Monday, February 10, 2020

Talking to Maestro Paul McCreesh about his career, period instrument performance, new music and cultural education for young people

 Paul McCreesh (courtesy Gabrieli Consort)
On January 24th 2020, I had the honour of talking to Paul McCreesh at the Dan Hotel Eilat, where Maestro McCreesh conducted one of the concerts of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. With a strong reputation in the opera house and as a conductor of many of the major orchestras and choirs across the globe, Paul McCreesh (UK) is  well-known as founder and artistic director of the Gabrieli Consort & Players. He is also enthusiastic about working with young musicians and broadening the public’s access to classical music.

PH: Maestro McCreesh, I see your repertoire includes a large selection of British music. Is this of your own choosing?

P.McC: You are probably referring to a recent production we did to celebrate English coronation music, where, of course, there is a strong English bent. At the same time, there is a tendency for a little bit of “institutionalized racism” in the music business, where you tend to end up being asked to conduct Sibelius if you are Finnish and to be asked to conduct a lot of Elgar, Walton and Britten if you are British. But, for me, it is all good music, great music. With Gabrieli, I also particularly love doing Purcell and always have done; it has been a part of my repertoire for thirty years. But, equally well, we perform Handel and Bach; my repertoire is very wide.

PH: Did you start your musical involvement in the typically British tradition of cathedral boys’ choirs?

P.McC: Absolutely not. It’s a bit of a joke, but in Britain I think I am almost unique to have come to professional music as a conductor, and particularly a conductor who spends a lot of time working in choral music, not having come through that tradition, that of choirboy singing in cathedrals or at King’s or whatever, then off to private school, thence Oxford or Cambridge. - the traditional route for British conductors. That was never my educational process and, even to this day. I think one day I will wake up and this will all have been some kind of dream. Of course, in the choral world, I have worked with so many singers who have been through that educational process. But, because of my very different background, I think I bring a slightly different perspective to the music.

When I talk about cultural opportunity, I understand that from the hunger of a kid who did not have great opportunity and who had to fight. It is a little harder than for those who have just glided through life on that conveyer be it of cultural production that creates the sort of musician that we have in England  - often extremely technically well-versed  (and I am the first to praise the excellence of that system producing good musicians in general) - but the cost of that system  is that it is a very small percentage of people who are actually involved in music, and that is a pity.   

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

P.McC: Not especially. My mother’s family was interested in music as amateurs and my father less so, although he has come to be interested in music through his children. I was brought up in what now seems to have been a slightly better age for music education, where it was possible to learn ‘cello at school, where at least we had many school orchestras, school choirs and local authority choirs. Unfortunately, that situation is no longer the case in the UK. 

PH: What changes have occurred? How do you see today’s music education?

P.McC: Music is becoming more and more a pursuit of the middle classes and of the privately educated. I think this is a real tragedy and, as I get older, I spend most of my time fighting very hard, both working with young musicians and with young choirs, particularly trying to work in culturally disadvantaged areas. I am trying to spread the message that young people are passionately interested in culture...if it is well taught and part of their curriculum. The problem is that so much of our cultural education consists effectively of one-off projects. It’s interesting when you look at many symphony orchestras and opera companies; we all have education programs and it is fantastic that we do that work, but it can never substitute core, classroom-based music teaching. The latter is the only way one can ensure that every child has the opportunity and that there can be a developmental process in music education. It should not be just a little ornament on the Christmas tree that you take off once or twice a year and eat the chocolate. For me, that is absolutely fundamental.

PH: How did you get to conducting?

P.McC: Sheer lunacy of youth, bloody-mindedness and arrogance! I even started conducting a little bit at school, just getting groups of friends to do charity concerts, etc. I actually found it quite fun to be able to work socially with other musicians. I enjoyed that process of making music, but never had any idea of what being a professional conductor would really be like. In fact, I started working semi-professionally as I left university, with some of the younger early music players part-time whilst working as a school teacher. The irony is that between 21 (when I graduated) and 29 (I think it was), I did five years of teaching, some freelance work and suddenly ended up with a Deutsche Grammophon contract! So, I had to learn and learn very quickly. I think what was interesting was that the reason they signed me up was that I was, and probably still am, one of the great “ideas” men in music and that is partly why I have the most success doing my own projects. Because I think the music world is actually quite industrial, I like to challenge - perhaps I like to be a little bit of an “enfant terrible”. I recognize the need to challenge and make people think in a different way. Of course, some musicians love that and some musicians dislike that whole concept! Conductors are always there to divide opinion…and that is what we do.

