Get to know the Messiah Soloists

Joining us in this season’s Handel Messiah is a stellar line-up of soloists: soprano Joanne Lunn, countertenor James Laing, tenor Rufus Müller, and baritone Brett Polegato. We sat down with our four soloists to find out a bit more about them. Enjoy!

How did you come to decide to sing?

Joanne Lunn, soprano

Joanne Lunn, soprano: I have always loved singing: I believe I used to drive my brother crazy when we were children by constantly singing. I joined the church choir as soon as they would have me. I can vividly remember that I would stand up and sing my heart out in the final hymn on a Sunday when the choir processed by, hoping someone would hear and say I could join!

 James Laing, countertenor: I had always enjoyed classical music and ended up singing in the bass section in my school choir. There was a time when lots of the trebles voices broke and suddenly the bass row was overflowing. However, there was a space beckoning amongst the ladies on the alto row …

Rufus Müller, tenor: Apparently I sang before I could talk. But when it came to deciding if I could sing professionally, when I sang as a student in the Tallis Scholars, I asked a couple of my professional colleagues in the ensemble if I had a chance of making a living in London. Countertenor Michael Chance simply laughed and said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” I took that to be a “Yes.”

Brett Polegato, baritone: In school, I was somewhat of a math geek. I was also involved in many in-school instrumental ensembles (I played oboe and tenor saxophone) and after-school choirs. I was offered a full scholarship to Waterloo for Computer Science and to the University of Toronto for Vocal Performance. I chose music with the thought that, if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to math. Thirty years later, I’m still singing!

 

What was your first music gig?

Joanne: I won a competition that the BBC ran when I was young called “Choirgirl of the Year.” That year-long experience of concerts, radio broadcasts, and recording sessions really made me decide that I might just be able to give singing a go.

James Laing, countertenor

James: My first solo gig was performing “Come ye sons of art” by Purcell at a small church in … errr … Buckinghamshire? There is a wonderful countertenor duet within the piece, “Sound the trumpet,” and my partner on this occasion was one of my heroes, James Bowman. Talk about pressure: the grandfather of countertenors and the upstart whippersnapper!

Rufus: My first paid gig was while I was at university, singing the baritone (yes, baritone!) solos in Duruflé’s Requiem for a local choral society. I think I got £20.

Brett: My first professional gig was singing Figaro for Opera Atelier in their production of The Marriage of Figaro. Conductor Marc Minkowski was making his North America debut, and Tafelmusik was in the pit. In fact, I left an opera diploma program to accept this gig. Not a bad way for a 24-year-old to start!

 

What is your “guilty pleasure” music to listen to?

Joanne: I listen to a wide variety of music ranging from medieval right up to music from the charts, courtesy of my children!

James: Oooh, tough one but you can’t go wrong with a bit of Dolly Parton.

Rufus: The Carpenters! Karen Carpenter’s voice was one of the most creamy, sensuous voices in the pop world — ever. And her fight to the death with anorexia gives a plangent edge to everything she sang.

Brett: Broadway recordings. I can’t get enough showtunes!

 

What is your favourite thing to do on a day off?

Joanne: Walking along the white cliffs in Kent on a sunny day near where we holiday regularly, with a hearty meal at the pub halfway of course!

James: Spend time with my family — my wife certainly appreciates being able to offload our four children on me!

Rufus: In the summer, going to the beach. In the winter, daydreaming about being on the beach.

Brett: Read. I’m an avid reader and a collector of first-edition, signed books.

 

What is the most challenging aspect of singing Messiah for you?

Joanne: I love singing Messiah! It is my challenge after having sung it so many times to keep it fresh, as if it were the first time I had ever sung it: for myself, for the audience, and most importantly for the sake of the message it tells.

James: The challenge for me is trying to get an audience to not just “listen”’ to the piece, but to really engage with it. A difficult thing to do with such a well-known work.

Rufus Müller, tenor

Rufus: Remembering my words in the alto-tenor duet near the end: “Oh death”? or “Oh grave”? On one occasion I sang: “The sin of death is Sting.” Oh, no! Now I’m going to be nervous about it in Toronto — why did I agree to answer these questions!!

Brett: Each bass aria requires a different weight, colour, and articulation. I work hard at trying to fulfil the impossible demands of each while balancing the set as a whole. It’s fortunate for me as a baritone that the tessitura gets progressively higher as the evening goes on, so I can “warm up” into them. At the final aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” when many basses are ready to call it a night, I’m ready to raise the roof!

What Messiah part do you especially look forward to?

James: Funnily enough, my favourite part is non-vocal: the Pifa orchestral interlude which introduces the shepherds. I love the translucent quality you get from the strings and the way that every section has an intertwining voice. Simple and beautiful.

