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Feature Article - A Conversation with Andreas Scholl - November, 2001


Jason Serinus

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Introduction

As the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra begins its introduction to the title track of Wayfaring Stranger, Andreas Scholl's new recording of English, Welsh, Irish and American folksongs, one is immediately touched by the plaintive beauty of the accompaniment. Scholl's entry only deepens the feeling, his simplicity of utterance and sheer beauty of sound perfectly communicating the song's longing.



On the day before Thanksgiving, one week after the release of this marvelous album, I was privileged to conduct an extensive phone conversation with Andreas Scholl. Scholl was in the midst of a three week US recital tour. Having just debuted performing lute songs in Carnegie's intimate Weill Recital Hall, he was looking forward to performing music from his CD in concert with the 44-member Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Easton PA, and, on December 5, in his main Carnegie Hall debut.

Our Conversation

I love your new album of folksongs, Wayfaring Stranger. I'm really struck by the beauty of the singing and how well your voice works with the music.

It seems your inspirations for the album came from the folksong performances of 20th century countertenor pioneer Alfred Deller and jazz artist/bassist Charlie Haden. Many readers will have familiarity with Deller's work, but not Haden's recording. Could you tell us a bit about it?

I love lots of Charlie Haden CDs. I like to listen to jazz. I also have an Alfred Deller CD which has "The Wayfaring Stranger" on it.

A few years ago, I discovered a Charlie Haden CD, "The Art of Song," which features Shirley Horn singing jazz standards and new compositions. The last track, "The Wayfaring Stranger," was sung by Charlie Haden himself. It was such a beautiful arrangement, and it was so well done, that I thought it was the direction I could go in if I should ever do a folksong recording: a disc combining songs with string chamber orchestra.

I had been looking for ideas for how to perform folksongs. Before hearing the Haden, I thought of using lute and harp. But that's not necessarily historically accurate. These songs were never intended to be printed on music paper. It's music that was always around. It's anonymous; we don't know who invented the melodies. There are so many different variations of each song - the story's slightly different, the melody's slightly different; each generation needed to find its own way to adapt and arrange these songs. I was looking for my own 21st Century way to do them. So I came up with the idea of performing them with a chamber orchestra.

Do we know how old some of these songs are?

We never know how old they are, or when they appeared for the first time. It's very difficult to find out, since the songs were never written down and put in a library. From the melodic style, we can deduce that "Barbara Ellen" is one of the earliest songs, because it sound almost like an archaic church music antiphon. But since we have no sources, we don't know for sure.

When did you first start singing? And when did you decide to perform as a countertenor?

I started singing at age 7 in a Boys' Choir. I took singing lessons then. My voice broke when I was 13, but I somehow managed to continue singing soprano until the age of 16 or 17. Then the Choirmaster said, "This voice sounds like a countertenor. It's something you should try."

Have you ever sung in the usual "male" range?

My range would be baritone, which is mostly the case with countertenors: we have a baritone speaking voice and a countertenor singing voice. But I've never used this voice in my singing lessons or in concert. I used my baritone voice once in a while when I worked on the change between registers, but I never sang baritone repertoire.

So you're fortunate to have been born at a time when there's a place and demand for countertenors.

Certainly.

What is the extent of your range?

It's the alto register. E to F on the top, and probably a bit more than one and half octaves lower to an A or G. Something like that.

You just debuted at the intimate Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall, performing lute songs by John Dowland and others. How did it go?

It went very well, I think. The acoustic is quite bright, which is good for controlling the voice, but the hall is quite dry, without too much reverb. The slow, very melancoholic Dowland songs that have long, long endless phrasings are very difficult to sing in such an acoustic because the room does not help the voice. The room doesn't start to ring and create a reverb that stays when you stop singing and go on to the next phrase. So it's all created by the singer, which makes it more work, whereas the storytelling songs are very possible in such an acoustic.

I will debut in Carnegie Hall itself on December 5, performing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. We will do some Handel arias, "Dove Sei" from Rodelinda and "Ombra mai fu" from Xerxes, and then the same folksong arrangements that we do on the CD and that we're doing in San Francisco on December 1.

You became well known after your opera debut at Glyndebourne just four years ago. But your career began way before that.

I had sung concerts for six years before that. My recordings for Harmonia Mundi began in 1989 or 1990; I did many projects for them as part of an ensemble with René Jacobs. I also recorded the Messiah with William Christie in 1993 or 1994. Six years ago I did my first recital CD of German baroque songs, and recorded five or six more recital CDs before changing to Decca.

You started young.

I'm 34 now. I did my first concerts with Jacobs when I was 21 or 22.

How has the voice changed?

It's a constant process of development. The voice has matured, getting fuller and richer. My vocal flexibility has increased as my musical imagination has gotten stronger. The range hasn't increased, but the lower voice has gotten more solid.

