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A Pilgrim’s Progress – Jeremy Siepmann talks to the conductor Ryan Brown

September 20, 2010

Ryan Brown

When the great virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz was asked why he played octaves so fast, his answer was to the point. To a fault. ‘Because I can,’ he replied. Or so the story goes. If Ryan Brown, the esteemed American champion of Baroque French opera, were to be asked a similar question after whipping out his fiddle and dashing off a couple of celebrated concertos from the 19th and 20th centuries, he could reply like Horowitz. He would never do such a thing, of course. But the point is, he could. In an age of specialisation he is a broad-based musician of wide musical sympathies. Gently genial in manner, he is both soft-spoken and voluble, brimming over with enthusiasm and the joy of discovery. His recordings for Naxos explore the various traditions of tragédie-lyrique, opéra-ballet, pastorale, dramma-giocoso and opéra-comique, and juxtapose masterpieces by the likes of Lully, Rameau and Gluck with works by some of their lesser-known contemporaries (Sacchini, Rebel & Francœur, with forthcoming recordings of Philidor’s Sancho Panza and Grétry’s Le magnifique). Latest in the line is the opéra comique Le déserteur by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny, (September 2010 release).

Le Déserteur
Sharp • Labelle • Monoyios • Newman
Galvin • Boutté Perry
Opera Lafayette Orchestra
Ryan Brown, conductor


Monsigny and Sedaine’s brilliant opéra-comique Le Déserteur, was an immediate and lasting success for its melodic charms and musical variety, its blend of comedy with moments of great sentiment and pathos, and its intellectual radicalism prefiguring the humanitarian ideas of the 19th century Romantics. This recording features the musical items only from this forerunner of the ‘rescue’ opera, in which the heroine Louise extricates her fiancé Alexis from prison and a death sentence. A written explanation of the action between the airs is provided in the booklet.

Music has played a central role in Brown’s life for as long as he can remember. Such names as the above, however, played no part in his upbringing. ‘My mother’s a pianist, my father is a conductor and pianist, so there was always music in the house, and in fact we often had quite famous musicians coming to the house, sometimes to stay—Murray Perahia, for instance, who stayed with us not long after winning the Leeds Competition. My parents had two Bösendorfers in the house, I took up the violin, and there was a lot of chamber music in the house.’

So much indeed, that he can hardly remember his earliest performing experiences. ‘It was all so natural, all part of the package. It was part of the air I breathed. That said, I didn’t start feeling relaxed about performance until I was doing it several times a week, when I was already in my 20s. There’s that feeling, when you’re still in school, that no matter how hard you try you just aren’t getting it right.  But after a while, when you start performing regularly, your priorities shift, your perspectives clear, and you realise that it really doesn’t matter how you played that high G-sharp; that’s not what the public care about. The public wants to hear something that moves them. It was only once I’d made that transition that I really began to enjoy performing, and I looked forward to being out there on stage every time. I wasn’t living the life of a virtuoso, I was mostly playing a lot of chamber music—modern and, increasingly, Baroque chamber music—playing on period instruments. That I started doing while I was still at Juilliard, with the harpsichordist Albert Fuller, who in many ways was kind of the Godfather of the early music movement in America. But at the same time I was studying chamber music with Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard Quartet. Because my parents were steeped in the music of the 19th century, that’s the heritage I grew up with; but when Albert introduced me to Rameau, well that became my thing, as opposed to my parents’ repertoire.’

