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Interview with Conductor Ton Koopman
Since the early years of your career, you oriented toward Baroque music. What made you move toward this type of music?
Since childhood I was in love with the music of Bach and Händel. Also Palestrina was part of my Catholic education, because I sang in a church choir of boys since the age of 6, and played the pipe organ since 11. For me, Johann Sebastian Bach was and remained the greatest composer of all times. I always loved the music of his time. I began to study the pieces of Frescobaldi ever since I was a child. I always thought that Baroque music has a world of emotions which seems quite logical to me. I like these emotions, unlike the romantic repertoire, which never attracted me. Bruckner, Mahler, Brahms are not among my favorite composers.
What were the steps to create your own orchestra in 1969? How did it all begin?
I studied musicology and harpsichord at the University of Amsterdam and I made friends there with whom I started a quartet Musica da camera. I can say that I was responsible for introducing the instruments of the Baroque period, because then I was listening to the recordings of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt (whose student I was), which put me in contact with a different world and to me it seemed impossible to play baroque music on modern instruments. And then I said to myself why not try to play on period instruments? Why not bring baroque violins? And so we did. In 1969, I founded my first baroque orchestra, bringing together the best instrumentalists, to whom we added a few students of the Conservatory, whom we have contaminated with our pleasure to sing old music. It was a small group, three first violins, two second violins, a viola, a cello, bass and wind instruments. At first I was influenced, of course, by Gustav Leonhardt, my teacher, who had experienced playing on baroque instruments and got the most beautiful results ever.
In a previous interview, you talked about how baroque music was perceived in the 60s. You sang in small churches, dressed in jeans, the musicians had long hair and looked more like rock stars. When you played Johannes Passion by Bach in Amsterdam, the audience smoked joints. How do you explain this perception of Baroque music as an underground movement?
At that time there was a younger audience who loved pop music on one hand and on the other hand they felt that a revolution was arising in the classical music field, regarding the interpretation of Baroque music. When we played Johannes Passion in Amsterdam, it was clear that young people had come there not only to see the suffering of religious nature that had happened so long ago. It was a church still, but who cared about that? It was a very relaxed atmosphere. Sure it was an audience of all ages, but most were very young, looking for something completely new, something other than Mahler, Brahms, with whom they did not feel at home. So they came to the concert, were our first audience and found that there is a new, interesting way, of making baroque music, which you can enjoy in a different way than Beethoven. Those people who were there, as young as we, dressed in jeans, like us, have remained with us. They are now between 60 and 70 years old, like me, but they are still in love with this practice of historical interpretation.
You have built your own ensembles: Baroque Amsterdam Orchestra and Choir. How do these groups function in artistic and administrative terms?
The Orchestra and Choir come together at certain times of the year. There may be two to three weeks, according to the recordings and the concerts we have planned. For example now, in September, we come in your country with both teams. But we have another period of work in October, then the choir works with me until the end of November in France. The orchestra works with me in January. Often during the holiday season we play the Christmas Oratorio or other specific pieces. So every year is different. It depends on what festivals we are invited to and on the organization of the annual concerts. During the remaining time, the band members play chamber music, teach or play in other bands, each has a different way to spend the year. There is a stable nucleus, other members are mobile, it depends on the project.
One of your online biographies says that you have set a limit of the repertoire, which coincides with the year of Mozart's death, but in Bucharest you will play Symphony No. 104, written by Haydn in 1795, after the death of Mozart. Have you set any style references?
When I became conductor of the Radio Chamber Orchestra of the Netherlands, I was told that I should conduct pieces of the nineteenth century, which I had not done before. I played Haydn, Mozart, but the Londoner Symphonies I had not conducted until then. Then I started to like the parts of the last creative period of Haydn, which have that wonderful music. I conducted Mendelssohn, Schubert, so I must confess that I lied when I said that my repertoire stops at Mozart's death year, although at that time it had been true. I'm not like Philippe Herreweghe or John Elliot Gardiner who loved for years to highlight the music of the 19th century and even of the 20th century. It was never my music and when I moved towards the 19th century, it was because people have convinced me that I can do that. I did it with pleasure and I still do it, but it does not happen every week.
Do you think you might be a good interpreter of old music, without being a good researcher or musicologist?
No, I think you should know what you're talking about, you should know the historical period, to know what you're writing about, what are the parameters, and I know many young musicians who think they have learned in school all the information about old music and now they consider themselves the best interpreters of this kind of music. I think you should check if the older generations were right or wrong. If we were wrong and they make the same mistakes as we did, it's not good. So part of my job is to teach musicology at the university and I like to see young colleagues who study the same sources as I and that they sometimes reach different conclusions. And sometimes my generation was right, but that's not important, but that the next generation checks the same sources. There are many details in music we do not know. We know very little about the rubato of Monteverdi's time, which is essential. We do not know much about the scale of crescendos and decrescendos in the Baroque music. But I would like to learn more and try to get new information about this. My colleagues in the new generation should go further and find out that we have not learned yet.
Translated by Iulia Florescu and Alexandra Ilie
MMTTLC, Bucharest University