28 February 2013

Interview: Sarah Rice on Her Glamorous Nights

As Johanna, the Demon Barber’s daughter, soprano Sarah Rice starred in the first show I saw on Broadway. She managed to project sweetness and lovely charm even when Johanna started to fly off her hinges, while singing Sondheim’s stratospheric vocal lines and teaching us all the meaning of the word “reticule.” It was a performance for the ages — and now, some three decades after Sweeney Todd, Sarah Rice is singing even better.

Catching her special holiday act for All Hallow’s Eve, last autumn at the New York nightclub Birdland, I heard richness, freshness, and brilliant authority in every note she sang. To the intimacy of the cabaret setting she frequents nowadays, she brings an eclectic taste in music, a prodigious amount of research, and a winning sense of humor. With her cascade of russet curls, she looks like a Victorian Valentine’s card — as painted by Titian. And then she brings out her theremin. She is nothing if not original.

Sarah Rice is bringing a new act to 54 Below this Sunday, a one-time-only sampling of “Glamorous Nights & Careless Rapture: The Music of the Era of Downton Abbey, Gosford Park & More,” featuring songs by Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, among others. I’m looking forward to seeing the show — and to seeing you there — but particularly since music at Downton thus far has consisted primarily of a single song from Shirley MacLaine, I asked Sarah to tell us a little more about what to expect.

As Johanna in Sweeney Todd:
Clearly, the Green Finch and Linnet Bird
taught her how to sing very well indeed.

Q: What about this era in music appeals to you? What draws you to Ivor Novello?

SARAH RICE: It’s some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life. It has a lot of Puccini, those augmented chords that are so appealing, and the Ravel kind of scales and stuff, there’s a lot of that. Novello’s style is called “Ruritanian,” and it’s like it was of another era even when it was new. It’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly romantic, lush — and I’m lovin’ it!

It was really hard to get the music, because it’s just not published any more. Thank God, Steve Ross had a friend in England who collects this stuff, Noël Coward and Ivor Novello music, he’s got the original scores. A lot of this was sent from England just a couple of days ago, actually. Those beautiful orchestrations — I wish I had a full orchestra. I just have harp and violin, to kind of give a taste of it. But it’s just beautiful. I listen to it and it just transports me. I hope to do it justice.

Q: What other music will be on the program?

SARAH RICE: Noël Coward. I’ve got some Flanders & Swann. It’s sort of loosely of the era, because the actual era of Downton Abbey is very narrow, and Gosford Park is in the ’30s, so we’ve said, “And More,” to stretch it. It’s basically between the two World Wars. An era of elegance. There’s some British music hall, and there’s actually a Cole Porter song that was done by Bea Lillie. I’ve got a Tessie O’Shea song, “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.” I have a whole fairy section.

Ivor Novello led quite a colorful life. It’s interesting how Coward and Novello’s lives — they were always circling around each other professionally and socially. Noël was a little younger, but I’m trying to add into the show what their relationship was and all that kind of stuff. I have some good juicy tidbits. It was just a fun time.

What we’re trying to create is the feeling that you’re in one of those salons. And of course 54 Below is the perfect place for it.

Songwriter and matinée idol Ivor Novello.

Q: Your voice is in spectacular shape. What’s your secret?

SR: To quote Natalie Dessay, I work like a dog! I study twice a week with my teacher, and just try to remain as active as possible. We work very hard on trying to get bad habits away. And she teaches Barbara Cook, so this technique is very good longevity. As Claudia Cummings once said, if you’re in reasonably good health and you keep singing, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to keep it into your old age. It’s just that most people don’t want to work that hard.

But I think Jan Peerce sang every day, or at least vocalized. Robert Merrill, too. You just keep doing it, and take good care of your health. The studying, I think finding a teacher who works for you is very important.

Q: But Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill weren’t sopranos!

SR: Again, I think that with the airplane and everything like that, and the way people are scheduled today, it’s impossible to stay healthy. You’re in Frankfurt one night and you’re in Stockholm the next, going back and forth. People used to take the summer off, and you’d travel by ship, so it took you a week to get anywhere. I just think that today’s pace is very hard on people. But Anja Silja, here she is in her sixties, and she sounds fabulous! I heard that Rosalind Elias also sounded great in Follies. There’s no reason, again, as long as you don’t have incredible health problems — the opera companies may not want you — but there’s no reason you can’t sound good. And I love the fact that in cabaret, 80 is the new 40. It’s true!

