An Interview with Sir Roger Norrington: Part 4
By Paul Wegman Taylor
Paul Wegman Taylor recently sat down with Sir Roger Norrington for an in-depth and far-ranging discussion of Norrington’s life in music. This is the fourth installment in a four-part series.
“That’s my mission!” – Sir Roger Norrington
PWT: Sir Roger, next to transitioning posts from Stuttgart to Zürich, do you plan to continue guest conducting?
RN: Yes, that’s like, you know, “do you want to taste my cheese?” So that’s another project in a way, turning the whole world into a non vibrato zone!
PWT: So is that your…
RN: That’s my mission!
PWT: Ah ha.
RN: I mean, it isn’t really my mission because it’s unachievable, so there’s no point in having a mission, but [with a straight face] in fact, it’s like I fumble around converting people to natural gas!
PWT: [laughing] Or solar energy!
RN: It’s solar energy, I like it! [laughs] Converting everything into solar energy!
Yeah, I try to get around and give orchestras a chance to try it out! I mean, I don’t need to do all this guesting, but I think all orchestras ought to be able to do this, really, as well as the Tonhalle of Zürich does it now. I mean, my god! [snaps fingers] How they sound is just stunning, you know!
And I was in Glasgow, where they had never done straight tone, but had wanted to, so, in three days they converted to natural gas! Solar energy! They played like maniacs, and I hear they can’t stop talking about it. It’s delightful! They want me back. It’s not as good as that everywhere, of course, but mostly people enjoy it! Last week with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester. Bach. Now, I have been there before. They (the musicians) just sat down, [Norrington mimes holding a violin with a still left hand] ready to play. They didn’t even ask me!
The Gewandhaus is so conservative in music directorship, the musicians don’t otherwise do that. Not even in the Thomas Kirche, with…the chef likes vibrato. But it’s beginning to happen, which is why I joke about a “mission!”
Personally, I can say, it’s absolutely marvelous at this age and stage of my career to have something quite new and fresh to offer. And most orchestras and audiences respond enthusiastically. Some like to say it makes the music cold, of course. In Japan with Stuttgart though, I experienced listeners coming to me and saying how they loved our warm sound!
Of course, in guesting, it is still about seating disposition, gesture, phrasing, tempo, style, but pure tone clears the water. Suddenly the inner life of the music becomes transparent. Like pure water in a pond with no ripples. One can see the fish moving and the stones, and forms, and colors clearly.
PWT: Is pure tone “last but not least,” then?
RN: Finally, everything is important. There is no strict priority, as it depends on the music, no dogma in pure tone approach.
For instance I didn’t ask certain big orchestras to play without vibrato when I was there only a couple of times, because I thought it would be counterproductive. Well, indeed I didn’t ask any American orchestra to do it until after 2000.
PWT: Discretion is the better part of valor.
RN: Well, it was partly instinct, and of course, partly age… it’s like with policemen: Having attained a certain age oneself, all policeman start looking young! My point is before 2000, older orchestra players wouldn’t or couldn’t handle it.
PWT: A critical mass in youth has to be present? Or a certain attrition reached in orchestras? Is this age discrimination?
RN: [pauses] Let’s be specific: players born since 1970, which is now quite a good age, they are approximately 40 now, many were given my Beethoven set when they were 15!
And they simply know that there is another way of playing. Now those born before, say 1960, they were given Von Karajan’s set. (And many afterwards were given them as well, of course!)
To illustrate further: With the Philadelphia Orchestra, say 7-8 years ago, we were doing a Beethoven 2nd symphony. This couple of young players, who were in their 30’s then, came to me in the interval and they said, excitedly, but sotto voce,
– “it’s marvelous playing like this! You know, we’ve been waiting to play like this for ten years!”
– “Well, why ten years?” I asked,
– “Well, that’s how long we’ve been in the Orchestra! At last we’re playing Beethoven the right way!” they said.
Mind you, I wasn’t doing non-vibrato yet, just everything else.
– “And how did you know it’s the right way?” I asked, and the one said,
– “Well, the first records my parents gave me were your Beethoven LCP set. And he,” gesturing towards his colleague “was first given your Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique! So we know how the music should go!”
It was so sweet, really charming. But of course, some other people have said, “We were given these funny records and threw them away!”
So you see, they never had had a chance to play like that. So at that moment, and from now on, all the players have heard Baroque music with original instruments at least on the radio. American classical radio stations, when they still existed, were quality, also always playing the latest new old music recordings.
PWT: Yes, in New York even in the 1970s, historically informed performance practice was not yet at all “en vogue.” But thanks to radio, knowing of and hearing Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and others, and more importantly hearing early music groups live, especially from England, did quickly increase in the 80s.
RN: Yes, we’ve reached a time now in which all musicians have had that experience actively or at least passively, to some extent. Which actually, I didn’t. I had to discover it largely for myself, which in a way is more exciting. I was probably 35 before hearing any fresh early music making.
