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 frequently!
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 the cuts.
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 Baker-Carr.
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 on tapes.
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 music?
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.