Pianist  David  Owen  Norris

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


norrisDavid Owen Norris, the first winner of the Gilmore Artist Award, has played concertos all over North America and Australia, and in the BBC Proms. Solo recitals, all over the world, have particularly featured the music of Brahms, Schubert, Poulenc, Bax & Elgar. Norris began his career by accompanying such artists as Dame Janet Baker, Sir Peter Pears & Jean-Pierre Rampal, and has enjoyed long-standing partnerships with Ernst Kovacic (especially notable is their broadcast of the Schumann violin sonatas on Clara Schumann’s own piano), Sir John Tomlinson [recording shown at right], and the late Philip Langridge.

Norris is Professor of Musical Performance at the University of Southampton, Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Music and at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, and an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. His unusually varied career has also seen him as a repetiteur at the Royal Opera House, harpist at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Artistic Director of the Petworth Festival & the Cardiff International Festival, Gresham Professor of Music, and Chairman of the Steans Institute for Singers at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. The Beethoven 9 app for which Norris wrote the book and the analyses won the Best Music App Award in April 2014.

--  Brief items taken from the artist’s website 

There are wonderful performers and brilliant intellects, and the best combine the two in a balanced proportion.  A few, though, are at the very top in both areas, and that small group includes David Owen Norris.  In the early 1990s, he came to the Ravinia Festival for several summers and was head of the Vocal Institute.  It was in 1992 that I had the chance to meet with him in his studio, and we spent a wonderful hour discussing music in its many forms. 

He comments on his British manner of speaking, and I have left many of these turns of phrase in the text.  However I have modified a few words, such as replacing
learnt with learned, and removing the ‘u’ from favour, etc.  Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.

Here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you very much for speaking for me today.

David Owen Norris:    No, not at all.  Time flies when you’re working, I’m afraid.

norrisBD:    Time flies when you’re having fun?

DON:    No, time flies when you’re working!  [Both laugh]  No, I was having a lot of fun now, but of course a lot of it is more fun than others.

BD:    [Being hopeful]  I assume that this interview is something that comes under the category of lots of fun.

DON:    If it didn’t, it would be a pity, yes.  People tend to take educational things seriously.

BD:    Too seriously?

DON:    Well, more seriously than they take other things, and that’s a pity because everything’s equally serious and not serious in a way.  Education is important, but it should be enjoyable; life is important, but it should be enjoyable.  I’m not saying if we sit down and learn about a serious piece like the
Matthew Passion I’m going to laugh about it and slap our knees, and so on.  But we’re going to realize that the process of learning about a serious piece is an enjoyable process.

BD:    Where is the balance then between the seriousness and the joy?

DON:    We obviously all have our balances in different places.  Some people prefer to find seriousness in everything, and never seem to be happy.  I think that’s a shame.  One can be happy about having mastered a serious matter.  I don’t think one needs to be serious about having mastered a serious matter.  One can be serious when one is engaged in one’s art, and one can be happy about the fact that one can be serious.  The balance changes with everybody.  There are some people here who are too serious and there are some people here who think I’m too flippant, and that’s as it will always be.  Thank goodness because we’re all different, and that’s one of the great celebratory things about music, of course.

BD:    Then do you try to sway them?

DON:    [Hesitantly]  I suppose that I hope they will be swayed by my example.  I’m here to some extent to be an exemplar.  I’m on the instructive side of the fence rather than on the learning side of the fence, so I hope that people will see from the fact that I can be straightforward and light hearted about something that it doesn’t mean that we all need to wear kid gloves about it.  But I respect people’s attitudes.  If people find that singing is a matter that they really have to take as an enormous serious ritual, then I know from my long experience of singers that there are some who can only sing if they treat it as an enormously serious ritual.  Then there are some people for whom the idea springing to their feet and singing is anathema and is not special enough for them.  There are some very great people that feel like that.  Dame Janet Baker is one.  She feels that singing is a very important ritual, and prepares for it as if it were a religious service.  On the other hand I know other great musicians such as Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flute player, who simply pick up their instruments in their cases and just play.  I’m not in the business of saying that Dame Janet’s right and Jean-Pierre Rampal is wrong, and I’m not in the business of saying the reverse.

BD:    Would that make someone who has the same kind of philosophy about music and life as Dame Janet go for serious parts rather than comic parts in opera, or serious songs rather than comic songs?

DON:    I suppose it would, yes.  That’s the reason why I slightly disapprove of it.  If you’re serious, it’s very difficult to look on the lighter side of your music, whereas if you’re more light-hearted about it, it’s kind of easy.  It seems to me to be easy to say,
Okay, we’re being light-hearted about this light-hearted music, and now here’s some serious music, and I mean you have to take this very seriously.  Then you can allow the serious music to invade you and to invade your audience.  If you’re saying, Now come on folks, this is very, very serious, and we’re going to have this serious music, it’s then very difficult to say, “Now I’m going to relax,” because it sounds so awfully stuffy.  It strikes me that it’s more flexible to do it the other way.  But I must confess that we’re spending time talking about this seriously, taking it as a dichotomy, and it’s not the most important thing that we’re working at here.

BD:    Okay, what is the most important thing that you are working at?

norrisDON:    The most important thing is finding out about songs.  Simply that!  Finding out what the song can encourage us to do.  I’ve just been working with a marvelous soprano who has a wonderful creamy voice, a little bit like Jessye Norman in some ways.

BD:    Quite a compliment.

