In Studio: The Bach Collegium San Diego Performs
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Photo by Rebecca Kumar / KPBS
The Bach Collegium San Diego, a vocal and period instrument ensemble, mark the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel's death by performing parts of his rarely heard oratorio, Theodora, live in studio.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. Eighteenth century composer George Frideric Handel is probably best known his oratorio "Messiah," which has become a musical staple for both the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons. But, despite the enduring popularity of "Messiah," it was not Handel's favorite. The oratorio that was Handel's favorite composition is the much less familiar work called "Theodora." The story, which concerns the martyrdom of an early Christian princess, is not often performed, but we are in luck. The Bach Collegium San Diego will present the San Diego premiere of this 18th century masterpiece this weekend, and we are about to hear some previews of that performance. A group of wonderful musicians and singers have assembled in the performance studio here at KPBS. I want to welcome them all but first I have just a question or two for the two men responsible for bringing this production to San Diego. Ruben Valenzuela is Musical Director and conductor of the Bach Collegium San Diego, and Richard Egarr is Musical Director of the Academy of Ancient Music London and artistic advisor for the Bach Collegium San Diego. He's also guest conducting Handel's "Theodora." I want to thank you both for being here.
RICHARD EGARR (Guest Conductor): It's a pleasure.
RUBEN VALENZUELA (Musical Director, Bach Collegium San Diego): Thank you. Pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Ruben, let me start with you. The Bach Collegium San Diego is just finishing up its sixth season so it's a fairly young ensemble. Describe the kind of music you perform.
VALENZUELA: We mostly center on 17th and 18th century music. We've done things as early as Monteverdi and even as late as Hayden.
CAVANAUGH: And what are the techniques that need to be – that you need to know in order to perform this music correctly? In other words, what does the Bach Collegium do that perhaps a symphony wouldn't?
VALENZUELA: Well, first of all, you start with what we would perhaps call the right hardware. The instruments are slightly different. I think on the surface many of the instruments would look similar, particularly the strings, but there are playing techniques and specialization that these players bring and I think those two, working hand in hand, the instruments and the playing techniques of that period, which do differ from what you would say a normal, mainstream symphony player might bring to the table.
CAVANAUGH: And is early music a popular form? Is it something that people know about or something people have to learn about?
VALENZUELA: I think it's something, more and more, that is coming to the attention of the mainstream. I think a few years – say, 25 years ago, it would – you'd be hard pressed to even find a place to hear Handel opera. But Handel, in particular, seems to be in a moment of resurgence at the moment. So I think early music is more and more now in the mainstream than it was 25 years ago, say.
CAVANAUGH: And, Richard Egarr, you're Music Director for the Academy of Ancient Music in London.
CAVANAUGH: And you are directing – you're guest conducting, that is, Handel's "Theodora" here in San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: What is this oratorio about? What's the story?
EGARR: Unlike a lot of Handel's operas and also many such operas which contain a lot of people getting into each other's costumes and you're never quite sure who's doing what to whom and when, this is a fairly simple story concerning a group of Christians in Antioch. There's a president, the President of Antioch, who, on feast day, declares that anybody who doesn't celebrate the feast day will be taken away and dealt with. The Christians will not celebrate the feast day. The Christians are led by this princess, Theodora, along with a sort of sidekick Irine – Irine-ee, if you like. Those are the two women involved. There's Didymus, who is one of the Roman officers, who is in love with Theodora and has been converted to Christianity by Theodora. You then have Septimius, who's actually Didymus' senior officer, who's a sort of bridge between the Christians and, as it's called – as they're called in the score, the Heathens, i.e. the Romans, who worship Jove and all the false gods. And he's a sort of a bridge between the two camps. He's gradually coming to realize that Christianity is a very powerful and effective religion so he's a sort of – the figure in between. So those are basically your characters. And it's basically a simple love story which ends in the martyrdom of the two lovers, Didymus and Theodora.
CAVANAUGH: So it is a tragedy but at the same time, does it have anything in common musically with something that most people are more familiar with and that would be Handel's "Messiah?"
EGARR: Because "Messiah" is simply the Christmas story.
EGARR: "Theodora" is much more – in a way, much more in common with "West Side Story," I would say. It's a love story which ends tragically in a way but it's – it's basically – the whole moral is love is stronger than death.
CAVANAUGH: All right then.
