At Home and Abroad with Composer John Rutter

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INTERVIEW: with renowned composer John Rutter.

Mark it a red-letter day in the Canadian classical music calendar: on Friday the 13th of July, John Rutter – among the world’s most beloved and widely performed living composers – arrives in Ottawa.

“I feel very much at home in Canada,” Rutter says from his home in Great Britain. “I was quite a regular visitor in past years, when I was patron of the Toronto Mendelsohn Youth Choir. But this will be my first trip to Ottawa, and I’m very much looking forward to it.”

It’s a journey occasioned by the two back-to-back concerts Rutter will be conducting July 15 and 16, as part of the 2018 “Music and Beyond” festival. The bill will consist entirely of works by Rutter himself, including a very special Canadian premiere.

John Rutter

“I rehearse as soon as I step off the plane,” Rutter says, his fabled enthusiasm and energy palpable even by phone during a generous and wide-ranging interview.

“Julian Armour, who runs ‘Music and Beyond,’ has asked me several years now,” Rutter explains, “but the dates never worked out.”

This year, however, stars aligned to provide a unique opportunity – among the works Rutter will offer is the Canadian premiere of his “Visions,” composed specially for young, Ottawa-born violin virtuoso Kerson Leong, the 2010 winner of the Junior First Prize at the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin Competition, at the age of 13.

Sharing Visions

“It all came about two years ago,” Rutter explains of the genesis of “Visions.” “The organizers of the Menuhin competition had the very nice idea that for Menuhin’s centenary year, rather than just hold a competition, they would make it more of a celebration – a festival, really. Gordon Back, who runs the competition, was sitting next to my wife at a dinner at the Temple Church after a concert, and said, ‘Would John be interested in writing something for this fantastic young violinist, Kerson Leong?’ And she said, ‘Well, you can ask him.’ And he did.”

Rutter familiarized himself with Leong’s musicianship, principally via numerous YouTube videos. “He’s not only a fantastic violinist,” Rutter concluded. “He’s a fantastic musician” – a distinction Rutter imbues with warm admiration.

But there was one more condition laid down by the Menuhin organizers. In addition to highlighting Leong, the piece had to include a part for boys’ choir. And while Rutter is, of course, a renowned master of vocal writing, the challenge of composing a work coherently showcasing both choir and solo violin was one for which he could summon no precedent.

Temple Church Choir

“This is rather wonderfully crazy,” Rutter recalls thinking. “It’s either going to be the first violin concerto in history with a part for choir, or the first choral piece that’s got a part for virtuosic violin solo. I don’t do commissions, as such, these days, because I prefer to work on my own projects at my own pace. But I was intrigued.”

Rutter agreed to write the piece.

He then set out to find a central, organizing idea. And, as an honorary “bencher” of London’s Middle Temple, Rutter realized he need look no further than the Temple Church itself for inspiration

“It’s a glorious church,” Rutter says. “It speaks of the Middles Ages and the Crusades. It was the London headquarters of the Knights Templar who had gone out to the Holy Land, and they modeled the old parts on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.” And, while Rutter is quick to acknowledge that the Crusades are, in many quarters, a “delicate subject” these days, he avers that his interest had nothing to do with ideology.

Temple Church, London

“I’m really not a political person,” he says. “When composers try to make political statements, they sometimes fall flat on their faces. There are definitely composers whose mission is to stir people up. I’m thinking of somebody like Shostakovich, whose music tells you the terrible political history of the Soviet Union in the 20th Century. But that’s not something that I would want to do. That’s not my turf at all.”

Rather, “Visions” is Rutter’s contemplation on – and attempt to dramatize – certain profound and quasi-mystical sentiments inspired by the Temple Church and its history.

“I just let the atmosphere of the church wash over me,” Rutter says. “If you wander ’round there as the light fades – knights in armor in display cabinets, and the tombs on the ground with inscriptions from the Middle Ages – there is something very evocative about it.”

Journey to Jerusalem

“What people always ask,” Rutter says, “is, ‘Well, what’s it visions of?’ The answer, really, is the idea of Jerusalem. It’s not just a troubled and historic city in the Middle East – Jerusalem stands as a symbol of the Holy City which, in the Bible, is the destination for the blessed ones when they depart this life. It’s also shorthand for God’s people in the Old Testament. It’s got many layers of meaning – the hope of peace, and a symbol, really, of our pilgrimage through life.”

The crypt of Temple Church, London

“In a way,” Rutter further explains, “a soloist in a concerto like this is a spokesperson for humanity. Life is a pilgrimage, and this piece is a pilgrimage.” It’s an insight about which, to his delight, Rutter found that he and Leong had an instantaneous and unstated artistic rapport.

The Maestro and the Prodigy

Kerson Leong

“I was amazed when young Kerson came to London [to rehearse] for the premiere,” Rutter says. “He just stepped off the plane, got his violin out of his case at the piano there, and just played. I didn’t have to say one thing. He absolutely got the idea I was trying to write. He is a dream as a soloist.”

Rutter has now presented “Visions” with Leong in several venues internationally – including at New York’s Carnegie Hall this past May – in advance of the upcoming “Music and Beyond” premiere on the performer’s home turf; and the composer’s appreciation of the young man’s artistry has only grown deeper with each collaboration.

“His is an old, wise head on young shoulders,” Rutter says of Leong. “He’s eloquent. He reaches out, sharing his voice. He sings with his instrument. His technique is all in place, at the service of the music, which means he can speak without having to worry about whether he’s going to get the notes beautifully in tune. They just fall into place. He’s what every composer wants in an interpreter.”

