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Tenor Ian Bostridge, in Love With the Song

March 15, 2010

Ian Bostridge, who made his U.S. debut at Cal Performances in 1998, returns on March 21 for an afternoon recital. He’s known in musical worlds as one of the finer lieder tenors performing today. What may be less well-known is that he started out to have an academic career, earned a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University, and has become a published author and columnist. From his home in England, he told us a bit about the upcoming program and also answered some questions about witchcraft.

You’re performing Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, Op. 89, D. 911, in Berkeley later this month, accompanied by Julius Drake. Why this particular music?

It’s the greatest monument of that repertoire, and I haven’t done it for a while.

You’re doing the performance with no interruptions, even though it was written in two parts. Why is that?

It was written in two stages, but it was conceived as a whole. So that’s the reason.

You’re known for your interpretation of German lieder. What first drew you to these songs?

I had a German teacher at high school, at age 14 or 15, who played them. I fell in love with them.

You seemed headed for an academic career. What or who encouraged you to make music your profession?

I was working as an academic, as a historian, for a couple of years. I then did a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I so enjoyed it that I decided to do this professionally.

You’re also a writer. Your first book was a publication of your dissertation on witchcraft from 1650 to 1750. Most Americans are probably only familiar with witchcraft’s history in the U.S., specifically the Salem witch trials in 1692. Was witchcraft, or the fear of it, particularly strong in England during those years?

It went through phases. There was the possibility of it becoming a major issue. It was quite an ordinary part of criminal law. During the English Civil War, there was a spike in the persecution of witches.

Did the practice and responses differ from those in this country or the rest of Europe?

It wasn’t as strong in England as it was in Europe or the United States. But essentially, there was a belief in witchcraft, but it was low-level.

You’re on the advisory board and also a columnist for Standpoint Magazine. How did you get involved with this magazine?

The editor is a colleague of my wife and asked me to get involved. It’s a good magazine, with a lot of good stuff.

Do you find that writing a column has influenced or changed how you think about the music you choose to perform or listen to? Has it affected how you think about performances?

Only inasmuch as everything affects how you keep what you’re doing fresh and alive. I resist the idea that there is an intellectual approach. I am interested in the roots of what I’m doing.

You recently did an interview with Standpoint Editor Daniel Johnson, along with Tim Blanning, in which you talked about classical music versus popular music. What direction do you see classical music heading?

I don’t know. There are lots of wonderful composers. The wheat needs to be separated from the chaff. I think it’s unlikely that the avant-garde, from the 1920s to the 1980s, will win people over. But now people are writing in a medium that other people “get.”

In that same interview, you said that you don’t just sit and listen to music as you did as a teenager, and as I think many of us did as teenagers. Is that something you’d like to get back to doing?

I remember getting an album and taking it to my room and just listening to it, which I don’t do now. It may be part of the aging process. Also, I go to more performances. And our attitude towards recorded music has changed. So much is available.

You also made a comment about how people are no longer putting much into music before they go to hear it, such as going through scores ahead of time. Nor are they playing instruments as much, either alone or with their families, which used to be the norm. Do you see that as a lost art, or can you think of ways to have people become more actively involved, rather than just having it presented to them?

I don’t really know. In earlier times, entertainment opportunities were limited, but at a point everyone had a piano. So it’s different today.

What direction do you see yourself heading musically? Anything you want to tackle, and new directions opening up?

I’m just piddling around, trying to keep it fresh and fun. There are new things and new operatic roles I’d like to try, and old things get better. The core is the lieder. It’s vast.

What do you do when not performing?

Reading, writing, and family.

What do you think you’d be doing if you hadn’t made music your career?

I’d be an academic.

If you could do anything outside of music, can you think of your dream job?

Not really. I’d worked briefly in TV, and would have liked to do that in the Golden Age of TV. Or be a theater director. But I’m lucky. I have the best of everything.

What music are you listening to these days?

Hmm, what have I been listening to? Oh, yes, Bob Dylan. I’m tightening up a piece on him. I have been listening to Blood on the Tracks. I don’t know that much about his music, so I want to explore more of it.

Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.