DON:    Yes, well, I’m not the only one to have said that.  Indeed, people here have said that she’s going to be better than Jessye Norman.  Naturally enough, she tends to sing opera quite a lot because there’s lots of wonderful parts for opera, and the songs that she sings tend to be large, romantic songs by Strauss and by Liszt.  She sings wonderful Liszt songs, and we’ve been looking at some Schubert songs.  It came as a bit of surprise to her that I might want her to learn some Schubert, but as I said to her, there’s some songs in the Schubert repertoire that she could do wonders for, and we could hear them in a different way from how we’ve heard them before.  It’s a mistake to think that song singing is about not having a voice.  It’s about having a voice plus other things.  So she and I have been going through the first volume of Schubert, with all the favorite songs, and finding songs that would be transformed by her particular voice.

BD:    She would bring something more to these songs?

DON:    She would bring something different rather than more.  She may well bring less minute flexibility to some things, but she would be able to bring a much creamier and more sustained line than many people.  We’re trying
Ave Maria, for example, and what she could do with that is wonderful.  You can do wonderful things with that.  We also started to look at a song called Der Wanderer, which is a passionate, dramatic song of Schubert.  That’s what I hope everybody will be taking up the opportunity of doingfinding songs that they might not have moaned aboutaudiences too, not just us chaps doing it, the people who come and listen to the seminars and the concerts that we do in the evenings before the main concerts out here in Ravinia.  I hope that they will gradually come to realize what an enormously varied repertoire the song repertoire is, and what an enormously varied gamut of emotions it covers.

BD:    Might a young voice just like you’ve been talking about be a candidate to sing a cycle that is normally done by males, like
Winterreise, that only a few females have sung?

DON:    With all deference to those females who sing
Winterreise, I think it’s kind of unconvincing.  It’s as silly for a woman to sing Winterreise as it would be for a man to sing Frauenliebe und Leben.  I don’t know any men who sing Frauenliebe und Leben.  They’d find it very difficult to sing the song about the husband putting his head against her womb to hear the heartbeat of the child.  That would be difficult for a man to bring off.  Although there’s not such a biological impossibility in Winterreise, I still think that there are certain songs that are men’s song and certain songs that are women’s songs.  The first song is very sexually specific, definitely a chap saying good-bye to his lady-love.  Even so, the first public performance of any part of the cycle that is written about was in Vienna around 1830 with a woman singing it.  It was just that one song!  So the very first person to sing Winterreise in public was a woman, as it happens.  I was just thinking of a song like An Schwager Kronos, but in fact that has to be a man’s song because he’s sort of eyeing up the barmaids.   Even in our liberated society, I don’t think that the point is that it is a girl eyeing up the barmaids.  The song like Der Wanderer is about this fellow, clearly it is a fellow as far as Schubert was concerned because the emotions at first seem to be fairly masculine.  It ends with fate plaguing this unfortunate person, what fate could say to too many of us men — there where you aren’t, there is happiness.  I don’t know if I’m being very, very sexist about that, but I think men tend to be more discontented than women.  Are you content?

BD:    In some ways it seems like there’s an almost even balance of discontent.

DON:    Well, women seem much more sensible to me.  But what I’m going to say that will get me out of this morasses of possible sexism accusations is that there is no reason in the world of why a woman shouldn’t sing it.  The fact that the poem and the music’s written by a man doesn’t say anything about femininity in it.  It absolutely does not preclude a woman from singing it.

BD:    You wouldn’t have to change a word here and there?

DON:    No!  Not in the slightest; none of that stuff that you have to do in Gershwin and Cole Porter.  No, you don’t have to do anything of that nature.  Then of course there are songs that are quite sexless, like
The Trout.  I’m sticking with Schubert because that’s what I’ve been doing, but take a song like ‘Ave Maria’, which keeps addressing the virgin Mary and saying, You will listen to me, I know, because here’s a virgin calling to you.  The German for virgin is Jungfrau, which is young lady.  So that would be a bit silly on masculine lips, and so too would be Die Junge Nonne.  That’d be kind of difficult.  You could turn it into the young monk, I suppose, but it probably wouldn’t stand!

BD:    It wouldn’t work at all if it’s done it in a narrative rather than a personal way?

DON:    A narrative is easier to change.   Take
Erl-King’.  Now there’s a great song which has a narrator, and a little boy who is frightened of the Erl-King, along with the little boy’s father who tried to reassure him, and the narrator, as well as narrating has to pretend to be the all these other voices.  Despite the fact that all three characters are male, that can be sung with great effect by women.  The fact that there’s a narrator in it tends to make it sort of sexless and once removed as it were.

BD:    It’s as if you’re story-teller.

DON:    That’s right.  That’s the beauty.  This afternoon we had a seminar which intended, by presenting a program of twelve different songs, to show what you might call the narrative voice in song, and the different ways of narrating.  We started with a song which was purely narration.  It was a description of a scene.  Then we move through songs which were part narration and then all of a sudden introduced a few words in quotation marks, as it were.  It was a song about a boy running across mountains who was looking forward to meeting his girlfriend.  As he ran he said,
Oh, I am lonely; we could be together.  The singer all of sudden becomes a different person there.  It’s a bit like in radio.  I do a lot of radio work back in Britain, and when you’re a hard pressed broadcaster, the easiest thing to do is to set yourself in front of the microphone, know what you want to say and just say it.  Actually it is far better is to get somebody else with the personal experience to say it.  So instead of saying, This morning he said that he was going to do something about it,” it’s far better to say, Here’s that person,” and that person is heard to say, I’m going to do something about it!

BD:    Using actual soundbites!

