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INTERVIEW: Brian Stuart on Taking the Boston Early Music Festival On Tour

The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble in concert.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe, one of the featured singers on BEMF’s current tour.

The summer portion of the Boston Early Music Festival has long-since wrapped up along with the warm and dry weather, but for some BEMF musicians things are still running strong. The BEMF Chamber Ensemble has been criss-crossing North America on a 10-day, 6-city performance tour featuring vocal duets by the multi-talented composer, diplomat, and bishop Agostino Steffani (1654-1722).

Touring can involve quite a few travel miles. Last Friday, the BEMF players were performing in Vancouver, British Columbia. The next day, they were a hundred miles and a ferry ride away in Victoria, British Columbia. By Sunday, they’d crossed the U.S.-Canada border to perform in Seattle. This Thursday, October 5 will find the ensemble performing at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, and Friday, October 6 will find them at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston. Before they can rest on their laurels, there’s one more concert to perform: a final engagement on Sunday, October 8 in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with the Boston Early Music Festival’s Brian Stuart about programming tours and on-the-road adventures.

How did this performance tour come to be? It’s one thing to go from Boston to New York City from Boston, but Vancouver, BC is a ways away!

Stephen Stubbs, one of BEMF’s co-Artistic Directors.

While this is BEMF’s first time touring a concert program, in 2011 and 2013 we were able to organize tours of two of our chamber opera productions. This started building the relationships with some of our peers across North America that was very much the foundation of this performance tour.

Being a concert presenter and festival organizer ourselves, building those working relationships in the Early Music community has long been a part of what we do. It absolutely helps that one of our Artistic co-Directors, Stephen Stubbs, is based out of Seattle, where he runs Pacific Musicworks  – who also presented us on this tour.

Vancouver specifically has an interesting relationship, as we’ve worked with their Executive Director Matthew White in the past as an opera soloist and ensemble director.

Agostino Steffani’s vocal writing is very beautiful and distinctive, but his music languished in relative obscurity for a few centuries after his death. What brought these songs to your attention?

Paul O’Dette, also one of the co-Artistic Directors of the Boston Early Music Festival.

Our other Artistic co-Director Paul O’Dette has actually been collecting Steffani’s music for decades and it was long on his wish list of composers that he wanted to explore with BEMF.

[Previously,] in 2011, we had the opportunity to present the fully-staged North American premiere of Steffani’s opera Niobe, Regina di Tebe with the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.

Was there any connection with Cecilia Bartoli’s efforts to shine a spotlight on and promote his music circa 2012?

We were certainly thrilled to see Cecilia Bartoli taking up his cause as well, alongside a handful of European colleagues. He has a fascinating life story, but we believe his music is truly worth exploring. His chamber duets that make up this program had long been his most popular pieces, so we thought it was a great complement to the studio recording we released in 2015 of his opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe.

We’ll be presenting another Steffani opera – Orlando generoso – at our 2019 Festival, and hope to do another program of vocal duets in the future.

A production photo from BEMF’s 2011 production of Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe. Photo by André Costantini.

Some of the musical instruments used in this concert like harpsichords and harps are quite large. How do you manage the logistics of transporting instruments across the country in a rapid-paced tour like this? Do you borrow any instruments along the way?

Logistically, this is actually a pretty easy program, all things considered. The harp will be traveling with us, but can be treated as luggage so there aren’t any special requirements. For the harpsichord…obviously it would be difficult to cart a single instrument around with us, so our local presenters all have partners that they work with to rent those locally.

The exception [to this] is in Boston, where we have been fortunate to receive some excellent harpsichords recently as donations, so we’ll be drawing upon our own burgeoning instrument library here.

Soprano Emőke Baráth, another of the featured singers on BEMF’s current tour.

The concert program is focused on Steffani’s vocal duets, but you also program a few pieces by Frescobaldi, Handel, and Corbetto. Besides variety and pacing, are there any particular reasons why you chose these works by these composers to program with Steffani?

The additional works on the program are all instrumental interludes to go between the Steffani duets. Many of them are solo showcases for the members of our continuo ensemble, and their primary purpose is an aural amuse-bouche, as it were.

We definitely wanted to select pieces that were complementary to Steffani and coming from the same era, but they are (at their heart) party pieces meant to underscore the festive entertainment of the full program.

BEMF has a similarly named CD release coming out, Agostino Steffani’s Duets of Love and Passion, with an October 27 release date. When did you decide to record this CD? When did the actual recording take place and where?

The cover of BEMF’s upcoming CD Agostino
Steffani’s Duets of Love and Passion

We recorded the companion CD (which is, indeed, the same repertoire as the concert program, although without the instrumental interludes) in January in Bremen, Germany.

This is the first time we’ve done a non-opera recording with our Artistic Directors; it came about partly from the enthusiastic response to our CD release of Steffani’s opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe. We hope to do another full opera recording of Steffani in the future, but as those generally follow staged productions, we knew that would be several years to come. A program of his chamber vocal duets seemed the perfect opportunity, especially as it would allow us to plan for this performance tour to coincide with the release.

We do have advance copies of the CD [for sale] that have been quite popular with audiences on the first half of the tour.

Tours often have a lot of unexpected moments and surprises, both on-stage and off. Do you have any interesting stories to share from this or previous tours?

Douglas Williams and Aaron Sheehan in the Boston performance of La Couronne de Fleurs in 2011. In the Rockport performance, the dark backdrop of the hall’s wooden paneling was replaced by a spectacular sunset. Photo by André Constantini.

One of our favorite touring stories actually came quite close to home, when we brought a double-bill of chamber operas by Charpentier to Rockport Music on the North Shore, here in Massachusetts. It took place in the Shalin Liu Performance Center, which is a really amazing venue with a huge window behind the stage overlooking the beach and Sandy Bay off Cape Ann.

It was the final performance on the tour, the Monday right after our June Festival ended in Boston, so for the performers it was already a big finale atmosphere. The day started quite dreary and overcast, but just before showtime, the storm passed and we had a gorgeous sunset behind us. It was the perfect backdrop for the pastoral setting of the Charpentier chamber opera that started the program, La Couronne de Fleurs (“The Crown of Flowers”).

The program also included Charpentier’s Orphée and the natural setting continued cooperating as darkness fell over the water, just in time for the descent into the underworld. It made for a truly magical moment that we won’t soon forget!

The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble presents a program of vocal duets by Agostino Steffani on Thursday, October 5 in New York City; on Friday, October 6 in Boston, MA; and on Sunday, October 8 in Kansas City, MO.

Basil Considine