A Tenor's Perspective

Classic Arts Features   A Tenor's Perspective
Tenor Ian Bostridge launches his Carnegie Hall Perspectives series with a concert on March 19 with the Orchestra of St. Luke's.

"I don't sing enough Handel," says Ian Bostridge, explaining, matter-of-factly, the focus of his March 19 Perspectives concert with the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Stern Auditorium. Three of the pieces that he will perform at the event are from Handel's Ariodante. Bostridge admits to "feeling a bit naughty, in stealing these arias originally scored for a mezzo-soprano. I've yet to work out exactly what to do in the da capo repeat. I'm not a countertenor coloratura who specializes in virtuosic embellishments. But I should point out that there is a historical reason for doing these arias: 'Doppo notte' was taken by Handel out of Ariodante and put into a revival of an opera called Poro, and was sung by a tenor. Handel often did that: a castrato would sing in the premiere‹say, as Sesto in Giulio Cesare‹and the revival would go to a tenor."

Bostridge's Perspectives will also include four Zankel Hall concerts in March and May. Some will expand his musical borders, others will showcase the singer in music he is more closely associated with, notably Benjamin Britten's music. In fact, the first concert on March 8 will be devoted entirely to music by this English master.

Bostridge's instrument has always seemed marked by a preponderance of "head" voice up and down the scale. Like many other English tenors, he seems, nearly always, as if he's singing in the voix mixte, a sound that seems to match Britten's sound world perfectly. Bostridge was steeped in Britten's work at an early age, then largely forgot about it until he was a graduate student. At that point, he heard a recording of Peter Pears singing The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. "I didn't have anything approaching the capacity to sing them," he recalls. "I did it by force of will, and that became the first thing that I performed with success in public."

Bostridge views Britten as a songwriter "in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann"‹two composers who will be featured in the final Perspectives concerts on May 6 and 13, respectively. An earlier concert, on March 13, features Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge. The tenor isn't sold on much of the English song repertoire but praises this cycle as "Vaughan Williams at his most perceptive." As for Britten: "I think that he produced an amazing slew of song recitals. It is telling that Britten worked so much at that repertoire, performing Schubert, Schumann, and French songs."

Since Bostridge is an author himself (Witchcraft and Its Transformations, ca. 1650-ca. 1750), it seems natural enough to ask him if he thinks the definitive biography of Britten has appeared. "Not really," he says. "The Humphrey Carpenter book [published in 1993] is very entertaining, but it doesn't touch on historical or socio-political matters. It would be interesting to read about Britten's homosexuality in a historical context, rather than reading recent music criticism that sees all of his music through the lens of 'queer studies,' which I find slightly irritating. I think there is a fantastic book to be written‹not by me‹about Britten. Just to try to explain how this great post-war composer‹who was so cosmopolitan and yet so English at the same time‹came out of nowhere."

Volumes have been written on the interpretative abilities of our great recitalists, and Bostridge's highly individual performances have earned him many admirers. But he feels that the word interpretation can all too easily lead singers‹particularly young ones‹astray. "It's not at all about looking at a song and interpreting it as if you were doing literary criticism on a poem," he says. "It's about inhabiting the song, living it. All you need is enough technical means to stand up there and say something that you want to say."

Brian Kellow's third book, Mama's Talkin' Loud: The Life of Ethel Merman, will be published by Viking in late 2007. He is also the author of The Bennetts: An Acting Family and Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell.

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