Interview: Peter Whelan on Kusser

First published in The Herald on 13 April, 2016

It’s a nuanced case, this, so bear with me. The Wigmore Hall in London is doubling up commemorations for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Queen’s 90th birthday — in itself a provocative move — and is doing so by programming an obscure baroque ode written by a German-French composer for the British monarchy at Dublin Castle in 1711. Told you it was complicated.

At the end of April, the Edinburgh-based Irish bassoonist/harpsichordist Peter Whelan will direct his Ensemble Marsyas in a recently recovered work by the forgotten 18th century composer Johann Sigismund Kusser (or should that be Cousser?) who was born in Bratislava, grew up in Stuttgart, studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully at Versailles and spent the last decades of his life as ‘Master of the Musick’ in Dublin. The piece is good: a boisterous, elegant serenade for small ensemble and voices. But for Whelan, this is more than an exercise in unearthing another decent baroque rarity.

“With classical music in Ireland there can be a feeling that it was something that happened elsewhere,” he explains. “Perhaps because I’m living elsewhere it’s easier for me to come back and address that misconception.” He talks about a distinct 18th century ‘Dublin style’ that was notably more influenced by Continental trends than music coming out of London at the time. “The most famous classical musical event to ever take place in Ireland was the premiere of Handel’s Messiah in 1742, but think of how Dublin punched above its weight in literature. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t more to the city’s musical life than Handel coming over and doing one famous piece, so I’ve been delving.”

Partly it was a filing error that kept Kusser in obscurity all this time: his music was stored for centuries under the wrong name in the Bodleian Library. But Whelan also acknowledges that any composer associated with the British regime in Dublin was “not going to be an easy fit for the Irish psyche” and welcomes a “recent shift” in attitudes that has, he says, allowed for a broader reconsideration of how the cultural life of Dublin Castle sits within Ireland’s artistic heritage.

“We legalised gay marriage. The Queen visited and that was a success. We now have a whole generation of Irish people saying, ‘we’re unshackled from the heaviness of our history,’ and that opens up new ways of thinking about our city. Look at the beauty of Trinity College and all the Georgian buildings — remnants of British rule, absolutely, but finally we’re getting to a stage when we can appreciate them aesthetically without being blinded by the politics. It’s like saying, ”goodbye Christianity, thanks for all the art’.”

On a personal level the project is indicative of Whelan’s expanding focus from instrumentalist — he is principal bassoon of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and an internationally respected baroque soloist — to conductor and musical director. Instead of sitting in the wind section at the Wigmore he will be leading the band from the harpsichord. (For a preview, try the Youtube video recorded at the Dublin premiere on the Kusser ode last year; it features Whelan darting about the keyboard, gesturing musical cues with the tip of his head. “Yeah, that’s me,” he groans. “Doing my best Stevie Wonder.”)

A thoroughbred conductor he is not: for starters, he’s way too self-effacing, way too keen to discuss issues around ensemble hierarchy and what he calls “the polarised relationship between orchestral players and conductors”. He tells me with a worried expression how one prominent conductor jokingly welcomed him to the dark side — “but I really believe it doesn’t have to be like that! Just because I’m standing at the front, doesn’t mean I think I’m suddenly superman. These projects are simply a case of wanting to do weird pieces and knowing nobody else is going to do them, so inviting musician friends around me who I trust wont take the piss too much when I try to conduct.” It helps that those friends include some of Europe’s finest baroque players; Ensemble Marsyas is no shabby scratch band.

Meanwhile Whelan is hardly abandoning the bassoon. Another date in his spring diary is the world premiere of a new piece written for him and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment by Michael Gordon — it’s the first new period-instrument concerto of its kind and one that has pushed Gordon, an American composer more accustomed to writing brightly amplified loops for his New York ensemble Bang on a Can, somewhat out of his comfort zone. “When we Skype there’s a wall of electric guitars hanging on the wall behind him,” Whelan laughs. “He asks me baffled questions about classical pitch and ornamentation. But it’s going to be great fun.” He describes the concerto’s cadenza as being “like Lisa’s saxophone solo in the intro to The Simpsons. Think bursting from the throng and slightly out-of-control.”

Peter Whelan directs Ensemble Marsyas at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 24 April, and premieres Michael Gordon’s new Bassoon Concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 7 May