Thursday, February 19, 2009

Interview with Heinrich Christiansen, Transcript, Part 1

Here's the transcription of the first part of my interview with Heinrich Christiansen! More to come. Don't forget, the King's Chapel Choir, which he directs, is performing an hour-long concert at 5 pm this coming Sunday of the music of Poulenc at King's Chapel, Boston.

Interview with Heinrich Christiansen at the King’s Chapel Parish House, Boston, MA on 2/16/09

A: So, first things first. First thing is your life story. Where were you born?
H: My life story. I’m Danish, so I grew up in Denmark, and I got my degree there, a church music diploma, they call it. And when I was done with that, I just had to go to Paris, because that’s what organ types do, right? So I was there, studying for a couple years, and then I happened to get a job in Sweden just as I was finishing up in France, so I went to Sweden, worked in a church there for about four or five years, and then I came to Boston.
A: And got the job at King’s Chapel?
H: Yes. I came here to do an artist’s diploma, again playing the organ, so that was at the Boston Conservatory, and part of that whole package that my teacher Jim Christie set up for me was that I was the assistant at King’s Chapel at the time. This was – well, Dan Pinkham was my predecessor. He was the music director for 42 years, and so he would get these assistants that had been students of Jim’s for quite a while before I showed up, and so I happened to be the last one, and he had announced that he was going to retire in 2000, and I got lucky, and they hired me to succeed him.
A: Cool. Now, when you were a kid, when did you start – you didn’t start out on organ, I assume.
H: No, you know, there was really no tradition of playing any instruments in my family, so I started out sort of the path of least resistance. I got a recorder, because they had – it’s a very nice thing in Denmark, they make music accessible in terms of going into the community so you don’t have to work so hard to seek it out and go look for private lessons. In my town there’s a community music school that was organized by the town, and it was subsidized, so you paid something for lessons, but it wasn’t really hugely expensive, and you could do something simple like recorder, where you can buy your kid a plastic recorder and it’s not a huge upfront investment just because your child gets this idea that they want to play some sort of instrument. So I played the recorder, and started singing in the school choir when I was in fourth grade, some things like that. And then after playing the recorder for a while, they said, well, why don’t you try the clarinet? It’s kind of a funny thing in retrospect because it was always some teacher saying, well, why don’t you try…? You know, I played the guitar for a little bit, and I played the clarinet, and I was getting rather serious about that, the way I remember it. But then I was also attracted to the keyboard, and the neighbor’s kid had one of those little sort of table-top electronic things that he was playing out in the yard one day, and I was so fascinated with that that I nagged my parents into buying me a little thing like that, you know, just like a Cassio keyboard, just to sort of figure out the basics of that. And then thankfully somebody else, a family friend, was looking to unload this parlor organ, again just a Yamaha electronic kind of thing, but that had two keyboards and one octave pedals.
A: Interesting.
H: And so I got into that whole organ scene, but much more just playing, you know, pop songs, whatever you play on an instrument like that. It wasn’t really classical music at all. And then I took lessons on that for a little bit at a music store in town. And then I did that for a year, and then again the teacher said to me one day, well, why don’t you try the church organ, and see what that would be like? And so it’s sort of this whole sequence of coincidences that led me [laughs] to becoming an organist and choir director that I just sort of fell into. And it happened when I was very, very young, and you know at the time you don’t really stop and reflect, is this really what I want to do with my life? It just seems pretty cool, and then before you know it, there you are. [laughs]
A: Now, how old were you when somebody said, “Hey, go try the church organ.”
H: It was when I was thirteen. And again, so then I had my dad call up the local organist, and she said, Oh sure, come on over. And then I went, and so I guess I just really fell in love with the instrument, and it’s – the organ is an interesting instrument from different levels. A lot of people are fascinated with it just from the mechanical point of view, you know, they love the machine, and it’s more of an incidental thing that it happens to produce music. And I’m not so much into the mechanics of how the organ itself is put together, but I guess I love the complexity of making music on it, that you have this sort of orchestra at your hands. And you could say that choral direction is a little bit like that too. Your ensemble there, and trying to make beautiful music by trying to do something very composite, so I guess, you know, again in an unconscious way I must be drawn to that type of thing.
