Composer Richard van Schoor

Composer Richard van Schoor

The talents of Richard van Schoor seem endless. After a MMus in Music at UCT, and piano studies in Zurich under Esther Yellin, he has carved a career for himself as performer, conductor, composer, coach and teacher. His infatuation with music is clear. asked him how he felt about his all-consuming career?

Please tell us about the award you recently received and what this means for your career.

RVS: The “Deutsche Pfandbriefbank” awards prizes to Architects and Artists/Musicians every two years. The prize can be for a specific project or in acknowledgement of a particular achievement. This translates into a year of support, allowing me to focus on composition, without financial strain. Furthermore the prize supports an already existing project, in this case, a commission to write an opera for mid 2013.

You are one of those multi-talented people who compose, perform (piano and organ), teach, coach and conduct. Have you ever felt you might need to make a choice between one of these?

RVS: This has been a constant torment for most of my life. To answer the question, yes, I have often felt the need to make a choice. The more I have tried to drop one occupation in favour of another, the more the others pop up, “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed”, reminding me of their rightful place and their eagerness to exist. Often it feels like a Sorcerer’s Apprentice story. I have stopped the fight and have decided that this is the way it needs to be. The global world has become a hugely specialised domain, so I needed to remind myself that the great composers and musicians were often simultaneously conductors, performers, composers, authors, teachers, and in some cases even artists.

How do you coordinate these various activities and what determines the order of events?

RVS: My life moves in and out periods of extreme order and extreme chaos. I have often found myself in some very precarious situations. In 2010, the first performance of a commission for orchestra and choir coincided with the performance of a concerto, as well as the conducting of an opera, all in the same month. I am a hugely inquisitive person and am often distracted. I now allow myself to be distracted more consciously with the understanding that I need to be more patient. Only the piano remains a very jealous protagonist. It doesn’t like to share time. An instrument demands all or nothing, and I have struggled to accept this in the past. If possible, I now try to plan three month periods devoted to one discipline at a time. In practise though, a freelance musician must do the work when it is offered.

What is your preferred piano repertoire and which works would you still like to perform?

RVS: In terms of concertos, I have played most of the repertoire I wanted to play, with the exception of the Samuel Barber Concerto. Among the concertos which I’ve already performed, there are only three I would like to repeat continually: the D minor concertos by Brahms, Mozart and Bach, also the Schnittke 1979 Concerto. These are the works I feel completely passionate about. If Elgar had written a concerto for piano, I would have liked to have studied that. I would still like to learn the Ligetti Etudes, the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, as well as the many Bach works I don’t yet know.

A frequently asked question, but one which always interests people – how did your love of music start and what influenced you to make classical music your professional career?

RVS: I lived in a fantasy world as a child, indeed some may argue that I still do. I used to build stages and produce my own operas. I was good at entertaining myself. I often gave imaginary performances at the piano without playing a single note. I bowed to imaginary audiences.  I preferred to spend time on my own.

I started learning the piano at the age of 14 and I don’t I think I was easy to teach. I started to improvise and found formal tuition very dull. When I was 13, I went to see Giselle.  I attended all the subsequent performances. By the last performance I had just about memorised the score and could play it all on the piano.

I remember hearing a performance of Tchaikowsky’s March Slav at the City Hall when I was 16. I literally had a fever all night and hardly slept. I lay in bed making the sounds of the various instruments. Maybe that was a point at which the power of music in my life was made tangibly clear.

You completed your MMus at UCT. What path did your career take after that?

RVS: My musical life has been extremely varied. I played the piano mostly. Then I also started working with amateur choirs, which taught me a huge amount about music. This happened accidentally after I substituted for someone who was ill. This period was followed by conducting a professional production of Tom Waits’ The Black Rider. Operetta followed, then finally Opera. I am presently musical director of an “opera stage” specialising mainly in rarely performed works. This year we are performing a Mendelssohn opera which hasn’t been heard in Germany since it was first performed. This will be followed by Busoni’s Turandot.

Are there expectations in terms of compositional style? How would you describe your style of composition?

