01/07/2013 06:26 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Truth to the Music: An Interview with Trevor Pinnock

Ten years ago, I bought a two-disc recording of Bach's complete sonatas for violin and harpsichord from Tower Records in Manhattan. At the time, I had no idea that this purchase was the key to an aural journey into the past. The featured musicians on the recording, violinist Rachel Podger and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock, were part of the early music revival, a late-20th century classical music movement that endeavored to restore the original aesthetic of pre-19th-century music through period instruments and historically informed performances.

Let me put it another way: Trevor Pinnock wanted to play Bach's music the way Bach heard it. Through careful study of written treatises on performance practice, Pinnock incorporated the styles and mannerisms of performance during Bach's time into his own interpretation of the composer's music. When I first listened to that recording, I was hooked. Trevor Pinnock and Rachel Podger's masterful performance simply blew me away. Through their period instruments, they endowed music that has been performed over and over again with new colors, dynamics and vitality. By trying to create a sound that was true to the composer's original intentions, these musicians had created something entirely new.

Conducting Don Giovanni for Houston Grand Opera, opening January 25, will mark the first time Pinnock has conducted a Mozart opera with a major opera company. Earlier this year, I jumped at the opportunity to interview the Maestro for HGO's publication, Opera Cues.

You are known primarily as a pioneer of the early music movement. How did you become interested in performing baroque music on period instruments?

Trevor Pinnock: When I was about seven years old, I had a volume of simple arrangements by Bach, each prefaced by a little story. This was my favorite music, and it seemed to me new and alive, as if freshly composed for me that very morning. It was this passion that led me to explore the world of the baroque, turning to period instruments in a quest to bring it to life.

My interest was further kindled as a student, when I was lucky enough to be allowed to rehearse on a collection of period harpsichords in London. These had a special and magical sound. I also heard the recording of the Brandenburg Concertos on original instruments by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, which offered a completely new sound world to the modern instrument groups like the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. We were clearly at a crossroads of musical discovery. By the early 1970s, I was ready to jump into the unknown by founding The English Concert.

How did The English Concert evolve into one of today's premiere early music ensembles?

In 1973, The English Concert and I were lucky that some people had the vision to support our experiment -- for many could not imagine it as a serious venture. [The late] Lina Lalandi, founder of the English Bach Festival, engaged us for our London debut and Dr. Andreas Holschneider of Deutsche Grammophon showed interest, but nevertheless wisely waited for five years before giving us a significant recording contract. Our recording of Bach suites in 1978 was the first of many that were to open a new sonic world to traditional music lovers and to a new generation of aspiring musicians. The whole early instrument movement grew up during the boom years of the recording industry. If there were a secret to our success, I would say that it was the combination of hard work, scholarship and a ground rule of testing everything with our ears and own inner gift of music.

Why start conducting Mozart operas now at this stage in your career?

What better time? I have lived, I have learned something and I am as eager as a 20-year-old. At last the time is ripe for me to respond to the suggestions of many singers that I conduct Mozart operas. In instrumental music, the drama lies within the music. In opera, or anything involving voices and words, the drama surrounds the music. And not only surrounds it, but underpins it, so the music responds to the drama.

How do your background and expertise in early music performance enlighten your understanding of Mozart opera?

I have no doubt that my considerable work with music of Mozart's time and before has given me an ease with his language. With The English Concert, I recorded all of Mozart's symphonies and many of Haydn's along with sundry masses and arias--and our performances covered even wider ground. All of this work benefited from my knowledge of the music of Bach and his sons, Handel, and the whole company of composers known to Mozart. In performing two Haydn operas, I saw his influence on Mozart in the great ensemble pieces, as at the end of the second act of Don Giovanni.

What does Mozart mean to you as a conductor?

I had an amazing experience -- I went to Salzburg to conduct Mozart's Requiem in a new music festival [music of living and recently deceased composers] that was contrasting new and old music. They started the evening with a bit of electronic music by Karlheinz Stockhausen written in the 1950s -- the very early days of electronic composition. Everything he had done was by all accounts groundbreaking. Nevertheless, it was very much music of its time. It sounded dated. But, as soon as the music of the Requiem started, within a few notes, there was an extraordinary energy that hadn't been present in the Stockhausen. It made me reflect on the fact that Mozart's genius transcends centuries -- it breaks down barriers of time.

How is conducting Don Giovanni a different experience from conducting a baroque opera, say Handel's Julius Caesar?

Both are superb dramas with strong plots. The musical styles and performance conventions are different, but the basic challenge remains the same. The conductor, along with the stage director, must trust in the genius of Mozart while carrying the human drama foremost in his mind. He must respect the architecture and pacing of the work, presenting the arc of the whole musical drama and unifying the cast in a performance as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1787.

How does Don Giovanni compare with other Mozart operas?

I'm not sure how much of a comparison one can make, but it's always fascinating to see the evolution of a composer. You can certainly say that by the time Mozart wrote Don Giovanni, his music was extraordinary. Did you know that Beethoven apparently didn't like Don Giovanni, but when he was writing Fidelio, he copied out the entire score of Don Giovanni? The best way of learning music is by copying it out -- that's how they always did it.

In the last five years of his life, Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, La clemenza di Tito, and The Magic Flute, all of which are considered among the composer's greatest operas. Why do you think Mozart wrote so many operatic masterpieces at the end of his life?

What we can see is the remarkable stylistic variety and the amount of compositional experimenting: the extraordinary freedom with form and with using harmony in unprecedented ways. Why did it all come in a rush? Thank God it came all in a rush! He was destined to die at such a young age, and somehow he had to get this all out before his death. The mystery of his death and of this tremendous surge of inspiration before is something people will speculate on forever.

Mozart's father's death shortly before Don Giovanni was, I think, one of the great motivating factors for the composition of the piece. I feel that Donna Anna [whose father is killed in the first scene] is quite an enigmatic figure and capable of multiple interpretations, but one thing is clear: Mozart had an absolutely personal knowledge of what goes on in peoples' minds after there has been a death, both because of the death of his children and his father's death. While composing Don Giovanni, Mozart wasn't only in mourning, but had feelings of guilt and rage. I find that fascinating.

It's daunting in a way to start conducting Mozart operas now, at this stage in my career. I'm not somebody who's trying to carve out a career--I don't have that ambition any more. My only burning ambition is truth to the music. Anything I do is a learning process. And for Mozart, now is the time.

Originally published in the fall 2012 issue of Opera Cues, the official program book and magazine of Houston Grand Opera. Reprinted with permission.