February 7, 2014 6:42 pm

A celebration of the Monteverdi Choir and its creator, John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner Conductor Taken for FT Weekend Life and Arts Commissioned by Hilary Kirby Taken in Battersea on Sunday 2nd February 2014©Jasper Fry

John Eliot Gardiner

There is no doubt which is John Eliot Gardiner’s house. Small groups of people are standing on the London pavement, waiting for the conductor to come back from a lunch engagement: a photographer, catering staff and others.

This is a busy weekend. In advance of the 50th anniversary of the inaugural concert by the Monteverdi Choir, which Gardiner founded when he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge university, sponsors are flying in for a special anniversary visit. They are to attend a drinks function that evening at Gardiner’s home, while the conductor himself dashes out to rehearse the orchestra for a gala concert in the presence of the Prince of Wales, the Monteverdi Choir’s patron, at Buckingham Palace the next day.

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The timetable has no slack. But then it was ever thus. The first Monteverdi Choir concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on March 5 1964, was not just one of the key dates in the advance of early music, but also the harbinger of new performing groups that had to find the energy to survive without the featherbedding of a government grant.

If anybody wants to know where Gardiner’s zeal comes from, there is no need to look further than that concert. Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, regarded now as one of the early masterpieces in the classical music canon, was virtually unknown at that time. Getting a performance together depended entirely on the personal enthusiasm of one ambitious history undergraduate.

Gardiner says it was a “litmus test” for him. He had written his history thesis on the subject of western myths about the Arab world and had spent a year in Lebanon and Jordan. But then, on the advice of a sympathetic tutor, he took a year off to see if, instead, music would be his future.

For the groundbreaking Vespers performance, he “recruited the choir from choral scholars from different colleges,” says Gardiner. “They were very patient and tolerant. This was outside their comfort zone completely. Even though I had been conducting choirs since I was 15, I had never tackled anything as complex, so this was the moment that would decide whether music was to be my destiny. It was a very imperfect performance, I’m certain of that, but it was sufficiently encouraging to give me a kick up the bum.”

Gardiner says he was initially reluctant to commit fully to period instruments but by the time he did so, in 1978, battle-lines had been drawn. Many doubters thought period performance was a fad that would die away, and the sooner the better. Others thought the upstarts would find it hard to survive against the traditional symphony orchestras, especially as they had no government funding.

“There was definitely a polarisation in the 1970s,” says Gardiner. “There were the entrenched London orchestras, all male, sharp-suited, playing everything in a shiny, virtuoso way, whether it was Vivaldi or Stockhausen. Then there were the early music pioneers, perceived as being bohemian and wearing peculiar sandals. They were easy targets for the big orchestras but I am pleased to say all that has changed now. I’ve been working with the London Symphony Orchestra for 16 years and have seen how radical the shift has been. Today the LSO is a cosmopolitan orchestra with a near-equal mix of genders and players curious about old styles. I am doing a Mendelssohn series with them and they are playing it beautifully, with real stylistic integrity.”

The programme for the Monteverdi Choir’s first performance

The programme for the Monteverdi Choir’s first performance

Like Gardiner, others of that first generation of period instrument conductors have gone on to conduct the great symphony orchestras. Even old-style conductors, such as Bernard Haitink and the much-missed Claudio Abbado, not to mention mainstream maestros such as Simon Rattle and Vladimir Jurowski, have adopted “period” ideas.

But nothing stays the same forever. If period performance instigated the biggest revolution for 50 years in how we hear classical music, what of the next 50? Does Gardiner see any other movement on the horizon that might have a comparable impact?

He says that he doubts any other change could be as far-reaching but one area that will have to evolve is the way music is presented.

“We are facing a crisis as audiences get older. To attract young people there has to be a breakdown in the conventions of concert-giving, like explaining why you are making music and how you go about it, using all kinds of techniques, including film and TV [Gardiner’s television film Bach: A Passionate Life was a big success last year]. Have you seen the app called ‘The Orchestra’? It is astonishing. For somebody who can’t read music to learn how an orchestra functions, to be able to see from the perspective of a flute or a second violin, is really enlightening.”

Does he feel ageing western audiences can be replaced with new, young ones in the east?

“That will be difficult in the choral repertoire, as so much of our choral culture in the west is based on the church. How are the Chinese going to take to that? We know the Japanese love Bach and I have done tours to rapt audiences there. But China? I don’t know. Of course, I would love to take the Monteverdi Choir to China and show audiences there the Bach cantatas, and also Monteverdi and Rameau, Schumann and Brahms, Stravinsky and Kurtág, Benjamin and Adès, all composers I admire greatly.”

Talk of apps and Thomas Adès in Beijing is a sharp reminder of how far music has come in 50 years. For those who are interested in looking back, the Monteverdi Choir will be performing the Vespers of 1610 on March 5, 50 years to the day after the original concert, at the same Cambridge venue, and even with some of the same performers.

Perhaps there will be an undergraduate in the audience who will find the evening an “epiphany”, as Gardiner did 50 years earlier. And who knows what might follow?

Performance details from monteverdi.co.uk

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