Friday, September 4, 2015

Talking to British harpsichordist, organist and conductor Laurence Cummings
On August 10th 2015 I met with British harpsichordist, organist and conductor Laurence Cummings 
in Devon, England. Born in 1968, Maestro Cummings is known as one of Britain’s most exciting and versatile exponents of historical performance. Director of the
London Handel Festival since 1999 and of the Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen since 2012, he is musical director of the Orquestra Barroca Casa da Musica Porto and a trustee of Handel House in London. Residing in London, Laurence Cummings is professor of historical performance at the Royal Academy of Music (London).
PH: Laurence Cummings, where were you born?
Laurence Cummings: I was born in Birmingham UK, in a little place called Sutton Coldfield. We are very proud as the town is mentioned by Falstaff in Part One of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

LC: My grandmother was a self-taught pianist. She played in Birmingham at her local cinema and then in a dance band. She got me interested in the piano. We used to go to church and I sang in the local church choir.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

LC: I remember my grandmother showing me where the notes were on the piano and I also remember very clearly when I became a chorister in the local parish church and the vicar’s wife teaching me lots of things about church life, my becoming a probationer, then a fully-fledged chorister.

PH: How did this influence your musical development?

LC: We were very lucky because, although it was the local parish church, it had a very strong choir. From there on I became interested in church music and started to play the organ. I was already playing piano.

PH: As a child, did you go to a music school?

LC: No, but I went to a school that had a strong music department and that was the reason for choosing that particular school. I was very aware that music was what I wanted to do and there I practised on the organ and did a lot of singing.

PH: Would you like to talk about your formal musical training?

LC: Yes. I had my first formal piano lessons at age 6 or 7. I carried on singing in the choir and I turned to the church organ when I was tall enough to reach the pedals, at about 13.

PH: As a child, did you go to a music school?

LC: No, but I went to a school that had a strong music department and that was the reason for choosing that particular school. I was very aware that music was what I wanted to do and there I practised on the organ and did a lot of singing.

PH: Did you have a specific musical career in mind?

LC: Yes. As a teenager, my dream was to become a cathedral organist. Then, later, attending Oxford University, where I was an organ scholar at Christ Church, I got that experience there and absolutely loved it. But it was also at Oxford University that I had a big “epiphany”, where I realized that historical performance was so fascinating. I really loved it and I also fell in love with the harpsichord. That was a major change, but I still continued to play the organ.

PH: When did you start learning the harpsichord?

LC: I started the harpsichord when I was at the university. I had played it at school, where we had not a very good instrument (our teacher used to call it the “clatter box”). It had been made by the woodwork department, but it did the job. I experienced that when I was at school, but when I went to university there was a very good instrument and I really enjoyed playing that. I was about 20. I played the harpsichord in a student production of “Alexander’s Feast” and, playing the harpsichord in that wonderful chorus “The many rend the skies with loud applause” I got that “light-bulb electricity charge” and a strong sense of that being what I most wanted to be doing.

PH: You finished university. What came next?

LC: I went to the Royal College of Music and did a post-graduate degree in harpsichord.

PH: With whom did you study?

LC: I studied harpsichord and fortepiano with Robert Woolley. Then, when I left, I went to take harpsichord lessons with Jill Severs.

PH: What were your earliest performance jobs as a professional musician?

LC: When I graduated, Mr. Handel was very kind to me. I got several Handel offers in a row as a répétiteur and continuo player. One was with the London Handel Festival, with which I am still associated, now being its musical director; the other was with the touring Opera Theatre Company of Ireland. I would put the harpsichord in the back of the stage car and we traveled all around Ireland performing Handel’s “Tamerlano”. I was having a great time but, today, looking back, it could not have been a more perfect first job, getting to travel, discovering the beautiful Irish countryside and also hearing the fantastic Irish singers…and just having a ball, really.

PH: With what other ensembles did you perform later on?

LC: I played with Harry Christophers and “The Sixteen” for many years, also with “Les Arts Florissants” in Paris. Those are the two groups I have worked with. I was also freelancing.

PH: So where does your own conducting come in?

LC: It came about when I began directing more from the harpsichord myself.

PH: What about your singing?

LC: I have always sung for fun, but I do have a duo with lutenist William Carter, where we do some lute songs. Occasionally I sing in public, usually as an encore. If you are accompanying a singer for a recital, it is fun, just for the last piece, to join in. I love singing and feel it is so important that everyone should sing and everyone should dance. They are two important things in life.

PH: Here, at Dartington Hall International Summer School, you are working with two amateur choirs. How do you feel about that kind of work?

