Last night we heard a concert of John Dowland songs, all by the great Dame Emma Kirkby, and it will go down in the annals of concerts we will never forget. This was our third time to hear her in person — the first time was in England, at the Stour Festival in Wye, where she sang the Handel “Gloria.” The last time was in Leipzig, Germany at the BachFest in 2007 at St. Michael’s with Robin Blaze and the York Bach Choir. So last night was the first time we have heard her sing in a solo recital, accompanied by BEMF Artistic Co-Director Paul O’Dette on the lute. We had absolutely great seats, and were perhaps no farther away than about 25 feet. Everyone was speculating what the 64-year-old soprano would sound like, but with the first note she sang, shivers ran up my spine.
We first became aware of Emma Kirkby in her recording of Handel’s Messiah with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood. We have since purchased many of the more than one hundred recordings she has made. According to her website, she had no intentions of becoming a professional singer, preferring to sing in choirs and small ensembles. I mentioned in a previous post that we had given her chocolate macadamia nut candy on behalf of Vreni Griffith, one of her biggest fans and what I call an “Emma groupie.” Vreni sang soprano in our choir for years, and always included attendance at several of Emma’s concerts in her yearly summer travel. She met her by accident in an elevator, I believe, and ever since she has brought her chocolate macadamias from Hawaii.
What was so remarkable about last night’s hour-and-a-half concert was that Emma sang the entire program from memory (all those words!) and almost the entire program while seated in a chair, perhaps to give more of a sense of intimacy and to be on the same level with the lute. Her singing was at times very, very soft but I heard that people in the balcony heard her perfectly. I think this is the first concert in memory that I ever heard a solo singer being seated while performing. More than that, though, it was the same great voice that we have loved for years and years from recordings. Carl’s first comment after it was over was “Now that is a great artist.”
We decided to stay for the 11 pm concert because it was going to be Kristian Bezuidenhout performing on the harpsichord, as a substitute for Kenneth Weiss, who was too ill to travel from Paris. Emma’s concert was over at 9:45 pm, so we had about an hour to kill and decided to go to the restaurant across the street. As we were returning to the concert hall for Kristian’s concert, there was Emma Kirkby standing on the sidewalk! I guess she was waiting for a ride. Carl told her how this music was really a part of her, and how fabulous her concert was. Then he re-introduced ourselves as being from Hawaii and a friend of Vreni Griffith, and related the other times we had heard her sing in person. She then asked if we were going to stay for the opera, and we said ‘yes,’ but not until the end of the week. Altogether we probably spoke to her for about five minutes. She is extremely down-to-earth, but is not only a great artist, but a great person.
How lucky we were to hear her great voice live!