Gabrieli: the story so far

Gabrieli began as a period instrument ensemble specialising in renaissance and baroque repertoire. Up to that point, I hadn’t particularly specialised in early repertoire – indeed I had studied 20th-century music at university and to this day I would not describe myself as a specialist – I conduct music of all periods! However, I had always been interested in and inspired by the historical soundworld and, launching a group in 1982, I found myself at what would prove to be the tail end of the early music movement, so it was an obvious place to start.

Gabrieli’s first concert, a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers, took place when I was still at Manchester University. The success of that first performance, a collaboration with Jeremy West’s ensemble Guildhall Waits, was such that we were invited to repeat the concert at St John’s Smith Square, London. Later that same year we toured a Gabrieli programme for the erstwhile Northwest Arts and, by the time this was being repeated in Southwark Cathedral, I think the group had been born!

Gabrieli has of course grown a great deal since those early beginnings but there is much that remains constant – a continual questioning and probing of the repertoire and accepted performance ideals (or are they just habits?!), a desire to tread unchartered territory and a determination to do things properly, perhaps throwing down the odd gauntlet or two along the way!

During the nearly 35 years of Gabrieli’s history, we have enjoyed some hugely important relationships with artists, promoters and composers, which have influenced the artistic direction and focus of the ensemble. I have often bemoaned the fact that the term “liturgical reconstruction” will probably end up on my tombstone… the work that we did in the 1980s and early 1990s, returning renaissance repertoire to its original context, certainly pioneered a form of programming that is today common (although I hope not ubiquitous!). Our 15 year relationship with Deutsche Grammophon was another significant influence on and outlet for our programming and enabled us to focus on, amongst other things, performing Handel oratorio with the large-scale forces and stellar casts that bring those works to life. Our ongoing relationship with the ever-entrepreneurial Martin Randall Travel has been pivotal to the development of our repertoire, enabling us to perform music in the buildings and cities for which it was composed, be it a St Matthew Passion in Leipzig or performing Monteverdi in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Making our home in festivals across Europe has exerted an equally important influence on our programming and instigated new artistic collaborations – Brinkburn Festival in Northumberland and International Festival Wratislavia Cantans being particularly close to my heart. Most recently, the launch of our own record label Winged Lion has brought a new artistic freedom and host of opportunities, enabling us to record repertoire from Gabrieli and Morley to Berlioz and Dove, via Handel and Mendelssohn. Of course that artistic freedom comes at a price though!

So, what next? Dusting off my crystal ball, I think the most important areas of our artistic work will be the continuation of our recordings for Winged Lion and our crucially important work with Gabrieli Roar, the recently re-launched Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme. Engaging teenage singers with core choral repertoire and offering them high quality performance opportunities is something that is incredibly close to my heart and has frankly never been more needed – you can read more about my passion for bringing choral repertoire to young singers here.

But what is it that makes Gabrieli, and perhaps me, unique? I think, above all else, it is the element of surprise. It has been said that no-one ever knows what we will do next, and I am proud of that! The public should never be sure what next season’s offering from Gabrieli will be, because it could be anything: a meticulously devised programme of renaissance motets or a gargantuan recording of Gurrelieder: the only thing that you can be sure of is that it will be music that I love, with artists for whom I have the utmost respect.

Paul McCreesh