wed 24/07/2024

First Person: conductor Peter Whelan on coming full circle with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: conductor Peter Whelan on coming full circle with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra

First Person: conductor Peter Whelan on coming full circle with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra

From watching Handel's 'Israel in Egypt' on TV to conducting it

Peter Whelan: ' "Israel in Egypt" has a special place in my heart'Marco Borggreve

There's something undeniable about the way music can weave itself into the fabric of our lives, shaping our passions and leaving an indelible mark on our journeys. For me, this magic has been particularly intertwined with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra. My first encounter with them, back in 1992, wasn't live in a concert hall, but rather through the flickering screen of a television.

A Proms performance of Handel's monumental oratorio Israel in Egypt had captivated me so completely that I, a wide-eyed teenager, felt compelled to record it onto a VHS tape. I watched it on repeat, immersing myself in the drama and grandeur of the music, until the tape, worn thin from overuse, finally succumbed. Little did I know then that years later, I would find myself conducting this very piece with the very same ensemble that had ignited my passion for it all those years ago.

Fast forward to my conducting debut at the Royal Opera House/Linbury Theatre last year. The thrill of performing on that prestigious stage was immense, but it was tinged with a sense of deja vu. Years earlier, I had sat in the same orchestra pit, not as a conductor, but as a bassoon player, performing Mozart's La finta giardiniera with the Monteverdi Choir under the legendary Sir John Eliot Gardiner. It was a formative experience, and the memory came flooding back as I took my own place at the podium conducting Vivaldi's Bajazet. This year, the connection deepens further as I return to the same stage directly after the Israel in Egypt tour, this time to conduct another Vivaldi opera, L'Olimpiade, especially for the Olympic year. Monteverdi Choir and OrchestraMy connection with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras extends beyond the stage. As an apprentice bassoonist at the Zurich Opera, I had the chance to meet Sir John Eliot Gardiner during a production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. I vividly recall the near-miss due to a delayed flight and the mad dash into the orchestra pit, throwing on my tails jacket as I ran past John Eliot. He offered a few words of encouragement, a moment I'll never forget. (Pictured above by Paul Marc Mitchell: the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra conducted by Gardiner in St Martin-in-the-Fields, where the London performance of Israel in Egypt will take place).

Over the years, I've had the pleasure of collaborating with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras on several occasions, including memorable performances of Brahms's Second Serenade and Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with my friend Kristian Bezuidenhout. Each experience has been enriching, reaffirming my admiration for this exceptional ensemble.

Israel in Egypt holds a special place in my heart. The sheer scale of the work, with its double chorus and virtuosic demands on the singers, is breathtaking. It's a kaleidoscope of musical styles, showcasing Handel at his best. As the Monteverdi Choir approaches its 60th anniversary, recently being named "Best Choir" at the Oper! Awards, it's fitting to revisit this masterpiece. The oratorio allows us to witness Handel at his most inventive, also in his recycling and elevating of works by other composers to create a unique and powerful listening experience.

The upcoming performances feel like a culmination of many threads coming together. From that worn-out VHS tape to the electrifying energy of live performances, the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra have been a big source of inspiration throughout my musical journey. Conducting Israel in Egypt with them is not just a professional milestone, but a deeply personal one, a chance to connect with the music that first ignited my passion and to collaborate with this remarkable ensemble.

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