Saturday, October 1, 2016

Talking to JanJoost van Elburg (Holland) about his career in choral conducting

JanJoost van Elburg (photo: Sander Heezen)

On August 17th 2016 I met with Dutch conductor and singer JanJoost van Elburg in Ludlow, Shropshire, UK. JanJoost van Elburg (b.1962) studied conducting with Barend Schuurman and singing with Jelle Drayer, Margreet Honig and Ghislaine Morgan. Recent and current conductorships include The Renaissance Singers (London), The Reading Bach Choir, the Bartholomew Consort (Oxford) and the Lelikoor (Amsterdam); he serves as vocal coach for the COQU Vocaal Consort (Utrecht). Van Elburg has been invited to work with such ensembles as “Cantiones Sacrae” (Dundee) “Polyhymnia” (New York), the Monteverdi String Band (UK) and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. He has directed “Grand Baroque” projects at Exeter Cathedral.  As a singer, he has performed with such ensembles as the Tallis Scholars, the Netherlands Radio Choir, Capella Pratensis, Capella Coloniënsis as well as his own ensembles. He holds workshops and lectures on such subjects as Renaissance- and Baroque music, madrigals, Flemish polyphony, Tudor music and choral conducting. On the board of the “Le Pavillon” Foundation for contemporary music, Van Elburg initiated and is principal tutor of the annual DESCANT International Choral Conductors’ Course in Amsterdam, where he lives.

PH: JanJoost van Elburg, I see you have a great love affair with England.

JanJoost van Elburg: I do indeed. It flows from several canals. I had a British uncle, which started my love for the English language. My work, however, frequently brings me to England: in the early 2000s I sang several concerts with the Tallis Scholars, working with Peter Phillips at the Tallis Scholars Summer School and, as of 1998 have led many of Andrew van der Beek’s “Lacock” courses (as I am this week). In 2003 I started working in London, conducting The Singers of London and the Renaissance Singers, I conducted the Reading Bach Choir for several years and I still conduct the Bartholomew Consort in Oxford. I have directed a few of the “Grand Baroque” projects at Exeter Cathedral; in one we performed Muffat’s “Missa in Labore Requies”, one of those incredibly large-scale pieces with three orchestras, two choir, eight soloists and six natural trumpets. Another very grand work I directed there was a Biber Mass, with two organs and two or three choirs. It was great fun. These large works are not performed often, but Blackdowns Early Music Project (which supports “Grand Baroque”) dares to produce these works because it believes in presenting them and I am very grateful that they do.  So the love affair with England hasn’t stopped yet.

PH: Not living in the UK, how do you work with the Bartholomew Consort?

JJvE: We start rehearsing on the Friday, work through the weekend and give a concert on the Sunday. This October they will be coming to Amsterdam to do the concert there.

PH: What is the Blackdowns Early Music Project?

JJvE: Established in 2004 in Culmstock, but also giving concerts in Exeter, Wellington and other places nearby, it draws together groups of experienced singers to perform less-heard, pre-1720 works.

PH: What was your first musical experience as a child?

JJvE: I think the very first significant musical experience that made my mother decide that she had to do something about it was when I was probably five. We were at the museum in The Hague, where they have old instruments. In the main hall a harpist was playing. We walked by and listened and I was completely mesmerized. After a few minutes my parents wanted to leave and I decided I didn’t want to and started screaming and disrupted the whole thing. They were forced to stay for as long as I decided I wanted to.  I seem to remember – or, at least, that was what I was told – that the harpist enjoyed the fact that he had such an impact on such a little child.

PH: To where did that experience lead?

JJvE: My mother thought they should do something about it, so I started playing harp at age six – a tiny harp – and I had a very, very severe teacher who came from Russia, I think. She was too stern for me. I tried it for two years and then gave up as I wanted to be playing everything except the exercises and runs I was supposed to practise.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

JJvE: Yes – I say this with hesitance. My father played the harmonium and I remember him playing the piano when I was young. My maternal grandfather conducted choirs and was a good singer and I think that is the background to my own musicality. My sister plays in an orchestra, but the rest of the family are medical people…not really musical.

