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A Conversation with Kevin Mallon

With a hectic recording schedule, an abundance of conducting engagements, and his very own Baroque ensemble, conductor and violinist Kevin Mallon quickly is establishing an international reputation for his forays into Baroque music. Mallon's dedication to his craft has been quite fruitful, producing three new Naxos CDs in October and November of 2002 alone: A second CD of Charpentier's Noels and Motets (8.557036), a recording of CPE Bach's Complete Flute Concertos with Patrick Gallois (8.555715-16), and a release of van Wassenaer's Concerti Armonici (8.555384). Despite a busy year that has kept him hopping from city to city at a frenetic pace, the charming Irish musician agreed to chat for a few minutes about his latest releases, his approach to conducting, and his plans for the future.

Naxos: On what aspects of the score do you tend to focus when you are preparing for a performance?

KM: Well, it depends on what type of work it is. I do a lot of work with vocalists. Some of the CDs--for example, the series of Charpentier-are basically sacred music, so in those instances I start with the text and see where that leads me. If it's instrumental music--a lot of Baroque music is basically written from the bass part up, so I usually sit and play everything at the harpsichord and figure out what I want to do from there, take it from there.

Naxos: Do you own a harpsichord personally?

KM: I have the loan of one. I teach at the University of Toronto, so I can do my work there.

Naxos: In many works you play the violin, as well as conduct. How do you balance these two duties?

KM: Well, that's a very interesting question. You know, where it's at all possible, I like to direct things from the violin. The idea of a conductor over things is--in many ways--a very 19th and 20th century concept, so with Baroque music it really works best for one of the players to be directing it, either a harpsichordist or a violinist are the best options. It's got to the point, however, where it's just difficult to direct too many things from the violin. As the forces get bigger, for example-one of the CDs we made was a CD of Bach Cantatas, and I directed the choir and the orchestra from the violin, and at that stage I decided, no, this is too difficult. If it's purely instrumental, I can do it from the violin. Even if it's quite a big orchestra I can usually do it from the violin. But if it's bigger forces I'll usually conduct, and nowadays I get engaged just to be a conductor, to go, you know, as a freelance to an orchestra who already have their concertmaster.

Naxos: Now, I know that you've been engaged to conduct a wide variety of works, but your specialty remains Baroque music. Is there anything in particular that has drawn you to this style of music?

KM: When I was a young man I studied at a specialist music school in England called Chetham's School of Music, Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, and while I was a student there, John Eliot Gardiner came to conduct at the school, and I became a student of his. And, it's actually from that point that I really got inspired to go into historical performance practice where I'm basically spending a lot of time in the Baroque and Classical periods. And that's where that came from; initially, that inspiration came from John Eliot Gardiner, who, of course, also conducts a wide range of things, not just Baroque and Classical, but more, lots of other things, too, which is the inspiration I got to do many other things, you know.

Naxos: So you would probably say that he had a big influence on all of your musical aspirations?

KM: Yes, but there's a couple of other experiences that I had that really made a big difference to me, too. I was a concertmaster in France for a group called Les Arts Florissants .and the conductor there is a very famous early music specialist called William Christie--actually, he's American, but he's been living in France for years and he's very well-known for his work on French Baroque music, which is where I got that big inspiration to do that work.

Naxos: Do you have a particular composer that is your favorite to conduct?

KM: That's an interesting question. I've done so much work on Charpentier in the last number of years, and we have another CD we're making of Charpentier in a couple months' time, and it's interesting because I've done so much of that work. A lot of the time when we do work in the early music world, the music is not printed, so you have to write it out from the manuscript. This is something that we've done a lot with Charpentier, and you really get to know the composer inside-out when you have to write music from the score. You get to know his approach to things. And, I think of all the composers right now, because I've been spending so much time writing music out, and because I love it, too, I think I feel very close to him right now at the moment. I did this great project, too, last January or February, of the CPE Bach Flute Concertos with Patrick Gallois. I conducted that, and I really delved into CPE Bach in big detail, too. So I think that I try to do an incredible amount of research about things, with the ideas germinating over six months to a year, so that when I actually get to the place of directing the concert or the recording I really have all the details and all the ideas so much in my blood. That's what I'm aiming at, anyway. You know, of course, sometimes things are left to the last minute, but the more I can do things, the longer I can get them into my blood, the better.

