Violinist / Conductor  Jeanne  Lamon

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Jeanne Lamon, born August 14, 1949 in New York City, was raised in New York and began studying the violin at the age of seven. She studied violin at the Westchester Conservatory of Music with Editha Braham and Gabriel Banat. Later she attended Brandeis University in Boston where she earned a Bachelor of Music degree studying violin with Robert Koff, the original second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. Lamon left the USA to study in the Netherlands with Herman Krebbers, then the concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

She returned to North America in the mid-1970s to establish her career as a baroque specialist. Lamon held the position of concertmaster for, and appeared in solo performances with many prestigious ensembles and orchestras in the USA.  In 1974 she became the first violinist to win the prestigious Erwin Bodky Award for Excellence in the Performance of Early Music.

In the late 1970s, while teaching in the Early Music Department of Smith College in Massachusetts, Lamon made two guest appearances in Canada with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which resulted in an invitation in 1981 offering her the position of Music Director. Lamon has resided in Toronto since 1981 and became a Canadian citizen in 1988.

Under Lamon's leadership, Tafelmusik has achieved international stature and is considered one of the best ensembles in its field, with recordings for various labels, including Philips, Nonesuch, CBC Records, Sony Classical, and Analekta. Her solo recordings include Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, the Juno Award-winning Bach Brandenburg Concertos and the Bach Violin Concertos, among others.

Lamon teaches at University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters from York University in 1994. In 1996, she became the first recipient of the Muriel Sherrin Award, which is presented by the Toronto Arts Council Foundation to artists and creators who have excelled at international initiatives in the fields of music or dance. In 1997, the Alliance Française of Toronto awarded Lamon its newly created Prix Alliance for her contributions to cultural exchanges and artistic ties between Canada and France. In September 1997, Lamon received the Joan Chalmers Award for Creativity and Excellence in the Arts for her artistic direction of Tafelmusik.

In March 1999, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded her the 1998 Molson Prize in the Arts, recognizing her outstanding lifetime contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada.

Most recently, Lamon was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada on July 13, 2000 in Ottawa. This award honours her for her distinguished work as a baroque violinist, concertmaster, chamber musician, teacher, and Music Director of Tafelmusik. In 2014, she was made a Member of the Order of Ontario.

In October 2012, Lamon announced that after 33 years of directing Tafelmusik, she would be stepping down as full-time music director after the 2013/14 season after a career of recording, performing, and touring.

In November of 1993, Lamon and Tafelmusik were in Chicago for a performance, and she generously took time from her schedule to sit down for an interview at her hotel.  She was gracious and knowledgeable, and was clear about her ideas and feelings for the subject.

Here is that encounter . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you find it satisfying to both play and conduct, or would you rather just play or just conduct?

Jeanne Lamon:   I don’t actually conduct.  I direct, as I call it.  In other words, I never lift up a baton.  I always do the leading from the position of first violin.

BD:   Sitting or standing?

JL:   I do whatever the orchestra does.  If they’re sitting, I’m sitting.  I usually sit on a small podium. The reason for that is that I’m very short.  In fact, it’s very practical.  If the orchestra is large enough, they can’t see me from the back, so I sit elevated just a wee bit so that people can see me.  If I were taller, I wouldn’t do that, I would imagine.  It just makes me as if I were a tall person instead of short person, just that much difference.

lamon BD:   It’s either that or shoe-lifts.  [Both laugh]

JL:   But I don’t stand up.  When we have done larger symphonies, I occasionally have stood in front of the orchestra and faced the orchestra as a conductor would, but that’s very rare, and usually that can be avoided.

BD:   Do you ever give a downbeat with the tip of the bow?

JL:   We just play.  I just lift, and breathe, and play.  The most important part of the downbeat is, in fact, the upbeat with a conductor.  The preparation for the downbeat is what really matters.  It’s the in-breath, it’s the expression and the speed which gives the tempo, and gives the expression, and gives the whole meaning.  It tells you how and when to play the first note, so one can do that without necessarily giving the downbeat.  In fact, I do give the downbeat in the sense that I play the next note.  A string instrument, because of its very nature, is a very visual cue.  If I were playing something more subtle, like a French horn, you wouldn’t really be able to tell when the note was going to start precisely.  But a bow on a string is a very specific moment.  So, the actual downbeat is confirmed, and the tempo is confirmed by just watching for a couple of notes.  The orchestra finds it quite easy to follow.

