Friday, November 06, 2009

Interview with Mary Beekman, Transcript, Part 2

Here is the second part of the transcript of my interview with Mary Beekman. The rest will be posted tomorrow! Don't forget, she is conducting Musica Sacra and the Boston Cecilia in the Brahms Requiem on Sunday, 3 pm at Jordan Hall!

(This is one of the interview segments where neither of us is holding back on our opinions of things!)

Interview with Mary Beekman on 10/31/09 at a Starbucks in Watertown, MA, Part 2

M: So there I was at twenty-two, I had 125 singers [in the Harvard-Radcliffe Graduate Chorale], because word-of-mouth....[the previous conductor] was not a choral conductor, he was an orchestral conductor, he had no idea what he was doing, and he didn’t enjoy it. So, you know, it was down to 35, 40 people. I joined, 125 people. Here’s somebody who loves choral music and is excited.
A: Now you were 22, were you doing a Masters also at Harvard?
M: No, I graduated in ’75 from Harvard, and at that point I went over to New England Conservatory to work with Yuko Hayashi. Because at that point I was very committed as well to the organ, and particularly to Baroque performance practice, and that was the place to work in the late 70’s. Yuko Hayashi was the person. I mean, Bill Porter, and everybody that was at Oberlin…Cambridge was a very happening place for Trapper organs. Charlie Fisk, Fritz Noack, all these builders were right in this area. And so anyway, I went to New England Conservatory. And I was president of the organ society at Harvard, and stuff, but I hated…I mean, I did not enjoy talking with other organists. It was just like, this is so boring. Whereas, then in my middle twenties I went to a Robert Shaw workshop a couple of times. And I could stay up until 5. I could talk about choral stuff for hours. You know, “What did you think of what he asked us here? What did you think about that tempo?” You know, it was just like, I can’t get enough. That should have been a big clue, but it took me a long time. So I kind of would say I was dual through graduate school. But I did take mostly conducting classes. So I took choral conducting with Lorna Cooke de Varon. I took conducting from the organ from Don Teeters.
A: I was going to ask.
M: And I took orchestral conducting from Richard Pittman, who was the head of the orchestral department at that point.
A: I’ve met him.
M: You have. Well, let me just tell you that he had the highest attrition of anybody in his courses. Fifty percent attrition. And two women started, and I was the only woman by November. The guy was very difficult to work with. I think it was just his personal style. He didn’t see himself that way, but he came across that way. But I will say, of all the classes I ever took, I learned the most from him. Because he was very demanding about, you know, how you did your beat pattern. For instance, John would often, you know, lose track of where the downbeat was, so he’d just be – because with stuff like Schütz, you know...couldn’t do that with Pittman. And that was good, that was very good discipline for me. Also, I’m left-handed, and up until then I’d been conducting with my left hand. He’s like, “No. You’re a conductor, you use your right hand. Your left hand is your expressive hand.”
A: Are you happy about that now?
M: I’m thrilled about it now.
A: Do you think you could ever have done it the other way? Could you have done the beat in your left?
M: Certainly, because that was my initial impulse. The thing is, and I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but one, as a woman, and two, as a choral conductor, there’s a whole issue of credibility, particularly when you’re working with professional orchestral people. So I’m thrilled to be using my right hand, because over the years, when you work with union people, you have to win them over, and at least I don’t have that extra barrier. Yes, I hold the baton in my – I mean – so. Plus, because I am left-handed, then I think it was easier for me to be expressive with my left hand, because it was already pretty dominant.
A: Yes. I find that very difficult actually, and I’m right-handed.
