Talking Heads: Domingo Hindoyan

The new Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra talks to Arcana about his appointment, the importance of an orchestra in its community and what he hopes to bring to the city of Liverpool.

interview by Ben Hogwood

It is a tall order indeed, following Vasily Petrenko onto the conductor’s rostrum at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Domingo Hindoyan is the man chosen to fill the sizeable shoes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor, and he has joined Arcana to chat about the opportunities that lie ahead for him and for one of Britain’s finest orchestras.

He brings with him a positive energy, channelled through the most sonorous of voices. He could easily be mistaken for a baritone singer on this evidence alone, but his perspective as a conductor is brought immediately to the front. We begin by talking about one of his first appointments with the orchestra, his first Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in September this year. On the program were Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, a new piece from Grace-Evangeline Mason (The Imagined Forest), Richard StraussDon Juan and finally Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

The concert received extremely favourable reviews and was a great experience for the Venezuelan conductor himself. “It was a unique moment, a special moment in my career and in my musical life. It was my first concert as chief conductor, and the very special atmosphere of the Proms is unique around all the concert halls in the world.”

We talk about his decision to end with the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. “It is a great piece, and I had a lot of fun working on it, especially comparing it to what Weber wrote with the piano pieces. It is very, very clever, and shows perfectly all the facets of the orchestra, stressing a little bit on the brass section and the percussion. We have a fantastic set of bells, so we could use them in the second Turandot movement. We had a lot of fun. There was of course a link between all these pieces, with the 20th century composers, Strauss and Hindemith, but also an American connection between Hindemith and Dvořák. It is probably not obvious, but we’re talking about two composers who were influenced by the plantation music and by American music. Dvorak was the first one who really developed that to another level, and in the concerto, you don’t see as much as you can in the New World Symphony or the American string quartet, but you have in the second movement all the elements of American music. Hindemith was impressed later with some jazz moments we have in the second movement.”

He speaks very fondly of the Strauss, too. “Don Juan is a masterpiece, a showpiece for the orchestra. It’s a very difficult piece for orchestras, though today a little less as the technical level of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is very high. When you are technically free as the orchestra is, it is a piece that has thousands of colours, situations and emotions that we can explore. Every time I conduct it, I find new things you can do. That’s why it’s a masterpiece – all masterpieces have this characteristic.”

Hindoyan recalls his first visit to Liverpool. “It was not that long ago, in summer 2019. I conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, among other pieces of course. It’s not an easy piece to start a relationship with an orchestra, because every orchestra knows it very well, but I remember that immediately the chemistry was right. The energy was right too, so we could really rehearse in a natural way, as if we knew each other from a long time ago. The second time was also very special, because I could play some Latin American repertoire with a colleague of mine, Pacho Flores, a Venezuelan trumpet player. This was where I conducted Don Juan for the first time with the orchestra, and then I did Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Since the beginning the relationship has been very natural, with a great chemistry. So far it is going very well!”

On meeting an orchestra for the first time, how does a conductor gauge their strengths and common ground? “That’s a very interesting question, because that moment is probably the most important moment together with the concert. I was an orchestral musician, and if you ask a musician how it is when a conductor is with them for the first time, they will always tell you they know after one minute, as soon as they stand on the podium, they know if things will be OK or not. From the conductor’s point of view, it is also the same. From the first upbeat, and the first two or three minutes, you feel how it will go. You are not like a football trainer, where you are going to analyse the team against you with videos and so on. I don’t do this, and I have never met a colleague who does it. After five minutes you understand the strengths and the weaknesses, and then start working your way through with your ear and with your version of the music, the score you have in front of you. You try to achieve the sounds and version you want. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk, you can go with a gesture alone. It is a very interesting side of this job, the psychological contact with and between the musicians. It’s magic, and thanks to the scores and the genius of the composers!”

Domingo is conscious of the city’s fortunate position in having the Philharmonic Hall at their disposal, and when I suggest there is a buzz for classical music in the city, he agrees. “I also felt it! The city is lucky to have its own concert hall, and the orchestra is lucky to have a concert hall where many things happen, and where it is the cultural reference of the city. It is not only the concerts of the Philharmonic, but it is the pop concerts, the small ensembles, the music room – many, many activities. The daily life, after the pandemic, is that almost every day something is happening. These walls are used to beautiful vibrations of music, but one of the things that attracted me most to the orchestra was the community work they do, and how they want to expand to the community what’s happening in the concert hall. It is a symbiosis, from the stage to the community but also from the community to the stage. People get to know the faces of the musicians, the conductors, the guest conductors, and so the orchestra is the baby of the city.”

Hindoyan speaks from personal experience. “I am Venezuelan, and I grew up in Venezuela. I was part of El Sistema, a huge organisation of more than one million people. I studied violin and then conducting in Geneva. We had the idea with the Geneva Conservatory of founding an El Sistema project in Geneva. This year is ten years since we did it, and it’s working very well. It has brought music to some neighbourhoods that would not normally play music. There are two beautiful orchestras, one aged 10 to 16, for beginners – and it worked very well. This is motivation, and in that sense it feels like home to me, because it’s not exclusively about the orchestra. It is about everything, what’s happening with the choir, the kids, the young and contemporary music, pop music. I feel at home in that sense.”