DON:    Yes, indeed! 
What we’ve got in songs is soundbites every now and again.  Then you can move on to the fully operatic song like ‘Ave Maria’ which is just a prayer addressed to the Virgin by a character in a Walter Scott novel!  So it’s pure opera, really, and there’s all this variety in song.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    It seems like singers these days though want to go more into opera than into song.  How do you convince them to wade into the song literature?

norrisDON:    The reason they go into opera is that opera
Praise be!is getting very popular and there’s money in it.   Because people like it, they’ll pay to come and go to it, and that’s wonderful.  The sad thing about the singing world over the last twenty or thirty years has been that the audience for the song recital has got smaller.  But it hasn’t gotten as much smaller as the operatic audience has gotten larger.  The two have been unrelated.  I feel the song recital has been dying for some considerable time, and now, unrelated to that, opera is having a big ‘up’, and I’m hoping that people, who love voices and who love opera will be able to have their attention diverted to this other sort of vocal musicthe songwhich is more difficult to appreciate.  Precisely because of this different narration technique that song uses, the audience has to become part of the drama, and that can be terribly embarrassing, particularly if you are being sung at in a language which you don’t know.  Opera tends to deal with fairly raw emotions which we can all appreciate.  There are some films on television that you could watch with the sound turned down, and you can still understand what happens.  I was watching High Noon the other day, and I lost the sound for some reason for about the last half hour of it, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit because you could still see him dashing about.  Opera is a little bit like that in relation to the language problem.  If you don’t understand every word, often it doesn’t matter.  It’s like watching High Noon without listening to the dialogue.  You can see that’s a bad guy this is a good guy, and they’re having a tussle.  Now in the song, of course, the language is much more important, and that’s a big difficulty, so the audience might be involved, whereas in an opera, the singer is obviously singing to the audience, but he’s not addressing the audience as a character in the drama.  He’s usually another character, or he’s engaging in a dramatic soliloquy, and we feel that we can sit back and let that wash over us a little bit. 

BD:    So there is a little more of a barrier?

DON:    That’s right, yes, the proscenium is there between us and the opera.  In the song, the singer comes right down into the stalls and takes us by the throat and says,
You listen to me because I’m talking to you!  It can be embarrassing, and I hope that people will find it less embarrassing as they get more used to it.

BD:    Is each song a little-bitty opera?

DON:    That depends entirely on its narrative technique.  The song we started with this afternoon is purely description, not operatic, whereas the song we ended with is very operatic because it kept saying
me and you”.  It was obviously addressing a character who was there in terms of somebody else who was there.  That is dramatic technique, which makes a song operatic or not.  Now you might ask if it matters if a song is operatic or not, and yes, it does really because if you try and make a song operatic that isn’t operatic, then you will run the risk of leading your audience to expect different things than they will ultimately find in it.  If I were to recite a poem to you, then I’ve recited you a nice little poem!  If I recite it in a tone of voice that would be suitable for reciting, it’s just a question of tone of voice compared to content.  You need to find the right tone of voice for what you’ve got to say, and it’s the same with the songs.  Some songs are operatic and they need a certain operatic emphasis and excitement about putting them across, and certain songs are... not necessarily calmer as they can be quite excited, but they don’t need to reach out and clutch the audience by the throat quite somehow.

BD:    So you really need to understand what’s involved in each song, more than just the text but the feelings?

DON:    Yes, I think so, yes.  You need to have a magic.  I wanted to call this seminar this afternoon, ‘Who am I singing to?’ except being British I called it, ‘To whom am I singing?’  [Both laugh]  That’s the first question, really, that the song-singer needs to ask him or herself.  Not so much,
Who’s this audience? but, Who is the person in my head that I’m addressing this song to?  It might even be the singer himself!

BD:    So then the audience is just eavesdropping?

DON:    So that’s true.  We had several singers say this afternoon they felt that the audience should be eavesdropping on particular songs, which is a lovely thought.  Then on other occasions in very different songs we had singers who felt they were actually addressing the audience as a character, as a protagonist in what they had to do.  So the singer needs to ask that question, and only then can the different variety of songs become apparent to the audience because they will feel themselves more or less involved according how it goes.

BD:    When you’re putting together a program do you try to get a few from each of these categories?

DON:    Ideally it would be one of the things you bear in mind.  You don’t need try and represent all the categories because some singers are particularly good at the less operatic sort of singing
which requires a more kaleidoscopic approach to characterizationand some singers are much happier when they can be an operatic character and sing that sort of song.  So no, I don’t think they need to include all of the varieties, just as one thinks of mood and tone color and tonalitymajor and minor changes, and just placement of pitch.  You wouldn’t want to listen to a whole set of songs in D major all night!

BD:    You’d feel trapped!

DON:    Right.  It’s just as one varies that sort of thing in some sort of convincing progression, this is important too.  In order to be different, you don’t just do a song in C# minor and a song in Eb major, and a song in D.  It’s nice as well if you can feel there is some order to the tonality that you’ve got, just as it’s nice to feel if there is some order to the moods which each song is going to give the audience so they’re not randomly and promiscuously excited and then calmed down and then excited and calmed down.  You can build to a sense of suspense, which is then building to a climax, which can explode.  What am I describing... goodness me!  [Both laugh]  That’s how exciting and how visceral a song recital could be.  One of the other things that can ebb and flow and grow and progress in a song recital would be this question of how much the audience is personally involved in the song.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are a pianist. How did you get involved in deciding that you wanted to work with singers?

DON:    I was working with singers long before I would ever have described myself as a pianist.  Initially I was going to make atom bombs.

norrisBD:    Oh, heavens! 

DON:    There’s a lot of very non-evil men, a lot of men making atom bombs and doing things for the defense of the free world who cannot be blamed for anything.

BD:    But eventually you decided you’d rather construct something nice instead of destruct something evil?

