The Music of 'Marie'

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In February two of Colorado's most creative cultural groups come together again to create Marie, a re-imagining of Marie Antoinette's life. The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado and Wonderbound have melded classical music that would have been heard in her lifetime (by masters like Mozart, Leclair, and Rameau) with an out-of-the-box style of dance which will put a new spin on the legend of this queen. Ruth L. Carver talked with BCOC artistic director Frank Nowell and leader/violinist Cynthia Miller Freivogel about how this collaboration changes their take on Baroque music. Ruth L. Carver: This program retells the story of Marie Antoinette, who met a famously brutal end. The most obvious musical version of a beheading comes in Francis Poulenc's opera Les Dialogues des Carmelites, where several nuns are martyred at the guillotine, and the chopping sound is actually called for in the music. Are there are any similarly dramatic moments in the music you've chosen for Marie?

Frank Nowell: Certainly nothing so graphic or literal! The guillotine will definitely play a role in the ballet, but there’s a lot that’s symbolic. So much of the choreography and the music revolves around the psychology and emotions around Marie. To me that’s what makes this combination of art forms so intriguing. Baroque music, with its focus on affect, connects so well with Wonderbound’s approach to dance. The emotions are always in the forefront, and for the audience to experience them directly is the goal.

RLC: What aspects of her life as a queen did you seek to represent in the music you've chosen here?

FN: Marie Antoinette is complex and there are so many contrasting aspects to her character! The music was selected to draw on some of those contrasts: Austria vs. France, courtly style vs. pastoral. The rustic, pastoral style evokes Marie’s Austrian roots as well as her occasional longing to escape the court for a simpler existence. Beyond that, we have a wide variety of music ranging from frivolous to intimate to highly dramatic.

We decided from the beginning not to limit the music to the exact dates of her life. We gave ourselves freedom to go back in time musically in order to find the affects and character we were looking for. We ended up with a small, eclectic group of composers. Mozart and Duphly are true contemporaries of Marie. Rameau and Leclair are late Baroque masters with distinctive individual styles that challenged the conventions of French tradition. Biber and Vilsmayr are used retrospectively, almost as music of reminiscence, but also to develop more interior aspects of the narrative.

RLC: Cynthia, you've played many of these works before in other contexts. How does playing them in collaboration with contemporary dancers change your approach to the music?

Cynthia Miller Freivogel: When you tell a story, who you are telling that story to changes how you tell it. Now we have two new audiences- an audience who is listening while they experience something visual, and the dancers themselves. That changes how I tell my musical story, and how I hear the story myself. Who is listening makes me play differently.

I have not seen the dance yet for this show, but Garrett [Ammon, Artistic Director of Wonderbound] has this ability to listen to music and to the human component of the artists he works with and make that visual. When we worked on Tartini together, he really choreographed MY playing. It was as if we were listening to me dance instead of play. Which, incidentally, I can’t do at all.

RLC: Are there moments when you feel the music take on a particular emotion or characteristic of Marie?

CMF: When we worked on the Salon last June, Garrett choreographed the bedroom scene following the marriage of Marie and Louis. He used a solo chaconne, a set of variations that I completed by writing some of my own. The set is mostly very playful, but last variation is full of very dramatic ornamentation, and it is amazing how many different emotions he managed to capture in that moment. First of all, the change from playful to (as he put it) "deadly serious" and then shame, crushed hope, anger, and loneliness. I saw it and immediately felt I had to do be more courageous to play it that way.

RLC: What was the most challenging aspect of creating this type of program? The collaboration? The sheer amount of music to choose from?

FN: The sheer amount of music to choose from—definitely a big challenge! We had a process between Cynthia, Garrett and me that played out over the course of a year with meetings, phone calls, and emails. After setting the basic framework and concept for the production, I put together a fairly large and wide-ranging list of music to choose from. Then it was a gradual process of elimination, as Garrett began creating the narrative and choreography.

CMF: Definitely the biggest challenge is just the coordination of the logistics organizationally from overseas. I was on a big tour for most of January and so I was unavailable for big chunks of time. We skyped a bunch and sent some sound files back and forth. but I wish so much that I could just pop in to Wonderbound and see some of it and play for them as the process is going on rather than coming together at the end.

RLC: You've chosen to include several solo movements (for violin or harpsichord) in addition to ensemble works. How do the different instrumental combinations effect the flow of the story being told through dance?

FN: We have three main categories of music in Marie: Orchestral, chamber, and solo (unaccompanied) music. The solo music reflects a more internal and intimate world, an attempt to probe what’s going on in Marie’s mind and in her closest relationships. The chamber pieces reflect either the court or the countryside, depending on the scene. And the selections for orchestra have a more dramatic import - they convey a sense of how Marie’s story is being played out on a very public stage.

RLC: Is there a piece that has taken on new meaning for you after re-envisioning it as part of the Marie story?

CMF: Biber’s Passacaglia has always been this piece that has completely vexed me. It drives me completely crazy to practice it alone, and then I perform it and it is always very effective and people like it, so I keep playing it. Part of the problem is that I partially got in to Early Music to escape the Standard Violin Repertory. I needed to find my own voice and the less discovered work gave me an opportunity to do that. As Early Music becomes more mainstream (you can study it at Julliard now for example), the Biber Passacaglia is starting to become this Standard Baroque Violin Piece which makes me fear it in the same way you can fear solo Bach. Last spring all of this came up when I started improvising together on the ground at the same time that the dancer was improvising. I've since taken the whole thing apart, entertaining all of these different ideas about how to expand on what Biber wrote, writing a fantasia based on some of less measured portions—writing little introductory improvisations, playing the end twice as slow to march Marie to the guillotine, adding theorbo. I am pretty sure that by the end of this production I will have something of my own to say about this piece and it won't be Standard.

FN: Mozart’s Andante from K138 is a simple yet exquisitely beautiful piece, and a favorite of many of our musicians. Cynthia and I pushed to have it included and kept reminding Garrett that we hoped it would make the cut! The way he is using this piece in the ballet is quite astonishing. I haven’t seen the choreography yet, but having heard it described, I know I will have a different feeling about the piece.

Our first joint production with Wonderbound (in 2012) revolved around music of Vivaldi and Tartini. There are pieces from that production that when I hear them now have an amazing visual aspect for me. That’s another great benefit of this collaboration—with the help of artists working in a different art form, a piece of music can take on an entirely new dimension!

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