For four decades, the name “Trevor Pinnock” has been almost synonymous with the early-music movement.
A major interest for the 67-year-old English conductor and keyboard player has been Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the 1990s, he immersed himself in Mozart’s orchestral music, recording almost all of it for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label.
This week, he’ll finally check it off his to-do list. The Houston Grand Opera has brought him to town to lead six performances of the work about the infamous womanizer at the Wortham Theater Center, Friday through Feb. 10.
In Pinnock’s opinion, waiting until his mature years to tackle Mozart’s opera of 1787 isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I can’t tell you the thrill of embarking on Don Giovanni at my age,” he declares. “Yet it’s probably more daunting to me in my 60s than it would have been in my 30s. I’m suddenly aware that I’m handling some of the very best music ever written. It’s precious goods – and I’m responsible for it. Fortunately, at this point in my life, I have a lot of experience.”
Indeed, he has.
In the 1960s, Pinnock studied the harpsichord at London’s Royal College of Music – and was told he’d never earn a living playing such an arcane instrument. He defied that prediction by joining the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as the London orchestra’s harpsichordist. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.
In 1972, he established the English Consort, dedicated to playing baroque and classical music on authentic instruments. That’s not such an unusual thing to do today, but it was an emerging approach at the time. Pinnock’s three decades at the helm of this ensemble did much to popularize the idea of period performance.
He founded the Classical Band in New York in 1989, as well, and the following year accepted the post of music director for Ottawa’s National Arts Center Orchestra. More recently, in 2006, he created the European Brandenburg Ensemble and picked up a Grammy award for the group’s recording of J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.”
These days, Pinnock keeps himself busy with a variety of musical activities.
“I do a lot of things,” he notes. “I still give harpsichord recitals, I still give chamber music recitals, and of course I go around guest conducting, mostly with my favorite orchestras. I also do some educational work in London, at the Royal Academy of Music.”
So how have his years of experience prepared him to conduct Don Giovanni? As Pinnock tells it, he’s developed a kind of supernatural communion with the opera’s composer.
“I’ve been living with this music for a long time,” he says, “and I feel I know Mozart pretty well. He and I have a pretty good relationship. I get on the phone to him and say, ‘What about this, what about that?’ ”
Obviously, Pinnock is speaking with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. But, on a more serious note, he explains that he spent his summer months intensively studying the score of Don Giovanni. He’s brought his intense approach to Houston.
“I’ve been here since Dec. 27,” he says, “rehearsing two or three sessions almost every day. In Houston, I have a wonderful music staff, a splendid Italian coach, and the stage director, Harry Silverstein, is man of immense success who’s done this work many times.”
For Pinnock, a long rehearsal period isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. He stands firmly opposed to opera companies and conductors who cut corners on musical preparation.
“These days, it’s quite prevalent for the music director to come in at a very late stage in the rehearsals and to not really have much contact with the production process. But in my view, the music and production are so deeply intertwined that they’ve got to match up from the start – if you want to do Mozart properly.”
Throughout much of Pinnock’s career, doing Mozart “properly” has meant working with ensembles that play on 18th-century period instruments. However, the HGO Orchestra plays on modern instruments. Pinnock knew this, of course, when he accepted his engagement. He doesn’t see it as a problem.
“I’ve worked with a lot of modern orchestras,” he points out, “and I never try to make a modern orchestra sound like a period ensemble. But there are things that I insist on and encourage, so we can get the right clarity and brightness of the sound. And my way of doing this is to say, ‘Look, if you do it like this, it will sound much better.’ Once the players hear how much better it sounds, they can apply the same approach throughout the whole piece.”
In fact, Pinnock questions the whole idea of what it means to play music in a way that’s “authentic” or “historically informed.”
“I have an approach to Mozart that respects his music language. So, yes, it’s historically informed. But the trouble with talking like that is that it implies that everything in music can be controlled analytically. Music goes far deeper than that – it comes from a much deeper place. And that means there’s room for many different kinds of interpretations. We would be wrong to trap Mozart’s music in one particular kind of performance.”
© Colin Eatock 2013