Entrevista a Vasco Pearce de Azevedo / Interview with Vasco Pearce de Azevedo
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Interpreter, Composer and Conductor: Paths and Influences


This takes me way, way back in time, to the sixties and seventies, when I was still living in my parents’ house. And my first contact with various musical styles through them: classical music or more classical, so to speak, like Beethoven or Mozart, on records that I listened to with my parents; but also so-called non-classical music like Pop and Rock. Concretely, I can mention as my first great musical loves, inevitably, the Beatles and symphonic rock, or the progressive rock of the seventies. Perhaps, to name names, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, well, to just mention a few here. But this at the same time as classical music.

Inevitably, I had my experiences with rock bands and pop bands, at the end of the seventies while still in high school, and then later at university. Then from there I went to the Lisbon University Choir to sing, and it was precisely from then on, in 81, that I began to move away from (although without ever relegating it to the background) the interpretative music I was doing at the time, Pop or Rock, and move more seriously towards erudite music, shall we say. This is not to say that the other music is not in some way also erudite, but it was mainly upon joining the University Choir that I began to sing a different type of music and to approach, also in composition, a different type of music.

I then went to the Escola Superior de Música in Lisbon, where I did the Composition Course. For a long time I was only involved in this type of music, either by Composition or by Musical Direction. I always worked in Direction, I did it from the perspective of always being connected, although not exclusively, to contemporary music, to music which is made today, in fact, with a certain openness which makes me interpret works by more modernist composers, shall we say, but also more conservative composers, in the sense that they make more tonal music, without being restricted in any way in this sense.

Specifically as a composer, mainly in the stage I was in when studying at the Escola Superior, I experimented within the atonal field, but I have remained more frequently linked to an aesthetic, I don’t want to say tonal, but of attractions, let us say, where there is a certain harmonic, or modal, functionality but not in a totally atonal perspective. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that most of the pieces that I have written are for Choir; and I, as a singer of a Choir, I saw that the execution of music without functional references is really not something trivial.

I sang in the Gulbenkian Choir also. And in the Gulbenkian Choir I sang some works which would be in this category of non-functional music like those of Emanuel Nunes or Xenakis. And, in fact, the difficulty is absolutely exponential in relation to that which is difficult within music with functionality. Perhaps that is why, to a degree, my writing, when I write for Choir (which is, really, the greater part of the works that I write), has a very marked “functional” character.


Coexistence between the contemporary art music market and the other aesthetic trends (pop, rock, jazz, etc.)


Very sincerely, I think that the market unfortunately ends up by conditioning a lot of things. However, at this moment, I am open to interpretation and eventually to composition also (although I have worked less in composition than I have in that field); I am open to any type of music; I don’t see any problem in blending aesthetics which come from Jazz with aesthetics which come from erudite and contemporary music, or from Rock, or even Pop.  I like everything, in principle, provided that it has a minimum level of quality (although defining levels of quality is always a little subjective).

I should say that as an interpreter, in the last two years, I have had various projects which I would call transversal, all within music and in which I have worked with Bernardo Sassetti, with Mário Laginha, although the music with them, at times, has evidently some transversality with Jazz, but not only Jazz. I have done many works with Bernardo Sassetti which have no Jazz at all, for example; he writes music for Cinema and I work with him orchestrating or arranging and interpreting also. Therefore, in this aspect, I have tried to extend my horizons as far as possible as an interpreter and also to work with modern composers, not only from so-called contemporary music (although they are evidently contemporary composers as they are alive).

However, in relation to more contemporary music, in a more classical or more pure sense of the word, what I see is that perhaps, at times, composers have a slightly closed perspective in relation to their music. When we move onto its interpretation there is some friction at times which is always resolved, but which comes from the fact that the notation is very restrictive, or their way of thinking is very closed in on itself. And therefore when we want to take the practical aspect which is the execution, we find difficulties in the notation, in what the composers require from the interpreters, in this case from the musicians. As a conductor, and as I also have a past and some present as a composer, I try to create a bridge between what the composer wants and what the musician has to do and for which he or she sometimes is not happy about. This is not always very easy.

But I am not speaking only in relation to the musical or aesthetic language used by the composers. I speak specifically in relation to the instrumental problem, or rather, that which is demanded of the instrumentalist and which at times is on the borderline between what is feasible and what isn’t. I am speaking of this and not of the aesthetic part.

Clearly one needs to stretch things a little, but at times, at least at the moment, there are situations which are completely unfeasible and which stem from a principle which I see a lot in composers who write (and who, specifically in relation to the Sinfonietta, have written for us) or they have a musical idea, a sonic idea in their head and at times the manner of achieving this idea is not the most appropriate in relation to the notation which is requested. Therefore, I try to meet with the composer and understand exactly what is wanted because, sometimes, what they want is not what is written there.


