Julian Perkins – Director Cambridge Handel Opera Company
The Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) in Cambridge, England, is a new professional organization that celebrates the fusion of music and the stage with performances that are not just ‘historically informed’, but ‘historically inspired’. There is meaningful integrity between what happens in the music and what happens on stage. Baroque stagecraft is incorporated into their productions in a manner that speaks directly to audiences. In April 2018 Cambridge Handel Opera Company staged a much acclaimed production of Handel’s Rodelinda, HWV 19 in Cambridge at a new theatre at The Leys. In May 2018 Victor Jarosch, IOCO, spoke to Julian Perkins about his objectives and future plans for the CHOC.
Victor Jarosch (VJ): Julian, who or what inspired you to take up the harpsichord, and pursue a career in music?
Julian Perkins (JP):: As the youngest of four, I was born into a family of musical noise. Sitting on my mother’s lap at the piano, making music started out as little more than sibling rivalry. Apart from anything with a keyboard, I enjoyed singing, playing the violin and recorder (infuriated at having to wait until I had legs long enough for the organ!). My patient parents packed me off to music courses including Pro Corda in Suffolk, which nurtured my deep love of chamber music. I first met the harpsichord in my teens experimenting with Baroque music in chamber groups. How could one not love instantly the joy of the dance, the chatter of counterpoint and the freedom to improvise? And what better way to earn a living than sharing with others this life-affirming music?
VJ: Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
JP: At school, David Langdon and Ralph Allwood both went way beyond their job descriptions in supporting my various musical interests. As a choral scholar and organist at King’s College, Cambridge, it was enriching to experience music as part of a daily form of worship. In my studies, I was a shameless magpie in hassling as many musicians as would tolerate me. Amongst others, Trevor Pinnock taught me the importance of connecting with the sound, David Parry the physicality of conducting and Noelle Barker an understanding of the voice.
As a child, there is one stand-out experience that continues to inspire me: singing as a treble in Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ under Klaus Tennstedt. I was a dreamy child, but Tennstedt captivated me for reasons I have never fully understood. A grumpy old man, in poor health, flailing about in a seemingly haphazard manner on the podium – but I have never, ever heard an orchestra or choir sound like they did with him – and this had nothing to do with his relative fame. I can only put it down to his complete identification with the music and his utter determination to transmit it to his fellow musicians. Humbling.
VJ: What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
JP: In addition to keeping up and improving one’s musicianship and technique, my greatest challenge is ring-fencing the administration. Like the hydra’s heads – where two more appear if one is amputated – I find that email requests have an alarming tendency to increase the more one writes! Just the other day I sent off programme details for a forthcoming festival only to find two more similar requests in my inbox for other bespoke events. Whilst it is important to keep abreast of the administration, it is vital to maintain the discipline and enjoyment of studying and practising one’s art. I just turn off the computer at a certain point and know that the world will probably not collapse if one email gets slightly delayed.
VJ: As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
JP: Words can be a dangerous medium in rehearsals. Isn’t it truly said that a large part of a conversation happens through one’s body language? While images, colours and metaphors can be useful, I like to communicate my ideas primarily through my gestures and, when I’m directing from the keyboard, my playing.
VJ: How exactly do you see your role as a conductor? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
JP: I like to enable the musicians to give of their best by providing a framework within which they can work. One needs to balance the dangers of being over-prescriptive on the one hand with being wishy-washy on the other. Every group is different, of course, but if I can earn a group’s trust, stimulate their imagination and have a clear idea of the sound I want, then things are looking good. Inspiration comes out of this – but one can’t plan to be inspiring. As for the composer’s vision, one can only hope to convey this by having a cultural appreciation of their life and works, and by scrutinizing the score again, again and again.
VJ: Which recordings are you most proud of?
JP: They each have treasured memories, but I’m probably most proud of how my first solo recording came together. This was the world-première of eight harpsichord suites by Handel’s younger English contemporary, James Nares. Historic Royal Palaces granted me the honour of recording on the Royal Harpsichord at Kew Palace. The project attracted dozens of subscribers – and even some artwork from one of Nares’ living descendants.
VJ: Which particular works do you think you play best?
JP: Those that are imbued with lyricism and harmonic interest within a cohesive musical structure. A good dollop of counterpoint never goes amiss either!
