Saturday, May 28, 2016

John Powell, music historian and lecturer

John S. Powell is an expert in French Baroque opera. He prepared the performance score for La Feste de Ruel. He will be in town during the week of the performance, and will give a public talk on the opera and its rediscovery.

Dr. Powell is a widely published author on the French Baroque, music, dance, and theatre. He has also worked with a long list of specialists around the world to revive long-forgotten works for the stage. We asked him a little about himself.

What led you to your field of expertise?

My PhD dissertation was on music in the theater of Molière, which I came to after having seen a production of Le Misantrope in Seattle. I wondered if there might be any music for these plays, and it turns out that there was. From Molière’s comédies-ballets I became interested in French opera.

How do you think opera in France was different from other opera at the time?

Two ways:  its heavy emphasis on dance (the roots of French opera lay in ballet de cour) and its allegory. All French opera of the 17th century aimed to glorify Louis XIV, who was equated with the hero of the opera. In the case of La Feste de Ruel, the praise of Louis XIV is even more fulsomely obvious.

What is your favorite thing about Baroque opera? Do you like conventional opera, too, or does Baroque opera stand apart in your mind?

French baroque opera is a total Gesamtkunstwerk (to borrow Wagner’s term -- I like Wagner too):  music, dance, stagecraft, costumes, acting, gesture, allegory. I like all opera, all periods. I teach a course on the Mozart/da Ponte operas, and another course on Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. For a few years I taught a course on Wagner and Tolkien, comparing Wagner’s Ring with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have also taught a course on the Faust legend in music and literature.

Why is Charpentier a favorite? What is his appeal for you?

I first encountered Charpentier’s music in 1974 when he was comparatively unknown, especially in the U.S. I was looking for a topic for my Master’s thesis, and so I settled on his secular cantatas (which were unpublished, unperformed, and unrecorded). As a grad student in the mid-1970s I organized two concerts of these works.

What are some interesting things you’ve run across in your research?

One interest of mine is music that was brought to Nouvelle-France, which included French Canada and all of the Louisiana Purchase. This topic arose from a course I taught at the Université de Nancy, for which I read many of the accounts of the early French explorers. I have gone to archives in Quebec, Montreal, and New Orleans to investigate this music, which was mostly brought by the Jesuits. One thing I found amusing was a set of Lully opera scores in Montreal that had engravings of lady opera singers with low-cut tops…and some Jesuit (I presume) filled in their bodices with ink.

Dr. Powell's talk is free and open to the public.

7pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Downtown branch of the Cincinnati Public Library
Huenefeld Tower Room
800 Vine St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Old French Pronunciation and French Latin in Catacoustic's Upcoming Performance

Aaron Cain is Assistant Professor of Voice and Director of Vocal Studies at the University of Alabama. He has performed and recorded with a variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles, most of which have made early music their focus. Cain holds a Bachelor’s of Music from The University of Iowa and continued his studies at the University of Oregon, where he received a master's degree in choral conducting and a doctoral degree in vocal performance with a specialization in historically-informed performance practice. Aaron’s most recent visit to Cincinnati was for last season's performance of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri with Catacoustic Consort and to present a lecture at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music on the importance of Classical rhetoric to the performance Baroque vocal music.

I asked Aaron to write about French Latin and old French diction to prepare our audience for the sound world they will enter in a few weeks:

One of the most exciting challenges of preparing historically-informed performances of music written hundred years ago is the attempt to recreate a moment in time as the people living during that time might have experienced it. Can we ever really know exactly how a piece of music sounded in its day? Sadly, no…but musicians can get pretty close if we do our homework and consider all of our options. And everything’s on the table, really: choosing the appropriate instruments and the best venues; how you play or sing certain notes and phrases, how quickly or slowly; how much you allow yourself to improvise, even what frequency you tune to! All of these things (and many more) are considered when trying to recreate the sound world of a given piece of music, because they all affect the outcome.

So, the rehearsal process ends up being a wonderful mix of everyone’s musical pedigrees, insights, and scholarly sleuthing…with just a pinch of educated guessing for good measure.

And, believe it or not, it’s all great fun.

For the Catacoustic Consort's upcoming performance of the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, the singers in the ensemble have a few additional questions to consider: what about these words we’re going to sing? How might they have sounded in France of the late 17th Century? And what about Latin? How was that pronounced in that time and place? Should we try to sing these texts using the pronunciation scholars believe were the norm of the day, or should we just keep things simpler and stick with their more common, modern pronunciations?

Well, let’s face it: singers of early music are all about a good challenge, and, from what we know about 17th-century France, this music is all about the importance of performing in just the right style (le bon goût!), so historically-informed pronunciation it shall be!