EGARR: That the last restative in the opera, which is sung by Irene, Irene-ee, is basically saying that love is stronger than death. So love of a person or love of God is – so that's the sort of moral of the story. And that takes three and a half hours, of course, to tell. But it is an extraordinary piece whereas, I mean, we all know "Messiah," we all know "The Hallelujah Chorus" but Handel was very, very clear that he thought that this was his great work and he thought particularly that the end of the second act, the great slow chorus at the end of the second act, was far, far greater than "The Hallelujah Chorus." So it – I'm not going to argue with Handel on that one. He knew what he was doing. And you can tell that with the piece as well. The music is some of the most profound, deep, simple, affecting music that he ever composed and it – it doesn't falter throughout the whole three-and-a-bit hours of music. There's not a duff note in the entire score. It's extraordinary.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I think we've raised anticipation high enough. I think we should hear some of this wonderful music. And, Richard, you're also going to double as our pianist today.
EGARR: Today, I'm playing a very, very not-original instrument. We have a black grand piano in the studio…
EGARR: …which I'm going to play along – along with cello and a theorbo…
EGARR: …which you'll hear. And we're going to do Irene's great prayer from Act I of "Theodora."
CAVANAUGH: Okay, the first piece, "Streams of Pleasure Everflowing"…
EGARR: No, no, no.
CAVANAUGH: …is a duet by Theodora…
EGARR: Are we doing that first?
CAVANAUGH: …performed by soprano Mireille Asselin, and her lover, Didymus, performed by countertenor Darryl Taylor. They are accompanied by William Skeen on the cello and Daniel – Daniel, that is, Zuluaga on the theorbo. And, as I mentioned, Richard Egarr is on the piano. And the piece, once again, "Streams of Pleasure Ever Flowing."
(audio of performance of "Streams of Pleasure Ever Flowing" from Handel's "Theodora")
CAVANAUGH: You heard "Streams of Pleasure Ever Flowing" from the oratorio "Theodora" by Handel, which will be performed by the Bach Collegium San Diego this Saturday night at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. You heard Darryl Taylor, countertenor, Mireille Asselin as Theodora, the soprano, and on cello, William Skeen. Daniel Zuluaga on theo – theorbo…
CAVANAUGH: …and Richard Egarr on the piano. And thank you so much. That was – that was beautiful. And I'm wondering, was this work of Handel's successful when it was originally performed?
VALENZUELA: It was not. In fact, it was what you would call a flop in his day. I mean, I think I – there were three known performances in Handel's day.
VALENZUELA: Three known performances and I don't know if that counts the revival in 1755 of the work. But the record shows that – I think it says in print that the town did not come out. And there are several reasons that have been put forth for this. There was actually a rare minor earthquake the week before the premiere and perhaps it had something to do with it. But it's a piece that probably the libretto was not – You know, you've got a martyrdom, you have a story that's not from the Bible and unlike some of the other oratorios that perhaps were successful, this may have perhaps not piqued the public's interest right off the bat, I would think.
CAVANAUGH: And I – Richard, I hear this is always described as rarely performed. Is it rarely performed because of this problem in the opening?
EGARR: I don't know. I don't understand why it hasn't been rarely performed (sic). You often find that with certain pieces which get forgotten. I think very important was a revival of this piece which was done at Glyndebourne in the '90s with a production by Peter Sellars, which really put this piece back on the map, very much so. It was a fantastic production of this as an opera. And that has done a lot to inspire quite a few performances since then. I think it's just one of those things that slipped through the net because people are so busy doing "Messiahs" every year, they don't – It's very difficult to – these days, to persuade a public to come out and try something else. We live in a sort of McDonald's society where we all go for what we know, homogenized everything. This is as great a piece as "Messiah." I find it even greater, I must say. It's a real masterpiece, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, what's the difference between staging this as an oratorio and an opera? Is it scenery and costumes and…?
EGARR: In the minds of an 18th century musician there was – there's really no difference between an opera and oratorio. An oratorio is a religious drama and operas usually are not about a religious subject. But in the mind of Handel, he wouldn't treat this music, he wouldn't deliberately write religious music. He just wrote his music around a text. There was no difference. The fact that it can be staged very successfully, I think, was proven by the Peter Sellars production. It doesn't work for every piece. I mean, there have been, and are going to be, attempts to stage "Messiah," which I, yeah, I'm not sure – I, myself, took part in a staged performance of the "Matthew Passion." Now there were pluses and minuses against that as well.
