Ruth Smith interviews Laurence Cummings

Ruth Smith interviews Laurence Cummings


Last month, LHF Musical Director Laurence Cummings sat down with Handel Scholar Ruth Smith for an interview about his 25 years at the London Handel Festival, inaugurating the International Handel Singing Competition and more. 

You succeeded Denys Darlow, the Festival’s founder. How did you come into it?

Denys examined me when I was a postgraduate keyboard student, and afterwards he asked me to play for him in a service at St George’s Hanover Square, where he was organist, and the first thing I ever did for him was ‘I was glad’, by Parry, about as far away from Handel as you could imagine. I realised afterwards that that was my audition, and he subsequently asked me to assist him on various ventures (”not much money, but very good experience!”), and there I was, in heaven really, my first job out of college, playing Handel operas, helping to prepare the singers with Denys.

Denys had started the LHF about ten years before that. From his Tilford Bach Festival he’d brought regular performances of Bach cantatas to SGHS (broadcast on the Third Programme), and he was rehearsing there one day when a member of the public who’d been listening said to him, “You’ve got a bit of a cheek, doing Bach in Handel’s church”, which got Denys thinking and, ever the entrepreneurial spirit, he decided to mount some concerts of Handel. Hard to imagine now, but in the late 70s people just weren’t playing Handel other than Judas MaccabeusMessiah, bits of the Water Music, bits of the Fireworks and that was more or less it, and Denys put on interesting programmes of ‘Handel and his contemporaries’ – he always wanted to put Handel into his musical context. He soon got inspired by the early music movement, replacing his Tilford orchestra modern instruments with period instruments. Roy Goodman became the leader of the orchestra; Roy was succeeded by Paul Nicholson and I took over from Paul in 1999 as joint music director with Denys and then as sole director when he retired.

How did programming evolve from old favourites to the more adventurous offer we’re familiar with now?

Anthony Hicks was instrumental in making suggestions for novel programming, and Donald Burrows has been a go-to adviser as well. Over the years the Festival has cultivated an audience that isn’t risk-averse, that would come even if they hadn’t already heard all the pieces on the programme. And there’s a sort of Handel coterie that will come especially to hear unfamiliar works, which is great, the spirit of adventure coming not just from the performers but also from the audience.

Denys had always concentrated on the whole range of Handel’s output but not the operas, to avoid treading on the toes of Charles Farncombe’s Handel Opera Society. But once that ceased there was an opening. Denys approached the RCM and his friend James Lockhart, Head of Opera, and they set up a collaboration drawing on students from the RCM opera course, and over the years the cast lists were terrific. Denys was very keen to do works that no one else was doing, which in the early 90s was pretty much most of the operatic canon! Big opera houses worldwide would perform the well-known handful, but that still left nearly forty operas unperformed. The 1712 Il Pastor Fido was a good choice for LHF as the first. It’s an early London opera and not as ambitious as Rinaldo. With so many continuo arias, it really allowed the singers to shine. Denys loved working with young singers, and that’s a strand that we have continued through the Festivals ever since.

Which leads us to LHF’s Singing Competition… your invention?

It was one of my best ever ideas, he says modestly! As Head of Historical Performance at the RAM, I was coaching many very talented young singers with substantial careers ahead of them, who were entirely uncatered for by the big competitions. So many of those competitions were about the kind of opera that means singing loudly and projecting over a big orchestra, and I felt there was a gap. I think competitions are hateful things really, but I’m very pleased with the way the LHF competition’s worked out. Pretty much every finalist has said it’s a joy to sing with a full professional baroque orchestra, and the final itself is a properly rehearsed, properly presented mini recital with orchestra, rather than a hoop to jump through. I wanted young singers to be more adventurous in programming Handel – not just the stock favourite arias. Initially we were fairly prescriptive, but gradually we’ve been able to relax the programming rules because there’s been a wonderful development whereby the singers naturally go to the libraries to research the music, having  realised that if their programming is interesting, if they’ve researched it thoroughly, if they’ve worked out what version of arias they want to do, it’s empowering for them. We’ve used as many of the finalists in subsequent concerts and productions as we can, not just the last year’s winner. It works as a symbiotic relationship. They get to perform in the festival, we get to enjoy their performances, and then (hopefully) they have a loyalty to the festival in their careers going forward, which is wonderful.

In your own programming, what has been your aim

Certainly to continue Denys’ aim to perform lesser known Handel works (“it’s hardly ever done, you know”). The intention is to continue to produce our own stagings of the operas, following the original intention to perform them all, in a sort of cycle. Partly because of Covid that got interrupted, but I feel that last year In the Realms of Sorrow was a reboot. Handel didn’t see the cantatas on stage, but they were enacted in his mind’s eye. We wanted to bring this fantastically dramatic music to life in a way that the audience would appreciate, I was going to say visually, but I think I mean viscerally. The deliciousness of the texts and the power of the emotion behind them, as strong as in any opera aria, can come to the fore. I loved that we were being contemporary and yet truthful, true to the original emotional and musical intentions, and make the cantatas leap off the page, for all sorts of audiences. That’s always been a big thing for me with Handel, because he is such a wonderfully universal composer and so powerful, he shouldn’t just be for people who know the music already, we should be a very welcoming community.

