Sunday, June 28, 2015

Belgian singer and conductor Erik Van Nevel, director of "Currende", talks about his career and the importance of historically informed performance

On June 9th 2015, I met with Belgian singer and conductor Erik Van Nevel near Sirolo, Province of Ancona, Italy. Maestro Van Nevel, a graduate of the Lemmensinstituut (Leuven) the Koninklijk Conservatorium (Brussels) and the Koninklijk Conservatorium (Antwerp) is the founder and conductor of the “Currende” Consort and the Baroque orchestra known as “Concerto Currende”. He has also directed the Concerto Palatino Wind Ensemble and was maestro di cappella at Brussels Cathedral from 1983 to 2000, where he founded “Cappella Sancti Michaelis”. From 1980 to 1985 he was assistant conductor of the Flemish section of the Belgian Radio Choir. He was also director of “Sound of the Cathedral”, a research project into acoustics and performance place conflicts. Since 1994, van Nevel and “Currende” have been accorded the title of Cultural Ambassadors of Flanders by the Flemish community. In 2014, Erik van Nevel and Currende were engaged again to be musicians of Brussels Cathedral, which they continue to do.

PH: Erik Van Nevel, where were you born?

Erik Van Nevel: I was born in Hasselt, in the eastern part of Belgium, but, as a family, we moved a lot as my father changed jobs - sent to conduct in Antwerp Cathedral, then to teach at the conservatory where I now teach in Leuven.

PH: So you come from a musical family.

EvN: Yes, I do. Apart from my father, my uncle – Paul Van Nevel – is a musician. My father was the eldest of six children and Paul was the youngest, so Paul and I are quite close in age. My mother played the piano. My eldest daughter is a singer, performing mostly early music.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

EVN: When I was six years old, I think, my father asked me to sing with the sopranos in a Christmas Eve church service. I remember it very well, because it was the first time – the only time – in my life that I got nervous performing. I remember my knees wobbling.

PH: Would you like to talk about your musical education?

EVN: Yes. At age five, I went to the music conservatory, but requested to stop after one year. A year after stopping, however, I returned…and have never stopped my musical activity. I started with recorder and general musical studies, such as solf├Ęge and chamber music. Then I began the oboe. These conservatory studies took place in the afternoons and evenings. At age 18, after completing secondary school, I went to the Brussels Conservatory, where I specialized in oboe and conducting. I had already done a lot of singing but, till then, had never made singing my major study. That I did at the Antwerp Conservatory, where I got my diploma as a singer.

PH: How did your performing career begin and develop?

EVN: From the ages of 16 to 18, some of us would meet to sing together just for fun. We then wanted to continue the group and, after completing school, we would meet once a month for a complete weekend of singing. We enjoyed it a lot. After a while, the question arose as to whether this little group of eight of us could perform a concert and, in which case, the group would need a name. I decided we should call the ensemble “Currende” even temporarily, but the name has remained. We started giving concerts when we were 18. After a year of performing, I put it to the other singers that either we become professional, working in a concentrated manner at a high standard and giving concerts or that we decide just to sing for our own enjoyment, without giving concerts. They chose the first option. To move things on, I started conducting the group at rehearsals, but I sang in the concerts. The group said they felt secure with my conducting and requested I also conduct in concerts, so I did. The first “Currende” concerts took place mostly in Belgium. At that time Paul van Nevel, my uncle, asked me to sing in his ensemble “Huelgas”, and, with them, we traveled a lot, performing all over Europe and also in America.

PH: What about solo singing?

EVN: Of course, I sang the real solo repertoire for my exams in Antwerp. In “Huelgas”, we sang one-to-a-part music, so that could actually be considered as solo singing. Sometimes I am asked to do the baritone solos in the St. Matthew Passion or the St. John Passion. Although singing that solo repertoire is not really my goal, I do it with pleasure when asked.

PH: Have you always focused only on early music?

EVN: No, no. During our studies we had to engage in the entire repertoire. Following my graduation I was asked to be assistant conductor of the Belgian Radio choir, this also meaning our performing the gamut of vocal repertoire. The principal conductor was Vic Nees, quite a renowned composer, also of choral music. I had to conduct whatever repertoire he did not like! Our repertoire consisted of opera, operetta, of music from musicals, popular music and even contemporary pieces. I had to assist him in the latter because of the difficulty of that repertoire. I had to conduct a huge variety of music there and this was very good training for me.

PH: Do you write music?

EVN: Very little. First of all, I find that there is already so much good repertoire. But I like to do it for kinds of arrangements around other repertoire. I recently wrote was some organ interludes to be integrated into performance of sacred music of Cypriano de Rore. I sometimes do arrangements of Gregorian chant or of material inspired by it for Brussels Cathedral, where I also conduct. The last thing I did of this kind was “Veni Creator Spiritus” for Pentecost. So, now and then, I write some material, but I am not what you would call a “composer”.

