In October 1999 the first five-CD-boxes of Bach-cantatas conducted by Pieter Jan Leusink lay on the shelves of more than 500 chain-stores belonging to the drugstore concern Kruidvat in The Netherlands. They were part of the complete Bach-edition of Brilliant Classics, distributed by Kruidvat at an unprecedented price of Dfl 14.95 a box, which equals approx. US $ 1.25 per CD. This aroused quite some controversy in the national newspapers and music magazines, not in the last place by the regular CD-sellers, who saw the project as unfair competition. Even before anyone had heard a single note, the Leusink cantatas were written off on alleged grounds of inferior haste-work (Recording at this speed must be superficial and lacking depth) and commercialism (Culture with a capital C on the shelves of a drugstore, next to the diapers and aspirin: how low can you go! Buy a box and have some free aspirins: you will need them!) Since the release of the first boxes, reviews have become more and more favourable, especially by foreign critics from all over the world. The sales numbers show that a broad public has become interested and fascinated. In The Netherlands alone almost 100,000 copies of each box have been sold, an unparalleled success in this small country.
In May 2000, when the project was nearing its completion, it seemed high time to give the big man behind the project the opportunity to tell his story, Pieter Jan Leusink (1958), conductor of Holland Boys Choir and Netherlands Bach Collegium and artistic director of the Cantatas project, under whose inspiring and energetic leadership all Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred cantatas were recorded in less than 15 months.
Our conversation took place on a Saturday afternoon at the bar of the HBC choir building in Elburg, where all the rehearsals and other choir activities usually take place. No need for introductions, since we have known each other for years and from its very foundation I have been involved with the choir in various capacities. Drinking coffee and PJL smoking his inseparable cigars, the atmosphere was quite relaxed, characteristic for Leusink, who hates circumstance and formalities. He likes to dress in casual clothes, usually wearing T-shirts. A stout, sturdy man in his early forties, not at all tall (most teenage choir boys have literally outgrown him), who shows a certain resemblance to the Bach we know from the Hausmann-portrait. And indeed, on one of the walls there is a framed tribute to Leusink by some fans, who have manipulated the master’s portrait and replaced his face by Leusink’s. Though PJL can appreciate such playful praise, he does not show excessive vanity or pride. The portrait on the wall has come loose from its background and slid down askew in its frame, but no one seems to care, least of all PJL himself, who hates to live on memories and past successes, always looking ahead and forward to the future. He is an energetic man, who likes action and when talking about himself, prefers mentioning his work and ideas about music to reflections on his person.
* If I would ask you to give a brief introduction of yourself, what aspect must not be omitted?
- (hesitating, with a puzzled smile) Well…nasty question; next question, please.
* What is it you are having with Holland Boys Choir and Bach?
- HBC is my great love, my passion, because I started it myself and it has grown into something unexpected, culminating up to now in our Cantatas project. At the beginning, 16 years ago, I could not have foreseen or planned that through working hard, thousands of rehearsals, almost a thousand concerts, 25 CD’s and 50 integral performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, we should grow into the present choir, ripened for this huge project.
Bach? What can I say? His music is so wonderful. There is so much in it. It’s infinity.
All those incredible things he does in the cantatas. One day I would like to write a book about them in simple words, easily accessible to a large public.
* When did you first get into contact with the Kruidvat concern?
- Some people in Holland seem to think that I work for this drugstore-chain, but I don’t. I make these recordings for a record-company that sells and distribute their products through chain stores. My first contact with them dates back from 1996. Our St Matthew Passion (BWV 244), which we recorded in 1992, was only sold in limited numbers until this record company took over and we sold over 100,000 MP boxes at a discount price in three different chain store companies within two years. That’s what you are doing it for: you want to reach out to a large audience. As Holland Boys Choir it gave us great satisfaction. We’re used to perform for large crowds and we love it. Such a huge circulation is also good for all those listeners who enjoy our cantatas and now can afford to buy them all for little money. This again increases our being known and a good reputation at home and abroad. Moreover, we reach new audiences and listeners, many of whom we see back at our concerts. This also holds good for the soloists and the instrumentalists involved in the project, who get a lot of well-deserved acclaim.
* Still, when the company first offered you to record the sacred cantatas, didn’t you think it too low and banal to present these sacred works to the public next to down-to-earth hygienic products?
