Conductor / Organist / Harpsichordist  Ton  Koopman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Zwolle, The Netherlands, October 2, 1944, Ton Koopman had a classical education, and studied organ, harpsichord, and musicology in Amsterdam. He received the Prix d'Excellence for both instruments. Naturally attracted by historical instruments, and fascinated by the philological performance style, Koopman concentrated his studies on Baroque music, with particular attention to J.S. Bach, and soon became the leading a leading figure in the "authentic performance" movement.

As organist and harpsichordist, Koopman has appeared in the most prestigious concert halls of the world and played the most beautiful historical instruments of Europe. At the age of twenty-five, he created his first Baroque orchestra, and in 1979 he founded the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra followed in 1992 by the Amsterdam Baroque Choir. Combined as the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, the ensemble soon gained worldwide fame as one of the best ensembles on period instruments. With a repertoire ranging from the early Baroque to the late Classics, they have performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Théatre des Champs-Elysées and Salle Pleyel in Paris, Barbican and Royal Albert Hall in London, Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, Philharmonie in Berlin, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York, Suntory Hall in Tokyo as well as in Brussels, Milan, Madrid, Rome, Salzburg, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Munich, Athens, etc.
koopman Among Ton Koopman's most ambitious projects has been the recording of the complete Bach cantatas, a massive undertaking for which he has been awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis "Echo Klassik", the BBC Award, the Hector Berlioz Prize, and has been nominated for the Grammy Award (USA) and the Gramophone Award (UK). In addition to the works of Bach, Koopman has long been an advocate of the music of Bach's predecessor Dieterich Buxtehude and following the completion of the Bach project, he embarked in 2005 on the recording of the Buxtehude-Opera Omnia. The edition consists of 30 CDs, the last having been released in 2014. Koopman is President of the International Dieterich Buxtehude Society. In 2006 he was awarded the Bach-Prize of the City of Leipzig, in 2012 the Buxtehude Prize of the city of Lübeck, and in 2014 he received the Bach Prize of the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 2016 he received an honorary professorship with the Musikhochschule Lübeck and became Honorary Artistic Advisor of Guangzhou Opera House. In 2017 he received the RCO Medal Royal College of Organists (UK) and the Edison Klassiek Oeuvre Prize (Netherlands).

Ton Koopman has a very wide repertoire. As harpsichordist and organist, he has performed music from the Renaissance to the Classical period, with the ABO&C he has explored intensely the Baroque and Classical period and as a conductor with modern orchestras he also approaches the early Romantics.
In recent years, he has been very active as guest conductor. He has worked with the most prominent orchestras of the world, among them the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, DSO Berlin, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France Paris, Vienna Symphony, Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra.
Koopman has made an enormous number of records for Erato, Teldec, Sony, Deutsche Grammophon, and Philips. In 2003 he founded his own label “Antoine Marchand”, a sub label of Challenge Classics. He also publishes regularly. He has edited the complete Händel Organ Concertos for Breitkopf & Härtel, and recently published new editions of Händel’s Messiah and Buxtehude‘s Das Jüngste Gericht for Carus Verlag.
Koopman is professor emeritus of Historically Informed Performance of Early Music at the University of Leiden, Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in London and artistic director of the Festival “Itinéraire Baroque”. Since 2019 he is president of the Leipzig Bach Archive Foundation.

--  Biography from Koopman's website (text only)  

In June of 2005, the Dutch conductor Ton Koopman made his first appearance with the Chicago Symphony.  On the program were two symphonies by CPE Bach, the (complete) Orchestral Suite #3 by his father, Johann Sebastian, and the Symphony #83 (The Hen) by Haydn.

As it happened, Carlo Maria Giulini died at this time.  He had made his American debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1955, and had a wonderful relationship with the orchestra for twenty-three years, including being Principal Guest Conductor from 1969-72.  As a tribute, the Air from the Suite #3 was played in his memory at the start of the concert.

koopman Koopman would return to the Chicago Symphony in 2006 for Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and in 2012 for more Mozart and Haydn (including a Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma), plus Locatelli and Rebel.

We met on his first visit, in a studio of Orchestra Hall in the afternoon before the second of his three concerts.  Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are a specialist in baroque music.  Is it ironic that such a specialist would have to deal with the most up to date digital equipment for recordings?