In programming more generally I’m interested in connections, for example there might be a connection, tenuous or obvious, thematic or motivic, between the opera and the oratorio that we do that year, and often it’s serendipity; you realise the connection only after you’ve prepared them.

I’ve been very lucky to have been directing the Handel Festival when the Handel House opened. The social and sociological context has always interested me; the fact that you’re sitting in Mayfair, in the very church where Handel used to worship, and you can retrace his steps back to the house, his engine room of composition and rehearsal. The festival mounts events in the house too; you can’t get closer than that to time travel. I love playing there with visitors wandering through and you can see them falling in love with the music. It shows what historical performance can achieve; a window into the past, not just in order to get the best view but to reveal the true message of the music.

All those connections have always been very interesting to me.

Would you say the Festival’s profile has grown?

When we’d just started we got a review from Hugh Canning calling the Festival ‘London’s best kept musical secret’ and I thought – we’d better get the news out there. I do feel the Festival is on the map now, and it’s something that people aspire to be part of. We’ve encouraged young groups such as La Nuova Musica with David Bates, Leo Duarte and Opera Settecento and Solomon’s Knot. Internationally groups want to be part of our Festivals, which serves our main purpose, to spread appreciation for the music of the great Mr Handel.

We’ve had a wonderfully loyal audience; they’ve been willing to come to things that aren’t in their comfort zone and relished them. And we’ve been keeping ticket prices relatively affordable so people can take a punt on something. It’s also a matter of scale; on the whole we’ve performed in smaller venues – SGHG is about 500 seats, Britten theatre similarly – whereas if you were trying to fill the Hackney Empire for four nights, that’s a lot of seats to sell for a title people don’t know.

The 25 years of putting on little known operas at the RCM were wonderful years for the Festival, wonderful for the audience, and fantastic for the young performers. That said, there was a  ‘safe’ quality to it, almost an exclusive club, and it was hard to reach out to younger audiences.

How do we bring in the next generation of classical music audiences?

It would be good to do more things specifically for students; we’ve done schools workshops and we recently did a Come and sing Coronation anthems for schoolchildren, in SGHS, which was lovely. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm. Getting the word out is important.  We’ve always done well at reaching out to really young audiences. But getting that elusive younger person to stay engaged is very challenging in London. For students there are so many distractions and so little disposable income. And young parents will always struggle to attend. It’s important not to panic and do knee-jerk responses. The quality of the performance is ultimately key to the whole enterprise. In an audience of 400 you might have one person who’s never been to a Handel performance before and it might change their life, and the challenge is to keep that going and try to engage new audiences while maintaining the loyalty of the existing audience.

With In the Realms of Sorrow I loved that we were being contemporary and yet truthful, I felt we were true to the original intentions of the piece, the emotional and the musical intentions, and yet we were able to make it leap off the page, for all sorts of audiences. That’s always been a big thing for me with Handel, because he is such a wonderfully universal composer and so powerful, so that it shouldn’t just be for people who know the music already, we should be a very welcoming community. An achievement of bringing very unfamiliar and potentially opaque compositions to the appreciation of just anybody who walked in. In a challenging way but not in a shocking way – in a startling way. It’s a hallmark of any great composer to confound a listener’s expectations, it’s what makes music interesting. Sometimes it’s easy, with music that we know well, to go into our comfort zone, so I wanted to challenge that. Yet I never want to be shocking just for the sake of it, because that’s boring, and actually, rude to the listener. We all deserve to be challenged.  I like being challenged. Even in rehearsal, if somebody comes with an idea that‘s totally against what I think, I actually like the challenge of working out why I don’t agree, or maybe finding ways in which I do agree, and then sometimes giving it a try, because there isn’t just one way music cam go. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed working with young performers, because they bring an enthusiasm and a freshness that you can lose as you go through your working life.

What’s your view of ‘integrity’ of an opera score

I’d tend to want to do a version Handel performed but I’m not 100% consistent, because of practicalities: if you have a change of cast or something happens that means it just doesn’t sound as good in your chosen version, you think, what would Handel have done? And most of Handel’s changes to his original opera scores were usually practical, often creating a new level of artistic achievement. So should you go for the first or last version? The last is the most edited, but the original is thought to have more historical ‘truth’ to it…it’s a very interesting topic and it’s evidence of Handel’s great success and genius that we’re still debating it. His MSS are so telling. Nothing’s ever just left; you can see the industry and you see the near obsession of his getting it how he wants it to be, the hatchings, the crossings out, and though he was a very private man in many respects you get a lot of his personality through his music and through his MSS.

Denys conducted, you direct from the harpsichord, was that a change you brought about?

