Conductor  Andrew  Parrott

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Conductor Andrew Parrott is best-known for presenting concerts and recordings of early music, but, as he tells me in this interview, his repertoire is quite varied and encompasses virtually all of musical history.

He made his American debut at the Grant Park Festival in Chicago in the summer of 1987, and returned in 1989 and 1990.  Portions of the reviews in the Chicago papers can be seen in the box at the bottom of this webpage. 

It was during this last visit that I had a chance to sit down with him between performances and discuss many aspects of his artistry.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    It seems like you conduct mostly Early Music and modern music with a big hole in the middle.  Is that correct?

Andrew Parrott:    I see what you’re saying but I have filled the hole.  Most people work in that central area and make occasional forays into the earlier thing or the later thing.  I work the other way round.  I make occasional forays into the world of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, and it’s great fun when I do... that is, it is fun for me.  I don’t know whether it is fun for anybody else, but I just happen to be interested in a larger overall historical span.  Therefore in one sense it’s an even spread of things.  You could argue that I do as much Tchaikovsky as I do thirteenth century music.  So it’s not an imbalance.

BD:    Is the line of music linear, in that goes off in either direction, or is it really more of a circle that meets round the back with the early coming back towards the contemporary?

AP:    For me, the paradox is that I believe all music is different.  All music is true to itself.  What I’m interested in is making thirteenth century music sound thirteenth century, not 1990s.  I’m just making 1990s music sounding really good of today, which means it has all been different.  But for me, it is all one in the same thing, that I don’t see barriers, I don’t feel barriers.  I just hope that I can listen in different ways to different things, because ultimately what it comes down to is being able to adjust your approach to things
how you perceive music as  it comes along, rather than saying, This is what music should sound like.  This is how I do things! and then making the music the vehicle for that.

BD:    How much adjusting is there on your part for making sure that the music is authentic?

AP:    Well, I didn’t use the word authentic, by the way.  For the record, you did!  [Both laugh]  I’m not criticizing, it’s just such a loaded word that I sturdily avoid it!

BD:    Then what word do you put in place of ‘authentic’?

AP:    I probably would put no word, but if I can be allowed more than one word, then I suppose I’m interested in understanding music both in a general sense and also in its historical context.  I learn more about music from understanding something of why it originated, and the circumstances surrounding its performance originally, as well as the conventions of its time.

BD:    If you’re learning about the conventions of the time, say of the thirteenth century, should we do anything special to make sure that the people in the twentieth century can relate to them, or that the music relates to these new audiences?

AP:    This answer will be easily misunderstood, but I think the answer is no.  We don’t do anything special.  The only thing we should do is to try and make our ears go towards that thing.  In other words, we should work incredibly hard to understand everything we possibly can
which is not very much, as a matter of fact, if we are specifically talking about mediaeval music.  There are really very, very few fragments of evidence that tell you anything about how to perform, apart from the mere skeleton of the music.  So we should do everything we possibly can, and then see what that’s like and adjust our ears to it, rather than saying in advance that we need to do something to make it speak for us today.  Inevitably we are performing it in the 1990s, so we are inevitably making it of our time, whether we realize it or not.  But for me, the excitement is in traveling backwards to it, not updating mindlessly or consciously for the present.  Though having said that, if I may allow myself a  little footnoteand this is the philosophy that Nikolaus Hornoncourt stated many, many years agothere are basically two honest approaches.  Either you go all out to understand what it was at the time and then perform it with convictionwhich is by no means a mere exercise in historicity, but just a rich starting point for a performance now — or you say to hell with all this historical approach, let’s just do it as of now.  But as of now means, arguably, synthesizers, saxophones, electric guitars, whatever is truly of now, not the half-hearted attempt of pruning down a big orchestra to a moderate size and performing with a residue of nineteenth century techniques inherited via a few 1930s teachers.  That really is neither one thing nor the other.  Instinctively, musically that means less for me than a total updating of something honestly.  I would prefer a performance that really is first-rate and informed by the most sensitive understanding of the composer’s ideals when he wrote itor when she wrote it!

BD:    He or she, that’s right!  We’re now discovering there were female composers

AP:    Absolutely, and pretty good ones.

BD:    Am I correct in thinking the idea of performance practice back then was much more haphazard than it is now?

AP:    By
back then do you mean early this century?  Yes, it’s a subject that has grown and indeed, in my opinion, hasn’t grown fast enough.  There’s a lot of activity, but still I’m amazed at the number of professional musicologists who haven’t yet seen what a wonderfully rich and fertile subject it is.  It is absolutely demanding in the rigorous scholastic sense that they quite naturally like, but it has a practical application of making this music come to life, and indeed I find it very odd.  It seems to me that as an academic, the prerequisite of understanding any music of the past is that you understand the principles of its performance.  Only when you’ve got to grips with that as far as incomplete though the sources may be, can you then sit back and make a value judgmentwhich is what scholars spend their time doing.  It seems to be completely wrong way round to make  value judgments and say, That’s a great piece; that’s a great composer; this is a masterpiece! entirely from the printed page.  Yes, the printed page can tell you a lot, but it can’t tell you anywhere near the full story.

BD:    What, for you, makes any of this music, early or late, great?

AP:    That’s a very tricky question.  What is great music?  I’ve no idea.  I don’t think I would care to define it, though I know it for myself when I hear it.

BD:    Then what are some of the traits that appear in music that you find to be great?

AP:    Even that is a very tricky question!  I’m just trying to think what the common denominators are between great music of the fifteenth century, let’s say, or the seventeenth century, and the great the music of twentieth century.  I’m not sure I would be prepared to summarize that because it’s so subtle and so rich.  Coming back to an earlier point, what is fascinating is how there are so many different approaches to writing something great.  It’s the sheer diversity that is exciting, and to go outside the world of art music, I can find that particular folk music, for example, can be great.  Its aims are quite different, but as a rough and ready performer, he instinctively can communicate something that the best bred, dare I say, Juilliard trained pianist might not convey in a concert performance of a great and agreed masterpiece.  I remember once in London going across the footbridge to the Southbank, where the Festival Hall is, and going to a piano recital.  I think it was the only piano recital I have been to in my life, as a matter of fact.  Anyway, at the end of footbridge there were two musicians who were probably stoned out of their minds.  They were ‘down and outs’ basically, playing on two different instruments.  I can even really remember they were maybe a banjo and a saxophone.  They weren’t really playing in the same key or the same piece as each other, but what they were doing was incredibly heartfelt and deeply moving because they were at the center of what music making is about.  And the contrast with the piano recital that I went to, which was in a concrete mausoleum with a nice shiny, polished piano, at the end was totally sterile.  This was not entirely because of the pianist, who shall be nameless, but combination of various things.  That was a very informative lesson hearing packaged concert music, because that’s how I earn a living and that’s my own outlet, beside true music making, which broke all the rules, just a hundred yards from it.  This tells us lots of things.  It’s frightening.

BD:    Now that you’ve had this experience, do you try to make sure that your performances are not sterile, as you say?

AP:    Well, we’re not stoned out of our minds!  [Both have a huge laugh]  No, there are different approaches.  Of course sterile music making is the last thing that we want, but the point I’m trying to make is that there are no absolute standards or preconditions of what great music making is.  To make the comparison more obvious, I would on any occasion prefer an amateur or community orchestra giving of its best, playing way beyond its capabilities in a big nineteenth century war horse of a piece, to the best salaried, best groomed, symphony orchestra in the world, playing on automatic pilot, really bored out of their minds through over exposure.

BD:    So then what you want is the best of both?

AP:    The best of both worlds is what of course I want.  Yes, I want the best orchestra really on their toes, feeling that they
’re playing the piece for the first time in the best sense, not frightened because they don’t know what’s in front of them, but it’s because it’s hitting them between the eyeballs as something wonderfully fresh and new.

BD:    Sharing the joy of discovery?

AP:    Absolutely!  The joy of discovery is really what it’s all about.  Whether that’s the only reward or not can be debated, but it is a very important thing for me.

