|Harry Bicket - photo credit Richard Haughton|
Harry explained that his career path was guided very much by the work he was offered, rather than a grand plan. And thought principally known now for the baroque and classical repertoire, he did much of the standard repertoire at ENO. He was on the music staff in the 1980's, towards the end of the 'Powerhouse' period when the company was run by Mark Elder, David Pountney and Peter Jonas. Harry conducted the last couple of performances in the opening run of David Alden's production of Handel's Ariodante with Ann Murray in the title role. Harry refers to the wonderful cast and a fabulous piece. On the strength of these performances he was offered Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne and out if this developed relationships with the Metropolitan Opera and Bavarian State Opera.
At the time, having just left ENO, Harry saw the Glyndebourne performance as interesting work, rather than an opportunity to specialise in the baroque repertoire. There was no career plan, but Harry both knew the repertoire and had experience of working on baroque music with modern orchestra, understanding what information players needed to know to play the baroque repertoire on modern instruments, instruments which were designed for a very different repertoire.
'not looking to conquer the world but to make occasional forays conducting works which interest him'
|Ailyn Pérez, Stephen Costello in Roméo et Juliette |
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Regarding the choice of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette Harry admits that he rather prefers the opera to Gounod's most famous opera Faust. Though with Roméo et Juliette there are problems with the libretto, he finds Gounod's music incredible, and the work brilliantly adapts Shakespeare's play. For Harry, Gounod's opera is deeply felt, highly personal music indicating Gounod has taken great care with the piece. He admits that the Santa Fe orchestra members sighed when the work was announced, but they have come to love it.
|Bruce Sledge, Leah Crocetto, Elizabeth DeShong in Maometto II, |
Canadian Opera Company 2016, photo: Michael Cooper
Harry points out that in more recent opera, time is sped up so that Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme is singing a duet with Mimi within six minutes of meeting her. In opera seria (both baroque opera and Rossini), there is more of a sense of real time thinking about a subject. In a Da Capo aria a character might spend five minutes singing about love, five minutes about betrayal in the middle section before returning to the subject of love but this time coloured by the thoughts of betrayal. Harry sees this as being more like the way we really think, though he admits that it needs the right singers to bring it off in the opera house.
The entire orchestra drives across the states to spend the summer every year in Santa Fe
|Santa Fe Opera - photo santafe.org|
Harry points out also that the company is different because people work there because they want to. The entire orchestra drives across the states with partners, families, children and dogs to spend the summer every year in Santa Fe. Jobs in the orchestra are prized, for the recent principal bassoon vacancy they had 100 applicants. It is also a huge feat, getting the audience to come each year, yet in the last year more people came to the opera than the population of New Mexico - an amazing statistic. The management under general director Charles MacKay operates a tightly run ship and it is one of the few companies in the USA operating in the black.
Harry is in Santa Fe from the second week of June to the end of August. When first offered the job of chief conductor he was doubtful, being 5000 miles away from his wife and family for such a long time. But they have made it work. His wife is a scientist and whilst Harry is in Santa Fe she works at the Santa Fe Institute so that the whole family is able to spend the summer in Santa Fe.
Absolutely no intention of becoming a conductor
|Harry Bicket & The English Concert at the Drapers Hall, 2015|
These were the ENO's golden years, there was a buzz about the place and the auditorium was packed every night. Yet, Harry knew that he did not want to stay on the music staff for ever. A former ENO colleague, Paul Daniel, moved to Opera North as music director and offered Harry a revival of Annabel Arden's production of The Magic Flute. To do the production Harry needed to leave his job at ENO. He decided to take a chance, and if things did not work out he could return to being a repetiteur. He was indeed offered more work, but it was Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne which was his big break. He was originally down to do the tour, following the premiere of the production in the main house with William Christie conducting. But Christie fell ill and Harry was invited to take over the main stage performances. Normally Glyndebourne would have brought in a replacement conductor, but at this time there were few people who knew Theodora. Both Munich and the Met heard him, and relationships developed with both companies. The Met asked him to assist James Levine for a year, so he worked with Levine on four or five shows and this has also developed into a relationship with the company.
Whilst he had no particular ambitions, he found himself doing it full time and loved it. He enjoys the social aspects of his job, working with people, and he learned a lot playing for singers, and he admits he would have found it lonely as a soloist.
Every gesture, including the melody, is rhetorical
He leads the English Concert from the harpsichord but rarely plays solo nowadays. He recently did a programme in Santa Fe with the Desert Chorale, and found it something of a shock playing a solo piece. Without playing every day, he feels that you cannot just sit down and perform a solo well. At the Met, when he performs baroque opera he uses two harpsichords, accompanying the recitative himself on one but conducting the arias and ensembles because of the size of the theatre. In Munich, the pit is built up for this repertoire which facilitates communication, so he directs from the harpsichord. When he performs Handel's Alcina with Santa Fe Opera in 2017 he hopes to be able to direct from the harpsichord.