- No! The distribution of our records through the regular CD-shops was really poor. Imagine, there are 80 of these shops in our country and only ten of them sell our CD’s to a very select public. It does not work! The quality of a recording does not depend on the price or the kind of shop or the name of the shop where it is sold. Our goal is not in the first place commercial success, but to reach a lot of people. It is expected that about six million cantatas CD’s will find their way to listeners in our country of sixteen million inhabitants. That’s 100,000 complete sets of 60 CD’s or 50,000 complete sets and the other 600,000 boxes to different buyers, thus reaching maybe half a million households. It gives me and everybody involved an enormous kick and a boost to continue the good work. It is like playing in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw when it is sold out, The tension and expectation inspire and stimulate us. Something like that I felt when recording. Isn’t it wonderful that our recordings create so many positive emotions in so many people! I get sick of the thought that our cantatas-CD’s would and could only be bought by some 400 diehard Bach-lovers at Dfl. 44.50 (US $ 20.00) a piece.
* In an interview I read that you think the traditional record branch has no future.
- I never said that they are doomed to disappear. Yet, I think the branch is not up-to-date, desperately clinging to the past. They have no eye for new developments or they react in the wrong way.
CD prices are structurally too high. Their philosophy is: better a small circulation with higher profits per CD sold. That’s what the established record industry wants them to do. They don’t want to change their policy to lower prices and large circulations. A John Elliott Gardiner CD, which is top of the bill, may sell 30,000 copies worldwide. That may seem considerable, but if you would sell this same CD for Dfl. 10.00 instead of Dfl. 44.50, only in Holland you would easily sell 75,000 copies, in Britain 300,000 and in the US 1,000,000. So, unless the regular classical CD shops change their policy, they will never reach the man in the street. For instance, in Holland they are also selling the old Hänssler and Teldec cantatas to a couple of hundred lovers /collectors. Also Koopman and Suzuki records will reach very limited numbers of music lovers because not many people can afford these prices. In this way new listeners and people of limited financial means are left in the cold, unless they take to illegal copying. That’s why I prefer the Kruidvat vision and approach, who offer a 40 CD Mozart-box of good quality for only Dfl. 99.00, that’s US $ 1.00!
* What do you expect from the internet?
- The internet connects people and gyou access to anything you want to know. Holland Boys Choir have their own site, www.hollandboyschoir.com , and almost from the start we got visitors from all over the world, from Canada, the USA, Australia and South Africa, from total strangers. In the past we used to release and sell our CD’s under direct management and we will continue to do so. People can order our CD’s and tickets for concerts via the internet and it really works. Our cantatas were produced by Amsterdam Classics, but the production was bought and paid for by Brilliant Classics. So if somebody got rich by the success, it was not us. Fortunately, we have the rights of all the choral material. This gives us the possibility of producing compilations of famous choruses and corals.
* Initially you hesitated several times before accepting the request to record the sacred cantatas. Why? For artistic reasons? Financial worries? The pressure of time?
- Early in 1999 I got a phone call with the proposition of recording the cantatas on 60 CD’s. The first box had to be released before the end of the year and the last before 2000, the Bach commemoration year, was over. My first reaction was a rejection. Up to that moment our production limit had been 3 or 4 CD’s a year. Sixty in 1˝ years seemed impossible. It did not take them long to ring again. Again I declined their offer. However, they kept on trying to persuade me and after each refusal they returned with new proposals, meeting my objections and worries. I was given a free hand with regard to the musical aspects. I could use several choirs, orchestras and soloists, as I saw fit. Even the use of non-authentic instruments was not excluded. It soon appeared that Brilliant was at a loss; it was near panic. In the framework of their ambitious Bach Edition they thought they had a waterproof licence contract with Hänssler to use the Rilling cantatas, but at the very last moment Hänssler backed off, thus thwarting the entire Bach Edition by leaving it incomplete.
