Saturday, February 21, 2009

Interview with Heinrich Christiansen, Transcript, Part 4

Here's the transcription of the fourth part of my interview with Heinrich Christiansen! You can also read part 1, part 2, and part 3, and there is one more section 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.

Part 4:

A: So what’s the concert that’s coming up? Talk about that.
H: So the concert coming up this Sunday is a Poulenc program, all Poulenc all the time. And it’s called “Night of Snow.” I love Poulenc’s choral music, so I’ve been listening to it over the years, and then I started thinking, why is this always winter? Because his production is not all that large, but there’s an awful lot of pieces where either – you have the Christmas motets, which obviously have this winter association, by the season if nothing else, and then you have Un Soir de Neige, which we’re doing, which is all about snow, and then in some of the other cycles, even in Figure Humaine we’re doing a movement where it talks about this big animal, this imagery of the occupation like a big animal threatening, and has left imprints on the snow. And so the snow just turns up time and time again, and I thought, well, this might be an interesting thing to do in one of the cold months. Certainly this year we’ve had plenty of winter. And so I figured it might be a neat angle. So that’s sort of what ties it together is the winter thing, and we’re going to have – because again, all of these Poulenc pieces tend to be very, very short, so I thought to break it up, and add – I like, in programming these concerts, to try to think of ways to make it a unique concert experience in terms of, when you’re doing a composer portrait like this, really you could go home and just plop in a CD of all Poulenc and you would hear all these pieces, and they would be perfectly in tune, and you would be satisfied, and you wouldn’t even have to leave your house. So what do you do to make people want to leave their house and come hear your concert?
A: In February!
H: Exactly. Maybe even on a night of snow. So we’re adding, in between the pieces, we’re going to have about ten poems that are all about winter, and are all, just to contrast the French, and you know Poulenc loved to set all these surrealist poems, like Eluard and Apollinaire, so we’re going to have some different brands of poetry, and all original English-language poetry. So there’s some T.S. Eliot, and some Thomas Hardy, and some Longfellow, and all kinds of different takes on winter. And so hopefully it will all come together and be just that, a unique concert experience that you wouldn’t find somewhere else. And that’s one of the things that I love about this job, is the opportunity to try and put things like that together. We’re so blessed in Boston with all of these great choruses everywhere, and concerts almost every day of the week, and certainly several every weekend, and we all try to do our own niche programming. And so what I like about the King’s Chapel Series is we do – in general, our programs are about sixty minutes, so it’s not an intermission-style program as a rule. And so I try to think of things that work well in that format, and so that makes it a little bit different also, the time, you know, Sunday at 5, it’s not quite afternoon, not quite evening, but more sort of Evensong time and space. To think of something that in a Sunday, for the audience can be a nice kind of transitional thing. The end of day as we enter into evening. And I enjoy a lot of variety, personally, in my musical life, so I try to program things specifically. So it’s rare that we really have a kitchen-sink kind of program, typically there’s some kind of theme to it. And so this year we have a Bach program coming up in March, so we have two composer-specific programs, and in the fall we did a program called “In Praise of Music” to round off our 50th anniversary celebration. And so it was all pieces that were about music, St. Cecilia and that whole aspect. So I like very much to do these thematic things, and try to – there’s a lot of repertoire that keeps occurring, and I try to put a new spin on the context, and see what we can come up with. I find that very enjoyable and exciting, a creative challenge.
A: Now what are the different--? So, there’s the concert series that is the choir, that’s three times a year, and are there other concert series at the church?
H: There’s a Tuesday at noon series. So every Tuesday, essentially, unless it happens to be Christmas, we keep going all year. So every Tuesday there’s a half hour program. It’s a series that was started – I think the original thought was some grad students at NEC that were looking for a place to perform, and they –
A: All grad students or just organists? Was it organ-specific?
H: I don’t even – this is all sort of mythological, I’ve never seen the first program, so I don’t know what exactly was going on at first. But I think essentially somebody had the idea, and went to Dan or went to the church and said, “Hey, can we come and do this?” And then I think they started out just doing four Tuesdays in a row, and then they apparently thought that it was worthwhile continuing. And so it’s been going on – it’s coming up on thirty years of Tuesdays. That’s a lot of concerts, you know?
A: Yes. Thirty years of Tuesdays.
H: Fifty concerts, or fifty-two some years, you know. It doesn’t have to be Christmas on a Tuesday. And that’s mostly people from everywhere, you know, we get a fair amount of touring folks, you know, that I guess come across the website, so they say, “Oh, I’m coming to Boston, can I perform on such-and-such a date?” So that’s great fun. I have a lot of return visitors, local musicians that like coming in. It’s a great forum if you’re working in a new ensemble, or if you have something that you’re trying out, maybe getting ready for a full-length concert, and you have a half-hour of music that you’d like to try out in front of an audience, and come in on a Tuesday and give it a whirl, and I think it’s – the church considers it outreach, so we try to get some people in the door that might not otherwise discover that we’re there. But I think also in terms of the musical community, that’s a great service to provide, because you know how much work it is to put on your own concert, and how hard it is to get an audience. And by virtue just of having one every Tuesday, you get a certain built-in trickle-down. I have some regulars, but we also get people that come specifically for certain programs, they like a certain type of music. And so it’s a little bit on the radar. I think it’s a great series, just a nice service to provide, both to the community at large, but to musicians in Boston to have a place to perform.