Léon Theremin plays his invention.
Hollywood horror movies and old-time radio shows made abundant use of the theremin’s “otherworldly sounds.”

Q: You’ve recently started to play the theremin in your act. How did you pick it up?

SR: I was doing a concert at Tom O’Horgan’s house. I had taken a break, and when I got back to singing again, I was doing a concert called “The Other Side of Broadway,” Broadway composers doing classical music. Tom O’Horgan was directing, and we were rehearsing at his house. He had one of the original RCA theremins, from 1929 or something. I first heard it, and it was the most otherworldly sound I ever heard. The old RCAs sound like a cross between a woman and a cello. It’s the most unearthly sound you ever heard. I was just hooked by it.

But they’re not easy to come by, and it wasn’t until about eight months ago that I thought, I’d really like to do this. And so I borrowed a theremin from a friend while I was waiting for mine to come, and learned to play it. And now I have my own. It’s not an RCA, those are expensive, like $15 thousand. I hope to get one someday, but the modern ones are fine. I love it.

Precision theremin playing is a whole other thing. I don’t do spooky woo-woos. I play it as an instrument. It just had this otherworldly sound to it that’s fascinating to me. I use it like a singer. Whatever instrument you have played, you will play the theremin like that. Clara Rockmore, the goddess of the theremin and the muse of the man who invented it, was a violin prodigy, and she had to give it up because she had rickets in her bowing arm. The theremin for her was a lifesaver, because it allowed her to play her repertoire on the theremin. She played like a string player, her intonation and everything. It’s just beautiful. But I play it like a singer, because that’s what I bring to it.

It’s a fascinating instrument, and the people who play it are interesting. They tend to be outside the box. It draws a lot of different kinds of people, and a lot of really wonderful musicians. It’s a lot of fun.

In Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta:
Finding the sweet mystery of life.

Q: I heard you play it in your Halloween show. It lends a lot to the act.

SR: I’m a lot better now! A lot better with the pitch. The thing is that you’re just playing the air, electrical waves. There’s no frets, there’s nothing. You’re totally playing by ear. It just takes time.

When I was first learning it, the pitch would go a little wonky sometimes. It still does. A friend likes to say that it’s like being an ice skater: if your mind wanders for a split second, you can wind up on your ass on the ice. It requires perfect control, and then you’ve got electrical current that changes, which changes the pitch field on you. So suddenly it’s in a different place.

Q: You’ve played Victorian heroines and now you’re immersed in the Downton and Gosford world. How do you think Lady Crawley would react to the theremin?

SR: She’d probably be wigged. The truth is that the theremin was invented during that era and was commercially produced during that time. Technically it could have been around then, and the truth is that English aristocrats have their bizarre side. It probably would have been something that would have been fairly popular, if it weren’t so hard to play. It was supposed to be in everybody’s living room. It would enable anyone young or old to play. The truth is that it’s the world’s easiest instrument to learn how to play — badly. Because all you have to do is wave your hand in the air and you make pitch changes.

With a close friend.

Q: What else can we look forward to in your show?

SR: There’s going to be a lot of comedy. It’s not just beautiful music. A complete concert of Ivor Novello music would be like eating a dinner of Christmas roses. I have put the British music hall in there, there’s some funny Ivor Novello, some fun Coward. I’m hoping that it’s going to be heartbreaking and touching and funny. It’s not just going to be listen to the soprano yodel pretty tunes. And I have a lot of good gossip!

It isn’t going to be stuffy at all. It isn’t all just soprano high notes. There’s gonna be a little chili sauce in there, too. A little chili sauce on the Christmas roses, which I guess is a confection.

But tiaras are welcome — even for the women — and you don’t have to worry about getting home in time for Downton Abbey. And if you’re bereft from the end of the season, come, and this will restore your heart.

Sarah Rice: Glamorous Nights & Careless Rapture
Music of the Era of Downton Abbey, Gosford Park & More
Sunday, March 3, 7PM
54 Below
254 West 54 Street, New York
With Sarah Rice, Vocals & Theremin
Seth Weinstein, Piano
Maria Banks, Harp
Jonathan Russell, Violin
For more information and to place your reservation, click here.

