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BE STILL, MY HEART: Harriman presents KC’s favorite singer in bellicose new project

By Paul Horsley

Can music change the human heart? Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato believes it can, and the Prairie Village native has devoted a substantial part of her international career to projects that further this tenet. In addition to being one of the great singers of our time, Joyce has produced a series of award-winning recordings and concerts dealing with love, sorrow, jealousy, redemption, death and (not least of all) joy.

The multiple Grammy Award-winning diva, whom The New Yorker called “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation,” has triumphed on opera stages and in concert halls the world over, and in a series of wide-ranging and award-winning recordings. Most recently her Joyce and Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall, featuring conductor Antonio Pappano on piano, won the 2016 Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.

Her latest recording project for Erato/Warner Classics, In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music, was released November 4th and is accompanied by a 20-city tour with the early-music ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and harpsichordist Maxim Emelyanychev. This Pearl Harbor Day, appropriately perhaps, her tour lands at Kansas City’s Folly Theater, a presentation of the Harriman-Jewell Series. This fascinating concert consists of searing Baroque arias dealing with war and peace, both internal and external, and if the performance is anything like the recording, we’re all in for an extraordinary ride.

Joyce DiDonato, "War" / Photo by Brooke Shaden / Dress by Vivienne Westwood
Joyce DiDonato, ‘War’ / Photo by Brooke Shaden / Dress by Vivienne Westwood

Joyce’s is a Kansan’s optimism, and it arrives on the scene just in time. “As a citizen of the world in 2016, at times I am overwhelmed by the temptation to spiral down into the turmoil and pessimism that seemingly invades all corners of our lives,” she writes on the project’s website, “pulling me into the dispiriting din of upheaval which can devastate the spirit. And yet, I’m a belligerent, proud, willing optimist. I resist.”

Like many of the heroines she portrays, Joyce refuses to allow her spirit to be conquered, by external or internal turmoil: “We are a restless bunch, prone to desperation, isolation and violence in some moments, and yet, mercifully, to optimism and generosity in others.”

In War and Peace features arias by Handel, Purcell, Jommelli, Leonardo Leo and others, and includes stage direction by Ralf Pleger. The tour takes Joyce to nearly all of the European capitals (including Amsterdam, London, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Prague) as well as to California, Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The tour project includes an interactive website (inwarandpeace.com), on which the public can order CDs, keep track of the schedule, or read up on Joyce’s activities. Visitors are also solicited to write their own impressions of the concerts, and are asked to answer the overarching question (offered in 10 languages, including Arabic): “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” The answers (now numbering in the hundreds) as well as fans’ tour impressions appear on the web page.

As she was launching the tour, Joyce graciously took time to answer some questions for us at The Independent:

Paul: Why is music from the Baroque period ideal for this type of program? What insights about war and peace can this repertoire offer—textually, musically, conceptually, philosophically—that music from other periods does not?

Joyce: Music of all periods have addressed war and peace, and some of the great masterpieces have been written under the worst war-induced circumstances. (Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, for example). The particular element that I find of Baroque music that illuminates this theme is the purity of the music, so that the emotional impact is much more direct. War seems more stark, and peace somehow more celestial.

Can a program of Baroque arias change people’s hearts? Is there a hope that beautiful music can somehow actually inspire people to positive action?

I know that it can. I hear from many people who tell me that music brings them tranquility, inspiration, hope, comfort, solace. If people feel these things, then they can find the space and the silence to find it within themselves to continue to hope. And if they are hopeful, they will act in a positive way. I have no doubts about it. Does this mean everyone WILL take action after hearing this music, no. But some will. And that is golden.

Coincidentally or not, the Harriman-Jewell Series version of “In War and Peace” occurs on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing. While it would seem strange to call this “fortuitous,” one could ask: How does our mindfulness of past conflicts shape our thinking about building a peaceful future?

IF we are mindful, IF we are cognizant and informed of the past, IF we educate ourselves on the patterns of humanity, it is more likely we will act accordingly. If we do not engage actively in understanding history—well, it has been said often—we are doomed to repeat it. Some of the music of this concert is over 400 years old, and it is as timely as ever.

'Peace' / Photo by Brooke Shaden / Dress by Vivienne Westwood
‘Peace’ / Photo by Brooke Shaden / Dress by Vivienne Westwood

These works ask us draw parallels between inner conflicts of the soul and outer conflicts between peoples and armies. How are these two connected? Is this tie chiefly metaphorical, or can we sometimes literally trace war to internal turmoil that ultimately explodes into violent external conflict?

My primary concern is the inner conflict, because it is the only one I have control over. I cannot control an army or a government. But I CAN control my reactions to things that arise around me. This is where I want to put my energy.

At first glance I found Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea a puzzling inclusion. Yet when I pondered the text I realized that it’s a sort of pivot-point: After several arias about cruel fate, battlefields and scenes of horror (there’s even a jab of a sword, in the Leonardo Leo aria), we get this text derived from Matthew 26 in which Jesus in the Garden says “put down your sword.”

The inclusion here is strictly a musical one, as we won’t have a choir performing it with text. It is about deep sorrow, a profound mourning in the darkest moment of one’s life. It will lead into the “letting go” of “Lascia ch’io pianga.” After the turmoil of horrifying war, radical inner torment, (Handel’s “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Agrippina), we enter into total desperation—which then can bring relief. To hear the musical elements just with the orchestra, you understand the depth of this sorrow.

Could you talk a little bit about the “production” of this program: the stage direction, the costumes, the lighting, etc.? Is the idea to create a sort of monodrama, with you playing a “character” who joins all of these concerns into a single strand of thought?

We have created something that is a bit outside the norms of a typical classical music concert experience. We will bring in lighting, some projections, and a dance element—all with the intention of framing the music in an organic, integrated way to enhance the emotional impact of this very charged program.

My hope is that the experience will be one that is seared in people’s memories for a long time, so they can always return to a strong feeling of peace and serenity when they most need to recall it in their lives.

Approximately how many responses have you had so far to the question you pose on the website? What are some of the dominant trends/tendencies you see in the more serious answers?

I’ve had over 500 responses from over 40 countries. What is beautiful about the responses is that nearly every single response is the most simple of answers: People find peace in nature, breathing, music, art, loved ones. It is the most perfect and timely reminder that it is ALWAYS accessible to us, and always simple to find—if we seek it out and nourish it within ourselves. My wish is that we each nourish the simple path to peace within ourselves more and more.

The Harriman-Jewell Series presents “In War and Peace” on December 7th at the Folly Theater. Call 816-415-5025 or see hjseries.org. For more information about the project, including an interactive dialogue on the subjects of war and peace, go to inwarandpeace.com.

Screen Shot 2016-11-28 at 8.04.24 AM

At top: Il Pomo d’Oro, photography by Julien Mignot (il-pomodoro.ch).

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

 

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