Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Talking to British harpsichordist and conductor Steven Devine

On August 5th 2013, I met with Steven Devine in Devon, England. Born in Yorkshire, Steven Devine is the harpsichordist of London Baroque and co-principal of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He has built up a fine solo career on harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano and, as a music director, has appeared worldwide with a variety of orchestras and opera companies. As of 2003, he has been professor of fortepiano at the Trinity Conservatoire (London).

PH: Maestro Devine, do you come from a musical family?

Steven Devine: Sort of. All my family has always been interested in music, though none were professional. They all knew and loved music. My paternal grandmother, however, was a fantastic Methodist church organist. As a young woman, she had lost the finger of her left hand in an accident and decided this was the chance to develop her third- and fourth fingers. She is now 101 and very occasionally still plays the organ.

PH: When did you show an interest in music?

SD: I was five. My family picked up on it and developed it. They bought me a piano and sent me for lessons when I was six. I had a lovely piano teacher and did well.

PH: Did you go to a music-oriented school?

SD: Initially not. But when I was about 11, my piano teacher suggested I try for Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. I was accepted and that is where it all really started. I loved the school, its ethos and all the music there. We were in the heart of Manchester, with many opportunities to attend concerts and other cultural events in the town. I focused on piano there for about four years. Then, at 14 or 15, I had a “crisis”. There were many amazing pianists there at that time, I did not feel like doing all that practice to keep up with the standard; I had also discovered football. Not quite knowing what to do with me, the school staff sent me down to the harpsichord room. (The school was forward-thinking to have such a thing!) There I met a teacher called David Francis who was the right man at the right time. He was incredibly enthusiastic about music, especially Baroque music, and he understood how to pass this and a lot of knowledge on to a teenager. He always let me do things I wanted to do and try things…quite an alternative educationalist in many ways. So, while the school was rigidly academic, I had these moments of freedom with him. He was and still is a very fine harpsichordist. Towards the end of my school career, he took me to his concerts and I got to see the life of a professional musician.

PH: Did you leave the piano?

SD: No. When already quite ensconced as a harpsichordist at Chetham’s I still did a lot of piano accompaniment. I was a “free agent” and played in everything. Here I should mention pianist Peter Lawson, who still teaches there. He coached one of the chamber ensembles in which I played and talked very much about “piano sound” – such an important issue.

PH: Having finished school, where did you go from there?

SD: I went to Oxford University, which I did not really enjoy. I loved the academic studies but I do like tying them into the practical side. The university, at that stage, had not really joined the two. After my schooling at Chetham’s, it was a shock to me not to have any reliance on practical music-making. With some of the students being among Oxford’s most outstanding organists and singers, here we were in the lecture hall studying the music of Schütz and listening to dreadful recordings from the 1950s and 1960s! The scores were in the library and I remember asking our teachers if we could play them, to see what the music suggested to the player and audience...but the answer was “no”. Much as I enjoy academia, I found this approach ridiculous. On receiving my degree I left.

PH: Where did your career take you from there?

SD: I was very lucky. Actually, I went to the Dartington Hall, met Antony Rooley, Evelyn Tubb and Emma Kirkby and we did a series of projects there and I continued to work with them for a time. At the same time I went to Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent. I had been there with my parents at age 12 and was fascinated by all the keyboard instruments in this Georgian stately home. I then went there to help every year as a summer job. When I left university, I was offered a job there, accepted it and went to live in Kent. I am still connected to it, being the Director of Development.

PH: Could you say a few words about the museum?

SD: Yes. It is the most amazing place. It was set up by private collector Richard Burnett and his wife Katrina. Burnett’s idea was that the instruments should not just be on show – they should be played. If, for example, if you play Chopin on a Chopin-style Pleyel piano, what does the instrument tell about the music? There are two Conrad Graf pianos there – how does Schubert’s music sound played on a Schubert-style instrument? This approach has been among the most important influences in my own playing. So, the public visiting the museum hear the instruments played by me, by Richard, staff and guest artists. We have group visits – we give them supper and entertaining talks. There were years when we had 20,000 visitors a year. We are going through an interesting time now: the future of the museum is somewhat undecided. It is, indeed, one of the most astonishing institutions for performance practice; the instruments tell us a lot, as do our intuitions and scores. The world of music benefits from it all.

PH: Are you also a technician?

SD: I am. I tuned instruments at Dartington Hall for a number of years. I learned these skills at the museum. Doing repairs, restoring, voicing and tuning instruments were part and parcel of daily life there – being sensitive to the speed the quill touches the harpsichord string or the hardness of the hammer on a piano.

PH: And what about your performing career outside of the museum?

SD: I have a good solo harpsichord career and a career playing chamber music on early pianos. Am very lucky to have a recording agreement with Chandos Records for whom I recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” two years ago (of course, on harpsichord.) I am the harpsichordist for an ensemble called “London Baroque” and co-principal with Robert Howarth for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Robert Howarth and I also conduct a lot.

PH: What about contemporary music?

SD: My line of work I have doesn’t always invite it. As a conductor, I am only usually booked to direct music written before 1800. But when just out of university and making my way as a harpsichordist I commissioned some works and still do occasionally. I play some contemporary for myself – it’s nice to keep one’s hand in.

PH: Do you compose or arrange?

