. He currently serves as concertmaster of Concerto Köln and the Netherlands Bach Society. In 2013, he was invited to join the faculty of the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he teaches violin in the context of historical performance practice. His most recent recording (October, 2016) is of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with Concerto Köln for the Berlin Classics label.

PH: Shunske Sato, having lived in different countries, you seem to be a citizen of the world.

Shunske Sato: Something like that. This is the fifth country I have lived in. A lot of moving around and new languages. From quite a young age I have really loved linguistics and language. And now, living in the Netherlands, the country with the highest English language proficiency rate, I dove straight into learning Dutch. Knowing German has helped.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

SS: I guess I could say that. My mother is a pianist. She teaches piano. Her mother, my grandmother, never really played an instrument, but she listens to quite a lot of music, enjoys it and was plunking at the upright piano at home at the young-old age of 80-something! So, there is definitely a musical strain in the family, but no performers, apart from myself.

PH: Would you like to talk about how it all began and your early musical training?

SS: Yes. Because my mother was a musician, there was music regularly in the house – her own playing and records. It was a musical environment. It seems I was drawn to the timbre of the violin and my mother noticed this. She also noticed that there were a lot of children around our Tokyo neighbourhood at that time walking around with their mothers and violin cases and she asked one of the mothers about this, thinking there must be a music school nearby. There was and it was a Suzuki method school. So, my mother took me there and, apparently, for a solid 45 minutes (I still remember this; it must have made an incredibly powerful impression on me. I was two at the time!) I was observing a room full of young children playing Suzuki-style and completely enraptured. The teacher noticed this two-year-old sitting in the corner and found it unusual for such a small child to be so incredibly focused like this and suggested I try the lessons. And then I had some very good teachers, including the first two in Japan. Years later, I came across a book of exercises of one of them and they are very good…very good material. Altogether, I have been lucky with all the teachers I have had and still remember the many, many good things I learned from each one of them. I have been very lucky.

PH: When was your first performance?

SS: Oh gosh…I believe it was at the age of three at a Suzuki concert, and there is even a video to prove it. I had knee-high socks with  little dogs imprinted on the top. Being much encouraged, little class concerts were a very regular part of my musical upbringing.

PH: In the USA, did you go to a music school?

SS: Yes, I did, but it was as a supplement to my regular school in Philadelphia, where I grew up. It was called Temple Prep School. Children went there once or twice a week after regular school. After school the kids came and had orchestra, where we  played our Grieg “Holberg Suites” etc. And what I think is incredibly good, I had chamber music lessons. So, I was playing my Haydn Trios and Beethoven Trios at the age of six or seven. Even in a childlike manner, I think that opens one up to the world of playing together with other people and to working towards listening to others. That was very important. I had some very good teachers, with whom I kept in touch for a very long time. In Philadelphia about three years ago, I visited one of them, now in her 90s and still cheerful.

PH: And after Temple Prep?

SS: At the age of 11, I started going to Juilliard Pre-College on Saturdays and continued there till age 18; it was very informative and significant. There, I  studied with Dorothy DeLay. On completing Juilliard Pre-College, students can proceed to the Juilliard School (college level), but I did not do that.

PH: So where did you take higher studies?

SS: I was living in Philadelphia and applying to different schools. I sent an application to Juilliard; oh, and down the street from me there was the Curtis Institute of Music, so I applied there, too. Was accepted to both, I believe, but, after seven years at Juilliard, opted for Curtis. I did one year at Curtis, but, already before that, I was starting to become interested in the goings-on in Europe, in a lot of the European musicians, having heard their concerts and CDs. (My outstanding Juilliard teacher Ms. DeLay, musically-thinking and analytical, always strong at filling in background information, had a funny little thing about Classical and Baroque music in Europe. She would say: “Sugar plum, when you go and give a recital in Europe, avoid the classics because they play them differently over there and you won’t be met with good feedback if you play them there”. Well, of course, when somebody tells you not to do something, you want to do it, to find out.)

There was one teacher – Gérard Poulet - with whom I had done summer courses two years prior to that, who invited me to come and study in Paris with him. I went to Paris, planning a year there and to return to where I had left off in the States, but that did not happen. I stayed in Europe; after the two years’ study with Poulet I stayed on in Paris for a couple more years.

PH: When did you develop your taste for Baroque music?

SS: It is hard to say. In the USA, I did have the odd Christopher Hogwood recordings lying around in the house. I did take notice and quite liked them, too, but didn’t think of pursuing Baroque music. However, I think the sound and idea that that all of this music could be done differently was planted then and there.

PH: So, when did you start getting involved in Baroque music?