Some adventurous concerts lie ahead for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their new conductor, including an interesting coupling of a new symphony – Roberto Sierra‘s Sixth Symphony – as a companion for Beethoven’s Ninth. “I first met Roberto when I had to do the European premiere of his Trumpet Concerto, and I enjoyed it enormously to analyse the score and see how talented, clean and transparently he can write his ideas. My heart was even more involved because I see he writes with elements of Latin American music, and I love it. When I first asked him, I said, “Roberto, I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth in my first concert in Liverpool, and how many symphonies do you have?” “I have five”, he said. “That’s perfect – you should write the sixth and do as Beethoven did in his Sixth Symphony, a Pastoral” He didn’t name it as a Pastoral, but it is exactly that, a Caribbean Pastoral. It is all about the nature in the Caribbean area, and in Latin America. The first movement is about the cities, the urban craziness of Caracas or Mexico City. The second movement is the Caribbean nights, and then we have a scherzo with a shape of the perfect pastoral symphony. He took the example of Beethoven throughout!”

There is a reunion with Pacho Flores, the trumpeter giving the European premiere of the Concerto Venezolano by Paquito D’Rivera in November. “I think bringing some of the Caribbean to Liverpool in October is a very good idea. This is what I want to bring in general, to bring more of the Latin American repertoire to Liverpool. We have great composers in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, for instance. Many of them were students of Copland, and I really want to play them more here. In building a program I found it better to mix with other folkloric music. I decided to take the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and couple them together. I think for the ear it is better, because you can compare, and you have some freshness. The Bartók Concerto, as we said with the Strauss, is a showpiece for the orchestra too.”

Are there plans afoot for new recordings with the orchestra? “We have some plans. My colleague Vasily has left a great legacy, he has been doing a fantastic job for 15 years. I will record my beloved pieces, those I feel comfortable with, and those I want to explore. I will introduce a lot of the Latin American repertoire and American repertoire that has not been played so often, without excluding anything of the traditional repertoire, that I love myself and I conduct very often too. It is a wide range of repertoire, and we have great plans.”

He reveals that he spoke briefly with Petrenko, his predecessor, before beginning the job. “We did have a short conversation, and we will have a longer one soon, but I am already on the job. Time for conductors is crazy! I had a nice message of welcome, and I was touched to see his last concert on demand. It was a difficult last year for him though because he couldn’t achieve his last season as he wanted. I could not do the transition as we wanted either, so our really first concert with full orchestra was last Sunday.”

Hindoyan is grateful to have a full programme stretching in front of him. “Of course. Every country had its own regulations. My first concert with an audience was last March, with a small audience for the Detroit Symphony. Then in April I had a bigger audience in Utah, but then in Europe we started with a small audience, and here in Liverpool last June I had a very warm audience for the last repertoire we did here. We did Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky Octet, and the trombone concerto by Dani Howard. We had the audience but now finally we have 80 people on stage, and the choir for the Beethoven in October. Finally, we can do music as we used to.”

There is a positive side to be found from the pandemic, however. “I always try! There were two positive things for me. First was the discovery of plenty of repertoire, which didn’t get played very often. Second, the exposure of the orchestras online, with recorded video, was very important, so that people had access to the concerts whenever they want. Social distancing was difficult, but on the other hand it has increased the attention of the players and the conductors. You have to make an extra effort to play together, which means when you start playing close again it is easier. It’s like going to the gym and you have to lift 30 kilos, but in fact you your goal was only 20, That is very light when you lift 30!”

One benefit of the online concerts is the chance for those further afield to see orchestras they would not normally see. “You can watch orchestras in Japan or South America, you can go on tour without travelling! Of course I believe there is nothing like live performance, the energy is never the same. When it is filmed you gain something, especially with opera, but in a symphonic concert there is nothing like the acoustic of the concert hall and the feeling of the sound coming to you directly.”

Domingo Hindoyan conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Roberto Sierra’s Symphony no.6 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’) on Saturday 16 October in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. For tickets, click here

For more information on the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season, including the concert with trumpeter Pacho Flores, head to the orchestra’s website here

Talking Heads: Dov Scheindlin, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

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Interview with Ben Hogwood

It’s another hot, sunny morning in New York, and Arcana is talking with violist Dov Scheindlin, a member and former director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Deutsche Grammophon have just issued all the ensemble’s recording for the label on a 55-CD box set. Dov has graciously given part of his early morning to talk about his time with the orchestra and some of their philosophies. We begin – naturally – by asking how the relationship started.

“I’d been a fan of Orpheus for a long time, and was a fan long before I was lucky enough to start playing with the orchestra. In 1988 I entered the Juilliard School. As a present I got my very first CD player, and I got a CD with it! It was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing Dvořák Serenades. I listened to that CD, over and over, and it remains one of my favourites. That was the first time I really got to know Orpheus. Then I got to see them in Carnegie Hall a few years later, and the live experience was totally transforming. I was really lucky because I was living in London for six years, and when I came back from there in 2004 I was lucky enough to begin playing with the orchestra. I knew some people in common, and they were generous enough to let me come in and sub, and gradually it became a permanent thing.”

He has vivid memories of his first concert with the orchestra. “Oh gosh, yeah – we did something fiendishly difficult, which was the John Adams Chamber Symphony. Without a conductor it’s extremely complicated, with 15 moving parts, and I think they threw me in the deep end! I played principal viola, which was amazing to me because I was playing with them for the very first time. I think the idea behind Orpheus of shared responsibility, and seeking leadership, it meant they were good about allowing people to step into big roles right away. One of the things they wanted to find out was how you would do in that situation. It was a great experience. We took it on tour to a number of places and then we played it in Carnegie Hall. It was great fun. I don’t remember what else was on the programme but the Chamber Symphony sticks out in my mind, an amazing experience.”

