A CONVERSATION WITH -
[NOTE: This interview is reprinted from the January and December, 1998,
issues of The Continuo. We plan an updated interview with Dr. McGinnis
in the near future.]
PARTICIPANTS: Dr. Richard McGinnis, President, Mississippi Academy of
Ancient Music (MA'AM); Frank Laney, for The Continuo. October, 1997.
LANEY: The first question I have is a double question. When did you
become interested in music, and when in early music?
McGINNIS: I guess I have been interested in music all my life. My father
was very musical, in fact I only found out after his death that he had
always wanted to be a great concert pianist, but didn't pursue that; he
did, however, play organ and piano at silent movies, and tried to
become a movie director. I was always interested in music - in fact I am
told that when I was six months old I could be calmed with a recording of
Howard Hansen's "Lament for Beowulf"! [Laughter]. I played trumpet when I
was in school (elementary and college). In graduate school I was in Boston
and played "at" keyboard, but never had lessons. At a late night bookstore
I ran into a paperback virginal book - and got it out of curiosity. In it
there was a piece called the William Byrd Suite (which had also been
arranged from the "Fitzwilliam Virginal Book" into a wonderful band piece
by Gordon Jacobs - and I was a "band" person at that time). Then I needed
something to play it on, and I saw an ad for kits - harpsichord and
clavichord (Zuckermann Harpsichords in New York) - so in my first summer,
when I should have been working on my chemistry research, I had a friend at
MIT and we arranged to use the MIT shop, and I built a clavichord and he
built a harpsichord, and then I had something I could play! At about the
same time the Harvard University Press came out with a book "Three
Centuries of Harpsichord Making" by Frank Hubbard, one of the two pioneers
in the early music revival. So that was how it all started. I read the book,
got hooked, and began to listen to music I had never listened to; I was
primarily raised on romantic music of all sorts. When I got some of the
recordings that were coming out, including a very early recording of
[Orff's] "Carmina Burana" by the Early Music Studio, I thought this was
something really new that really made sense.
LANEY: Are you still playing the trumpet or playing keyboards at all?
McGINNIS: The trumpet, hardly ever. I resurrected my graduation present
the other day, but I have no lip left! I play the recorder some, in fact
when I first came to Jackson I was in a recorder group with a fellow named
Max Garriot [cofounder, with McGinnis, of MA'AM], Bob Nevins, of the
Millsaps faculty, and Helen Weatherbee, who I think now is involved with
the Medicaid program. My keyboard playing is limited by the state of my
harpsichord, which is not very good!
LANEY: Once you got to Jackson and began teaching at Tougaloo, when did
MA'AM get started?
McGINNIS: It is an interesting story. I was attracted to Tougaloo by
a sociology professor named Ernst Borinski. I visited Tougaloo to recruit
students for a summer program at Harvard, and joined the faculty in 1969.
Dr. Borinski always had a big birthday party, usually the Saturday after
Thanksgiving. He brought a very diverse group of people together - many
who had been active in social change in Mississippi since the 1960s.
He attended an American Civil Liberties Union auction and there purchased
an evening of music to be provided by John Paul (Cathedral musician at
St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson). John had planned to play
[things like] "The Shadow of Your Smile" all night, but when he found this
was a bunch of college professors he was taken aback. I had for some years
been singing with John at St. Andrew's, and was struck when I read in
1972 or 1973 that he was going to do parts of the Monteverdi "Vespers". I
called him, and in fact sang in the first performance of the "Vespers".
Anyway John decided to bring a group from St. Andrew's to Dr. Borinski's
house for his birthday party. The following year Dr. Borinski wanted
another party and more music, so my friend Max, who had been working on
several "pseudobaroque" pieces, decided to do one for Dr. Borinski. It
was an ode in the style of John Blow [1649-1708]. The musical parties
went on for three or four years. By his 80th birthday (1981) I had moved
to Edwards, and we had the party there. We had a small orchestra, and two
or three small choruses on the stairway landing. People came from all over
the country. For his 81st birthday we had a ragtime festival. At one of
those parties - Max will remember which - Max announced the formation of
the Mississippi Academy of Ancient Music and the idea was that we would
try to promote early music, naming ourselves after the English group,
the Academy of Ancient Music, which was in turn named after a group from
Handel's time. We also liked the acronym "MA'AM" and considered
developing a "Youth Educational Service" that would be known as
"YES, MA'AM!" At about the same time the first Early Music Festival was
held in Boston. We located a group of young musicians - The Musical
Offering - and invited them down.