BD:    Is that the aim of music, then, the joy of discovery? 

AP:    I wouldn’t say it’s the only one, but one very important aim is for me to discover more.  I wouldn’t want to finish this musical career feeling I’d answered all the questions.  There are always more questions, and what I like is finding the questions and trying to answer them.  But ultimately you can never finish them.  It’s death as soon as you feel as you’ve got there.  I’m not talking about technique.  Technique is the least interesting aspect of all this.

BD:    You are talking about interpretation?

AP:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have your own Taverner Players, but when you come to a new orchestra, do you try and mold that orchestra in your image or in the composer’s image, or how much shaping can you do?

parrottAP:    I always hope it’s in the composer’s image.   To a certain extent it probably is in my image, but inevitably I’m not the best person to judge the distinction between those two things.  Also I do like talking about what there is.  If all orchestras or choirs or singers round the world were exactly the same, it would be very, very dull.  The joy is in discovering a different orchestra which has got a different angle on the same thing.  You can’t define it.  It may be that specific day or a different acoustic.  It is very difficult to pin down, but I would hate all orchestras and all my performances to sound the same.  I certainly don’t have a blue print to which I want all performers to aspire.  Inevitably I’ve got what can seem like a clear idea of what I want, but I hope I’m always open-minded enough to allow that to go in different directions according to the circumstances that I find myself in.

BD:    So you play off of the virtues and defects you encounter?

AP:    I would like to do that.  This is related to the attitudes of working, but in fact very recently I was conducting in Austria for the first time, and I went into the first rehearsal approaching it in the way I would normally do back at home in England.  I tried to get to know the players, not on a ‘chummy-basis’ because that’s fake, but simply to get to know them and their musical strengths, and get them to contribute ideas as we’re going along.  Well, this just didn’t work there in Austria.  It was quite disturbing, and I suddenly realized that they are used a completely different approach.  They are used to the authoritarian conductor, and oddly enough they need that.  So I switched into an authoritarian conductor mode, and instantly got a much better response.  I was saying,
“Do that, do that, this is what we do, rather than just having them play it seeing what I think of it.  That just didn’t work.  It was a different starting point

BD:    They had to have a Kapellmeister?

AP:    I’m afraid they did, yes.

BD:    It’s just the way they were brought up and trained?

AP:    Yes, they were conditioned that way.

BD:    So you had to know enough to adapt yourself to this manner!

AP:    Yes.

BD:    In the end, did you get what you wanted?

AP:    I guess I did, though not invariably.  The precise answer to that question would be whether we’re talking about the baroque end of the program or the classical end of the program.  One of these things I find regularly is that the later the music gets, the more I can find the common denominator with the players.  Or to put it another way, I’ve got more specific or perhaps peculiar ideas about music the further you go back, and it takes longer for those ideas to be understood, be accepted, be integrated into a performance.  But I reacted against that completely, and I’m trying to do the same for dangerously too familiar music, say Bach Suites, in a  very, very different way from the way those musicians have been trained.

BD:    When you play a Bach Suite differently from everyone else, is it because you want to be different or do you simply want to be correct?

AP:    I don’t like either wording, because
correct implies this notion of there being one correct way of doing it.  I want to project the music as I believe it is best served, but it’s certainly not because I want to be different for the sake of being different.  It’s merely the starting point of a particular set of players which is perhaps very different from mine in that repertory.  It so happens that this is often a slightly shocking thought for myself.  I’ve really done Bach’s instrumental music with period instruments all my career, whereas so many conductors who maybe using period instruments, have started with modern instruments and have made a slow transition to it.

BD:    You feel that you’re a pioneer in that way?

AP:    Well, if there’s a little bit of credit to be associated with being a pioneer in this case, then maybe, yes.  I have to say that the results from almost twenty years ago were quite bad.  But then that was inevitable at that stage.  We had to go through that stage because critics and the public of the time didn’t realize what was being done.  But it was definitely worthwhile because it’s born fruit as I’m sure you’re aware really.

BD:    Then let me turn the question around.  Is there any point at all to ever playing, say, Stokowski transcriptions of Bach anymore with the big romantic Bruckner orchestra?

AP:    Oh, sure!  It tells us so much about the 1920s.  That’s one very good reason for doing it.

BD:    So it tells you more about Stokowski than about Bach?

AP:    Arguably, yes.  I’m not trying to put down Stokowski, who knew his orchestra inside out, but he was doing something which was very much of its time.  You can argue that these attempts to go back to an original version of something is a symptom of our own times, and that we’re desperate to be historically correct.  That has been argued and I can see that there is an element of truth in that.  But yes, Stokowski’s Bach, and more particularly Elgar’s Bach arrangements are really wonderful demonstrations of orchestral virtuosity in the early part of this century.  I’m interested in that as a musical and historical experience.

BD:    Were they a stopgap because they couldn’t get Bach played reasonably so they played Bach the way they could?

AP:    Oh, no, I don’t think it was a stopgap.  That’s what Bach was perceived to be, and it was a natural vehicle just as it was natural in the nineteenth century for symphonies to be known in piano versions.  There weren’t gramophone records, so people would go round playing transcriptions of symphonies, or piano duet versions, or elaborate fantasies like Liszt on these symphonies.  That was a natural part of the musical language of its own time.  It was a way of transmitting the music, so if people were interested in Bach, because the symphony orchestra was the musical voice of the time, then Bach was fed into that machine, and inevitably colored by it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    There keeps coming up the idea that every time there’s a development and a refinement in musical instruments and musical performances that the composers jump on the bandwagon and try to accept all of these improvements.  So by playing old music the old way, are we not short-circuiting that and saying it couldn’t go forward beyond the lifetime of the composer, or even the foresightedness of the instrument makers?

AP:    Hmmm...  Lots of interesting strands in that question.  It’s chickens and eggs to a certain extent.  If we’re going right back, let’s say, to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, things were compartmented in the same way.  We now have composers and then symphony orchestras, which the composer will just occasionally be in contact with.  Monteverdi was, for example, a court musician and then a church musician, performing music daily with professional musicians.  His job was almost primarily as a performer and secondarily as a creator.  So he was amongst practical music makers, the instrumentalists at St. Mark’s who also dealt in instruments as agents and built instruments.  So there wasn’t a divide between instrument makers and the players.  It was all one world.  A lot of musicians were instrument builders, scholars, theorists, composers, singers and instrumentalists all in one.  It was a much more general thing, therefore the pushing forward is a creative push from all sides of the personality, not just the composer’s side.

BD:    Have we lost something by becoming so compartmentalized?

AP:    I think so, and most particularly in  a certain aspect of practicality.  There are some very fine composers around in the States and in England and all over the place nowadays, but very few of them are really in touch with practical music making.  Consequently there’s a myth grown up that the composer has the right to stretch, for example, what a human voice should be able to do; to write incredibly high notes on any old vowel that they like, and to add a note at the top of the range of a woodwind instrument and stretch things.  Now of course it’s fun expanding all these things but very few composers really have the final understanding of those voices in particular, and those instruments that Monteverdi had.  Therefore when they stretch them, they are not aware of the loss.  They are aware of the possible novelty in it, but they’re not aware of how almost any gain has a loss on the other side.  There are a lot of impractical ideas on a mundane level, almost incompetent writing going around, which grieves me because the music behind it may be good and the intentions may be good, but it’s wrong-footed by sheer lack of sophisticated understanding of the practicalities of music making.

BD:    Is there any way to circumvent this?

AP:    [Laughs]  I can think of few radical ones!

BD:    Well, besides mass slaughter!  [Both laugh]

AP:    You read my mind!  No, I would like to see musical education being perhaps less compartmented than it has become.  Maybe it is here less so than in England, but back home it’s very much stratified.

BD:    So where is music going today?

AP:    New music?  You mean new classical music as opposed to rock music or whatever?

BD:    Yes.  I’m afraid I also compartmentalize!

