Andrew Parrott has certainly got his work cut out for him. The English conductor is here to oversee an ambitious production of Henry Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur.
To make things clear from the outset, the King Arthur in question has nothing to do with the famous tale of legendary Camelot and an aquatic maiden offering an aspiring young man a state-of-the-art blade. Purcell’s work recounts the British monarch’s efforts to rescue his fiancée, the blind Princess Emeline, who was kidnapped by a Saxon king during the Saxons’ war against the Bretons in medieval Kent in southeast England. The story provided a fertile substructure for much European fantasy literature, and for Purcell – one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque period – the plot served as the bedrock of one of the greatest works of that era, taking in a libretto written by feted English poet John Dryden.
This week’s production involves some challenging logistics, with 63-year-old Parrott overseeing and fusing the parts of several ensembles and pared-down ensembles. These include five members of the celebrated British-based Taverner Choir, an ensemble that Parrott founded in 1973 specifically to perform Renaissance English music; two Israeli soprano singers; the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra; and the Israeli New Vocal Ensemble. And, if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the score is not exactly complete.
“We haven’t got all the instructions about the work,” says Parrott. “We’ve just got a few dots on pages, which isn’t even the original score from the time. If we had the original score, that would probably have answered a lot of questions, so I’m getting through a lot of work here in Israel,” he adds diplomatically.
Then again, as any comic act will tell you, it can help greatly to have good source material with a touch or two of spice and color. “I’m not trying to paint Purcell as a bit of a lad, but he was absolutely a man of the times in an age when secular and sacred absolutely went together,” notes Parrott. “To us they seem to clash. But Purcell wrote some sublime church music; the Funeral Anthems, which he wrote when he was under 20, are absolute masterpieces. But he would have also written catches [musical compositions of two or more voices that were often politically subversive or lewd] which would have been sung in the pubs and the equivalent of the modern-day clubs. In fact, in the 19th century they couldn’t be printed, except with modified text, because they were so rude and also very funny.”
By now it is clear that Parrott holds Purcell in very high regard both for his artistic genius and his salt-of-the-earth ethos. “He was a bit Mozartian. He could write fantastic theater music, really serious funereal music, tragic operas and knock about comedy, and he could write filthy letters home – like a real person. I like that. I don’t like these people who declare ‘I’m going to be a serious opera composer’ or ‘a light music person.’ It’s real life, it’s a mixture of the lot.”
Besides his earnest and acclaimed musical work with ensembles across the globe, Parrott has also made a name for himself as a skilled researcher and writer, publishing major articles on Bach, Monteverdi and Purcell as co-editor of the New Oxford Book of Carols
and author of The Essential Bach Choir
, which was informed by his work with Joshua Rifkin on one-voice-per-part performance of Bach’s vocal works.
When he sets about a new score or a new production, Parrott makes sure he does plenty of preparatory work before he picks up his baton. “When there is enough time, and enough information, I find that background helps – although I can’t say exactly how – but without it, I’d feel like a fraud. I don’t mean that it’s an intellectual decision, but I can’t relate to the period properly or understand fully what the composer was trying to get at without that preliminary work.”
Parrott does not confine his research just to music per se. “I like to get into actual life at the time to find out, for instance, how much a lute string cost and how you repaired your oboe reeds – little glimpses of real life. For me, [17th-century English diarist] Samuel Pepys’s work is everything. It’s history, and he was interested in music, and he was in the middle of all the big events of state. You get the big story – the plague and the fire of London – but you also learn about rope-making and how much it cost to cross the Thames by boat. It’s the same with music, when you get a little nugget [of information] that makes you think not only about the harmony but the whole reason for that piece.”
Despite his lofty position in the profession, Parrott hails from Walsall, a large industrial town in the English Midlands located off the beaten classical music track between the larger cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton where, as a youngster, he would go to catch concerts. Mind you, Parrott has never really adhered to the tried and tested way, preferring Renaissance works to more popular compositions by the classicists, and preferring authenticity over grandiose performance.
“There are plenty of people who, to my mind, have a sort of blinkered approach to music. [Israeli violinist-conductor Pinhas] Zuckerman, for instance, hates period instruments. He is on record as using obscenities about them. Today, I realize it’s down to individuals and their particular training.”
When it comes to Purcell, Parrott says you have to make sure you are
focused. “People do Purcell, and it can come out too French or too
Italian or too all-purpose Baroque. When I feel I’ve got it just right,
it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Then again, as Purcell is so quintessentially English, Parrott fears
that non-English listeners may not always grasp the full meaning of the
work. “It’s also got to be connected to the language, and sometimes the
work may not translate as well as I would like to foreign audiences.”
With all the work Parrott and his ensembles have been putting in during
the rehearsals over the past couple of weeks and the conductor’s deep
knowledge of the composer’s work and life and times, King
will, no doubt, fall on receptive ears.
King Arthur will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater as part
of the Israel Festival on Saturday at 9 p.m. For more info: