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Dunedin Consort: Approaching Classical Music with an Inquisitive Spirit

John Butt directing the Dunedin Consort (photo: Cameron Leask)

Edinburgh based Dunedin Consort specialise in baroque and classical repertoire and have been performing across Scotland and beyond for nearly 20 years. Earlier this year, they were awarded the 2014 Gramophone Award for Best Choral Recording for their interpretation of Mozart's Requiem.

In this Connecting feature, Dunedin's CEO Alfonso Leal del Ojo, tells us more about how they approached recording Mozart's unfinished classic, the history of the organisation, collaborating on the 2015 NCEM Young Composers Award and what's next for the company...

Tell us a bit about the history of Dunedin Consort?

Dunedin Consort has its origins in a mixed a cappella vocal ensemble, which was founded in 1996 by Ben Parry and Susan Hamilton. In 2003, our current Music Director John Butt joined the company, bringing a renewed focus on historically informed performance. Since then, we specialise primarily in 'early music', spanning from the Renaissance through to the baroque and early classical styles. There are, of course, numerous ensembles specialising in this field nowadays, but very few can truly claim to excel in both instrumental and vocal performance in the same way that Dunedin Consort can!

John is a rare breed of a musician. He is Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow and respected internationally (primarily, but not exclusively) for his scholarship and research on the music of J.S. Bach. He's also a phenomenal performing musician - as a harpsichordist, organist and conductor. It is very rare to find a musician capable of integrating all of these qualities. His musicianship, in combination with the highly talented and enthusiastic singers and instrumentalists that make up Dunedin Consort, produce results that are nothing short of fantastic. It also helps somewhat that John is additionally possessed of a rapier wit and sense of humour that - like his other talents - are unparalleled anywhere in the classical music scene.

We are also very fortunate to enjoy a successful partnership with Glasgow-based Linn Records, who were the pioneers in the digital distribution of high-resolution audio. We have now released 10 highly successful recordings on Linn, and have won two Gramophone awards - a fantastic achievement for a growing company like ours!

What are your aspirations? Why do you do what you do?

The period of music we focus on marks only the beginning of the journey. We seek to challenge preconceptions about how we approach music today. What drives us is an exploration and questioning of the established conventions and performance practice relating to historical music. How were musical cultures different at the time of a work's composition? What is the historical context for which a particular piece might have been performed? What did the composers really mean when they wrote the notes on the page? Why should we consider this today? In seeking answers to all of these questions, we believe that this music is still relevant and that the challenges arising during the journey reveal details about our cultural heritage.

By approaching now-familiar works of the classical canon with this inquisitive spirit, we feel that we are able to (re)create fresh musical experiences for contemporary audiences, evoking a real and tangible sense of discovery in every performance.

    You recently won a Gramophone Award for your recording of Mozart’s Requiem. How did you approach recording the piece?

    Mozart famously died before he finished his Requiem, so the task of 'completing' it was given by his wife Constanze to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayer. His completion has often received criticism, but he is the only composer to have tackled a completion who actually knew the composer directly, and is thought to have been in close contact with him around the period of its composition. For our recording, we used a new edition by Mozart scholar David Black, which returned to the original sources, clearly marking those passages that were by Mozart and those of Süssmayer.

    We were keen to explore what Mozart's Requiem might have sounded like the first time it was performed, in its fragmentary state, so John Butt undertook research into the forces and circumstances under which the first performance of the piece took place. This is well documented as a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow, promoted by Mozart’s friend and patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, in a hall connected to a prestigious restaurant in Vienna. Van Swieten was closely associated with Mozart’s assimilation of several key works by Bach and Handel during his Viennese years, and was also responsible for encouraging the composer to arrange several earlier works, primarily by Handel, for performance with the Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliere between 1788-90. This society was reconvened for the benefit concert of 1793, and so - although we do not have any details of the forces for this specific performance - Mozart’s Handel performances of just a few years previously offer a fairly consistent picture of the type and size of the performing group involved.

    Among other details, the most striking feature of our recording in terms of choral practice today is the fact that the chorus of 16 singers (in the completed version) is led by the four soloists, rather than seeing them corralled as a separate body of performers. This not only helps to integrate the solo sections with the choral ones (there are several swift changes from one texture to the other, both across movements and sometimes within them) but it also gives the choral line a different character, inflected by a more soloistic sense of projection. This method of performance was entirely standard in much European choral music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (as is well demonstrated in all Dunedin’s performances of works by Bach and Handel!), and Mozart’s practice was no different in this respect.

    Tell us more about your work with the National Centre for Early Music and BBC Radio 3 on the 2015 NCEM Young Composers Award?

    This is a very exciting prospect for us! Despite our more recent focus on historical music, both John and Dunedin Consort's members retain a high level of enthusiasm for the challenges that contemporary music brings - particularly as to how historically informed practice might be used to create new sounds (different instruments, temperaments...).

    This major national award is open to young composers resident in the UK and up to the age of 25, and is divided into two age categories - 18 years and under; and 19 to 25 years. Composers are invited to present new pieces for Dunedin Consort and the winning works will be premiered by Dunedin Consort in a public performance which will be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show. For more information, see our website here.

    What’s next?

    We have two recordings in the pipeline: a reconstruction of Bach’s first Christmas in Leipzig, which will include his mighty Magnificat; and Bach's Violin Concertos, with our sensationally talented leader Cecilia Bernardini. In Autumn 2015 we will return to the studio to record Bach's Christmas Oratorio completing our recording of all of Bach's major choral works.

    We also have several digital initiatives, including Dunedin Live, where we offer online HD video broadcasts of key performances, which are available for one month after the performance. Of course, there is nothing like attending a live concert in person to gain the full Dunedin Consort experience, but we hope to reach out to audience members and communities who might find it difficult to hear our work otherwise.

    Since we won this last Gramophone Award, our already busy international calendar has increased significantly which will allow us to bring our work to a wider public worldwide. In addition to all of this, we continue to present our ongoing educational work, and to present a vibrant season of live performances across Scotland. The three-year award from Creative Scotland will be essential in delivering this, and we look forward to developing our artistic activities in due course. It is very exciting time for Dunedin Consort and we are all very excited about the opportunities that lie ahead!

    More Info

    To find out more about Dunedin Consort and their work, visit their website, follow them on Twitter @dunedinconsort and find them on facebook/dunedin.

    Dunedin Consort are one of 119 organisations receiving Regular Funding from Creative Scotland across 2015-18.

    This article was published on 03 Dec 2014