Conductors in Conversation, No. 2: Harry Bicket

By James Inverne on Apr 02, 2014 04:03 PM EDT

Englishman Harry Bicket made his name in Handel and early music, and succeeded Trevor Pinnock at the helm of the English Concert. He has quite recently take the top job at Santa Fe Opera and records for the Avie label, among others. He spoke to Classicalite's James Inverne about being stereotyped, and the telling differences between helping to run music organizations in the U.S. and U.K.

JI: You have recently been named as the new chief conductor of Santa Fe Opera. To some, that may seem like a bit of a departure from what you have perhaps been best known for, namely quite early music, whereas Santa Fe has a proud tradition of new operas.

HB: I'm not sure that I ever created that early music role for myself. I started life as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, where I was playing everything: a lot of contemporary music, Romantic repertoire, in fact, not much earlier stuff. Then, I played the organ at Westminster Abbey. And there again I was actually playing Messiaen, Franck, a lot of more modern music. I went to English National Opera for five years and conducted a huge variety of the repertory, but it was only at the end of my time at ENO that I was asked to do the then-new David Alden production of Handel's Ariodante, in the early 1990s. The rationale behind that was that [music director] Mark Elder knew that I had been playing harpsichord a bit in my spare time for John Eliot Gardiner and Trevor Pinnock. At that point, I hadn't even seen many Handel operas! But I loved doing it, and it went well. That led to other things--Glyndebourne and then that led to the Met, and all of a sudden, you wake up one morning and you're recognized as an expert in something without really knowing that you ever were!

JI: But you have, in fact, kept up quite a variety.

HB: Yes, I've been very happy and haven't felt trapped in one corner of the repertoire because I have always done all these other things--a lot for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra these days. Last time I was there was for some Stravinsky and a new violin concerto, and next time will be to conduct some Poulenc. Artists often don't set out to say exactly what they will do with their careers. I've always followed my nose a bit and taken good opportunities when they've arisen. So, there was never any sense of going to Santa Fe to prove a point.

JI: How do you see your role at Santa Fe?

HB: The role there is chief conductor rather than music director. It's a company that only does five operas in the summer season. And there's a strict rationale for what they're going to be--it was founded on the principle of dong a new piece, hopefully a U.S. or world premiere, and everything revolves around that. My job will be to maintain the standards of the orchestra.

JI: By which you mean keeping 10 fighting fit for the new works, programming other works alongside them that will play to the qualities they will need in new work? We're not talking simply of beauty of sound?

HB: Beauty of sound for its own sake can seduce one. Beauty and character are not mutually exclusive. And focusing on beauty of sound is a bit shallow. There is nothing more infuriating to an orchestra than a conductor saying, "Let's try and make a really beautiful sound here." They will look at you with expressions that say, "Oh, yeah, we've been trying to make a really horrible sound all along!"

What is more interesting to me is the emotional quality of the sound, and that emotion can be made up of a whole myriad of sound worlds. Something that is just purely ravishing in its sound can actually be quite monotonous. Especially in opera, where the drama is so often led by the text and even the actual aural sound of the language. The best opera orchestras I work with are the ones where the players are all excited by the sound of a double consonant in Italian! Because a double consonant means a particular kind of articulation for a string player or a woodwind player--it's about making sure the sound always completely reflects the dramatic intention and effect of the scene. The orchestra has to tell the story in the same way that the singer must, even when singing in a language foreign to the country you're performing in.

JI: Many great opera conductors of the past worked as repetiteurs--rehearsal assistants at the piano. That is perhaps less common today. Is it important? It feels like it must be, given what you are saying about understanding the drama from the inside out.

HB: I was a repetiteur. It is very hard for someone to work in opera if they haven't actually worked in an opera house. In the old days, there were also more designated assistant conductors. That kind of experience is hugely informative. Mark Elder at ENO would take great care about how the repetiteurs played. Sometimes it felt like too much--the quality of your pizzicato would be critiqued, and you would point out that it's hard to play pizzicato on the piano!

But there is no way I could do what I do now if I hadn't had five years learning my craft at ENO. Especially for a young conductor, even if you're a clever musician, it's really tough to make an impact and do a good job. Also, conducting is about man-management skills, that's a high percentage of it, your ability to deal with those situations. And a lot of it has to be learned. You need to watch other people get it right or wrong, or even yourself get it wrong, in an environment where, hopefully, it won't destroy your career. The secret of a long and solid career is being asked back to orchestras. You can spend 10 years going to every orchestra and opera company. But if at the end of that they're not inviting you back, you may have had a good decade, but you don't really have a career.

JI: You're fairly active in the world of recordings.

HB: I'm not a huge lover of recording. My favorites when growing up were all of the kinds of people who had recorded the Beethoven sonatas, having spent a whole lifetime paying them. So, I got quite fed up as a customer of buying records that were OK, but at the same time ephemeral, and didn't have to be earth-shattering because the label would simply create another recording of the same piece five years later.

I am very proud of my record with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She wasn't well at the time, and I suddenly thought that her performance needed to be preserved. I felt so strongly that this amazing voice and personality and interpretation should be put onto disc. I try to do only good things in terms of recordings and only with people I want to do them with. It should be a piece one has worked on a lot with a group and at the point where you do have something to say about it. So many recordings these days are done on a rehearse and record basis. It's a tribute to most orchestras that they do that so well, but it's nothing like living with the piece for a year, for instance.

JI: You also run the English Concert, which must be a very different experience, not least in the funding models between the U.K. and the U.S.

HB: In some ways, they couldn't be more different. In America, people who donate to not-for-profits get a great tax write-off, which is hugely beneficial to the person giving and really encourages people to be generous. Statistically, a lot more people in the U.S. donate, so as a result, Santa Fe is in a very good place. It also gets a huge amount through ticket sales. Last year, it hit something like 98 per cent of capacity, which is incredible for an opera company in the middle of the desert in New Mexico and not near a major city center.

In England, we don't have these tax breaks. Which means that anyone who gives gets no benefit whatsoever, which is something that's very difficult. The organization gets a bit of gift aid, but the person giving gets nothing. Over the last few years, we've been very focused on growing our individual giving. And we've had some success, almost doubling the amount recently. It keeps us going. Beyond that, what more we can do, I don't know.

In the old days, English orchestras would look to a couple of tours in Europe to make enough surplus to run the office. Now that doesn't happen anymore. We still get invited, but the fees are far lower, the travel costs higher. There are fewer and fewer activities we do that don't lose us money. Everyone in the U.K. is in the same boat. But the orchestra is in great shape, and as long as we can, we keep it going.

Harry Bicket has two new recordings in the pipeline--Handel arias with Alice Coote for Hyperion, Mozart arias with Lucy Crowe for Harmonia Mundi, due to be recorded later this year. The 2014 Santa Fe Opera season starts on June 27 with Bizet's Carmen. This season's new opera at Santa Fe will be Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Harry Bicket, English Concert, Santa Fe Opera, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Mark Elder

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