Voilah! 2019: An Interview with Arnaud de Fontgalland, Founder & Artistic Director of Sing’Baroque
Sing’Baroque was just founded in November 2018, but in the year since its inception, has already made waves in the local music scene with their presentation of oft forgotten baroque pieces and reintroducing them to the public. This November, as part of Voilah! 2019, they’ll be presenting a new version of opera Les Éléments, originally ordered by King of France Louis XV and first performed at the Tuileries Royal Palace in 1721.
Leaving a huge impact on 18th century France, the piece has gone on to receive various other renditions over the years, and has since been adapted as chamber versions to be performed in smaller, provincial courts. Prior to the concert this Friday, we spoke to founder and artistic director of Sing’Baroque Arnaud de Fontgalland and found out a little more about the company’s place in the local arts scene, and what we can expect from Les Éléments. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: What was the decision behind choosing to present Les Éléments this year, and what is its relevance to audience members today?
Arnaud: Les Éléments is a fairly iconic work. It is a rare example of music written by 2 composers together : Delalande, the respected old composer that ruled all music in Versailles at the end of the 17th and early 18th century, and Destouches, a young, sparkling and energetic personality.
Les Éléments is very little-known today but during the entire 18th century it was a best-of. It is a very colorful and varied work, a real firework of colors, of emotions …! Because of the 2 composers that wrote it together, Les Elements allies the greatness of the music of the “Grand Siecle” (King Louis 15th then aged 11 was amongst the dancers at the creation), and also the fervor of youth from Destouches.
We will therefore have the opportunity to listen to a “hit” of the Baroque period that has been performed all over in France during the entire 18th century: in the courts of Versailles and Fontainebleau, but also in smaller provinces, in chamber versions.
The libretto is also highly relevant : it is all about Chaos and the 4 elements, water, air, fire and earth. While Chinese culture has different elements, the intrigue will make more sense to a broad audience in Singapore than traditional baroque intrigues based most often on Greek and Latin Mythology.
A fun fact to add is that the composer Andre-Cardinal Destouches had been sent as an ambassador to Thailand by King Louis 14th a few decades before !
Bakchormeeboy: For those familiar with the original version, how does this new version with reimagined dramaturgy differ from it?
Arnaud: Very few people if any would have heard the full version today. Like many pieces from the Baroque era, Les Éléments has been forgotten during the entire 19th and 20th centuries, and only rediscovered in 2001 for one unique performance in Versailles. Some excerpts of it have been recorded by the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood in 1980.
Louis-Noel Bestion de Camboulas and his ensemble Les Surprises played it again in a chamber version for the 1st time in 2015 and the recording was released in 2016. Creating “chamber” versions of baroque operas is a way to go to the essence of these works. It is a practice that was already frequent at the time, to present the most important musical content of an opera. This is done by keeping the main plot intact and removing or shortening all the parts of entertainment (as we are in an opera-ballet, there is a great deal of entertainment in the whole piece). Regarding the instrumentation, it also involves a work of rewriting, since we now have a chamber orchestra, but that still allows to have all the colors that offer large orchestras, colors of strings, winds (oboe and several flutes), and also a wide range from the bass to the piccolo.
Bakchormeeboy: The local music scene is incredibly small, and oftentimes, performances vie for the same audiences within a single weekend. How does the arts continue to thrive and where does Baroque get its support from to sustain itself?
Arnaud: I believe there is in Singapore a much larger potential audience than the actual audience. The offer for Baroque music remains quite limited for now compared to what exists in Europe. It mainly consists of the season of the SSO, concerts (unfortunately too few) from the wonderful ensemble Red Dot Baroque and a few others. Our launch event on 6th January at Chijmes was fully booked several days before the concert, which enticed us to try a larger venue this time. Baroque music has proven in Europe and the USA to attract a new audience to “classical” music concerts. So rather than increasing a cultural offer for a limited audience size, I believe that increasing the number of Baroque music concerts in Singapore will bring more and different people to concert halls.
Yet the problem of support remains a big one as ticketing only covers for a fraction of the total budget. Sing’Baroque is privileged to be supported by the French Embassy, Pavilion Energy and Tiro Capital as well as some private donors for this event. All these have helped us pursue our activities and we hope to be able to do a lot more in the coming years!
Bakchormeeboy: Baroque, as beautiful as it is, remains a classical form that can be difficult to access for the general audience. How has Sing’Baroque been reaching out to audience members unfamiliar with the genre – is there a need to make it ‘hip’ or ‘modern’ to stay relevant to the times?
Arnaud: Baroque music has been to a large extent forgotten and considered old fashioned during the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Its revival started in the 1960s, with musicians such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt who re-discovered it. As a paradox they made this music sound a lot more ‘hip’ and ‘modern’ as you rightly say by returning to period instruments and to the techniques of that period. In doing so, they discovered that this repertoire was full of dynamic contrasts, colorful timbres, a lot of improvisation etc. In brief, as many people would now say, Baroque Rocks !
And the audience has understood this; in Europe and in the USA where this repertoire is now a very large part of “classical” music concerts, the audience listening to Baroque music is significantly younger than average and does not necessarily have the same musical background. So in brief, the best way to make this music ‘hip’ is to play it as it was meant to be played at that time! Now there are also very interesting attempts to bring in even more modernity either in the scenography (a fascinating example was Les Indes Galantes at the Opera Bastille a few weeks ago), or even by adding jazz or rock techniques and instruments to the pieces like some period ensembles sometimes do. This music is so solid and resonates so well with modern ears that it can accept a wide variety of treatments.
Bakchormeeboy: Sing’Baroque constantly does shows at community centres and parks to showcase the work. Can you share more of that with us? The process and how the response has been?
Arnaud: Sing’Baroque was founded out of passion. A passion for Baroque music obviously, but also a passion to share. And as we’ve discussed, Baroque music is the ideal gateway to the “classical” repertoire as it is easily understandable for modern ears. With this in mind, we have tried to think at different ways to bring this music to non-music lovers. Our main idea is that reducing the price of tickets can help, but people who have never entered a concert hall will probably not do it easily even for free. We must go and connect with people, take them by surprise and let them discover that this music is not distant from them by playing in the places where they live and relax.
The Birds’ Promenade, which we will be presenting on 17th November at the Botanic Gardens, is a great example of this: it is based on a theme (birds’ songs) that most people from all cultures appreciate. We will offer at the same time an opportunity to discover new species of birds, listen to their songs, and to the imitations of their songs as it was imagined by different composers. Our hope is to delight the people who will join us for that event, but even more to ignite some interest from people who just happen to be around and would start following us for their pleasure.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you hope audiences take away from watching Les Éléments?
Arnaud: My first hope is to delight the audience. While our outreach activities are designed to surprise and help people discover, concerts like Les Éléments are designed to create a pleasurable moment with fantastic music. I also hope to make this music even more relevant to modern ears by making it accessible: the libretto will be subtitled so anyone can understand the intrigue, and we hope to create a delightful performance with still some proximity with the audience. Classical music performances do not have to be moments that impress in a distant way. I hope to create some sort of connection between the audience and the musicians.
Les Éléments plays on 15th November 2019 at the SOTA Concert Hall. Tickets available here
Voilah! 2019 runs from 3rd October to 17th November 2019 around Singapore. For more information on the festival and the full programme, visit their website at www.voilah.sg.