The Adams, presented in that concert as a ‘one part per player’ version of the Chamber Symphony for the first time, is typical of the orchestra’s adventurous approach. Scheindlin agrees. “One of the things about the small orchestra is that we love our repertoire, but it is a bit more constrained – we don’t play Rachmaninov symphonies or anything like that. We’re always looking for things to play, and we actively commissioned new pieces for a formation of our size. One of the things we also do is to look to the existing repertoire to see what could be done, convincingly, musically and tastefully for an orchestra of our size. That broadens the repertoire, and the Adams was an example of that. There are more examples coming up in our next season, and we think of ourselves as trying to broaden the mission of the chamber orchestra.”

Scheindlin had a great deal of experience of membership with string quartets, which stood him in good stead for joining the orchestra. “Absolutely. That was one of the things that made it a really good fit. Orpheus is not ‘leader-less’, it’s ‘leader-full’. I think they’re looking for everyone to contribute. Occasionally a great player comes in, but doesn’t have anything to say, or is just looking to follow the leader, and that doesn’t work out as well. We’re really looking for people who can contribute ideas, bring ideas to the table, and we bring them all together and make them larger than the sum of the parts. Playing in a quartet, and having that experience of being responsible for 25% at least of the interpretation, has been great training for being in Orpheus. It’s about knowing when to contribute, when to sit back. It’s one of those subtle dances, because everyone has hundreds of opinions about everything. You need to pick the right moment to make your mark, and not overplay your hand. I think that people with a chamber music background do very well at Orpheus for that reason.”

Scheindlin finds the viola section a particularly stimulating place to be, right in the middle of the musical action. “It’s one of the things I love about playing the viola. Aside from the warm sound, and the timbre of the instrument, it is the position in the middle of the ensemble. It really makes you sensitive to everything that’s going on in the music. You’re not like likely to get lost at one end or the other. That’s another thing that’s been great for Orpheus, is that everyone knows the score very thoroughly. As the violist you’re right in the middle of the score, and what you’re playing often doesn’t make sense without having the whole context, so you’re constantly aware of all the other parts. You’re not just playing your part, you’re playing the whole piece – it’s just that you’re only sounding your own part. As a violist I love that.

As well as the DG box set, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has accompanied Brad Mehldau on a recent Nonesuch release, Variations. The recording was made some time ago, but has fond memories for Dov. “That was really fun. We did a whole tour of Europe, and he was such a low key personality, we were all kind of in awe of him. He would just sit down and focused, and when we played we felt like it was brand new every time even though it was a classically written out sort of piece. Although there I remember there were there there’s a cadenza in there I think where he did something totally different at the time and we were just sort of sat there in amazement. But yeah, that was a great experience with Brad Mehldau. I think we did that tour about 10 years ago, so I’m so happy to see that recording has seen the light of day.

Fast forward to performing in the light of a pandemic, and we start to talk about the experience of playing live while wearing masks, as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra did recently in their concert of Haydn’s Seven Last Words. Scheindlin admits that performances can be compromised. “It’s a somewhat disembodied experience. I’m so glad for the existence of the masks, and they make it possible for us to play together, those and now the vaccines, of course. I’m not against them, but they are definitely an impediment to direct communication. That said, you get over it and we do a lot of eye contact. I got used to looking for people’s eyes, though you do feel like you’re missing part of the picture also sometimes. If the mask isn’t positioned properly it can affect your own perception of your sound, but you get used to it. Certainly we’d much rather play with masks than not play with them.”

It was clearly a thrill to return to the live environment. “Absolutely. We hadn’t played together in about six months, and finally in September we did our first live, chamber music concert. It was Egmont. My very first concert was a chamber music concert in the courtyard of a church. They had drawn circles in chalk on the lawn, and everyone was able to bring their own lawn chair to sit in there, maybe 50 people in all. It was a beautiful late afternoon, and we started with the Sextet from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. It is such a beautiful, nostalgic and reflective piece, and something about it was just a transcending moment. I just felt so grateful and realised I would never take the experience of playing a live performance for granted again. The pandemic has obviously not been a net plus for humanity, but if there’s one thing I take out of it it’s rededicating myself to the power of what we do.”

Scheindlin speaks candidly about his own experience of lockdown. “It was a challenge,” he says frankly. “I have two young children, aged nine and six. When the pandemic came their schools closed down and we were suddenly teachers and chefs and all kinds of things that we’ve never been before. That took a tremendous amount of our energy, particularly the first six months up until September when school reopened, which freed up a little more time. It was a tough period, but it was great to spend more time with the family. I’m used to playing so many concerts at night, and my wife is a violinist as well, so also plays a lot at night. Three or four nights a week we wouldn’t be putting the kids to bed, but now suddenly we’re putting them to bed all the time! That part was nice, but having to stand over their shoulder while they did remote learning wasn’t that great, I’ll confess. It took up a lot of our energy. I made it an iron law to practice an hour a day. That was about the most I could consistently muster. I had to have that hour as a moment of sanity, a moment of focus and purpose when we didn’t know when we would get back to playing. I practised Bach Suites every day.”

He vividly recounts the start of lockdown. “I remember three or four days into it I got very shaken. They were starting to cancel things – the next few weeks, the next month – and then it became “Oh sorry, we’ll see you in the fall”, and I was wondering when is it ever going to change? Fortunately, with distancing, masks and amazing vaccines which I think I certainly didn’t expect to work so quickly, we’ve been able to get back together. It’s miraculous.”

