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Ian Page: CO & The Mozartists (Season 2017/2018)
1. In 2017/2018 you are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Classical Opera, that, with its period-instrument orchestra under your direction as conductor, has gained the status of one of the major international leading exponents not only of the music of Mozart but also of his many contemporaries (i.e. Gluck, J.C.Bach, T.Arne, N.Jommelli and many others), thanks to a series of highly critically acclaimed live concerts and CD recordings. In 1997 you have founded Classical Opera, then in 2017 you have launched The Mozartists… Can you tell us about the story behind the birth and the many years of activity of Classical Opera? When did you encounter the music of Mozart for the first time and when did you decide to found Classical Opera and why? What have been the major challenges and the major accomplishments, you experienced during these 20 years? And what about The Mozartists?
It’s been a wonderful journey, although in many ways I’m always too close to it to be able to see the growth and evolution from a proper perspective.
In my late teens the music of Mozart occupied an increasingly important place in my heart – the piano concertos were my initial way in – and when I was at University at York (my degree was actually in English Literature), Roger Norrington came to conduct Beethoven’s Eroica symphony with the chamber orchestra there. It was completely revelatory for me, and I soon started supplementing by listening habits with period-instrument recordings of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
I was bowled over by how fresh, vibrant and surprising this core repertoire sounded with these instruments…
…The music suddenly seemed to make so much more sense; it was like scraping the veneer off an old painting by a great master and discovering that the original colours were so much brighter and more compelling.
By this stage I was in London studying as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music, and there I met David Syrus, who was for many years Head of Music at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (he only retired from the position last year). Like many other students before and since, I was fired by David’s musicianship, wisdom and supreme decency and generosity as a human being, and opera seemed to represent the ideal fusion of my twin loves of music and literature.
One thing led to another, and I naturally gravitated more and more towards Mozart’s operas…
…After the RAM I joined the music staff at Scottish Opera, where I worked with the Handel specialist Nick McGegan on a new production of La clemenza di Tito, and this again proved a revelatory experience. I was astonished by how wide the gulf generally was between a good and a bad performance of works like Tito or Idomeneo, and the following year Nick asked me to assist him at the uniquely beautiful and evocative rococo theatre in Drottningholm, Sweden. I was also now working at Glyndebourne, and specialising increasingly in Mozart. This was still limited to the big four or five operas, but I was becoming more and more interested in where Mozart’s operatic style and personality grew from. This was the seed for starting Classical Opera; I was struck by the dichotomy between Mozart being arguably the most highly regarded composer in the history of opera and yet only about a quarter of his operas holding a place in the repertoire of the world’s opera houses. There was no sudden light-bulb moment, but it gradually became important to me to try to set up a company that could do for Mozart what the Royal Shakespeare Company does for Shakespeare.
Over the years our brief, and my interests and ambitions for the company, have evolved, influenced partly by my growing fascination with placing Mozart’s music in context and partly by the feeling that there should be no limit to the repertoire we explore, having invested so much in assembling a wonderful team of musicians and establishing a shared philosophy and approach to performing the music of the 18th century. The name Classical Opera has increasingly felt limiting to this evolution, and earlier this year we launched The Mozartists as a vehicle for our expanding concert work.
Over our first 20 years our repertoire has already ranged from cantatas by Handel and Pergolesi to symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert, but Mozart – and his operas in particular – has always been our starting point. This new name allows us greater freedom and flexibility in our programming, while hopefully also causing less confusion among promoters and audiences. The important step for me was the recognition that we’re not exclusively an opera company, and so long as Mozart remains central to our repertoire and mission, there’s no reason why we can’t also explore Handel and Beethoven and even beyond.
20th Birthday Concert – 9 October 2017
2. In October 2017 you have released the CD recording Il Sogno di Scipione by Mozart, an opera composed in Salzburg in 1771, when Mozart was only 15 years old. You have studied and conducted Mozart’s early works, especially operas, for a long time: what’s your general impression on this incredible work by a young genius of 15 years old? Which parts of Il Sogno di Scipione impressed you most? In June 2018 you are going to conduct Mozart’s first full-length opera La finta semplice (1768), marking so another 250th anniversary. La finta semplice was written in 1768, in difficult conditions, and Il Sogno di Scipione in 1771, after Mozart’s formative experience in Italy: what’s the technical difference between the two works, in your opinion? Il Sogno di Scipione is part of your project The Complete Mozart Operas, which started in 2012: at which point of your Mozartian operatic parcours are you now and what for the future?
