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Interview with the Boy Alto & Bass Panajotis (Panito) Iconomou

By Aryeh Oron (September-November 2002)

Contents

Part 1 - Beginnings, singing with the Tölzer Kanabenchor
Part 2 - Singing with the Tolzer Knabenchor
Short Biography

 

Part 1 - Beginnings

I understand that you were born in Germany by Greek parents. How and when did your family come to Germany?

My father came to Germany just before the Second World War to study naval engineering. Greece was in turmoil back then, so he tried his luck in Germany. First, he received his degree in Munich, and then moved to Berlin to get some practical experience. He stayed in Berlin until the 60’s when he met my mother, who was working as a stewardess for Olympic Airlines. Greece was going through a difficult period again, this time it was the military dictatorship, the so-called Junta, between 1967 and 1974. Both my sister and I were born during those years. In retrospect, if the political climate had been different, I definitely would have grown up in Greece and probably wouldn’t be a singer now.


Do you come from a musical family?

None of my close relatives with whom I grew up had been musicians of any level. Traditional folk music was very important in Greek society, though. Popular tunes are still heard everywhere in Greece, day and night. Whenever there is reason to remember the past or celebrate the future (and there are countless opportunities for that among Greeks) everybody will join in a familiar tune and sing away. Though moods can vary greatly, most melodies will sound melancholic to the Western European ear. My mother had a good voice and would often sing in front of the entire family. My father would only sing when he was alone, His favorite opera was Verdi’s Rigoletto and he would sing the jester’s tunes to himself. I have some tapes with him, which he recorded on his Dictaphone. His favorite singer was the Bulgarian Bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, whom I also grew up to admire a lot. (Unfortunately, it was only a year after my father died that I was on stage with Ghiaurov for the first time, as Seconda Apparizione to his Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 1985) Usually, my father would take the whole family to the famous festival in the Arena di Verona. There we heard most of Verdi’s warhorses, including Aida and also Puccini’s Turandot. Those were my very first contacts with opera. I have to confess, that I slept during most of the performances, usually in my grandfather’s lap and most often before the end of the First Act.


When did you decide to become a musician?

As a boy, the decision was made for me by my music teacher at Primary School. When I was 9, the Tölzer Knabenchor was recruiting at most schools in Munich and my music teacher suggested to my parents I should try it out. I still haven’t thanked her. I guess, she’d be pretty surprised if she found out what happened after her suggestion.

As a man, it was a synergy of several factors. After my mutation - which interestingly enough wasn’t abrupt, as in most cases, but gradual – I took up Economics at university and also started singing in several professional choruses. I usually made a good, strong first impression which kept me going for a while but I always ended up getting kicked out because of my youth and the size of my voice. Wherever I showed up, I was usually the youngest and had the biggest voice, which caused problems for most people. I was also quite immature compared with most of the other musicians and very arrogant. But there were two particular instances which would finally make my mind up: In 1992, I was doing a tour with a chorus, with Bach’s B-Minor Mass when the alto soloist, Claudia Schubert, who would also sing the choruses as a ripienist, turned around and said: “You there, you should study singing.” At the time I had different motives to keep the conversation going, but her words would have huge impact on me. A year later, in 1993 I was referred to an Italian agency, who was looking for a last-minute replacement for a Bass who had fallen sick in Italy to sing Bach’s Solo-Cantata BWV 82 Ich habe genung. After hearing about the fee ( I was just 22 at the time and very much at minimum wage) I agreed, learned the cantata overnight, took the first flight to Florence the next day and returned with the biggest paycheck of my life up to that date. I thought: “Oh my god, with that much money involved, coupled with Claudia’s words a year earlier, I should definitely become a musician”. Ironically, it would remain my highest fee for the next seven years……


Tell me about your childhood, ( and your musical background.)

I spent all of my childhood in Bavaria, Germany. My family moved to Beuerberg and finally to Munich. I had a very happy time with my parents and grandparents, who were living with us. After school, there were only 3 things on our minds: Football, football and yet more football. Not much else. If I could have, I would have become a goalkeeper after my great idol Sepp Maier, who won the World Cup with Germany in 1974. After joining the Tölzer Knabenchor in 1980, my preferences changed slightly: First, singing with the “Big Guys“, then playing football during the breaks, and finally, being terrible brats during the rest of the day and some times at night, while we should have been sleeping, always (and most of the time, successfully) trying not to get caught. It was a children’s dream come true. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing.


