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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