With her album Songplay, Joyce DiDonato takes a new and creative angle on vocal music from the Baroque and Classical periods, as well as from the 20th century.
The 14 tracks on Songplay succeed in being simultaneously familiar and unexpected. The album serves up music by Vivaldi in both its customary Baroque purity and swinging to the heady rhythm of a samba. It brings a tango sizzle to an aria by Vivaldi’s contemporary Marcello, and it plays with the voice of Bach in George Shearing’s ‘Lullaby of Birdland’.
“Songplay, as a title, suggests exactly what this album is,” says the pianist Craig Terry, who developed the concept for the album along with Joyce DiDonato.
“We are taking songs that are iconic for people who have studied classical singing and we are trying to reformat them – but in a way that stays true to the original intention of the song.” Making an important point, he adds that, “Joyce sings these songs with her own voice – she is not trying to become a jazz singer. Songplay will allow people to hear these songs and their words in a completely different way. Our goal with this album is to show people that a great song is a great song.”
At the heart of Songplay are the short, apparently simple songs and arias, mostly written in 18th century Italy, that form the ‘schoolbook’ for students of classical singing.
As Joyce DiDonato explains:
“When you are just starting out as a singer, the first score you usually receive is Schirmer's 24 Italian Songs and Arias. These are considered starter pieces, so young singers work at them over and over again, usually growing to resent them deeply, as the difficulty of singing them well as a beginner is overwhelming. I feel, as did Craig, that as a result we’ve lost the magic of these pieces: they’re actually great songs! And so we began to let our imaginations run wild: we started off by thinking, ‘Maybe this could have a tango feel …’. “Doesn't this actually feel like it needs to be Samba?”, etc. I feel like, happily, we've rediscovered the joy of these Italian art songs.”
Part of that rediscovery came from the connection she made between these arie antiche and numbers from the American Songbook. “When my parents were having a martini on a Sunday afternoon (cocktail hour!), my dad would pull out his jazz LPs and I would sing along in full voice with Benny Goodman and his big band … This was music that I deeply loved.
“As Craig and I were playing with the Baroque selection for this album, there was a voice in my head saying, ‘But this song ‘Tu lo sai’, composed in the 17th century, expresses the same yearning as Duke Ellington’s ‘Solitude’, written in 1934. In a sense, they feel like the same song. So, as we were playing with this music, I thought it would be incredible to draw on both these genres – the aria antica and the American popular song – and show that we have essentially been singing the same songs for 400 years. These worlds line up in a truly organic way. They simply require willing musicians and the desire to tell the stories.”
In March 2018 the Songplay musicians gathered at Skywalker Sound, the studios at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, just north of San Francisco.
As Joyce admits: “We didn’t quite know what Songplay was until we assembled all the players in the studio. Craig and I knew we would rely on the input of these wonderful musicians from other genres to help us find this new sound- world we wanted to create. Everybody was a little anxious, I think, when they arrived, because we didn’t really know what was going to develop. But Craig and I trusted the direction we were going in and we trusted the musicians.
“The first day was exhausting, as everyone was trying to understand how this would work. The world of jazz musicians functions very differently from the world of classical musicians. In Jazz, the bass section is King; in Opera the voice is Queen. But we needed to find a common vision. Within a very short time it became clear that the unifying language was the music and the feel of each unique piece. As we each threw ourselves into the mix, our own sound and approach emerged and took us each by surprise.”
Craig Terry takes up the story: “Working on this album was incredible. I don’t think any of us knew quite what to expect These wonderful musicians came to collaborate with Joyce and me, bringing their completely different experiences, training, and their amazing imagination. It was inspiring to hear everyone’s ideas and put it all together to make something that is better than any of us are by ourselves.”
