in conversation with
Trumpeter extrodinaire on both old and new instruments, Crispian Steele-Perkins has built a foremost reputation around the world for his artistry and intelligence. Bringing music that is both historically accurate as well as generally entertaining is his goal, and he manages to succeed very well no matter what the venue or the situation.
Going from place to place almost like a wandering minstrel of yore, he brings the joy of discovery to those who have never really taken the time to observe the instrument, as well as other performers who might want to spend their lives entirely in the world of brass playing.
It was on the first day of April in 2001 that Crispian Steele-Perkins
returned to Chicago, specifically to Northwestern University for a recital
and master classes. I had the privilege of meeting him in one of
the small performance rooms for a most plesant chat. Here is much
of what was said that afternoon . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You were just saying that the trumpet students now are much better taught. Is that partly a tribute to you and your students, and your grand-students and your great-grand students?
Crispian Steele-Perkins: As a matter of fact, I havenít taught for ten years. Currently I have to do a lot of playing, and Iíve got so many different instruments that Iíve got to practice. So right now, all the teaching that I do is teaching myself.
BD: But you did do some teaching earlier in your career?
CSP: Yeah, I did. I taught at the Guildhall School
of Music for ten or eleven years, and I still do a lot of master classes
- including the one here at Northwestern earlier today. I really
BD: Do you find that the students are really getting better and better?
BD: Are they getting better and better just technically or also musically?
CSP: I think both of those things. The the quality of teaching is very high now. As a matter of fact, here in Chicago, with the two great orchestras in town, itís slightly unusual. There is a long tradition of exceptionally good teaching. But, generally speaking, after the last war, so much teaching was done by people that came out of the army - band masters and bandsmen. Almost everybody who does the teaching now is a university graduate. There are also many good professional players who do the teaching. The other thing thatís changed radically is the quality of the instruments that students get to play on.
BD: Is all this teaching of trumpet generally, or is it of Baroque trumpet?
CSP: Iím talking about trumpet generally. Baroque
trumpet is not taught anything like as much here as it is in Europe or
certainly in England. A rather unusual feature is that at any of
the English colleges - thatís the four colleges in London, Glasgow in Scotland,
Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, and now Leads University - anybody learning
the trumpet has to do the Baroque trumpet.
CSP: Itís to make them aware that there is a variety of styles, and itís to give them another string to their bow when they need to go out and earn a living. Itís as practical as that. And itís actually very good training for the ear and the embouchure. Itís hard, and I find a lot of students have to reappraise what theyíre doing. Itís a good time for them to do that in their formative years.
BD: So to learn Baroque music will help them with Romantic and Contemporary music too?
CSP: I think itís good if they have a sense of perspective. A lot of our concepts of all musical performance are still very rooted in the 19th century. I was talking this afternoon about John Eliot Gardiner, whom I worked with for 15 years, and I must say I had some wonderful musical experiences. It really is a great ensemble and heís a good, even great interpreter especially of choral music of Handel and Mozart. I do look back very fondly with memories of that. But standing away from it now, Iíve become more of a musical archeologist and a sort of guinea pig in trying to assess what it really was like in those times. Whereas Gardiner is performing in large halls like the one downtown here in Chicago, and Carnegie in New York, that isnít the acoustic that Bach and Handel knew. So the conditions are different and he is trying to fulfill something rather different. As I see it, my role that I've appointed myself to is to take a real old instrument off the wall, as an archeologist does when he finds an artifact, and allow the artifact to dictate to him rather than have professors, conductors or anybody else make those decisions. And the way Iíve done that is to actually hire my own orchestras and put my money where my mouth is, and actually make the various CDs.
BD: So youíre truly doing the pioneering work.
CSP: I do regard it as pioneering work with varying degrees of success. I think it does reveal some quite interesting things especially about the trumpet, about how gently and softly it was performed in the old days. I think that always astonishes people.
BD: Is there still a gap through which we can never cross, because while you play the old instruments perhaps even in an accurate old style, youíre still dealing with new ears?
