Since the inception of Les Violons du Roy, the music of Bach has been at the heart of its existence. What else could be expected with their founder as a self-professed nerd who spent his summers as a teenager tucked into the shadows of his parents’ basement listening to Bach’s Passions and cantatas?
The long and sometimes rocky history of this group of young musicians who knew what they wanted to do but didn’t really know how to do it was impacted at different times by encounters with musicians who had a deep and lasting influence on its development.
One of the first highly successful and fully established artists who collaborated with us on a regular basis was the Canadian mezzo Catherine Robbin. A consummate artist as well as a font of eternal no-nonsense wisdom, Catherine brought us not only her magnificent singing and artistry over a long period of time, but with her came also a form of recognition from the more high-end professional universe in which she was working regularly on the most important stages of the world. Many great singers we were hoping to work with came to us because Catherine had put in a good word on our behalf. She also allowed me to make contact with one of the heroes of my youth, the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, with whom I studied briefly as a participant in a masterclass he gave in Stuttgart in 1991 – a five-day experience that changed my life.
Catherine also introduced us to a young and completely unknown German soprano named Dorothea Röschmann. Dorothea – or “Doro” as her friends call her – sang for the first time with us in Handel’s Messiah in early December 1992. It’s a point in time I cannot forget: my father died on November 29 of that year (which also happened to be my mother’s birthday). As the whole forces of Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec were mobilized for the Messiah rehearsals at that time, everyone ended up in a dusty organ loft for my father’s funeral, including Dorothea who sang Mozart’s Laudate Dominum from the Vesperae solennes de confessore. My great friend the late organist and priest Antoine Bouchard who co-celebrated the ceremony told me afterwards: “Even the Queen won’t get a funeral like this one.” Antoine was always right.
Dorothea became a regular collaborator of the orchestra at a time when we were recording twice a year for the American label Dorian. One of our first recording projects fittingly reunited Dorothea with Catherine Robbin in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The success of that CD brought us a lot of recognition and attention, and eventually led us to our first significant appearances in the USA.
This project was followed by two recordings of Bach’s secular cantatas (five cantatas overall) in which Dorothea was the absolute star. In spite of her young age, she carried with her an aura of maturity beyond her years, especially in recording sessions when her mind was always laser-focused on every detail. She already sounded glorious back then, but we all knew she was only scratching the surface of her immense potential and was destined for greatness and international recognition.
It was definitely confirmed just a few years later when she was snatched up by some of the greatest conductors and became a regular presence on the most famous opera stages in the world. Once in a while I would buy a new CD or watch a video of her, and every time I would instantly recognize the magnetic presence I had felt by my podium in the early 90s. The voice matured and blossomed over time, and the intensity and total artistic dedication of her early years was still intact – and remains to this day.
We came very close to being reunited on stage in 2015: we had planned a concert version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (the first piece I ever conducted at age 19, which remains one of my absolute favorites) with Dorothea singing Dido, La Chapelle de Québec and Les Violons du Roy. We were scheduled for performances in Quebec City, Montreal and New York. Dido with Doro in Carnegie Hall: that sounds like a match made in heaven.
Things didn’t happen that way unfortunately. I was struck by cancer in the Spring of 2014, and my long road to recovery brought me back to the stage only in December 2015. I was still in hospital in March of that year when the Dido concerts took place, and an incredible (and lucky) guy got to replace me for that project which was so close to my heart. (He shall remain nameless, but his initials are Richard Egarr.)
I offer you two very different excerpts that will somehow summarize musically the story you have just read.
The first is an aria from Bach’s famous “Coffee Cantata” BWV 211 with Dorothea and members of Les Violons du Roy, recorded in the lovely church of Saint-Isidore near Quebec City in January 1994. She was the perfect incarnation of the young Liesgen who proclaims her irrepressible love for coffee – a product whose popularity gathered a lot of steam in Bach’s lifetime.
|Ah! how sweet coffee tastes!
|Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
|Smoother than muscatel wine.
|Coffee, I must have coffee,
|And if anyone wants to give me a treat,
|Ah! just give me some coffee.
The second was recorded twenty years later and has nothing to do with Bach or Les Violons du Roy, but it shows the immense artist Dorothea Röschmann has become, in repertoire that suits perfectly her mature voice and artistry: the lied Morgen (“Tomorrow”) by Richard Strauss. (The best love song ever in my opinion. Just saying.)
|And tomorrow the sun will shine again,
|And on the way that I will go,
|It will again unite us, the happy ones,
|Amidst this sun-breathing earth,
|And to the beach, wide, wave-blue,
|We will descend, still and slowly,
|Silently we will look in each other’s eyes
|And upon us will sink the mute stillness of happiness.
Bach and Strauss side by side in a Bach initiative? This one took you by surprise, admit it. And yet both have their own ways to reach the same hidden corners of the human soul. To paraphrase the famous singer and songwriter Jacques Brel: they didn’t tread the same roads, but they were looking for the same harbor.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, "Coffee Cantata": Aria: Ei, wie schmeckt der Coffee susse (Soprano
Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4