How did you find out about your gift for singing?

As a boy, I didn’t. What scientists call Sonognosy, or “Discovering that you have a voice”, didn’t come naturally to me at all. It was up to my music teacher at Primary School and the teachers of the Tölzer Knabenchor to figure out that I had something special. The first years were also very tough; improvement was a slow and tedious process, which I didn’t enjoy at all. At one point, I was about to be kicked out of the chorus, but learning the alto solo from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols saved me, as nobody from the entire alto section of the chorus had studied the part until the day of the first rehearsal. So, after everybody had failed to sing it the conductor finally gave me - I was the worst of the altos at that time - a chance. I got up, sung the darn thing, and never looked back again.

As a man, I never really thought that I would get another chance after the career I had as a boy. I said to myself: “You’ve already sung with all those famous people, why should you have a voice as an adult as well? Do something else with your life and stop dreaming!” Most of the guys I was now singing with in the Bass section of the Tölzer Knabenchor had been former boy soloists. Now as adults, none of them had exceptional voices anymore and that didn’t breed any hope for me. Understanding that I would get a second chance would take several more years, until 1992/93.


Who were your first influences?

Paul Esswood and Kurt Equiluz.

For a boy alto in his early teens who first comes into contact with Bach, listening to Paul Esswood was an intriguing but almost miraculous experience. All the things we were still learning, intonation, stressing, breath control, volume, interpretation, he did all that without any apparent or audible effort. His sound was always firm and impeccable to my ears. I had a friend in France who would record most of the cantatas that Harnoncourt/Leonhard had recorded to that date for me (up to cantata BWV 139). Listening to the tapes would becommy daily food and drink. I started buying the scores and learning the whole lot, starting with the solo cantatas BWV 35 and BWV 52. At one point in 1985, when our conductor Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden asked me during a singing lesson, which cantata I had prepared I exclaimed in (slight) exaggeration: “I have learned all of them!” He was gob smacked.

While recording some cantatas in 1985 with Harnoncourt, preparations were made for the St. John and St. Mathew Passion concerts which would soon take place during the first ever Styriarte festival in Graz. The alto solos in the St. John’s were scheduled to be sung by boys, my friend Christian Immler and me, something which upset Paul Esswood quite a lot. He therefore insisted on singing both Alto I and II in the St. Mathew. I asked Harnoncourt during a recording session, if he could talk Paul out of it again, and leave the much smaller Alto II part to me. He finally agreed and I got to meet him several months later at the concert. I took his autograph and thanked him for being so cooperative. After the concert, I got a great review next to my idol, Paul Esswood whilst singing Bach. After listening to him for so many years, I had finally come full circle.

Kurt Equiluz on the other hand, did then and still does now come as close as possible to what my idea of the perfect Bach singer should sound like. I find that during most of the first 140 cantatas his performances are what musicians sometimes call “musical truth”, the perfect symbiosis of word and note. What most struck me was not his voice, which met all the demands of a Bach singer of the highest level, but his understanding of the language and his most unselfish portrayals, completely devoid of any self-serving gimmicks and meaningless adornments which are so common amongst so many (often self-proclaimed) “specialists” nowadays.

Maybe it is wrong to kick off another discussion about vibrato or non-vibrato voices but I’d rather have a full vibrato voice who can deliver the immensely strong messages in Bach’s texts than a non-vibrato voice which just sounds too constricted while trying to stay within the boundaries of what is “allowed” and what isn’t. While little or no vibrato might be appropriate while singing sacred works of Gabrieli or Allegri or similar Italian composers, it simply sounds inappropriate while delivering the grim passage of Lutheran text, dealing mostly with death, damnation, sin and all the other horrible side-effects of the 17th century. And if I listen to Greek or Bulgarian choruses singing Byzantine church music from the 11th – 15th century, there’s not a lot of non-vibrato going on there, and that’s several hundered years before Bach.

 

Continue on Part 2

Panito Iconomou: Short Biography | Interview: Part 1 | Part 2 | Feedback

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Last update: ýNovember 2, 2010 ý11:11:10