From January till March I have put out my feelers, with my choir, with the soloists I was familiar with and wanted for the job (the alto Sytse Buwalda and the bass Bas Ramselaar), and with John Wilson Meyer, the leader of Netherlands Bach Collegium, my baroque orchestra. They all stood behind me. Within the choir there was from the start a very enthusiastic group, willing to invest a lot of time and energy in it. Financially it was tricky. How large a budget do you need, how much can you demand? Initial calculations were based on a circulation of 20,000 copies per CD. We had to do the calculations all by ourselves. How much will you need for salaries, the costs of some 200 days of recording, the rent of the church, logistics, etc. After having gathered all the necessary information we could think of and thorough negotiations, we finally decided to accept the challenge. By contract, we made sure that all payments would be done beforehand, so that no one would have to wait for his money. Also we included various escape clauses, should there be any delays or even calamities forcing us to give up the project. My main condition, however, was that there would never be any time pressure on me from Brilliant Classics. I can work under pressure imposed on me by myself, but not from others. In spite of the fact that I could delay recording days without any financial consequences, I have never used that option. As the project was progressing, the level of all participants increased and problems that occurred could be solved instantly. It is a tremendous experience to see a project maturing. I am happy that most critics have noticed this, too. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do the entire project with “my” choir, the same soloists and the same orchestra and as far as possible the same instrumental soloists. I wanted a closely knit team, capable of high quality teamwork, which would render our total effort artistically better. I also wanted all participants to feel the production as their project as well as our project.
* Before you got started there was already criticism of “an inferior haste job”. Were they right?
- No, of course not! In the first place I think criticism beforehand is not only rash but also incorrect and foolish. After having listened to our cantatas recordings, everybody, music expert or beginner, is of course free to express their opinion. The reproach of delivering inferior haste work is nonsense! We have been recording for a year now and on 8 July 2000, even earlier than I had planned, without any external pressure on me, we hope to have our final recording session. (And so it happened. It was a happy moment! – PB) Then we will have recorded 3,800 minutes of cantatas in 390 days, Sundays not counted. That is an average of almost ten minutes a day or one CD per week. If you only take the recording days into account, the score is 20 minutes a day. That intensity we needed for various reasons. First of all in order to be able to work with the same trebles throughout the project. Not one of them has mutated during that period. Then it is essential to keep everybody motivated and sharp. I have found out that working hard and fast increases the quality of the participants and the product. Bach himself had already experienced that after a week’s holiday the quality of his trebles had deteriorated, in his opinion even dramatically. Whether you are a top athlete or a top musician or singer, you have to exercise daily and play your game regularly to maintain or -even better- improve your play. Working fast and hard is not synonym to scamping your job. We did not produce sloppy work. We did not rush over the music, but we worked hard every day. Daily choir rehearsals after school and after work. Also the professional soloists and the musicians of the orchestra were fully occupied with their preparations. During the project the only other things the choir did were the traditional Summer concerts, the Lessons and Carols, and the St Matthew Passion performances.
* Is it mentally feasible to study and master so many pieces of music one after another for over a year, and put them all on CD?
- Yes, most of all because everyone loved this wonderful music: in my opinion, the Bach cantatas in its entirety are the most beautiful and impressive piece of music ever composed by any composer. For the choir, there was also the awareness of the fact that it would be the first time in history that one choir would record all the sacred cantatas with the same trebles, altos, tenors and basses. Everyone has been inspired and enthusiastic from the start. And it has not faded. This is certainly also due to the quality of the recordings. For me too it was surprisingly high. Even when the recordings are quite direct and open. In doing so you place yourself in a vulnerable position. Every little mistake will be heard without any mercy.
* What made you finally decide to accept the invitation? Was it the challenge, the desire for honour and fame, the love of big money?
- It was certainly not a matter of big dough. As I’ve already told you, we did not get rich. But it was indeed an assurance that all expenses were covered. Fame is only relative. It could never be my motivation. A challenge it was for sure! But I realized you can fall down very painfully, too. From the vitriolic comments I mentioned before we knew that certain people were anxious to see us go down. In this respect those negative publications were in themselves an additional motivation. When I think I am able to realize something and people make scornful, denigrating remarks like “those cantatas carry a bad deodorant smell”, I will show them a thing or two (literally he used the telling Dutch expression, of which I don’t know the English equivalent: “I’m gonna let them smell a fart or two”).
The greatest stimulus was and is the artistic challenge. I knew a few cantatas and for some time I had been thinking over the idea of a minor cantatas project. I had in mind to study six cantatas with the choir, perform them and record them afterwards to be released on a double CD.Things worked out differently. It’s now going to be two hundred cantatas, which is really fabulous! As I said, it’s the total, the complete works, that makes the impact. Also with the public. The first estimates were 20,000 copies of each volume. Now the sales figures have soared to nearly 100,000, and we don’t know what will happen outside the country.
