Conductor  Nicholas  Cleobury

  A Conversation With Bruce Duffie


The Chicago Opera Theater's final production for this current season is Acis and Galatea
by Handel.  With 5 performances between June 6 - 16, the distinguished cast of singers and period-instrument players will be conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

The first thing to note is that the maestro pronounces his name CLEE-buh-ree.  His interests run the gamut from early music right through to world premieres, which he is enthusiastic about doing.  He's worked with orchestras and opera companies, and several of the most noted composers of the age.  More specifics about his career and credentials can be found on his own WEBSITE .

Cleobury arrived in Chicago early in May and immediately plunged into rehearsals for this production.  After the very first session, he graciously took time to speak with me about the piece specifically and his views and values in general.  Here is much of that conversation . . .

Bruce Duffie:   A great deal of work is done at rehearsal.  Do you do everything there, or is something special left for the performance?

Nicholas Cleobury:   Without question I think you should allow for that extra.  Looking at others' performances, those that leave nothing to chance produce results which are rather dry.  Having said that, there is a subtle dividing line between having everything sorted out with a kind of urtext where everything is in place, and the art then is to transcribe that and put some red blood into it, take some risks, while making sure that the technical side is still in place.  When all those things happen, then you've got a genius of a performance, but it doesn't happen for everybody all the time, believe you me!

BD:   Do you have a good percentage?

NC:   I hope I do, but I'm not the one to judge.  Recordings, for instance, often are so very clean and polished that there is no life left.  On the other hand, live performances may have a few mistakes, yet be overwhelming in their scope.  I don't think you should do it too fine on either extreme.  A performance is ready to go when you've crossed every t and dotted every i, but there is still perhaps a feeling that there are certain things we haven't quite decided yet.  Great artists will do something they've never done before, but they're so organized up to that point that it works.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

NC:   No.  There are performances in which all the notes are in the right place and in tune and in time and everything about it, from the paper to the hearing, is correct.  But take this work, Acis and Galatea.  When I first did it 25 or so years ago, I was the chorus master and played continuo for conductor Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music.  He and a few others of his ilk have done so much for baroque music practice, but if he had said his way was the only right way to do it, I'd beg to differ.  We don't know.  We can get closer now with original instruments and specialist players, and we try to get the singers to work on a baroque way of style, knowing that they also sing Donizetti and Puccini and Stravinsky.  I think, in general, we've gotten much less hung up about it over the recent years.  When I was starting out, there would be 30 minutes of rehearsal on one appoggiatura.  We were learning and changing things, and Hogwood wanted to get it as close to what he felt had been done in Handel's time.  Now, I think people in general have realized that it was a very worthy aim and was something through which we had to go.  He did it supremely well, but we've now realized that authenticity is re-creating, not trying to imitate.  There are certain things about simply playing the old instruments which tell us how the music could be done, and that can help to guide us now.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that Handel didn't have to spend rehearsal time teaching his singers and players all the details you need to work on today?

NC:   Absolutely correct. Not only did he not have to, it also leaves us with problems because he didn't put a whole lot of indications in the score.  Bach didn't.  Mozart didn't.  They just took it for granted.  If you look at a score and play it with a 20th Century method, it will be in-authentic because of what's not there.  If we were preparing a Puccini aria or a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, their scores don't say 'rubato' in every bar - to quicken here and slow there.  But if you don't do that, it won't be a very authentic performance.  It's expected.  One of the other things I do a lot of is contemporary music and I know and work with a number of composers.  So when I wonder what Handel would have wanted in this piece, I remember being in the room with Sir Michael Tippett or Hans Werner Henze or Gyorgy Ligeti, and asking them what they wanted.  That is one of the really exciting things about music.

BD:   It seems like your specialties are very old and very new, yet you don't have a gaping hole in the middle of the Romantic period.

NC:   I hope I'm not becoming a jack-of-all-and-master-of-none.  But I am coming back more and more to the Baroque and trying to do it in an authentic way both here and in other places.

BD:   Is there any parallel between working with the old composers and those who are alive and there at your side?

NC:   Parallel and beyond.  Being English, I do Tippett and Britten, and you cannot do their music without knowing Handel and also Purcell.  I feel I can do those older ones better having seen their music through the eyes of these two moderns.  I know the next generation of British composers - Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.  [See my Interview with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.]  You can't play a note of those two if you don't know medieval music.  As an interpreter, most of what you do is seeing the music through the eyes of the composer, and if you don't do that, you're failing.  So, today, what would Handel want?  He'd want it to mean something.