Ton Koopman:   It’s another side of the life of a musician at this moment.  I prefer, as well, to have a plane to go as quick as possible, and not take the cart like back in the day with horses.  So, the good things of the modern time I enjoy a lot and, I have to say, recording is main part of my work.  I have done a lot of recordings, and I enjoyed it as well.  But to go to an orchestra such as the Chicago Symphony, with what they call
modern instruments’, which, in the end, are instruments from the middle of the Nineteenth Century, is something I do more and more.  When you work with historical instruments, then it’s really in its own world.  I remember in the 70s, when those things started in Holland, it was two worlds of musicone was the world with the symphony orchestra, and the second was the world with the historical instruments.  The people playing modern instruments said, “Those guys who play historical instruments have dreams, but they cannot play.  We on the other side said, “People playing on modern instruments can play very well, but they have no idea.  That was a real black and white struggle for a long time.

BD:   Have you been able to get those two ideas together?

TK:   Yes.  It is thanks to somebody like Nikolaus Harnoncourt that things changed a bit, and quite dramatically.  In the
80s, he came to conduct the major concert orchestras in Europe with repertory from the Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth Century, and more and more people in the symphony orchestras became open to try other things.  What I do now is to ask them to play the last three bars with a slower bow and lower positions.  In the 60s, everybody would laugh at you and say, He’s mad!  You cannot play that music.  It doesn’t sound beautiful!  Now, people are open and are willing to try the experiment, and to their great surprise they hear that the music comes alive with those instruments while playing in a different way, because you should try for a difference between Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, and music of the Eighteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries.  It’s a different world, and now you have different instruments.

BD:   Is it right to expect the same player to be able to play Bruckner, Mahler, and CPE Bach?

TK:   It’s like an actor who is performing avant-garde theater and then doing Shakespeare.  It is possible. With a good musician it’s possible, and willingness and craftsmanship is more important than the instrument.  Of course, when you have fantastic musicians playing with historical instruments, the sound is different, and you don’t have to explain everything.  That’s a big thing.  On the other hand, the differences were there in the early seventies, and at that point I was often the harpsichord player for the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  We did the Matthäus-Passion with Jochum, and it was really a different world.  Very few people in the orchestra were at all interested in trying it another way.  Now, in the last couple of years, you see everywhere in the world people like Harnoncourt, like me, and like other colleagues are invited to work with symphony orchestras in order to bring our knowledge, and hopefully our musical ideas to them, to see what comes out of this marriage.  Maybe in the
70s it was a forced marriage, but now I see it’s quite a happy marriage.  When I came here to Chicago on Tuesday for the first rehearsal, it was very new for them, and when I saw that they were so willing to try, there was a good atmosphere and we could even have a laugh!  It was not just theories and sources, but it was making music with a different way of thinking.

BD:   If you could write your own ticket, would you have a baroque orchestra here, or would you have the modern instruments playing the older music as best they can?

TK:   I do both things.  I have my own Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir who play on historical instruments, and I have the choice of the best specialists there, so I enjoy working with them, of course.  But criticizing a modern orchestra performing Mozart or Bach
like they did in the 60s needs help to explain.  It was strange yesterday when we played the Air because of Giulini’s death.  I realize why we did it, and that my Air is in a much more quick tempo than Giulini.  He maybe would do it twice as slow, but still, the emotion that comes from the Air is, in my opinion, even stronger when you do it that little bit quicker than when you do it so slowas they did at that time, where people held on a long note for a whole bar, and had to take two bows to get through it.  Now they can do it with one bow, and there is something of a dance character, which reflects an air, just as it would a higher song.  Bach wrote one of his most moving and beautiful pieces of music there.  That’s clear, but with a little bit faster tempo, the music wins, and that’s often by bringing the aesthetic from the Baroque time to a modern orchestra.  In the end, the music is winning because the combination works well.

BD:   Having worked with Baroque composers and their pieces for so long, do you think that they are happy that their music is played now, once again, on the old instruments, or would they be content to have it only on new instruments?

koopman TK:   No, they wrote for historical instruments, so they knew what the sound would be.  They would be happy with hearing a Baroque orchestra with the most superb musicians playing, I’m certain about that.  But it would be very sad hearing a symphony orchestra with doubling all the instruments and with a lot of vibrato playing their music.  I think they would be glad, as well, to say that there are different ways of doing it.  Even with Baroque instruments, not every musician in a symphony orchestra can get to the level of somebody who is only doing that, because it’s very difficult.

BD:   When you play it, are you playing it the right way, or are you just playing it one of many right ways?

