A New Master at the Helm: Harry Bicket & The English Concert

Written by: Julian Maynard-Smith

From September 2007 Harry Bicket, renowned conductor of both Baroque and Classical repertoire, will succeed Andrew Manze as Artistic Director of The English Concert, one of Europe’s leading Baroque orchestras. Harry talks to Julian Maynard-Smith…


Since making his conducting debut with English National Opera in 1992, Harry Bicket has conducted an enviable list of leading orchestras, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic.

On 7 February, he will conduct The English Concert at Wigmore Hall in London in performances of Haydn’s symphonies 6-8 (‘Le Matin’, ‘Le Midi’ and ‘Le Soir’) and Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in G minor (‘La Notte’). Audiences in Southampton can hear the same programme the following night at the Turner Sims Hall.

Far from a podium, in a crowded bar of a hotel in London’s Victoria, I managed to grab a couple of hours with Harry – the following day he’s flying back to Munich, where he will be conducting the Bayerische Staatsoper Orchester. I ask him what the appointment as Artistic Director of The English Concert means to him in terms of his musical growth.

“For the first time, I’ve got a group of players who I will work with on a regular basis. As a guest with the Munich orchestra, where I’ve worked a lot over the last seven years, it’s a different dynamic, because I am a visitor. As a director there’s the security of making a commitment to a group. It works both ways – they know you’re not just there for that week. My job is also going out and finding the group work, promoting and championing them. The market has changed since the ‘eighties, when The English Concert would release five records a year. The industry’s not so healthy today and there are many more orchestras. It’s a much leaner time, and it’s a challenge to find new areas.

“In Europe, one of the nice things is that people have stopped talking of a ‘period orchestra’ as if it’s a museum piece – all gut strings and wheezy oboes. The standard of playing has risen so much more. I think it’s become hugely more expressive. I would cite people like Bill (William) Christie, who have really pushed the boundaries of sound and colour.

“Take a piece like Messiah – the attitude in the ‘eighties was, ‘Let’s not take anything for granted and do exactly what’s on the page’. Chris Hogwood’s recording (with The Academy of Ancient Music, Decca) still sounds amazing, but there was something so radical, like they didn’t allow themselves to use any performance traditions absorbed over the last 200 years. Now, people are allowed to express themselves outside the box.

“The Met Orchestra played wonderfully for Handel’s Rodelinda in 2003, but a lot of the players were surprised how I let them play through a phrase, rather than playing it clipped. It’s much more complex than that, of course: it’s about ‘speaking’ with the bow rather than just ‘singing’ with it. It requires a lot of personal commitment from people used to taking a more literal view of what’s written on the page.

“It’s all very well saying to a modern orchestra, ‘Play without vibrato’ and ‘do this bowing’, but that’s not going to produce what you want. You have to give them a good reason why the bowing is right for a gesture. Period orchestras do play with vibrato, but as an expressive effect. There’s no rule about it, but good orchestras come to a natural agreement. I do say ‘no vibrato’ to a modern orchestra, but focus more on the sound they make with the bow. For Baroque music, the bow is where the soul is. But for a modern orchestra, the left hand is where the melody and the expression comes from. It’s not just a mechanical thing, but sometimes it has to be approached in a mechanical way.

“My background is the vocal repertoire. That informs the instrumental repertoire – phrases are never longer than one breath. A lot of articulations, for me, come from text or human speech, even if it’s not specified. And that’s what makes the music ‘speak’ – literally – because that melody says something very specific. The biggest thing that informs my approach is my work with singers. For me, music is song – breathing in phrases, which, surprisingly, is not what everyone does. The arched phrases of a slow Mahler movement are so extraordinary because you can’t breathe – it’s the way it makes us feel.”

Harry played harpsichord with The English Concert back in 1984. Did his appointment as its Artistic Director feel like a homecoming? “They were the first period orchestra I ever heard live. There are one or two players still from those days. What’s amazing is that they are a very committed group. A lot of period orchestras cross-pollinate; The English Concert players play in The English Concert and that’s their first loyalty.”

I ask Harry how he will follow on from Andrew Manze. “It’s an incredible legacy to take over; it’s been an amazing couple of years. Andrew’s tenure tended to focus on violin-based repertoire – for obvious reasons. And Trevor (Pinnock, who founded The English Concert in 1973) was initially keyboard-based, though of course he moved into a much wider repertoire as the years went on. With my background in opera, I’m looking forward to introducing that. And more playing in the pit; I think it’s wonderful for the group. There’s a lot of repertoire they’re familiar with and I’m not – and vice versa.”

