Sunday, December 18, 2011

Baroque violinist Walter Reiter (UK) talks about his musical life, teaching internationally and the early days of the Baroque scene in Israel

I spoke to Baroque violinist Walter Reiter (UK) December 13th 2011 prior to his visit to Israel to teach in the second Tel Aviv Early Music Seminar Tel Aviv and to lead and solo in the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s upcoming “Celebrating Christmas & Chanukah” concert.

PH: Professor Reiter, would you like to talk about your earliest music experiences?

Walter Reiter: My earliest musical memories are of bagpipe bands and drums where I was brought up on the north coast of Ireland; there the Protestants played bagpipes and drums and the Catholics played Irish music. My earliest ambition, like that of many boys in the village where we lived, was to be a pipe band leader. It was a good lesson as how divisive religion can be: we were one Jewish family among 700 Protestants and 300 Catholics.

PH: When did you start to play an instrument?

WR: My mother was from a very musical family in Vienna. The youngest of five children, she could play the piano fairly well (we had a hired piano in Ireland) and she played the violin very badly. But, as there was nobody to teach my brother and me the violin where we lived in Ireland, she decided to teach us herself. Her sister, who lived in Holland, sent us violins and music and vaguely told my mother how to do it, and that is how we learned the instrument for the first few years! There were some other people who tried their hands at teaching us; there was an Italian ice-cream man, but my mum thought he was useless…which he probably was. When I was ten, we moved to England.

PH: So you continued your music education in England.

WR: Well, it was very unorthodox. As soon as we moved to England, my mother sent us to a really good teacher in London at the Royal Academy. I stuck that for about three years, I guess. The teacher was probably a very good teacher, but I did not really understand why she wanted me to be so disciplined. When I was fifteen, she suggested I enroll in the Academy proper the following year. I said I did not want to and she said she would not teach me any longer. So I stopped having lessons for about four years, by which time I could play some Sarasate and such works, all with lots of flair and very little orthodox technique.

PH: So when was the turning point?

WR: It was not, actually, until I went to the University of Glasgow, where I studied Drama and Philosophy, that I started playing chamber music and decided I really wanted to be a professional violinist. (Glasgow University is near some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and I love walking. More about that later) Lots of people said that, at 21, I should already be playing Paganini, etc. However, I had a really wonderful teacher – Leonard Friedman, a fine musician - who said it was too late for me to become a virtuoso violinist or a soloist, but that I could become a good musician. He said I should forget my age and just do the work. I left the university to study with him.

I came down to London, studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music. By that time I had met Yona Etlinger, who said I should go to Israel. (I had dreamed of studying in Moscow.) So in 1970 I went to Israel and attended one of Ramy Shevelov’s amazing summer courses. I was not really good enough to actively take part in the course; I just took lessons with him throughout that summer. But I was bowled over by the superb quality of playing I heard there and thought that I must be in Israel.

PH: So you moved to Israel.

WR: It was not logistically possible to stay in Israel then, but I was ready to throw away my return ticket and continue studying with Shevelov. I went back to London, graduated and returned to Israel. I studied with Ramy for about three years in all. He was the most superb musician and teacher and I think that were it not for him, I would not be playing the violin today. However, living in Israel was a little difficult in the sense that one could not study and earn money at the same time. But, as luck would have it, I landed a job in the Yehudi Menuhin Festival Orchestra (formerly the Bath Festival Orchestra), which meant about four months a year working and traveling the world; I would rush back to Israel for a few weeks at a time to continue my studies.

PH: You also studied in Europe.

WR: Yes, I studied with Sandor Végh (of the Végh Quartet), for a year in Germany. He was fantastic. I worked really hard there. But I eventually came back to Israel and started teaching in the Rubin Conservatory (today known as the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance) and at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

PH: You have always had a great love of teaching.