The Divine Sarah

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21 February 2013

My Burger Kingdom for a Horse

The chevaline stall — you should pardon the expression — in a market in Poitiers.

The current scandal over beef burgers “tainted” with horsemeat has me mystified, to the point that I’m tempted to downgrade it to a mere moo-haha — though it’s been hyped and sensationalized in every press outlet. Granted, one would prefer to know what one is eating, and even I observe the strict dietary rule of never eating anything that’s smarter than I am. (This rules out orangutans, dolphins, and, in some but not all cases, Presbyterians.) But unless one is an exceptionally strict vegan, the difference between eating a cow and eating a horse strikes me as extremely fine.

It’s true that little girls seldom develop sentimental attachments to cattle, as they do to horses, and movie audiences are far more likely to attend a screening of The Black Stallion than The Black Angus. Cattle don’t conform to the aesthetic model of strength and grace that horses uphold so beautifully.

Moreover, the Norman Conquest of Britain assured future generations of English-speaking diners that only certain meals would remind us where they came from: we eat “beef” (boeuf), not “cow,” “pork” (porc), not “pig,” and “venison” (venaison), not “Bambi.” The Normans never quite got around to providing us with a euphemism for “horse,” probably because those animals were too scarce and valuable; I don’t know what excuse they can make for failing to rename “rabbit.”

The chevaline stall at the market at Beynes can be seen in the background here. Unlike the fishmonger and the other butchers, the chevaline vendor comes to town only one day per week, instead of two.

With language as a foundation, British and American cultures over time built up a wall between the farm and the dinner table, one at which only hardcore foodies chip away. Supermarkets and prepackaged products are further manifestations of most modern consumers’ insulation from the realities of what they eat, and my own experience bears this out: I was shockingly old before I understood that tuna comes from the sea, not from a can; that it is fish-shaped, not cylindrical; and that, in nature, it is raw, not cooked, and smells like tuna, not like catfood.

Most of the excited news reports on the hamburger scandal mention that horse is eaten in many otherwise respectable countries, and that one of these is the cradle of haute cuisine, France. It’s therefore incumbent upon me to state that I have eaten horse, not only in France but also in Cuba, a country so lacking in horses that for a time its cavalry rode bicycles. In Havana one night, I ate horsemeat stewed with tomatoes, onions, and bell pepper. It was delicious, but it was prepared much the way any other dish might have been prepared in that country, and doesn’t tell one much about the distinctions of caballo.*

The French have come up with a word for horsemeat, chevaline, which is most often sold by specialist vendors in markets; I don’t recall ever seeing chevaline in a supermarket, and perhaps this reflects a desire to be absolutely sure that consumers understand what they’re ordering. In France, I’ve eaten ground horsemeat in a steack haché and in a thinly sliced portion that looked like (and may have been called) a hanger steak. The flesh is, as you’d expect, much leaner than that of beef, the flavor darker and yet not quite as strong. It’s red meat — no big deal, unless of course you don’t eat red meat of any kind.

A chevaline shop in Paris.

Chevaline vendors usually purvey steaks, ground meat, and great big sausages, in red casings, that look quite like bologna. I’ve never eaten horse sausage, though I have eaten very tasty donkey sausages, hard and garlicky, in Corsica. (This does mean that, over the years, I have sampled most of the cast of Winnie the Pooh, excepting Owl.)

As a few news reports have mentioned, nobody wants to eat American horsemeat. We reject it because we’re squeamish, and the Europeans reject it because American racehorses are pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs. A chacun son goût.

I hope these observations may serve as a corrective, in some small way, to the lurid coverage of the scandal in television, print, and the Internet. But, as I say, don’t come crying “Ew, gross,” unless you say neigh to meat of all kinds.

A horse is a horse, main course.

*NOTE: Dan Rather joined me at the dinner in Havana when we ate horse stew. When it was presented to us by a Spanish-speaking waiter, Dan asked me to translate. Knowing that he likes goat, and unsure how he’d feel about eating horse, I told him it was cabrito, which sounds close enough to caballo to cover my deception. I confessed the truth only several hours later.

