Monday, September 30, 2013

Talking to Stefan Schuck, conductor of "Sirventes-Berlin"

On September 26th 2013, at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (Israel), I attended one of two concerts performed by “Sirventes Berlin”, an a cappella group of virtuoso singers. It was the first Israeli tour of the ensemble, which is directed by its founder Stefan Schuk. On September 29th, Stefan Schuk and I met to talk on the verandah of a café in Jerusalem’s Old City.

PH: Maestro Schuck, would you like to talk about your musical background?

Stefan Schuck: Yes. I studied Church Music in Frankfurt – organ, piano and conducting – also taking another degree in orchestral- and choral conducting. Then one of my teachers suggested I go to Berlin to join him as assistant professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and to also conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Choir together with him. This is a one of the best large amateur concert choirs and working with it was very good training for me. I then received the post of professor of choral conducting at the Rothenburg High School of Church Music (near Stuttgart). In March 2013, I left the job in Rothenburg in order to concentrate totally on work with my two ensembles in Berlin – “Sirventes” and the “Hugo Distler” Choir, the latter an amateur community choir. In our performances, I try to work in an informed style, using period instruments for accompanied music and authentic tuning systems.

PH: What was behind the choice of repertoire sung at the Abu Gosh Festival?

SS: I would normally choose more “colorful” repertoire for a festival, that being a bigger mix of sacred- and secular music. Hanna Tzur, the director of the Abu Gosh Festival, thought that the particular works we ended up choosing would arouse the festival-goers’ curiosity as to a-cappella music. There was a definite line running through both programs: the first started with a Christmas motet by Josquin des Prez (1450-1521). Then there was a piece by the late Renaissance composer Sethus Calvisius (1556-1615), who was a director of music at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, two works by Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), who was a cantor at the same church and, finally, to Bach, who was choirmaster there for 27 years. Among the works we performed at the second of our concerts at the festival, we sang music by Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785), a pupil of Bach and we performed some later works.

PH: Tell me more about “Sirventes”.

SS: Established ten years ago, “Sirventes” is a group of professional singers, most of them freelancers, most coming from both the major professional choirs in Berlin. We have some 32 singers, with eight usually singing in each concert or at Noon Song. I select singers according to what we are performing and in consideration of their own other performing schedules. For example, we have female altos and male altos. For very early music, such as that of Byrd, I have the male altos sing, but for Romantic music, I will choose to have female altos. For the Abu Gosh program, we had one male- and one female alto. I do not have a permanent leading soprano; in the concert you heard, the first- and second sopranos changed around so as not to exhaust one singer. The demands on the members are very great. We do not have a lot of rehearsals and, because we perform so often, I need the singers to be flexible. That is the reason they sang a few pieces at the festival without me to conduct them: this gives them the opportunity to listen to- and rely on each other. The singers are all well versed in early music, several having studied in important early music academies like the Basel Schola Cantorum or the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and they are knowledgeable about style and the use of ornamentation. They are fast, skilful readers (especially important for getting contemporary works together quickly) and if I ask them, for example, to sing in mean tone temperament, they will all know exactly what to do. My task as the conductor is to bring them together in the same manner of singing, of sound production, in a tempo that serves their breathing and the music itself and to create a good balance of voices.

PH: I see that Bach motets are an important part of the “Sirventes” repertoire.

SS: Yes. They are endlessly interesting and among the most difficult works there are for singers. To today, nobody knows for what occasion “Singet dem Herrn” (Sing to the Lord a new song) BWV 225 was composed. (There are musicologists who have suggested it might have been a training piece for Bach’s choral singers but, considering Bach complained about the quality of his boys’ choir, I cannot accept this theory. I think this motet is too marvelous, too complicated and certainly too large a piece for pedagogical use). It remains the best known and most performed of his motets. The other Bach motets were used for music played at funerals of people of the Leipzig upper class.

PH: Do you record with “Sirventes”?

