Conductor Sir John
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,
appeared in the Chicago Tribune
in 1988, click
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 . . . . .
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?
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
BD: How did
you handle the four brass bands?
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.
almost as though Berlioz was designing a
stereo or quadraphonic effect.
amazing how many composers have thought of
this. Even Mozart, with his Serenade
for Four Orchestras, was built on the same thing, playing with
BD: And of
course all the antiphonal effects of
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
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.
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 Cellini
— which is now ten or twelve years ago and was
my first collaboration with John Dexter as an opera director
— we 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
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
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.
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.
though the cast is completely different?
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.
they be insulted?
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?
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
like it’s sport, really!
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,
[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.]
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!
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
JP: Do they
ever go out?
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.
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
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.
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]
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.
as Charlie jumps up onto the table and circles around the equipment
while being petted]
[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.
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.]
after the brief feline interlude]
You’ve done a considerable amount of work with contemporary opera
— world premieres and relatively recent operas
— so 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?
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.
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.
places like Santa Fe and even Saint Louis.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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 broadcasts — have
an impact on people who would not otherwise come to concerts, or who
would only come once a year?
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
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.
[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
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.
scenes, or more subtle ones?
impressionistic, I think. That’s a
technique which I’ve never seen developed, but it could be.
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?
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?
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
should be reduced-price student matinees
JP: Yes, with
the original artists. That’s the
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?
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.
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.
like a virgin audience?
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
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
BD: It’s an
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.
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
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
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
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
BD: Was this
a case of your going out into the house to listen
while having someone else conduct?
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
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.”
standing there on the podium, you get
really a distorted view?
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
what we could call a tutti
passage, it’s fortissimo from
instrument, whether it’s the soft flute or the trumpets. So the
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,
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
BD: Have you
done any Wagner?
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!
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
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.
does Wagner fit into the total
scheme of opera today?
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
same way as the Baroque operas, which are much more interesting to this
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
opera — of course Mozart is out of category so I
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.
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
admire greatly, but Raymond has had to stand a good deal of knocks over
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
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
operas — which some of my distinguished
colleagues insist on teaching
the singers — I 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
can do it of his own nature. After all, these cadenzas and things
invented and improvised mostly on the moment. The mere act of
writing out a cadenza is a
contradiction in terms.
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
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,
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
very much making up programs. Maybe I’m good at it because, as we
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,
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
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
player played it. So I say, “Keep that! Keep that, because
BD: Thank you
for being a conductor, and
thank you for coming in to talk with me. This has been a great
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.
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
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.