Monday, August 23, 2010

English baritone Stephen Varcoe talks about his career and more

On August 4th 2010 I had the pleasure of talking to singer Stephen Varcoe over a glass of wine in the White Hart Bar at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK. Dr. Stephen Varcoe is one of Britain’s most distinguished baritones, known for his performances and recordings of Baroque music, a large repertoire of solo song and for his appearances in early to modern operas. His book “Sing English Song” is designed to give amateur singers, voice students and professional singers insight into Britain’s rich vocal heritage.

PH: Stephen, what were your earliest musical experiences?

Stephen Varcoe: I was born in Cornwall. I think my earliest memories of hearing much music are from age three. My mother, a former music teacher, played the piano a lot and my father played the violin. Their friends would come to our house to play music with them...triosonatas,etc. My parents also had a house madrigal group. I began piano lessons at age six. I can not remember a time when I could not read music. At the age of eight I went to the Canterbury Cathedral choir school, where I remained till age 13. I left my piano studies; singing had become my way of life and my voice could do what I wanted it to. I then moved to the King’s School in Canterbury, where I carried on singing.

PH: Where did you continue your studies?

SV: I was accepted to King’s College Cambridge to study Mathematics and Law. I sang in the King’s College choir, which met six days a week. I changed from Law studies to Land Economy. However, singing had become central to my life and, during my first year at Cambridge, I was encouraged by older musicians to take on singing as a profession. My singing teachers at Cambridge were John Carol Case and Wilfred Brown, both keen exponents of British music; it is from then that English music has remained a great love of mine, as is the English language…and languages, in general.

Having graduated from Cambridge, I spent one year of post-graduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I was able to create my own course program. Well, I did not come away with a diploma but there I studied Lieder, French song, Baroque music and, of course, singing. My voice teacher there was Arthur Reckless; he was so loved by all that the door of his room was constantly opening and closing, with people constantly dropping in to say hello and have “a word” with him.

PH: What about performances?

SV: At that time, four friends and I started an a cappella group called “The Scholars”. We had all been members of the King’s College Choir. I sang with them for 18 months, performing more than 100 concerts; we sang madrigals and early Tudor music and we also commissioned works from composers such as the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson. I had also begun singing with small groups in London. There was a lot of work with BBC radio and in live concerts, too. Choral conductor John Alldis, who specialized in new music, was looking for singers who were excellent sight-readers to perform modern music under his baton and I joined him. We toured Australia and New Zealand performing these works.

PH: And your solo singing career?

SV: Having started doing solo work, I took part in the Gulbenkian Competition of 1977 and won it. The prize enabled me to leave other jobs I was doing and concentrate on building up my solo career. Other important stages were singing in the Schuetz Choir under Roger Norrington (known for his exploration of historical performance practice) and in the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner (famous for his interpretation of Baroque music performed with period instruments). From singing as a member of these choirs, I became a soloist with them. Another conductor important to my career was Richard Hickox. We were friends from Cambridge. I did many concerts with him, including performances at the BBC Proms, where I soloed.

I also found myself doing a lot of work in Germany with WDR, the Cologne radio station.

PH: Would you like to talk about your involvement in Early Music?

SV: Yes. The two conductors who were the major influences on me in this genre were Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner. We performed concerts together, traveled through Europe, appeared at festivals and recorded. Early music constituted much of my work in Germany with WDR and with German ensembles as well as with Sigiswald Kuijken. I have done much work with the American conductor, keyboard player and musicologist Joshua Rifkin: we performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with two singers on each part in the BBC Proms and the B minor Mass with one singer to a part! The latter meant each singer was a member of the chorus as well as a soloist! And I have sung in Baroque opera, Peri’s “Euridice”, Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, etc.

PH: You have made well over 100 recordings.

SV: Yes. I have recorded extensively with Gardiner, Sigiswald Kuijken, Gustav Leonhardt, Pinnock and Hickox – including music of Bach, Purcell and Handel but not just Baroque music. As digital recording came into its own, record companies were make a great number of recordings.

I have a great love of the songs of British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). When I was in my early 30’s I decided I would like to record his songs and wrote to a number of recording companies, receiving refusals from them all. Then, one day, a letter came from his widow Joy Finzi, in which she wrote that the Finzi Trust was interested to record his songs and would I like to sing them? It was an extraordinary opportunity for me. I recorded them with Hyperion and this led on to more recordings with the same company – recordings of English songs, French songs and Lieder.

PH: Would you like to talk about your work in teaching?

SV: Yes. What I love to do is coaching singers, with the emphasis on interpretation rather than voice production. I do that one day a week at the Royal College of Music (London), also teaching at Clare College, Cambridge. I also hold master classes in several locations – at universities, in schools and at Dartington Hall (Devon). I encourage the students to find the right “sound” for the song at hand, to communicate with their hearts and in the spirit of the language of the song.

My wife and I also host song days and song weekends in our barn at Ansells Farm. Some have a theme. These attract a variety of keen singers – students, amateurs and teachers.

PH: Let’s go back to the subject of interpretation.

SV: I recently completed a PhD in communication in song at the University of York, this subject being central to my teaching and the focus of my own singing. The research is about historical performance and goes right back to Aristotle, the psychology of reception on the part of the audience and the use of imagination on the part of the singer. It meant reading dozens of books by singing teachers, composers, actors, directors, philosophers, psychologists, etc. The bibliography runs to about 280 books and papers; it was a process whereby one book led onto many more, actually, a never-ending search process. My writing deals with the singer’s precise feeling for a song, who the singer is in the song, who the singer is addressing and whether the audience is “present” or not. It has to do with the theory of acting, with theatrical concepts, who the actor is and to what extent the singer inhabits that role. Of course, the singer’s own personality and imagination are involved. A lot of singers are happy to settle for a general emotion; I, however, am convinced that the singer needs to be more specific in order to convince his/her audience.

PH: What role does your audience play?

SV: A very active role. Firstly, the people present at the concert are there out of choice. They are attentive and supportive, they are important to the “partnership”. I would rather sing to a small attentive group than to a larger less involved audience.

PH: What is on your performing program at the moment?

SV: I am playing the Ferryman in Benjamin Britten’s “Curlew River”. The performance will be in Suffolk, where it was premiered in 1964.

I will be performing in “Celebrating Grainger 2011”, a three-day event from February 17th to 20th 2011 at the Kings Place Concert Halls, London that will mark the 50th anniversary of Australian composer Percy Grainger’s death.

PH: Stephen, when not busy with music, what other interests do you have?

SV: I love gardening. One favorite annual outing for me is to the Great Dorset Steam Fair to see to see the huge collection of working steam traction engines; historic machinery and industrial archeology interest me. I also enjoy making things. I recently made some big oak doors for our house.

PH: Stephen, many thanks for your time and for this interesting discussion.

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