Interview: Joseph Crouch

Academy of Ancient Music’s Principal Cellist, Joseph Crouch, takes time to talk to us about his life, career and AAM’s exciting programme for this year’s Summer Festival.

You started out in music as a chorister, why did you decide to change direction and pursue the cello?  Necessity. I was one of those boy trebles whose singing voices became, after breaking, a constant disappointment to themselves and others. I had learnt enough about choral singing to remain useful in choirs, and so went on to King’s College, Cambridge as a choral scholar, but as a “baritone” – in my case not so much a reference to lyric qualities as a euphemism denoting a total lack of both high and low notes – I was never going to make a living. I had played the cello since the age of seven, and began to take it more seriously towards the end of my undergraduate degree. At this time the King’s Choir had a regular recording and performing partnership with Roy Goodman’s Brandenburg Consort, and it was through watching cellist Angela East strut her stuff that I realised how I’d like to spend my life – using my choral training and experience without having to expose my vocal cords to public scrutiny.

What do you enjoy most about playing with the Academy of Ancient Music?   It changes every day! The repertoire, the interaction with the audience, getting to accompany great singers and great choirs, having so many wonderful colleagues and getting paid to share a stage with them, etc. etc. Sharing a bass line with Richard Egarr is an obvious example – tuning in to his powerful manipulation of phrases and his sumptuous colouration of harmonies is always an awesome challenge – like being a page-boy and seeing the black knight throw down his blood-and-mead-stained gauntlet in front of you, but in a good way.

The AAM performance at this year’s Summer Festival presents three different events in the church calendar; can you explain the thought process behind choosing these particular pieces?
We will be representing two feasts and one fast: Christmas, The Feast of the Presentation (the story Anglicans celebrate daily through the Nunc Dimittis), and (via a Christian exploitation of a Jewish text for manifestly New Testament purposes) Good Friday. None of these is exactly seasonal for a summer festival, but what we get instead is a neat illustration of three very distinct ways in which liturgical events were celebrated through music in different European centres in the early eighteenth century. We will also perform instrumental works whose devotional context may be looser but which would all have been heard in church. To be honest, it’s all just a good excuse for programming some of our favourite and most moving pieces; if you’ve ever been in a department store lift in November and enjoyed, as I have, Wizzard’s 1973 semi-liturgical glam-rock smash hit “Oh I wish it could be Christmas, Presentation and Good Friday every day”, then you’ll love this concert.

If you had to give something up for Lent what would it be?  I once gave up Jerusalem artichokes; I don’t think abstention suits me and I don’t have the faith that would encourage it. That said I love the church and the liturgy and was brought up in it so I feel bad admitting I don’t actively partake in it.

Of the three musical strands in this performance do you have a favourite? If so, which and why?  The Zelenka Lamentations will probably be the least well-known of the three, and it is certainly the work I am most looking forward to playing. It has a harmonic richness that seems to confirm the veracity of a postulated apprenticeship with Lotti, combined with all the emotional intensity we might associate with his Bohemian birth. I was given a recording of the piece at university by a fellow early-music nerd, and loved it so much that I was immediately trapped into a continuous replaying loop that meant very little else got done for several days. When I win the lottery I will present a self-indulgent programme made up entirely of works that have brought on this form of reality deferment. There will be about one hour of music and the gig will last several weeks.

The music for much of the programme hails from Italy. Have you ever visited the country and does playing these pieces evoke a particular sense of place/history? Having experienced summer in Rome, it is easy to associate Corellian harmonies with a certain kind of shimmering heat and majestic architecture, but in truth the Italian style was so prevalent in Europe (except in France) by the early eighteenth century that specific associations of place start to lose significance. Instead, the particular sense of place/history that these pieces evoke in me relates to where and when I first heard or performed them. Thus Ich habe genug transports me to a nervous occasion in a postgraduate student concert at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Zelenka takes me straight to a first-year room at King’s, decorated in the popular “I’ve been on a gap year” style, achieved through borrowing exotic items from my older brother, and popular with those who, like me, spent the year after A-levels listening to records in their mum’s house.

Did you ever consider pursuing a career other than music?  Yes, I sold coffee in Selfridges four days a week while preparing for postgraduate music college auditions. Towards the end of that time I applied for a job in some sort of management consultancy firm. I had very little idea what the firm did other than that it had a track record of employing feckless Oxbridge graduates with second-class humanities degrees. I was shortlisted, but luckily never had to attend the final interview because my acceptance at the Royal Academy came through in time. I still actively consider other careers in much the same way as I actively look at 1-million-pound-plus houses on property websites.

What was the last live music performance you went to see?  It’s mostly kids’ concerts these days, and the range of concerts and cultural events for kids and families in London fills me with optimism about the future of the arts in this country. Most recently I took my boys to see The City of London Sinfonia perform Jemima Puddle-Duck. The quality of the new compositions, of the performances and particularly of the presentation was utterly wonderful.

Catch Joseph performing in an Academy of Ancient Music double bill!
Thursday 16 June 6.30pm & 8.30pm
Christ Church Spitalfields
For more information and to book visit www.spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk

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