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15 Questions to Iestyn Davies

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Good morning. I’m in a great mood; this week has been and is continuing to be very busy with two opera performances, a recital and some other rehearsals on the cards; though it’s tiring the adrenaline lifts the spirit somewhat. I’m staying in London with a friend, in St John’s Wood; my home is up in York. I miss certain things about London, but nothing beats coming home to a city where everyday life engages with the past in such a present way; one is cocooned in 2000 years of architectural history which is a very calming and awesome experience; my house is inside the ancient city walls so it’s safe from invaders. They’re from Hull.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I sang my first night of L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi last weekend at Glyndebourne Festival Opera. My role is that of Ottone. The production is directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm. I have six more stage performances left and I am now singing the Proms’ performance which we will give in July. In between rehearsals and shows for Poppea I’ve been lucky enough to fit in some exciting concerts; two weeks or so ago I sang Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms at La Scala, Milan under the baton of the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, last night I sang with my friend and fellow countertenor Robin Blaze in a concert of Blow and Purcell Duets at the Wigmore Hall and I’ve got two operas secreted under the pillow to memorise for the coming months; Handel’s Partenope and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Looking at this I realise my repertoire at the moment stretches over almost 400 years of composition; it keeps one’s voice on it’s toes, as it were.

Can you still remember the first time you heard a piece of classical music?

Rather than any defined moment in time I would say I first encountered classical music at home from almost day one; my Dad is a cellist and he played for 15 years as the cellist in the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. When I was crawling around the house he would be practising for hours and then would disappear for another few hours to rehearse with the quartet; they were very busy touring and recording all the time, so my first encounter with classical music was probably the bass line of a Shostakovich string quartet; they recorded the whole cycle and worked with the composer in person so the sequence became an important part of their concert schedule. I think one of the first bits of classical music that engaged me and in particular made me aware of singing was Handel’s Where e’er you walk sung by Aled Jones as a treble; I learned everything at the age of 6 from his albums! Then one day I heard a vinyl recording of Poulenc’s Mass in G sung by St John’s College Choir, Cambridge and I couldn’t wait for the day we would get to sing it there (I was a chorister at St John’s from 8 until I was 13).

What was the deciding moment that made you want to become and artist?
It’s very difficult to pinpoint one moment as from the age of 8 onwards I was always performing in public, whether it be at Evensong in St John’s or with my musically dubious Brit-Pop era band, “Cage” in my teens. I can however put my finger on the exact moment I started singing countertenor. It was in 1997; I was singing bass in the school choir and during a rehearsal I began to sing along with the female alto section. The sensation, the resonance it created, something about it made more sense to me and it felt nice to do and by chance my colleague next to me said quietly “That sounds ok, y’know, maybe you should go and sing to someone”. I don’t think I would have had the guts to do anything about it had he not said that; I was not one of those people who had an obsession with countertenor repertoire or who set the entire back-catalogue of Alfred Deller on repeat, so nothing else was driving me towards such a decision, so I’m enormously grateful that that happened.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?

The hardest part about being a singer is having to deal with illness; you are at the mercy of your body. An instrumentalist can to some degree separate their own health from their instrument; with singers their instrument is often a sign of their health so if a cold strikes or a late night intervenes you are occasionally inert as a performer and that can feel very debilitating, emotionally as well as physically.
It goes without saying that the experience of live performance is one of the best things about being a musician, but aside from that I would have to say the travelling is such fun, especially when you end up in a far away place with a colleague you already know well, it can almost feel like a holiday  - we are very lucky in that respect.

Do you consider it important that more young people care for classical music? If so, how do you think this could be achieved?
I think the moment you tell someone that something is “important” it colours their perception of it. Classical music has a stigma of importance and seriousness about it that often leaves children afraid to admit an appreciation of it. But often the problem lies in how society constantly divides people into two groups “young” and everybody else! We worry as a society too much these days; I believe an appreciation and understanding of any art form only comes from experience; it has to connect with one’s inner-being. I believe singing in schools from day one of our education is paramount to giving any human being a chance of discovering the enormous wealth of musical avenues there are to explore; you just have to look at the rowdiest, most violent and aggressive football supporters to know what affect it has; they are most affable and content when they are singing their hearts out in unison on the terraces; they may not rush home afterwards to play through the latest Adès sonata but it goes along way to show that singing in groups does amazing things for the soul. Were children of four or five to be encouraged to sing everyday at school it would certainly make the transition into say learning an instrument or going to a concert a great deal simpler – I get the impression there are fewer opportunities for collective (and comulsury) singing in schools nowadays.

How would you rate the importance of the internet and new media for classical music?
The internet has become for me the first place I go to purchase classical music; I use iTunes rather than by a CD in a shop because I can download single arias if needs be rather than spend a lot more money on tracks I am not looking for. Digital music in that respect is very important for me as I can carry around my entire record collection and programme recitals on my iPod to learn, for example. But, that said, I would like to make the distinction, rarely acknowledged that “classical music” is different from “the classical music industry”. True, one may find it hard to make a career without being involved to some degree in the recording industry, but I hope that now and then we step back for a minute and remember that we’ve only had recordings for around 100 years, if that, and before we had recordings musicians, composers and audiences still existed. The ‘importance’ therefore of the internet and new media is in my opinion only applicable to the recording industry. There is however a propensity of artists today who rely so heavily on that industry, and are indeed defined by it alone that they would not exist without their record sales, so for them I imagine the internet is much more of an importance.