WR: Yes. I taught even when a student: it is so inspiring to guide young people through the mysteries of music-making, and it keeps me young too! On my return to Israel I was incredibly lucky: even in my first year I had three or four pupils who were really outstanding. Among those who have made fine careers are Shlomit Sivan and violists Yoel Greenberg (the Carmel Quartet) and Amir van der Hal (IPO). I think one of the motivations for my teaching so much is because of my own completely unorthodox musical training.

For two years, while teaching in Jerusalem, I studied violin pedagogy with Russian-born violinist Felix Andrievsky, who came to Jerusalem from the Menuhin School. What I learned from him has been so valuable. At that time, I began playing part-time in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, too.

PH: Which was when your interest in Baroque violin started?

WR: I had always been interested in Baroque music, having played a lot of it at university. But yes, it was around this time that I started grappling with the Baroque violin; I think I was the first Baroque violinist in Israel! We had a small group of players – we called ourselves “Camerata Yerushalayim” - and I also participated in Bach cantatas every week at the Van Leer Institute. I looked around for a bow: the violin-maker and ‘cellist Yossi Boazson had an East German viola da gamba bow, probably a terrible, factory-made bow, and together we played some concerts. One concert was at Beit Hillel and that was on the very day the Laurette Goldberg arrived in Israel. She was my Baroque “fairy godmother”. Having flown from San Francisco, she arrived at the concert hall straight from the airport with Professor Jehoash Hirshberg; Jehoash had told her that there was not much going on in Baroque music in Jerusalem, but that there was to be a recital that evening. After the concert, Laurette came to me, gave me a big hug and told me she had come to Israel to start a Baroque orchestra and that I was to lead it, adding that I knew absolutely nothing about the Baroque violin and that she would teach me! So that is how it…sort of…started. She brought over some musicians who worked at the Jerusalem Music Centre. All were principals of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of the West. The violinist was Michael Sand, there was the amazing viola da gamba player Susie Napper and there was Bruce Haynes, one of the first people to play the Baroque oboe. They all came over and started a band, but we could not work without them as there were not enough people interested.

At the end of that year, I went across to Paris for the summer to have more lessons with Michael Sand. There, I was offered a job with “Les Arts Florissants”. I decided to take a sabbatical year from teaching in Jerusalem to work with “Les Arts Florissants”. Still based in Jerusalem, I think I went over to Europe eight times that year! However, “Les Arts Florissants” was offering me so much work that we moved to Europe in 1986. I worked with “Les Arts Florissants” and with other groups for three years.

I eventually moved back to London, getting a job with “The English Concert”, where I have been principal second violin for 10 years, eventually also leading “The Sixteen”.

PH: What other interesting things are you doing at the moment?

WR: I am doing a lot of teaching….I have 11 pupils at Trinity College London, and one at the Royal Academy of Music. And I teach in The Hague, where I am sharing the teaching duties of a class with Kati Debretzeni, who had been a pupil of mine in Israel. I suppose I helped to form quite a few of the Israeli Baroque players: Kati, Dafna, Lilia Slavni….

PH: Would you like to talk about your Cuban Baroque music project?

WR: Yes. And if we have been talking about my passion for teaching, I confess my favorite place to teach is in Cuba, where I am about to go on my eighth visit. That started when I met some Cuban people who were trying to play the Baroque violin and, rather like me many years ago, did not really know what they were doing. Incredibly musical, talented and intuitive, they suggested I come to Cuba to teach. I received an official invitation to go there and taught on a voluntary basis. On our first visit there, my wife, singer Linda Perillo - who kind of introduced Baroque singing to the island - and I performed a concert of music by Muffat, Biber and Schmelzer; the people there were so enthusiastic. Their musicians are very well trained: they go through the Soviet system of training, but they themselves are Latin and African, so not at all rigid and also not especially disciplined. (They spend most of their time playing or laughing.) But they have incredible musical intuition and initiative, learn quickly and progress on their own. For example, there was a young man there who wanted to play the theorbo. He got a local instrument-maker to build him one, I found him the strings and the next time I came he could play his theorbo…without a single lesson!

