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(Updated) Vocal coach and accompanist Martin Isepp dies, aged 81

By John Terauds on December 27, 2011

British accompanist, conductor and vocal coach Martin Isepp died on Christmas Day, aged 81.

Here is the obituary notice, as published in The Times of London on Dec. 29:

Martin, peacefully on Christmas Day at the Royal Free Hospital. Beloved of Rose, sons Matthew and Peter, Debbie, Seb and Lily. Thanks to Dr McNamara and the Haematology team, The Park End Surgery NW3 and to Dr Carmel Coulter for her care over the last sixteen years. Above all, thanks to the power of Music. Funeral private, Memorial concert to be announced.

There is hardly a working singer in the English-speaking world that wasn’t, at some point, touched by Isepp’s work. Several generations of audiences knew him as one of the great accompanists. And although he worked around the world — including making regular visits to Canada, especially the Banff Centre and Toronto — he will be remembered as one of the stalwart forces that helped make the reputation of the Glyndebourne Festival as a magical place that both artists and audiences wanted to return to year after year.

I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago. I arrived nervous, and he had me laughing in less than a minute.

Martin Isepp was one of those remarkable people who knew everyone and had so many decades of experience (he pretty much grew up amidst his mother’s vocal students) that he inhabited the world of song and opera the way Jamie Oliver knows his herb garden. Yet he wore his art lightly.

A small imp of a man, he had a twinkle in his eye and an anecdote at the ready. He inspired me not with an air of authority or as an oracle, but as a partner and cheerleader who would plop you down next him on the piano bench for a hands-on demonstration. I could also quicky tell that fools had better not venture in his direction.

He loved new music, working extensively with Benjamin Britten, yet could navigate a harpsichord accompaniment of a Handel opera with ease. He especially loved art song, in his prime accompanying Elisabeths Schwarzkopf and Söderström, Janet Baker and Jessye Norman, among many, many others.

I was also impressed with someone nearing 80 years of age having the energy and enthusiasm of a 30-year-old.

Nicholas Phan, an immensely talented young tenor who passed under Isepp’s mentorship, wrote eloquently of his personal connection on his blog. Here’s a snippet:

After years of neglecting the world of Lieder and Art Song while running the beginner’s operatic rat-race, through our sessions together I rediscovered my passion for the music that made me fall in love with the art of singing.  At a time in my life when I felt that I was starting to lose touch with my wonder, respect, and love for music, Martin rekindled the fire inside of me, reconnecting me with the calling that pushed me to pursue a life in music in the first place.

The news of his passing on Christmas day is a true loss for our musical community, and he will be sorely missed.   As the person who delivered the sad news to me on Monday said, “it is difficult to imagine a person with greater integrity, musical instincts and knowledge, and kindness. There is quite simply, no replacement for him.”  I could not agree more.
Martin, I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration, encouragement, and mentorship you have given me and the musical world around me.  May you rest in peace, and may we remember you forever in our world of song.

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There isn’t much of Isepp in action on publicly available video, so I thought I’d share this private performance with tenor Paul Austin Kelly from last year (for a cancer charity in England), because of the poetry in the song, a setting by Benjamin Britten of W.H. Auden’s “On This Island”:

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

Here at a small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
-ing surf, and a gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.

Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And this full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.

John Terauds

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