DON:    It was that sort of thing, but actually it was as simple as the fact that the part of Britain where I lived was very far away from anywhere; seventy miles from London, which in Britain is a very long way.  You just don’t go seventy miles.  That’s out of the question.

BD:    Here it’s just a suburb!

DON:    Yes!  It’s a big shot coming over here.  Anyway, I never met a professional musician.  For that matter I don’t think I’d met a professional atom bomb scientist either, but nonetheless it was in the news and it was a subject at school.  I was good at physics and math and all that stuff, whereas music was fun.  It wasn’t the sort of thing you earned your living with.  Good God, that would be immoral!  It would be like being a professional stud!  [Both laugh]  It never occurred to me that would be what I did.  So all of a sudden somebody said, Look, you find this music fun, but you’re quite good at it.  Why don’t you do it?  So I became an organist in the first instance.  I used to love playing the organ and I’m quite good at that.  Then when I left Oxford, where I was an organ scholar, I started to discover there wasn’t very much money in organ playing.  The other thing you come across if you’re an organist is voices and choirs.  So I’ve worked with singers that way, and I also had the luck to have an apartment next to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and singers used to pass and hear me practicing, and ring the doorbell.  One day I remember Jon Vickers did that.  He came in and ran something through, and it was great.  So I eventually became a repetiteur at the Opera House, Covent Garden, and I also used to play for a lot of singing lessons, which gave me experience of the song repertoire as opposed to the operatic repertoire.

BD:    And you also learned then how the voice actually worked?

DON:    Oh, yes, it was invaluable experience.  There’s no way to learn how the voice works other than to sit there listening to people experimenting with it, and in order to be a vocal accompanist, you really do need to either to be a repetiteur
not necessarily an official repetiteur, but you need to go through things with singers, and you need to listen to singing lessons.

BD:    Did you take some voice lessons yourself to feel how the apparatus works?

DON:    I never did take any voice lessons myself, but I do sing a lot and people tell me that I’ve picked up a lot, and what a shame it is that I haven’t got a voice [laughs] which I couldn’t agree more!  My God, if I had a decent tenor voice, I wouldn’t be messing about doing this piano playing!

BD:    Would you be singing songs or Siegfried?

DON:    It would depend on what my voice was like, wouldn’t it?  I suppose if I could sing Siegfried, I’d worry!  Siegfried wouldn’t quite be my bag, as I believe the jargon is!  But only later did I become much more identified as a pianist as I moved along.  My whole early professional life was spent entirely with singers, and in a way doing this institute here is taking me back to my real musical roots.  From that point of view it’s an immensely enriching experience for me.

BD:    How long were you a repetiteur at Covent Garden?

DON:    I was there for about three years, and then I was with a thing called the English Music Theatre, which unfortunately went bust.  After that I went to the theater.  I used to be Musical Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was another interesting insight into the dramatic side of performance.

BD:    Coming back to Covent Garden, you had the whole orchestra in your hands.  Is that a satisfying experience or a frustrating experience?

norrisDON:    It’s very satisfying for the pianist, and awfully frustrating for the singer.  I try never to do operatic repetiteuring these days because I found it was very tedious in the end, in particular you were working with the same voices again and again.  Repetiteur is what it impliesyou do it, and you do it, and you do it, and you do it until they’ve learned it, and while it’s fascinating to explore a new voice doing something, you usually have to spend a month to work on one aria with one person who may be still finding it difficult at the end.  I’ve come across people like that.  Speaking from a musicianship point of view, a lot of very good singers particularly are coming in increasing numbers into the profession, but one of the things that is important is that you can’t really sight-read when you’re singing.  Some singers can sight-read of course, but they don’t sing so well while they are sight-reading.  It’s a particularly noticeable problem in singing.  You need to know exactly where you’ve got to throw the voice and where you’ve got to poise the larynx, where you’ve got to go, and so on, and get that all so smoothly working right at the beginning of a breath.  We’ve got to look ahead and predict your breath and everything.  But vocal sight-reading is fraught with pitfalls.  Compared to the real world, in the opera houses especially where there always seems to be masses of time to learn things at somebody else’s expense, and that’s what really peeves me.  Singers get paid for rehearsals in opera houses, but I don’t get paid for rehearsals.  I’m supposed to know it!  But anyway, the sight-reading becomes very much at the bottom of their professional priorities, and let’s face it, it needs to be second nature for them.  So this idea somebody could spend a month learning an aria and still get it wrong at the end of it, is just showing how thorough they’re being!  [Laughs]  God, it’s dull!

BD:    Are they trying to mine something that’s not there?

DON:    No... well I suppose some are a bit slow but I think they’re waiting until it’s absolutely second nature to their body before they fix it.

BD:    So it’s really more in the throat than in the mind?

DON:    That’s it, so it’s just automatic and can’t go wrong.  There’s an old saying which applies to all of us I suppose
the amateur is somebody who practices until it goes right, and a professional is somebody who practices until it can’t go wrong!

BD:    Should there ever be an operatic performance when nothing goes wrong?

DON:    [Laughs]  I buy those wretched books that are written for people to keep in their bathrooms.  [Both laugh]  There’s got to be an operatic performance since time began that didn’t have some dreadful thing go wrong with it, but I can’t think so.  There are wonderful stories, but everybody’s heard them before.  I don’t suppose we’ll come up with a new one, except I have one new one...  It was at the new production of The Ring at Covent Garden where two things went wrong really.  In Rheingold, the giants were building up the wall of gold...

BD:    To cover their sight of Freia?

