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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 1

Trevor Pinnock - Autumn Thoughts

by Guy Marceau / September 9, 2004

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At 57, Trevor Pinnock seems the opposite of the music he has conducted for over 30 years. The works of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Mozart, in all their fast-paced brilliance and colour, contrast with the manner of the founder and conductor of the English Concert, who expresses his ideas with unhurried ease. Pinnock occupies a special place in the world of chamber music, and his recordings with the English Concert have become the benchmark for their genre since the 1980s. Pinnock handed over his baton to violinist Andrew Manze in 2003 in order to pursue his career as a harpsichord virtuoso as well as to conduct various international orchestras. The renowned British conductor will be in Quebec this fall to conduct two concerts, the first in Montreal and the second in Quebec City. The music of Bach and Mozart will be featured. Pinnock will conduct Les Violons du Roy at the Montreal concert, which is being presented in connection with the 15th International Congress on Care Of The Terminally Ill. La Scena Musicale spoke to the maestro, an affable, thoughtful man, a great musician and humanist who, rather than expound grand theories, prefers to let the music speak for itself.

La Scena Musicale: Les Violons du Roy hasn't yet established a tradition of having guest conductors, but this year you'll be on the podium twice. How did you first meet Bernard Labadie?

Trevor Pinnock: I was already familiar with the excellent work he'd done with his ensemble, particularly while I was conductor and artistic director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa between 1991 and 1996. But I first met someone who has become a close friend, Dr Balfour Mount, a specialist and leader in the palliative care field. We both received honorary doctorates from the University of Ottawa. When I agreed to take part in the 15th International Congress on Care of the Terminally Ill this year, I was delighted to have the chance to conduct such a fine "instrument" as Les Violons du Roy. I think it most interesting that Bernard Labadie has thought so deeply about style in his baroque and classical interpretations, something that, for me, is fundamental and brings great authenticity to the performance.

LSM: What was the musical context in 1973 when you founded the English Concert?

TP: The English Concert has a core group of 20 musicians. There were only seven of us when we started out; two years later we were already beginning to work on the orchestral repertoire. However, you should realize that in the mid-70s it was not usual to find musicians who played period instruments brought together in a regular chamber orchestra. There weren't many such musicians for one thing, and it was a real challenge.

LSM: At the time, what was your concept of baroque music--considering that in the same year the other major harpsichordist, Christopher Hogwood, founded his Academy of Ancient Music, performing with period instruments?

TP: I'll admit there was a certain rivalry, but we didn't necessarily have the same musical ideas or conceptions. What I really had in mind was a journey of discovery into the unknown. Although I felt there were excellent interpretations of baroque music performed on modern instruments, I sensed that we'd come to the end of the road -- and yet I knew that there were still discoveries to be made. I was thinking about the interesting experiments made by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, although I knew we'd have to experiment in our own way. It was a huge challenge; playing period instruments wasn't as easy as it is today, and finding out their secrets was a difficult process. Nowadays an extraordinarily high technical level has been achieved and the upcoming generations don't have any of the problems we pioneers faced. We cleared the way. We also had to create a special and distinctive sound for our ensemble through the chemistry of performing in a unified group. I'm very glad that the members of the English Concert based their unity on their confidence, loyalty, and commitment vis-à-vis myself so as to develop a lasting identity. And they succeeded in doing this.

LSM: Could you describe the English Concert's special sound in broad terms?

TP: That's very difficult, if not impossible! I'm glad when someone hearing one of our recordings of Bach, Handel, or Mozart can say, without looking at the label, "That's the sound of the English Concert." I'm a musician and I speak through music, which is far more eloquent than I! Over 30 years I've made changes here and there, while preserving the basics – changed my way of doing things in the light of new approaches adopted by others performing baroque music. This has developed the way we interpret important historical and technical aspects, particularly with regard to musical language. All I can say is that I've always approached music with all the sincerity that it inspires in me, and in the most living way possible. I've never wanted to latch on to a certain fashion or tendency just to do something new or to shock, as some people may have thought in the past. From my earliest childhood this music has been the very spirit of life, a special place. I have always tried to put the music first, to make its voice heard above all else. Humans often twist this fine simplicity and complicate things by trying to put words where they're not needed. The greatest questions and answers find their source in music. It's in this frame of mind that I'm approaching my visit to Quebec and the Congress on Care Of The Terminally Ill.

LSM: Tell me about it.

TP: It's my firm belief that music has the power to calm and even cure those who listen to it. Even if there's nothing scientific involved, music remains a great source of spiritual nourishment. My contribution – and this has been the case ever since I've been involved in music – has been to share it with the greatest number. The day after the Montreal concert, Dr Mount, myself, and musical therapists will be discussing the use of music as an alternative treatment. It's an approach that is gaining ground in the medical world.