BD:   You mentioning breathing.  It is interesting to think of a string instrument breathing.

JL:   It is a very important part of music-making for anybody.

BD:   Do you feel that you become part of the instrument, or does the instrument become part of you as you play?

JL:   I think that it does.  One loses one’s identity in one’s instrument after a while, especially because part of me, I would like to think, is telling it what to do rather than it telling me what to do.  But we do have a relationship that goes two ways.  It’s a very intense relationship one has with one’s instrument.

BD:   When you have the relationship with the instrument, then is it a schizophrenic relationship that you have between that and the music, or does it all become one like a soup?

JL:   It becomes one like a soup.  The relationship you have with your instrument is something you work on in private, and at the moment you’re working in a group, there are so many other things that dominate that are important.  You’re concentrating on that, and they tend to dominate your thoughts.  That all becomes second nature, which is the purpose of all that private practice, so that it does become second nature.  Then, you can do what you want with it.  It’s like speaking.  I’m not thinking about my grammar as I speak to you.  I am thinking about what it is I’m saying, which is not equivalent in the sense that I don’t go home and practice my grammar.  That would be foolish in my native language [laughs], but it’s similar.  Playing the violin is, in a way, my native language, and I work on that in private.  But when I’m in the orchestra, I’m thinking about the music.  I’m thinking about a specific phrase that we’re in the middle of.  I’m thinking about the ensemble in my particular section, because I’m also the leader of the first violins, and a member of the first violin section.  I’m also interacting with the other section leaders, who are also taking the responsibility for their respective sections.  I’m also making sure that the people in the back are aware of what’s going on in the front
for example, the back row players who might be sitting by the double basses.  So, there’s a lot of eye contact.  That’s extremely important, and I am thinking about all those things and the music, and the phrasing, and the tempo, and the cue that I’m about to give.  So, the violin is something that just sort of there.

BD:   Do you conduct from the first violin part rather than from a full score?

JL:   Yes.  By the time the concert comes, I’m playing the first violin part because there’s no way to turn pages.  But I do the initial rehearsals from the full score, and gradually I move over onto the part.  I’ve written in certain critical cues into the part, but I’ve tried to play from the score and it doesn
’t work.

BD:   Is it a good feeling to know that you are weaning the orchestra from the need to have you there?

JL:   What I’m weaning them from is the need to have a conductor give a visual cue.  That’s extremely important.  Everyone in the orchestra would agree that the ensemble has the potential to be much better without a conductor than with a conductor because there’s something about a visual cue that is a translation for a musician who is making a sound.

BD:   So it’s more listening?

JL:   Yes, they have to listen.  It’s like string quartet at times
with more peoplebut it’s the same kind of chamber music making.  You basically have to take it from the ear, and if there’s a visual cue, it’s a very direct one because you’re doing the motion of playing a note on a string instrument.  For many string players, the cue is the same exact motion, so you’re simply following that which is music.  Its easier than turning your head.  A conductor’s upbeat or downbeat, however clear it might be, in a way is a translation to turn that into a note on the clarinet, or on a cello, or any instrument.

BD:   Your orchestra is mostly stings with just a few winds?

JL:   That’s right.

BD:   Does that make conducting from the violin a little easier, or a little more familiar to them?

JL:   Yes, I think so.  The fact is that there are predominantly strings in any orchestra, but especially in a baroque orchestra it is significant.  Most baroque orchestras in the Eighteenth Century were directed from the first violin chair.  Most baroque orchestras today are directed by harpsichordists, and a harpsichordist is only one of one in an orchestra, so there’s definitely more of a translation process.  It’s less like a string quartet playing, and it’s a different kind leadership phenomenon.  It was not an unknown in the Eighteenth Century, but it was much less common than first violins directing.

BD:   Is it good to try and bring the Eighteenth Century orchestra into almost the Twenty-First Century now?

