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Handel With Care: Kevin Mallon talks to Jeremy Siepmann

March 1, 2013

Kevin Mallon

Kevin Mallon is a hard man to pin down. Not because he’s particularly elusive (though he is mightily busy)—let alone reclusive (he’s affability itself)—but because of the sheer breadth of his interests and activities. He is a lifelong stranger to the pigeonhole. American-born but educated in Britain, he’s now based in Canada. There he founded the renowned period instrument ensemble Aradia in 1996, since when he’s never looked back. Unless invited to by importunate interviewers. So how did it all begin? What role did music play in his early life?

‘Well, I grew up in Belfast, during the troubles, and I have to say I think that music and playing the violin saved my life. It meant that I didn’t get involved in all the terrible, terrible things going on around me, but it also got me a scholarship to go to Chetham’s, in Manchester, when I was 16, and that quite literally brought me out of the troubles. Sometimes I think this may have been my greatest success. It was also at Chetham’s that I first fell under the influence of John Eliot Gardiner, who came to conduct the orchestra there. He was very generous with his time and he sort of took a few people under his wing. I was lucky enough to be one of them. He encouraged us in every way that he could. He even got me a good modern violin from a trust run by Emanuel Hurwitz. So his influence wasn’t just musical. He helped people in practical ways as well.’

If music and the escape to Chetham’s ‘saved’ Mallon’s life, Gardiner’s visit, and the vistas it opened on early music, gave it new direction. ‘It certainly did. This was in the late 70s, and I was instantly fascinated. Some of the things that I liked, and that I still like, are the kind of fast, lithe, clean articulation, and a sort of freedom where you can really go with the music, if I can put it that way. I have to be careful when talking about these things, because I don’t want to insult any of my colleagues who do things differently but if, today, you play an old-fashioned recording of Handel, say, next to a modern, period performance, you’ll hear that there’s generally more life, more sheer vitality, in the latter. That kind of thing really excited me.’

But what about the road to the rostrum, so to speak? Singers and players have their instruments. Few conducting students have a resident orchestra to practise on. How much can conducting actually be taught, and how much simply has to be learnt by doing? And, of course, by watching? ‘It can be a tricky business. Clearly interpretation is the most important thing of all. And that’s why in some senses, if you’re an early music conductor (whatever that means) you actually have to make a statement. You need to insist that you want to interpret the music differently—in a way that may be foreign to the players’ taste or training. In my professional life as a conductor, however, I have to say that, more and more, it’s about the technique you have. You can write some things in the music, you can explain what you want, but there are so many instances when you have to communicate just by technique. And the fact is, there are many early music people who become conductors without having any technique. On the other hand, particularly in North America, their universities are great at producing conductors who learn a lot of technique without getting any substantial training in interpretation. So in the end, as you suggest, you really have to learn by doing.’

When it comes to repertoire and style, Mallon has pretty well covered the waterfront. How, if at all, I wondered, has his immersion in early music altered or shaped his approach to music of the 19th and 20th (now, of course, also the 21st) centuries? ‘One way is that I always want to know what were the composer’s intentions. Of course the vast majority of musicians today would say the same, even when their styles of interpretation may be quite inappropriate. As far as the sound itself is concerned, I still tend to prefer the lightness, the liveliness, the clarity of the early music period. I want things to be cleaner. I want the rubato to be organised, even in romantic repertoire. I want to make sure we have good phrasing. That the music can be heard not only moving, but moving to somewhere. So we have not only movement but directed movement.’

Nowhere is the business of directed movement more pervasively required than in the realm of opera. Mallon is no stranger to the opera house, real or figurative (as in concert performances), having presided over productions of Rameau, Vivaldi, Handel, Rossini, Johann Strauss, Bizet, Mozart, Verdi, Lehár, Weill and Stravinsky, to name but some. Has there been a kind of mutual cross-fertilisation between his operatic and his concert hall conducting? ‘Absolutely. The most obvious thing is how to follow a soloist, because when you’re conducting opera you just have to go with the singer all the time. I find accompanying any instrumental soloist much easier because of my work in opera, where you have to be doing it all the time—particularly if it’s Verdi or romantic repertoire, where the tempo rubato is very extreme. I’ve learned a lot that I can take into the concert environment, both in terms of instrumental soloists and just generally when working with singers. But even when you’re working with the woodwind section of an orchestra, the issues are much the same.’

Mallon’s tastes, obviously, range exceptionally wide—embracing, among many other things, traditional Irish fiddle music, the art of the Balinese gamelan and contemporary jazz. Does it ever irk him to be typed as an early music specialist—or indeed as a specialist at all? ‘It does a bit. And this takes me back to John Eliot Gardiner, whose influence spread over a vast range of repertoire, not just early music. He’s one of those conductors who can do Berlioz or Britten just as well, just as masterfully, just as authoritatively, as he does early music. I never meant to be doing only early music, but I had to make my living for a long time as a baroque violinist, and that’s how the “specialist” label developed. And when I started conducting, I encountered the usual “Oh he may be a great this but can he do that?” I was doing baroque operas with a company in Toronto who also have a sister company, an operetta company, the Toronto Operetta Theatre. So then, having done many baroque operas, when I got the invite to conduct Lehár, I perceived the question from others, “Yes, but can he really do Viennese operetta?!” The one part of the repertoire that I’m not getting a lot of chance to do right now, and I’m hoping this is going to change, is the big romantic repertoire—Tchaikovsky symphonies and that sort of thing. Then people will say “Oh yes, he can conduct opera but can he deal with just the orchestra?” And I just find myself thinking, “When does this stop?!” ’ That time, it’s easy to suspect, is nigh.

