The soloist of our upcoming Baroque concert will be Rowan Pierce, whose soprano was described by the BBC Music Magazine critic as “clear, strong, supple, sparkling and warm”. We asked about the beginnings of her career and about the opera aria and cantata excerpt that she will soon perform at the Liszt Academy.
Júlia Váradi: You are mentioned in several reviews, as one of the most exciting talents of your young generation. When and how did it start for you? When did it turn out that you are such a talented soprano?
Rowan Pierce: I was lucky to grow up in a family of amateur musicians. I played the flute, piano, cello and sang. My parents and brother also played instruments, so there was always music in the house. I started having singing lessons at the age of 7 and I never stopped! I lived in a small community on the northeast coast of England until I was 21. There was not a lot of professional music making, but everything we did was celebrated for the way it entertained people. I was not criticized in a way some people are growing up, I was just encouraged to keep making music, not matter what it was. I got a lot of fun from sharing music with other people. It was never a solitary pursuit for me. So, I hope that idea of sharing the music, which I learnt from a young age, is what drives me to keep learning and developing my craft. When I moved to London, I spent 6 years studying at the Royal College of Music and there I met friends with whom I later developed professional relationships. This has been the foundation of my career so far.
J. V.: The English National Opera is one of the world’s most well-known stages. How do you feel about being an important member of that collective?
R. P.: I was fortunate to become a young artist at ENO just after leaving conservatoire. Singing on the stage at the Coliseum, just as in the Liszt Academy, you are inspired by everyone who has stood on that same spot before you. It is a hugely historic place for many musicians and a lot of magic has happened there. It’s a privilege to follow in those footsteps. Unfortunately, that company is having to move from London, because of arts cuts in the UK and it’s a huge shame that people won’t get the chance that I did, to perform on that stage with a remarkable group of people, with support both on and off stage. I really believe that opera and music making in general should be available to everyone and singing operas in the language of the country you’re in provokes a very special response from both singer and listener. It was fun to see how that immediate reaction to the text developed as the story unfolded each night. It’s wonderful for children too, to understand immediately what the music is trying to express. I had a lot of fun in that company.
J. V.: Are there for you especially beloved ages of the music history, from which you prefer to choose the songs you are singing?
R. P.: I have to say that I like most periods of music from very early chants to jazz and the present-day new compositions. I do however spend a lot of my career singing historically informed music of the 17th/18th Century. It is a part of the repertoire that really resonates with me. There is a lot of opportunity to work with more intimate instrumental groups and for the singer to really get involved in the overall music making without just being a soloist or narrator. I also have a place in my heart for 20th Century English Song. I grew up singing songs by composers such as Ivor Gurney, Edward Elgar, Armstrong Gibbs, Michael Head and Ralph Vaughan Williams. They often chose such beautiful texts, which are a real pleasure to explore with a pianist. If my voice was more suited to singing jazz standards, I would love to do that too, but I must know my limits! I get huge enjoyment from listening to all genres.
J. V.: As far as I learned, you very much like to sing the Baroque repertoire. What does Baroque music give you?
R. P.: Baroque music opens a world of movement in music. It has form, without being as strict as some of periods that come before and indeed after, but it's elasticity and the flexibility you get as a musician is so exciting. You must know where the dance is in every phrase and the composers use such colors in accompanying the text with harmony that can be grounding or playful. It often seems to me that there is less hierarchy between soloists and ensemble in music from the baroque era. The bottom and the top are of equal importance, and everything in between gets its bit in the sun too!
J. V.: In Budapest at the BFO’s pre-Christmas concert you will sing the aria from a partly forgotten opera composer, named Hasse. What should we know about Hasse’s operas? I read he composed more than fifty operas. What are they like?
R. P.: This is my first time singing Hasse, so I am on a voyage of discovery too. His relationship with the librettist Metastasio is very interesting. Hasse would begin his compositional career by adapting the texts at great length. As he developed, he began to use the writings in their original form with the author’s intention at the core. The pair were subsequently celebrated for their partnership, which lasted many years. Hasse was often the first composer to set any of Metastasio’s texts.
J. V.: You will also sing Händel’s cantata, “Since that fateful day”, which is about a love story. Please tell us about this cantata!
R. P.: This is a secular cantata. Chloris is mourning the death of her beloved Thyrsis. In a slightly awkward turn of events, we discover that Thyrsis does not feel the same way for Chloris and has scorned her. After his death, she imagines him being punished in hell for his behavior and seeks to find him, travelling to the underworld. In death he still rejects her, and she wants to know why. Despite her sadness and anger, she decides to take him away from the fire to the peace of the Elysian Fields. The text ends with a statement that roughly says if you can’t see the brightness at least you can imagine it. Delirious love indeed!
J. V.: Have you ever met Sigrid T’hooft, who knows so much about the Baroque movements? And how do you prepare for the performance by learning the movements during singing?
R. P.: I haven’t met Sigrid T’hooft yet, but I am really looking forward to working for her. I prepare the music in the same way as I always would, although I may sing a cantata like this with the score in other concerts in more of a narrator role. It will be a new challenge for me, but I think it will greatly enhance the presentation of the work and hopefully help with the emotional understanding and indeed the plot for the audience.