The soprano Julianne Baird is well-known to early music cognoscenti - she toured and recorded extensively with the Waverly Consort for much of the eighties, and has appeared on recordings of Bach with the Smithsonian and with Joshua Rifkin's Bach Ensemble for Oiseau-Lyre. She seems ready to introduce her talents to a much larger audience, with three recent successes on Troy, New York's Dorian label presaging a burgeoning of releases in 1990.
Baird's soprano is an instantly recognizable instrument. The immediate impression is one of little or no vibrato, but that's not quite on the mark. She sings with a narrow and rather fast vibrato which doesn't blur the edges of the pitch. Likewise it would be inaccurate to group her with the sopranos working in early music who have high, predominantly lyric voices. Baird's voice seems most at home in a range closer to that of the mezzo-soprano, but without the weight usually associated with that voice. One of the joys of her singing is the fluidity and accuracy she brings to the florid divisions of the early seventeenth century ( using a technique of throat articulation, or in Italian, gorgheggiare.
Baird, who is still in her thirties, received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Eastman, and then spent a year in Austria before proceeding to Stanford, where she began a doctorate in music (the Stanford D.M.A. program combines practical instruction in early instruments for the professional with training in musicology, and trained the sopranist Randall Wong and harpschordist Charlotte Mattax, among many others). Professional success (in the form of the Waverly Consort) took her away from campus, but she expects to complete the program this year (having prepared a translation with commentary on Johann Friedrich Agricola's l757 translation with commentary of Tosi's widely influential work on singing, the Opinioni de' cantori antichi e moderni.
We spoke at her rambling nineteenth-century home in suburban Philadelphia, a city not known (at least not yet) for the performance of early music. I was intrigued by the credit on her recent release (Songs of Love and War, with Colin Tilney and Myron Lutzke, Dorian [[??]]DOR 90104) to the Astral Foundation -what might be the occult connections of the New Age with old music?
The Astral Foundation is in fact located in Philadelphia County, not Marin County, and has as its intention the development of stars in music and dance (hence the name), and has funded both individual projects, and supported organizations which will help further the careers of young artists. Baird received funds to support recordings of examples of ornamentation , which has born fruit already in her lute-song recordings for Dorian (she was able to purchase the complete set of facsimiles of the English seventeenth-century song repertoire published by Garland). Further releases with Astral Foundation support will include recordings of Italian monody (Monteverdi, Barbara Strozzi) and Handel.
Baird is a singer who has been successful with a technique that some might consider out of the mainstream, but which is superbly effective in the earlier repertoire in which she has specialised so far. Question: how can we develop singers who are willing to explore techniques outside of the mainstream? Baird thinks that singers are interested, but to do so successfully they need tools, need an education which will free them to experiment knowledgeably. "To give a small example, the more I look at Tosi and other sources I see that they talk about something called the messa di voce crescente. Now if you look at Monteverdi, you'll see sometimes on the words piangere, lagrime, other affect-laden words having to do with crying, sighing, sobbing, a b-flat moving to b-natural, with a slur above. To a seventeenth-century singer that meant slide, really slide, explore all the commas between those notes in the form of a glissando. Now that's a dramatic thing to do, but in fact it existed. One just needs to know where to look for it."
One of the reasons that early music (at least in the United States) has only recently made it into the conservatories (usually through the back doors) is the inherent conservatism of teachers who (especially in the case of voice teachers) are passing down an orally transmitted tradition which has been only tangentially influenced by written sources from the past (most instrumental musicians know of the existence of treatises by past masters of their instruments (Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, Leopold Mozart), even if they haven't read them; I doubt the same is true of most singers). Hence the hesitancy to consider technical possibilities other than the ones which one has received, with singers experiencing the further difficulty of having no guidance from the "period instrument" itself. To anyone listening to music outside the Western classical tradition it's evident that a variety of expressive vocal techniques are possible, and one often wonders what the variety of techniques may have been within the tradition. Is there one basic and sound technique, or can there be different techniques appropriate for different repertoire? Baird bases her technique on the teachings of the bel canto of the high baroque (exemplified by Porpora and his eminent students, who included Faustina Bordoni Hasse and Farinelli). Porpora emphasized the development of both flexibility and sustained tone. The throat articulation used in the earlier Baroque for passaggi was no longer in good repute (it was usually referred to with derisive terms such as "cackling"); it was considered a faulty basis for a good technique, though it was still in use by Faustina (who employed it even in the chest voice) and others.
How does a singer produce such rapid articulations in the throat? " They work best in a small setting - they're not particularly effective in a large hall. It's the same technique you hear in kids playing guns, that sort of rat-a-tat sound they make with their vocal cords. Agricola describes it as a gentle laugh in the palate, an aspirated laugh. With this technique you can articulate notes much more quickly than you can using the mid-eighteenth-century detached technique. Their divisions (Handel, Francesco Mancini, Telemann, Bach) are descirbed as reiterating the vowel on each note- there's a slight aspiration that may come from a diaphragmatic pulsation. This kind of articulation was considered proper for the vast majority of divisions. What is normally done today (namely slurred or legato articulation) was reserved for very rare instances, for slow pieces, pathetic arias."
Quite a number of treatises survive on florid vocal ornamentation (usually improvised) from the late Renaissance and early Baroque, and it's clear that the practice was widespread in both solo and ensemble music (writers usually emphasize that good taste requires that only one part ornament at time). So far few modern singers have been willing to create and perform the sort of extensive ornaments that can be heard in the elaborate version of "Amarilli" on "Songs of Love and War" (these were from the pen of an anonymous English performer). In preparing her lute-song recordings Baird was able to compare all the extant versions of a particular song, which frequently had different divisions, choose among these and add some of her own.
What repertoire does Baird want to explore next? "People laugh when I say I'd like to do Susanna - singers usually talk about moving into Wagner!" Her upcoming recordings (most already recorded and soon to be released, some yet to be recorded) include music of Clerambault for Meridian, Purcell, Italian monody, and Handel cantatas with instruments (including "Tra le fiamme", " Nel dolce del oblio" and "Alpestre monti") for Dorian, La Serva Padrona for Omega Records, and Handel's Siroe for Newport Classics.
In contrast to the many Americans who have made their mark on the early music scene by living and working as expatriates, Baird has chosen to stay in the United States, a bold choice, but one which is now bearing fruit, with the slow but steady proliferation of established and well-supported orchestras of period instruments (Banchetto Musicale and the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, Philharmonia in San Francisco, the Smithsonian in Washington, the Classical Band in New York, to mention only the most prominent). She is just now beginning to work in Europe, which she attributes to the visibility supplied by her recordings for Dorian (she is very happy with these, as she should be). She appeared in Brussels last fall, and will appear in Germany next season.
Baird has done her homework, though not without a certain insecurity about image - she's well aware of the stigma attached (at least on this side of the Atlantic) to musicians who do musicological research as well. "We have a tendency, especially in the business of music, to discourage several facets. Because of the business of selling an artist we need to have something that is identifiable as theirs. Can they possibly do it all well? Given the fact that a singer can't practice five hours a day the way an instrumentalist can, it's been of paramount importance for me to do the research too. I've learned about things that I could not have guessed from the music alone". She's very happy to be passing along some of her knowledge to young musicians at the Camden campus of Rutgers University, where she teaches music history and performance practice and coaches small ensembles. Baird expects that the future will bring an early music program there, as well as a West Jersey Baroque Institute, and sounds hopeful about the state of early music in Philadelphia . It's certain that her own future in early music will be one of the brightest.