Brett Polegato, baritone

Brett: Every year, I look forward to the response from the audience. Robert Shaw used to say to his choristers before a performance: “Remember, there is someone here tonight who’s hearing this piece for the first time. And someone here who’s hearing it for the last time.” I think of this particularly when I perform Messiah, which for so many audience members is an annual tradition. I ask myself: who will NOT be here next year to hear this? It reminds me to make each performance count.

Join Joanne, James, Rufus, Brett and Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir for Handel Messiah at Koerner Hall, Dec 13—16, 2017. Tickets available here.

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Further Listening: Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronations

by Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord

Music is an integral part of the celebration of important life moments in most cultures, and this is particularly true of rites of passage. In our concert, Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation, we offered a selection of music written by baroque composers for the celebrations of royal weddings, a coronation, and for the funeral of a renowned French marshal. Continue your concert experience with this selection of music for your further listening pleasure.

Jean-Baptiste Lully

Our Lully suite ended with a chaconne from Roland  – chaconnes are among our favourite things to play. Many have repeating bass lines over which the composer spins various melodies, and include trios for solo instruments. Last year we performed one of Lully’s wonderful choral chaconnes, from Amadis. The orchestra plays a full 7-1/2-minute chaconne, and then the choir and soloists join with the text “Chantons tous la gloire de l’amour.” The entire movement is 15 minutes of glorious Lully.

(This is an entire suite of excerpts from Amadis: the chaconne begins at 10:30)

Henry Purcell

The centrepiece of our set of excerpts from Purcell’s Ode “From hardy climes” was an exquisite ritornello set over a ground bass (i.e. a bass line that repeats throughout). In the original ode, it is preceded by the song “The sparrow and the gentle dove” – I played the song tune on harpsichord, with Lucas providing lute accompaniment. It’s very much worth listening to the original song as performed by the wonderful British tenor Charles Daniels, whose singing of Purcell is beyond compare. You will find it on a recording by The King’s Consort, directed by Robert King, on the Hyperion label.

It’s in Volume 4 of a set of recordings of the complete Purcell Odes by The King’s Consort, which is full of treasures. If you track down the set, I urge you to listen to another magical ground-bass song (in Volume 7), again sung by Charles: “So when the glitt’ring Queen of Night,” a remarkable depiction of a lunar eclipse, from “The Yorkshire Feast Song.”

John Blow

Performing the Blow Coronation Anthem for James II this week has convinced us we must sing more of his music! The one other Blow work we have performed in the past, most often with students at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute, is his remarkable Salvator Mundi. A heartfelt setting of the text, it was probably written by Blow for the Catholic court chapel attended by James and his wife Maria of Modena.

Click here to listen: Salvator Mundi: Les Arts Florissants William Christie

Johann Pachelbel

Pachelbel wrote more than his infamous Canon – but we rarely hear it! He was a keyboard player, and you can find recordings of his organ and harpsichord music. There are also a few recordings of his other string music. I encourage you to track down a recording called Buxtehude & Purcell Chamber Music, made by Musica Antiqua Köln way back in 1980 on the Archiv label and reissued a few times. Have a listen to Partia no. 4 in E Minor from the Musicalische Ergötzung.

 It’s no secret that I’m married to choir director Ivars Taurins – and the piece that was played as I walked down the aisle at our wedding 36 (!) years ago was a piece not dissimilar to the Pachelbel canon. It is likewise scored for 3 violins and continuo, and is written over a ground bass – and has the same combination of freshness, vivacity, and beauty. Here is a video from Tafelmusik’s House of Dreams  CD/DVD.

Purcell Fantasia in 3 parts on a ground: Tafelmusik

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

I love Charpentier’s choral music – and my favourite of all the works of Charpentier that we’ve performed is his setting of Salve regina for three choirs and continuo. We perform it every few years with the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute participants in the glorious acoustics of Grace Church on-the-Hill, with the sounds of the three choirs intertwining magically. I dream of it being sung at my funeral …

I hope you have a chance to hear us perform it at Grace Church, but in the meantime, there are a few recordings available. I would suggest the following: Charpentier Salve regina, H.24: Ex Cathedra, dir. Jeffrey Skidmore (Hyperion)

George Frideric Handel

Handel wrote a great deal of music for the royal family – famously Water Music and the Coronation Anthems. Less well known but no less glorious is an ode Handel wrote for the birthday of Queen Anne in 1713 (the Anne for whose marriage Purcell wrote the ode “From hardy climes”). The opening of this ode, “Eternal source of light divine” for solo trumpet and countertenor, is one of my very favourite pieces of music. I have an old recording of the wonderful James Bowman singing it, and play it whenever I need a moment of calm inspiration:

Handel “Eternal source of light divine” from Queen Anne’s Birthday Ode: James Bowman

The ode continues with arias and choruses, including the very delightful duet chorus “Let rolling streams their gladness show,” which was transcribed by Handel for orchestra alone in the Concerto a due cori, HWV 333, that we performed at the opening of this season –– the vocal and choral parts are given to oboes and horns.

