The Artist Formerly Known As: Richard Giarusso

Richard Giarusso is a baritone who will perform Franz Schubert’s demanding song cycle Winterreise with pianist Doris Stevenson on April 15. Giarusso is the Student Conductor of the Williams Chamber Choir, and sings both in that ensemble and as a solo student of Adjunct Teacher in Voice Keith Kibler. Giarusso was a winner in 1999 of the Berkshire Symphony Student Soloist’s Competition, performing the “Count’s Aria” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In addition to his conducting duties with the Chamber Choir, he also led the Williams Student Symphony last fall in the Romanza from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony. A double-major in music and English, Giarusso completed his music thesis on 20th century British choral music in the fall, and is currently working on his English thesis on Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

Let me start by asking you about Winterreise. Explain to me what is so difficult about this piece and why it is such a challenge for a singer.

With the position it occupies in the song repertoire, it looms as a challenge that has to be encountered. A challenge to a reader would be to read War and Peace sometime in one’s life, and Winterreise occupies the same place because of its sheer enormity – it’s continuous for about an hour and 20 minutes, 24 songs – and also the incredible emotional depth that it probes. It comes close to being an unstaged opera for one person, a kind of monodrama. It presents difficulties in the physical technical sense of actually singing for that length of time, the physical endurance. Some of the songs themselves are technically not easy.

And it also presents really big interpretive difficulties for the fact that the singer has to try to approach this thing and make it interesting to an audience for an hour and 20 minutes. Which is not an easy feat, because the songs themselves are preponderantly minor – I think 20 of the 24 songs are in minor keys. It’s not a very cheery cycle; the title is “Winter Journey,” and it depicts a jilted lover’s walk out into a very bleak winter landscape, and he just keeps wandering and eventually goes insane, hopes he can die, wishes for death, but can’t die. And in the end, we don’t quite know what happens. He meets a hurdy-gurdy player and thinks that he might sing with the hurdy-gurdy man, but that doesn’t happen either, he just keeps going on wandering.

It can be very easy to sing through Winterreise, just with a general emotional cast of grief, sadness and despair, which can be very boring for an audience and very tiresome for a singer. Coming to grips with how do the cycle is really a way of looking at 250 different shades of a process of grieving, that’s not all consistently grief-laden. There are moments of ecstatic hopefulness that spring up, which are a lot of fun, dramatically and technically, to portray. Everyone doesn’t agree with them, but it presents moments of differentiation that make it seem more a kind of immediately personal, mental experience, rather than a performative thing, trying to be cast in one emotional color.

One might say that unlike other musical performance genres, singing is also, in a sense, acting. Do you feel like you’re acting, especially in a protracted role such as Winterreise?

Very much so. Any great song cycle – Dichterliebe, The Merry Milkmaid, Schoenemullen, Winterreise, any of the Schumann or Schubert cycles – is basically a role. It’s akin to doing something like a Schoenberg Erwartung…it’s not staged, but it is a very actorly type of thing. You’re adopting the role of one single person. In Winterreise, you don’t always speak in the voice of the main protagonist – at times you speak in the voice of a tree. Most of it is just his own thoughts, but it is a tremendously actorly thing.

And things come into that in the final stages of putting it together – I’ve just reached that stage now where you’re finally finished with the entire cycle, we’re starting to work through the whole thing from beginning to end – things of pacing between songs, how much time to leave between songs, what to do physically during the thing. You can’t just cast your face in a sad, sorry mask the whole time. But then again, these things can’t be too choreographed and too planned or else it seems too cliche.

You’ve done a lot of different types of interpretive work – you’ve conducted the orchestra, you’ve conducted the chorus extensively, you’ve sung solos in the choir, solo songs – what is the difference in approach that you take to each of these performance media, and what of Richard Giarusso shines through in each of them?

I’d say that most of the work that I do in a performance medium is informed most greatly by my work as a singer – the way I approach the study of scores, the way I approach introducing a work and rehearsing a work with an ensemble, trying very much to stress things like a cantabile line, it comes from my work as a singer, trying to get an orchestral ensemble to come as close to producing a vocal sound as they can. The process which is most immediately rewarding for me would have to be singing. My conducting is a much more studied, planned kind of thing. It must always, of necessity, fall short of what I would ideally want to do, because sometimes it’s not quite possible to get an ensemble to do exactly what you would want them to do in your conception of a work.

In the way I approach preparation of works, what I do in singing, a lot of it is individual, but a lot of it is stuff done in lessons or actually rehearsing with a pianist, things that can be done immediately, in the moment. So much of conducting work has to be done privately, planned beforehand, studied, analyzed extremely closely. Not that singing does not have to be, but it’s a more immediate kind of experience. You can come closer to the vision of what you have with the work more quickly, having to overcome fewer obstacles, than you would in the conducting realm.