AP:    I understand!  The shameful answer that I have to go is that I don’t know, because although I have done a lot of avant-garde music, and I’m very happy to do it quite often, I’m not really on top of what is happening.  This is partly because I want to keep it at arm’s length to avoid some of the ghettoism that goes on.  It’s very easy to fall into a camp of thinking, or to assume that all good music making or composition must be of that particular sort, and the rest is not worth considering.  Whereas I like to keep a total open-mind and also consider that rock music itself might be a vehicle for great composers now, because theoretically it can be.  In practice, it rarely is, but there are all sorts of music unwritten that I would like to see written today.  I’m sorry to be negative, but there are things that I see composers doing, but there also all sorts of things I see them not doing, which, if I were a composer, I would leap on.  For example, understanding the different tuning systems.   We’re brought up or trained to think of things being either in tune or out of tune.

BD:    That’s equal temperament?

AP:    Piano is in equal temperament, and that’s that.  Equal temperament is barbarously out of tune if you listen to music with sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth century ears.  Everything is out of tune except the octave.  Of course equal temperament has got its own advantages and opened up all sort of other possibilities.  The late lamented Harry Partch built all these wonderful instruments which he could play microtonal things, but not in a coloristic way.  People use quarter tones, but quarter tone is even more arbitrary than an equal tempered half-step.

BD:    There are a few people who are working in multi-toned, multi-tuning systems

AP:    Good!

BD:    Ben Johnston and Ezra Sims, and also John Eaton...  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.

AP:    Yes, I’ve heard some of the Ben Johnston things.  I wish more did it, and wished that were common parlance because it can inform music making of all periods if you understand how many different major thirds there can be, and how they’ve all got their beauty or character of their own. 

BD:    It seems like, all of a sudden, we’re getting the technology now with the computers and the synthesizers, so that you don’t have to have a keyboard that has 117 keys to get an octave ...

AP:    That’s right.  I recently bought a Yamaha DX7 precisely because it’s a got all those different temperament things, which I can use historically just as a means of demonstrating to some singers we’re at this pitch because you can set it, not just at A440, but any old pitch you like.  If we’re using Just Intonation based on C, or Pythagorean Tuning, this is what it sounds like.  It’s a great shortcut, and that is indeed one honest way of performing.  Academically boring though that idea sounds, Machaut with Pythagorean Tuning brings the music to life.  You begin to understand why those dissonances are there, and because the resolutions from them are really painful dissonances, you get really beautifully relaxing resolutions from them.  Whereas with our usual piano tuning in your mind, you get a sort of dissonance and a sort of resolution.  It makes it all terribly bland.

BD:    Is this why we’ve had to go to smaller and smaller intervals in the equal temperament to get the pain for the resolution?

AP:    Yes, maybe, but I still think it’s a red herring to be using quarter tones and eighth tones.  They are impossible for the human ear to fix precisely because they’re completely arbitrary numerically.  They have no basis in natural acoustics, physical acoustics, whereas a pure third does and a pure fifth does.  So you can relate things to that.  You can’t pick a quarter of a tone out.  I defy people with the very, very best ears to be precise on that.  They can’t.

BD:    You can only read it on an oscilloscope!

AP:    Yes, of course!  You can tell when you’ve got it on an oscilloscope, but you can’t guarantee to get it with your ear.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there any hope for music?

AP:    Oh, gosh, I didn’t realize I was that negative!  There’s lots of hope.  There are so many musics around, particularly of our own time within the classical world and outside it, including ethnic music and rock music and all the rest of it, plus this museum of music.  And I don’t feel embarrassed about calling it that because museums should be wonderfully exciting places where you learn more about yourself through the past.  This museum of music is opening up right back to the Middle Ages and beyond.  So, my goodness, there’s plenty of hope for music.  It’s  a little bit disconcerting that there are so many options.  That’s the biggest of the problems we face.

parrottBD:    Are there too many options?

AP:    I think probably there are, yes, like American television has got too many channels.  I can never find what I want on it.

BD:    Well, do you know what you want to be able to look for?

AP:    I suppose the answer is that I don’t want just one thing, but yes.  [Pauses a moment]  Getting back to another one of your questions about what is great music, I evaded the issue of defining what it is, but I know when I hear it.  I know for myself what is great music, and similarly when a new departure in music making or composition hits me, or indeed some earlier idiom that I haven’t come across before, then I feel the impact of that and I know when it’s real and when it’s not.

BD:    Unlike television or radio, where one can flip from station to station in search of whatever is there, do the audiences know what to look for in the various live concert opportunities?

AP:    I think that the public in many ways is far more open-minded than the professionals within the business, and it’s for understandable reasons.  We all tend to become, or are deemed to be specialists in whatever we’ve done a lot of, whereas a musical person will happily switch from one radio channel to another, or hear a CD that some friend or a spouse is playing.  Whereas we people who are involved in concerts go to concerts, and that excludes an enormous amount of music making.  Also it’s not the right vehicle for a lot of music that is performed in concerts, like liturgical church music, which is terribly difficult to do in the concert hall.

BD:    But if you want to perform it, you have to go to a concert hall to perform it.

AP:    Yes, and that’s where a recording can have an advantage.  I’ve done this with four or five works.  I’ve done a liturgical reconstruction much to the, well not annoyance but the consternation of the record company.  They think this is horribly academic.  But ultimately I’ve done it for musical reasons because in your own sitting room or with your headphones, you can enter into this imaginary world of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, and hear the music in an appropriate acoustic coming from different special angles, much better than you can in a concert hall.

BD:    This is something else we can put into the synthesizer, the ambiance of, say, San Marco or any other cathedral, and the ambiance of a certain concert hall, so that you can listen to these things as if you were there.  Just have another button for the spacial acoustic!

AP:    I’m not well up enough on technology to know the limits of those things but I do think the visual ambiance as well as the aural is a very important part of music making.  This is why my heart sinks when I come to a concrete desert of a concert hall, even if the acoustic is workable and tolerable because it’s a negative force that you’re playing with.  You’ve got to strive to rise above that, whereas if you go into, let’s say, a Gothic cathedral where the acoustics might be problematic
maybe it’s too resonant or surprisingly dryyou get a sense of uplift from that beauty of the architecture, particularly if you’re performing church music.  That really does aid the performance.

BD:    You couldn’t duplicate that with having a huge screen above the concert hall?

AP:    [Laughs]  That might be a possibility.  I have done a concert with a huge screen above.  This was a reconstruction of some Italian spectacle in the sixteenth century, and we had slides above the stage.  It wasn’t terribly well done and I think it distracted more than anything else.

BD:    You could create a space, and not only have speakers around to create your aural ambiance, you could have screens around to create the visual ambiance.

AP:    You could, however money is an object at all these wonderful ideas at the moment.  But yes, we should never stop trying to think of how we can illuminate the music more, as it’s very easy because music is so readily available now with all these recordings.  I have contributed to this disease.  At the flick of a button we can get all this wonderful music.  That’s the good side of it, but it can be a problem if we take it for granted.  Muzak is a terribly dangerous thing because you get used to music floating past, and whether it’s great music or music that’s designed to be Muzak, after a while you lose the sensitivity to understand the difference.  Then all music, even great music, goes past you as wallpaper.  When you listen just for the obvious differences between Performer X and Performer Y
one is desperately slower than the others, or desperately faster according to your standpointgreat music, or even second-rate music, deserves more than that.  Silence is something we should start issuing; recordings of silence.  [Both laugh]  It’s like selling packages of air.

BD:    I was doing another interview, and in his biography it lists one of his hobbies as silence!

AP:    Yes, you need to devote yourself to it studiously nowadays to achieve it.

BD:    Maybe we should put warning labels on season subscriptions to concerts.  ‘Too much music in the ear can dilute the effect of the overall performances!’

AP:    I’m afraid I absolutely believe that to be true.  I was on a committee that was meant to come up with some ideas for European Music Year, which was 1985, the centenaries of the birth of Schütz and Scarlatti...

BD:    That’s right Schütz and Scarlatti and Bach and Handel!

