The Handel Institute
The Handel Institute

Issue 2: December 2001

Interview with David Bowles (recording producer)

Introduction: David Vickers ("DV") spoke to David Bowles ("DB") - formerly Nicholas McGegan's regular continuo cellist and now his recording producer - about making Handel opera recordings at the Göttingen Handel Festival, recording Alessandro Scarlatti's cantatas with The Arcadian Academy, and the dangers of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). 

DV: You commenced your music career as a Cellist. What are some memorable projects you've been involved with as a continuo player?

DB: All of the Arcadian Academy CDs, the Göttingen Handel opera CDs, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) CDs where I sat principal cello, and Chanticleer’s “Mexican Baroque” (Teldec Das Alte Werk 96353).

 DV: How long have you been collaborating with Nicholas McGegan?

DB: Nic and I have been collaborating on musical projects since I joined Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the summer of 1988. In addition I worked with both Capella Savaria in Hungary (1988-1991) and the Freibruger Barocksolisten (1992-93) at Göttingen. I was continuo cellist on recordings of Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans, Telemann's Brockes Passion, and Handel's Floridante, Terpsichore, Agrippina, Ottone and Radamisto. With Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra I was continuo cellist on the second volume of Corelli's concerti grossi, Vivaldi's recorder concerti (with Marion Verbruggen), Handel's Arias for Durastanti (with Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson), La Resurezzione and Judas Maccabaeus.

DV: But you had to give up regular cello duties with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra due to RSI?

DB: I don't know if the nerve damage in my left pinkie was due to playing or from carrying cello cases, suitcases, grocery bags and heavy boxes for many years. In any case, it crept up on me very slowly; at first I thought my solo repertoire was simply out of shape from doing so much freelancing. However, it soon became apparent that there was something else when even "simple" continuo playing started to become difficult. I am a Juilliard graduate and have high standards for myself and realised that I needed to move on before things deteriorated to the point that I started to lose work. It was an extremely difficult choice to make after playing for 26 years of my life but at that point I was seeing specialists at the UCSF Performing Arts Medicine Centre. They all had musical training and knew the mechanics involved in playing an instrument so I did not have to explain everything; in addition everyone's case was supervised by a psychologist (the late Peter F. Oswald, who wrote a book about Schumann's problems with RSI!: Schumann - The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius (paperback Northeastern Univ Press; ISBN: 155553014).

DV: Do you still play cello at all at home?

DB: No, I have not touched the cello since the last concert I played in April 1994 (as it happens, it was with the Arcadian Academy on tour!). I gave up "cold turkey" while I was still playing well; all my instruments and bows have been sold (except one, which is at my dealer). Now that I'm producing I listen to a wide range of music but still enjoy cello LPs newly transferred to CD.

DV: How did you go about transferring careers from Cellist to Producer? Were you already particularly interested in the recording process?

DB: I had always been interested in audio from when I was a young child: one of my earliest memories was of my father placing me by the big Jensen loudspeaker, telling me to listen to my mother on the air (she was a classical music programmer at that time). Much later I collected LPs and started to question why certain recordings were much better than others, both in terms of engineering and musical feeling. I've always been involved in organising and other behind-the-scenes work, this extended to Arcadian Academy concerts and recordings as well. All of this helped when I changed careers almost eight years ago: I wanted to maintain continuity with music and make use of all the musical knowledge I've accumulated over the years.

DV: But you've also done a fair amount of smaller scale music with the Arcadian Academy.

DB: In 1990 Nic and I co-founded the Arcadian Academy in order to explore the repertoire of Handel's Italian period. It was immediately apparent that there were huge amounts of vocal works to sift through, most of which were still in manuscript. The recording company Nic was contracted to (Harmonia Mundi USA) agreed to record the Arcadian Academy in instrumental repertoire, and we looked beyond Handel and the (original) Arcadian Academy to Nicola Matteis, Marco Uccellini, Salamone Rossi and Biagio Marini. The result was two CDs of Matteis' Ayres for the Violin and one from Uccellini's books of sonatas and dances. I entered all of this in the computer as all of the sources were in part books; sometimes the bass figures disagreed with the melodies and we had to make quick editorial decisions!

DV: You mentioned putting Matteis and Uccellini into the computer to prepare performing editions. Did you use Finale or Sibelius to prepare the parts, and had you edited much 17th or/ 18th century music before?

DB: Not only have I used Finale, but I'm one of their beta testers as well! I hope one of these days that they will add a genuine figured bass feature; in recent years the software has got much more reliable and easier to use as well. I had never edited music before but had read a lot of manuscripts over the years; Nicholas McGegan and David Tayler were the real musicological brains behind all the Arcadian Company editions. If I was really obsessive I probably would have listed every change made and every instance of a bass figure conflicting with a melody, but for music this obscure it would have been a thankless task. Part of the challenge of making a more or less permanent edition is that so many of these decisions would have been made on the fly by the performers, and would have probably changed from time to time. In a recording session with an open schedule one has the luxury of trying out different alternatives and sewing it all together in the editing studio - this is the ultimate mating of musicology and technology!

DV: Yet the latter day Arcadian Academy is best known for its recordings of Alessandro Scarlatti.

DB: The first of Nic's CDs I produced was of Alessandro Scarlatti's soprano cantatas (with Christine Brandes and the Arcadian Academy). This was originally supposed to be released on Harmonia Mundi USA but Nic's contract had expired. And at my urging we recorded it on good faith and as it happens it was taken on by BMG Classics and turned into a series of four CDs (featuring David Daniels, Dominique Labelle and Brian Asawa). I produced these as well as two CDs with Philharmonia Baroque (Arne's Alfred and Rameau suites from Platée and Dardanus).

