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Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields violinist Harvey de Souza reflects on the importance of live music

By Jessica Sensenig

Harvey de Souza’s role as principal first violin with London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble gives him the opportunity to bring live music to cities across the world.

In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, de Souza explains how his pursuit of a career in music began as his father’s dream.

As a boy in Mumbai, India, de Souza grew up listening to many distinguished violinists, including Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, and Isaac Stern. His father had a great love for the instrument but never had the opportunity to play, so a young de Souza took up the violin.

“I wasn’t willingly drawn into it at first. I wanted to be out in the park playing football, baseball, and cricket with my friends rather than inside practicing.” de Souza says with a laugh.

Having the opportunity to study in the United Kingdom and going on to become a professional violinist, de Souza is grateful to have made it as a musician and to have the opportunity to share music with audiences.

De Souza says that classical and live music is important for all generations to experience. As a testament to this belief, de Souza shares a favorite moment for one of the academy’s U.S. tours.

“I had the most visceral experience. Coming out of concert, there was a guy who was the most archetypal cowboy, who looked incredible with his hat and his boots. And in a great drawl, he said this was the first time he had ever heard chamber music and went, ‘Wow, I had no idea this existed!’” de Souza recalls. “In his 60s, this man was able to connect and recognize that this music was still relevant, which shows that it doesn’t matter where you come from. It speaks to you. This music means something to us as human beings.”

In regard to younger generations, de Souza discusses how music and arts are typically the first programs to be cut by schools in the United Kingdom and the United States. He considers these occurrences as problems that we must rise above.

“The access [of music] to younger generations is cut off, which causes immense damage. And it’s on us to come in and show that it’s not inaccessible. And as for the education aspect, [music] gives kids a different dimension to express themselves. There are no complicated words, only sounds.”

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble will end its U.S. tour October 17 at Schwab Auditorium. The concert will include a new commissioned piece by Sally Beamish in addition to works by Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn.

Excited to return to Penn State with the ensemble, de Souza shares insights on the new Beamish piece, common misconceptions about classical music, and the importance of experiencing live music.

Question: Most of your past and current experience centers on chamber music. Why has chamber music stood out to you?

Harvey de Souza: In a nutshell, most of the repertoire is the most intimate writings of composers. As a musician, always working with colleagues and always having a shared experience is a special opportunity. What we do has to be shared. There’s an intimacy in all aspects—from the writing itself to the ensemble setting. Some of the best compositions are from chamber music since composers wrote these pieces for themselves. They were commissioned for symphonies and the like to make a living, but they had an innate desire to write chamber music.

Q: During your performance at Penn State, you will play a new commissioned piece by Beamish, which you premiered at the start of this tour. What is it like to premiere a piece? Is there a different energy or atmosphere surrounding the performance?

De Souza: Absolutely. Number one, there’s a certain trepidation. We’re conscious that it’s a different language for audiences, and we cannot predict how they’ll react and if what we’ve worked on will come across well. Will it work? There’s also twice the amount of commitment to pull it off. A premiere is the first time to make it right. It’s a learning experience as well, to find what works and what doesn’t. It’s like that in most live performances, by the second performance you know where you may need to take more time.

Q: Can you talk a little more about Partita and what audiences can expect to hear?

De Souza: We’ve been working the last few days in London with Sally. Let me first say, it is seriously a great piece. She was telling us why the name Partita, which is inspired by Bach and his violin solos. She connected the dots, saying what she wants to say and tying it in with other works, such as Mendelssohn’s Octet, which he based on Handel’s Messiah. With the note structures expanding with the language she wants to use, the variety is infinite. She takes us to different sound worlds, which is exciting for an audience to hear. For those who know the connections to the referenced pieces, it can be an eye-opener. On the other hand, it’s also great to have an audience without any baggage to see how they will react. With a couple performances under our belts, I think audiences will really take to it. The piece has had very positive feedback and is a great piece to perform!

Q: I saw that you were involved with the Sangat Chamber Music Festival in Mumbai. Can you talk a little bit about what the festival was like and the importance of bringing these types of music opportunities to Mumbai and to young kids?

De Souza: After twenty years, it came to a natural conclusion. It was a wonderful thing. I would invite my friends from all over the world to come all the way to Mumbai to play and teach local kids. Without question, the importance of music comes from its relevance to our lives. Any art form is so critical in our society. There’s a great saying: “Art is a reason for existence.” Art transcends all things, from cultural divides to economic divides, because it’s about the human condition and human emotions. It doesn’t matter where you come from, all people have a great need for love and caring for their kids. It’s all in this music, and it’s what these composers were writing about: life, love, death. That’s what makes it great music; it is speaking to the human soul.

Q: The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble was created to perform larger chamber works with musicians who are regularly playing together. Do you think this camaraderie and constant working together has had a big part in setting the ensemble apart from the rest?

De Souza: I think so—very much so. For example, I used to play in a string quartet, and when we would play a sextet, we would need to invite two guests. And when you would bring together musicians for an octet, there are always questions about which violinist gets first part. [laughs] There are pros and cons either way. When I came to the academy and spent time playing together with everyone, we would enter the first rehearsal and all speak the same language. You realize that in the little time you had to rehearse, you could go so much further because you had the bases covered. Playing together in orchestra, you understand the blending of sound, and you know each other’s insecurities and strengths and are able to build from that.

Q: What would you say is a common misconception about classical music? What would you say to invite and encourage more people to listen?

De Souza: Unequivocally, the most common misconception is that you have to know something about classical music in order to listen to it. This is a complete fallacy. You just need to hear it, and if you’re bitten by the bug, you can go further and learn more. But you just need to listen for even one second. If for even one second it makes you cry or laugh …  if it makes you feel connected, it’s doing its job. Knowing more about it can always come later. Sad to say, I think we [the classical music world] are to blame, marketing it to be elitist, which I believe is a great disservice to classical music. Go back to 300 years—it was the popular music. In churches, choirs were singing these pieces. It was for everybody. And in the present, we have sectioned it off and chopped it up. It is incumbent on us to break down those barriers.

Q: How important is it to hear live music? What makes it special?

De Souza: Live music is a shared experience. With all of these streaming services, we’ve never had more access. But ask anybody who goes to a live performance, and they’ll say what a visceral experience it is. Nothing can replicate that: those two hours in that moment on that very day. It’s a totally unique experience and a critical one. I hate to add, but even more so than any other time in history, everyone is staring at screens. And it’s universal, not specific to any country. We’re isolating ourselves even more, and people are realizing this and how we need to go out and share our lives and experiences. Live music brings us back together. There’s no political, social, or economic baggage—those things don’t matter. Music doesn’t discriminate. We are all just human beings, and live music helps us to remember that all that baggage really doesn’t matter.

Jessica Sensenig, a recent Penn State graduate, is a feature writer for the Center for the Performing Arts.