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Christine Gevert: Maestro of the Baroque

Interview
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Nov 2nd, 2018

Christine Givert conducting

Christine Gevert is a multi-dimensional musician: keyboard player, basso continuo player, researcher, and perhaps most important of all, choral director. At the helm of Crescendo she has explored forgotten masterpieces, as well as newly commissioned contemporary works.

Interview

KM: What do you think is the special effect of polyphonic singing as an intellectual and emotional experience?

Intellectually it is rewarding, because it is a multi-dimensional process. Polyphony is like architecture—forms and structures are combined to create something so much more interesting than just the sum of the components. This is something that the intellect can understand and enjoy. Emotionally, I find Polyphony rewarding, as it instills in me a sense of humility and awe, when I realize I am being part of something so complex, and in which each part relies on the accuracy of the other to be able to build the whole work together.

KM: How did the chorale group Crescendo, now in its fifteenth year, come about?

In 2002 I came to this area in a transitional moment in my life, working at a small Episcopal Church, Trinity Church Lime Rock, while I decided where to go next—back to Europe, or to New York, or Boston. During this time, I worked with amateur singers in this area and other locations on a few choral concerts. My work was so well received that people asked me if I wouldn’t consider building up a music program based at Trinity Church with the goal to become independent after a few years. This is what I started at the end of 2003. We will celebrate our proper 15th anniversary next fall, when it will be the 15th year since our first large choral concert, as Crescendo started with a series of workshops and lectures, and smaller cast concerts.

KM: Crescendo performs traditional polyphonic works, yet they also perform new compositions. What recent works have you been happy about and what is new on your horizon?

I get so excited about every single project that we embark in… so it is hard to choose a favorite. What I can say is that I have found that our audience and our performers enjoy the juxtaposition of early and contemporary music. Performing rarely heard early works with specialized soloists and period instruments as close to the way it probably was done originally is compelling to many. And people also get excited about new works, the freshness of a new musical language, and new texts. By offering both, it makes people listen differently.

Most recently, a contemporary highlight was the commission of a multimedia work based on nine Norman Rockwell paintings “Paintings in Song” by local composer John Myers (Bard College at Simon’s Rock). We premiered that work for adult and children’s chorus, soloists, instruments and a projected animation of the paintings (including the iconic Four Freedoms) in spring of 2017.

One of my favorite Early Music programs in the last few years was “The Italian-Argentinian Bach, Domenico Zipoli.” This program featured works by Zipoli that are among about 15,000 Baroque scores discovered only recently in the archives of Chiquitos, Bolivia. We performed these works with a cast of instruments likely to have been found in the Jesuit reservations of the times: Baroque instruments, such as violins, cello, dulcian, organ, and Latin American Colonial, and even Pre-Colonial instruments, such as Quenas (wooden flute, resembling the recorder), charango (ukulele-like small strummed instrument with a very bright sound), and Spanish guitar.

KM: You have taught Baroque tuning methods at universities. What is different about Baroque tuning?

I taught Basso Continuo in Europe at the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule—a world renowned institute for sacred music. Basso Continuo is the art of accompanying Baroque music, by reading a bass line with figures only (much like Jazz players nowadays). This involves quite a bit of knowledge of harmony and composition which was often performed by the composers themselves in those times.

I have also taught Baroque tunings in workshops and masterclasses; it is part of what we do at Crescendo rehearsals and training sessions also. Basically, Baroque tunings are “unequal.” Our modern tuning is called equal temperament: each of the 12 notes of our tonal system are equally “out of tune,” making them all be the same distance from each other, but that slightly compromises the purity of intonation to achieve this. All the notes we use in our Western scale are produced as “overtones”—softer sounding notes that can be heard above a fundamental pitch. They give a tone its characteristic “color.” These pitches and the length of their sound waves are all in exact relationships to each other 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, etc. When you play two different notes at the same time, and they are tuned by the natural overtone scale—which is called “perfect” or “pure” tuning/intonation, they will be completely “in tune,” meaning that their sound waves align perfectly. The need for “tempered” (compromising intervals) arose the moment we started to use musical instruments with fixed pitches: strings, pipes, etc.

