Conductor  Sir  John  Pritchard

The First Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Doing interviews with musicians has always been a pleasure, and on occasion I have had the privilege of meeting a guest more than once.  Conductor Sir John Pritchard was one whom I met on three occasions, and this is the first of those conversations, dating from December of 1980.  [The second interview, which was held in 1984, was mostly about Wagner and was published in Wagner News.  To read it, click here.  The third, from 1987, also involved soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and was used aboard United Airlines and Air Force One.  To read that one, click here.  Photos of the conductor as well as his obituary have also been placed there.  Portions of all three interviews were aired at various times on WNIB.] 

Pritchard first came to Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1969 for The Barber of Seville.  He would return in 1975 for The Marriage of Figaro, 1977 for Idomeneo, 1978 for Don Pasquale, 1984 for Arabella and 1987 for Così Fan Tutte, both of these with Dame Kiri.  He was here in one other season, 1980, when he led Un Ballo in Maschera and Don Giovanni, as well as sitting down with me for the first time.

He was knighted in 1983, so for this interview he was, quite properly, just John Pritchard. 

For most of my interviews, I went to my guest, either at their hotel or the opera house or concert venue
— as I did for the two subsequent meetings with Sir John.  But for a few we met in the studios of WNIB, where we not only had offices and the library of recordings, we also had several cats and dogs!  This was one of those times, and unbeknownst to me, when we closed the door to begin our conversation, one of the felines was already in the room, sound asleep (as usual).  But he made us aware of his presence later on, and the conductor took to him like an old buddy.  [To read an article about WNIB and its menagerie, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1988, click here.]

When we were setting up, Pritchard handed me his Walkman to hear portions of a performance of a huge Berlioz work that he had recently conducted in London, so that is where we began . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    We’re talking about the Grande Messe des morts, the large choral work by Hector Berlioz.  You’ve recently conducted a performance at the City of London Festival, in July of 1980.  I understand you had four brass bands all around the cathedral?

John Pritchard:    Yes.  There are special concerts in your life, and this was a very special one.  That’s why I’ve brought it up in conversation now, and you are talking to me about it.   First of all the setting in the great cathedral, and the fact that this work was devised by Berlioz for grand forces on the hugest scale.  The City of London Festival were good to me and gave me practically everything that you demand.  I remember we had an orchestra of about 120.  It’s wonderful to see twelve horns stretching out before you, not to speak of the eight tubas and eight bassoons.  But more important than that, I said, “Of course all those things are good, but what I want is a string body to back it up.”  So the Philharmonia gave me twenty first violins, eighteen seconds and twelve double-basses.  This sounds as though a conductor’s interested in the gargantuan side of it, but what I love about this work is that it has the grandest, hugest moments perhaps in musical performance, but also some of the most delicate and wonderful pianissimos which one could get.  You have to know the acoustics of a big building, and a conductor should have a special ear for that kind of thing.  You must know, for example, all your pauses, your silences, must be elongated in this big space.

BD:    To allow for the reverberation?

JP:    Yes, and the sound sort of settles.  Then you get a proportion.  You can’t always take very quick tempi, but actually, it’s a strange thing to say, but I’ve found a great building cooperates with you.  I had a rather ecclesiastical summer in some ways.  I was back in England and there were the various orchestras I work with, including the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which was my orchestra, of course.  We did a round of festivals.  We went to Yorkminster, and I remember playing the Elgar First Symphony there.  But again, it was a different performance than that which you’d give in a normal concert hall, a hall with very good acoustics.  You time it a little bit more spaciously and then the message of the piece comes over.  The Berlioz is a special case, but I think all concerts in special places typify the meaning of Festival.  We have festivals here, there, and everywhere nowadays, but I think that the great buildings of the world have a special claim to hear great music, and I think people need to hear great music in those buildings.

BD:    How did you handle the four brass bands?

JP:    Well, this was tremendous.  Berlioz specifies there must be north, south, east and west, and in a great cathedral which has a dome, like Saint Paul’s, it’s quite easy to do what he says.  So taking advantage of two undergalleries of the dome, one which happened to be east and the other west, we placed two of the bands.  Each one consisted of about ten to twelve players, with triple trumpets, trombones, tubas, and so on, and one also had a sub-conductor in order to aid the visual thing across such vast spaces.  That particular band must have been at least 250 feet high in the air, and they couldn’t see.  They could only see their sub-conductor.  So just before the great moment, to the surprise of the audience, I pulled on a white kid glove, which took one back to the days of Julian in the 1880s.  I had to make very clear the tremendous entrance of the brass bands.  It worked all right.  The other bands were on specially-constructed high podiums on the north and south transepts, so we had the geographical effect and the sound rolled round the place.  I was only surprised that the recording made of it was able to capture the ensemble as well as the great acoustic effect.

BD:    It’s almost as though Berlioz was designing a stereo or quadraphonic effect.

JP:    It’s amazing how many composers have thought of this.  Even Mozart, with his Serenade for Four Orchestras, was built on the same thing, playing with spatial effects.

BD:    And of course all the antiphonal effects of Gabrieli.