The parallel with Shakespeare is a significant one.
Both Mozart and Shakespeare wrote some works that are less good than others, but even in the least good ones they will suddenly do something – tap a depth of beauty, wisdom or truth – that no one else could have thought of.
Il sogno di Scipione is an interesting case in point. It’s not one of his most challenging or accomplished works – indeed it’s the first release in our ongoing complete Mozart Opera cycle that we recorded without having previously performed the work in the theatre or the concert hall – but it still has touches, details, sleights of hand, that none of his contemporaries could have thought of…
… There’s an accompanied recitative near the end in which Scipio awakens from his dream. As he stirs the sound-world suddenly changes and the strings play two bars that instantly transport the listener to a magical, elevated place.
Il sogno di Scipione
The more familiar I become with Mozart’s early operas the more aware I become that what he was extraordinary at is matching the scale and ambition of each work to the level and expectation of the commission. Works commissioned to celebrate royal weddings were virtuosic but emotionally shallow, and works written for young or amateur performers were charming but technically undemanding, while he was able to throw the kitchen sink at major commissions such as Mitridate and Lucio Silla, in the knowledge that he was writing for some of the top singers and players of the day.
Il sogno di Scipione was commissioned as a dutiful and obsequious act of homage to the Archbishop of Salzburg, so it had a specific function whose message would only be muddied by a complex plot. In truth, the piece has virtually no plot whatsoever, and this had been one of my reasons for not having performed it before. During rehearsals for the recording, though, the moment we accepted the lack of plot and started to explore the way the score underpins and enhances the philosophical nature of the libretto, we found that the music suddenly lifted off the page, and it was wonderful to see how much our singers and players started to appreciate and enjoy the piece.
La finta semplice was composed for Vienna’s leading opera buffa singers, although in the end it was never performed there, and Goldoni’s libretto is genuinely comic, so the twelve-year-old Mozart gave it his best shot. In keeping with the styles of the day, the arias are substantially shorter than opera seria ones, but the music is astonishingly skilful and successful, and the chain-finales already anticipate the celebrated Da Ponte operas…
La Finta Semplice Trailer – 6 & 8 June 2018
… At the conclusion there is even a poignant pre-echo of Le nozze di Figaro, as Giacinta begs forgiveness from her brothers for her impish trickery. With Rosina’s Senti l’eco and Amoretti, too, time suddenly seems to stand still and the comedy is briefly suspended in a vision of genuine sincerity, compassion and vulnerability.
The next release (the seventh) in our ongoing complete Mozart cycle will be of Bastien und Bastienne, which we are coupling with the early dramatic cantata Grabmusik. These two works, both completed before Mozart even reached his teens, will be released in autumn 2018, and again reflect Mozart’s skill at matching his music to the scale of the commission. Bastien und Bastienne was the only one of Mozart’s operas to be conceived for performance in a private house rather than a theatre or opera house, but its bucolic charm and simplicity are beguiling.
Grabmusik, meanwhile, was allegedly the result of a test set by the distrusting Archbishop of Salzburg, who had the young composer confined to solitary confinement while he set the text, to prove that he was not receiving help from his father or any other elders. The result is one of Mozart’s least known works, but it contains music of incredible emotional range, that must have quashed any doubters for good!
THE COMPLETE MOZART’S OPERAS – CD Series (2011-2017)
& Other Albums
3. In 2015 with your Classical Opera you have launched another special type of concerts, synchronically featuring works by Mozart and by his major contemporaries during the same musical season: MOZART 250, which, through its concerts and its retrospective Series, chronologically follows an ideal 250th anniversary line in the annual footsteps of Mozart’s life from 1765/2015 (Mozart’s childhood visit to London) to 1791/2041. What led you to create such special annual series of musical events? Beside Mozart’s La finta semplice, in 2018 you’ll present Haydn’s Applausus, his Symphony No. 26 Lamentatione and other works by him and music by J.C.Bach, Jommelli, Hasse and Vanhal: what about your interest in the music by this group of composers and, in particular, in the music by Haydn?
