David Dyer Interviews Vocalist Jeanette Thompson
The music world affords performers the opportunity of making friends far and wide. David Dyer, featured in last week’s blog post, was privileged to befriend Jeanette Thompson during her years as a student at Aspen Music Festival and School, and he has maintained that friendship for thirty-two years.
Presently, Jeanette is a full-time lecturer in Vocal Performance at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami. She received her Bachelors of Music from Florida State University, a Masters of Music from Rice University, and is an alumna of Aspen Music Festival and School.
Professor Thompson has been lauded throughout the world as a singer with great depth, warmth, beauty, style, and heart. She is known as an outstanding vocal pedagogue. Her career has taken her to concert halls and opera houses too numerous to mention here. Just to give you a glimpse of her accomplishments, her Carnegie Hall debut was singing Verdi’s Missa da Requiem.
David arranged an interview with Professor Thompson concerning her performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 Here is David’s interview:
David Dyer: How many times have you performed Beethoven 9 and with whom?
Jeanette Thompson: I have performed the soprano solo of Beethoven's 9th Symphony about a dozen times. I did several performances with the National Symphony of Belgium, Marc Soustrot was the conductor; I did several performances with the Palermo Opera Orchestra of Sicily (I cannot remember the conductor) and a couple performances with the Bolzano Symphony Orchestra of Italy (I cannot remember the conductor).
DD: What other major choral works have you sung with orchestras / choirs?
JT: There are too many to list. Here are a few: Verdi's Messe di Requiem, Mozart's Requiem, Mozart’s Mass in C, Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Mendelssohn's Elijah, Poulenc's Gloria, Brittain's War Requiem, and Handel's Ode to St. Cecilia.
DD: How would you compare / rate Beethoven 9 against the others in terms of technical difficulties, etc?
JT: I don't believe that you can compare the difficulties between the Beethoven 9th and the others. The others are all difficult but in a very satisfying way. The soprano solo in the Beethoven 9th is written in such a way that one gets very little satisfaction from it. The tessitura is very high and causes one to produce a rather strident tone. It is nicknamed ‘the chicken solo’. It is difficult to sing because the part is short and extremely high. It would be easier for a smaller voice to sing but the orchestration is fairly big and often the soprano sings with the chorus. Therefore, most conductors want a bigger voice to sing the part. Yet the bigger voices find it challenging.
DD: Aside from the obvious technical issues (tessitura, etc), what are other thoughts regarding challenges and difficulties unique to this piece over other works you’ve performed?
JT: All of the works listed above allow one to have a beautiful legato line in the midst of the piece. The Beethoven does not lend itself to such rewards. It is fast, high, and I am challenged to find the beauty in any of the solo work. If you listen to the symphony WITHOUT the solos, I find it sublimely beautiful. It is only compromised the minute that the solos enter. The chorus is actually quite nice. You can tell that Beethoven uses the chorus as a way to a thicker, more luxurious texture to the symphony. I get the impression that the solos were an afterthought. The mezzo soprano’s part is jokingly referred to as ‘the part that could be phoned in’. One cannot hear the mezzo in this ensemble.
DD: Did you employ different preparatory regimens as you approached performance of this piece over other pieces?
JT: Yes, working on the Beethoven was like doing calisthenics. Every day I had to practice the very difficult passages over and over and over again. There were few times when I could sing it and feel any sense of accomplishment. It was a constant work of exercises.
DD: Share any personal reflections / joys / disappointments over this piece compared to other major works you’ve performed. Would you do the piece again? Did you enjoy learning it / performing it?
JT: Every time my agent would call with an offer to do this piece, I would complain and would really want to refuse it, but I always needed the money. At this point in my life, it would have to be an extraordinary reason to convince me to perform this piece again.
DD: Which performances / recordings do you consider definitive?
JT: I would recommend recordings according to the conductor, not the singers. For example, Muti, Gardiner—these are conductors who will hire singers who can sing this part well. Conductors like Bernstein, von Karajan tended to hire singers with names and they were not always the best choice.
We leave you this week with these two recommended recordings of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Enjoy!