Founded in Ghent in 2005, comprising 29 musicians from 11 different countries, the B'Rock Orchestra sets out to perform early music with a difference, youthful, eclectic, risk-taking. Celebrating Monteverdi's 450th anniversary, their tour of Europe performing Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria starts at Klarafestival in Brussels on March 14th. Hendrik Storme is the orchestra's general director.
Bachtrack: B’Rock Orchestra are just 12 years old and their stated aim is the “renewal and rejuvenation in the world of Early Music”. Tell us more...
HS: Firstly, this is inherent in our programming. Despite the fact that we only play on period instruments, we often play music from the 20th and 21st century, of which a large amount consists of new compositions specially written for us. Recently, we presented three new pieces including a new concerto on turntables and period instruments by the UK born composer Matt Wright. Secondly it is about our interest for new concert formulas: music in combination with theatre, dance, video art or visual art. Last week, for example, we created an installation concert in which the famous bundle L’Estro Armonico by Vivaldi was performed in a spatial way with our musicians spread among the audience over the whole venue. Also, B’Rock is organized from within and bottom-up. Our musicians join in the determination of our policy and are closely involved in our artistic strategy. So we don’t have one all-deciding artistic leader. I am the artistic coordinator; I coordinate the diverse ambitions and aspirations of the musicians and try to make one coherent artistic story out of it.
What do you think most distinguishes B’Rock from other (perhaps more established) early music ensembles? Are there differences in their sound?
The orchestra’s main musicians are chosen from the best (young) baroque musicians of today. They come from all over the world: from Brazil, the States and Canada across the UK, Poland, Bulgary, Israel and of course Belgium. This results in a unique and colourful orchestral sound that doesn’t stem from just one school. What distinguishes this very heterogeneous group is the love for cutting tempi, large dynamics and a vivid way of playing. Our concerts are often described as very expressive and theatrical.
With musicians from eleven countries, what’s it like managing musicians with such a diverse set of backgrounds?
It’s definitely enriching but also very labour-intensive. Actually, you should just take a seat in our orchestra, because what you feel happening then is very hard to describe. You feel how those musicians communicate with each other while playing, through their breath, with their bodies, each on their own square metre and yet all together. It’s a very special experience, from which the world can learn a great deal. Of course, this doesn’t happen automatically. One of the requirements is to have an open and respectful work culture with attention to each other’s opinion. This sometimes delays the rehearsal process but for us it is the key to success.
You’re going to be performing Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Vienna. What made it first choice to celebrate Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary?
Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is performed less than Monteverdi's other two operas, which is the main reason why we really want to do it. Which is lucky, because Ulisse is a very relevant piece to perform today. Why this opera is presented so rarely today remains a mystery to me, because thanks to its expressive libretto and rich score this dramma per musica is the foundation of modern opera. More than his previous works, Monteverdi sublimely and vividly gives shape to the human characters and passion. Monteverdi had chosen a fragment of Homer's Odyssey for his first Venetian opera. This ancient classic is the foundation of a story about exile, homecoming, fidelity, temptation, doubt and catharsis. For the existential searching human of today, these are familiar themes and makes Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria an opera in which the wandering man with his eternal doubts and questions comes into the spotlight and makes the gods play a secondary role.
René Jacobs has impeccable credentials, of course, but what made him your first choice for this particular year and this particular tour?
It is and remains a privilege to cooperate with this important conductor, especially when it comes to Monteverdi. René Jacobs is the specialist par excellence for this kind of repertoire. He knows the score by heart in every smallest detail and is able to guide the singers and musicians faultlessly in the often complex world of sentiments of the different characters. We have cooperated with René Jacobs already for a few years now and it’s always a happy reunion. His never-ending inspiration, energy and special attention to the theatrical aspects of the music make our musicians sit on the edge of their seats. The result is always special and most enjoyable.
We’re told that René Jacobs hasn’t conducted Ulisse for many years. What persuaded him to do it now?
I didn’t have to persuade him, it was René Jacobs who has asked to do this opera. I think he found the time was ripe now to perform it again.
Because we have so little information (about instrumentation etc) in the score of Il ritorno d’Ulisse, there are a million ways of approaching it, anything from austere purity with a very small number of instruments to the “big band” sound used in the 1970s. What can you tell us about how René Jacobs’ will approach the piece?
It’s always about making choices, of navigating between the knowledge of the musicology and the needs of a concert performance of today. Firstly, there’s the problem of the structure. René Jacobs chooses to go back to the division of the opera into five parts, therefore the structure feels more in balance than the form in three parts which is often used and where the second act is too long and the third one too short. Moreover, he abbreviated some of the monologues, in favour of the tension and musicality. Yet, he doesn’t go that far as some of his colleagues who sometimes cut beautiful scenes. I spontaneously think of the scene in which Telemachus tells his mother how impressed he is with Helen, who caused the Trojan War, and the indirect sorrow of Penelope.
In terms of orchestration, which is richer than usual, René was inspired by certain instructions in letters by Monteverdi, by various notes in the manuscripts of other 17th century operas and by the rich and various orchestras with a large number of wind instruments, which was common at the Venetian court opera. The financial resources were much bigger at the court than in small theatres. The instrumentation of René Jacobs is therefore one you could have found at the court theatre in Paris or Vienna, where Il Ritorno was also performed.
The casting of Il Ritorno is not straightforward because of the large number of roles. A practical solution is to let each singer perform more than one role, something which also heppened in the time of Monteverdi. But it takes some creativity to show visually that it’s a different character, and René Jacobs has found great solutions for this.
Faced with a listener who knows nothing of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – perhaps someone more used to bel canto and later – what would you give as an “elevator pitch” that would persuade them that this is music that must be heard?
“Each departure waits longingly for a return. Only you have missed the day of your return”. With this quote Penelope reveals her feelings at the arrival of her husband Odysseus for whom she eagerly longs. In the story of Claudio Monteverdi and his librettist Giacomo Badoaro, the main character of Homer's epic is not Odysseus but Penelope: the story focuses on her sorrow, doubt and eventual happiness. Monteverdi vividly expresses the psychology of mortals as well as the gods. Conducted by the charismatic René Jacobs, B’Rock Orchestra and an exquisite cast tell the compelling story of exile, return, faith, doubt and catharsis.
Later this year, B’Rock will be touring with a programme that matches Mozart opera excerpts with his symphonies? How was that programme constructed, and what should we be looking out for?
The musical and dramaturgical concept is made by René Jacobs and is based on excerpts of Mozart’s last operas with some of the movements of his symphonies 35, 38, 40 and 41, in which he exposes/quotes/develops the same themes. Again, we can count on exquisite singers and Mozart specialists, this time with soprano Mari Eriksmoen and bass-baritone Johannes Weisser. The result is a moving as well as cheeky anthology of arias and love duets, starring, starring Papageno, Papagena, Leporello, Zerlina and other Mozartian heroes. With a selection of late works as the Haffner, Prague and Jupiter symphony, we will demonstrate how Mozart’s wonderful cantabile even gets instrumentalists to sing.
This interview was sponsored by B'Rock and Klarafestival, which runs until March 24th: you can read about the festival and see all the events here. Details of B'Rock's performance of Il ritorno d"Ulisse in patria at BOZAR in Brussesls during the festival are here; or you can look here at the rest of their schedule and to see reviews.