If you want to experience the entire ode, you can hear a youthful performance by the European Union Baroque Orchestra (a training program for period players) with countertenor Alex Potter and young singers from Clare College, Cambridge.

(The ode starts at 12:30, and the chorus “Let rolling streams” starts at 23:55) Handel Queen Anne Birthday Ode: EUBO, dir. Lars Ulrik Mortensen

You can also hear the orchestral version of the chorus: Handel Allegro ma non troppo, from Concerto a due cori in F Major, HWV 333: Tafelmusik, dir. Jeanne Lamon

Happy listening!

Baroque 101: “C’est L’anche Qui Donne La Vie!”

By Marco Cera, oboe

Marco Cera, oboe. Photo by Sian Richards
Marco Cera, oboe

As a double-reed player I often get asked questions about my reeds. Why is a reed made out of bamboo? How long does a reed last? Where do you buy them? Why is it called “double reed”? Well, the topic is very complex and it would take a week-long symposium just to scratch the surface. Here I offer some useful information to satisfy your curiosity!

The term “double reed” comes from the fact that there are two pieces of cane vibrating against each other. A single reed consists of one piece of cane that vibrates against a mouthpiece. Double-reed instruments include the oboe and the bassoon; single-reed instruments include the clarinet and saxophone.

The role of the reed on the oboe and bassoon has been compared to that of the bow on the violin. The reed is the tool that produces the sound, and that allows the player to control dynamics, intonation, tone quality, articulation, and expression. In other words, it is the reed that gives life to the music: “C’est l’anche qui donne la vie!”

As you can imagine, delicate and fragile reeds are very crucial tools for oboists and bassoonists, and the struggle to find the perfect reed never ends! The importance of finding a good reed was well known already in the baroque era. In his famous treatise of 1752, Quantz wrote: “As for the tone quality of these two instruments [oboe and bassoon] much depends on the quality of the reed, and specifically, whether it is made of good, well-seasoned cane, whether it has the appropriate diameter that is neither too wide, nor too short, and that it is scraped neither too thinly nor left too thick.”

Musicians as Craftsmen

Most oboists spend a large part of their time making reeds: more than they actually spend playing their instrument! By necessity, oboe and bassoon players are not only musicians, but also craftsmen. Buying a baroque reed in a music store is not a possibility: there are few options available in the market, and they are low quality. There is very little documentation describing reed-making before 1780, which presents another challenge for those players who, like me, are dedicated to the baroque oboe and early reeds. There must have been a rich oral tradition handed down from teacher to student in the baroque era, which is forever lost to us.

Even though the internet offers articles on a scientific approach to reed-making — studies on the physics and engineering of a reed — I find the subject to be very mysterious and controversial. This might explain the curious inclination of oboists to sit for hours discussing reed scrapes, staples dimensions (staples are the metal tubes that hold the reed), diamond stones for knifes sharpening … sometimes even blaming climate change or global warming for the poor quality of the cane they are using!

The Process

The making of a reed starts by choosing the right material. Oboe players have been using a specific species of cane called arundo donax (a plant similar to bamboo) for centuries. Musical sources from the early nineteenth century spoke of the superior qualities of the cane in Frejus, near Marseille. This is the area from which most reed players still get their cane today.

The lengthy and laborious process of making a reed includes gouging, soaking, shaping, tying, scraping, refining … I’m sure it sounds like fun, but I can guarantee that this never-ending task can become quite … boring! (I have met oboe players who tried to teach their wives to make reeds to avoid the job!)

Personally, I like to concentrate my reed-making work during the summer. I spend my summers in Italy and my theory is that the weather, landscape, good food, and social support from reed-geek friends help me to succeed in the often tedious duty.

The worst of it is that most of the reeds an oboist makes turn out to be unusable. Oboe reeds are notoriously unpredictable since they are made from cane, an organic material. A finished reed that starts by emitting a few perfect notes may die abruptly in the middle of a concert. Another reed can last for weeks, survive the dry winter in Toronto, and end the season in triumph!


Students in reed-making class at Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute


Our children’s album, Baroque Adventure : The Quest for Arundo Donax will entice the imagination of young listeners and their parents alike!

 


Hear Marco perform in Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation, Nov 29-Dec 3, 2017 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.