AP:    Yes, all four of those and a few others!  So I put up two suggestions, one of which was totally serious and indeed was followed, and the other one was to ban all concerts for a year so that the following year your appetite was enormously keen.

BD:    I’ve often thought we should ban some segments of the repertoire for a while, so that when you come back to them you can rediscover them again.

AP:    Yes, but who am I to suggest that other people don’t listen to music?  That’s a silly thing really.  I was just being facetious, but for myself, I deliberately cultivate ignorance.  This is not an easy idea to project, or perhaps it’s too easy to project!  As a conductor, my responsibility is to the music.  Now this might sound pretentious, but ultimately all there is are a few dots on a printed page.  Everything that is a tradition of performance practice is suspect.  It may be of value, but it’s suspect on one level or another.  So if I know Beethoven’s symphonies only through lots and lots of other conductors’ performances, then I’m bound subconsciously to be influenced by them, even if it’s only to react against them, which is a temptation.  But in practice, my training, and indeed any conductor’s training, should be to see these dots on the page.

BD:    It’s just a code, really?

AP:    Absolutely, and we need to know how to flesh them out.  So I deliberately don’t listen to other people’s performances, not because I think they’re all terrible conductors and I don’t want to have anything to do with them or help their incomes by buying their records.  It’s not that at all.  I simply want to cultivate that ignorance so that when I come to it I know what I think for myself, not through other people’s ears, and also that I am fresh.

BD:    You want to paint on a blank canvas?

AP:    Yes, on the existing canvas of Bach, and not of Bach seen through the eyes of other conductors.

BD:    Do you feel that in some of your performances you’re cutting away a lot of the undergrowth?

AP:    I’m trying to do that.  It’s for others to judge how successful that is.

BD:    Should we than ask regular concert patrons to pace themselves
not necessarily that they don’t listen here or there, but be conscious of pacing themselves and their listening habit?

AP:    I don’t want to be too didactic or prescriptive.  It’s up to every individual to know what they need and what they want.  But I certainly think it wouldn’t do any harm to talk about the art of listening.  Because of this accessibility and availability of music, it’s dulled the edge on our ability to listen generally.

BD:    Should that be a course to have in schools?

AP:    It would be very, very interesting
— not purely musical even, but just the experience of living in the country and hearing a backdrop of silence after you’ve been in a city.  It would be terribly informative because it’s never silence.  There’s always these mysterious rustling noises or just some spark of sound.

BD:     [With an inquiring nudge]  But what about the sounds of nature out in the countryside?

AP:    Absolutely, but it makes you listen more keenly.  That’s just on the superficial level, but learning how to listen to music
I don’t mean in an historical, academic, analytical way at all, but creating the right mood in yourself that’s not too superficial so that you can go towards understanding what the composer is doing.  That’s something we neglect.  We assume it’s going to do all the work.  Listening has become very passive.  That’s what I’m really saying.  It also goes back to the question of amateur performance.  I’m very interested in that because the understanding an amateur singer with a terrible voice can get from being in a choir is often considerably greater than somebody having paid for a very good ticket in a nice concert hall listening to other people making the music.  Being inside the music is the best way of getting to know it.  Of course it’s not open to everybody to be able to do that, but it’s an important thing.  And if you aren’t a performing musicianeither professionally or amateurI still think it’s important not to listen passively.

BD:    So you really view music as a participatory art?

AP:    It is, yes. 

BD:    The earlier composers didn’t have to fight noises such as the rumblings of the subway trains and the whole issue of ambient noise.

AP:    Sometimes they did, but it was different.  It was horses!  Horses hooves on cobbles, or screaming children!  Children have always been able to scream at you extremely loudly if they wished to.

BD:    But I’d assume there wouldn’t be such concentration of this noise...

AP:    True.

BD: does that influence at all the way this music was conceived and written, and then the way you bring it to life where we have trains going by and planes flying overhead?

AP:    Well, it has had a slow but sure knock-on effect for a variety of reasons, and one of them is that musical instruments and the human voice, in due course, have all got bigger.  Power has been rated increasingly highly because concert halls have got bigger, and you could say because concert halls have got deader.  They’ve got less acoustic to play with, and perhaps because background noise has increased and our sensitivity has been dulled, therefore the thing that really commands attention is when some tenor is really socking a high B flat.  That cult of the biggest and loudest and highest perhaps always has been there in certain strata of music making, but it’s been elevated to the highest level in the course of the nineteenth century.  Now it’s insidious.  So we are going back to period instrument performing.  If you’re going to have a small orchestra the same size of Bach’s and period violins and oboes, all of which speak at a lower decibel level than modern instruments, then it’s a nonsense to take that into a big, dead concert hall.  That’s a very unhistorical thing to do.  You’ve wrong-footed all the good work that you’ve done.  You have to get all the circumstances right for this to be perfectly historical.  So if you are in a larger building, then you do what Handel certainly would have done and expand the orchestra and the forces to fit the space that you’re in.  There’s no absolute for any one piece of music... well for most.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Do you want to do the Fireworks Music with twenty-four oboes?

The Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351) is a wind band suite composed by George Frideric Handel in 1749 under contract of George II of Great Britain for the fireworks in London's Green Park on 27 April 1749. It was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

It was scored for a large wind band ensemble consisting of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons and a contrabassoon, nine natural trumpets, nine natural horns, three pairs of kettledrums, and side drums which were given only the direction to play "ad libitum"; no side drum parts were written by Handel. Handel was specific about the numbers of instruments to each written part. In the overture there are assigned three players to each of the three trumpet parts; the 24 oboes are divided 12, 8 and 4; and the 12 bassoons are divided 8 and 4. The side drums were instructed when to play in La Réjouissance and the second Menuet, but very likely also played in the Ouverture.

During the preparations Handel and John Montagu, responsible for the Royal Fireworks, had an argument about adding violins. The duke made clear to Handel the King had a preference for only wind instruments and drums. Handel left out the string instruments and against his will there was also a full rehearsal of the music at Vauxhall Gardens and not in Green Park. On 21 April 1749 over twelve thousand people, each paying 2/6 (two shillings and six pence) rushed for it, causing a three-hour traffic jam of carriages on the London Bridge, the only route to the area south of the river.


Six days later, on 27 April, the performing musicians were in a specially constructed building that had been designed by Servandoni, a theatre designer, who used four Italians to assist him. Andrea Casali and Andrea Soldi designed the decorations. The fireworks themselves were devised and controlled by Gaetana Ruggieri and Giuseppe Sarti, both from Bologna. Charles Frederick was the controller, captain Thomas Desaguliers was the chief fire master. The display was not as successful as the music itself: the weather was rainy and in the middle of the show the right pavilion caught fire.

Handel re-scored the suite for full orchestra and for a performance on 27 May, in the Foundling Hospital. Handel wrote notices in the score: the violins to play the oboe parts, the cellos and double basses the bassoon part, and the violas either a lower wind or bass part. The instruments from the original band instrumentation play all the movements in the revised orchestral edition except the gentle Bourrée and the first Menuet, which are played by only the oboes, bassoons, and strings alone.

AP:    Oh, I’m intending to do that!  Absolutely, yes!  My dilemma is where to record it because I should really be doing it outdoors on the Thames... but there’s so much background noise!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:    There we are back to the electronic switch for the ambiance!

AP:    That’s right!  We’ll add, perhaps, the river noises, the bargemen shouting, the fairs, and the lapping of water and the seagulls!

BD:    Hopefully there will be no conflagration! 

AP:    [Laughs]  I certainly hope not...

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You started by forming a choir.  Tell me about the joys and sorrows of working with a group of human voices.