LANEY: So you were at the Early Music Festival?
McGINNIS: Yes. We met the director of the festival who asked if we would
like to have the Musica Antiqua Koln come to Mississippi. We said "of
course", and had that concert in Vicksburg at the Old Courthouse. It
was a fabulous concert and the Courthouse was full - sold out. That was
before PRM [Public Radio in MS] and I took a chance and ordered some
recordings (from Deutsche Grammophon); I think one person bought one
before the concert. At the intermission the rest sold out. That was
an incredible thing - that was our launching!
LANEY: That was what year?
McGINNIS: I think 1982. After that we worked with the agency Aaron &
Gordon (in Boston); that went on for several years, and we still use
some of their artists (John Gibbons, for example, and Paul Odette).
LANEY: Paul Odette is becoming a regular fixture in Jackson!
McGINNIS: Absolutely so! I never will forget when we started this Max
said "You know, someday in those coffee houses in Amsterdam where there
is a lot of early music they are going to be saying 'Have you done
Edwards yet?'". In fact we are well-known in Amsterdam, and people have
said just that. We have a had a lot of artists from a lot of places.
In addition we have had a lot of support from the local community.
John Paul, especially, has been a firm supporter. Lately he and other
musicians have been cooperative in giving benefits for us. People loan
us their houses for these benefits.
LANEY: And loan instruments.
McGINNIS: Yes, absolutely! We would not have been able to survive. My
kit instrument - which was built in the 1970s, has not done well. It
actually was played by Rae Shannon at the first harpsichord performance
with the Jackson Symphony in the Bach Fifth "Brandenburg" concerto.
We had to "mike" it, and it is hardly playable anymore.
LANEY: Aside from that big "grand opening" concert with the Musica
Antiqua Koln, what are some of the other memorable concerts from years
past that MA'AM has sponsored?
McGINNIS: There have been many, but if I had to pick just one - in terms
of total impact - it was in 1984 when we had the Boston Camerata come
for a Christmas program. At the time, at Tougaloo, we had a new president
- J. Herman Blake - and he was visiting various faculty members.
He came into my office, and I showed him a flier for this group,
and said "By the way, we were thinking of having them at Tougaloo.
We have not had any of our concerts here." He thought it was a
great idea and managed to get some money from the Board,
to pay the fee, and we had it at the chapel (Woodworth Chapel),
which seats about 600. He said it would be his gift to the community in
celebration of his becoming president. There was a nice half-page writeup
in the Clarion-Ledger, the place was packed. I know that Eudora Welty
came, and all kinds of notables from Jackson; I had a good idea who came
because Joel Cohen (Director of the Camerata), as is apparently typical,
was a little late actually getting to the rehearsal just before the
program, and so people were standing around outside waiting for
the place to open up. But it was a memorable concert, in part
because the chapel is a wonderful structure. Cohen also used
various members of the Tougaloo Choir as walkons to do various
kinds of things, He is a marvelous person in terms of staging.
And everybody I have spoken to said there will never be any
other concerts to equal that one. And I think that is an act you can
never follow. Some other concerts that have been very memorable have been
those by the Tallis Scholars. They happened to be represented by the same
agency we had been dealing with, and Don Lacey, a local attorney, happened
to have been in England and heard their recording, and said it would be nice
if we could bring them to Jackson sometime. I had this flier saying they
were coming to America. The agency was totally surprised that we took them.
It was their first American tour. We had a fine program, and have had them
two other times. Were the dollar not devalued we would have them more
LANEY: What now do you see as being the biggest challenge to the
continuation of MA'AM?