If books on a shelf reveal much about their owner, so do the works which dominate a musician’s repertoire. Mallon’s response when asked to name his five favourite composers was characteristically individual—and thought-provoking: ‘Purcell is definitely top of the list. His music touches me so dramatically. And I often quite forget that he’s an “old” composer. Also on the list is Benjamin Britten. And I see just why he thought the way he did about Purcell. But that’s not the only reason. Britten’s on the list because I really love his music. Handel’s on there too, of course. And Bach. But when it comes to Mozart and Beethoven, I’d have to do a split.’ I weakened, and granted him six.

That Handel plays a cherished part in Mallon’s repertoire, which embraces both the famous and the lesser known (Fireworks, Water Music, Rinaldo, Semele etc.) is no surprise. ‘I adore Handel. And one thing I particularly love is the great influence of Englishness in his music, his quite Purcellian way of putting music together. He’s such a fascinating character. Unfortunately, historically, people often think of these guys as old fuddy-duddies that you see in faded pictures. But they were nothing like that. Their music in their time was intensely fresh. And Handel enjoyed enormous success as a very young man—volatile, vital, boundlessly energetic. One of the things I like best about the early music movement is that we always try to bring this music forward as though it had been written yesterday. I think Handel’s music has the perfect balance of excitement and nobility. The opening of the Fireworks Music, for instance. This is the grandest of grand French overtures, and then you suddenly have this wild, fast section, and I think “My God! He really has got the best of both worlds here!”

‘As for Op. 6! Not for nothing are these concertos the best of their kind. For a long time they were mainly string concertos, but Handel wrote oboe parts for four of them, and we’ve done likewise for all but one of the others. It’s not true that in Handel the first oboe just doubles the first violin and the second oboe doubles the second. He’s more artful than that. And we try to emulate his example. The fourth concerto we’ve done as a sort of chamber piece, with single strings, flute, lute and continuo, and I’d like to think that people will say on hearing our interpretation is “Oh! You can do this as a great big grand Concerto Grosso or you can do it as a very intimate sort of thing.” That’s one particular thing I feel about the way we played these. We try not to have any of the modern excesses (the early music world got kind of outrageously competitive). We have fast tempos but we’re not going to be rough. I think our way is more artful, more refined than many. We don’t have one, rough staccato. There are different kinds of staccato, of course, and staccato does not always mean rough—which is what you often hear. I think people will hear the beauty and the nobility of sound that we’re looking for here. This music is so well known that sometimes even good musicians will play it in a sort of formulaic way, and that’s something we very much wanted to avoid. These works are perfectly put together in structure, and I like to think we reflect this in our performances. One thing’s for sure, and that’s that this was a wonderful experience for our group. A real pleasure to do! And I hope that comes through too!’

A man with more than 50 CDs to his credit may reasonably be suspected of liking the medium. Has Mallon’s extensive experience of recording taught him things as a musician? ‘I adore making recordings. Because there’s the opportunity to do things again and again. And I like the atmosphere. I like the calm. It’s a really great way of just being musicians together. When you do a concert you have to take the experience you’re having at that moment and project it to the audience. In the studio, you can be really relaxed. You wear informal, everyday clothes, and if something goes wrong you can just stop and put it right. I think the whole process has helped me to hear things in a clearer way. It’s helped me to prepare music—anticipating where things might go wrong, where I need to be particularly vigilant etc. I think it’s definitely had an influence on me as a musician, yes.’

No-one can do everything. No-one has the time to do everything. Are there any branches of the repertoire, any composers, that Mallon would love to explore but has never—yet—had the chance to do? ‘You know, I think I’m actually getting close to the point where I’ve done all the repertoire that most interests me, that I’ve most wanted to do. As well as Aradia, I direct a great modern chamber orchestra in Ottawa, the Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, who really do the whole gamut of the repertoire, from the Baroque to the present, and we’re commissioning a lot of new music now. It’s only lately that I’ve been in the position to do that. I’m also commissioning new works for Aradia. New works for a Baroque orchestra! At one recent concert, we had a symphony by Franz Beck, a Handel harp concerto, a new jazz-inspired work by the double bass player of the orchestra who’s also a well-known jazz player, the Shostakovich Third Quartet as a chamber symphony (my dream is to do all of his quartets in this way) and then some little French harp pieces by Marcel Tournier, in the French romantic style. That, for me, is a perfect week. And then two weeks later I had Handel’s Orlando, which is absolutely amazing music. In terms of the repertoire, I’m really happy to be able to do almost all of it. I do wish I was doing more opera, although I generally do two or three a year; and more with symphony orchestra. But those things are coming. Another big treat, recently, was conducting the terrific Orchestra Nova Scotia in a concert of music from the time of the Titanic (many of the dead from that disaster are buried in Halifax). I did Stanford, Percy Grainger, Elgar—all sorts of music from that time, and it was a great success!’

More opera, and Tchaikovsky too, are surely just waiting in the wings. In the meantime, Kevin Mallon won’t be idle.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Kevin Mallon Biography & Discography

George Frideric Handel Biography & Discography

Previous releases featuring Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble:


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