Again, I can’t remember the exact moment I had the idea, but it seems to incorporate several of the things that are important to me. I’ve always been fascinated by what music Mozart heard and was influenced by, and which of his fellow composers he admired (he was famously dismissive of most of them!).
I also found myself being increasingly frustrated by reviewers and commentators judging Mozart’s early works in comparison with the masterpieces he was writing twenty years later rather than with the other music being written and performed at the same time.
Even when I first set up Classical Opera it seemed obvious that if we learnt to perform works like La finta semplice and Mitridate well then that would beneficially inform our performances of the great masterpieces of his maturity, and with MOZART 250 it’s proved really useful to be able to place Mozart’s works alongside works being written in the same year by other composers. Even those pieces which Mozart would almost certainly not have heard throw light on the gradual evolution of musical style during his lifetime, and of course the works that he did know are of even greater interest.
We’ve already featured over thirty composers in the first three years of MOZART 250, and our 2015 mini-festival exploring the music being performed in London during Mozart’s childhood stay there featured several composers that not even I had heard of before – people like Mattia Vento, Davide Perez, George Rush and William Bates.
We’ll be releasing a 2-CD set of highlights from these concerts in May 2018.
If everything goes according to plan MOZART 250 will generally form approximately half of our live projects each year between now and 2041.
Every January we present a retrospective concert offering an overview of the musical year 250 years previously. Our 1768 survey, which takes place at Wigmore Hall on 23 January, will include symphonies by Haydn and Vanhal, a flute concerto by Johann Christian Bach, played by our principal flautist Katy Bircher, and arias from Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe, Haydn’s Lo speziale and Mozart’s La finta semplice, all sung by the young Swiss-Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath, making her UK début. Devising these programmes is very labour-intensive but I really enjoy the process, and it always throws up some fascinating discoveries.
Of course there are some years when Mozart was extremely prolific and others when he wrote very little, but even the least productive years provide opportunities to dig a little deeper into other more obscure repertoire…
… 1766 (2016), for example, was a relatively thin year on paper, but it enabled us to present the UK première of Jommelli’s Il Vologeso, which proved to be a great success. As we enter the fourth year of MOZART 250 a consistent pattern is starting to take shape, with Haydn unsurprisingly emerging as the leading light alongside the young Mozart.
And about Haydn,…
… just consider that, beside Applausus and his symphony No. 26 for this season, I’m on a mission to champion all the symphonies without a nickname, because they tend to be overlooked in favour of those with nicknames, and among those nos. 47, 80 and 99 are particular favourites.
Haydn 2009 Celebrations
Ian Page’s MOZART 250 – The Journey of a Lifetime
Complete Concerts Series (2015-2018)
4. You have worked at Glyndebourne and Drottningholm, experiencing, in this way, peculiar conditions of opera performance, a few of them, certainly typical of the 18th century (the Drottningholm Theatre, for example): how such experiences enriched your vision of the 18th century music? You have worked also with Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Alexander Gibson, Ivor Bolton, Nicholas McGegan, Mark Wigglesworth: how did they contribute to your growth as a musician, as a conductor and as an artist? You work with many marvellous, also young, artists and professionals year after year: do you want to remember someone in particular and some anecdotes? And as an entrepreneur, what have been your major challenges and what your advice and tips for those who’d like to launch their careers in the world of classical music as entrepreneurs?
When I assisted Nic McGegan at Drottningholm we were working on a production of Una cosa rara by Martin y Soler, and it was fascinating to work on such a typical 18th-century opera there.
After a few weeks in a rehearsal studio in Stockholm it seemed like a distinctly average piece with a fairly ordinary cast, but as soon as rehearsals moved into the Drottningholm theatre the piece, and the singers, suddenly sounded a million dollars!
That was a really formative experience for me; it made me realise that there are so many 18th-century works that need the right tender, loving care to flourish, and that they really start to make sense when you can recreate the conditions for which they were originally conceived.