PH: Let’s go back to your musical training.

JJvE: Our system in Holland is very bad; there is just about no music at schools but I went to a conservatory where I learned theory and sight-reading and enjoyed that very much. I also played the recorder from age eight and continued for several years, playing the usual recorder repertoire, including Jacob van Eyck’s “Fluyten Lust-hof” with all the ornamentation. Then puberty hit and I was bored with the recorder. My father passed away when I was 14 and I really wanted to do something else. I picked up the guitar and played bass guitar in a band and then left it for a while. Music was still attracting me but there was nothing I could do really well at that stage.

PH: So how did you get to choral music?

JJvE: When I was 16 and 17 I sang in a church choir for a short time. Then I abandoned that. In the early ‘80s I started singing in choirs again. My sight-reading was still quite good. (Actually, I had only gone to a choir audition to support a friend who was feeling very scared about auditioning.) And then I was asked to help four people who were preparing to sing at a wedding. Helping them learn the material seemed to go easily for me. I enjoyed it very much; it had opened up a new world for me. So following the teacher training course I took, I went to study conducting in Rotterdam, as I had been singing in a choir in Amsterdam conducted by that teacher and I loved the way he worked.

PH: When did you study voice?

JJvE: At the same time, but it was not my main focus. I thought it very important for a choral conductor to be able to sing; I mainly studied singing in order to understand how the instrument works, to be able to show what the mistakes are and how it could be done better. That is why I never settled into one voice part. I think it is useful for a choral conductor to be able to sing in all ranges and, luckily, I have a voice that can do that. When I sing properly I mostly sing countertenor. That feels easiest to my voice.

PH: Have you done solo singing?

JJvE:  I have done a little solo singing. That requires different preparation and I never thought I was good enough to start a solo career. So I have done it where needed – if soloists have dropped out, but not really as a solo career.

PH: When did you actually start appearing as a choral conductor?

JJvE: Quite early on – around 1986.

PH: Have you done orchestral conducting?

JJvE: Yes. At the moment I am working at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam (next to the Anne Frank House), where they have their own orchestra run by Daniel Boothe. We do a Bach cantata service every month at the church.

PH: Tell me more about music in the Westerkerk.

JJvE: We try to get some “mystery guests” from time to time. This year we had Phillipe Jaroussky. We did not publicize the fact and people entering the church were gobsmacked when he walked in. So we had a Bach cantata sung by him. It was wonderful and his fee was not more than what other solo singers would take.

PH: Which ensembles have had the strongest influence on your career?

JJvE: In the very early 1980s, it was the professional English choirs, like The Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen and the Hilliard Ensemble. I thought “this is really good” and I really liked Renaissance music because of its inner balance and incredibly soothing quality; the structure in it is just wonderful – complex and simple at the same time. The way these ensembles on the English scene performed it – led by Paul Hillier, Harry Christophers and others – was opening up a new world for me.

PH: What about the Dutch scene?

JJvE: Yes, but that was later music in the hands of the like of Jos van Feldhoven and Ton Koopman, who are still active today. Actually I am going to work with Ton Koopman this coming Autumn; I will prepare the B-minor Mass with the choir of The Hague Conservatory for him. We will then go on tour to the United States.

PH: What artists or ensembles do you find inspiring?

JJvE: At certain stages in one’s studies or musical career you hear performances that have suddenly sparked off a new idea that carries you on for a few years. Then you hear another one – it’s a string of people, really. For example, at the moment, someone I find very inspirational in the way he sings and works is the German baritone Dietrich Henschel. I work a lot with Paul Phoenix and Charles Daniels, both fantastic singers. I recently did a concert with Daniels and “Vox Luminis” – a Belgian vocal ensemble of young singers. “Vox Luminis” has a new approach – a warm, perhaps less academic- but more human approach; there are some very beautiful voices in it and the members have a very natural way of singing, which I really like.  So I did a Charpentier project with them. It was fantastic to be able to work with them. Another artist who has inspired me is the Dutch baritone Max van Egmond.

