Conducting Himself in An Ancient Manner, Christopher Hogwood Makes a Pitch for Purified Classics

When the 18th-century composer Antonio Vivaldi rubbed shoulders with a prince, it was the kind who sported a crown rather than a cutaway electric guitar. That is until last year, when an LP of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons recorded by Christopher Hogwood hit the British pop charts along with Purple Rain by the Prince of rock ‘n’ roll. At the British Record Industry Awards in London, Purple Rain was named Best Film Soundtrack of the year and Hogwood’s Vivaldi LP the Best Classical Recording.

To Hogwood the unlikely pairing of the rocker and the classical giant was definitely a boon. “People sort of connected the ethos of the two,” he said later. “They thought that because they went out and bought Prince’s record, they ought to go out and buy the curious man called Vivaldi.”

One way or the other. Vivaldi, as well as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and other classical composers, gets a posthumous plug from the blond, blue-eyed, British Hogwood whenever he performs. As a much respected harpsichordist and conductor, Hogwood, 44, brings to modern audiences a uniquely authentic version of Old World music that is unlike anything they’ve heard. To the untrained ear, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony may sound the same whether played by the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic. But a Hogwood rendition sounds different. His Academy of Ancient Music, a loose coalition of some 40 British musicians, performs great works on once-common instruments now rarely used by orchestras: valveless horns, baroque violins, harpsichords, viole da gamba and recorders. They produce a crisper, lighter sound than modern instruments, with more clarity and less volume. (Hogwood also often adds a brisker tempo to the music.) “Mozart knew what he was doing with the instruments of his time,” says Hogwood. “When you give him back what he asked, he responds by producing an effect greater than anybody imagined.”

Though Hogwood didn’t win instant fame after recording his first album in 1973, he has become a superstar of classical music in the 1980s. Except for two months, one or more of his recordings has been on Billboard’s charts since 1982. Hogwood’s ability to draw a pure, original sound out of modern instruments as well makes him a prized guest conductor with major U.S. symphonies. “Initially the musicians found him a little strange,” admits Ernest Fleischmann, who invited Hogwood to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1981. “He didn’t have the greatest conducting technique, but he’s the most stimulating force in years.” Stopping during performances to chat about the music, Hogwood also wins over audiences. “He’s the leading guru,” says William Lockwood, programming director at New York City’s Lincoln Center. “There is never an unsold seat for a Hogwood performance.”

The oldest of five children (his father was a scientist, his mother a legal secretary and housewife), Hogwood toyed with the piano as a child, but his taste for early music developed only after he enrolled at Cambridge University. He spent part of his college years touring the country in a laundry van demonstrating medieval instruments. After studying harpsichord for a year in Prague, he returned to England where he helped form the Early Music Consort, a Renaissance and medieval group that achieved some fame touring and recording the music for the BBC-TV series Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

In 1969, Hogwood began a 12-year stint as the commentator on a BBC radio show The Young Idea, a title that might have seemed odd, given his reputation. In fact, Hogwood’s enthusiasm, combined with his contagious interest in a wide range of both Eastern and Western music, made him such an original on the music scene that he earned ardent fans. After he formed the Academy of Ancient Music in 1973, the group recorded the 18th-century symphonies of the Englishman Thomas Arne, a perfect choice in Hogwood’s opinion, since most people would ask, “Thomas who?”

Today Hogwood only halfheartedly lives in the modern world. He rarely watches movies or TV and may be the only serious musician who recently got his first stereo. The 1840s Cambridge home that he rents and lives in alone is filled with books, watercolors, his musical instruments and other classical diversions that help him harmonize the old world with the new. So great is his desire to share his music that he spends a huge portion of his time jetting between conducting jobs or in the studio, where the Academy has recorded an astonishing 100 albums in 13 years.

Though he still champions the esoteric (“I do prefer when obscure works sell very well”), Hogwood asserts that any classical music can create magic for an audience when it is performed correctly. Last year, while conducting an outdoor concert with Washington’s National Symphony, he got to prove this point. A dark rain cloud burst just as the orchestra was playing Handel’s Water Music. After the final note, the soggy conductor turned to the audience and smiled wryly. “See?” he said, “it works.”

Related Articles