With those revelations came an awareness of the orchestra’s importance in the community. “When we started performing again, the audiences were so grateful. Everyone was grateful, it was almost like a religious experience. One of the great things we did when we couldn’t be together in person was play a series of concerts, which we called reflections, on Zoom for audiences in elder care homes, and for people with severe medical issues and dementia. It was a great way to stay in touch with our audiences, to see the joy on their faces when they were able to hear music, even if they weren’t physically there. We did those fairly regularly, one person, or I would play with my wife. That was a great experience during the shutdown. We strive to serve and represent our community, and we’ve missed everyone, and we’re trying to reconnect right now and looking forward to next year when we can go back to performing in the places that we usually do.” A chance to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, too? “Yes – and a personal recovery from when I turned 50 too!”

In celebration of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s 50 years, Deutsche Grammophon have released a box set of all the ensemble’s recordings on the label. From experience, when you think you’ve heard every recording another one pops up that DG sneaked out in the 1990s, especially. “There is such a repository of amazing repertoire”, says Dov. “I’ve been digging into it myself.” We talk about shared favourites, such as the disc of Respighi pieces including Trittico Botticelliano. “That’s a great, lesser-known bit of repertoire that’s just beautiful music and which hasn’t seen the light of day. I’m not actually on it because it was before my time but I love that recording and am proud we brought that repertoire back.”

Asked for a personal favourite, Dov is quick in his response. “We recently did a Mendelssohn CD with Jan Lisiecki playing both Mendelssohn piano concertos. I know the first one but had never heard the second, and they are charming pieces. He does an amazing job. We also did the Italian Symphony, which is on the box, and that’s a piece we come back to again and again. The first chord makes me think of Orpheus straight away, and it’s great that we have it on CD now. There are so many that are really wonderful – the Ives recordings, the Stravinsky. There is such a rich bunch of stuff, and I hope we get to continue making them and finding new repertoire to bring forward.”

The orchestra is famous for working without a conductor, and I ask Scheindlin what the secret behind their success might be. Is it because they are a team of leaders? “I think so. There is a certain verve that comes from everyone interpreting a piece in real time without an intermediary. We’re all directly connected to the score and to each other, and we don’t need to follow a human metronome. There are great and inspiring conductors, and when you get to a certain scale you need one, but I think what makes our music making so fresh and live is that we’re all leading all the time and playing our hearts out.”

The forthcoming season is packed with exciting concerts. “We’re really excited about our tour with Branford Marsalis,” he says. It was supposed to happen this past year but we’re really thrilled it could be rescheduled. We’re doing our sort of first concert of Cuban-style music, with Arturo Sandoval, which should be really great, and we also have a tour coming up in in Japan with Nobuyuki Tsujii who we’ve also recorded with. We’ll be taking the Chopin concertos to Japan, assuming that we can still get around the world by then. We’re so happy to be coming Carnegie Hall, which we haven’t been in for a year and a half now. January will hopefully be a triumphant return! We’re optimistic for the season.”

There is clearly a thirst in New York for the return of live music. “Everything was so quiet for a year, and suddenly I’m getting calls all the time to play something next week! Suddenly people are deciding it’s possible and feasible to have live music again. I know there are these variants out there, and obviously we’re watching that, but so far the situation in New York is good and coming to life.”

With the orchestra committed to new music, have they received extra numbers of commissions? “It’s been tough for composers, because it would never have occurred to great composers of the classical time to write anything without an idea of when it would be performed. We’re actively bringing in new pieces next year, and we are continuing commissioning and we’re planning to commission for our 50th season in 2022 to 2023. That’s part of our mission, and we’re looking forward to getting back to that.”

For more information on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, head to their website. To hear clips from the Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, head to the label website, where you can also purchase the set, on 55CDs or as a download.

Talking Heads: Christian Gerhaher

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Interview with Ben Hogwood

Arcana is fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to talk with Christian Gerhaher. The German baritone has been singing in Salzburg with friends when we speak. It is the morning after, and in spite of a gruelling concert including major song cycles by Berlioz and Schoeck, he sounds invigorated on the other end of the telephone. “It was a very difficult program, but with some fantastic works”, he enthuses. “We did a new string sextet version of the Berlioz cycle Les nuits d’été, arranged by David Matthews, which was really wonderful. I was performing with the best musicians imaginable – Isabelle Faust, Anna Katharina Schreiber, Danusha Waskiewicz, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Poltéra.

The composer bringing us together for this conversation, however, is Robert Schumann. Together with his long-term musical partner, pianist Gerold Huber, Gerhaher has completed a mammoth project recording the composer’s songs (or ‘Lieder’) for voice and piano. The result is an 11-CD set released this month by Sony Classical, the culmination of many years’ hard work and dedication. Christian receives my congratulations on the pair’s achievement with characteristic warmth. “Thank you very much. Yesterday I got the box, and it was touching because we have worked for such a long time, and so intensely, to achieve this!”

Gerhaher is an engaging interviewee, generous with his answers. We begin by casting his mind back to see if he can recall his very first encounter with the Lieder of Schumann? “Yes – it was a recital by the baritone Hermann Prey. He was performing Dichterliebe, and the Kerner songs. I was especially touched by Dichterliebe, which was a kind of upbeat for my work with Gerold in the Lieder repertoire.”

