Michala Petri Plays Very Old and Very New Music
Soft-spoken, unassuming Michala Petri is a world-famous recorder player who lives in Denmark. When I phoned her in late October for this interview she was driving her car. She stopped to chat near a beautiful countryside lake near her home. She said that her place was quite near a small city, so it was a convenient area for an artist.
Q: Listening to classical radio in various cities one hears all sorts of pronunciations of your first name. How do you say it?
-hala. The ch has always has a “k” sound, but I’m used to hearing many different pronunciations. In England and the United States they say Mi-
-la and in Germany, Mi-
-a, for example.
Q: At what age did you start studying the recorder?
A: I was three years old when my father, who was a violinist, gave me one. He brought it home from a concert tour as a present for me. I loved it and started learning it. I think I was five when I first played on the radio, and soon after that I played in a children’s competition at my music school. I remember that because it was my first experience with a live audience. I won it, but I was not the only child who got a first prize. They gave out prizes for each instrument. What I remember from my childhood is that I liked my lessons and I even liked practicing. I remember hearing my mother say that I played early in the mornings and on Sundays. She thought I really did not need to play so much, but I was enjoying it. Of course, as I got older I enjoyed all of it in a more mature way. The possibility of finding how to play something in a different manner still fascinates me. I loved performing then and I still love it today.
When I was 11 I began to study with Professor Ferdinand Konrad in Hannover, Germany. He was considered the best recorder teacher of the time. The professor was two generations older than I. He was from the generation before Frans Brüggen, who is considered to have brought the recorder out of obscurity. My mother took me to play for Konrad because she wanted his opinion on what I should do for the future. As soon as he heard me play, he said he wanted to teach me himself. My parents thought that was a good offer that they could not turn down, so I enrolled in the German school. I still lived in Denmark, however, so my mother drove me some 800 kilometers to Hannover every week. I studied with Konrad until I was 17, so he was my most influential teacher.
Q: Did you start to learn German when you studied in Hannover?
A: Since my mother always went to the lessons with me, I did not need to speak it right away, but I heard it all the time and soon understood it. I did learn to speak it after a while and it became my first foreign language. In Danish schools, the first foreign language we learn is English. All our movies have English subtitles, too, so we see it all the time.
Q: Did you ever study the transverse flute?
A: When I was 12, my parents wanted me to also learn the transverse flute so they could be sure of my being prepared to earn a living playing in an orchestra, if that is what I wanted to do. They thought the flute was safer and I would probably think the same thing if I were counseling a child. As a result, I played both recorder and flute for four years. At the end of that time, I had so many recorder engagements that the choice no longer mattered.
Q: When did you start touring as a soloist?
A: From age 17 to 34 I toured for at least 10 months every year, frequently spending as little as two days in each city. I played with some great musicians, though, and I often learned from them, if only intuitively. I have also learned a great deal from listening to the recordings of great artists. When I was younger, I had some 30 vinyl recordings that I played over and over again. I had the Schumann Piano Concerto, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Schubert Octet, and a few more discs. Today, I hear those works in a very special way because I know them so well. I love to listen to them with a score in my hand so I can be sure to hear some of the harmonic lines that are somewhat obscure. For example, I might want to follow the viola part. There are sonorities that you don’t notice unless you watch the score while you listen. When I play, I also like to bring out passages that are not the most obvious. You don’t need to emphasize the most easily heard high points in a piece of music. The listener will always be aware of them. It’s the little details in between the highlights that need to be pointed out.
Q: Do you ever conduct?
A: No, I have always said that I would never conduct. I have a very busy schedule playing the recorder and I’m very happy with that. However, as I get older I see many other soloists conducting the performances they play. I don’t think I’ll ever do it, but I do feel a growing confidence in what I have learned. I feel I can pass that on by teaching, however. Everyone who plays the recorder does it for his own valid reasons. People understand intuitively that it is a very natural instrument. That is a very good thing, but it is also a major challenge. Basically, it is just a piece of wood with eight holes in it. The challenge is to color the tone and make it beautiful. Because it is such a simple instrument, most people can relate to playing it more easily than they can to a more sophisticated instrument like a violin. It seems much friendlier than many orchestral instruments. Also, many people learn to play a recorder as children and that makes them comfortable with it.
Q: Which composers’ music do you like best to play?
A: I started my career off playing Baroque music and I still love to play Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, etc. However, I don’t think I would be playing the recorder today if I only had Baroque music in my repertoire. Playing contemporary music has also been very important to me. I feel that I can be more energetic and that I can express myself more strongly in contemporary music. It’s a problem to tell you whose music I like best to play because I always like the music I’m playing. I really can’t see music from the outside when I’m working on it. It’s hard to choose some pieces over others that I also play, but I will try. One composer whose music I really enjoy playing is Malcolm Arnold. Another one is Gordon Jacob, also an English composer. I love the work of film composer Richard Harvey, as well. Actually, they give us three generations of English music. Many of the new pieces I play have been written for me. I commissioned the Arnold concerto. Harvey wrote his piece especially for me. Chinese composers Bright Sheng and Chen Yi wrote beautiful works for me, too. There are also some good Danish composers who should be better known. Per Norgård and Vagn Holmboe are two of them. Another composer who has written a work for me is the American Steven Stucky. Roberto Sierra also wrote a work for Manuel Barrueco and myself. All of them have given us fabulous music.