CSP: That is definitely a problem, or maybe I should say itís a challenge. As you know, I do believe in performing absolutely as it was in the period, and, funny enough, I find itís not the musicologists that enjoy it. In fact, most of the conductors like Gardiner, Trevor Pinock, even Robert King (whom I still do a lot of playing for) would much prefer that I did not play a real historic instrument. They want the compromise instrument that has vent holes in it, so it conforms to 19th century and 20th century standards.
BD: Are they not trying to get the sound that you want with the accuracy they want?
CSP: That's correct, yes. Itís a necessary compromise and I accept that. Itís just that Iím trying to single-mindedly push the frontiers. I really do believe that no one way supercedes any other. I would never want to invalidate something that somebody else is trying to do. I see no harm in playing Baroque music on modern instruments. But if itís educated by the experience of thinking about how it was done, I think the music is enhanced by that.
BD: So you want to be one of several people doing several different styles of the same pieces?
CSP: Iíd like to just draw peopleís attention to the fact
that there are different ways of approaching the same thing. As I
say, I donít think any one or other necessarily is more valid, but theyíre
all interesting, and when youíre talking about Handel, itís great music.
Itís there for us to share, and I quite enjoy doing it in two different
ways. I enjoy playing on the modern trumpet and I enjoy playing it
on the compromise trumpet, but most of all, I like that feeling that I
am just touching fingertips with Handel or Haydn.
BD: Do you think they are looking down and are happy?
CSP: I hope so. Goodness knows, wouldnít it be wonderful just for half a minute to open a door and hear what it really was like?
BD: Would you really want to?
CSP: I would, I actually would. And I wouldnít be fazed in either way. I think the standards were very variable. There is no doubt about that. I think if you heard an early Verdi opera as performed in some of the provincial opera houses you would be absolutely horrified. The players in the pit orchestra were the musicians from the town band, and were mostly virtually illiterate. Youíve only got to look at what Verdi wrote for them to play. Itís so simplistic. They're sort of second trumpet parts. If youíre knowingly playing on the beat, youíre in the wrong place. (Chuckling) Itís sort of "oomp cha, oomp cha, oomp cha" stuff.
BD: Well let me turn this completely on its head for a moment. Youíre the archaeologist of sorts. Are we, perhaps, getting so that we are eliminating the archaeologists of the future by leaving recordings of all the brand new works?
CSP: No, I donít think so. I think weíre opening a door for people to take it further and further and further. I long to hear people doing better than I. Thereís a group of young French trumpet players who are playing the Bach Cantatas with no finger holes, and the sad thing is that the orchestral musicians sort of pull a face and theyíre not very impressed by it. I am, and I think a serious scholar should support them.
BD: Do you feel that playing on these old instruments is something of a contest? Do you simply want to get through each piece rather than play musically?
CSP: No. I think itís all about revealing the music and the balance in the music. And above all, now we all tend to specialize in one instrument. Almost all orchestral musicians of Handelís time had been trained as boy choristers. If they were musical, their parents put them into the choir schools and theyíd learn to play the keyboard, theyíd learn to compose, they would play a string instrument, and then maybe a wind or two.
BD: But you at least play a whole trunk full of trumpets.
CSP: Yes I do, but I donít play the keyboard and I wish I did, because Iím all the time writing for keyboard players. On this recital Iím playing here, every single item is my own arrangement and I canít play the keyboard part.
BD: Do you write any new music or just arrangements?
CSP: By and large itís just practical things. I have written some new music but found it, should we say, derivative.
BD: Would you encourage a composer living today, either of the conservative school or of the radical school, to write for the Baroque trumpet?
CSP: Some people have done it.
BD: Like writing new operas for countertenor?
CSP: Yes, thatís right, yes. Britten did that for James Bowman in A Midsummer Night's Dream. That is a very good example. But donít forget that that nearly wrecked Jamesí career. Singing in a big dry opera house nearly did him in, and then he was off singing for a couple of years.
BD: But now weíre doing all the Handel operas in the big opera houses with countertenors.