* With Holland Boys Choir you have built up quite some experience in singing St Matthew Passion. But never had you performed a complete cantata. How did you prepare yourself and the choir for this immense job?
- You never know at the start what you will come across on the way. For the choir I had thought out a recording strategy, a psychological approach. First the “easy” bits, then the real tricky pieces. So we started studying the chorales and less complex choral parts. I spent a relatively long time on those. I was satisfied with the results, but convinced we could do better than that. When after two months I noticed that the artistic level was rapidly rising, I started on the larger and more intricate choral parts. At the same time I re-recorded all the chorales from the beginning. For the solo-parts I adapted a similar approach. First we recorded the recitatives, accompanied by small continuo consisting of organ and cello. Later followed by the tutti continuos, including the double bass and the bassoon, and the other instruments needed in the arias, the strings, the woodwinds and brass instruments, percussion where needed. And, of course, the solo-instruments, the oboe(s), the flute(s), the recorder(s), the violin, the violoncello piccolo, etcetera.
* The instrumentation of the cantatas is an interesting subject. For instance, for the continuos Bach needed a double bass (“violone”), an organ or in some cantatas a harpsichord, one or two cellos and one or two bassoons. In many cases he did not even have a bassoon-player at his disposal or he was not satisfied with the quality of the player. Why have you opted for the bassoon in all the tutti-continuos?
- It is because of the specific sound and colour of the bassoon which blends so splendidly in the continuo. So I chose for a bass-line with organ, cello, double bass and bassoon instead of a second cello. Moreover, I have top-quality with Rien Voskuilen and Vaughan Schlepp alternating on the organ, Frank Wakelkamp on the cello, who almost single-handedly played all the cantatas, Maggie Urquhart, Robert Franenberg and Jan Hollestelle, each of them an ace on bass, and Trudy van der Wulp, who took the lion’s share on the bassoon.
* You are using a small orchestra with relatively more strings than in Bach’s day, which benefits the balance. The strength and arrangement of the strings and the wind-section remains the same for the greater part, as is customary today. However, you were criticized for leaving out brass instruments where they should be used.
- This is a misunderstanding. I have never left them out where Bach has written them. But sometimes Bach would add a horn, trumpet or oboe to double the trebles of the choir, especially when their voices were ill-disposed or they did not know their part. It is a known fact, that on the first Sundays of the new year, when the boys had had their Christmas holidays implying feasting and frolicking on the festive days, the quality of the trebles was so dramatically bad that Bach would feel obliged to add a horn or trumpet. In earlier recordings I heard that the resonance of the instrument had a bad effect on the trebles. My trebles do not have any holidays during the project and their voices are in good shape. So wherever doubling of the choir voices was not essential I have left out the horns, and only there!
* How did you select your soloists and the players of the orchestra?
- Well, I knew Bas and Sytse, as you know. I had already made up my mind that they would be my bass and alto voices. Bas Ramselaar has made strong further progress in the process. He always prepares himself perfectly and in my eyes he has made an unprecedented contribution. Sytse and I have worked together for eleven years now. In those years both of us have developed and matured. He is a world-class countertenor, both musically and charismatically. His stage presence is phenomenal. It was Sytse who led me to Ruth Holton, with whom he had worked together in Germany. When I heard her voice on tape, I knew this was the soprano I wanted.
* Why do you use a female soprano-soloist? Have you come off your purist, authentic beliefs?
- No. I would have loved to sing solely with boys and men, but those treble solos are not feasible for schoolkids, if alone because of the lack of time. Besides, I need my top-trebles in the choir. Technically, these recitatives and arias for soprano demand an intensive training of many years. Harnoncourt and Leonard did use various boys trebles and it often shows they fall short. Ruth has a voice and a timbre that match the boys choir perfectly and her technique is super. Besides Ruth, I sometimes used Marjon Strijk, with whom I had worked several times before. Her light soprano voice also suits us well.
