sat 20/12/2014

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner

On the eve of his 70th birthday the conductor talks Bach and taking concerts back to basics

Sir John in love: Gardiner celebrates his lifelong passion for the music of Bach in a marathon concert this Easter

It’s only fitting that Sir John Eliot Gardiner should be celebrating his 70th birthday with a concert in the Royal Albert Hall. That it should be a nine-hour marathon of a concert is not only fitting, but entirely predictable for a musician who has always kept one eye on the next and biggest challenge.

Not for this conductor the familiar or the conventional, a career spent in the safe, sequestered world of early music. Over almost 50 years Gardiner has balanced choral pilgrimages with opera productions, has conducted symphony orchestras and period ensembles, has founded his own record label and shepherded his performing groups through some of the toughest economic years classical music has faced.

But still the challenges keep coming. This year alone will see Gardiner completing the epic cycle of Bach recordings he began back in 2000, publishing his major new Bach biography for Penguin and presenting a new BBC documentary on the composer – as well, of course, as masterminding the Royal Albert Hall Bach marathon which will combine his own Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra with soloists for performances that range from solo works for organ and violin to the composer’s epic B Minor Mass. Bach has been the touchstone, the constant, in a career of astonishing breadth and unpredictability. But why does the conductor always return to this music, and what comes next after this milestone celebration?

ALEXANDRA COGHLAN: You’ve said previously that you always come back to Bach at crucial junctures and milestones in your life - can you talk me through a few?

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER: It really all starts with that picture on the wall [a reproduction of Elias Gottlob Haussmann’s famous portrait of Bach]. It’s one of only two authenticated portraits, and the original hung in my parents’ house when I was born. They got it from a refugee, Walter, who arrived on a bicycle in Dorset in 1936 with a rucksack, a guitar and this picture as a canvas rolled up. He knew my dad and asked him to look after it for him. Our house had a very low ceiling, so as a little boy I looked directly into  Bach’s eyes as he hung on the landing. I couldn’t make head or tail of it; I loved his music, but I couldn’t reconcile it with the portrait which is detached and slightly forbidding. I passed that portrait every day of my childhood at the time when I was first learning Bach’s motets as a treble. Singing those motets, which I love to this day more than any other music, was my first introduction to the music

Were you singing these motets in a church context?

No, I was singing them with my family and friends. My parents were keen amateur musicians and all through the war years they used to sing the Byrd four-part and five-part masses alternately on Sundays with friends to keep their spirits up. I was allowed to join them as a treble and that’s how I got to know the music. It wasn’t until I went away to school that I realised that not everybody did that, and not everybody knew the Bach motets. That seemed very odd to me. It wasn’t at all precious though; my dad was very much a working farmer and used to sing at the top of his voice on his horse or his tractor, and although he loved polyphonic music as well as folksong, music was there very much to punctuate the agricultural year and to celebrate. He got very cross with me when I decided to become a professional musician. He thought that it was a terrible sell-out and a corrupting thing. But he came round to it just before he died, thank goodness. I learned an awful lot from him about the function of music, and how important it is as a musician to take not only time to prepare but also time to reflect after you’ve done a performance. All of us go straight from one gig to another and it’s not very healthy, but that’s just the way the industry runs.

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