Friday, February 20, 2009

Interview with Heinrich Christiansen, Transcript, Part 3

Here's the transcription of the third part of my interview with Heinrich Christiansen! You can find part 1 here, and part 2 here, and there is 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.

Part 3:

A: And then why did you decide to come to the U.S.?
H: So, it was just a coincidence. I had been working Sweden, as I said, for four and a half years, I think I was there, and it was a full-time job in music, so I kind of felt like I should have been pleased as punch, you know, because lots of musicians all around the world are not able to make a living. But there wasn’t much of a challenge in it after a while. It was fun for the first 2, 3 years, there was the challenge of trying to master the language and trying to sort out how to do the things I was talking about before.
A: And were you directing a choir for the first time?
H: Yes. And you know, I had to put it together, this volunteer choir that was non-existent before I got there, and then I founded a little community choir while I was there too. And those were all fun things, but then I was – so I was around thirty, so I had this little crisis of thinking, “Well, you know, am I going to do this until – I’m all set now, should I just sit here and wait and retirement?” So it felt like, “There’s got to be more to do than this.” So I ran into Jim Christie, who was teaching at the Boston Conservatory. One of the things I did while I was in Sweden, just to sort of keep myself motivated was I would go around the world and play organ competitions, because it was a great way to make yourself practice, and you got to meet a lot of colleagues at various stages of their career, and then you got to go fun places. I went to South Africa one time for a competition, which was a place I would never have gone to otherwise, I think. And it was just wonderful. And this particular competition was in Paris, so you know, any excuse for going back to Paris. And then Jim was on the jury, and we started chatting after the whole thing was all said and done. And I said to him, “Well, you know, I’m kind of done with this whole living in Sweden thing, I’m ready for the next thing, maybe I should just emigrate to the U.S. like people used to, you know, centuries ago.” And then he sent me a postcard a couple of weeks later saying, “Well, if you’d like to come do this artist’s diploma, I could get you enrolled in the program.” He set the whole thing up, and it was just a great opportunity. And I sort of felt like, “Well, I don’t really need one more degree,” because as I said I’d already been in school for eight years straight for organ, and I already had a degree that was extremely similar to what they were offering. But it was just, you know, a chance to go do something else, and also a chance to focus on your instrument and just sit around and play for two full years, and have the time to do it, which is really a luxury. And then I was very fortunate, I just sort of showed up and Jim introduced me to a lot of people, and lots of doors opened and I got a lot of opportunities right off the bat. So really a case of being in the right place at the right time.
A: And what was the culture shock like? Was there any, or – what things, if you can even remember now, struck you as odd?
H: I don’t think that anything struck me as odd. I think I really was ready, as I said, for something else. So I was – I think I was very spongy when I first came here in terms of just taking things for what they were, and absorbing them. And I certainly didn’t really feel homesick at all. Obviously I missed my friends in Denmark and Sweden, but I just had a great time, and it was just a good time for me personally in my life to just be doing something else and just rip up the roots and try something else. And all these wonderful opportunities were there. So I don’t remember being shocked, I just had a good time, and there were so many welcoming people that, you know, took me under their wing, showed me around, took me on little trips to go see – Americans are extremely welcoming that way, they want to show off their country and introduce you to customs and show you the sights and all that. So I had a great time and still do.
A: And then what was it like working with Dan Pinkham?
H: It was great. He was, you know, a wonderful, very generous boss, and a great mentor, and he gave me lots of great opportunities. I got to play a lot of his music. Typically when he was writing something new he would bring it in for church on Sunday morning and we would do whatever the piece was, either as an anthem or for something instrumental it would be the prelude for that Sunday, so he had me learn a bunch of his things for those occasions. So he could correct his scores and change whatever he wanted to change before sending it off to be engraved. So it was just a wonderful time.
A: And how long did you work with him?
H: So he was – for two years, this was the exact length of my program –
A: Oh, really? So it was right when you got out of the program that he decided to retire.