With so many recordings of a particular piece available, how do you keep yours fresh and different?
I think singers are lucky in that respect. No two voices are the same, so we have that advantage from the outset, each recording will be immediately different. I think it also important to understand the point of a recording before you approach it. Why choose the same repertoire as someone else, what are you recording it for – or have you been asked to record it? All these questions provide answers in different situations that I believe would lend each artist enough credence to approach their recording from a personal or different angle. In any case, it is often the listener, the audience themselves who decide what is different or not.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
For me, good live performance must display a lot of truth – I don’t like concerts where the performer appears to have planned their moves – that is to say, they are affected, the emotions expressed are rehearsed. In that respect I believe that too much rehearsal can render a concert uninteresting; you will never recreate the perfection you may have achieved in a rehearsal and vice versa so often the best policy is to leave something for the nerves and adrenaline to work with. I approach a performance on stage in many different ways depending entirely on what the repertoire is and the situation of the concert itself. Genrally though, I love to rehearse earlier on in the day, perhaps just after lunch and then allow the voice to settle over a period of rest in the afternoon and if I can, I try and sit in a bath for an hour before changing for the concert – the steam does wonders.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?

With all due respect to the composer, I think that interpretation is the process that an artist must begin almost from the moment he or she has learnt the notes and words from the page – very often people spend far too long examining every marking on the page and trying to recreate everything that the “composer intended”. I think if there was some way that a composer could tell you their piece of music inside their head and make you remember it without having to write it down they would probably do that – certainly with baroque music; the sheets themselves are simply a vehicle for the composer’s thoughts. Benjamin Britten was very particular about his markings especially when writing for choirs, writing in crescendos and diminuendos when he really wants beautifully phrased lines – but he could have been writing for an amateur choir who were not as adept at such things as other professional groups who sing that repertoire and who needed the basic “abc” of being musical written out for them – and consequently the mistake is made to beatify the written score so much so that it can sound over-interpreted almost and again, affected.

How do you balance the need to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
I think some of what I said before answers this, but I will stress that singing baroque music is a godsend in this respect, because on a very basic and indeed perhaps on a more accomplished level there is a generally agreed sense of how a piece should go – the tempo, the style the dynamics. So singing a Handel aria can actually be a bit like decorating a house – the rooms, the walls and the doors are all there, and so you are able to add all your own personal touches, be they ornaments or simply changes of mood. With later repertoire I think this becomes more of a challenge – I think when I come to learn Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream I will have to investigate how much of the written score is Britten’s intentional emotions as he was writing specifically for Alfred Deller and how much flexibility there is in adding personality to the music in addition to becoming King of the Fairies on stage!

What’s your view on the relationship between musical education and classical music?
I can only speak from experience here and for me I only really learnt about the classical music that I sing and enjoy listening to from doing just those things – I had to wait until one day my brain clicked and said “yes, this is interesting”. Until then I would say that my schooling in the history and theory side of music was very much by rote. But I suppose all along I was singing or playing an instrument and was lucky to live in a musical household so I never considered that I was being “educated” at any point. Perhaps that again relates back to what I said earlier about telling someone the importance of something – it makes no difference how important you think something is or how you have to learn something, a person will only become “educated” in music by experiencing it for themselves. Like composers having to write music down, the pages and sheets are not there to be worshiped but to translate and pass on knowledge – theory is important of course, but to engage a mind with classical music is the important first step, without that “education” of the mind is a struggle.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your programme for this season?
My favourite baroque orchestra at the moment are a wonderfully eccentric but passionately musical group from Brest in France, called Ensemble Matheus. They are directed by the violinist and conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi. I would definitely book them to play what they do best, Vivaldi. If they had to have a singer come along to perform with them then I’d love to see the contralto Sonia Prina who is doing a damn good job of putting most countertenors out of work – she is an incredible artist with an enviable ability to ornament at will and a mesmerising coloratura. She’s also the only singer I know with a small crystal embedded in one of her teeth. I’d also like to reincarnate my Dad’s string quartet from the 1970’s. My parents come to a lot of my concerts but I often used to fall asleep in my Dad’s concerts as I was always a bit exhausted and to be fair 3 or 4 years old at the time, so it would be good to stay awake and watch them play. There are so many artist I’d love to see play. I would definitely invite Led Zeppelin to perform – but the old version before John Bonham died; I find their style reminiscent of much baroque music, heavily driven by the bass line and full of music that makes you dance; I think most people would be surprised by the comparison but to me it’s obvious; maybe Robert Plant is Senesino in disguise….

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?
Well, quite simply it’s a 24/7 kind of thing.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument and if so how good were you at it?

I began playing the piano at 4, recorder at 5 and cello around 6, though I quickly dropped the cello as my recorder playing excelled beyond the standard primary school recorder group note-bashing sessions. Later I turned the recorder into the Oboe and went to a specialist music school, Wells Cathedral School, where I studied joint first study on oboe and piano. Whilst I achieved Grade 8 in both I didn’t practice properly and my only regret is that I never learnt to improvise on the piano; I also played piano, snag and wrote the songs in a band at school – we were a whisker away from getting a recording contract with Epic Records….but it didn’t work out; I have to say I’m quite relieved looking back.

Iestyn Davies

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