Meet our new Music Director
As Laurence Cummings takes over as Music Director of Academy of Ancient Music, he explains why the orchestra is special to him and discusses his hopes and plans for its future
Like many of my colleagues, I felt unusual as a teenager. We weren’t into the same things as everyone else. My obsession was buying sheet music and Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre recordings – on LP in those days. I remember being blown away the first time I listened to the AAM recording of Handel’s Messiah. Hearing Emma Kirkby singing ‘Refiner’s fire’ was a lightbulb moment – the first time I’d felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I also remember being taken with the Bach Magnificat recording with Christchurch College, Oxford. It inspired my studies – I pursued an organ scholarship to Oxford in search of that world. The orchestral sound was so clean and yet it had such fire, which it has kept. It astounded me back then and it’s why I enjoy working with the orchestra now. The basic sound is much the same as when I first fell in love with it. The players are different, obviously, but the same pioneering spirit is still there.
“We use historical evidence as a tool to move the souls of our listeners – that’s what all good treatises tell you to do”
As historically informed performers we strip away all the things that the 19th century added, but we don’t stop there. We use historical evidence as a tool to move the souls of our listeners – that’s what all good treatises tell you to do. It’s not enough just to start a trill from the upper note or find the correct string tension or use an exact copy of a harpsichord – instruments don’t play the music. As performers we have to bring the music to life, using all the musical tools we have in our satchels. That’s when we make real passion and transmit it to listeners. Our job is to find the extraordinary.
When I was a student in the 80s, it was the tail end of the pioneering years of historically informed performance, but still a brave thing to do. Music colleges didn’t know what to do with us. We were put in the furthest corner of the building, which was great for us, because we were able to get on with what we wanted. But there was a feeling that everything was a little bit behind.
“It’s not enough just to present the material as we think it should be. We must persuade, cajole and stimulate our audience”
Now, historical performance is mainstream – you don’t expect to hear to hear 17th- and 18th-century repertoire any other way, even if it’s on modern instruments. We’ve gained from the experience of our predecessors and moved on. This means AAM’s function as an orchestra has changed. It’s not enough just to present the material as we think it should be. We must persuade, cajole and stimulate our audience – it all comes back to the basic tenets of Rhetoric.
Even though it’s sometimes 300 years old, our music should sound contemporary. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t, because our predecessors were human beings, too. The pandemic has shown us that human experience is universal. When you read about the plague, you realise that we’re dealing with the same sense of fear and need to escape they experienced in the 14th century. Then, as now, an audience comes to be stimulated, to be taken out of themselves. At the same time a concert must be life-affirming. Handel wanted people to leave the theatre feeling better people – not in a superior way, but spiritually.
“I’m allergic to the idea that the music we perform is relaxing. It can be relaxing, but not for very long. It’s full of variety – like life”
I’m allergic to the idea that the music we perform is relaxing. It can be relaxing, but not for very long. It’s full of variety – like life. Life is full of joy, but also sadness and complex feelings that must be experienced. I’m fascinated by how mercurial our repertoire is. Nothing ever outlasts its welcome. It’s forever changing Affect – the emotional message – be that in a Handel aria that lasts three minutes and blows your socks off or a slow movement from a Bach concerto, which takes you to heaven for five minutes. This music is immediate and compelling, and makes us feel alive.
AAM is fortunate in that we have a loyal audience. That’s wonderful, because it feels like a big family. At the same time, we must be careful that we invite everyone in – it needs to be music for anybody. I strongly believe that our music is not elitist, but the fact that we’re often accused of it must mean there’s a grain of truth and that we need to be more inclusive.
“We must fight our corner and prove that we are no more elite than any football team and that we provide universal human experiences”
The pandemic has shown us how the establishment views the arts versus sports. We must fight our corner and prove that we are no more elite than any football team and that we provide universal human experiences. It’s no good expecting audiences to come to us – we have to go out and woo them, and not set up an ‘us and them’ situation. Nor is it enough just to offer lower priced tickets for students. We must do something for them and engage local communities.
I yearn for the days back when Haydn had to repeat movements in his symphonies because the audience erupted so vehemently. We must move away from the precious atmosphere of not being able to applaud when you feel like it. You should be allowed to experience music how you want.
“It’s a question of finding new ways to make the audience feel comfortable and willing to experiment with us”
One of the ways to make the audience feel comfortable in their reactions is to break the fourth wall so that we engage with them. We’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it’s a question of finding new ways to make the audience feel comfortable and willing to experiment with us.
When you go round an art gallery you don’t have to know about the history of painting to appreciate beautiful paintings – you take them on your own terms. That’s how I want people to feel about our music. Maybe you feel it enriches your experience if you have studied a little about the composer, but you don’t need to have done that.
There is no blueprint for our programmes – we include as much variety as possible. Our players have many talents in a broad range of music from the 17th and 18th centuries and to harness these, we need to be adventurous. We want to take listeners on journeys, each one a little different. We try to create an environment where audiences don’t necessarily know what they’re coming for, but they know they’ll enjoy it. Surprise is good!
“It’s possible to acknowledge that some music is greater than others, without implying that the other music isn’t worth performing at all”
We will always be at the forefront of historically informed performance, continuing in the essence of what Christopher Hogwood set up – research-led performance that moves people. We will continue searching for music that hasn’t been performed much. People sometimes say, ‘It was put in the back of the library for a reason – it obviously wasn’t very good,’ but did it ever get the chance? Some of it was never performed in the first place. It’s possible to acknowledge that some music is greater than others, without implying that the other music isn’t worth performing at all.
We will also continue to research music we already play, and different versions of it. That rejuvenates what we’re doing and creates an exciting atmosphere. It’s palpable for the audience if the players are excited by what they’re doing, making the music leap off the page and giving it air again.
Photo: Anton Säckl