New Light On Baroque Music in Jakarta

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Batavia Madrigal Singers (Photo courtesy of Batavia Madrigal Singers)

As a musical genre, few rival baroque when it comes to sheer splendor.

Whether it is musically describing the various phases of nature in Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” or the intricate sounds and multiple variations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos,” baroque music’s broad range and scale has won the hearts of music buffs for centuries.

But as iconic as baroque music might seem to be, much of it — particularly its strains from Portugal and other parts of Southern Europe, even its offshoots in Brazil — remain largely unknown, except to scholars and specialists like French-Brazilian conductor Bruno Procopio.

The 36-year-old is doing his bit to spread the word about baroque music. Procopio collaborated with Jakarta-based Batavia Madrigal Singers to bring several unknown pieces, like “Missa Grande” by 18th-century composer Marcos Portugal, to light before Indonesian audiences in Jakarta and Bandung last weekend.

The concerts were part of the Institut Francais Indonesia festival Printemps Francais.

“Aside from Bach, Vivaldi or Handel, much of baroque music remains unknown, so I have more room to explore this genre,” he said. “Besides, Brazilian classical music is inseparable from Portuguese baroque music, since that is where its roots are from.”

Like many journeys, Procopio’s quest to find another side of baroque music is as much literal as it is figurative.

“I started specializing in classical music when I left my hometown of Minas Gerais in Brazil to study [at the Conservatoire de Paris] when I was 16,” he recalled. “I started off with the piano, like many of those who specialize in classical music, before moving on to [baroque] instruments like the harpsichord and clavecin.”

But like many endeavors, the origins of his journey to seek Portuguese baroque music started at home.

“I was first exposed to Portuguese baroque music through the opera house in my hometown Minas Gerais, which is one of a number of such places in Brazil, along with those in Rio de Janeiro and Manaus,” Procopio explained.

“The repertoire there is still true to its roots, since it was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese King Juan VI when he fled Napoleon’s onslaught to Portugal in the early 19th century.

“Before that, Brazil had no such basis in classical music. So I was always interested in highlighting classical music in Brazil in the wake of Juan VI’s arrival there.”

According to Procopio, Portuguese baroque music is influenced by the southern strain of classical music from Italy, including one of its most defining elements.

“Juan VI introduced the use of castrati, or male sopranos, to Brazilian classical music, after he brought a number of them back from Italy. In fact, the last known castrato [Paolo Abel do Nascimento] actually lived and died in Brazil in 1992,” he explained.

“The use of castrati is what makes southern baroque music from Italy distinct from their northern European counterparts in Germany, Austria and France, who tend to use choirboys.”

The range of sounds, from the low and high pitches, he added, can be challenging, particularly for women, because they cannot hit the extremes at both ends.

“The use of castrati is one of the factors why southern baroque music, including Portuguese music, does not get performed very often,” Procopio said, adding that this was no less of a challenge for the Batavia Madrigal Singers’ sopranos, particularly with certain numbers from the “Missa Grande.”

“The recitals with the Batavia Madrigal Singers include male soprano Charles Bardier. However, that is his natural state, unlike the biologically altered castrato. He is the only singer in the world today with this capability,” Procopio said.

“Most male singers who come nearest to this category, the male contra-tenor, cannot approach a soprano’s sound. They are closer to altos, so even if they have relatively high pitched voices they sound more like deep-voiced women. On the other hand, Bardier can equal any soprano in the world.

“His voice is also twice as powerful, forcing him to stand at least four meters away from the microphone.”

Procopio said he was impressed with the Batavia Madrigal Singers’ proficiency during his week-long sessions with them. The vocal group is one of Indonesia’s best and of a world-class standard.

“When I work with choirs throughout Europe, I often would hire soloists from outside the group,” he said. “But the Batavia Madrigal Singers’ overall quality was so high that I can select one of the members to be the soloist. This is a rare honor for any choir member.”

Procopio added that he encouraged the Batavia Madrigal Singers to stretch their boundaries and venture more boldly onto the international stage. He practiced what he preached through his repertoire, which included polyphonic music from the French Renaissance, baroque pieces from Portugal and other countries, even more recent Brazilian tunes.

He also facilitated the Batavia Madrigal Singers’ way through his novel method of conducting.

“I do not just conduct a chorus, I also sing with them,” he said.

“On one hand, it would help me reach out and communicate to the audience. On the other hand, the method would also encourage a friendly rivalry among the choir to step up and make the most of their potential.”

Procopio said he plans to raise the profile of baroque music and of those groups who move in the field, among them the Batavia Madrigal Singers.

“I would like to do more work with the Batavia Madrigal Singers by coming up with a repertoire that can highlight their potential. … I am certain that the group can raise its profile among classical music, particularly baroque music buffs, from around the globe,” he said.

“I also plan to conduct and record the works of French baroque composer Jean Philippe Rameau with Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Orchestra.”

But whichever aspect of baroque music Procopio is bound to rescue from obscurity, it can be sure he has given the age-old scores their rightful place in the sun.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 4, 2013
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