Chicago Chorale and Historically Informed Performance Practice

Baroque Performance InstituteI began attending Oberlin Conservatory’s Baroque Performance Institute in 1978, and continued attending for about eight summer sessions following that. I first learned of the Institute through Ken Slowik, a Chicago cellist and early music specialist, who suggested that my vocal characteristics and musicological curiosity might make me a good candidate for BPI-- especially since Baroque expert Max Van Egmond was joining the faculty that summer. I listened to some of Max’s recordings, recognized a kindred spirit, and decided to take the plunge. The experience was revelatory for me: prior to that, I had never even heard of Baroque pitch, of gut strings, of wooden traverso flutes, of viols, of inégale rhythm. An entirely new world opened for my consideration, and I ate it up, eagerly and hungrily. Max was an ideal teacher and mentor for me, and I sang as often as I could, in lessons, master cases, and concerts; and I observed instrumentalists when I was not singing. BPI was all about performance; scholars and theorists attended, lectured, and added their insights, but the focus was on performing, day and night. I had never loved any musical immersion so much, in my life. And then, when BPI was over, I would return to my job, conducting choirs and teaching voice, first at Luther College, later at The University of Chicago—and I would have a hard time integrating my BPI experience with my actual day job. One year Ken invited me to sing with the Smithsonian Chamber Players (he was by this time their music director) in Washington, for a performance of Charpentier’s Les Arts Florissants , complete with dance, masks, authentic instruments from the Smithsonian collection—we were so authentic, we even lighted the performance with candles in metal reflectors. The other singers were recognized professionals in the early music field, who did this sort of thing on a regular basis; for me, it was a brief interlude, a vacation, from my teaching. The contrast struck me forcibly, and I withdrew from involvement in early music performance from that point on—I could not see any further value in doing it part way, and I did not want to give up my actual professional life. I enjoyed my students, my choirs, and could not see how this hobby of mine was contributing anything to the health of my program.

My succeeding summers were spent, first, at the Nice Conservatory, singing art songs with Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin; then several years with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers; and, finally, ten summers with Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival. All of it was good and worthwhile and stimulating, and contributed to my professional competence.

What goes around, comes around. The bug that bit me back at Oberlin did not die; it just invaded the rest of my music making. Working with both Mr. Shaw and Mr. Rilling, I found myself observing and questioning what they were doing, comparing it to my BPI experience, wondering how it was related, how it could be different, and how I could do things differently, myself, with my own ensembles. During Chorale’s second season, already, we presented the first half of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and we have been programming major Baroque works, primarily Bach’s, ever since. With each successive concert, I introduce more HIPP elements, try more techniques I remember from my Oberlin experiences, require a more “baroque” sound from both the players and the singers, hire more appropriate soloists. Obviously, we do not do museum-quality reproductions of performances that Bach himself led or heard: we do not have his performance space, his highly trained 16-year old prepubescent boys, or his audience. We prepare performances for the buildings we have, with the singers we have, and with our contemporary audiences in mind. But, as I discovered at Oberlin, having a good idea of Bach’s circumstances, knowing what was physically and musically possible for him, and being aware of his goals—his desire to clarify, to instruct, to be understood, to get his message across—has really helped me to sort out what is good and necessary in what I learned at BPI.   Bach was not only a genius; he was a practical, practicing musician. Knowing what he heard, and how he did it, can only improve our performances of his work.