PH: You conduct opera, choirs and symphony orchestras, but you have also been deeply involved with the Gabrieli Consort & Players. Where do you stand regarding the authentic performance movement? 

P.McC: I am no ayatollah. I feel, for me, certainly in the very early repertoire - Renaissance and Baroque music - that it is very difficult to get the sound world I really enjoy from modern instruments. It’s not impossible and I have no philosophical objection to a good modern orchestra playing Handel or even hearing Bach played on the piano. I think with Classical and Romantic repertoire it is easier to get a good result on modern instruments. But for me, I do prefer to work with period instruments even in 20th century repertoire, because there is such a range of colours there and a range of performing techniques, which is always interesting to rediscover. But the reality is that I am a working conductor; most of my work is with modern symphony orchestras - that is where our musical world is centred...for better or for worse and in the opera house, where it is relatively rare to be able to use period instruments. So, I have to be fairly flexible and I am happy to be flexible. I think it is possible to give a good historically-aware and sensitive, stylistic performance of music on modern instruments. As first choice, it is always nice to have the original instruments in your hands but it is not the only way to make music.

PH: Do you prepare editions?

P.McC: Put it this way: I am a bit lazy. I don’t “publish” editions, simply because I am a performing musician. I do feel the process of research and scholarship is very, very important, but it is something that for me is part of the music-making and, if you actually publish editions, you have to spend a lot of time writing notes, comparing every single source in every obscure library;  that process is of interest to me but it is not fundamentally something I can afford to give the time to commercially. So, I often work in conjunction with musicologists and I certainly work consistently on sources. I do a certain amount of core research myself and like to work with a lot of other people to exchange information. 

PH: How does this all apply to the performance style of the Gabrieli Consort & Players?

P.McC: One of the interesting things about the Gabrieli is that we can be playing Purcell one day and Walton the next. You need to have to have a huge range of resources, of skills. The Gabrieli Consort isn’t just about me - it is actually a forum of musicians and scholars of many areas coming together to exchange and share information. That might be as recondite as researching the beginnings of the 20th century British orchestra – we are recording  Elgar’s “Gerontius” at the end of the season, working out exactly who the players will be and the type of instruments they will be playing; or it  could be going right back to Purcell and rediscovering different ways of playing the Baroque violin, with French bow holds and new articulation. For example, we have pioneered a new approach to real historic stringing. I’m sorry to be political, but a lot of Baroque orchestras are semi-Baroque orchestras. They play very nicely, but often the instruments are compromised and with stringing that is half-modern.

I feel if I am going to be spending most of my life as a professional conductor working with modern orchestras, many of whom play very stylishly, I think period instrument ‘specialists’ have got to be a bit more serious about the work they do and that means proper instruments, not a ‘uni’-Baroque violin for Monteverdi to Mozart. That’s not possible. You have to take into consideration the technical setting-up of your instrument, the type of instrument, noticing if there is a difference between instruments that were played in Paris or in Linz or London. There are so many permutations.

And then you will ask “Why do we bother?” We bother because, in the end, there are far more possibilities of orchestral- and instrumental sound than you will ever hear in a symphony orchestra, no matter how fine it is. There is something additional that you can bring to the party if you have this range of colours, this different feeling for phrasing, for articulation, for balance - all those things that help make Elgar sound specifically Elgar, Britten sound specifically Britten and Purcell sound specifically Purcell – and SO different to Handel, for example, even though Handel was working in London only twenty years later. 

PH: Do you write about music?

P.McC: No. I talk about it a lot. I rarely write. Again, it’s just time. If I’m going to write, I want to write like the best author or the best journalist and I’m capable of doing it very well, but I’m not a full-time writer. It takes me a lot of time and there’s nothing that frustrates me more than sloppily-expressed thought, so I would rather talk on radio or to journalists, hoping they edit it properly...and leave it there. 

PH: Do you teach?

P.McC: Not formally, but part of my work with young musicians is obviously within the teaching bracket. I sometimes coach privately, particularly singers, but I don’t formally hold a position...I don’t have enough time. I also think I’m a little bit of a maverick; I don’t really see myself turning up at a venerable conservatoire having to teach classes on a Thursday between 10:00 and 11:45. In fact, I  think a lot of my best teaching work is as a hired conductor to go in and do a project and to get people to think. I love that process and I think I am a natural teacher in that sense. For me, it is always nice to work with younger musicians.