To return to your previous question, The tenor Knut Schoch has sang the Evangelist in our St Matthew Passion for a couple of years now, and I liked his performance. I had in mind to let him sing all the tenor-solos. But then he fell ill and got trouble with his voice. So I asked Nico van der Meel to join in, who had already won his spurs as a Bach-singer and indeed he proved himself an excellent substitute. I also called on Marcel Beekman, a bright young tenor, who made good use of the opportunity to sing himself in the picture.
An undertaking like this would not be possible without a regular group inspired and inspiring experts in the orchestra. I have already mentioned some of them. Rien and Vaughan, the ever-present organists, can pride themselves in excellent communicative abilities, which proved to be of great value in the group. They have known practically all Bach-cantatas for years. Also Peter Frankenberg, a very fine oboist, knows his Bach and is a very pleasant musician to work with. Frank Wakelkamp is so familiar with Bach and such a virtuoso on his cello, that many listeners of our recordings have told me they do not believe it is the same cellist on the same instrument throughout the cantatas.
With Netherlands Bach Collegium I have worked for several years already. John Wilson Meyer knows how to instruct his string section and to be on one level, that is the level I want. He takes care of all the details with them, which is of great help for me because the violins and the violas play in all the parts except the recitatives.
Besides the strings also the oboes deserve my compliments for their dedication and their contribution, both qualitative and quantitative.The instrumental soloists playing in our recordings are each of them baroque experts.
Before the project got started I had hoped to have a very fruitful cooperation with all participants and I am happy and proud to say that this has come true beyond my expectations.
* Was the choice of St Nicholas Church Elburg just a practical option or were other considerations involved?
- My first vinyl record “In English Style” with the then-called Stadsknapenkoor Elburg was recorded in this, the Great Church of Elburg. At the time I did not like the sound. So I took my refuge to Vollenhove, where we recorded St Matthew Passion and Messiah. That church had the right acoustics for our choir. Minor mistakes were veiled by the convenient resonance there. Two years ago, I had to record three CD’s in one week with a Hungarian orchestra. Logistically, we had no other alternative but the Great or St Nicholas Church in Elburg. Those recordings pleased me a lot, so I decided to do future recordings in Elburg as well. The logistic advantage is evident. It makes a two hours’ travelling difference for the choir each day we are recording. We have all the complementary facilities at hand in Elburg. And then it is a very pleasant church to work in: spacious, sunny and with a lot of atmosphere. Moreover it disposes of two magnificent organs, which you cahear , besides the chest organ, in a prominent role in our recordings.
What appeals to me personally is the fact that St Nicholas Church may well be compared to Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig as to size and acoustics. For that is the place where he wrote most of his cantatas.
* What is the role of your wife, Christine Schreuder, in the project?
- Choir mothers play a major part in our choir building at rehearsals, also with choir trips and now in the church during the recordings. Christine coordinates it all. Besides being the manager and producer with her own company, she is the managing director of the choir. In previous projects and this time again, she has arranged all contracts, advised by three management experts, a notary public, a lawyer and an accountant. She does the financial management, like paying all the salaries. Logistically, she also arranges everything, from buying sweets for the kids to the choir uniforms and the brunches or snacks for our rehearsals on Saturdays and Sundays. The musical planning, the making of recording schedules, the contacts with the choir, the rchestra, the vocal and instrumental soloists are in the first place my responsibility. When it comes to details or contracts, I can leave it all to her. Yes, you can say that she is my anchor. In our private lives, we also live together, so if she would not be behind me in this project, which keeps us occupied continually, I would probably not even have embarked on it in the first place. Initially, she was the last person whom I asked for her opinion and consent. I am very happy that she immediately said that if I really wanted it and thought it could be realized, she would fully back me up.
* How important are Louis van Emmerik and Jean van Vugt for the recording process?
- Extremely important. I had never worked with them before. I was looking for a recording engineer and a producer/music editor, specialized in baroque music, with whom I would and could cooperate very closely without any major frustrations or disagreements. When I first met Louis and Jean, who had gathered quite some knowledge and experience with Philips, we hit it off from the start. Louis is incredibly enthusiastic. He is at the project night and day. He convinced me that the recordings should be that open and direct.
Everybody was startled at the directness when they heard the first recordings, but in hindsight we are very pleased we did it that way. All polyphonic lines were made clearly audible by Louis. Unique. Jean is the man whom I can rely on concerning the quality of every bit we recorded. He follows the score during the recordings and immediately makes notes what is OK and what is not. He indicates what has to be done once more. When he tells me we’ve got all we need, I can rely on his judgment. Only once or twice, we later agreed that after all it would be better to do something again. In those cases we were able to do so in a later session.
