Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Talking to Jonathan Watts in England about his career as a freelance keyboard player

On August 6th 2010 I spoke to pianist, organist and harpsichord player Jonathan Watts at Dartington Hall,
Devon, UK.

PH: Jonathan, when did your interest in music begin?

Jonathan Watts: I remember, at age two, sitting on my aunt’s knee when she played the piano. I grew up in South Wales where everyone sings or plays an instrument. My family, all amateur musicians, would stand around the piano singing works such as Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”. In fact, my 89-year-old mother still plays the organ and sings in her local choral society. Yet, despite my musical upbringing, I am not blasé about music.

I started piano lessons at age five and was already showing interest in learning the organ. When I was about 12 or 13, tall enough for my feet to reach the pedals, I began taking organ lessons at the local church. So my life then revolved around school, chapel, organ lessons and piano lessons. Music was the natural thing to be doing.

PH: On completing school where did you study?

JW: I went to Cardiff University to study Music. I had a wonderful time there as I played piano, organ and harpsichord. There I took part in performances of early Handel works, repertoire that was new to me, but it was not performed in the authentic approach. I also enjoyed singing in a large choir. I completed a masters degree at Cardiff University – my master’s submission was an edition of organ concertos by William Felton, an 18th century English composer - and was organist at the local church, but was still not sure whether or not I would be making music my profession.

PH: What did you decide to do on graduating from Cardiff University?

JW: I left Wales and moved to Devon, where I started to teach school music. I was interested in giving young people guidance and a love of music. I found teaching music in a state school stimulating; however, the lack of resources, accommodation, the lack of post 16 courses and the indifference I encountered in some pupils caused me to make a change in direction.

PH: Did you leave the music profession?

JW: Yes and no. I went to work for a medical company and became its sales and marketing manager, travelling the world for 12 years. But music was still an important part of my life as a performer and it was the increasing conflict of time between one and the other that caused me to take the decision to return to music full time.

PH: So what work actually brought you back to full time music?

JW: I was approached by Dartington Hall International Summer School in 2005: they needed an accompanist to fill in for someone. I started immediately, accompanying singers in countertenor Nicholas Clapton’s master classes. I live locally and this offer came just at the right time. It was time to make a decision, to give up on one job. So I gave up on the salaried position and went back to music full time.

PH: Would you like to mention what that entails?

JW: I freelance, work without an agent and am free to take on any jobs that interest me. I like challenges. If the music has something to say it is worth doing. Projects come to me via word-of-mouth. As an accompanist I have the advantage of being at home on organ, piano and harpsichord. I work as the third conductor of the Dartington Community Choir. I enjoy a large choir – this choir has 150 singers. I play in churches at Dartmouth and Dittisham, accompany choirs and play for weddings, funerals, workshops and exams. And I occasionally play for guests on a cruise ship.

I give organ recitals and enjoy addressing the listeners and talking about works on the program. The audience needs to have some background information in the form of history, a story, anecdotes. This makes people listen with heightened interest. I am used to talking to an audience; I did a lot of that in my days with the medical company.

The Dartington Hall International Summer School is a challenge and presents much variety. It is a fine opportunity to get away from the rat-race and reassess. And it is here I have had so much joy with the opportunity to work with some of the world's best musicians, giving me the confidence that what I do is of equal validity.

PH: Do you improvise?

JW: Yes I do. It is part and parcel of being an organist. The better the instrument I am playing, the more adventurous my improvising becomes! I enjoy doing that.

PH: Do you sing?

JW: Yes. Well, obviously I sing to my choir members to help them in learning their parts, but I also sing in a specialist group called “Voces”, based in Devon.

PH: Do you write music?

JW: No, I don't. I have done a bit of arranging and may occasionally write a fanfare for organ. I do not have the compulsion to compose. I would much rather perform.

PH: What composers are you interested in playing at the moment?

JW: Composers from the Baroque period, particularly J.S.Bach. But I have certainly enjoyed hearing and playing new repertoire at the Dartington Hall International Summer School.

PH: What are your interests outside music?

JW: I am busy rebuilding a small organ in my house. I love gardening and cooking. Am very keen on going into the countryside to find things – mostly things to eat. And I am still excited about travel and being in new places.