VJ: How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
JP: I like mixing treasured favourites with pieces that are new to me. It’s fascinating how The Frick Collection in New York juxtaposes art and media from different periods. Similarly, I enjoy devising programmes that have meaningful resonances, such as arias by Handel or Hasse alongside recent responses to earlier works by composers like Stephen Dodgson or György Ligeti. And fresh challenges are irresistible! For instance, I recently created an opera pasticcio about Casanova with the writer Stephen Pettitt. We joyfully plundered operas and oratorios from Vivaldi to Bellini, committing some glorious heresies along the way. Watch this space for our next run…
VJ: Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
JP: I find that the quality of a venue is determined as much by the unique chemistry of the audience as by the room itself. I have given recitals in some unusual locations – including a water mill – in which the sense of occasion gave a special quality to the venue. Acoustically, it’s often rewarding to perform in a space where there is some wood panelling as this helps to give a glow to the sound. Among venues that are perhaps lesser-known, Wilton’s Music Hall in East London has a particular charm. Originally a Victorian music hall, its acoustic is akin to the Wigmore Hall in its clarity and warmth. There is also an alluring patina to the building’s fabric that makes it feel like the equivalent of a well-loved pair of slippers.
VJ: Who are your favourite musicians?
JP: Those who are brilliant, humble, open-minded – and fun!
VJ: What is your most memorable concert experience?
JP: Arriving to rehearse Handel’s Messiah only to find that the organ was at the wrong pitch. Transposing the piece up a semitone in the concert proved to be good brain-gym!
VJ: As a musician, what is your definition of success?
JP: Knowing that I have touched a listener’s emotions.
VJ: What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
JP: In addition to the normal nostrums such as preparation, punctuality and professionalism, another ‘P’ has come to have increasing importance for me: Process. When I was starting out as a musician I sometimes worried too much about what people might think of me. Now, I try and focus more on the ever-changing process of making music and let the listeners decide for themselves what they like. When Roger Federer turned the tables and beat Rafael Nadal to win the 2017 Australian Open, he spoke afterwards of having played the ball and not the opponent. Similarly, I think performers should give due importance to playing the notes (grouped together musically!) and not the audience. It’s impossible to make people like you, but if you’re absorbed in what you’re doing, that in turn should draw in the listener.
VJ: Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
JP: Playing a positive role with my wife in the lives of our two sons, giving lots of fulfilling performances, teaching proactive students – and enjoying good food.
VJ: What is your most treasured possession?
JP: My appetite for learning. As the Artistic Director of Cambridge Handel Opera, I recently conducted a staged production of Handel’s Rodelinda in Cambridge. Praised for its ‘flawless ensemble’ in IOCO, Cambridge Independent headlined its review by stating that ‘Productions of Handel’s operas don’t get much better than this one’.
This season also sees Julian’s concerto debut at the Sage Gateshead with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, his directorial debuts with the Croatian Baroque Ensemble and Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra, a solo appearance on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Early Music Show’, a world première of a choral work by Stephen Dodgson and the debut of his group, Sounds Baroque, at St John’s Smith Square. Solo recitals include appearances in Boston (USA) and at the Petworth Festival, Lammermuir Festival, Northern Aldborough Festival, London Handel Festival, St George’s Bristol and the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, and duo recitals for the Budapest Bach Festival and Mozart Society of America. He returns to the Anghiari Festival in Italy this summer to conduct the Southbank Sinfonia, performs with Florilegium and continues his collaboration with Coram in directing the annual Handel Birthday Concert with Sounds Baroque and international soprano Rebecca Evans. Forthcoming recordings include a programme of Purcell’s songs with soprano Anna Dennis and Sounds Baroque, the second volume of Mozart’s keyboard duets on original instruments with Emma Abbate, Schubert’s sonatas for violin and piano with Peter Sheppard Skærved and the world première of Stephen Dodgson’s opera, Margaret Catchpole. His recent recording of Howells’ clavichord music was described by The Guardian as ‘a virtuoso showcase’ and praised by MusicWeb International as ‘exemplary’.
VJ: Thank you, Julian, for the interview.