A: And then what is the educational system like? What age are you when you go away to university?
H: So then again, a funny coincidence, because as I said, at that point just as I was entering high school, I was playing the clarinet quite a bit, and I was taking private organ lessons, just because organ was not an instrument that was included in this whole community – you know, because the community music school was all about teaching people in groups, just to make it affordable. So a thing like the organ’s not practical as a – even piano lessons were just a little bit awkward for most people, if you don’t have a piano in your home. So the keyboard instruments were really not favored by the music school as much as many of the more group-friendly ones. And so I took private lessons for organ, and then I was still going through the community music school and taking clarinet lessons. And then they had actually sent me to the neighboring town, because they figured there was a better teacher there. So I was taking clarinet lessons at this other music school in a town about half an hour away. And as luck would have it, I also ended up going to high school in that town, because they had a sort of music major, if you will, in high school. So you could go there, and you would have a lot more music than you would anywhere else, which I thought was very neat, and the high school in my home town wasn’t offering that particular line at the time. And so the music school in my high school town was starting this pilot program, a preparatory course for the conservatory, and this was something that had been done in a few places around the country. So, essentially it was designed to be a three-year program. So the thought was that you would do it while you were in high school, which in Denmark is three years. But you could really enter at any age if you could pass the audition process. There were people that were not in high school yet, and there were folks in their twenties who’d sort of decided a little bit later than you normally would, perhaps, that they wanted to try out a career in music. And so that was great, because it was set up to prepare you for what you need to do in order to enter the conservatory in Denmark, which again is a state kind of thing, so it’s very stream-lined and uniform, you know, there are very set requirements. Not at all like here, where there are so many different ways to study music, right? In Denmark you have the conservatory, which is more the performer’s branch, and then you can also study music at the university, but then it will be mostly theoretical and sort of the academic, musicological, so not at all as practical. So you often end up choosing – that’s one thing about Europe that people often bring up versus the U.S., that things are much more in a certain direction right from the get-go, that you choose a certain type of education, and it prepares you for a certain type of job, and then you are certified to do that job, but it’s not so easy then to re-think your career and do something altogether different, because then you sort of have to figure out how you can get certified to do this, that, and the other. Just because you have a music degree, for instance, in Denmark doesn’t mean that you can go teach music at a school, because you would have to have a teacher’s certificate, right? And that’s another four-year degree. And so everybody’s very protective, because they’ve each gone through this particular training, and so they’re not really keen on other people inserting themselves in the job market where they’re supposed to be. So…where did we come from? Well, so, you know, so there I –
A: Well, actually, I’m going to digress for a moment, because this is an area that interests me. Because people – if I’m like, “Oh, I’m interested in maybe going and getting a doctorate, doing some more study, blah, blah, blah,” people will say, “Well, what about Europe?” And I actually – the European system is kind of unfathomable to me at the – past the undergraduate-ish level. What happens – what are possibilities? If musicians in the U.S. want to go study in Europe, how does it work?
H: I think it varies very much depending on what you want to do, again, because most programs there have a specific thing in mind. And so I know a few singers that have gone over, and they typically start by finding a teacher, and in a way, that’s what I would recommend, because then you have somebody to mentor you, so that’s one way to do it. Go over to whatever country it is you’re looking at, try to get some introductions, go meet with some people, see if you find a teacher that seems to have something to tell you, and that happens to teach in a setting that might be helpful to you. For instance, when I went to study in Paris, that’s how I started. Lots and lots of organists go to Paris, so I knew a lot of the people, the famous teachers that were there –
A: So you just went to Paris?
H: Well, no, so I knew of a lot of teachers ahead of time. Some of them had come to Denmark to give masterclasses and whatnot. So I knew of a lot of people. So I tried to get a bunch of recordings to hear what their playing was like, and people that had studied with them, tried to get some input about what it was like, you know, to try to find somebody that you would click with. And then I ended up choosing this guy who was very young at the time, Olivier Latry, who was – now he’s a big name, he’s at Notre Dame. And he had already gotten that when he was not even thirty yet at the time. And so I listened to his recordings, and I decided that I liked his playing, and I thought it would be exciting, because he wasn’t somebody that a thousand other people had already studied with. Again, what do you know when you’re 25? But that was my thought process, more or less. So I wrote to him, I got his address from some sort of contact, I wrote and said, “Hey, can I come study with you?” And I told him, you know, I’m thinking of just coming down every now and then to Paris, maybe not being there full-time, but you know, what would you recommend? And he was very succinct about his recommended cause of action, which was to enroll in the conservatory that he was teaching in at the time, which was out in the suburbs. And it was structured a little bit like Longy, the image of the French conservatory model, where you have teaching on a bunch of levels, and so it was a little bit of a random thing that he happened to have inherited this post from his old teacher, who had been – so, there’d been a great organ program at this particular conservatory for years and years for no other reason than that teacher had happened to be employed there years ago, and just attracted all these students, which is often how it happens. And so they had this program, and if you enroll in a European program like that, then your lessons are subsidized in some form. Sometimes it’s more expensive for foreigners, when you’re inside/outside the EU, and that’s the sort of thing you’d need to look into to see what the best way to do it is. But in this case you paid a little bit of tuition, but there were various grant programs that I applied to in Denmark, so I got my way paid. And that’s another big difference about studying anything in Europe, is that the funding typically is there. Education is valued from the point of view of the society in a way that it’s not really in the U.S. It’s more considered your own concern; if you want this training, then you figure out the funding, and if you’re lucky, you find a school that’ll offer you a scholarship.
A: What do you think the end result – do you see that that affects quality in the end, or do you feel that it just means that – what’s the result of that?
H: It’s interesting, you know, this is something that always fascinates me as you go from one place to another, is what your view of normalcy is. So in Europe, nobody ever stops to reflect how lucky we/they are to have all of this wonderful system in place. And you know, as I said before, sometimes there’s not a lot of flexibility in terms of how to do it, you just follow the path that is intended. Whereas I think people here tend to get more creative, maybe, because of necessity. Because if you don’t want to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, then you have to figure out a way to either get some funding and some financial aid or work part-time while you’re studying. So it’s a lot less rigid in many ways here, and so that’s good and bad, it often means that people maybe get a more composite training, that they piece things together in a different way, whereas in Europe maybe once you’re in the system you might as well see it through to its bitter end. Because as a matter of fact when I entered the conservatory in Denmark – so, you know, after I did the preparatory program alongside my time in high school, I went straight to the conservatory, fresh out of high school.
A: And how many years was that?
H: So that was – until the year or two before I started, that program that I entered was a seven-year program. And at that point, when I did it, it was a six-year to get the church music diploma, which is an equivalent of a master’s, but not structured the same way. And it used to be that there was no such thing as an undergrad in Denmark. The whole bachelor degree was just introduced right around this time in the late 80’s, early 90’s, was when it occurred to them that maybe it would be good to have something to offer, some sort of degree that didn’t –
A: Require six years of --!
H: -- necessarily tie people down to one school, one program for six years if it’s not right. Because, of course, you had all these issues when people start something, and then they figure out it’s not for them or they can’t meet the requirements, and then you’ve invested all this money and time into a degree that’s ultimately not for you. So it’s been shortened somewhat, and these days I think just about every institution offers shorter programs. But that was the time, the horizon at the time, you see that’s kind of the point, that once you’re in that program, then more often than not inertia will just – “Well, I’m here, I might as well finish it, right?”

(to be continued!)

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