First published on 29 Apr 2011. Updated on 9 May 2011.
Known for her pitch-perfect high notes and outlandish stage outfits, a Sumi Jo concert is always something of an event in Singapore. But, on this, her third appearance here, don’t expect her usual repertoire of high-flying bel canto set-pieces. Instead, the charismatic Korean soprano will be offering something quite different: baroque arias by Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell.
Collaborating with her in this performance is the period instrument orchestra Academy of Ancient Music (AAM), led by music director Richard Egarr, a collective that re-creates the sound of the baroque era (1600-1750) using methods and instruments of the time.
While this may be her first series of live performances with a period instrument orchestra, Sumi Jo is not exactly a stranger to the music of this bygone era. ‘To perform baroque music with quality, I believe, not only requires musical skill,’ she says. ‘Life experience plays a very important role as well. I had to study a lot about baroque music while recording my album Journey to the Baroque a few years ago [with the Netherlands’ Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra on modern instruments]. And I’ll be channelling these experiences into making this a truly special event.’
Founded in 1973 by baroque conductor Christopher Hogwood, the AAM is representative of a movement that started in the late ’60s known as the Historically Informed Performance movement. HIP performers play baroque music on period instruments – in other words, antique or close copies of these instruments – and consult historical treatises to understand how the music was played, rather than relying solely on staging conventional renditions. Instruments were more primitive then, and require different techniques and produce different sounds to those we hear nowadays.
The HIP movement has spread throughout the classical music world, giving new ideas to contemporary musicians as to how this music should be approached. You might wonder if all this research might be too much of a straitjacket, but HIP practitioners say the idea is to find inspiration from the past rather than set steadfast rules. ‘I think the golden combination is to have enough learning and historical awareness to inform the music making,’ says principal violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk. ‘To make it different from what normally happens with modern orchestras, but [also] to wear that learning lightly and not have it in the way of your own creativity.’
Although not a baroque specialist, the Korean diva agrees: ‘It requires quite a special effort to perform with period orchestras. The difference in instruments and vocal techniques requires an understanding of the context – how music of the time was composed, as well as the intentions of the composer – in order to perform it appropriately. But once all this preparation is done, I don’t think it’s much different from how I perform with modern orchestras,’ she says. ‘This is a great project: it gives me with an opportunity to look back and find out how music has evolved.’
Beznosiuk is equally appreciative of the 48-year-old’s participation. ‘Working with Sumi Jo is a great honour for us, and very exciting indeed. It’s very important for musicians in the period instrument world to work with artists from other fields, to question what we do constantly. There’s never one “right” way to perform any kind of repertoire, and it’s always enlightening to have input from someone who comes from a totally different performing tradition.’
Singapore also happens to be the final stop of an Asian tour that takes in Korea, Taiwan and China. Is the diva saving the best for last? ‘Every time I perform in Singapore I feel at home,’ Sumi enthuses. ‘Audiences’ reactions have been always strong and their awareness of the programme is always very high. I’m trying to present a different repertoire this time, [allowing the] audience to experience a valuable and unique style of musical history.’
The Academy of Ancient Music plays with Sumi Jo on 16 May, and as sole performers on 17 May, as part of the Singapore Arts Festival at the Esplanade Concert Hall.