AP:    I will tell you the joys!  The human voice is ultimately the most flexible musical instrument, and the most diverse, and I hope I will never bored by it.  What I like is how every human being is different, and also the range of possibilities with these voices is much wider.  I don’t mean pitch ranges
high notes and low notesI mean the subtleties of expression that come from the human voice are only occasionally matched by instruments.  Certainly the further you go back in history, the more the center of refined music making is vocal, and instrumental music was vocal music played or accompanied or doubled or supported or imitated.  Treatises will tell you all this.  For playing the violin, they say to listen to best singer if you want to understand how to do this, which of course is deeply frustrating now.  But that’s the advice we’ve been given, and now we can’t do that.  We can’t listen to the singers of the eighteenth century if we’re trying to understand how to play the eighteenth century instruments.  I wasn’t maligning modern singers.  Because of these modern pressures of size and force and power being prized, there are many singers who make unacceptable sounds and tend to have short careers as a result.  It’s very sad that there is so much pressure to train all voices to be big because they’ll only get work if they are big.  There are big people and there are small people, so why should all small people aspire to being big?  It’s ludicrous.

BD:    Would we be better off or worse off if we were able now to listen to gramophone records of Monteverdi and Machaut, and all of the rest?

AP:    [Ponders a moment]  It’s interesting. I’m sure it would have bred a completely different viewpoint, as you question implies.  It would obviously answer not all the questions, but a large number of questions about performance style.

BD:    Would we then be put in straightjackets?

AP:    We would then know how we’re departing from those intentions, and whether we wanted to or not.  I’m sure we would depart from them.  Of course this is the ultimate hypothetical question, and there can be no meaningful answer to it.  I would certainly give anything for a glimpse into the past.  If I had one recording of Monteverdi or Purcell or Bach, that could tell me a lot.  It would inevitably not give me all the answers, but at least some.

BD:    So you wouldn’t mind going back in a time machine to hear a concert?

AP:    Yes, to before the public concert was invented.  That’s the era I would like to go back to.  I spend a lot of time trying to understand these things, and being dutiful and reading all the historical journals and doing my own research, but I am sure I would be very surprised at some things.  I’m sure certain basics I would have got completely wrong, and it would be very exciting to discover where I got it wrong!  Though of course, secretly what I would really like is vindication that I’m right on these stickier points!  I fantasize about saying,
Look, I told you so! to all these who don’t like my ideas.

BD:    What happens if you go back and Purcell says,
My God, why didn’t you just go ahead and use synthesizers?

AP:    I’m sure all these composers would have been interested in all these new toys to play with, but then they would have written different music.   I’m sure they would have written different music.  No creative genius is going to be stuck with the music that he or she has written.

parrottBD:    Would you take your time machine back to kidnap a Minnesinger or Trouvère, and come back with him now to teach us?

AP:    Just if he opened his mouth, that would teach us, yes, indeed.

BD:    Would we learn enough?

AP:    No!  [Both laugh]  You never learn enough because the sound is only one aspect of the context of music making.  Going back again to an earlier point, it is vital and to understand the whole world which generated that song.  To take little fragments as pretty little artifacts is an analogous to digging up some Roman pot fragments and putting them in a glass case with the label ‘Roman Pot Fragments’ underneath, giving you no idea what century it was made in.  You would have no idea how this fragment fitted into a larger scheme of things when you’ve only got a fragment of the pot!  That’s the ultimate dry, dull, useless piece of information!  But if you can see what the pot is and how the pot relates to other things and what the function of the pot was
maybe as a status symbol for its owner, or as an artifact of the humble family that owned itthen you begin to get a glimpse into a life, which it’s all about.

BD:    Let’s come back to the choir.  The orchestra is somewhat prescribed in numbers.  Is the choir of each different period prescribed in number of trebles and basses and tenors?

AP:    I’m very interested in this question of distribution of voice and choir sizes, but there are rarely any fixed answers.  What you can say is that this composer was working in that cathedral for all his life, and we know that on the payroll there were so many men singers and so many boy singers, and the distribution of peers from the archives would have been this.  Then we can go to the building
if it’s still thereand say they sang from these positions, or were reading from separate part books or from one giant choir book facing that direction.  Acoustics of the building have changed as we now have a wooden roof rather than a stone one.  We can guess why the choir was that big, and its effect on the music.  We don’t have to reproduce that exactly because, as I’ve said, we are in practice working in different circumstances.

BD:    But presumably the composer wrote for that group in that place?

AP:    You can’t always assume that, but yes, as a point of departure, that is true.  Monteverdi, for example, when he was in Venice
and he was only in Venice for the second half of his very long careerwas already a mature composer when he arrived.  His job was at St Mark’s, but he also wrote for that convent or for that feast at San Rocco, wherever he was employed to go out to different churches on different occasions, and indeed to write operas.  So we have to be careful even when we’ve got a lot information as we have about Venice, and about a great composer like Monteverdi.

BD:    Did Monteverdi expect his music would  be played in more than one season?

AP:    That’s a very interesting question.  Often not.

BD:    He wrote it for a feast and that was it?

AP:    That’s right.  Suddenly a major feast required a new piece.  This is also true of all the main establishments from that time for least a century or so.  If a composer, or a maestro di cappello, arrived and said,
This is one of the pieces I wrote three years ago, he would hauled up in front of the authorities pretty quickly because that would be regarded as second best.  You definitely could not recycle an old piece, even if it’s a masterpiece from three years ago.  You need to write something new, or be seen to be writing something new.  That is a symbol of the potency of the power and the grandeur of a particular establishment.

BD:    And none of them had the foresight to leave the music in their luggage, and then pretend to be writing and just haul out the old score?

AP:    Of course, there’s always that trick, yes!  [Both laugh]  Poor old Bach.  It is emerging that when he first arrived in Leipzig he worked phenomenally hard, wrote hundreds of pieces in the first couple of years, and then got disillusioned, not with the church in the larger sense, but specifically with his work and circumstances there.  So he devoted himself to other things, but humbly and honestly fulfilled his duties of providing music.  Of course, when he came to recycle pieces
which he did a lot because he exceeded all reasonable expectations as a composer in those pursuitshe would often tinker with them because he just couldn’t resist doing that.  Maybe he felt it worked, but wouldn’t it be even better if he added those instruments or subtracted these instruments, or put a different sinfonia at the beginning or maybe write a larger aria there!

BD:    And of course the exigencies of who he had and who he didn’t have at the time helped decide these changes.

AP:    Absolutely.  He was very much bound by circumstances.  It’s not a nice contrast, the often humble circumstances and the great ideas, but an absolute genius like Bach can make something great out of difficult circumstances.  If there were only two boys who could sing decently well in that year, he would write a wonderful cantata and exploited their virtues, rather than one that tripped up the boys who couldn’t sing.  He couldn’t bring himself to do that because he was an excellent music maker himself.

BD:    These days we’re getting away from that.  Composers write a piece and expect to find people who can perform it.

AP:    Yes, and that comes back to the point I was saying about composers losing touch with the realities of music making, to the detriment of their own compositions often.

BD:    [Musing]  I wonder what Bach would have done if he had had any kind of resources he wanted.

AP:    Well, I’m quite content with what Bach did do.  Who are we to say he could have done better?  That’s a ludicrous question with Bach, isn’t it?

BD:    That’s true.  But there must have been some time that Bach would have said,
I really want another oboe here!

AP:    Yes, but he found a way round it.  It was always limitations that stimulated his imagination, and indeed most composers.  Nowadays we’ve got too much freedom.  Take the blank page and the campus-salaried composer.  I don’t wish to be knocking it particularly for a minute, but it’s too open.  There are too many possibilities, really.  Most good composers thrive on being told they’ve got fifteen minutes to write the work.  Maybe the ultimate craftsman-like aspect of composition is when someone’s writing for a film.  They’re told there are these scenes which need that much music, and it’s got to have this effect and the budget is so much, and it’s to be recorded this Thursday.  You’ve got all these limitations.  So you burn the midnight oil and up you come with something!  It might not be a masterwork, but that has stimulated the imagination.

BD:    Someone once said the beauty of chess is that there are only sixty-four squares to play!

AP:    Yes, exactly!  Bach is the ultimate musical chessman.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to the idea of a choir, do you try and put your balances the way you think they should have been, or do you expand the whole thing for the concert hall that you’re going to be playing in?