CSP: Yes, yes. Chris Robson is very great chum of mine. He's quite remarkable. The Xerxes that they did here in Chicago with Ann Murray was really one of the great productions of Handel of all time. But Chris has got quite a big voice and heís developed his technique to do that.
BD: Well weíre kind of dancing around it and hitting it from several angles. Let me get the easy question straight on: Whatís the purpose of music?
CSP: To entertain.
BD: That's all???
CSP: If it fails to entertain, I think it fails. There are other aspects and there are many ways of enjoying music. It can be enjoyed at an intellectual level and it can be enjoyed at a practical level. But if it fails to communicate, which, I think, was the problem with much of the music of the late 20th century, we get bored with it. We got bored with hearing it and we got bored with performing it. It simply failed to communicate with people and it became very hard for a young composer. Things are a little easier now because people are expecting something thatís a bit more intelligible. But you could argue that itís like whatís happened with architecture. Weíre now getting these sort of neo-Georgian type houses everywhere around and so there is no progressive architectural design.
BD: So how does Baroque music fit into this resurrection of entertaining and music?
CSP: What I enjoy about it is that, by and large, I find
much of the music that I do now is in a much more intimate setting.
When I was in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, youíd play a concert, then
the musicians go out of the stage door at the back, the audiences shuffle
out at the front and thereís absolutely no point of contact at all.
When Haydn was in London, for example, people enjoyed meeting him and he
was a very entertaining man. He was a great bloke to have in the
pub with you, full of stories and a good sense of humor. And thatís
what Iíve been enjoying in the last ten days touring around the States.
Itís just the number of people Iíve met. We do a concert and we find
ourselves leaning with our foot on a bar rail somewhere and discussing
some very serious things, like we are right now.
BD: Are you discussing music, or is it politics and aviation?
CSP: Absolutely anything. But a contact point has been formed and, in my opinion, that was completely lost in the 19th century. That era has a lot to answer for in spoiling quite a few aspects of music.
BD: And yet it left us some good things.
CSP: It left us wonderful things, yeah, donít get me wrong in that. But, I think the intimacy went and the prima donna appeared and that is a nuisance. This still lingers with some opera singers and conductors. They rather lose the humility of making human contacts with people. They like to be regarded as something special and elated, and I personally think that those days have gone.
BD: You donít think youíre special?
CSP: I am to my grandchildren and, I hope, to the friends I meet. Itís more important to me to have great friends. I just blow the trumpet as opposed to going to an office.
BD: Is the music that you play special?
CSP: Well, itís special to me and I like to share it with people that enjoy it, hopefully in the way that I do. I suspect that there are some people that think, "Why does he bother? So what?" I am more consious of that in America where itís a younger culture and a forward looking culture. Europe is a very backward-looking culture especially, Iím afraid, in England. We do tend to look back on our history, and it remains to be seen how this will all work itself out as the European nations try to amalgamate themselves. Of course, that could all completely unravel, like the Balkans have.
BD: But there again, weíre getting into politics.
CSP: Weíre getting into politics, but these things do interlink. I think if we had Mozart sitting with us now, weíd find that his conversation would probably veer to rather more course things than that. I mentioned about having Haydn as a great bloke to be in the pub with. I tend to look at composers and think, "Who would I like to take down to my local?" Someone like Beethoven would be rather embarrassed and bit bored, but Haydn and Mozart and Handel, I think, would be very entertaining company. Also Purcell, maybe.
BD: Of course, the din wouldnít bother Beethoven later in his life.
CSP: No, thatís right. You might have to shout rather loudly at him!
* * * * *
BD: A little about playing trumpet, now. Does your technique change for the size of the house or do you rely only on the instruments?
CSP: The conditions that one encounters on a tour like this vary every day. You sort of have to use the acoustic, and a dry acoustic is very difficult. What one tends to do is to have a music stand, even if youíre not using it. A solid music stand gives you some kickback from the sound. Itís something that I even tell young singers to do.
BD: You canít rely on the sound from the back wall?
