British soprano Emma Kirkby along with her lutenist colleague Jakob Lindberg recently finished a three-day residency at Juilliard that culminated in a public master class in Paul Hall. Five singers from the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts worked with the duo, some of them complete early-music novices interested in learning more about the genre.
Kirkby presented a master class at Juilliard two years ago, and her sensible and efficacious teaching style whet the students’ appetites for more. Her renowned career, spanning 40 years of concertizing and recording, began when college-trained sopranos didn’t generally seek a sound appropriate for early instruments, and finding her own approach resulted in a prolific recorded output. Lindberg, a lute professor at the Royal College of Music in London, also brandishes a vast array of recordings. The two perform and record together frequently, and their stop at Juilliard was part of an East Coast tour.
Benjamin Sosland, the Historical Performance department’s administrative director, opened the master class by saying that the event would be a workshop display of the residency’s activities. “The repertoire was decided, oh, about two hours ago,” he joked. When Kirkby took the stage, she said that her primary goal was to show the breadth of the music worked on with the students.
The singers performed five sets of music with varying instrumentation. The first set, with Lindberg on theorbo and harpsichordist Elliot Figg, began with a Monteverdi duet sung by tenors Martin Bakari and Spencer Lang, followed by a Caccini song with mezzo-soprano Laetitia De Beck Spitzer. The set ended with a duet composed by Sigismondo D’India and sung by sopranos Lindsey Nakatani and Yekaterina Gruzglina.
Kirkby opted to let the students perform the full sets before commenting, explaining, “I’m not a proper teacher; I tweak something that’s already been going well.” Both Kirkby and Lindberg praised the singers’ deft adjustments to the instruments’ intimate sound worlds and commended their eagerness to try out alternative singing styles more suited to the repertoire, which in turn gave them freedom to experiment. When Kirkby asked the singers for feedback, Lang remarked that singers often try to “cheat the consonants” in an effort to indulge the sonority of the vowels, but that he had found that using consonants as a key to unlock the vowels was more beneficial with this text-driven music. All other issues encountered in the master class, such as vibrato, volume, blend, and gestures, remained secondary to Kirkby’s mantra for the evening: the words give vivacity to the music.
For the second and fourth sets of Dowland songs, Lindberg played lute while Kirkby had the singers sit down to perform, even though, as she commented, sitting is “not something a good conservatory student is used to.” She did this because she finds that in a lute-singer dynamic, performing on an equal plane increases the collaborative blend.
The class’s third and fifth sets included large-scale arias by Bach and Handel, for which Historical Performance instrumentalists joined the vocalists. The class ran over, infused as it was with Kirkby’s passion to share the repertoire with the instrumentalists and singers: “So many wonderful colors! I want you to hear [them] all.”