The Accidental Music Director:
An Interview with Martin Pearlman
You started as a harpsichord player. How come?
I got into harpsichord by accident. At one point during my undergraduate studies at Cornell, I wanted to stop playing violin and didn't want to study piano within the department, so I found a very small harpsichord, a kind they don’t make any more, and convinced the university organist to teach me how to play. After graduation, I got into Juilliard and New England Conservatory but decided instead on a Fulbright grant to spend a year in Holland, where I studied with Gustav Leonhardt, the great Dutch early music pioneer and harpsichordist. Studying with Leonhardt was really a formative experience for me; his style was more like coaching than teaching, since I had to bring in different music every week and go through lots of repertoire. At the time, there weren’t many books on the subject and certainly not many recordings with period instruments. So we relied on going to the sources, reading the original texts, and digging up music. Probably the best kind of training I could have had.
What was the landscape of period-instruments playing when you went to Holland in 1967?
There were just a few period-instruments groups; playing on period-instruments was just getting going. There wasn’t anything in England. The Concentus Musicus in Vienna was playing on period instruments. Leonhardt, my teacher, had a small group of strings.
After Holland I studied the harpsichord and composition at Yale. In 1971, I moved to Boston where I had some friends, but moved there mainly because it was a center of harpsichord building and playing. I gave harpsichord recitals and won some competitions.
You thought you would pursue a career as a performer?
Yes, my major in school was composition, but I decided also to play harpsichord as a soloist, and that was unusual enough at the time that a recital would attract a large audience. I certainly did not think of being a conductor. It just didn’t occur to me.
After a couple of years in Boston, I got together a few friends—I pretty much found all the people in Boston and nearby who could play Baroque instruments well—about eight people. With them, I put together a concert series which I called Banchetto Musicale, a musical feast. But I didn’t mean it to be a permanent orchestra. All it was at first was a collection of different kinds of concerts which I thought would sell better if we did them as a 4-concert series.
In the first performance we did Bach’s Musical Offering and a Buxtehude sonata. In the second concert we played music for two harpsichords and in the third music for violin solo and continuo. The last one was a number of concertos, orchestral but with one person to a part, using all eight players. We played in a church and we filled it up. All four performances were successful, and the last one was a very big hit, so I continued in that direction. At first I led from the harpsichord, but after some years, the ensemble got so big that I had to stand up and conduct.
I didn't realize when we started that the first English period-instrument groups were starting up about the same time and that this was the first one in America. I was simply following my interest and curiosity.
Why did you focus on Baroque music?
Playing the harpsichord—especially after I went to Holland to study—meant that I was surrounded by Baroque repertoire. Also, all my life I have been involved in contemporary music, modern music, as a composer. And I always felt that although I love the Romantic period and listen to it, that emotionally this early music was closer to modern music. And it just felt like a more natural fit for me to have those two going, the modern and the Baroque.
And why period instruments?
The general interest in period instruments was just beginning in the 1970’s and I was curious about it. I wasn’t at first, perhaps, committed to the fact that this was the way I was going to go, but I found it fascinating and wanted to experiment.
There are some people who are involved in early music who feel that playing on period instruments is just superior to any other way of doing it. For me, it’s ultimately whether it’s a good performance or not. Period instruments certainly do add something that I find valuable. But I never made as big an advertising point as some that “this is period instruments, it’s the way the composer heard it.” If it works, it works. I feel that in every period, music has to be somewhat re-invented to give it life, and you should make it speak to the people of your time. Period-instrument performance has been resurrected and become popular in our time, not because it's antiquarian, but because it speaks to our modern sensibilities.
How would you describe your approach to early music?
I tell my students that studying style from the sources is similar to when we are constantly being told as children “Don’t do that, do this instead.” At first, you just do it because you’re supposed to do it. But as you grow up, you don’t think about it, it has become your social framework. And the more it’s just your framework, the freer you are. That’s comparable to what goes on with learning this kind of musical style. When you are reading the sources and learning how to play early instruments, at first you may feel very restricted: you can’t do certain things you’ve learned—you must start the trill this way, play your instrument this way, etc. But once they become the norm and are part of you, you are freer and can trust that you are within the boundaries of a composer's style, when you interpret his/her music. What I want to do is to be within the framework, and then simply be myself.