JP:    Exactly, all the earlier music.  I used to be director of the Liverpool Philharmonic, and we had a wonderful concert in which we did Sonata pian
’ e forte of Gabrieli, which is for many brass instruments.  We placed one of the antiphonal choirs for brass high in the great central tower, and used this structure like an enormous organ pipe.  The wonderful chords resounded down this thing, and the whole thing resounded.  It was wonderful!

BD:    You have conducted quite a number of the large Berlioz works.  Is it special to come back to them from time to time?

JP:    Yes.  Berlioz is a great.  It’s like coming to the menu in a great restaurant and saying, “Now I’m going to go off the ordinary courses.  I’m not going to have roast beef, but I’m going to look among the extraordinary by-products of the culinary art.”  That’s a bit simplistic, but I’ve always felt that.  I actually never will forget the wonderful surprise it was to me when I first began as a student to study Berlioz’ scores.  In my day as a student, the scores were hard to come by.  There were rare French editions, badly printed.

BD:    Berlioz really wasn’t done then, was he?

JP:    It wasn’t done.  Even in England it’s been the great supporter of Berlioz far more than France.  Our editors produced the present Berlioz edition.  America has been extremely favorable to Berlioz for many years.  Since I’ve been coming to America and conducting concerts, I always had accepted the major Berlioz works, and out of the way things like the King Lear Overture or the Waverly Overture.  Things like this which are not normally played can get into programs here without a problem, but you try and do it in France and there
’s not a chance.  My home base now is in Cologne at the Opera, and I’m gradually trying to get that house, which is a very good house, to work towards French opera and French music of all kinds.  Berlioz, of course, is the most special example.  At Covent Garden, when we embarked on the new production of Benvenuto Celliniwhich is now ten or twelve years ago and was my first collaboration with John Dexter as an opera directorwe found that we needed a solid corps of experts behind us looking into editions and finding out what Berlioz really wrote.  It was ahead of the Collected Edition, and we found that what was normally played was an absolutely distorted, shortened — I could almost use the term castrated — version of a marvelously dramatic work.

BD:    Who had originally made the alteration?  Was it Berlioz in desperation to get it published?

JP    Yes, it was.  We know he had to put up with so many things from publishers, heads of opera houses and so on, to get his works performed at all.  But as far as I remember, with Benvenuto Cellini he was fighting to the last ditch before the version which eventually was played as a kind of amiable curiosity around the world.  It’s a far from amiable piece.  It’s full of wonderful digs at authority, both ecclesiastical and ordinary government authority.  He wasn’t able to make himself into a popular figure with his circles, but just the circles where he needed patronage.

BD:    When you approach a large work, like Benvenuto Cellini or The Trojans, who do you have to convince before you get the production going?

JP:    Twelve to fifteen years ago, the ordinary operatic repertory — by which I mean the bread and butter of opera houses — had been well explored and well exposed to the public.  I’m speaking now of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which was my home base at that time.  Since 1946 they had established a famous house, and they’d gone through the usual repertory system, which one has to have in a major house.  But then, just like the Met, they began to diverge, and it’s interesting that one of the first sections of the repertory which they explored in any depth was the French School.  The Trojans was given under Rafael Kubelik first, and I followed with it some years later.

BD:    Were your productions in French or in English?

JP:    They were in French.  The policy at that time was to give the performances in the original language, although I remember the very happy days when Covent Garden first started, when the most famous singers came.  I remember Schwarzkopf laboriously learning, I think, Butterfly in English, which seemed a very strange thing to do.  But we caught these artists at the right time, when we wanted to establish an important opera in a country which had been without opera for the duration of the war, and then only very exotic, international seasons.  It was a big operation.

BD:    Let’s talk about opera in translation.  Is there really a good argument for opera in translation, or an equally good argument for opera in the original?

JP:    I’m glad you bring this up now, because just at this point, as I said, I’m Music Director of the Cologne Opera, and there they have an international roster of soloists.  In some ways the house follows the stagione system, meaning that operas are prepared just like they are here in Chicago, by an international cast of singers who sing so many performances and then depart.  That applies to a lot of the big houses because it does insure a high level for the public and for the house.  On the other hand, all German houses, bar none, are really emotionally and morally linked to the repertory system.  This includes places like Vienna.  All the houses throughout the German-speaking countries spend a lot of time in rehearsal on new productions.  Those new productions are never revived with that form of intensive rehearsal again, so long as the physical production on the stage is able to be propped up, pegged up, and lit in some way.

BD:    Even though the cast is completely different?

JP:    Even though the cast is completely different.  To ask the Vienna Philharmonic to re-rehearse, let’s say, a new cast in a Mozart opera would be quite unheard of.

BD:    Would they be insulted?

JP:    They would be insulted.  They would say, “We can adapt to any singers.  The conductor should be good, and he will know what the singers are going to do, and we shall do it.”  Perhaps to a slightly less exalted degree I have a very good orchestra in Cologne, but with two or three new artists in The Magic Flute I was unable to find time in the schedule for an orchestra rehearsal, for them to try their voices in the theater.  It’s foreign to the German system, which is that you put a lot of time and effort in the beginning.  All your technical departments, from lighting through to costumes and everything else, have the know-how of that production.  It’s all written down; it’s all documented.  When the other people that come in are visitors, they are given a certain amount of stage rehearsals.  They’ll walk through it.  If they’re lucky they can see the set before they go on scene.