LSM: Being a baroque specialist didn't stop you from moving at an early stage into classical music generally, and Haydn and Mozart in particular.

TP: Understanding where Mozart was coming from, who came before him, and what influenced him has enriched my knowledge of his music. Many musicians still consider Mozart a starting point in himself: they play Bach, then Mozart as though he were the first of the Romantics! That was what people thought when I was still teaching but it tends to be far less true today. My accumulated knowledge of baroque music has given me a vision of Mozart's music. To take just one example, his very short early symphonies are still seen as the works of a very young composer who hadn't yet developed his full potential, which is true. But people forget that it's exactly what was expected of him at the time, in that concise form. It may seem like an academic point, but it reflects what people thought and some still think.

LSM: You'll be conducting an all-Mozart program, with his Symphony No 40, the Ave verum corpus, and the Coronation Mass – works you know well, having played and recorded them. How will you approach conducting Les Violons du Roy for the first time?

TP: First of all, we'll have only a few rehearsals. It will be an interesting challenge to achieve what I want musically in so short a time, but most of all to learn to work well together. Obviously I know what I want from the ensemble, but I also have to listen to what they do and adapt my ideas to this particular orchestra as an instrument. In this case I can't really explain my idea, or my plan, because everything depends on my contact with the musicians and how they respond to my demands. Music is first and foremost a question of listening. In the same way, I must listen to the sound made by instruments with modern strings and period bows before saying anything. I have their magnificent recording of Mozart's Requiem. It's an impressive CD from every point of view, perhaps one of the best ever done. These qualities, applied to the festive, celebratory aspect of the Coronation Mass should make for excellent teamwork. It provides a glimpse of what the orchestra can deliver in terms of power and evocative strength.

LSM: What do you think about the coming generation of baroque musicians, of all those Italian ensembles, for example, who've reinvented the playing of Bach or Vivaldi?

TP: I don't want to name names, at least not one more than another, but I think it's reassuring to see that people are still looking for new ways and questioning the accepted wisdom. I'm very impressed by the technical level and quality of today's musicians, but I also see that they're having a little difficulty finding their own path. They've got to provide this element of novelty, do something new, while forgetting to listen. The answers are in the music, as I was just saying. Another danger awaits those whose level of performance is very high or who are truly experienced musicians: I notice that their ideas are fairly conservative, which may lead to them being frozen in time. They have stopped questing and questioning what they're doing. A musician must always be questing, listening, seeking, because there will always be something to discover for those who don't stop at the obvious. Today's techniques are somewhat the result of what was looked for yesterday. The cycle has got to continue.

LSM: After 30 years of conducting the English Concert, you've handed the baton to violinist Andrew Manze. He has played in the orchestra, but he was better known as associate director of The Academy of Ancient Music.

TP: When the members of the English Concert were looking for a new conductor and artistic director, they decided on Andrew Manze, and I think they made a good choice. But it was their decision. In any case, Andrew and I spent some time discussing the orchestra and our musical visions, as well as playing music together a great deal. It was time for him to move into this position and conduct his own orchestra. Moreover, I still believe that what the English Concert needs is a musician who hasn't been part of it, who comes from the outside. That being said, Andrew Manze respects the history and musical tradition of the orchestra, and I also think it a great advantage that he'll bring in completely new ideas. To my mind that's the best way to ensure the future of the English Concert.

LSM: What are your plans now?

TP: In stepping down from the English Concert, I wanted to give more time to my own instrument – the harpsichord – and do solo recitals. My commitments as artistic director made this almost impossible. I've just finished recording a Rameau program called Les Cyclopes on a magnificent 18th-century Goermans-Taskin French harpsichord – a brilliant, very clear instrument. It will be released in the spring of 2005 by AVIE, an independent English label. And then I'll be conducting orchestras in Europe that I already know and with which I really want to work, such as the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with which I'll do a series of Mozart concerts in 2006 for the 250th anniversary of his birth. I'll be conducting other, smaller ensembles as well, but high-ranking ones such as the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. I don't want to take on any more first-time ensemble conducting. Les Violons du Roy is something of an exception to my rule.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Trevor Pinnock conducts Les Violons du Roy in Montreal on September 21, at 8 pm in St Patrick's Basilica (460 René-Lévesque Blvd West). On the program: WA Mozart: Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K. 550, Ave verum corpus, K. 618, and the Coronation Mass in C Major, K. 317. He will conduct in Quebec City on September 23 at 8pm in the Église St-Dominique (175 Grande-Allée West). On the program: Sinfonia in D Major, Wq 183/I by CPE Bach, Brandenberg Concerto No 5 in D Major, BWV 1050 by JS Bach, and Symphony No 40 in G Minor, K. 550 by WA Mozart.

Information – Montreal: 1 866 844-2172; (514) 844-2172; Quebec City: 1 877 643-8131; (418) 643-8131.

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