Monica Huggett © Hiroshi Iwaya

If one wanted a broad picture of the evolution of historical performance, with intriguing little nuances revealed along the way, there would be few better musicians to talk to than Monica Huggett. She has been an unremitting force for four decades, well known from her early association with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and these days as Artistic Director of the Portland and Irish Baroque Orchestras, and Adviser to the Juilliard Historical Program. This interview traces the violinist’s experiences from the time when the authentic movement was just gathering momentum. Most important are her insights about how historical performance has developed out of a number of contrasting approaches that have cross-fertilized each other. Equally interesting are her ideas on where historical scholarship and performance practice still have room to grow, what she wants to achieve from an orchestra in interpretation, and how she has maintained an undiminished inspiration all this time. The interview took place in conjunction with the Vancouver Bach Festival in August 2016, where Monica Huggett directed the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in the Complete Bach Orchestral Suites (review).   

GN: You have been able to live through authentic performance from the ‘early days’ and participate for a full four decades. So where did it all begin?

MH: I started the violin at age six – on gut strings, since they were cheaper! – played on steel from nine to nineteen, and then returned to gut thereafter. My first ensemble experience was with the Hounslow Youth Orchestra, playing alongside violist Roger Chase, who lived close by and grew up with me. This orchestra contained many gifted kids, and we were introduced to all sorts of repertoire, so I had a familiarity early on with a great many genres, and chamber orchestra pieces in particular. I have been lucky to lead orchestras all my life, and I started with our school orchestra when I was eight.

GN: Undoubtedly, English attempts at some type of authenticity were present even at that time, starting, say, with the Boyd Neel Orchestra, the research of Thurston Dart, and of course the formation of Neville Marriner’s Academy. How did you respond to these as you grew up?

MH: I always thought the Boyd Neel Orchestra had a wonderful sense of style, and not only in Handel. Their recorded performances of the Mozart Salzburg Divertimenti were just fantastic: my mother and I would listen to them every day when I was a kid. Recalling the quality of orchestras such as the Boyd Neel makes one aware of just how much musical talent flowed from Continental Europe to London as a consequence of the war: the London post-war orchestras all had exceptional émigré musicians. Marriner’s Academy was a clear breakthrough in terms of defining the scale of Baroque performance and in the consistency of its musical execution. Neville knew of me, and seemingly admired my playing – but I never got an invitation to join his ensemble. Probably because he thought I was a bit of a ‘troublemaker’; a title I actually might have deserved.

GN: Do you recall Raymond Leppard?

MH: He was a little before me, but I do remember him – especially his Monteverdi, which had so much colour. I certainly preferred his modern-instruments Monteverdi to the dry authentic treatments of the early years: in fact, it took authentic performers at least a decade to find the right sort of colour and expression in this composer.

GN: A big move forward in your early career came with your association with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. That must have been a period of great learning for everyone?

MH: Hogwood was the first to assemble a truly ‘authentic’ orchestra. He was likely inspired by Marriner’s earlier success with his Academy. Hogwood’s exclusive interest was to ‘clean up’ old paintings, so to speak, removing the veil typically placed over them and allowing their primary colours to shine through. Thus, all the nineteenth-century padding in Baroque performance (e.g. vibrato) was to be removed and forgotten, and the performances reconstituted from the ground up. All the musicians were on a steep learning curve. Hogwood and a handful of the original musicians had a grounding in Renaissance music through working with Musica Reservata and/or David Munrow. The rest of us were a motley crew: musicians who were searching for a new musical language and played both early music and contemporary music, and some chamber ensemble players who were curious. We did not really know what we were doing at the beginning. One thing for sure: we all struggled with taking care of our instruments – Baroque instruments need a lot more maintenance than modern instruments.

The Academy’s early results achieved a certain purity and discipline but were perhaps a bit straitlaced: Hogwood did not aim for conscious ‘interpretation’ or tonal warmth as such. Our sound was fairly small but the Decca engineers did a good job recording it. I will never forget turning up at the AAM’s first recording sessions in 1972 – the Arne Overtures, released on L’Oiseau-Lyre in 1974. I was 19 and very green, and I did not really have a clue what I was supposed to do. But I loved the sound of my borrowed Baroque violin and the possibility of switching off my ‘modern’ vibrato.

GN: There must have been other historical issues that arose concerning instrumentation, especially the violin.

MH: As Bruce Dickey has long emphasized, the cornetto ruled in the sixteenth century and the violin had the status of a second-class citizen (‘played by professionals but not by true gentlemen’). In that century, the violin was almost never specified, and most of the repertoire would have consisted of dances played by ear. In was only in Italy in the first half of the seventeenth century that a large number of composers started exploiting the particular effects that the violin can achieve. We ultimately had to learn that we should not use the violin in pieces before that.