A: So before we wrap up, the final area of inquiry is conductors, and what advice do you have for other younger, or, you know, older, but usually we give advice to younger people, so younger conductors. What things do you see that are your pet peeves, what are areas where you think people just don’t study enough or concentrate enough – just your thoughts on conducting. Pet peeves is always very interesting to hear.
H: Pet peeves are – so, I do quite a bit of accompanying, so that’s often how I –
A: So you get to see a lot of other conducting, more than maybe other people.
H: Exactly, and I get to – yes, I get to experience a lot of conducting and react to it. So that’s maybe where I have a different angle, because that might not always be the case, because a lot of conductors don’t do –
A: Just conduct.
H: Yes, exactly. They don’t necessarily get on the other side of the stick very often, right? And then most often if you’re observing conductors, you’re either teaching them, or you’re seeing them from behind, if you will. And I get to be in front of a lot of conductors, and my pet peeves are people that are rude to their singers. And I’m always flabbergasted at what singers will put up with in that term, because it just seems like –
A: It’s so hard to get work, man!
H: [laughs] Well, but you know, even all the community choruses, you know, and these people that have worked a full day, and then they’re paying good money to come and sing with some conductor that’s just standing there insulting them the whole time. And you know, it doesn’t seem like – how do you have a good time when you’re being treated like that? But sometimes you just get the sense that there’s almost a thought that, “Well, we’ll never amount to anything unless we’re yelled at.” And that “we have to be abused or this will never be any good,” it can’t happen in a happy atmosphere, basically, which I think is very disturbing. The other thing, the other pet peeve is if a conductor is reactive more than proactive. Which happens sometimes, you’re working with somebody, and they’ll start conducting you, and you have a sense that they don’t really believe that the music is coming from them, but that they’re sort of throwing up their hands, and seeing what comes back, and then reacting to that. Does that make any sense? You know?
A: Yes, that makes a lot of sense.
H: So you feel like they are not projecting – to my mind, the music has to start inside the conducting person who then sends a signal that activates something in the musician that they’re conducting, and then of course you should react to what you hear, but the initial impulse, impetus, should come from the person conducting. So that’s the other thing that puzzles me, you know, because it seems that if you are going to conduct, you should have a strong enough musical vision that you can actually project that. You know, and then I think it’s easy to get all bogged down in technicalities when you’re conducting. And it’s an interesting thing that I’ve noticed about American choral conducting, which also because I never had any training here formally, is – there are things that interest me in terms of how did this come to be accepted, because again, going back to what is normal, and so what I take to be the whole Shaw school where you spend an awful lot of time on checking your dots, and crossing your t’s, and saying this is where you take off an eighth note. And I never actually heard that until I came here. And I think a lot of that stuff really could be intuitive, but now it’s not, because people have become so used to that whole editing process, you know, to the point where you work with certain people and they’ll give you a score where it’s all edited in. Because it saves time in the rehearsal, which makes perfect sense to me, so I’ve done it once or twice if I have to – if I have something that I need to Xerox anyway for the choir, and I have the time, I might as well edit those things in, because I’m going to give them to them anyway, because it seems to be the accepted way to do things. And certainly in my particular context, because we always have very limited rehearsal time, I try to be extremely specific like that. Just because there isn’t ever enough time for us to rehearse so much that it gets to be intuitive, which is – it’s wonderful to be surrounded by all these professional singers that are extremely talented, but time is always a concern. So I have to try to be very efficient, and I think that’s true for church musicians everywhere. You always have very limited time. And then every now and then you find yourself hired to do something where there’s all the time in the world, and you can just sort of take your time to get used to each other and not have to be so mathematically specific about your music-making. So…I like intangibles in music, but intangibles unfortunately are not all that practical sometimes. [laughs]
A: Anything – any other thoughts on conducting, or advice, or observations on the practice?
H: Conducting is such an ephemeral thing, because it’s – you know, with the whole podium time thing, it’s something you have to learn by doing it. You can only prepare so much. I certainly thing visualizing in terms of really planning out how is this rehearsal going to go, what is it that I want to accomplish, and how can I do this, you know, doing a lot of thinking about a situation, and trying to prepare yourself that way, is extremely helpful, but at the end of the day it’s a very – that’s the joy of it, is that it is so complex and so interactive. But there are a lot of things that you just really can’t prepare for until you’re in the situation, and then, you know, also listening to the music that comes back at you, and trying to figure out, “What can I do to – again, to make my intentions really clear, but also to make things easier for the singers?” So you don’t futz around – that’s another pet peeve, is what you might call overactive or micro-managing conducting, where there’s just so much going on that it becomes really hard to see the overall picture. There’s so much going on in the technical department of the conducting stick-work that you lose the sense of the musical phrasing, because it’s all about – what we were talking about before, about getting bogged down in all the technical aspects of conducting.

(to be continued!)


  1. Anonymous9:26 AM

    I'm so glad he made rudeness his first pet peeve--that's so important. Frustrations happen in any rehearsal, but the choir can learn so much from having a conductor who acts like a grownup about it, who communicates courteously as well as clearly.

  2. @ Anonymous:

    It's so true! I completely agree - I was pleased to see that was his first pet peeve as well.