M: OK, well, there you go. So you can see what a serendipity it is. The first two years that I did the graduate chorale, I just remember a moment where we were doing a Christmas gig at the Park Avenue subway station, which in those days was really disgusting. Park Street. Between the trains, we were singing carols. And I was waving my arms, and I thought, “There’s nothing in the world I would rather do more than this.” And that was the “aha” moment. I mean, I knew I loved it. I knew I loved choral singing; in a way I felt like I was conducting as a compensation for not being able to be in the kind of chorus that I wanted to be in. But it’s such a good fit for me. Because I’m very articulate. And what I’ve noticed is that sometimes there are really good musicians, but if they’re not good at communicating their ideas, they might as well not be very good. I feel like I’m really able to maximize my talent because I can communicate. I’m very comfortable with being directive. I always have been. You know, I love it when Fergie made up that song, “I’m Bossy.” I’m like, “Yes, there’s a song for us!” Do you know that song?
A: I don’t!
M: “I’m bossy!” Oh, it’s great. Oh, you have to look it up. It’s wonderful.
A: OK, I will.
M: So, you know, it’s been a great fit for me, personality-wise, with my musical skills, plus…I mean, basically, I realize now, for whatever reason I’ve always seen music linearly. I’ve always been an excellent sight-singer, and a lousy sight-reader on the keyboard. And I think part of it is that I don’t see things vertically. And the great thing about conducting all these years is that now I see things more vertically than I used to, but I just…I could sight-sing rings around anyone. In fact, this summer I went to that – are you a member of the ACDA?
A: I was, I let my membership lapse. I need to…yeah.
M: Oh, OK. Well, I’m a member. And I went to the conference this summer because Anton Armstrong was going to be there, and I wanted to see him work. And so of course we had these extended reading sessions, and everybody there has got a job somewhere. I could sight-sing around all of them. And it was sort of like, “Hot damn! I still have this skill!” And it’s sort of like someone who’s a really good skier or something? You know, it’s a useless talent, but it’s so cool.
A: Oh, it’s not a useless talent at all!
M: But it is for me because I don’t have the kind of voice where I’m ever going to get into Advent, or any of those premiere places where you need it.
A: Have you taken voice lessons?
M: Oh, yes. Oh, God, yes. [laughs]
A: Who did you study with at NEC? Did you study at Harvard or NEC?
M: I didn’t study at NEC. I studied at Harvard through John Ferris. He was a big – at that time, the forward placement was just getting going. Phyllis Curtin was like – you know, so many people were still teaching back, and John was an early advocate of the forward into the mask. And so Phyllis Curtin has a student named Joan Heller. And I studied with her. And she was like, the person. And what’s really interesting, I mean this summer, not only Anton Armstrong was there, but André Thomas, who I hadn’t really heard of. He’s the guy that I learnt – he’s cool. If you ever get a chance to work with him –
A: He’s very cool. He directed my All-States, when I was in All-States, he was the guy who –
M: OK. What state?
A: It was in Massachusetts. When I was either a junior or senior, he was the one who came.
M: He is just –
A: I mean, I don’t remember so much, and I mean, I was in high school, so I was an idiot, but I remember it was so fun.
M: Well, you know, of all the people that I’ve ever worked with, he reminds me the most of John Ferris, in that you’re so admiring of him as a person. When he told his life story, it was – I thought, you know, having a negative attitude is really the privilege of people with privilege. Because he came from nothing. You know, really nothing. But he talked about people who’d come into his chorus, you know, the voice students, and he said, “There’s the ones who bite the apple!” (smiles widely to demonstrate) And I thought, “Oh, that’s what Phyllis would have been, a “bite the apple!’” Then he said, “There are the people that put it up here!” And he had all of these mannerisms, which – I mean, what I’ve come to feel now is that vocal production really should be separate from all of that stuff that you do. It’s all about – I guess, now I’ve worked with McClosky method and Alexander, and I think that if everything is relaxed, and the voice is on the breath, what you do with it is less important. Because what I would find is that with the people that I knew that worked with this forward placement, even Joan Heller, for the first five years she sounded great. Then you heard her after seven years, and all of a sudden the voice was too far forward. It was like, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