BD:    So they work from a production book?

JP:    Yes, exactly.  Of course we’re speaking of two very different things here — the houses which play 60 performances a year, and the houses in Germany which play 360.  It’s a vastly different thing.  It’s a public which more or less expects a certain degree of, shall we say, the haphazard.  [Both laugh]  They don’t mind.  I remember when I worked a long time in Vienna, in the coffee houses the next day people would regale any mishap or slip or anything which had gone wrong with the curtain sticking or the lights failing or something like this... or even more deliciously, a singer getting lost in the aria, or the orchestra making a mistake.

BD:    Almost like it’s sport, really!

JP:    Yes.  All human failings are related to opera, and this is a different attitude.  We can’t really imagine such a thing because it’s not our way of working.  In this big German house, I’ve had to try to get a compromise between these things.  For example, one of my early performances in Cologne was a new production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.  Now this is not a work which you can ever afford to put on as a repertory piece.  You just simply can’t do it.  We had a lot of rehearsal to begin with and we gave a lot of performances, so everybody was at home.  The orchestra said to me, “It’s just like playing Traviata now.”  That is, as it were, it became ingrained.  Now in the next season you can, with minimal rehearsal — let’s say two orchestra and stage rehearsals — put the work on again, but if you let it go more than one season you’ve got to go through pretty well the whole thing again.  So we are tracing an uneasy course, now, to try and find where we have to rehearse and where we needn’t.  Financial grounds, economic grounds, is also the big question in opera houses.  Opera houses are facing these spiraling costs.

BD:    Is the financial burden of paying for them one of the reasons that they will not put up with so many rehearsals?

JP:    Yes, it is, really.  We have very fresh in our minds the difficulties with the orchestra of the Metropolitan.  The actual amount of time paid for each week is a prime consideration for the direction for everybody, and in the end, the public.

[Note: At this moment, the grey and white cat which had been asleep on the other side of the room awoke and decided to investigate what was going on by jumping up onto our table.]

BD:    That’s Charlie.  He
’s got a lot of personality.

JP:    I do love cats.  I miss my cat so much.  [Paying attention to the cat]  Charlie, yes.  You are a cat, aren’t you?  [Mutters to Charlie]

BD:    All my interview guests love the cats.  There are four of them around here some place.  All of the studios belong to the cats!

JP:    [Still speaking to Charlie]  So now you’re in charge of these arrangements here are you?  [Back to the interviewer]  He’s a nice color.

BD:    He really is.  We have one that’s pure black, and another one that’s very tiny and she’s pure white, and then another non-descript.

JP:    Do they ever go out?

BD:    No.  They live here.  Sometimes when the back door is open, Charlie will poke his nose out and put his paw into the snow, but they won’t run away.

JP:    [To Charlie]  You stay where you’re at.  You’ve got a little white in the end of your nose.  [Gets a very small static electric shock and Charlie jumps down to the floor.]  Oh!  Shock!  I’m sorry.

BD:    It’s dry in here.

JP:    I’m sorry.  It wasn’t me.  He’s got lovely eyes and a lovely face.

BD:    Now he’ll just wander around, I guess.  Sometimes when I’m working he’ll sit on the control board, and I have to reach around him to get at the knobs and switches.

JP:    Oh, absolutely.  If I’m working on a score, my cat will come and lie across it.  [Musing about it]  Now, how can I turn the pages?  [Laughs]

BD:    The manager of the station is the same way.  When she’s doing cataloguing or programming or even billing, Charlie will just plop down on top of all the books and bills and everything.

JP:    [Laughs as Charlie jumps up onto the table and circles around the equipment while being petted] 

BD:    [Picking up the recalcitrant feline as he was curling his tail around one of the microphones]  Charlie, now you’re getting tangled in the equipment, I’m afraid.

Charlie:    [Mildly protests]

JP:    Yes, speak a little.  Yes, you know the microphone.  Now quiet down there.  Be good.
  [To see several photos of other animals which lived at the station over the years, click here.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    [Resuming after the brief feline interlude]  You’ve done a considerable amount of work with contemporary opera
world premieres and relatively recent operasso I’ll ask a very easy question.  Where is opera going today, from the standpoint of new compositions?

JP:    It’s a very good question, and I wish I’d have the definity of answer.  I sometimes worry.  I had a lot to do with the first performance of various works by Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett.  In this school of opera, we’re still speaking of people basically with their roots in, shall I say, the classic past of opera.  They weren’t out to destroy the form.

BD:    In other words, you feel that the works of Britten and Tippett are the continuation of a long line?

JP:    That’s what I mean.  The interest in those works was their technical resource, and how they successfully brought us to new emotions, in many cases through quite straight forward, non-revolutionary means.  In Germany, there’s a vastly different attitude because every house expects to have one or two premieres each season.  It’s just as though the modern composers were in a forcing school, and they came and sort of lucked out with two every season.  I can find names which are totally unknown to me, and they’re getting important premieres in cities like Hamburg, Hanover, Munich, Cologne.  In fact, in my own house, I saw them building the sets for a modern opera by a composer I had to say, “Who is this person?”  I was told that he was an East German writer, and well thought of, and that it’s time we gave another German premiere. 

