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

By Aryeh Oron (September-November 2002)

Continue from Part 1

Part 2 - Singing with the Tölzer Knabenchor

Did you always sing alto in this choir, or did you begin as a soprano?

I always had my alto range, from beginning to end. I added a couple of notes on both bottom and top range, but that was all. Children’s voices tend to get naturally lower during the course of their “careers”. During my mutation, for example, my voice went lower by about a note a week, until I reached my bass-baritone range. There were some instances were boys did shift between the “big” registers, like from Soprano I to Soprano II, or from Alto I to Alto II. Beside that the only two remarkable changes were the changes of Christian Immler from Alto to Mezzo-Soprano back in 1983 and Markus Bauer from Soprano I to Soprano II and then even to Alto I over the course of 3 years, from 1987 to 1990, but those cases were extremely rare.

Did any of the boy soloists sing music other than sacred or classical music? Musicals? Operas? [Mozart's 'Zauberflöte' etc.] With a rock band?

I think I will serve the answering of this question best by pointing the reader to the extensive information found on this repertoire list on the choir’s website

How much private vocal training have you had?

We generally had two chorus sessions of two hours and one individual session of one hour with a private teacher every week, which amounted to roughly five hours every seven days. This figure rose of course when we were on tour or preparing for concerts.

How did you prepare your alto solo parts?

We first got the score together with a tape, several months in advance. We would learn the music, then proceed to work on style, expression, interpretation etc. This could take days or weeks, depending on the talent of the singer and if he felt comfortable with the repertoire or the particular composer. I, personally, needed a lot of help with modern composers, but absolutely none with Bach or Händel, where I usually designed my own trills, embellishments, even cadenzas, with which I would “surprise” the conductor on the evening of the performance. This led to some humorous (and some rather less humorous) events down the stretch…… Almost all of the unwritten trills I do during the cantata recordings for example were my own idea, though Harnoncourt (further referred to as: NH) did cut a couple which I really liked. Trilling was what I loved most about Baroque music.

To your knowledge, was there ever any time, particularly early on, when there was any type of resistance to the new singing techniques that Harnoncourt 'imposed' on this group? Did the regular choir director accept all these new approaches to singing without putting up the least resistance? Did any of the boys find these 'new' methods difficult to adjust to?

Firstly, I have to say that I wasn’t in the choir, when NH started working with the Tölzer Knabenchor (further referred to as: TK (which was back in 1971, when they recorded Cantata BWV 12Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” When I joined the choir in 1980, all methods were already firmly in place. Our conductor Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden (further referred to as: GSG) was surely influenced by NH during their long cooperation but “imposing” is definitely the wrong word. GSG received his tutorage in Italy and was also heavily influenced by Carl Orff when he returned to Germany.

Secondly, the methods practiced by the TK were definitely nothing new to singers in general. The big question instead was, could they be successfully applied to children or not ? GSG’s main objective (and in my view, his major lifetime achievement) was to prove, that by applying special methods, a children’s voice could be trained to come as close as possible – and in some particular cases be equal – to a professional adult. You will not believe the amount of ignorance and belittlement he or we as boys would receive from all kinds of people, who simply wouldn’t believe that this could be done. I could probably fill an entire website with details of events which would (and did in the past) put these opinions to rest forever.

Just by using numbers: In 1983 all the boys from the TK took a sonogram test with Dr. Martin, a reputed specialist from Munich. Just to put respective number into perspective, a conversation is roughly 70 dB, the average singer from the Wiener Sängerknaben at the time was 88 dB, disco music at 100 dB and the human pain threshold is at 130 dB. I, myself, peaked at 115 dB on an e1 at 330 Hz, which was much more than I had during the second test I took as a bass ten years later. I didn’t really have a clue about what I was doing exactly at the time. The only things I noticed, were that I was being put much further away from the microphones than anybody else whilst recording with NH or Andrew Parrot, and that I wasn’t allowed to sing the duet in Bach’s B-Minor (BWV 232) with Emma Kirkby after our first microphone check. Specifically in my case, everyone who thought I couldn’t stand my own next to an adult singer, was in for a big surprise.

Generally speaking, I would compare a soloist of the TK - who had gone through at least three years of hard training and achieved the status of a “first soloist” as we would call them - to a young male sportsman in his mid-teens competing at national level or a female gymnast of the same age in regards to stress, traveling, workload etc.

