Interviewing Laurence Dreyfus: violist and musicologist

Note: A Chinese version of this interview will be published in the upcoming issue of Hifi Review.

In my career of musical journalism, I have the honour to meet extremely knowledgeable performers and actively-performing scholars. But to maintain a parallel career on both performance and research scholar is rare. Laurence Dreyfus is one of them.

Phantasm 2012 photo: Marco Borggreve

My first encounter of Laurence Dreyfus’ work was in graduate school. In a historical musicology seminar, there was a vivid discussion on a chapter from the book Bach and the Patterns of Invention, of which Prof. Dreyfus is the author. There was a good sense enlightenment among the group of students when we focussed on the far-reaching meaning of musical rhetoric from analysing tiny musical works that everyone of us should have been played. Numerous times.

But this time, Prof. Dreyfus is not coming for research colloquia, which he did in April 2012 when he first visited Hong Kong. He is coming as the leader of Phantasm, a viol consort, for two performances in the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Hailed by Gramophone as “simply divine,” Phantasm is doing two contrasting programmes, including English consort music and Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.

Which idea came to him first, being a professional performer and a musicologist? “The sequence might be a little bit confusing. Music is deep inside me as my family is a heavily musical one. I may have learnt how to read music before how to read English.” His father is playing  in the Philadelphia Orchestra, while his mother an operatic mezzo-soprano. “After studying cello in Juilliard, I decided to do more historical study.” But that marks the beginning of a “confused union.”

“A Confused Union”

IMG_4808“You need to be focused on music when you are a musician; you have to be emotional and connected to the music. To be a scholar, however, you have to consider different angles and be critical.” It requires some years to reconcile the imminent conflict. “Accuracy doesn’t tell what the music is about. It doesn’t get us closer to Bach too. And music should be powerful,” comments Prof. Dreyfus. He determined to run in two arenas while he was in Ph.D. Christoph Wolff, an eminent scholar on Bach and also a keyboardist, has given him tremendous support. In graduate school students are expected to spend all the time in libraries rather than in practice rooms; wasting time on doing not real research work may be a doctorate sin. “He shows me how to be a better, understanding musicologist by performing,” Prof. Dreyfus recalls, and the emotional support is essential. “Now I am an emotional scholar, or an intellectual performer.”

Being at the same time a professional performer and an academic nowadays is understandably different from the days of Robert Schumann, when the 19th century musician-journalist did not need to write grant proposals, pass through qualitative assurance boards and deal with record company PRs. Currently a professor of Oxford University, having Phantasm resident in Oxford is crucial in maintaining the parallel career. “We can practise regularly; we can play in concerts; we can play evensong with Oxford’s choirs. These make having a performer’s life much more easier.” The school also allows him to travel around, a restriction lifted that enable him rooms for developing a performer’s career.

Beside performing in two concerts, Prof. Dreyfus conducted a masterclass of viol playing with some Hong Kong young musicians. The high level of skills has impressed him. “I have not expected the young musicians of Hong Kong would have already managed a wide repertoire; we have heard Henry Purcell, Marin Marais and Bach, and they are enthusiastic to what they play.” To get further, he thinks our  musicians are sometimes overly bounded by rules. He asks them to think positive: how not to count metronomically, how to align with the phrasings. “I see the potential here and it is quite impressive.”

From Bach to Wagner

At some point of time the performance and research interest of Prof. Dreyfus coincides with Bach. Phantasm released a recording of Die Kunst der Fuge in 1997, with 12 of all counterpoints recorded, and his book on Bach’s invention was published in 2004 and won the Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society. Now this parallel career is a bit farther apart, in terms of the musical subject. In research he is focussing on Richard Wagner. His newest publication is Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, a book that shifts the popular discussion of Wagner from politics to sexuality. “I am preparing some more essays on Wagner’s use of leitmotif, how the entire notion of leitmotif comes into being and how it is related to musical narrative.” His immediate project of recording is moving to a more distant past: 16th-century English composers’ music that, in his words, deserves more attention and should be household names. John Jenkins is one of them. “That’s almost popular music. Instantly appreciable.”

However there is still one thing that interests him both in research and music. “The magic of counterpoint still captures me; Wagner is stylistically so different from Bach, but his music is full of counterpoint. Counterpoint may seems individual, yet to get it work it has to be communal.” He explains that Phantasm is a group of making fantasy and bringing individual musical lines work for each other, and that’s the rule-based mirror fugues and canons are missed out in the 1994 recording. “The group is slightly different from the one in 1994, with some new players joining the group,” he says. May be it is time to go over the final monumental work of Bach.


Laurence Dreyfus Photo © Marco Borggreve

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