From your CV and list of recordings one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer number and variety of works you’ve conducted. You have explored some of the greatest pieces in the history of music, from Schütz to Monteverdi and from Stravinsky to Britten. Looking at the story of your life, two aspects of your teenage years stand out: your curiosity about the world in general, and your wish to experience another culture—that of the Near East. Where did this enthusiasm come from?
It originated with my godfather, Christopher Scaife, a remarkable person who played a decisive role in the direction my life was to take. A highly cultured man, he was professor of English at the American University in Beirut. From the moment I visited him as child with my parents I fell under the spell of the Levant. When I left school at eighteen, I decided to revisit Lebanon and stay with him for a few months before going on to university. I owe him a tremendous amount for helping me then to experience things that moulded me. During the summer of 1961, I worked first in a refugee camp rebuilding a school near Bethlehem. Daily life there was very difficult and showed me the struggle of a suffering population at first hand. After that I went on to an archaeological dig near Petra in Jordan, where I worked as an amateur photographer and surveyor. Life wasn’t easy there either: we lived under canvas, amid puff adders and scorpions, with few creature comforts. I was then employed by UNRWA to write a script for a documentary film on Palestinian refugees conditions. It entailed visiting refugee camps in Gaza and in the Jordan valley, and observing the dreadful conditions they were living in, and what hopes they had for the future. I’ll never forget the experience of those visits.
It sounds as though you were looking for personal challenges that would forge your identity in those early years. How did music ultimately become your means of expression?
There might not seem to be an obvious connection, but I think I learned some basic human truths from my experiences in the Middle East. I was struck by how much tolerance and respect was built into Lebanese society at the time, despite the big denomination differences. Nowadays the situation is utterly different! My impressions as a teenager changed my preconceptions and awareness and made me what I am today. It was fascinating to trace the many ways Western civilization absorbed certain aspects of Middle Eastern culture: Greek philosophy, astrology, and especially mathematics and music. Arab music bewitched me—it seemed to me not just exotic but emotionally incredibly intense. My deep love for Monteverdi—who was surely influenced by the Turkish music he heard in Venice—was perhaps already at that stage linked to and enhanced by my affection for Arab music. I wanted to be part of that wonderful music myself —not as a conductor in the pit, but as a violinist. I played in the Byblos Casino near Beirut, and two or three times a week I accompanied Fairouz, the marvellous Lebanese singer, in an Arab nightclub. She was known as the ‘Arabian nightingale’, her voice vibrant yet sensual. When I returned to England the Middle East continued to haunt me, and I couldn’t wait to go back some day. But then came the six-day war…
Did your attraction to the Middle East conflict with your university studies?
Not really. I chose to study history at Cambridge, which helped me to understand the importance and value of so much that was created in the past. For a while I hesitated about which direction to take. I had a remarkable director of studies, someone who was of great help during that decision-making period. He thought I should be quite sure of what I wanted to do, and choose with a clear mind. Thanks to him I was granted a sabbatical year, ostensibly to study classical Arabic and medieval Spanish, but in fact to study music. I drew a group of singers and musicians together, and after a long period of rehearsal, we performed Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. That was the beginning of the Monteverdi Choir and of my career as a full-time musician.