JL:   It’s seems to be very good.  I can’t tell you exactly why, but somehow the soul of our society needs a little bit of that kind of nurturing.  I don’t know what it is exactly, but people take to it like fish to water.  The audiences around the world and the musicians themselves seem to need something of the orderly and tonal harmoniousness, and clear structure of Baroque music.  I can’t tell you exactly what it is or why, but as long as it seems to fit in with the aesthetic of today, and seems to be a healing thing for people, they’ll keep coming.  We’ll know when it’s inappropriate when people don’t buy tickets to come to concerts anymore, or stop buying the CDs.  It’s not something that is popular because it was pushed.

BD:   Is there a closer connection with this Twenty-First Century audience to Bach and Vivaldi, rather than, say, Wagner and Bruckner?

lamon JL:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know about Bruckner and Wagner.  Things go in waves in terms of styles and what’s popular.  For some reason, the earlier romantics aren’t so popular these days.  You don’t hear that much Mendelssohn and Schumann, and even Brahms is played much less than he was thirty years ago.  I’m sure that they’ll come back into vogue, as they’re great composers.  There’s not a problem of quality, it’s a problem of vogue only.

BD:   Is there a wide enough range in baroque music that there’ll always be some part of it in vogue?

JL:   That’s a good question.  I don’t know.  We cover as many years as a modern orchestra, which is something that always surprises people.  The average modern orchestra plays basically repertoire from 1750 to 1950.  Certainly it focuses most on 1800 to 1950, with a few years before and a few years after that come up now and then, so let’s call that two hundred years.  What we do is music from 1600 to 1800.  Monteverdi was writing his Vespers in 1610, so that’s definitely right up our alley.  We’re even playing some music written after 1800, though quite infrequently at this point.  Many of the original so-called early music orchestras, or original instrument groups, are playing Nineteenth Century repertoire, but basically we have not gone much past 1800.  We have occasionally forged into the future, but not that much.

BD:   By design or by opportunity?

JL:   I feel we’re not ready to record that repertoire yet until we can do it really excellently, and obviously to the point.  I’m not interested in being the first, I’m interested in being the best!  I’d rather wait until that’s possible.

BD:   Should any composer today write for the Baroque orchestra?

JL:   Some are very interested in the sounds of baroque instruments.  We have found that our audience is that, and we have quite a devoted, and ever increasing, quickly growing audience.  They don’t seem the slightest bit interested in hearing contemporary music, although the musicians are not disinterested.  Actually, several of them are quite interested in performing contemporary music written for baroque instruments.  But the audience doesn’t seem to want to hear it.  They’ve come to our concerts to escape a certain amount of the chaos they feel they get in the everyday lives, and in the music that is written these days.

BD:   Let me hit you with the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

JL:   Of any music?

BD:   Of any music, and then of the music you focus on.

JL:   That’s a very difficult question.  I think everyone would probably have a different answer.

BD:   That’s why I’m looking for yours!

JL:   There’s no right or wrong answer to that question.

BD:   Then let me change it slightly.  What, for you, are some of the strains that make up the reason for music?

JL:   For music at all in people’s lives, or my own life?

BD:   Some of the threads in the fabric.

JL:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s one of the few activities I know of that unifies all parts of a person.  It’s intellectual, it’s intensely emotional, it’s physical, certainly for me as a player, and for people listening because it gets them to start feeling that they want to dance, especially if you’re succeeding in what you’re trying to do in certain moments.  It’s spiritual.  It combines everything, and I know nothing else that does that so effectively.  In just one second it does all those things.  It can, therefore, harmonize the whole person
the intellect with the physical, with the emotional, with the spiritual.  Probably I’m leaving some aspects out, but it can help one to harmonize all those parts, and that’s true for a society in general, as well.  One composer will emphasize one thing more than another, and he will be a more intellectual kind of composer.  Another one will be a more spiritual.  If you’re listening to the St. Matthew Passion, that’s certainly going to work more on the spiritual side than on the physical side, but it all has everything in it. There have even been fascinating studies I’ve read that are on the interaction of how music works in the brain.  They’re very scientific, and really written by brain specialists more than by musicians.  But they say that music is one of the few activities they have found, so far, that use both sides of the brain equally.  Most activities are very much focused on one side or the other, and the music is one that they are sure involves a constant interaction between the two.

BD:   So music is the bridge over the entire brain?

JL:   Yes, between all things, but being just the brain is almost too scientific and simplified.  It’s also the spiritual, and all the other things we were talking about a moment ago.

BD:   Within all of this, where should be the balance between the intellectual capacity and an entertainment value?

JL:   All of those things can be entertaining.  One can also be entertained by physical things.  Certainly, if it makes you feel you want to dance, you feel entertained.  If it’s funny, and if it’s witty
Haydn can be very witty, and Telemann can be very witty as well.  He’s written movements that have names such as ‘The Irresolute’, and we play it as indecisively as we possibly can.  We’re constantly hesitating and never making any decision about when to play the next note.  It’s all very intellectually witty, and so it can be entertaining.  That’s another kind of entertainment.

BD:   Can you make sure that the audience understands you are hesitating not because you’re unprofessional but because that’s what you’re trying to put in the music?

JL:   It does say it in the program.  It’s called ‘The Irresolute’, and I hope that they understand that.  If they don’t, they should figure it out from the context
which is that everything else is together.  It’s not that it’s flung together, it’s just not when you expect it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re playing the violin and directing everything, and holding it all together.  Are there times when you simply have to stop playing the violin and get everything together, or is that all done in rehearsal?

lamon JL:   That’s done in rehearsal.  It’s a very good group.  They all take great deal of responsibility, and they play fine just on their own.

BD:   Is everything done in rehearsal, or is there anything at all left for the night of the performance?

JL:   Absolutely, it’s not all a matter of all being done in rehearsal.  It’s a matter of having rehearsal which develops such a strong sense of chamber music-making, and such a strong sense of everybody listening and sitting on the edge of the chair, and playing chamber music, and taking a real responsibility for their part.  Yes, there’s room for me to do something in a slightly quicker tempo, or to take a little more time somewhere, and a little less time somewhere.  It’s not all absolutely prescribed in that sense, but when something is going in a certain tempo, it’s not something that you’d want to pull back or push forward.  That’s never wise for a conductor to do.  I don’t have a lot less flexibility than a conductor.  Conductors have less flexibility than we think they have, and we give them credit for.

BD:   When the conductor has a much larger orchestra, would that translate to having a much larger canvas to work with?

JL:   To a certain extent there’s some truth to that.  Sure, you have more instruments, and more variety, but there is a limit to how big the group can be.  The job of a conductor was born out of a necessity.  It wasn’t a common thing until the Nineteenth Century.

BD:   So the orchestra like the one you’re playing in eventually became unwieldy enough that you had to have someone waving a stick?

JL:   Exactly.  We do have a conductor when we have very large orchestral concerts, or when we have choral concerts where there’s a choir that needs one.  It’s not that we never play with a conductor, but it is seldom, and not in a small orchestral concert.

BD:   Then why is it that an outside conductor is brought in, rather than having you step away from the violin, and conduct?

JL:   If you’re going to have a conductor, you’d better have somebody who really knows how to conduct.  Conducting is not something you just pick up.  Some people do, but I wouldn’t do that.  I would rather not do it until I can do it right.  It takes a lot of education because it’s a different job.

BD:   You don’t want to learn on the job?

JL:   [Laughs]  I don’t want to subject anybody to that.  I’m not really interested in conducting, personally.  I would rather be the concert master and have someone else come in.  I’m too in love with playing the violin, and out of love with the power-trip that conducting can bring on in many people.  This is not to say that it happens in the very best and the greatest ones, though I don’t know many of them personally, so I shouldn’t really speak to that.  I’ve known too many who’ve been too interested in power and too disinterested in the music, and I think I’m safe as a violinist.  It keeps me very honest having to play the parts myself, rather than to tell someone else how to do it and not making any sounds.

BD:   Maybe you should be the ideal conductor for the next generation, to show what a conductor should be.

JL:   I think we need conductors less than we do.  They’ve turned into heroes a bit.  They’re not actually making the sounds.  There are few great conductors, but there are so many that are the ‘Kapellmeisters’ that are not doing the music-making.

BD:   So, you’re a conductor when you need to shape the music, and then you step back and continue playing?

JL:   Yes, basically.  I conduct as needed, which is not terribly much, thank goodness.

BD:   Well, it’s thanks to your group of highly trained and highly interested professionals.