BD:    It’s expected?

JP:    It’s expected.  There’s a kind of national pride in it.  I think it’s funny that you should mention it, because I was saying to a young musician who’s been working with me here that I was impressed at the number of contemporary American operas which are performed
like the three one-acters which were given at the City Opera recently. 

BD:    But it seems like it’s always the smaller companies that give the premieres.

JP:    Yes, places like Santa Fe and even Saint Louis.

BD:    In Minnesota they do quite a number of new things, and now Thea Musgrave is with the Virginia Opera and has done some very interesting works.  [See my Interview with Thea Musgrave.] 

JP:    Yes, I saw that.  But your question as to where it’s going reminds me that we have new works in many places.  As you know, I was Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival, and far from being just a home of Mozart and classical opera and early Verdi, it has done a number of first performances of operas.  For example, the first performance of Elegy for Young Lovers by Hans Werner Henze in the original English text was given.  Glyndebourne is supposed to be a rather grand, if not snobbish, festival, and I always remember seeing dozens of Rolls Royces leaving at intermission!  [Both laugh]  But we persevere, even with not sufficient energy and strength.  You have to have a management which commits itself not just for one season.  All publishers bemoan the fact that they can very easily get a first performance, whether it’s an orchestral piece or a new symphony or a new opera...

BD:    It’s the second one!

JP:    Yes.  It’s the second, a follow-up, which is the problem.  I always thought we lacked courage because Elegy for Young Lovers has proved to be, if not a major opera of our time, at least a recognizable piece in the genre, and we should have persevered.  Even if the Rolls Royces did leave, maybe a few MGs would come in.

BD:    What can we do to make the public a little more interested in contemporary works?

JP:    I think there’s a basic problem here.  The public are looking to the opera house, which is rather expensive for them; the cost of tickets is increasing always.  They don’t, frankly, want to go and commit themselves to an expensive evening when they don’t have the slightest idea whether they’re going to be annoyed or even pestered with sounds they’d rather not have in their ears.  They can be certainly far from soothed.  There’s a certain tranquilizing effect in some operas, perhaps overly tranquilizing sometimes, perhaps.  But that’s where an endowment to the house, I feel, should always be geared to a certain program of contemporary performance.  I’m sure that is coming along in America.  In the UK, we’ve been used to it for years because the Arts Council, which dispenses government money, always looks at the program and will make a lot of noise if a certain proportion of the works — needn’t be British composers — but if they are not from our time.  It’s a financial pressure which I welcome; I think it’s good.

BD:    What about the person in the Rolls Royce who says, “I don’t want all of this foisted upon me”?  Is there anything we can do about that?

JP:    I’ve found that some of those people are susceptible to the ordinary human persuasions of, shall we say, the ego, or the flattering attention of people who respect support for the arts.  For example, when I was still Director at Glyndebourne, we wanted to put on a rather difficult opera, which was unlikely to appeal in the first place to the public.  At Glyndebourne it’s a special thing.  Because it’s such a small house, it tends to sell out anyway, and people, when they’ve failed to get tickets for Don Giovanni or Falstaff will say, “Well, what else is there?” and in desperation go to a modern opera.  But I did go to a very wealthy man, who would be called a tycoon, I suppose, and I more or less flattered him into picking up a good deal of the costs of a new production of a contemporary opera.  It was an opera by Nicholas Maw, who’s one of our rising British composers, called The Rising of the Moon.  This gentleman was attracted by the fact that on his previous visit to Glyndebourne, he’d seen a big credit for one of the leading tobacco firms, which had put some money on an endowment basis into another production.  He actually opened the trap for himself by saying to me, “Tell me about that.  How does it work?”  So I told him, to the extent that he came with a large check.  But we’re in danger of generalizing that people who are riding in large limousines haven’t musical taste, and that is far from true in any country.  I’ve been awfully impressed by the knowledge of some wealthy supporters whom I have met here in Chicago, people who I know have helped Carol Fox over the years, and who are far from being ignorant on questions of opera.  I always remember also, when I conducted the first time in Houston at the opera, I was told, erroneously, that the public would consist of cowboys and people connected with oil, and if it was an opera other than Bohème or Butterfly or Trovatore, that they would probably have no idea what the story was about.  Far from it!  I met several of them in social surroundings, and I found people who’d been to performances I’d conducted all around the world, and discussed artists and so on.

BD:    That’s gratifying, isn’t it?

JP:    Yes, and that is why I must never generalize.  I always remember when I first used to conduct with my first big orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic, we used to go on tour into minor industrial towns in the middle of England.  Once again you had to play the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and maybe a Rachmaninoff concerto or something like that.  The impulse, before you went out, was to think that these people really don’t know anything about it, or they can’t know much about it, so is there any need to be unduly careful or to show undue effort?  Thank God that’s only a green room thought, because when a professional goes out, he takes charge and he does his thing.  But sometimes, when you feel the orchestra’s a little tired or maybe has slipped just a shade toward the routine, which must happen in busy musicians’ lives sometimes, I’ve often been worried.

BD:    What can you tell the back chair fiddle player who’s scraping through just another concert?

