BRQ | Vantaa Festival

Laurence Dreyfus

Laurence Dreyfus, treble viol and director of Phantasm, was born into a family of musicians, and was taught to read music before he could read English. His father played violin in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and his mother was an operatic mezzo-soprano. Laurence played piano and cello as a child, and was particularly drawn to chamber music, having been coached by Edgar Ortenberg, a member of the famed Budapest Quartet in the 1940s. As a teenager, Laurence bought an obscure recording of Buxtehude trio sonatas which featured a viola da gamba, and was immediately drawn to the special sonority of that instrument, vowing to learn it someday.

His talents led him to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York where he studied cello with the legendary American cellist Leonard Rose. At Juilliard he helped found what later became the Emerson String Quartet. Leaving the conservatoire to pursue more academic studies in politics and theology, he soon found his way back to music by studying for a PhD in musicology at Columbia University where he was supervised by leading Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff. At the same time, Laurence started teaching himself the viola da gamba, and ultimately landed in the class of Wieland Kuijken at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels, where he completed two diplomas in performance within two years, the last ‘with highest distinction’.

A dual career as musicologist and performer took him all over the world to research music history, perform concerts, give lectures and performance classes. As a scholar and lecturer, Laurence held professorships at Yale, Stanford, Chicago, King’s College London, and most recently at Oxford University and Magdalen College. In 2002 his academic research on Bach and Wagner was recognised by a Fellowship in the British Academy.

The move to England in the early 1990s sparked a burning desire to form a world-class consort of viols which Laurence would lead from the treble viol. It had taken many years to find the right players who shared his enthusiasm for English consort music and were unafraid to test out a radically new approach. Phantasm was formed in 1994 and was aimed from the start to challenge the status quo by developing a rich and vibrant sound based on historically aware practices, technical mastery of string playing, and borrowings from the expressive traditions of early 20th-century String Quartets like the Flonzaley and Busch. Phantasm thus brought Laurence’s youthful interest in chamber music together with his music-historical savvy. Early Music, in this view, mustn’t exist in a ghetto, but links intimately to mainstream and even contemporary music making by bringing such leading lights as Byrd, Gibbons, Locke and Lawes to public awareness. Credo in unam musicam might be Phantasm’s byword. For a decade from 2005-2015 Phantasm was Consort-in-Residence at Oxford University and in Magdalen College.

As a performer on the viola da gamba and baroque cello, Laurence toured and recorded with leading figures in Early Music, and for many years gave regular summer master classes in Norway, Portugal, and in the USA. (Three Phantasm members – not a coincidence! - studied with him on one of these summer courses.) In 2015 he took early retirement from Oxford to place the accent more on performance and independent writing. He has been honoured with Emeritus status in both College and University.

With three well-received and wave-making books under his belt – two on JS Bach and one on Wagner – along with over twenty commercial recordings, many of which have been nominated for or received international awards, Laurence decided to make his home in Berlin, where as a doctoral student many years before he had spent two stimulating years researching Bach on both sides of the (then) Wall. After nearly 25 years in Britain, Berlin serves as Laurence’s base, where he continues to explore, perform and record new repertories, bringing them to music-lovers round the world.

Photo: Marco Borggreve
Photo: Marco Borggreve

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