Kevin Mallon is the Artistic Director of Aradia Ensemble; he will be conducting The Dublin Messiah December 17th at the Glenn Gould Studio.
I ask Mallon ten questions: five about himself and five about his work.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality / ethnic background)?
Although I define myself as Irish and lived all of my young life in Belfast, I was actually born in Newark New Jersey! (This usually makes my American friends laugh for some reason!) My grandfather on my father’s side had immigrated to America. However, he had become ill with cancer. My father, recently graduated as a doctor and his young bride, went over to the USA to care for his him. I was born while they were there. Until very recently I told everyone that I had left America to return to Ireland when I was six weeks old, but have recently learnt that this was only a trip home to show me off to the family back in Ireland. My mother told me recently that we then returned to the USA for a while. But eventually we settled in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
In truth, I think I resemble my mother the most. She was a music teacher and although my father was also an amateur musician, I‘m sure I got my music from my mother.
2) What is the best thing / worst thing about what you do?
The best thing I do is that I get to perform, or record a wide range of music. The summer before last, I met up with some old school friends from music school in England, who I hadn’t seen in some twenty years. Although some of them were successful musicians, many had gone in other directions. It made me feel that my efforts to stick by it were worthwhile.
The worst thing that I do, as a conductor, is not anything to do with the music, but rather the vast amount of artistic administration I need to do—about three hours a day! I am involved with many enterprises (with orchestras in Toronto, Ottawa and New York) and this takes a lot of organizing. I don’t resent it, but it certainly takes up a lot of time and energy.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
In truth, I don’t listen to classical music for pleasure! Mostly, for fun I am listening to a lot of Jazz or Irish music. Having said that, I am a big record/CD collector. (Yes, I still listen to records!) So, I am often listening to lots of stuff that I am working on. For example, I have just started to work on performing the complete Beethoven symphonies in New York, so I have been listening to the pioneering recordings by Norrington and Gardiner. Also, I like the set with Nikolaus Harnoncourt with modern instruments, an approach I am trying to emulate.
I watch a lot of movies, having recently just given up on TV. Also, I try to watch lots of comedies—am rather addicted to a silly BBC series called Coupling, right now! I absolutely love Youtube and can spend hours watching performances, especially of violinists of the old school.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
This is a very good, yet difficult question to answer. It’s not that there are not a multitude of things that I wish I could do, or do better, but I have spent a lifetime making use of the resources I do have. This is an important outlook for me especially as I get older, because I can tend to beat myself up about what I think I should be achieving.
My skill with other languages is weak and it is something I am working on. I used to have a certain facility on the piano, but really gave that up one time in college when instead of the Beethoven sonata I was supposed to play, I could only really manage Lady Madonna-you know the Beatles song!
5) When you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favourite thing to do?
I find it difficult to relax as such—and even in down time am often working at something to do with music. But I have been blessed with many good friends, and a wonderful girlfriend, so there are always social occasions to attend or parties to throw—I love to cook. I was once an avid reader—something I have lost of late and which I am hoping to rediscover. With so many demands on my time, it is often difficult for me to carve out the time needed for myself. I know it, I say it, yet I don’t do what I know or say!
5 more questions about conducting various Messiahs–hoping it’s not a sacrilege to say that– particularly, the upcoming presentation of The Dublin Messiah.
1) How does the Dublin Messiah challenge you?
Funnily enough, even though I have conducted Messiah many times now, and particularly this, my own reconstruction of the 1st performance in Dublin, it is still a challenging thing to put together. There is never enough rehearsal time and so part of the conductor’s art is figuring what to do in the limited time to get maximum results. This year I have three out of the four soloists who are new to doing it with me, and indeed there are a lot of new players in the Aradia orchestra, so you have to try to get the best out of everyone and to get them to feel relaxed while you still cover everything musically. In rehearsal this year there will also be a film crew following us around who will be doing a documentary about the Hallelujah chorus. So, there is a lot to keep together!
2) What do you love about Handel’s Messiah, particularly the Dublin Messiah?
Performing a lot of Baroque music, it is always evident that the composers of the time saved their special efforts in reflection of their devotion to God. This is something that is often difficult to appreciate in our modern, secular world. So, it was with Bach or Handel that in the religious works we see a special effort made to write for the glory of god. (At the end of the manuscript of Messiah, Handel wrote the letters “SDG”—Soli Deo Gloria an abbreviation of the words “To God alone the glory”.)
The fact that this musical composition—one of the great canons of Western Music was first performed in my home country of Ireland has always made me proud!
3) Do you have a favourite number in the Messiah: something that you’re looking forward to hearing?
The truth is that there is hardly a weak moment in Messiah. The Hallelujah chorus is famous for a reason- it is a superb piece of music, but for me when you have done all of the oratorio and you hit the last few bars on the words Amen, it always sends shivers down my spine.
“He was despised” is for me, probably the most moving aria. One can only imagine the first performance: Susanna Cibber (sister of the English composer Thomas Arne) was by all accounts renowned for her ability to move the audience emotionally. Charles Burney wrote of her singing “by a natural pathos, and perfect conception of the words, she often penetrated the heart, when others, with infinitely greater voice and skill, could only reach the ear.”
When she sang, “He was despised” she so affected the Rev. Patrick Delany, chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he is reported to have leapt to his feet and exclaimed: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!
(Several years ago at the Aradia Dublin Messiah we had an actor depict Delany and do likewise!)
4) How do you relate to the Dublin Messiah as a modern man?
Although Handel first performed Messiah in April of 1742, with the oratorio covering the Christmas and Easter stories, it has become traditional to perform it at Christmas. As such the Christmas sentiment gives me reason to pause and reflect on peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, positive beliefs, love, peace and joy.
I find it heartening that, amidst all the problems we have, mankind can still come together and find and encourage peace and goodwill.
That is why I love the following moment in Messiah when the soprano sings:
And suddenly there was with the angel a
multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men.
It is on the word Glory that we hear the first entry of the two trumpets! Another great moment, that gets me every time!
5) Is there a recording of the Messiah that you especially admire (whether it’s a historically informed version or not)?
The version of Messiah I have listened to for most of my adult life was that of my mentor and teacher John Eliot Gardiner. I think it is hard to be bettered. I also like Hogwood’s reconstruction of the 1754 Foundling Hospital version. Of course the one I am looking forward to is the one Aradia will make in 2013 of the Dublin Messiah!
Kevin Mallon leads the Dublin Messiah (a reconstruction of the first performance of Handel’s Messiah) Saturday, 17 December 2011, 8pm at Glenn Gould Studio, with
the choir and orchestra of the Aradia Ensemble, and soloists Virginia Hatfield (Soprano),
Maria Soulis (Mezzo-soprano), Joseph Schnurr (Tenor) and Giles Tomkins (Bass). For tickets call 416 -872-4255 or order online at Roy Thomson Hall.