PH: Do you write music?

P.McC: No. Not a dot. Just simply do not have the talent. Oh, sometimes I will do a little bit of completion...that type of thing. It’s always a great mystery to me. Dare I say it...I think I’m a very good musician (I hope I am…I have been paid to be a musician for forty years.) I have a tremendous instinct for music; it doesn’t really matter whether I am conducting Josquin or I am conducting Stravinsky. It’s all sort-of the same to me and if I do conduct a contemporary piece, with great sensitivity I can often put my finger on little things that might be improved or things that could work better. But, having said that, I am totally in awe of composers because they are simply a different level of musician. I am absolutely full of admiration for them - people who are able to create new music and particularly good new music. When you look at some of the new music that is coming out, it is immensely impressive. Inevitably, with contemporary music, there is always going to be a lot of average music, but, even so, the process of making music is a really important one and one we need to encourage. 

PH: There is so much new music around us. How should the listener approach it?

P.McC: We should be very careful not to judge a piece after one performance. As a conductor, often the music I end up loving the most is the music that doesn’t always grab me first time. I think that is also a very important point in the process of education. Music is a language which takes time to discover and if you listen to a piece of music and you don’t like it you have two options: you can throw it in the bin and say “I will never listen to that again”  (which might occasionally be the right response), but I think sometimes we owe it to ourselves, particularly if we are talking about music by a known, great composer, to take the time to listen and listen again. Some of the composers I most love now I simply didn’t understand when young, Elgar being one. Yesterday, I had a late-night WhatsApp conversation with a young student friend of mine struggling with Mozart. I understand why he doesn’t get that yet. When I was twenty, I didn’t really get Mozart, but at some age you will probably realize why people hear the name of Mozart and hold their breath. Even bad Mozart is always greatness! 

PH: You are exceedingly interested in education. What is your main goal in this field?

P.McC: I try to invest care and time in younger people and developing them, and not just as future musicians. I’m interested in creating people who have a sensibility to what culture offers the world and ‘culture’ I define in the broadest sense - it’s not just music, it’s not even only art, it’s also the culture of farming, the culture of industry, the culture of archaeology, the culture of nations. We are sitting here looking out a window, where you can see a part of the world that has been carved up politically, as we all know, probably rather too often. But, nevertheless, we are looking through the window at four countries. We are in a part of a world which is a crucible of invention and a crucible of great cultures, competing cultures sometimes, but it is that understanding of culture which I think is the only hope for the future, because, if we don’t understand that, we will just resort, again and again, to bombs and guns. I think culture is a really important thing; it’s not just a matter of being refined and it’s not just a matter of being able to mix with a certain class. It is much more important than that - it actually defines who we are as people.

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

P.McC: Walking, restoring my 17th century house, my family; I have two adult children who are always close to my heart and about whom I worry, probably unnecessarily (as is the nature of being a parent). 

PH: Maestro McCreesh, it has been enormously interesting talking to you. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Talking to German baritone Matthias Vieweg at the 2020 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Matthias Vieweg (photo: M.Vieweg)

On January 22nd 2020, I met with baritone Matthias Vieweg at the Dan Eilat Hotel, Israel, where he was performing at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Born in Thuringia, Germany, he studied at the Hanns Eisler School of Music, Berlin, also receiving guidance from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter, George Fortune, Rudolf Piernay and Peter Schreier. Matthias Vieweg has performed at concert venues and festivals in Europe and Japan under such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Kent Nagano, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Günter Neuhold, Philippe Pierlot, René Jacobs, Hermann Max and Helmut Rilling. He is an internationally active interpreter of opera, oratorio and Lieder.

PH:  Matthias Vieweg, is this your first time in Israel?

MV: No. I am happy to be here. I love the country and enjoy meeting people here with different cultural backgrounds, to share interests and experiences.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

MV: Yes. My father’s siblings were all professional musicians. I grew up with music - with a lot of Bach. We did not listen to so much modern music.

PH: What was your early music education?

MV: I started with piano lessons at age five, meaning that I read music before I read words! I had a good piano teacher. By the age of 14, I had to decide what to do in the East German system, because my family was connected with the church and it was forbidden for us children to go to high school. But I needed to find a way to graduate high school. In East Germany, there were a lot of specialist music schools, so I auditioned and enrolled in one of them, where I would also be able to do high school matriculation. That was a step in the direction of becoming a music sound master (my ambition) as we did recordings there. We had classes in voice training, in piano, in conducting, history of music, harmony - a really good basic music education, much richer than the usual high school education. The school had a very good mixed choir, on the level of the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, Leipzig and we did a lot of recordings; this also gave me an opportunity to get a taste of what went on in the studio there. It was a boarding school in the Harz Mountains and I graduated from there. 