Unfortunately, if you tune an instrument by perfect intervals, you end up with a difference, a very audible gap, as you reach the last note. To make up for this, Early composers avoided using certain notes completely. But in Baroque times, hundreds of tuning systems were developed, that favored certain keys over others. It’s fascinating! By choosing a tuning system that leaves certain intervals “pure” (perfectly tuned), the early music really comes alive, which is why it is important to teach them and to use them for this kind of repertoire. As complicated as this all sounds, any interested amateur can learn this, as do our singers at Crescendo!

KM: Can you speak about basso continuo and the role it generally plays in the harmonic structure of Baroque music?

I guess I mostly answered this in the previous question – but I can expand just a little… Baroque music is really built from the ground up – everything is strongly based on and grounded upon the bass line. The phrasing and therefore the whole structure of Baroque music is defined and driven by the bass line. Therefore, it is a very important part of the composition. Basso continuo players mostly were very skilled musicians – often the composers themselves, who also directed the music. Continuo groups could include many instruments: keyboards (organs, harpsichords, and many others), strings (high and low: from the violoncello to the violone), wood winds / reeds (dulcians, bassoons, recorders, and others), plucked instruments (a variety of lutes, theorboes, guitars, harps, etc.)

In Italy at the beginning of the 18th century there were apparently huge continuo groups of up to 40 players! But the practice varied enormously. Harmonically this group is important because all instruments that are capable play chords on most bass notes. This not only supports the harmonic structure of the piece, but also provides a sound that bridges high and low voices, a kind of “glue.” And lastly, the continuo group is also vitally important for the rhythmical stability of the whole ensemble. Keeping time, much like a drummer in a band, is one of their important functions.

KM: Who are your favorite Baroque composers? Or some of your favorite works by Baroque composers? Any why they are important to you.

This could become a very long answer… But in short – I admire over all musicians, probably most Johann Sebastian Bach. There is something about the depth of his music that is unique—almost like he touches upon something cosmic…. Many people have written about this and analyzed his works to find the answers (he was a genius with numbers, and numerology was an important component of Christian theology in his times). As a keyboard player (piano, harpsichord, organ) you grow up playing Bach, because it poses a challenge to your coordination, and teaches you how to interpret polyphony at a very high level (even his two-voice Inventions are highly complex!). As a singer and conductor, I can’t but literally adore his large oratorios: B-minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, and the two Passions. Beyond their beauty and impressive display of musical elements, Bach’s music always feels transcendental for me.

As a young student in Hamburg, I once fell into an altered consciousness state, much like those who practice transcendental meditation while I was listening to my teacher playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in concert. This state lasted for about two days for me, giving me a glimpse of what eternity could mean. While that was an extraordinary one-time experience, Bach’s music always touches something in me that goes beyond my senses and intellect.

At the same time I am very passionate about many other composers, who are rather unknown nowadays, due to unfortunate circumstances. I find it fascinating to discover works that reflect different national styles and eras (the Baroque was a very long period and underwent many aesthetic changes). I am very partial to French Baroque composers, as they have a sense for color and use ornaments and inflections in a highly sophisticated way. My own Baroque Duo Les Inégales has this repertoire as our main undertaking. Jacques Hottetere is one of the fantastic composers who wrote for our instruments: traverso and harpsichord. As I lived and grew up in Chile, Latin American Baroque is very dear to my heart.

I mentioned Zipoli earlier, but there are many more and some of them have found their way into Crescendo’s programming. There is a liveliness and new dimension in them; as the European culture reached the colonies, it was adapted, embraced, and somewhat re-invented by the people that lived there. You will hear some of this repertoire in our upcoming December “Holiday” concert that is centered around the Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

KM: There can be a good deal of improvisation in Baroque music. Can a singer at times be considered a co-composer? Can you comment on how this sometimes works?

