Paul Goodwin loves to dispel the stuffiness that sometimes permeates live classical music concerts. He’s a scholar when it comes to the old music, but a devoted explorer of new sounds. He talks about the music and the festival he’s charged with leading with energy and assurance. He was once exclusively a musician, specializing in Baroque oboe, but gave it up 20 years ago to conduct. He’s collaborated with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Maria João Pires, composer Sir John Tavener; some of the best classical musical talents of our time. When he’s conducting at the two-week Carmel Bach Festival, he wears a signature three-quarter length jacket and Doc Martens and practically dances to the music. He loves talking about the Bach Festival, which starts this weekend. We convinced him to talk about himself a bit, too.
Do you ever get nervous onstage?
No, I don’t. The opposite, actually. I’m happiest onstage. I’m a performance animal. As soon as I get onstage, I’m relaxed.
Will you be doing a theatrical St. Matthew Passion, like last year’s St. John Passion?
I’m not, actually. I’m well known for my theatrical version of the Matthew Passion. [I’ve] performed it 60-70 times in a theatrical way. The first time I do [it] in Carmel, I want my soloists and choir to sing on their own without any added theatrical touches.
Most of the concert venues are churches. Why is that?
The acoustics of the churches in the area are not too boomy. They are the best in terms of acoustics. Some concerts we do at Sunset Center because we need a drier sound. [Pebble Beach’s] Church in the Forest is very lovely, with warm acoustics. Andrew [Megill’s] beautiful choral program goes in the Carmel Mission.
What’s this festival going to be like?
Because of the Italian influence, it has a very effervescent and joyous feeling.
Have you composed music?
Yes, at university, part of my course was composition. Some have been performed professionally. But to be success as a composer you have to dedicate yourself fully. I tinker. Because I don’t write, I like to work with composers.
On Caroline Shaw’s commissioned piece, how did the two of you proceed?
I asked her to write a piece that would fit within the Bach Magnificat. He puts in four movements. I wanted Caroline – because I know she writes such beautiful choral music – to write a fifth. Aside from that I leave her free because I love the way she writes. It’s an extremely exciting piece.
In the program book you write “we pride ourselves on being friendly.” How so?
Lots of ways. We have 200 volunteers from the community doing box office, giving out tickets, serving drinks, mingling with our audience and being very friendly. After concerts, the musicians can come and meet everybody. The open rehearsals, showing what we do, talking to the audience. It’s very different from conventional concerts where [afterward] you and the musicians go your separate ways.
You travel a lot. Is it wearying?
You have to be an isolationist – reading a book in back of an Indian restaurant in Seville – you have to be comfortable with it. I need it, psychically, getting on that plane and going to a new place, meeting new people. It’s very stimulating.
Where’s the most unexpected place you’ve heard Bach?
Beatboxing. African-American beatbox style, putting Bach in the rhythms. It’s a real surprise and a real success. Bach has such rhythmical integrity.
When you’re not listening to classical music, what do you listen to?
I have three children and they’re forever putting music on my computer and phone. I love the music of Mali, like Rokia Traoré. I love a lot of ethnic music. I love Mike Marshall and Chris Thile and their bluegrass and mandolin playing.
What are you rehearsing today?
Matthew Passion, all the arias, with the soloists and Jesus. I’m telling [the musicians] what my concept is. They say, “We’d like to do it this way.” I’m a consensus musician.
Did you say with Jesus?
Yes. He’s coming in to sing as well. He’s got a lot of recitatives accompanied by the strings.