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Rachel Podger first started dabbling with Baroque performance techniques by having lessons ‘on the quiet’. Though nobody knew she was at it, she was soon noticed for her talents – winning the solo violin prize at the Guildhall School of Music and eventually becoming Leader of Trevor Pinnock’s increasingly renowned busy baroque ensemble The English Concert.
Since then Podger has become one of the most respected players in the profession: a vionlinist’s violinist whose recordings are often cited as benchmarks and whose staggering technique is combined with an easy, relaxed charm – in both a musical and personal sense. Though she’s become synonymous with the OAE of late, she first worked with the ensemble touring Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in America, directing from the violin.
Things went a stage further in 2009, when Podger was joint soloist with Pavlo Beznosiuk in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, in which she also directed the OAE from the violin. An acclaimed recording of the piece followed, as did a handful of performances – most recently in March 2011 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Andrew Mellor caught up with her the night before that performance to explore some aspects of playing, directing and working with this ever-evolving group of musicians.
It’s a big ask to play as a soloist and direct too, isn’t it?
Huge. It was only when I stopped to think about it that I thought, my goodness, how does that work, how could I ever do that? It’s OK for strings, because they can easily relate to what you’re doing, but for wind and brass it’s a very different thing. That’s why we’ve consciously kept the orchestra quite small, so that the wind and brass can almost see what’s coming and react to it. It also means I can give a very clear beat; that they can see and react to what I’m doing.
So you can have a musical idea in the moment and execute it there and then?
These things do happen, and I think that’s what music’s all about – experimenting, in the moment.
Yes – it tends to be something that I instinctively do when I pick up an instrument. It’s part of what you do when you play music; you try and create something new. It’s like talking to you – I haven’t talked to you before, so I’m creating the content in the present moment. It’s like any way you express something: you want to create a vibe and react in that moment. You can’t plan that, but of course there are certain things you need to know. If you were an actor you’d need to know your lines, and you’d need to know the content of what you’re going to perform. But yes, there’s a very large amount of improvisation.
What happens if no ideas come – if you run out of them, or if that vibe isn’t happening?
I think with some pieces you might think OK, I’ve done enough, now I’d quite like to explore something else, but there are some composers who just go beyond those kinds of things – the ideas are so genuine and so striking and so beautiful, that you can’t help just wanting to create that again and again. It’s like seeing a sunset. Every time you see a sunset you think, gosh, that’s so beautiful; it strikes you, doesn’t it?
Yes it does – so does it take that sort of intensity of beauty for you to be prompted to re-interpret something?
Well it’s not so much re-interpreting, it’s just experiencing. It’s not like you have to think about the ideas away from the music. I mean, when you ask that question, do you run out of ideas, that to me implies that I have ideas separately to the music. But actually, the ideas are in the music, and you relate to them. You pick them up.
And do you relate to them differently as your life goes on?
Yes, every time you play it’s slightly different. It’s just going round corners at slightly different speeds, or creating a slightly different sound, or using slightly different articulations and things. It becomes quite acute in people’s consciousness – when somebody’s doing something differently, that is – and people become very alert to it and then they respond. That creates something different. Do you see what I mean?
I think so – it’s a sort of infinite world of possibility when you put it like that…is that right?
Yes, well – I mean, within the style of the piece. You have your parameters and ideas of style. I mean, you wouldn’t swoop around in Mozart – well maybe a little bit, but not as much as you probably would in Verdi or something later. So there are those stylistic factors, stylistic issues.
You mention a sunset – and that’s not the first time you’ve talked in terms of imagery and landscape in relation to music…
I do like to use imagery and I use it a lot – I use it when I’m practising, I use it a lot when I teach, and I teach quite a bit.
How? Can you give a specific example?
OK, so a very straightforward example would be, if I was trying to improve string sound, I’d say imagine yourself walking on a beach; you’re walking barefoot in the sand and you’re sinking into the sand with your feet, heel first. It’s that sensation of sinking, a giving-way sensation, and to get that on the string creates amazing resonance. It creates depth and warmth.
Where do these ideas come from and how do they arrive with you?
To be honest I still live off a lot of things that I experienced when I was a student with David Takeno, because David’s style of teaching was not so much telling you what to do as asking questions. That would kind of set you off on a journey, asking how things relate to each other: why does that happen there? Why is a composer doing that here when he didn’t do that in another piece he wrote a year later? Things like that. An you start getting curious… I mean, I have an inquisitive mind anyway I guess, so that would just set me off on certain things!
And imagery – does that then come separately? Does it come from travelling?
Yes it does. Of course, you absorb a lot of things in a different way when you travel. It’s not a conscious thing; I don’t see the moonlight and think of a particular phrase, it’s not really like that. It’s much more subtle than that. I think these things are kind of in the unconscious and imagery comes up when I try to explain something.
What did you say to the OAE players before you recorded the Mozart Sinfonia concertante? It’s a very particular sound you get from the strings isn’t it?
We actually did a lot so physical exercises. I’ve got some kind of ‘pet’ things that I do like kneading dough: imagining a table in front of you and using your hand and your wrist. And then there’s the resistance that you feel in the water when you go swimming – there’s an energy to that, and I was talking about feeling that energy in the air, as if the air’s really thick. And so you play – and this sounds really weird – you play with your bow as if the air is really thick, like stirring really thick porridge, so there’s this resistance. You get a dynamic between the bow and the string, and you get a different kind of sound, and I find that a really exciting sound. It’s quite fun to see how the imagery works.
So how does it work, in particular relation to the OAE and its sound?
Well to begin with the OAE has a very fine sound, a silvery and clean sound. But it’s also very keen to do drama, and – and this is vital – it’s very, very versatile, which comes from its breadth of repertoire and the fact that it works with different directors and leaders. As a leader and director, what I’m after when I work with them is as much contrast as possible and a feeling of warmth in the sound, which relates to those images I just mentioned. I always seem to get very nice feedback about that warmth of the string sound. Actually the Orchestra asked me to do a workshop on sound production recently.
Interesting that they’d ask you to do something like that – that there would be the time and the space for it…
Well the OAE has always been different like that – people are allowed to express themselves in that way and come up with different ideas. Tomorrow Martin Lawrence [an OAE horn player] is doing a warm-up – a physical warm up before the rehearsal, which I think is a fantastic idea, because he’s interested in Yoga and Tai Chi and he’s offering that to players.
And will you partake in that?
Yes I will actually, it seems very in tune with the Orchestra’s ventures in a way. I guess I do like adventure and I like challenges – positive challenges.
Are there any challenges left? I mean, in a musical sense, when the techniques and approaches that the OAE pioneered are now so common and are even being used by modern symphony orchestras, doesn’t the organisation lose some of that quirkiness and difference? And perhaps more importantly that passion and drive?
I see what you mean. Perhaps that does happen, but it wouldn’t happen with the OAE I don’t think, mostly because they cover so much repertoire, so there’s constant challenge there. And not just musically and stylistically but also practically – which bows and instruments they’re going to use and who they’re going to play with for example. That varies a lot and I think it keeps things fresh. But, you know, on that point of musical interpretation, there will always be more ways to express yourself. Even though music is written down, there are so many possibilities as to what you can do with it, how much you can actually take from the score and how much of yourself you put into it. There’s a huge range just in that – and of course you can go in any direction from there. And as for passion, well, I don’t think the passion has gone. You get it from the music – you just need to programme great pieces.
Rachel Podger will be directing from the violin in our concert on Monday 21 November. Tickets are available here.
She will also be at the Wiltshire Music Centre on Saturday 19 November and tickets can be booked online here.