TK:   I don’t believe there’s only one way.  I don’t believe that it’s like the Jehovah Witnesses, who explain the Bible and forget details just to show what they think is true.  With Baroque music you should not be a policeman.  You should make music.  You should have your mind, your heart, and your ears tuned to how people played; what their realistic philosophy was; and what their way of thinking and playing was.  You can do that well when you play it on any instruments.  I won’t say you can’t play Bach on the piano.  If you do it on the piano, do it very beautifully.  I would say to a harpsichord player, on the other hand, if you think it’s music for the harpsichord, then play it better than the pianist.

BD:   Has mankind’s idea of what music is changed over two, or three, or four hundred years?

TK:   Yes, certainly.  When I play The Art of Fugue of Bach, the last couple of contrapunti go into the late Nineteenth Century harmony.  But for that time, it was even more striking, and felt more like a heart attack.  That’s because we now know that harmony already, but for Bach it was really searching for his borderlines, and his borderlines were further and further away for a genius of a composer like Bach.  It’s fascinating to play music from another time, just as it’s interesting when a composer is alive, and he’s there when an orchestra plays, or when a soloist is playing, and he asks,
Oh, please can we do this?  If the composer is dead, we do what we like, and I think that’s dangerous.  I don’t believe that when Bach performed Handel, or when Handel performed Bach, it was the same way.  There was a different personality performing it, and that’s important.  You should not be just a professor at the university.  We should make something with the music, but, next to that, it’s necessary to understand the times, and to understand everything going on then.

BD:   How much of yourself do you put into these performances of Baroque music?

TK:   Oh, I’m certain there are personal ideas because I like rhythm, I like variety, I like big contrasts of dynamics and pronunciation.

BD:   Has this been influenced by the fact that you’ve heard Bruckner, and Mahler, and Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland?

TK:   Not for me because I don’t know those composers.  I’m a very strange guy.  As an organist, I played some Twentieth Century music, and I heard Messiaen play the organ, which I actually like a lot.  But for Mahler and Bruckner, I know very little of their music, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring I heard, but I don’t think it influenced my ideas.  Maybe it was much more that my father was a jazz musician who influenced my feeling for rhythm.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Even so, The Rite of Spring, and other new ideas and rhythms have permeated so many areas of human life today, not just in the concert hall, but all over our life.

TK:   Yes!

BD:   So, it cannot help but infuse you in some way?

TK:   I’m certain indirectly it will have done, but directly I wouldn’t say too much because if I heard it once in my life, it’s a lot.

BD:   Well, should you, as a Baroque specialist, perhaps seek out Mahler performances and Stravinsky performances once in a while?

TK:   I heard Haitink doing a lot of Bruckner and Mahler in the Concertgebouw, and I admire the way he does it because he’s so sincerely with that music
as I am with Baroque music.  But if you were to ask Haitink about performing Handel or Bach, I think he would say it’s not his music.  How much he’s listened to that music I have no idea.  You can have an esteem for a composer without listening often to that music, and I feel there’s so much for me yet to discover in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries that I would rather would go back to the Sixteenth, and a little bit in the early Nineteenth Century.  I would like to find out what I would do with Mendelssohn and with Schubert, and then I’d be a happy person.

BD:   What about prior to the Baroque area?  Do you listen to Machaut and others from the Renaissance?

TK:   Yes, I like that music a lot, but I know it as solo music.  You don’t need a choir and you don’t need an orchestra.  I recorded some medieval organ music on a very old organ, and that is something I enjoy because it’s traveling to an exotic part of the world.  To play music from the medieval time yourself, so little is known, so much of your creativity is necessary to perform that music.  Of course, creativity is an important part of any musician.


BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the really easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

TK:   The purpose of music is, in my opinion, two things.  The most important thing is emotion, and the second part is divertimento, or enjoyment.  When I go on stage, I always say to the musicians,
Have fun!  Enjoy the music!”  Even if you perform a Requiem, or something very sad, you still should enjoy that because enjoyment is a part of emotion.  But if you perform something which is sad and you don’t feel it, your body tells you that something is wrong.

BD:   Has the purpose of music changed at all over two or three hundred years?