AP:    Some of the purely choral music, the a cappella music is church music that I rarely do in the concert hall.  It may be a concert in a church, but it’s not the concert hall, so I will then look at that building and those circumstances and see if I should reproduce a piece exactly the way it was.  I ask myself if it is in fact working against the music to do that, but I rarely come up against that problem because I wouldn’t agree to do something that is necessarily an intimate piece in a vast building, or vice-versa.  If I do that, then I’m forced to make a second compromise.  So really I would choose to do a particular type of church music in a particular building, and then the size of the choir would naturally follow from that.  More important still is probably the context in which the music is done.  You do lots of polyphony.  You do a Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and you go right through a Mass with no plainchant, or with no break between or no space between, which is what in fact you would get in the liturgy.  Then also there is the scoring of the choir.  There’s a lot of misunderstanding about which voice types were used.

BD:    I was going to ask, when do you use boys and when do you use women?

AP:    I mostly use women for several reasons.  Critics are always saying or noting that I’m not using boys because they assume all church music should be performed boys, which is a ludicrous thing.  First of all, there is endless music that was written for women.  Vivaldi’s church music was written predominantly for women.  His job was the L’Ospedale della Pietà, which is a music conservatory-cum-orphanage for young girls, and not so young girls as a matter of fact.  Some of them made careers out of it as singers and instrumentalists, and stayed there until their 40s.  So that whole repertory is for women!  The question of what you do with the tenor and bass parts is very thorny musicological one, which I’m trying to get to grips with, but that’s another issue when Anglican choirs come and perform the Vivaldi Gloria.  Then if you’re talking about music written for a male establishment, say the Sistine Chapel, I ask the question,
Why boys on the top?  From its foundation and right through the sixteenth century and seventeenth century, the Sistine Chapel never used boys on the top part.  It used initially falsettistswhat we think of as counter-tenorsnormally on the top part.  The top part is stratospherically high, but it was the top part.  They used castrati later.  In other churches in Rome at the same time they used boys with falsettists with castrati.  Any of those three and they’re interchangeable.  But if we’re talking about boys — if we jump to Bach and Leipzig when we know that boys did singthen two important things emerge.  First of all, they sang soprano and alto.  Nowadays we’re used to the idea that boys sing treble, and that to me is a ludicrous over-simplification.  It’s as if all women are sopranos, or all men are tenors.  All boys are trebles?  Why???  There are big ones and small ones.  There are ones with high voices, low voices, middle voices.  Most musical boys can be made to sing treble in some fashion, but only by a series of technical compromises in my opinion, or the avoidance of something that is more natural to them to do.  Bach knew this perfectly well.  It wasn’t an original point of Bach’s.  This was just the tradition, which goes right back and is the same in early sixteenth century English music.  The top two parts are for boyshigh boys and low boys, trebles and means, as they were called in England, or sopranos and altos in Bach’s music.  Next, the second important point is to remember that Bach’s boys were much older than our cathedral choir boys nowadays.  On average their voices broke at the age of eighteen.  That’s the average.

BD:    My goodness, that’s very late.

AP:    It is late, and there are examples of boys voices breaking at nineteen, twenty, even twenty-one, much later than average.  This is something that’s changed in history.  It goes up and down, and I believe it’s to do with nutrition.  Nowadays boys and girls both mature earlier than they used, and there are all sorts of psychological factors as well as nutritional things.  We perhaps would like to think that it’s because we get better quality food now that the voices break earlier.  I’ve got a suspicion that’s exactly the opposite, that we get worse food now.  Seriously, we’re used to processed things.  When people would just go out into the garden and pick a lettuce that has been grown without fertilizers, something that snail would deign to eat, then there’s probably more natural goodness in that!  But let’s not digress onto these things!  Forgive me for going back to the Anglican thing, but I think the Anglican choir boy is used as a model far too much of the music making world.  If the modern Anglican boy is regarded as being the natural voice for a Bach aria, I would dispute that on several grounds.  One, this twelve year old, however musical and well-trained he is, it’s not the same animal as an eighteen year old, or a sixteen or seventeen year old, musically or technically.  I would secondly say
— and I’m getting quite controversial here — that most Anglican choir boys, even in the holiest of holies in England, are trained by organists who know little or nothing of vocal technique.  They pick up something about vocal technique in training the choir, but they are not trained as singers themselves.  They cannot sing, and they’re not trained to teach singing.

BD:    Was Bach trained as a singer?

AP:    Bach did actually sing, and both of his wives were professional singers.  It is a very different thing.  Bach doesn’t have to have been the greatest Heldentenor in history to make my point.  He was said to have had a very workable voice and a wide range, though obviously he wasn’t known as a singer.  He had plenty of other things to be known as at the top of his list.  But being a Kapellmeister meant knowing about the voice, and the further you go back in history, the truer it is to say that.  Any composer that we know
Obrecht, Ockeghem, Dufay, Josquin, Lassus — is likely to have been a professional singer.  They were all professional singers.  That was their starting point.  It’s the equivalent of being a pretty good pianist nowadays for a composer or a conductor.  The piano is a good instrument for getting your way into music making today in a larger way than the human voice was in the sixteenth century.  These Anglican choir boys are not trained properly.  There are certain musical virtues.  They sing in tune, according to certain systems of tuning, to refer back to that.  They sing all this early repertory in totally anachronistic modern tuning, and the sing well together. They sight-read extremely well as they have to throw together the music for a service on an hour’s notice.  So there are all virtues, but in terms of sheer technique, they don’t have a patch on, for example, the boys of the Bad Tölz Knabenchor that I’ve worked with in Bavaria.  They are very, very thoroughly and Germanically trained; very systematically trained.  It’s a school, not a living-in school, but 200 boys who are selected at the age of six and trained in a pyramid structure.  The solo boys are at the top, and they earn big salaries singing in the opera houses of the world.  That income funds this whole educational system.  Really their techniques are excellent in the way that you would expect of professional musicians, and their music making is terrific.

BD:    New music and old music?

AP:    Yes, indeed.  They are a different animal completely from our image of the choirboy.  So coming back to your question of some time ago as to why I use women rather than boys, the answer is that certain women with certain types of approaches to singing are the best possible substitute for something that doesn’t exist.  In other words, arguably the boy soprano as of Bach’s time is as obsolete as the castrato.  Therefore, if we go performing the music written for them, we have to think of the substitute.  In my opinion, certain boys are well trained, but a larger and increasingly large body of women singers fulfill the same requirements.  So that’s why I use them, not to mention social benefits and lots of other things!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you like the life of a wandering minstrel?

parrottAP:    Ummm...  Depends which day you ask that question on really!  I’m torn because I like being at home and I like working on things at home.  I like researching at home.  We’ve also just moved to a new home, and I want to see a lot more of it and get it working.  It’s a wonderful old sixteenth century building, and we’ve still got cardboard boxes everywhere  At that stage it’s livable, but we haven’t been there to live in it properly.  So I don’t want to do more work away from home than I am doing.  When things are going well, yes, I love being in different places, though it’s often frustrating that I don’t really get to see those places.  I get to see the inside of hotel rooms of one type or another, and it’s heads down to work.  But what I do like is that when I’m away I can concentrate fully on the job in hand.  At home there are so many distractions.  The telephone’s going all the time, and I’m meant to be planning things as well as doing the washing and all sorts of mundane domestic things.  I do not regard success as being a full diary, if that is what your question implies.  Some musicians regard themselves as failures if they’ve got a blank week in the year.  That is not my feeling.  There are musicians who really do love traveling around, jumping on planes, jumping off planes into rehearsals, doing concerts and then dashing off to another plane.  There’s nothing beautiful about airplanes or airports, even the finest airports.  I like being in places.  I like old-fashioned travel
not that there’s time to do that by train or coach where you’d see something.  Does one really earn the right to be in a place if you’re just hermetically sealed and posted off to another place?  You don’t really feel you’ve traveled; you just are in different places.  But I like the old-fashioned traveling, which I used to do through Switzerland on a regular visit to St Moritzbelieve it or not for musical purposes, rather than skiing purposes.  Just that two- or three-hour journey down from Zurich through the mountains.  It’s absolutely bliss.  You really get a feeling of Switzerland that you wouldn’t do if you were just dropped there and taken to an anonymous hotel in one easy stage.