A: What’s your opinion of Emma Kirkby?
M: I’m afraid I don’t know her voice well enough to –
A: OK, because she came recently.
M: Yes, I know.
A: She is like, a laser. And I just, like, love it.
M: Well, there’s lasers and lasers. Because there can be an edge to a laser quality or, what’s the other…kind of a shrillness. So it’s a fine balance. And also, you know, someone that’s going to sound beautifully crystal clear in St. Paul’s…where did she perform, St. Paul’s? First Church Congregational? Well, where I would hear Joan Heller would be Memorial Church, dry as a bone. And so that sound was – I go for a bright sound with my chorus, and we perform in First Church, so it hides a lot of things that otherwise, you know, would be an issue. Hides is not a good…it ameliorates things that might…but for instance – well, I don’t know if it’s relevant. I don’t like the soprano sound in the Tallis choir. I find that there’s something that --
A: Oh, the Tallis Scholars?
M: Scholars, yes. There’s something that British women do to their voice. They manipulate something here, and I don’t like it.
A: I don’t remember any objections to their soprano sound. I just heard them a few years ago, and I was like…first of all, I just wish Peter Phillips would sit down. Like – sit – what are you doing? Sit down! You’re not helping anything!
M: You’re not needed?
A: You’re not needed! And secondly, I went to the pre-concert lecture, and somebody asked him about rehearsing, and he was like, “Oh, yes, I hate rehearsing.” And I was like…
M: Was that the one in St. Paul’s, that I was the moderator for the questions? That was me!
A: Oh, you were the moderator! Oh my goodness!
M: Yes, that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing that.
A: I was sitting there for a lot of it, though, and I was going, like….”Really?” Like, why would you…like, who doesn’t love rehearsing? I mean, what a sad life if you don’t love rehearsal.
M: But you know, it’s interesting, because people betray, and I’m sure there are things on here that are going to betray me. I mean, people really reveal themselves. I agree with you wholeheartedly, but…for instance, this is an amazing factoid. My second cousin is Harry Bicket. Have you heard of Harry Bicket? Well, he’s an up-and-coming Baroque – he had his debut at the Metropolitan Opera a couple of years ago –
A: Singer?
M: No, conductor. He was an organist. My father used to love to rub my nose in how I wasn’t talented enough – “You know, your cousin Harry Bicket is the organist at Windsor Castle.” Oh, thanks a lot. “Then your cousin Harry Bicket…” Well the next thing we know – he was a fabulous keyboardist, and he started becoming a keyboardist for McGagin (sp?), and some of those people, and then lo and behold, he was at that Scottish opera festival, and McGagin or somebody, Trevor Pinnock, or whoever was supposed to conduct gets sick. And aha, who gets to step in? And so guess who now – even though that’s not his specialty, early music, that’s what the Met hires him to do. And he’s had several appearances at the Met, he was a finalist for Handel & Haydn. And it’s all because he’s a keyboard player.
A: I’m aware of that. Sometimes I’m like, “Do I need to learn piano?”
M: Well, and the other thing is, you know –
A: But then I would want to play – I want to conduct, I wouldn’t want to do all the keyboard stuff so that maybe I would end up in the right place.
M: Exactly! Exactly! But what you realize is that I think a lot of people get into the conducting through being a keyboardist. So it doesn’t surprise me that Peter Phillips doesn’t like to rehearse, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear he wasn’t a singer. He comes at it from a different direction. And so I’m the same way as you. I’m like, well, then, step aside, buddy, because this is what I live to do, and if you don’t like it? What the fuck are you doing there?
A: I think he loves the scholarship was the real impression I got.
M: Yes.
A: And I was like, well, that’s fine, so you do the scholarship, and I’ll come conduct your choir, and then I’m not going to conduct them in performance, because they clearly don’t need it, and, you know. Maybe I’ll sing alto. It’ll be great! [laughs]
M: Right. Exactly.

(to be continued!)

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