Glyndebourne was also a wonderful place to work, and it was there that I first met and worked with Sir Charles Mackerras. I worked on all three of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas there, and as assistant conductor I had musical responsibility for luxuriously extensive understudy rehearsals, which provided me with the opportunity to work with some of the leading young singers in the country. I subsequently assisted Mackerras on his recording of Idomeneo, and he followed the development of Classical Opera with a keen interest, always generous with his advice and encouragement. Along with Stanley Sadie and Christopher Raeburn – two other great people, great minds and great Mozartians – he was the most influential mentor for me in the early years of the company.
I worked with the other three conductors you mention on rather different repertoire – Puccini, Britten and Stravinsky – but I learnt a huge amount from all of them. Sir Alex was particularly warm and inspirational, and I continue to hold Mark Wigglesworth up as a role model for his fierce musical intelligence and the depth of his thinking and preparation.
Then there are the conductors and other musicians from whom I’ve learnt so much from watching them perform or listening to their recordings. We should always retain an overriding sense of modesty and humility, but at the same time it’s really important in refining our own thoughts and interpretations to analyse what we particularly like or dislike about other performers and performances.
When I started Classical Opera we quickly gained a reputation for our work in identifying and nurturing top-quality young singers. This was partly due to the fact that we couldn’t afford more established artists, but it’s also true that this repertoire particularly suits young voices.
Young singers also tend to be more open to the style of detailed, explorative rehearsals that I prefer, and what I find particularly satisfying now is that when singers who worked with us at the start of their careers come back after a gap of several years, we already have a shared language which comes back in a matter of minutes, as with all good friendships.
It took me rather longer to work out and identify the sort of players that I most enjoyed working with, but now that we have established such a strong and loyal sense of ensemble I’m continually inspired and fed by the players with whom I work.
It takes a certain type of open spirit, and intellectual rigour, to tame and master these wonderful old instruments, and building an ensemble isn’t just about finding the best players but also about instilling the right shared values, goals and reasons for doing what we do.
5. Your favourite work by Mozart and your favourite work by J. Haydn.
Oh dear, these answers will probably change on a daily basis!
For Mozart it would probably have to be one of the operas or one of the piano concertos.
The C minor Mass would also be a contender, probably more so than the Requiem, and a recent addition to the short-list would be the Sinfonia Concertante K.364, which I conducted for the first time three months ago. But how to whittle it down to one? The old cliché is probably right, that my favourite Mozart opera is the one I’m working on at the time, but this week, and off the top of my head because I know the question will get harder the more I think about it, my short-list would be Idomeneo, Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte and the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. And if I had to name one – today, and without questioning why on earth Figaro and Don Giovanni aren’t on my shortlist – I’ll say Così fan tutte. It’s such a profound, complex and modern score, and is still widely misunderstood and under-appreciated.
Haydn is hardly any easier.
As I’ve already said previously, I’m on a mission to champion all the symphonies without a nickname, because they tend to be overlooked in favour of those with nicknames, and among those nos. 47, 80 and 99 are particular favourites. Today’s podium places, though, would be occupied by:
3. String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, no. 2.
2. Piano Sonata No. 52 in E flat major
1. Symphony No. 44 in E minor, Trauer
6. Do you have in mind the name of some neglected composer of the 18th century you’d like to see re-evaluated?
You mean apart from Mozart?…
… I’m only joking, but I do love the line of Peter Schickele, who, when asked which composer he considered to be the most underrated, replied: «Mozart – since the highest rave is a gross understatement».
Gluck CO’s Blessed Spirit at Gramophone Critics Choice December 2010
Apart from Mozart, there is still valuable work to be done in increasing appreciation of Gluck (especially his pre-Orfeo operas) and Johann Christian Bach, but of the more forgotten names there are five that stand out for me: Beck, Jommelli, Kraus, Traetta and Vanhal.
7. Name a neglected piece of music of the 18th century you’d like to see performed in concert with more frequency.
I have quite a lot of these, including several by the composers I’ve just mentioned.
They’re not confined to lesser known composers either; in March we’re performing Haydn’s Applausus cantata, which doesn’t seem to have been presented in London for many years. I’m in a very fortunate position, because when I do come across a neglected work that I really rate I can often incorporate it into our programming.
