German countertenor Andreas Scholl has been in Israel to conduct master classes at the Jerusalem Music Centre and to perform a concert in Tel Aviv. Scholl and I met in the lounge of the JMC on January 27 to talk.
Pamela: When did you begin singing?
A.S: I started singing in a boys’ choir called the Kiedriche Chorbuben. It was founded almost 780 years ago and has an uninterrupted tradition of singing Gregorian chant in our local church. The choir school is virtually across the street from my parents’ home. Generations of my family have sung in the choir and, of course, I also joined it. When I was seven years old, my father, an amateur musician, agreed to conduct the choir for one year and I went with him out of curiosity to see how he trained the boys. We had group lessons every day and each boy had one individual lesson per week with a vocal trainer in order to work on technique. The choir sang the Mass every Sunday. When my voice broke at age 13 or 14, I seemed to still prefer singing in my head voice. When I was 15 or 16 the choir’s vocal coach remarked that, despite that, my voice was now not that of a child because of my baritone range, but that it now had the timbre of a countertenor voice. Somebody recommended a teacher in Basel and, after a year of army training, I went to study at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis to train as a countertenor.
Pamela: What are your present activities?
A.S: I will be recording Handel’s “Dixit Dominus” and the “Ode for Queen Anne’s Birthday” for Harmonia Mundi in Berlin with conductor Marcus Creed; he is a superb conductor and I have loved working with him before. I can choose with whom I work, so there are no great risks, but working with Creed is pure enjoyment. I then have a tour coming up with the Basel Chamber Orchestra, will teach in Basel in February and, this spring, I will tour the United States with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. I am about to start preparing a new solo program of medieval music – music composed by a knight called Oswald von Wolkenstein. He lived at the end of the Middle Ages, historically a very interesting time, and was an interesting person in that he, himself, composed music and paid out a fortune to have a monk handwrite his songs in order to keep his music alive. What is so unusual is that he was a nobleman composing music; it was usual for lower class musicians to entertain noblemen. Oswald played and sang for his friends, who were nobles, knights and kings. That is a recording project that will happen in June.
Pamela: Would you like to talk about the concert you will be performing in Tel Aviv?
A.S: It will be January 31 at the Felicja Blumental Music Centre in Tel Aviv, some works with harpsichord accompaniment, some with piano. Singing with modern piano is fairly new for me; I do not do that very often. We will start with Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While”, will continue with three John Dowland songs – lute songs, actually, but they work very well on harpsichord – and we will then perform some beautiful folk songs, interestingly and differently arranged by Tamar Halperin and accompanied by her on harpsichord and piano. I love folk songs and we wanted to do some. Tamar will play a harpsichord solo and one on the piano. Then we will move into territory less familiar to me – Haydn- and Beethoven songs. It will be a concert with no intermission – an hour or so in length, ideal for a song recital. An intermission can be so detrimental to the audience’s concentration, not to speak of that of the artists.
Pamela: Can you comment on the young singers who have been participating in your master classes here at the JMC?
A.S: Yes. I really like working here. The singers work hard, they are motivated, well prepared, they have learned material by heart, are open to new ideas and they give their all. Some respond to my suggestions more quickly than others but I see good results from what we are doing. Of course, in the end, as individual musicians, the singers will each decide which of my suggestions they will adopt and which not. The idea is not that they become an imitation of me. Yesterday morning, a young soprano I was working with sang through her piece again at the end of the lesson and she had included all the tips I had given her. This is outstanding and not everyone can do that. There are different levels of professionalism among the students – some are only beginning their studies, others have already graduated from music academies. I do not want to comment on their chances of making it in the world of professional singing. It is hard to know how their voices will develop, how they will keep up with all the new material a singer needs to learn, with new ideas. I also do not know these students so well. I am here to encourage them to sing better at the end of the lesson than how they did at the start. This is my third year teaching here and I enjoy it enormously. It is so much fun. I learn so much about my own voice; teaching makes me sing better! It is such a positive experience for me.
Regarding countertenors here, there are two in this year’s master class. One is more advanced and going in the right direction. But he is still very young and it remains to be seen whether he will make a career and a living from singing. It is too early to tell. One has to be very careful about predicting things in the field of singing. He had a tough lesson today!
Pamela: Can you comment about Israeli audiences?
A.S: People really like music here and classical music has high relevance in Israeli society, perhaps marginal compared to pop music and other activities, but there seems to be a wider interest in classical music here than in other countries. Looking at the culture and the musical output in this small country, so many world class musicians have come from here. In my very first concert here twelve years ago, I performed German Baroque songs – certainly not the routine Schubert recital – and the hall was crowded, proving that audiences here are curious to hear repertoire that is new to them and a kind of voice to which they are not accustomed. This curiosity is a good thing.
Pamela: My next question is neither personal nor political: what is your relationship with Israel?
A.S: My first visit to Israel was twelve years ago. It was not long after Yitzhak Rabin had been killed. I went to see the spot where it had happened and that made being here more meaningful than if I had just come to sing a concert in a city bathed in sunshine. So my relationship with Israel started at a very difficult time, making it more necessary and certainly interesting for me to realize what has been happening here, what conflicts there are; I have learned very much about the country. Also being German, I love the fact that people are so positive and friendly when I arrive in Israel. I don’t feel prejudice nor do I feel that people pass judgement on me as a German. Although I was not yet born at the time of the Holocaust, I am aware of history and the responsibility that comes with it. Coming here as a German and a singer, I feel I can help young Israeli people to be better singers and they, in turn, can bring joy to local audiences; in this small way, my work here shares a wider context than just that of giving voice lessons. I feel it is my personal contribution to the Jewish people.
What we see about Israel in the media has very little to do with reality and it almost makes me angry to watch it in Germany. There is a contrast between opinions in Germany and Europe in general, and what information people have about the situation. Some people there fear for me when I come here! I think it is unfair when overseas artists cancel their concerts the minute they hear there is trouble somewhere in Israel. They are holding Israeli audiences hostage by doing this! Concerts the public look forward to hearing suddenly do not happen. Either the artists are afraid to come or they feel, by not coming, that they are making a political statement, and I can not go along with that.
Pamela: Andreas Scholl, thank you for giving us of your time. You have given readers of “Living in Harmony” much to think about and we look forward to your next visit to Israel.