Directing from the harpsichord was what Handel did himself. It was quite rare when I began doing it, and certainly new at the Festival. I think it’s had a ripple effect. It makes everyone performing pay attention in a different way because they aren’t being spoonfed with the beat, but also it makes it more the chamber music it is or should be, however many players you have. I endeavour to indicate phrasing through the harpsichord playing itself; how you shape the chord makes people play in a certain way. After college I studied conducting privately with conductors who weren’t focused on historical performance; I wasn’t seeking guidance in interpretation, I wanted to know how best to execute the interpretation I had. It took me a long time to realise that less is more in conducting. One of the big things for me in music-making is trust, and if you’re not having to do very much and you’re putting your trust in the performers, that builds on the ideals of chamber music delivery, every member of the ensemble contributing.

Ornamentation: who decides?

I always love it if the singers come with their own ideas. In an ideal world you hope they come with at least as many ideas as there are performances so each night’s different. We’ve got slightly into a mindset of getting things right, there’s a right way and therefore there’s a wrong way. You hear ‘not very stylish’ and you think ‘who are you to say? We don’t know’. Of course there are some things we do know. Such as the origins of ornamentation. From the 16th and 17th centuries came the art of divisioning, which is really the art of improvising around one long note and producing different melodic figures, and of course a lot of Handel’s music is written out divisioning. The runs in Messiah choruses, for instance, can be distilled down from say 32 notes to four fundamentals. The art of divisioning was in the muscle memory of all of Handel’s singers, they weren’t putting something onto the music, it’s already in the music, they were just unlocking it, and that’s what I try to encourage singers to do, to get enough flexibility that even if they’ve decided that that’s exactly the ornament they’re going to sing, they sing it as if they’ve just improvised it. It’s about release rather than imposition.

A lot of it has to do with trust and daring. Some conductors – it’s more unusual now – used to send a singer the ornaments they required, without even having met the singer. That’s as ridiculous as having decided on a tempo without having found out what the performer can comfortably manage. You have to allow the singer to bring ornamentation that will show them off to their best abilities, but not get in the way of the rhetoric of the music, because the rhetorical language is the most important. In the da capo you have a duty to amplify the rhetoric, through invention, and appropriate ornamentation can be a very effective vehicle for that. And sometimes you can ornament by taking things out rather than putting them in. It’s not a free-for-all but it’s a very liberating field, which is why I’m always encouraging young singers to come up with their own ideas, even if we adapt them in working on them. The main thing they have to be aware of is the harmony, and sometimes that’s hard for them to grasp, not necessarily the shape of it but knowing what notes they have to play with, which ones they can ornament.  You don’t need to know a lot about ornamentation any more than you need to know a lot about improvisation, you have to liberate yourself to do some, and not care. But we inhibit ourselves as performers the whole time, and that’s tricky.

During your time at the festival, continuo groups have moved away from a fully realised, printed edition to collaborative, newly created, improvised chamber music, each performance unique. How do you make the continuo part that we hear?

Handel’s figuring is bizarre – sometimes he seems to state the obvious and sometimes it’s totally lacking where there are really complicated harmonies. And you have to be careful where the figures come from – it may not be from the performing score, it could be Walsh, Handel’s publisher, who added them later. I’m a firm believer in the fully voiced continuo. You’re essentially harmonic percussion. For the harpsichord, play with all your fingers – with shape, so you’re making little ebbs and flows. I favour a big continuo sound that you can then reduce for certain moments. It’s not just about the size of the venue, it’s about the way a theatrical piece ‘reads’. You need a cushion of harmony so that the singers feel supported and the audience feels reassured, that they understand where they are, and then from that, you can shape it, and you can also create specific moments, for instance, just before ‘Scherza infida’, just theorbo and cello – but that only works if before that you’ve had a fairly full continuo sound. It’s nice, if you have the time, to let it develop, to work it out together in the continuo group – that again is a trust thing.

Have performance standards in general risen in your time?

Collective experience has risen; performers aren’t just more technically proficient, but fewer things have to be said at the start of a project, more things are a given now, even simple things like singers should have given thought to ornamentation in the da capos, it’s not a new thing to think about when they arrive (which used to be the case). I think the wonderful thing that has come up in the last few years is the importance of text and language. That’s a big thing for me, that it all starts with the text. That’s what it’s about. It doesn’t in any sense go against the music, as you start to prepare you begin to realise why Handel set it as he did. And I think we’re much more interested now in not only getting the language correct but using the language as part of the musical expression, and the poetry hopefully comes through that way. I think people understand that much more. And I think there’s more understanding of early Italian. For example, people used to be told to correct ‘spene’ to ‘speme’ because it means ‘hope’ but no, that’s an 18th-century poetic form that’s used so it can rhyme with ‘bene’, and Handel’s audience understood it meant ‘speme’. We do less ironing out now. People say Handel didn’t always accent English correctly because he was German, but are we sure about 18th-century English diction? Look no further than some of Handel’s English texts, in which ‘join’ is clearly meant to sound as ‘jine’.

Where will Laurence go now? Will we ever see you at the festival again?

Yes; in 2025 I’ll be doing the singing competition. I’m very fortunate to be director of the Academy of Ancient Music and I have an orchestra in Porto (Portugal), and I’ll continue to be freelance – currently Poppea in Basel. No new pastures; I’m very content with my fields as they are.