But back to the orchestras, in the 1980’s it was too soon for pure tone. All the mature players at that time were playing great, but wouldn’t have had any idea as to what I was talking about. So to ask them to stop vibrato…“come on, Maestro you’re killing the music! The soul of the music is the vibrato, and don’t you forget it, Maestro!” If you know Von Karajan’s ideal, you vibrate the left hand BEFORE the bow hits the string. So, it would have been ridiculous, to ask for non vibrato and I knew that. In fact, if you had asked me in 1998, just before I came to Stuttgart if a symphony orchestra could ever play like that I would have said “I really don’t know, I’m not sure, never got it, never asked for it.” Then I came here, and I couldn’t stop myself trying! I didn’t plan it. I had no masterplan, we did plan seasons and recordings but I didn’t know that by the time I left we’d have 50 records showing the world how a modern orchestra sounds playing like this (with pure tone). Critics call it “the Stuttgart Sound.” And the musicians showed me it was possible. The players did it. Of course it’s possible.
PWT: Strings as well as winds?
RN: Winds as well as strings!
People think you only have to deal with the strings, but of course, you have also to change the winds. Either way. It’s just that in the winds you have this very weird situation, dear reader. In a good orchestra, clarinets and horns use no vibrato; ironic isn’t it? The instruments that symbolize the romantic era hold traditionally to no vibrato tone. And in Germany, trumpets, trombones, and tuba there is still no vibrato at all! And if so, virtually unnoticeable, in a solo maybe a tiny bit of something, but it’s not really part of their diet! And so what the hell are the flute and oboe and the bassoon doing?! They’re outnumbered anyway! Laughs. There are more instrument types that don’t vibrate! So what’s going on?
PWT: In America vibrato has been creeping in for decades into the brass as well, the influence of popular music no doubt, and even clarinet in some famous orchestral instances…vibrato became cool in the late 70s for increasing our projection if we winds are honest. “Sound cosmetic” was one term amongst horn players. Things have gotten continuously louder.
RN: Well, actually “glamour” is the word. I used it in my article in Early Music, The Sound Orchestras Make.* (Originally an article for the New York Times) “Glamour” in society arrived with Hollywood of the twenties and thirties. Cocktails, slipstream car design, early airflight, radio, ocean liners, street make up!
Cosmetics and Glamour. It seems that it was Fritz Kreisler the great Austrian solo violinist/composer who started the modern fashon of continuous vibrato in all the strings. Though listening to his recordings today one is struck by the delicacy of his vibrato: Much more of a gentle shimmer than the forced pitch-change one often hears today.
PWT: Interestingly, the legendary mid-20th century solo hornist Edmond Leloire, of Orchestra de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, in a last interview, referred specifically to the extraordinary experience ca. 1940 of playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Kreisler who, to his ear, played so purely, senza vibrato!
RN: Interesting! In view of what I said, how relative perception and memory can be.
The Stuttgart Sound
(recorded by Roger Norrington and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR)
RN: Now at a certain point for me, it became possible to start in the other direction, and this orchestra got suddenly younger when I arrived, due to the fusing of two radio orchestras, SDR/SWR. All musicians were offered a new start. Many older players could take early retirement. Maybe two or three thought, “well Norrington’s going to f… us all up!” No, just joking. I mean the older players who stayed I won over sooner or later. When our very esteemed solo oboist eventually came on board with straight tone, it was, Wow! One violist retiring a few years ago, said to me “thank you for making the last five years so wonderful, and the music so beautiful played this way.” We both had tears in our eyes.
Actually, soon after initial guest appearances in Stuttgart, I consciously resisted taking the job as Chef Dirigent offered by the management of the time. I insisted that the orchestra should first vote democratically and a majority stood behind my selection. The spirit is good here because it’s the players’ orchestra. Lots of player empowerment. They select the new colleagues, run the auditions. I only have one vote, but also a veto. You never see management hanging around the rehearsals. Just stage crew to change all the seating plans between pieces! I suppose this all played a role in enabling a radical change in sound approach without a conscious plan about it. The players wanted to give it a go. They showed me from 2000, that you could do it.
The “Philadelphia effect” as I call it, was present. Many players were under 40. Even if they haven’t done it, they are aware, and finally attracted to it.
In fact, Philadelphia was the first large American orchestra where I went the next step and finally got that sound. The first time there, as reported above, I didn’t mention vibrato. We had gotten along really well. The second time with them, it was a “London” program: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Haydn, and I again didn’t start out saying anything about vibrato in the rehearsals, but soon found myself having stopped at one moment, muttering only halfway to myself, “Oh god it’s weird, really weird, isn’t it?” And the section leaders up front said, “what, what’s wrong, are you feeling ill? Are you ok?” I said, “Yeah. It’s just, I haven’t heard a Haydn symphony played with vibrato for fifteen years!” [laughs]
And they said, “Oh dear, well” – of course they knew I do it other places, and I went a bit coy, “…maybe it doesn’t matter,” and they said, “No, no, maybe we should try it?” and a couple other players behind were going behind their stands gesturing, “Yes! Yes!” including the timpanist! Who can’t do anything about it, nodding, “Yes! Yes!” and waving wooden Baroque sticks in the air [hearty laughter]. He wanted to do it properly, with small drums.