PH: Do you write in words?

EVN: Only for explanations of music we perform in concerts or festivals, if I am asked to do so. There is a magazine at the school where I teach in Leuven. Sometimes I am asked to write an article on a certain subject for it.

PH: Can we talk about “Currende” today?

EVN: Yes. Well, we have existed for over 40 years. Apart from concerts and recordings, we have several other obligations. We sing in the major services at Brussels Cathedral; for this, we use six or twelve singers, depending on the kind of service. This is also the second year we have been involved in an on-going project called “Ad Missam” at St Peter’s Church, the main church of Leuven; this involves the performance of a Mass by a different Flemish polyphonic composer every month. There are hundreds of these Masses. As we use six singers, it means one-to-a-part singing for them. We are presently looking at the financial picture of 2016, but the goal is to turn this project into a tradition at St. Peter’s. “Currende” will also be the choir singing for the master’s degree conducting students’ final exams at the LUCA School of Arts, Lemmens Campus, Leuven, where I teach conducting. For this, the students need to conduct a broad repertoire, starting from sacred and secular Renaissance works, through Baroque repertoire, Romantic and contemporary. That summarizes our obligations. Then of course, we have our regular concerts. We do not have any public relations manager; I have to do that myself, although I really do not have time for it! But our agenda is quite full; people are interested in us, approach us and we have our concert repertoire.

PH: Does “Currende” perform only early music?

EVN: Mostly early music – the five generations of Renaissance polyphony, 17th century Italian music – Monteverdi and other Italian composers, music of the High Baroque – quite a lot of Bach cantatas - and we also get asked by Baroque orchestras to form the choir for Baroque vocal repertoire. From doing the Mozart “Requiem” there is a gap in repertoire to where we do contemporary music. Last April, we performed a new work inspired by music of Cypriano de Rore.

PH: Do you commission pieces?

EVN: Yes. This piece I mentioned was a commission. In the town where Cypriano was born there was a festival consisting of 10 concerts. This piece constituted one of the concerts. I commissioned the work, requesting the composer to write a piece lasting one hour. Before that, I commissioned a piece from Luc van Hove, a well-known Belgian composer; I gave him four Renaissance pieces to use as the inspiration for his work. I always try to create a link with early repertoire.

PH: Do you have instrumentalists or is “Currende” only a vocal ensemble?

EVN: We do have our Baroque orchestra, a pool of musicians I enlist when we do 16th- and 17th century repertoire, where we regularly work with instruments. Our most recent recording was made with two trombones, cornetto and two viols. We have performed the Monteverdi “Vespers” at least ten times and, of course, you need instruments for this work. We have been performing the “Vespers” at St. Peter’s Church in Leiden, Holland, every year, and I am trying to make it a tradition to perform the work annually at Brussels Cathedral.

PH: Are you interested in taking young singers into “Currende”?

EVN: It is an opportunity for them to get some experience and that is why teaching is a very good thing for me: I see the development of young singers and if I see someone with fine potential I approach them about joining the ensemble. It is becoming more and more difficult to enlist young singers, not because of the quality of their voices but of their reading skills. With very few rehearsals they have to be completely prepared by the first rehearsal (“Ad Missam” performances have only one rehearsal!) and I feel that today’s young people have more difficulties working that quickly and in reading the music as you would read a novel. It seems they start their music education too late nowadays and there is less to no singing at primary schools; consequently, these young singers end up with poorer reading skills.

PH: How much recording have you done?

EVN: I think around 40 recordings, some 30 being with “Currende” and the others with different ensembles I have been asked to conduct. Recording has been quite central to our work. Nowadays, because of the crisis in this field, it has become a little less, but there have been times when I had to make three recordings in one year. For example, we made a box of 10 CDs – an overview of Flemish polyphony, starting from the first generation with Ockeghem and Dufay and going all the way to Lassus. Every CD has a theme – Flemish composers in Spain at the court of Charles V, Flemish composers in Italy, such as Willaert, De Rore and de Wert, Flemish composers working in Austria, etc. This project took around four years to complete.

PH: How do you see the early music scene in Europe at the moment?

