A Chat With: Dame Emma Kirkby

Classic Arts Features   A Chat With: Dame Emma Kirkby
In a rare series of appearances on this side of the Atlantic, Dame Emma Kirkby - lauded as one of the top 10 "Greatest Sopranos" by the BBC - embarks on a mini-tour Oct. 18 in New Haven. She chats here about her career, influences, honors and current program.


With ten performances scheduled across America, the Musique and Sweet Poetrie tour will feature renowned lutenist Jakob Lindberg. Each performance on the tour will boast one of two arranged programs: Music at Twilight, a compilation of songs and solos from early 17th Century Europe, and Orpheus in England: Dowland and Purcell, a program celebrating the 350th anniversary of Henry Purcell's birth.

New Yorkers will have the opportunity to hear both programs, as Music at Twilight will be presented at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall on Tuesday Oct. 20 at 7:30 PM, and Orpheus in England at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on Sunday Nov. 1 at 3 PM.

Kirkby and Lindberg's joint album, Musique and Sweet Poetrie: Jewels from Europe around 1600 was released in SACD format in 2007. Together in perfect balance, Kirkby and Lindberg draw the listener in as a companion with whom they are sharing precious intimacies. The songs and lute solos are eclectic, by English, Flemish, German, Italian, French, and Polish composers. The works by the better-known English composers stand out for their expressiveness, while others are remarkable for their harmonic and vocal eccentricities, and the variety of the repertoire keeps the album consistently engaging.


You embark on a U.S. concert tour this month with celebrated lutenist Jakob Lindberg. Your joint album Musique and Sweet Poetrie: Jewels from Europe around 1600 is one of many collaborations with the artist. How did you first become involved with Mr. Lindberg?

The lute has been my biggest inspiration of all throughout my career; when I first met Jakob Lindberg he was finishing his studies in London with one of our greatest Dowland scholars, Diana Poulton. He took part with me in various groups and it soon became clear that here was a new virtuoso in the making. I've had also a long and wonderful partnership with Anthony Rooley, both with the Consort of Musicke and in duo programmes; to start with I concentrated most of my lute song activities with him, but in the last decade or so I've made good partnerships with other players as well, of whom Jakob is, well, first among equals!

Who would you say served as your greatest inspiration in the early days of your career?

Among singers, Nigel Rogers - for his beautiful tenor, flawless languages and individual style, but especially his groundbreaking work on Monteverdi's coloratura passages. As students my friends and I listened to those thrilling throat roulades, and imitated as best we could. Apart from him, the various renaissance and baroque pioneers - Musica Reservata and The Jaye Consort of Viols in UK, and the Continental groups, Studio der Fruehen Musik in Basel, Concentus Musicus in Vienna, Leonhardt Consort in Amsterdam, and the brothers Kuijken in Flanders. Hearing those instruments, people in this country picked them up and singers like me had the great food fortune to be able to sing this repertoire with the right sounds in my ear.

With a discography of over 100 recordings, your career portfolio encompasses works - both sacred and secular - of the greatest composers from Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque repertoire. Having explored nearly everything from Hildegard to Schubert, is there any particular composer or period that you hold closest to your heart?

No, I cannot narrow things down this far, except to say _ as many others will have done _ "the one I'm working on at this moment"; because I have the great good fortune to work with matchless repertoire! Some people close to my heart are very well-known, such as Dowland, Byrd, Purcell, not to mention the even more obvious Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart; but perhaps most special to me are the less obvious figures, John Danyel, Giaches de Wert, Angelo Notari.

You have been the recipient of some outstanding marks of distinction. In 2007, you were appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours list _ the same year that BBC Music placed you in the top 10 "Greatest Sopranos of All Time"! What were your feelings upon receiving these honors?

On the whole, I find that these lists carry no great weight - I could have named at least twenty more great sopranos with no trouble - and it's likely that few people will have any memory of that exercise! But I appreciate the recognition, and was gratified by some of the phrases used to explain my inclusion. As for the Damehood (although in itself it's a title that baffles most folk outside of the UK, and some even within it!) I was most grateful for the positive reaction of my colleagues; both singers and instrumentalists saw it as a collective achievement _ a recognition of our collaborative way of musicmaking, and of the strength and beauty of our repertoire.

You have won the devotion of music lovers worldwide without going anywhere near the mainstream opera circuit - or even the mainstream repertory. London's Daily Telegraph has dubbed you "the greatest soprano never to sing a note of Verdi." Have you ever felt enticed by the opera stage, or perhaps any role in particular?

No - on the whole I'm happy to go and enjoy the efforts of others in this field. I am pleased though to see the new trend of smaller forces, and the more intimate sound of historical instruments, - which can throw voices and their characters into even greater relief.

You have played a major part in the early music revival that has developed over the past 30 years, through both your solo career and your involvement in key ensembles like the Taverner Choir and the Consort of Musicke. What are your thoughts on the progress of the early music movement, and what _ if any _ developments do you hope to see in the future?

It's exciting to see the new generation of players and singers, to read about the flood of innovative performances and recordings each month - (except how can anyone keep up?) Already the internet is making a huge difference, both providing usable editions of newly-rediscovered pieces, and enabling bright new artists and groups to reach their niche audiences. Perhaps what's pleasing me most is to see new vocal groups forming everywhere, since there is such terrific repertoire available for them and they can have the best time together! Also astonishing all-rounders, who sing beautifully, play instruments superbly, move and gesture effectively, and experiment with old pronunciations and special tunings.

It's harder for young ones now because they are so many - but the energy is still there, I feel optimistic for them and I wish them all the greatest of luck!



Sun 18 Oct 09, 4:00 PM _ New Haven, CT / Yale University _ Music at Twilight

Tue 20 Oct 09, 7:30 PM _ New York, NY / Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall _ Music at Twilight

Fri 23 Oct 09, 8:00 PM _ Boston, MA / Boston Early Music Festival _ Orpheus in England

Sat 24 Oct 09, 8:00 PM _ Columbia, MD / Candlelight Concert Series _ Music at Twilight

Sun 25 Oct 09 , 6:30 PM _ Washington, D.C. / National Gallery of Art _ Orpheus in England

Tue 27 Oct 09, 7:30 PM _ Milwaukee, WI / Early Music Now _ Orpheus in England

Fri 30 Oct 09, 8:00 PM _ Overland Park, KS / Johnson County Community College _ Orpheus in England

Sat 31 Oct 09, 8:00 PM _ Bethlehem, PA / The Bach Choir of Bethlehem _ Orpheus in England

Sun 1 Nov 09, 3:00 PM _ New York, NY / Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church _ Orpheus in England

Tue 3 Nov 09, 7:30 PM _ New Britain, CT / Music Series at South Church _ Orpheus in England

Visit www.emmakirkby.com

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