A fascinating feature of the French language is that its phonetic sounds have changed a great deal over the centuries, while the spelling of its words has changed relatively little. This is why modern-day French can have wide differences between spelling and pronunciation. In wonderful words like doux (sweet), for example, only 50% of the letters are pronounced, resulting “du,” rather than, say, “dowks” (which might be how we’d say it if we were trying to account for every single letter). Some more changes from older French pronunciation trends include the loss of nearly all final consonants, and less emphasis placed on stressed syllables in most words (ask any singer, and they’ll probably tell you that French is the most smoothly-contoured language when sung).

For the Catacoustic Consort’s long-awaited debut of Charpentier’s La Fête du Ruel, the singers will be utilizing a French dialect that will be more familiar than unfamiliar. By the time the end of the 17th Century rolled around, French sounded much like it does today. But be sure to listen closely for a few marked differences! For example, one word that is sung quite a bit in this opera, for obvious reasons, is Roi (King). In late 17th-century French, this oi phoneme was pronounced “way” rather than “wah,” as it is today. Interestingly enough, in the original written score the word for King appears not as Roi, but Roy, so it is one of the examples of French words of which the spelling has changed since the time of Louis XIV. Also, don’t be surprised if you hear a few more consonants than you’d ordinarily expect from French, especially at the ends of words. One consonant that might get your attention again and again is the letter “r,” which was frequently trilled in a downright Italian manner during Charpentier’s day.

For the other work on the program, Le Reniement de St. Pierre, it is the Latin language that will receive a little extra attention from the singers. The pronunciation of Latin has varied greatly across different regions and different eras, which makes sense, considering that all romance languages began their lives long ago as provincial dialects of Latin. For about a hundred years, Italian-accented (more properly, modern Roman) Latin has been the official pronunciation of the Catholic Church and has become the default pronunciation for most singers and choirs. However, for our performance, the Latin language will have a distinctly French sound. In fact, the guidelines for Baroque French Latin pronunciation operate very much like speaking Latin with a strong French accent. This can sometimes be challenging for singers who have potentially spent decades singing well-known texts like the ordinary of the Catholic mass over and over again in modern Roman pronunciation. It is very much like an actor preparing a role with an unfamiliar dialect and trying to sound as convincing as possible to native speakers.

So is the extra work worth it? Absolutely!

Composers of all eras and from all parts of the world have specific sounds in their “mind’s ear” when they create music. This includes the sound of their language every bit as much as it does the sounds of their instruments and the reverberation of their halls. Language, as it was heard in their day and in their countries, is an integral part of the musical conception. So, when the time comes to try and recreate an ephemeral musical moment, especially one that never had its chance to exist in its day, we singers owe it to Monsieur Charpentier to do our best to sing…well…à la mode.

Le Reniement de Saint Pierre

La Feste de Ruel is an opera -- technically a pastoral, since it concerns shepherds in the fields -- but it is less than an hour long. We will therefore pair it with another work by Charpentier.

You've got the wrong guy
Le Reniement de Saint Pierre (The Denial of St. Peter) is an oratorio (although some call it a motet.) An oratorio is the telling of a story from scripture using chorus and soloists. And it’s a big deal, because the French did NOT write oratorios. Remember how Lully declared himself free of all foreign influence, but Charpentier proudly displayed the musical education he had received in Italy? A perfect example of this difference is in the Italian-style oratorios Charpentier wrote. He was a master of it, and loved the form. He was alone in this work, though, and the French oratorio died with him.

Never even heard of him
This episode is beloved of artists of all kinds. It tells of a moment immediately after Jesus' arrest. Peter lurks on the grounds of the government building, hoping for word. Among the bystanders gathering around a fire, he is recognized as being an associate of the of the accused. First a woman, then a man, point their fingers and draw the attention of the crowd, while Peter resolutely denies he has ever even met Jesus. Three times he states what he knows to be more than a lie, but a betrayal. Good-hearted, overzealous but well-intentioned Peter, Jesus' rock -- even he has a moment of monumental weakness. Jesus knew it was coming, perhaps because he knew that all humans have a sliver of imperfection inside, but Peter is horrified to learn this truth about himself.

Many consider this particular oratorio to be Charpentier's greatest. Using bits from the various gospels, he pieces together a story of astonishing emotional drama. The accusations around the fire grow in intensity,
I'm telling you I don't know the man!
Peter’s denials become ever more frenzied, at the climax everyone is singing over each other – and then in the release of tension following the rooster's cry, all that remains is Peter’s bitter weeping. 