SS: Yes. In fact we are about to make a recording of a cappella works of Homilius. As I said earlier, he was a pupil of J.S.Bach. Next year is the 300th anniversary of his birth. For the recording we will have 16 singers in order to achieve a good blend of sound. We will have three days of rehearsals, a concert and then three days of recording. This is very interesting music, being of the “Empfindsamer Stil” (Sensitive Style), a style developed in 18th century Germany. No longer Baroque in style, but also not yet Classical, this music is very complicated; one must find the right musical language to create its specific purity, refinement and intricacy. Actually, Homilius’ music was rediscovered not so long ago in Germany. An edition of his a-cappella motets only came out some three years ago. This will be the first recording of some of those motets.

PH: I understand that “Sirventes” has an Israeli connection.

SS: Yes. The Tel Aviv composer Joseph Dorfman (1940-2006) wrote a very demanding cantata “Dass sie leben” (May They Live) for our ensemble with solos (a role for Jewish cantors), to be performed at an ecumenical church day in Berlin. A historic occasion, this was the first time the Protestant- and Catholic churches in Berlin joined forces to take part in the same festival. Dorfman’s text is written in Hebrew, Russian, German and Yiddish, it uses texts from the Bible and some very moving texts by the poet Itzhak Katzenelson, who perished in Auschwitz. The message of the work is that all nations and religions should live together in peace, making music and living together. The work is highly complex. We performed some concerts of it in synagogues in Germany, with cantors from the Berlin Reform Synagogue. This project took place shortly after “Sirventes” was formed.

PH: I am interested to know what Noon Song is.

SS: About five years ago, I was invited to Trinity College, Cambridge, where I became familiar with the wonderful English choral tradition of Evensong. I traced the origins of Evensong to an early Lutheran tradition in Germany. This early German polyphonic tradition, however, has been totally lost. Even the music for it has been lost. I did manage to find some very small pieces of this sung liturgy, but most is lost. On returning to Berlin, I introduced a new kind of service, something similar to Evensong, and called it Noon Song. This service now takes place every Saturday at 12 o’clock at the Hohenzollernplatz Church in Berlin. For it, I have translated the English liturgy into German, we sing two Psalms as large a-cappella motets and maybe a Bach motet. Performed by our highly professional “Sirventes” group, this service is unique in Germany and has proved very successful, with the church normally full to capacity. We work with an extremely large repertoire. Much of the music we sang at the Abu Gosh Festival comes from works we perform at Noon Song. In these services, we sing Bach motets, of course, and Romantic works, such as those by Mendelssohn but also a lot of English anthems – Britten, Howells, Sullivan, etc., and a lot of Byrd. However, my main aim is to do mostly German a-cappella music; this repertoire is seldom sung nowadays – music of the generation between Luther and Bach, composers such as Johann Walter (1496-1570), Sethus Calvisius, etc. – nor are there many recordings of it. One reason we do not hear this repertoire is that either choirs do not have the capability to sing it or church choirs are not required to tackle it.

PH: Where do you find scores of this repertoire?

SS: The Berlin State Library is very comprehensive and I spend time there. There is also a huge treasury of church music manuscripts stored in Naumburg Cathedral, in eastern Germany. It was forbidden to be worked on during the Socialist regime, but, in the future, a huge amount of music will come to light from this archive. Also, today there are a lot of manuscripts from various libraries available on line, making them very accessible and I can make transcriptions of them. I am excited at the prospect of what we will be able to do with all the manuscripts lying dormant in libraries. Together with the musicologists of a Stuttgart publishing house, I am working on making playing editions of much of this music.

PH: Do you sing new music at Noon Song?

SS: This started off being quite problematic. However, I have made a practice of inviting composers to come and hear us singing at Noon Song, the result being that many contemporary composers have written works that we have premiered and that are now part of our repertoire.

PH: Let’s go back to the Abu Gosh concerts. I was fascinated by a most unusual work - “Unicornus captivator” by Ola Gjeilo, and I enjoyed Sirventes’ imaginative performance of it.

SS: Ola Gjeilo(b.1978) is a Norwegian pianist and composer now living in the USA. He is involved in film music and jazz piano. He has written some very fine choral pieces. He came across this wonderful ancient, mystic text when a student in Switzerland. It is a good setting; he writes very traditionally but still has his own unique style. Evoking a colorful series of images, he mixes Gregorian chant with some interesting rhythmic influences. The text compares Jesus with all the beasts mentioned in the text. I love the piece.

PH: Maestro Schuck, this has been most interesting. Many thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing “Sirventes” again in the not-so-distant future.

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