What was it about the composer’s music that drew him in? “Schumann is very well known now, with titles like Dichterliebe or the Eichendorff cycle, the Heine cycle Liederkreis Op.24, and the Kerner songs, maybe Myrthen, the Op.25”, he recounts, “but I discovered that there are so many songs, 299 in all! I got so completely involved in Schumann singing. I was always addicted to his piano music when I was young, but then I found out that every song, when Gerold and I did them for the first time, was amazing and so full of possible meaning. It would have been so sad to leave these songs undiscovered. We make our repertoire bigger and bigger, if possible, but then came this opportunity of recording, and we thought it was the perfect way to get to know Schumann as well as possible. I must say apart from one or two songs I love them all. I can’t say there is one weak song. In the first ‘Liederjahr’ (Schumann’s first ‘Year of Song’) in 1840, where he happened to deliver 140 masterworks from nothing, there is no song there that is boring, bad or strange. It’s just incredible what a pianist like him could deliver out of no development, from the beginning it was perfect. The 1850 songs are the same. It’s amazing.”

His wonder at Schumann is only enhanced by these lesser-known songs, and our conversation alights on the set of six Gesänge published as Op.107, an intimate and emotional set. “They are”, he agrees. “What I thought quite early on with Gerold is that there is a cyclic idea behind each of Schumann’s opus numbers. Altogether there are 45 separate lieder opuses. Two of them are complete opuses with one song only (Der Handschuh and Belsatzar) but the rest are cycles. We had a very interesting idea concerning these cycles, which is that the form of each is always different. You have so many different ways of completing a song cycle, in the narrative. You have the Kerner songs, and you have the fantastic wedding gift of Myrthen, which speaks for itself as a song cycle, but there are also cycles which are conceived just for one work. The four books of Myrthen always end with two songs by the same poet, like two people standing together at the end of a book – a loving couple.”

He finds another example. “You also have the Op.83, which is an opus reflecting the number ‘3’. There are three songs, and the last song for example, which is a perfect strophic song, is reflecting the trinity of God. You have the three forms of songs – a strophic strong, a very strophic song, and a through composed song, which is the first one. Then you have the number three in people – a loving couple who decide to have a child in the middle of no.2. These go on and on, it is astonishing.”

Gerhaher’s partnership with Gerold Huber (above) exists on wholly equal terms. “Certainly, it is never a case of piano accompaniment. Gerold is a ‘Lied pianist’, not an accompanist. For me it is one of the major achievements of my life, like having a wife that I love, to have Gerold as my best friend. We have been working together for 33 years now!”

It must have been special for the two embarking on this particular voyage of discovery together. “Yes. It was demanding, though,” he says with understatement, “and you have to decide which songs you would add to the recording and those where you think do not match what you were expecting to record. When we had to choose other singers to do the work you can’t do yourself it was really a big mountain to climb, but it was one of the major achievements of my life.”

The guest singers tend to appear on the songs where more than one vocalist is required, or where the range goes beyond that of a baritone. How were they chosen? “By sympathy and by professional admiration,” he says, “but what I like very much is not to choose singers for a quartet or trio that have very similar voices. That is a very important thing to think about, getting the ensemble right. I like to have very different voices, like a light tenor or a soprano, and an alto which is darker. Having different voices is very important in an ensemble because the identity of a voice and person with a sung role is important, to keep this identity as strong as possible. It vanishes in comparison with a solo song, but I did not want a perfect unity in the quartet songs.”

When preparing their interpretations, Gerhaher was mindful of the lives of the poets whose text Schumann was setting. “Yes, certainly”, he says warmly. “How could I not be? Some of the poets are quite unknown, so it was a curiosity that led to nothing because the information did not always give me any advantage. The other thing is that Schumann as an artist didn’t, in my eyes, try to perfectly match the possible meaning of the text he was putting into music. That means he never tries to understand a poem entirely, in the way of noting down the certain meaning. I understand literary lyricism as an open field of thoughts and associations which are not strictly written. There are many possible meanings coming together and not being nailed down with a solution. This is what Schumann does, and he even adds something to the lyricism by obliterating some possible meanings, or bending the meaning of a poem to make it more complicated than it is. He does this not only by putting a poem into music but sometimes by combining poems into his cycles, as combinations which have no relation to each other.”

He gives an example. “In the Op.96 the second song, called Schneeglöckchen, is about one of the first flowers coming out after winter. They are tiny, white flowers, with a small green line on the end of the blossoms. The song is about a winter storm coming in and saying to the Schneeglöckchen, ‘Look, you have to vanish – the storm is coming, and you can’t survive here. The song says, you have such a strange uniform, white with this green strip. The poet is anonymous, and you don’t really know what the whole song is about – it’s a total mystery.” He has a solution. “It’s not about springtime, or the end of winter, but I thought about the colours of the flower in uniforms of old soldiers. I found one uniform of a Hanover group of soldiers, fighting alongside England in the seven-year war of the 1750s. There was one battle in the East of Germany where the Austrians were pushing them away from south to north. They had to flee, and I assume there was a soldier, one of them wounded, and they told him ‘Come with us, we can’t stay here’. He couldn’t, because he was wounded, and was like this strange Schneeglöckchen which couldn’t flee to the north. Why should a Schneeglöckchen flee to the north? If anything it should flee to the south. It’s so complicated, so strange, and so full of mystery and even nonsense. This is what I love with Schumann’s songs and understanding of poetry. He doesn’t deliver a solution – he makes it complicated.”

Gerhaher is a compelling speaker. With Schumann’s music so wholly absorbed in his own consciousness, does he think the approach he described appeals to audiences? “Yes, though you can’t always explain the complications by words, or even explain the meaning. You just show them how complicated music, art and poetry is. There’s nothing to be understood easily in coming to one meaning, like in opera maybe. It’s not a concrete art, it is more abstract.”