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20 February 2013

NYFOS Sings Brel & Trenet

Charles Trenet

Each time I attend a concert of New York Festival of Song, I am uplifted. Artistic director Steven Blier builds programs around themes that are always intriguing, and his eclectic tastes are impeccable: yes, he likes all kinds of songs, but only the good ones. He’s also got a knack for selecting fresh talent, often before I’ve heard them sing much if ever, so a big part of the uplift is the simple optimism that other concerts, in other venues, will be satisfying, too. After all, as an impresario, accompanist, and teacher, Blier is among the most significant forces that have revolutionized recital programs in America over the past few decades: it is now standard for sets and entire performances to be organized around themes, and the repertoire has expanded far beyond art songs and arias.

Last night’s performance of songs by Jacques Brel and Charles Trenet provided eloquent, abundant proof of the qualities I admire in NYFOS programs. Even in the work of two songwriters I know well, Blier found numbers unfamiliar to me, and I’d never thought of pairing the angry Belgian with the sunny Frenchman: the combination shed new light on both. To lend authentic flavor to the proceedings, Blier invited two top-notch musicians, guitarist Greg Utzig and accordionist Bill Schimmel (who’s also one of the leading exponents of Weill’s music). With two native-French singers of exceptional charm, it was a memorable evening all around.

Jacques Brel

Indeed, mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand was so brilliant that one almost regretted that this wasn’t a solo recital — contravention though that would be of the NYFOS philosophy that it’s better to share the music (with each other, with the audience, with the world). Pert and pretty, funny as hell, Lenormand fully inhabited the dramatic situation of each song, and she expertly negotiated the vocal distinctions between chanteuse and cantatrice. Moreover, the woman knows how to work a crowd. We were at her mercy, and we loved her for it.

Singing opposite her, the young tenor Philippe Pierce, a graduate of Brown University (go, Bruins!), would have been justified in boasting if he’d merely avoided letting Lenormand mop up the floor with him, but he managed to hold his own and to shine, notably in the opening number, Brel’s “Valse à mille temps,” with its accelerated tempos and tongue-twisting lyrics. Pierce sailed confidently through. Since Trenet was approximately a baritenor and Brel decidedly a baritone (who played the lead in Man of La Mancha, by no means a tenor role), it must be said that, generally, I’d have preferred a darker voice in this music, but Pierce’s linguistic skill and aforementioned charm did offer valuable compensations.

Tenor Philippe Pierce

In Blier’s piano accompaniment, he showed generosity to the young singers but didn’t mollycoddle them; throughout the evening, his affection for this music was audible and infectious. In his arrangements, he did better by those numbers in which Utzig played banjo (creating the perfect atmosphere) than by those in which the indisputably accomplished Utzig played electric guitar, which unbalanced the acoustic and didn’t contribute much that seemed truly necessary. (It seemed mostly a kind of sonic filler.) Schimmel’s accordion, however, was right on the mark, and he plays so well that one forgets how badly other people play. Even watching him is a pleasure, like watching a great dancer.

This music is important to me, in ways that transcend aesthetic considerations, and Trenet’s songs in particular hearken to summers by the sea and to the spirit that guided so many of my explorations of France and its culture. (After all, when you speak a childish French, and when everything is new to you, you do acquire a youthful, Trenet-esque exuberance, even if you’re not a kid anymore.) To be honest, since the death of my mother-in-law last month, I’ve not had the heart to listen to Trenet or to Brel, and some of their songs can wring wracking sobs from me even on a good day. I managed to hold it together through Brel’s “La chanson des vieux amants” and “Ne me quitte pas” and Trenet’s “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” and “La mer,” not through any lack of commitment on the part of the musicians but through sheer willpower on my own.

The Indispensable Steven Blier

The real surprise was a Trenet song, “J’ai mordu dans le fruit de la vie” (I’ve bitten into the fruit of life), which I had always supposed was one of those rosily nostalgic-slash-congratulatory numbers with which Trenet, in old age, pandered to little old ladies in his audience. Au contraire, as Blier pointed out in his introduction, it’s nearly a confession of Trenet’s homosexuality — precisely the kind of song I hoped for but didn’t find in “Tu me manques, Johnny” (about which I wrote here). Trenet was the Gypsy Rose Lee of French pop music when it came to revealing his true self, and excepting songs about his childhood, he seldom removed so much as a metaphorical eight-button glove, but Blier made a persuasive case for this song as a personal statement, and Pierce sang it with sincere but gently restrained feeling.