JL:   Yes, exactly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How difficult is it to find a replacement for a vacancy in your orchestra?

JL:   It’s getting both easier and harder.  It’s certainly easier in the sense that we only have to breathe the fact that we have an opening, and people flock to come.  That didn’t used to be the case.  We weren’t so well-known before our recording contract with Sony.  We didn’t have as high a profile internationally, and people thought,
Oh, my!  Canada, igloos, yuck.”  [Both laugh]  But now, that’s become quite different.  We have people flocking not only from all over North America, Canada and the States, but also from Europe, and we have quite a number of people who have come from Europe to join the orchestra.  We have a Dutch person, a Russian, an Irishman, and on it goes like that.  For the rest, it’s all North Americans.  But we get therefore the best applicants coming.  That’s the easier part. The harder part is that there are not so many with proper training.  We are rising further above the run-of-the-mill freelance baroque scene that is around that people frequently are coming out of.  There is a pool of players.  There is a Baroque scene in the United States and in Canada made up of freelancers who play here now and there then.  It’s all the same people, generally, and the level of the music-making that takes place in those groups is often far lower than the standards that we insist on.  That’s because of how much we play together, and the precision, and the chamber music discipline that goes into the rehearsing and the performing, and the amount we have done together.  Most of these other groups don’t have that kind of time to rehearse.  They’re running on a shoestring budget.  They have two rehearsals, and there comes the concert.  Come on, let’s put it together.  You’re professionals, so you ought to be able to do it.  It’s ‘okay’, but nobody insists on anything beyond ‘okay’.  So, we need to find people that are adequately trained, or are adequately skilled by talent, training, education, and it is actually becoming harder and harder as we rise higher and higher above this mass of freelance professionals that are there.

lamon BD:   Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra [pictured at right] is a full-time gig?

JL:   It is a full-time gig, yes.

BD:   How many concerts do you play a year?

JL:   We have a season in Toronto of forty-five concerts, and that includes all the repetitions.  We play eleven different programs
our annual Messiah, plus ten subscription programsand all of those, including Messiah are done four times.  Some of them are done five times, so that makes forty-five.  Then we do quite a bit of touring.  For example, this year has a tour which is only twelve days long, but it has ten concerts.  We go to Europe once or twice a season, and we go to Japan every other year, and we’re starting to incorporate other places, also.  We’ve been to Mexico, and we’re hoping to go to South America and Australia in the near future.  We also do a Canadian tour every year, so it’s hard to generalize exactly how many concerts we do, but it’s another thirty to forty on tour, and then we have recordings.  We’ve been making between seven and ten recordings for Sony every year, so that’s a very large amount.  The average classical organization makes one or two CDs a year on average.  Since 1991, when we started with Sony, we’ve made twenty, and it’s near the end of our third year and we still have two to make this year.  So, we’ll have twenty-two in three years.

BD:   Who decides repertoire
you in conjunction with somebody else?

JL:   For recordings or for a season?

BD:   Both.

JL:   I do the season and the touring programs.  The recording projects are done in negotiation with the recording company, according to their marketing needs and what they want.  Sony Classical was a brand new company in 1991.  It had no catalogue at all, which was the attraction for us.  They didn’t have a huge catalogue that we were forced to find something they didn’t have yet.

BD:   That was when they bought CBS?

JL:   Right, and then they started to build on their own new catalogue.  The material from CBS was pre-original instruments.  They had not one thing on original instruments at that moment in time, so we were the baroque orchestra, and they wanted us to do everything, which is a fabulous carte blanche for us.  It’s been wonderful.  They want the unusual repertoire, and they want the usual war horses.  They want the whole thing.

BD:   Do you make sure that everything that is going on disc has been played a few times in concert?

JL:   We try desperately to do that, if we possibly can.  That’s quite important.

BD:   Then selecting repertoire for the orchestra from a vast array of material, how do you decide you will play this, you won’t play that, and another time you shall pick up next season?

JL:   This is a very practical question so it has a very practical answer.  You have to look for two or three basic factors.  One is what you are about to record, so you make sure that you incorporate that repertoire in programs that are just for concerts.  When we did a recording of six Haydn symphonies, it is not very interesting to listen to that in a concert.  So, you have different kinds of programming for recording and for concerts.

lamon BD:   To make sure you have six concerts with one Haydn symphony on each?

