The Imperfect Pearl: A Baroque Fairytale

Part play, part opera ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ or ‘Perola Barroca’ (the derivation of the term baroque) explores the life and music of one of the Baroque periods most overlooked and forgotten about composers, Domenico Zipoli, whose his manuscripts lay undiscovered for 200 years in a box marked ‘toilet paper.’ The performance not only represents the return of Zipoli to the repertoire but also pianist Mark Latimer to the stage after pioneering treatment for Dupuytren’s contracture which was generously funded by Help Musicians UK and the Royal Society of Musicians.

For more than 200 years the enigma of Domenico Zipoli’s music and inspirational life lay forgotten in the dusty archives of the 18th century Roman Jesuits and the Missions they founded in the rainforests of South America, present day Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.  His strange departure from Rome in 1716 where he was a revered composer, to an uncertain future in the lands across the ocean, is the sad and yet beautiful story told in ‘The Imperfect Pearl’.

Described by The Independent as “sumptuous and romantic”, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ features Baroque keyboard, chamber and vocal music from Italy and South America, and was ccreated in collaboration with writer William Towers, and opera director Emma Rivlin.

Full details of tour dates here

I caught up with Mark Latimer to ask him about the inspiration behind The Imperfect Pearl and to talk more generally about his musical life.

Tell us more about how you conceived ‘The Imperfect Pearl’, what was the inspiration behind this music-drama and what have been the main challenges and pleasures of creating this music-drama and working with the actors and musicians to bring the story to life? 

You know that old adage about a million monkeys strumming on a million typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, they would never come up with the life story of Domenico Zipoli! As bizarre a story as anyone could ever imagine. On the cusp of a successful career in Italy, he turns his back on the entire enterprise and goes to South America to become a Jesuit. He died there aged just 37 and his music remained largely undiscovered until, staggeringly, 1972 when it was discovered in a priest’s lavatory! You couldn’t make this stuff up. This extraordinary biography was the impetus and the inspiration for creating and conceiving the project. The challenges were and still are immense. So little was and is known about Zipoli, such of his music that’s extant is either implausibly difficult to source and get hold of, lots of it exists in hard to read manuscript, and our current rural touring scheme involves venues that are not really suited to this kind of theatrical presentation, even a comparatively small-scale production – we’re not talking exactly RSC proportions here – is prohibitively expensive to put on, and logistically it’s a nightmare trying to gather all the disparate elements together. Indeed had it not been for two very substantial Arts Council grants it would have been impossible. My wife, who is producer and my co-creator of the show, and I have been monumentally fortunate in securing a team that is in every respect world-class and I’ll never be able to thank them all adequately. But between us all, in the face of sometimes apparently insurmountable obstacles, we actually HAVE brought it to life. With regard to the difficulties with my hands, in some respect I consider myself fortunate that these things did occur, for had they not I may still be hacking my way through Alkan, Busoni, Reger et al.. I know for a fact, I would never therefore have ever discovered Zipoli at all. And my life would’ve been infinitely the poorer for that!

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

Having unsuccessfully tried aged seven, to negotiate and navigate my way around the clarinet as a result of my poor late father’s immense collection of jazz 78s and realizing I was blowing through the wrong end, I jacked it in pronto! Some years subsequently, the Headmaster of my Junior School needed someone to play for assemblies and as I was the only kid who had even a rudimentary capacity to read music – albeit at that juncture only the treble clef – he nominated me to have a bash, pardon the pun, at it. It seems in retrospect that I must have had some kind of aptitude for it as I seemed to progress quite quickly and without too much impediment. As far as pursuit of a career, thinking back I had no real aptitude for or affinity with anything else…

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

One of my first and unquestionably most formative teachers was the great, great man Albert Ferber, to begin with his unique heritage – he was a student of both Rachmaninov and Gieseking – probably meant little or nothing at the time to a callow kid like me, but we became best of friends, his entire persona – charming, suave, genteel – alone was a massive, massive influence. And of course, there was the supernaturally towering figure of John Ogdon. We likewise became immensely good friends and in terms of sheer colossal intellect and ability he is and will always remain unsurpassed. And I still miss him. Then there was my teacher at the Royal College of Music, Angus Morrison who knew Ravel, Walton, the Sitwells inter alia, a truly ineffably wonderful musician and gentleman. Finally Jorge Bolet whom I knew quite well as for about three weeks in the early eighties we shared the same management. Had it not been for the first time I met him – a road to Damascus moment for all the WRONG reasons – I would never have started smoking! As a brief corollary to all this, I was once interviewed for the post of Head of Keyboard at a major UK institution and I was asked why everyone I ever knew and worked with was dead!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Without question the ‘Take 2 – Unhinged’ album for Spotlite Jazz Records. We did a whole bunch of complicated stuff and half of the record is my own compositions. We did it in just six hours, the five of us had never all worked together previously and I had pleurisy at the time. I think that CD is my greatest achievement.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can only recall two with any modicum of vividity, and both for entirely the wrong reasons; I visited China loads of times but at one stadium concert in Hangzhou, I was towards the end of La Campanella – halfway through the long high D sharp trill – and the entire 25,000 audience suddenly burst into applause. Didn’t know how to react to such spontaneous appreciation, which is very common there – along with other such unusual concert activities as having telephone conversations, babies crying, the habitual spitting!  

The other was centuries ago. I did a concert at Wigmore Hall but the day before substituted an advertised piece for one by a composer friend who died the previous week. The ‘critic’ reviewed the ‘unplayed’ advertised programme. The fact that the review was damning was less important to me than the heretic act itself. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Everything’s a challenge; getting up in the morning, getting old, non-smoking long-haul flights etc.. Maybe dealing with the diagnosis of Dupuytrens Disease, a subject I’ve written much about lately owing to the interest in our production, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ being on tour was one of the greatest challenges. The loss of the use of one’s hands and all that that implies, not wishing to sound melodramatic, really is akin to a death or bereavement.

A Safe Pair of Hands? – Mark Latimer describes his diagnosis and treatment of Dupuytren’s contracture and talks about his return to music