24 July 2015
Tales from the Pit - The Maestro
By Craig Smith
It takes many assorted persons to put on a Santa Fe Opera performance. From singers vocalizing backstage to instrumentalists warming up, from technical crew to front-of-house staff, from busy administrators to supertitles operators, each holds part of the master key that unlocks the evening’s artistic splendor.
Unless you are in the know, you might overlook one of the company’s most important key-holders: The handsome, urbane gentleman quietly coming out of the backstage door, sans entourage.
He walks along, pausing here to chat with a Board member, there to talk with a visiting conductor. He leans over the orchestra pit to speak to a player. He greets singers who are on the other side of the footlights this particular evening. And he does all this with friendliness, frankness, and the potent energy of a quietly purring dynamo.
On nights when Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera plays this season, he will step onto the podium, bow to the house, acknowledge the orchestra, raise his baton, and unleash that stored energy with fervor. He is Harry Bicket, the company’s Chief Conductor since 2013, and one of its main artistic pillars.
“The Chief Conductor’s role at The Santa Fe Opera is essentially (to) look after the artistic health of the orchestra,” Bicket explained.
“As well as conducting my own performances, I keep an eye and an ear on the other operas during the season — trying to help the visiting conductors to get the best out of the orchestra, and equally helping the orchestra to get the best out of the visiting conductors.”
That may seem like a tall order. But the orchestra players are all professionals. They are disciplined in the hard yet rewarding school of quality music-making. The blend of personalities and abilities that forms the pit identity comes together seamlessly, no matter the task — especially under Bicket’s guidance.
For his part, Bicket is delighted to interact with the players even as he assiduously looks out for their welfare.
“I think the biggest advantage of the mix within the orchestra is that everyone in the group really wants to be here for the summer,” he said, noting that players are “very demanding of themselves and of the conductors to produce the very highest possible level.”
The maestro noted that the players’ friendships take in their family members as well, many of whom come to Santa Fe for the summer. That, he said, is unique in his experience — and the closeness among the instrumentalists helps to contribute “a chamber music feel of performance.” As a result, intimacy goes hand in hand with grandeur, and together they meet and master challenges.
“Challenges are of course stylistic, but also repertoire-based,” Bicket said. “Many of our players play symphonic repertoire throughout the year, so that the summer is their only ‘fix’ of playing opera.
"So, for example, many of our players were playing Fidelio and Don Pasquale for the first time last year. Conversely, Salome has been scheduled 10 times in the last 40 years, so that it is almost a repertoire piece!”
Born in Liverpool, England, Bicket was educated at Oxford University and at the Royal College of Music in London. His work regularly takes him to the world’s major stages, from Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and Lyric Opera of Chicago to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera. He also is Artistic Director of the noted ensemble, The English Concert.
Bicket first took the podium here in 2004 for stellar performances of Handel’s powerful Agrippina. He returned in 2007 for exquisitely paced, tour-de-force outings of Rameau’s Platée. Another potent Handel opera he led, Radamisto, was equally well-received in 2007. And he presided over the company’s notable premiere of Beethoven’s monumental Fidelio in 2014.
“The orchestra has a wonderful relationship with Harry, on and off the podium,” said David Marschall, a longtime violist in the orchestra and the chair of The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra Committee. “He brings an outstanding level of knowledge and artistry to his conducting, and we think we’ve been able to do some pretty special music-making in performance in the five productions we’ve done with him so far. That he is also such a warm and generous person makes it a very enjoyable partnership for us.”