* You record the cantatas in parts, the solo parts separated from the choral parts. The professional musicians usually start recording in the daytime, the choir only in the evenings and on Saturdays. Which makes sense, since they have to go to school or their work and can only sing in their spare time. The parts you select for a recording session usually require the same vocal and instrumental soloists. Don’t you take the risk that a fragmentary approach like this will have a detrimental effect on the internal coherence of the total recording. For when you are recording the recitatives of a certain cantata today with some recitatives of other cantatas, the corresponding chorales may be recorded in three weeks and the arias not earlier than in two months’ time. One should think that incoherence must be inevitable.
- No, not necessarily. From a practical point of view this is the only possibility, also with regard to the orchestra. For instance, for a recitative you only need the organ and the cello. It would be a waste of time and money to have the entire orchestra sitting still in the church, while we are recording with just two instruments. So it makes sense to record several alto or bass recitatives at the same afternoon and evening and call up the entire orchestra for the chorales or the arias at a different moment.
The one who watches the coherence am I myself. Jean also keeps his ears open, but I have the final responsibility. I am the continuity man. I listen to previously recorded parts of a cantata to make sure that I have it in my ears, and sometimes I play it off for the orchestra or the soloist before we start shooting the next part, so that they feel and hear the right pace and the right atmosphere again.
What is essential in the editing stage, is the timing of the pauses between the various parts. They are essential for the coherence of the different parts of the cantata, making it a consistent unity. Just listen to cantata BWV 147 “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” on CD 101.
* What criteria do you apply when recording? What do you want Jean to pay special attention to?
- From the very first recordings of the recitatives I have made an agreement with Jean we would only do limited editing. I want to hear the broad lines. When you record with the intention to get the best result by selecting the finest pieces, cut them from the different takes and edit them to get your ultimate recording, you will usually have an unsatisfactory result. That is because you must be able to feel and hear that live music is being made. What I also find important is the purity of the sound. I cannot stand a choir who are singing out of tune. And the tempi matter to me. Sometimes you have to make a fresh start because you feel the tempo does not agree with you. And then, all of a sudden, it’s there. Then you feel and know: that’s the way it should be and no other way. Jean also listens carefully to be sure that all parties involved are keeping the same time, side by side in one pulse.
The choir must not run away, the strings can not begin to play a fraction of a second late, the oboes not lag behind. By wearing headphones while conducting I hear a lot myself. But because I’m involved with a lot of things at the same moment, I can not hear everything and I do need Jean. When he says it’s no good I trust him blindly and we’ll do it again.
* How does it go on from there?
The unique thing about Jean is, that already during the recordings he is editing in his mind. He and Louis do the first edit. Then it is my turn. I give my comments and Jean goes on editing a second time. The tape comes back to me and when I am satisfied Louis makes the master. I listen and check it with great care with the editing book at hand in order to check all the places where cuts have been made. When everything is alright, the master is sent to the record company. They provide the covers and the booklets of the CD-boxes, and I supply them with the bottoms, containing the information on the performers.
* How would you characterize yourself as a conductor?
- In any case, I am not someone who bothers about the question how Bach would have performed his music exactly. To me it feels rather derogatory towards Bach when people pretend to know how his music must have sounded. No one knows. There is no historic proof. What I myself think essential is imagination. I have brought in some ingredients I share with Bach: a boys’ choir, a church that resembles Thomaskirche, period instruments and musicians who are able to perform well on them. I know that Bach knew the problems of a boys’ choir: trebles mutating at a very inconvenient moment, trebles with various voice troubles. I am a no nonsense conductor. I do not want to spend hours on details. Like the famous Austrian soccer coach Ernst Happel used to say in his German Dutch to his players when they wanted to discuss details: “Kein Gelul! Fussball spielen!” ( “Cut the crap! Let’s play ball!”), my motto is: “Don’t fuss about trifles! Let’s make music!” That’s what our audience wants to hear and I want to please the audience. Do some people think I’m authoritarian? You tell me. But really, no, I don’think I am. What I always try to achieve is to get the best out of every singer and musician. I am dependent of my performers. Each individual has to pursue his personal best, but you cannot make music with 24 soloists. So my goal is to make them play together. I do not have to learn my musicians how to play Bach. What we are looking for is the right chemistry. It can only be realized when you have created the proper atmosphere and the right tempo everybody can relate to. When you listen to one of my favourite cantatas, BWV 6 “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden”, you will hear that all ingredients have amalgamated perfectly into a glorious piece of music. For me as the conductor there is the advantage of studying with my own choir, whereas others like Koopman make use of chorus masters. I know the possibilities of my choir and they know exactly how I want things, already before the recordings get started.