JP:    One senses tiredness in any human effort.  Sometimes, at the end of a long symphony or opera you feel that it didn’t go quite as well as usual.  I suspect maybe the lips of the brass get tired and that sort of thing.  But often on those occasions, somebody whom I would most particularly wish to impress would come round to the artists’ room afterwards; somebody like a very famous professor of music who’d written books on perhaps the very symphony that I have conducted, or who had the chair of music at the university as an example.  So you must never sleep on the virtue of a performance; you have to think the whole time.  Sometimes the audience is not very well informed, or apathetic.  That’s their right, to be apathetic.

BD:    How much do you feel that recordings and radio broadcasts
and now television broadcastshave an impact on people who would not otherwise come to concerts, or who would only come once a year?

JP:    Very much.  In our time, we can remember the first great impact of opera on the occupation forces in places like Italy and Germany after the war.  They suddenly found soldiers who were not yet released from the forces couldn’t go to the movies because they were in another language.  So what could they go to?  They went to the opera!  Many people have told me that they started this way.  Americans who were GIs have told me that, “Oh, we went along to the opera then!”  For example in Naples there was a huge American presence, and they went to the San Carlo when it opened.  They began to listen to good (or good-ish) performances, and later they solidified that into buying records.  That was the first thing; that was the first great impulse.  Then came the broadcasting of operas, and I think television has rounded it off because a vast audience, which really might switch off a radio performance of an opera, is suddenly tickled and interested by the color and the glamour of an operatic performance.

BD:    Opera, of course, works much better on television than concert.

JP:    Yes.

BD:    Is there any place at all for concerts on television, or is that misuse of the medium?

JP:    I don’t think so.  Once when I took the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Japan — the first of our Far East tours, seven, eight or nine years ago
we’d been used to the usual presentation of concerts on television, which always, unhappily, seemed to pick on the clarinetist when he’s doing something obscure to his reed.

BD:    [Laughs]  I am an old bassoon player, so I know the problems with reeds!

JP:    It’s not a very visually agreeable prospect.  But I must say that the professional use of the cameras in concert was different there.  All the concerts were televised, and I watched some which I didn’t conduct, and the technicians running the controls had a first-class knowledge of the music.  It wasn’t just the simple thing of switching to the bassoon when he has a solo.  It was cross-fading and having interesting perspectives of the orchestra.  When the music was spacious, the camera got spacious, and I was very, very impressed by that.  I thought they could teach us a lot.

BD:    A great deal of care, then, went in to the preparation?

JP:    Yes, great care, and I still don’t see that kind of subtle treatment here.  After all, the camera is an extension of our imagination, or should be.  People listen to symphonic works, and their imaginations are aroused.  I wouldn’t mind at all if in a symphonic poem — it would have to be done very delicately — but if there were some evocative images or even great paintings of similar scenes as depicted by the music. 

BD:    Realistic scenes, or more subtle ones?

JP:    More impressionistic, I think.  That’s a technique which I’ve never seen developed, but it could be.

BD:    What about opera on television?  Do you feel that the televising of a stage performance works, or would it be better to actually film an opera
go out into better locations?

JP:    I always used to say if only the camera could be set in the fourth row of the orchestra seats and just take in what was there because opera tickets are so expensive.  In other words, the television would give you the equivalent of a seat there.  There are two things about that — the first is that until recently, the sound quality in most television receivers was not really good enough.  It wasn’t anything like the stereos that one can have for records.  The other is that the eyes tire but not the ears, necessarily, caused by just one angle.  It’s the same, really, when you sit in the seat, but you don’t seem to tire.  In the opera house, it depends where you sit whether you appreciate the full effect of the scene.  I have worked a good deal with a slight re-angling, visually, for the television camera, to get better visual angles for the viewer.

BD:    Can you have multiple cameras?

JP:    You can have multiple cameras, but then you need to re-rehearse the singers.  That’s what we always used to do.  We used to do seven or eight performances so that they were thoroughly at home in the whole production.  Then you would take two days to re-angle the thing with a view to the camera.  This seemed to work very well.

BD:    Then do one performance for just the camera and perhaps an invited audience?

JP:    Yes.  There’s an enormous interest in the Metropolitan Opera telecasts, and these are done, as far as I remember — correct me if I’m wrong — at a performance with strong extra lights which the public are asked to endure.  I must be forgiven for saying that I think this is in the elementary stage.  What I have seen is very interesting, and it’s marvelous that it’s done at all, but I personally don’t yet think it’s done well.

BD:    So we’re still working at it and we have a long ways to go?

JP:    We’re still working at it, yes.

BD:    Do you think that a recording, or later a videotape, will set up an impossible standard that will then disappoint people when they go into the opera house?

JP:    I know what you mean, because you’re taking an analogy of recordings and the fact that people have often found disappointment when they hear the actual artist.  I think that there are too many imponderables in opera.  It’s going to be a very long time before a perfect video performance of an opera would actually rob the effect of the opera.  The screen, however you look at it, is flat, and though one has the impression of the depth, there’s a personality about the live performance, rather as I was saying about the concert halls.  There’s a personality about the theater.  The Civic Opera House here is a theater in which many great performances take place.  Somehow this is in the walls; it’s in the feeling of the place.  Perhaps that’s an opera lover speaking, rather than a really scientific observer of the scene, but what we have to do, and I’m sure all opera managers would agree, is to be sure that we are raising a new public for opera.  This year when I conducted Don Giovanni in the Ponnelle production here in Chicago, at the dress rehearsal we admitted a number of school children.  I had forgotten, actually, there were going to be school children, though I knew there was a small audience there.  Actually, it wasn’t so small.  The theater was nearly full, but that audience, I want you to know, was one of the most vivid and responsive to Mozart’s opera than I have ever experienced, and all the artists told me the same.

