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Ton Koopman

PARIS - Despite one of the worst transport strikes to hit France since 1968, Dutch conductor Ton Koopman and The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and The Amsterdam Baroque Choir fought their way through endless traffic jams to keep their appointment with an eager Paris public for their Bach Christmas Oratorio concert last 14 December. Worse, it was snowing the day they arrived and, for some unknown reason, the central heating in Paris' Eglise Saint Roch had not been turned on. If it were not for the architecture, one would have imagined being in a cold-store. Unable to reach their hotel to change, Ton Koopman and his musicians had to play in street-wear rather than their traditional white tie and tails. Human warmth and a top drawer performance compensated for the glacial conditions. Rarely were the usually churlish-tempered Parisians in such good humour!

The next day, Ton Koopman took time out to meet with KLASSIKNET editors.

Klassiknet: Can mishaps or difficult conditions of this sort influence a performance and, if so, how?

TK: Of course. Conditions which are less good, and notably a strike of this kind, can affect a performance. This was the worst that I have ever seen. A plane can be delayed or bad weather can make for a bad concert, especially if it is a first performance where a general rehearsal is always necessary. Being optimistic that people can do it helps in such situations.

Klassiknet: It is part of your business to cope with this type of problem.

TK: Sure. You talk to the troops and convince them that they can do it despite the difficult conditions.

Klassiknet: Where would you place the Christmas Oratorio in Bach's overall production?

TK: It's the most Catholic work he ever wrote. It's so sweet...so full of naiveté...the angels who sing, Kyrie Eleison, a child is born...It's so moving. It has nothing of Bach's severeness, which I also love. The counterpoint is sometimes there, but much less than in any other cantata or major work. The chorales are so moving, so easy, so well-made -beautiful harmony, which is at times severe. Bach wants to show that the life of Christ is not so easy in the end, or at least not so easy at it seems at the start - like a strike!

Klassiknet: The center of baroque music is no longer concentrated in France, Britain, Belgium and Holland, although it started in Austria with Harnoncourt. New currents of early music performance have emerged in Spain, Germany, Italy, America...What do you think about this recent development?

TK: People all over the world have studied sources. For this reason if I had to put together a baroque orchestra in Tokyo, it would be possible, although many of the young Japanese musicians probably have never studied in England, Holland, France or the Schola Cantorum in Basel. There is a risk, however, that early music is becoming a box with all kinds of rules. In the beginning, purely by accident, the few leaders of the early music movement, like Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, were great musicians. They were people with a vision who worked from instinct.

Klassiknet: Has the Baroque music revolution given birth to a new form of conformity?

TK: In the beginning we couldn't play in the Concertgebouw [Amsterdam]. It was an underground movement in the 60s. We had to play in little churches, and we played in jeans, and everybody had long hair. We were more like rock groups. When we first played Bach's Saint John Passion in Amsterdam, people were smoking little sticks [joints!]...I mean, in a church! It was a remarkable atmosphere. Now the dog has grown up! The ambience, the love for the music, the feeling of, Oh my God we are doing something which is great, which is new", has disappeared. But still, I see that many of the good musicians are still in love with what they do.

Klassiknet: You are in the process of a huge project: recording the complete Bach Cantatas. What made you decide that you were ready to record this cycle after the Harnoncourt and Leonhardt version, completed fifteen years ago?

TK: As Martin Luther King said, "I had a dream!" At first I thought it was madness. Nobody would believe that I would ever be ready. Worse, it would be such a money-losing venture. Harnoncourt worked hard to find the sources. Christoph Wolff of Harvard University is advisor to our Cantata project. Most of what Harnoncourt did on Telefunken (now Teldec) was based on his research. We also feel that decisions should be made based on research. Perhaps ten years from now we shall do it again, based on new discoveries. The complete Bach Cantata recordings should be ready in 2005 and will cost $12 million dollars. It's brave for a record company to go along with this, particularly when you consider that it is the same house (Warner now owns the former Telefunken) as before, knowing what went wrong with the earlier cantata project. Still, sales have been encouraging for the first volume, so I don't think Erato is losing money on this one.

Klassiknet: Will you record future cantatas in historical settings?

TK: Yes we have lots of ideas for this. It will help us understand more about Bach's life. I recently saw an amateur-made video about a church in Leipzig where Bach played regulary. It fell into ruin and later was slated to become a Communist Party headquarters. It was really rather sad. The two other churches where Bach performed - the Thomaskirche whose organ has been replaced and the Nikolaikirche which underwent rococo restorations - are unsuitable. Instead, we shall go to churches around Leipzig such as the Freiberg Cathedral where the great Gottfried Silbermann made one of his most important organs. We shall record some secular cantatas in the Leipzig Town Hall which is a very beautiful Renaissance building. Such places will keep people interested in the project.

Klassiknet: The classical music community, notably the record companies, are known to be very slow in embracing new technologies.

TK: They are afraid. There is so much new technology. If we just take E-mail. I think we are the first orchestra (Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra) in the world to have E-mail. There are so many things they [record companies] want to do which seem more urgent.

Klassiknet: Like another Beethoven symphony cycle?

TK: Yes, absolutely. They still believe that there is a wider audience for that than for multimedia. I have a Bach movie in mind, but in order to make it, I shall have to talk to other producers about multimedia. Listen, I bought a few of those CD-ROMs of painting collections. OK, the reproduction on the screen is still not the best in the world, but many copies in a book aren't either. But to have so much information close at hand about painting, restoration and historical data. You don't need to consult thousands of books. There isn't much for music yet. I think the Bach Archives in Leipzig would be very interested, because they know all too often how many people come to get copies. They know how often they say no, because it's too expensive and too dangerous to let people handle manuscripts.

Klassiknet: What's your opinion of today's record market?

TK: Many people say that the market is not doing well, but I think the market is doing quite well. It depends on what the record houses are doing with the market. There is still a world of people with money to spend. And now people are asking for more information than the little booklet gives. Why not use CD-ROMs as a promotional tool?

Klassiknet: At first, some major record companies like EMI didn't believe in compact discs at all.

TK: I remember when compact discs first came on the market; many people said that within a year at most it's over. I know that Michel Bernstein from Astrée said, 'it's ruining the sound'.

Klassiknet: Ironically, Michel Bernstein, now head of Arcana Records is the first French classical house to do enhanced CD or CD plus. Would you agree to be the guest on an Internet forum?

TK: Yes, of course

Klassiknet: Record houses seem less enthusiastic about this kind of artist communication.

TK: This can only help, when you consider that a visit to a record shop to buy for example a recording of Messiah is often an overwhelming experience because of the 40 or even 60 versions available. More information on the Internet or by any other new medium is important because many people have no idea what they are buying or are just afraid of the choice. Because of today's consumer habits in books and records it will be more difficult for the record companies unless other media are involved beyond the usual classical record magazines.

Klassiknet: It's clear that new technology will help widen our knowledge of scores, historical styles etc., but do you think that new technology could have an effect on performance practice?

TK: More and more musicians ask me for information on topics such as vibrato in Italy, or whether it is right to perform Boccherini with a cello and a contrabass. If you asked the question on the Net, you might find somebody who'll just answer that it is nonsense to use this combination. It's two cellos. Because of new technologies and faster communications it means you don't have to reinvent the wheel or wait for half a year to read about it in an academic journal. New technologies might also kill off magazines.

Klassiknet recommends the following J.S. Bach web sites :

Bach-Archiv Leipzig

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