NYFOS’ next concert, “Song of the Midnight Sun,” will be March 12 at Merkin Hall, and features Caramoor’s 2013 Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars in music of Scandinavian composers, with Blier and NYFOS’ associate artistic director (and the Caramoor Center’s current artistic advisor and former CEO and general director) Michael Barrett on piano. For information and tickets, click here.

Meanwhile, I have a new mezzo to worship.
Mesdames et messieurs, Marie Lenormand.
(I’d heard her before, notably as the Fox in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, but she surpassed all expectations last night.)

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09 February 2013

Interview: Salon/Sanctuary’s Jessica Gould on Space, Vision, & ‘Tantalus’

Soprano and Artistic Director Jessica Gould.
Photo by Christian Steiner, courtesy of Jessica Gould.

Some of my most memorable experiences as an audience have come from hearing a piece in a space that’s comparable to that in which the composer expected his music would be performed: hearing Susan Graham sing Reynaldo Hahn’s salon music in a private home, for example, or hearing a Bach oratorio in a church. The flip side of that is that sometimes it’s taxing to hear a work in a space for which it was not designed. Mozart never imagined that his operas would be heard in an auditorium as vast as that of the Metropolitan, and one of the most heartbreaking performances I ever attended was a contemporary opera given its world premiere in a church, where the sound bounced off every wall until word and most instrumental effects were lost.

That’s why I was so pleased to learn of the soprano Jessica Gould’s efforts to produce concerts in settings that are appropriate to the works performed — and under the aegis of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, her producing organization now in its fourth season, those efforts are paying off. Consider the way she’s championed the Salamone Rossi (1570–1630), who composed liturgical works for synagogues as well as music for the court of Mantua: Gould defied expectations, and her annual concerts, performed in a synagogue, are among the hottest tickets in town.

Part of what I admire is Gould’s moxie: rather than wait for somebody else to produce the concerts she wants to sing — or hear — she makes them happen. Indeed, when I finally got to attend a Salon/Sanctuary concert, Gould was nowhere onstage, but sitting in the audience and ceding the spotlight to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, dancer Jared Angle, harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, and choreographer Troy Schumacher. In the event, I found the Players Club not quite an ideal setting, but the integrity of the overall concept rang true: nobody could argue with these artists communicating so directly through music so intimate. Make no mistake, I’m firmly a believer in the Salon/Sanctuary goals.

Looking forward to the next Salon/Sanctuary concert, The Heirs of Tantalus (February 22 at the Broad Street Ballroom in New York), Jessica Gould spoke to me about her search for space — both literal and metaphorical, both as a producer and as an artist — as well as about her fidelity to her own wide-ranging vision.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts?

JG: I kept going to early-music concerts that were in big concert halls, or concerts of secular music in churches. It’s been a big thing for early music to be performed in churches, no matter what the repertoire. As a secular child growing up in New York, I grew up thinking churches were for music. I had no idea they were for any other purpose! I thought all those pictures and images must have something to do with music, and I would understand when I grew up. When the opportunity came for me to start my own organization, I thought the ideal would be to perform in a context as close to the original as possible, so that you would hear salon music in a salon, and religious music in a house of worship.

Q: You’re a singer, and it’s still unusual to find a singer who is also an impresario.

JG: I have encountered that. I think that more of us are impresarios than are immediately apparent. Any of us who have our own ideas about what repertoire we want to do and want to make it happen, we become impresarios by default, whether we use that title or not. I have always had ideas about the music I’ve found interesting, the historical periods I found interesting, and ways I thought that music could be presented that were different from what was going on at the time or what was the status quo. When I was just auditioning, I found myself in a kind of curious state of mind, where I would in the back of my mind hope that somebody would come up with the idea that I actually had myself and then I would get cast in it. Then I realized, well that’s not going to happen unless you do it yourself.

In music, there are many artistic directors who are instrumentalists and in theater there are many artistic directors who are also actors. In the United States it’s unusual for singers to do this, although there are more of us than there used to be. We’re getting beyond the idea that one should do only one thing. I think that does a disservice not only to individual artist but to the music itself. Performers have great things to contribute and in some ways they have more adventurous ideas, because we are the ones who experience it firsthand, who practice every day and do the research. It’s a shame to cut that off and just wait for it to happen rather than to take on the agency yourself and create something.