DON:    That’s right, and the lumps of gold fitted together with little bits of Velcro.  The stage was on a hinge that rose up, and as it rose up there were steps on the stage like a Venetian blind into which they were supposed to start opening so that they stayed level.  So a flat stage raised itself up and turned into a set of steps, and they should have built the wall on one step, but they built it across three.  So the first problem was that the wall fell over and bounced gaily down to the bottom in a way that gold doesn’t really bounce.  Then several of the singers sort of carried it back with apparent effort and held it up in the right place as best they may.  Then the time came for the giants to dismantle the wall and take it away, and you could hear [makes the zipping noise of Velcro] as the Velcro unstitched.

BD:    Was this was during performance or rehearsal?

DON:    No, no, this was during the performance alright!  Then there was the first performance of a Henze opera at Covent Garden called We Come to the River, where Raymund Herincx was supposed to be assassinated by Robert Tear with a pistol.  He was walking out through the auditorium, so it was all very exciting because Robert Tear was pointing a pistol into the auditorium at the retreating back of Raymond Herrincx.  The pistol failed to fire so Ray walked on and completely ruined the plot, but as he was getting to the back of the opera house he turned round and said,
Ha, missed!  [Both have a huge laugh]  But it was that sort of opera, I’m afraid.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You made this recording of the reduction of the Elgar First Symphony.

norrisDON:    I suppose that’s a repetiteur’s dream, isn’t it, to be able to play a symphony.

BD:    Is it a dream or a nightmare?

DON:    It’s a dream.  It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.  It is an enormous orchestral score written by an orchestral master, and beautifully orchestrated.  It’s been reduced for piano solo, two hands, and occasional help from knee or the nose, or whatever you need to get down on the keyboard to get the extra notes by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, who was quite a composer himself.  It gives the pianist the opportunity to see if he can really make the range of sounds that the orchestra can make, and if he can really cover the huge sweep of emotion that you find in the symphony.  A moment ago we were talking about songs on the one hand and opera on the other, and opera dealing with larger emotions and so on.  There’s a parallel out of that between the piano sonata and the orchestral symphony.  You’ve got the piano sonata which answers to the song.  There are big sonatas, but most are a little bit private and directly addresses the audience.  However, there are no piano sonatas that are so grandiose and enormous as Mahler Three, or Elgar One, for example.  So to have the chance of playing Elgar One is a chance to grapple with these emotions as a single individual.  Normally you don’t get the opportunity to grapple alone.  It normally has to be left to a lot of people, and it’s wonderful.  There is an exhilaration that one feels when it comes off.  It doesn’t always! 

BD:    Have you also played the Liszt transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies?

DON:    Not in public, but of course I know those because they’re just so fascinating to look at.  Everything that Liszt ever did is worth just sitting down and looking at for much longer than it took Liszt to do it.

BD:    Is there a parallel between this Elgar reduction and the Liszt reductions of the Beethoven?

DON:    Yes, I think so.  They were very similar circumstances.  Liszt transcribed the Beethoven symphonies much less for demoniac display as to get them about a bit.  I know they have elements of display in them, but they are the most virtuosic of Liszt’s transcriptions, paradoxically enough, and they seem to me to be much more concerned than some of Liszt’s transcriptions are with simply putting the music across to people who couldn’t get to an orchestra.  The same is true of the Karg-Elert transcription of Elgar.  Now there are one or two places where it can’t be played by two hands...

BD:    So what do you do?

DON:    There I fake!  I’m a repetiteur, remember!  [Laughs]  I can fake with the best of them.  If you were following the score, I don’t think you’d have to have very keen ears to notice what I’m not playing and what I’m putting in instead.  In general, I find that where there’s too much to play it’s important to put something else in as well.  Now that may sound stupid, but instead of trying and failing to play what Karg-Elert has written, you play more than Karg-Elert has written and allow what he really did write to be lost.

BD:    [Mildly shocked]  So it’s really just a sham then???

DON:    [Smiles]  Well, isn’t music just all a confidence trick?  We’re listening to these pitches, and for some reason they convey things to us, and they can only convey things to us as if we want them to convey things to us.  That’s one of the other things that we’re working on here at Ravinia’s Steans Institute for Singers, which is the performing manner that makes an audience want to listen to what we’ve got to say.  That’s something that’s very important.

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around this, so let me ask the very big question.  What is the purpose of music?

DON:    [Pauses a moment to ponder]  I’m with Oscar Wilde on this one.  He said that all art is entirely useless.  I believe he went on to say it’s art, but I don’t know if I agree with the second part.  Music doesn’t have a purpose; music is!  I used to worry about the purpose of music, and if I’ve spent forty years not getting an answer to what is the purpose of music, then perhaps it’s time I stopped thinking about it.

BD:    And just do it?

DON:    And just do it, which I do.  Some of the most glorious performances are the ones that might be very thoughtful in terms of music, but needn’t necessarily be the performances that take themselves most seriously... and here we are right back at the beginning of our conversation!

BD:    So we’ve come full circle on that!

DON:    I’m afraid we have, yes, but that’s an unintended neatness.  No, it would be easy to say here I am playing this chord and it’s got to mean this and it’s got to mean that.  In fact you could play another chord and it could mean the same thing to the audience, if you made it so.

BD:    Or this same chord would mean something different?

norrisDON:    Quite, quite!  Let me put my finger on it because I have found an answer to this, and the answer is to say that the question is wrong, [laughs] as so many answers are.  But if you take my answer, then you don’t need a question.  My answer to it is that music not an object but an activity, and the sound of the music is merely the proof that somewhere there is some music going on, and the music is the activity of doing it.  Now obviously this is a means at looking at music that occurs naturally to a chamber music player and song accompanist, such as a I am, much more than to a solo pianist, which I also am.  In my solo piano playing, I try to make the activity of my mind engage with the marks on a page by somebody long dead.  That is the point of what we’re listening to, not the actual sounds that I come out with, which might be different every time and should be different every time.  Your great composer, Charles Ives, said that.  He said one of the greatest simplicities about music.  He said that if you’ve been digging potatoes, play it like you’ve been digging potatoes.  If you’ve been reading a great novel, play it like you’ve been reading a great novel.  He thought what you were doing and what you were should affect the way that you related to his music in order to produce the music.