Chuck Israels, who helped assemble the team of jazz musicians for the album, says that: “The title Songplay is now attached in my mind to Joyce and this project. She is being playful – and not irresponsibly playful, but engagingly and creatively playful with music that people have heard in a particular context and in a particular style. She has taken those pieces and demonstrated how they are living things. To me there is a deep value in that. It’s been joyful to do this. It’s indescribable, the deep acceptance and appreciation of each other as musicians. It's really a joy to know Joyce: not a diva bone in her body – she is a great person.”
The Gramophone Awards 2018 – regarded as the ‘Oscars of classical music’ – reflected the robust health of the classical recording industry and the huge wealth of performing talent.
The prestigious Recording of the Year was bestowed upon the winner of this year’s Opera category, John Nelson’s recording of Berlioz’s Les Troyens on the Erato label. Praised for its stellar international cast – featuring Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and Marie-Nicole Lemieux - Gramophone stated this recording represented ‘a thrilling new benchmark for this epic opera’.
James Jolly, Gramophone’s Editor-in-Chief, said at the Awards: ‘Classical music is a sector that has been performing well in the UK when compared with other kinds of music. In the first six months of this year classical CDs, downloads and streaming have all outperformed the market. Classical streams were up by 45 per cent against total market growth of 37 per cent. Let’s hope that this evening’s focus on classical music plays its part in producing more figures like that.’
Joyce DiDonato greets you with a song in her heart and twinkle in her eye. The American mezzo-soprano’s album Songplay unites extraordinary musicians from the varied worlds of opera, jazz and tango in the pure pleasure of improvisation, experimentation and exchange. Together they create their own musical language, surprising listeners with timeless melodies transformed and universal stories retold over centuries; songs in English, in Italian and – naturally – in the universal language of music.
‘I had one of the most exhilarating musical weeks of my life recording the album Songplay with a world-class band. Trust me: you’re going to remember each one of these guys! It’s an incredible family of musicians – bass, piano, trumpet, drums and bandoneon. We have essentially created our own sound-world, fusing together music from the Baroque era and classics from the jazz world – with a few other surprises tossed in,’ explains Joyce. ‘We’ve all let down our guard (some of us have even let down our hair) and we’ve each expanded the musical traditions that we have come from to create our own style for this album. It’s joyful, it’s exuberant, it celebrates great music, and it shines a spotlight on the timeless nature of a great song. I hope you'll want to hear this album over and over, and will grow to appreciate the value of playing with a song!’
On Songplay, along with her hand-picked band led by pianist and arranger Craig Terry, Joyce draws inspiration from Cavalli and Chet Baker in equal measure. The languishing heart in Giordani’s Car mio ben is as emotionally charged as Jerry Bock’s hopeful Will he like me? Perhaps the most compelling reminder of how the music of Songplay breaks down barriers is from DiDonato’s experience leading vocal and composition workshops in the New York prison Sing Sing, where one of the men who is incarcerated was particularly moved upon hearing her rendition of Car mio ben: ‘I feel like I've known this song my whole life.’
Joyce DiDonato’s stellar credentials in Baroque and Italian arias didn’t stop her from exploring her beloved American Songbook alongside Haydn and Rossini for the GRAMMY Award-winning album Joyce & Tony: Live from Wigmore Hall. With In War and Peace, she demonstrated the healing power of music that brings people together on the path towards peace. This album picks up from that place of peace and leaps into the realm of joy: it is an all-encompassing celebration of song – one in which there are no boundaries or rules. Let’s play.
Joyce DiDonato, voice
Craig Terry, keys
Chuck Israels, double bass
Jimmy Madison, drums
Lautaro Greco, bandoneon
Charlie Porter, trumpet
Songplay on tour:
18 February 2019, Taper Auditorium - Seattle
20 February 2019, Zellerbach Hall - Berkeley
25 February 2019, Ordway Music Theatre - St Paul
27 February 2019 Oberlin Conservatory
1 March 2019 NEC's Jordan Hall – Boston
10 March 2019, Richardson Auditorium - Princeton
The BBC Proms has revealed its 2018 programme, with several French classical stars making their Proms debut.
