Catching Up With the Queen of Baroque Style

By Judith Malafronte

(This article is in press and will be published in Schwann Artist Issue 2000/01.)

"Even if you hadn't gone to college and learned fancy music, you'd have become a singer anyway--you'd be singing country and western music on the radio," Julianne Baird's mother once told her. This impulse to sing--the need to communicate, to have an impact upon and connect with an audience--coupled with a fierce and highly developed musical intelligence has brought this soprano, called by The New York Times "a treasurable artist," to the top of two professions. In addition to keeping a busy recording and performing schedule, Dr. Baird is also a tenured professor of music at Rutgers University.

The image of Julianne in Nashville attire strutting her stuff at the Grand Ole Opry may be hilarious to anyone who only knows her as an angelic interpreter of Bach and Handel. Having been her colleague and friend for 25 years, however, I admit that, while not as blond as Dolly Parton, Julianne does possess the appealing voice, the charisma, and an earthy sense of humor that might enable such a career. I have always found her singing to be attractive and compelling, but even in the Gregorian chant choir at the Eastman School of Music, I was never deceived by the cherubic face and voice. She would guffaw like a truck-stop waitress when we shared a naughty joke.

At the moment we are sharing vocal philosophy as well as jokes at the Amherst Early Music Festival, a popular and well-regarded summer workshop, where Baird has been on the faculty for more than 20 years. The recent publication by Cambridge University Press of her doctoral dissertation, a translation of an important 18th-century Italian singing manual, has pretty much crowned her as Queen of Baroque style and technique, and her masterclasses are always packed with instrumentalists as well as singers, all awaiting the secrets of singing fast notes, improvising cadenzas, or landing recording contracts. Baird has become a touchstone for many up-and-coming singers, especially sopranos, and she has many imitators.

Watching her work with these young singers, I realize how broad and deep is her pool of reference. Dropping the names of theoreticians and pedagogues from several centuries, she scatters nuggets of technical information from Praetorius, Quantz, Tosi and others. Early music folks know these names, and have read their old treatises, but few of us have managed to absorb and profit from their wisdom as Julianne has done. Her library skills are keen, and she remains a legend at Stanford University for her ready identification of obscure 17th-century keyboard works on her doctoral exam.

Many of the singers at the Amherst workshop are accomplished and experienced, but quite a few surprise me by their lack of preparation and absence of point of view. They offer songs in foreign languages with scant or erroneous translations, and when I compliment Julianne later on her patient handling of students I might have strangled for their dullness, she notes, "Unfortunately, I find this often. Singers are so afraid to be original. For whatever reason, there is a fear of standing out." I remind her that this was never the case with her own singing, which was always highly personalized and convincing, and she admits, "I've never gone out of my way to listen to other singers, and actually I don't know if this is a weakness or a strength! I never moved to New York, like many singers, because when you live in a fishbowl you are constantly watching all the other little fishies! I didn't always know what was going on, but on the other hand, I was never distracted by what I might have wished I was doing. Like Haydn, when he was stuck way out at Esterhaza[ac] I felt pretty isolated, and was more or less forced to become original." We decide that, in contrast, today's young voice students have an excess of influences and interesting sources of imitation. "There are students who memorize entire CDs with all the ornaments exactly reproduced!" We are now shrieking with laughter.

In her coaching, Baird insists on line and legato, qualities often lacking in early music vocalism. Her own singing has always been creamy and seamless, and she speaks with more technical expertise these days, having recently found a new teacher of her own. Baird's patience and sense of humor, coupled with a quick musical intelligence, keep masterclass audiences engaged and the students on their toes. She urges one singer to caress the phrase, like petting a cat. She throws a ball at another struggling singer, urging her to stay relaxed but attentive. Singers eager to slather decorations on a simple tune are warned, "you know, it's also important to realize when not to ornament!"

It is easy to understand why students flock to her, but I am puzzled why a person with such a full concert and recording calendar, not to mention family needs, makes time to teach, and what it provides her. "It's the process that I find fascinating, figuring out what works, as well as my own process of learning to become a good teacher. I also find that people often are afraid of singers, afraid to touch the inner core of the person. One of the things in life that delights me is finding the secret meaning behind something, being able to see through to what is essential instead of remaining on the periphery."

