LONDON (Reuters) - It pleases British conductor Sir Roger Norrington no end that when he conducted a 16th century opera in Italy exactly as the composer intended, a reviewer called it “prophetic and modern.”
“That’s how it can sound when you get ‘near’ a composer,” Norrington, who will celebrate his 75th birthday on Monday by conducting a gala concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall, told Reuters in an interview.
The amateur violinist and singer who turned professional conductor in his late 20s has infuriated and delighted listeners, probably in about equal number, ever since he began what he calls a “mission” to perform music, old and new, as closely as possible to what he thinks the composer had in mind.
“When it’s a living composer I call them up on the phone,” Norrington told Reuters, over the phone.
“When it’s a dead one I have to try and get near enough so it’s a ‘local call’,” he added, by which he means he consults old texts and fills in the blanks from experience.
The result is Beethoven at tempos some conductors might consider a gallop. He also abhors vibrato, the lush but wobbly sound of strings and woodwinds that he sees as a blight inflicted in the 1930s, and favours what he calls “pure tone.”
He’s a self-confessed popper of pills as well -- taking some 150 a day -- as part of a diet and medical regime that has helped him survive melanoma cancer since being diagnosed more than 17 years ago.
But it’s not just the pills that keep him going.
“Classical music is good for you,” he said. “Take classical music twice a day.”
Following is an edited transcript:
Q: Why did you embark on this mission, as you call it, to strip away the romantic cobwebs from orchestral music making -- the so-called period-performance movement? Audiences didn’t seem to mind the way it was.
A: “As Mahler (composer Gustav Mahler) famously said, ‘Tradition is laziness’. It’s really exciting to rediscover a composer in terms not only of your own time but also of his own time. How was the music played? If we play it like that does it tell us anything? That’s what we kept discovering over and over again and it told us a huge amount. And on the whole audiences, and eventually the critics -- somewhat after the audiences, have followed and approved.”
Q: But does the world not move on? Pianists play Mozart on pianos that are very different from those of his time, not to mention Bach, who never saw one.
A: “You could say that, but when you’re very particular about doing what they (the older composers) did, it actually makes it sound more modern. Take the Beethoven symphonies -- they sound absolutely brand new. And I think that’s true of Bach and of (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart and (Joseph) Haydn.”
Q: Yes, but you stirred up a hornet’s nest when people got the notion you would conduct (Edward) Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” -- almost the centrepiece of the whole evening -- without vibrato on the last night of the BBC Proms concerts last year, when everyone comes to wave flags and rejoice in Britishness.
A: “That’s a funny story because actually in an orchestra there are some instruments that play with vibrato (violins) and some without (horns and clarinets). Well, the famous tune, the tune that everyone was making a fuss about, saying I was going to destroy the fabric of Western civilisation, that tune is played with clarinets and horns, with violins very low.
“So whatever you do it doesn’t sound like you’ve stripped out the vibrato -- though I made sure that when the violins played that bit, in fact it was the only place in the whole concert I asked them to play without vibrato.”
Q: There’s an adage that old conductors never die, they just fade away. You don’t seem to be fading at all.
A: “It’s such an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do music at this level, it’s wonderful....If I were still a violinist I wouldn’t be able to play now because my hands are too arthritic. And I was a singer as well but I wouldn’t be able to sing now because I haven’t got any voice.
“It’s absolutely fantastic because I don’t have to do either of those. I just have to wave my hands in a vague manner and people will play.”
Editing by Paul Casciato
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