BD:   OK, let's look 200 years hence.  Are we stifling the creativity of future generations by leaving so many recordings and tapes - especially those that are ‘composer-supervised'?

NC:   Yes, to some extent, but I hope that in the same way that we are much more relaxed about Baroque music now and it becomes much more musical and meaningful, the same will happen later on.  I know of a piece by Birtwistle in which he's changed his mind and wants a large section much faster than it is on three different major recordings.  So, the people yet to be born will know how the composers did it and how the great interpreters of today did it, and they'll say, "Fine, that was very good, but I don't agree with it and I'll do it this way!"  I hope to God they will or else music will not die, but we'll end up with nothing but carbon copies of what was done at the time.  Now I appear to be arguing against myself, because we're all trying to find out what Handel (and the others) would have wanted.  It is a very difficult balance to get but the reason we need to know and strive for what Handel would have wanted is that so much has happened in between.  So much dirty varnish has gotten on and so many different ways of doing things have appeared.  Instruments have gotten bigger and concert halls are so much larger.  That's why Mahler and Wagner started writing.  I worked with Tippett a great deal toward the end of his lifetime and he saw conductors understand his music better and better all the time.  I asked if he wasn't upset when someone like Sir Malcolm Sargent didn't really understand it very well and he'd say that he was just glad to get it started.  He knew that more would come along.  They couldn't interpret Tippett all those years ago because they didn't know their baroque style.  More recent conductors need to know the jazz style for the works which incorporate that influence.  I'm sure that my own understanding of the latest music might not be as good as someone who is more steeped in pop culture.

BD:   Well, let me ask the real easy question...  What's the purpose of music?

NC:   Music is the medicine of the mind.  We need music.  Music is part of our life like the sunshine.  Life must be enhanced and needs metaphors.  A spiritual answer is the only one I can truly give to that question.  All the rounded artists I know are those who understand the arts very well.  One of the thrills of being in Chicago for a bit of time is all the art and theater you have here, and I'm going to get in on all that.  I'll widen the question in order to answer it...  What then are we striving for?  It's too glib to say we're striving for the meaning of life, but I think the arts get pretty close to it.  There are some spiritual matters which are beyond any of us as people.

BD:   Do you look for the spiritual quality in every piece of music you come in contact with?

NC:   No, because I think music is such a wide variant thing.  Little dance pieces serve a purpose while not striving to be deep, but music is great because it can straddle everything.  It can be very banal and be enjoyable and we need it.  You need pop art and you need serious art.

BD:   How do you decide which scores you will accept to learn and conduct?

NC:   I didn't stay directing things from the harpsichord because I wanted to be sure to conduct Rachmaninoff and Verdi, but within the romantics, I pick and choose.  I adore Wagner but would never conduct him.  I haven't had the training.  Perhaps if I stopped everything else now and did just that, I might be able to do it. My Australian debut was a Wagner evening with the late Rita Hunter, but those were the familiar selections which didn't require the huge architectural span of the entire evening.  There are waves of 20th Century music that I won't do either because I don't like it or I'm not good enough.

BD:   But how do you know if you'll like it when it's a world premiere?

NC:   Very intelligent question.  Modern music is one of my passions and I think it should come to people much more.  A premiere you just do and you win some and you lose some.  I run a festival in England designed to bring more music to adult audiences and school children, and I put a lot of time and effort into it.  I think if some of the bigger-name opera stars and conductors would do more modern music, the situation would be a very great deal healthier.

BD:   Are we, the public, expecting too much out of every new piece that is done?

NC:   If that is true, then yes.  In Handel's time, there were other composers whose music is very pleasant and we might not be able to tell the difference, but that spark was greater in him.  In those days, the stylistic differences weren't that great.  It's just whether you were good or not.  Handel (and the other giants we know now) stood head and shoulders above what was going on around them.  It's an understanding of just how music connects with how people really are.

BD:   Do you have any advice for audiences to get more involved in both Baroque and Contemporary music?

NC:   Baroque is all right now since we have so many recordings and groups around.  For the new material, it's a slow drip.  Pre-concert talks are good, as is the internet.  But it's all hugely expensive to do and promote.  I would love to see a composer-in-residence with all symphonies and opera companies.  Operas are very hard to write, and even good concert-music composers don't get much chance.  We need to nurture our composers, and a lot of it is being done.  I'm just saying we need more of it.

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Announcer/Producer Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 for over 25 years.  His interviews and award-winning New Music programs were regular features, and he also produced the series Baroque and Before.

Be sure to visit his  Personal Website .

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This interview was linked from the Chicago Opera Theater website in June, 2001.