TK:   No, those elements were always there.  When an opera was performed or when a singer or any soloist was playing, it could have been performed so beautifully that everybody was weeping, and it will still happen in our times.  It’s important, as a musician, to reach the heart of somebody, and sometimes in a rehearsal I will ask,
How could you play this so that you will touch my heart?  People will smile a bit, but they understand what you mean by that.  But, if it’s music which is just fun, often an orchestra or a choir is too professional, and they don’t smile.  [Noting a photo on the wall of the Chicago Orchestra (as it was known then), led by Theodore Thomas in 1897]  If you look at this old picture of the orchestra, you see a few people smiling.  I like that!  It’s part of the music if you perform music which is happy.  When it is really music to smile at, do it!

BD:   So, the composer smiles at the musicians, and the musicians then smile at the audience?

TK:   Why not?

BD:   Do you feel the audience behind you when you conduct?

TK:   When I conduct I don’t feel them.  When it’s over I see them and I hear them.  Of course, I know that I am performing for them, but I am too busy with the music to think about the audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You do have quite a lot of repertoire to choose from.  How do you decide you will do this piece, you will not do that piece?

TK:   It’s always a combination in which the Artistic Director of the orchestra talks with me, and we discuss a lot of programs.  This came out as a good program to do, and we both said,
This is nice.  Let’s do it like that.  In September I will have a master class in Carnegie Hall, creating a Baroque orchestra and choir there, and doing Bach Cantatas.  Today we had a longer discussion about the program and what to do, and when you talk, suddenly the idea of the program comes out.  It should have a good beginning, a good ending, and a very good middle.

koopman BD:   Let’s go back one step further.  How do you decide what pieces you’ll put into your repertoire, and then offer for performance?

TK:   When it’s Baroque music, I would say all music I would love to put in my repertory.  If it’s Nineteenth Century music, I’m very careful, because for this music I’m less of a connoisseur than for Baroque music because Baroque music is my life.  I search for things, and I do the music.  If I do Schubert, if I do Mendelssohn
particularly those two composersI try to understand what they want.  When I did the first time the Schumann Requiemwhich was the most modern piece I ever conductedin the beginning everything was upside down.  What I know about a Requiem was from Mozart or from the Baroque time.  So, a Dies Irae is a Dies Irae, but with Schumann, it’s cry from the heart.  It’s really from somebody who cannot live anymore.  When you start reading about him, you read his letters where you see how his life was at the end, and then you start to understand the music.  It’s important to try to situate the music where it belongs, and to try to understand what it did at to people at that time.  For the Nineteenth century I have less time than I had for the Eighteenth Century, so I already apologize.  But when I go the Reformation Symphony of Mendelssohn, at the end of it comes a chorale, and I feel at home as an organist.  After the fanfare, suddenly the trombone is playing, and it’s like an organist who has prepared all the stops and the pedal, and he’s waiting for the moment to put his foot down.  So, it’s another way of thinking.  But it wouldn’t work without the Scherzo before it, and without the beautiful slow movement.  Everything comes at some point where you start to know the music.  When you start to read about it, it comes to the real place where it should be, and then that means it’s music that I like to do.  If it’s music where too many question marks remain, then there are many colleagues who know that music much better than I do, and I let them do it.

BD:   But you say you would do anything in the Baroque period.  Is all the music in the Baroque period of such a high level that it interests you?

TK:   No, but it interests me to know if its high enough to perform.  If somebody would ask me to do a Galuppi symphony, I would say,
Let’s look at the music.  Maybe I have it at home, maybe not, and if its music which is really worthwhile to do, I would do it.  If it’s in a program where you need one very short unknown piece, I would say, why not?  It could fit there.

BD:   This is what I want to pounce on just a little bit.  What is it that makes a piece of music worthwhile?

TK:   It’s part of the context in the program, but I think in general I would say that it is worthwhile if the composer has something to say.  Take those Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach pieces that we do here
Symphonies Four and One.  It’s music so full of new ideas that you can imagine if Carl Philipp had just arrived a few years later.  This style had finished with him, because Mozart and Haydn found a completely different road to go on, and that was the road that musical history took.  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was on the experimental road, and maybe because it was so experimental you need fantastic performers to understand the music.  The music of Mozart or Bach, even when it is performed badly still stays alive.  If you do a bad performance of François Couperin, or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the music doesn’t stay alive.  So, you have to defend more there, and you should be the person if you understand it.  If you like the music, go for it.  If its music which is enigmatic for you as well, then maybe ask a colleague who understands it much better.  Not so long ago I did a little comic intermezzoabout twenty-five minutesby Cimarsoa called Il Maestro di Cappella.  II did it with my Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra on tour, and the English people didn’t like it at all.  They thought it was stupid music.  They felt the humor was stupid.

