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.
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.
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 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!