—| IOCO Interview Cambridge Handel Opera Company |—
Rodelinda by George Frederick Handel
Cambridge, Great Hall, The Leys
Cambridge Handel Opera Company puts on Baroque operas that celebrate the fusion of music and the stage with performances that are not just ‘historically informed’, but ‘historically inspired’. There is meaningful integrity between what happens in the music and what happens on stage. Baroque stagecraft is incorporated into our productions in a manner that speaks directly to audiences. Cambridge Handel Opera Company staged Handel’s Rodelinda, HWV 19 in Cambridge at a new theatre, the ‘Great Hall’, at The Leys. The dress rehearsal and performances took place in the week of 3 – 7 April 2018.
Rodelinda – Review by Janet Banks
Hats off to talented artistic director Julian Perkins for resurrecting the Cambridge Handel Opera Company, which had staged annual Handel productions from 1985 to 2013 in the historic university city. He plans to alternate operas by Handel with those of his contemporaries, and if this production of Rodelinda is anything to go by, audiences can look forward to historically informed and artistically rewarding productions in the coming years.
Simon Bejer has designed the production simply but effectively, entirely in blood red, black and white. Costumes are loosely early 17th-century – ruffs, doublet and hose, the staging minimal, but hung with red draperies. Sung in English, it is expertly accompanied from the pit by period instruments laid out as an 18th-century opera orchestra, with a harpsichord and bass instrument on each side of the pit, and conducted by Julian Perkins.
Alice Privett never disappoints as the faithful wife Rodelinda. Her opening lament for her, supposedly, dead husband Bertarido, is impressive in its rich, deep colours, and she excels both in the passionate anger required when resisting the advances of the usurper Grimoaldo and in the more calm set-piece arias.
Her unwelcome suitor, Grimoaldo (tenor William Wallace), white-faced and weak minded, comes into his own in Act 2 when his anger at finding Rodelinda and Bertarido together brings forth vehement coloratura – the only time spontaneous applause was drawn from an otherwise rather reserved audience. His adviser Garibaldo is sung by baritone Nicholas Morris, who from the first has the ability to hold the stage with both his effective acting and his characterful voice. Ida Ränzlöv who sings ‘bad girl’ Eduige, dressed for the part in black vinyl skin-tight trousers and a slashed farthingale, enters into the role with almost comic effect, rolling the “R” of Rodelinda scornfully and cheekily unlacing Unolfo’s doublet.
It is left till Act 1 Scene 2 before we hear a counter-tenor voice – that of Bertarido, in hiding, walking among the tombs. Although initially his voice is not striking, William Towers soon captivates the audience with his beautifully controlled long notes, and his Act 2 aria ‘Nature’s voice replying’, each line echoed from the circle by recorders and flute, is beautifully accomplished. Tom Scott-Cowell, as Unolfo, has the other countertenor role and delights the audience with Act 2 aria ‘Daylight is dawning’ just before the interval.
For me, however, the musical high point of the opera was Rodelinda and Bertarido’s duet at the end of Act 2 ‘I embrace you’, movingly sung in their separate dungeons, with flawless ensemble and both voices blending seamlessly.
Aldeburgh / Snape Maltings – A Place of Energy and Inspiration
Aldeburgh in Suffolk, UK, is known worldwide for its arts festival devoted mainly to classical music. The festival was founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier. To allow a large venue for the festival, Benjamin Britten, 1913 – 1976, who had lived in Snape, a village, just outside of Aldeburgh, converted a large former malthouse (see foto above) into a concert hall. Most of the malting’s original character, such as the square malthouse roof-vents, was retained. This very special ex-malting Concert Hall was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1967.
Aldeburgh and Snape Maltings have since become a place of energy and inspiration – one of the world’s leading centres of music and a visitor destination of outstanding natural beauty: Located by the sea, 106 miles northeast of London. IOCO visited Aldeburgh and Snape, also for an opera performance there.
Dardanus by Jean-Philippe Rameau
BY Janet Banks
When Jean-Philippe Rameau reworked his tragedie lyrique Dardanus he dispensed with the gods altogether and did away with spectacle. The resulting 1744 version, though a lot less exciting visually than its original, admirably suits the needs of a travelling company such as English Touring Opera, who appeared at the concert hall founded by Benjamin Britten from a 19th-century maltings to be the home of his Aldeburgh Festival.
Director Douglas Rintoul sets the opera in a modern-day war zone, with soldiers, including Dardanus and his rival Antenor, in camouflage and the chorus dressed as if they are living on the streets. When the chorus is pressing the king to kill the captive Dardanus, one of them pulls out a can and sprays ‘MORT’ on the back wall. There has obviously been a conscious decision not to include dance in the production, in spite of interludes which would seem to call for it, and the only colour comes from multi-coloured marbled lighting effects representing the magic of the sorcerer Ismenor, and the red flares of off-stage fighting.