McGINNIS: Well, I think probably one of the most important things is to
build a larger audience. In that regard - and it took me a long time to
come to this realization - we really needed to work with kids to the
extent that we could, but we are basically just a few volunteers trying
to put these things together. We have had a number of workshops at Power
APAC [Academic and Performing Arts Center]; for example, when David
Douglas gave a workshop there on improvisation on the violin, he came
back saying "the students asked me 'Do you play in meantone?'", and he
said "my gosh, my COLLEGE students don't know what meantone is!". But
what we found was there is an enormous amount of interest, and if we can
begin to get some of the people who are going to be musicians interested
in this stuff they are going to bring that back to the community. We are
looking for venues where we can bring artists of this quality - the
students won't necessarily have to know about meantone tuning, but it
would be nice for us to have other ways to reach younger people. I think
early music grew out of classically-trained people who were in some sense
restrained by the formal Johannes Brahms long-hair stereotype of classical
music. What is really quite striking is how broad the appeal is. When we
had the Harp Consort doing an Irish program we got people coming who were
interested in Celtic music; we find people who like folk music often like
our programs, and we find people who like jazz like the improvisation in
the medieval programs. So I think broadening the audience - and I think
of it in two aspects, one is increasing the exposure for younger people,
and the other is making our story more fully understood as to exactly
what we are. Sometimes we get people who sound a little scholarly, and if
that happens to be the concert you go to you - and it's not your thing - you
may never come back. On the other hand if you get one that appeals to you
then you will return.
LANEY: How have the recent cutbacks in federal funds hurt organizations
like MA'AM - especially the smaller groups (not the large ones like
the MS Symphony)?
McGINNIS: There is no question that the cuts hurt. This year we didn't
get quite the level of support that we had gotten before, although I am
grateful both to the Arts Alliance of Jackson & Hinds County and to the
Mississippi Arts Commission for their support. The reductions limit our
ability to bring larger groups. I think when you combine the higher expense
it takes to bring musicians these days - particularlt those from
out-of-town, and with national reputations - it is not as easy as a few
years ago. I think the other thing is that because we are small we
haven't had the time and the resources to build a broader financial base,
which we would really like to find ways of doing. But the answer is that
we have had to cut our program back this year considerably because of
LANEY: You mentioned that John Paul and other musicians he performs with
will sometimes do benefits. Tell me about the benefit that is coming up
next year - not a concert, but a program featuring William Fulton and Janet
McGINNIS: And Tim Riley is going to help. The PRM people are very much on our
side, and John Paul is going to play a little also, I understand. It will be
a program about Clara Schumann, and they will have biographical information
LANEY: Clara was the wife of Robert Schumann.
McGINNIS: That's correct. We are excited about the program; it is also a
wonderful opportunity for people who like music just to get together and
talk, and it is not all concert. It is in perhaps a little less formal
type of setting; much of the music we do is small scale anyway.
LANEY: Is there anything else you would like to say about MA'AM or early
McGINNIS: Well, I think one thing is that we have maintained our program.
I can't say that we have expanded it to the extent we would have liked.
On the other hand what has happened in early music has been quite striking
over this period. The term "early music", by the way, doesn't mean it has
to be baroque or medieval. The current pedagogical term is "historically
informed performance," in which you use instruments and performance styles
that were current at the time. I am waiting for the first "original
instrument" recording of the Mahler 8th Symphony! The pianos that were
built in the 1890's - even though officially the same as the ones we
have today - are actually different. What I was going to say is that the
early music movement has now been mainstreamed. If you go to a local
record store and look for Handel's "Messiah" I am sure you will find that
at least half of the recording used original instruments. I think peoples'
ears have been trained so that when they hear some of the old-style
recordings - the Bach organ recordings were done at half-speed by our
standards - there has really been a major change. It is not only in the
instruments used - even people performing on modern instruments have
learned from the performance styles that have been researched and put into
practice. For example, one of our presentations next year will probably be
a classical guitarist doing baroque music transcribed from lute music
tablature. That shows some of the "crossover" into the modern repertoire.