Ahead of the 2017-2018 season of so many anniversaries for our organization and for the world, Artistic Director Matt Glandorf talks Early music, his love for organ, the Reformation, and what it means to be a good conductor.
Q: You are a highly regarded organist. Please tell us about your studies at The Curtis Institute of Music.
MG: I always had so many different musical interests. I had played the organ during my formative years, and I suppose the organ is, next to choirs, my first love. However, I also thought I might want to compose for Musical Theater.
When I moved back to US from Germany I simply wanted to take organ lessons. I went to audition for John Weaver who invited me to attend The Curtis Institute of Music. So, at age 16, I moved to Philadelphia and began my studies. The best part was being surrounded by such high level musicians. I learned so much about chamber music, opera and piano repertoire, and got the first rate training for the orchestra.
Q: And then, you pursued graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music? What was the experience like?
MG: I graduated from Curtis when I was 19 and took a few years off to figure out what I wanted to do. I met the legendary organist McNeil Robinson who was a particularly brilliant improviser, so I did graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music. In my second year at Manhattan, I began teaching at Curtis.
Q: At what point in your career and why did you take up conducting?
MG: I began conducting choirs when I was about 13 years old. Interestingly, I have never taken a single conducting lesson in my life! I learned everything by observing other conductors as well through ‘on the job’ experiences. Over the years, I have made it a point to consult with singers and instrumentalists. I have gotten a lot of honest feedback, since I view my job primarily to help them play and sing!
Q: Obviously, you are steeped in J.S. Bach and Early Music research. Please tell us about your passion for the historically informed performance (HIP) practice. What composers are you drawn to?
MG: Growing up in Germany, I was exposed to a great deal of Early Music and the historically informed performance practice movement. However, I thought it was boring and affected. Truthfully, the movement was really only starting to be taken seriously and not merely as something "second rate musicians" did because they couldn't play the great Romantic repertoire.
However, I had a big reaction against the very "religious" attitude about the Romantic repertoire at my time at Curtis. As it pertains to this, I mean religious in the sense that Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were worshiped as deities - and that we "mere mortals" stood with fear in trembling at their genius.
After my time as a Curtis student, I became attracted to the early repertoire more and more and found that I liked the freedom required in the music. I found that there was more opportunity for ornamentation, improvisation and greater decision making when performing old music. All the interesting stuff is precisely what's not written in the score! So, Ockeghem, Tallis, Byrd, Schütz and Buxtehude on the early spectrum became a big passion.
Q: Who has influenced your conducting style?
MG: On one hand, the old school conductors like Willem Mengelberg, Wilhelm Furtwängler and even Leopold Stokowski have been great inspirations. Of the HIP movement, John Eliot Gardiner has been a huge influence, as well as Roger Norrington and Masaaki Suzuki.
However, I consider Barry Rose to be my great mentor when it comes to choir training. Dr. Rose is the former choirmaster from St Paul's Cathedral. He taught me, above all, about the importance of the text when training a choir and how that shapes every musical decision.
Q: Is being a good conductor more about having a command of the repertoire or the ability to communicate to a group?
MG: To my mind, being a conductor is about the following:
1. Someone who studies music on a deep level and is primarily a teacher, therefore a good communicator.
2. You have to have a sense of charisma and the type of personality that inspires people to really want to play and sing their best.
3. Having a keen ear and the ability to discern what's going on and how to get where you want to go.
Everything else having to do with flapping about your arms is totally secondary!
Q: The recently completed project by Choral Arts, “1734-1735: A Season in the Life of J.S. Bach”, was extremely ambitious. How would you evaluate its overall success and what surprises and lessons, if any, have you taken away from it?
MG: It was ambitious, not only from the point of view of how many concerts we performed, but that we really performed just Bach Cantatas and nothing else (total eighteen Cantatas, to be exact).
I think we all discovered that each of the Cantatas had these gems of moments in them and that, despite the fact that they are technically 'formulaic", each one was so radically different! Having to put that many of them together on such short order – mostly weekly – was a tremendous growing experience for both the singers and the players.
Q: So, to cope with the super intense schedule of these performances, you decided to divide the chorus into two distinct groups. How was your experience working separately with the two groups of singers? What were the challenges and benefits to this division structure?
MG: When I took over Choral Arts in 2004, it was a large Symphonic Chorus. Over time, I realized that I would better be able to do the music I really loved with a group of around 40 singers. Cutting the group in half again last season was a challenge to the singers to ramp up their sense of personal responsibility and form a chamber group within a chamber group. It really strengthened our skills.
No matter the size of the group though, I always want all the singers to think like they are making chamber music.
Q: What is the inspiration behind the fifth year of the Bach At Seven series 2017-2018?
MG: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, when the Augustinian Monk, Martin Luther, challenged the church by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event eventually led to the formation of the Lutheran Church in Germany.
Although Luther's main objective was against the selling of indulgences (the idea that one could buy one's way into heaven), the shift that took place religiously, socially and culturally was revolutionary. Luther translated the bible into German, which theretofore was forbidden, and created the "Chorale" hymns in the German language that the common people could now join in signing.
J.S. Bach, the most famous of Lutheran composers, was influenced by the great tradition of protestant composers that preceded him, such as Johann Walter, Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. And of course, Bach's influence was profound on composers that came after him, especially Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Distler and in our own time and city, Kile Smith. All these composers will be heard at the Bach@7 series this coming season.
Q: In March of 2018, you will honor the memory of Michael Korn in a special tribute program. Tell us more.
MG: Michael Korn was such an innovative figure in Philadelphia's musical life, he founded the Bach Festival in Philadelphia in 1976.
It was his original vision of having a performing organization with resident chorus and orchestra comprised of this region's great musicians that I wanted to return to when I took over as the Bach Festival's artistic director. Michael died in his early 40's and would have turned 70 in 2018. It is an honor and privilege to pay tribute to him in a concert of music of Bach and Mendelssohn, including the great beloved Motet Jesu, mine Freude which his Philadelphia Singers performed on numerous occasions.
Q: In this increasingly complex world, classical music offers a place of refuge from the mundane and the excesses of social media. What do you hope the concert goers would take away from this year’s performances?
MG: This season, Bach At Seven series are going back to its mixed format, as we are performing a great variety of music ranging from the 1520s to a brand new commission based on a text by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Philadelphia composer David Carpenter. The common theme is music that was shaped by the Reformation movement.
The Reformation, whether one is religious or not, had a profound influence on our society that can be felt to this day: the use of the printing press to promote ideas, universal education for all, whether rich or poor, and the shift from Latin as the common language of religion to the vernacular.
The Cantatas of J.S. Bach are totally informed by this movement, and in turn, continued to influence composers and musicians through the centuries. I hope that our listeners will join us for another year of fascinating explorations into the beauty of this music.
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Interviewed by Isabel DeMarco and Inna Heasley