And when did he get the conducting bug? That, like his first performances, remains shrouded in the mists of childhood. ‘It’s hard to say, really. It was always a part of my life, what with my father being a conductor, and my playing in his orchestra when I was at school.  I’d flirted with it quite a lot even in my school days, but again it was when I was in my 20s that it really began to take hold. I had a summer music festival in the wine country in northern California, where I grew up, at which I would give myself conducting assignments, with varying degrees of success. But the turning point came when I formed what was originally called Les Violons de  Lafayette (later, Opéra Lafayette). I started leading larger works, first from the violin—and by the time I got to Gluck, and we did Orphée et Eurydice, I realised that all those accompanied recitatives were just not being led very clearly by the first violin. And it was then that I put the violin aside and really took up conducting very seriously. It was also at around that point that I was lucky enough to study for two years with Gustav Meier, a really wonderful conducting teacher, at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Much of conducting you really learn by a kind of osmosis, but when I was studying with Gustav and his assistants, they were very much teaching you music. Gustav knew the repertoire very well and he knew all the places which were going to be most difficult for the conductor. Technically, it was mostly a case of general principles. I’ll always remember him saying “If the orchestra’s not together it’s your fault!” That great lesson in humility is very important and makes you realise that your conducting may not be as clear as you think it is, and that it’s possible to be clearer. His assistant, who’d studied with Celibidache, was much more technical in his teaching, and was very clear about exactly where your arms might be at any given moment. And that too was very helpful for me. But going back and conducting one opera after another demonstrated better than any lessons that becoming confident with an orchestra needs time. In conducting class I was doing Brahms symphonies and trying to get through The Rite of Spring and so on, which was something I hadn’t done in a long while.  Teaching is important, certainly, but in the end, of course, you do learn on your feet, learn by doing. But time and again, when I was conducting Opéra Lafayette, I would have Gustav’s great advice in my head, and that was a huge help when it came to really communicating with an orchestra.’    

Opéra Lafayette Orchestra
Photo courtesy of Stan Barouh

Forming one’s own orchestra to learn on is an achievement in itself. How, though, in 20th century America, does one find the wherewithal to mount a whole opera company on which to cut your conductorial teeth? How did Ryan Brown proceed? ‘As a chamber musician, I loved what I was doing, but I’d been doing it for a long time and I began to feel that I really wanted to do the bigger repertoire. I had a literary bent, and wanted to hear the language, and wanted to explore the major works. I’d done a lot of Baroque repertoire, but the greatest Baroque repertoire is opera, and I wanted to tackle it. In New York I ran into a number of people, Albert Fuller chief among them, who had a real penchant for French opera. But virtually nobody was doing it in the United States. In my first encounters with the repertoire, I was absolutely smitten. This was it. This was the music I wanted to do. But how? How could I make it happen? We lived in Washington DC at the time, and it proved to be very fertile ground for starting one’s own group. There was a lot of interest in music, and a lot of interesting spaces too. And not so much was happening that there wasn’t actually quite a lot of interest in a group specialising in 18th-century music. So I got together with some of my fellow chamber players, we did some more recruiting and we formed an orchestra. And that was it. The first great orchestra of the 18th century had been called the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy [the 24 Violins of the King], so we adapted that and called the orchestra Les violons de Lafayette. As we soon began to specialise in opera, the name was changed to Opéra Lafayette. Fund raising was a problem at the beginning, mainly because French Baroque opera was a largely unknown quantity in the States. But of course opera is an expensive business no matter how you look at it, so fund raising is a continuing, constant process. Fortunately, our first production, of Rameau’s one-act Pygmalion, took place in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, right across from the White House, where we saved money on the staging by virtue of the fact that the foyer of the gallery proved to be a marvelous set in its own right, filled with statuary, including, at the top of the central staircase, a statue of Venus, which fitted in perfectly with the opera. This was serendipity! It was also the first time that we had a full orchestra and cast, and semi-staging—a wonderful beginning, then. The next great watershed moment came when the University of Maryland opened a splendid new Arts Center for 2001-1002, whose head, as it happened, knew my work from New York. I put to him the idea of inaugurating the Center’s first season with a production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice.

To my delight, he accepted, we did it with a wonderful cast, the production attracted a lot of attention, and it was our first recording for Naxos. So, a watershed, as I said. From then on we concentrated mainly on 18th century French opera, but we also branched out and did what I like to call Mozart’s French opera, Idomeneo, and we ventured into Italian opera with Haydn’s Il mondo della luna.

