Early Music Vancouver's Modern Advantage: Matthew White

Matthew White is the artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver. | Image: Jan Gates

Matthew White is the artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver. | Image: Jan Gates

For most of his adult life, Juno- and Grammy-nominated artist Matthew White traveled the world, performing as a counter-tenor with top ensembles. Since taking charge of Early Music Vancouver at the beginning of the 2013/14 season, White has made bold moves. He rebranded and relocated EMV's summer festival (now the Vancouver Bach Festival) and oversaw the expansion of the festival's programming; this summer, crowds flocked to a remarkable 14 concerts. This weekend, EMV's epic new season kicks off with Baroque Duets of Love and Passion, featuring the great Amanda Forsythe and Colin Balzer (Sept. 29 at Christ Church Cathedral). Another fall highlight is Monteverdi’s operatic masterpiece Orfeo (Oct. 29 at the Chan Centre).  

After much deliberation, White retired from singing four years ago following a bad cold that lasted three months. Although he recovered, “it never felt the same.” Combined with the issues associated with a traveling musician, especially the months away from home, White says, "I guess the career just ceased to be attractive to me.” White adds that the lifespan of counter-tenors, who are always using falsetto — "and the very highest parts of that, too" — is usually shorter than other male voices. "Just like how sopranos’ voices get lower over time, so do men’s, and your vocal mechanism becomes less flexible in this range. What was so frustrating for me is that I was developing what I thought was a heightened artistic sensibility just at the time I was suffering a diminished physiological response.”

Happily, the singer didn't stray at all far from the early music world upon his retirement. He had discovered that he enjoyed the production and administrative side of the business when he formed his own group Les Voix Baroques—so in 2011, he accepted a job working for Seattle-based Stephen Stubbs. The conductor and lutenist needed some administrative support in getting his new company, Pacific MusicWorks, up and running. After a couple of years in Seattle, White was asked to direct Early Music Vancouver. "It was an obvious and rare opportunity that I would have been nuts to ignore. It was like being given the keys to an expensive car that had been fully paid off."

Earlier this week, Jjust before heading to Galiano to see an 1830s fortepiano hidden away in a stranger's garage ("Who knows? It might be a forgotten jewel!"), White took some time to shed insight on his career, his inspirations, and his life. 

What’s the best asset you bring to your role as ED/AD for Early Music Vancouver? As Leila Getz of the Vancouver Recital Society has shown us for many years, there are two very important skills that a concert presenter/producer must have: business acumen and an ear for talent. I have fortunately been able to hear, and sometimes perform with, pretty well everybody connected with “early music” at the highest international level for the last 15 or 20 years. 

Choral productions are expensive. How do you make these productions cost-effective? Collaborations are key to making this type of thing work in Vancouver. Luckily, we have great organizations with which we can partner — the Vancouver Cantata Singers and the Vancouver Chamber Choir, for instance. Basically, you need to access multiple audiences and do a little risk sharing. When these endeavours become real community efforts, they take on lives of their own. Shared ownership means everybody involved is interested in doing their best to make the whole thing successful.  

How did the Baroque Duets concert, featuring soprano Amanda Forsythe and Vancouver’s Colin Balzer, come about? I knew these duets by Steffani from my own career and was keen to bring this lesser known repertoire to our audience, sung by artists at this level. The hope is, with artists who are well known, that people will take a risk and learn something new and exceedingly beautiful. This aspect of providing the community with access to “new” old repertoire is something I will continue to do, and hope that more and more of our audience trust that if it is on the series, it is because it is worth hearing.

Stephen Stubbs and Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks will perform Monteverdi’s Orfeo, October 29 at the Chan Centre.

Stephen Stubbs and Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks will perform Monteverdi’s Orfeo, October 29 at the Chan Centre.

Describe one of your own favourite performances. I remember the first time I sang on stage in a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and was just singing a chorus part. At the very end of the piece, I looked through a baroque harp to see the face of legendary lutenist Paul O’Dette on the other side of the stage going absolutely nuts strumming through the final bars of the piece. He saw my joy and gave me a big smile. I felt a rush of happiness and gratitude that I will never forget. I just couldn't believe that they were going to pay me for this.

Favourite all-time performance of another artist? Too many to list — I resist answering this type of question as variety is kind of key to why I am still interested!

Ultimate dream program for Early Music Vancouver? I would love to grow to the point where we can do a complete staging of a baroque opera every year without me losing sleep over the budget. Sleep is very important to me. All I need now is 100 million dollars.

Why should audiences hear and witness music as it was played in the past? We can never hear and witness it exactly as it was in the past, but the attempt to decipher how the music was originally conceived and performed is a window into what makes it powerful and expressive. The “early music movement” has always been partially academic but what gets me excited is how the research has made the music more accessible.  

You once said, “There can never be too much Bach.” Why? Because Bach is one of civilization’s best examples of what human’s are capable of when genius, craft and commitment to something higher than just financial success come together.

What are you most proud of? Finally making a decision to quit singing. I am really in the right job now but it was really, really hard to give up being in the middle of a B Minor mass 20 times a year.