On 5 September, Joyce DiDonato reprises the role of Dido in highlights from Berlioz's Les Troyens, this time with John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The American mezzo's recent recording with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and maestro John Nelson won the BBC Music Magazine Award for Best Opera Album earlier this month.
French coloratura soprano Sabine Devieilhe will take to the Royal Albert Hall stage for the first time on 26 July in Debussy's sensual cantata La Damoiselle élue, marking the centenary of the French composer's death. She sings Debussy on her latest album of French arias and songs, Mirages.
In another important French debut, Romantic pianist extraordinaire Bertrand Chamayou plays Mendelssohn's First Concerto on 20 July, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
At Cadogan Hall, on 23 July, Jean Rondeau: another Frenchman in another Proms debut, this time an all-French harpsichord recital including music by Royer (from his album Vertigo), François Couperin and a world-premiere by Eve Risser.
Violinist Renaud Capuçon was in London recently for the launch of his Bartók concertos album with the London Symphony Orchestra. He returns 19 August with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande as soloist in an orchestration of the Ravel Violin Sonata in G Major.
Soprano Diana Damrau sings her heartland repertory, songs by Richard Strauss, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko.
A conductor very much familiar to London audiences, Sir Antonio Pappano, brings his Italian Orchestra dell'Accadamia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia to town for Bernstein's Symphony No.1 marking the centenary of the American composer's birth in August. Pappano has recorded the complete Bernstein Symphonies and The Age of Anxiety with the same orchestra and pianist Beatrice Rana for release later this year.
Discover the complete 2018 BBC Proms line-up here.
At the sixth International Opera Awards ceremony at London's Coliseum last night, Warner Classics' 4CD Berlioz extravaganza Les Troyens was named Recording of the Year (Complete Opera).
Conductor John Nelson, a veteran pioneer of this epic work, said in a statement: 'It is with enormous gratitude that I accept this award on behalf of the extraordinary musicians who surrounded me. This is truly a stunning achievement by French artists interpreting the greatest French opera. Vive la France and Vive Berlioz!'
Hailed the opera event of the year, this critically acclaimed Les Troyens was recorded last year in Strasbourg with a cast of more than 250 singers and instrumentalists led by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Dido, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandra and heroic tenor Michael Spyres as Aeneas. It is already widely acknowledged as the benchmark recording for this Mount Everest of French opera.
See all the winners of the International Opera Awards here.
The BBC Music Magazine Awards took place today in a ceremony at Kings Place in London.
In the Opera category, the winner is Berlioz's Les Troyens: the milestone 4CD opera recording on Warner Classics with an all-star cast headed by Joyce DiDonato, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Michael Spyres and Marianne Crebassa, with the Orchestre Philharmonic de Strasbourg and maestro John Nelson.
The Chamber Music Album of the Year award went to the critically-acclaimed Debussy Chamber Music album on Erato, featuring pianist Bertrand Chamayou, violinist Renaud Capuçon, cellist Edgar Moreau, Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Gérard Caussé (viola) and Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp). Bertrand Chamayou accepted the trophy on behalf of his colleagues, and played Clair de lune solo at the ceremony to celebrate the Debussy centenary year.
Congratulations to all this year's winners, who can be found in the May issue of BBC Music Magazine.
The shortlists for the 13th annual BBC Music Magazine Awards, the only classical music awards in which the main categories are voted for by the public, have been announced. A jury of expert critics selected this year’s 21 nominees across seven categories from over 200 longlisted recordings reviewed in 2017 by BBC Music Magazine, the world’s best-selling classical music monthly. The public vote is now open at the magazine’s website.
The many distinguished and varied nominees include, in the Opera category, the epic recording of Les Troyens, hailed the new reference recording and topping many Best of 2017 lists including The New York Times, The Guardian and the Chicago Tribune, thanks to its impressive orchestral and choral forces and an all-star cast headed by Joyce DiDonato, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Michael Spyres and Marianne Crebassa.