When Brown was growing up, role models in what was to become his speciality were notably thin on the ground. But he hardly lacked inspiration. ‘I grew up in a house in which my father had not exactly a shrine but a framed photograph of Furtwängler, and something that Furtwängler himself had written down: the cuts in a Bruckner symphony. My father had studied with a conductor who had worked with Nikisch and who as a child had sat on the lap of Brahms. So this was the tradition I grew up with. Furtwängler dominated my upbringing, with that very free expressivity that he brought to everything he did. Another, later influence, when I was in graduate school was the wonderful Walter Levin of the LaSalle Quartet, which did a lot to promote the work of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and other people of and influenced by the Second Viennese School. Walter used to make a certain amount of fun of Furtwängler, and contrasted him with Toscanini, whom he saw as the opposite poll. So I began exploring Toscanini’s recordings and seeking out old films of him with NBC Symphony Orchestra. So that was another big influence, and I tried hard to draw on the best of both them.’

Furtwängler was a pianist, Toscanini a cellist. Listening to Brown talking about them, I recalled a remark by Eugene Ormandy to the effect he could guess a conductor’s original instrument entirely by the character of his conducting. Does Brown think he may be spottable as a violinist-conductor? ‘I’m sure the cellos and basses in my orchestra think so! “Hey,” they sometimes say. “Pay a little attention to us sometimes, a little less to the left hand side please!”—but that’s also because I have such a fabulous continuo section I know they can operate just fine on their own. I definitely have very specific ideas of articulation, and of course as a fiddle player I also have strong feelings as to how I expect it to be bowed. And I hope that this sense of articulation which I acquired during my years as a string player really does come through in our performances and recordings.’

His years as a string player. Sounds very past tense. Does he, then, no longer play the violin? ‘Sometimes. Now and again. But nothing like as much as I used to, and when I do it’s almost always in ‘period’ mode, you might say. I rarely play outside of my specialty now, whereas I used to play Brahms and Fauré sonatas with pianists, and modern music too—the Stravinsky concerto, for instance, and the Prokofiev G minor. But those days are past.’ And who, moving beyond instruments and specialities, are the composers who mean most to him? Does he, perhaps, even stretch to a single favourite? ‘Oh! An impossible question of course! But I can’t not say Mozart first off. And of course, given who I am and what I do, I just adore Rameau—and I share a birthday with him too! I adore Gluck, too. I’m very fond of Debussy, I have a great interest in Berlioz, and I always fall back on Brahms, who was perhaps the favourite of my parents—and in my teens I played Brahms in my father’s orchestra. But the big event for me was my discovery of Rameau.’

French baroque opera is still relatively little known to the musical public at large. Even its basic terminology is elusive. Nor is translation always an adequate guide. Opéra comique, such as Monsigny’s Le déserteur, is not simply the French for comic opera, as broadly understood in English. ‘This is still a great area of discovery, and will be, I think, over the next few years.  Even among knowledgeable musicians, there’s a fabulous repertoire which is really just coming to light. And having done tragédies lyriques and opéra ballet, the discovery of opéra comique  is fairly new to me and very exciting. I think of it as 18th-century Broadway. The very sort of lowbrow entertainments that went on at the fairs in Paris in the first half of the century coalesced into a new genre of significance in the early part of the second half of the century, not only with the composers Philidor, Monsigny and, especially, Grétry, but very much, also, with the librettists. I think it’s interesting that this first high-class ‘lowbrow’ entertainment was first unified by literary figures—Charles Simon Favart in particular, but also the librettist Michel-Jean Sedaine, who provided the words for Le déserteur and who worked with all these composers. They picked tunes from the operas to make fun of vaudevilles. It was Philidor who first provided all the music for an opéra comique, thereby unifying it musically. We’ve just finished recording his Sancho Panza, which will be our next CD after the Monsigny. The libretto for Le déserteur actually determines so many of the musical events, it seems clear that composer and librettist worked together very, very closely– rather like Strauss and Hoffmanstal.’