BD:    Do you feel they were responding to Da Ponte or to Mozart, or to Ponnelle or to Pritchard?

JP:    A little bit to each, but I think most of all to the opera Don Giovanni as a fusion between Da Ponte and Mozart.  I really think they were responding because although it was in Italian, they followed.  They laughed heartily just where I’m sure Mozart would have liked them to have laughed, and they were very appreciative of the arias.  They applauded, I must say, somewhat better than some of the subscription audiences applauded afterwards.  The artists felt good about it.  So this audience is there, if it can only be encouraged, and if it can only be somehow made possible and viable for them financially to get into opera.  I wish there were more student matinees.

BD:    There should be reduced-price student matinees for them?

JP:    Yes, with the original artists.  That’s the point.

BD:    Not with the compromised cast?

JP:    No, I don’t think so.  Right from the time when I first did them, I
’ve always said the trouble with children’s concerts is you have to have Rudolph Serkin to play, because you have to have the very finest artists.  There’s something about — what shall I say? — the uncompromising eye of the young people.

BD:    Does this have any relation to what you were talking about just a little while ago, when you take a concert out to someplace where you may or may not have experienced people, but you still must have the high standard?

JP:    Absolutely the same.  That’s interesting.

BD:    Even a person who may be fifty or sixty years old might be like a child going to concerts if it’s the first time they’ve done it.  They have the new exposure.

JP:    Right.  The first Western orchestra to go back to China was the London Philharmonic when I was chief.  It’s about eight years ago now, but we were the first orchestra to go back since the Cultural Revolution.  Immediately afterwards came the Philadelphia and then one or two other orchestras came, but we had the first impact.  This is something which one will never, never forget.  The players in the London Philharmonic, when I see them now, they say, “Ah, that was one of the greatest experiences we ever had!”  It was because the audience were absolutely soaking up the music like sponges.

BD:    Almost like a virgin audience?

JP:    Completely.  We had to open the rehearsals to the public because they came literally from thousands of miles.  They were encouraged.  It was a restricted audience because you couldn’t have a hope of getting in unless you were a music student or studying an instrument or a member of a musical association.  The ordinary public had no chance of getting in, but these people traveled, and you know the distances in China.  They came from thousands of miles away and the government said to us, “What can we do?”  So I consulted with the orchestra and we decided to have open rehearsals for this totally new audience.

BD:    But of course you had already prepared everything back in London, so it wasn
’t a working rehearsal, but really a run-through.

JP:    Oh, it wasn’t a proper rehearsal.  It was like a performance.  Once I walked around, because we had a beautiful violinist called Ida Haendel, who was playing with us.  She could play unaccompanied Bach as though she’d invented it.  She played and I walked around.  People were in tears.  Those Chinese, rather to us, enigmatic faces, were creased with the emotion of it.  It was wonderful!  What we’re talking about is the response of people, which the art of music seems specially devised to arouse.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You said a little bit ago that you were talking like an opera fan.  I would think any conductor in the theater has to be an opera fan.

JP:    You must be.  I think it’s a great shame when young conductors in basically non-operatic countries — by which I mean there aren’t myriad opera houses around the county — some of them don’t go through the educative process of the opera house, and I think it shows in their work.  For example, in the accompaniment of a concerto I can tell in a moment if a conductor has been in an opera house.  It’s not just that you are used to the flexibility or the waywardness of singers.  It’s something in the hand on the orchestra.

BD:    It’s an insight?

JP:    There’s an insight.  The pulse is there and then you can instantly apply pressure where you need.  That’s something you learn in the opera house.  You have to learn it.  Some great conductors
my colleagues — who have had nothing to do with opera would be the first to admit that that side of their craft is not their best, which is interesting.

BD:    I’ve often wondered how much actual control the conductor has in performance once the rehearsals are over and you’ve got a house full of people.

JP:    I can only tell you what various very experienced managing directors of opera have said, beginning with Sir David Webster at Covent Garden.  When I went for my debut there, which was, interesting enough, Ballo in Maschera, you can imagine how one feels.  He said, “This occasion will never occur again.”  That was his first thing, which was of course perfectly true.  He
told me not to forget that when you go down there, the stage director and everybody else backstage has nothing to do.  They can give notes afterwards; they can correct.  But you, with your hand on the pulse of things, if you take too slow a tempo, the singers are ill at ease and it doesn’t work very well.  The audience in their bones feels something is wrong.  Same if you’re too fast.  I’m not saying it’s only a question of tempo, because you’re going to have differences on various evenings.  But nevertheless, I’ve always had a strong belief — maybe I delude myself — that the man concerned with the welfare of the opera, when he goes down to start the overture, is the conductor on the podium.  He can make that thing bristle with life or he can make people have just an also-ran evening.  Probably what you were thinking was that supposing the singers suddenly go off on a limb and take some totally new tempi, and so on.  To avoid a disaster, you have to go with them.  But normally speaking, artists like the discipline of the rehearsals.  They like to be — I won’t way corrected, but they like to be advised and guided on balance, because a singer doesn’t hear his or her voice as we hear it.  And the conductor’s in the worst place in the house for hearing things.  That’s why you have to know the acoustic of a theater.  I got to know the very difficult acoustics of Glyndebourne perfectly, so I could know at once where other people could not tell.  For example, the horns were playing too loud and would always sound too loud.

