Conductor Spotlight: Owain Park
Owain Park is a conductor and prize-winning composer, published by Novello. His music is performed across the world by ensembles including The Tallis Scholars and the Aurora Orchestra, and is regularly broadcast on the BBC, Classic FM, and internationally. In 2014, Owain founded his own ensemble, The Gesualdo Six, who recently released their first album on Hyperion Records, English Motets, to critical acclaim. He regularly works with ensembles including the BBC Singers, Cappella Cracoviensis and Cambridge Chorale, and joins the AAM to conduct Bach’s majestic Mass in B minor in Trinity Chapel on 18 May, 2019.
We caught up with Owain this past week to ask him about his career journey, preparation of the Mass, and what singular Bach work he’d choose to bring to a deserted island…
What led you to composition and conducting?
I was fascinated by new music from an early age, and took an interest in composition when I was learning the piano and singing at St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol. I enjoyed improvising, particularly on the organ and the trumpet, and eventually began to write these ideas down, with composition competitions proving a useful focus. When I moved to Wells Cathedral School I was given license to conduct and compose as much as I wanted, and tried out my ideas with musicians at school. It was a privilege to study orchestration with John Rutter, and I’m currently working on a Te Deum for choir, brass and organ, and a chamber opera. As an organist, I have learned a great deal of Bach’s music, and particularly enjoy conducting his work – it is so rewarding as a performer and listener alike.
What are a few musical moments in the Mass that the audience can look forward to on Saturday night?
The first time we hear the complete ensemble is at the beginning of the Gloria, which crackles with electricity and vitality as the trumpets and timpani join the full chorus. The choir is particularly excited to put the ‘Qui tollis’ together with the duetting flutes – it has been enticing to see those interjections in the score, and until we rehearse tomorrow they have had to imagine what it might sound like. For the audience, we hope this part of the score will be a moment of relative calm, surrounded by faster-paced movements. Hearing our four soloists from Amici Voices will also be a real treat!
With the Mass in B-minor playing a central role in the ‘historically-informed performance’ movement, what are some period-specific features that you’ve used to inform your preparation of the work?
When preparing the work with the choir, we have thought in particular about how the strings approach longer phrases – the voices often highlight the strong syllable of a word through melismas (when a word or part thereof is assigned to many consecutive notes), and it is important to find direction in these moments. A phrase can be given a great deal of expression in the way that it is structured, and with baroque strings these articulations guide the lines more than in later music.
Nicolas Harnoncourt made the first recording of the Mass with period instruments in 1968; what recordings would you recommend to those seeking to explore the work’s discography?
I had the privilege of touring and recording this piece with The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. Learning the piece from memory was quite a challenge, but I can still remember all of the bass lines with their twists and turns! I have enjoyed listening to various recordings of the piece to prepare for this project: I admire the shaping of Masaaki Suzuki’s 2007 recording with BCJ, with effortless transitions in the tricky moments (for instance, the seamless approach to the sudden burst of energy at ‘Et expecto’ after the winding down of ‘Confiteor’). It has been interesting to compare Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s versions of 1985 and 2015, hearing the changes in thought over 30 years of performing and studying the work.
Of the B-minor Mass, the Italian musicologist Alberto Basso writes: ‘This monumental work is a synthesis of every stylistic and technical contribution the Cantor of Leipzig made to music. But it is also the most astounding spiritual encounter between the worlds of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross’. How have you negotiated this spiritual terrain in your reading of the score?
I find it quite remarkable that Bach managed to bring together this selection of diverse material, much of it written earlier in his career, and work it into a sequence of such power and unanimity. It was uncommon for composers working in the Lutheran tradition to compose a complete setting of the mass; this work wasn’t performed in Bach’s lifetime (finished in 1749, with first documented performance over 100 years later), and there is some conjecture as to the composer’s vision for the work. Perhaps a document to ensure his legacy; more likely, an offering to God, that for many remains unsurpassed as a musical work.
Favourite post-rehearsal snack?
I think you’ll find the majority of performers in the local pub after rehearsals, but hopefully not after the one just before the concert!
Stuck on a desert island with a single Bach work — what is it and why?
The St John Passion: it was the first large-scale piece I was involved with when I was younger, and I conducted this with a fantastic group of friends while at university, so it holds a special place for me.
As told to Kemper Edwards (17/05/19)