In a way yes, but only at very specific places. Singers were expected to ornament their “da Capo Arias” (those solo vocal pieces who had a long repeat of the “A” section, resulting in an ABA form). The place where this came to be most important was the opera, and to a certain degree it also happened in the church and in smaller venues like theaters or even private chambers. The embellishment of the repeated section of the Aria took on astounding forms, and singers became true “pop stars” for what they accomplished: breathtaking speed, brilliant timing, thrilling accuracy, incredible beauty and creativity in their melodies and riffs. The places where everyone used to literally “hold their breath” are the so called Kadenzas, a moment before the Aria ends, in which all instruments stop, and the singer “riffs off” on his own, showcasing his/her ability in sometimes spectacular vocal acrobatics. In both of last season’s concert that we presented with Crescendo Dixit Dominus (Handel and Vivaldi) and Laudate Dominus (J.A. Hasse) there was a great deal of this going on. With our younger singers, who performed alongside seasoned professionals in the Laudate Dominus concert, we worked for nearly a year with this repertoire, so they could understand how this process comes to be. The way to learn how to do it is that you learn “written out” embellishments. That gives you the building blocks to latter on perform your own. I will never forget when in one of the first Crescendo concerts a countertenor from Boston, suddenly, in the last concert (we almost always perform the same program twice), hit a very high note—out of the blue—and did so without having let us know beforehand (and we had rehearsed quite a bit together before these concerts). That was a wonderful surprise, a true highpoint for us and for him.

KM: You have made several discoveries in research. Will you tell us how you go about doing your research and what was your most exciting discovery?

I wish I could really be out in the field doing the actual discovery of the music. Unfortunately, the way my life is structured, means that I don’t have the time and resources to travel and unearth manuscripts at the source. (I am responsible for most of Crescendo’s management still after 15 years, like many other founders are of their organizations). What I do happens mostly online. Many great libraries in the world have digitized many of their scores and manuscripts, which makes it somewhat easier to access them remotely. I also listen to an incredible amount of music online, to find something that interest me. Because of my training, I can decipher a goodly quantity of Early manuscripts, and I am also able to produce performing editions. I worked professionally as a transcriber and editor for a Swiss publishing company when I lived in Europe.  This makes it possible for Crescendo to perform works that would otherwise not be available.

You ask about the “most exciting discovery.” For me what still stands out remains the “Requiem A 15” by Heinrich Franz Ignaz Biber. We performed this piece in 2008, and it is a truly majestic, extraordinarily beautiful piece. Some singers still talk about it…. It had been lying dormant in the Salzburg (Austria) archives; the Catholic leadership tends to be very difficult about letting anyone gain access to their archives. It was unearthed by a European group only at the end of the 20th century (in the 1990s, I believe). Thankfully, they recorded it, and so I came upon the sound before I looked for the scores. I then was able to purchase a musicological edition in Europe, one that includes many mistakes, and is so small, that no performer or even the conductor could really use it. Based on that I was able to make a performing edition for our concerts. The work had been performed once before in the United States at the University of Texas! It became an East coast premiere. It’s a spectacular piece....

KM: Your upcoming program at Saint James Place in Great Barrington on November 10 at 6 pm and at Trinity Church in Lime Rock at 4 pm is entitled “The Sound of the Trumpet.” What is special about the role of the trumpet in the works that will be performed?

The trumpet found a rather sudden way into English music around the end of the 1680s. In the 17th century, Bologna, Italy, had quickly become the “capital” of trumpet music, after the instrument found its way into independent polyphonic compositions only around the 1660s. Liberated from being confined to military occasions, the trumpets came to play a very important role in Purcell’s music. At those times trumpets were used for very solemn occasions in London. Purcell’s patroness, Queen Mary commissioned him to write a festive Te Deum and Jubilate Deo in 1694 to celebrate the day of Saint Cecilia (the patroness of music).  The two trumpets are a very important element in this festive music, literally “the crown” of the orchestra (in this case also playing the highest notes—higher than the violins). 

The role of the trumpet in a solemn funeral procession started much earlier in England, being common already at the beginning of the 17th century. Purcell’s funeral Sentences for Queen Mary were composed for the burial ceremony of his patroness in 1695 (only a year later than the Te Deum). The trumpets here play a different role – they feature a solemn, rather somber 4-voice tune (the two low voices will be played by sackbuts in our performance) that would have been played to accompany the funeral procession, likely also with a large field drum as part of this ensemble. The trumpets remain silent during the choral parts. A brass canzona, also part of this work, might have been played after the Anthem was sung. The trumpets set a very solemn tone in this work. Sadly, Purcell died later that same year, in 1695, only of 36 years of age. Apparently, this work was performed at his own funeral.

KM: I can’t wait to hear this upcoming concert!