This piece is well-known, but Catacoustic will be performing a newly reconstructed score with instrumental music that has never been performed before.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Interview with Aaron Sheehan, GRAMMY-award winner, singing in Catacoustic's world premiere opera

Grammy Award-Wining American Tenor Aaron Sheehan has established himself as a first-rate singer in many styles from oratorio and chamber music to the opera stage. He regularly performs in the United States, South America and Europe. He sang the title role in Boston Early Music Festival's recording of Charpentier's La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers which won Best Opera Recording at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

Do you sing music of the Baroque & Renaissance, exclusively? What works best for your voice, and what are you happiest singing?

No, I don't sing Baroque & Renaissance music exclusively. I do think this music works best in my voice, and I am completely at home with Bach, Handel, and most French Baroque music. However, I also like singing composers like Britten, with his obvious inspiration by the baroque. I have recently been exploring more of the French chanson of Fauré, Hahn, and Debussy, which are exquisitely beautiful.

I know you as many US early music performers used to know each other: through our time at Indiana University's Early Music Institute (EMI). It used to be that having gone to the EMI was enough to create a connection and bond. Most of the pros came from there. Now things are different with music schools and conservatories like Juilliard focusing on early music/historical performance. Can you comment on the new generation of Early Music performers?

I think it is rather exciting that Early Music has proliferated into so many conservatories and schools across the country. I believe that more and more programs are actually being taken seriously, as well! The early music movement has grown up and is fairly mainstream. However, I can still give masterclasses throughout the country where students are dumbfounded by certain sounds used in our repertoire. I get questions like, "how do you make that sound?" or "what is this keyboard instrument with plucked strings?" These are sounds and instruments that have been around since the 17th century and can be found on thousands of recordings over the last fifty years! So, for all of the growing up we have done, I think there is a long way to go. I also hope that the scholarship of early music doesn't become watered down with this proliferation of talent.

You are a regular performer for the Boston Early Music Festival operas. These have been exceedingly popular. What is the appeal of Baroque opera today to the audience? Is it more relevant than traditional romantic opera of Verdi of Puccini?

I think the appeal of Baroque opera lies in its visual and aural beauty, but also in the fact that the story usually revolves around what it means to be human. Love, Loss, Regret, Fear, Hope, War, and did I say, Love?! These are themes of our lives today. I don't think Baroque music is more relevant than grand opera; it's just different and focuses on different aspects of the art form.

Tell us about your university teaching.

Teaching has always been a part of my career. I have found it to be helpful to my own singing, as well as an even keel in my life. I currently teach voice in the Historical Performance Department at Boston University, and I am a visiting teacher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. I have held teaching positions at Wellesley College, Brown University, and Towson University, but have had to slim down my teaching due to an uptick in the performance career. I love seeing students grow and develop over time. I think it is important for all of us in the early music world to help teach and spread the knowledge that we have gained from our mentors to new students.

What is your life like, traveling for work? How much time do you spend at home?

I travel quite a bit for work. It is definitely not a career for someone who hates travel or is a homebody. I would estimate in a given year that I spend 65% of my time on the road or not at home. It means a lot of sleeping in hotels, or patrons' homes- and eating out A LOT!!! It also means you need to have an understanding partner, which, thankfully, I do!

You recently won a GRAMMY for your performance in another Charpentier opera. What was that experience like? What does it mean to win this particular award, and how has it changed things for you?

Winning the GRAMMY was a wonderful experience and one I wish everyone could have. It is an honor to be recognized by your peers for your hard work and commitment to what we have all chosen to do in life. It's amazing to be completely stunned when they announce your name, to then give an off-the-cuff speech in front of the peers that voted for you. I will never forget the feeling.
I don't know if my life has changed too much. I have a little more performing work, and I acquired a manager. I also have been requested to sing more French Baroque music as of late, which is a good thing!

Have you been to Cincinnati before? We look forward to having you join us.

I actually have been to Cincinnati before. I used to date a singer that was at CCM while I was a student in IU Bloomington. I spend my last year of graduate school driving to Cincinnati 1-2 times a month before moving to there for the summer after my graduation. I then lived in Cincinnati for three months before finally moving to Boston in the fall of 2001. I haven't been back since, but am really looking forward to returning.

Click here to listen to Aaron sing an excerpt from the Charpentier opera La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers.


What sort of a world was it, in 1685? 

Queen Christina of Sweden
For starters, the absolutely strong monarchy of France was a bit of an anomaly. Only Sweden and its Queen Christina rivaled Louis' France in size and power. Neither Italy nor Germany had yet coalesced into nations; both were a patchwork of principalities. Spain was a complete mess, and even England was living through the turbulent Stuarts – 1685 saw the end of Charles II and the beginning of James II, who would make it through only three years before being booted off the throne much as his father had been. Louis of France was the only king sleeping soundly through the night in 1685.