CSP: Thatís right. If itís a very dry acoustic, the sound just dies and a performer gets very disheartened. Thatís where, if Iím working with a singer who is finding that, I say hold the book so that you can just reflect some of the sound back to yourself. So I also do that.
BD: But donít put it in front of your face!
CSP: Not in front of your face, but put it somewhere where it will just reflect a little bit back to you so that you donít feel completely isolated. Thatís a horrible feeling. You sort of get dry mouth.
BD: You donít want to be like a rock musician, and have a speaker blaring back at you, do you?
CSP: No. No, thank you. A friend of mine formed a group where they were playing Mozart through speakers. They thought this is what the masses would want.
BD: Oh, gawd!
CSP: Of course, the wonderful thing about that music is itís restful, and that is the essence of why we do period music performance - to reassess the internal balance of the orchestra. I remember Hogwoodís recordings of the Mozart symphonies literally using two first violins, two second violins. There the second bassoon part becomes much more important. If you hear that music with the Chicago Symphony, you can hardly hear the second bassoon. It may as well go home. So that sort of thing is very interesting. I actually do quite enjoy music at a very much lower dynamic level. Weíve got used to a lot of high frequency and a high volume of sound. I find going to an ordinary public cinema now an excruciatingly painful experience. I just cannot do it. Or if I really must, I have to fill my ears with paper or something because itís absolutely painful. And you ask them to turn it down, they wonít have it.
BD: Theyíll say, ďWhaaaaaaat????Ē
CSP: Yes, exactly, exactly!
BD: Well, here again we have to bridge this gap to the new ears which have been inundated with all of this.
CSP: Theyíre desensitized. Weíre desensitizing our bodies and everything now, arenít we, with the food bang full of chemicals.
BD: So are we, people like you and me, becoming dinosaurs?
CSP: I donít know, but I donít think it hurts to make people aware of things. Thatís why I like to make people aware of my own thoughts about the way I approach my own particular subject. I think it relates to all sorts of other things. Weíre taking about quality. Quality of life and quality of friendships and all that. All these things constantly need to be reassessed.
BD: Well, are you optimistic about the whole bag?
CSP: Yes. You have to be. Mercifully, we retain our sense of humor and, you know, laughter is the best medicine.
* * * * *
BD: Is the music that you play for everyone?
CSP: Iím rather lucky in a way, because I work for an impresario in England called Raymond Gubbay who believes very much that music is for ordinary people to share. So for two months of the year in the fall, I travel around the United Kingdom with a group in costume, wigs and tights. Can you believe it?
BD: Baroque music, in Baroque costumes on old instruments?
CSP: No, we use modern instruments. Itís madness, but it means that people come and itís often their first experience of classical music live. We take the music very seriously and they get very high quality performances. The music is aimed at being tuneful, not too heavy. I think the reason that Raymond uses me is because I walk on the stage and smile and try to include an audience.
BD: You are very personable on stage.
CSP: Well, I learned that from the countertenor James Bowman. It makes an audience relax, and if theyíre relaxed then you relax, and then you can get on with creating things. I think a tremendous problem that one encounters now is that a lot of music making at college level gets away from becoming a creative experience. Itís just reproducing, very often trying to imitate other performances that they hear on record. I think the creativity is essential even if youíre doing it backwards like me.
BD: Even though you are making the records that people try to imitate?
CSP: Yes, Iím trying to communicate. What I do for Raymond Gubbay liberates me from having to be in a symphony orchestra the rest of the year because those two months pay my bills for a year. So then I can get on with the serious research work which he respects but he doesnít want to use. Thatís fine by me. Iím quite comfortable with it.
BD: He hasnít offered you a 12 month contract?
CSP: Itís just a seasonal thing leading up to Christmas. But I quite like being self employed. I quite like the independence. It means I donít have the scrapes with authority that by nature would otherwise lead me intoÖ
BD: Well, how would your life change if you hit the national lottery?
