Thursday, February 12, 2015

Talking to Italian tenor Marco Beasley about his professional life, Naples, music and Accordone

Marco Beasley (Photo:Mattia Prandini)
 On February 5th 2015, I met with Italian singer and musicologist Marco Beasley in Eilat, where he was appearing with “Accordone” at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Born in Naples in 1957, Marco Beasley began his performing career when still a student at the University of Bologna, a career that has taken him to several of the world’s most prestigious concert venues. Marco Beasley’s personal research into vocal production and the intelligibility of sung texts have won him great acclaim. The range of his repertoire is broad – from Gregorian chant to polyphony, from the 16th century to motets, from recitar cantando to the great Neapolitan songs, and up to modern re-invention of historical genres. In 1984, Beasley and organist, harpsichordist and composer Guido Morini founded “Accordone”. Playing on period instruments, the ensemble has engaged in a new musicological approach to music written before Bach, focusing much on 16th and 17th Italian music for voice and basso continuo.

PH: Marco Beasley, do you come from a musical family?

Marco Beasley: Not really. My dad was British and my mother was from Naples. I was born in Naples. The only music we had in the house was the radio. That was in the “time of radio”. From my earliest memories, I remember that the radio was always on, playing classical music as well as British and American music, which was very popular. For example, I remember hearing Nat King Cole and Cole Porter; my dad and mum would dance to this music in the dining room. Those are my first musical experiences.

PH: What influence did growing up in Naples have on your musical life?

MB: I am lucky to have been born in Napoli. It was and still is a town in which music is important. This does not mean that every person there plays an instrument but music is part of the language. We use body language a lot in talking, in gestures. But there is also the importance of the intonation of words when we talk. All these things create a facility of expression that makes it easy for a Neapolitan to create melodies.

PH: How would you describe the Neapolitan character?

MB: We have a distinctive fatalism that connects very naturally with our music.

PH: When did you show interest in Neapolitan music?

MB: When I was eight or nine, I started listening to some popular songs. Then, six or seven years later, there was a huge movement in Napoli of people who wanted to give “space” to early traditional popular songs – the tarantella, ballade, the tamurriata – all originating in the countryside. There is a large repertoire of this music and much was played on the radio at that time. When still at school, I would take my guitar and join friends in imitating the people performing this music. That was when this fashion began.

PH: What was your musical training?

MB: I studied Musicology at the University of Bologna, where I lived for 10 years, from 1979 to 1989. All my musicological knowledge today stems from my studies in Bologna. I started there with inadequate preparation – I could not read a score. The beginning was very difficult for me, learning the skills of writing and reading music, different medieval forms of notation, reading Gregorian chant and all styles of notation right up to contemporary musical notation. So I felt quite frustrated sometimes, but I liked the ambiance and friendship there. I had a lot of friends and they encouraged me to study, so, finally, I am “here”.

PH: What about vocal training?

MB: I am self-taught. I have had a few lessons, taken some courses. Then I met one of the most important singers, in my opinion – Cathy Berberian. I had a short course of 15 days with her but then we stayed in touch. That was in the last year of her life. What was more important than training the voice was discussion about what to do with the voice. The great connection between us was that it was based on the same ideas as I had about my own voice. I am not an opera singer, but I do feel absolutely comfortable singing early music, up to Purcell, for example. That is where I really feel at home.

PH: Would you like to talk more about your connection with Cathy Berberian?

MB: Yes. She gave me a lot of confidence. She said: “Marco, you will feel alone, but you have two possibilities, one being that you will feel alone and continue this way, the other being that you will become a good tenor singing in lyric opera. It all depends on what you want.” I told her that the opera was not my “cup of tea”, that what I wanted was what I was doing. This kind of music gives strength to my soul; I believe in this music.

PH: How did you make your personal connection with early music?

MB: I have tried to develop this directly from studying surviving documents – early treatises and writings of composers – reading what they wrote about the singer, about what the singer must do. We should not forget that the singer at that time was referred to as an “actor” – an actor who sings or a singer who acts. The “recitar cantando” is exactly this style of acting and singing.

PH: How do you sense the historical aspect of this music?

MB: It is not music that comes from centuries ago and is “old” because chronologically it comes from the 15th or 16th century. It is only a question of dust. Polish it and you will find one of the freshest kinds of music – songs, text, soul and feelings with which you yourself are in touch.

PH: Did you study theatre?

MB: Not really. I have participated in some acting master classes, but my theatrical awareness comes from attending very many theatre performances.

PH: The theatrical element is very strong in your performances. What is your own theatrical milieu?

MB: The kind of theatre I like very much is not the kind where you have a large scenography or beautiful costumes; I like very minimalistic theatre, based on myself, where, through my own figure, I show the feelings I want to convey. And I want to know that the public is really close to me, because I am close to it. We really recognize each other. Mine is not a showcase of the anthology of song. The concert presents some pearls of our own lives. The people in the audience are my guests. And I tell stories. When you tell a story, you must be convinced if you want the listener to understand it. If not, it is a feeling of faking.

PH: Would you like to speak about the ideas behind your compositions we heard?

