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Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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An Interview with David Shemer: The Performance of Early Music - Part I

David Shemer: The Performance of Early Music - Part I

David Shemer is one of the most importrant figuers in the Israeli early music scene. He graduated in theory, conducting and harpsichord at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. He holds a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) from the State University of New York at Stony Brook . He plays the Harpsichord and conducts. He is the founder of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. Shemer is a teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

I would like to thank David Shemer for agreeing to be interviewed for my blog. Note that you will find here only the first part of the interview (which is still in progress). So if you wish to ask David Shemer questions, you may add them as comments (in the form below), and they might be included in this interview. I have included here several videos that might help the reader understand and appreciate whom Shemer is speaking about.

Avior Byron: When did you first hear early music? What do you remember from that experience? 
David Shemer: This is something that I remember very clearly. Can almost put a date on it. What is surprising is how late it happened in my life! I have been playing harpsichord for some years, graduated from the Jerusalem Academy, and then got an Artist diploma form the Tel Aviv academy - both as a harpsichordist and as a choral and orchestral conductor. After that, I got a British Council scholarship, to study harpsichord and conducting in London, and yet, I didn’t have any clear idea what I was going to do there. I loved Baroque music for as long as I can remember myself, but knew next to nothing about period instruments or HIP (historically informed performance). In Israel, in the late 70s, there was hardly a chance to properly hear it. At that time, one could occasionally hear a harpsichord (mostly, a non-historical version of it), here and there some recorders, but that was it. I was 28 when I came to London. It was September 1980. One morning, at the very beginning of my career as a student of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I woke up and switched on the radio. What I heard was unbelievably beautiful. It wasn’t difficult to recognize the music, the 2nd movement of Bach 5th Brandenburg concerto. But never before have I heard this music played with such a profound expression and such flexibility. It was sublime! I kept on listening to the rest of the piece, eager to know who these magicians were. The magicians were The English Concert, directed by Trevor Pinnock (who also played harpsichord solo, of course), with Steven Preston on traverso and Simon Standage on Baroque violin.

Emmanuel Pahud & Trevor Pinnock & Jonathan Manson Recording Scene



Byron: What made you decide to devote yourself to working with early music?
Shemer: Right there and then. The music sounded on this recording like nothing I have heard before. It spoke to me so directly, so overwhelmingly, that I knew immediately that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. A risky statement, I know, but so far, nearly 30 years later, it proved to be correct. For the next two years, while I was living in England, I tried not to miss any reasonably important performance of early music on period instruments - and there were millions of these in London - and the more I heard, the more I got convinced that this is how this music wants to sound.
Byron: It is very interesting that your first significant experience of hearing a HIP performance was that of hearing a recording and not a live concert. Do you think that there is any significant difference between how HIP performances sound on recordings and how they sound in live concerts? 
Shemer: I don’t think the difference is any bigger than with any other kind of music. It might be the most "modern" thing about HIP: in the older times, there were no recordings… But as far as HIP being, as I strongly believe, a modern musical activity, recorded sound is very much a part of it. 
Byron: How long did you stay in London? Did you hear during that time also HIP performances in other places? Was there any difference? What were the significant performers and ensembles that you heard during that period? Did you make any important contacts that you wish to mention? 
Shemer: I stayed in London for just over two years. In those days (as also today, I believe), there was no need to go to other places, in order to hear non-British Baroque groups. Many came to England. Thus, I heard Musica Antiqua Köln, Gustav Leonhardt, Paul O’Dette, Bob van Asperen, Franz Brüggen and his (at that time) ensemble and many others. And then, of course, I’ve heard all the most important British Baroque musicians: The English Concert with Trevor Pinnock (tried not to have missed any of their concerts; later, I also studied with Trevor and remained on friendly terms with him); Academy of Ancient Music, with Christopher Hogwood; Consort of Musick; The New London Consort with Philip Picket (whom I also studied with), and others. The person, whom I consider the most important person in my development as a harpsichordist is Jill Severs; she hasn’t been active as a performer, but is a fenomenal teacher. Through Jill, I’ve met many of my generation’s leading English harpsichordist - most notably, Maggie Cole, with whom we became very close friends.

The best dance scenes from "Le Roi Danse." Music by Lully, Cond. Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Köln

Dieterich Buxtehude, g minor prelude, Gustav Leonhardt plays


Lute Virtuoso Paul Odette - 1984 SOUNDBOARD TV Series DVD


Händel - Messiah "But who may abide", Emma Kirkby, Christopher Hogwood: Cond., The Academy of Ancient Music


Byron: Concerning you sentence ‘the more I heard, the more I got convinced that this is how this music wants to sound.’: do you still feel this way? Did HIP performance change since the 1980s with relation to how is sounds? 


