Conducting a Leading Chamber Ensemble: An Interview with Jonathan Cohen

Jonathan Cohen is fast becoming one of the household names of the classical music world. An adept cellist and keyboardist, he is also building a remarkable reputation as a conductor. In 2010 he founded Arcangelo, a leading chamber ensemble which specialises in early music. Having made its BBC Proms debut in 2016, Arcangelo is about to perform its first concert in their Baroque Ensemble Residency at the Wigmore Hall. At the start of the residency, Ben Horton caught up with Jonathan to discuss his approach to music-making.   

The range of your work has given you a broad view of the British classical music world. What are your thoughts on it — are we in a good place?

Britain is in a bit of a difficult position. It’s hard because there is so little funding for music. There are a lot of creative people, and that so many people want to be involved in culture is a wonderful thing. But there is a limited demand for it and limited funding, and so it ends up as all market forces do; things are not properly paid compared to our European or American counterparts. I’m worried because so many players, including members of my own ensemble, leave music colleges as fantastic performers and want to work in London because so many top ensembles play in London, especially the early music ones. But how to live here, and how to play here, when it’s so expensive to live and so poorly paid? I’m worried that this means they are being driven away to other places. It’s an issue.

You mention the differing situation in Europe and America. Can you see any reasons which account for these differences? What do they do that the UK doesn’t?

For me music is a social thing; a community thing. I think it is essential for an orchestra to have a reason, and a place, to be. We miss that in Britain, compared with other countries, because many of the top ensembles spend so much time touring around. I’d love to have a town, a place, or even a building (an audience, I suppose), where my ensemble could play regularly. I recently took a post in Canada which begins in the next couple of years as musical director of an ensemble called Les Violons du Roy, and like many ensembles in many countries they have a series and a regular place where they play week in week out. And that enables you to be experimental in your programming, to get to know your audience, and to have a function which is community-based. I think that the Wigmore residency is an excellent opportunity because we will be in one place for a sustained amount of time, and for sure that will provide that kind of rooting in London.

I’d like to come onto your role in the ensemble Arcangelo, and how it differs from your other commitments as a guest conductor. On the website you’re described as the artistic director? What exactly does that entail?

Well the roles are very different. For example earlier in the year I was invited to conduct an orchestra in Munich, playing Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, and in such instances they send me the score, the rehearsal schedule, and my plane ticket and tell me when to turn up. So in a sense you are hired in as a Musical Director. The primary responsibility is to focus on the music; how you want the piece to sound, and how to direct the musicians towards that interpretation. When you’re with your own ensemble, it’s like having your own company. You are responsible for everything, from casting the musicians you want involved to the more mundane tasks of running a business. One of the reasons for doing it actually is the freedom it affords you to choose the right musicians for the music. When you have a fixed roster of players, as you do when guest conducting, then shifts in repertoire are more problematic to negotiate. People have different strengths and weaknesses, depending on the music, and I try to cast the perfect balance in Arcangelo. We don’t use completely different people all the time. Rather we have a family of regular performers who are involved in different ways at different times.

So when it comes to your approach to rehearsal, do you have a very collaborative ethos? Do the players get involved in the interpretation of the works?

Yes absolutely, I always believe that if you have very good people they can invest their personality and interpretation in the music. I don’t think music works if you have an automaton approach on the part of the musicians. I suppose the larger the ensemble the more you have to build structure in, and there is necessarily less opportunity for debate on interpretation. But in chamber music you really can debate, and that’s a pleasure. Often it doesn’t need to be in talking but in playing. You are working with very alert, intelligent players who know exactly what they are doing with this music. As a director your role is often just a matter of marrying ideas. You set the parameters for the discussion but allow the musicians to express themselves.

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Cohen pictured with perfomers from his ensemble Arcangelo. Credit: Adam Swann

I read that you were at Glyndebourne this summer. How did this experience compare to what you were just saying? The likes of Christian Thielemann will tell you a Konzert-Meister needs to be strong and dictatorial in order to succeed in opera. Do you agree with that?

That might be his opinion! I don’t think you need to be authoritarian in opera, where your directorial approach depends on the project and what you want to glean from the music. If it’s a piece that needs a very strong rhythm and people can’t get out of time, then you have to be like that. But I always like it when you can collaborate. In Mozart for instance, and baroque opera generally, it functions just like big chamber music. The score is not simply a principle voice accompanying by a subservient texture. In early opera the singing voice is one part of a complex score. You have always interesting rhythmical and melodic interjections from the orchestra and it’s important to encourage that approach of collaboration and listening. It’s important that the singer hears and reflects the orchestra, and that the orchestra hears and reflects the singer. If everyone defers to one person (me) then you take away the ability of the players to react to each other, although of course they must all refer to your direction. In rehearsal with the singers you have the opportunity to influence, but ultimately you have to have a cohesive, diplomatic approach between singer, director, and musical director. The best productions are when everyone finds a way to be on the same page. And that can be difficult sometimes; it might involve you completely changing your view. Otherwise you end up hiring people who just say yes to you. In special cases that can work well, but it’s not in the spirit of music pre-19th century to my mind.

Is this what draws you to early music?

It is one of the reasons. The other thing, for me, is that more is demanded creatively on the part of the artist, compared with later music, like Mahler for instance, where the diktat of the composer is absolute. It is still fantastically creative music, but in their case every element of the music — crescendo or attack on the note for example — is the province of the composer. Then the performer exists merely to fulfil the great Romantic vision of the creator, and accordingly they have less freedom. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just different.

Moving on to your prolific recording output, how involved do you get in the editing process? Is it difficult to find the sound you have in mind?

I’ve developed a few useful relationships with producers over the years, including Adrian Peacock. It’s difficult when recording because it’s such a lengthy process. So having strong relationships with the producer, whose ears you can trust, is so important. But at the same time I also have to listen hard to the details of what’s going on. I love spotting the details — it’s a striving for perfection. It’s actually similar to practicing at the highest level; the challenge is keeping a sense of interest. It can’t just become an academic exercise where you are searching for the perfect pitches and textures. So I’ve always loved recording, and it’s been a privilege to do so much.

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Arcangelo’s forthcoming release, available on 30 December, features the acclaimed counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. Credit: Hyperion Records.

How does radio affect classical recording?

I think the best aspect of radio is that people get to hear from the personalities behind the recordings. I remember when we did the Mozart violin concertos with Vilde Frang, and the interviewer asked me why we were doing another Mozart recording. I said they were right that we don’t need another recording of Mozart, but we do need the latest recording of Vilde playing Mozart. When we listen to Mozart violin concertos we don’t just listen to them for the music, but also because we want to hear from the specific artist who’s playing it. Maybe that’s because we have a connection with living people making music, which I think is the most powerful aspect of recording.

Arcangelo’s next performance is on 14 December in the first concert of their Wigmore Hall ‘Baroque Ensemble’ Residency. The programme features J.S. Bach’s Mourning Cantatas’. For more information click here.

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