You can tell a lot from a voice. Bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel’s is rich, warm and generous, as is reflected in this long-distance chat prior to his November 19 Kennedy Center recital.
Nicole Lacroix: You are known for a wide range of powerful operatic roles, including a magnificent Wotan, an evil Scarpia, a terrifying Flying Dutchman and so many more, but this recital reflects another aspect of your art. Can you give us an idea of what you want to express in this concert? Gerald Finzi’s Shakespearian song cycle, “Let Us Garlands Bring” for example. Why did you choose it?
Bryn Terfel: It is interesting that you name all the most powerful characters of the operatic stage that have been the heartbeat of my career in the last two decades and then mention straight off the bat the beautiful settings of Shakespeare that Gerald Finzi wrote and dedicated to Ralph Vaughan Williams. There it is in a nutshell. In my early years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London I was taught by a wonderful octogenarian Arthur Reckless. One who had taught Sir Geraint Evans in his Guildhall days. For three years Arthur kept me away from the operatic repertoire and managed to delve into the English song repertoire at a drop of a hat. He thought this was the best way to teach this young North Wales son of a sheep farmer by crafting his way through songs to mould my voice into a credible bass baritone voice and utilise the poems and word painting to have that palette for the future. I loved my three years with Arthur and most of what he taught has stayed with me all through my career. The Finzi settings were the first cycle that I learnt as a student and felt comfortable in our lessons to be singing them to a reasonable degree. And this is why I chose them for this recital. That trip down memory lane. That repeating of what one is taught in a voice lesson that can easily cross to the concert platform. Of course the teacher after Arthur Reckless was Rudolph Piernay, and that is another chapter in a developing student, dipping toes into the world of the Lied and the operatic repertoire.
Let Us Garlands Bring was written between 1929 and 1942 and premiered at the National Gallery which is so poignant considering the conflict that involved virtually every part of the world between 1939 and 1945. And the fact that these songs were dedicated to Vaughan Williams makes them even more treasured. As Arthur Reckless always said, “Bryn, my favourite song cycle of all.” He was indeed a fan of the deeply reflective poems and the bright love songs and as Williams declared in his 70th year how Fear no more the heat of the sun is one of the loveliest singers ever written. High praise indeed.
NL: What in your opinion, makes the beauty of Welsh music and the Welsh voice?
BT: Wales and its music. Where does one begin. For me, without a doubt it stems from the tradition of the Eisteddfod. A celebration of Welsh arts, language, and culture. Alternating between North and South Wales and has now been described as the supreme exhibition of the Welsh culture. I am proud to be the son of the Eisteddfod, and without it I would be a Welsh hill farmer. A tradition that has codes and conventions where one can sing folk tunes, tunes with a harp, sing in duets, trios, quartets, and choirs, both male and female and mixed. What a recipe for nurturing talent and professionalism on the stage with its hard work and dedication. And this is where I take my hat off to my parents who drove me North South East West to compete at these magnificent events every August. Thank you Prince Rhys Ap Gruffydd in 1176 for what was maybe the first documented literary festival and long may it continue as the formula seems to work!
NL: Your wife, harpist Hannah Stone, is also featured in this recital, playing Welsh and Basque selections. She was Harpist to the Prince of Wales. What did that entail?
BT: Yes, my dear Hannah will play and accompany in the recital. So wonderful to watch and hear those 47 strings and 7 pedals ring in many different acoustics and concert halls. Surely it was destined to be as I have sung with a harp from my early Eisteddfod days, and for me, early means, 9 years old! Hannah was for four years the chosen Royal Harpist for the then Prince of Wales, King Charles, and she performed on numerous state occasions and many recitals for his given charities. During Queen Victoria’s reign the position of the Royal harpist was ended and it was Prince Charles who brought back the Royal Harpist. Thank you, Charles, I would not have met Hannah had it not been the case.
NL: You, who have portrayed gods and kings on the operatic stage, sang for King Charles’ coronation, the first time a Welsh piece was performed at a British coronation. How did that feel?
BT: The Coronation of King Charles was indeed an unforgettable occasion. I was asked to be a part of the main ceremony quite early on in the proceedings and of course had to keep it under my hat. Charles commissioned ten new pieces for the coronation and my one minute and twenty seconds was composed by an incredible North Wales composer Paul Mealor. Welsh was heard for the first time in a coronation, yes, I know, it was only three words “Arglwydd trugarha, Crist trugarha”, but within Mealor’s piece those three words were accompanied by the folk tradition of Wales, the darkness of its melodies, the medieval quality. All those ingredients made it such an honour to perform. Hopefully Paul Mealor in time will write a Requiem that will resonate in all the chapels and churches and cathedrals of Wales. A monarch that holds classical music so dear to his heart. How fortunate are we to witness it all in all his choices of music on that magnificent day.
NL: In an interview with Sir Antonio Pappano during the pandemic, you said that “we have to totally rethink what the new norm is in our profession.” Is there a new norm? What are the lessons of the pandemic?
BT: Is there a new norm? I really don’t think so. I have just sung Elisir d’amore at the Royal Opera house and the Vienna State Opera. Not a seat to be found. I sang in a concert in São Paolo, full house and a two-hour signing session. One thing that is noticeable is the security in these places has been tightened, not so many friends and family allowed backstage, which is a good thing. So my new norm, is, back on the saddle, back to the touring. Have we learnt something from recovering after a pandemic? Not much. We did see where classical music and the self-employed were relegated to the bottom of the list. So, take heed, keep an eye and look after our youngsters breaking through in their careers. An arm around a shoulder now and that is not a bad thing. Support and encouragement. We can do this and bring back opera and classical music to audiences around the world.
Fortas Chamber Music Concerts and Renée Fleming Voices
Sunday, November 19, 2:00 p.m.
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Sir Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone
Hannah Stone, harp
Annabel Thwaite, piano
Gerald Finzi: Let Us Garlands Bring, Op.18
John Thomas: “Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn” (Hannah Stone, harp)
Ivor Novello & Traditionals: A group of Novello songs and folk songs from Wales
Franz Schubert: A selection of four songs
Jesus Guridi: “Viejo Zortzico” (Hannah Stone, harp)
Notable Composers & Traditionals: Songs of the Stars
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