I’ve always had, I guess, a more unusual background than a lot of singers in that I spent a great deal of time in art school, RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], Parsons School of Design and the National Academy of Design, as a high-school student in adult classes. I had the opportunity get a BFA, but I loved academics too much and of course I loved singing. My interests were too diverse, and I knew I would be unhappy if I was in an art studio all day long. The upshot is that I always look at a piece of music in the cultural context and history of it. As a self-professed nerd who loves to read, whenever I find a new piece I guess the second thing I do is to read every book I can about the historical background of it. I formulate ideas about ways to present it in cultural and historical context and not as a presentation of the music extracted from its context.

Brookshire, Costanzo, and Angle at the Players Club.
This and other photos of the performance by Erin Baiano©.
Courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

That’s one of the issues that I wanted to address in my concert series and I think the idea has picked up momentum with colleagues and certainly around New York with other concert series. If you perform early music on period instruments in a large concert hall, it’s nice that this obscure music will gain exposure, but is it really good for the repertoire to be heard in a space that’s too large, where the detail of the phrasing, the idiosyncratic sound of the instruments, some of which are recreated and sometimes authentically centuries old, will be obscured? Are you really doing the music a service by hearing it in a concert hall that’s designed for steel strings and metal winds? In addition, the music was always a social experience, whether that was a mass in a church or a salon in a private house or a performance in a royal chapel. These are all smaller spaces than what we’re used to. [Today], and certainly in New York City, we’re all about louder and bigger.

The modern experience is about paring down the excess and getting to what is putatively the essential “truth” of any art form. Form follows function. However, what does that do to the concert hall? It makes it uniform in every case. And I don’t think that’s the best thing for the music of the 17th and 18th centuries and earlier. It discounts the role of the other senses in our perception of music. Auditioning singers are always warned “be careful about your appearance because people hear what they see.” Well, that is true about sensory perception. Going to a performance is not the same as listing to a CD, and the aural experience is affected by the visual. What about visual sense, the sense of space? Not just what it does to the acoustic but how it affects the experience of the music when you’re in a smaller space that is intrinsically social, like a salon. That’s an essential element of much of this repertoire, and it is completely lost in a standard anodyne concert hall.

I believe that [performing in appropriate spaces] is something that really appeals to audiences and performers alike in the performance and consumption of music, a sense of being transported back to an entire world to the best of our ability, not just a sterile presentation of this piece of or that piece in a concert hall.

Q: What are challenges in finding appropriate spaces?

JG: Honestly the challenge is that I have so many ideas about what I want to do, that I have to decide what I want to do in one season and what I’ll have to hold off until the next season. Sometimes I find a concert so fascinating that I can’t wait to share it, and it’s really hard to say, Just wait on that for next year and see what happens. In terms of finding venues, you know, New York has a lot more venues than people are aware of. There are so many museums, so many embassies, so many cultural centers. These are not originally purposed for music, but they are perfectly suited to it. Musical performances in a time of economic difficulty also happen to be a wonderful way for institutions to increase their audiences. Audiences come to realize what beautiful structures there are and the other events that happen there, like fascinating cultural programs, when they came in the first place just to hear music. They have a whole other reason to come back.

Q: The next concert in a space that was originally a bank.

JG: Yeah, it’s a real find. I was thrilled to find this venue. The Broad Street Ballroom was built in 1929, just before the Crash. It’s an awe-inspiring space, built in replication of a Roman temple, with Doric columns lining the hall, bronze doors and carvings on the walls, and mosaics and murals that are all evocative of Ancient Rome. It was a really serendipitous kind of find. The esteemed artists Jory Vinikour and José Lemos had approached me some months go and wanted to do a concert with me, which is such an honor. They were so lovely and down-to-earth; they said, “We want to do a concert, we don’t care where it is. The venue can be whatever.” I couldn’t do that, I wanted to find a space that was deserving of them. In the meantime José and I had been invited to do the opera Agrippina together, he was going to sing Ottone and I was going to sing Poppea. The opera ended up being cancelled because the company changed their season to all-bel canto. So we had this repertoire on our hands and were chomping at the bit to do it, and we came up with the concert idea of doing selections with it, and we thought, How are we going to bridge the selections and create a sense of narrative flow in the absence of the rest of the opera and other characters? We thought of actors. My sister, Erica Gould, runs the Fire Dept. Theatre Company, which is the fiscal sponsor of my concert series, and we frequently collaborate on multidisciplinary projects.