BD:    The ease and speed of travel does not make up for the loss?

AP:    There are advantages and there are disadvantages, as with all changes, musical and otherwise.

BD:    That’s right.  If we didn’t have the airplane, we’d never see you here in Chicago!

AP:    Well, I’m delighted that we have it all, I must say.  I think Grant Park has a very interesting series.  You do a very good job.  It’s rare to find somebody with a real artistic vision, and who can take the risks of programming not just obscure things, but for getting this good balance.  If I were a music student in Chicago, I’d feel very privileged to be able to have all that wide range of music making for free on my doorstep through the summer.  It would be an excellent education, in the way that back home for me Radio 3 was.  It doesn’t just broadcast gramophone records.  There are lots of studio recordings and live relays almost as a matter of policy.  They complement what is available on record, so they would commission studio recordings of pieces that aren’t available on gramophone records.

BD:    Sadly, that’s becoming less and less.

AP:    Yes, there’s less scope, but there is still plenty of scope.  So that is a wonderful way of getting a free musical education in England.  Here the Grant Park concerts are almost the equivalent.

BD:    When you’re on the podium conducting, either in rehearsal or performance, is that fun?

AP:    Oh yes, it’s a wonderful megalomaniac trip!  No, when it’s going well it’s fun, and when it’s going badly it’s miserable.  It’s all these things.  What I do get a kick out of is making a team effort.  It doesn’t always work, of course, but I do learn a lot from the ideas that are there generally, not from simply reproducing my own ideas in different places.  When we’ve had a good week’s rehearsal and then concerts that live up to expectation, and everyone still is on speaking terms and actually enjoying each other’s company, that’s a great achievement.  I get a great feeling of satisfaction.

BD:    Are you pleased with most of the records you’ve put out?

AP:    Ha, ha!  [Hesitates]

BD:    [Mildly concerned]  Are you pleased with any of them???  [Both have a huge laugh]

AP:    I have a love-hate relationship with recordings, and if I were to say that I’m not pleased with many of the recordings, that isn’t to imply criticism of the recording engineers and of the recording company.  It is just that something seems to get lost in the process of recording, and it’s taken me years to define what that it is and to try and understand way of improving it.  It may be that I’m just getting fussier, or that I’m so arrogant that I think I’m better than I am!  [Laughs]  But whatever it is, there’s something that I haven’t quite cracked about it.  To answer your question seriously, there are some records I definitely am pleased with, and there are others which I think are okay.  There’s nothing ashamed of, and certainly I stand by all of them in terms of general philosophy and approach.  Some represent what I was trying to do more accurately than others.  But it’s a mysterious business.  It doesn’t get easier.  Concerts get easier.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

AP:    I think so partly because you can take risks more easily, and partly because there is no one way of performing any piece.  The rehearsal process is to discover lots of different possibilities, so that in the moment of performing, you can choose which is the right one for that moment in time.  When you’re in the abstract and you’ve got to choose that one thing, it’s not that I’m indecisive about it, but it feels arbitrary.

BD:    One of those performances could be right?

AP:    Yes, exactly.  And paradoxically, the more time you have to record, the more difficult it is to achieve that.

BD:    To get more right answers?

AP:    Yes.  There are all sorts of conflicting pressures of getting something that is immaculate in the sense of everything in tune, everything in time, etc.

BD:    Is it too perfect?

AP:    There’s a danger that perfection, in that sense, undermines something, and it goes back to this example I gave earlier on about the perfection of that piano recital at the Festival Hall compared to the roughness of the two musicians busking outside.  There’s something far more human in the latter than in the former, and there is a danger that perfection undermines the human element that the striving for perfection undermines.  Having said that, of course I want the best of all of it.  I want it to be in tune, I want it to be in time, and all the rest of it. 

BD:    What new records have you got coming out?

AP:    The latest one to come is a recording Bach’s Magnificat with the Ascension Oratorio, and another cantata on it.  The next one in the pipeline is Handel, Israel in Egypt, which is due out in the fall.  Then early next year, there are two Venetian records.  One is an anthology of Venetian music from Giovanni Gabrieli right up to Vivaldi, and then palindromically back to Gabrieli.  A little footnote here...  Records used to have two sides, so you’d plan Side A as a self-contained entity, and then you’d turn over and you’d get Side B.  With compact discs that framework doesn’t exist.  You’ve just got one continuous or potentially continuous thing.  So this is just one interesting way of arranging things.  Granted that it isn’t a piece but an anthology, and we are trying to get some shape into it so we can literally go chronologically up to the Vivaldi and then back on ourselves to where we began.

BD:    Thank you for being a conductor.

AP:    Oh, my pleasure, my job!  Perhaps we should end with a minute’s silence, you know!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Thank you for speaking with me today.

AP:    It’s a pleasure.  I enjoyed it.

[This is a group of reviews about Andrew Parrott from various Chicago newspapers.  Each one has been slightly edited.]

A Welcome Guest Plays Host To Grant Park Music Fete

July 27, 1987|Chicago Tribune
By Howard Reich.

It takes a conductor of quite some craft to effectively dispatch a program as demanding as the one offered Saturday evening by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and soloists. That Andrew Parrott, guest conducting at Grant Park, was able to make this evening of Schubert, Haydn and Tippett a success says a good deal about his abilities, as well as those of the participating musicians.

Schubert`s masses are not frequently performed, but the lyric beauty of his Mass No. 5 in A-flat (D. 678) makes one wish that weren`t the case. Its pages are filled with elegantly wrought exchanges between four soloists and chorus, vividly colored orchestral writing and choral passages of simplicity as well as grandeur.

Parrott made the most of these attributes, drawing from the chorus, in particular, long-spun phrases shaped as carefully as if sung by a single artist. The dialogue between soloists and choristers was clear in enunciation and impeccable in its matching of colors (Grant Park Chorus conductor Thomas Peck obviously had prepared his singers well).

Though Parrott is known for his work with early music, this reading--built on dramatic contrasts and richly expressive singing--clearly bore the mark of the romantic era. Yet the performance also had a welcome clarity of line and texture. Michael Tippett`s Ritual Dances from ``The Midsummer Marriage,`` the English composer`s first opera, is an orchestral virtuoso-piece imbued with complex cross-rhythms and a nearly Impressionistic wash of colors. Parrott, who opted to cut the choral portions of the work, fashioned a dynamic performance with considerable rhythmic drive and his characteristic clarity of sound.

Most important, he inspired the musicians of the Grant Park Symphony to play at the peak of their ability; the result was as exciting as it was technically impressive.

Parrott opened the program with Haydn`s ``Te Deum`` No. 2, in C Major, in a reading that immediately indicated the conductor`s gifts for balancing orchestral and choral sonorities.

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Review in The Reader by Dennis Polkow, July 20, 1989

Grant Park manager and artistic director Steven Ovitsky has consistently tried to bring in early-music conductors to lead programs of early repertoire, and though the results have been mixed, he is to be congratulated for taking the risk. Luckily we had the case with Andrew Parrott's Saturday night concert, which included Beethoven's first piano concerto, with soloist Hung-Kuan Chen, and his complete music for Egmont. The program began auspiciously, with some music of the virtually forgotten Italian classicist Luigi Cherubini, the overture to his opera Medee, based on the sorceress Medea from Greek mythology. The orchestra's ensembling was tight, despite Parrott's using a full orchestra (presumably for projection, which makes great sense when you are performing outside and sound slips away into the night); the phrasing was beautifully done, and balances were carefully nuanced, although Parrott's tempo was surprisingly slow.