Q: Do you teach now?
A: I am starting to teach, slowly. I feel that by this time in my life I have a great deal of experience. I think it is right to begin passing it on to others. However, I also love commissioning new pieces and I like to work on developing the recorder as an instrument. In the past I thought that my time was best used that way. Now, for the first time, I will be a visiting professor at the Royal Danish Conservatory. I will be involved in projects there rather than teaching students on a regular basis, though. I get so many letters asking if I teach that I am slowly beginning to consider that idea.
Q: Are there famous makers of recorders?
A: Yes. One of the most famous makers was Fred Morgan, an Australian who, unfortunately, died in a car crash about 10 years ago. Another is Friedrich von Huehne of Brookline, Massachusetts. A third is a German maker, Ralf Ehlert. When I play a handmade recorder, it’s often the Ehlert. However, I play Moeck or Mollenhauer factory-made instruments a great deal. Moeck’s recorders are copies of originals. I started playing them as a child and have always enjoyed them. Factory instruments are a little more primitive than handmade ones. They do not have a tone of their own, whereas the handmade ones often have a set tone that is hard to color. I find it easier to vary the color of the tone on the factory-made instruments. The handmade recorders often have a beautiful set tone, but you cannot change it. I like to color the tone to make it my own. I enjoy projecting the meaning of the music to the audience. I like to communicate through the music. For that reason I don’t mind playing the same piece many times on a tour. It’s the communication with the audience that is important to me. When I play the factory-made instrument, I can vary the sound more and make it express what I want to say. It’s a little like singing. While some singers only have one basic sound, others can vary their tones to fit various pieces of music. In listening to a new recording by Renée Fleming, I was really surprised at how much she varied her sound from one selection to another. Mollenhauer invented a modern recorder with a larger tone. The bore inside is different and you can vary its sound more easily than most. The smallest recorders can almost always be heard over an orchestra, but some of the larger ones can blend into the ambient sound too much. Generally, the larger the recorder, the softer its sound, but with the Mollenhauer, it’s no problem.
Q: What can you tell us about your most recent recordings?
A: I love the Chinese compositions because they demand so much from the recorder. My newest recording is the one with the Chinese recorder concertos. I think it is very important musically. This music demands a great deal of expression and tone coloration. When you first encounter Chinese music you may think it is very simple and straightforward. The tune may be repeated a number of times, but each time it has a different orchestration. The pieces are logically constructed and they are very satisfying to play. For example, Tang Jianping’s
is one big development from beginning to end. It’s 25 minutes long. When you think there is nothing more to develop, he finds another way of progressing. It’s a little like Ravel’s
although it is subtler. It holds your interest and it keeps on going. When I first arrived in China, I was really struck by the culture of the people. Although the culture is ancient, the people tend to be forward-looking. They are not merely content with an illustrious past. They are a very dignified and friendly people, too. I found them to say what they thought and to make any criticism positive. I loved being in China and I think my going there has helped me to understand their music better. Perhaps Chinese music is simple because with such an advanced culture they can allow themselves artistic simplicity. There is a real greatness in their simplicity.
The Danish National Vocal Ensemble CD contains four newly written works, one of which is by Latvian composer Ugis Praulins. It’s a very simple, very wonderful piece that is easy to listen to. It’s well written and is a mixture of all kinds of sounds and genres. I love working with a choir because you have so much homogeneity on one hand and so much expressivity on the other. There are wonderful possibilities for a tapestry full of sound colors. It is hard work, however. It is much harder to work with a choir than with an orchestra. With the choir, everything is tremendously precise and you hear the tiniest differences. The choir on the CD consists of 21 people, all of whom are capable soloists.
I find the music on the disc of English recorder concertos interesting because it contains works of three different generations of English composers. I am most fond of Malcolm Arnold’s works. His music is simple, but at the same time, deep.
is my first Baroque CD in many years and it was so very good to come back to this music. With this recording, my former husband, Lars Hannibal, and I celebrated 20 years of performing together. We divorced two years ago, but we still perform together. We often played 90 concerts a year as a duo. As musicians we thought as one unit on stage. Eventually, we found that we could not leave that way of thinking behind when we were off stage. After some years we decided to live separately. We found that it was better that way, so we divorced. Our music still ties us together, however.
Michaela Petri (rcr); Stephen Layton, cond; Danish Nat’l Vocal Ens
OUR RECORDINGS 6.220605 (59:22)
2 Scenes with Skylark
Michala Petri (rcr); Lars Hannibal (lt) (period instruments)
OUR RECORDINGS 6220604 (SACD: 67:48)
Sonata in d,
Sonata in F,
Sonata in G,
Sonata in B♭,