The first thought that popped into my head was Euripides, because these are plays from a period of heightened “expressionism,” if you will. We went through Euripides but got back to the Aeschylus Oresteia. We realized with a spine-tingling moment the parallels between the real members of the Roman Julio-Claudian Dynasty, and their atrocious behavior actually eclipsed anything the Atreians did. The Romans outdid them. Nero’s horrible shenanigans got him declared a public enemy by the Romans; they were so shocked by his depravity even the Ancient Romans couldn’t deal with him. They ran him out of town, and he committed suicide before they could get him and execute him — probably in a way similar to the way he’d executed so many others! There are all these parallels between the House of Atreus and the House of Nero, Orestes’ murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, and Nero’s murdering his mother, Agrippina. The exile of Orestes, the exile of Ottone. Orestes is pursued by the Furies after he kills his mother, and Nero imagined himself to be pursued by them after he killed his. It goes on and on.

José Lemos.
Photo by Tina Gutierrez, courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

At the same time, there’s an interesting “mirror image,” if you will, between the Greek drama and the Roman history. The Oresteia is often seen as a parable for the establishment of reason and logic and civilization, which erases the endless circle of revenge into which the cursed Atreians are locked. Yet the members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, many of whom fit the modern definition of psychotic, if not at least sadistic, repeat a downward spiral of incest, rape, sadism and general bloodthirsty mayhem throughout the generations. So Greece rises and Rome falls. In the middle of all this, we’ve created a character of the Roman historian Suetonius, who was sort of a gossip queen, clearly enjoying reporting on all the salacious details he witnessed or nearly witnessed, and whose writing was a source for both opera libretti.

So we worked with Erica, and developed this into a multi-disciplinary project, and we’re very much looking forward to doing it in this wonderful space. It’s a perfect theater and music space, acoustically it has high ceilings, it’s like an asset that ‘s already built, it will be a very exciting production. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Jory Vinikour.
Photo by Kobie van Rensburg, courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Q: What else can audiences look forward to in the spring season?

JG: We have a really exciting and diverse season. In March we’ll have two events. The first, on Saturday, March 9, is at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium on East 61 Street. It’s part of the structure that houses the original home of John Adams’ daughter, built in 1799; there’s a concert of works by Schubert and Beethoven performed by Grand Harmonie, a recently formed ensemble that will perform Mozart, Schubert and Weber. At the end of the month, on March 23, at Fraunces Tavern, the oldest structure in Manhattan, we’re doing another multi-disciplinary program of works from early America, proto-spirituals and Shaker hymns, combined with slave narratives and Quaker texts focusing on a theme of liberation, which was and has remained central to the American identity. It’s called “Exodus, Dreams of the Promised Land in Antebellum America.” The music of that period is so underrepresented and so misrepresented, I think; it’s often kind of dismissed as Yankee Doodle kitsch, but there’s a wealth of diverse and beautiful music that has yet to be heard by an audience beyond scholars and specialists. The performers of that concert will be The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, and the venue, built in 1719, was the seat of the American government when the capitol was in New York. It is where George Washington said farewell to his troops in 1783.

Then on April 21, back at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, is a program that has toured England, a BBC tour, featuring the Four Nations Ensemble, one of the most highly regarded chamber music groups in New York and the United States, and the ensemble Music from China. This concert will highlight parallels between court of Versailles and the court of Beijing, alternating French Baroque with Chinese repertoire. The influence of chinoiserie was big in the French court, and the rigidity and formality of the two court societies had a lot of similarities.

The finale, on May 25 at Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, is the esteemed harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss, who is on faculty at Juilliard and the Conservatoire Nationale de Paris. He is going to perform Book I of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. That is our spring season, and we hope it should offer something for everyone, and that people will come.

Tantalizing: The Broad Street Ballroom.

Q: That’s quite an ambitious range.