Mister Melody

Rutter’s decades of prolific output are most noted, of course, for his choral works. Rutter anthems have been featured at royal weddings; and choir groups around the world, both professional and amateur, have long considered Rutter pieces de rigeur staples of holiday concerts. But Rutter has also written purely instrumental works (one such, Suite Antique, will be among the pieces performed at the “Music and Beyond” concerts), as well as music for other media.

“I did write a certain amount of music for television drama, long years ago,” Rutter says, even admitting to having dipped into atonality. “There are times when you don’t want anything melodic. You actually want something that’s fragmented, broken up and disturbing, moving into different sounds worlds. I have dabbled in that.”

Rutter Conducts

Yet Rutter’s delightful and uplifting gift for tonal melody is one of his universally acknowledged hallmarks; and, asked whether that proficiency makes him something of a contrarian in a contemporary “serious music” landscape that seemingly accords critical priority to dissonance and density over hummability, Rutter is buoyant and eloquent in response.

“I think you’re right in singling out that I enjoy melodic music,” Rutter acknowledges. “The best advice I was ever given was during my days in high school. I had a wonderful director of music – himself a rather good composer – who saw in me a gift. He said, ‘Write the music that’s in your heart; don’t worry what anyone else is writing; just be true to yourself.’ Of course it’s advice that’s given to any creative person, but it was very much to the point in my case.”

Might Rutter, then, be considered a “pop” composer? The question prompts a hearty laugh, and some fascinating self-reflection.

Music of All Spheres

“I guess I’m 50 percent composer, 50 percent songwriter,” Rutter offers. “I mean, the kind of division that has grown up between what we now have to call ‘classical’ music and ‘popular’ music is quite a recent invention. You would get Franz Schubert happily writing a symphony or a string quintet, and then writing dance music for the new commercial dance halls in Vienna the next day. He turned out quite a bit of dance music – and it’s very good! So did Mozart. So did Beethoven!  And of course those dance halls were not places of ‘high art.’”

However, Rutter explains, it was toward the end of the 19th Century – with the Romantic era beginning to yield to the first stirrings of Modernism – that things began to change.

“I can’t imagine Johann Strauss writing Tristan,” he remarks of that fin-du-siècle moment. “And I can’t imagine Wagner writing ‘The Blue Danube.’ Music got more compartmentalized. And I regret that. I think music is a mighty stream, and there’s no reason to swim in just one part of it. I’m all for allowing influences from one area of music to fertilize others. I’m not a pop musician, but it’s certainly true that I’ve been influenced by popular music.”

Asked whether those influences include even current popular genres, such as hip-hop and rap, Rutter demurs mischievously.

“I think I stopped somewhere after the Beatles,” Rutter says (Rutter, incidentally, having written the famously unlikely dual-piano/orchestral fantasia, The Beatles Concerto, for Peter Rostal and Paul Schaefer, in 1977). “That just tells you something about the age I’ve reached. But you’d have to put me in the same room as a rapper to see if we’ve got a lot in common. We might just have!”

The Long and Winding Road

Rutter is asked whether, considering both his vocal-writing chops and his melodic expressiveness, he’s ever considered a sojourn in musical-theater writing, or even opera.

“Oh, I would have loved to have done both of those things!” Rutter exclaims. “But an awful lot of the musical career of any composer depends on whom he meets. At Cambridge, my friends tended to be the people involved in the church music choir world, rather than the theater world.”

In short, he adds in jest, “I met the wrong people!”

And what of writing film music?

“It would have been lovely to have been John Williams,” Rutter chuckles. “But the thing that has made me slightly wary of stepping into the movie world is that, in the end, you’re writing music that doesn’t stand on its own – you might almost say it’s music that’s meant to be half-listened to. And you can write the most musical score for a film that’s a flop, so the music you’ve written just gets forgotten. Your destiny doesn’t lie in your own hands.”

Rutter is not a man to surrender self-determination.

Making Book

In addition to composing, Rutter regularly conducts, and also pursues a busy and absorbing career as a musical anthologist.

“I do enjoy the challenge of gathering material that I think is worth performing and putting it in one big volume,” Rutter says. “I started a series called the Oxford Choral Classics for Oxford University Press. I’ve done volumes of opera choruses, European sacred music, Christmas motets. And the volume I’m currently working on is called simply Sacred Choruses. It has Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest,’ and Haydn’s ‘The Heavens are telling’ (from The Creation) and so on. But it also has things you wouldn’t know or expect. For instance, Mendelssohn’s unfinished oratorio Christus never gets done, but there’s a beautiful, Lenten-flavored Holy Week chorus called ‘Daughters of Zion’ that’s absolutely one of the best things Mendelssohn wrote.”

It is, by this point in the conversation, already well on to evening in Great Britain; but Rutter, under what he calls a “looming deadline,” still has much editorial work he wants to accomplish before departing for Ottawa.

“Up on screen at the moment, I’ve got Parry’s coronation anthem ‘I was glad,’” Rutter says.

“I should get myself back to it!”

And with that, he’s off and running.

Ottawa’s 2018 Music and Beyond festival, including John Rutter’s two concerts on July 15 and 16 (each at 7:30 p.m. at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, 355 Cooper Street, Ottawa, Canada) runs through July 18; full programming information and tickets may be obtained at https://musicandbeyond.ca/events/

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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