Q&A with Spitalfields Festival 2017 curator Andre de Ridder

Conductor and producer Andre de Ridder is curating the 2017 Spitalfields Festival (Saturday 2 December – Sunday 10 December).

In this Q&A he explains how football helps him escape from the day job, his musical roots, and the approach he’s taken to bringing together unusual musical genres in this year’s Spitalfields Festival. 

Jon: Tell me two surprising things about you

Andre: [laughs] I’ve met quite a few conductors now who as much into football as I am. There are a group of conductors who exchange views on all sorts of goings-on in championship football. We sometimes collectively damn our schedules when there are Saturday concerts or even night Wednesday night rehearsals, especially when there are important matches on.

Football helps me puts my conducting life into a sort of context. Conductors lives are quite intense – mine especially between performing and curating. Your brain never stops. If you have an idea in the middle of the night you don’t want to let that idea go. I’ts not like a 9 to 5 job where you might be able to leave the work behind. It’s great then to have something to really switch off from. It can either be watching football or more recently watching Stranger Things on Netflix. A guilty pleasure.

J: I’m hardline on the opening question. What’s surprising thing number two?

A: Ah. OK.

It’s maybe boring to get back to the music but it does connect to the Spitalfields Festival.

I’m a huge fan of what you could describe as post-punk hardcore seminal called Fugazi. In some form or another features in the festival and I guess for people who know me as a conductor of classical and contemporary music would not necessarily connect me with that genre.

J: I haven’t heard of Fugazi. When I hear their music for the first time what do you think I’ll hear?

It may depend which song you listen to because their music can sometimes have a sort of edge to it that can be associated with anger.

Sometimes this anger speaks more through the words. The music is actually quite transparent and even harmonically ambiguous and leaves a sort of mysterious painful nostalgic aura around it.

So, you may either be immediately intrigued by it, or a little bit put off at first because it sort of it comes from a hardcore DIY aesthetic. But its actually musically quite diverse and sensitive. It may take a while to get beyond the first hurdle and the rush of noise.

J: You have broad but deep musical interests. Where does that stem from do you think?

A: I grew up as an only child in a musical household of parents who very old school classical music people. They met in an opera house. My Dad grew up with a love of great interpreters like Toscanini and Furtwangler and the repertoire associated with them. Mr Dad was a conductor, my mum was an opera singer. They were conservative in terms of their taste. They made me learn the piano and the violin.

But because I was an early child I spent quite a lot of time out of the house to play football and to socialise with my peers. Interestingly some of them were really music geeks and they were pretty much into British music and especially that new wave that came out post-punk 79/80, post Manchester scene including Joy Division and New Order and the Cure and other bands from that new wave British scene. And really that was the first cult music that I got into as far as non-classical music is concerned.

It’s interesting that only now that people have been saying recently that pop music used to be avant-garde. If you look at pop music in the 80s and 90s, they were stylistically and technically and musically there were a lot of avant-gardish things going on.

That’s not really the case any more. Pop used to be a forward looking reinventing itself medium – now its more about rehashing material. Maybe the avant-garde happens in more hybrid styles – the kind of thing I’m quite interested in nowadays – electronic music, alternative rock – music that’s off the mainstream. Those scenes they also include people who do amble between the two worlds – some are classical composers, some delve into pop. People like Anna Meredith – she’s one of a generation who grew up with an appreciation of both classical music and pop.

J: When you are crossing these genres in your work and your thinking, is there an element of wanting to rekindle the thrill you experienced when you were first introduced to them?

A: There is definitely that sense of thrill of being involved in something that feels fresh and visceral, and also something that feels like its been created by humans that I can understand. This is the element of collaboration I appreciate -the people who are really interested in collaboration rather than those locking themselves away to create some aloof masterpiece which then has to be deciphered and performed by specialist groups. Collaboration makes it possible to get away from that a little bit. For me there’s a thrill associated with collaborating like that – even if its about facilitating collaboration.

J: When are you are collaborating which is new and fresh and visceral, what is the signal that you get from the audience that says to you on whatever level, ‘this has been a success’?

A: I would say that you can definitely feel there’s a sense of tension and focus and silence in the room, even if its music that’s amplified and in part quite loud. It ebbs and flows. There’s a palpable sense of tension – a sense that people are listening in the room. If I get that sense and I see that going on, I know its working. I’ll get much more direct feedback from audiences afterwards if its a non-classical music setting. Classical music venues keep the performers set back – that makes it difficult for a performer to get any immediate feedback.

But I will always try to talk to people and a lot of people do want to talk to us and share their feelings. Sometimes when I talk to audiences who haven’t been to an orchestral concert before – I do this quite a lot – they are absolutely and really overwhelmed. It’s a really moving thing. It’s not a naive thing. It’s a very open thing. They are honest. That gives me a sense of hope when I experience that.

J: What attracted you to working with the Spitalfields Festival?

A: I go back quite a long way with the Festival. When I studied with the Royal Academy I was interested in Judith Weir’s music and performed quite a lot of her stuff. I got to know her personally at the time she was artistic director of the Spitalfields Music. I formed a contemporary ensemble when I was at the Academy and we went to Germany to perform it.

Judith invited the ensemble to perform at the Festival. We did a couple of concerts there. Through the Festival I got to know East London. I learned a lot about the history of the area. I found it fascinating. What struck me about the Festival over the years was that it always was good at combining genres. It was very proactive at integrating learning and participation projects into their programmes too. In a similar way they were good at combining old and new music. That in itself isn’t new, but it was something that appealed to me because it was a way I liked to work.

In comparison to curating a purely contemporary festival (which I do in Helsinki with the Musica Nova in Helsinki) Spitalfields gave me the opportunity to widen the scope, seeing different things next to each, combining contemporary with classic and even romantic music.

Spitalfields and the beautiful houses in the Huguenot streets around Christchurch provide a fantastic location for the music Schumann and Schubert. These are the kind of places these composers would first perform their songs in. So after that I end up thinking, ‘Who are the original great word-setters and songwriters?’ Then I ended up going back to Monteverdi, and Schumann (who basically wrote song cycles – in present-day terms the inventor of the concept pop album). That what’s it about. It’s a story about love and loss and its a person who takes on a personality. It’s a person who goes on a journey. It’s basically what David Bowie was doing in the albums he was doing. Fugazi worked in a similar vein.

For me, I found all of these beautiful connections across the ages without any of it feeling too forced. I found it was possible to connect them all up simply by allowing them too, by putting them all into the mix and seeing what emerged.

The Spitalfields Winter Festival starts on Saturday 2 December and runs until Sunday 10 December 2017. Be quick – tickets are going fast. 

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