A decade ago, in an era of declining classical music audiences, Paul Goodwin was given the creative reins of the Carmel Bach Festival. As principal conductor and artistic director since 2010, he’s successfully expanded the definition of what fits into classical music programming. Goodwin is stepping down from the post after this year’s festival wraps up.
Before joining the Bach Festival, Goodwin had a prolific career as a pioneering performer and promoter of historic Baroque period oboe, an instrument he took up “on the side” while studying composition. He worked as a conductor and educator of other historical Baroque orchestras, earning a reputation throughout Europe for his interpretations of early music.
He spoke to the Weekly from his home in the Surrey Hills, just outside of London, before heading to Carmel.
Weekly: In classical music circles you have achieved quite a bit of celebrity, particularly in Europe. What was life like before you were “famous?”
Goodwin: I’m kind of a one-track person. I was a chorister when I was young – like 8, 9 and 10. I sang for films then, so it seems like I’ve always been in the limelight. I’m one of the lucky ones.
It’s all the rage these days, but way back when what prompted your interest in historical instruments?
I had a great interest in folk and medieval music when I was in university. I really enjoyed playing in an early music group and I befriended an instrument builder, and asked him to build me [an oboe] to the specs they used in Handel’s day. Luckily nothing ever changes in Vienna.
How did you transition from being an oboe player to a conductor?
Conducting had always been a fascination for me. In fact, it was the other way around – in the beginning I was more interested in conducting than oboe, so I got a scholarship in that. I concentrated on the oboe after graduation to gain wider exposure, that is, to become better known so that eventually I would get better conducting gigs, and it worked!
You once characterized the difference between being a soloist who faces the audience and being a conductor with your back to them as being akin to driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror.
People sometimes ask if I miss the catharsis, the direct exchange a soloist has with the audience. You also get that as a conductor, but not until you turn around. It’s just different roles. The conductor’s job is to help the musicians, to persuade them to fulfill the mission of a particular piece.
Do you play any other instruments besides oboe? And what else do you listen to?
I’ve always played piano and harpsichord, and I’m a big jazz buff. I like jazz big band music, and I have a Ewie 5000 Wind synthesizer. It has the whole range, from rough and electric to calm and ethereal. Really fun. And I have three kids, so there’s hip-hop, rap, beats and reggae in the house. I’ve come to appreciate the skills of the great rappers. Man, to improvise poetry on the fly within a rhythmic beat – wow.
Some lighter questions. Do you sing in the shower?
Why, yes I do, and at the top of my voice I’ll have you know.
Do you ever get nervous on stage?
Now? No. Super concentration. No nerves. I used to be quite nervous as a solo oboist, fearing that I’d make a mistake. And then I’d make one! But now, sometimes I’m too calm before I go on so I’ll buzz myself up with some strong coffee or tea.
When do you prefer to not hear music?
During yoga, meditation or when out in nature. The sounds of nature – weather, water, the layers of birdsongs – all of those are still superior to anything we’ve written yet.
What will you miss about Carmel and the Bach Festival?
The community of friends, musicians, audience members and patrons we’ve created. They are like family to me. And my tennis colleagues who tend to keep me sane throughout the whole thing.
And I regret that because of Covid we couldn’t go out with a real bang – a full stage packed with instruments and musicians, longer, more involved pieces. My hope is that the festival will continue to be expansive and experimental, traditional and engaging, and challenging and beautiful.