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An Interview with Matthew Halls

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Matthew Halls (photo credit Eric Richmond)

Matthew Halls (photo credit Eric Richmond)

Part 1 of 3

This week Matthew Halls is in Nashville to conduct the Nashville Symphony in four performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, complete in one concert. The performances will be held October 22-25 and feature Mark Niehaus, trumpet, and Jun Iwasaki, violin. Tickets are available here.

British conductor Matthew Halls is one of the most versatile musicians in classical music today.  In the early years of his career he worked as a keyboard player and early music conductor but he is known today for his dynamic work in music of all periods. Matthew Halls is Artistic Director of the Oregon Bach Festival, and conducts symphony orchestras and opera all over the world.

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with Matthew and talk about music and his career for an hour this week before rehearsals began – here follows a transcript from our conversation.

*       *       *

Walter Bitner: I’d like to start by asking you to share about your background and your training as a musician.

Matthew Halls: In my case it’s quite an interesting and diverse story. I say “in my case” although its not so abnormal given the British musical education system. I followed a fairly standard path which means that I started off very young as a boy chorister and in my case it was rather lovely, it was singing in my father’s church choir – it was very much a sort of family affair. Like a lot of choristers, when my voice broke I made the decision to start learning the organ in addition to piano and that took me very much in the direction of church music for the next ten years of my life. I was playing the organ in several wonderful cathedrals in the UK – I eventually ended up in the beautiful cathedral of Salisbury and sort of cut my teeth as a keyboard player there, and at that stage was really headed into the church music world. And then university – which for me was Oxford – took me in fascinating new directions. I went there as an organ scholar at New College, and it was under the tutelage of Edward Higginbottom, who was a great expert on French Baroque music – Lully and Rameau, for example – he was the pivotal character in my development who introduced me to lots of other forms of music.

And that’s when it began to get a bit interesting. When I left Oxford I did two things: I went very much into the Early Music world – I got a very, very lucky opportunity to play with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra with Ton Koopman.  They were recording all the Bach cantatas.  I joined that huge project at about volume 10 out of 22 or 23, and had the opportunity to spend nearly two months each year recording Bach cantatas with Ton and those amazing musicians. Before that I hadn’t really had any great experience in that world.

At the same time, I was also doing a lot of opera work. I had a dual career, if you like. I was doing the early music one week, but then you would find me in one of the European opera houses preparing the choir for La Traviata or Peter Grimes or any number of operas.

WB: Were you primarily working to prepare choruses for opera productions at that time?

MH: And assisting the conductors that were coming through, and coaching singers – répétiteuring – I was doing the sort of dogsbody work that a lot of young conductors do in Europe to get a foothold in the conducting world. So, I had two very distinct things going on, and in the end, they sort of converged again, which was rather lovely. The (keyboard) playing continued up to a point but then the conducting took over. I began to just pull it all together – so I consider myself now somebody who conducts a lot of diverse repertoire, a lot of symphony orchestras, a lot of opera, but with a particular fascination and interest in the early music because I spent ten, twelve years of my life solidly absorbed in that. I come at music from all sorts of different periods with that mindset that was inspired by assisting and working for the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and Bill Christie, and a lot of the luminaries of the early music field.

However, unlike a lot of my colleagues, I’m not the sort of musician that can survive by doing the same thing all the time. I’m always a little skeptical about “specialism”, whatever that is: specializing in a very narrow band of repertoire. I was never personally comfortable with that idea. I’ve always maintained musical interests in many different areas.

WB: I’m very interested to meet another musician who sees music this way.  I see music history as a very big continuum, over the last 800 years, and you can see influences from one repertoire to another – for instance the early lutenists in the 16th century influenced the growth of the harpsichord repertoire in the 17th century, and all that carries on into the piano repertoire and ultimately the symphonic repertoire. So it’s all related.

And yet the trend with professional musicians is, as you say, to specialize in a very narrow band of repertoire, usually for one instrument, and to try to become a master at just that thing.

MH: Absolutely. It’s interesting though, I always fascinated to see the extent to which that choice is coming from the musicians – the players or the conductors – or actually the music world. Because the music world has an uncanny knack of pigeonholing musicians. There are certain violinists in the world who spent most of their existence playing three concertos, and are considered the best violinists for those concertos. It’s interesting to know whether that’s their personal decision, or if that’s just how things ended up.

WB: A lot of baroque violinists – who become known for that – don’t even play modern violin anymore, and just concentrate on that.

MHquoteMH: When this whole early music thing was born – I suppose we’re looking back to Frans Brüggen, Gustav Leonhardt, and in the UK when I was growing up it was Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner – these incredible pioneers they had to completely shut the door on the great romantic tradition in order to be able to carve this new niche. And I always hoped that at some stage, that temporary barrier that had been put up between the two worlds – the historical performance world and the modern performance world – might begin to crumble, in a positive way.

