Interview with Adrian Butterfield

Interview with Adrian Butterfield
Hi Adrian, thanks so much for speaking with me! Am I right in saying that you have worked with Southbank Sinfonia a fair amount in the past?

Yes, I've worked with Southbank since I think 2003 and it's been a regular part of what I do. It’s one of my favourite projects of the year! The main thing for me, is emphasising the variety of repertoire and ways of playing it. People in Italy played in a completely different way from the people in France and the people in England, and Germany, they all had their different styles. Those styles got mixed up but there is a different sort of sound that was commented on in the 17th and 18th centuries and it's nice to bring that out so that we feel we're playing different music in different ways. Not all sounding the same.

That movement around all the styles is very evocative of the London Handel Festival theme of ‘The Grand Tour’- what styles were you particularly interested in exploring with the players in this concert?

It fits what I do with Southbank particularly well, because I always do a mixture of repertoire with them. I love the opportunity to do French music with them. The French style was very particular. It's very dance based and the most different from the modern style. The modern style came out of the Italian, really. So that's always more of a shock for the players and once they've experienced that, then everything else fits into place. I love the general elegance and refinement of it. It's just something that appeals to me.

If you lose that sense of dance, you lose, you lose so much of the music. It’s that connection with dance, we don't have in the same way as we did in the past. I always remember the being told that when Beethoven first moved to Vienna, he made a list for himself of what he needed to take and, on that list, he had a dancing masters address he had to go to because he had to learn how to minuet in Vienna. They all had that in their bodies in a way that we don't know.

Being able to expose the players to new repertoire must be really rewarding, how do you find working with musicians at the start of their professional journey’s?

I just love working with them. There are always some who have done quite a bit of Baroque playing already, so they're not all new to it but there are usually others who haven't. Generally, I do some conducting but mostly I play with them. So much of this earlier music was performed like that and it's a more collaborative way of working so they end up taking more responsibility and getting more personally involved in what they're doing. They have worked together so intensively now for so long, I think they've become a little sort of family for nine/ten months and that comes across in this sort of repertoire. I try and encourage them to respond instinctively to the music, and not somehow impose too much on it.

There are lots of potential rules and regulations that you can have with Baroque music but in the end, it needs to become something that you respond to instinctively. The composers gave performers a lot of freedom, they didn't write in an awful lot of information, whether it's about dynamics or tempo changes. Even notes, they left it up to you to add ornamentation so you had that sense of freedom. I think that's so lovely for young players to experience. They're not being told how to play every note rather, just responding to the music and to each other.

How are the players able to adapt their playing for this style and does it change the experience for them?

For the wind players, to pick up brand new instruments is just not feasible in the time we have, so they're given coaching so they can play in a stylistic way on their modern instruments. The string players are lucky in that regard, they’ve got extra help because a Baroque bow is so much lighter than a modern one. It’s naturally unequal and forces you to play in a different way, you just can’t help it. The number of times I have done Bach workshops and masterclasses where people have brought their modern instruments and I’ve handed them a Baroque bow and it changes the way they play. 

The gut strings make a big difference as well, you can sink into them in a different way. You can't attack them in the same way as you can a metal string so you have to approach the sound in a different way. It is really interesting to watch the players and see their reaction because some take a couple of days to sort of link in with it and others there's an instant spark. You can just see that in that in their movement, in their eyes, everything suddenly clicks. 

We can learn so much from those instruments and having a harpsichord in the middle of the ensemble. It’s just a different colour and a different way of playing. That's what those composers had and that's what they were writing for. If they'd had something different, they would have written in a different way so I think we can learn a huge amount.

Are there any particular musical highlights for you in this programme?

I've just been doing the Corelli with them and there's something really special about the warmth and the sound of that music. It's in D major, which is so much the home key of the violin and for string players so it encourages them to make a really warm, round sound. I hope that comes through at the beginning of the Corelli, it starts off with these beautiful chords that are just wonderful, resonant D major chords.

The Handel ‘Alchemist’ Suite is interesting because it's music that Handel wrote when he was in Italy, but it came to England before he did. Not quite sure how it happened, but it turned up as incidental music for a play, ‘The Alchemist’ in London before he'd come here. It is a suite of dances, very much in the French style. Handel didn't spend much time in France, but he picked up this style. The dances that he comes up with, there’s a mixture of those that are elegant and refined and those that are that are more rustic, sailors dance sort of things. Handel picked up all these different resonances in the different places that he worked so amazingly and quickly. There is a Sarabande in that Alchemist Suite that is so tender, and so moving. That's another special highlight for me.

Then the Rameau, who I think is just such a wonderful, interesting composer. Again, it's a lovely mixture of really tender and beautiful music, and then something that's really quite rustic. It’s that switch from one to the other that's glorious.

For someone who might not be very familiar with the Baroque style, is there anything about this programme that you feel might universally relatable and help them to get stuck in?

I think Handel, particularly as a figure was such an interesting personality and he was so connected with people. He wanted to write opera because he loved the characters that were there on stage and he could relate to them and put across their emotions. It's incredibly emotional music. One of the arias that we are performing, ‘Revenge Timotheus Cries,’ the main section is very 'military' and then it has this middle section that talks all about the soldiers who have been slain and it could not be more different in character. It’s narrowed down to the violas and bassoons and continuo and time stands still at that moment. Handel that ability to hit you between the eyes with emotion and with the character of the people he was he was writing about. I think it’s music that one relates to very naturally, it's very human music.

I would have loved to have met him. There's this story of him having invited someone round for a meal and then every now and then he would pop out because he had had some great little composing inspiration and went off to jot it down. He was caught out in another room stuffing himself with some extra food that nobody knew about.

How did you get into Baroque playing yourself?

I think a big influence on me was the fact that I singing as a boy, I'm told I sang read before I spoke actually! I then had four years as a chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral and I was brought up with the very pure sound and early repertoire, and pre Baroque repertoire, which is really probably the best English music that's ever been written. I'm sure that had a big influence.

My violin teacher from the age of six, seven, through for 10 years, Pamela Spofforth founded Procorda, which is chamber music course. I went on that for 10 years so I was also brought up with chamber music. I suppose an awful lot of Baroque music tends to work in smaller ensembles more than very big ones so maybe that was another appeal to me. While I was there, we performed with Paul Steinitz. We provided an orchestra for him for Messiah, Christmas Oratorio, B minor mass. I think all those sorts of influences were sort of hitting me from various sides. Then I ended up going to university to read music and there was an awful lot of academic historical background. Playing with people who were there at Cambridge at the same time as me, I think all of those influences just came together. 

The one thing that put me off was having perfect pitch. I remember trying to play the St John Passion at A=415 and being absolutely all over the place in the opening chorus. I just didn't know what notes I was supposed to be playing which was embarrassing. But I've gradually got accustomed to that and now I'm happy to play at any pitch!

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