A Singer's Notes by Keith KiblerTheater

A Singer’s Notes 89: HIP Today and Gone Tomorrow — Sequentia at Tanglewood and NT’s Lear on Screen

Norbert Rodenkirchen
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Norbert Rodenkirchen
Norbert Rodenkirchen 


HIP (Historically Informed Performance) is not so hip as it used to be. William Christie does Baroque opera with cutting edge directors. René Jacobs records a Matthew Passion with tempi that rival Furtwängler’s. The information age was what made historically aware performances possible. It did not give us all the answers. In fifty years will we have HIP performances that are more like the 16th or 17th century than they are today? And how will the information we gain then be applied? Will not the actually application of it be indelibly tied to the decade?

Bravo to singer Benjamin Bagby who has dared to make chant of various kinds a riveting and daring thing. He and his colleagues in Sequentia presented a concert of monodies in Ozawa Hall that rivaled the length of a Bruckner symphony and held a large audience rapt. Most beautiful to me in this performance was how speaking and singing became fluid. Mr. Bagby has found a way with minimal gesture to make a long medieval epic adventurous, even dashing. He proves better than anyone else that less is more. He stretches out beyond current performance fads to a style which reaches us as 21st century listeners.

Norbert Rodenkirchen played a medieval flute beguilingly. He insinuated with his instruments; nothing was insisted upon. I would love to hear him play the flute solo in L’Apres midi d’un faun using said instrument. His playing had a quality of the air, not a compulsion. I especially loved the way the final note of each of his airs was held just long enough. It was a gateway to silence. The repetitious nature of the melodic formulas carried us onwards, never weighed us down. We were left with the indelible impression that this was not primitive music from a far distant past, but a music which lives.

Lear and his Daughters at the National Theatre. Photo Mark Douet.
Lear and his Daughters at the National Theatre. Photo Mark Douet.

Deep in Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is a profound mistrust of words themselves. Simon Russell Beale in The National Theatre’s King Lear, simulcast at The Clark, nearly came out of the gate roaring. He was ferocious. Speech after speech went by, full of juice and nuance, but seemed to mean less and less, and he knew it. He was a man well aware of his faltering mind. It was as if he needed to get all of the words out before the great silence. If one just listened to the number of horrific epithets he aimed at his daughters three, even the blessed Cordelia, they became noises, fearsome launches into impotent vengeance, each making the other less and less true. Mr. Beale as King Lear knew this. He was a king beset by futility, only later by senility. He roared—just the vocal exertion itself was a miracle. This was a Lear who was in the storm from the beginning of the play, the storm itself in the third act being just a louder version of the chaos in his head. And still in all he managed to find variety, even tenderness in the verbal onslaught. For me, I heard some of the playwright himself in this. Anyone with an almost limitless capacity to make words, must on some level doubt them, if only because they come so easily. Mr. Beale spoke the five “never”s at the end of the play virtually without expression (but exquisitely timed). Like someone who had lost the substance, or at least lost his belief in it, he still heard the sound the words made. This is one of the most powerful performances of Lear I have ever seen, and that on a screen and listening to loudspeakers. I can only imagine what must have gone on in the theater.

Keith Kibler

About Keith Kibler

Twice a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center, Keith Kibler’s doctorate was earned at Yale University and the Eastman School of Music. He is one of the region’s most sought after teachers with students accepted at the New England Conservatory, the Juilliard School, Peabody and Hartt Conservatories, the Tanglewood Institute, and the Aspen Music School. Keith Kibler is an adjunct teacher of singing at Williams College.

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