'[Conductor John] Nelson drives the drama with unforced tempos but ample theatrical vitality. Spyres...sings with lyrical grace and spirit...Joyce DiDonato sings Dido with characteristic security and expressiveness,' opined BBC Music Magazine in its five-star review.
Flying the French flag in the Chamber category is the sensational team featuring Renaud Capuçon (violin), Edgar Moreau (cello), Emmanuel Pahud (flute) and Bertrand Chamayou (piano) in these mercurial Debussy sonatas - charming one moment, sensual the next. The French critics called the six players a 'supergroup', while BBC Music Magazine noted that 'a sense of joy in collegial music-making pervades these performances. Unlike many, violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Bertrand Chamayou and their colleagues do not avoid the vein of sensual passion that glows beneath Debussy's perfectionism...Perhaps the finest all is the beautiful balance of elegiac tone that thins out of the Sonata for Flute Viola and Harp.'
The Concerto category also features French harpsichord firebrand Jean Rondeau on the album Dynastie, with intensely intimate, energised performances of concertos by Bach and sons. 'His spirited and eloquently ornamented playing serves the music of JS Bach and three of his sons uncommonly well,' declared BBC Music Magazine.
There are seven categories open to the public vote: Orchestral, Concerto, Opera, Choral, Vocal, Chamber and Instrumental. Audio excerpts are available on the voting site, and all UK voters will be entered into a draw to win copies of the nominations.
The winners of the Awards will be announced at a ceremony on 5 April at Kings Place, London. In addition to the public awards, there are four jury awards: Premiere Recording, Newcomer of the Year, DVD of the Year and Recording of the Year.
See all the nominees and have your say now!
The tour and album have captivated audiences across the United States and Europe including the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, Carnegie Hall in New York and London’s Barbican Centre.
DiDonato is joined by conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and instrumental ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro who perform familiar and rediscovered arias which takes listeners on a journey in search of peace.
Joyce DiDonato is an opera singer who certainly does not live in an ivory tower. She had been planning a concert and album programme with an emphasis on rare arias when terror attacks struck in Paris in November 2015. The tragic events caused her to rethink her approach. In War and Peace: Harmony through Music comprises baroque arias by composers such as Handel, Purcell, Monteverdi and lesser-known figures such as Leonardo Leo and Niccolò Jommelli. It is a programme that engages powerfully with listeners, calling on them to find peace in an often chaotic world.
Strasbourg, April 15 and 17, 2017: The full forces of the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, three choirs and sixteen hand-picked soloists unite under the baton of veteran Berlioz specialist John Nelson for two five-hour concerts of the epic opera Les Troyens (The Trojans), in what Forum Opéra has already declared “the music event of the year” and “The Troyens of the century”. Erato had the honour of recording this French operatic milestone for release on the label in November 2017.
Some 239 musicians were present on and around the stage in surround sound formation in Strasbourg’s state-of-the-art Salle Érasme at the Palais de la Musique et des Congrès. American conductor John Nelson – who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1974 replacing an indisposed Rafael Kubelik in Les Troyens, has championed this grand opera for more than 40 years and has performed it more than any other conductor. Now, at last, the indefatigable maestro is at the helm of a predominantly French cast of rising stars and established artists, showcasing the finest singers of the French opera firmament, including mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, baritone Stéphane Degout, bass Nicolas Courjal and tenors Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Cyrille Dubois.
Headlining this formidable Who’s Who, in the three principal roles, were American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Michael Spyres (Didon and Énée), and French-Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the doomed prophetess Cassandre.
Alain Lanceron, president of Warner Classics & Erato, said: “Recording Berlioz’s Les Troyens is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This monumental work, long considered unplayable, requires exceptional forces on all fronts: orchestra, choirs and numerous soloists, three of which take on the most demanding roles in French opera. The triumph of the concerts in Strasbourg promises a reference recording that will set a new landmark in the discography.
