Oregon Bach Festival 2011:
Superhero, Saint, Believer Marin Alsop conducts Honeggers “Joan of Arc at the Stake”
Appear and Inspire Matthew Halls may be a “frustrated singer,” but he makes musicians smile
A Maestros Life Story Sara Rilling finds purpose writing about her famous father
OBF 2011 Oregon Bach Festival sked & highlights!
Superhero, Saint, Believer
Marin Alsop conducts Honeggers “Joan of Arc at the Stake”
by Suzi Steffen
Thats pretty much all one need say in Eugene, where Eugene Symphony fans remember Alsops tenure (1989-1996) with fondness and great pride. Brett Campbell even wrote (on Tom Manoffs site; read it here: http://bit.ly/l50WJH) that “Eugene was a major entrance ramp to a career thats made her the first woman appointed music director of a major American orchestra (Baltimore) and a regular guest conductor of the worlds greatest orchestras.”
Alsop is also a regular on NPR (http://n.pr/mpmYKC), where she sometimes fences adroitly and affectionately with Scott Simon, and the BBCs Radio 3.
But the beloved conductor hasnt made an appearance, ever, with the citys other most famous music-related experience, the Bach Festival. That was all about the timing of the symphonys schedule.
“The Bach Festival has an excellent reputation, and I admire Helmuth tremendously,” she says, “but I was never in Eugene in the summer, so I have no preconceptions about the festival at all.”
When OBF Executive Director John Evans announced that Alsop would be conducting a large-scale piece at this seasons announcement, gasps went up from the faithful audience. Thats despite the rarity of the work she picked ã French composer Arthur Honeggers “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” or “Jeanne darc au b “cher.”
The 1938 part-spoken, semi-staged performance piece/oratorio (the Bach Fest has engaged actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) includes several soloists representing young Joan and her favorite saints, the festival chorus, the festival orchestra, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, a childrens choir and an electronic instrument called an ondes Martenot.
Alsop, who has a history of exploring new or rarely performed music, found her inspiration in a different place for whats now called “The Joan Project” ã it premieres in Eugene, at the OBF, but moves to Baltimore, Carnegie Hall and the Barbican in London in 2012 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc.
“Ive always been curious about the piece,” she says. When her son started reading about Joan of Arc for school, Alsops curiosity increased. She began reading more about Joan while thinking about her plans for the 2011-2012 season at Baltimore, where shes music director (and the first woman to head a major U.S. orchestra). That settled it.
“I built my season in Baltimore around the theme of Joan of Arc and revolutionary women, women in leadership positions,” Alsop says.
At the same time, the Bach Fest had long wanted to get Alsop on board for a performance. “They very graciously said, •What would you like to do? and I put this forward, and they said yes,” she says.
“This” isnt just any work. Honeggers score calls for a variety of skills from musicians, choir and actors, not to mention the conductor. Alsop says that all of the different forces involved in the piece will keep her on her toes. “Every conductor has conductors disease,” she says. Thats a condition in which experienced conductors start to want larger and larger challenges. “Im not immune to that,” she says somewhat wryly. “I enjoy working with large forces, and this piece has everything in it.”
The composer wanted to put something of his time in the piece, not just hearken to the early 15th century. “Honegger was a composer who abhorred elitism,” Alsop says. He included folk tunes that people of the time would know, and he added other then-contemporary instruments. For instance, he replaced the French horns with saxophones to give the score a jazzier sound.
Then theres that ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928, the same year as the theremin, also an earlier electronic instrument and with some of that more common instruments cinematic sound. Alsop notes that Honegger composed a lot for the movies, which also influences his sound. Ondes Martenot player Cynthia Millar will come to Eugene for the performance, bringing her own instrument. Alsop says shes looking forward to dealing with the unusual instrument, which she likes a bit more than the theremin.
“With a theremin, you approximate where the pitches are, and its quite complicated and hard to be accurate,” she says. The ondes Martenot ãwhich, Alsop says, Radiohead has used in a few songs ãhas a keyboard and three different speakers, and its got more accuracy than the theremin. “Its an incredibly cool sound, sort of otherworldly,” she says, adding that Honegger uses it for the first time in the score to imitate the howling of a dog.
Claudels poetic libretto tells Joans story in flashbacks. Shes at the stake, condemned to death by smoke and fire, basically for refusing to wear what was then designated as womens clothing. “Thats the most banal sense of threat from a woman, wearing mens clothes,” Alsop says. Of course, Joan also said that she was getting her inspiration directly from God and from saints, and no teenage shepherd girl ã whether she led an army that beat the English at the end of the Hundred Years War or not -ã was going to show up the Catholic Church hierarchy like that.
Alsop says that although some things in the work resonate with 21st-century life, thats not why she picked it. “War is a complicated issue, always, and the people who lead these wars are controversial figures,” she says. “But ultimately, really, the piece stands on its own. We dont have to engage in a controversial discussion to enjoy the piece.”
Though the libretto begins with Joan at the stake, it proceeds inventively and dramatically through the past. Alsop says that its “almost like a cinematic flashback.” Despite the grimness of the opening and final scenes, “Joan of Arc at the Stake” also contains what Alsop describes as “an incredible sense of humor,” including jokes about the names of some of the cast.
“Its a wonderful piece thats got tremendous variety,” Alsop says, though she also knows from experience (and perhaps from some of her own leadership) that Eugene audiences can go for experiments. “Theyre very educated, discerning, involved and curious audiences,” she says. “I always love coming to Eugene.”