Ivor Bolton: Interview

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Constantly flitting between Cambridge, London, Salzburg and Munich, this week English conductor Ivor Bolton stays still long enough to conduct the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in the capital – and chat to Time Out

  • An Austrian-based Englishman conducting a German orchestra in Italian music composed to honour France may cautiously be called European. And I meet Ivor Bolton in what’s often called ‘Italy’s northernmost town’: Munich. Never mind that it’s Bavarian; a general air of dolce vita has seeped over the Alps – allied of course to German application and respect for Kultur.

    We meet when Bolton’s winding down after a technically fraught rehearsal at the State Opera (a wobbly from the famous American countertenor; a politely restrained English wobbly from Bolton). He hops exuberantly between subjects, from early days as MD (‘a roller-coaster ride’) at St James’s Piccadilly to this week’s visit to London’s Lufthansa Baroque Festival with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. It’s a direct line. The St James’s Baroque Players that he founded in the 1980s laid the ground for the Lufthansa fest, one of the most vital of London’s celebrations, even discovering baroque where you never suspected baroque existed – eighteenth-century America, for instance.
    ‘I’ve a soft spot for St James’s, but I don’t miss the eternal chaos of organisation, tramps stealing things, being nervous of leaving a valuable harpsichord there overnight. You couldn’t even let someone leave their double-bass in the vestry instead of taking it back to Walthamstow. I remember one day I came in and the church’s back doors had been nicked…’ Bolton’s current principal Werkstätten in Salzburg and Munich are run with less amiably British muddling through.

    And Freiburg? It seems unfair that a picture-postcard Black Forest town should also host a world-class baroque ensemble. In fact, Freiburg returned from postwar rubble to prewar prettiness (Germany doesn’t suffer from Britain’s plethora of hatchet-faced architectural onanists whose only way of getting it up is in concrete) and the orchestra dates only from 1987, founded to liven up the Early Music sound; a very European – and non-British – ability to combine the best of old and new. It also illustrates the difference between metropolitan-centred Britain and the former mass of independent states that left Germany with proudly local cultural centres. ‘A perfect life-style,’ says Bolton. ‘Part of the environment. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment would love to set up in a small town. But in Britain there’s such heavy-handed state bureaucracy in devolution – Scotland’s a disgrace. They build a talking-shop for politicians and destroy their opera…’ Bolton has strong views about state encouragement, or lack of it, as a council estate kid who got away – many of his friends went into the army, looking for something to take pride in after missing out on education.

    German acceptance of high culture as part of even small-town life extends to artistic philosophy. Unlike London’s hustling underpaid musicos, the Freiburg band is ‘less a pool of players, more an integrated team. There’s a group mentality, a unified playing style. They shared the growing pains of students, young professionals and now it’s their golden age. I conducted them first 11 years ago, toured in Germany and Hollland, and fell in love with them.’ Saturday’s programme at St John’s Smith Square comprises Vivaldi’s ‘La Senna festeggiante’, the Seine whooping it up, an allegorical ‘serenata’ (halfway between opera and cantata) in praise of Louis XV. Commissioned from Vivaldi by either the French ambassador to Venice or a pro-French cardinal, ‘it’s amazingly fresh and vivacious and needs to be delivered with punch. We had a little European tour with it three years ago but didn’t do London. I’d take a huge deep breath before committing six weeks to a Vivaldi opera, but the serenatas are quite different – irresistible music.’

    Bolton has Mozart and Gluck operas lined up for Covent Garden, besides another work for 2008 still unconfirmed. Future Lufthansa Festival gigs include Berlin’s Akadamie für Alte Musik, all of which must be fitted in with his direction of Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra. So where is home? He grins in a rather bemused way. Cambridge with his wife, the musicologist Tess Knighton, ‘with flats in Munich, Salzburg and London’.

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