Were the boys instructed to sing with a vibrato by either their regular choir director or by Harnoncourt?

Every instrument swings naturally when it produces a note (with some - extremely few - exceptions), so why not the human voice? Technically, the periodic swinging of an instrument, which we call vibrato, is a harmonic condition which demands much less control and force than the tremolo (or further on, the wobble) on the one side of the spectrum and the vibrato-less singing, which is on the other side. We were taught how to sing without restrictions from the very beginning. Some voices - especially the heavier ones singing within their upper range - used more vibrato than the average boy in the choir. The importance was that it came, if at all, naturally. The tremolo and wobble, though, were conditions which were treated immediately by the teachers.

Neither GSG nor NH instructed, encouraged or cultivated vibrato. On the other side, they also didn’t suppress it. From what I noticed, it was regarded as natural sign which was generally accepted.

I had to smile a bit, while reading Thomas Braatz review of cantata BWV 178, calling my performance “insecure” and “unable to control his vibrato”. In my own ears it’s the best musical performance of my boy’s career. I really meant every single word I sing during that recitative and doing it was an almost out-of-body experience for me back then. Definitely not insecure - and with vibrato because I never tried to control and because nobody forced me to. Same thing with the opening chorus that precedes it, in my view one of the best Bach choruses the TK ever recorded. If Aryeh Oron writes about an army marching, stopping, marching, stopping, this is exactly what Harnoncourt wanted (and it’s exactly what’s in the text). And it felt absolutely great being part of that army, believe me.

How the recordings sessions took place with Nicolaus Harnoncourt. For instance did they (the Tölzer soloists) have a few rehearsals just with the conductor? Did they have enough time to get acquainted with the music?

We usually got the music several months in advance and went on to learn it straight away (at least I did whenever it was Bach). We then had several sessions with our conductor, until we had a run with NH, usually a day before the recording sessions. Parts were spread between several soloists and there were also covers if things didn’t go as planned. Preparation was never a problem. Even today, I could sing most of the tunes back to you from memory straight away.

It seems that sometimes the "Complete Cantatas" by Harnoncourt/Leonhardt were rushed through (despite spanning over 16 years) and would have benefited from further rehearsals.

Judging such a huge project is difficult, if not impossible. There were so many people involved, dozens of soloists, different choruses and countless other factors involved. We also shouldn’t forget that they way music itself was performed changed a lot during those 20 years. There are very few constant factors left which would allow generalizations like calling some recordings “rushed”. I would agree on very basic generalizations like the fact that the quality of some musicians - especially the wind instruments - improved greatly during the course of the run, while the quality of the male soloists generally declined slightly towards the end.

Two years ago, in 2000, I recorded several cantatas with J. E. Gardiner. He successfully went on the record all (!) cantatas over the course of the entire year. Compared with this, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt have been on a very long odyssey……….

Were the cantatas recorded as complete works, all the movements in the same session?

No, we usually recorded our movements away from all the adult soloists. Chorus and boy soloist sessions were also divided and sometimes we sat out some of the chorus sessions in order to be fresh for the soloist sessions later on.

Have you had the opportunity to discuss technical and interpretative matters with other singers during the rehearsal or recording session?

The only other singers at the recording sessions were other boys and if they were the same voice type as you (which meant they were after your solo really, really badly) you better didn’t want to hear what they had to say. Some others were non-competitive, though that was definitely less challenging and therefore less fun.

Most interpretation matters were the responsibility of our vocal coaches, then GSG, and then NH, who had the final word on things. We had to be ready to change a couple of things around if necessary, but in general most things had already been discussed and finalized before we got involved. What I loved about NH was the fact that he encouraged and accepted some of our own interpretations as well.

Why didn't you do Cantata BWV 169 that seems to be recorded at the same time as the BWV 168/177? I think he may have had the physical capacity and the skills for this very demanding piece but perhaps it was a bit too much of a risk for you and Harnoncourt or your voice had already broken.

It’s funny because the only risk NH would have taken by “giving” me that cantata would have been incurring Paul Esswood’s wrath….. The only reason why us boy altos got a shot at recording cantatas at all was the fact that there were a lot of soprano/alto duets between BWV 163 and BWV 179 and NH wanted a well prepared “duo” if possible. There were several other solos for altos as well, and we got those after he had heard that Christian Immler and I were quite capable of singing the first couple of cantatas. That was the time, when we also got the solos in the St. John’s passion (BWV 245). Paul had recorded almost all alto solos up to date (with the exception of some by René Jacobs) so NH thought it was all right to record some with boys as well. He still kept the “cherries” (like BWV 169) for Paul, though and didn’t use another boy alto after 1986, when Christian’s and my voice broke. We two would remain the only boy altos to record several cantatas with NH.