BD:   Was it sung in English or Italian?

TK:   It was in Italian, but they had an explanation before.  But they thought it was this stupid idea to do it, and all the other audiences
French, Dutch, Americanenjoyed it, and were even laughing at it.  But the British felt they didn’t like it!

BD:   So it was not to their taste?

TK:   I don’t know... apparently not!  [Both laugh]

BD:   I’ve always liked Cimarosa operas.  I’ve seen a couple of local productions of Il Matrimonio Segreto, and I’ve enjoyed them very much.  [One was by Northwestern University in 1975, and the other was by the Opera School of Chicago in 1977, which was staged by Italo Tajo, and featured (among others) June Anderson, James Hoback, Winifred Brown, James Julien Robbins (as he was listed in the program), and Kathleen Kuhlmann.]

TK:   This Venetian opera is really still a type of music we don’t know well.  It’s good music, but if you think of the beautiful text of Goldoni, already because of that it’s worth doing.  Maybe the dialect and the complications of the language make it more difficult to understand.  Maybe we should dare to stage such a thing in English?

BD:   You mentioned that CPE Bach was very radical, and was on the cutting edge for his time.  Knowing his music, and the music that follows, is there any way for us today to really feel his music as being avant-garde?

TK:   For the harmony it’s more difficult because we have heard The Rite of Spring.  That’s always the problem so I always listen to this very carefully to see if this is very modern for their ears.  But you never know if an audience will take it like that.  First, however, is that the importance of the musical person of CPE Bach is the enormous vitality of the music.  It’s like The Well-Tempered Clavier in that it goes through all the keys in the minimum of time, and it uses incredibly virtuosic violin writing with fantastic colors and extremely high wind writing.

BD:   Was he writing beyond the ability of his players?

TK:   No, because he had very good players.  When he performed this music, I’m certain he had a very good orchestra in Hamburg.  He also knew himself very well, since he was a keyboard player, and you can understand because it is in the reach of his hand.  He was usually writing because he had an idea.  Maybe it was a dream in his head, and he wanted to put it on paper.  For the violin, though, it’s very difficult.  [Both laugh]

BD:   These days it seems that composers are writing beyond the capabilities of some of the players, and yet, as we go along they’re able to assimilate it, and they’re able to perform it.  Was the same kind of thing happening in the Baroque era?

koopman TK:   No, I don’t think it was happening then because the idea of the Composer in the Ivory Tower didn’t exist yet.  They wrote for the musicians they knew.  J.S. Bach wrote incredibly difficult trumpets parts because he knew his trumpeter, Gottfried Reiche (1667-1734).  He knew the players and he asked much of them, and maybe he over-asked them, which, for a genius composer, has no borderline.  But when I see his organ music, or when I see his harpsichord music, it’s difficult, but it’s within the possibilities.  When I speak with good trumpeters, they say that it’s very hard but it’s possible.  When I speak with horn players about the first Brandenburg Concerto or some of the obligato horn parts in the Bach Cantatas, they sometimes say it’s extremely hard.  When Dennis Brain had to play a Mozart concerto, he said Mozart had appeared in his dreams the night before, and he was just afraid.  It’s like that.  It’s not quite a dream, but they go for it, and if it works, it’s fantastic.

BD:   And then we have to realize, with one step back, there were no valves!

TK:   Yes, so it was even more difficult.  But people only worked hard at that music.  With Bach, you can say that his trumpet and horn players only worked hard at his music.  Everything else that they performed, such as Telemann, was easy.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is it a special joy for you to continue to bring this Baroque music into the Twentieth and now the Twenty-first Century?

TK:   Yes, because the music of the important composers is so great in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Still, the music is known to a happy few, and their numbers are becoming bigger and bigger.  The New World Symphony of Dvořák, or the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert were not known yet.  Even for Bach Cantatas, when you talk to good musicians about how many they know, if they know twenty or twenty-five, they do well.  But two hundred???  [Both laugh]  There’s a lot to learn, and it’s the same for the organ music.  I recorded all the organ works, and I had to admit that when I started, I knew maybe a quarter of the music, which was not too bad.  But there was still three quarters to learn, so a lot of music, even for somebody knowing the music well.  Enjoying the music is fine, but there was simply not time or no need to learn the early organ works of Bach.  Not everything is genius, because even Bach was young once.

BD:   Are there some pieces in the oeuvre of Bach, or other great composers, that you think really should be left on the library shelf?