GN: Did Hogwood’s approach with the Academy of Ancient Music differ greatly from that of Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert?

MH: They had some of the same players but, unlike the Academy, The English Concert was a performing and touring orchestra (very popular in Germany), so Pinnock had to think much more about the sonic requirements of the orchestra. He had to find instruments that could create a bigger sound, at least one that could fill a concert hall. The Academy did do regular concerts eventually but, for the first six or seven years, all we did were recordings. It was a ‘recording’ orchestra by design. Hogwood was a very intellectual person, with a natural bent towards research and scholarship. Perhaps public performance was not a priority for him.

GN: So how did you eventually move away from the Academy about 1980?

MH: Well, I guess the endless recording sessions became a little too much. Ton Koopman wanted to form a new authentic orchestra, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and invited me to join him as co-founder. So I did, and then carried on as leader of that ensemble for seven years. But I shouldn’t underestimate the experience with the Academy. If I think of all my poor students today, we were treated so well financially. Hogwood was an astute businessman and secured an enormous contract with Decca. We were paid well, and Decca made a lot of money too.

GN: Do you think there were changes in authentic practice afoot as we entered the 1980s?

MH: There were many, and things changed interestingly when Pinnock and John Elliot Gardiner insisted on allowing only ‘original’ instruments in the orchestra. Roland Ross was a fine British maker of Baroque violins and supplied almost everyone with good instruments at a modest cost, but he now faced an increasingly thin market, and essentially had to change his career. At the same time, there was an evolving competition between the original Dutch/Belgian style, the new clean and precise British style, and the ‘power and passion’ of those interpretations coming from Salzburg and Vienna, and Germany. The latter doubtlessly started with Harnoncourt, but the important newcomer that grabbed everyone’s attention was Reinhard Goebel. I studied baroque violin with Sigiswald Kuijken and there couldn’t have a greater stylistic and temperamental difference between Kuijken and Goebel. Goebel had all sorts of new eccentric ideas and often pushed the music very dramatically. At the same time, the Dutch were establishing breakthroughs in harpsichord/ continuo playing: Ton Koopman was a student of Gustav Leonhardt and, like any brilliant student, was able to make significant advances in style and musical communication on his own.

GN: Around the same time, you seemed to extend your associations in a variety of directions: to the Hanover Band and to the formation of Trio Sonnerie.

MH: Yes, I started with the Hanover Band when it formed in 1980, and Roy Goodman took over after me. We co-directed that pioneering ‘authentic’ Beethoven symphony cycle for Nimbus. The orchestra always wanted to play Beethoven, though I am not sure that this was my first preference. Roy Goodman played in the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra too, so there were close associations everywhere. He was a great musician to work with and clearly a ‘phenomenon’: he originally sang the boy soprano part in the famous King’s College recording of Allegri’s Miserere, was an excellent continuo player (graduating from the Royal College of Organists), and a very fine violinist and conductor on top of this.

GN: And Trio Sonnerie?

MH: I think the formation of Trio Sonnerie was my reaction to the difficulties in establishing a personal style when playing with so many different orchestral ensembles. Putting the trio together (with Sarah Cunningham and Mitzi Myerson) was the opportunity for growing a natural musical energy and a shared language that could mature over time. Sonnerie actually lasted 25 years and made almost 30 well-received recordings, with changing personnel. It became Ensemble Sonnerie later, producing some fine Bach recordings, including a Musical Offering and, much more recently, the Orchestral Suites. But there were eventually tensions in keeping everyone together, and in defining roles and responsibilities too. Perhaps some of this reflects my own personality: one part of me wanted to keep the stability of having my own ensemble, another part always wanted to explore something new and different.

GN: Then there was Hausmusik, a very conscious attempt to extend authentic performance to chamber works beyond the Baroque. Where did this inspiration come from?

MH: The idea of pushing authentic performance to Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and beyond was always there from the early days. For me, the big thing was that I loved playing ‘anything’ with gut strings. My commitment therefore was to the gut strings, not Baroque music as such. I had always loved Mozart, so attempting the great String Quintets was just an outgrowth of a natural inclination. I also felt that the clean lines and texture in these works would come out better with authentic treatment. We tried the Mendelssohn Quintets and Octet as well. Hausmusik, jokingly referred to as ‘Monica and her Boys’, had great musicians: Pavlo Beznosiuk, Richard Lester, and my old childhood buddy, Roger Chase, on viola. But that turned out to be a real problem: everyone was so busy that it was a grueling experience even to arrange sessions, let alone stay together. The group was a real handful! I admit that much of the success of our recordings was due to the efforts of Virgin producer David Murray. He got everyone in place, secured very fine balances in recording, and gave us invaluable artistic guidance.

