Thursday, March 30, 2017

Philharmonia doubles up

The Philharmonia has today announced the appointment of their new principal guest conductor. And their other principal guest conductor too. The lucky maestri are Jakub Hruša from the Czech Republic and Santtu-Matias Rouvali from Finland. They will take up their shared role at the start of the 2017-18 season and will be the first conductors to hold the post since the death of Sir Charles Mackerras in 2010. You can see them both in London next month: Hruša conducts the Philharmonia on 6 April and Rouvali on 23rd at the Royal Festival Hall.

Here are two introductions to them:






We look forward to getting to know them!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Buried treasure found in Cadogan Hall

Every now and then someone unearths a piece by Delius and holds its opaline gorgeousness up to the light to glimmer for a moment before it is shoved back into hiding. The rarity of his music is our loss, and it speaks volumes about the prejudices of the musical herd-mentality over the decades. A Village Romeo and Juliet may be an imperfect treasure, but it’s a treasure nonetheless, and when it is well performed (as it was at the Wexford Festival a few years ago) one can be left a tad furious that it is so rarely given a chance...

My review of last night's performance by New Sussex Opera of Delius's gorgeous tragic opera A Village Romeo and Juliet is up now at The Critics' Circle. It was a treat to hear it again, even in the not-very-operatic Cadogan Hall with a semi-pro company, reduced orchestra and some seemingly flat-packed planks. And I hope that clarinettist might twist his father's arm...

All is revealed here. 


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

As easy as do-re-me...

An article in The Guardian yesterday appears to have declared that music education is elitist because the notation is unintelligible unless you're privately educated, and therefore notation ought to be dropped. Oh dear.

At least, that's how it has been interpreted. Actually, there's a bit more to it than that.

Let's start at the very beginning. There's nothing elitist about reading music and if you learn it early on, it's easy as pie. A number of friends have responded that they managed to learn music notation in a day or two at their state primary schools. I vaguely remember learning it aged about 5, when my mum gave me some piano basics from this book (yes, I am that old...):



You know, of course, that kids learn anything and everything much faster than adults, especially if they are brought up with it from the start. My littler nephews, half Italian, were bilingual from the beginning, because if you're taught two languages as something normal, it just is normal to you. (That's also why kids can fix your computer problems...) Music is a language of sorts, and suggesting that notation shouldn't be taught is like saying that learning a language can be accomplished without knowing any vocabulary. If all children were to be taught to read music as young as possible, preferably before they are 7, they would have it as a skill and an asset for the rest of their lives.

What's so difficult about reading music anyway? It's incredibly straightforward and logical. The pitches go up and down, so you show them going up or down on the stave. There are only 12 notes, so when you finish the 12th you just start over again. The different clefs indicate which note is where, and they're designed to make it easier for you according to the pitch of your voice or the instrument you play. You can modify the notes with sharps or flats (OK, sometimes double sharps or double flats if you're Fauré trying to do something very clever, but never mind that for the moment).

You show the duration of the notes with clear, basic symbols. They're not so hard to remember, according to our teacher at school, when we were 11. She'd draw one bar of music on the blackboard with white chalk. One big round plain note was a semibreve and it went TAAAA. Two smaller ones taking up the same amount of time were minims and went TAA TAA. Four crotchets to the semibreve, going TA TA TA TA. Then you could fit two quavers with their funny black tails into each crotchet, going TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE-TA-TE. And then semiquavers, worth half a quaver each, going TAFFA-TEFFY-TAFFA-TEFFY.... (I'm not sure what we'd do with demisemiquavers, but maybe TAFFA-TEFFY-TIFFY-TOFFY?) OK, now you have the basics.

There are other teaching systems aplenty. My cello-playing nephew used to go to a very good Saturday morning music school and learned another way altogether. Creative teachers who really connect with youngsters can and do come up with all manner of interesting methods.

Still, one vital point in the original article is really worth a second look. It's the art of playing by ear. It would be enormously, immeasurably, phenomenally valuable if more of us learned to play by ear as early as possible. The solfège system is a great mystery to UK kids being put through the grade-exam mill and has never been part of our music education system (such as it is). In France and various other places it is absolutely standard. It is, in basic concept, as simple as The Sound of Music tells us, and once learned it helps you to know, as second nature, the relation of one note to another. That doesn't mean you won't find it a headache en route from time to time, but, like learning notation, it's an investment for your future. Over to Maria and the Von Trapp children:



While there is nothing inherently academic about notation, any more than there is something inherently academic about learning to read and write, we often remain too tied to the page. Playing by ear can free you up in all manner of ways. This is because it's not essentially the notes that hamstring us: it's authority.

It's your dad saying: "Stop mucking about and practise properly". It's your teacher saying: "No, you can't just make it up as you go along". It's the examiner at the desk following the score to make sure you're observing the right kind of crescendo in the right place, and you won't get a distinction if you don't (and then your grandmother will be terribly upset, because she's convinced you're the next Martha Argerich even though you're 10 years old and doing Grade 3, so you have to feel guilty too).

I would love to be able to play by ear, but was actively discouraged from trying. As a kid I used to seek hours of harmless fun by working out how to play tunes from my favourite records, then sticking basic accompaniments onto them. This probably caused cacophony at home; I was ordered to stop mucking about and practise properly. That was the end of it. Incidentally, I'm a useless sight-reader to this day.

Sight-reading ability, contrary to the Guardian piece, doesn't go only with being able to read. It goes with having the courage to try. To trust yourself to attempt something you haven't first taken to bits and worked out very, very slowly.

The few times I've found myself able to sight-read have been the occasions on which I've known by ear how the piece goes (this is assuming we're talking about something technically straightforward, not the Franck Violin Sonata). You look at the page, you hear it in your head and you know what to do with it. If you can't hear it in your inner ear first, it will be much harder to play. That's one reason the sight-reading tests in grade exams used to be so difficult, because they were designed, I used to feel, to catch you out, almost as if to make sure you probably couldn't hear it in your head first. They weren't actual pieces of music. Talk about putting kids off. I think, though, that this has now been tackled and reformed.

The signal that somewhere along the line British musical education really is too academic comes into focus with the divide between music college and university. I sincerely hope it's changed since my day. I graduated 30 years ago this summer, after three years of beating my head against every brick wall in town looking for somewhere to practise. The performance element in that course counted for an optional one-seventh of the third year, so during the first two years you weren't really allowed to practise because it wasn't part of your course until the third year, and then you didn't have to do it and if you didn't feel confident after having not been allowed to practise for two years you could choose a different option instead and stop worrying. The fact that most music students do play music and need to practise consistently tended to pass the colleges by - the college academics, most of them not musical at all, had no clue that becoming a musician requires regular, daily training as much as becoming an Olympic rower does. In the official view, music was an admirable pastime for an amateur but a dreadful profession, one to be looked down upon, condemning you to use the tradesmen's entrance forever. Institutional arrogance can close minds, ears and eyes. I lost count of the number of times I heard the words: "We are not a conservatoire".

After that, I tried to go to a music college, only to be faced with aural tests of sub-O-level standard, and then the words "Well, we're not a bloody university, you know, you can't just pick and choose". Caught between snobbery and inverted snobbery, I left. This divide seemed bad at the time, but the extraordinary thing is that I still feel angry about it now and it happened three decades ago.

In better news, a lot of fine musicians came out of both institutions. At that university the early music specialists had masses of support; the singers found ample opportunity to test their wings in chapels and university opera; and good student orchestras were two a penny and would-be conductors could form them and learn their craft on the job. As for pianists, a few things to kick against can work wonders for your motivation. Learning resilience has a value all its own and is not included in any curriculum, anywhere, ever.

Since then, I think the situation has changed incrementally: for instance, there are now plenty of joint courses between universities and music colleges, and more practical aspects of music-making are wound into school options if and where they exist. These old divides, though, would not suddenly have kicked in at tertiary level, from nowhere. Such matters tend to be rooted deeply in societal attitudes that have persisted for decades, sometimes centuries, and can prove hard to eradicate. I believe that our finest universities and colleges have been working hard to make those changes and if they have succeeded, then that is wonderful. But it has to work from the bottom up. Therefore starter music education must not be "elitist" and divided into artificially incompatible academic and practical strands - and I hope that in most places it already is not.

And the only egalitarian way to ensure that music education is not "elitist" is to provide it free, with a grounding in an instrument, in singing and in notation, in every school, for every child, from the very beginning. So there you go.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

SILVER BIRCH: Come to Garsington and see our opera!


Booking is now open for SILVER BIRCH, the new 'People's Opera' by composer Roxanna Panufnik, with a libretto by muggins. It's not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me, and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter.

Performances are on 28, 29 and 30 July at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. You can book online here. 

The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It's designed to appeal to opera regulars and newbies alike and of all ages. It's fast paced and action packed, emotions run high and Rox has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene...
Inspired by the timeless themes of war and relationships affected by it, the opera draws upon Siegfried Sassoon's poems and the testimony of a British soldier, who served recently in Iraq, to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Jack joins the army to silence his father's taunts for his love of poetry. Joined by his brother Davey, their devastating experiences turn the whole family's world upside down. Supported by the power of their mother's love as she tries to hold the family together they, like Sassoon himself, seek to help those whose suffering they share. 
Jack 
Sam Furness
Anna
Victoria Simmonds
Simon
Darren Jeffery
Siegfried Sassoon
Bradley Travis
Mrs Morrell
Sarah Redgwick
Davey
James Way
Conductor
Douglas Boyd
Director
Karen Gillingham
Designer
Rhiannon Newman Brown
Composer
Roxanna Panufnik
Librettist
Jessica Duchen
Movement Director
Natasha Khamjani

We have:

A cast to die for (see above)
Some wonderful child soloists
Garsington's adult community chorus, which happens to include Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew
A large choir of local children
Youth dance
Foley artists from Shepperton film studios
Digital animation by VJ Mischa Giancovich
Members of the Armed Forces

Book soon because there are only 3 performances and space is limited!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Viola goes for a run, joking aside...

Alistair in training...
There must be something in the water at Birmingham Conservatoire. As if an all-night piano marathon wasn't enough, complete with overnight cycle ride from London, their violist Alistair Rutherford is running a half-marathon for charity - dressed as a viola. It's all in a good cause, for Soweto string students. Do support him.

Birmingham Conservatoire tells us:

Donning a custom-made viola costume, Alistair Rutherford will be running the Liverpool Half Marathon on Sunday 2 April. Created by Merseyside-based designer Brian D Hanlon, the outfit is made from lightweight Plastazote foam. 

Alistair hopes to raise funds for the collaborative UK-South African project, Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music & Birmingham Conservatoire – or ARCO. This project has seen 24 strings students aged between eight and 16 in South Africa selected to participate in weekly instrumental Skype lessons, given by academics, current students and alumni of Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University.

ARCO aims to provide the benefits and life-changing inspiration of music to children in the most deprived of circumstances. Conservatoire staff and students – including Alistair – have been acting as role models for vulnerable youngsters living in Soweto, a Johannesburg township deeply affected by poverty and crime.
Running the Liverpool Half Marathon is just one of several fundraising events Alistair has organised in aid of ARCO. Last year, he ran the equivalent distance of the length of South Africa’s coastline, clocking up 1,739 miles (2798 kilometres) by the time he flew out to Johannesburg for the first ARCO Festival. Meanwhile, last month, he organised an evening of chamber music at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery.

21-year-old Alistair, from Allerton in Liverpool, said:

“After running the distance of the South African coastline during my third year of study at Birmingham Conservatoire, and previously running a marathon when I was 17, I was struggling for fundraising ideas. One evening whilst in our local pub myself and fellow ARCO teacher Matt Johnstone joked about a Guinness World Record involving both the things I love: running and the viola.

“12 weeks later my application was accepted by Guinness World Records to attempt the record for the fastest half marathon dressed as a musical instrument at the Liverpool Half Marathon! Training has been going well and I am aiming to beat the record that currently stands at one hour, 26 minutes and 57 seconds." The current record was set by Rakshith Shetty in Karnataka, India on 5 December 2015. The Indian runner ran the SBI Bengaluru Midnight Marathon while dressed as a guitar.

Louise Lansdown, Head of Strings at Birmingham Conservatoire, initiated the ARCO project in 2015. She said:

“Birmingham Conservatoire is full of admiration for Alistair’s adventurous and rather ‘off centre’ project. We are currently enjoying daily updates, including photos and videos of Alistair’s training sessions with his brand new enlarged viola! Alistair and his viola can be seen running around Edgbaston Reservoir most mornings around 7am – a sight not to be missed..."

Louise will be running a festival in Soweto as part of the ARCO Project at the same time Alistair endures his half marathon. Alistair's journey will be streamed live to the ARCO youngsters, so they  can cheer him on from the other side of the world. Alistair’s childhood friend James Sharples will be cycling the route alongside him and broadcasting the race over Facebook Live. 

You can support Alistair’s world record attempt via his JustGiving page. You can also watch a video of Alistair training in his costume, while his progress in the Liverpool Half Marathon can be watched on Facebook Live from 9am on Sunday 2 April.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Westminster" (Meditation)


I'm a Londoner. I was born in Whitechapel, grew up in north London and now live south west near the end of the District Line. Tried to leave a few times, but always boomeranged straight back. It's a resilient place, full of hard-headed and capable people and the day after 7/7, the Tube bombings, a lot of us got straight back aboard to go wherever we needed to (in my case, the Wigmore Hall), knowing that was the best way to cock the proverbial snook at those who would threaten us. You don't let them. I was a child during the 1970s. The airwaves were full of stories of IRA terrorism and I was scared. My parents used to tell me not to be afraid, because that was what the terrorists wanted. If you refused to be terrorised, they couldn't win.

Times change and today London is a mass of paradoxes. It's richer and poorer all at once, home to both an unconscionable number of billionaires and also too many with nothing at all, sleeping rough in Strand doorways and Hyde Park Corner subways. It's a flourishing cosmopolitan melting pot that now risks crazy damage to itself through xenophobia. A futuristic hub of progress and technology sold on the legend of a misapprehended past. A home of some of the world's finest literature, theatre and music that often seems determined not to celebrate its own achievements. But it's still London, it's still home and we will always find ways to make the very best of it, despite anything.

After a hideous attack that has left four people dead and many injured, finding suitable music for contemplation can feel like a tall order. The LPO concert last night at the Royal Festival Hall was cancelled, apparently due to a police directive. My resident violinist was downhearted, having been psyched up to play Bruckner 9 and regarding "keeping calm and carrying on" as the best response. Several times during the evening we considered Dame Myra Hess and the National Gallery Lunchtime Concerts during the Blitz, not that the situation was comparable. Yet this too is about music as assertion of a shared humanity that is greater and stronger than any threats against it.

Here's what I've found for today, then: Eric Coates's beautiful meditation on Westminster itself.

ERIC COATES: "WESTMINSTER" (MEDITATION) from LONDON SUITE










Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bach's birthday: a voice of hope

It's springtime, the magnolias are out, it's Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday - no.332 - and it's time to look for hope for the future (this being in slightly short supply in other areas of life). One of the most heartening things about the music world right now is the startling number of interesting, individual and devoted young pianists in their twenties, who have been bounding onto the scene bringing audible love for their art and a profound, highly developed understanding of its necessary craft. 

This is an age in which the industry tends to exploit and squander its stars. I expect most JDCMB readers can think of plenty of instances in which glorious raw talents have been overstressed, seduced by non-artistic aims, twisted, hideously distorted and ultimately spat out (well, some have been - others are still busy with the distortions). That's why the genuineness of these young performers is to be cherished and preserved. Among them are established stars like Igor Levit, Daniil Trifonov and Benjamin Grosvenor, but more recently it has been an absolute joy to encounter Beatrice Rana and George Li, both artists of whom we'll be hearing a lot more soon. And there are others besides, but I won't attempt to list them all for fear of forgetting some...

My plea to them all for Bach's birthday: you've got what it takes, and as long as you keep your integrity you could be blessed with long, splendid and happy lives making music at the highest level. Please, don't ever sell out. 

For Bach's birthday, have a listen to Beatrice playing the Goldberg Variations. This recent release has been top of the classical charts and for a very good reason. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

In full sail: Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie is a demanding marvel



This is it: the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg's already renowned new hall, which opened in January after a long, long wait involving years of delay and hundreds of millions of Euros. I popped over for a couple of days to hear and interview the young American pianist George Li - more about him when the article is out, but suffice it to say that he is the real deal. He performed the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and it was a privilege to be there.

Sunset by the sea. Elbphilharmonie on the right
The Elbphilharmonie rises out of the shoreline like a great ship: that was, indeed, the idea of the design, complete with sail-dips and prow. It reminds me of John Adams's story of the inspiration behind his Harmonielehre: a dream in which he saw a giant tanker lift up from the sea and fly. The place has perhaps the finest setting of any concert hall since the Sydney Opera House, looking across the waters into the sunset. Hamburg has acquired a landmark to be proud of, and a venue to compete with the best in the world.

There's just one problem. The design priority certainly involves impressiveness, memorability, magnificence - and a fabulous acoustic. Yet it does not appear to have the wellbeing of its audience quite as much at heart.

It is vast. Not all of what you see in the picture above is hall, though: there are other bits and bobs inside the brick section, not least a luxury hotel, while the venue itself is up at the top. Perhaps it is not until you reach the entrance that you realise what a big deal this is. Because you have to get to your seat in time for the concert and it can take a while.

Walk through the electronic gates (your ticket serves as boarding pass) and you are faced with the most inventive format of escalator I've encountered since Charles de Gaulle airport, involving several shifts of gradient and a long, high ride. Once you've done two escalators, there are stairs, stairs and more stairs. They are sleek and modern, involving interesting angles and twists. They smell wonderfully of new wood. A few lifts exist as well, which is lucky because the clientele for the Hamburg Philharmonic's Monday concert were not all sprightly on their feet. Benefitting from a health app on my phone that counts my steps every day and awards points if I do enough, I wondered if a partnership arrangement might be feasible for those who choose to climb.


Inside, the design is in the round, with stalls plus four tiers of seating above. The nautical theme continues: the balconies undulate like waves or a shoreline and the wall around the orchestra is studded as if with stones from a beach. The place is enormous, yet feels intimate as the division of the tiers makes you feel that you are not surrounded by thousands of people, everyone has enough space and wherever you sit you are relatively close to the performers. A giant acoustic mushroom hangs from the ceiling (in the photo you can just see the curve of it at the top, studded with lights). 