She claims to have learned this skill from her studies at the Salzburg Mozarteum with Nickolaus Harnoncourt in 1976 and 1977. In analyzing various works, he drew students' attention to the compositional devices supporting characterization and expression. "We studied Poppea in excruciating detail, for three months, every page. When we got to Seneca's arias, Harnoncourt pointed out how the character blathers on and on, how the shape of the coloratura (phrases) is so boring and repetitive and goes nowhere--no wonder Nero wants him dead! And I thought, I just love this! The clue to how to play Seneca is in the music. I was so inspired by this kind of study, and now I apply it all the time. Telemann, for example, is pretty obvious, but Bach is not as transparent."

Similarly, for Baird a string of fast notes has to be more than just a technical accident. She tries to understand the writing, the word painting, the silences. "Every phrase, even every rest has a poetic meaning. I love this deciphering, because these are clues to how the composer is thinking." This sleuthing ability often enables her to find one small technical adjustment for a student to realign and fix an entire troublesome piece. I notice that she demonstrates a lot, perhaps so that she can better understand and clarify. If teaching is her method of figuring things out, then singing is her way of sharing these discoveries with us.

Arriving at Eastman, surrounded by would-be starlets in love with their own voices, she claims to have disliked her own singing. "I thought my vibrato was too fast, and I hated it! So for a while I made a conscious attempt to sing with absolutely no vibrato at all, and as I gained more wisdom about how to make a healthy vibrato, I began to apply it gradually and discreetly." While this process is fairly common among instrumentalists, most singers would claim that vibrato is one totally uncontrollable element of their singing. The fact that Baird can manipulate vibrato as an expressive device is another characteristic that sets her singing apart from so many others, especially heavily trained opera singers.

She has worked with her share of unsympathetic conductors, and while no names are mentioned, she was once forbidden to add any trills or ornaments to Handel's Messiah, being told, "you must do away with these tasteless singer accretions." She has found more savvy and secure collaborators recently, and admits that she is often happier singing with small chamber groups than the big orchestras. Similarly she had found a niche with smaller record labels, where her project proposals are welcomed and where she can exert some control over colleagues and recording conditions.

Julianne is currently touring "Jane's Hand," a recital of music from Jane Austen's personal collection. She explains to me how country folk, often unable to purchase sheet music, would copy into a binder various popular pieces borrowed from visitors. Austen herself copied several Handel arias and parlor songs into hers. For this recital the songs and piano pieces are linked by a narrative drawn directly from Austen's novels, complete with catty comments about various performers. Although an actor-narrator does much of the spoken work, Baird finds the switching from speech to song vocally fatiguing.

Amazingly, for a woman whose discography and concert repertoire are so immense and diverse, there are still vocal delights yet to be tasted. As her children grow older and more manageable on tour, she finds that the extended rehearsal periods required of opera production are no longer out of the question. She would love to take on the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro or Servilia in La Serva Padrona, a role she had much fun recording. Comic opera and slapstick come naturally to Baird, and her timing with recitative would be a great asset. We trade comments on historically researched productions of 18th-century opera, having been involved in many such endeavors (we were paired as the lovers in Handel's Ariodante) and I suggest she look at the high male roles, like Handel's Teseo, Serse, or Sextus. She seems confused until I point out that the costumes are infinitely more comfortable than the female corsets and huge skirts she is used to. More laughter.

Baird was recently featured on Terry Gross's internationally-syndicated "Fresh Air," and is a persuasive advocate for the healthy singing of early music. She continues to spread the word about the validity of a non-operatic vocal technique by speaking often at singing teachers' conventions, and by pursuing a growing interest in speech therapy. "I'm developing an appreciation for how intricate this mechanism is and how fragile. Singing is actually very humbling. I find that I continue to be hard on myself, but perhaps one can continue to give pleasure even if every aspect of one's singing is not totally perfect." When asked if she considers herself a pioneer, Julianne looks pleased and thoughtful. "Well, yes, a pioneer. I do have a sense that music chose me. It gives me great pleasure to take what I've read in books and make it interesting and genuine for others. You know, we can surprise only once, but the highest praise I can receive from an audience is that I moved them."

Last updated 9/25/2000