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Great Musicians: Ellen Hargis

We spoke with American soprano Ellen Hargis and hear some of her more notable recordings. Plus, a release from the Attaignant Consort.

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Ellen Hargis

American soprano Ellen Hargis is at the top of her field in Early Music.  With exceptional musicianship, a powerful intellect, endless curiosity and a formidable stage presence, she has developed a career that can only be described as one-of-a-kind.  Ellen is in demand around the world for her unique voice and special approach to the music from the 17th and 18th Centuries, including the study of gesture—a personal favorite of hers.  Not necessarily limited to these eras, she can also be found exploring the music of the Middle Ages with the Newberry Consort on the 2004 recording, Puzzles and Perfect Beauty: Italian Music at the End of the Middle Ages.

A dedicated teacher, Ellen has been in demand at a number of universities and colleges for some time-especially as part of the vocal faculty of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  She can also be found at several summer workshops in North America.

Ellen was recently in our studios and gave us her unique perspective on Early Music in the American college environment:

“I think early music is being ‘mainstreamed’ here, which I think is a good idea, both in music departments and music schools.  It’s being less marginalized than it was in the past where we’d have our little collegium musicum meeting on Tuesday nights and anybody who wants to can join.  We’re now seeing that early music ensembles are part of a main curriculum, that playing baroque music on baroque instruments is being mainstreamed, and a lot of that is market driven.  I think people now realize that there is work for people who can pick up a baroque bow and play on gut strings and play in unequal temperaments, so it’s worth giving the students some training.  Likewise for singers.  When they go out and sing with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and somebody like Paul Hillier or Paul Goodwin or Nicholas McGegan is conducting this modern instrument ensemble, the singers are expected to know how to ornament appropriately, how to sing in a stylistic way, and so anybody preparing for a life in concert singing needs to be educated about historical performance practice.  We see a lot more interest all of a sudden on the part of straight ahead modern music departments at preparing their students well.”

On the 1999 CD release, Il Zazzerino, Ellen Hargis is joined by theorbist and guitarist Paul O’Dette, harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, and viola da gambist Hille Perl, performing music of Jacopo Peri.

This past autumn was a busy one for Ellen.  Apart from her performances, she had a full teaching schedule that was spread throughout the Midwestern United States, with regular visits to Cleveland, Chicago, and Bloomington, Indiana.  Ellen shared her thoughts and experience as a visiting professor at Indiana University’s Early Music Institute:

“I made six visits, and Drew Minter made the other six so that the students got their full compliment of lessons.  And it was wonderful.  There are more male students than I have anywhere else I teach and so [it’s] wonderful to teach low voices in such concentration.  And there are three countertenors in the studio so that was also a challenge.  I was glad that my colleague Drew was sharing that teaching because I think it’s always nice for people to study with their own voice type and countertenors have a hard time finding countertenor teachers actually, because there are fewer of them. There is a wide variety of talents here and it was fantastic to work with everything from [students] just starting out in the first year of their Master’s to some finishing up D.M.A.’s; very proficient, clever students with interesting research projects and of course because it’s an early music institute [where] the students are very focused, very hardworking, and with wonderful performance practice skills already.”

Ms. Hargis has also recorded with ensemble the King’s Noyse on a 1996 collaboration including the works of German baroque composer Johann Rosenmüller.

Among her most recent recordings is of a production of Lully’s Thésée by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra & Chorus.  The recording included an all-star cast, co-directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs.  Ellen shared her perspective on what it was like to record the work a number of years after she had been involved in the staged production:

“It’s always more fun, when you’re doing a dramatic work to record it after you’ve done it staged, because you bring such a different sense of drama and rhetoric to the performance when you have actually moved and done the music that way.  Additionally, we recorded it four years after we had performed it first, and that meant that the piece was fresh again, but at the same time extremely settled, because there’s just something about time passing.  It had settled and matured.  When we came back to it we remembered our favorite things, and were able to change things in the way of making the piece develop, become deeper, and more exciting.  We did have our stage director with us in the recording, to remind us.  He’s an expert in 17th Century French literature and theater (to have him in the recording session was an incredible bonus).  It was a wonderful experience.”

The release of the week brings us the unique sound of the Renaissance flute consort.  Released on the Ramée label, the Attaignant Consort, directed by Kate Clark, performs music for Renaissance flute consort and joined by pre-eminent lutenist Nigel North.

Here’s a video of Ellen Hargis and the Newberry Consort performing Handel’s aria “Lascia ch’io pianga”:


Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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