Like many friends and fans of Amasong's founder and former director, we at Smile Politely were excited to learn of Kristina Boerger's virtual visit via a March 14th concert to benefit the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana. Our conversation below, the first installment in a two-part interview, previews the upcoming performance and investigates what inspired it. Stay tuned for the second installment, in which Boerger updates us on her life and career since leaving Champaign-Urbana. Enjoy. And, if you can, please "Give BACH."
Smile Politely: I’m most interested to hear about the process of putting this concert program together. What was it like to start making music in person again?
Kristina Boerger: This was my first time singing in a room with someone else in fifty-one weeks. When BACH contacted me and asked if they could engage me to film a concert for the series this year, my intelligent response should have been “No.” They were offering me something on the scale of a solo performance … and I am not a solo concert artist. I was honored and a little bit thrilled to be approached; I also thought, “I don’t have anything to offer than anyone wants to sit in front of their screen and look at for the length of a recital.”
I am a vocal harmonist—I specialize in voices singing together, whether that’s singing myself or helping other people to do it well. I’ve had a wonderful career as an ensemble and collaborative singer. I’ve always been able to choose the projects that I think will benefit from the gifts that I do have to offer. I do not care to sing alone, though sometimes I have had to in my career; the minute there’s another voice singing with me I’m in my happy place.
But something inside me said, “Don’t say ‘no’ yet. You might come up with the inspiration for answering this call.” Joseph Baldwin [artistic director from BACH] gave me two weeks to give an answer. Something happened in those two weeks. I had been silent and underground: there had been no singing, there had been no conducting, there has been nothing that properly passes for teaching when I teach … just a graveyard of my artistic life, you know?
SP: I do.
Boerger: And then Christmastime came, and though I’m not religious there’s nothing I love to sing more than Christmas music. And suddenly the spirit hit me. It was that time of year when we’re supposed to be singing—I’m crying now, even when I talk about it—and I felt my whole body align with the season. My voice was singing in my body like it hadn’t been for months. And then, in that moment, it hit me. I had a colleague, Sarah Brailey, whom I could approach who I thought would say, “Yes,” to doing a duet recital and recording it for this project with BACH. I had sung with her a few times in New York City, and she’s just a consummate soloist and ensemble-ist, but she had relocated to Madison, WI. She’s now living there finishing her doctorate in voice performance. We’ve both been extremely cautious in our isolation. In fact, Sarah was supposed to sing as a soloist with the Minnesota Bach Ensemble at the end of February, and when she wasn’t satisfied that it was going to be safe she canceled her one big solo orchestral gig! That gave me confidence that we could do this without endangering ourselves or anyone else. We could meet, and we could do this work unmasked; Brandon (our lutenist) would mask, and we were going to do it!
SP: And after she came on board the project really began to take shape?
Boerger: Not only did Sarah say yes almost immediately, because she too had been just depressingly idle as a singer, but she offered the space for us to use: Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. It is such a marvelous space to sing in. The acoustic was very live but also clear, and that clarity was important.
We also both knew this beautiful lute player named Brandon Acker, whom I knew from when I used to conduct the orchestra and chorus for the Madison Early Music Festival and he was there as a student practicing as a lutenist. You need one more person to play with you if you want to perform a range of pieces.
We arrived Friday night, spent Saturday rehearsing together, and then spent most of Sunday afternoon and evening filming.
SP: What was playing in the space like?
Boerger: When I went into the space to begin rehearsal, the first thing I heard was Brandon tuning up his lute. Being in that beautiful space, and having live acoustic sound coming out of live materials—you know, wood and gut [strings]—vibrating my body for the first time in more than a year … I just started weeping.
It’s strange to film a concert for streaming compared to making live music. I’ve done plenty of studio work on commercial CDs, and the standard for perfection is so unforgiving that you have to have a patch for every moment that is less than stellar. I didn’t want us to feel like we had to cover every infelicity, because that’s not how live music works. We did a good job, I think, of trying to relax into that. Ultimately, this is music that we’re offering to my community, and it was more important to us that it be musical, viable, exciting, and effective.
SP: I’m very excited to hear what you have done with the repertoire you chose, and to hear how it fits around your theme “A Patient Enduring,” which I think we’ve all been doing a lot of in the past year.
Boerger: A lot of the things that I chose were originally scores for a soprano, a bass, and a lute, and I take the bass up because they are excellent duets. They’re very adaptable to that. In some cases I made some octave displacements that worked out to really good expressive effect. All three of us contributed repertoire to the program. I brought some of the duets for lute and two voices by John Dowland and Henry Purcell; Sarah is doing her dissertation on writing for the soprano voice, and brought some marvelous duets by Barbara Strozzi (who really knew how to write for the voice because she was a soprano) and the troubadour songs by Guillaume de Machaut; Brandon brought some of the English lute material, which is so incredibly beautiful.
SP: How did you find your theme?
Boerger: We didn’t start with a theme and then look for repertoire. I came across, “a patient enduring” in one of our lute songs. And we saw that it fit a lot of the repertoire we’d already found. Sarah singing Purcell’s “O solitude” (Z. 406) really is an anthem for our times; the duet “Lost is My Quiet” (also Purcell), and really our whole English set, is about the loss of love and relationship aspirations between people—basically, your heart is broken and everything sucks—but we’ve adapted it to be more about the loss of our musicking and artistic relationships.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We’re opening with an anonymous 13th-century conductus—you can imagine that we’re processing into the concert hall—and part of its devotional text translates to, “Arise from your sorrow.” That, for me, is the perfect concert opener. We arise from our sorrow and silence as musicians to get together and do again what we love.