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Q & A with Iestyn Davies

Charles Martindale, York Georgian Society’s Chair, talks to our new President Iestyn Davies, the internationally-renowned counter-tenor, about his career and love of all things Georgian

We are of course honoured that you have agreed to become President of the York Georgian Society. What motivated you to agree to our invitation?

My motivation for agreeing to this very honourable position was my love for York as a place both for its buildings and its people; and in particular, having only just moved away from the city after 13 years, it gave me a continued connection which will both bring me back as much as I can to York and open a new chapter in my relationship with the city in which I was born.

Do you have a special affection for York as a city, and if so why?

I was born in a house on the river to the sound of Minster bells one Sunday morning in 1979. One can’t really leave that connection behind. I grew up with a fascination for history, railways, and church architecture, and so much of who I am is shaped by the staging of York as an architectural presence. It is a great city, which has even greater potential.

You obviously love both the music and the architecture of the 18th century. What particularly attracts you to this period?

I can best relate to why I like the music and architecture of this period in perhaps an explanation of how the music seems to follow what we might call a ‘natural order’. The well-established concept of the day of ‘affektenlehre’, a doctrine of the passions, which instructed that the role of music is to stir the feelings of composer, performer, and the audience alike, runs throughout this period. The genius of Handel or Bach was to make their own imprint on the musical world seem completely original and yet wholly familiar and full of sense from the first listening. It is music that counts on the listening as an active participation. It is music of the spheres that resonates both within ourselves and in the natural world around us. Perhaps then there is something of this echoed in the buildings of the time; a satisfying order and unwavering onward march of sense and proportion.

I know that you are a great enthusiast for architecture as well as music. On the face of it they seem very different things. Do you think that different aspects of culture have something important in common?

Both music and architecture can be studied in the silence of an academic cloister, but both only fully ‘work’ when populated by human bodies, whether as listeners in the case of music, or living, active people in the case of architecture. There is a structure to music and sound that is realised when we play and listen; and likewise when we experience a building in real time it speaks to us, we hear the space it occupies. So the most important linking factor is the presence of human life to release these two aspects of our culture into full bloom. Buildings need a vibrant dialogue just as much as music invites a two-way partnership between musician and listener.

I know that you respond vividly to particular buildings. Can you give us an example of that response to a particular Georgian building, either in York or elsewhere?

I melt in an envious puddle when I walk the streets of Georgian Spitalfields in London and spy into the restored cloth-weavers’ houses there. The domestic arrangement is so pleasing, and I have no trouble at all imagining living in one, and how I would operate within it, or how the building would invite one to live in it. Both aspects of symmetry and proportion play a large part in their beauty, coupled with the wonder of simple pleasing architectural turns, like a dentilled cornice or heavy wooden shutters. St Saviourgate in York, whilst slightly grander, shares much of the charm of the terraces of Spitalfields.

Why, in your view, is it important to preserve our Georgian heritage?

For one thing we have learnt a great deal from the errors of town planning in the 20th century – thankfully these days we have moved on to a time of greater sensitivity towards many, if not all, periods or architectural styles. ‘Heritage’, simply put, is the property we inherit, and in turn it becomes something we value and enjoy and pass on to future inheritors. Georgian heritage therefore is not a unique case per se, but there to be preserved simply so we can enjoy it, value it, and pass it on in a good state. Often I describe what I do as a singer in much the same terms; I get an enjoyment and a sense of value when I sing a Handel opera, but ultimately I have inherited the privilege to be able to perform it, and my job is to serve the composer, serve the audience, and hope that I inspire some sort of legacy that enables future musicians to do the same

When you are singing a musical role from the Georgian period – say a character in a Handel opera - how do you think yourself, if you do, into the Georgian past?

I actually think it is less important to recreate a sense of the past when performing music than it is to find the integral musical switch within it that links you with the composer and what they’ve written. Style is to do with the period and locus of composition, but being musical, feeling the human passion within the music is not grounded in time. Therefore I always try to be in touch with the most moving performance of a piece rather than aiming for some kind of ‘historically informed’ or ‘historically accurate’ rendition. To do so surely gets closer to the heart of serving the composer’s original intentions. I am constantly surprised at how Handel or Bach, for instance, remain so relevant to the 21st-century musician and listener, and it has little to do with wigs, candle light, or funny tunings!

A musical performance is necessarily always a fresh event. When it comes to architecture and the built environment, or a garden or landscape can we do something equivalent – make it new for the present moment?

Musical performances at their best, in my opinion, are when they strive for the ephemeral. I find recordings, broadcasts, and video streams a burden and straight jacket to music making and listening. Audiences must sense that what they hear is a one-off, and the moment a note has been sung or played it is gone forever. That excites me and ultimately frees me in live performance. It is difficult to achieve this sentiment in buildings, gardens, or landscapes because by their very nature they are tangible and therefore invite a degree of permanence. I wonder then if there is a performance going on at all in the present moment – is a building offering something every minute that can be new and almost ephemeral? Perhaps not exactly, but rather we trust in the motion of time, stretched out over a building or garden’s existence and how that allows through greater perspective an appreciation of their influence over us day to day. I feel that to be successful in this way we need to revisit a building or garden; the performance that we eventually forget or remember as different each time we experience it is the one in which we ourselves take the responsibility to engender. Like the preservation of heritage debate, it is our duty to go about the workings of preservation in order that people can daily experience it and that in itself brings the newness we may seek.

What originally caused you to develop your voice as a male alto?

After my voice broke (relatively slowly) I settled for a short time as a bass, but then one day I was a bit bored in a school choir rehearsal and quietly joined in with the alto line. The person next to me remarked, ‘that sounds quite good, you should take it seriously’. That was that!

You were first trained in choral singing. What is the difference between an international career as a soloist and singing in a leading choir – I mean not in terms of lifestyle but in terms of the musical challenges involved?

I now have greater appreciation for what choral singers do than I did when I was a choral singer for the majority of time. I am so grateful for beginning my musical life in a choir. It taught me by default to listen, sing in tune, phrase music with sensitivity, the importance of text in leading that phrasing, the ability to sight-read, and be a professional team player! What I quickly realised when graduating to the art of solo singing was that so much of the technique of singing, the under-the-bonnet mechanics of producing well supported tone, coupled with Olympic physical stamina and artful interpretations, is lost or of secondary importance in choral singing. I was a part of a world-famous choir [St John’s College Cambridge] for 9 years but probably doing so without knowing how to sing. Certainly not how to sing a Handel aria properly over a full orchestra into a 4000-seater opera house. I suppose it’s like saying because you drive a bus you can drive, but that doesn’t mean you qualify for Formula One.

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