When directing baroque opera with modern instruments, it is the whole idea of rhetoric which he is concerned to convey. That every gesture, including the melody, is rhetorical and it is no good just playing a sostenuto line. He explains that modern instruments are designed to play even, strong lines, but in the 18th century evenness was anathema, music was made more like speech than song. So unless the players make the music speak as the singers do, there is a danger of it being boring. String players speak with the bow, and with a baroque instrument using gut strings and a baroque bow, this is far easier because the baroque bow is naturally uneven in the pressure it applies to the strings.
So musicians who play regularly on baroque instruments are far more used to the rhetorical style, Harry cites as an example a bass line of repeated notes, two pages of quavers which a modern player would see as boring. But a baroque player would give each note a different length, articulation and volume, so a player needs to use fantasy and imagination to bring the music alive.
Harry explains that as children we learn music to express our individuality, but this is not what is required of players in a modern orchestra. When he conducts, Harry wants his players to be individuals, certainly they need to listen to each other but they need to bring something of themselves to the performance as well. This is not strictly a technical issue, though he can help players technically as well. In order to characterise the sound-world of a movement he normally gives the orchestra two or three adjectives. Modern musicians are far better at assimilating these ideas than in the past. When Harry conducted David Freeman's production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo at ENO (the first new production he conducted), the concert master's response to Harry's comments to the orchestra was 'that is not the way I was taught to play the violin'.
Younger players now are more flexible, they have heard a baroque orchestra and may have held a baroque bow. Orchestras nowadays expect to change their sound according to the repertory. When Simon Rattle performs Mozart with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra it sounds different to their Mahler, but this was not always the case.
The English Concert is doing more theatrical events at the moment.
|Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano|
Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
This Summer, the English Concert performed Handel's Tamerlano at the Buxton Festival conducted by Laurence Cummings, in production directed by Francis Matthews (see my review). This collaboration with the festival is continuing and Harry thinks it is good for the orchestra to be performing in events which give them profile whilst he is away in Santa Fe. He and the English Concert will also be performing in the revival of Tom Morris's staging of Handel's Messiah at the Bristol Old Vic. And the ensemble will of course be touring Europe and the UK. The Arts Council's withdrawal of the English Concert's National Portfolio Organisation has led to a reduction in income. The amount is not huge in terms of the annual turnover, but it contributed to core funding and it is a headache nowadays to raise money for core funding. The admin team is tiny, but they have to raise money for three staff in order for the company to function. All the orchestra's activities lose money though some EU tours do bring in a little money. Travel and accommodation costs have gone up, so the amount of touring they do in the UK depends on the amount of money raised. But Harry thinks that it is important that an ensemble called the English Concert doesn't just perform in Spain and Germany, even though this would make economic sense.
When I ask Harry what his desert island opera might be, he says he would love to conduct Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, but that this is perceived as box office death, and companies often only put it on because the musical director wants to conduct it!
He is conducting Bizet's Carmen in January in a new production in Chicago with the Lyric Opera. He has worked a lot with the company but on earlier repertoire and is looking forward to seeing what they can do with Carmen.
- Handel Arias - Alice Coote, English Concert, Harry Bicket
- Mozart & Gluck Arias - Susan Graham, English Concert, Harry Bicket
- Martin y Soler L'arbore di Diana - Gran Teatre del Liceu, Harry Bicket
- Handel Rinaldo - David Daniels, Bavarian State Opera, Harry Bicket, directed David Alden (DVD)
- Il caro Sassone: Handel in Italy - Lucy Crowe, English Concert, Harry Bicket
Elsewhere on this blog:
- A glimpse of 17th century aristocratic music making: Carolyn Sampson & friends in Purcell on Wigmore Hall Live - CD review
- A very Anglican fervour: John Scott and the choir of St Thomas's Church, New York in Rachmaninov's Vespers - CD review
- Charming compilation: Cookery a la Carte - Book review
- Much that was superb, musically: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin from Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus, at the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn - Opera review
- Mozartian music theatre: Requiem... and before at Birgitta Festival in Tallinn - Music theatre review
- Very funny indeed: Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
- Pilgrimage to Santiago: Gabriel Jackson's To the field of stars - CD review
- A day in Reykjavik: Ponce, Piazolla and Icelandic song at Harpa - concert review
- Beguiling charm: Sullivan's complete incidenal music to Macbeth and to The Tempest - CD review
- Intriguing: Music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy - CD review
- Elegiac modernism: Richard Strauss's Capriccio at Santa Fe - Opera review