Q&A from Early Music Today (UK)

Early Music TodayAdrian Horsewood (http://adrianhorsewood.com) from the UK publication Early Music Today recently sent a few questions my way for an article that was published on September 3 2013 in that superb online and print magazine. Here are my unedited (i.e. pre-edited) responses to his great questions:

Obviously Bach is close to your heart and key to your programming; what first gave you the kick to devoting such a major part of your career to his music?

I was drawn to the music of Bach during my childhood. After studying violin and piano for a number of years, I had the good fortune of living in a city in Pennsylvania that had recently welcomed a performer/scholar to one of its college campuses. He was a Bach specialist, and I had my first significant experiences with listening to and practicing on harpsichords and pipe organs at that time. Of course, that immediately threw me into the wonderful world of Bach, and I have been devoted ever since.

You had an extremely successful international career as a tenor; when did you start directing, and do you miss your life as a singer?

When ABS was founded in 1989, the idea was to bring together the best ensembles of Bach specialists to perform (primarily, at the time) the composer’s rich cantata repertoire. I had been performing and recording that music for some time already, so I carried on as the principal tenor at ABS. Soon, however, the scale of some of our performances grew such that a conductor was necessary. I had been conducting since my teenage years, and had studied quite a bit in conservatory and privately with a mentor, John Miner. So, I was happy to take on the additional responsibilities. What I discovered all too soon, however, is that one must wear many hats when managing an ensemble such as ours. In the first years, especially, when we were focusing so heavily on the production of CD recordings, my days were full and varied, and I never felt that I had quite the advantage of a day’s rest before a performance that my colleagues could enjoy. Bit by bit, I decided – at first, reluctantly – that I would have to focus on one aspect or another, and the musical direction won out. I did miss singing for a while, but when I realized that I never had to clear my throat on the way to the stage, or worry so meticulously about all the details of sleep, hydration, rest, etc. that are always on the minds of singers, I must admit that it was a relief! All singers know that everything must be perfectly aligned for the voice to respond as best as it can, and when anything gets in the way of that, it becomes just a little bit less enjoyable. Ultimately, I felt that I could do more for ABS and for this music that we all love so dearly by focusing on the artistic and musical direction of the ensemble.

Very few musicians could find the time or energy to cover the wide range of activities that you do – directing the ABS in its performance and educational work, teaching at the University of California, and hosting your own weekly radio show! You’re clearly a passionate evangelist for the music you love – how much do these various roles complement each other?

I think that the connection or link between those activities is, in a word, “education.” I have loved my work with ABS since its beginnings, but it was really not until we had established our Academy that our mission and goals really found their fruition. A performing arts organization such as ours provides a dearly cherished part of the musical repertory that can be so important to those who already know quite a bit about it. But Bach’s music – and the music of the Baroque in general (or any other period, for that matter) – can certainly attract new listeners. Before long, they want to know more about what they’re hearing. Arts patrons really do want to be significantly involved in their experiences, and they often measure that sense of ownership by comparing their intuitive reactions to their gained knowledge. So, education in all of its forms about works of art – whether through program notes, informal talks before or after concerts, or at special events – is critical to our enjoyment of that art. By focusing recently on our Academy, we have extended that core mission to the most fantastic generation of emerging artists whose passion and determination to master the early music repertoire is astonishing. They embrace it and its challenges both with the forthrightness of their technical approaches and with a ravenous hunger to understand its underpinnings, rhetoric, and cultural relevance. I can’t express how privileged I feel – as do my Academy faculty colleagues – to work in such an inspiring environment. At the University of California, I direct ensembles and teach a Bach class that I enjoy very much. The class is a great joy, of course, and relates very directly to my work in expressing how much we can learn from the greatest artists, who need not be isolated from our own lives by any elevated sense of distance or elusive relevance. And hosting my radio shows on KDFC, which can be heard streaming there in the UK, also gives me an opportunity to share the same kinds of information, but through yet a different approach: one that is certainly more casual and relaxed, but just as effective if not more so, considering how many listeners really do stop what they’re doing and concentrate on the music

The ABS obviously has a very loyal audience and subscriber base – how have your audiences changed over the last 25 years?

In the beginning, we used to muse about what seemed like the existence of a finite number of patrons who would be there, at every concert, rain or shine, because they were so devoted to Bach’s music. While some audience members would change, the total number seemed to be very consistent. In time, though, despite reasonable concerns, the audience began to grow at a steady and now impressive rate. Over the last year, nearly all of our concerts were sold out, gaining us our highest attendance numbers ever. I think that two aspects of our programming are to be credited with the growth. A decade or so ago, we began our series of performances of Handel’s Messiah in the magnificent setting of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Those performances are one of the highlights of the year for me: The Cathedral is packed full of people; the excitement about the performance in that beautiful space during the December holidays is palpable; Grace Cathedral couldn’t be more welcoming of our performances there, and the acoustic effects of the Cathedral are spectacular. Then, as part of our 21st season (2009-10), we inaugurated the Festival & Academy in another wonderful space, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The audiences, again filling the concert hall to its capacity, seem to be passionately dedicated to the Festival and to the emerging artists that are each year’s Academy Participants. We open our Academy sessions (master classes, lectures, colloquia) to the public for an entire week, and they are filled with people who greatly value the immersion experience of it all.

The breadth and scope of the ABS’s educational work is very impressive, particularly the summer ACADEMY – there are very few similar events in Europe, where one ensemble spends such a long time with students in such small groups. What do you encourage students to work on during the ACADEMY, and what career paths have they gone on to take after working with you?

One of the most important principles of approach to us is that of multi-disciplinary understandings. We make special efforts to assure that singers and players of all instruments understand the challenges and expressive devices available to each other. Our faculty coach the participants in rotations, so that an ensemble that might consist of a singer, a couple of violins, and basso continuo will be coached not only by members of our singing, violin, and continuo faculty, but also perhaps by faculty members from other disciplines. This is so very important. Music-making in all of its forms is by definition collaborative, and we want our Academy Participants to take with them a much heightened awareness about how all the pieces fit together. I also believe that we, as performers, are granted the incomprehensible honor of rendering what we see on the page into an audible analog that can be understood by listeners who might have little or no experience at all with the details, tools, and devices of composition. A composer such as Bach, along with hundreds more, never put a note on a manuscript page without thinking about it. Those notes, and all the elements of composed music, have specific purposes founded in the meaning and rhetoric that the composer has chosen to put forward. Why did a composer choose a particular note value or length, or pitch, or melodic contour? Why is one phrase or portion of text repeated at a specific time and place in the movement? We must decipher that, and almost innumerable other aspects, tirelessly, as best as we can, and bring those realizations to our performances rather than take the approach of “What can we do with (or, “to”) this piece of music?” Instead, the question to ask is: “How can we best reveal what is already here on the score?” Those are two radically different approaches, and the decision to follow one course or the other defines a performance career. Our participants also establish important and budding professional relationships with each other during their time with us. Many have formed new ensembles on their own, and a good number have become new members of American Bach Soloists.

The ABS’s discography is refreshingly varied – what recording plans do you have in the pipeline?

On the immediate forefront, a new release of works by Handel will be available before the end of 2013. The recording will feature the sensational soprano, Mary Wilson, whose mastery of the Handel repertoire is phenomenal. I think that this new recording will make a great impression on anyone who hears it. We recorded the (relatively) recently discovered Gloria in D Major, the Laudate, Pueri, Dominum from the “Carmelite Vespers,” and Silete venti, which is, to me, one of Handel’s finest works.