* Wouldn’t you prefer to study and perform each cantata as a whole, before recording it, like Ton Koopmans or Gardiner do?
- It is practically impossible to do this in such a short time as we had for our project. It would take at least ten years. Koopman might be able to reach his goal. He started in 1995. Gardiner wanted to do it, too, but he had to give up. Also financial reasons would prevent us from realizing such a dream. Besides, there are so may other things I would like to do. Maybe later, if and when a super sponsor appears, willing to finance a mega project like this. For that matter, we will give a series of cantatas concerts later in the year. (Which indeed took place in the fall of 2000 - PB)
* Holland Boys Choir consists of boys and mostly young men without any previous music-theoretical training. Do they have any understanding of the texts and Bach’s brilliant musical expressiveness? We often hear critical remarks that children are not capable of expressing deep human emotions, because they lack both the technical skills and the required experience of life.
- I do not give the choir much explanation of the texts. Most of my leading trebles already attend schools for secondary education. They know some German and they do understand most of the lyrics. In BWV 126 they have to sing about the murderous Pope and Turks. Be assured that they know what this is about. They would not like me to explain the text in may words. Nor is it necessary. They have a keen feeling for what Bach wants to express. In that they are naïve, not rational, and yet, or maybe even owing to this more or less instinctive approach, they sing their part very well, often the first time already. I first show them how. I sing the part to them and they take up the right feeling at once. Emotions like enthusiasm, joy, sadness or devotion are picked up easily. They also adopt the right pronunciation without any difficulty. Therefore I don’t agree with this criticism at all.
* Time and again the discussion pops up about the necessity to be a Christian for musicians to be able to perform sacred music properly and for listeners to fully understand the depths of Bach’s music. What is your opinion?
- You can not put it that way. I think it is a personal matter. Our choir, soloists and orchestra are a mixed company. Every one of them has his own thoughts and feelings about the texts and the music. Isn’t it wonderful that all these performers with their different backgrounds can relate to Bach and join their imaginative forces to bring his beautiful music to life again. I am no longer as rigidly religious as I was once raised, but when you hear “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden”, it still gets to you.
* Isn’t it awkward to work with an amateur choir and a professional orchestra?
- Not when the choir behave like professionals during the rehearsals and the recordings. If everybody gives a hundred percent it can be done. With a professional choir I might not have been able to realize this project at such short notice. Too many egos, too much fussing, too many wishes, lots of protests for so many reasons. They tend to be more sensitive for pressure. When people are irritated they take it out on their colleagues and the conductor of course. My choir has never let me down as their conductor and as the one who has the final responsibility, even when I sometimes fly out at them during rehearsals. We go for it together.
* I know you as a man with total commitment to a cause he stands for. This can easily lead to clashes. With the cantatas project we have this relatively small group working on a gigantic job.Have there been any conflicts? What have you done to prevent them and what is your attitude when in spite of that they arise?
- In the reality soap series “Big Brother” a couple of people had to stay in one room for a couple of months. Our enterprise included more than fifty persons in one church almost every day for over one year, so in that respect you might call it “Mega Brother”. I can prevent and avoid conflicts by not going into minor details and marginal problems. I do not go into a subject that I think insignificant. Problems that must or can not be ignored I will have to tackle. In everything I have always had one criterion in mind: whatever happens, whatever people say, it may never have a negative effect on the final result. Sometimes you have to intervene. Yes, it happened several times. I have been given the responsibility and at these critical moments I take that responsibility and insist on my authority. Not by telling people off, however. You should always let people keep their own integrity. The best way to handle a problem is mostly by having a private talk with the person involved as soon as possible. Sometimes you can solve a difference of opinion with a jest. Not so long ago, a soloist and some members of the orchestra were having quite an argument over the question whose fault it was that the recordings just went wrong time after time. I ended their quarrel by telling them the time had finally come to produce some good music and that afterwards they could leave the church, where I was going to supply them with boxing gloves to settle the matter once and for all. Everyone was laughing, the air had cleared up and then the recordings went smoothly. Afterwards, when the results are great, they are as thick as thieves again.