GN: Staying with chamber music, you also played and recorded piano trios with other ensembles: more classical ones with the London Fortepiano Trio and, later on, nineteenth-century trios with the Benvenue Fortepiano Trio. Did you have particular views on the importance of the type of piano used in this repertoire?

MH: Ever since the early days when I played for the group Capricorn, I became aware just how damaging a modern Steinway grand is for all this music. Its sound is just too massive. If I had my way, they wouldn’t have extended the development of the piano past 1850! A fortepiano or a period piano (such as an Érard or Broadwood) balances so well and allows all the primary colours of the music to surface. Using ‘authentic’ pianos is not just about ‘cleansing’ – removing the excess fat from the sound – but finding the music’s real character.

GN: In Canada, Tafelmusik has been our premier Baroque orchestra, and a number of key original players (including leader Jeanne Lamon – now in her final year) are still playing 35 years after its inception. How would you explain this remarkable longevity?

MH: I think a big reason is simply Jeanne Lamon herself. When she came, she was able to secure control over everything from player personnel to the front office, and she pushed the group forward over the decades with a very tight grip and high standards. One further factor is that the Canadian government supported, and continues to support, the ensemble. I currently direct the Irish Baroque Orchestra, but everything is very difficult since there is no money coming from the Irish government.

GN: And your own Portland Baroque Orchestra?

MH: Interestingly, the seeds of this were sown right in Vancouver. In the early 1980s, on the advice of José Verstappen, The University of British Columbia invited Ton Koopman to come and teach in the summer program. Ton persuaded José to invite me as well. It turned out that Ton could not make it, but I came anyway. I carried this on for virtually every summer in the 1980s, nurturing a variety of students from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and closer cities. The orchestra was built out of these very students. When we started, the ensemble was a mix of professionals and (not very assured) amateurs, but it was obvious that many had a good sense of musical communication. Building PBO has been an indescribable amount of work and a real struggle, but I have always felt that it was ‘the’ opportunity to have my own orchestra. I think they are now responsive in the way I genuinely like. We have produced a string of recent Bach recordings, starting with our ‘very’ authentic St. John Passion in 2011, the Oboe Concertos (with Gonzalo Ruiz) in 2014, and the Violin Concertos in 2015.

GN: What exactly do you mean by ‘responsive in the way I like’?

MH: You must understand that when I was very young, I drank from many musical fountains. I liked rock, pop, and jazz, and I was often inspired by rock musicians like Eric Clapton who could get ‘down and dirty’ and generate a truly visceral response in performance. At the same time, as a classical musician I was very intellectual and critical. It was perhaps only after working with Ton Koopman that I really understood what ‘performance’ was, and how to put the visceral dimension of Baroque music in place. The orchestra now understands all this: the need to be expressive, to find strong colour and dynamic contrast, to probe a wide range of moods, and to make the changes in dynamics and colour absolutely transparent. Sometimes I have to jump up and yell to get this response, but they do it.

GN: So, finally, let’s move to a big question: what is your overall assessment of how historical performance has advanced over these years.

MH: I think it is unquestionable that historical performance has taken great strides forward over the last three decades. Research has gone further, the instruments are better, instrumental techniques and styles are more fully documented and absorbed, even the gut strings are better. And a lot of music that used to be obscure – to be approached experimentally – is not obscure anymore. I also think there is greater depth and range to the interpretative fabric – a consequence of the cross fertilization of all the different styles that have come forth since the 1970s. You have the early lessons of the Dutch/Belgian style and the clean and sensitive English efforts combining with the power, discipline, and verve of the later German offerings – more recently mixing in with the drama and imagination of the Italians, with more imaginative inputs coming from Andrew Manze and others. Many interpretative options have now been tried, so there is simply a much wider range of interpretative inputs around to produce interesting and historically-accurate performances.

GN: One conductor who has been with us for this whole journey is John Elliot Gardiner. Do you think that the development of Gardiner’s style is very much his own journey, or just a cunning use of the ‘melting pot’ of interpretative inputs described above?

MH: I think Gardiner very much listened to, and learned from, his musicians. His first wife, Elisabeth Wilcock, was a very fine violinist, led his orchestra for years, and undoubtedly influenced his ideas. What he brings from himself is a type of uncompromising perfectionism, which makes him hard to work with but often produces amazing results.

GN: Certainly there must be areas where you think the fruits of historical research have not been brought to performance?

MH: For the violin, this is clearly true. For example, it is quite easy to document that gypsy bands were performing throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time of Haydn. The style and techniques of the gypsy violinists were imitated by the musicians who played in court orchestras, like Haydn’s own orchestra at Esterhazy. Nonetheless, we still don’t come close to capturing the sheer wildness and imagination of these artists. Then there is the issue of ‘slides’. As Andrew Manze has uniquely brought to our attention, portamenti were a standard part of violin technique well into the twentieth century: listen to Elgar’s own performances and even a lot of orchestral string playing in the 1930s. Yet we hardly try to reinstate it fully in authentic performance. One other unexplored issue in current research involves understanding how the violin was actually played after Mozart’s time. Mozart’s phrases fall naturally for the instrument, but from Beethoven to Brahms virtually all string phrases are based on piano constructions and are incredibly hard for players to negotiate. If these later composers were not thinking of the violin when they wrote, we really need to find out exactly how, and in what way, the violinists of the nineteenth century coped with their demands.

GN: Some issues in historical research always seem to lack resolution. I recall the (late) Harry Newstone, founder of the Haydn Orchestra in London around 1950, who spent a full half-century worrying about the high horn parts in Haydn symphonies. Many of his annotations in his last Eulenburg editions were on this topic. He had in fact given a concert with Dennis Brain as early as 1955 that explored the possibilities for authentic horn realizations. Do you think this issue is resolved?

MH: The high horn parts in Haydn are still an important issue.  When I raised this question in Esterhazy, it was suggested that the high notes were actually played by a trumpeter. There was a period at Esterhazy where there were no horn players in the orchestra, but there are horn parts to play. So the Hungarians think the trumpeter played both instruments, but would have played the horn with a trumpet mouthpiece. That would mean he could play higher than a normal French horn. On the other hand, I ran into a Flemish player who has apparently found a sort of hybrid instrument with a small bell (like a trumpet) that is really a horn. It was around in the early Classical era, and could have played these notes. Again, a thorny issue and more research is needed.

GN: Pursuing authenticity in performance over four decades might seem an exhausting prospect.  What do you think has really kept your inspiration going?

MH: True, I am still as fascinated as I have always been. Somehow playing an historical instrument allows me to access (at least in my mind) the world in which the music was originally created, to participate in its history and colour, and to speak from that world. Ever since I was young, I always loved history and imagining what things might have been like in different times, and I still get absolutely thrilled if I can perform a Baroque or Classical work in the exact place that it was originally conceived and played. It is the history that keeps bringing the music to life for me. But there is another interesting tension that somehow keeps us all going: namely, that a performer’s experience in playing an authentic instrument can sometimes yield different insights into the ‘practice of the day’ than musicological research does. Musicologists do not always understand what would have been feasible (or comfortable) for the authentic instrumentalist to play, so research puzzles naturally open up.

GN: Can you give an example of this?

MH: In the last decade, it has been exciting to work with Gonzalo Ruiz, who is both a remarkable virtuoso oboist and a very conscientious musicologist. His research absolutely convinced me that Bach’s Orchestral Suites need reworking: the trumpets and timpani removed, with the Suite No.2 utilizing oboe rather than flute, and the key changed from B minor to A minor. From a technical perspective, the violins are unnecessarily challenged in the B minor version and the orchestra’s balance with the flute is everywhere questionable. At the same time, Ruiz noted that many of the small errors in the existing B minor manuscript were those that would have been made by someone who was making a transcription. For a traverse flute,  B minor and G major were, in Bach’s time, the most popular keys to transpose to – say, in providing for a visiting soloist at Café Zimmermann – so one could be slightly suspicious of the authenticity of editions in those keys. I also think the Second Suite sounds so much better in A minor, and achieves better tonal integration when the oboe is employed. I suppose if the Bach Suites can be reworked in this light, then one can only wonder how many of the composer’s important works might be scrutinized. I certainly tried some new things with the Saint John Passion, by stripping down both the chorus and orchestra, and removing the flutes entirely.

GN: So, a final question that many might be pondering: as you move into your sixties, when are you actually going to slow down? In some sense, you have already performed and recorded enough for two careers.

MH: In 2006, I genuinely felt I should slow down a bit. I bought a stone house in Cumbria – in northwest England – and thought about a much more relaxed pace. This has clearly not materialized, and I spend very little time at the house. In 2008, Juilliard came along for the launch of their historical program, and that involved a great deal of time in New York – the city where you are always in somebody’s way! I started out as the Artistic Director of the Historical Performance Program, but now I am comfortable being an ‘adviser’ to the program and giving intensive lessons and coachings three times a year. Making a new historical programme was very exciting: I cannot speak too highly of what the program and its orchestra, Juilliard415, have achieved in such a short time. It is a demanding program – the students are absolutely exhausted after two years – but with its diversity and reach and the endless stream of renowned specialists that visit and instruct, I don’t think it remotely has an equal. But getting back to the original question: 2017 is going to be a bit quieter for me. I want to buy a teardrop trailer and camp in the forest, listen to the birds, and make a campfire….play a little! I can do that in Oregon and in Cumbria.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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