Harry mentions that there will be a major Handel/Purcell/Haydn celebration in 2009, since Handel died in 1759, Purcell was born in 1659 and Haydn died in 1809. So can we expect plenty of Handel from The English Concert then? “Of course; Handel – how could we not? I hope Haydn will be re-evaluated, because all the orchestras love playing it. One of the great things about Handel operas is that in the last ten years there has been an explosion of interest – especially in Munich, where Handel sells more than (Richard) Strauss.”

So why was Handel opera in the doldrums? “The operas were seen as inherently undramatic and no one knew what to do with them, despite the glorious music. But if you’d walked down the street in the eighteenth-century and asked people, ‘What is Handel known for?’ they’d have said ‘opera’ rather than the instrumental works. Now there are not only directors who have found a way to make these pieces work on stage, but there’s also a lot of great Handel singers around. James Levine said to me that it’s easier to cast a Handel opera than a Verdi”. And, Harry adds, Handel wrote for, “… superstar singers. There are big stories about Handel having to write duets with the same number of notes for rival singers.”

It’s good, I suggest, that countertenors are a la mode, so that the castrato parts sound authentic. “Take someone like David Daniels,” Harry replies, “who’s stocky and bearded. His singing’s not effete but virile. It has made one realise the effect that castrati must have had.”

Where did Harry’s urge to conduct come from? “When you’re playing the piano weeks on end for a conductor, you sometimes think you can do better. But when you’re up there, you realise how hard it is. And then I think most people find it hard when they start; I still do. You want to get better. You can’t practise it privately at home; you have to do it with an orchestra, and the mistakes you make are very public. You can’t go in front of an orchestra and just make them play the way you have a piece in your head; you have to also take what they can offer, which is often better, and you don’t know what that is until the rehearsal. A lot of it is man management.”

But there have been situations where Harry has not even had the luxury of rehearsals. “The Barber of Seville in Munich – three different Rosinas and three different concertmasters! And each night I went into the pit and thought, ‘I have no idea what’s going to happen’. It’s a sobering moment.”

A lack of rehearsal opportunities won’t be something Harry has to fear with The English Concert. But will he have time to pursue his other interests? “Oh, completely. I’ve made a strong commitment to The English Concert to do a lot of work, a large percentage – but that’s certainly not a whole year of work. I think it’s important I keep going to the Met, Glyndebourne … also that they have other people coming in and working with them.”

One project that Harry will continue to pursue enthusiastically is his musical directorship of Crear – a studio and working space, with accommodation, in an idyllic location on the west coast of Scotland. “Crear is a place and project close to my heart, the idea of having a place where musicians and artists can work in a very beautiful and unstressful environment, and also bring music to a very remote community. Most recording sessions are quite stressful; to actually be able to be relaxed and inspired seems to be the way records should be made.”

And that relaxation and inspiration transmutes into the music? “It’s a 60-foot studio, and one wall is glass, looking over the islands of Jura and Islay. Phoebe Carrai (American cellist and Baroque specialist who recorded Bach’s cello suites there) kept interrupting the sessions, saying, ‘The sunset is incredible – you’ve got to see the light!’. It reminds you that we can live in a very cosseted, hermetically sealed world as musicians. I jump on a plane, go to a hotel … you don’t feel a connection with a community or the world. That part of the world has been my home for a long time. It makes you feel there is a connection.

“We now have the very popular series of summer concerts, which is the public face of Crear. We also have crossover events, like the Scottish fiddler Aly Bain, and Paco Peña, a flamenco guitarist. And we have a very good following. That’s the public part. But people also do a lot of work in schools, and various projects with local children. Crear also has a big project with visual artists, poets, writers and dancers.”

The educational aspect brings us neatly back to The English Concert, which has a strong tradition of education, including scholarships for ensembles. Any plans on that front? Harry smiles, before confessing that a major plan is afoot, “… but I’m loath to tell you in case it doesn’t materialise. It’s an important part of any orchestra’s work.”

Yet another reason, then, to keep a close eye on the development of The English Concert under the steady hands of Harry Bicket.



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