EVN: It is difficult to give a brief answer to this question. For a long time, early music was regarded as a kind of “alternative” way of making music, although I personally see it as the way. What we call historically informed performance must and will become important in education. That does not mean you cannot play Bach’s music on saxophones, but the HIP approach does refer to how to play it, how to handle Bach’s music and how to be aware of what Bach had in mind. Of course, you can make an arrangement of it; there is nothing wrong with that. But it is good to be informed. I do not see this approach as “alternative”. It is important, for example, to know that Wagner did not like vibrato in the orchestra; in which case, Wagner’s music should be played with a minimum of vibrato. Since Wagner’s time, all orchestral instruments have developed and have become so-called “better”. They have become amplified in volume. So where Wagner writes fff there will be the addition of many more decibels heard nowadays than in his time. Today they are saying that there are no more Wagner singers, the reason being that singers have to sing against a modern orchestra, where decibels have increased over time, whereas singers’ vocal cords have not changed. What I am getting at is that it is good to be informed on the style of any music and then you realize that it will influence your approach to performing it. This does not apply only to Renaissance or Baroque music but also to Romantic and even to music from the early 20th century. You have to keep in mind the question of being as well informed as possible as to the performance practice of any particular repertoire. Of course, this also applies to the use of instruments. Between hearing Mozart’s “Requiem” performed with modern clarinets or with the basset horn of Mozart’s time, there is a huge difference in sound. Does this mean you can no longer perform Mozart’s “Requiem” with modern clarinets? Of course not, but please have in mind how Mozart heard the instruments when he created this music. And this goes for any composer and any kind of music. I find that historically informed performing is an important element of music education but I am also aware of the fact that there are people who have seen the “marketing value” in playing on Baroque instruments and are playing them without having a clue on Baroque performance practice; they look for Baroque-type effects possibly appreciated by the public, but which are really not correct. This makes for cheap performance; that is a tendency I see happening and that I do not like.

PH: Do you like working with amateurs?

EVN: An important part of my work during the year is with amateurs. What I like the most is not needing to reach a specific final result but focusing on a process of working in which people will become inspired by the music and the performance practice, so they will go home with new, fresh ideas. Sometimes a course ends with a concert that is not of such high quality; but that is not the most important thing. I do as much work as possible, knowing that for me, as a musician, the result is not my goal. This year I directed the “St. Matthew Passion” twice with an amateur group in Belgium that had performed it many times. This specific choir has existed for 50 years, so there are quite a lot of older people singing in it. They were quite set in the way they performed the work and my aim was to change their manner of singing it and take it in the direction I believe it should be performed. After the performances, many of the choir members came to me to say how much they had learned from our work and some said it was the most beautiful performance of it in which they had sung. That is very rewarding and that is why I like to do work with amateurs. But I must confess that I would not like to work exclusively with amateurs. As a musician, working with professionals is what I really like doing.

PH: What do you think you will write in your memoires?

EVN: For the time being, I do not see how I will get started with writing memoires. Memoires are something you need to think about for many years. I think the part about working with amateurs and the pleasure you can give them will be an important chapter of my memoires. Regarding performing with professionals, one could say that perfection does not exist; nevertheless, there have been a few moments in my concert career that came very, very close to perfection. Those rare moments remain in your memory for the rest of your life. There are a few examples: we performed Henry Purcell’s famous “Hear My Prayer” for eight voices several times and I remember in one concert, as the fourth piece on the program, that it was really fantastic. Actually, I wanted to stop the concert after this piece! It was tremendously beautiful: the timing was good, the tempo was good, as was the tuning and the affection was perfect. The public requested it as an encore at the end of the program and, when we repeated it, it was okay, but it was not the same quality as earlier. I also remember an event at El Escorial, near Madrid, the palace built by Philip II, where we were asked to open an exhibition on Philip II with a concert. The huge church there was filled with some 2000 people. I put together a program only with music that could have been- or known to have been performed at El Escorial and by composers who worked as maestri da cappella at El Escorial. In the church there were statues of Charles V and Isabella, also of Philip II and his wife. Throughout the concert I had the desire to ask them whether I was doing well, realizing that this music was written for them and that it had been performed for them. Now that we were doing it so many years later and in the same place was also a very special feeling. Those kinds of experience will be in my memoires…when I get around to writing them.

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

EVN: Quiet…silence. But also, since I am typically Flemish, I also enjoy good food and tasty wine. And, as I advance in age, the family is very important. I have three children, now grown up. My elder daughter is 30, my son 27 and my younger daughter is 25. They have partners, have left home and we do not meet so often; we meet at Christmas, Easter and other occasions, but I miss being with them more than, let’s say, ten years ago, when they were still living around me. Now I realize how much I love them and how I need and appreciate their company.

PH: In conclusion, how would you summarize your approach to performance in general?

EVN: What I find most important for the performance of any kind of music is the need to be historically informed, as far as possible. That is why I ask singers in my group to take master classes or be coached for a specific program, so they sense how much better it is to be informed, to sing or play music in a certain manner. They become inspired by performing music in its authentic style. That is something I find very, very important.

PH: Maestro Van Nevel, many thanks for your time and for sharing so many experiences and ideas.

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