PH: How did you start your career in music?

MV: By accident. I wanted to work in music production, to be a sound master, guiding musicians - that was my intention.  But with the changes in Germany, I needed to change my plans completely. At that time, in East Germany of the1990s, companies were shutting down and there was no need for more music producers there. So, I looked for other things I could do: I could play the piano, I could sing and I was good at mathematics, so I started with mathematics. But I then decided I was more the artistic type, left the maths studies and began to develop my voice. So, you could say I became a professional singer by accident. 

PH: Where did you study?

MV: I studied in Berlin, becoming a singer step by step, but had the advantage of a solid musical background from my schooling. 

PH: Do you see yourself mostly as an opera singer, a singer of oratorio or Lieder?

MV: I really love them all. At present, I am doing more concerts, opera and oratorio and less Lieder recitals, because, at the moment, it is really hard to do Lied recitals - to find an agent or a concert hall where you can hold a concert is really hard. I love singing Lieder because I also studied Lied accompaniment at the university, but I probably do just two Lied recitals a year. The rest is oratorio and opera. I like opera but feel I can not engage in only one discipline. It can be really nice if you take something from opera into concert performance and vice-versa. In concert performance, you have to concentrate on the music, build your phrases and to shape the music really well. If you also do that in opera, it is really nice; you can show the dramatic experience of opera in oratorio, because there is so much dramatic music there. If you sing only as an oratorio singer with no experience of operatic dramatic expression, your performance lacks something. 

PH: I see you won 2nd Prize at the 1998 International Bach Competition in Leipzig, and that you have sung in Bach festivals. Is Bach your most preferred composer?

MV: Bach is, of course, my number one composer. And not only for singing. I love all his music. Bach is really natural for me. When I hear a line of Bach’s music, I can feel it immediately. Maybe it is because I grew up with Bach. But there is also so much good music besides Bach and I am very interested in all other repertoire and other musical styles as well - not only Classical, Baroque, but earlier and later music. I am interested in good music! If music “reads” your heart, if it can reach you, it must be good music. That is my idea of music and not to discount it if it is not so rich or so sophisticated. It all depends on what the music tells you and if there is music that tells you a certain story then it is, in my opinion, good music.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the movement of authentic early music performance?

MV: I really like the idea of bringing the original sound of that music to the audience. As of age 14, I remember groups playing Baroque music in the authentic manner because, for me it was more natural than the overloaded Romantic style of performance. I love that, but sometimes I am really glad to do it the other way, with a large orchestra, large choir and a full musical sound. All this depends on how the music is done. If it is done well, it is fine. I am not strict in thinking there is only one way of performing Baroque music. And anyway, nobody really knows exactly what music sounded like then. There are books of correct spelling of Latin or of early English, but should we do Bach in modern German pronunciation? I think Bach would have been performed in the Saxonian dialect and I think we should sing that music in the Saxonian dialect. But I would laugh if I heard that. And after all the arguments over what is right and what is wrong in Baroque performance practice, people forget that every person needs to sense the music and find his way of performing it, even if it is not the best way. One can then always try a different approach. But I like the way the authentic artists produce the music - how they did it in the Baroque was much lighter, not so slow, more dancelike, more organic and not so overloaded with Romantic musical ideas. 

PH: Do you write about music? 

MV: Very seldom, but I like to discuss music. I have a composer friend who sends me new compositions of his in order to get my opinion on them. What I like is listening to that music without knowing what his basic idea is to first listen to it to hear whether it speaks to me and what I can find in it.  Only afterwards do I wish to discuss the structure and the ideas behind the piece with the composer. Of course, you cannot hear the ideas behind a piece if they are very sophisticated. Even in Bach’s music, you cannot hear all the complexity of the mathematics in his music. But the point is whether you feel the music and that you realize that there must be more to it than you hear the first time. If you listen to music twice, ten- or twenty times, you can pick up whether it is really good, each time finding new points of interest.  

PH: What do you think today’s audiences in Central Europe are looking for?

