Continuing with my occasional project to try new things in London, I’ve been to a Masterclass on Mahler songs, conducted by the tenor Ian Bostridge, run for the benefit of students at the Guildhall School, but which was open to the public. It took place in St Luke’s, an 18th century Hawkesmoor designed church building which now houses the LSO’s educational programmes.
I’d never seen a real masterclass before; I’ve seen them portrayed in dramas on television, and in plays, where the point of the class is usually to show some power play or Machiavellian shenanigans on the part of the teacher.
This was quite the opposite. The manner in which Ian Bostridge conducted the session was all about the musical interpretation, and not at all about him. He didn’t show off, didn’t show the students how it should really be done, instead he coached them in their own efforts, talking about the score and the clues and instructions left there by the composer; although in those occasional little moments when he did hum a phrase to illustrate a point, there was a hint of what a mellifluous, easy, rich voice he has.
It’s fascinating watching artists talk about the techniques they use to achieve the effects for which they’re striving, even if it’s not an art form with which I’m familiar. So I learnt a great deal listening to their talk of intensity without increased volume, of accentuating the consonants when singing pianissimo, and using long fluid vowels for louder passages, of debating the difference between piano and pianissimo, when to take a breath, and when to smooth a phrase.
But not only did Bostridge coach each of the four singers in their singing, he talked about where they might look, and what they might be thinking about during a long introduction, to get both themselves and the audience ready for the words that are to come; and he also gave notes to the accompanist on improvements they might make.
I’d never really thought about the partnership between soloist and accompanist before, other than to think that the pianist is the solid one in the background, supporting the singer, the one taking all the risks. But during the masterclass, as well the Q &A at the end, it became clear that it is much more of an equal partnership, that both must have an understanding of the repertoire and be working together in the service of their joint interpretation.
When I heard the class would take place in a former church, it reminded me of the Anglican church in Moscow, which had been used for many years as the recording studio for Melodia Records. When the Queen visited Russia in the early 1990′s the Kremlin had promised to return the building to the control of the Anglican Church, but this process was far from complete when I lived in the city, and while the outside of the church looked like a substantial Victorian church which might have been found in any worthy northern English town, its interior was that of a rather elderly and uncared for studio.
St Luke’s is the polar opposite; on the outside it is elegant and plain, with a towering narrow spire, while on the inside it is a wide open space, sound proofed in clear glass, and supported by massive circular girders. The air conditioning is vigorous and the extensive underground facilities include a café, which on a Monday morning was the meeting place of a dozen mothers with children and buggies, which were neatly lined up against the wall.
So, another success…..