PH: Now that the hysteria of the authentic early music movement is behind us, what is your approach to early music performance?

JJvE: The early music movement has been around in the Netherlands for a long time, with the great “rebellion” taking place in the 1970s.  In the past I religiously followed the principle of very clean, transparent singing. I have lost the idea of too “sterile” a sound, now finding a fuller-blooded vocal sound more to my liking.   It is people who are performing and so the individual qualities of these performers should shine through. If we then combine their voices into a unified sound, it becomes more realistic in a way, a more living sound. I have heard early music performances that were absolutely perfect, but so boring, and I didn’t like that. For an example of how I do choral works: in the St. Matthew Passion I did, I did not choose for the mezzo-soprano to sing “Erbarme dich” because it would be too easy, simply too beautiful. I chose the countertenor to sing it because he has to work quite a bit harder to make it work. To me, that is more where it comes from. To me this aria is so related to Peter himself – it is Peter himself speaking, uttering a heart-rending plea; it makes much more sense then when the violin offers him soothing comfort. That adds an extra layer to the music. That is how I now approach performances such as the Matthew and St. John Passions.

PH: Do you broach the subject of vocal vibrato nowadays or do you not?

JJvE: I do, I do, yes When choosing a soloist, I normally choose one who already fits the picture I have for that certain role. For instance, with the B-minor Mass I am presently preparing with students in The Hague, where some of them have a tendency to add vibrato to every note, I ask them not to do it or to limit it, explaining why. A bit of a “fight” sometimes ensues, but vibrato should function as a form of ornamentation, to add warmth to the tone, as a means of expression.

PH: How do you find the attitude of the young musicians you work with to early music?

JJvE: It varies a lot. Those I work with in The Hague have chosen to study early music, so they find it completely normal to work along those principles. In Bulgaria I worked with a professional orchestra of very young players; they told me they all hated Bach. Bach was bad music…all of it! I found this amusing and interesting.  When I then asked them why they had chosen this project that said they wanted to understand why I like it! We started working on the Bach Magnificat and it sounded awful at first; we all agreed it sounded awful. We then started working on the way they were playing – how they were using the bow, where to cut off certain notes, how to make the music more dancelike – and gradually they started understanding the principles, grasping the light transparency of the dance. Actually, they started to like it, begrudgingly admitting that they thought it was good. I like that very much and find these moments the best when they “get it”, not just doing what I say, and then they can do it that way themselves.

PH: Are you coming across different approaches to singing early music?

JJvE: Yes. Working with Bulgarian singers, for example, they come from a different background and they also have different vocal techniques. When they sing early music it is with a different voice and it works differently, but this doesn’t mean it is wrong; it’s just different and this adds to the quality. When you have altos from Bulgaria you won’t find them in western Europe and you won’t find English countertenors in Bulgaria. The original language has an influence on the singer’s voice production, hence a certain fullness and sharpness of tone quality in singers from Russia and eastern Europe.

PH: Do you compose?

JJvE: I used to. I used to write music for theatre productions. That was in the ‘80s. I haven’t written so much for choirs, just a few small anthems.  But in order to write music and bring it out in the world I felt I would need the proper training for it. At the conservatoire we learned about composition and we produced some pieces but I never thought they were good enough. However, at a summer course on new music for singers I introduced one of my own pieces, but not under my own name. This was on purpose because I wanted the singers to feel free to say what they thought. They thought it was a “nice piece”; I never told them it was mine.

PH: On the same subject, do you perform contemporary music?