He trained with one of the greatest Lieder singers of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This great German baritone recorded much of Schumann’s Lieder output for Deutsche Grammophon, though Gerhaher did not spend too much time listening to his mentor’s interpretations. “Certainly I had some different ideas. He was on one hand my hero, but our purpose was different. The cyclic intention of Schumann is what we think is important to us. Dietrich was taking songs out of opuses that he thought he could sing well, and others he neglected, which is against the cyclic idea. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we are right, it’s just our idea of how to perform them.”

He cites another set of the complete songs, curated by Graham Johnson for Hyperion. “He did the entire songs, but he was choosing different singers for song cycles. For my eyes I would rather cast them with one singer to keep the identity of thought. We have our own ideas, and I think they are important to ourselves, not to the truth as such.”

As they recorded more of Schumann’s work, how did their feelings towards the composer develop – and in particular the struggles he experienced with his mental health? “Schumann was always in my eyes a perfect artist, or the image of an artist. An idea which I got later on is that you have these two different groups of songs – the songs with one person singing, and the songs with different people singing. I think the illusion of a voice representing the lyrical ego of singing a song, which is an illusion of a story going on, on a stage, that is easily understood by everyone as an illusion, this disappears immediately when several people are singing together. The singularity of one fabric is vanishing, so you have two different possibilities of song. You have the songs I recorded and sing for one person, which are in Schumann’s case representing his world of emotion, his difficult world of depression where he was getting sicker and sicker. The other world, with these many people singing together, has a very special sweetness sometimes – you could say it’s on the border of being kitschy. This made me think of Schumann conceiving these song cycles as a perfect and unproblematic world which he doesn’t live in, but which he wishes for himself. It’s two layers of life, very differently handled by him. This is my idea, I can’t prove it!”

In Christian’s view, what are the qualities required to be a successful Schumann singer? “I would say everyone can do it as they want, as they feel. Certainly for me, being a good singer with my own purposes would mean to have a lot of colour. This is the advantage of singing alone as opposed to other people at the same time. The other thing is the pronunciation of the German language in Schumann songs is especially important. I would say all these layers of colour add to the occasion, to the author as a kind of painting with many colours. You can only deliver them if the pronunciation, as a first instance of colourisation, is done in a perfect way. That means the pronunciation and the understanding of sung words in German is very much depending on the right vowel.”

Finally, as Gerhaher moves towards his next interview, what are his favourite instrumental pieces by our chosen composer? “I admire EVERYTHING by Schumann,” he says warmly, “but there are some pieces without which I can’t imagine a meaningful life: Szenen aus Goethes Faust, the Violin Concerto, and of course the piano works. I think especially of the Symphonische Etüden, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen, Intermezzi, 7 Clavierstücke in Fughettenform, Gesänge der Frühe, and the Geistervariationen.” With that he moves on – leaving us with a remarkable legacy of Lieder recordings to enjoy.

Alle Lieder, the box set of Schumann’s complete songs, is out now on Sony Classical – and you can listen to any of the 299 songs on Spotify here:

You can also watch Christian Gerhaher singing his Salzburg program of Berlioz and Schoeck in this concert stream from the Wigmore Hall in London, which also includes a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht:

Talking Heads: Joseph Phibbs

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Interview with Ben Hogwood

This year in the Summer at Snape series, Britten Pears Arts has been presenting premieres of new arrangements of works by Benjamin Britten. The last in the series will be composer Joseph Phibbs’ arrangement of Britten’s landmark orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers for the chamber forces of the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn. Described by Britten as ‘my real Op.1’, the piece represents the full flowering of his creative relationship with W.H. Auden, who supplied the texts for the three middle poems, writing his own new verse for the Prologue and Epilogue. It is also the first of Britten’s works to explore the theme of humans’ inhumanity, which ran as a thread throughout his life and music. Arcana was able to talk with Joseph about his arrangement, and about the meaningful relationship he has with the music of its composer.

BH: I understand you have a long-standing relationship with Britten’s music. Can you remember the first time you heard anything by him?

JP: I was around 13, and borrowed some cassettes of the String Quartets from my local library. The opening of No.1 immediately captivated me, the violins and viola sustaining a soft cluster of notes at the very top of their registers, with gentle cello pizzicato gestures beneath. The sound world had a disorientating effect, one that was totally alien as well as extraordinarily beautiful. My impressions were of wide landscapes bathed in a glowing, evening light, and it may indeed have been influenced by the impressions Britten had of America around the time he composed it.

A few months later, I heard the Dirge from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which was riveting, and shortly after became obsessed with Peter Grimes, listening to it non-stop, before making a pilgrimage to The Red House when I was about 16.

I was incensed by a documentary that had just been made called J’accuse, which dismissed most of what Britten composed after 1945, and spoke at length to the curator about it, who kindly allowed me look around the Britten-Pears Library (perhaps to calm me down!). I remember picking up a stone from the drive way, in the hope that Britten’s shoe may have graced it 20 years earlier..

It all sounds crazy to me now (it probably was crazy), but my reverence for Britten has never really left me. He strikes me as an extraordinary and mysterious figure, a workaholic who was in some ways compelled to compose because his own irrepressible genius.

When I first heard Our Hunting Fathers it made an incredibly strong impression on me, and I found it emotionally very powerful. How did you respond on first hearing?

Of Britten’s mature works, it was one I knew less well. Having now rediscovered it, I can see how remarkable it is. Britten’s technique was fully formed when he composed it in 1936, at the age of 22, and although it’s his first mature work to include orchestra the scoring is both impeccably judged and extremely imaginative in ways that would have been unusual at the time. He himself regarded it as his first ‘real opus 1’, so clearly felt he had achieved something important. It’s also his first large-scale expression of pacifism. Fascism was on the rise throughout Europe at the time – the Spanish Civil War erupted while the piece was being composed – and Auden’s juxtaposition of ‘German’ and Jew’ (dogs in a hunting pack) at the close of The Dance of Death has a chilling prescience in light of how the world would look ten years later. In some respects it’s an atypical work for Britten, a reason why even some of his detractors have a soft spot for it.