The positive effect of the sparse staging and muted lighting is to throw into greater relief the beauty of Rameau’s music. Anthony Gregory sings the title role of Jupiter’s son Dardanus with a voice capable of moving the listener with very credible emotion, from his ecstasy in love in Act 2, to his despair imprisoned in a cell at the opening of Act 4.The object of his desire, Iphise, the daughter of his enemy, is sung by Galina Averina with a light and flexible soprano, suited to music of the period but nonetheless capable of real richness on the high notes. Frederick Long is authoritative as the sorcerer Ismenor, whose spells bring about a happy outcome, while Timothy Nelson as Iphise’s rejected fiancé, excels in his expressive middle range. Eleanor Penfold steps from the chorus to sing an exquisite aria calling for peace at the end of Act 3, a still point in the action and one of the evening’s most beautiful moments.
The period instrument players of the Old Street Band under the direction of Jonathan Williams play Rameau’s score with crispness and precision.
Jonas Kaufmann: Last Night-Superstar
Am 12. September endeten die Londoner Proms 2015, eine reichhaltige, klassisch populäre Sommerkonzertreihe. Seit Mitte des 18. Jahrhundert finden viele dieser “Promenadenkonzerte” in der Royal Albert Hall in Kensington statt. Seit 1927 werden die Proms vom BBC organisiert.
Internationale Aufmerksamkeit erreichen die Promenadenkonzerte mit der Letzten Nacht der Proms, der berühmten Last Night of the Proms. Das öffentliche Interesse an diesem abschließenden ur-englischen Kult-Festival ist überbordend: Die Royal Albert Hall mit über 7.000 Stehplätzen reicht lange nicht mehr für die Last Night. So wird der Event auf Großleinwänden auch in den benachbarten Hyde Park übertragen. 40.000 Menschen feiern dort mit. Auf Großleinwänden übertragen, mutierte selbst in Parks von Belfast, Glasgow die Last Night zu einem Volksfest. Zu den normalen Proms-Vorstellungen kommen die Engländer in Alltagskleidung, eine Kleiderordnung besteht nicht. Ganz anders dagegen die Last Night: Bunte Kostüme und Verkleidungen drücken karnevalistische Ausgelassenheit aus. Tröten, Rasseln und humorige Zwischenrufe mischen sich dort mit der Klasse großer Musik. Die Last Night endet mit dem Singen aller Besucher der britischen Nationalhymne, Rule, Britannia und Auld Lang Syne, auf der Bühne angeleitet von Gesangsstars der klassischen Musikwelt. Am 12. September 2015 geschah für Deutsche zusätzlich etwas besonderes.
Der englische BBC gab diesem 12. September 2015 eine herausragende Note, indem er, wenig national, ausgerechnet Jonas Kaufmann, den deutschen Tenor-Superstar, bat, an diesem Abend die große englische Volkshymne Rule, Britannia zu singen. Britische Zeitungen feierten Kaufmann schon vor seinem Auftritt als „den größten Tenor seit Pavarotti mit auffälligen Locken wie Justin Bieber“. Und so wandelte sich die Last Night of the Proms 2015 in ein fröhliches Fest, welches, so englische Zeitungen „eher Ähnlichkeit mit einem Tom Jones Event hatte“. Zahlreiche weibliche Fans gaben ihrer Begeisterung für Kaufmann ungewohnten Ausdruck: Kreischend warfen sie ihm Höschen und andere laszive Dessous auf die Bühne der Royal Albert Hall. Kaufmann genoß es sichtlich: Er nahm ein Seidenhöschen, ließ es auf der Hand in der Luft kreisen und lachte breit, gemeinsam mit dem tobenden Publikum. Der anschließende, formal offizielle Geschenkakt wirkte dagegen natürlich sehr brav. Mit stürmischem Beifall verabschiedeten die Briten den deutschen Superstar Jonas Kaufmann am 2. September aus ihrer Londoner Royal Albert Hall. [Von Jonas Kaufmann wurden verschiedene Aufnahmen bei Sony Classical veröffentlicht]
IOCO / VJ / 17.09.2015