JD: Tim, as a conductor, are you conscious of trying to communicate any kind of affect or emotional state, or are you trying to bring an emotional state out of the singers, or are you trying to elicit a response from the people listening?
TB: You’re trying to serve the music. One wants to lift the music off the page, as you feel it, and present it to the audience.
JR: People often ask me about conducting my own music versus conducting other people’s music. For me, I actually prefer conducting music I haven’t written because there’s always the challenge of understanding it. Assuming the piece is written before the era of recording, I love the challenge of trying to tease out what the composer actually means to say. That is not a challenge when you’re conducting your own work.
I think of composers like Herbert Howells, beloved of nearly all church musicians. There are so many things I should have asked him while he was still alive! Questions about ritardando, parts that should stand out, whether the metronome markings are “sacred.” Although he did once say to me: “John, my metronome marks are always wrong. There’s a natural speed to music!”
And George Guest used to say: “Too fast a tempo trivializes; too slow a tempo debilitates.”
TB: I’m usually not interested in conducting something unless there is some emotional “premium” in it for me. Music is more than the correct notes at the correct time. It must have emotional depth.
JD: It seems to me that the whole point of our craft of music is to be able to communicate a level of emotion that text alone can’t do, nor can intellectual puzzling it out. There’s a mystery to it that we become the custodians of.
JR: The greater the music is, the more of it there is to capture in each performance. I haven’t conducted the B Minor Mass that many times, but I’m sure that, if I were to continue to do it, I would notice many things new each time. The one thing that a conductor must have, above all else, is a vision of the music. Even if the players think it’s dead wrong, you must have a vision that you transmit to the performers.
JD: It seems dangerously tempting, today, with the prevelance of YouTube and Spotify, to have duplicate performances of what we’ve heard already on YouTube. I wonder what you both think about the direction music is going. Are there any danger zones – in either the performance or the composing realm?
TB: Well from a performance point of view, recordings are incredibly dangerous. As you say, people tend to immitate recordings rather than create their own interpretation. And as you know, the recording process is cut and paste.
JD: And no longer resembles a performance!
TB: When I listen to recordings from the 20s and 30s, I find them mesmorizing. And the level of concentration was so much higher than it seems to be now. So often today’s recordings are about getting the intonation right and the precision of lining up the parts, yet you lose the raw-ness of the music.
JR: It’s just unfortunate that the CD culture created expectations of technical flawlessness. It irons out the idiosyncracies of different performers because now, people are usually just about 5% outside of the norm of interpretation. No one wants to risk getting too far out of line. In the old days the great virtuosi had very few opportunities to hear one another. You plowed your own furrow. Rachmaninoff went on tour, and Horowitz went on tour, etc.; and they developed their own styles which were not at all alike.
But on the other hand, it’s never been easier for young people to access great performances, or music, from any period. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. In the field of choral music, there has been an extraordinary improvement in the technical standard you would expect from a choir.
JD: From the American perspective, the recordings from King’s College, from the 60s, probably changed how choral music was perceived in the States. The States has always had a bit of a poor step-sister self-image in the realm of Western Classical music, so there was a great deal of desire to emulate King’s College Choir. The result was both good and bad. The good was that the standards rose dramatically and quickly; the bad was that the shift in awareness of possibilities created a lot of frustration.
JR: I think David Willcocks saw his job, at King’s, as setting a standard. It was because of his military background that he communicated to his choir that they were his brigade. Every time they opened their mouths, they were being judged. As it were, their boots always had to be polished, and their belt shined.
JD: Then the work that the two of you each did at Clare, with the mixed-voice choir, actually seemed to set a new tone for what a mixed choir could be.
JR: It was a very exciting time, Jonathan. Clare was one of three colleges to become mixed – in 1972. Overnight it transformed the chapel choir. Instead of being an all-male group of altos, tenors, and basses, it suddenly had lovely soaring sopranos opening up all new repertoire. My mission, and very much succeeded by Tim, was to prove that there was no reason that adult females can’t do everything that boy sopranos could do.
JD: And that was so necessary, from an American point of view, to get that imprimateur of women and men singing together.
TB: There’s no reason to think that expert mixed choirs are a competition or a threat to men and boys choirs.
JR: And in the real world, by the 1970s it was becoming harder and harder to recruit young boys to become trebles, anyway. And given that probably 80% of liturgical choirs were mixed choirs, we were able to be a bit of a role model. Fortunately nobody torched the Chapel!
JD: I think you both paved the way for that quality of sound; and I really applaud you for it.
To be continued …