Actually, people began to realize that there can be a lot of cross-pollination between the two worlds. That’s what I begin to see, and to get very excited by. To give you an example: you can now hear a first rate orchestra like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play a Wagner music-drama with Simon Rattle on period instruments. And I can go spend a week with an American symphony orchestra and explore Bach, Haydn, Mozart, with modern instruments, and they can produce some incredibly stylish results.

So it seems like the two worlds now are beginning to coexist in a more productive and mutually beneficial way, which I find very exciting.

WB: This is at the heart of what I wanted to talk about with you. When I was performing early music in the 90s and early 2000s, there was still very much this sense of separation between the two worlds, and I think there was at least among some mainstream classical musicians a sense of animosity towards the early music movement because there was a sense that their market share was being threatened, and also people were calling into question their performance principles. Now I see less of that, and a lot of the younger generation of musicians and conductors more willing to experiment and do new things.

In the ensuing conversation, I asked Matthew to share his opinions on several topics that mark differences between the historical performance approach and modern performance practice.


MH: When you are working with musicians who have a historical performance background, then of course that world is very much open to you – the hardware is already there. So, to play at (A=) 415: sure. It gives the music another color, and it opens up a new world. But let’s be honest: it wasn’t a pitch standard. If you read about pitch in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a flexible feast. You could find pretty much everything, and it depended on what the organ was tuned to in the local church. As with so many of these important, knotty historical performance issues, we’ve actually ended up with a great big compromise.

I think there is a strong argument to use a lower pitch standard, for the vast majority of the music that we know and love from the baroque – the Bach, the Händel – simply because it’s completely clear to me that the singers are much more comfortable at that pitch standard. And you begin to understand why anybody singing the Evangelist in a Bach Passion is quite challenged after an evening at modern pitch. It’s certainly not impossible, because of the standard of singing these days, and we hear it all the time at modern pitch, but definitely there is a strong argument to suggest that a key role such as the Evangelist sits in a much more comfortable and understandable register (at low pitch).

With modern musicians, other practicalities come into play. Your marvelous musicians here in Nashville spend their entire life at a pitch standard, and that is the Nashville pitch standard. If I remember rightly, it’s just a fraction higher than 440, here it’s just a couple of cents higher – I hope I’m remembering correctly: it’s two years since I was here. It’s about 441 or 442. It would be a nonsense as a guest conductor to come in and suddenly shift the pitch down a half tone for a week. That doesn’t seem to make any sense, we don’t have any singers involved this week, that would probably require restringing the instruments, an investment in new strings: it’s all a little complex and frankly, in my opinion, it’s just not worth the trouble. It’s not going to color in any way the experience that the listener will have listening to the Brandenburgs. It’s the pitch standard that these instruments are used to in their current setup.

If pitch is of any importance, it’s simply to find the right pitch that suits that group on that day, and to make sure that the singers are comfortable.

Matthew Halls rehearses Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with the Nashville Symphony, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, October 21, 2015,

Matthew Halls rehearses Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with the Nashville Symphony, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, October 21, 2015,


MH: Temperament definitely does add a color to this music, because as soon as equal temperament was introduced – it had always existed as a theoretical construct – but as soon as it began to become the norm, we lost one important thing, and that was the different colors and characters associated with the keys. Previous to the emergence of equal temperament, most keyboard instruments had been tuned in a system known as circulating temperament, which means that essentially as you modulate away from the central Key of C, as you go further around the sharp side, in most of these temperaments the thirds get a little wider, they get larger and larger. Once we get around to F# Major (which is a long way away from “home”) the color of the key is significantly different from C Major. And then as you begin to come back around the other side the thirds get smaller and smaller until you get back to the warm “home” center Key of C.

That’s a form of organization which is hugely important when performing music of the 17th and 18th centuries. But it’s not something to attempt to achieve with modern symphony musicians in a week’s work. What one can achieve, is to share the knowledge that we gain from understanding these temperaments, and talking about the colors and the characteristics of the keys, and then allowing them to use their musical imaginations to create those sound colors in ways which don’t depend on the temperament.

It’s a very important issue, but it takes a lot of time and experience for a string player particularly to adjust and be able to recognize the different sizes of intervals.

WB: After all, this week you are conducting the Brandenburg Concertos, which are all in Major keys pretty close to “home base”.

MH: Precisely. On purely practical terms, one picks one’s battle carefully here. You can still achieve the colors without having to rely on the temperament, I believe.

Scholarship & Performance

MH: We call it “historically informed” performance, not “historically dictated” performance. My students would inevitably, initially get very fascinated by a lot of the things they were reading by musicians of the 18th century – it was an eye-opener for them. The note of caution I would give them is: for every treatise you can read that tells you to do it one way, you will find another one or two treatises that suggest another mode. It’s like “’twas ever thus.” – that is the whole essence of music. Different people have different opinions on different things. My advice was always: read it, absorb it, take it all in, and then put the books back on the shelf and don’t forget to use your own musical imagination, because that always was and always will be an important part of the interpretive process.