On July 30th 2014, I met with Jonathan Watts again at Dartingon Hall, where he was involved in much accompanying and performing at the annual Dartington Hall International Summer School.

PH: So Jonathan, what has been happening in your professional life since our previous meeting?

JW: Having established myself with the summer school and with the Dartington Community Choir, a choir numbering some 170 voices and doing three concerts a year, I was approached to take over a period instrument orchestra called "Devon Baroque". The orchestra was set up about 14 years ago when Margaret Faultless was invited to give workshops on how to approach string-playing from the Baroque period. The orchestra existed as a band and, three years ago, when Maggie's commitments in London and Cambridge became too great, a new director was needed and I took on the job, directing from the keyboard. One advantage was that I was familiar with the ensemble, having used players from Devon Baroque for my choir concerts. So for the last two years I have been artistic director of Devon Baroque. We put on weekend concerts, where the players come together.

PH: From where do the players come?

JW: Half are from Devon and the other half - mostly string players and brass players - come from London usually. We make up our ensemble according to the program we are putting on (and budgeting), from four players to, maybe, twenty.

PH: When do you meet?

JW: We tend to do it over a weekend, with a concert on the Saturday night and a repeat performance in a different venue on the Sunday afternoon. We often perform at Dartington Hall. Our last concert was "Bach & Sons", because of various anniversaries. It was good to have the contrasts between the composers and to hear what the younger Bachs had learned from their father.

PH: And I believe there is another new project.

JW: Yes. Eighteen months ago, I was approached to become the musical director of Devon Opera, which is one of the many county-based semi-professional opera companies in Britain. We are now in our second year.

PH: What kind of performances does Devon Opera put on?

JW: At the moment we are not performing a full-blown operas. Plenty of other people are doing that so we have decided for the moment to be more of an educative company, in which we put on scenes from operas. Last year we did something called "Viva Verdi"; we looked at Verdi's relationships with women. Women played a big part in his life, mainly in a tragic way. We did five big scenes from three or four of his operas.

PH: What is the program for this year?

JW: We are calling our production "The Magic of Mozart". The first half will present the historical transition of Mozart's relationship with opera, from his earliest forays into opera to his last. In the second half of the program, we will do two big scenes - one from "Figaro" and one from "Don Giovanni". The production will be in October and we will go into rehearsal a week or so beforehand.

PH: This is certainly a very different kind of program for an opera company.

JW: Yes. What we are trying to do with audiences is not to give them a complete opera but an insight into how a composer has related to opera in his career.

PH: Who are the members of Devon Opera?

JW: They are professional singers living either locally or a bit further away, members of regional- rather than London-based opera companies. We are very lucky to have some very good singers to draw on.

PH: So you do just do the one production each year?

JW: Not exactly. We also get asked to do, for example, an opera evening at a hotel or we do a gala performance for fund-raising to make the opera work. Opera is very expensive to run and, particularly in this part of the world, sponsorship is not very forthcoming. So Devon Opera is in a new, good growth period.

PH: Does the company have any support?

JW: Yes. We have got corporal support from an investment company, which is good, and I guess that as soon as they see that what we are doing is good, as well as their getting new clients through the publicity, we are hoping they might become even bigger investors in the future. In which case, maybe we can put on a full-blown opera with orchestra and with professional chorus as well.

PH: Does Devon Opera have a chorus?

JW: Not at the moment. We have deliberately decided not to mix professional- and amateur voices because there is quite a clash when you do that. When the chorus will come into it, perhaps what we would like to do is to go to some of the London colleges where they have an opera studio and invite young singers to come down here to become a chorus - perhaps only eight of them - to make a really good sound and they would blend with the soloists really well.

PH: Jonathan, you really have many new projects!

JW: It feels right at this stage of my life, in my mid-fifties. When you are younger you experiment. Now you know where your heart is. My heart lies in choral music, in period instruments, in style and also in operatic voices. These things make me tick, which is essential. You certainly can not teach and inspire amateurs or professionals if you do not believe it yourself.

PH: Jonathan,it has been most interesting talking to you once again. Many thanks.

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