TK:   We have found some early chorales, and I’m so glad that they were found and performed.  But, I’m not certain that Bach would be so glad because he was so young when he wrote them.  Mozart at that age was very much more educated than Bach.  Bach learned very quickly, but when Bach was twelve years old, he was still a kid.  When Bach was writing his first masterworks, he was just over twenty, and by then he was the great composer and the genius we know.  But it’s interesting just from an historical point of view, to see even a genius was when young had to struggle with the material.  You see it very much in the chorales when suddenly one bar is beautiful.  But you see, as well, something you want to almost rewrite a little bit more in the style.  I remember when I did the recording of them in my complete organ works, I got a review that said,
“Even Koopman cannot save those works!  I had the choice between rewriting things, or to leave them and only correct little mistakes.  I found that was the only way to do it.  I should be honest to Bach, and if I eventually do meet him, I should maybe apologize that I performed them.  But I will say I left them as they were as a document of when he was a kid.

BD:   So, let Bach stand or fall on his own?

TK:   Yes.  But when you see the Orgelbuchlein, what a development in just a few years.  If you see the Toccatas for harpsichord and for organ, it’s all from when he was in his early twenties.  Then, you see Bach the great composer as we know him.  I’m certain we’ve all done something when we were kids, and we’re happy it’s not there anymore!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Baroque music seems to be performed a lot on all-Baroque concerts.  Should there be a little Baroque music on mixed concerts, with Baroque, and Romantic, and a new work?

TK:   It could be, but it depends on the conductor.  If a conductor is a specialist for Mahler, then maybe the Baroque music will lose too much.  People like Simon Rattle, who are very interested in trying to do everything they do well, contact people in the early music world and ask how they would you do that.  Because they are very good musicians, they do something very clever with the music, and then it could work.  Rattle could do a program with Rameau, Haydn, Mahler or maybe even a modern piece after that, but I think there are still a few conductors who can do that.  On the other side, from the people like me who come from the early music, we should be extremely careful going too.  I remember when I was in the conservatory in Holland this discussion started
can modern symphony orchestras play the Matthäus-Passion?  It was being done in Holland at that point with Eugen Jochum, and he used choirs of 130 people, and all the winds were doubled.  The concert hall was bursting because there were so many people who attended.  At that point, do we say they cannot do that music if they don’t understand it, or if they don’t know about it?  I don’t want to be the person to be excused from the other side by going too far into the Nineteenth Century.  I’m musical, and I would try with my musicality to do itlike Jochum didbut I could go wrong, and I’d rather leave that to people who have more time, or know that music fantastically.  The Schumann Requiem was really an experiment, going into the very exotic, very far away from my norms, and I have to say I enjoyed it and have a fantastic memory of doing it.  But I don’t know if I’ll do it again, because it’s really something so special to do that and to try to understand it.  There are many people who perform works like that, so let them do them.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Are we not losing something because you are not showing us the Romantic music with the eyes and ears that were coming along when that music was being written?

TK:   That’s a possibility, yes.  I was eight years the Chief Conductor of the Radio Chamber Orchestra in Holland, and they asked me to do that, together with Peter Eötvös for modern music, because they said they would love to go with me into the Nineteenth Century.  For them, it was this Schumann work, and I even did some Beethoven and Spohr.  When I do a Classical symphony of Spohr, it is with all the elements of Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and then Spohr himself.  I treat it with another optic, an idea other than how somebody else would do it.  On the other hand, I’m still so fascinated with music from Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries which I don’t know yet, that I rather want to discover those things.

koopman BD:   If you could, would you conduct every piece that was ever written in that time period?

TK:   You cannot...

BD:   But if you could.  I’m granting you this wish!

TK:   In 2009, John Eliot Gardiner did all the Bach Cantatas, and somebody asked me if I would be willing to this, and I said I could not.  I needed the time to reflect, time to think about the works and to study the music.  I would not be able to learn all that music in a year, so I did over ten years, and I would say it’s the same for other Baroque music.  There’s music which we know, which is easy do, like a Haydn symphony.  If you know the style, you can easily do that.  I did all the Mozart symphonies, so I know quite a bit about them, but now suddenly I am going into Boccherini symphonies.  I did a Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma.  That was great music, but the symphonies I don’t know.  I would love to have a bit of time to look for the best one.  You could look for different repertoire in different countries.  I haven’t done too much French music, and would like to do more.  As a harpsichord player, of course I play it a lot, but I would love to do some of the motets of Michel-Richard Delalande, and pieces of Lully.  I never did them, so there’s so much to discover with the time which I have.