CSP: Hmmmm, thatís a hard one. I donít want sudden money. I really wouldnít like to be in that position. Even though music is hard in England now, Iím quite happy. We have a thoroughly Philistine administration that does not support serious arts. To our great disappointment, they regard us as being elitist. Under the Harold Wilson administration, the minister of arts was Jennie Lee, who was Nye Bevanís widow. I remember a very close friend of mine, a young trumpet player, was killed in a car accident. He came from a mining village in Kent, and I went to play at his memorial service and she, the minister of the arts, turned up. I donít see the present minister doing that kind of thing.
BD: Wasnít it Heath who was actually an amateur conductor?
CSP: Yes, appalling conductor Iím afraidÖ
BD: Öbut an obvious enthusiast.
CSP: Yes. Now having said that in a rather disparaging way, he did so much good because he raised the perspective of music and it became a trendy, fashionable thing to enjoy. Unfortunately, with Princess Diana no longer alive, because she was a great supporter of the arts, there is nobody like that around. We do follow fashion in England. We pretend we donít, but we do very much. And sadly, without a public figure that sort of sponsors us emotionally, as it were, the arts are in quite a bit of difficulty in England.
BD: But youíre not going to get the next leader of one political party or another running on the ďArts Platform.Ē
CSP: No, certainly not. But maybe we have done too much of the backward-looking arts with music. One of the difficult things I think we were talking about, was the problem of composers not being able to communicate, and thatís a great sadness because it means that the orchestra has sort of stumbled and it hasnít been able to move on. Only in film music has the symphony orchestra gained its foothold in modern culture, which is I think regrettable.
BD: Is there any hope at all?
CSP: I think there is always hope because the pendulum swings. That's the one great truth in life, I think. In other words, when things are going rough, and when the economy is bobbing down, history tells us that it comes back. And the other thing is to remind ourselves that when all is going well, watch out! It will swing back. So try and keep a level keel. Keep the decanter circulating as they say.
* * * * *
BD: We were talking a little bit before about the different
halls. You have to play and keep practicing different trumpets.
Do you also have to learn to play halls, or is that just residual off of
CSP: To a certain extent. During the seventies and eighties we started getting these ghastly halls that were designed by people who were too clever by half, and the acoustic was poor. One of the problems is the acoustic is designed for the listener, not for the performer. I find a lot of halls where the audience can hear every detail of whatís going on in an orchestra, but the players canít necessarily hear whatís happening a few feet away.
BD: But arenít we listeners supposed to be the ones that get the best of it?
CSP: Well, one would hope so. But I mean the worst offender for that was the symphony hall in Birmingham when it was first opened. They have improved the acoustic there, but I remember we performed with Hogwood the B minor Mass, in those choral numbers and where the trumpet is playing with the soprano, I just could not hear them at all.
BD: Did you just close your eyes and hope for the best.
BD: Is there ever a night that you get it all just right?
CSP: It does, but it never can be good enough.
BD: Though you continue to strive for it?
CSP: You do strive for it and that moment happens when you least expect it sometimes. It catches up with you. You know when it clicks, and very often that moment is made as much by the audience as by the performers. Thatís the drug that musicians go for. They crave that experience. You know when it happens. It doesnít happen very often, and it really is like a drug.
BD: So then are we, the public, just eavesdropping on your event?
CSP: No I think youíre sharing it. I hope you're sharing it because we need the public. Without the public support and money, nothing happens. We donít function. I think itís absolutely vital to involve the public. Thatís why I like the intimacy where you actually get to meet people and talk, which is why I sell CDs. Itís not entirely a mercenary thing. It is actually a forum, a point of contact.
BD: You get to look someone in the eye.
CSP: Yeah, and you sign a CD for them. What I find with the concerts I do for Raymond going around the country year after year, people say, ďOh, whatís the new CD?Ē Eventually you can actually form, sometimes, quite close personal relationships. There are about four families last year that I went to play for their daughters' weddings. I just went as a guest, and thatís lovely you know, Ďcause Iíd become friendly from just meeting them year after year, and I think thatís wonderful, you know. Iím greatly honored to be asked. Thatís whatís it all about.
BD: You do it because they get it.
CSP: They get it, they get it.
BD: Are enough of us getting it?
