Who or what inspired you to take up editing and performing early music, and make it your career?
I took up a choral scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford on the basis that I seemed to be able to read music well enough and had an inoffensive highish tenor voice that was considered to be quite useful. Having spent my late teenage years obsessed with contemporary music, composing and playing the piano in Glasgow, it was a major culture shock for me to suddenly be catapulted into a hotbed of early music. Singing with the choir under Stephen Darlington, and with the academic interests I developed, under the influence of scholars such as John Milsom, Margaret Bent and David Maw, I began to realise that I enjoyed the music – and both the scholarship and performance in equal quantities. This is what made me realise that I wanted to run my own group (and not to necessarily conduct!), performing music that I love and am able to help bring to life, alongside musicians I respect and enjoy working with.
Who or what were the most important influences on your performing?
There have been many. Stephen Darlington at Christ Church is an enormously motivating director, who was always encouraging but gave me a strong sense of discipline which I desperately needed. John Milsom, who actually discouraged me from attempting to become ‘merely’ a singer (not that I’m good enough anyway!). Jeremy Summerly is such an effortlessly consummate musician and all-round excellent person to work with. He taught me that if the music’s good, then everything else is worthwhile. John Butt, who is currently my academic supervisor, is a paradigmatic figure in balancing performance and scholarship at the highest level. The other members of Oxford Baroque influence me a lot, both practically and ideologically. Without them, I’d probably have got a real job by now.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Being able to convince myself that what I am doing is worth it! Financially, it’s not been easy and I’ve done all sorts of other work to put into my group, Oxford Baroque. Funding isn’t something that’s easy to come by these days, but if you believe it can happen, then you can only blame yourself if it doesn’t.
Which performances are you most proud of?
I think every time we perform as a group, we get better and better, so it’s always the last one.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Anywhere with good transport links and a decent pub nearby! Though I think the most impressive place I’ve performed recently was at Le château de Versailles. It’s such a beautiful venue that it distracts you from the ridiculously enormous acoustic.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love performing Schütz and Bach. There’s something – different about each of them, of course – about their sense of upholding attention to the text, but with a nuanced mode that brings something more to it, which I find hugely rewarding to sing. A lot of my colleagues are more diverse, but I’m a bit of a geek and collect lots of early music CDs. At the moment, I’m hooked on the Huelgas Ensemble’s Dufay disc, O Gemma Lux.
Who are your favourite musicians?
Lots of them.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
My most memorable concert experiences are probably not for the right sort of reasons. There was one on a Japanese tour, where at the rehearsal I suddenly realised I’d forgotten to pack black trousers and, without time to buy or commandeer a pair, had to perform in a pair of blue trousers.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
One of the obvious things that I notice is that professional musicians tend to be some of the most intelligent and educated people that I encounter, yet they normally work for relatively small financial rewards considering their skills and dedication. I remember spending a train journey between Oxford and London with Roderick Williams at a time when I was feeling a bit down on my luck. I’d just left Oxford and was puzzled why things weren’t suddenly taking off for me. After explaining how his own career had taken several years to develop, his advice was: ‘If you think the music’s worth it, then it probably is.’ This is a maxim that I like to think of every time I’ve had any doubts about what I’m doing. Also, that it’s important to respect those around you, however old or young they are. You learn quickly that everything is built around respect – for teachers, for fellow performers, for the music itself – and it’s imperative that you don’t get carried away with yourself. There’s always someone better than you out there, so be grateful for the opportunities you’re given.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently doing my laundry between trips away. But more generally, I’ve recently started doing postgraduate research with John Butt at the University of Glasgow. I’m trying to balance this with running Oxford Baroque. At the moment, I’m planning, editing and rehearsing for our concert in the St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival on Tuesday 18 December, with the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. I’ve edited quite a few ‘new’ pieces for this concert and am really looking forward to hearing how they come together with such a large ensemble!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I would like to be able to balance an academic career with my own performing activities. As I realise that the teachers I’ve encountered are the ones who’ve switched me on to my passions, I’m becoming aware that I’ve enjoyed teaching in a university environment a lot so far and would welcome the chance to do more.
David Lee appears with Oxford Baroque in a concert on Monday 6th May as part of the Oxford Early Music Festival. Further details here
David Lee graduated from the University of Oxford with a first class degree in Music, where he was a Choral Scholar at Christ Church and subsequently a Lay Clerk with New College Choir. Having worked closely with a number of eminent musicians and musicologists over the past few years, he has shown a particular enthusiasm and talent in working on music composed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. He recently completed editing the English-texted anthems of Christopher Gibbons, accompanied by an in-depth commentary – a project which received a first class award from the University of Oxford. He works regularly as an editor for several professional groups. Alongside assisting All Souls fellow, Dr Margaret Bent in her research, which he combines with an increasingly busy career as a freelance singer, working in the UK and abroad with groups including the Academy of Ancient Music, Tenebrae, Oxford Camerata, Chapelle du Roi, Ludus Baroque and Suonar Cantando. David is currently dividing his time between Glasgow and London, whilst working on postgraduate research, editing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German music, at the University of Glasgow, under the joint supervision of Prof. John Butt and Dr David McGuinness.
In addition to co-directing and singing for Oxford Baroque, David’s role with the group involves researching projects, editing the performing materials and managing the personnel for each programme.