JG: Thank you. I’ve always had an eyes-going-ahead-of-your-stomach situation all of the time with my programming. When we opened last season, September of 2011, it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so I planned a program to indirectly salute New York City, and focused on Cordoba, Spain, a “melting pot” of the previous millennium, and the many religions and cultures that managed to coexist in the so-called Dark Ages. José Lemos managed to sing in several languages, including Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, and medieval Castillian, and he did it masterfully. I feel like one rises to the challenge if one sets one’s goals slightly out of the comfort zone.

I should say for myself that I get ideas from what I read and the music I listen to and the music I practice. I refuse to give up on those ideas. I will write grant proposals, I will work ’til the end of time to make this happen. That’s what makes it meaningful to me to be head of this organization, to bring these ideas to fruition, beyond what people expect from an early-music series. So far we’ve done quite well, we’re in our fourth season. We’re honored to have received a significant amount of foundation support as well as private support.

Our fall season, our problem was finding enough seats for all the people who wanted to attend, which I never expected to happen, but pretty much every concert in the fall was sold out. So I feel really lucky in that regard. I’m in the position where I can make my ideas come to a reality and share them. And they seem to be appreciated. So I consider myself very lucky.

I might add that about a tenth of the repertoire that I envision for performance involves things that are suitable for me to sing. Of course I’m a soprano, and there’s repertoire I want to sing, there’s repertoire I want to get to, but there’s a whole other level of satisfaction from just seeing something produced effectively and sharing your intellectual fascination with an audience and watching it catch on. That’s an entirely different realm from performing, and the usual singer’s joy — “Oh, this piece fits my voice perfectly” — this is a totally different kind of space from that.
The couple of times I allow myself that singer’s indulgence, that’s definitely not the bulk of the repertoire. That would be so boring, maybe not to me, but to everybody else. One singer, even the most brilliant and versatile, you don’t want to hear them — maybe a few, but for most of us mortals, I don’t think we can carry off an entire season devoted to ourselves. That’s asking a lot from an audience unless they’re members of your family.

Q: At times I even forget that you sing! I read about Salon/Sanctuary events and think of you first as a producer.

JG: Sometimes the fact that I am a singer and that’s my main thing, gets lost in the shuffle. That doesn’t bother me that much. I still go off and perform in different things. I really derive such joy from researching and developing an original project. It’s part of what I grew up with. My older sister was a child dancer at New York City Ballet. I was a kid, running around backstage, I was always in art classes, singing in chorus and playing the violin, and she was always doing theater. It’s kind of in my blood, presentation from inside-out and to see what goes on to make it happen. And what ideas have potential to be successful. I read history books on top of that, and these things formulate in my head and I can’t wait to develop them. That’s really the engine of the series. Then singing is — if I’m able to see myself as a singer objectively, to the degree that’s possible — okay, well, Jessica’s voice fits in here, she can do this. And not program myself to the point where it’s, how shall we say, obnoxious, or just inappropriate. That’s how I see it. I’m not here to showcase me.

I’ve been very fortunate with the reviews I’ve received for things I’ve performed with the series and elsewhere too, but I’ve never been content to be a singer who doesn’t do anything else. Singers have to be a bit monomaniacal. You have to have those blinders on and eyes on the prize, and I’ve always been really interested in many other things. You’ve got to come to terms with that at some point in your career. What are you going to be happy doing in your life? The concert series really brings a lot of fulfillment. I’m glad that it’s successful.

I think it’s important for — I don’t want to sound like too much of a Hallmark card here, but what this experience means to me is that it’s important for performers to have a sense of agency and hold onto their sense of vision and not let that be slashed by the audition process and not feel that you have to wait to be chosen all the time. We live in a market economy in which everything is commodified, including talent. It’s much easier to sell something if it can be reduced to a simple “pitch,” and when that comes to performers, it means we need to present a very streamlined version of our capabilities in order to not confuse a potential buyer. There should be space for performers to create, and I don’t think that a talent for creation in a performer should be derided. I think there’s a slightly negative connotation to that in the United States still, perhaps because there is something uncomfortably challenging in a performer who takes ownership of the means of production. We feel more comfortable with singers who can be reduced to “one note” as it were, but many artists have much more to offer, and it’s to the benefit of everyone when they can exercise that potential, that vision, that creative power.

For tickets to and more information on The Heirs of Tantalus and all of Salon/Sanctuary’s programs — past, present, and future — click here.

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