MV: I think audiences want more than a concert - they want a “performance”. What I don’t like is that the audience is over-inundated with things not to do with the music. What I really like are concerts in venues not normally used for concerts. You can discover really nice places and then find the idea of how music can enrich them. There is a lot of that happening now. It is really not easy to fill concert halls nowadays. People are swamped with TV, you can watch movies on your ‘phone, etc. It is so hard to get these people to come to a concert, to shut their eyes or watch what is happening, but mainly to open their ears and their minds to the music being performed. If this can be done, these people will love it. It’s an experience you can’t have with your mobile ‘phone or from watching TV. You need to sit there with the musicians in front of you. If you can achieve that, people will come back again for more. But I believe concert organizers will find ways to draw in the people if they offer something extra at a concert. Coming back to our discussion of the Lied recital, that is where you can’t have a large audience. Maybe it is too intimate a genre for some people. One has to be prepared for that fact that this music is not as overwhelming and that it has a specific kind of emotion. Only the big names manage to do recitals nowadays. 

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

MV: I’m interested in literature, walking, discovering nice spots, even locally, and I love to travel with my family. My family occupies me a lot. 

PH: Matthias Vieweg, thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts on performance.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Talking to British choral conductor Joanna Tomlinson

Photo courtesy Joanna Tomlinson

On June 17th 2019 I met with choral conductor Joanna Tomlinson in Sirolo Italy, where she was running a Lacock workshop for choral singers. Ms.Tomlinson lives and works in London.

PH: Joanna Tomlinson, you are a soloist, conductor, consort singer and teacher. Where do you see your focus in all these disciplines?

Joanna Tomlinson: Primarily as a conductor now, but that hasn’t always been the case. In my postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music I trained as a singer and, for a few years, saw it as my career combining professional choral singing with solo work in oratorio and opera. But the bug for conducting has taken over more and more over the last few years and it really is what I enjoy most, I think possibly because of the immediacy of seeing the enjoyment when working with amateur singers, actually. You get that reward with your audiences to an extent, but there is something really wonderful about working with amateur singers and seeing how happy they can be when they work something out or enjoy the musical meaning in what you are introducing them to. Choral singing can be life-changing for people and I have seen it so often in choirs, with people finding friendships or a partner or that choral singing can really help them in their lives. It is seeing that close at hand that I love so much, as well as the fact that every aspect of choral music has probably been my great love; I get to do all of it, from early small-scale works to big, grand oratorio work with orchestras - a lovely variety.

PH: Do you not work with professional singers?

JT: Very occasionally I get to conduct professionals, though I do not work with a professional group on a regular basis. That is something I might like to do further down the line. Financially, it entails a big effort to make a professional choir work, with fundraising and finding grants. But I do enjoy working with good amateur singers and it is easier to make that model work, with people paying a subscription.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

JT: Music was in our family from a very young age. My mother’s sister was a professional viola player and was involved in the historically informed performance movement in its early days, playing with such groups as the Academy of Ancient Music. She was also principal viola of the London Mozart Players and worked as a soloist as well. And then at Christmas, the family would be around and we would all play instruments or sing. My aunt would play the viola or accompany on the piano and there would be a lot of music going on.

PH: What form did your early music education take?

JT: I started the recorder very young, as many children do. There was a wonderful headmistress of the school at the time, who said to my mum that I should have a go at the violin. So I started learning the violin and was encouraged in that, but it was the singing that I really wanted to do later on. I joined the local church choir at age ten or eleven and really loved the choral singing, quite quickly learning to sight-read in that situation. Having come from the violin, sight-reading came quite naturally to me. When I was thirteen or fourteen, there was a singing teacher at my school who came and did some demonstrations. I just went up to her and said I wanted to have singing lessons. My poor parents were already paying for other music lessons and now there were singing lessons as well. The singing quickly became what I loved most, though I kept violin, recorder and piano going right up to the end of school.

PH: Did you go to a music school? 

JT: No. But, for 6th form, I got a scholarship to Bedales School, an interesting, quite artistic school, though I actually did maths and physics with music for my A-levels. But there was a lot of music going on at Bedales and the head of music at the time - Nick Gleed - was a keen organist and harpsichord player, so the early music I was into with recorder playing found great camaraderie with him, with lots of Baroque sonatas and such works.  That was wonderful, but I also got very involved with every aspect of music-making there, also doing sound work for theatre. Doing maths and physics, I had toyed with the idea of studying sound engineering. But Nick encouraged me into going for a straight music degree first before specializing, which was really good advice. Actually, after finishing school, I stayed on at Bedales for a year, teaching in the junior school.