Pierre Alexandre Monsigny

Monsigny is little known today, even to many in the early music movement. For Brown, he’s been a great discovery. So who was he? Where did he come from, so to speak? ‘Well he was a small-town boy, who didn’t have the training in the highest reaches of musical art that, say, Philidor did (whose family had been in service to Louis XIV and beyond). He was educated outside Paris, by the Jesuits, and stood somewhat apart from the prevailing tradition, though his teacher was a pupil of Rameau. And he was a natural born melodist. Every tune in Le déserteur grabs you right away, at least it seems that way to me. It’s all so natural, and so hummable. You really go away humming the tunes. This man had a terrific natural talent, though he was criticised in his day, in some circles, for being insufficiently learned. Ironically, in a way, because one feature of opéra comique was to make fun of learned composers. One of the players in our orchestra has played in quite a few Broadway shows, and several times during our rehearsals, she said ‘This sounds like the Broadway I’m used to!’ And there were some places where the harmony was questionable, and reminded me of some times in Purcell where the writing is unconventional and you really have to make a decision whether to actually play those ‘blue notes’ or not. And there were times in Le déserteur when we decided to go for those ‘blue notes’, which are in some ways unschooled but really add to the espressivity. Another interesting thing about Monsigny is that like Rossini he didn’t compose anything at all for the last 40 years of his life—though in his case it was because he was afraid he was going blind. Even so, he left a wonderful body of work, and I hope that our recording of Le déserteur will inspire a lot of people to look more closely at it.

What, I wondered, makes Le déserteur remarkable, even significant, in Monsigny’s output? ‘It was perhaps his most popular and most seminal work. I think there’s a direct line connecting him to Fidelio, for instance. What people recognised immediately, and felt was really revolutionary, was the way he had comic and serious characters onstage at the same time, and in the same scene, relating to each other, and singing arias of completely different character one right after another. Also significant is his creation of a heroine who saves the day, which has become familiar to us because of Fidelio but which in this late 18th-century, with its increased emphasis on domesticity, and true love, and moving away from the aristocracy, and elevating doctors and lawyers and farmers and the petit bourgeois, and putting those characters on stage and making them really human, the idea of a young woman, the anti-patriarchal figure, being the centre of the action, and going all the way to the king himself in her quest for justice, this was something new, and really deeply touching. This opéra comique, of all things, had the audiences of the day in tears. And the Fidelio connections aren’t just general—the ‘rescue’ opera, with a woman as the rescuer—but specific. The lonely prison aria is genuinely moving, and the programmatic overture, which stops in the middle, at which point you hear the trumpet call of the king’s retinue, coming at the last minute to save the day, is really the prototype of the Leonore Overture that’s often used with Fidelio.

Given the close links between the words and the music, as well, of course, between the words and the plot, is it advisable for first-time listeners to follow the printed libretto as they listen? ‘I think it’s particularly illuminating in the case of the comic numbers. What we might call the Ivesian moments, which really show how closely Sedaine and Monsigny worked together, come with the three short pieces in the Second Act, where we have two very contrasting characters singing their own very different tunes at the same time, complete with separate words. And the scene is actually choreographed, with the two characters making opposite gestures to go with their opposite words. It’s a wonderful moment—quite brilliant, actually. Here I don’t think one necessarily has to follow the libretto but you really do have to know what these scenes are about, what’s actually going on, if you’re going to get the full effect. The same goes for many other moments too. But of course this really applies to all opera.’  

Having pressed him earlier about favourite composers, I invited Brown to single out, and perhaps explain, some of his favourite moments in the opera. ‘Again, there are so many! I think that Alexis’s first prison aria, juxtaposed with comic scenes, gives one a good idea of the sheer range of the opera. And Louise’s second aria is perhaps the most tender and sheerly beautiful number in the entire work. And then there’s the curiosity of this incredibly long fugue for three characters, which is wildly dramatic—and unexpectedly learned. This kind of counterpoint and complicated form is something you don’t normally find in opera comique.

Le déserteur is actually the first of three opéras comiques that we’re recording for Naxos—the others being Philidor’s Sancho Panza and Grétry’s Le magnifique, which also has a libretto by Sedaine. I’m very excited by this trio of opéras comiques and the fact that each one represents a different stage, a different direction in the course that opéra comique took. And I hope that these three operas, taken together, will open up a new window for people to discover.’ With Brown’s track record to date, that should be a certainty.

Ryan Brown Biography & Discography


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