BD:    Is this what makes some pieces of music greater than others
that they can be played differently each time?

DON:    Now that’s a very interesting point.  I’ve never thought sufficiently hard about it in relation to the greatness of a piece of music.  I’ve got as far along that line of thinking that an important attribute of art in general is ambiguity, particularly in relation to operas.  I’ve obviously spent a lot of my working life thinking about operatic characters, and the more ambiguous they are, the better the opera in my experience. 

BD:    And yet the composers spend so much time trying to delineate those characters carefully.

DON:    Yes, but to delineate rather than to delimit, shall we say.  Some characters can seem cardboard cut-outs.  When the old Monk suddenly reappears at the end of Don Carlos, he sorts everything out.  Now you can either do him as a stock old man bass, or he can be the culmination of everything and have immense potential.

BD:    This monk appears at the beginning, and then he rounds it out at the end.

DON:    Yes, but you can do him as,
Here I am! I’m regal.  Full stop!  Then he just comes in as your stock regal figure.  At the end of all good Robin Hood stories, who comes along but King Richard the Lionheart!  A standard Richard the Lionheart could say, Oh well, jolly good, yes, terrific, yes, fine!

Thank you for saving the country!

DON:    Yes, rather as it does at the end of the Disney cartoon.  Now with Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood:Prince of Thieves, King Richard is played by Sean Connery, and he absolutely steals the film.  That’s what I mean by not limiting the character.  He’s kingly, but he’s kingly with immense potential.  That’s the wonderful thing about art
— it can have a definite mood, but the precision of the mood doesn’t have to be created.  Just how sad is sad?  That’s what I mean.  That’s why I’m so interested in your remark that an attribute of great music maybe that the number of different interpretations which it is able to bear.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re coming up to your fortieth birthday!

DON:    I certainly am! 

BD:    Are you at the place of your career now where you expect to be or want to be at this age?

DON:    [Ponders a moment]  I never expect anything!  I don’t plan very much, and until now I go where fate takes me, wherever it prods me on up until the moment where I’ve been.  But now I’m getting to the stage where I can’t do that anymore.

BD:    [Tells him about the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award from the old Rowan and Martin
’s Laugh-In program.]  Is this because there are too many demands?

DON:    Yes, and my life is at a bit of a watershed at the moment.  I’ve got a lot of potentialities and possibilities that are open to me, which is wonderful, and for the first time in life I can’t follow them all.  I’ve never really had to make a choice before.  I’ve always said yes, and by always saying yes I’ve been an operatic repetiteur; I’ve been a Master of the Music at the Shakespeare Company; in England I’ve been organist of all sorts of churches; I’ve been a professor at the Royal Academy of Music; I’ve been a broadcaster a lot, and now I’m over here.  I’m doing a lot of this, that, and the other, and all of sudden I’ve got to decide if I like doing all these things.  I don’t want to say,
No I don’t want to do that!

BD:    What are your major options from which you have to decide?

DON:    It’s a question of balancing the work.  What I’ve got at the moment is lots and lots of solo work.  It is lovely and I like that, but it means a lot of practice!

BD:    I understand you won this award which you didn’t know you were in competition for?

The Gilmore Artist Award is awarded every four years to a concert pianist. The award was established in 1989 by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation of Kalamazoo, Michigan. In contrast with other music awards, nominees are not aware that they are under consideration, but are assessed discreetly over a period of time through live performances and recordings. The prize money is $300,000, of which $50,000 to be spent as the winner desires and $250,000 to be used for career development.  David Owen Norris was the first recipient of this award in 1991.  Subsequent recipients included Ralf Gothóni (1994), Leif Ove Andsnes (1998), and Piotr Anderszewski (2002).

:    That’s it, the secret.  That was a Flying Fickle Finger of Fate, that one!  That comes and gets you right in the [leaves the word unsaid and smiles].  So there’s lots of solo work.  At the same time, I love accompanying singers as this institute is reminding me.  I don’t do enough of that at the moment.  I love that and I’d like to do more of that.  I’m also getting more into chamber music as I meet more and more wonderful players.  At the same time I like doing the sort of thing that I’m doing here, being chairman of a faculty and helping make something run.  I’m good at running things.  I run a couple of festivals back in Britain, and I’m the artistic director of the Cardiff Festival in Wales and of the Petworth Festival in the south of England.

BD:    Do you do any conducting?

DON:    No!  I once conducted something and I realized that I was not a conductor.  So I don’t do that at all.  I don’t have that problem.  But I teach as well.  I love teaching, and I don’t have time to teach at the moment.

norrisBD:    I would think that you would be a wonderful conductor of at least one piece – the Elgar First?

DON:    Well, no, no, no, no!  You would have to sweep aside the idea that a conductor might need a technique.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But I would think you could at least communicate what you found in the piano reduction, and you understand the full orchestral score.  You should be able to communicate that to an orchestra in a relatively short period!

DON:    It is fascinating that you should think so, but conducting is a very particular and rare skill which is not to be found in every great name that we think of as the conductor.  I have this particular image of conducting.  First of all, conducting is inimical to me because a conductor really does have to stand up and say,
I am a good deal more important than all these other musicians!  They’re going to do what I say!  That is not my style, absolutely not.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not an autocrat at all?

DON:    I’m not an autocrat, no.  I usually get my own way, but I don’t get it autocratically.  Those of us who get our own way are not autocratic.  We become song accompanists.  There are very few song accompanists out there who are doing anything other than what they want to do, but nobody would dream that they were imposing upon their soloists from time to time.  There are subtler ways of doing this, and I feel that I know my own personality.  It’s difficult to know oneself, but I know that I’m not autocratic.

BD:    Would you be happy being the next Gerald Moore?

DON:    No, no, I’m not an admirer of Gerald Moore.  I wouldn’t want to limit myself to just accompanying singers.  That’s how I feel.  We won’t disappear into a discussion as to why I don’t agree with what you’re saying about Gerald Moore because that would get us into a lot of personalities.  To be a vocal accompanist is something that I enjoy doing but I would not like to limit myself to, and this is my big problem.  I enjoy making my radio programs for the BBC back home.  I’ve got to make one or two as soon as I get back from Chicago, but I wouldn’t like to spend the whole of the fall making radio programs.  Then I’ve got to come back here and do some more piano concertos, and I’ve got to go and play at the Toronto Festival, and I’ve got to go and do 101 terrific things.  What I’m finding is that my head is starting to come apart because I’m having to do all these different things under a fairly severe scrutiny.  I can’t, at the present stage of my career, go around doing things badly, so I’m starting to find that a bit of a strain
not that I was in the habit of doing things badly, but I wasn’t in the habit of having to do so many things quite so often.

BD:    In a way I’m kind of glad that you’re coming upon this crisis because every singer faces this crisis.  One of my favorite questions for singers is asking how difficult is it to say no, and you are now finally being forced to say no.

DON:    Forced to say no, quite, but to what?  If I could decide that I was only going to play piano concertos in the future
which is the last thing that I would decide incidentallythen that would be easy because anything that wasn’t a piano concerto I would say no.  But I’ve got to try and define a life-style for myself.

BD:    Would you do 366 concerts a year?

DON:    [Laughs]  I’d really go mad, wouldn’t I!  Really go quite mad!

BD:    Then no matter what, you’re having to say no at least sometimes.

norrisDON:    That’s true, yes.  The thing about me being a piano concerto pianist is that there are so many other wonderful piano concerto pianists.  You need to be realistic about this.  There are some piano concertos that I can bring something new to, and there are many I know I can’t, and I’d much rather leave those to pianists who find them new and fresh.  That’s one reason why I wouldn’t make myself into a piano concerto pianist.

BD:    So if you felt there was a concerto that you could bring something better than everyone else, that’s what you would select to do?

DON:    Those are the concertos that I would play, yes.  I don’t know if it would be the better, it would be different.  I might think that it was more sincere to me in the context of that particular performance because the music only comes into existence during the performance.  It doesn’t have an existence apart from the performance.

BD:    Do you always have to bring something new, even if someone else has said something that you feel is exactly right?

DON:    It might have been right for that performance.  Because somebody does a piece of music in a particular way and it was exactly right for that performance, that absolutely doesn’t mean that it would be the right way to do it.  There will be so many details different on the way.  It’s chaos theory, really.  The popular image about chaos theory
which does sum it up rather wellis that the reason there have been thunderstorms in Chicago lately is because three months ago a particular butterfly flapped its wings somewhere in the tropics.  That’s a pretty fair approximation of the chaos theorythat a tiny act can end up in unknowable results.

BD:    Does music fit into this because music is vibration of air?

DON:    No, music fits into this because music is an art in time.  So what happens is that if you make the slightest alteration in the timing of a note or in the first two notes, this will have unimaginable effects on the recapitulation
— or at least it will if the player is able to keep control of events and remember how he did it.  It would become unchaotic and predictable if he couldn’t remember because he’d just do it the same!

BD:    Actually, I was thinking more physically because if the butterfly flaps its wings and moves the air a little bit, especially at an outdoor concert here in Ravinia, a good cymbal crash or a bass drum thud like in the Verdi Requiem is going to affect things, and will have a little thunderstorm some place.

DON:    Indeed you might well be right, though you might be pushing this idea to its limits at that point, but there you are!  [Both have a hearty laugh]

BD:    Okay, so now what?  You’re in the midst of thinking of how you’re going to organize your life.  You want to accompany singers; you want to do some concerto playing; I assume you want to do chamber music; you do a lot of teaching... that’s four things right there.

DON:    Broadcasting!

BD:    That’s five.

DON:    Writing!

BD:    That’s six!

DON:    Composing!

BD:    That’s seven!

DON:    When I talk about that, I call it writing music as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not autocratic.  There are all these things you see, and it’s very difficult.

BD:    How are you going to do it?

DON:    I don’t know.  As we speak, my marriage is breaking up.  You can broadcast that if you want to.  My wife and I have had very difficult telephone conversations this week.

BD:    I’m very sorry about that.

DON:    I’m not too pleased about it, and neither is she of course.  It’ll probably all turn out alright, but that’s the state I’m in with all this work at the moment.  That’s another thing that I want
I do want my personal life to work.

norrisBD:    [Sighs]  Mine never does.

DON:    OK, so why should I worry!  [Both laugh]  But these are difficult questions.

BD:    How does the break up affect you when you play your next concert?

DON:    Not in the slightest degree.

BD:    You put it out of your mind completely?

DON:    Yes!

BD:    And out of your emotions?  You aren’t still a little more tense or a little more unhappy or a little more vigorous a little more sad?

DON:    No, I don’t think so, no, no!  You couldn’t have told that Mozart was terribly worried and poor in some of last works that he did.

