OAE director Rob Howarth on the value of music

Members of the OAE having a drink in Spitalfields.

Members of the OAE having a drink in Spitalfields.

We’re delighted to have the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as our Associate Artists this year. We caught up with their director Rob Howarth about their upcoming programme at our Summer Festival, how they’ll be recreating the sounds of the 17th century, and why music is so important.

Hi Rob! Could you begin by talking about your performance The Muses of Zion at Christ Church Spitalfields – what is it about this programme that you’re looking forward to?

Well, I am looking forward to bringing perhaps some lesser known gems to peoples’ ears, alongside a great standard of the early baroque; Schütz’s Magnificat. I had always wanted to put together a programme of Praetorius’s work and the Mass setting we are using is, I think, pretty much unknown. In the programme there are instrumental works by Rosenmüller, which, alongside the big hymns, nestle amongst the Mass setting giving a nice though-line to the performance.

At The Muses of Zion there will be a chance for audience members to join in with the chorales. Why have you chosen to introduce this interactive element and what do you think people will get from the experience?

The congregation joined in with the chorales in Praetorius’s day and ‘Urania’, which he published in 1613, was a collection of ‘hymns’ for congregations. We are performing two works from that collection and would love to hear how it sounds with the audience joining in. I hope that by participating the audience will feel part of the whole performance. Given that the entire repertoire we are performing in the concert wasn’t written as concert music, but as music for a service, we should be free to try and recreate something of the mood and sound of 1613/4.

How did you become a director with the OAE and what advice would you give to someone aiming to become a director of a music ensemble?

It’s probably worth pointing out that I am one of many guest directors of the OAE as the Orchestra has no fixed music director. They have an excellent player-led system of inviting directors and I am very fortunate to have been invited on a few occasions to join them. I first directed them for a tour and subsequent recording of Monteverdi’s Vespers in 2010 but I have been a co-principal keyboard player with them for just over ten years. My advice to anyone wanting to become a conductor/director is to go for it and believe in your convictions. Having directed various groups over the years, and having sat as a performer in many as well, the main thing I have noticed is that you play better, and want to do well for those who have conviction. There are some directors with whom you, as a player, might disagree with, but if they believe what they’re doing is right, it is easier to be persuaded.

If you had to describe the OAE in three words, which words would you choose?

Good musicians all.

And finally, why do you think music is important?

Music is everything to me. I associate it with every part of my life. As I grew up, certain pieces struck me deeply and, as I revisit them again and again, their impact just gets deeper and deeper. I’m not just talking about classical music. Yes, that is perhaps now the most important to me, but I still have the cassette tape I used to play on the way to piano lessons that had New Model Army on one side and Shostakovich on the other. To my mind then, they reinforced the teenage mood I was in. I remember having the same feelings about Stravinsky, Beethoven, Megadeth and Metallica. I can’t stand hearing most of the pop music that’s out there today, but I imagine it’s really important to the people who are listening to it. Music touches people. Music can draw tears out of me quicker than paintings and for a longer time than poetry. I still put on the Smiths or REM if I need to fulfil a particular feeling. My soul chimes and resonates with all music and I wish to God that more people would accept that music is so important.

Music can heap wave after wave of emotion over you and at the end of it you are enriched. If we keep pushing music out of our lives, out of our education, out of our collective experience, then we as a culture will collapse. We have to cry together, we have to laugh together and we have to be angry together. Music can provide the catalyst for all of these. Please let your children be touched by music and show them how touching it can be. Music of the Baroque was devised to move you; the composers took the view that the text was the most important thing and so music was there to enhance it. Where there is no text, the point was to transport the listener in some way. It was meant to affect you.

It is very difficult to define succinctly why music is so important, but not supporting it (and it will never be a huge profit maker) will be a disaster. Television shows have shown that there is a huge national interest in performing; there always has been. Let’s not try and make classical music into something elitist. I don’t know of any musician who got into it ‘for the money’. I think that music is an all-consuming passion and a musician wants to share that. It’s very nerve-racking sometimes and not all performances are faultless, but for the most part, people enjoy seeing live music.

Music is very powerful and I worry that we are side-lining it in our education and society. Even when I studied it back in the 80s, my comprehensive secondary schoolmates thought I was a bit odd (that probably hasn’t changed though…) for wanting to study music. My school had a music block, but by then it was run down and eventually became the sixth-form building. The art block got taken over by the chemistry department (shutting down the kiln, imagine, we had a kiln(!)), and the school couldn’t offer music beyond GCSE. In my two years of A-Level study at the Watford School of Music, there were four of us from that part of the county. Since then the Watford School of Music has closed down too. We must remember that as a culture we must cultivate our arts, not to do so makes us less civilised.

The OAE will be performing a series of concerts at our Summer Festival – come and see them as they take East London by storm!

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: The Muses of Zion
Friday 6 June
Christ Church Spitalfields
Book now

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Transalpine Travellers
Tuesday 10 June
Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s)
Book now

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Watercycle
Monday 16 June
Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s)
Free, booking required

Platform: Music for a King
Monday 9 June
Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s)
Free, booking required

The Night Shift E1
Wednesday 18 June
Village Underground
Book tickets

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Market Hunt
Mon 9, Thurs 12, Sun 15, Tues 17, 12.30pm-1.30pm



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