An additional problem with the orchestra was that after six months their level had been increased to such a degree and the recent magnificent recordings were so fresh in their memories, that they were very disappointed when the first takes of a new recording session were not immediately of the same standard as the ones that were still sounding in their ears. We were also constantly consulting together. I am quite tolerant as to participation and having a say in what we are doing. Whether I am dealing with the leader of the orchestra, the organist, the soloist, the cellist, the oboist or a singer of the choir, there is freedom of speech. I am democratic, provided it is for the benefit of the production. If you cannot make compromises, you will never be able to make great music together. I may have a tempo in mind that works for me, but when it is too fast for my oboists or it turns out to slow for the recorders, I have a problem. Then I must try to find the right pace, at which everyone gets the right musical feeling. You have got to get the idea that you are making live music, similar to giving a concert. At a certain moment I will say: “This is going to be the recording!” And it usually is. The takes you do after this one are mostly just for repairs. I prefer an inspired performance to a clinical one, no matter how technically perfect it may be. When there is no emotion, the whole recording is bad. You have to rouse feelings in your listeners. They can not see the enthusiasm with which we were recording the music, because they just put a silvery disc in a machine, probably in the living room where others may be busy doing something else, and then something must happen, a spark has to jump over.
* Now that the project has almost been completed, has or ha’t it come up to your expectations? Have you had to overcome great unexpected setbacks?
- In my opinion , what has been brought about, is surprisingly good. I’m happy and content with the final result, although there are a few things I would have loved to do again, but that is always the case: it is never perfect. For the rest, it is of course wonderful that has been proved that it is possible to accomplish this huge project in such a short time with such great success., and that all criticasters have been silenced and proved wrong. For myself it has been an unforgettable and instructive experience. We have not met with insurmountable problems. Fortunately we have all remained in good health. Most problems you can not foresee. You meet them on the way and have to solve them when they arise. At the initial stage, in January and February 1999, when the die had not been cast yet, I tried to imagine all possible doom scenarios and think of counter measures to prevent them. Whatever preparation I could take, I have taken. Throughout the project my major concern has been the planning. Making the recording schedules and constantly revising them was an enormous job. Sometimes a schedule had to be adapted on the very day because an essential instrument would be lacking as one of the musicians had suddenly fallen ill. From July 1999 I have been almost continually busy with the cantatas from eight in the morning till three at night, except for the weekends. Five hours of sleep will do for me. The will and the enthusiasm to do it are my driving forces. Bad for my health? O come on, working hard has never killed anybody, neither causes it a nervous breakdown. One hour of opposition is worse than 18 hours giving all you have got for a goal you want to realize with your heart and soul.
* After the recordings, won’t you fall into a deep hole or do you have new plans for the future?
- No doubt I will feel empty for a short while. I shall miss the cantatas. There will be a mixture of melancholy and relief. Most vocal and instrumental soloists have already finished their recordings. How pleasant the atmosphere has been throughout this period appears from the fact that Anneke Boeke, our recorder soloist, treated everyone on liqueur chocolates after her last recording session. In the coming months we will produce several Vivaldi CD’s, and a new Christmas Carols CD with a small orchestra instead of the organ accompanying. St John Passion (BWV 245) and our second St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) will be released in the spring of 2001. There are also plans to make a low-budget double-CD with some beloved choral works like “I was glad” by Parry, “Sanctus” from Gounod’s “Messe Solenelle” and Rutter’s “The Lord bless you and keep you”. I want to keep things going. Stagnancy leads to decline and I wish to move forward. Was that all? Fine, then I’ll hurry home to have a bite, a shower and a change, for tonight’s concert.
He gives me hardly any time to thank him. “You’re welcome,” he says, on his way to his second-hand Mercedes Benz, a man beaming with energy, a man with a mission, of whom we will undoubtedly hear much more in the future.
Elburg, 30 May 2000 / 9 March 2001