An Interview With Jory Vinikour

November 19, 2013

Jory Vinikour’s last release, The Complete Harpsichord Works of Rameau, was nominated for a GRAMMY in 2012 for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. His new album for Sono Luminus is a collection of contemporary music for the harpsichord.

Jory Vinikour is recognized as one of the outstanding harpsichordists of his generation. A highly diversified career brings him to the world’s most important festivals and concert halls as recital and concerto soloist, partner to several of today’s finest artists. Read the rest of his bio here.

We had the chance to catch up with him recently via email. Here are his answers to questions we had about the harpsichord, Toccatas, and much more:

We’re excited about the release of Toccatas. Congratulations! You’ve made many recordings of Bach, Handel, Rameau, and other Baroque-era music, you’re releasing an album of modern music for the instrument. Has this project been on your mind for a long time? Is that unusual? Do you play much modern music in concert?
Indeed, contemporary music has always been of great interest to me. Even as a teenager, I was fascinated with music of the 20th century – occasionally horrified, generally intrigued and enthralled (and sometimes, all of the above). Over the last 20 years, as my solo performing career became more active, I would frequently try to include some modern repertoire in my programs. For instance, the three solo works written by Gyorgy Ligeti (Passacaglia ungherese, Hungarian Rock, and Continuum) are a staple of my repertoire. I am fortunate to have performed Francis Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre (which references Handel and Couperin as much as it does Stravinsky) with many orchestras around the world. I have also given a number of performances of Michael Nyman’s electrifying Concerto for amplified harpsichord and strings. Most of my daily musical existence revolves around repertoire of the Baroque or early Classical period, of course, but I maintain a strong relationship with music a bit nearer to our own time.

Can you tell us about your relationship with a composer or two?
The process that brought about Toccatas – the work by Harold Meltzer which is the source for my new album’s title – is a special one to me. Brandon Fradd, who has been a generous sponsor and great friend, sent me a recording of Harold’s haunting Virginal, for harpsichord with small orchestra. I loved what I heard. Brandon then asked if I would wish to have a commission from Harold. Thus was born the set of four toccatas that I premiered in 2005. I performed this initial set nearly twenty times in several different countries. A few years ago, Harold (and Brandon) decided that the set need a a finger-twisting, virtuoso final piece. I was a bit trepidatious, as I was already very attached to the work as it stood (not to mention of it having been heard by many people). The brilliant fifth (and final!) toccata arrived. I felt that it did, indeed, bring the work to a wonderful conclusion, while still maintaining the character of the first four movements.

What is it about the harpsichord that make it suitable for modern music?
It might be said that the qualities which brought the harpsichord to prominence during the Baroque period would appeal to a certain more modern esthetic. As the harpsichord reappeared in the early part of the 20th century, certain composers were immediately attracted to it. However, the harpsichords more commonly heard in the first half of the 20th century differed strongly from their Baroque counterparts : heavier, louder (at least when heard at close range), denser sonically.

The harpsichord does not have only one quantifiable characteristic which explains its appeal to composers over the last century. Yet, it is surely the harpsichord’s propensity for polyphony which attracts great composers. Even in the extreme case of Iannis Xenakis, who has composed several remarkable (if exorbitantly difficult) works for harpsichord, tonal planes are very clearly delineated by the very nature of the instrument.

Is the approach you take to modern music different than that for Baroque music?
My approach is quite different – to an extent. In both cases, I carefully study the score. But, with much of the Baroque repertoire I perform, I assume a certain liberty of expression with much of the repertoire. Whether it is a question of changing agogic expression, some ornamentation, tempi, etc., there is always a whiff of freedom on the horizon. In the case of contemporary music, the composers have provided much of what the performer needs to know. I suppose I have occasionally decided that my ideas for the realization of a given work take prevalence over the composer’s intentions – but only (if at all) in terms for registration, speed, etc. I take the musical text very seriously in all cases!