BD:    But that’s over time.  I’m talking about things like stubbing your toe as you walk onto the stage.  Is that not going to affect something in the performance?

DON:    No.  No, no, it really doesn’t.  That’s not how I view it.  You’re not listening to how I feel, you’re listening to my head and heart react.  Over the years, as I absorb whatever, one’s life impinges on how one thinks about music; it must do so.

BD:    You talk about your head and your heart.  Are they not going to be affected by stubbing your toe?

DON:    Well, not immediately.  Forget stubbing toes.  There can be more important things.  For example, my father-in-law died last week on my wife’s birthday.

BD:    Oh, I
’m so very sorry.

DON:    That was not very helpful, particularly in the present circumstance.  Now when I’ve had time to drink in some of these realities that are happening to me, then they will do something to my emotional sympathies.  They will deepen them and broaden them.  They will make me capable of appreciating certain depths that I haven’t known about until now, but at the moment, no.  That will take time, and will work on my whole emotional response slowly over a matter of years probably.  This emotional capacity that I have is what I bring to bear on the music.   It’s precisely that, it is not an emotion.  Wordsworth said that art is an emotion recollected in tranquility.  So because I feel sad doesn’t mean that I’m going to play sad music any sadder; it doesn’t mean I’m going to play happy music any less happy at the moment.  What it does mean is that over the years, as I adopt these attitudes that are being forced on me, I hope that they will inform the way I think about feelings, and gradually it will deepen what I do.  But it won’t change things tomorrow because I’m feeling unhappy tonight.

BD:    It seeps into the very fibers of your being?

DON:    Yes, because it is your being that’s reacting with the music, not how you feel today.  But they are difficult things to talk about; very difficult to say exactly what it means.  I could say I’m finding music is a means as something that I can think about at the moment.

BD:    And is this is always changing and growing as you change and grow?

DON:    Yes, indeed, but at the moment music is nice to sort of lose myself in because at least I know what I’m really going to think about for the next hour.  I’m not going to worry about my father-in-law’s funeral, and whether I ought to go back for it. 

BD:    Does that surprise you?

DON:    I’ve got out of the habit of being surprised these days, and this is one of the things that worries me.  I feel very alienated from life.  I don’t really feel I’ve got much control over it, and so if you don’t feel you’ve got any control over what’s happening to you, then nothing surprises you.  Anything could happen, and the real problem in my life is that it usually is.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Going back to singers for a little bit, do you have some general advice for young singers coming along?

norrisDON:    Learn languages.  That’s the most important to any singer, and certainly the most proper advice coming from me partly because I don’t know languages well enough myself.  It’s a big problem, especially for those of us whose native tongue is English.  We tend not to speak enough other languages.  The other thing would be to explore what is nice to sing.  Just listen to a lot of music that isn’t vocal.

BD:    String quartets and piano music?

DON:    Yes, but then again my advice to a pianist would be listen to a lot of songs.

BD:    So for all musicians, then, you say to broaden your horizons in other kinds of music?

DON:    Yes, because you don’t find many composers who only wrote on sort of music.  Chopin is the example, and I can’t bring myself to share the common adulation of Chopin.  I regard the fact that Chopin only wrote piano music as pretty indicative of the little problem about Chopin.  He wrote marvelous piano music, but when all is said and done, it was piano music that wasn’t informed by anything else at all.

BD:    So Beethoven’s only opera is better because of the symphonies and the string quartets, and the string quartets are better because of his opera?

DON:    [Laughs]  You have to have picked up what I think is Beethoven’s most appalling work!  [Both laugh]  I would walk a long way to miss it.

BD:    [Sadly]  Really???  I like Fidelio

DON:    Do you like it?  It’s got marvelous things in it, but to see it as an opera, I just don
’t like it.  You look at Don Giovanni and you look at Fidelio, and you think the one man knows what he’s doing and the other man is an idiot!  The fact that he tried to write operatic music must have helped with the Ninth Symphony.

BD:    Well, let’s change it a little bit.  What about Verdi, who wrote almost exclusively operas.  There’s one lonely string quartet and a few songs, but it’s basically just operatic material.

DON:    That’s very true, and the same is true of a lot of operatic composers in the nineteenth century
Wagner to a lesser extent, and Donizetti and Bellini and Rossini.

BD:    Wagner was changing music, and he was writing polemics, too.

DON:    He was an extraordinarily productive person.  You kind of get me with Verdi because I’m a great admirer, certainly of his later operas from about 1870 on.

norrisBD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not panting for Alzira?

DON:    [Laughs]  I’m not even panting for Traviata, I have to say.  I am happy by the time they do Don Carlos and OtelloOtello is certainly my favorite Italian opera, but the later Verdi operas are really wonderful.  One can’t say that Verdi would have been a much better composer if only he had written piano sonatas.  That would be absurd.

BD:    Are there more recordings of your artistry coming along?

DON:    Yes, there will be a six-part anthology.

BD:    Piano music of whom?

DON:    Everybody!  A piano anthology.  Music from about 1590 to sometime next year, probably.

BD:    All on modern pianos or on different instruments?

DON:    All on a modern piano, yes, probably Bösendorfer.  There will be German harpsichord music, Italian harpsichord music, English virginal music...

BD:    All on the modern piano?

DON:    All on the modern piano
— music for the early fortepiano, music for the modern piano, modern for the super modern piano, all on the modern piano.

BD:    [Looking ahead]  And music that should be on the synthesiser still on the old modern piano?

DON:    Probably, yes!  [Much laughter] 

BD:    Thank you for spending this time with me today.

DON:    Not at all, not at all.  Thank you.

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© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, on August 10, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998.  This transcription was made in 2016, 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, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

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.