H: Well, he’d announced that – as I said, he was there 42 years, so he’d announced, even before I even came, as I remember, it was known that he was going to retire in the year 2000, and he was 77 at the time, so I figured he thought, “Enough is enough.” As you get older, all the fun parts of choral directing, moving chairs around and setting up risers and things like that, can get to be a bit too much, so I think he felt that he’d had a pretty good run, and it was time to call it a day.
A: So talk to me about the choral conducting. At what point did you start doing it, did you simply learn on the job, were there --?
H: As I told you, I always sang in choruses, even when I was a little boy, and then obviously my voice broke, and then that was a whole issue like it is for boys for a while there. So I wasn’t singing for a little bit, and then it was a very integrated – they tend to say that that program I was in in Denmark at the conservatory has three majors. That there’s a lot of, obviously, organ playing, both liturgical and concert repertoire, whatever you want to call it. And then there’s a big theory component, they teach you a lot of theory, because they figure you’re going to need it for whatever you might have to do –
A: Improvisation.
H: Yes, you know, for improvisation, but also if you need to write things for your chorus, or even for church, they want you to be familiar with the various epochs of how did you harmonize chorales for all the hymns, what is appropriate for a Romantic-style tune, that kind of thing. So tons of music theory, and then there’s a lot of choral conducting.
A: So they actually taught conducting as part of the – oh.
H: Yes. So that’s part of the church music program. So that’s – again, because this particular program is intended for you, when you’re done with it, you’re going to go be a church organist and that’s what you’re going to do. It’s not really – so the moment you start the program, that’s what your focus is, and that’s the specific intention, and if you want to go do something else afterwards, it’s going to be a little bit complicated. Because then chances are you’re going to need another diploma from somewhere else in order to allow you to go teach school, or whatever you might want to do. So they do prepare you, and actually there’s a lot of just singing for each other, because everybody who’s in the program needs to fulfill their conducting requirements, so you spend a lot of time singing for the other people while they fulfill their requirement. And so that was a big part of it, just hours every week, just practicing choir for the various – So in that way, it’s very similar to a choral-conducting program around here, that everyone has to sing for each other, and you don’t get as much podium time as you ever want. So that’s integral up until the last year. I think you do your choral conducting exam the year before you do your final exam, so you have that extra year to focus on your instrument again. And often it’s tricky for organists, because typically your average organist is a shy and retiring person that likes to be behind the instrument –
A: A large instrument.
H: -- where they don’t have to face anybody, right? So often it’s a challenge for organists to be choral conductors, just because the interaction is very different, and so the person’s skills are other. I always have loved doing it, and in my current job it’s what I love most of all, but it’s also by far the thing that’s the most complicated, just in terms of the whole personnel aspect. Any kind of contracting like that is just – it’s neverending. There’s always somebody coming down with a cold, or –
A: Have to find a sub.
H: Exactly. So that aspect of it can be trying. But it’s also extremely rewarding, as you know, when it comes together. There’s nothing like that conductor’s high, or whatever you want to call it. And to me, also, there’s something more exciting about it to me, probably because I’ve been playing the organ for so darn long, that – I love that, but it’s not nearly as interactive. Even when you’re accompanying somebody, it doesn’t have the same immediacy that – there’s something very primal about the human voice, and just the interaction with singers, that is just extremely satisfying when it all comes together, and you know, it’s an arduous and long process, but when it finally starts happening, it’s worth it all.
A: So what are some of your favorite – so how long have you been at King’s Chapel now? Since 2000, right?
H: Yes, so Dan retired in 2000, and that’s when I was hired. It’s coming up on nine years. Time flies when you’re having fun.
A: You’ll have to plan a big party for next year.
H: I know, well, we have a lot of anniversaries around the church, because it’s such a historical place. There’s always some reason to celebrate. Last season was the 50th anniversary of the concert series, and then in 2011, we have the 325th anniversary of the church, it was founded in 1686. So almost every year we have some reason to party. So we’ll see.

(to be continued!)

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