Some questions about traveling: Do you have favorite venues or audiences? Do you travel with your instrument?
I never travel with my instrument! My rather lavishly decorated harpsichord “lives” in my apartment in Burgundy. It will make a very short trip to a charity concert I am giving on December 1, and I shall breathe a great sigh of relief when it comes back home! So, no, I have never made a habit of traveling with my own instrument, least of all this one!

I have performed in some wonderful places – and in less wonderful. As a spontaneous answer, I adore the beautiful Luis Angel Arango Hall, in Bogotà, Colombia. Perhaps a surprising location for an extraordinarily beautiful hall, with a wonderful acoustic, and a beautiful design. It doesn’t hurt at all that the excellent French harpsichord maker, Jean-François Chaudeurge has made his home in Bogotà, so the hall has two fabulous instruments that he has made.

What’s in your CD player right now? What albums have you been obsessed with lately?
I rarely listen to Classical music at home. After a long day at work, I want to give my ears a rest. That said, I played harpsichord for Jose Lemos’ new CD, Io vid in terra (also on Sono Luminus). I was obliged to listen, obviously, but became rather obsessed with the sound of Jose’s voice, haunting yet visceral. I have listened to the CD at least twenty times – unheard of for me.

I have much admiration for so many musicians, past and present, but I simply don’t find myself listening to many recordings.But, I would have to mention Horowitz, Leonhardt, Anne Sofie von Otter. Also Joan Baez and Judy Collins!

You’re well known as a harpsichordist. Many people don’t know that you’re also in demand as a vocal coach. Tell us more about how that began and what it entails.
I suppose that this part of my career – which entails not only private work with singers, but my participation in various operatic productions, owes its inception to the French conductor, Marc Minkowski, with whom I worked significantly over an extended period. Engaged as harpsichordist in his period instrument ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre, I was expected to accompany various work sessions and auditions with singers. Having worked extensively as class accompanist for several singing teachers in New York, the idea wasn’t entirely alien to me. I discovered that I could offer help on several levels – questions of style, but also preparation of roles, etc. In addition to Baroque repertoire – a lot of Handel, but also Rameau, Gluck, Mozart – I have worked occasionally in productions of 20th century repertoire, having worked as repetiteur (that is, rehearsal pianist) in works such as Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (which has a marvelous solo harpsichord part) and Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten.

What’s the craziest idea you have for the harpsichord?
I have never had a crazy idea for the harpsichord! The “crazy” idea is to continue to try to bring this wonderful instrument and its wonderful repertoire to a wider public.

What’s next for you?
I am in Barcelona, performing in Handel’s early masterpiece, Agrippina. This is a comedy, nearly unique in Handel’s opus. It is a fairly dark comedy, apparently parodying the papal court of the time. This production was created in 1998 by Sir David McVicar, and I actually performed in it then. Of our world-class cast of singers, only two also performed in that original production, which has since been seen in many theaters around Europe. Our terrific conductor is Harry Bicket (a Scotsman of American parentage, brought up in England). A great, great pleasure for me. I even have a brief onstage moment, playing (basically) William Babell’s (a contemporary of Handel) transcription of the aria Vo’ far guerra. These solos have been interpolated onto the soprano aria, Per punir chi m’ha ingannata. An invention of the Belgian conductor René Jacobs, who conducted this production in 1998…

In mid-December, I am very fortunate to have two performances of the Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra by the Swiss composer, Frank Martin. This is with the Neuchâtel Symphonic Ensemble, under the direction of Alexander Maier. I will be playing on a rather rare Pleyel Harpsichord, familiar to any listener who has heard Wanda Landowska. There are few of these which have survived, although at least three of these, in working order, can be found in the Suisse Romande region. On the same program, I will play Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, although this will be on the more typical Baroque instrument, similar to that heard on my Sono Luminus recordings!

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Sono Luminus is an ultra-high fidelity record label focused on stereo and surround recordings of classical and acoustic music. 16 GRAMMY nominations, 2 wins.