JJvE: Yes. Not so much, but I do. It was a few years back with my Amsterdam chamber choir, the Lelikoor. For St. Cecilia’s Day we wanted to have a few more new compositions on the subject, so we asked some young poets to write texts and a few young composers to set them to music. That created some interesting pieces, some of which we performed at the concert. (I think two of them will probably not be performed again; they were not good enough…) However, with my chamber choir we perform music from all periods, not so much the big Romantic repertoire because it requires a large orchestra and a different line-up. Most Romantic music is not suitable for a chamber choir, but we have performed Brahms and I do perform Saint Saëns and Ravel.  Of great interest was a work we did by Rudolf Mauersberger; he wrote a piece after the destruction of Dresden, referring to it. He had been leading a boys’ choir there; they lost everything, including some of the boys.

PH: And future plans?

JJvE: In October I am going to conduct Swiss-Dutch composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, a fantastic piece. The Mass was mostly written for himself. Am also going to be doing the Requiem by Ildebrando Pizzetti. I have been asked to work with a composer who is very, very, very post-avant-garde. Am a bit hesitant about doing that, so have not yet said yes.

PH: Do you edit?

JJvE: Yes, I do. Particularly for early music. It’s great fun figuring out the mensural notation. Sometimes you think “How is this possible? Why doesn’t it work?” and it turns out that the same composer has written two settings of that particular piece – one, for instance, in 1591 and then one in 1596 – but both are incomplete. In which case it is impossible to make one edition unless you find out that there are actually two versions of it. It’s like a puzzle…I love it.

PH: Another of your many connections to England is the enquiry you have made into the Eton Choirbook.

JJvE: Yes. Actually, I am going to give a lecture on it in New York in September. The Eton Choirbook is the only choir book in England that never left its college; it has been there from 1500 till now. It is a collection of music which is very particular for that time period, which is before the time the principles of Josquin reached England. It is a post-mediaeval book with Renaissance ideas in it, but not really developed. So it is a very specific sort of style – incredibly complex, incredibly virtuosic. Some of the pieces last 17 or 18 minutes. They are text-based, but it can happen that you sing one syllable over 350 notes…by which time you can’t even remember what word you were singing! That’s where it goes wrong and that’s what they found out – that it was a bit of a cul-de-sac. Things improved when Josquin’s principles reached England; then you get composers like Tallis and Byrd, more familiar names than the likes of Robert Fayrfax, Edmund Turges, Robert Wilkinson and John Browne.

PH: This week you are working on the Monteverdi “Vespers” with many amateurs. Do you enjoy working with amateurs?

JJvE: I do, I do. Yes, and I hope that comes across. I like to explain how things work, I like the development from total chaos into some sort of clarity and I enjoy working with people. In some of the professional choirs I work with I have no contact with the person behind the voice and that’s not really for me.  I need that contact, otherwise I can’t cooperate. Some people are very good at just conducting voices, but I can’t.

PH: What interests you when it is not music?

JJvE: Art. I was trained as an artist – in drawing and architecture. I would like to have more time to spend on the art and to actually be doing some again. I have bought the equipment, so I can start painting again at any moment and I am really looking forward to that moment. On a different level, I am interested in group dynamics – people working in groups of 12, then 24 and then 48 as a balance – and how people feel responsible for their own input in the group or whether they simply take from it without contributing. It is fascinating how that works. Another interest of mine is symbolism; I have come across a lot of symbolism in the Eton Choirbook. It is fascinating to see the meaning is of all the little miniatures in that book; they are artistic and that connects with my interest in art.

PH: Maestro van Elburg, many thanks for your time. It has been most interesting talking to you.




  1. Many many thanks, dear Pamela! Oh a quite interesting interview. I will obviously come back to Ludlow. You? :-)
    I share with you my article of our lovely singing.
    I wonder if Jan Just has played with boys choirs; I adore them, as it shows my other blog, dedicated to the Tölz boys.
    I hope to see you again!!! Did you play violin? I have forgotten... :-)
    Best wishes.

    1. Dear Rocio, Thanks for your kind words. I read your wonderful site with great interest. I hope we will meet in Ludlow one day. I was only singing there. All good wishes, Pamela