RVS: I wouldn’t dare to. I am on a journey as far as this goes and the vistas seem endless. I am simply riding a wave which could dump me far up the beach. This is a difficult question. My music at the outset was a clear case of “Gebrauchsmusik” meaning that I wrote music for my needs, and the styles varied considerably.

Since 2009 I have started writing in a style I can start to call my own. I feel the atmosphere of music very strongly and endeavour to tell a clear story and not get stuck in my head. The contemporary music scene in Germany is huge and a very cerebral affair. You have to continually remind yourself of your tummy and your feet. One is disqualified by anything resembling a melody or a chord of sorts. If the same criteria applied to literature, you wouldn’t be able to understand a word, no sentence would make sense. There would be no story. It’s a field of landmines when you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses.

You have several commissions for the 2012/13 season. Please tell us about them.

RVS: Commissions are potentially restrictive. In my case I have seen them as a green light to do whatever I please. I have experimented a lot but never for the sake of doing so. The work I am currently embroiled in is roughly about the crucifixion. It will be performed together with Haydn’s “The seven last words of our saviour on the cross”. I am writing a mirror Oratorio called “The seven last words… in other words”.

The work is based on my own texts and research. It situates the crucifixion in the present day and starts with a lot of noise resembling the chaos of the crucifixion. This leads into a Lamento for Mary, then an “Aria” by “a mother” standing in the middle of a village of dead bodies ravaged by genocide. There are sections where the soloists resemble newsreaders, speaking simultaneously in different languages. Apart from stonings and other horrendous methods of killing people, there are still those who literally get crucified today.

The work looks at the Human Rights violations in Sudan, Nigeria, China, Tibet, Irak, Iran… the list is long.  At one point the choir as a wall of remembrance, whispers the names of those who have been murdered in the name of religion, in the name of God. The work ends with a quote by Nelson Mandela, which was handed down to me in a personal interview with Abbot Dom Michael John Zielinski during a visit to the Vatican in February. He asked Nelson Mandela: “Do you believe in God?” After a long silence Mandela answered: “I believe in the man and the woman created by God”.

What do you find the most daunting when starting a composition?

RVS: Simply starting!  George Orwell once said that writing a book was a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing, were one not driven by some demon whom one could neither resist nor understand.

Whose style of composition has influenced you – amongst the “old masters” and the modern composers?

RVS: I worship Bach. I love Scriabin. I am in awe of the orchestrations of Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, though I only really need to mention Tchaikovsky in this regard, because they were all so strongly influenced by him. I admire many composers of the late 20th Century: Schnittke, Takemitzu, Duruflé, Henri Dutilleux, Ligetti, William Bolcom.

You have a collection of original historical letters and postcards of, amongst others, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Clara Schumann and Béla Bartók. How did this collection start and where do you acquire these valuable documents?

RVS:  After concerts I often used to take some of my earnings to buy a special bottle of wine. I used to write the date and the work performed on the labels. But then I noticed that I wasn’t ever drinking the wine, so I started buying antique tea cups. Eventually I started dabbling in documents offered at auctions. I haven’t done this for a while either. I need to earn more money before I can continue this costly practise. Those letters or postcards are about a doctor’s appointment or a rehearsal, a problem with a publisher, a question about a dinner arrangement. They are inspirational reminders that all these “gods” of music were mere mortals.

What music do you like listening to when you are relaxing?

RVS: I don’t listen to music when I relax. Listening to music is something I do very consciously. I detest background music, also in restaurants. Nothing is more irksome to me than a “noodling” of music. The “music” created by the sound of enthusiastic dinner guests is far more thrilling. I prefer silence and I hear a lot of music in my head.

What advice do you have for someone considering a career as a composer?

RVS: I don’t know exactly why this question makes me laugh. I need to think about this. I am deeply respectful of those I would call composers. I suppose once you are receiving commissions to write music, it is inevitable that you will be labelled a composer. I prefer to be called a musician. But if I were pressed to give advice to a would-be-composer, I would suggest having a brilliant sense of humour.

Published 02.04.2012
Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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