Naxos: So whichever composer you are, essentially, living with at the moment is perhaps your favorite composer.

KM: Yes. Well, you know it's a good point because at the moment I'm in a fairly lucky position, mostly thanks to Naxos, actually, where I'm choosing the work that I'm studying, and so I'm usually working for a recording project a couple of months away, and of course, I've usually chosen that repertoire and Klaus [Heymann, Naxos founder] has okayed it. Occasionally, he'll come to me and say, "We want you to do this," so that's nice, too, because then that's like a lottery somehow, you know. It wasn't something I necessarily thought to do, but I'm quite happy to do it, and so then that takes you off in a different direction, too.

Naxos: So, would the same thing apply as far as composers that you like to listen to, generally the ones you are conducting currently?

KM: What do I like to listen towell, I've been listening to Wilson Pickett all weekend . . . Otis Redding . . . but that's a different story, really. I listen to a lot of stuff. And . . .I try to listen to stuff non-critically so I don't get too upset about what I hear. I have a huge CD collection, but it's mostly to do with work, or stuff that I'm hoping to conduct or something I'm hoping to direct, or some aspect of Baroque violin playing. But if I'm sitting at home and I want to listen to something for pleasure, I'll much rather listen to some jazz or Irish music than any classical music. It's not to say that I won't, but given the choice of down time I'll listen to a lot of jazz.

Naxos: We've already talked some about how your years in Europe have affected your love of Baroque music. Is there any other particular way that your time in Europe has affected what you are doing right now, as far as the ensembles with which you work?

KM: Well, I think that one of the things that I'm really happy about is to have my own group, the Aradia Ensemble, because every time I go away to do, like, a guest conducting thing, I come back, and I'm so happy to get home. This group, all the people--it's very young players, actually-they're young, passionate, interesting players, and they've already got an idea of what I'm looking for so that there's no resistance to that, there's no big explanations that have to be made. When I remind them of what I'm looking for they'll get it very quickly, and I love that now. That's just getting to be so great, and I think that the best work I will do will be with my own group.

Naxos: So it's just nice to be home.

KM: Yeah, it's really how it feels, you know.

Naxos: There are several schools of thought right now concerning modern performance of Baroque music and phrasing, how long the note values should be, things like that. Do you have a particular approach in determining how ensembles that you direct perform the works?

KM: First of all, I'm quite happy for the concept to exist that anybody should play any type of music on anything. I personally have my choices of how I want to do it and how I want to hear it sound, but Glenn Gould playing Bach on piano-this is as valid as somebody else. It doesn't always happen to be my tastes, but I certainly think it should happen. Some of the things that I have found over the last number of years is that I used to irritate modern players a lot by getting them to try to sound like an authentic orchestra. And now I actually have more success with that by being a little bit less pedantic, trying to find the most comfortable style that these players are going to play in instead of really trying to make them something that they're not. But the technical things about length of notes and articulations and the style, the phrasing; those are universal.

Naxos: What are some of the challenges as well as the advantages of performing on period instruments?

KM: The challenges are that these instruments are very unstable. You know, modern instruments, modern wind instruments, metal strings, these all stay in tune much easier and for a longer time. Whereas, for example, working period instruments with gut strings, this is really a challenge, because often they're more susceptible to changes of temperature and humidity and things like this. So, there is a bigger challenge there to really get things to sound right or to stay in tune. This is the main challenge. But the main point is that the sound is exactly what the composer expected to hear, so you are going right back to the relationship that he would have had with these instruments. But also, the articulation and the lightness that you can get from those instruments, the lighter violin bows and the delicate gut-strings, makes the music much more alive. I believe that's why the period instrumentalists are having success even with Beethoven and Brahms. Often, string sound in modern orchestras tends to be very thick, lots of vibrato going on, and when you start to lighten up the articulations-first of all, you can play much faster and lighter-but it somehow comes alive. I listened recently to a set of Schumann symphonies that John Eliot Gardiner had conducted and, of course, everybody always says that Schumann was a terrible orchestrator, but actually when you hear these performances, it's--the thing is so light, that it doesn't sound like bad orchestration. Another recording he did of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis--all of a sudden it comes alive. I remember sitting in orchestras for years playing the Beethoven Missa Solemnis; it seemed like a dirge. Terrible, slow, boring thing. And then he's got these guys playing on period instruments, and it just seems to come alive. But, I mean, there's definitely different opinions about this. I find I have to be completely passionate about this; well, I have to be passionate about everything I do in order to make it work. That's the secret of just about everybody who wants to be successful. I have to have complete conviction that this is the right way and the only way. But, you know, over a cup of coffee I'll quite happily talk to pianists, modern pianists about Bach.