How would you describe Britten’s ability at scoring for orchestra?

As mentioned above, there’s a certain glow to his sound, as well as a clarity and lightness of touch, which I’ve always loved. His music is the opposite of ‘dense’, and he disliked orchestral music that sounded heavy (famously so in the case of Brahms – though also in some Beethoven). He discovered new ways of approaching the orchestra throughout his life; the textures of Peter Grimes, for example, are completely different from those of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Death in Venice. The melodic and harmonic aspects of his music are always perfectly aligned to his orchestration, and can’t really be divorced from it. For this reason, in this arrangement the original orchestral colour has been kept as possible, and elsewhere I’ve tried to imagine what Britten would have done were he scoring for a small ensemble.

What other Britten works do you particularly admire?

I drift in and out of pieces, and am at the moment re-familiarising myself with Rejoice in the Lamb, another early work. Death in Venice is my favourite opera, and Les Illuminations has always been high on my list. A Boy was Born, which predates Our Hunting Fathers, is to my mind one of the most extraordinary works in the repertoire, and the pinnacle of his choral writing from a technical angle. I discovered the cello suites through the superb Tim Hugh recordings around 15 years ago, and they became a big influence on my work. They are perhaps his most private, intimate pieces.

In recent years I’ve enjoyed getting to know his more obscure works better: Prelude and Fugue, for example, and The Journey of the Magi, both wonderful pieces. Occasionally pieces I haven’t listened to for several years suddenly come alive again through an unfamiliar recording, as with Noseda‘s live LSO recording of War Reqiuem, or Iona Brown‘s riveting take on Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

How did the commission come about?

I was asked last year by Roger Wright at Britten Pears Arts – on Colin Matthew’s recommendation – to make this new arrangement, in part due to COVID restrictions. I discussed the instrumentation with William Conway, Artistic Director of the Hebrides Ensemble, and we decided on a scoring that would be compatible with the Sinfonietta Op.1, in the hope that these two pieces might be programmed together in the future. Boosey and Hawkes, who publish the work, granted permission, and it was then then a matter of gaining an overview of the whole piece, isolating particular sections that might be more challenging than others, and then working from beginning to end.

In Britten’s scoring for Our Hunting Fathers I felt I could detect the influence of in the idea of chamber-like passages in a work set for symphony orchestra. Was this something you were conscious of?

The chamber ensembles that emerge in parts of Mahler were clearly an influence, and his imagination had also been fired by Schoenberg, Berg, and Stravinsky, if not harmonically then in a more transparent, colouristic approach to scoring. It’s an unusual piece for the time in which it was written, when a denser approach to orchestral writing in England would have been more typical. I don’t know a work of Britten’s that is more fastidiously scored; every bar is packed full of instructions, and one has the impression he was setting out the full extent of his orchestral technique for the world to see. It left the audience – including Frank Bridge – fairly baffled after the premiere, and was savaged in most of the press. Though it was performed the following year, under Adrian Boult, it had to wait until 1950 before resurfacing.

Did you refer to other smaller-scale Britten works when you were doing the arrangement? I was thinking of the economical scoring in works like Curlew River or the Nocturne.

The Sinfonietta was my closest reference point, although some of the chamber operas, in particular The Turn of the Screw, were also in my mind. Every one of the 12 instruments were essential to do justice to the piece; without, for example, the strident, brassy quality of the horn, the moments of high drama would have been lost.

It must be quite something having the premiere at Snape, and to have your own work back in the live environment.

To have something of Britten’s performed which I’ve tampered with, in the concert hall he built, feels a bit daunting. I can only hope he’d be pleased that one of his most original and neglected works might reach a wider public, albeit in a new guise.

Has Britten been an influence on your own music? I’m thinking particularly of the string quartets.

His instrumentation and orchestration has probably had the biggest single influence. The way he reinvents old forms, such as the passacaglia – which he used many times – is also intriguing. But more than that, it’s his willingness to be emotionally direct which I find so appealing. His music has a spontaneity which I adore; there’s no struggle in order to enjoy it, since his technique is so impeccable. The music seems to move in a direction that it could only go, and in this sense there’s a mastery of judgement – of effortlessness and inevitability, as in Bach or Mozart – which is extremely seductive. His ability to enthral and yet not confuse is, for me, one of the hallmarks of his genius.

How would you describe your new Cello Sonata?

This is a joint commission between Wigmore Hall and Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, which will host the premiere by Guy Johnston and Tom Poster at the end of September. I got to know Guy’s playing more intimately while composing the work, and have since become a huge fan. Tom, who I’ve worked with before, is also a superb musician, so I couldn’t hope to be better served. The work is written in memory of someone I’d worked with closely, who passed away in his early 50s, and this lends the piece an elegiac quality at times. It’s in several movements, some linked, and includes an arrangement of a 16th Century pavane, in a movement entitled Ghost Dance, as a link to Hatfield House, where Elizabeth I lived as a child.

Is it important for you to have a friendship / understanding with your performers in the way that Britten had with his?