PH: So, to your university studies.

JT: I did my undergraduate degree at Bristol University. There, I was playing the recorder and violin reasonably seriously to the end of my music degree and had to use my piano skills but did not carry on with that.  You just can’t practise all those things once you go more into certain things. Even practising singing and conducting is enough! I did my post-graduate degree as a singer at the Royal College of Music. But, in between, I had a bit of time working in arts administration, working for Askonas Holt, an agency representing artists. The job gave really good insight into that world. I also did some work at the Barbican Centre in marketing before starting postgraduate studies. 

PH: What did you do following your postgraduate degree?

JT: I landed some work teaching singing at that point. That would have been harder to go into if I hadn’t had the experience of that year of teaching at Bedales. This gave me the stability of having two days a week of a regular job so I could surround that with my freelance singing at the time.

PH: Let’s talk about the present. What are your various jobs at the moment?

JT: I run the Constanza Chorus, which is a choir I set up ten years ago...with my mum, actually. I was just getting going with the conducting then, having done a little at university when doing things related to singing teaching. My mum basically does all the administration, but is just about to stop doing that and pass the job onto a committee. The choir has really thrived. Our 10th anniversary concert happened just a few weeks ago and I was very lucky to get to conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Bach B-minor Mass with fabulous soloists at Cadogan Hall. The choir - 130 singers - really makes a wonderful sound; a lovely group, based in the City of London. The name refers to Constanze, Mozart’s wife, the reason being that the first concert we did was Mozart’s Requiem. And Constanze was a fine singer and I wanted the choir to come from the point of view of having good vocal coaching. The other choir I conduct in London is the Whitehall Choir, which I have now run for two years. I took over from Paul Spicer, who had been doing it for 17 or 18 years. It is a choir that is very much open to everybody; a good mixture of people: about half the choir is in the public sector in some form or another. A smaller choir, their optimum number, which we have now reached, is 70-ish. Not a chamber choir, but it needs to be that size because they do a concert at St John’s Smith Square every year and you can’t get more than 70 plus orchestra in there. I really enjoy that job, actually. Being half the size of the Constanza Chorus, it means one can do more chamber-sized works as well as slightly bigger stuff. They really take to Handel and Bach and that kind of music. My first program with them, which I had inherited but really, really loved, was Handel’s “Joshua”. Then, on Wednesdays, I work with the Farnham Youth Choir in Surrey, which is a really excellent upper voice choir. My predecessor was the founder, David Victor Smith who, with his wife, had run it for 30 years. They stepped down three years ago. That was a very interesting project for me to take over because it had to go from being something that was really founder-led to where all the administration and overseeing do not need to be done by the music director. So, we have made the transition to having the choir run by a committee with an operations manager. But I am the artistic director. That job has taught me a lot about the business side. In the main youth choir - secondary school age 11 to 18 - there are about 45 upper voice singers. The boys leave when their voices change, a bit of a hard thing to deal with, but that’s how it is at the moment. We have two junior choirs which I don’t conduct but I oversee. The littlest choir has about 35 six to nine-year-olds; the middle choir has a similar number of nine to twelve-year-olds. So we have well over a hundred the organization and we are trying to expand a little bit. They do sing well. We are about to take the main youth choir on two tours this summer - one to Gothenburg, Sweden for the European Choir Games and we have also been invited to sing John Rutter’s Mass for the Children in Sion, Switzerland. Under my predecessor, the youth choir sang on the premiere recording of the Rutter piece. The youth choir has traditionally taken part in a lot of competitions and done very well in them. They perform everything from memory and sing a wide range of repertoire from Hildegard von Bingen right through to works written last year, pop arrangements and jazz arrangements...and everything in between, like Schubert and Duruflé, a really mixed secular and sacred repertoire. They are a lovely group. Those are my main regular choirs.

PH: Do you take on one-time conducting jobs?

JT: Yes. Such as the Lacock course I am conducting this week at Monteconero and quite a lot of workshops - like come-and-sings - and I also get invited to do some vocal coaching work as well with groups. I have stopped teaching in schools but I do some private singing teaching and some private conducting teaching. I do some teaching for the Association of British Choral Directors, an organization that offers courses to absolute beginners through to advanced courses.

PH: You sound very busy. What about your own singing nowadays?