Naxos: The Charpentier CD seems almost like a self-contained concert in the way the songs are arranged. Was this your purpose when you were deciding what to feature on the CD?

KM: You know, I really miss, in classical recording, the old idea of the album, where you used to put on an album of music and it had, like, a variety of stuff. And of course I understand that now everything's marketed in such a way that it's all works by one composer. I kind of miss that, and I tried to put something on, for instance, the Charpentier that would be the type of thing that I would listen to. One minute there's a choral thing, the next one's a bit more lively, and the next one's a little bit instrumental; that was the concept behind that--that's why I did the three arrangements of the Noel, just so that we could cut it up a little bit. If you're listening to it one moment you hear it in this arrangement, the next moment you hear it instrumental, the next moment you hear a choir.

Naxos: So those arrangements were to create that "album" feeling.

KM: That's my concept of it. Somebody else will just sit there and think it's just a nice set of music by Charpentier, but that's the idea that I have in approaching this stuff. And I think that I've done that with several of our recordings; in fact, we did a Lully recording, and I did that in that way, too, and of course that was a big hit. Try to be really smart about how you program things on the CD. For example, I could have had those three arrangements at the end of the CD one after another. But, I mean, that's a bit boring, right? But that's often the sort of thing that happens. Kind of drives me crazy, actually.

Naxos: That's very true. So we need to put a "do not shuffle this CD" disclaimer, maybe, in the liner notes?

KM: Yeah.

Naxos: As you mentioned earlier, you recently recorded the complete flute concertos of CPE Bach with Patrick Gallois. Most of the works were originally written as keyboard concertos and later arranged for flute. However, the Sonata in A minor was originally written for flute. Did you notice any differences in Bach's compositional style between the works that were originally for another instrument and then the work that was originally for the flute?

KM: Well, actually, those pieces exist often in three formats: for harpsichord, for cello, or for flute, but the orchestral part is essentially the same. There's a few little tiny differences between them. But, in fact, the orchestral part is the same. The solo part is, of course, different. CPE Bach was an interesting composer because he was employed by Frederick the Great of Prussia, but he was employed as a harpsichordist. Frederick the Great was an interesting man because, as well as being a great leader, he was also a big patron of the arts, and he played the flute to a high level, and he employed several musicians as composers and instrumentalists. CPE Bach was employed by Frederick the Great, but apparently Frederick the Great didn't actually like CPE Bach's music. So I think that many of the pieces may well have been written as flute concertos for the king, but in order to get many other avenues of performance, he did arrangements of them for cello and for harpsichord. We ordered facsimiles of the manuscripts from the conservatory in Brussels, and probably because they were half written for the king, they're absolutely beautiful. The versions are slightly different between each of them just to suit each instrument, but not so different really.

Naxos: That recording was with the Toronto Camerata. What was your role in the creation of that organization?

KM: We've made three recordings with that group . . .and in essence that orchestra has been formed basically to fulfill the recording work with Naxos. It's taken different players from the opera orchestra and the symphony, from different orchestras in Toronto, and I think that we'll be doing a lot of work for Naxos. So my role, I suppose, is just to be conducting these recordings.

Naxos: So, will the Camerata have any public performances at all?

KM: Absolutely, but at this stage it's just getting started, and unusually, of course, we made a whole lot of recordings before we've done anything else. I think it'll evolve naturally, and we will be doing public performances, but right now the emphasis is just fulfilling some of the recording obligations.

