By Robert-Jan Bartunek
GHENT, Belgium (Reuters) - Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe, who turned 70 this month, says he has no intention of retiring as he continues to discover new nuances in the music of the composer who marked his career like no other: Johan Sebastian Bach.
Herreweghe, who founded the Collegium Vocale Gent ensemble in 1970, is seen as a pioneer in the movement of historically informed performances of early and baroque music which seeks to reintroduce instruments used at the time and perform such pieces with fewer performers rather than the large symphony orchestras used for Romantic compositions.
"I could not stop. For me this is not work, my life is music. Stopping with music would mean dying, so I would postpone it a little bit," Herreweghe told Reuters.
Performing Bach's Mass in B Minor in his home town of Ghent and at a series of concerts in Belgium, Herreweghe said his approach to the piece, which he has conducted some 150 times and recorded three times had changed over the years.
"We play it very differently now than 40 years ago," Herreweghe told Reuters after a rehearsal of the piece, adding this was because he discovered that it was written for the virtuoso singers of Dresden opera at the city's royal court and not for the pious congregation of Leipzig's St. Thomas Church where Bach usually worked.
In spite of his penchant for Bach and early music, Herreweghe has not shied away from a more modern repertoire such as Romantic composers Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms, and even Arnold Schoenberg's atonal work Pierrot Lunaire.
"Eating lobster every day would be terrible, and even Bach you cannot play all the time," Herreweghe said.
Apart from Collegium Vocale Gent which he founded in 1970, he has set up several ensembles throughout his career and also conducted some of the world's best-known orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Herreweghe said he did not fear for the state of classical music, sometimes criticized for having lost its touch with younger generations.
"Are people really older that go to listen to Bruckner symphony today than in the times of Bruckner and Mahler? I don't think they were all teenagers back then," he said.
As stopping is not an option for Herreweghe, his agenda for the coming months is filled with performances in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
"Some conductors die while conducting, it is nice to die that way," he said.
(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Hugh Lawson)