Artist Focus3:43, 8th March 2017
Were you by chance to encounter the tall figure of Ian Page at a party you might think to yourself, ‘Hmm, a gentleman farmer, perhaps.’ A rather less likely conclusion would be that you were in the presence of a man who is not only an outstanding conductor of his generation but also the brains behind one of the most ambitious musical projects ever undertaken. The trajectory taken by Page’s career to this point starts in familiar fashion for a British musician: as a boy chorister at Westminster Abbey, a period Page describes as ‘completely life changing’. He survived the culture shock of moving to general education, never experiencing ‘a period when I thought liking classical music was weird’. His university degree was undertaken not in music, but in English literature, a step that had a profound influence in helping round out Page’s approach to music. ‘When I went on to the Royal Academy I struggled to understand how about 90% of musicians studied music primarily from a purely technical aspect,’ he says.
After leaving the RAM, Page went on to serve on the music staff of several opera companies, his interest in opera having been awakened by gifts of LPs. He particularly recalls a defining moment when Covent Garden’s Jean Povey arranged for the 12-year-old to stand in the wings for a performance of La bohème featuring a rising young tenor by the name of Luciano Pavarotti. That was, he says ‘enough for me’.
But it would not be to Bohème or Tosca that Page would turn as an operatic conductor. In 1997 he founded Classical Opera, a company devoted to exploring the music of Mozart and his contemporaries. It is sometimes said that Mozartians are born and not made; if this is true, Page must have been waving his arms directing Figaro from his pram. Today, he is, if I may be forgiven for quoting myself, ‘One of the most stylishly authoritative interpreters of the composer working today.’
The second decade of this century marked the outset of the two projects by which Page’s career will almost certainly be defined. The first, in 2012, was the recording of all Mozart’s operas over a 20-year span, an important feature of which is the employment of young, mainly British singers. The progress, planned roughly chronologically, has so far included major recordings of Mitridate, re di Ponto and Zaide.
Then three years later Classical Opera announced an even more ambitious scheme: Mozart 250. Its objective is typical of Page’s holistic approach to music, setting out to place the music composed by Mozart and his contemporaries in the context of its time for each of the 27 years Mozart was active as a composer 250 years ago. To date Mozart 250 has a yielded major treasure in the shape of Jommelli’s superb Il Vologeso of 1766 and smaller jewels such as Abel’s ravishing aria ‘Frena la bella’, given at the 2017 concert in January. I ask Page if the series has unearthed any major personal revelations.
‘Well, in the concert we did in 2016 we had an aria by Guglielmi [Pietro; 1728–1804] that was rather wonderful and also a very interesting symphony by Franz Beck. It’s also been interesting to see the reaction of the players, who’ve really loved performing repertoire they’re not going to play with any other group.’ This mission to introduce music to people plays an even more potent role when it comes to Classical Opera’s outreach programme, something close to Page’s heart: ‘I think Mozart 250 really plays into our hands here because you can tell a group of 10-year olds The Marriage of Figaro is great music until you’re blue in the face, but say to them, “this is Mozart’s first symphony and he wrote it when he was younger than you are”, and you’ve immediately got an audience.’
With the uniquely innovative Mozart 250 project – not to mention the Mozart opera project – Page clearly has before him many rewarding years of exploration and achievement ahead. ‘Yes,’ he laughs, ‘the tyranny is the increasing fear that I’m going to discover this forgotten masterpiece recorded 251 years ago!’