Conditioning factors and sharing between the worlds of interpretation and composition


Well, what happens is this: while I was with the Sintagma Musicum Chamber Choir, I was still in fact quite active as a composer; so the greater majority of the works that I wrote were for Choir and to be sung precisely by the Sintagma choir. In this way, the musical aesthetic restriction of singing greatly influenced the style I used at that time.

Since I began working with the Orchestra, which is the case more or less since 1992, I practically stopped composing original pieces. I started working a lot in the area of arranging, orchestration and, in fact, here I have written many things for the Sinfonietta; these are arrangements of other works, or orchestrations of other works and here, evidently, I am conditioned by the works themselves. I have already done orchestrations of pieces by Eurico Carrapatoso, Toldrá, Fernando Lopes Graça, Bernardo Sassetti, well, and here I am, as is obvious, inevitably conditioned by the musical aesthetic which is present in these works.

I also did some orchestrations of some of my works for other instrumental formations, or even for voice and piano, and which I transformed into orchestral versions. But also here, in the case of the one for voice and piano, this was a commission by a person who asked me specifically for a work around a popular melody, so I was conditioned by this popular melody.

In composition proper, I cannot say that I have done anything original for Orchestra since I began working fundamentally with the Sinfonietta and, therefore, the problem has not arisen.


Orchestration and/or Recomposition?


I consider that as from the time I take a piece that was already written by another composer and the work, even if I work it in my own manner, this composer is always there and therefore I see him or her. While I know that in order to orchestrate there is a pronounced creative aspect, because the decision to place a melody on the oboe, or the flute, or to double up, or even add colour with an interval which was not there initially, an octave, or possibly even a fifth (in fact, then there are more or less wide perspectives in orchestration) is up to whoever is directing it, I think that intrinsically, in terms of composition, the original composer of the piece has to always be there as a God in relation to this piece. Therefore, in my case, as I cannot speak for other composers, I tend to undervalue or depreciate the role of the orchestrator, when it is I doing the orchestration. I always consider that it is an orchestration and never a Catalogue piece when I work something, although I should say, with some satisfaction that, with Eurico Carrapatoso, when I did the orchestration of Sete Velhos Corais Portugueses (which was an original piece for string quartet and which I orchestrated for string Orchestra – it is not merely a transposition to Orchestra, maintaining the same instruments) there was, in fact, work not only with the addition of a double bass, but also redistributing the lines which are in the string quartet for the Orchestra. And Eurico then told me that that was the final version of the piece; he considered the orchestral version to be more interesting, more profound, shall we say, than the string quartet version. I was very pleased to hear this from the composer himself! But I always consider myself, in this case, to be only a vehicle orchestrating for the musical work which, ultimately, the composer had already idealised (when he composed the version for string quartet). So this is always my perspective.


Works already done which could indicate a path for the future


There is one thing here which I still didn’t mention… which has to do with my non-musical education, but rather with my education as a person, my cultural education, shall we say, which was my time at the Charles Lepierre French High School and which I think very much conditioned my perspective of looking at Culture in general, Art in general. In writing music for a Choir… practically every time I wrote was about authors, about poems by French authors. And really there is, in this case, a very great proximity which I feel, as I understand in a way which, maybe, anyone who has not studied in a second language, almost a mother tongue (as French is for me), who hasn’t had this experience, cannot grasp the profundity of the poems in the same way. And I am very close to this influence. When I set Éluard or Apollinaire to music I inevitably end up by, as I used to say, approximating the aesthetic of the composers who did this work at the time that Éluard and Apollinaire were alive, like Poulenc, Debussy, Ravel, and so on, I end up by not being able to escape this stigma, this influence in the language. Although I am not able to say that the pieces which I wrote which I consider to be the most striking and which are the Trois Chansons for Choir, acapella, have something specifically to do with Debussy, or with Ravel or Poulenc, there is a little French music from the first half of the 20th Century there. But I think that there is no more than that. Now, I never have a modernist perspective in the writing of these works.

The other work which I think influenced me and which I consider important within my production, is Hommage a Messiaen, which I wrote when Messiaen turned 80 years old, initially for Choir, and which I later orchestrated for String Orchestra. And in fact this is very much searching for an aesthetic and musical style derived from Messiaen. Or rather, the modes of limited transposition, the added values, in fact, all of those very specific techniques of this composer which I look for there, also by way of a tribute, because that is fundamentally the objective of the piece, and which I try to display in the writing.


