Q & A: Martin Pearlman of Boston Baroque

Classic Arts Features   Q & A: Martin Pearlman of Boston Baroque
The founder and director of North America's oldest period-instrument band talks about the music on his latest CD (and the unusual story behind it), why Cherubini doesn't get more respect, and the early music movement in the US.

Martin Pearlman is founder, music director and conductor of Boston Baroque, the pioneering ensemble that became, in 1973, the first permanent period-instrument orchestra established in North America.

Together, Pearlman and his orchestra have explored Baroque and Classical repertoire from Monteverdi to Beethoven, in both their ongoing subscription concerts throughout the greater Boston area and a series of acclaimed recordings for Telarc. Their discography includes major 17th- and 18th-century choral works — their traversals of Handel's Messiah, Monteverdi's Vespers and Bach's B minor Mass were all Grammy nominees — two complete operas, orchestral favorites such as Bach's Brandenburgs and Orchestral Suites, and unusual rediscoveries such as the music of the Moravian settlers in early America and The Philosopher's Stone. Their new album, featuring Luigi Cherubini's rarely heard Requiem in C minor and Beethoven's Elegiac Song, Op. 118, is their 17th release for the label.

In the conversation below, Pearlman discusses the new recording, the evolution of the period-instrument movement and his enthusiasm for the music of Pierre Boulez.

What made you decide to record Cherubini's C minor Requiem now?

I find that period very interesting — the outer limit for what we do on period instruments. It's a piece that I had read about and heard about for a long time, because it was extremely popular in its day. And I was fascinated that so many important composers — such as Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms and Wagner — had such great admiration for it but that it is nonetheless virtually unperformed in our own time. So I thought: let's find out. And it turns out that it's a wonderful piece.

I also loved the story behind it. It was commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette on the guillotine. The monarchy had just been restored after Napoleon, and the government had the bodies found and buried in the crypt of St. Denis, where most of the other kings of France were buried. Then they arranged a memorial service down in the crypt, and that is where the first performance took place. It must have been an extraordinary event.

What do you think happened — Why don't we hear this work more often today?

Well, Cherubini's star has faded. Styles changed and Cherubini wasn't cutting-edge musically; he wasn't in the vanguard of what was happening with Romantic music in the later 19th century. And, of course, some of his works are stronger than others. Some are more academic and subdued and have given him a reputation that clouds even his great works. But in his time he was considered one of the great composers — admired by all the composers we most admire today.

Does the fact that there are no soloists in the piece make it hard for it to compete with the famous Requiems of Mozart and others?

As far as performing it goes, it's less expensive because it doesn't have soloists — so that's actually to its benefit. An audience might feel that a big piece with no soloists won't have much variety, but you quickly learn hearing this piece that there's a tremendous amount of variety in the orchestral and vocal writing. There are fascinating orchestral colors and many different colors and textures even in the chorus, where Cherubini sometimes even takes a single voice line and treats it soloistically. So there's plenty of variety. With the orchestra, he'll leave out the violins in a movement for a darker color. When the text is about the archangel Michael, the music goes to the high instruments and the higher voices in the chorus. Regarding the end of the whole piece, where it fades down to the chorus repeatedly chanting one note, Berlioz said it was an astonishing effect that had never been heard before. Composers most often tried to find a way to set those final words, "Grant us peace," as an exciting and powerful conclusion, but Cherubini just lets the music settle very naturally to a quiet, contemplative ending. It's a striking effect.

Besides this hushed ending, are there other lump-in-your-throat moments that you would point out to listeners?

Well, the big gong stroke towards the beginning of the "Dies Irae" must have caused quite a stir echoing in the crypt where the work was premiered in 1817. That gong stroke was criticized in its day for being too theatrical an effect at such a ceremony, but it's undeniably effective. In fact, the drama of the whole piece is very powerful. Beethoven said if he were to write a Requiem, this piece would be his only model.

In Berlioz's Memoirs, the composer paints a picture of Cherubini as being an unpleasant and unhelpful fellow, even though he occasionally expresses admiration for some of Cherubini's music. Do you feel that Berlioz's enmity for Cherubini had some kind of lasting effect on the latter's posthumous reputation?

Yes, I think so. Berlioz's Memoirs are fascinating but self-serving. Remember, Berlioz was a student at the Paris Conservatory when Cherubini was director there; that was late in Cherubini's life. So there's an academic, disciplinarian side to Cherubini that's emphasized by Berlioz, and that distorts our view of Cherubini's achievements as a composer. But even Berlioz admired this Requiem. And it should be said that the etudes Cherubini wrote and the reforms he instituted at the Conservatory were very influential and affected French music teaching for the rest of the century.

You know, as I was working on this album, I recalled seeing a number of old concert halls where Cherubini's name is written on the walls and ceilings up front with Beethoven and Mozart and Gluck. It reflects a kind of popularity that people might wonder at today.

Do you have any plans to record or perform other works by Cherubini? Should we all be encouraging a Cherubini revival?

I'd love to! He wrote some great operas, especially in the first part of his life, and some great religious works later in life. In between those two periods of popularity was a time when he was out of favor, suffering from depression and not composing. It's a fascinating career, and I think it's time that his music is heard again. His opera Med_e and some of the Masses would be very interesting to do.

How did Beethoven's Elegiac Song get selected as a discmate for this Requiem? Did it have anything to do with Beethoven being such an ardent admirer of Cherubini's work?

Yes, I liked the connection — which is why, when I was looking for pieces to pair with the Requiem, I thought about Beethoven. And Cherubini's Requiem was even played at Beethoven's funeral service.

