The sweetness of sound

Leading British/Candian lyric soprano Gillian Keith, winner of the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award, together with the Armonico Consort ensemble, returns to the Felicja Blumental Festival with a program of Bach cantatas, based on the recently released CD recording of solo soprano cantatas by Bach.

“We wanted to provide enough variety for an audience, so we included an oboe sonata and chose highlights from BWV 202. The program has a beautiful variety of cantatas and arias featuring soprano and flute – an exquisite sound combination. I especially love chamber music, which lets me have a kind of ‘conversation’ with another instrument, and in these pieces the flute and soprano are very much equal voices,” says Keith.

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Speaking about lyric soprano, she explains that for her, “the most pleasing characteristic of the lyric soprano is the beauty of tone.

Although every voice is unique, it is the sweetness of sound that makes the listener respond.”

Born in Canada, Keith moved to the UK in 1997 to study singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

“Life was good for me there and offered a lot of professional opportunities, so I have stayed! I believe I have become a classical singer for a few reasons. One is that I truly love music and feel it is a language I understand on a deep level. I have a natural ear for sound (foreign languages, as well as music), and I find singing a naturally satisfying way to express myself. My family loves music. My father has natural musical talent, but no one in my family is a professional musician, so I have created my own path in this way. I think I am a born performer and enjoy entertaining through music, humor and storytelling, and the world of opera offers a lot of opportunity!” With a solid career on both the concert and opera stage, Keith recalls some of the performances she cherishes most.

“In 2000, I traveled through Europe with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir performing Bach cantatas to celebrate the millennium. There were many concerts on that tour that were very special, but one especially memorable one was on Easter Sunday in Eisenach, Germany, in the church where Bach was baptized. The performance was so spiritual and emotional – everyone was singing their praises to Bach, the great master of Baroque music,” she recounts.

“I also remember my début on the main stage at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden singing Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Although it was a massive role and required tremendous stamina and focus, the feeling of having that enormous stage almost to myself through the long Act 2 aria was unforgettable,” she says.

“I can also remember several special performances of Handel’s Messiah in Toronto when my entire family was in the audience. Having them there to hear me sing and see me perform is always a wonderful feeling,” she says.

Keith, who enjoys singing in various genres, states that her first musical love “is music from the Baroque period. Handel and Bach are the two composers that move me the most, both to perform and to listen to. Although Baroque music is often very formulaic and mathematical in its structure, I find the simplicity of the form to be very satisfying. Although pieces by Bach and Handel almost always follow a specific structure, their music is never lacking color and expression within the confines of these forms.

The emotions and infinite harmonic combinations that Bach was able to write into his lines still move listeners to emotional depths even 300 years later.”

Gillian Keith confides that she also loves to sing music of other eras, “especially Romantic lieder and the French melodies and chansons of late Romantic composers like Fauré and Debussy. I believe that music which speaks purely of its time and place has the greatest honesty and therefore resonates with performers and listeners. A lied by Schubert captures the poetic and cultural images of the time within its sound, just as Debussy’s watercolor phrases perfectly match the brush strokes of the Impressionist painters. Was it the poetry and art that inspired the music or vice versa?” she muses.

In regard to contemporary music, the singer says that although many modern composers “are trying to create sounds to challenge our ears and our minds, I believe the best contemporary composers are the ones who stick to established forms.

Not to say there aren’t new areas to explore, but a good melody and a well-constructed phrase will always be more satisfying than something that confuses or troubles an audience. At the end of the day, the artist’s job is to express emotion and share an element of their own character through the music, and whether old or new, the music must allow for this,” she asserts.

And beyond the music, the soprano says she is a devoted gardener.

“I have a large vegetable and fruit garden that takes a lot of time and energy. I think there are so many amazing parallels to life, spirituality, history and humanity contained within the natural world of plants and flowers. I learn a lot from tending my garden. I also do a lot of creative writing, yoga, traveling and local community work,” she adds.

The concert takes place on May 12 at 9 p.m. at Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In addition to the performance in Tel Aviv, the Armonico Consort, together with Gillian Keith, will perform on May 10 at the Baroque Festival at Pastoral Hotel in Kfar Blum. For more information about the Kfar Blum festival (May 10-13), visit www.kfarblum-hotel.co.il.