The esteemed harpsichordist and music director of the Academy of Ancient Music Richard Egarr makes his Mostly Mozart Festival debut this summer, leading the Festival Orchestra from the keyboard in favorites by Bach and Handel. The program was curated to capture the ebullient spirit of summer and he wants the audience to feel free to react to the music however they please. After all, he says, that’s what Mozart would have expected!


Amanda MacBlane: This program of Bach and Handel is certainly in your wheelhouse, but it’s unusual fare for the Mostly Mozart Festival, which doesn't present Baroque music often. How did you decide on this program?

Richard Egarr: Well, it’s summer music. All of the pieces are bright and cheerful, starting with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. What's incredible about the Brandenburg set is that there's not a miserable movement in it. Even the slow movement of No. 6, it’s wistful but it's not miserable. So, you'll be getting Brandenburg 5, which was written to show the Margrave of Brandenburg what a great keyboard player Bach was. Physically, it's really fun to play, a young mind flexing its muscles. You have this incredible cadenza in the first movement that lasts about 4 to 5 minutes, and it's a real leap of faith by Bach. It's the first time in the history of music that you have a solo keyboard in a concerto. Bach releases the harpsichord from its subsidiary role as an accompanying instrument to be a solo instrument, which paves the way to Haydn keyboard concertos then to Mozart, then to Beethoven, etcetera. I love to play it. Playing the cadenza, I've had some interesting reactions. I remember playing it in Leipzig, one of Bach's hometowns, with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and after the cadenza the audience started applauding. It made the newspapers! I don't know if it was disapproving or just reporting, but I feel it's like a great jazz break for the keyboard. 

AMB: It does seem more natural to applaud after it than to sit there in silence.

RE: Exactly! And that's the effect it should have. That's very much the atmosphere that Bach intended it to be heard in.
 

Richard on... The Worst Job Application in Music History

"Everybody's heard a Brandenburg at some point in their life, even if it was in an elevator or on hold to British Airways. But if you were to go back only 170 years, nobody would've known them. They were rediscovered in the mid-19th century as somebody was rifling through the Brandenburg library. The set was sort of the worst job application in the history of music. Basically, Bach was trying to get a job and he sent this beautiful handwritten score to the Margrave of Brandenburg, who took a cursory glance at it and shoved it in his library and that was the last that was ever seen of it. We're very lucky that it survived."

AMB: You mentioned before that everyone has heard this music, often in settings where it's meant to be innocuous background music. But you've been quoted before as saying that Baroque music should "set the senses on fire." How do you overcome the challenge of bringing this music out of the background and communicating its urgency to an audience?

RE: Well, I think that will be obvious to people who come to a concert. First, it's ok to listen to this music on recordings or CDs, but there's no better way to listen to this music than in concert, because it's living music. It has such energy and such joy within it, and if it's done properly and given in a generous way to an audience, then I think audiences respond to that. Breaking down that fourth wall is essential in communicating music to a public. Leonard Bernstein, who is one of my great heroes, was a magician at doing that. He was a most extraordinary communicator. He didn't always speak to the audience, but he spoke to the audience directly through his music-making, and that's what I try to do. It’s also giving them permission to respond to the music in an open way; they don't have to sit there and be quiet. That's not how music was appreciated in Bach’s time. This sitting and being quiet thing only really started in the 20th century. Composers expected audiences to react and to clap even during movements. This “audiences on good behavior” thing is such a modern concept. The whole concert-going experience has changed radically over the last 100 to 150 years. 

AMB: I was reading some of Mozart's letters, and in one about the premiere of the Paris Symphony he wrote about how it had to be flashy or otherwise the Parisians wouldn't applaud at the end of the movement. 

RE: Exactly! He talks about that first movement where he specially wrote a passage twice because he knew that the second time they heard it they would applaud even more. That exchange, that dialogue, that interaction between musicians and audiences is really important, and people should feel free to start tapping their foot or whatever they want to do. I remember I was on a choir tour with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in 1984. We ended up in San Francisco and had a concert at Grace Cathedral. It was a choir of 90-aught young people between the ages of 14 and 19, and after Grace Cathedral we were taken to one of the big gospel churches and it was extraordinary because they were really getting down listening to us do a piece by Orlando Gibbons, "O Clap Your Hands," and, by God, they did! It was fantastic! So, I hope that we can make this concert into an experience that people can really open up to.

AMB: It’s almost like the Historically Informed Performance movement needs to be paired with a Historically Informed Audience movement, where the audience is encouraged to react how audiences used to react. 

RE: Yes! I think the more you can prep your audience for that the better. If they feel like cheering or even throwing things at me, I don't mind! [laughs] I'd rather that than an anodyne, nothing response. Because it's really an up concert. There's nothing miserable at all in it.
 

"Bach in D major with trumpets, you can't go wrong."

AMB: Tell us about the rest of the program.

RE: The other Bach on the program is the Orchestral Suite No. 3. Of course, everyone will know the famous "Air on the G String," which is from this third suite. Again, I have played this suite a lot and the Air is utter perfection. It is a completely perfect creation. And the rest of the orchestral suite is absolute jubilation and splendor. Bach in D major with trumpets, you can't go wrong. It's very joyous, summer music. 

Then, you've got the Handel Water Music, which again, has been with me a very long time. The Academy of Ancient Music was on Barge No. 2 in the Queen's celebrations in 2012, floating down the river and playing Water Music for the Queen. 

Then, probably the least known piece on the program, is the Sonata a Cinque but it's a wonderful moment in musical history. It's a little three-movement piece, nine minutes, and it was written by Handel when he was in Rome. He was a young man at 22 and he worked alongside the great godfather of music in Italy, Arcangelo Corelli. It's a fabulous snapshot in sound of the young 22-year-old Handel playing with the 55-year-old Corelli, having written this piece for Corelli accompanied by his Concerto Grosso. And it's fabulous because the opening bar and a half is just scored for solo violin and harpsichord, so it's literally Corelli playing the violin and Handel playing the harpsichord. You can visualize the whole thing happening, the two of them playing together. It's got all the vigor and power of the Roman musical life at the beginning of 18th-century, which was so extraordinary and you feel the people that are involved in it. It's really fantastic!
 

Richard on... Teaching at Juilliard

I’ve been teaching at Juilliard for seven years and the Juilliard Historical Performance course is fabulous and filled with interesting, incredibly gifted people. I've coached string players as well as keyboard players, and I can say quite honestly that the standing of the string players is above and beyond a lot of the conservatory-trained string players in Europe. I think this generation of musicians has to be enterprising in a way that we didn't when I was starting in the '80s. There was a lot of recording and that is just not happening so much. They're very enterprising about the way that they're marketing themselves. I've always been incredibly impressed with both their playing and the intellect behind it as well. It's a real joy to teach them.


Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.