MB: Yes. I will talk about works in yesterday’s concert Accordone performed here at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. I composed “Stella Diana” because, less important than being or not being a believer, what is important to me is to be in front of the mirror and to recognize who we are. We are not always aware of who we are, sometimes making choices which are not connected to what we see in the mirror. What we see in the mirror is not a “double”; it is we. So “Stella Diana” is a kind of prayer of a sinner who is perhaps thinking about death, because death is connected with life, being the end of it. He feels – we feel – how fine the line is between life and death. And so I stop for a second and ask Stella Diana, the first morning star, Venus (or perhaps the Virgin Mary), this entity which is so far away, to devote a moment in which she can listen to us. Whether she is listening or not is not important but I need the contact, to be there. The Tarantella 1, 2, 3 is a similar work, but a bit more connected to material things. In the text, a man is looking at the beauty of the object of his love. He cannot have it, is suffering greatly and asks God for help…he is, in a way, crucified. This is not as deep as Stella Diana. It is more about the lover who is desperate, so close to contact, but it is not happening. It is very human. This is typical of the tarantella genre, in which the texts are always a mix of religious and psychological elements. It is wonderful because we pray for something that nature, in the end, will decide.

PH: Do you see yourself as a composer?

MB: No, not really. I prefer to say that I am a writer. The real composer among us is my friend and colleague Guido Morini. He has composed a lot of music for Accordone, where I have composed the texts.

PH: Would you like to talk about Accordone?

MB: Yes. Guido and I founded it in 1984. Before forming the ensemble we were friends. Last year was the 30th year of Accordone’s existence. Guido and I come from different disciplines. Guido is more academic and I am more…wild. After we decided to make music together, we worked for five years before having the first official concert under the name of “Accordone”. “Accordone” is a funny name: it means a “big chord”. When we were starting out, an organizer said we needed to give the ensemble a name; at the next rehearsal, the sound of the first chord of the fifteen continuo instruments was so huge we exclaimed that this was indeed an “accordone”, a large human and musical chord, hence the name.

PH: Perhaps a few words about each of the two concerts Accordone performed here at the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival.

MB: The two concerts are different. Regarding “Storie di Napoli”, all the meaning is summed up in the title: stories of Napoli – the music, love, the sea…everything. It is a kind of landscape moving through the centuries and presenting the different musical shapes. The second concert “La Bella Noeva” has nothing to do with Napoli; it is divided into three sections: the early Italian Baroque (beginning of the 16th century), secular works, then sacred music and then popular works. Popular music still figures more strongly in the south of Italy, where much has survived – the tarantella, etc. The beginning of the concert includes music by Monteverdi, Marini, etc. Dividing the program into three parts represents three as a perfect number and this concert is a triangle of dialogue between secular, religious and popular music. There are two Monteverdi songs “Si dolce รจ’l tormento”– one of his most beautiful songs, so simple but so rich and the absolutely sparkling “Laudate Dominum”, a Psalm text expressing all the joy of playing and singing music together. And what could be more actual than being together in this world, a world in which we are trying to separate things? It is always the same. We have to look back in order to give something to the future; otherwise there is no history.

PH: How much preparation does Accordone do prior to each program?

MB: It depends. If we have to create a new program, work starts eight months to one year before it gets to the stage of performance. Guido and I meet and decide what kind of pieces we will do and see if the story we want to tell is well represented by the pieces we have chosen. Guido decides what instruments he would like to have and which instrumentalists. We have quite a big number of friends who play with us. We try to use the same people, as it is a question of identity. For example, violinist Rosella Croce has been working with us for a long time. We have four of five violinists who can join us; this means that we know them very well. This is very important. It is not a question of reading the score and performing it; the players must give real sense to the piece. When all decisions have been made regarding instruments and performers, we call the players, they then do two days’ rehearsal with Guido, we all meet together a month later to see if the program can take on “life”, and then we leave it to develop naturally. One month before the concert we start to rehearse.

PH: What plans does Accordone have for the future?

MB: I don’t know really, as, in our 30th year, I decided to leave. I will continue alone now; Guido is continuing with Accordone. I would now like to do some projects on my own. I have a program in which I sing totally alone…no accompaniment, only voice. As an organist and harpsichordist, Guido would like to go back to Bach, for example. He is really a great artist. And, after 30 years, it is good to give our art new life, to try new ideas and cooperate with other people. I would also like to go back to the other part of my soul – my British roots – with the music of John Dowland. This is what will happen in the near future.

PH: So is this your swan song with Accordone?

MB: Not necessarily. Our paths will meet again. Everything is open to us. Guido Morini and I also write operas together; we have written four operas. So ours is a connection that will not be severed so quickly!

PH: Do you feel there are a lot of good young artists from which to draw?

MB: I am sure there are a lot of good young artists around. What I hope is that their ambition will not be greater than their sense of pleasure. Well, if I have decided to be on stage, there is ambition and the element of exhibition, but I have always taken concert invitations as a gift. They don’t have to give me anything. I am not “the star”. I am Marco, a singer and I feel privileged to have the possibility to give something to the public and to convey the message of something that has touched me deeply. What I hope is that young artists will not rush into things. We need peace and quiet in a world that is getting faster and faster. For example – records. Everybody makes a record. I remember when the first record was made half way through one’s career. Now the record is seen as a visiting card. Everything has changed and this changes the music that is made. It is important to look into the deep meaning of the music and text to be able to perform it.

PH: In time, when you look back on your career, what will you write in your memoirs?

MB: To be honest, I don’t know. I would like to collect the texts I have written over the years…a kind of testimonial of the ages. I don’t know if I want to publish anything. I don’t feel the ambition to be recognized. Of course, I enjoy it when people like what I am doing. For me, the songs and records are like messages in bottles. They go off and are found. So then if you find one, it is yours. It is no longer mine. My satisfaction is that several times I have seen that these messages in bottles arrive at quiet ports, into the hands of calm, beautiful people, who have listened to our recordings and said that this music has given them happiness. It is absolutely wonderful.

PH: Marco Beasley, talking to you has been interesting and inspiring. Thank you.