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Introducing Robert Houssart

As he joins the Maestro Arts roster, Robert Houssart tells us about how his early musical training has informed his conducting

What are your first musical memories?

My dad is a jazz pianist and he would often sit and doodle away, so I remember standing with my face at keyboard height, trying to reach over to play the piano. As a small child I used to sit at the piano improvising and I started lessons when I was five.

Improvisation always came naturally to me and I found lessons tough because I didn’t like having to systematise what I was doing for fun. I joined Norwich Cathedral choir when I was eight, which accelerated my progress. I was hearing two different kinds of music – jazz at home and church music of every different kind during the day.

There was a festival of contemporary church music at the time in Norwich, so I was lucky to be introduced to all kinds of new music as a child. I met Jonathan Harvey, John Tavener, Diana Burrell and many other composers who came by. I thought that was normal as a child.

I started the organ when my legs were long enough and ended up as an organ scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge. Playing for the famous choir every day was a huge job as an 18 year old. I had to learn a lot very quickly: how to accompany, how to follow a conductor and how to make music on an instrument that doesn’t breathe, with a choir that breathes so beautifully.


How did you become a conductor?

My grandfather used to remind me about how I’d told him I wanted to be a conductor when I was ten. I’d seen Carlos Kleiber conducting the New Year’s Day concert on TV. I started to conduct choirs at Cambridge and discovered that it was very thrilling and rewarding, although also hugely challenging. I studied Musicology, so I was listening to a lot of music – Bruckner, Mahler, Ravel, Nielsen. I finally had time to immerse myself and came across all kinds of weird and wonderful music and I hoovered it all up.


What part has improvisation played in your work?

Improvisation has been extremely important throughout my life. I kept improvising at university and would always try to improvise in the style of what was going on around me. As an organist I played a lot of Messiaen, and I would try to imitate him, as well as trying to ‘improvise’ Janáček (who was also an organist) and many others, trying to find the essence of their style, like an impressionist. I was lucky to have several positions as an organist in my 20s where I could improvise daily, and I would take a form, theme, style, or simply start playing and see what see fell into my fingers.

Throughout history, it has been routine for composers to improvise: Bach, of course, but also Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. Improvisation is an important place for musicians to find their music. It’s like a workshop – it might not be where the finished product comes from, but it’s where a lot of the work takes place. Orchestras don’t get to do that kind of work but it’s important to have that perspective of the stuff of music – what makes it tangible and gives it shape. A large part of making a performance is structured preparation and analytical work, building up a performance step by step; but in the performance itself, it’s important to be alive and spontaneous, aware of what’s going on.

I think of orchestral pieces as fantastical animals that start to breathe when we begin to play them. You’re in an enclosure with this mythical beast, trying to understand it and touch it and not let it bite you. Improvisation is a good preparation for being present in that process. I suspect many orchestral musicians have something similar in their approach, but an orchestra itself works in a different kind of way. It can be useful to rehearse in that kind of sense or to experiment with the music in a slightly live way.


How did you develop your love of opera?

Where I grew up there wasn’t any opera, so I didn’t know what it was until I started to go to English National Opera in my early 20s. I remember a Eureka moment watching Rhinegold, realising that music and drama belong together. I’d played so much pure music, such as Bach, where there is no theatre (not explicit, at least), but I remember with Rhinegold seeing and hearing the same thing happen and being completely overwhelmed. I thought, ‘I have to do this.’


You made your conducting debut in Ligeti. What makes Ligeti special as a composer for you?

Ligeti is what I prize most in a composer – an individual. He has his own strong, defined, well-explored voice. He absolutely knew himself. He could hear the voice inside that needed to speak and was afraid of nothing in his attempts to let it speak. He would try any technique he could find to express his music. His music is hard for the players and a lot of it is extreme. It’s sometimes exceptionally fast or rhythmically difficult, and some of the orchestral textures are challenging for wind players, with sustained, soft chords. It pulls people to the boundaries of what they think they can do. You see people’s frustration that they’re being asked to play something they think is barely possible. But a week later they can play it; another week later, they’re playing it with abandon and pleasure; and by the end of the project, they’re desperate to play it again.