For this question, though, I’m actually going to choose a work by Mozart – his concert aria Ah, lo previdi, K.272…
… Mozart’s concert arias in general don’t get as much exposure as they deserve, and I’ve never understood why this should be…
… Maybe promoters just don’t think of singers to fill their concerto slot. Whatever the reasons for their relative neglect, Mozart’s concert arias contain some of his best music, and the more extended ones are like concentrated mini-operas in their own right.
Ah, lo previdi is certainly one of these, a scena lasting over twelve minutes and incorporating two fiercely dramatic recitatives – the second one in particular contains some astonishing harmonic shifts and moments of exquisite, tender vulnerability – and two arias, the second of which incorporates a beautiful oboe solo.
Mozart clearly held the work in high regard, subsequently urging his beloved Aloysia Weber to learn it and «to put yourself in all seriousness into Andromeda’s situation and position», and the celebrated Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein wrote that Mozart «almost never wrote anything more ambitious, or containing stronger dramatic feeling».
We are including this piece in Perfido!, our recent recording of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven concert arias with Sophie Bevan, and I was delighted how many of the reviews singled it out for praise.
8. Have you read a particular book on Mozart Era you consider important for the comprehension of the music of this period?
I’m very grateful for the opportunity that this question gives me to acknowledge some of the books I couldn’t do without!
With Mozart of course we are lucky in that we have a very substantial series of Mozart family letters that have survived, and Otto Deutsch’s collection of Mozart documents is similarly indispensable, so these are the two bibles.
Too many modern biographies intercede with their author’s own attempts to formulate a particular theory or new angle, but a glorious exception is Stanley Sadie’s Mozart: the early years. This was intended as the first of a two-part biography, but Stanley sadly died before he could write the second book. For a clear, authoritative and insightful overview of Mozart’s life and works up until 1781, though, this is the book to have.
Scarcely a month goes past without me referring to two other fabulous books: The Compleat Mozart (don’t be put off by the title), edited by Neal Zaslaw, is a wonderful compendium of Mozart’s complete works, and Peter Clive’s Mozart and his Circle contains invaluable biographical entries on all the important people in Mozart’s life.
Zaslaw’s benchmark book on Mozart’s Symphonies is also outstanding, and for Mozart’s operas I still don’t think that anyone has rivalled William Mann’s The Operas of Mozart, first published in 1977, which has the huge advantage of devoting a whole chapter to each of the pre-Idomeneo operas, rather than merging them into a token single-chapter appraisal.
My final top recommendation would be John A. Rice’s Mozart on the Stage, which has fascinating information and insights on how Mozart’s operas would have been composed, rehearsed and staged.
9. Name a movie or a documentary that can improve the comprehension of the music of this period.
Like the play, the film of Amadeus has plenty of critics, but despite its faults it does recreate the spirit of Mozart’s Vienna (despite being filmed in Prague!), and the flights of fancy about how some of Mozart’s compositions came into being are captivating and imaginative, if spurious. I also find Farinelli exciting for its evocation of 18th-century theatres and opera performances.
In terms of documentaries, Phil Grabsky’s excellent In Search of… series has incorporated full length films devoted to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, but I have a hazy memory of a wonderful series of TV programmes on these composers (and Schubert) from the 1980s…
… It was presented by Bamber Gascoigne and had Stanley Sadie as musical consultant, and I think it was called Man and Music. I’ve no idea whether these programmes are available anywhere now, but I’d love to know if they are, if only to see if they’re as good as I remember…
10. Do you think there’s a special place to be visited that proved crucial to the evolution of the 18th century music?
I’m not sure I can think of anywhere about which I could make such an expansive claim, but the Drottningholm Slottsteater is my own personal First Choice.
I’m a big fan of Stockholm and its people, and the story behind the theatre’s preservation is such a fortuitous and romantic one. It’s an amazingly beautiful place and setting, too, but more than anything it’s the ambience inside the theatre itself which is truly magical. It feels as close to time travel as I’m ever likely to get!
Thank you very much for having taken the time to answer our questions!
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