Have you found there to be a nice balance in terms of Williams giving you space for your talents to mature, and intellectually, for you to have a challenging environment?

Yes, clearly. Ideally, if I were in a conservatory, I’d like to be singing through 45 minutes of the Winterreise every day between now and April. Realistically, I can’t do that. To sing the whole thing once a week is probably what I will do. But that’s not so much a limitation of what the school presents, but more what’s possible for me in this setting. And I’m not exclusively a performer. My academic interests, and especially my pursuits and study of historical musicology are important to me, and that’s the field that I think will be my primary field of endeavor.

Would you consider yourself a conservative listener? These pages have seen some views which seem to try and “stir the pot” somewhat…

Really? [laughs]

…so I’m not asking you to address those views, but I think you may be seen as somewhat of a traditionalist. How would you characterize yourself?

Yes, I guess I am mainly a traditionalist. The kind of music that I heard and learned growing up as a kid, playing violin, was fairly traditionalist. I’ve cultivated a strong personal interest in 18th and 19th century German music, especially the core of the repertory, that hasn’t really been forced upon me by anyone, it’s something that I’ve come to, and come to treasure very dearly. While I characterize myself as being more conservative in what I usually listen to, I also consider myself to be a fairly open listener to new trends, and to not-so-newer trends of composers that I may not be so accustomed to hearing.

My record library is fairly reflective of this – I would say about 85 percent of the discs I own are composers who worked prior to 1950 or so, but 15 percent is left. It’s also reflected in some ways by the music I sing a lot – some people gasp when they see that I own nine recordings of Winterreise, but I use them as educational aids, and I have each one of them for a very specific reason. I’m also a fan of conductors, and for that reason I own many recordings of the Mahler Nine, or Bruckner Symphonies, to hear the way that different generations of people interpret this music…

Can you talk about your interest some? Why this appeals to you?

When I learn a new piece of music, either by singing it or by listening to it closely on record, or hearing it in live performance, I really go into something extremely deeply and form a lot of strong personal, emotional connections with things, for which reason the Mahler symphonies are very precious to me. Viewing music in a historic continuum, I like to look at the progression of one genre from generation to generation…The sequence of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner Symphonies and Mahler is important to me. I guess I won’t deny admitting that I have a certain fondness for the “cult of the great composer,” or the great artist, which many of my modernist friends would attack me for.

Or postmodern.

[laughs] But I do have a reverential regard toward figures like Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, and place their music apart. And I don’t apologize for that. But I have a reverence, if not an identical reverence, for new figures and for new trends.

Would you say that you view what you call “trends” as part of a continuum which dates back to those figures who you revere, and is that part of your interest in the new?

To a degree, yes. When I hear a new piece, some of the things I listen for are structural things that would date back to previous generations…I guess I do see music as that kind of continuum, where there’s this kind of burden of indebtedness towards previous figures. But then again, I don’t want it to seem that all I look for in new pieces is to see reflections of the past. That would be a very dull and ultimately dissatisfying way of hearing new pieces, I think. But by separating out that, you can find what’s really new in a new compositional voice. In someone like Thomas Ades, who I was listening to recently, you can hear reflections of previous generations of British composers, but also a very new, distinctly modernistic voice that really sets him apart and really defines his style.

Do you think that our society, as it is today, can sustain the notions of traditionalism that you hold so dear? Or have we severed our connections with the past? Are you an aberration?

No, I think that we do uphold notions of traditionalism. Whether we can or not, I don’t know – it’s the fact that we do. Modern concert programming emphasizes the cult of traditionalism, even in concert societies that put more emphasis on new music. If you go to Berlin, for example, you’ll often find a very new contemporary work paired with a Schubert symphony, but I don’t know if we’ll ever reach the point where we’ll have, consistently, programs that are all contemporary music. I think that it would in some regards be a mistake to go completely that way.

Whether traditionalism can come to be somewhat less privileged I think is a possibility, and I think the ways of doing that are these combined programs which, in the most ideal sense, would pair a contemporary work with a more traditional work that bears some sort of structural relationship to it – they might share a common literary influence – to show that the same type of general aesthetic and artistic trends are still working in contemporary music that were working in 19th century music, to help get listeners past this fear of new music, which is in some ways a very modern phenomenon.

Earlier generations of audiences were always very eager to hear new music. In some ways, the separatist approach in separating out a cult of contemporary music is detrimental to the whole thing, in that it makes it seem more of a separitist thing in nature that doesn’t bear a tradition, that doesn’t bear links with the past, which naturally makes it difficult for people to orient themselves – I’m talking about a common listening population. They see it just as newness, which makes things difficult.