In a few cases, such as my Clarinet Concerto or Letters from Warsaw, I’ve written for close friends whose playing I know well. In other cases, it’s important for me to have a clear grasp of the technical capabilities of the performers, assuming it’s a commissioned work. Aside from that, it’s a question of trying to ‘ find the right notes’, as Britten put it, and to that extent the process is a personal and sometimes chaotic one, involving a large number of ideas and sketches. I get nervous sharing drafts before the piece is finished, as a player’s response – whether positive, negative, or silent – can divert you from what you intended to do.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing some guitar miniatures for a superb young player, Alex Hart, as well as a set of pieces for Tom Kimura – a wonderful pianist who I studied with at The Purcell School. After that, I’m starting a string piece for the Britten Sinfonia, and also gathering ideas together for a Violin Concerto.

Joseph Phibbsarrangement of Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers for the chamber forces of the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn receives its world premiere at Snape Maltings on Tuesday 24 August. More information can be found here.

Talking Heads: Simon Dobson

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Interview with Alec Snook

Simon Dobson is a man of many disciplines. To date his musical career has found him out front as a conductor and composer, then behind the scenes as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist. On occasion all those disciplines combine, often with the London-based Parallax Orchestra, with whom he has worked on shows for rock and metal bands. The last year has seen a return to solo composition, with his second artist album MDCNL, released by Lo Recordings in May 2021, delivering five substantial musical statements including the single Quiet, Pls. Here he gives Arcana the lowdown…

In the making of your new LP ‘MDCNL’, was your hand forced to change recording styles/techniques due to the on-going pandemic?

Yeah, pretty much everything about the way I work had to change. Until last year I’d mostly worked to commission, one nail biting month to another, but with ensembles not meeting there were no commissions and no conducting work. I’d been looking to move away from that for a while if truth be told and so I got into production.

What is your relationship with electronic music composition as opposed to the more ‘traditional’ orchestral music that you trained in?

Other than loving listening to it and being a huge fan of it, my relationship with it is super new. This was pretty much the first time (other than demoing stuff at home to later be recorded) that I’d produced music electronically…which is pretty weird, actually. Being a composer and a conductor is obviously a bit of a ‘musical control freak’ thing and there’s more control to be had in the production of electronic music and all the infinite variations it contains. I’ve always been a fan of acts like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin though, I feel like all roads were going to lead me here at some point.

Do you feel that instrumental composers have to work harder to create a narrative or tell a story?

Maybe. Telling a story is hard regardless of the forces you’re writing for. I feel like the world of electronic music is just a language with more words or a shelf with more paints, though.

Does taking a more electronic focussed ensemble on the road appeal to you?

For sure. I love the idea of making electronic music live (and I do have some well tekkers plans up my sleeve), but for the moment getting over the panic of being ready to perform again in ANY way (having not played for the longest time in my adult life) is the first thing to tackle.

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When writing and arranging for guitar bands, what shifts in focus or strategies need to take place?

Big talk. Firstly, I’m always aware that in those work situations whatever I write is always beholden to someone else’s music. It’s only ever there to back it up and enhance it, so sometimes it’s hard to let go of ego and be utterly cool with stuff getting chopped or dissed if it’s “too far out” (it never is). Secondly, I generally only arrange for acts or a style I’m into (for example metal), that way I can throw myself into it and have fun as a composer/arranger.

Do you feel more pressure when collaborating with another band/artist? Or does it give you a freedom to step away from pieces that weren’t initially conceived by you?

If I’m working for an act or an orchestra I’m well into, I’ll obviously want them to think that my work is rad. So, I work hard at that shit for sure, but yeah, if I don’t have that sense of total ownership of a piece of music it is easier to be subjective about it.

What order of priority do you give to your orchestral work; the film scores; and the contemporary music arranging?

Honestly, music is my life so there is no strict priority order. I love the orchestral arranging work because I know I can add sheen and value to someone’s creations (plus metal/orchestra stuff is literally the funnest job ever, and the culmination of how I grew up loving heavy music but being classically trained). Film score stuff is new to me but again a very specific discipline and super fun; and contemporary composition is often solitary and hardcore but utterly fulfilling. I basically throw myself right into anything I do – ‘cos it’s music, and music is rad.

If you could work with one film director on a project, who would it be and why?

Either Werner Herzog or Wes Anderson. I know these two are miles apart, but they always have music that I absolutely love. I love the fun, quirky thing with Wes, I reckon I could give that a good crack, and I love the abstract serenity and epic emptiness of Herzog film scores; I’d love to write some weird soundscapes with a string quartet for whatever mad thing it is he does next.

Which other contemporary bands/artists, past or present, are you finding inspiring at the moment?

Anna Meredith (obvs, as always), Olly Coates, Colin Stetson, Steve Reich, Brian Eno (of course), Radiohead (for ever and ever), Matt Calvert, Mica Levi, Esbjorn Svensson, Tigran Hamasyan, Grace Lightman, LYR... you know, the normal bunch.

What other projects do you have coming up this year, whether studio or live?

I’m currently working on a big orchestral gig with my London based crew, Parallax Orchestra. This is a live gig with a band, but I can’t say anything about it just yet, safe to say I’m currently buried under a mountain of orchestral arranging. I’ve got an interesting contemporary commission on the horizon in collaboration with my mates LYR, and I will also be writing a sax quartet for my friend Andy Scott‘s group Apollo.

Oh, I’m also involved in a long-term project working with a local beekeeping start-up called Pollenize, writing generative music based on real time data sets coming out of beehives in Plymouth where I live. Other than that, who knows, MDCNL2 maybe…

Simon Dobson’s MDCNL is out now on Lo Recordings, while a new remix from Human Pyramids of Quiet, Pls has been released today (30 July 2021). You can hear that in the Soundcloud embed above.