The turmoil in England meant less than the usual brilliant literature, although Dryden and Locke were publishing. Eighty years before, the novel had been born in Spain with Don Quixote; it would be another 30 years before the first important English novel was written (Robinson Crusoe, 1719). 

The strong French court gave the arts room to flourish, as we have discussed. Molière worked for years with Lully creating the incidental music for his plays. When they fell out, he began working with Charpentier. Molière died in 1673, rather spectacularly. He often starred in his own plays, including his last, The Hypochondriac. When called on to cough in the play, he began coughing in earnest, hemorrhaging blood from his tubercular lungs. Once he got that under control, he declared that the show must go on and finished the performance. Afterward, though, his attack began again and he died that night. Lully himself died in 1687, also giving his life for his art. While conducting the court orchestra, he slammed his giant ruby-encrusted baton down on his own toe. Infection became gangrene; he refused amputation because he so loved to dance, and died. (Charpentier survived into the 18th century, apparently dying quietly in his bed.)

Louis had a busy year, including the legalization of slavery in the French colonies and the outlawing of Protestantism in France. It was a bad century for human rights. He also around this time secretly married for a second time, to the devout Mme de Maintenon who greatly influenced him for his remaining decades.

Stradivari in his workshop
In music, 1685 was a very interesting year. Stradivari was busy in his workshop in Cremona. Seventeen-year-old François Couperin got his first paying organist job. Pachelbel, Biber, and Buxtehude were going full bore in Germany, as were Corelli and A. Scarlatti in Italy and Henry Purcell in England. Telemann, Rameau, and Vivaldi were all small children at this time, preparing to make their marks in the new century. And 1685 is famous for its births. Within these 12 months were born Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, JS Bach, and Lodovico Giustini, whom you probably haven’t heard of but who would be the first composer ever to write music for the newly invented piano in 1732.

Fun fact #1: Most of you reading this can hum the first movement of the Suite in D by the otherwise obscure composer Jean Joseph Mouret (born in 1682!), because it's the Masterpiece Theatre theme song and has been since 1971. Likewise, most people in Europe can hum a rondo from Charpentier's Te Deum, because it's the Eurovision Song Contest theme song and has been since 1954.
Mlle de Guise

In the quiet of his rooms on Mlle de Guise’s Paris estate, Charpentier wrote and wrote and wrote. (Fun fact #2: the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana has a manuscript in Charpentier’s own hand!) Out of all the wars and anguish of a difficult century, it’s the arts that have survived and have the most meaning for us today.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Opera, La Fête du Ruel

“La Feste de Ruel” is a far cry from Mozart’s complicated shenanigans or Verdi’s epic dramas. This was to be a political piece with a very pointed message:  I, Armand, have a bodacious garden, and you, Louis, are the Best. King. Ever. 

If you were less annoying, maybe. But I doubt it.
The shepherdess Iris is in love. Not with her handsome swain Tircis, who pleads in vain for her attention, but with the outdoors: “I love the sweet songs of the birds, I love our flowered fields, I love the rippling of the waters, the eternal greenness of these gardens.” Other characters try to talk her round, but in a startlingly modern move, she rejects love-making for landscaping. “One will sooner see the sun stop in its tracks, before I might subject my fate to the capricious whims of an annoying husband.” Presumably she lives happily ever after.

 Then -- unexpected plot twist -- the god Pan arrives! Even more unexpectedly, he doesn’t care what the shepherds get up to. Let them live their own lives! (I’m telling you, this opera was way ahead of its time.) He has his own message: the garden is green and the world is safe enough for shepherds, all because of the great Sun King. He has vanquished the enemies of France and brought peace. He has built giant canals across the land and brought prosperity. He has created palaces for himself and brought glory. O happy subjects, to live in such a time, with such a monarch!

Louis as celestial object
Plot-wise, meh. The libretto was probably written by a friend of Armand’s. The frequent sun references are hardly even allegorical. “But I see the Sun appearing, all nature adores him, how brilliant he is, how he inspires love!” It doesn’t take an English major to winkle out the hidden meaning here. 

 Charpentier, though, took the project seriously. (Of course it’s never a bad idea to butter up a king with jobs to hand out.) He gives Iris and Tircis some lovely music to sing. A chorus of shepherds echoes Pan’s paeans to Louis. Charpentier takes care that a forgettable libretto won’t be so quickly forgotten when the most powerful man of his age is listening to it.  Too bad Louis never heard it.

This little piece of art is a fascinating snapshot of life 1685, in the world inhabited by Armand, Charpentier, and Louis.