Celebrating The English Concert at 45

Harry BicketWed 10th October 2018

Harry Bicket on his unexpected journey to becoming the Artistic Director of The English Concert

The English Concert (TEC) has reached the ripe old age of 45 and we are marking the anniversary of Trevor Pinnock founding the orchestra with a return to the Southbank on Thursday. As Artistic Director, it has been thrilling seeing how TEC has developed over the last decade, with a completely new set of principal players, many of whom are featured as soloists on our latest disc of Baroque concertos on Signum. But my history with the orchestra stretches back to Trevor Pinnock’s day.

My first experience of working with TEC was in 1983, at the start of my career, and it was a life-changing moment. I was an organist at Westminster Abbey fulfilling regular duties for services, state occasions and royal weddings. I was visiting my parents when the manager of The English Concert phoned up to ask whether I could join them as harpsichordist for a performance of Handel’s Solomon at the Proms. I tried to explain that I had never performed on the harpsichord before but the manager was undeterred – they were desperate. I knew figured bass, so at least I could muddle through, even if I didn’t know my way around the harpsichord beyond that. I remember Trevor Pinnock coming up to me at one of the first rehearsals to congratulate me and to give me a tip that I could spread chords downwards in Baroque music as well as upwards. I had to learn most importantly that my playing had to breathe and match the gesture of the strings’ bows. 

Before that point Baroque music had never really excited me – as a pianist at the RCM I had been stuck into Liszt and Rachmanninov. But the week of rehearsals for this Handel oratorio opened my ears to the expressive qualities of this repertoire, and the level of finesse and passion with which it can be played on period instruments. The soloists were sensational too - Felicity Palmer, Marie McLaughlin, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Roberta Alexander and Stephen Roberts.  

After that, I carried on my duties at Westminster for four years – including Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson – but on the side, I moonlighted for Christopher Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner. I soon became Chorus Master at English National Opera and at the end of my time there, they wanted to put on a Handel opera – Ariodante. Mark Elder suggested I conduct it. I explained that I had never conducted before – Mark persuaded me that I knew the orchestra and this repertoire well, and that it would probably be a one-off anyway. The performance was a success and I was flooded with requests – Theodora at Glyndebourne with Peter Sellars and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orlando at Covent Garden – and I then spent 10 years in Munich and at the Met conducting a whole range of repertoire.

All this time, I thought at some point that I was going to fall on my face and meet my Waterloo. I had never wanted to be a conductor, but the more I did it, the more I wanted to do it better and I was lucky to learn from the distinguished experts in the opera world around me. My conducting is indebted to directors such as David Alden and Peter Sellars, who took this music out of the academic world, put it on stage, and brought it to life. Now, I approach everything from the text to root out the emotional affect. It’s not enough to sing a pretty aria such as 'Lascia ch’io pianga' without understanding the context and the drama that has gone before: Almirena sings this aria through tears in defiance after she has been assaulted, whereas it is so often sung in self-pity. 

With The English Concert, I have continued this passion for Handel’s operas and vocal music. We now have our annual residency at Carnegie Hall to perform a Handel opera, which we take on tour across Europe, and most of our recordings up to now have been singer led. But we have never forgotten Trevor’s guiding spirit, even if there are no original musicians from his time.  

For both our anniversary concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and our latest recording, we are revisiting the ensemble’s original mission - chamber music with soloists from the orchestra, as it would have been performed in those days, not with celebrity soloists flown in from afar. For our new Signum disc, we let the principal players choose the works they wanted to record. Nadja Zwiener, leader of the orchestra, chose Tartini's Violin Concerto in B Minor along with a concerto for two violins and cello by Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco with fellow violinist Tuomo Suni and cellist Joe Crouch. Joe also chose a little-known Cello Concerto by Porpora, and Katharina Spreckelsen chose perhaps the most well-known work on the disc: Marcello’s Oboe Concerto. This is the first time Katharina has ever recorded an oboe concerto. Even in these chamber works, the words are not far away – the second movement of Tartini's violin concerto is almost an aria, with text running alongside the score reading: 'Lascia ch’io dica addio' ('Let me say goodbye'). 

Though we have taken the orchestra in new directions, Trevor remains in the family. I spoke to him only two days ago; he still comes to our concerts and he’ll be conducting one next year. When he started The English Concert, the ensemble was very much a work in progress: there was a pioneering spirit, everyone was trying out new ideas, and they were united in their wish to discover this repertoire. There was an amazing buzz about what they were doing. That buzz is still there, though we've certainly changed: arguably we aren’t really 'English' any longer. Out of all the British orchestras, we have the most number of European players living in the EU and flying in for rehearsals and concerts.  Hopefully with the looming Brexit, this flexibility and ease of movement won’t be jeopardised. 

After 45 years the orchestra is still at the top of its game and delighting audiences all over the world. The funding and concert-going landscape may have changed, but the passion and spirit is undimmed. I am always thrilled to read at the end of every review of our star-studded opera performances, individual players in the orchestra name-checked with as much acclaim as the opera stars.  

The English Concert’s CD with Harry Bicket is out on Signum: signumrecords.com

Kristian Bezuidenhout leads the orchestra from the keyboard for their 45th anniversary concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday, October 11 at 7.30pm in a programme of Mozart, JC Bach and CPE Bach: southbankcentre.co.uk

Harry Bicket

Internationally renowned as an opera and concert conductor of distinction, Harry Bicket is especially noted for his interpretation of baroque and classical repertoire and in 2007 became Artistic Director of The English Concert, one of the UK’s finest period orchestras. He became Chief Conductor of Santa Fe Opera in 2013 and from 2018 assumes the Music Directorship.

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