Technically, I don’t think that BWV 169 would have posed any problems aside from the unusually high tessitura. It is demanding, but more for the organ player. I regard cantata BWV 35 “Herz und Seele wird verwirret” - which I had learnt two years earlier, and which also includes a very demanding organo obbligato - as the most difficult solo cantata for alto, together with the aria from BWV 42Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind”.

What do you think of your recordings as a young adolescent with Harnoncourt (in retrospect)?

That’s a tricky one…. There’s definitely always some bittersweet emotion, coupled with pride and a huge portion of melancholy when I listen to those old recordings (which doesn’t happen often these days). Those were happy times for me, at least musically, some of the best years of my life. After my mutation I did make the mistake of over-dwelling in the past, though, and I paid for it, by not progressing. One of the best advices I ever got came in 1994 from one of my first “operatic” teachers Karl-Christian Kohn, a former bass from the Munich National Opera, who told me: “If you continue living in the past, you will have no future. If you want to go on in your musical life, you have to treat the voice you once had as a different person, someone who has now gone away. Your past is a blessing and a curse, so be careful.” It would take several more years to fully understand his message, but I am very grateful that he was so tough and sincere back then.

Has your opinion of Harnoncourt remained unchanged since you first sang under his direction?

Of course I have followed NH’s career after I worked with him as a boy – it would have been impossible not to. After completing the cantatas he went on to other composers, some of which he wasn’t as successful with, like Beethoven and Händel. He has had some fantastic success with Mozart’s operas though, particularly in Zurich. He was nothing short of fascinating to work with, meticulously prepared, charismatic, energizing and using the orchestra as a singer’s ally. I would love to work with him again some day.

In what age did you leave the Tölzer and how it happened?

I left the choir in April of 1986. My mutation came very late, at nearly 15. Most of my close friends had alreadleft and the chorus was swarming with new, young talent. I felt out of place most of the time. There was also the practice of “phasing out” soloists who were close to their mutation, which meant that they were gradually taken out of solo duties in order to prepare their younger successors. This was a really sad and tough period for most, including me, having to sit back and listen to other inferior boys singing the solos you used to sing.

One of the last things I did was an audition for August Everding, who was the Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich at the time. He was casting the roles of Oliver Twist with boys from the TK. I went in and sang Oliver’s aria “Where is love?” after which Everding roared with laughter, saying: “I am looking for a small, young boy with a weak, tender, sweet voice. I’m afraid you’re just the opposite. If I was doing a Verdi opera I’d cast you, but not as Oliver, thank you very much.”

That was the last straw. I was so confused and embarrassed that the next week I called in sick and didn’t go to the rehearsals any more. No trumpets, no fanfares, no farewell speeches. I simply stayed at home and waited for nature to run its course. My career as a boy alto had ended – just as quietly as it had begun.

Two members wrote about your performance of Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) as follows:
Douglas Neslund: “Please let him know that his unpublished 1985 television performance of the St. John Passion under the direction of
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and specifically his alto aria "Es ist vollbracht" is by far the most touching and affecting performance ever - still bringing tears after all these years. His erstwhile teacher, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, told me that he too was in tears, sitting in the Graz (Austria) audience. I join many in wishing him a wonderful and successful career. His vocal roots are strong and deep, and should stand him in good stead throughout the years”
Boyd Pehrson: “I can only echo Douglas' suggestion. Rarely has a performance gripped my soul as did Panito Iconomou's solo 'Es is vollbracht' St John's Passion. Just let him know it is deeply appreciated, now he is old enough to understand the how and why his voice was used so perfectly.“
Is this the performance you mentioned previously? What memories do you have of that performance?

Yes, this is the St. John Passion I have mentioned earlier. Thank you very much, Douglas and Boyd, for your kind words. If I had to describe my life as a boy alto of the TK, I would choose this aria. It was definitely the climax of my career. One of only a handful of occasions I can recall, where everything felt right, with my performance, the other musicians and the reaction from the audience. And it is only for these few occasions that I have decided to become a singer again.


To be continued...

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


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