JL:   Exactly that kind of thing.  So, one factor is what we are going to be recording, and I know that enough ahead of time so all the repertoire for an eleven-concert year becomes quite a jigsaw puzzle.  I have to think what can be performed on tour or at home.  We have a ten-concert series at home that people are subscribing to, and they want a lot of variety.  You are limited to Baroque and Classical repertoire, so you have to incorporate some choral programs, some Seventeenth Century music, some French, some German, some English, some Italian, and some mixed programs that have a bit of this and a bit of that.  Some people expect concerts that feature guest artists on the recorder, or the trumpet, or the harpsichord.  You have to have programming with a lot of variety at home, which is exactly the opposite of what you want on a recording.  Then on tour, it’s more like the programming we have at home, though it tends to be even more mixed.  At home we’re more likely to have an all-Monteverdi program, but we’re very unlikely to tour a whole Monteverdi program because not that many places would be interested in having that.  Only a few big cities want unusual esoteric series, but we can afford to do that once or twice a year at home.  We have a good mix, a good balance of the unknown, the more known, the less known, the more esoteric, the less esoteric.

BD:   How far ahead does the planning take place?

JL:   We’re generally two years ahead.  That’s roughly the way it ends up being.  We know now that the 1994/95 season is almost set in stone.  I suppose there’s the slightest bit of flexibility, but hardly any.  We’re trying to finalize the most critical bits of 95/96
like when exactly the tours are, and when exactly the recording periods will be, and therefore when the ten concerts at home will fit in between all of that.  Once we have that all set, and what programs they will be, it’s just a huge jigsaw puzzle.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you play the same for a live audience as you do in the recording studio?

JL:   We play better for an audience than in the recording studio.  It’s what music-making really is all about.  The interaction between the player and the audience is very important.  You can feel the feedback that you get.  After the first piece, when players run backstage, they always say immediately how they find the audience.  They can just tell.  It’s not so much how loud they clap, it’s the way they listen.  They say,
What a great audience, or “What a dud of an audience.

BD:   What, if anything, can you do with a dud of an audience?

JL:   Nothing!

BD:   There’s no way you can try to reach them?

JL:   You can talk to them.  I often talk to the audience, but not to say,
Wake up!  Each program is different.

BD:   Is your programming more for tired business people than what the Chicago Symphony might play
or do you even take that into account?

JL:   I don’t really take that into account.  I figure if they’re coming, then they like Baroque music generally.  I don’t have to sell them the idea of Baroque music, just like Solti doesn’t have sell the idea of symphonic music.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.  You don’t have to sell the idea of opera to an opera audience.

BD:   And yet someone actually has to go and sell them on subscribing in the first place.

JL:   Yes.

BD:   That’s not part of your function?

JL:   Oh, no, no, no.  We have seven full-time staff people
marketing people, fundraising people, people who negotiate all of the recording contracts, and all the touring business, and so on.

BD:   So, you just make sure to deliver the product once they get the audience in there?

lamon JL:   That’s right.  But then, of course, the product’s the final thing.  You can get somebody to come once, but to get them to come back is a tricky thing, and that’s my department.  It’s not my job to get them there in the first place, it’s my job to get them to buy a second ticket, or a subscription.  To make them happy once they are there is a different job.

BD:   Are they usually happy?

JL:   Our subscriptions have been rising!  We’ve been doing remarkably well.  In Canada, the recession has really hit the arts in a very big way.  I don’t know how it is here, but we have really seen a shrinking of audiences.  Some people say it is because symphony orchestras are dinosaurs, or the way symphony orchestras program is too old-fashioned.  A lot of orchestras are now going towards more pops material, which I find a great pity.  But it could also simply be recessionary in that people are more price-sensitive.  People are just not so secure about their jobs, or their situations, and they’re not prepared to spend $500 on symphony tickets this year.  So, they’re holding back.

BD:   Are some of the audiences that are perhaps being disenfranchised from concerts, being enfranchised into records?

