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Roger Norrington

Rick FulkerMarch 14, 2014

A pioneer of historically informed performance practice, Norrington is among the world's most sought after and influential conductors. He continues to shape the music world with his inquisitive, provocative approach.

Conductor Sir Roger Norrington on stage
Image: Copyright 2012

He conducts with a smile and minimal gestures, but with gripping intensity. The spark leaps from the podium to the musicians - and inevitably on to the audience.

"I like to have fun when I'm making music," he tells DW, "even when it's quite serious. I sometimes say to orchestras: it musn't sound like work. In a way, music is there as entertainment, to lift the spirits, to lift you out of the gutter, where we would all end up otherwise, and into a special world."

The unscholarly scholar

Norrington's treatment of the great works in music literature never sounds like labor, and it's pointedly unpedantic. The conductor was born on March 16, 1934 in the university town of Oxford to a scholarly family; his father was president of Trinity College.

Early on, Norrington played violin and sang, going on to study literature and history at Cambridge. In 1962, during his studies of conducting at London's Royal College of Music, he founded the Heinrich Schütz Choir, which specialized in early music. He never completed musical exams, and he didn't make music his career until age 28.

Conductor Sir Roger Norrington at a train station
At 80, Norrington is often on the roadImage: picture-alliance/maxppp

By the early 1970s, Norrington was artistic director of the newly-founded Kent Opera Company and headed around 40 opera productions there. In 1978, he established the London Classical Players, who performed on period instruments. A decade later, he caused a sensation on the CD market with a recording of all of Ludwig van Beethoven's symphonies using period instruments. The astonishingly original sound was based not only on the instruments themselves but also on the historically accurate "Beethoven seating arrangement" within the orchestra - first violins at the left, second violins right - and the breathtakingly swift tempi. These reflect - as Sir Roger never tires of stressing - Beethoven's own metronome markings.

What Beethoven had in mind

By thoroughly investigating source material and past performance methodologies, Norrintgon tossed out the late Romantic style of interpretation that had been dominant for decades. In fact, the word "interpretation" is a loaded term for him.

"You don't have to 'interpret' a Mozart symphony. And - contrary to popular belief - you don't have much choice if you know how Mozart worked. So actually, forget about interpretation, know the rules. Know the highway code. It's much easier in a way. Some conductors will say: 'I don't have room for my art then, my art! I have to commune with my muse.' - I say rubbish! Find out what Bruckner wanted and play it like that," Norrington says.

From 1998 to 2011, the star conductor headed the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart. The resulting "Stuttgart sound" - as it became known among insiders - stood out for its clear lines, driving tempi and, above all, vibrato-less string playing. Norrington's research indicated that the use of vibrato first became part of the standard playing practice only in the 1920s.

Conductor Sir Roger Norrington on stage
Intensely concentrated - as alwaysImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Rigorous, provocative

The output of the conductor's time in Stuttgart was 61 CDs and DVDs, along with hundreds of concert recordings. Thereafter, Norrington switched to the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, while maintaining close contact with the Paris Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Drawing on this wealth of experience, he says, "The current level of orchestras around the world is fantastically high - highest as it has ever been in history, I'm sure. People are becoming aware of the possibilities of playing."

Today, there's hardly a major conductor who ignores the fundamental aspects of historically informed performance practice. That's also a given among orchestras playing on modern instruments. Nonetheless, one gets the sense that Norrington's work as a pioneer continues. Whether in London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia or San Francisco, he dusts things off thoroughly, agitates and shows that he's willing to rethink his own achievements - confounding those who think that playing with an eye to the past must sound dry and academic.

Norrington plays Bruckner without pathos and takes Wagner at an astonishing clip. That, too is based on the sources, Wagner having often complained of conductors who performed his work too slowly.

Conductor Sir Roger Norrington
Image: Copyright 2012

Looking ahead with optimism

The conductor, who overcame a severe battle with cancer in the mid-90s, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. Sir Roger, who enjoys retreating to his idyllic estate in Berkshire, England, offers his uniquely personal optimism when he reflects on the future of classical music, currently plagued by falling CD sales and the dissolution of orchestras.

"Classical music is bound to be in decline if you think about market share. If you're going to spend six hours on a computer a day, you don't have time to go to a concert. But at the moment, audience levels are pretty high. They're still passionate about it - like people are passionate about jazz. Classical might descend into the cellars, like jazz, instead of occupying the big concert halls. We may not get paid so much or maybe not at all. But those of us who are interested in music will still be in there making it because we love it," he says.