What did you learn from conducting Ligeti?

I was very lucky because halfway through my first year as a student repetiteur at the Royal Northern College of Music someone rang me up and asked me to work on Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre at La Monnaie. I was assistant conductor and in those seven weeks in the rehearsal studio, I learnt to conduct – just by being in the room and testing my wits.

I learnt to do less than I thought I had to do, which took a little time. I also learnt the most basic rule of opera conducting, which is that you should be able to stop something as easily as you can start it. You should have one gesture that unmistakably says, ‘Not now.’ I can access that more quickly than I can even think it now, which comes from the Ligeti time. If the music is really complex, it can be hard for the singers to hear where they are in the score and if they’re waiting to sing, in practical terms, as a conductor, you need to be able to look at them in all this chaos around them and reassure them, ‘It’s not now but I can see it’s coming and it’s... now!’

I learnt many practical things about conducting, but I also realised that how I feel about the music transmits automatically. The musicians around you are reading you very carefully, almost without realising: and not so much your arms or the stick but the whole of you. You don’t need to demonstrate everything, because somehow they can see if you love the music.


What do you enjoy about conducting opera?

I find great pleasure just sitting at a table reading an opera or ballet score. You can see how the great composers have thought about a scenario, referred to it and played with it in the scoring and the musical motifs. There are glimpses of character inside musical motifs that tell you about the people on stage. There’s so much detail that makes performances beautiful and compelling. With the great works, the possibilities are almost endless and the conductor’s work is making sure everybody remembers that.

Everything belongs together in opera. The concepts of the librettist, composer and director; the music; how it’s played; the way the singers interact both as musicians and actors; the lighting and set design and costume ideas; the room; the people who come; even the identity of the city in which the audience lives – all these things come together. When you’re discussing a new project they are all on the table. What’s the identity of this orchestra? Why do they want to play this piece? Who is the audience? What do we want to show them with this with this idea?

Conducting opera is an exercise in letting groups understand one another’s work. It’s important that an opera orchestra understands what the singers are aiming for. If you’re in an orchestra pit it’s difficult to see what the staging is, so it’s important that you explain what’s going on, what the concept is, and the atmosphere. Likewise, it’s important for the singers to understand what the orchestra is playing.

I love to work with the singers on the beauty of language and the way language is expressed and the colour it brings to the music and vice versa. I speak a few languages – I grew up in England speaking Dutch at home,so I was always used to the idea of operating in several languages.


How is the experience different with new music?

The great thing about new music projects is that everyone is required to have an open mind at the beginning! When pieces are well known there are strong expectations from the way they’ve been done before. Understanding traditions is part of what we do – if you perform Puccini there are many famous performances you have to know, because these pieces grow with time – but new pieces are just being born. It’s their first outing and it’s even more important to be helpful and well informed when you start rehearsals. These pieces are often virtuosic and difficult technically, and it can be hard for singers and players to see beyond the difficulty to what’s going on at first, so patience and good faith are very important. I have the highest respect for what composers are doing and it’s a wonderful privilege to get involved in the process of bringing their work to life.


How do you see the future of opera?

There is a lot of interest in bringing different disciplines together now and people seem to be more curious about each other’s work. There seems to be an interest in art that uses everything possible to speak its message. Opera has a big part to play in this. Huge subjects call for huge canvases and I sense that people living in troubled times are looking for ways to express themselves, to come together in ever more powerful ways.

We have to make sure our opera companies are flexible and free in their thinking and able to ask, ‘Has this got something to say? What risks do we are we prepared to take to say it?’ Should opera always be in an opera house? Probably not. Does the orchestra always go downstairs and the singers upstairs? Definitely not. There are so many places we could go. Opera is still very western in many ways and that’s another area for exploration. There’s so much more to discover about opera.