Shemer: I most certainly do. Of course, HIP has changed. This is part of its beauty. After all, HIP means "historically informed" - and we always become better informed than before. But it is much more than that. The HIP movement becomes more mature, more "at ease" with what it is doing, not afraid of making mistakes. The sound of the best HIP ensembles is nowadays mellower, warmer, richer than it used to be in the 70s and 80s, when early musicians were as much interested in the historical truth, in their HIP ideology, as in sounding different than mainstream. Also, HIP musicians’ technical proficiency improved dramatically, over these years. Nobody in their right mind would say any longer that one only plays Baroque violin because one wasn’t good enough in the modern one! Not after we have heard Andrew Manze, Monica Hugget, Maggie Faultless, Simon Standage or our own Kati Debretzeni. This change of attitude is not necessarily always good news, though. By becoming part of the mainstream itself (and it has, in many places; although, so far not in Israel!), HIP is in a constant danger of loosing some of its own integrity, some of its, as Anthony Rooley put it, cutting edge. Finding the right proportion between a fanatical proselitism and a too-comfortable being a part of musical establishment isn’t always easy.


Byron: Could you say a few words about Jill Severs? What made her such a good teacher and such an important figure in your life?
Shemer: Jill was the first person in my life as a harpsichordist, not just to talk about the importance of touch in playing the harpsichord, but actually to show me how it is done. People often refer to the harpsichord as an instrument that plonks away, without any difference as to how it is played. Without mentioning any names, I have heard several highly respectable musicians saying things like "there is no possibility of interpretation on the harpsichord", or "it has no soul", or "if Bach only knew the grand piano!…", etc. I’m sure that other harpsichordists had similar experiences. This is funny, of course, bearing in mind the huge popularity of this instrument with some of the best musicians of all times, such as Bach, Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Couperin - to name but a few. Incidentally, the highly influential little book by F. Couperin is called "L’Art de toucher le clavecin" - and Couperin certainly wouldn’t bother to write a book on a non-existent subject. To put it shortly, Jill Severs taught us what Couperin’s title (and the book itself) suggests: the art of touch upon the harpsichord. I’ve always liked this instrument, but never so passionately until I had the good fortune of studying with Jill. She opened the soul of the instrument for me. To a very great extent, she shaped what I have been thinking and persuing about playing and teaching the harpsichord to this very day.
Byron: If you would have to recommend only 5 CDs of early performances, which would you choose? Could you recommend another list of 5 CDs for starting listeners of early music? 
Shemer: Oh, dear, not one of these desert island questions! Frankly, I don’t listen to very many CD’s, always preferring live performances. And when I do listen to CD’s, my preferences shift too often, to give a serious answer to this question. As for the second part of your question, I would suggest to starting listeners to EM to strive for a widest possible variety of listening experience. Listen to good opera recordings (with Les Arts Florissants, for instance), to good orchestras - there are many, and choosing a few won’t be fair to the others; Gustav Leonhardt, a fabulous harpsichordist, comes across his recordings in a less favorable way than in his unforgettable live concerts, but still he’d be my No 1 choice; probably, Andrew Manze on the violin - but what about Monica Hugget and, again, many others? The same would go for other instruments/ensembles. Sorry for not being too helpful here… Perhaps one more useful suggestion might be - pay close attention to the Italians: Alessandrini, Bernardini, Gini, the Grazzi brothers…

Rameau - Motet, In convertendo, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants

Byron: Where are the biggest centers of early music in the world? Are there any important websites that are a must for early music lovers? 
Shemer: Just as 20-30 years before, Amsterdam (Holland, in general) and London are still hugely important. To that, one must add France and - as I already mentioned in the previous answer - Italy. But, of course, Germany mustn’t be discarded - what with Musica Antiqua Köln, the Freiberg orchestra, Academy of ancient music Berlin… In general, interesting things happen in many places, but these seem to be the most important centers. As for websites - yes, I’m sure there are, but - again, I must confess, I’m quite cybernetically challenged, and don’t use the net much. If there is a bit of free time, I prefer to practice or do something completely different, not necessarily (early) music-related…
Byron: I agree that HIP is a modern activity, yet this might sound strange to some people. After all the ideal, might seem at first sight, is to go back to the past. What makes HIP a modern activity in your eyes? 
Shemer: This is a very serious issue. Of course, HIP is also about going to the past. The thing is, the very act of going to the past - certainly, on such a massive scale - is something that has never been done in the past. This is what is so utterly modern. When people in the 18th century London established "the Academy of Ancient Music" (after which a very well known Baroque orchestra was named in the 1970s), they were talking about performance of music of 1-2 generations ago. There was precious little interest in music that was REALLY early. But this is not at all about music only. How much your average 18th century English gentleman really cared about, say, Indian culture? (Never mind the fact that India might be part of the British Empire!). Or Chinese? Or African? Listen to Mozart’s "Turkish" music - can you find a Turk that would embrace it as his own? Of course not, and Mozart never intended it to be - in fact, he couldn’t care less about the real Turkish music. Looking straight into the eyes of any "foreign" culture - whether geographically or historically removed from the spectator - is a profoundly modern phenomenon. The point of HIP, unlike the musical mainstream (although the mainstream has also changed a great deal, in this respect, during the last few decades) is not approaching the early music with the condescending: "they wrote some really nice tunes, but we, of course, can play them much better". Rather, HIP strives to be informed and inspired by this foreign culture - and it is a foreign culture to us - in all its aspects: composition, performance, instrument making, acoustics… Inasmuch as consciously cultivating respect for the Other culture is a modern (postmodern, as some might say) thing, HIP is very definitely modern.

Here the interview continues: Interview with David Shemer - The Performance of Early Music - Part II


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