Peter Whelan: Dusting off the old books and breathing new life into music

Artistic Director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra, Associate Artist with the Irish National Opera and founding Artistic Director of Ensemble Marsyas, Peter Whelan is known for his passion for exploring and championing neglected music from the baroque era. We spoke to the Irish conductor and new AH signing about his story, rediscovering old music, and his hopes for the future.

Growing up just outside of Dublin, Peter’s interest in music came first from singing in choirs at primary school, and listening to three of his female teachers who sang in a close-harmony folk group. “I remember being about five or six, and thinking ‘this is amazing’,” he told us, “it was the coolest sound I’d ever heard!”

He then studied academic music at Trinity College Dublin before going to Basel to study the bassoon and harpsichord. “I think it’s nice to have a little interest in both sides,” he says. “The academic world is so far ahead of where we are in the performance world, so it’s great to be able to join the two together – dust off the old books and breathe new life into the music!”

Peter began his career as the principal bassoonist with orchestras including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, so we were particularly interested to know how he views the role of the conductor. “I think the most important thing for me is to enable people, and get the best out of them,” he says. “It’s about storytelling; making the music pop off the page and speak to the audience. If you look at reviews from the 18th century about music, the best concerts are the ones where audiences fully understand what the orchestra is trying to say.”

His passion for neglected music from the baroque era, and perhaps his academic background too, fuelled a fascinating exploration around music in Ireland before the arrival of Handel, which he recalls as “the most rewarding experience.” Handel famously came to Ireland in 1741 to premiere the Messiah, but, Peter tells us, “very few people knew anything about why he came or what the music scene was like in Dublin at the time.”

After much research and rummaging through libraries around the world for music written for Dublin Castle, they reconstructed the band of the State Court, the Irish State Musick, and put on a concert in Dublin Castle in 2017. The concert included birthday odes written by Masters of State Musick Johann Sigismund Cousser (1660-1727) and Matthew Dubourg (1703-1767) – both of whom can be connected to Handel (indeed, Dubourg led the orchestra at the Messiah premiere) – alongside other music written for the band, much of which hadn’t been performed for a long time.

“It was a big moment,” Peter says, “and the audiences reacted so well. It was a long concert – three hours’ worth of music and we couldn’t make it any shorter – but they were all ears and there was an amazing reaction after. There are so many people across the world who identify as being Irish, and it’s nice for them to have a connection with Ireland beyond the culture of St Patrick’s Day and drinking. A lot of them are really pleased to discover that there is this heritage that Ireland has in classical music – Handel, Mozart and even going back to Purcell; all of them had really strong connections with Dublin.”

With such an interest in finding and sharing new (/old) music, what piece would Peter pick to introduce someone to the world of classical music? “There are so many, but maybe Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which I think is so perfect. It’s a piece I’ve been listening to for 30 years, and I still find new things about it. I think on every level it’s a fascinating piece of music. Superficially, it just sounds beautiful, but the more you look into it the more complex it gets. It’s like a microcosm of the whole world – you can find whatever you like in there and it never gets boring.”

So, what’s next? “I am really looking forward to conducting Vivaldi’s Griselda and Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Seraglio with Irish National Opera next season, as well as continuing a mixture of chamber, symphonic and opera work with more and more conducting, and sharing cultural connections between different countries.”

We are thrilled to welcome Peter to Askonas Holt, where he will be represented by Melanie Moult and Sara Edwards. Read Peter’s full biography here

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