Dr. Coakwell highlighted the importance of historically informed performance for singers who are learning oratorio roles. He emphasized that the use of vibrato for expressive purposes, the timbre of the voice, the attention to articulation, the amount of rubato used in sections of recitative, and all choices made about ornamentation, among other things, must demonstrate the singer's knowledge of the conventions of Bach's time. Dr. Coakwell also guided us through a practical step-by-step method for learning an oratorio role. He explained that focusing on text, rhythmic accuracy, and harmonic comprehension from day one is absolutely essential in order for a young singer to develop independence from the accompaniment, so that they may begin to employ some artistic license without disrespecting the composer's carefully crafted intentions. One major takeaway for me was a notion that all three featured conductors agreed upon: "less is more" when realizing and embellishing a melody by J.S. Bach. Dr. Coakwell reiterated this point with his own addendum, "When in doubt, leave it out!"
Dr. Coakwell explained that perhaps the most important consideration when performing oratorio, and particularly when performing the Evangelist role, is to be a "messenger" (in Suzuki's words) of the Biblical texts. For singers, this means that one must find a balance between expressivity and objectivity; in other words, it is the responsibility of the singer to craft a performance that is personal and emotionally engaging, while simultaneously functioning as little more than a "holder" (as Hella Johnson says) of pure, unbiased truth, "in the service of proclaiming the Christian Gospel." Within the drama of Bach's music, singers must strive to preserve the power, directness, and clarity of the text in order to deliver the story with conviction.
As a Catholic who is growing more and more passionate about Baroque music every day in my vocal and choral studies at Ithaca College, I asked Dr. Coakwell if he could speak about the impact that faith and spirituality can have on a musician's relationship with sacred music. He shared that he finds faith and humanity to be inextricably linked, and that the appeal of sacred music has stood the test of time because it speaks to the core of humanity, whether or not a musician/listener subscribes to any form of organized religion. He encouraged me and any other students in the room who were interested in sacred music to pursue it wholeheartedly, because it is an art form that has tremendous power to move audiences.
I found this presentation to be extremely informative and inspiring. I am hoping to become a professional choral singer and to venture into the world of Baroque singing in the near future, and I am fortunate to have so many experts like Dr. Coakwell here at IC to provide me with wisdom, resources, and advice as I pursue the next steps in my musical journey!
~Juliana Joy Child, IC ACDA President