|Paul Van Nevel - Bio|
Paul Van Nevelwas born into a musical family in Limburg, Belgium, in 1946. He studied at the Maastricht Music Institute and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Basle, where he formed the Huelgas Ensemble in 1971.He is now artistic director of the Ensemble as well as a noted conductor and cultural historian and an authority on early notational practice and interpretation. His extensive research into lost works, particularly those of Flemish polyphony, has resulted in the rediscovery of the composers Johannes Ciconia and Nicolas Gombert, on whom he has written monographs and whose music he has recorded with the Huelgas Ensemble.
He is a guest lecturer at the Music Highschool in Hannover and a guest conductor with the Dutch Kamerkoor and the Danish Radio Choir.
The poet in the conductor
Luuk Gruwez, Belgian poetHad Paul Van Nevel been the planner of his own destiny, he would undoubtedly have chosen to become a writer. He often assures me that even in his capacity as a musician, he is more involved with writing than conducting. (Writing, in his case, is a manual affair, flowing from one of his expensive Mont Blanc pens filled with Visconti ink.) He is particularly in awe of those who write poetry. In his late puberty – presumably in his house of birth on the Kuringersteenweg, Hasselt, quite close to my own abode, incidentally – he fell under the spell of the poetry of Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, which instilled in him not only a passion for Lisbon, but a deep envy of all the poets of the world.
Similar to the poets, Van Nevel practises a genre that evokes not mass hysteria, but intimacy: polyphonics is the name of his game. As a result, he favours languidness in whatever he does. (Languidness, as everyone knows, is less typical of our time than of any other period.) Even in the culinary sphere he is well aware of the difference between slow and fast food. And being a dedicated cigar-lover, he is obviously not a man for cigarettes, but one for the cigar; not seeking a few minutes’ pleasure, but the languid delight that could probably last an hour or two. To him, smoking involves all the senses; he smokes passionately, savouring the ritual and realizing that the extreme form of languidness is unreachable eternity.
The fact that Paul Van Nevel (°1946) was the last-born of a large Belgian-Limburgian family of which several members were (or still are) musically-inclined, had particular consequences for his life. He was trained at the Maastricht conservatory, and while teaching at the Schola Cantorum in Basle, Switzerland, he qualified himself in notation. True to his rebellious streak, he exchanged his father’s affinity for the raucous Wagner and the pathetique of Beethoven for the intimacy of the French Flamands, such as Nicolas Gombert, Antoine Brumel and Cipriano de Rore. And as for more recent music, he worships Béla Bartók, not Gustav Mahler, to name but one. 'As for Mahler' – though doesn’t always seem too keen to admit this – 'Mahler, that’s simply too much Sachertorte.'
The birth of Paul Van Nevel would prove to be more than the arrival of a great conductor; he would also become someone with a contagious epicurism, and one who would prefer to conduct the whole of creation. Obviously there is a difference between a conductor and a traffic officer. But the fact that I was privileged to watch him display his natural flair as he was taking his stance in the middle of a Lisbon boulevard to help me and my dearest across the street, is not only funny. It is also typical of his generous and charismatic personality. Art and life: he tries to marry these two, though one often gets the impression that he invests so much control in his music, that it wouldn’t bother him at all if very little of it is left for the business of living. In listening to this music, we witness how someone manages to combine in himself the grand gesture with the finer nuances. This is the hallmark of a genius: Van Nevel, no matter how driven, demonstrating his complete command of the grand gesture.
He conducts as if in the beginning – amidst violence and disaster – creation had gone terribly wrong, leaving the conductor to restore it all. In that respect too, he appears to have much in common with the poets. Sharing their urge to keep things intact, he refuses to accept that anything has almost passed by the time it comes into being. Hence perhaps his inclination to often refer to poets in terms of emotions that he finds essentially musical. That might also be why he systematically associates them with melancholy, the most musical of all emotions. (Orlandus Lassus, one of his favourites, is said to have died of 'melancholia hypochondriaca'.) The Portuguese concept saudade could therefore, though lacking in precision, be translated as 'melancholy'. Van Nevel’s affinity for the fado, the musical interpretation of saudade, is well-known. And the music that he brings (paying meticulous attention to the diction of the text, as if every note is subject to the word) is permeated with saudade, something that can hardly be expressed in words, but may be hovering in the sounds anticipating their manifestation in words. To paraphrase Novalis: a sadness to be proud of, a sadness reminiscent of our higher heritage. Sadness that also exudes an eroticising power. Melancholy is – pardon the word – sexy.
Paul van Nevel is a man of the night; I am a man of the day. Or even better said: I usually get up when he tucks in. He often calls me while I’m having breakfast, mentioning that it is actually time to go to bed. In spite of our different attitudes to day and night, I recognize myself in him as a maniacal collector of moments. Only, his sunset happens to be my sunrise. That is why we relate to each other in such a special sense: our suns fondle the same horizons. At the same time, he is attracted to beginnings, while I prefer endings. Or is it exactly the opposite? Possibly we share an intense love of beginnings and endings, those moments being the most meaningful of all.
Anyone attempting to pinpoint Paul’s identity should know that two things are extremely important to him: place and time. And any artist would appreciate the collector’s mania that it entails. And how poetry too collects and preserves. And how even music is a way of collecting. Life is a fragmented affair; a poem or fado or a Gothic church is an effort to restore order to what is about to collapse. The artist and death are each other’s rivals. Sometimes I suspect that Van Nevel must have experienced this truism in Portuguese (and other) cemeteries, because that is where he would be find himself in a position to realize that everything eventually finds its ultimate order, as if – in the face of death – there is an artist speaking the final word. Art, music, and in fact, all forms of creativity: these are the things that offer us a certain peace of mind as we try to order the disorderly. The life of Paul Van Nevel is an explosive cocktail of the disorderly and the orderly. This is the essence of his charm: he allows whatever is amiss to sublimate itself into a trump. His trump is his music: always the product of a well-founded location and well-founded time, both of which, unfortunately, to be reconstructed only by approximation.
I can hardly believe that human beings are driven by much more than their desire to find a definite place and time for everything, It stands to reason that the “definite” remains an illusion. Nevertheless, this is where I repeatedly see Paul’s image dooming up before me. And he is not merely in search of that single little spot and that one ephemeral moment. He wishes this moment to continue, and the spot to remain. He belongs to this earth, while yearning to discover eternity in the world as he hopes to transcend the momentariness of all earthly moments. Exactly like a poet, in fact. But it would be a gross misconception to think that only poets work in this way. Paul Van Nevel takes a bow to the poets he admires, still under the impression that notes do not suffice. I take a bow to Paul van Nevel, the poet in the conductor, because I am quite certain that not the notes, but the words remain inadequate.