Rhinegold Photo credit: Guy Vilatte

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Bridget Cunningham

9:00, 17th October 2017

The conductor and harpsichordist discusses her work with London Early Opera, and tells Toby Deller about her ventures into contemporary repertoire

London Early Opera (LEO) may still be in its first decade – even if only just – but under director Bridget Cunningham it is already five recordings into an ongoing survey of Handel’s music for Signum Classics. Founded in 2008, the group has just released a second volume of Handel at Vauxhall, two volumes of Handel in Italy and the first volume of Handel in Ireland. A second is on its way, as are recordings focusing on the composer’s operas, under the title Handel in London.

‘The idea of the series was to capture a musical snapshot at a moment in time in Handel’s life to tell us more about Handel the man, his life and his travels.’ says Cunningham. ‘We’ve released two recordings of Handel in Italy because he was there early in his life and was inspired by the music of Italy. And then we’ve released Handel at Vauxhall volumes one and two: these contain music that would have been performed at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. At this time, the 1740s, this was a place where English secular music was performed: wonderful music by Handel and other English composers such as Arne, Hebden, Gladwin. Their music would be performed every night in the summer.’

Beyond this project, Cunningham says the aim of LEO is ‘to look in depth at the music. We work regularly with historians and musicologists to really get a fuller picture of the music because I believe that the word and the deed go together: the deed as in the performance and the word as in the musicology that goes with it.’

The process is as much practical as scholarly, she says, reflecting that her own training is in performance: she studied harpsichord and organ, as well as conducting; these are skills that she brings to her role at LEO since she frequently conducts from the keyboard.

‘I studied conducting from the podium at university, and then at the Royal College of Music I continued this but also studied the harpsichord and continuo. I had lessons with everybody, with lots of people who led from the harpsichord. I shadowed people like Christopher Hogwood – you go to rehearsals and watch and listen. It very much helps if you can play the harpsichord very well because you need to be able to lead occasionally with your hand, with your head, with eye contact, and you have to breathe together.’

But even then, she does not see conducting early music as predominantly a technical exercise in keeping players together, say. ‘To be able to conduct baroque opera well, it is very important to be able to play the harpsichord, read scores and figured bass fluently, and understand the nuances of all the instruments and of the different voice types. It is fascinating how Handel writes arias for individual voices focusing on the strengths of particular singers he worked with at the time. For example, he wrote for the 18th-century Italian diva Margherita Durastanti’s strengths such as entering in awkward moments, pauses and great leaps, and also wrote exquisitely for the pathos of the 18th-century English soprano, Susannah Maria Cibber. Baroque dance also plays a big part in Handel’s compositions, and it is useful to understand the different dance forms
and patterns.’

Although she has until now worked predominantly in baroque music, Cunningham is beginning to conduct more in the modern manner. But she gently corrects the suggestion that, contrary to most conductors interviewed for Meet the Maestro, contemporary music might not feature in her work.

‘Well, actually, no because 17 July was the 300th anniversary of Handel’s Water Music and we had a new piece written for us by the former BBC Young Composer Grace-Evangeline Mason that we premiered on the Thames on a boat.’ Mason’s piece, River, was co-commissioned by Radio 4’s Front Row and the BBC Proms.


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