SS: It was during those years in Paris. Paris and Europe, as a whole, offered the environment. There I discovered Baroque music and Baroque performance practice, which had been completely absent, at least, to my immediate environment in the US before then. It added fascination to be able to explore the violin in a completely different and new way. And it was so common in Europe. You could go to a concert of Rameau and Telemann and Bach and Beethoven on period instruments, which is still hard to do in the US. Then I drifted, drifted, drifted and decided to do some proper study, as it were, at a music school to really immerse myself in that and found a lovely teacher, an American teacher – Mary Utiger - in Munich.  The funny thing was that, 30 years before I did, she had also studied with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. By that time, I had decided that, as far as my studies were concerned, I really wanted to focus on Baroque violin.

PH: So, no more modern violin?

SS:  I was also playing modern violin at that time and still do. Every now and then, I get asked to do a Brahms concerto or whatever and still love doing all of that repertoire. I haven’t bid farewell to any of it. In fact, I have been able to revisit a lot of it – Brahms, for example – viewing it from a historic perspective, like discovering what kind of pianos or string techniques were used. 19th century Brahms was probably very different: you very quickly find out that it’s quite different to the modern 21st century, as a matter of fact. It has been very interesting to be able to see all of this repertoire from a completely different perspective.

PH: When did you start playing the viola?

SS: I’m surprised you mentioned it I love playing viola but don’t do it so much. I started playing the viola at 14 or 15…it was out of curiosity.  I bought one of those very cheap instruments, probably with water-and-bulletproof varnish, I scraped away and saw my way through it. I still do not play it as often as I would like.

PH: Do you have a Baroque viola?

SS: No, I still have the cheap, very red viola I bought then. I don’t have the incentive to acquire one as am known much more as a violinist.

PH: Do you see yourself mostly as a Baroque musician at present?

SS: Well, I’m not sure about me. Certainly, a for lot of people, yes. I think people would associate me with the Baroque violin, just from the sheer amount of work I have in that direction. For me it is actually quite remarkable to see how little the violin per se has changed in comparison to, say, the harpsichord versus the modern Steinway. Moving from the harpsichord to the modern piano is a much more difficult adaption, even from the fortepiano to an Érard piano. In that way, I think, as a string player, you actually have the advantage of taking more-or-less the same instrument and playing it in so many different ways. As I said before, I love doing Brahms and Schumann and much later repertoire. In fact, in February I am doing a 20th century program – Stravinsky, Khachaturian and Milhaud and on “historical instruments”! We found a nice Steinway from the beginning of the 20th century in an incredible workshop where they have three or four of these early Steinways. One of them, apparently, is a piano on which Vladimir Horowitz gave a concert.  Quite a remarkable collection. Anyway, there will be the Steinway, my violin with gut strings and steel and the clarinettist has also found a clarinet from this time. I think you can just extend this in so many ways. I enjoy a lot of kinds of music and like to have a broad repertoire.

PH: I read you played Paganini on gut strings. Is that authentic?

SS: Yes, yes. I did that in Australia, as a matter of fact.   Authentic? Yes, absolutely. Gut strings were in use on the violin till 1930 or ’40, but even longer for ‘cellists and double bass players. Violinists were the first to use steel strings. So, basically all the repertoire we now associate with Classical music, right up to Debussy and Ravel and Bartok was intended to be played on gut strings.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

SS: Yes…my teaching. I love it. I’m learning just as much as the students – even more. I knew that I liked it very much, even before I started teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatory. If anything, I think I have always been a very self-reflecting musician. I have never been a person to “just do something” – a difficult passage – and not know why or how. And then there is realizing that all of those students coming through the door bring with them their life. You see them for an hour and a half every week or two weeks and you give them this homework or that – a task to complete for next time – but a lot of them work at a shop five days a week, for example, in order to make ends meet…or to teach, and this little snippet of time is, in a way, so superficial! I realize that you can teach them about the violin and what to do when you encounter a diminished chord, how to ornament, and all of these things, but, in the end, what I try to do is to get that person to give his maximum, and what that means for every person is different. Some people…honestly…are not soloist material or they are more suited to group playing or even I would say, some people are much better geared towards teaching or research. I have one student who is incredibly good at research, brings along pieces I have never seen or heard of and knows so much about things. He is not the strongest player, but he really has a head and heart for music in a completely different way; I am not going to expect him to play a Bach fugue, but I can develop him in so many other ways. I really have to say I have a very good class of motivated students (young adults), and I think I am getting better. One of the things my teacher Dorothy DeLay said was when asked why she was such a good teacher was: “I do a lot of it every day”.

PH: Shunske, what is your current project? What is on your mind musically at the moment?