BD:    Was this a case of your going out into the house to listen while having someone else conduct?

JP:    Many times, yes, and I do that still.  I like to work with a good assistant who will then conduct as I do, not asking for other things.  Then I can listen because it’s very instructive.  Often I find figuration in the orchestra which I’ve asked them to do because I love the inner side voices of the orchestra.  I will find that things I have asked them to bring out and mark are only just audible in the house.  That’s a question of the house, of course, and then you have to say, “Here you must bring this up.  Give more.”

BD:    So standing there on the podium, you get really a distorted view?

JP:    Yes, definitely.  I’m thinking of works by Donizetti, because Donizetti writes all loud passages fortissimo in the orchestra.  He writes piano and occasionally mezzo forte, but as soon as it’s what we could call a tutti passage, it’s fortissimo from every instrument, whether it’s the soft flute or the trumpets.  So the first thing I do with a Donizetti score is to correct the dynamics of all the brass.  Then you don’t have twenty hours in rehearsal saying, “This is too loud,” or, “You’re covering the singer there.”  We must remember that the instruments used were less sonorous in Donizetti’s time, particularly trombones.  Therefore, one has to adjust.

BD:    Have you done any Wagner?

JP:    Yes.  One of the reasons that I went to Cologne was that I wanted to extend my repertory in that direction.  The first Wagner opera I ever conducted was Lohengrin at Covent Garden.  Now I’ve embarked on my first Meistersinger, which was, I’m happy to say, a very great success.  It’s rather like putting your head well into the lion’s mouth doing Wagner in Germany.  Imagine a Britisher to have the temerity to conduct Wagner!

BD:    You’ve been exposed, though, to Wagner at Covent Garden a lot.

JP:    Oh, yes, a lot.  I’ve always loved the Wagner operas.  I haven’t yet done the Ring, but my next assignment in Cologne in 1982 is going to be a big Parsifal with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directing.  This is my path for Wagner... Meistersinger I always wanted to do first because a lot of that score is delicious, chamber music type of writing.  Then it goes to the very big.  I love extremes in music.  I often say to the orchestra, “I just detest mezzo forte.  Don’t give me that.  I want a pianissimo and I want a real full-blooded forte and gradation in between, but don’t play everything mezzo forte, because nothing is more boring.”  I like that in Meistersinger, and I think Parsifal is one of the great musical experiences of all time.  It is almost a kind of important trust for any conductor who feels he’s mature.  Then I would like to come to a Tristan.  I leave the Ring a little while; loads of people are doing it, and very well.

BD:    Where does Wagner fit into the total scheme of opera today?

JP:    It’s curious, isn’t it, that Wagner never ceases to appeal.  There’s a real demand for Wagner in all the opera houses.  I don’t know why it is.  I think it’s the same way as the Baroque operas, which are much more interesting to this particular century, this generation.  We’ve skipped over a lot of nineteenth century romantic opera, which now is given usually as a vehicle for singers.  But the interest, I would almost call it the intellectual and informed interest of the public, seems to go from early opera
of course Mozart is out of category so I don’t mention that — then perhaps greater interest in the opera of our own time, but a very decided interest in the grand canvas.  Look in the concert world with the amount of Bruckner and Mahler which is played.  In a way there’s a parallel with Wagner, I think, in the opera house.

BD:    Does Baroque opera speak to us today?

JP:    I think so, but you have to be very selective about the musician that’s doing their version for you.  My first Baroque opera that I conducted was L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and that was in the version of Raymond Leppard.  [See my Interview with Raymond Leppard.]  I admire greatly, but Raymond has had to stand a good deal of knocks over his versions recently.  People say they’re a little too lush and too romantic, but I witnessed the fact that this school of opera, which was totally unknown to the public, was immediately acceptable.  It isn’t that he made the sounds over-romantic, in my opinion, because he’s a great scholar and he knew in which direction of sound the original orchestration came — and in Monteverdi we have no idea whatever of what the orchestration was.

BD:    Do you feel he’s a stepping-stone
that we should get to know Monteverdi through the Leppard edition and then go back to Harnoncourt and the others?

JP:    I think so, but then I’ve since heard the Harnoncourt performances in Zurich, and they are masterly.  I think that possibly you’re right, that we have stepped there, in that direction, and we now hear original instruments with great pleasure.  There’s a great limitation
one must never become too academic in these matters.  Raymond Leppard is far from academic, and therefore it was more communicable.  The minute you get into original instruments, you are limited by the scope of the instruments, and by the pitch.  I always say you’ve got to listen with twentieth century ears.  When I hear, for example, overly ornate cadenzas in Mozart operaswhich some of my distinguished colleagues insist on teaching the singersI only say, “Look, I’m sure you are right.  But I’ll just tell you, when I listen to it in the opera house, it’s just as though somehow in the midst of a beautiful eighteenth century theater lit by candlelight, suddenly great huge arc lamps are switched on.”  It’s an anachronism because however carefully you write out cadenzas, you cannot know what was the style.  We have some indications what the style of the period was, but they are far from definitive.  I think that it is best where a singer can do it of his own nature.  After all, these cadenzas and things were invented and improvised mostly on the moment.  The mere act of writing out a cadenza is a contradiction in terms.