What expectations do you suggest people bring to your performances?

I hope people are interested in good music. The most important thing is not me singing, but beautiful compositions by Handel and beautiful folksongs. I'm the messenger, the one that transmits those words through his singing. I hope I do that well. But the best thing would be if people leave the concert and say "What beautiful music." That's more important than saying "What a great voice" or "How high he can sing."

It's nothing sensational that a man should sing high; it's not the main thing that people should reflect about when they hear a countertenor. Expect the same amount of musical satisfaction from someone who fulfills the meaning of an aria as you do with any other voice type.

Did you have any input into the string arrangements on the recording?

Not really. I played the Charlie Haden recording to the head of E & R and other people from Decca. Then I said this is the style I'd like to go with, who can you recommend? They immediately came up with Craig Leon. He proposed some of his arrangements, and I liked them a lot.

So it was that simple. They heard the style, and they knew who to point you to.

You're taking this around the United States, and then to Europe. What are your future projects?

Our next projects include a recording of my own pop compositions, which is something I've always worked on since I started studying at age 17. Craig Leon will produce it. It will be in English, and come out next November.

Then we will record completely unknown Italian cantatas from Handel's time in Rome, composed by his Rome buddies. We'll also do a collection of songs to the Virgin Mary from medieval times to the late baroque.

Did you sing on the The Three Countertenors recording? Who did you sing with?

Dominique Visse and and Pascal Bertin. We did such tracks as "O Solo Mio," "Habanera," "Pleurez mes yeux," "Maria," and "My Way."

Will you do other recordings with countertenors?

In the future, we'll record Rodelinda with Renée Fleming, and there's a second countertenor part in that. I'll do Handel's Julius Caesar next May at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, and there are two other countertenor parts in it. I don't know who they'll be.

When did you decide to become a professional singer?

I first heard Deller's recordings at age 17, and decided it was something I should try. I went right into singing.

You've worked with many different conductors. Do you have some with whom you're really sympatico.

Those I work with regularly. I love doing Bach with Philippe Herreweghe. Last year I performed for the first time with the Cleveland Orchestra under John Nelson. It was the one and only time I worked with him, but I enjoyed it a lot. I think he's a very nice man; I would very much like to work him in the future.

I've worked with so many conductors, and I've enjoyed working with all of them. There's no one I've worked with whom I wouldn't want to work with in the future.

The classical music industry, especially in the United States, is in a really precarious state. There are several major cities, including Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, where the Metropolitan Opera isn't heard. The Chicago Symphony has run out of money to produce live broadcasts. Sales are way down, Tower may fold, affecting smaller distributors like Harmonia Mundi, Allegro, and Harmonia Mundi. And I've just learned that the Schwann Catalog of classical recordings has ceased publication.

How do you feel about the importance of classical music at this time in history?

Art is something that most people completely underestimate. Art can't be measured in periods of legislative time like four years. Education -- a sense for the arts -- is so precious.

We're living in a convenience society. We order our pizza home. If it were possible, we would have Home Delivery Enlightenment. So we pay $50, and we get some enlightenment.

We have lots of substitutes for the real thing. We have esoteric music CDs that speak kind of pseudo Latin songs - Natus datus latus dominus and I don't know what - they have some drums from India, and an Apache shaman singing - it's a mix of lots of obscure things, and it's like a sedative. It's like a drug that is supposed to give us something. And since we have completely lost any concrete idea of what we are looking for, the answer that we get is completely vague, and the answer comes in the form of things that kind of satisfy a completely vague desire.

I think we should sharpen our senses to know what we really want again. Relaxation does not come through switching on a CD in the background or just watching a movie. A movie can be stimulating and relaxing as well. But there are things like reading a book that take an effort. You come home, you're tired, or you're on the plane. It's easier to put on headphones and listen to music and fall asleep while listening. But it's also an effort to take a book and read. Invest some energy, and it will be rewarded.

We are afraid of crossing this threshold. We want to lose weight and still eat everything. All the advertisements try to suggest this is possible. Eat everything you want and still lose weight! Well, it's not possible. The truth is, it's not possible. You have to do some work. You have to move your body, and you have to eat less, and you have to eat healthier. But nobody wants to know this truth. There is a way to lose weight, and there is a way to achieve enlightenment, but it won't come at an easy price. You have to do something for it to happen.

Classical music is part of this process. And it's not always complicated. For the audience, it would be so rewarding to re-access classical music.

It's also the responsibility of record company executives, not to make classical music an elite thing. There were times when Caruso would give a little recital at the stage entrance after his performance for the hundreds of people who could not afford tickets for the opera. They were not sophisticated, intellectual people; they were real people, folks that simply loved opera. And this is something we've completely lost.

The day after Caruso died, everyone on New York's Lower East Side put their wind-up Victrolas on their windowsills and played Caruso recordings. Everywhere you went, you heard his voice. He meant so much to them.