SS: Oh, gosh. Whatever is next! Actually, it has been interesting. Speaking of later Romantic music, 19th century repertoire – post-Beethoven - on historical instruments, you have a lot of Baroque ensembles, but those who focus on later repertoire…there aren’t so many. Actually, I have found a few “partners in crime” who know a lot about this period. We are trying to get a group off the ground. It will be very interesting to see how that goes.  We have sent out our first round of concert offers to concert halls throughout Holland. Reactions have been very positive, saying they like what we are onto and would like to have us for the next season. This is incredible: it must be a combination of a lot of factors as this is something that is not done much as yet. That is something I would love to expand. Just as the way we revolutionize the way we do Baroque music, we can go much, much further with other genres.

PH: Are you referring here to chamber music?

SS: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

PH: What do you find audiences want to hear at the moment?

SS: What do they want to hear? I think that depends. I can’t be a judge of that. It is such a synergy of different things, the synergy being between performer, listener and composer or whatever piece of music is being played.  And with the same three people in the same roles on Monday and then on Saturday, it is going to be different, even with pieces very well known to us.  I think it is exactly that which I try to really bring to life. The fact of the matter is that music is born and dies at the same moment, if you will. The moment the sound finishes it is gone and will never come back again. That is how I see it and, I think if you must go on that, unless you have a very jaded, skewed and strange audience (which you do have. Some audiences are in for a much more canonical approach, sticking to the “status quo” of the music. You have different audiences and can’t predict that sort of thing.) I think what does usually succeed is being genuine, being yourself – for better or worse. It’s just like when you talk to people, you know if they are being honest and genuine with you. I think if you are there 100 per cent the audience will be there 100 per cent too.

PH: Are you into new music?

SS: I have not been as such. There was a time that I did do more of that. New music is a bit in its own category. There are musicians who specifically dedicate themselves to it.  It’s a bit like what is happening with Baroque music: there is a certain circle that has been established to perform this kind of music. As to new music, I think I am not really exposed to it very much and so it is hard for me to say whether I would like it, as I haven’t yet done much of it. My personal experience of it has been mixed. I have sometimes come across new works that are brilliant, that I really like, and others not. The same thing goes for earlier music. There are some pieces of Beethoven or Mozart that are nice, but I don’t care to play them so much. It happens. So, I think it is mainly a question of exposure and simply of time, because, with what I have already now…it’s incredible; I’m already covering three centuries of music.

PH: Do you do any Japanese music?

SS: No. As a whole, and it is not just me…it is a very specialized area of music, even within Japan, actually. There you will much, much more easily find a classical or non-Japanese music concert than traditional music. Maybe that has a lot to do with the history of the country itself in the 19th century, when America and Europe came knocking on the door with cannons, guns and ships. The Japanese were, on the one hand very frightened and, on the other, fascinated by this new culture and, within a span of 20 to 30 years, they had completely turned their culture upside down and westernized it. And with that came also the ascent of western classical music and, at the same time, the decline of traditional things. Since then, it has become a bit marginalized. I don’t understand Japanese music at all: it follows rules that are completely different to what I know.

PH: Is this visit - end of December ’16 - going to be your first to Israel?

SS: Yes. My very first. I will be playing with two friends who live in The Hague (we quite often play here together) – Benny Aghassi (bassoon) and Hen Goldsobel (double bass) – and Israelis whom I have not yet met: Doret Florentin (recorder), Tali Goldberg (violin) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord). The concerts will take place in Jerusalem, Raanana, Haifa and Herzliya.

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

SS: For sure I could say: cooking and architecture. What I like about both is the combination of science and creativity, and balance, too. Well, cooking simply because I like food – I just love food and am fascinated by how food is prepared and where it is sourced. However, by no means do I know terminology and things like that, for example, what part of the cow is called what, but that doesn’t deter me from enjoying it a lot. You can combine more-or-less the same ingredients in so many ways. In architecture, there is the construction – the science part of it – and then there is what you do with that. My fascination with architecture started early. In particular, I remember in Philadelphia, where I lived in a big apartment complex, they would send a monthly newsletter to all the residents and on the very back page there were advertisements for apartments for rent or for sale, including floor plans. I would take those floor plans and copy them to make variations on them – add a new room or make a three-bedroom apartment from a two-bedroom apartment. Where architecture is different is that in music or food, once it is gone it is gone, of course, remaining in the person’s memory and soul, but it’s not there.  The crucial difference is that in architecture when you build something it serves people every day in a very tangible way; small things impact, for example, the way you feel comfort at home, or discomfort. The wrong placement of a wall can really have a negative effect. The architect has to find solutions to problems that are optimal. Well, living in a country like Holland, you have old buildings all over the place and it is sometimes exciting, sometimes depressing, to go into a 17th century building. Sometimes whoever renovated it did a terrible job, with ugly tiles and laminate all over. Or not: somebody has really taken care and brought out the characteristics of the house, also making it very modern and comfortable. I think that food and architecture would have been very nice alternative professions for me.
PH: Shunske Sato, many thanks for your time. It has been most interesting talking to you and hearing about your career and thoughts on music.


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.