Of course, the brass players can’t be expected to switch too quickly to natural instruments, but most were interested. And I said, “shall we try?” and it’s just what happened! Of course some already had experience playing baroque, and soon it was sounding marvelous! So we got to the concert, unusual order, Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony first, Haydn’s after the interval, and guess what happened? Standing ovation! For the Haydn! Only for the Haydn! Four nights in a row! And the players said, “Wow, we play without f…ing vibrato and we get a standing ovation!” Of course, many in the audience know the sound of “proper” Haydn from the radio. And the critic wrote something about, “Last night it said in the program The Philadelphia Orchestra but it didn’t sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra – wonderful, and about time, too!“ [more laughter]
Next year they said, “let’s have Bach.” I said ok, but paired with Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony. We did the Bach with a tiny group, and then the Mendelssohn with all the strings and double wind as often done at the time. But I said, “Ok you play Bach as he would have heard it, no vibrato, let’s do the same for Mendelssohn as HE would have heard it: Pure tone.” And the next program, two years later, they didn’t need to be asked, they just did it “bup.” [makes the still left-hand position]. So you see, there is a willingness. They were open, when given a chance. It demands a lot though, of the players, playing even more consciously together. The better quality musicians the better the result, naturally. Suddenly intonation is much more critical and the use of the bow has to change very consciously. I mean, Philadelphia is a marvelous crowd, really. Nice jolly people. Now it’s always “go,” and sounds beautiful.
So, I can’t force an orchestra to do it, I can only invite. It’s the only way to work with human beings, finally. You can’t force. With my kids, for example I never say “open the window,” or even “please, open the window,” but “would you like to open the window?” and if they say “no!” I hopefully get up to do it myself, and then maybe they think about it, for another time.
PWT: I see, “Discretion is…” You’ve actually answered my next questions, but to be thorough, are their any works in any area you still covet doing?
RN: There always are, but you know, what’s fascinating now is hearing pieces I love for the first time with pure tone. For instance, the Brahms Violin Concerto yesterday with the orchestra. It is like new. Absolutely melting. Dvorak Seventh Symphony will be the first time this week. Or his Eighth. The New World we’ve just recorded, and I love how it came out. Elgar last year, the Enigma Variations, which we’ll now do on tour. I’d imagined it so long in my mind, and to finally hear it real in pure tone was incredibly gratifying. It happens again and again. Let’s see, pieces. I wouldn’t mind doing Parsifal. Wagner I find benefits greatly from this sound and I haven’t done so much Wagner. From the repertoire, no, nothing urgent. Perhaps Verdi’s Othello I would think of, but actually you get to a certain point and you’re no longer greedy and you might enjoy listening to someone else doing it!
PWT: You’ll be going back to a smaller formation again in 2011-2012, taking over the helm of The Zürich Chamber Orchestra.
RN: Yes I love working with a chamber orchestra, always have had one going on. But I’ll continue doing large and small orchestras, some, until I retire…at some point [muses, smiling…then, in a deep bass voice] “I will never retire!”
PWT: What balances your intensive working schedule.
RN: Well, time-off balances it! I work 26 weeks a year conducting, and take 26 weeks off! It is balanced. “Off” is home in the country and the country balances the town. For over ten years now. Time off means no music. I see no buildings where we are, only hillsides, reading and walking and sailing. And I feed 4 horses and lots of bees and 4 dogs, and do gardening: all sorts of mucking about, you know, 5 acres. But I am no farmer. Recuperation is my family, of course. I still have a sixteen-year-old son at home, who keeps me very young! 60 years younger than I!
PWT: So that answers how you’ve retained your energy…and enthusiasm.
RN: Yes, because I haven’t done too much, and of course, because I’ve remained an amateur! I can now say that. Previously I always avoided saying that!
PWT: That perhaps already answers my last question: what would you like to share with young conductors?
RN: What I’d really like to share with young conductors is evidence! If they haven’t got joy, I can’t give it to them. But what I can share is all the “stuff.” That’s what I do attempt when I’m going to teach at Juilliard, or wherever. How to play a Haydn Symphony, what do you need to know? That’s what I concentrate on.
I have no formal teaching commitments. But scattered masterclass invitations. I am professor at the Royal College of Music, so I am called, but it’s like when I was a student, I don’t have to do anything bureaucratic. Detmold, Stuttgart, and I often have people here at the SWF, coming by. I’d like to teach a summer course or something more concentrated.
The early music article where I wanted to shake the trees a bit and excite controversy about pure tone playing in the past, didn’t, in fact, arouse as much controvery as I hoped. The music scholars seemed to have agreed that it’s a historically valid approach, and didn’t feel the need to answer, and the wider performing world doesn’t read Early Music. In the New York Times it did receive some heated blogs, “that’s rubbish what Norrington is doing!” etc., and that was good. But there seems to be a [willful ignorance] about this issue, and a divergence with how established conductors in general approach performance issues. Some have openly expressed interest and some have openly expressed scorn. But few come to engage in deeper inquiry.
PWT: Sir Roger, thank you for this discussion!
RN: Thank you.
*Norrington, Roger. “The Sound Orchestras Make.” Early Music, Vol. XXXII, No. 1 February 2004: 2-6