Karine Hetherington, from our ArtMuseLondon desk, caught up with busy baritone, Roderick Williams, who has been directing and singing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and soprano Rowan Pierce in a series of concerts of music by Bach, Handel and Teleman. The concerts are now available to watch via the OAE Player. ( )
Would you describe yourself as a specialist in Baroque music?
I enjoy listening and singing to all types of music if it stirs me. I’m not an expert on Baroque music at all, unlike the members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who have dedicated their careers to playing this music. They play on Baroque instruments and have invested in copies of the original instruments. They know the way they were played at the time, all detailed work, whereas singers just have to play with what they’ve got naturally – their vocal chords. The singing techniques I have picked up in the field have been gleaned from my colleagues who have done that research in Baroque music and have guided me over the years. As a young singer with the group I Fagiolini , I learnt a lot from Robert Hollingworth, who has a passion for the period.
What can early music offer modern audiences? The first thing I would suggest is drop the idea of calling it ‘early music’ at all.
The Germans refer to it as ‘Alte Musik’ (old music) (Laughing]. Yes, labels are not helpful for I really think that Bach and Handel are more accessible to today’s audiences then perhaps classical contemporary art music of this century, which requires more homework. If you are listening to Bach on TV on an advert, you don’t worry when it was written, you think, ‘oh that piece is amazing’.
However, I still think being able to listen to classical music (as opposed to it being just background wallpaper) is hugely important. I love the idea that there is something particular in the structure of two or three hundred-year-old music which is tremendously satisfying in a mathematical kind of way. Listening to it you feel calm and at peace with yourself.
When you sing in German for example, your words are remarkably clear. Is it hard work?
Yes, I spend a lot of time trying to get it right. Words allow me to connect with the audience. They strike me as such a gift, that it seems inconceivable to me that you wouldn’t use them to their utmost potential. I rarely go into a performance without a mission about what I want to say about the composer. In Bach’s ‘Ich habe genug’ I have a personal agenda about talking about near-death experiences, acceptance of death and longing for death. Various countries at the moment are voting on assisted dying; meanwhile in this country, there are patients breathing on ventilators right now considering their own mortality.
Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, on the other hand, is a drama about an alpha male, who sees a young woman who wishes to remain chaste. He propositions her, she says no. He refuses to take no for an answer. He uses physical force. This story is being played out all across our media at the moment.
What was it like performing ‘Ich Habe Genug’ and ‘Apollo E Dafne’ in front of cameras in the Royal Festival Hall?
I ignored the cameras. In the second half, as there was nobody to sing to in a massive space, Rowan Pierce, soprano, and I decided to turn around to face the orchestra. We ended up singing to them and they performed for us. Singing to each other was a wonderful experience. We also performed to a reduced audience in Bradford Upon Avon (at the Musical Wiltshire Centre).
Any new exciting projects?
I’m looking at the first half 2021 as nervously as we all are. I’m involved in a major project with Dutch composer Michel Van der Aa. He’s not only an extraordinary composer but an imaginative film maker and director. We start rehearsing in Amsterdam in January. There is a massive question mark over it. My dream at the moment is simply to be allowed to do it.
Roderick Williams is one of this country’s most sought after baritones and is constantly in demand on the concert platform and in recital, encompassing a repertoire from the baroque to world premieres. In 2016 he won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Singer of the year award.
Roderick Williams (Photo: Groves Artists)