Things picked up radically for the second part of the program, which began with Beethoven's Egmont Overture at a nice clip, although without the heightening tension and drama typical of more Romantic interpretations. Parrott's modus operandi was to emphasize the Classical roots of this music rather than its emerging Romanticism, and while I find the former an interesting approach (Parrott is certainly one of the best exponents of it), it is less satisfying to me than the latter. Parrott's is a nice and pretty Beethoven, not an "over the edge" interpretation that shows Beethoven's more revolutionary and avant-garde qualities. The attacks and entrances were clean and precise, although again, Parrott seemed to be holding back a bit tempo-wise, presumably because he prefers accuracy to speed and was concerned that the orchestra couldn't have kept up with him. (I suspect he was right.)

Following the familiar overture was a performance of virtually the complete incidental music that Beethoven wrote for Goethe's play Egmont, a historical fiction concerning the 16th-century Flemish count who led a resistance movement against Spanish rule and became a martyr in the cause of freedom. The pieces, including two lovely and rarely heard songs for Egmont's beloved Clarchen (nicely sung by an overmiked Diane Ragains), were connected by a summary of what goes on in the play, cleverly adapted by radio dramatist Yuri Rasovsky and convincingly narrated by Chicago actor Joe van Slyke. Van Slyke also took the role of the count for the rousing finale, in which, to Beethoven's heroic strains, he calls out that his blood shall free the land from Spanish occupation, and encourages his countrymen to follow him to glory. 

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Review in The Reader by Dennis Polkow, August 2, 1990

Conductor Andrew Parrott is not as much of a household name as many of his less-deserving early-music colleagues. Yet he was one of the movement's earliest and most experimental pioneers, and he remains one of its guiding lights. The Parrott-conducted Grant Park programs are always among the most interesting of the year, not only because they spotlight unusual repertoire, but also because they give us a fresh perspective on more familiar works. This year's program combined two relatively unknown works, Beethoven's ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and a work by the little-known Czech Baroque master Georg Benda, Medea.

Medea is a melodrama for actors and orchestra that was adapted by Chicago radio dramatist Yuri Rasovsky (who so cleverly brought Egmont to life during Parrott's last appearance here). Actress Andrea Marcovicci and actor Kristoffer Tabori took the speaking roles of Medea and Jason and were mostly convincing when they weren't screaming at the audience. The music is pretty forgettable, but Parrott made sure that the orchestra (scaled down to chamber proportions) had the proper Baroque energy and spirit and that it played up to tempo with clean ensembling and lyrical phrasing. Certainly a worthwhile enterprise.

Parrott made the best case I've ever heard for the much-neglected The Creatures of Prometheus. Unlike The Rite of Spring, for instance, which is such a monumental piece of music that dance becomes a distraction, this doesn't stand well on its own. Still, the music can be very enjoyable. It is early Beethoven (of the period of the First and Second symphonies), and Parrott's elegant and Classical phrasing perfectly suited it. The playing of the orchestra was as refined as I have ever heard it, with extraordinary attention paid to ensembling and balancing.  

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Part of a Letter-to-the-Editor from a member of the Grant Park Symphony in The Reader, August 30, 1990

Andrew Parrott is refreshing to work with; he's a conductor who truly has something to say about style, is passionate about it, and challenges the orchestra to really play, even if they don't all share his approach.

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Grant Park Symphony Excels At Age-old Repertoire
By Howard Reich, Entertainment Writer, Chicago Tribune.
July 11, 1989

Can a conductor who specializes in early music express his message with a modern symphony orchestra?

Certainly Andrew Parrott can, judging by his striking performances over the weekend leading the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Parrott, a longtime scholar/performer of 17th and 18th Century repertoire, put together an unusual program and inspired the orchestra to play it with finesse and authority.

Though the Grant Park Symphony obviously did not sound like a period-instrument orchestra (the musicians were playing standard, modern instruments), the performances bristled with more clarity and transparency than we are accustomed to hearing. The careful balances and meticulous interplay among the orchestra`s sections clearly reflected Parrott`s influence.

Beyond such touches, however, Parrott is a dynamic conductor whom these musicians obviously respect. They heeded even his most ebullient tempos. They gave him precisely the tonal shades he wished. Apart from questions of historical authenticity, this was an exciting performance that showed the orchestra playing at the top of its form.

The evening`s rarity was Beethoven`s complete incidental music for Goethe`s ``Egmont`` (concertgoers are more accustomed to hearing only the overture). Because so much of this music serves as dramatic punctuation-with brief orchestral utterances here and there-a narration was written by writer/ broadcaster Yuri Rasovsky. The beautifully crafted text summed up Goethe`s text in quick, telegraphic phrases that held the music together without overwhelming it.

Chicago actor Joe Van Slyke, a charismatic performer, delivered the story of ``Egmont`` at Saturday evening`s performance with an appropriately melodramatic air. Parrott and his players kept the orchestral sound thundering without obscuring Van Slyke`s reading. And soprano Diane Ragains compensated for a smallish voice with a dramatically alert interpretation.

Parrott opened the evening with Cherubini`s overture to the opera ``Medee,`` in a performance that was exuberant from first note to last.

The concert also was important for the Chicago debut of pianist Hung-Kuan Chen, whose appearance was made possible by the Xerox Affiliate Artist Program (which gives young artists performing opportunities across the country). Chen proved more than worthy of this honor, offering a performance of Beethoven`s First Piano Concerto that was by turns subtle in lyric passages and propulsive in fast-moving ones.

He brought long-lined poetry to the slow movement (particularly in light of the usual outdoor distractions) and sharp wit to the finale. Parrott`s orchestral accompaniment was nearly intuitive in its ability to anticipate the soloist.

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Parrott Brings Alive 2 Works Of Mythology
July 12, 1990|By John von Rhein, Music critic, Chicago Tribune

Wednesday at the Petrillo Music Shell, the Grant Park Symphony under British conductor Andrew Parrott gave us two seldom-heard pieces of theater music from the Classical period, both on mythological subjects. One of these, Georg Benda`s scenic melodrama, ``Medea`` (1775), is so rarely done, in fact, that the performance represented an American premiere.

Georg (or Jiri, to revert to his Czech name) Benda was one of the most celebrated composers of a musical dynasty famous throughout Europe for more than a century. His melodramas-works that combined music and speech-were considered highly innovative in their day, admired by no less a judge than Mozart before the genre fell out of fashion.

Benda, alas, was no Mozart, but a perfectly competent 18th Century mediocrity who wrote in a style somewhere between C.P.E. Bach and Gluck, though not nearly as distinctive. His music, if ``Medea`` is a fair example, is well made and agreeable to hear but it leaves the mind the second it`s over. (In one recurring theme associated with Medea`s grief, listeners will note an anticipation of the Funeral March from Beethoven`s Third Symphony. Did Beethoven, I wonder, know ``Medea``?) And the contrast in tone between the politeness of Benda`s generic classicism and the bloody tragedy it is supposed to depict is often disorienting, if not risible.

That said, one must credit Parrott and Yuri Rasovsky (who both directed and prepared the English concert text) for presenting a deeply flawed rarity in the best possible light. Rasovsky`s achievement was to strip the original German text of stilted pomposity, giving us a lyrical and direct presentation of the tragedy. If certain archaisms remain (at one point Medea cries, ``Mercury, guide me to the Stygian shore``), at least they do not contradict Benda`s own archaic conceits.

Bringing a wealth of experience gained from period performances of the preclassical repertory, Parrott kept everything moving with buoyant rhythms and clean, well-balanced textures that allowed the words to project clearly.

Parrott devoted the second half of his program (to be repeated Friday night) to Beethoven`s ``Creatures of Prometheus`` ballet music.

The overture is well-known, and the finale is a set of variations on a theme Beethoven more famously used in his ``Eroica`` Symphony. Not all of this music (there are 16 dances in all, some quite brief) is from the composer`s top drawer, but all of it is charming, lively and varied .

There were several delightful solos which gave various principal players a chance to shine. But the real hero of the occasion was Parrott. I can`t wait to hear what this superb musician will bring us next year at the park.

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 12, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.