LC: It is wonderful working here with both the big choir and the chamber choir. The sense of achievement, even in a short rehearsal when people realize they can do it, releases so many positive things. I find that kind of work very exciting. I love choirs and choral music. I do several things through the year working with amateur musicians both in England and in Germany. And usually the time frame is quite limited, which is exciting and working like here at Dartington, where you rehearse daily, is even more exciting. Inevitably with human learning processes, we learn and forget a bit, learn and forget, but in a day-by-day schedule over five days you find your own sound and I find that very rewarding. Amateur musicians are, by definition, people who love the music. It is fantastic to work with so many people who are so committed and want to learn.

PH: With what are you busy at the present?

LC: At the moment we have a festival with the London Handel Orchestra. As mentioned above, I direct the London Handel Festival. Am artistic director of the Göttingen Festival in Germany and conduct the Göttingen Festorchester. Both are fantastic orchestras and I love working with them. In Göttingen we are doing a series of live recordings of operas that we have put on; we have released a recording of Handel’s “Siroe” and “Faramondo” and we are about to release a recording of “Agrappina”, our last opera of last year. That is an exciting thing to be doing. I am about to go to Glyndebourne to work on the tour of “Saul”. It’s lovely to have lots of variety with groups.

PH: So opera is currently predominant in your professional life.

LC: Yes. It combines a lot of my loves – you have the instrumental music and also you are working with singers all the time, which I find very inspiring and fascinating. And I love the drama of the theatre and the challenge, I suppose, of bringing these pieces from several hundred years ago to life on the stage today.

PH: Do you compose?

LC: If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said “no”, but I was asked to write some music for a play – it turned out to be four minutes of music – and, though not claiming to be a composer, I did in fact write the music. The play was by the 19th century French dramatist Alfred de Musset, the English translation of it being “A Door Must Be Kept Open or Shut”; it is a comedy of manners between a baron and a countess. They live in adjacent buildings and he admires her from afar. They are obviously in love with each other but the etiquette of the day does not allow them to say that. So the music I was writing was salon music. The play took place in a tiny art gallery in Knightsbridge (London), so the intimate venue felt like a salon. Writing for a play means keeping to the existing story, a very different task to writing an opera, where you are creating the drama. I found it a very interesting process because, of course, I have worked with composers over many years. At university I studied composition to a certain extent, learning the techniques of composition and I understand how to write music and orchestrate. But, of course, the big thing is having your own voice rather than writing in the style of somebody else. I found it challenging but discovered I could either do it on a certain day or I could not! I would sit down at the keyboard and it would all come out or I got stuck! I don’t think it is a change of career for me.

PH: Do you arrange music?

LC: When it is required. What you tend to do in terms of Baroque opera is to deal with the situation that sometimes there are scenes missing or that there are different versions of things or you have to arrange the existing music for the forces that you have. This can mean reducing forces or amplifying them. I am not averse to adding instruments in. That is the kind of arrangement I do.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

LC: I love teaching. I don’t have many one-to-one harpsichord students now because I travel a lot and it is difficult to have the commitment. Then there are harpsichordists interested in directing from the keyboard who come to me for guidance, so we work together. The difference between directing from the harpsichord and conducting from a podium is that from the keyboard you are making it all come together through the harpsichord sound. It is a very democratic process really, encouraging people to listen very carefully to each other. As a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music, I coach groups and take the orchestra there, also helping students who lack conducting experience.

PH: Does your teaching there focus on Baroque music?

LC: Not just. It is usually Baroque music, but often with modern players. It may sometimes be their first experience at playing Baroque music and with the idea of the style, the note shapes and the rhetoric of Baroque music. The latter is foreign to them, because a lot of modern playing is about making the best quality sound for the most time you can.

PH: The rhetoric of Baroque music is a big focus of yours.

LC: It is, because I think that our duty is to move the soul of the listener, to transform. That we know from the treatises with all the details we have to do as well. Handel actually wanted people to leave a performance “as better people”. His making them better sounds a bit arrogant, but I think it is an 18th century sensibility feeling that we can all improve ourselves. He wanted his music to be part of that process, to allow people to come to a concert, be moved by the music and to leave as better people. The rhetoric of Baroque music is so detailed: everything you play will be saying something. The more you can get in touch with what you are saying the more you will inform the listener. Of course, the listener does not have to be aware of all the details; rather, we should take the listener on the journey. From affect to affect we take the listener through what I think is an emotional journey. The rhetoric is the tool to do that.

PH: Now that we are beyond the early music authentic movement, how do you see the performance of Baroque music today?

