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Celebrating the legacy of Rameau - an interview with Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette

According to the foundations of musical harmony established in the Traité de l’harmonie, “the Ancients” based the rules of harmony on melody, instead of beginning with harmony. The author of this famous text – one on harmony which is now the basis of most 20th-century music textbooks – is Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764), a French composer of the late Baroque period who earned recognition through his complex operas and research in music theory. Today, 250 years after his death, music connoisseurs from around the world commemorate the legacy of a most eclectic genius. 

Opera Lafayette, a music company based in Washington, D.C., devotes much of their 2014 programming to Rameau. “He is a fascinating and wonderful composer whose first opera premiered when he was 50 years old and stunned the concert going public; looking at his chamber music helps us see how he became that towering figure,” explains Ryan Brown, founder, conductor and artistic director of Opera Lafayette, in regard to the upcoming concert, Celebrating Rameau, Part One: The Salon at the Kennedy Center. 

The program is devoted to the vocal and instrumental chamber works by Rameau. French harpsichordist, Olivier Baumont, who is also professor at the Paris Conservatoire, will be featured in a solo suite, joining Brown as a violinist and Kenneth Slowik playing viola da gamba in one of the composer’s Pièces de clavecin en concert. Baumont will also perform transcriptions from Les Indes Galantes with harpsichordist Andrew Appel. A quartet of vocal artists join to perform the lively Canons and Airs published in the Rameau’s historic Traité de l’harmonie.

Speaking to the Cultural Service of the Embassy of France, Ryan Brown shared that while he had been a chamber musician for many years, he discovered Rameau’s operas by playing concertmaster for two rare performances of his works in the 1980s in New York. “It was a very exciting moment for me,” he says. 

A native of California and first trained as a violinist, Brown’s string playing was influenced by Steven Isserlis, a British cellist who attended the Oberlin Conservatory with him. Brown subsequently went to the Juilliard School in New York from 1982 to 1984, where he studied baroque music with Albert Fuller. Years later, in 2001, he began his transition to conducting, studying with Gustav Meier at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. 

When asked if he finds inspiration in fields other than music, Brown mentions history, theatre and painting. Interestingly, he explains that “so much of the music that we often hear from the past is not necessarily the music that was most applauded in its day, so I always find it interesting to look at history in order to discover the music that people were listening and responding to back then, and how it relates to the music we already know. I also go to a lot of theater, sometimes more than I go to concerts! Perhaps this is because so much of the music that we [Opera Lafayette] do is from the 18th century, when rhetoric was important. Also, like a lot of theater, 18th century opera generally operates on a more intimate scale than 19th century operatic repertoire. I also find inspiration from painting, particularly in terms of style.”  

The artists participating in The Salon are numerous: Olivier Baumont and Andrew Appel (harpsichords), Gaële Le Roi and Kelly Ballou (sopranos), David Newman (baritone), Ryan Brown (violin), and Kenneth Slowik (viol).

How did this group of talented performers come to fruition? 

More than 20 years ago my colleague Andrew Appel organized a harpsichord festival in New York and brought Olivier Baumont to the US for the first time. This is how I met Olivier, who seemed to represent a very special kind of performance style, beautifully delicate and light, which I still remember vividly. Many years later, I had another opportunity to play with him, this time with the Smithsonian Chamber Players. The Salon will be the first time that we have presented a guest harpsichordist. We are also especially happy that Gaële Le Roi, who has an opera career in France and who first came to sing for us in 2003, will be joining us. So we have experienced musicians for whom Rameau has been an integral part of their performing lives, and also some young singers who have just begun to learn his very distinctive style. There’s a lot of variety on the program with sets of short vocal pieces between each of the instrumental works.” shares Brown. 

Despite the wide array of worldwide cultural manifestations to celebrate Rameau’s legacy, Brown believes that music for the harpsichord is not appreciated as much as it should be. “I think that most people simply have not heard great harpsichord playing and great harpsichord music, which, with Rameau, is so idiomatic to the instrument and thus does not make sense if played on the piano. With Olivier, Andrew, and Rameau, they will have a great chance to hear both, and listen to the instrument with fresh ears!”  

Opera Lafayette will continue celebrating Rameau on October 6th at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall when it presents his opéra ballet Les Fêtes de L’Hymen et de L’Amour ou Les Dieux d’Egypte (The Celebrations of Love and Marriage or the Gods of Egypt). There is no other major opera company in the United States putting on a work by Rameau .

He is one of the greatest composers of all time,” explains Brown, “but because his music is so specialized and his music requires a special kind of feeling for a particular style, we rarely get to hear his music. The opera companies in America do not have orchestras that play on period instruments, and don’t usually attempt his operas; thus the few people in America who do know Rameau tend to be fanatics and will travel a long way to hear him!” 

I think that people who hear his music are always taken by it,” continues Brown, “and he is a composer of such quality that I think there he has something to offer every age or taste. He was interested in how things are put together, so his music works on an intellectual and scientific level; but it also extremely expressive and often very earthy.” 

So what is the modernity of Rameau in the 21st century? 

People today may appreciate the symbolism of Rameau operas much more than they might have some time ago. I think that people used to want a kind of heightened realism in their plots, and if you read Rameau’s plots literally, they don’t offer this. Today people are perhaps more skeptical, whether about public words, romance, or ‘reality’, and are looking for deeper meaning than the literal ones they see around them. Rameau, particularly in his operas, does offer this, if you respond both to the music and the broader symbolism of the works. In our chamber program The Salon, interestingly, there are three kinds of songs: some are bawdy ones about sex and drinking that are private pieces  most people do not know that Rameau composed; another set of songs are lovesick, and the third is celebratory. There is so much variety to his music!  By devoting both our Salon and Opéra Ballet programs to Rameau, we hope to show two different sides of this composer: the intimate Rameau in April and the gran spectacle in October.” 

In addition, Opera Lafayette will take The Salon to Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York on May 2nd.

The Cultural Service of the Embassy of France invites you to surround yourself by the diversity and complexity of Rameau’s music by attending the special performance by Opera Lafayette, Celebrating Rameau, Part One: The Salon, on April 30th at the Kennedy Center. An evening of true musical harmony awaits. 

For more information on this upcoming musical event, please click here

In partnership with the Cultural Service of the Embassy of France, through a grant from SAFRAN.