It's regrettable that all the reviews we read about classical music are striving for perfection. It's such an elite thing. It lacks soul; it lacks the heart. The message that someone might be a bit out of tune, or might not have the most beautiful voice, but still transmits something in the music, will never be honored by a music critic; he will destroy it if he or she does not the intonation, or if he or she does not think the voice is well developed enough.

We have to rediscover what connects us to art. Art connects us to our creative element, which is what makes us human beings after all. If we keep this up, we will all end up as morons.

At the end of the Roman Empire, they started feeding Christians to the lions, and watched gladiators killing each other. This reflects a bit the time we're in now.

This is a time when we reduce our sense of entertainment to the most basic, and we overstretch this idea that things have to be more and more spectacular and more and more exciting. So we have these extreme game shows, and the weirdest things. People fight each other in the talk shows. This enables us to switch off, but it doesn't bring us further.

There was a Robin Williams movie, Dead Poets Society. A whole generation completely misunderstood the message of carpe diem/seize the day. It doesn't mean party the day. It means "seize." Use it to develop your spirit, your mind, your intellect, your humanity, your love; that's what seize the day means. But it was completely misunderstood. People thought that seize the day meant have as much holiday as you can, and get drunk every night in your holiday, because otherwise you won't have had a real holiday. This is completely wrong.

It's like in rap music. Respect, respect! Nobody does it. Nobody practices it. They shoot each other and they talk about respect. Respect is respect for the one you don't like. That's real respect. Respect your buddies and your friends; that's not the real thing.

We have some of these key words floating around our media. People think they stand for something. But they are constantly abused.

Relaxation does not come from intoxication. Those stupid programs on TV. Once in awhile you can watch them. But there are millions of people who do nothing other than sit in from of the telly and watch Jerry Springer. If you do that once in awhile, and you laugh because you see something outrageous happening, that's fine. But if this becomes your daily spirit bread - food for your soul - then there's not much to expect from your life.

I asked Louie Lortie a similar question in an interview a few weeks ago. He said that people are always seeking entertainment, and that classical music isn't about entertainment. It's about something deeper.

Yes.

Of course, one of the problems is when you have so much of the American populace sedated on Prozac, alcohol, and other drugs just so they can function in society, get through the rush hour traffic each day, take the three cell phone calls during dinner and two while you're taking a shower, they're already numbing themselves. Classical music really brings you deeper into your feeling and your emotions...

And it reconnects you to your true self. Why are we human beings? Because we have a soul that expresses itself through creativity: through music, through painting, through sculpture, through events. This is our root, our creativity. It's what makes us different. We can build beautiful buildings, paint beautiful paintings; these are things that animals can't do. It's what makes us human beings.

This is our Divine Nature. It's what connects us with God as the creator of the Universe. It's this little spark of the Creator inside each of us. Art is supposed to connect the human soul and spirit with its divine, true nature. If we forget this, we have very difficult times ahead.

I think there is a way out of this. It's education. Children need to appreciate music. It doesn't work at any price. Not everybody will love classical music, some will love heavy metal. Not everybody will love baseball and its positive, social effect on young people; others prefer soccer. But the whole context of integrating young people into a group in which they express themselves by reaching for a goal as in sports, or by expressing their creativity when playing an instrument, is such a precious thing. This will save us in the end.

If people could develop a formula that would show how much money we would save, how many less prisons we need to build, how many less psychiatrists we need to pay for, that would be the best way to reduce costs for health and social systems.

Of course. I'm writing an article for the San Francisco Chronicle on the Lincoln Center Institute, probably the most innovative program to bring the arts into the schools.

Are they cutting back art and music programs in European schools as much as they've cut them back here?

It's probably the same. I don't have too much insight into the German school system at this time. But they are constantly sacrificing sports and music in schools.

Did you come from a musical family?

Yes. My father played the organ and piano when I grew up, although he did something else for a living.

Did you listen to a lot of classical music as a child?

No. I listened almost only to pop music. Classical music came into my life when I started studying baroque music.

Have you taken part in educational programs with young people?

Not besides teaching some Master Classes for young people. There are more people studying countertenor.

Are contemporary composers writing for countertenor?

Yes, there are, but I don't know too many of them. I've looked at a few compositions, and an Italian friend of mine who lives in Belgium is composing a Sabat Mater for me.

Do you have favorite singers?

I don't listen much at home. But I just heard Reneé Fleming's recital in Carnegie Hall, and it was awesome. I did a concert of Pergolesi's Sabat Mater with Barbara Bonney recently, and it was sensational.

Do you have any comments about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra?

They are a wonderful orchestra. Not only are they prepared technically and very professional, but they play with lots of heart. You can read in their faces how much they enjoy the music. That's what I experienced doing the recording. I can't wait to play with them in concert.

 

- Jason Serinus -

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