BD:   Would it be completely wrong for a composer today to write in that Baroque style?

TK:   I think it’s good if they would do it, but they are punished directly if they do it.  I know some people tried that, but in our time, every composer is suffering because they have to be original.  Being original today means that writing an opera has to take you two years.  Handel did it in three weeks because he didn’t need to be original.  But he was a genius composer, so he wrote fantastic music.

BD:   Wasn
t he following formats, and didnt he have certain things where he was almost in a straight-jacket to do this and to that?

TK:   Yes, but if you look at various operas, they are completely different.  The style is changing.  If you see his oratorios, the style is changing enormously.  But he had his own language.  When I was in the conservatory, I wanted to study composition, as well.  So, I went to the teacher and asked if I could study it.  He said yes, asked me to show him something.  So I showed him a piece I wrote in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century style.  He said,
No, no, we have to do it differently!  I said, But why?  I want to learn to do this better.  He said, No, no, we don’t do it like that at this time, and the discussion was over.  [Both laugh]  I see more and more young people who are content to write a cantata in Bach’s style, and it would be interesting to try to help them to do it better.

BD:   [Optimistically]  You should set up a master class so that you, who understands this style, can help them to write better in that style.

TK:   Yes...  No, I think that professor’s pronouncement is the position these days.  In 2000, I reconstructed Bach’s Mark Passion [DVD shown below], and I composed all the recitatives myself.  I chose from Bach’s work all arias and choruses and chorales to fit to the music, so that was a half-composition process.  Recently, in discussion about the C Minor Mass of Mozart which Robert Levin did in New York, he was very brave to compose so much in the Mozart style.  I wouldn’t be that brave to compose so much like Mozart, so I didn’t.  My way looks at letters of Mozart, and I thought he’s always talking very nicely about the church music of Michael Haydn.  Mozart said Michael Haydn’s a drunk, and his symphonies are not worthwhile, but his church music is of great quality.  There was one Mass which Michael Haydn performed in the same church where Mozart performed his C Minor Mass three months before.  I thought, 
“That’s the Mass I need to have, so I got the score, and it was interesting.  Everything that is missing in the C Minor Mass of Mozart is there, as if he knew if it was not ready, the performer can simply insert that music.  So, we did a world premiere of my version in the Cremona Festival, and I added trumpets and timpani because I think that’s what is missing.  And where Mozart didn’t even bother to write the second violin part, I did those lines myself.  I also changed a little bit the double choir part of it, because I think you could do the Hosanna better than Süssmayr did.

BD:   Are you trying to just do in your version what Mozart would have done if he were there?

TK:   Yes, I think what I did maybe is what Mozart would have done if he had had the time.  I think he knew how to save himself a bit of time this way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made a whole pile of recordings.  Do you perform differently in the recording studio than you do when you’re giving live concerts?

TK:   Yes, and it’s interesting.  For instance, when we recorded the Cantatas for CD, we did concerts with them as well, and the Dutch radio recorded them all.  Sometimes there’s a remarkable difference.

BD:   How so?

koopman TK:   In a concert, there’s an audience behind me.  If you see them or not, they’re still there, and there’s another attitude with the musicians who perform.  But there are more mistakes, particularly with the true trumpets and natural horns.  They are much more complicated, and the intonation is much more complicated.  Sometimes, when you record a piece at 11 o’clock in the morning, you feel different than at 10 o’clock in the evening.  All those differences are there, but I still would never have wanted to record the cantatas live.  It’s not possible.  It’s too complicated.  But I just did Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for DVD as a live performance.  We did two concerts, and that’s it!   With two performances they can go from one to the other.  But there were no retakes done because the church’s sound is so completely different with an audience and without.  I’m pleased with the results.  I heard the version that was there, and with the television you see the sound belonging to it.  It’s sometimes defined by the producer, and what he likes for the television.  We also have to have what we like for the sound, but we found a very good collaboration, and I think the result is fine.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance, either on record or in the theater?