LC: I think the scenario at the moment is a very healthy one because it is no longer groundbreaking to perform on original instruments and also a lot of modern instrumental players are fully aware of stylistic things. So I work a lot with symphony orchestras; whereas 20 years ago, I would have needed to ask players not to use vibrato, to be sparing with the bow, I don’t have to say that now. They just know that intuitively. (That was the case when I worked with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra – we did “Messiah” and “Israel in Egypt” – which adapted to the style well and I have very fond memories of working with the players.) I think we are now in a position where we know what we don’t know, which is exciting because there was an element of evangelism with period instrument playing and I think we have got through that. It is no longer a question of “you are either doing it right or you are doing it wrong”. We are now so much aware of the possibilities and it is always fascinating for me to look at the different Baroque orchestras that have sprung up and that are now coming of age. A lot have been going for 30 and more years. They do make very distinctive sounds and the gestures they make are very different. And, of course, they have all read the same source material, informing their playing and their listeners, which is exciting for me, as it means that there is no right or wrong way of doing it. So long as people are open to that fact, they will be broadminded about Baroque music. There is always more information coming up about stringing, etc. People do research and this makes for a different sound. In the same way, I always think that in performance we always say more about our own age than we can about anything else because we ourselves are living in the year in which we are living. If you look at period dramas on television, you can always tell at what time in modern history they were made, despite the correct costumes and details. We just have windows into the past; we can never have the whole thing, but it is all the more interesting because of that and, of course, it makes us realize we have to be very spontaneous.

PH: How do you see the young generation of players contending with the current music scene?

LC: It is very challenging for them because, of course, funding for the arts is at a critical point in most of Europe, and I think young musicians are very brave and are doing such interesting work. Ideals are so strong and they do interesting projects.

PH: How do you view changes on the recording scene today?

LC: What is a healthy sign at the moment is that recording nowadays is much less of a money-spinner than it was; so, someone putting up the money himself to record is committed. However, some of the smaller recording companies are doing some very interesting work, also recording works not previously recorded. Nowadays, we hear many recordings of live performances, which is very exciting. Moving away from the recording studio is positive, taking us away from the ideal of “polish-perfect” recordings which lose the spontaneity of the live performance, where you just “go for it”. I, personally, would much rather hear a piece recorded with one or two mistakes but with panache and fire, rather than something that is terribly safe and clinical, because you have to ask yourself where the music is. It is all about life and spontaneity.

PH: What about modern music? Do you engage in it in your professional life?

LC: I have played some contemporary music but don’t do a lot of it. There is quite a lot being written for the harpsichord now. Whenever asked to perform it, I usually agree because it is a challenge. I enjoy doing it but it takes a lot of time as harpsichordists are used to the refined 18th century touch, to getting all the ornaments correct and in the right place and making a beautiful sound, etc. We are not so used to all the drastic rhythm changes taking place in contemporary music. I, personally, need to set aside a lot of time to learn these works. But when you get it right, there is a real sense of accomplishment.

PH: Do you perform solo recitals?

LC: Yes, I do occasionally. I am doing a solo organ recital on a very good organ in Leeds in November, playing some English- and Italian single keyboard works (no pedals). I occasionally do harpsichord recitals. I have a chamber group – the London Handel Players – and very often I do a solo piece within a program. I also sometimes accompany myself singing in one of those programs. I find it a nice thing to do…and a bit unexpected for the audience.

PH: Would you like to mention future plans?

LC: Yes. Well, I am very lucky, because the Göttingen Händel Festival has its 100th anniversary in 2020, so we are already planning that far ahead. We have a rather ambitious plan for it – to perform all of Handel’s operas in some way or other during the course of that year. This is quite a challenge, but we are obviously looking for collaborative partners. Other than that, I have plans to conduct the Zurich Opera and in Gothenburg, where I am going to do some Mozart…the first Mozart opera I will be doing, which is exciting.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

LC: I love walking and travelling (not just travelling for work). Have just been to Barcelona on holiday for six days and had a brilliant time seeing the Gaudi buildings and all the fantastic things Barcelona has to offer, this time with the opportunity to explore a little. (When going there for a performance, am there for a day: you travel there in the morning, see a little of Barcelona, rehearse, do the concert and leave.) I love reading and get to do it on journeys. I have just moved to a house with a garden; gardening is my new thing. I am still quite fresh to it, but am fascinated by it. It is interesting that many composers have been interested in gardening – Handel and Telemann corresponded about planting seeds and even sent seeds to each other. So I think there is something about germination that is associated with music.

PH: Maestro Cummings, many thanks. This has been most interesting.


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