We all got on extremely well and I realized there was great potential there. Here was a place where people just love music (including classical music) and where a huge percentage of people play musical instruments. So I started going over there to teach and direct, and now there is actually a thriving Early Music scene in Havana. They have an early music festival in February, they have organs, harpsichords, and viols and, in fact, some players have now studied at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. On my next visit, I will be going to Santiago to “convert” them there as well. Now my work there is sponsored by the Salzburg “Mozarteum” which has an outreach program in Latin America. On my next visit there in April, I will be teaching Baroque violin for a week and coaching a Baroque orchestra as well; actually two, because one of the arts high schools now has its own! I call it my “Chiquitica (littlies) Baroque Orchestra”! In the second week, it will be music of the Classical period – probably Beethoven’s Symphony no.1 or possibly a Schubert symphony. There will be a concert with the Baroque Orchestra plus a performance of a Classical symphony. Some of the Santiago people will come to Havana …riding 14 hours in a bumpy bus to Havana…all for their love of music.

PH: I would like to hear about your books.

WR: As a teacher, I have decided that students want to know about style and how to interpret the large repertoire of Baroque music. By the end of one-, two- or three years of training, they are not able to sit down in an orchestra and play a Händel oratorio or a Mozart symphony in style. So I decided to put together a compendium of Baroque “Ėtudes”. They are not études at all but a selection of pieces from easy ones to very advanced. It will be in three volumes, one of which has already been published. I am also busy putting together a Baroque anthology for young children. There are plenty of those around, but there is nothing in that field with any air of historical performance practice. There will be four books of that, to be published by Schott Music Ltd. And I am writing a book about how to play the Baroque violin, partly inspired by the fact that a lot of people do not have access to Baroque violin teachers. These players end up imitating things, without necessarily knowing why. The idea of the book is to have a kind of Baroque method, as it were. It is a kind of “do-it-yourself” Baroque violin manual.

PH: And then there is another book.

WR: (hesitating) Ah, yes. The novel….I have been writing it for about eight years. I do that in my “spare time”, that is when I am on tour, sitting in hotels. I hope to finish it eventually…

PH: What is it about?

WR: Love. What else?

PH: What are your future plans?

WR: My diary is very full. We are very busy with the English Concert. We are supposed to be doing an opera every year for the next five years at Carnegie Hall. We will then do the same opera at Theater an der Wien (Vienna). Still leading “The Sixteen”, we have a whole series of Monteverdi recordings to do and we are about to record Händel’s “Saul”; we also do a Händel opera in Buxton (northern England) every year. I lead a group in Norway, which I love, and we are trying to get the ensemble to Cuba to do a joint concert of the B Minor Mass, which has never been performed in Cuba! And I have lots of recitals…

In the very immediate future, I am about to return to Israel to do some teaching in Tel Aviv. There is a lot of interest in Baroque playing in Israel and a high standard of string-playing. Dare I say that in the early days of my playing Baroque music in Israel, there was a huge amount of vociferous opposition to our approach to the genre, often quite vitriolic! I once heard Isaac Stern actually call early music a “crime”? Things certainly have changed!

PH: And you will also be leading and soloing with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in concerts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Would you like to talk about the program?

WR: Well, it is a Chanukah/Christmas program. I will be playing two of Biber’s “Rosary” Sonatas, which I recorded some years ago as well as other Biber works with the chamber group. We will also be playing some Muffat – Biber’s contemporary in Salzburg who had worked with Corelli in Rome – as well as Christmas Concerto. Muffat also studied in Paris and we will play a piece by Rebel “Les Caractères de la Danse” and some “Noëls pour les Instruments” by Charpentier. The Overture to Händel’s “Judas Maccabaeus” provides the Chanukah element and ties in nicely with Corelli, as the two worked together in Rome.

PH: When it is not music, what are your interests?

WR: Reading and writing and trying to keep fit. I love walking and am still “living” a walking holiday I had in Ireland with my son three months ago.

PH: Professor Reiter, it has been most interesting talking to you. Thank you for your time.

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