BD:    Someone once made the parallel that writing out eighteenth century cadenzas would be the same thing as trying to write out something in a jazz band, such as a free-flowing saxophone passage.  The guy would just get up and wail for a while and sit down, so it’s the same thing as trying to notate that.

JP:    [With a broad smile]  Exactly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You enjoy conducting, don’t you?

JP:    Yes, I enjoy it.  I’m not obsessed with the act of conducting, which I sometimes feel conductors become.

BD:    At what point do you step over the line?

JP:    I find life in itself so absorbing and interesting, and all the cultures of life enormously interesting.  That comes a bit from my training.  Fritz Busch influenced me greatly.  He said to me one day I was very intense.  He said, “When, John, did you last go into the National Gallery in London?”  Living in London, you know how it is — you see the National Gallery every day, and when do you go in and look at the pictures?  I’d been when I was ten and twelve and gone from school.  Later I’d studied and then I never went in.  He said, “You make a very great mistake, because the conductor has to form and continually reform his taste.”  Visually it’s a great help to us the more you see, the more you read
aside from your music.  Sometimes I have the feeling that the intensity of modern musical life means that conductors are forever looking over their performance of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and seeing whether they can improve.  It’s admirable if they’re shedding some new light, but you learn a lot about one’s fellow conductors on tours.  On big world tours with orchestras, there’s often two international conductors taken.  I’ve seen one of my colleagues, who is very well-known in this city, sitting an entire seven hour journey whipping the air rehearsing his score.  Not just looking at the notes, but actually conducting in the front seat of an airplane.  [Both laugh]  I can’t imagine what his jet lag would be like after that.  Mine was bad enough.  One’s repertory is formed by one’s taste, and forms one’s character and personality in a certain way.  I shall always be very interested in French music.  My love for Wagner and Brahms and so on is perhaps formed in a slightly Italianate mode, and I don’t mind it because I think these aspects on the great classics are invariably interesting.  I feel more alive that way, myself.  The only time that I’ve not enjoyed being a conductor was when I had to face long periods when I was to play programs devised by other people.  My enjoyment was always less because I enjoy very much making up programs.  Maybe I’m good at it because, as we spoke earlier, it’s like devising a menu and you have to interest the public at the start.  I had sanitary lessons in trying to be very bright and introduce contemporary music into a subscription series when the public were quite determined what they were going to pay for, and we observed a great falling off in the box office when a certain level was exceeded.  So I found, by experiment, the proportion.  I could get away with fourteen, fifteen, sixteen minutes of contemporary music at the beginning of an otherwise straight forward, big, classical program.  Then that would probably have to be bolstered with the presence of a famous pianist or somebody playing a Brahms piano concerto.  Fine.  What is wrong with that kind of program, really?  You’re stimulated at the beginning when your attention is fresh, and you take the end.  Often I’ve found that the public appreciated what we began to call ‘Pritchard’s Starters’.  They would say, “What about that work you played at the subscription concert?  It was really rather good.  Why don’t we have it again?”  So I would immediately schedule it very closely in the following season because then they would remember about it.  After all, a conductor’s a teacher, isn’t he?  That’s basically what he is among the world’s classification.  From your knowledge and your experience, you’ve got to help people with what is rather a difficult art, even though it’s such an easy art for us to listen to.  It’s difficult because it’s so diverse.  There’s so much that one could bury your head into which is also stimulating, which I suppose answers your question why I like conducting.  At the present moment I’m kind of back to back conducing Don Giovanni and Ballo in Maschera.

BD:    You have no trouble shifting from one to the other night after night?

JP:    Each work comes to me fresh.  The flexibility of mind is something that the orchestras appreciate.  You have to show them what Fritz Busch called the width of your culture, not so much your knowledge.  I never seek to be a knower.  I’m always asking the players, “How does this lie on your instrument?  Can you produce this kind of sound in that register?”  They’re delighted to tell me.  They’re the experts, not me.  I just have to listen to the sound.  Very often I’ve had a preconceived idea how a player should phrase something.  He does it his way, and to me it’s a revelation just how that player played it.  So I say, “Keep that!  Keep that, because that’s marvelous.”

BD:    Thank you for being a conductor, and thank you for coming in to talk with me.  This has been a great pleasure.

JP:    Thank you.  It was very interesting, and you asked such interesting things from me.

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© 1980 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at WNIB on December 3, 1980.  Portions of this interview - and the other two with the conductor - were used (along with recordings) on WNIB twice in 1988, and again in 1991, 1994 and 1996.  (The second interview was published in Wagner News in February, 1987, and the third interview (which also featured Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) was used aboard United Airlines and Air Force One in 1988.)  The transcription was posted on this website in 2013.

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.