JT: I keep the singing going, though I just don’t have time to do any opera contracts these days. (My opera work included bits and bobs, more chorus work, but the odd solo. I did a couple of seasons of “Opera Holland Park” some years back.) I do some choral work; primarily I sing with Sonoro, a professional group that my husband Neil Ferris conducts. Occasionally, when I have time, I go into other groups: I have done a fair bit with the BBC Singers and have worked with the Gabrieli Consort and other ensembles over the years, but it is just getting harder to juggle that in now that the conducting work is quite regular. Still, it is nice to do an oratorio as a one-off day. It is good to get to the point that you can trust there will be enough in the long as one engagement doesn’t clash with other activities. Earlier in my career, I used to get so frustrated when that happened! Actually, I had a lovely project recently chorus-mastering a really beautiful new piece by Howard Skempton. I was preparing the chorus for Glyndebourne and it was an amateur chorus of women and children. It was a piece about motherhood. Sheila Hill wrote the text. It was an event of a recent Brighton Festival.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the early music authentic performance movement?

JT: Well, I think it is really important that we inform ourselves as much as possible, read and educate ourselves about stylistic things. It is something that has interested me a lot. In my undergraduate studies I wrote a dissertation on French Baroque ornamentation. I think sometimes people take things they read and interpret them in a way they choose to interpret them. They perhaps take things too far and can be militantly obsessed with how “it should be” and that their way is “authentic” and that it can’t be any other way. I think there can be a lot of snobbishness in the early music world about things like vibrato in the sound. When we sing well, when everything is coordinated well, there is likely to be vibrato happening naturally. The trick is probably to book singers who have less weighted voices and, therefore, the vibrato (if they are singing freely) will be rather more imperceptible, with a smaller oscillation. To try and constrict singing can be dangerous and actually really affect the tuning negatively. I’m all for freedom of breath and freedom of singing expressively and with phrasing without tightening everything to make a slim sound. Blend can really occur when vowels are matching and everyone is singing well. You don’t have to blend by constricting. I think perhaps some people misinterpret that.  I love authentic playing. I love hearing period instruments played well. I get the impression that players are getting better and better. 

PH: You are also involved in contemporary music. Do you see it as a special field of yours?

JT: I enjoy singing contemporary music but I wouldn’t call myself a specialist in anything other than choral music generally. I am more a choral specialist than an orchestral specialist. But I do like to keep my options open and do a bit of everything. I have always been like that, with violin and recorder and piano and singing, loving Baroque music and modern music. As I have got older, I have become more open to everything as well...less snobbish about certain things and seeing the value in everything. Music has value if it is well crafted. It is worth exploring everything and I like to try and keep an open mind.

PH: Do you write music?

JT: Occasionally. I used to do more. I have written the odd piece for my choirs and arranged the odd thing for them. Not that much nowadays. It’s something I would like to do more of in time.

PH: Do you write about music?

JT: No, other than program notes, which obviously is a conductor’s job we have to do a lot. I have recently become a co-editor for “As You Sing”, an upper voice collection for Oxford University Press, which my husband Neil and I were invited to compile to include works of living composers. We didn’t have to write very much; we did an introduction. I enjoyed doing the writing for that, actually, very much an editor’s eye. With the OUP editor we were commissioning works or asking composers if they had works that fit the criteria we were after for the book. There are nine pieces - works by such established composers as Cecilia McDowall, Sarah Quartel, Kerry Andrew and Oliver Tarney and others now starting to get published.  Michael Higgins is just now starting to be published by OUP, partly because we introduced his music to them, which is really nice. One piece is in two parts; most are in three (SSA), with one or two in four or more parts. We really want the book to be used by young people, mostly teenagers, and by women’s choirs.  Women’s choirs are very popular in the USA and I think they are starting to be more popular in the UK. We wanted the texts to be appropriate to both children’s choirs and women’s choirs. Nature seems to feature a lot; we didn’t want the texts to be too romantic, patronising or childish. It has been collaborative and really interesting and has taught me a lot about why I pick a piece or don’t choose to work on with my choirs, really analysing what works in choral writing. 

PH: Would you like to talk about your future plans?