JL:   It’s possible that’s part of it.  But what I was getting to is that the fact that our audiences have grown over the last few years.  Last season it grew to twenty-five per cent.  This season it’s grown another fifteen per cent on top of that, plus we have a new series starting in the North of the city in another hall, which are the ones we’re doing five times.  That’s what we’re doing up north of the city, and that’s a new audience.  We have another five hundred subscribers up there, so it’s actually growing for us.  It’s possible that some of them are leaving the old tried and true established opera and symphony venues, and looking towards the fresher, newer venues.

BD:   This feeling is that the symphony orchestras are ‘old-fashioned’, and yet it would seem that what you’re doing is ‘old-fashioned of old fashioned

JL:   This is because it’s older music, but there’s some truth to it.  It’s really the aesthetic.  It’s a late Twentieth Century aesthetic that’s trying on original instruments in the way that we do.  Maybe it’s not entirely an Eighteenth Century museum piece at all.  I alluded to this earlier, that the most important thing is excellence without wanting to toot our horn.  That’s not the point.  What is appealing, ultimately, in anything is excellence.  The concerts with Solti conducting are excellent, and they could play anything and it probably would be excellent.  For me, and for a lot of people, that speaks very loudly.  There are other chamber orchestras that are very good.  The Orpheus Ensemble in New York, for example, tells the music.  Whether they play on original instruments or not, they are doing something that people know is excellent when they hear it, and they know its something that’s alive and vital, and that’s attractive to people.  When I say something is a dinosaur, I mean that some orchestras under some conductors are dead.  There’s no life to the music-making, and the audience can pick up on that.  They think they can fool them because the notes are there, but I give a lot of credit to audiences.  They know the difference, and they go out feeling empty.  When there’s something that really happens, the audience feels it, and they out enlivened rather than drained.

BD:   Is this something that happens when you play?

JL:   I certainly hope so.  I think so.  Yes.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  But surely there’s no way you can guarantee that.

JL:   [Confidently]  It always does.

BD:   It’s experience.  You have the experience to do it, and recreate it again and again.

JL:   Exactly, and so far, it always does happen.  It
s very exceptional when there’s an off-night to that extent.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re on tour, how long does it take to adjust to each new hall?

lamon JL:   We always rehearse every time.  We don’t ever play in a hall that we haven’t rehearsed in.  Here in Chicago, tomorrow we’ll spend an hour and half in the hall before the concert and rehearse in it.  Every hall’s radically different.  It’s a very important question.  Some people don’t do that, and the first piece ends up being a sacrificial offering because you have to adjust to hearing in the hall, and how to make sounds in the hall.  Every hall has a different way.  It sounds different.  You hear your colleagues differently, and you have to be able tune into that in order to do the kind of chamber music-making we’re doing.

BD:   Is it right that you are sitting there actually sawing away while you’re trying to adjust, or do you get out of the chair and go out into the hall and listen?

JL:   I always go out to listen.  It’s very involved, and it’s very interesting.

BD:   Do you learn things not necessarily for that concert, but for other concerts?

JL:   Oh, you learn everything for that concert and for everything else, too.  It’s very interesting.  There are so many different halls, and my mind has become a little broader about what is a good acoustic.  There’s a whole range of acoustics that are perfectly workable, and then there’s the ubiquitous multi-purpose hall that Middle America’s so fond of.  That’s just the death of early music.  Those multi-purpose halls that every little town seems to want to have were designed probably in the
70s, or perhaps the early 80s.  They’re really designed for the theater, but it’s fine for music too.  The dressing rooms may be a bit stuffy, but you’ll be fine there.  You just go and have your concert, but it’s actually geared for the spoken word, so that our music sounds absolutely awful.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  I would think that if it’s geared for the spoken word, then there would be an intimacy to it.

JL:   There is an intimacy, but a totally dead acoustic.  It’s completely dead for music, so that’s really a problem for us.  

[At this point the phone rang and we stopped briefly before continuing.]

BD:   Are you at the place in your career now that you want to be?

JL:   Yes, very much so.  Things are still growing and changing, and are wonderful and free, so I’m quite happy.

BD:   One last question.  Is making music fun?

JL:   Oh, yes!  Oh, yes, definitely.  I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t.  It
s too much work.  It’s hard work, but it’s great fun.  It’s exhilarating.

BD:   Good!  Thank you for spending time with me during your busy schedule.  I’m glad it worked out.

JL:   Thank you for the interview.


© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 11, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.