Jakab Kaufmann is a successful bassoonist from Sydney now based in Europe. He trained as an orchestral musician and a conductor in Sydney before moving to Basel where he studied early music at the renowned Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Now living in Bern, he has established himself as a freelance musician working with ensembles and orchestras in Switzerland, Germany and the UK, playing on both modern and historical instruments. One of his upcoming ventures is a new, innovative production of Rameau’s Pygmalion with his colleagues in the London-based Ensemble Molière. James Hancock from the Tait Memorial Trust asked him about his work and this exciting new project.
How does an orchestral musician make the leap to specialising in early music, particularly after studying to be a conductor?
While I was studying conducting at the Sydney Conservatorium, I was asked to play baroque bassoon for the early music ensemble’s performance of Gluck’s “The Pilgrims to Mecca.” I’d never played this instrument before and I thought it sounded horrible, but once I braved the potential embarrassment of playing in front of other people I discovered the incredible resonance within an ensemble. I started playing more and more and learned to love the difficulties of playing such a different instrument. There seemed to be so much to learn and enjoy from playing music on an instrument so distantly related to the one I’d previously dedicated my life to.
Like so many Australian musicians you decided to move overseas. I am interested to know why you chose Switzerland? Was it your first choice?
I decided a long time ago that I wanted to move to the German-speaking world and in 2011, I attended a summer school at the Humboldt University in Berlin. I spent a month there improving my German and I still have a soft spot for that city. My path changed however and while I still entertain the idea of returning to conducting someday, my goal quickly refocused on being a well-rounded musician in whatever form it took. I flew to Europe in 2013 and travelled around, doing masterclasses on both modern and baroque bassoons, and visiting different teachers until I decided Basel and its famous Schola were perfect for me. It’s a very international school with a great balance of academic research and performance-based projects. The community is very positive and creative, which lead to some great friendships and fantastic opportunities.
The UK can be quite a distant world to the continent without the right connections. How did you begin to work here?
I attended the Dartington International Summer School’s Baroque Orchestra Programme with a scholarship in 2013. The environment there is so open and relaxed that it’s conducive to amazing opportunities. I made friends with many different musicians there, including established professional musicians who have been able to organise projects with me. In addition to various audition processes, I’ve also reconnected with a lot of friends from Sydney who have moved to the UK. The life of a freelance musician is very much dependent on who you know, and luckily, some lovely people have helped me get my name out there.
As a founding member of the young early music group Ensemble Molière, could you tell me about your work and the repertoire you play?
We first played together in this combination in 2014 at the Dartington International Summer School, and the first piece we played was the “Deuxième récréation de musique” by Jean-Marie Leclair. That experience made us realise that we worked well as an ensemble and that we all wanted to play more French music. Since then we’ve gone on to perform concerts in Brighton, Graz, Bruges and Utrecht, as well as more regular concerts in London. We were lucky enough to participate in the Brighton Early Music Festival’s Early Music Live! Scheme in 2015 and we were invited to return for our own concert in the 2016 Festival. We’ve expanded our repertoire and recorded our music, and we’re always looking for opportunities to push the boundaries of the modern-concert programme.
French music retains an element of mystery today, and I was curious as to why you think we don’t see enough of it on today’s concert programmes?
When you study music in English and German-speaking schools, French music before Debussy rarely gets a look in. The truth is, Paris has played a more important role in music than Vienna or London at various points throughout history. For example, in the Middle Ages, the French-speaking world was essentially the musical centre of Europe. That changed with the printing press, the migration of Netherlandish musicians to Italy, and of course, the reformation. However, the French court at Versailles was an incredible force for artistic support and the “French Baroque” led to some of the most unique music this world has ever known. Because of the rivalry with the Italians and the influence of kings like Louis XIV, French musicians played very different instruments in a very different way. The wind instruments were built in another way, the string players used different bows, and the keyboard instruments had their own designs. The performers would also use very individual ornaments, which some composers like Couperin took the time to write down with full explanations. The music itself is sometimes harmonically dissimilar to the German high-baroque masters that people tend to think of and it can also feel more static than the repetitive patterns of the Venetians like Vivaldi. I think this is why performers have, in the past, neglected the nuanced and delicate sounds of France. The good news is that French music is constantly being rediscovered!
Your upcoming project at festivals in London and Brighton will see a new take on French Opera. Could you tell me a bit about the project’s background?
As our first large-scale project, we wanted to explore a genre that is not commonly addressed by chamber groups but is incredibly important to the French Baroque: Opera. Rameau’s greatest contributions to music include his solo keyboard works, his theoretical writings and his many operas. The forces required to perform them are so large that most opera companies don’t stage his works too often. As a result, his music doesn’t get heard often enough. We thought we would bring one of his shorter operas, at 45 minutes, to the people through a more accessible medium with a smaller ensemble on stage. Rameau’s Pygmalion is based on the original Greek legend of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation. Most people today would be more familiar with the George Bernard Shaw version which came much later, and led to the even-more-popular “My Fair Lady.” We’ve teamed up with artist Kate Anderson and director Karolina Sofulak to present a live performance of the opera with animation and simplified surtitles, so as to make it accessible and enjoyable for everyone.
I would be interested to know about what stage the project is in? What are your plans for such an ambitious undertaking, how are they progressing and how can audiences help?
We’re still at the funding stage which is looking very promising. We will be applying to the Arts Council for a grant to make the project happen once we’ve secured enough funding from other sources. We’ve started a crowdfunding campaign to collect an initial investment of £3000 by 9th January. This would show the Arts Council that we have support from both the artistic and wider community for this project. We’ve been offering rewards ranging from Thank-You tweets right up to private concerts in peoples’ homes. If you’d like to contribute, the crowdfunding site with a video explaining the project can be found here: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/ensemble-moliere. Any help is always appreciated as we’re very passionate about getting this project off the ground and onto the stage.
Please click here if you would like to be a part of Rameau’s, Pygmalion, with Ensemble Molière.
Ensemble Molière website