If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be? I will keep this focused on music because there are a thousand historical figures I would love to meet (one that is on my mind recently is “Wild Bill” Hickok). My vote would be for Handel at the height of his fame in London in the early 18th century. If you get the chance pick up a copy of Ellen Harris’ new book, G.F. Handel – A Life with Friends, and you will get a sense of why. While J.S. Bach is a personal hero, I am not sure he would have been all that much fun at a party…

If you could play any instrument what would it be? The accordion. Kim Jong-un apparently loves the accordion. If I could prevent nuclear war with the power of music, I would feel like I had been born for a real purpose.

What is your favourite thing in your home? Is that a trick question? My family.

Describe your perfect day. A day when I don’t spend time considering how life could have been different had I made different choices.

Most important issue facing the arts and culture community today? Corporate interest taking control of all artistic and intellectual space. When all people worry about is money and real estate, they have no room left to consider the things that give their life real meaning. That music and art is being systematically removed from our public education system is evidence that we have lost our way as a society and maybe evidence of something even darker at work. When we don’t encourage creativity and the dissemination and sharing of beauty as things that makes us the most special as a species, we are betraying one of our fundamental gifts. Unfettered capitalism has a lot to answer for.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? “You can’t shellac a turd.”

Current musical obsession? Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played on period instruments.

Do you enjoy other genres of music that might surprise us? I am excited by anything good as long as it is honest. Corporate music makes me depressed. Hard to beat Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams…

What is your advice to young musicians in the early stages of their careers? There is nothing wrong with needing time to figure things out, and I think young people should do that until they are clearer on what their goals are. Over the eight years it took me to do my undergraduate degree, I did a lot of coasting, drinking beer, traveling, indulging and listening to amazing music while producing terrible essays. It was a hell of a lot of fun but it wasn’t exactly goal-oriented. I guess I would say, take the time to really figure out what you want to do and save yourself some time and energy. 

What made you a great singer? Well, to start, I was never a “great” singer. I think I was a solid career singer who got along well with others and had enormous enthusiasm for the music. The answer to what makes a “great” singer depends on the listener and what they are looking for in a given moment. To me, Charles Daniels and the late Luciano Pavarotti are both great singers even though they share almost nothing in common in terms of technique or musicianship. Tough question that would require a doctorate thesis to explore.  

Do you recall what compelled you to sing in a boys choir? Music was not present in my family growing up in the way that it is present in my children’s lives. My father is a theoretical economist and my mother was a school principal at a private girl’s school — they were both “A type” personalities from working class backgrounds who did not have the time or resource for making music a priority. I am quite certain that it was never presented to them as a viable way to make a proper living.

Their choice to engage me in music rather had to do with finding me a focus for my considerable energy after school hours. A colleague of my mother’s suggested that I join the local men and boys choir at our local church in Ottawa. They rehearsed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after school for two hours, in preparation for singing in two services per week on a Sunday. It took up a huge amount of my spare time doing something focused and social, and it was made available for free. I am not trying to suggest that my parents looked upon it wholly as free babysitting with a solid peer group, but it was in part. This was not a strategic decision to give me a proper musical education. 

You sung with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Cleveland Opera, and many others. Favourite experience? Why? I don’t like “favourite” questions because, in short, I find them reductive. I had both fantastic and crappy experiences at each of these places. That said, it is hard not to have a special place in your heart for a “Ha Ha.” Look it up – Glyndebourne is the only opera house I know with a “Ha Ha.”

Name another arts organization whose work you admire. Allofbach.com.

What is the most exciting current development in your sector? The power of digital media to reach much, much broader audiences.

You get three words to describe yourself — what are they? Do acronyms count? Transparent. Impulsive. PINK. [eds. note: Purity, Integrity. Nobility, Kindness]

Best time of your life? Come on! Right now. Although 19 was pretty good: I had a year off before going to university when I was taken seriously as an adult, had total freedom, didn’t pay rent or for my own clothes and my mom still left a plate for me in the microwave if I missed dinner. 

What do you think about most often? I am pleading the fifth on that.

How do you see your organization responding to the digital transformation that is taking place? We are just starting to engage in this. If I had the means I would do what All of Bach are doing. Free digital access to the widest possible audience while still finding a way to pay the artists.

The BC Alliance really relates to EMV’s vision: "A world where every individual values the creation and sharing of arts.” How do we accomplish this? Advocate for it at the highest level with the courage of conviction and the facts. We need sustained “top down” government recognition that the arts are as valuable and key to the sustainability of our species as clean air and health care. A society that sees the pursuit of beauty as a core value should not be viewed as “soft and fuzzy” but as progressive and forward looking. If you want a world where people feel fulfilled, then you need to give them the opportunity to express themselves and their "value” in non-financial terms. Otherwise, we are doomed to smaller and smaller imaginations and a lot more pharmaceuticals.

Pacific Baroque Orchestra  performs in Handel’s Messiah on December 1 & 2 at the Vancouver Playhouse. | Image: Jan Gates

Pacific Baroque Orchestra  performs in Handel’s Messiah on December 1 & 2 at the Vancouver Playhouse. | Image: Jan Gates

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