SD: I play the clavichord, own two very beautiful instruments and love exploring the sound of it, playing some ethereal, exploratory pieces. You could call them free improvisations…not pastiche at all. I have written a couple of choral pieces. For the last 10 years, harpsichord-builder Colin Booth and I have been performing an annual program of music for two harpsichords. Running out of repertoire, I have arranged concerti grossi and other works for two harpsichords. I do, of course, transcribe from manuscripts; the nature of this work requires us to do so, with a lot of early music is still in libraries.

PH: Did you study conducting?

SD: I did at Chetham’s. Being a harpsichordist you are frequently at the front of ensembles and I direct Baroque works from the harpsichord. (I directed a lot of oratorios when I was at the university but missed playing the harpsichord!) Now I spend a bit of time in Germany as an opera conductor. However, I would not want to give up on playing to just concentrate on conducting. Actually, I conduct events of the annual Royal Albert Hall Christmas Festival. There we have carols for all to sing and we perform Händel’s “Zadok the Priest” and other orchestral favorites. Pre-Christmas concerts are a big thing in England… and important: for some people they are the only concerts they attend in the year. It is a lot of fun and so nice conducting to a hall of 6000 people. I have a wonderful team there. The choir sings beautifully and the Albert Hall organ is the second largest in the United Kingdom.

PH: Do you play the organ?

SD: I used to, but do not so much now. I am not in practice, but occasionally play for family weddings. It is not something with which I feel particularly comfortable.

PH: Would you like to talk about your recitals and recordings?

SD: Yes. I enjoy the many opportunities I have of being a keyboard soloist. I toured performing the Goldberg Variations for a couple of years. In addition to recording them, there is the recording of the Italian Concerto and French Overture I did - Bach harpsichord Works, Volume II. Next year is the anniversary for Jean-Philippe Rameau and I am doing a recording of his harpsichord works.

PH: Does your performing include fortepiano?

SD: Most definitely. I have always had a hankering after piano repertoire. It was lovely to be surrounded by 104 keyboard instruments at Finchcocks, many of them early pianos, and to develop my own thoughts on them over the 10 years I lived there. By the time I was 22 or 23, I was able to let the instruments “teach me” how to play them. I teach fortepiano (and harpsichord) at the Trinity School of Music and try to instill that approach in my students there. We need questioning minds and to let our own feelings go with the music.

PH: What repertoire do you especially like?

SD: I like whatever project I am working on at the moment. In 2015, I will hopefully be performing the Brahms Horn Trio with a horn-player called Anneke Scott and violinist Matthew Truscott, a new thing for me. The colors in that are so special. I will play it on an early piano which will help to create those colors.

PH: Let’s go back to your teaching.

SD: I am very fortunate. I was acting head of Historical Performance at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London) last year. I also teach early piano and harpsichord there, working with first study pianists to give them an introductory course in harpsichord and fortepiano. I want to raise their awareness to the kinds of instruments played by composers… the different mechanics, what is different to the modern piano, what the performing issues are, etc. Though I do not take private students, I very much enjoy young artists coming to meet me at home to talk about performing and music, to be challenged and to chat through music.

PH: Do you work with amateurs?

SD: Actually, a great deal. It is a uniquely British thing in terms of the amount of exposure and musical events organized by- and for amateurs. Amateurs are such an integral part of the musical fabric of Britain. At the various workshops, one can work with professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs and try out so many ideas…and make them work! I am very lucky to work with a semi-professional orchestra of period instruments in London called “Linden Baroque”. Exploring Baroque instruments and sometimes little-known works, they work very hard. We perform three concerts a year, of which I direct two. The only difference between them and a professional orchestra is the starting point. By the time we finish our rehearsal process, audiences are very happy to pay money to hear Linden Baroque’s concerts. I have worked with quite a few amateur singers in Kent. When professional musicians talk, they speak a self-perpetuated “mythic” language, but when you work with amateurs you have to say exactly what you mean and what you think!

PH: Do you want to talk about concert audiences?

SD: People go to concerts for a variety of reasons. I think the idea of audiences nowadays being less discerning or looking for lollipops is a bit of a myth. And, frankly, if people pay money they expect a certain standard and quality of performance. I think audiences have not really changed over 900 years. When it comes to early music, some audience members might like to hear drums and funky rhythms and there are a few artists who will go along with that, although most will not. As to coming to hear lesser-known works, that depends who presents them. For example, there is a wonderful musicologist and harpsichordist-conductor called Peter Holman who has a group and festival in Suffolk. He has built up such a loyal following up there that he will pack the place out with 500 enthusiastic listeners to hear the most obscure 18th century work he has discovered. He can do anything he wants as his audiences trust him to give quality, even if it is something they do not know. For me, personally, the most rewarding audience can be 40 people coming to hear me in a harpsichord recital and who will possibly also want to talk to me about the music or instrument because they are passionate about them. With the subject of audiences, economics are involved, but people will always want to engage with us whether in a concert or by listening to a recording. But we, as artists, do have to adapt, just as Bach had to adapt to fashions.

PH: What plans do you have?

SD: I have repertoire I would like to explore, there are many people with whom I would like to engage and make music.

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

SD: I have lots of interests…among them, walking, sport, food, wine and being with my family.

PH: It has been most interesting talking to you, Steven. Many thanks.


1 comment:

  1. Lovely words, Pamela! I know lots of people were fond of Finchcocks, and were sad to see the property sell.

    But the good news is that the new owners have decided to continue the musical tradition at Finchcocks by offering residential piano courses.