JT: As I mentioned before, there are the two overseas tours with Farnham. In the Autumn, my Whitehall Choir is singing “Messiah”. Everyone thinks they know it well. They have done a lot of Handel but not “Messiah” in the last 20 years. We are going to have a come-and-sing as well in the Autumn, really focusing on vocal technique. We will perform at St. John’s Smith Square, which is very exciting. They have a lot of people wanting to do it at that venue, so we feel very lucky to get to do it there with some super soloists and period band. And then, in a few weeks’ time, I have another come-and-sing coming up at a festival at the St Marylebone Parish Church. Sonoro, the choir I sing with has a really interesting project at the moment: it has taken six well-known pieces, including works like Tallis’ “If You Love Me” and Stanford’s “Beati Quorum” and then commissioned six contemporary composers to write a paired piece with each, using either the text or something that reflects on the original; the aim was that those pieces are not so very difficult and that amateur choirs could include them in their repertoire. We have done some really beautiful and artistic YouTube videos of all twelve pieces of the “Inspirations Project” and are about to tour various places around the UK to do workshops on them with amateur choirs and then to perform either with those choirs or separately. I hope it will be an interesting experience for them to sing alongside us. There will be a London workshop as well. 

PH: You have mentioned your work with come-and-sing events. Are they one-off sessions?

JT: Yes. People just turn up and learn a work on the day...for a bit of a fun sing-through but I try and really make sure people come away with something tangible, such as singing technique, and make sure there are one or more new ideas they can take away from the day and back to their own choirs. 

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

JT: Food: I like cooking and I like nice food and wine. And I have two lovely step-children. I enjoy time with them and my husband. I love doing yoga and would like to make more time for that and perhaps one day go on a yoga retreat. However, being a freelance musician doesn’t leave a lot of time for other activities.

PH: Joanna, it has been a pleasure talking to you.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Talking to Vera Vaidman about her upcoming Tel Aviv concerts of J.S.Bach's unaccompanied works for violin and 'cello

Photo: Davide Iadiccio
On March 4th 2019, I spoke to violinist/violist Vera Vaidman in Tel Aviv. Born in St. Petersburg and in Israel since 1973, Ms. Vaidman’s international career as a recitalist, soloist and chamber musician has taken her to Europe and the USA. She teaches chamber music at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University and violin and viola at the Har Nof Conservatory, Jerusalem. Ms. Vaidman is about to embark on a series of concerts four weeks in succession in Tel Aviv, in which she will perform all the unaccompanied solo violin works of J.S.Bach and the ‘cello suites on viola.

PH: Ms. Vaidman, playing all these works in close succession seems like a mammoth undertaking.

Vera Vaidman: Actually, I do not know of anyone else who has done this on both instruments. I played Bach's complete works for solo bowed instruments in the Bargemusic concert series in Brooklyn, New York in March 2018 (Bach’s birthday month).. The concerts received ardent reviews. I have been playing the violin works all my life and have also recorded them. Performing them again is an opportunity to revisit the works and delve deeper into the music.

PH: And the ‘Cello Suites on viola?

VV: Actually, I only started playing the viola ten years ago...quite by chance. Three pupils of mine were performing Dvořák’s Terzetto for 2 violins and viola Op.74. The violist was unable to play and I stepped in at the last minute and took her part. Playing Bach on the viola has helped me to understand the violin works better.

PH: How would you guide the listener attending the concert series?

VV: The repertoire is much broader than what one imagines it to be. Bach intended the listener to “hear” the accompaniments in his inner ear. The audience should listen out for the works’ inner voices and “hidden” polyphony. These works, going well beyond anything that had been written in that genre, were revolutionary in Bach’s time and, in fact, they remain so today!

PH: will you be playing them by heart?

VV: Yes, and with all the repeats. In New York, I had to give up on repeats due to constraints of time, but will not omit them in Tel Aviv.

PH: What is your approach to playing Baroque music?

VV: I do not come from a background of playing on period instruments. I will be playing on aluminium-wound gut strings but with Baroque bows and will engage in some vibrato - not the kind suited to Romantic music, but for timbral warmth...not to be producing a sterile sound. I suppose you could call it music on the modern violin/viola but in the spirit of Baroque.

PH: Vera Vaidman, many thanks for your taking the time to share this information and your thoughts.

Friday March 8th at 11:00
Sonata 1001, Partita 1002 (violin), Suite 1012 (viola)
Friday March 15th at 11:00
Suite 1007 (viola), Sonata 1003, Partita 1004 (violin)
Friday March 22nd at 11:00
Suite 1008, Suite 1009 (viola), Suite 1005 (violin)
Friday March 29th at 11:30
Suite 1011, Suite 1010 (viola), Partita 1006 (violin)
The concerts will take place at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv.