You’ve returned to Sydney after 16 years and are taking up a more dedicated role as Artistic Director at Pinchgut Opera. What do you hope to achieve there and elsewhere now that you’re a full-time creative?
I’ve been grateful for all the experience I’ve received in the university system for the last seven years, but it has not been without its challenges. I am in awe of my colleagues who can combine teaching with research and balance the demands of musicology with the demands of performance. I am reminded of Pierre Baillot, one of the first professors of the violin at the Paris Conservatoire. He found it difficult too. In 1805 he wrote, regretfully, “Quand on fait le métier il faut renoncer à l’art” (“When one takes up the profession [of teaching] you have to give up the art”). Unlike Baillot, who made teaching a central part of his later life, I’ve decided to pursue other avenues, at least for now. So although I’m doing some teaching for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I’ve decided to focus on my new dedicated role as Artistic Director of a thriving company that is spreading out in new directions. But I do want to carve out some time for my professional practice too: both as a soloist and as a conductor for other groups both here in Australia and overseas. Pinchgut is going from strength to strength, so I’m excited to explore some non-operatic vocal music with great singers from Australia but also with inspiring guests from overseas.
Erin Helyard. Photo © Robert Catto
Pinchgut’s first event of 2019 is a concert presentation of Telemann’s Thunder Ode and the Bach Easter Oratorio. Why did you choose a concert performance to kick off the year?
Pinchgut is about celebrating baroque music that was written for the human voice. There is so much superb sacred music of the 17th and 18th centuries that is rarely performed; we wanted to showcase our soloists and also the Orchestra of the Antipodes in order to inaugurate our 2019 season.
You’ll be presenting the Australian premiere of the Telemann Thunder Ode. What excites you most about this work?
Telemann, unlike Bach, was very much aware of the musical currents of the time and was acutely sensitive to changing fashions. This late work shows a composer of the generation of Bach responding to the new lyrical influences and highly characteristic word-painting of the galant. I’ve always loved this work (and much else of Telemann) and as it has the same festive orchestration to the Easter Oratorio of Bach, I thought this was an ideal pairing. Each of Telemann’s movements are coloured by a specific instrument: flutes, bassoon, a solo horn, solo trumpet. It is a powerful ode to the awesome powers of the natural world.
What are you most interested in bringing out in the Easter Oratorio?
This is Pinchgut’s first foray into Bach. I’ve known the work since I was a teenager when I voraciously devoured every Bach recording I could get my hands on. The Easter Oratorio is a re-working of earlier material, so in some sense Bach was adapting to circumstances, which is different to his other big works for major dates in the Christian calendar. I’m looking to bring out from Bach’s work the familiar Easter narrative of the joy of the resurrection.
You’re performing both works in their original one-to-a-part settings. What effect does this have?
I find that the counterpoint is much clarified, and the structure of the piece is more transparent. It will work perfectly in the venues we are performing in, with the 18th-century arrangement of vocalists in front of the orchestra and not behind.
Do you have any wish list operas that you’d like to see Pinchgut do?
There are too many to list! It is hard to even think of one or two. But there are incredible opera composers I want our audiences to discover: among them Alessandro Scarlatti, Porpora, Campra, and Legrenzi.
I’m just about to head into the studio with Richard Tognetti to record Mozart and Beethoven. But I would love to do another solo harpsichord disc: and this time probably a French program. The classical music recording industry isn’t what it was like when I was growing up – I just hope CDs make a comeback like vinyl has!