Problems between Music and Text


Let us say that my approach is more formal. Or rather, when I set a text to music, I don’t try to make a sonic reproduction of the semantics or possibly of the rhythmic part of the text. What I rather try to do is to use the text as a formal support for the piece, and then allow myself, well, to find the melodies or the harmonies which are in the text (this is a little subjective, of course) and to create, from this, the musical work. When I say this, there you have it, I refer a little to my musical origins, it is a perspective more of the person who makes a song. Or rather, whoever takes a text, and then has to transform this text into a song. This is very much how I compose when I am using a literary text, and not so much trying to create environments which have to do with the possible atmosphere which is suggested by the text. This is very much how I go about it. Just before I mentioned Trois Chansons… these are songs, to all intents and purposes, although for acapella choir; and I really do look for this: I read the text, I see what rhythm the text suggests to me and, from there, with its melodies, which then form the counterpoint, and so on but, in fact, the formal part of the text is essential for me to then get the formal part of the music from this. Ultimately, somewhat like what used to happen with Webern. When the tonality is completely dissolving and the relationships which, at the end of the day, act as the basis for the musical form are lost, we will find some composers who, suddenly, use the form of the text to generate the musical form. This is very much my perspective.

I follow the text as it would be spoken if it were recited in a poetry reading session.


The Lisbon Sinfonietta


Things are not easy. They never will be easy for interpreters, as they aren’t for composers, but I don’t know if I can say with any propriety that things are particularly difficult for conductors. We live in a country where there are very few orchestras and where there is a relatively closed policy in relation to the interpreter and very particularly in relation to the Portuguese conductor. And so therefore, I think that about sums it up. The Lisbon Sinfonietta has been my main vehicle as a conductor, although I have directed and happily continue to direct other orchestras, but the opportunities are not, in fact, abundant.

I should say that I will also answer this question from another perspective, which is the following: as a conductor and as the programmer and artistic director of the Lisbon Sinfonietta, what is my attitude concerning the manner in which I draw up the programming? I think that this ends up by also being close to my composer’s streak; I therefore think that it would be interesting to speak about.

In the same way as we in the Lisbon Sinfonietta strive to provide an opportunity for new music to be played (produced by young composers), I try somewhat to raise awareness of lesser known works and composers, mainly from the 20th Century, but not only. And when I speak of the 20th Century, I am speaking of the whole of the 20th Century. There are various composers who we have played and continue to play, who are practically unknown composers, in fact, who are said to be secondary, but I do not consider them secondary; they are, because they are, really, not well known. I could mention, for example, Richard Rodney Bennett, a composer who is still alive, or Einojuhani Rautavaara, who we are going to play very soon, who is a Finnish composer and is also alive. This is very much the perspective I have, that of divulging music which, for one reason or another, ends up by being hardly heard when there is no reason for this. In my opinion there is no reason for them being less well known than Stockhausen, or Beethoven, or Stravinsky, or Britten, who we are doing now together with Frank Bridge. The latter, for example, is very little known although he, curiously, was Britten’s teacher, so, probably was the reason for him having a more or less modern composition technique, more or less perfect. Well, his teacher will have had a fundamental role in this.

While we’re on this, by chance, Rodney Bennet… I spoke of him, but I didn’t speak of him just by chance. Because Rodney Bennet was the teacher of my composition teacher. He was the teacher of Christopher Bochmann. So there ends up by being, inevitably, a direct line towards what I am doing or what I have done.


By chance, one of the things that I would also like to say relates a little to the interpreters, but has to do with the attitude which I have in relation to the Sinfonietta. You see, we try to present ourselves with young interpreters and, in the same way as we do with composers, we try to provide these interpreters with the possibility of presenting themselves with the orchestra, something which is not always easy. A young top quality interpreter begins to play solo, but it is not very easy to present him or her with an orchestra. We try to form the link between the interpreter and the composer, precisely there. Ever since the orchestra was founded we have had one concert every year where works by composers are presented which are written specifically for us; normally, one of the works has a soloist who is a young interpreter. We have done this a number of times with Pedro Carneiro, with José Massarrão; this year will be with Pedro Ribeiro. In fact I could now speak of other examples like this but, in fact, this has been the idea: the young interpreter playing with the orchestra or the young composer (young in a broad sense because some have been young a lot longer than others) and then also try this for lesser known composers, whether alive or not.


Does the orchestra maintain its formation as a string orchestra?


This is something which I sometimes have to explain better... It is not that it is a string orchestra by definition. Now, budgetary restrictions are what have lead to the Lisbon Sinfonietta performing more frequently in its string formation than the complete formation. It is merely for this reason. And mainly for the last 5 years we have had to focus, in fact, on works for strings due to budgetary restrictions; we are now starting again to appear more in a complete formation and, therefore, it can no longer be said so much that the Lisbon Sinfonietta is only a string orchestra. It began by being not just a string orchestra and in the first years it gave concerts with a symphonic formation; in 1996 and in 1997 we had presentations with an 80 strong orchestra. But there we have it, then we had to tighten our belts a little and lower our ambitions a little... I preferred to provide continuity in terms of concerts, or rather, perform more concerts with fewer people, than to perform fewer concerts with more people. And now we are starting to return to concerts with more interpreters in the Sinfonietta, without this compromising the number of presentations.