It was considered quite a coup when it was announced that Sir Roger Norrington was going to be principal conductor at the Zurich Chamber Orchestra.
Sir Roger, one of the leading lights in the classical music scene for almost 50 years - and holder of strong and sometimes controversial views on how music should be played - conducted his first concert with the orchestra on September 10.
He officially takes up his post in the season 2011/12, but this concert, with works by Haydn, Mozart and Britten, was billed as a “welcome” ahead of his new job.
The sounds of Benjamin Britten float out of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra’s concert hall in a smart lakeside part of town as the 22-member orchestra rehearses ahead of their performance.
At the front sits Sir Roger, 76 years old, dapper and energetic. “The rallentando is that fast, once more please,” he says. The orchestra takes up playing again. Now and then, Sir Roger makes a humorous remark.
The musicians are obviously enjoying working with Sir Roger and the feeling is mutual.
“It’s a terrific orchestra, it deserves to be much wider known outside Zurich and Switzerland. I hope we’ll do that while I’m with them,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Zurich by day
He is also relishing being in Zurich.”Of course I’ve been to Switzerland a few times, passing through, doing concerts in Zurich and in other places, but I’ve never worked here consistently,” said Sir Roger.
“I realised recently that I’d only ever spent a single night in Zurich before. I’d never seen it by day because one arrives in the afternoon for a rehearsal and concert and one leaves the next morning for somewhere quite different. It’s a fantastic city.”
There was a big flurry of media attention when it was revealed at the beginning of the year that Sir Roger would be principal conductor, replacing the Chinese Muhai Tang, who will still appear as a guest conductor.
Norrington is an expert in historically informed orchestral playing, in which he seeks to put modern players in touch with the historical style of the music they are performing.
He has built a reputation with this style, his breakthrough coming with London Classical Players in the 1980s. Latterly he has been working with the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra and the Camerata Salzburg.
He has also appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as the San Francisco Symphony and the London Philharmonic.
The Zurich Chamber Orchestra hopes that working with Sir Roger will give it a more varied and larger profile, allowing it to differentiate itself from larger symphony orchestras – such as the Zurich Tonhalle.
Sir Roger will be putting his imprint on the ensemble. “I do have a particular idea about how 18th century music is played and to some extent 19th century music,” he said.
Playing in a historically informed style involves changes to the tempo – often faster than modern interpretations – and emphasis on phrasing, articulation and “pure” sound.
Motor car vibrato
Sir Roger is a dogged opponent of vibrato, an effect consisting of a regular pulsating change used to add expression and vocal-like qualities to instrumental music.
“In the 18th and 19th centuries vibrato was only used as a decoration and this continuous sort of purring that you get with the modern style really came in with the motor car when people began to experience life and excitement as something that went whirr, whirr, dugga, dugga doo like the Model T Ford,” he explained.
“Vibrato came in with a vengeance in the 1920s and 1930s and it’s kind of stayed. I think it’s time that we got rid of some of it.”
This approach has had its critics. His recordings of Beethoven and others with the London Classical Players caused a sensation in the 1980s, but some found them too fast.
More recently, there was a great fuss when Sir Roger was chosen in 2008 to lead the last night of the BBC Proms in Britain as there were fears that the traditional chorus of Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory would not have its usual resonance without vibrato.
For Sir Roger, it is exciting to get as close as possible to what a composer expected to hear. If it’s a living composer, he simply rings them up. For the others, he does a lot of research.
“I find if you take seriously what you know about playing of any period, exciting things happen to the music by themselves. Suddenly things sound right. They may sound different, but they certainly sound right,” he said.
The conductor’s energy is all the more amazing given that he was diagnosed with skin cancer and a brain tumour two decades ago and was only given months to live.
But he is with a “brilliant doctor in New York and his enzyme treatment”. “It’s not a battle. I’m just able to carry out his programme fairly easily and enjoy an extra 20 years,” he said.
Sir Roger’s musical inspiration comes from the composers and their brilliant minds, leaving him with wonderful material to work with.
And conducting means, “letting the music dance, getting the character of the music, of each composer... light, shade, rhythm, amusement and excitement”.
“It’s a thrilling job to do, it’s demanding, and you have to concentrate. But it’s a very privileged thing to be able to do, and I try and bring pleasure to audiences and to orchestras.”
Zurich Chamber Orchestra
The orchestra, which was founded in the post-war era, consists of a core of 22 strings, which can be expanded if needed.
It has an international reputation, performing at festivals, undertaking several world tours and working with well-known soloists. It has also built up a considerable discography. The ensemble makes around 40 performances a year.
The orchestra works with specialists for historical music for baroque, but its main emphasis has been on Vienna classics. Its repertoire encompasses romantic and classical as well as modern.
Its music director since 2006 has been Chinese conductor Muhai Tang. From 2011 Roger Norrington will lead the ensemble as principal conductor.
Sir Roger, who was knighted in 1997, was musical from an early age and began to conduct at Cambridge University, where he studied English and History. He later studied at the Royal College of Music and at the same time founded the first of several groups for the performance of early music, the Heinrich Schütz Choir.
Ten years later he founded the London Classical Players who achieved worldwide fame with their dramatic recordings of the 9 Beethoven symphonies using the historically interested style.
In 1966 he became music director of the Kent Opera, which used the historical style, and went on to work with other operas, such as Vienna Staatsoper and at Convent Garden, London.
He has also worked with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, among others. His last posts were with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Camerata Salzburg, where he further established his style.
Sir Roger will keep his base in Britain, in Berkshire, where he lives with his wife and son. He is currently in semi-retirement, working about 24 weeks a year. His contract with the Chamber Orchestra spans three years and five to eight concert programmes.