The sound is clear as a mountain river and as fulsome as the sea itself: an excellent balance of colour and timbre levels and a substantial bloom to blend them. At times it erred on the boomy, certainly in the Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5 which ended the programme, but George's wonderful, singing piano tone was flattered and enhanced, with a chance to appreciate the nuancing of phrases and the depth of legato in a way that is often not possible in certain other venues one could mention. 

Unfortunately our conductor for the night seemed to think the Tchaikovsky Fifth was a sacred space requiring dubious extremes of exaggerated tempi, and he waited on the podium, motionless while his orchestra tried not to twiddle their thumbs, for absolute pin-drop silence from the audience before beginning the first, second and third movements. Quite a challenge in an acoustic so clear you can hear someone burp on the other side of the auditorium.

But...oh dear...you would think, would you not, that after spending hundreds of millions of Euros on this building, they could put in enough ladies' loos? Could they hell. On level 15 I and most of my fellow audience members spent the whole interval queuing up, to discover upon entry that there were only two (2) stalls inside that door. What the heck were they thinking?!? 

Verdict. Architecture: inspirational magnificence reinvented. Acoustic: mostly splendid. Creature comforts: inside auditorium, yes; in entrance, foyers and facilities: nnnooooo... 


Hamburg itself has much to offer the musical traveller. I spent a wonderful morning in the so-called Composers' Quarter (above). Brahms's birthplace having been destroyed in WW2, along with much of the city, a charitable foundation has created a block in traditional Hamburgian style in the area where Brahms's family once lived; it houses a Brahms museum (the stone portal on the right of the photo) and a Baroque museum for Telemann, CPE Bach and Hasse. It will soon be home to a Mendelssohn museum as well - the staff told me it should be opening next year. 

The Baroque centre is full of fascinating bits and pieces, notably the delightful information that Handel and Telemann were great friends and shared an enthusiasm for horticulture; it seems they used to post one another rare flower bulbs across the Channel. There's a model of a baroque opera house, complete with deus ex machina, a modern clavichord and a beautiful spinet of c1730 akin to one that Telemann might have used. Best of all, if you're a musician you will be encouraged to play the instruments. At the Brahms museum (one of the wardens of which is named Frau Joachim, though she says she is no relation) historical displays with facsimiles and photos aplenty trace the outline of his life, his relationships with the Schumanns and Joachim, and there's a "table piano" that belonged to him, on which he used to give lessons. They let you play that, too... It's not easy to control the evenness of tone, but the sound is almost surprisingly rich and responsive and as you make awkward progress through Op.117 No.1 you might try to absorb the notion that Brahms's fingers touched these keys, and that the pupil who sat at this keyboard striving to make music would look up at his/her teacher for response and see that thoughtful broad forehead, those frank blue eyes...

For another startling spiritual hit, go to St Michael's Church (the Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis, or "Michel"). The interior, recently painted, is bright and white, filled with clear Nordic light from tall windows and spaces that billow around you like those oft-referred ship sails. If you're lucky (and I was) someone might be playing Bach on the organ. On one side of the entrance is a plaque to Mendelssohn, on the other side one to Mahler, who held a music director post in Hamburg and wrote his Symphony No.2 here. In the crypt is the grave of CPE Bach. At the font, Brahms was baptised. The place has an intense charge, an atmosphere of peace and meditation that pulls you in and demands that you stay there a while to breathe in its peace and breathe out your stress before retackling the outside world. That is true sacred space. No pulled-around tempi needed.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dragons take over Covent Garden

The powerful and uncompromising Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones sings Walther von Stolzing in the Royal Opera House’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, alongside his fellow countryman Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. I went backstage to meet him…


Hughes Jones (left) and Terfel (right) in the rehearsal room
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda

Jessica Duchen: Gwyn, can you tell us about Kasper Holten’s new production, without giving the game away?

Gwyn Hughes Jones: No! Haha… I think people already know that it’s set in a club, a sort of music club. It reflects that idea of the application of rules to art and expression and how, if they’re not applied conscientiously, they hamstring the expressive sense of spontaneity, that creative evolution in art. We have to have rules in art because human beings have to have structure. Two plus two has to make four: we do need some kind of balance in nature and in the world. We can’t help ourselves. But it’s when rules take over and exist for their own sake that there’s trouble. I think this works for the piece: it doesn’t compromise it in any way. It’s always interesting to see the path directors take in their concepts of how to make a piece relevant to today. I’m sure that, as always, some people will like it and some people will not. We’ll see…




JD: You sang Walther at English National Opera not so long ago, in English, so this is your second Walther, but your first in German. What’s it like to make that change?

GHJ:  In a way, you start all over again. You can’t take anything for granted. The structure of the language is different, the inflection of the stresses are different, the way the language is used is slightly different too, so you have to be mindful of those things in preparation and delivery. I think singing these pieces in English is incredibly useful because you end up with a really broad palette of colour choice. Instead of having maybe one to three colours for a word, you have six or seven. Of course you still have to choose the right ones. But as someone who works in, if you like, the discipline of sound-painting, to have that choice of palette is always a very important weapon.

JD: Walther is a notoriously difficult role. What are the biggest challenges?

GHJ: It’s long. It’s high in some places. It’s not written in a friendly way. Nevertheless, you can look at some works of Puccini and Verdi and you see they, too, are writing for the kind of singer they have a right to expect. They don’t think we arrive without having had any kind of vocal education. These pieces play a part in stretching singers and not compromising them. I think the bel canto style was a hugely important influence on Wagner and this is reflected in all his works to some extent, but particularly in this piece. So it’s about having that elegance, it’s having the youthfulness – and one of the biggest challenges is remaining fresh to the very end.

One difficulty is this paradox that characters like Walther are young, but in real life you have to wait until you’re a fair bit older, a mature singer and a very physically strong and sophisticated singer, to be able to sing these roles to their potential. There is no other way. You will not find a 20-year old-who will sing Walther to its potential. So one of the challenges in this kind of repertoire is to keep the voice young, fresh and vibrant, so that when you come to your potential you can fulfil it for as long as possible. That’s why singers like Gigli, Björling and Pavarotti could keep that youthfulness and vibrancy in their voices for a very long time and that’s what made them convincing exponents.

Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther with Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva in the new Meistersinger.
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda

JD: Do you have a regime for looking after your voice?

GHJ: It’s a lot to do with choosing the right kind of repertoire and I think the root of it goes to the beginning of my learning about singing. You have to be fortunate enough to work with good teachers, you need to work with people who know what they’re talking about and you need to be incredibly patient in your development. By all means, have targets along the way, have a long journey, but also work hard within a sense of context. You need to be sensible about repertoire choices and understand that if you do aspire to sing Wagner, if you aspire to sing the Verdi and Puccini spinto roles, then in the same way Wagner was inspired by Bellini, you have to sing that repertoire too: you have to immerse yourself in the bel canto style. You have to sing everything, but it is a process of building by small bricks. You build a very solid foundation, then build on that. You don’t just wake up one morning and find you’re a Heldentenor. It doesn’t work like that – and if people do do that, they don’t last very long.

JD: So it takes 30 years to be an overnight success…

GHJ: Yes, and to remain an overnight success, that’s the thing. It’s not about that initial splash. Spotting potential is the easiest thing in the world; allowing it to develop is something totally different. The onus is on us as individuals, but on the people we work with as well. So it is very challenging and you have to be incredibly patient too.

JD: How did you start to sing?

GHJ: My parents were not academically musical, but they loved opera, my father loved singing and there was always plenty of music in the house. Also coming from Wales there was always plenty of great culture around, so I was never far away from great literature and great poetry in English and in Welsh, and great music too. It was a very common thing for me to hear operatic arias when I was very young, sung by schoolteachers or farmers. In Eisteddfods these are competition arias, so you’d turn up to an Eisteddfod competition and there’d be people singing the ‘Prize Song’ and ‘Vissi d’arte'... So there’s a sense that, yes, they’re great, great art, but also that it wasn’t an elitist thing by any means: they were extremely reachable. You saw people who were having a singing lesson once a week or once a month, singing these arias as well as they’d be sung at some of the greatest opera houses in the world. That always for me was an example to say, ‘Yes, why not?’. 

As someone who comes from Anglesey, whose father is an engineer, whose mother is a housewife, some people would say I have no business whatsoever doing this. And yet all these influences I had in my upbringing gave me the privilege and the opportunity to be able to pick these things, experience them, enjoy them and find a path.

JD: People always think there’s a mystique about the Welsh and singing, but is it perhaps more down to this musical tradition that is very egalitarian?

GHJ: I think it’s a big part of it. Our historical, cultural tradition involves hundreds of thousands of years of storytelling. In this culture before the Romans came to Britain, we didn’t write. And that oral tradition has always been incredibly strong – the old tales in Welsh are thousands of years old and he oldest piece of poetry in the Welsh language comes from the 6th century. As a nation that struggled for its existence, you keep these things very close to you and they’re the things that keep you believing, keep you defending your culture and your language. They are incredbily important to us along with the sense of struggle and telling the story of the struggle. We love our heroes, yet we’re extremely melancholic too. There is that range of expressive colour in our culture that all goes to arm this huge weapon we have, called singing or storytelling.

As Walther in the new production.
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda

JD: This is quite a Welsh dominated Meistersinger: you are Walther and the freshly-knighted Sir Bryn Terfel is Hans Sachs…

GHJ: I think it’s a great achievement for the background we come from: the Eistefodd tradition, the amateur tradition. It shows how incredibly rich that was. We both were given a kind of unofficial education outside school: we were being taught some of the most amazing ideas and shown some of the most amazing art and weren’t really aware that it was happening. That’s the most wonderful thing and it’s easy to take it for granted. But it’s not just the musical aspect, it’s the literary aspect too, it’s the poetry, the understanding of how people use words and why people choose certain words to describe something. Being immersed in that – this is the consequence! I think it’s something worth reinvesting in: not just keeping it alive but allowing it to go from strength to strength. And it’s difficult, because Wales is economically poor. So it needs as much support as it can get.

JD: Have you worked with Bryn much before?

GHJ: We did some concerts together in Wales years ago, and we did Falstaff together in Chicago, which was my American debut in 1999. But we haven’t sung together for a very long time. I could have had the chance to sing Walther with him as Sachs when Welsh National Opera did Meistersinger, but it so happened with that season that I was debuting two big Verdi operas and one Puccini within the six months previously and I didn’t think it was wise to take on the part. But then ENO asked me to take on the role and it came at just the right time. It’s about having the longer journey, seeing the bigger picture – you don’t compromise yourself. For every Meistersinger, you need to do a Tosca, a Butterfly, pieces that don’t put you out there to the same extent. It’s good sense.

JD: Do you see yourself doing more Wagner soon?

GHJ: I think so... Ironically, the first opera I ever saw was the Patrice Chéreau production of the Ring cycle on TV, when I was nine or ten years old. It was Dame Gwyneth Jones and it was something amazing. Even on TV, you could tell how amazing it was. Those costumes! Those giants! It made a huge impression. Also, the first classical music tape I bought was 'Ten Tenors sing 20 Arias', which included plenty of Wagner. I enjoyed listening to it, but it didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much as the Italian repertoire, Verdi and Puccini – that was what I really wanted to do and the kind of singer I wanted to be. So I didn’t really entertain the idea of being a Wagnerian singer. I started out as a baritone and when I became a tenor there’s an idea of the kind of colour you carry through from being a baritone: people immediately say, “Oh, you’ll sing Florestan, you’ll do Walther and Lohengrin…” But I was thinking about Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Chénier, all these pieces, and I didn’t see myself as being a Wagnerian singer.

As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly
I listened to snippets of Wagner over the years and it didn’t appeal to me. Also the way it was performed didn’t appeal to me, because it seemed that everything I believed in was being compromised. There’s no point working to make the voice as expressive and beautiful a communicative instrument as possible when you’re battling against an orchestra and a conductor who don’t acknowledge that actually they’re accompanying, And in some instances, too, you find that not necessarily the actual decibel volume, but the colour of the volume can be overwhelming to voices, so you have to be incredibly careful with the way that you accompany. Even when they’re expressing emotions that are not beautiful, there still has to be a sense of continuity in that character and that expression. You mustn’t compromise that in order to be heard, because then it totally defeats the purpose. You miss the potential of the work in the first place. So I was reluctant, from hearing the way people were singing Wagner’s music, to entertain the idea of doing that.

But then I found people were saying, “Well, Walther is a lyric part, it’s an Italianate part,” and your ears prick up because you realise it can be done that way and actually it should be done that way. If you go back and listen to people at the beginning of the 20th century, they sing this music in a lyrical, Italiante way – Walther, Lohengrin, they have line, beauty, harmony. You realise that somehow, in the last 50 years of performing this music, something has been allowed to fall into the shadows. And the idea that it can be, needs to be beautiful, it needs to be expressive in the right way, that made me incredibly interested in doing it. So when Welsh National Opera did put on Meistersinger in Cardiff, I went to see it and finally thought that, yes, I could see myself singing it. When the offer did come to sing Walther, I jumped at it, because it had come at the right time.

Now I’m going to be doing Lohengrin in about three years in the US. Parsifal and Siegmund are certainly roles I’d do as well. I do regard myself as an Italianate singer, though, so they’re not my main mission. There is so much to do... I’m not really interested in saying I have done 200 roles. I don’t think you achieve anything except marks on the post that way. The more you do a piece, the more you realise that you actually don’t know it and the more you discover about it. To do the iconic roles that are the mainstream in every opera house in the world, to work those pieces to their potential – not just getting through them but producing work that is significant – that interests me a lot more than tallying the numbers. I’m far more interested in doing 350-400 performances of Tosca than having 200 roles under my belt.

JD: How did you turn into a tenor from being a baritone?

GHJ: I think it’s about the colours you have in your voice. It’s funny – learning how to sing is like forgetting everything you learned between infancy and adulthood. You have to go back to that point where you find the voice works at its most efficient. One of the biggest traps that young singers fall into is that they try to create a voice colour well beyond their years. You have to allow the voice to develop into these colours. It’s OK to sound young, it’s OK to sound not ready – it’s part of that long journey. So in the pursuit of that idea, I sang as a baritone because baritone music was what suited my voice.

I wanted to sing Verdi and verismo baritones, but I always suspected I didn’t have that baritonal colour of all the singers I admired – people like Piero Cappuccilli, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill had this beautiful round colour. Even at that age I wasn’t interested in being a lighter baritone singing Verdi’s music because I didn’t think it was honest. It wouldn’t have the gravitas, that noble colour, that these lines demanded.

I came to study in London at the Guildhall when I was 18, with David Pollard. He said to me, “I won’t tell you you’re a tenor or you’re a baritone, I have my suspicions of where you’ll go but what we have to do is work to the potential. We have to get you singing, we have to find out where your voice is most comfortable.” So I started singing as a baritone, because that was the music that fitted my voice. I sang a lot of song repertoire, so even though I didn’t have to make any cast-iron decisions about the kind of voice I was going to be, I was getting an incredibly rich and intense education in repertoire. I sang everything from the beginning, Verdi from the beginning, to get the vocal culture in place.

Then I won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1992, as a baritone, and people started asking if I was interested in working on contract at various companies. The repertoire I was offered, though, was far too challenging. It was understudy work, but it’s one thing to learn a role and quite another to go on stage and perform it, which as an understudy you would have to do, and it wasn’t a good idea.

Meanwhile with my teacher we were starting to look at excerpts of very iconic tenor music – the third act of La Bohème, the first duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca, part of Manon Lescaut, parts that could show unequivocally whether I was a tenor for that sort of repertoire. One day David sent me to William McAlpine down the corridor, a very brilliant Scottish tenor who was also a teacher at Guildhall, to see what he would say. I sang him one aria and he said: “Yep, no doubt!”

But as I’d won the Ferrier as a baritone, a lot of people refused to accept that it was a good idea. I’d also won a lot of scholarships to allow me to study and those were as a baritone as well. But the way I saw it, I was awarded them because of the singer I was, not because of the voice type I was. That’s the point: you have to be allowed to discover and develop. People will always have opinions about the kind of singer you are, but in the end you have to decide where you want to go. And David said, “You have to make a decision: you can be a very, very good baritone, or you can be a better tenor. It’s up to you.” For me there was no question: this was the time to study, to make those decisions, as opposed to waiting another ten years when I might be already established in my career. 

As Cavaradossi in WNO's Tosca. Photo: Robert Workman

JD: And you’ve never looked back...

GHJ: No – there’s too much to look forward to! But you do look back, of course, because this is a career that requires absolute discipline: it requires you to be able to work right at the coalface, work in detail at things and not shirk those challenges. It’s correcting those weaknesses that allow you to build. You don’t want to take a step forward and then realise that the very thing your house is built on isn’t sturdy. So you have to work in that way, while at the same tine being able to step back and see how far you’ve come, and never lose sight of that. It’s difficult to strike that balance. We’re trying to be as good as we can be, and that’s always exciting.

JD: Is Wales still home?

GHJ: Yes indeed. It is my home and I’m obligated as a Welsh professional to work for Welsh National Opera. It’s a fantastic company. You have the potential to produce world-class opera there – you have a great orchestra, world class technical staff, a fantastic 2000 seat theatre, the opportunity to work with Carlo Rizzi, you have the opportunity to work with people who are at the best opera houses in the world and are regarded as the best in their field in the world.

JD: What’s next after Walther?

GHJ: Next I have some concerts between now and the summer at the National Eisteddfod – there are some works I’ve commissioned and as a Welsh artist I think it’s incredibly important to stimulate new compositions in Wales. In the autumn I do my first Radames in Aida and then the new year brings Forza. Next year is heavy on the Verdi and the Puccini, and then I come back to Lohengrin. You have to find a balance between the stuff that stretches and stimulates you and the stuff that stimulates you, but allows you to rest.

JD: I should let you rest too... Thank you very much for talking to us, Gwyn, and we’re looking forward to opening night. 


Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 11 March. Kasper Holten directs, Sir Antonio Pappano conducts and besides Hughes Jones and Terfel the cast includes Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Rachel Willis-Søresnsen as Eva and Allan Clayton as David. Details and booking here.