CSP: Well I hope so, I hope so. We do tend to get a bit boxed in nowadays and it all moves so fast that we tend to not see the wood for the trees. Weíre all like that. Look at me dashing around. This trip, for instance, involves 10 days, and 3000 miles driving. Itís crazy. I got to my hotel room last night at 3:15 am not Ďcause I spent the entire evening in the pub, but simply trying to get from one place to another.
BD: In the end, is it all worth it?
CSP: Yes, I think so. Well I always say about earning a living in music, itís better than working. Weíre very lucky. Weíre paid to do, hopefully, what we love. Iím in the evening of my career now and still thoroughly enjoying it, and what I enjoy very much is that Iím mixing all the time with young people. Itís a wonderful way of conducting oneís life because it happens without regards to class, social status, age, or nationality or race or any of that. None of that matters. Thereís just something that we all share which is the language of music, and hopefully we can communicate it to one another. And I really do believe that includes the audience. Theyíre part of it.
BD: So this is the advice you have for audiences, just to keep exploring?
CSP: Keep supporting. And yes, I like the idea of it being a little bit more social. Donít be afraid. If youíve enjoyed what somebodyís done, donít be nervous. Just go up and tell íem youíve enjoyed it. The 19th century diva or maestro would tend to just turn their nose up and march off. I hope things are changing.
BD: What advice do you have for conductors who want to program Baroque music?
CSP: Learn to play an instrument. Sit at the back of the orchestra and then youíll see what you need to do. They donít know whatís required to play together. A guy up there in a tail suit wagging his arms about not making a sound is the one unauthentic thing.
BD: Wasnít Christopher Hogwood originally a harpsichordist?
CSP: Hogwood was a very, very good keyboard player, but I think they need to sit and play a wind or a string instrument to know what it is to be at the receiving end of a clear downbeat. Flailing their arms around like a windmill is very off-putting. And that goes for 19th century music as well. The conductor does have a very necessary function and thatís to keep the thing tight.
BD: Of course, in the Baroque period, the leader of the group was usually the guy who wrote the piece.
CSP: Yeah, exactly. He knew how it went and he would start it off and then heíd hold it together by playing the continuo.
BD: And he would learn from what he heard?
CSP: One hopes, yes. I think he would. And the other thing is that he wrote very specifically for individual singers and instrumentalists, and for their strengths. Bach didnít write those difficult trumpet parts just to hear them assassinated week after week. That Gottfried Reiche was one hell of a good player. What would I give to just hear that. I shall have to wait till I go through the pearly gates.
BD: You were born in December of 1944. Are you at the point in your career you want to be now at the beginning of this new millennium?
CSP: Iíve been very lucky and have had a tremendous variety of experience. Iíve played in dance bands, symphony orchestras, opera, chamber orchestras, Baroque orchestras, and now Iím a soloist and enjoying it and able to handle it. I've no illusions about were I should be and shouldnít be. I enjoyed doing a lot of commercial music at one time for the films and television. The variety of itís been wonderful and the many friendships have been wonderful, too, and theyíre very long lasting.
BD: One last question. What general advice do you have for young trumpet players?
CSP: I think above all it would be to enjoy what youíre doing. Itís very important to enjoy it. Donít get too bogged down with it. I think itís very important that you should be creative about it and if you feel joy in what you do, you will communicate joy. If you donít, you wonít. I think thereís a fair amount of truth in that.
BD: Thank you for all of the performing and recording that youíve given us so far.
CSP: Well, thank you, Bruce. Letís hope I do some
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Currently a Music Lecturer in the School of Continuing Studies of Northwestern University, BRUCE DUFFIE spent just over 25 years with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago. His series of programs and interviews won for him the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Broadcast Award in 1991, and he continues to be heard weekly on WNUR-FM, and twice each month on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio. Throughout his career, his interviews have been published in various magazines and journals, and some now also appear elsewhere on this website.
You are invited to visit his Website and to send him E-Mail .
©2001 Bruce Duffie
My thanks to Sharon Jacobson Stine for her help in preparing this interview for presentation, and for the photos of the artist.