EGARR: So some pieces are easier to stage oratorios, religious subjects, easier to stage than others. I think this one works well, so well on stage, because, I say, the story is a very, very simple and direct story in the same way that Tristan and Isolde is a very simple story. It's the same kind of thing. So I think this piece does lend itself to a real stage production quite well.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Richard, I'm going to ask you to go back to the piano because you're going to be playing in the second piece for us. And while you're doing that, I want to ask Ruben – Ruben Valenzuela, by the way, I want to introduce you again, Music Director and conductor of the Bach Collegium San Diego. How's the Collegium going to stage this? "Theodora?"
VALENZUELA: Well, we're doing the concert version, it's not staged.
VALENZUELA: But, as Richard noted, this is about as close as you come to an opera, I think, in Handel's output. And being that the characters speak so directly and each of the characters is developed so well and the libretto, of course, with Handel's music on top of that, there is no question that it could easily be staged, of course. And he pointed out the Peter Sellars production.
VALENZUELA: But ours will be a concert version.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Well, let's hear this other piece now that everyone is where they should be. This one – This selection is called "As With Rosy Steps The Morn" from Act I for – and in the role of Irene, Theodora's friend, is performed by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane with William Skeen on the cello, Daniel Zuluaga on the theorbo and Richard Egarr on the piano.
(audio of performance of "As With Rosy Steps The Morn")
CAVANAUGH: We just heard "As With Rosy Steps The Morn" from Handel's "Theodora." And it was performed by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane. Accompanying her, William Skeen on the cello, Daniel Zuluaga on the theorbo, and Richard Egarr, once again, on the piano. Ruben, I wanted to ask, you know, we hear this music and it's so beautiful but in a sense it's – I think it's foreign to a lot of people. We hear a – an instrument we're not familiar with, the theorbo, this sort of banjo, beautiful banjo-sounding instrument. We hear Darryl Taylor's incredible countertenor voice, a kind of male voice that we're not – we don't usually hear. We hear this beautiful music being sung in the English language. What else is new for audiences when they come to ancient music, early music?
VALENZUELA: Well, as I mentioned before, I mean, just looking at some of these instruments, you're struck right away when you see a theorbo. I know your listeners can't picture it now…
VALENZUELA: …but it looks – I mean, it looks like a missile, like he could shoot a missile. And right away that's going to grab your attention.
EGARR: With a bird – with a birdcage on the end of it.
VALENZUELA: Sitar-looking instrument, truly is. You've got, like I said, the hardware that looks very, very different but I think if you look past all this, you've got music that speaks so directly. And I think that in the case of Darryl Taylor's beautiful – you know, it's a voice that – that type of voice is obviously with us. In popular music, you hear men singing in that range even, you know, now.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, but they're falsetto.
EGARR: That was also falsetto.
EGARR: Yeah, it's like Earth, Wind and Fire, they were some of the great early countertenors from the seventies, were the Earth, Wind and Fire crew. Amazing. But the countertenor voice is something that has come very much to the front in the 20th century and there's a great history now of soloists, countertenor voices, particularly singing in Handel opera. Of course, we – The thing is that now we don't have the castrati that Handel used when he was around. They just don't exist anymore.
CAVANAUGH: Darryl's saying amen to that.
EGARR: Yeah, but – But, yeah, so there is a great tradition, modern tradition, of countertenors taking these roles in both Handel opera and oratorio. And the countertenor has always been – I mean, I come from England and the choir tradition there has always contained countertenors within a choral situation so it's strange that you say that it's a foreign element because it's – it seems perfectly natural to me, having grown up in Britain and that whole tradition as, of course, Handel was aware. I mean, Handel was very much – you know, he'd been in London 34 years by the time he composed this piece.
EGARR: So he was very well aware of the whole English tradition and I think that's one of the great things about Handel, he was able – he was a sponge musically. He would go to a country and then immediately write the best example of that kind of music. You know, he went to Rome in the early part of the 18th century and ended up writing some of 'the' great Roman choral works like "Dixit Dominus" and "La Resurrezione," two of the greatest Roman cantatas, oratorios. He comes to England and within a year, he's written – literally written the first English oratorio.
CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. And I read that this was – this is almost the last oratorio that Handel wrote.
EGARR: Yeah, the last one was "Jephtha" but this – I have a feeling that this was – because of the subject matter, because it is so direct, it's so – and I think it's so personal, there's something very, very personal and touching about the whole story because he was going blind at this time as well, so I think he was being confronted by his own humanity. And there's something that is so deep and honest and direct about the music in this piece, all these long solo arias, slow, contemplative, really thoughtful, deep, deep – deep-seated emotional things which are going on in the piece.
CAVANAUGH: We're so grateful for you coming in and giving us your time and your performances today, but we do want to give the audience just a taste of what a full orchestra performing "Theodora" sounds like. And so we're going to play a bit from a CD that we have. The piece is called "How Strange Their Ends and Yet How Glorious." Let's listen to it.
(audio of "How Strange Their Ends and Yet How Glorious" from CD)
CAVANAUGH: And that's just a taste of how Handel's "Theodora" sounds with full orchestra, and that was a piece called "How Strange Their Ends and Yet How Glorious." Ruben, how many singers and musicians in the Bach Collegium San Diego?
VALENZUELA: Well, it varies but for this work the orchestra will probably – a total of 28…
EGARR: Something like that.
VALENZUELA: …29, thereabouts. And the chorus, 24, and then the cast of soloists, five soloists.
CAVANAUGH: You know, hearing this piece, it's so odd to think that it's so little known. And you're only going to do – be doing one performance here in San Diego. Why not more?
VALENZUELA: Well, as – it's really hard to pull together the resources to do a work like this and we thought we would try to get everybody near San Diego to come hear it at the Balboa Theatre, which is a fantastic venue for this work. And, hopefully, those that don't catch us here will then catch us in Santa Monica in Los Angeles the next day.
CAVANAUGH: And, Richard, you're guest conducting for this piece. And I'm wondering what it is that you would like San Diego to know about this period music? Why is it important that we keep this alive?
EGARR: Well, I think it's important to keep any great masterpiece alive. I believe, along with the members of the Collegium, that doing this music on instruments from the time, using techniques from the time, is a valid way of doing it. I'm not – I don't think any of us here are purist enough to say that you shouldn't do it on modern instruments. Any performance of this great music, done well, is valid but we believe that this music is best served by exploring it on instruments that were around at Handel's time. I would say just come and experience it. Don't worry about the fact that it's supposed to be old music…
EGARR: …or early music. That can be – for some people, that can be a bit scary and be a turnoff. Come for the music. The music. It is, as we have, I think, tried to point out during the program, it is Handel's – perhaps his greatest masterpiece and it deserves – Come on down. Come on down. Come and hear it.
CAVANAUGH: He's been in America too long.
EGARR: That's all right, I have a Texan wife; I'm allowed to do that.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Ruben, just in our final moment here, I wonder what kind of comments you get from people who've been exposed to this music for the first time through the Bach Collegium.
VALENZUELA: Where has it been? I mean, San Diego, I think, is what, the sixth largest city in the country, last I checked. And you'd be surprised that, you know, with, you know, groups like the symphony and the chamber orchestra that this is repertoire that, you know, we're trying to fill a niche of music done this way and explored this way that perhaps some of these other organizations aren't doing for obvious reasons. And so they always – The big thing is, where has this piece been? Or, why have I not heard of this? Or even, heard it done this way?
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want everyone to know – First of all, I have a lot of people to thank here so let me get through that. I want to thank so much Ruben Valenzuela, Music Director and conductor of the Bach Collegium, Richard Egarr, Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music in London, and guest conductor for Handel's "Theodora" this Saturday night, and also played the piano for us today. William Skeen on the cello, Daniel Zuluaga played the theorbo, and Mireille Asselin was the soprano. She performs the role of Theodora. And Darryl Taylor, our countertenor, performs the role of Didymus, Theodora's lover, and Jennifer Lane, mezzo-soprano performing the role of Irene, Theodora's friend. I want to let everyone know that the Bach Collegium San Diego performs Handel's "Theodora" for one performance only this Saturday, June 27th at 7:00 p.m. at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. You can go to KPBS.org/TheseDays for more information. And as we leave, we're going to hear just a little bit more of "Theodora" from Handel and this is "Oh Love Divine."
(audio of "Oh Love Divine" from CD)
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