The whole essence of historically informed performance is that you’re not relying completely on your own imagination, you’re relying on a combination of your musical instinct – your musical personality – and everything that you’ve learned from the musicians who were much closer to the action than we are. I think that’s the only difference of emphasis – it is incredibly important to read about how the musicians of the 18th century “made it up” in their own day, how they interpreted the great masterpieces, and a lot of them were close to the action.

Leopold Mozart – we should be reading his book on string playing in the late 18th century, he was the father of one of the 18th century’s greatest ever composers! And therefore what he says about orchestral practice, about bowing style, about fingering, about all sorts of articulation and dynamic things is so essential. You could spend a lot of time with that one treatise alone. The light that that sheds on the music of the late 18th century is phenomenal.

But then – I’ve never been the sort of musician who goes around bashing people with the book and saying: “what you’re doing there is wrong because it says this here”. I think that that’s unhealthy and that it flies in the face of everything that music stands for as a sociological “coming together of minds” if you like – an important creative experience. I think that is the key word for me. Yes, we are trying to recreate a lost sound from the past, but we also must remember that we’re creating music now, in the 21st century. And if you get the balance right between those two things, then I think the result can be very fulfilling on both fronts: scholarship and performance.

with Matthew Halls, October 19, 2015

with Matthew Halls, October 19, 2015

Concert Presentation

MH: There are so many different factors. In the modern concert hall with modern symphony orchestras we have a routine and a ritual, and rituals can be incredibly comforting, but also maybe quite daunting for the uninitiated.

For instance, let’s take the issue of how we present ourselves on stage. If I look at reports of the Gewandhaus Orchester even in the mid-19th century a lot of their concerts were still performed standing up. This I find very interesting because this idea that the orchestra always sat in the same seating position, and that they always just sat in their tailcoats and white tie and played, is completely contrary to everything that I read. In the 18th century and early 19th century it’s fascinating to see how all the different European orchestras were scrambling to come to terms with the new instrumentations and the ever-expanding orchestra, and how they were beginning to find different ways of arranging them on stage to try and produce the perfect sound… even stage designs from Boston that were approved by Brahms that give a fascinating insight into “work in progress” and this ritual that we have today: it doesn’t come from the 18th century, or the 19th century, it comes from much later.

I do think that, whilst on the one hand it is comforting, it should be challenged from time to time.  There are opportunities that emerge in every orchestra’s season where you can try something new. I know as a musician that that’s certainly something that keeps me fulfilled and stimulated. This week, for instance, I have asked very kindly if the musicians will stand to present the Brandenburg Concertos. It was of course the most likely thing that was done when Bach first performed these concertos in Cöthen. It would have been much more normal at that stage for the musicians to be standing, and when a violinist stands up, it introduces a certain physicality into their playing that – despite their best efforts – doesn’t quite exist in a visual way when they’re seated.

Now it would be strange to see an entire symphony orchestra standing for say, a Rachmaninoff symphony! Somehow that doesn’t seem right and of course it was never done that way. Some people might like to try it, but there’s no reason for arguing for it.

stage plots for each Brandenburg concerto to be used for this weekend's performances by Nashville Symphony Stage Manager Paul Holt ~ posted backstage at Laura turner Hall

stage plots for each Brandenburg concerto to be used for this weekend’s performances by Nashville Symphony Stage Manager Paul Holt ~ posted backstage at Laura turner Hall (click to enlarge)

With this music (the Brandenburg Concertos) it’s not symphonic orchestral music, it’s chamber music. Therefore you want to create an environment in which the musicians can be as free, as liberated as possible, that they can engage in new forms of exchange between each other, that perhaps they don’t get to explore to the same extent when they’re playing a week of Mahler of Bruckner. It’s a very different form of music-making: it’s intimate, it’s incredibly energizing, it’s based of course on dance, and it’s difficult to dance when you’re sitting down.

So all of these things come into the mix. I suppose, as far as possible, when delving into the music of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, I’m looking for inspiration from the source material, that describes the early performances of these pieces. If it’s possible and if an orchestra will agree to the terms, I try and recreate a seating plan that was familiar to that ensemble in that period, which might be completely at odds with what the orchestra is used to. And this issue of standing is something that I like to explore, more and more, particularly with programs from the 18th century. I find that it brings another level of contact between the musicians and the audience. In my experience, the audience seems to react very positively to it. It’s exciting – it’s nice to see musicians really engaging in a different physical way with the music.

Continued in Part 2: Matthew Halls on J.S. Bach and the Oregon Bach Festival

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