Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Andrew Parrott - conductor and scholar

On July 30th 2009 I had the pleasure of talking to British conductor and scholar Andrew Parrott. Maestro Parrott is known to Israeli audiences as honorary conductor of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

PH: When did you begin your musical training?

AP: It actually began when my sister and I played at being piano teacher and pupil. She was the teacher. At age 8 or nine I began piano lessons with a neighbouring teacher and proceeded to study with a number of other piano teachers. I did not receive my musical education through the Anglican choral tradition and I believe this has left me more open in my views. I studied various instruments, attended a good local grammar school and, from there, went to Oxford University. I enjoyed my time there: the courses did not dominate my life and I had been thrown into a world of interesting brains.

PH: How did you make your way into the world of conducting and early music?

AP: It was quite by chance. One of the first concerts I heard at Oxford was a performance by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, where John Tavener was master of choristers. I applied to join it and, despite knowing nothing about singing at the time, was accepted as reserve second bass and pianist. My first conducting experience came about when someone was needed to rehearse the choir.

At Oxford I was studying music history – Bach, Handel and Mozart and those composers following them - but was very interested to learn about earlier music. I began putting on concerts of the music about which I was supposed to be writing my assignments – Tallis, Byrd, etc. - as I felt the need to be within the music and there were not many recordings available at the time. For me, this seemed to be the sensible approach and that was the beginning of the two sides of my professional life – research and performance. These two disciplines are kept separate in most institutions, my opinion being that academics and performers do not learn enough from each other. And it always surprises me that hearing Baroque music performed properly is controversial. The professional musical world is more narrow-minded than its audiences!

PH: Your book “The Essential Bach Choir” (2000) presents interesting and important research regarding Bach’s performance of his choral works. What are you writing at present?

AP: There are three projects occupying me at present:
1) The Bach saga continues – my research on Bach’s one-to-a-part choirs – and it is entering a new phase. I fail to understand why certain musicologists do not face the evidence we have regarding Bach’s choir!
2) I want to write up work I did a long time ago on the misconceptions of falsetto singing and
3) I am working on finishing a book that was commissioned 25 years ago and that is now at the editing stage. It is an anthology of short extracts of writing about music before 1770. It focuses on (i) music in society, (ii)music and ideas and (iii)music in performance. What will finally emerge is a book to be browsed, a book that will not go out of date, a reference book and a useful teaching aid. It should make enjoyable reading for amateurs, professionals and listeners. It really is about what people thought and did at that time. Working on it these 25 years has been most interesting!

PH: And your performing schedule?

AP: I have always freelanced. I recently conducted a Haydn opera in Bratislava, this being Haydn territory. I am conducting “Cosi fan Tutti” for Opera North (UK) this September – I have not conducted it before. Then, in October, I travel to Canada to perform a Gluck opera with Tafelmusik. It is unusual for me to conduct three operas in one year!

In June I conducted the New Haifa Orchestra in a program of works by Britten, Haydn, Beethoven and John McCabe.

Another interesting project is the recording of all Beethoven’s works for piano and orchestra - in Sweden with Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam; these include Concerto Zero (pre Concerto no.1). Brautigam did the orchestration of the latter as it had only existed as a piano score.

There are certain works I want to record, but not for the sake of recording. I enjoy the challenge of it but find the freshness of live performance problematic to infuse into a recording.

PH: Would you like to talk about your experience with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra?

AP: Yes. I have been its honorary conductor for approximately two years, but have also worked with the orchestra before that time. I am aware of the fact that Israel has some fine musicians. In the field of Baroque music, David Shemer has done much good work, encouraging his players to study in Europe at the cost of some not returning. The players all need to have other jobs, making rehearsal schedules tricky. I would like to help the orchestra perform some larger scale works. The JBO players are good, they work hard and seriously, investing time and emotional energy in their playing. And the ensemble has a pioneering spirit. (I, myself, have experienced a lot of opposition as a pioneer but this, nevertheless, has never detracted from the excitement of pioneering work.)

Jerusalem is a magical and inspirational city and I respect its historical associations. However, when I conducted the St John Passion with the JBO (March, 2009), potent as it was from the human element, I, nevertheless, endeavoured to enter Bach’s spiritual and musical world in performance. Some Israeli performers may feel they lack the background to be playing and singing Christian sacred music, or that it presents a personal obstacle, but I find that conducting church music in Israel allows me to project my new ideas of a work and there is less undoing of preconceptions in the task.

PH: Maestro Parrott, many thanks for giving us of your time. It has been most interesting talking to you and I know that Israeli audiences look forward to many more performances with you at the helm.

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