Very few people seem to know the Elegiac Song. But it's a wonderful work from a transitional period in Beethoven's life — written after the heroic concertos and symphonies and before his last period with the more internalized works like the late quartets. He wrote the Elegiac Song originally for string quartet and a quartet of voices, and it's related thematically to the Requiem in that it commemorates the death of the wife of his friend (who was also Beethoven's former landlord). It just seemed to fit. And it's a gorgeous, gentle piece, which is why I put it first: so that it wouldn't get lost after this massive Requiem. And we end the disc with a funeral march by Cherubini: a small piece with grand theatrical gestures. Lots of gong — more formal than the other two pieces, but it closes the proceedings in appropriate style.

At a time when so much has already been recorded, is it difficult for you to come up with concepts for new recordings? Or is there plenty of repertoire but not enough with real commercial appeal?

I think it's the latter. Just about everything has been recorded, but fortunately, we've been able to do a mix of popular, much-recorded works as well as music that isn't well known. Early on we did a Messiah that got a Grammy nomination; when you do well with a recording that has a lot of competition, that's a good thing — same with Bach's Brandenburgs and Suites.

But our album of Moravian music is a personal favorite of mine, because it's beautiful music that you don't hear that often, some of the earliest music written in this country. It's great that Telarc will let us record such rarities. We've also gotten to record some rarely-heard operas, such as Gluck's Iphig_nie en Tauride and The Philosopher's Stone, a very fine Singspiel created by the same singers who premiered The Magic Flute one year later, which throws a fascinating new light on Mozart.

My feeling about performing well-known repertoire is that it's important not to try to do anything self-consciously different. If I do it the way I personally feel it, that will automatically give it a different character from another recording. With the greatest works, there's room for many interpretations.

Do you have any particular dream projects you're considering now for recording or on stage? Anything special you're already working on for your 35th anniversary season in 2008-2009?

There's lots of music I'd still like to do, some of it commercially viable, some not. But I should say that I'm very blessed to be in a situation where I'm able to do most of the music that I want to do. I'm not someone who has wanted to perform constantly or to be forever traveling. I've always been more interested in focusing on performances that interest me and doing them in the way that I would like to hear them. I do sometimes conduct other orchestras, and that can be enjoyable, but my main satisfaction comes from the responsiveness and detail I can get with Boston Baroque, where we have built up a musical and personal rapport over so many years.

That said, there are recordings I would like to be able to make. We've performed all three Monteverdi operas and I'd love to record my own versions of the two operas that need completions (Ulysses and Poppea). I'd also love to do more Gluck opera. But the marketplace today is certainly challenging. Each record has to be viewed as a single entity — you have to fill a niche, or do something really unusual to make it worthwhile.

Last year, The New York Times ruffled some feathers when a London-based reporter wrote a big story about the evolution of the period-instrument movement. A main point in the story is that what started as a revolution is now a mainstream commodity, but the article focused heavily on the UK scene and intimated that not much was really happening in the States. Did you read the article, and what's your response to that point of view?

I did read that article. I think it's a point of view that's been promoted by people outside this country who don't know the scene here very well. There was a point when period instruments took off in the UK because of support for recordings there: they made English groups well known and gave many people the impression that there was just one proper style for performing Baroque music. The American scene was a bit slower to take off, especially with recordings.

Boston Baroque was founded at the same time as the earliest British early music groups. I remember in 1980 that the BBC recorded us here and they said we were more advanced at that time than what was going on in London. But the recording industry made a huge difference in Europe, raising the profile of the period-instrument groups there. So it was terrific that Telarc wanted an American group on its label.

The field is not necessarily centered in New York, so maybe that's why people who don't know the American early music scene don't see how much there is. But it is tremendously vital. Sometimes it strikes me as simply a form of negative promotion or publicity to say that nothing is happening here, but if you go to Boston, San Francisco and certain other cities in the U. S., you see how much is happening in period-instrument performance.

Tell us about the early days of Boston Baroque.

We were originally called Banchetto Musicale and we were the first permanent period-instrument orchestra in North America. Concentus Musicus of Vienna was grandfather to us all, but when we started, I had pretty much everyone in this part of the country who could play a Baroque instrument well. We were playing concertos one player to a part at that point. As more Baroque instruments became available and people were able to play them, the orchestra grew. I then formed a chorus to expand the repertoire and have always directed all its rehearsals, so that it could be stylistically (and technically!) comparable to the orchestra. Ultimately, we grew into doing opera, as well.

We did a lot of American period-instrument premieres in those days, including even Don Giovanni. Eventually, some of the people playing with us started branching out into other cities — to San Francisco, to Toronto, and elsewhere. The director of [Toronto's] Tafelmusik, Jeanne Lamon, played with us in the early days, as did founding members of [San Francisco's] Philharmonia Baroque. Things radiated outward, and it was a gratifying experience to see what we started in Boston taking root elsewhere.

In the early years I spent a lot of time encouraging people to play Baroque instruments, if I felt they might be compatible with them. And after a time, there was a critical mass of players that other groups in Boston could draw on for concerts. Eventually, even the Handel and Haydn Society, the oldest performing arts organization in this country, moved over to period instruments.

What I see now is that there's a new generation. A number of our musicians have been with us since the beginning over 30 years ago, and many have been with us for over 20 years, but we also now have players and singers who were not even born yet when we started.

Has becoming more mainstream taken away any of the fun of being the troublemakers you original-instrument pioneers were back in the 1970s?

We may be more mainstream, but that hasn't lessened the sense of excitement. Our audiences are very devoted — and they are not early music specialists. They go to the opera, symphony, etc. I like the fact that we have a committed mainstream audience. Now it isn't so important any more to be the "first" or the "only" one to do something. Success depends more on how good the artistic experience is. So overall, I think there's a maturing that has taken place, not a decline.

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