“It was with great emotion that we at Erato witnessed pioneering Berlioz conductor John Nelson at the podium of a transcendent Philharmonique de Strasbourg and the combined choirs of the Opéra National du Rhin, the Philharmonique de Strasbourg and the Badischer Staatsopernchor. The all-star cast led by Joyce DiDonato, Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Michael Spyres – all three in major role debuts – was surrounded by the crème de la crème of unique talents in the French school of opera: a stellar line-up that has already entered the annals of history! We are grateful to all the musicians and the recording team for their commitment to this unforgettable adventure.”
Joyce DiDonato added: “It has been a gift to return to making music with John Nelson, in particular on this momentous occasion of his return to the epic journey of Les Troyens. I cannot imagine creating the role of Didon with a more heartfelt, masterful baton in the lead. It has been an absolute highlight of my musical life, and I am honoured to have been a part of this incredible team of orchestra, chorus and superlative soloists. This is a recording I will treasure – for the music-making and for the beautiful souvenirs of these days in Strasbourg.”
“To sing with Joyce, Michael and this dream cast was and a gift and a true pleasure. We were involved in this incredible music with all our hearts because we admire John Nelson’s vision so much. I hope I served Berlioz well!” enthused Marie-Nicole Lemieux.
“I have had the enormous privilege of recording what I consider to be the greatest French opera, with a predominately French cast, which has never been done before in all the recordings to date," said John Nelson. "The cast is the best ever assembled for this opera and the orchestra is ideal, with a marvelous combination of German discipline and French élan and beauty of sound. For a conductor it doesn't get better than this! We hope this will be a recording that will last for the ages.”
Erato has recorded Berlioz’s complete Les Troyens in Strasbourg for release in November 2017.
Full cast (in order of appearance):
Richard Rittelmann Soldier (act I), Greek captain (act II)
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Cassandre
Stéphane Degout Chorèbe
Michael Spyres Enée
Marianne Crebassa Ascagne
Philippe Sly Panthée
Stanislas de Barbeyrac Hélènus, Hylas
Bertrand Grunenwald Priam
Agnieszka Sławińska Hécube
Jean Teitgen Ombre d’Hector, Mercure
Joyce DiDonato Didon
Hanna Hipp Anna
Cyrille Dubois Iopas
Nicolas Courjal Narbal
Jérôme Varnier Sentinel I
Frédéric Caton Sentinelle II
Chœur de l’Opéra national du Rhin
Chœur philharmonique de Strasbourg
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg
John Nelson conductor
American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is in demand at the most glamorous opera houses around the world, and has sung the American national anthem for a televised audience of millions at the US baseball World Series. But she maintains that her most intimidating audience to date, and arguably her most receptive, consisted of convicted prisoners at the notorious maximum-security facility Sing Sing.
In collaboration with musicians from Carnegie Hall, DiDonato has been working closely with prison inmates, performing for them and teaching them classical music concepts in the hope they will find catharsis, comfort and a way to express themselves through music.
"It reminds them that that part of them is perhaps not lost, in a place that's dehumanising [when] you are so aware that you are captive," she explained in an interview that aired on The Today Show this morning.
"I was staring into the eyes of these prisoners and we were singing to each other."
The Today Show footage - a rare look behind the walls of this infamous jail - includes DiDonato singing to the prisoners arias such as Purcell's When I am Laid in Earth (Dido's Lament), which features on her latest album In War and Peace.
She also performs music by one inmate who has composed specifically for her, Joseph Wilson, and describes the experience of giving concerts for the prison population. "The first time I sang I was singing about a woman exacting revenge on somebody that killed her husband. They started screaming from the audience, 'You go, girl!'"
The Carnegie Hall program is perhaps a natural progression for a singer who has come to embody the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking, the true story of a nun who offered solace and compassion to a prisoner on death row.
Through music, DiDonato insists, we can find hope - and peace - in the most unlikely of places.
Watch Joyce DiDonato on The Today Show here.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal
Philadelphia, PA, United States
Club Musical de Québec
Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall
Princeton, NJ, United States
New York, NY, United States