DV: What else have you produced other than The Arcadian Academy?

DB: I've also produced several 20th Century projects for BMG Classics, Centaur and Americus; all of these are for voice and piano. I've edited and mastered the Göttingen festival CDs for 2000 and 2001; as of next month will take over all the concert recordings for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I’ve also started to produce Dan Laurin’s CDs - he’s a fantastically talented recorder player from Sweden. Look out for Italian recorder sonatas on BIS next June.

DV: You make live recordings of all the PBO concerts? Are any of these likely to be made into CDs or are they for some sort of archive?

DB: They are for possible radio broadcast and fund raising as well as the orchestra's growing archive. I now own a multi-unit CD burner and now make CD-R copies for PBO musicians, chorus members and soloists as well; listening to one's own performances really helps one grow as an artist.

DV: What concert or opera projects by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (and others) do you wish you could have recorded? Nic must have done quite a few things that deserved to be issued on CD over the years.

DB: Speaking for myself, I wish that Nic and PBO could have recorded Arne's Comus (as a companion to Alfred), Rossini's short operas (La Cambiale di Matrimonio, Il Signor Bruschino, etc.), Berlioz songs, even Johann Strauss.

DV: From a Handelian point of view, there were very popular productions of Tolomeo (1995) and Riccardo Primo (1996) at Göttingen. These were between Ariodante - the last Harmonia Mundi recording - and the BMG recording of Serse. It is a shame that neither of Nic's interpretations of these little known lovely operas made it to CD.

DB: By the time Riccardo Primo was being cast Nic's contract with Harmonia Mundi USA had expired, and to my knowledge it was not renewed. Nic's contract with BMG Classics began after Tolomeo had been contracted so in any case the singers might not have been available for a recording.

 DV: I noticed that the 1997 Göttingen production of Serse was recorded for BMG in the unlikely venue of Watford Town Hall, in Hertfordshire, England.

DB: Both Watford and Walthamstow Town Halls were built by the same architect in the 1930's and are huge open spaces well suited for recording. My intent was to create a simplified version of the staging in order to reflect the dramatic action in the libretto. Therefore the arias would have a solo singer front and centre but singers would make actual entrances and exits for the recitatives. For instance, this worked particularly well for the long scene after "Ombra mai fù", where Arsamene and Elviro sneak in slowly and Romilda first appears on a balcony in the distance.

 DV: Since then Handelians have wondered why no new recordings of operas by Nic have hit the CD shops. So maybe they will be delighted to discover that Göttingen have set up their own independent label, and in the last few years first class live recordings of Arianna and Rodelinda have been sold to members of the Gottingen Händel Gesellschaft at a very reasonable price. The latest Göttingen CD is Partenope, recorded during the 2001 Festival. How was this recorded?

DB: The engineering was done by the North German Radio digitally with each microphone on separate tracks. I took only the tracks I considered important: the main pair over the orchestra, support mikes for the continuo and stage mikes to capture the voices. I recorded to a Genex 8500 multi-track hard disc digital recorder so I would be able to change the mix later.

 DV: Could you tell us a bit about the collaboration with North German Radio - these CDs were mixed from recordings made for Radio, weren't they? How was the final CD mix prepared?

DB: The CD release and the radio broadcast were prepared independently of each other; aside from taking selected tracks from NDR on my Genex. I was solely responsible for the editing, mixing and mastering of the CD. I have not heard the broadcast tapes and would be curious to see how our productions compare.

DV: What are the pros and cons of making live recordings at the Göttingen Festival? The Stadthalle and the Deutches Theater must be challenging venues.

DB: Any recording on location involves an unobtrusive mike setup which often means that mike placement is less than optimal. In addition, listening in ad hoc control rooms or mobile recording trucks is not ideal - there is lots of extraneous noise form traffic and rain which masks what is actually being recorded on disc. In addition, the mikes had to be taken down after all the performances at both the Deutsches Theater and the Stadthalle as there were other shows going on; inevitably a support mike or two would be placed differently from night to night.

DV: Will Alcina be recorded in 2002? I fervently hope so. The most recent commercial recording of Alcina was not that great...

DB: Stay tuned... it's always a question of funding. However, in the case of Alcina, be forewarned that there will be cuts, otherwise the audience would have to endure a show of five hours length!

DV: What singers have you worked with - both as a performer and as a producer - who have been exceptionally good to work with and why?

DB: Frederica von Stade is the ultimate "pro" who gave me everything I asked for which was a lot ("The Faces of Love" - songs of Jake Heggie on BMG Red Seal 09026 62484 2 ). The same goes for Bentia Valente (song cycles of William Bolcom on Centaur CRC-2464). I've also enjoyed working with Dominique Labelle, David Daniels, Christine Brandes, Jennifer Smith and David Thomas for various projects: each of them have unique voices and convey emotion and character even without the visual element. (Yes, I would love to produce video of Göttingen productions as well as audio CDs!).

DV: What are your future plans?

DB: I would like to break out of classical music recording from time to time, as long as it's "live" and in "real time"! It's bad enough that so much popular music is contrived after the fact and often lacks spontaneity; I'm horrified to hear of certain classical artists overdubbing or using "click tracks"as well. Music must convey an emotional message and transport the listener; people need it now more than ever.

More information about David Bowles's productions can be found at

Relevant Links: (Göttingen Händel Gesellschaft)

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