Star turn

February 26, 1999

A lecture on Monteverdi's Orfeo at York University leaves Alison Utley humming and university students buzzing

Jo Wainwright's professional day begins at 8.15am today with the girls' choir at York Minster. After an hour's rehearsal, there is a marked change of tempo over at the university where his first class of the day awaits.

Our topic is Monteverdi's Orfeo and the class is a typical mix of first, second and third-year music students. This was an unlikely combination for Dr Wainwright when he arrived from Oxford three years ago. "I anticipated problems because of their different levels of experience," he says. But today, as so often happens, some of the most intelligent questions come from the first-years. Like anyone wearing two hats - Dr Wainwright's appointment is shared with the minster, where he is a choir trainer - the two half jobs add up to more than one, but he is not complaining. As soon as the session ends he races over to the academic board, which he must leave ten minutes early to get back to the minster to conduct evensong.

The teaching in the music department at York is unusual. Students are strongly encouraged to be involved in performance and this is integrated in to academic study. The Sir Jack Lyons concert hall houses the department's organ as well as a chamber organ, two Steinway concert grand pianos and an electronic music studio. Unfortunately the roof blew off on Boxing Day and everything is covered in plastic bags, causing chaos to the schedule.

Students can choose from a range of options from the Middle Ages to the present day. Each "project" is taught intensively over a month and Dr Wainwright is full of praise for the system, not least because it allows him to concentrate his teaching on his areas of expertise. "It could not be more different from the exam-dominated environment I was used to at Oxford," he says. "That gets in the way of everything. But this is an inspired way of teaching because it allows the students to really explore and there can be no bigger thrill than watching students leaving a room buzzing.

Strictly speaking his students will be more likely to leave the room humming and today is no exception. Our morning's contemplation of Orfeo is a lively mix of taped excerpts, expert commentary and interjections from the students, plus some feel for wider issues. How, for instance, do we assess music of the 17th century grounded as we are in the late 20th?

"This is a fundamental problem for all historical music, as we have no idea whether we are responding differently to audiences of the time," Dr Wainwright says. "But I don't think we should be afraid of judging pieces on their merits as long as we acknowledge the problems."

There is, he adds, a debate among scholars about the impact of the CD on opera performance. After all, we have lost at least half of the drama of the piece. "We listen to opera today rather than watching it performed and some scholars think that means the performances need more colour. Others think we have gone too far down that route, but nothing is laid down in stone."

So what of Monteverdi? Well, he was certainly not all original and similarities are drawn between Orfeo and Peri's Euridice. "Any great composer, whether it is Beethoven or Monteverdi, can do new things with old," Dr Wainwright reassures us. "Monteverdi is using late Renaissance form in a new and more skilled way. He is an excellent manager of devices. Nothing can be completely new."

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