Ahead of our upcoming Handel in Rome performances, guest director Benjamin Bayl talks about the influence of Italian music traditions on Handel, and the influence of our Music Director, John Butt, on his own career
This is your first time working with Dunedin Consort. What are you most excited to explore with our musicians?
I am thrilled to be working with the Dunedin Consort for the first time. Having studied in the UK I know that there will be many familiar faces in the ensemble, along with some new ones too! I’m most excited to explore this little known Handelian repertoire with them. Handel was of course an extremely prolific composer, but many of his lesser known works deserve more hearings than they usually get, so this programme will give us a chance to delve deeper into the composer’s musical language.
Also, working with Nardus Williams I know will be a great pleasure — all the vocal music in this programme gains an extra dimension, I think, with the sung text and the messages, emotions and affects it brings.
You studied under John Butt. How has his influence affected your career as a director?
John was an amazing Director of Studies when I was doing my undergraduate and postgraduate music degrees. His incredibly encyclopaedic knowledge, coupled with his genius abilities at communication and music making — not to mention his off-beat sense of humour, to put it mildly! — have remained a strong influence on my music making. One can often find academics who may not be super skilled at practical music making, and likewise there are gifted performers who do not care for the historical context of what they are performing. For me John is the perfect synthesis of a complete musician, whose passion for music is driven by both brain and heart — that’s something I strive for as well.
Which musical moments should we look out for across the programme?
I think Tra le fiamme is a particularly wonderful cantata, with its unique instrumentation of flutes and gamba. The gamba is basically a duelling partner with the voice in this piece, and the whole work is like a mini-opera. Even with one singer, there are several little scenes, diverse recits and arias… a real tour-de-force for the soprano. I also love the Op.6 No.6 Concerto Grosso — it is so jam packed with such a range of musical ideas, one feels as though Handel is already heading towards a symphonic structure, as if preparing the way for young Haydn and Mozart.
Why was this period in Handel’s composing career so important? Why should we care?
All of the vocal music in this concert was composed during Handel’s time in Rome. This was quite early on in his career, around 1707-1708, so he was a very young man in his early 20s. The Italian musical traditions of the time had a great influence on Handel’s works, especially the prevalence of brilliant instrumental writing. At the time, opera was temporarily banned in the Papal states, and vocal music had to be sacred. There was a workaround, however: secular pastoral cantatas, along with allegorical oratorios such as La Resurrezione and Il trionfo del tempo, were allowed, and were written to be produced and performed privately. I think the musical styles Handel assimilated in his Italian years really stayed with him throughout his composing life (that’s why we should care!).
If we like what we hear, what or who should we listen to next?
So much of the music we will hear in this programme comes from larger works or collections. If you like the arias from Il trionfo and La Resurrezione, I would seek out the entire works, to hear their astonishing dramatic and virtuosic range. If you like Tra le fiamme, have a listen to Il delirio amoroso. And if you prefer the instrumental music, there are several other Concerto Grossi to listen to. The composer and violinist Arcangelo Corelli was also close to Handel stylistically, and I think his Concerti Grossi are also fantastic.