TK:   A perfect concert could still be a disaster for a recording.  You could say,
That was the most breath-taking concert I ever heard in my life, and if you would listen later with a glass of wine, quietly thinking it’s not me doing it but it’s my biggest enemy, you would hear many poor things.  That’s maybe the unfairness of a recordingthe microphone is so unfriendly.  It is taking everything whether you want it or not!  Our ears are much more friendly.  When we are in a concert, we want to have a nice evening.  We want to enjoy it, and if you see that everybody has a good time, even if the music is not the best that night, you won’t hear it completely.  But if people are really performing well, and if there’s a fantastic atmosphere, and great playing, you enjoy it.  Then the recording could bring you sometimes too much back to Earth, because it will tell you this or that was not together.  That’s always my hesitation to do live recordings.  I remember, with the St. Matthew Passion we all had a certainty that the second evening was a fantastic concert.  But on the record there’s quite a bit of the first performance, because the first performance was a bit more precise.

BD:   So, you sacrifice a little of the spontaneity to get the right notes and the right pitches?

TK:   Yes, because the medium is asking for that, and to find a good balance.  It’s happily not me doing it; it’s my wife.  She is making all the decisions, and once she has made her decision, then I am allowed to listen.  We’re married for thirty years, and we worked together as well all that time.  She was a student of mine, and I trust her because she has fantastic ears.  About another recording, she said she didn’t want to tell me how much was from the evenings and how much was from the studio, but everybody agreed that it was the best like this.  It’s another medium, and we should accept that, and not be in a kind of drunk feeling something is fantastic, and then maybe being sad after you hear it again.

BD:   Is it at all part of your responsibility to win new friends and new converts to this music which you treasure?

TK:   You always hope that because, for me, music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries is the greatest music ever composed.  Bach is the greatest composer.  Nobody is coming close to him, even not Mozart.  There are people who say that Bach is so intellectual, and so complicated.  You want to take them by the hand and say it’s not true!  If you listen to this beautiful music, you can enjoy it on many levels
at a level of just music-for-the-millions, and on the level of superb counterpoint.  My God, how is it possible for somebody to be able to compose like that?  How is it possible to get such splendid music?  Bach was able to do that.  His ability, his knowledge and his emotions were so good, and in such a fantastic blend that you get to the point where you would say that if there was only Bach in the world you would happy, really.

BD:   [With mock horror]  But you wouldn’t want to have a world without Stravinsky, would you???

TK:   [Laughs]  Well... I can live without Stravinsky.

BD:   But would you want the entire musical world to live without Stravinsky?

TK:   No, because mine is a different world than somebody else
s, and I know that many people cannot live without that music.  Many people cannot live with Elliott Carter, or they cannot live without Mahler, etc.  The good thing in that the music world is like literature, or like art.  There’s not one truth.  There are many truths, and all the truths together create the musical life and the artistic life.  I’m just a little part of that.  I’m not an average person because I’m so immersed in one type of music, and I’m so in love with that type of music that I can only live with that.  But it doesn’t mean that all the others have only to live with that as well.  Let them enjoy everything.

BD:   Is your music
Baroque musicfor everyone on the planet?

TK:   It could be, because many elements which are so striking now in pop music
rhythm, emotionsare very clearly there in Eighteenth Century music, and maybe much more than in Nineteenth Century music.  It’s interesting to see that the audience for Baroque music is still young.  We have young, middle-aged, and elderly people, and in the symphony repertory of the late Nineteenth Century, early Twentieth Century, there only exists those who are growing older.  For the avant-garde music, again there’s a younger audience.  There are people who want the adventure, who want to know what’s going on in the world.  They just anxious to know about it, and they will have lots of comments about the artswhether or not this is my music, or, this is stupid, or, this is beautiful.  In Holland, Reinbert de Leeuw (b. 1938) is a big advocate of the first half of the Twentieth century but he’s doing a lot of second half of the century, as well.  He would talk about that music like I talk about Baroque music.  He’s so much in love with it, and so involved in that music, and I think that’s good.  That’s what makes what we have such an enormous variety in the musical life.

BD:   I’m sure those composers you champion are very glad that they have such advocate as yourself!

TK:   I hope so.

BD:   Are you where you want to be at this point in your career?

TK:   Yes, I’m very glad of where I am, and I’m still getting new adventures... like, for instance, working with the Chicago Symphony for the first time.  It was a great pleasure, and a great honor to be here.

BD:   One last question.  Is making music fun?

TK:   Yes!  Definitely!  Besides being fun, sometime it can bring people tears, and both elements should be there.  To be a musician is a great privilege, and it is wonderful to make a fantastic life with the work of others who are workaholics.

BD:   Thank you so much for bringing your ideas to Chicago.

TK:   Thank you very much.  This was a very nice interview.


© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago on June 17, 2005.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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