Naxos: Let's see, moving on to a November release: Concerti Armonici. These van Wassenaer pieces have a mysterious background. They've only been attributed to the rightful composer for about 25 years. Did the works' background influence you at all?

KM: Actually, I always knew them as these concertos by van Wassenaer, so when I first came across them, I suppose, ten years ago, they were already attributed to him. Before that, a lot of eminent people like Stravinsky used them as pieces by Pergolesi, and indeed, Stravinsky based a couple of movements of his Pulcinella on some movements from these concertos. So it didn't really influence me in one particular way or another, due to the fact that I knew they were by van Wassenaer. He's kind of written in a hodgepodge of styles--one moment it's kind of a quasi-ancient style, the next moment it's kind of very gallant and up to date and suave. I suppose he could do that because he was an amateur. He didn't have to worry too much about always being contemporary and always being up to date with what he did, and anyway he wasn't making a living as a composer so he could do what he wanted, I suppose.

Naxos: One thing you do mention, however, in the booklet notes on the CD, is that you think that van Wassenaer was not just a part time musician-and I'm quoting this part-"for whom music was a leisurely aristocratic pursuit but a serious composer." What about these works indicate that to you?

KM: It's not quite exactly what I mean. At the time, a lot of aristocratic people did learn to play musical instruments. That's not the case nowadays; you don't really expect aristocratic people to be doing that. I mean, Bill Clinton played the saxophone. Maybe George Bush should take something up. Maybe I can see him and Saddam Hussein doing duets. Maybe this will be the answer. Actually challenge Saddam Hussein to a duel of who can play the fastest scales. I don't know, kind of a neat idea. But people, rich people, rulers and people, did actually take a big interest in the arts and play instruments. I think what I meant was that van Wassenaer was more than just an amateur--he was obviously very, very gifted. He must have taken his studies in music very seriously, because these works are more than something by pastime composer or, you know, somebody who does it very occasionally. These are really well-crafted works. He must have thought very deeply about these. I don't know if he wrote any more works; maybe he devoted his life to just perfecting these works. There's a couple of small choral pieces-no, vocal pieces, two others--that have been discovered, but they're very short. There's nothing terribly substantial, and they're not in the same range as these pieces. But I think, of course, the difference was that he didn't have to make a living at it. He probably wasn't quite as wealthy and well off as, say, Frederick the Great that I mentioned, who could play the flute and nobody thought anything of it. In van Wassenaer's social circle, he didn't really want to be seen as a professional composer. I'm not quite sure why that was, but that's obviously the case. Otherwise, he would have claimed the authorship of these works.

Naxos: So, just in your opinion or in your imagination, do you think more works by him will be discovered someday, or do you think that's probably all there is?

KM: I think that's probably it, actually. Yeah. I think we're far more likely to find another piece by JS Bach, somebody who was really prolific. I think that we probably would have come across more stuff by now.

Naxos: Well, I have one more question for you. Thank you so much for doing this interview.

KM: Oh, it's my pleasure.

Naxos: On what musical adventures will you embarking in this next year?

KM: I'm making a lot of recordings for Naxos. That seems to be going even faster now than before, so there's lots of interesting things there. I am going to Ireland in February to conduct Bach cantatas, and it looks likely that I'm going to be music director of an opera company in Ireland called Opera South. I'll be doing two productions a year with them. So those are the main things that are coming up. More work with my group here in Toronto. We have a very active season, and we're planning to do some concerts in the United States in 2004. I'm working on going to Poland, Hungary, and Prague plus concerts in Finland and Sweden, but that might take a little bit of while for those to come off.

Naxos: Would that be with Aradia or just conducting?

KM: Some of them would be with Aradia and some of them would be freelance conducting things. So I'm definitely dividing my time at the moment between working with my own group and doing concerts and recordings for Naxos, tours that may come along, and the freelancing in between. I have a teaching post at the University of Toronto; I have to try to keep those guys happy, too.

Naxos: Well, thank you very much for giving me so much time today.

KM: It's my pleasure. Take care now.

Click here to learn more about Kevin Mallon.

This interview took place on October 15, 2002.
This article is the property of and may not be republished without permission.


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