How wonderful it is to be invited back to gorgeous Portland, Maine, for a summer Bach festival, celebrating the music of my all-time favorite composer! I’m delighted to have met such warm, engaged audiences last summer; it’s clear that this beautiful city attracts people that are passionate about supporting a world-class Bach Festival, and the arts in general.
Bach Virtuosi Festival: What sparked your love of classical music, particularly Bach?
Sherezade Panthaki: I was born and raised in India, with the great fortune of having parents who loved listening to classical music, and who actively encouraged my love of music through piano lessons and Orff classes. Both my parents sang performances of Bach’s “B Minor Mass” in a well-established choir in Bombay, shortly before I was born! My earliest aural memory of music is the famous Gloria from that very same piece. The sonority of the brilliant trumpets, full orchestra, and choir, in this jubilant triple-meter dance fascinated my two-year old ears, so much so that I would ask for that particular movement to be played over and over again.
Anyone who has spent time studying the music of this master knows that performing Bach is a life-long journey. I played Bach inventions and partitas as a young pianist, and sang a few cantata solos with my undergraduate choir, but it wasn’t until my Masters degree in Vocal Performance that I started specifically pursuing the intricacies of early music. The more one understands, the deeper is one’s appreciation, and once I started singing with the university’s Early Music groups, I had the overwhelming sensation that I had finally found my voice and path; in essence, it felt like I had come home at last. For my final degree, it was a life-changing experience to be accepted into the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music, where we engaged in Baroque music performances at the highest level, with some of the very best conductors in the world.
BVF: Tell us about a few of your performances and/or tours this past fall or upcoming performances that you will have in the winter and spring?
SP: In the past year, I’ve had some thrilling performances with a number of world-class orchestras and conductors. My season opened with Vivaldi arias with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and I confess to feeling a huge frisson of delight walking on to stage to see over 12,000 people in the audience. I had my debut with the St. Louis Symphony, one of our nation’s finest modern orchestras, in a virtuoso Vivaldi opera aria program. With famed Japanese conductor and founder of Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, I did a week long tour of American cities as the soprano soloist for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. In December, I joined one of my very favorite conductors and world-class early music groups, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, in highly enjoyable performances of a relatively unknown Handel oratorio, leading to one of the most flattering reviews I’ve been fortunate to receive.
Coming up, I’m excited to be joining forces with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to present a solo Vivaldi motet in an outdoor, televised concert in New York’s Central Park this summer. I’ll be singing the title role in Handel’s Atalanta with Philharmonia Baroque at the Caramoor Summer Music Festival as well as the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Next season includes Handel’s Samson with the NDR Radiophilharmonie Germany, Handel’s Messiah with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Toronto, concerts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Disney Hall, and my debut with the Minnesota Orchestra.
BVF: What is it about baroque music, specifically Bach, that you love the most? What is a piece that is among the more challenging for you to perform?
SP: Many scholars, far more erudite than I, have attempted to explain why Bach holds a place of unshakably deep reverence in the hearts of performers, composers, and audiences. Perhaps it is that his music emanates from a place of profound personal faith and knowledge of Lutheran theological writings. Or that every phrase has exquisite tiny microcosms within, leaving it open to numerous interpretations while astonishingly demonstrating just how masterfully counterpoint and harmony can work together. In my experience, great performances of Bach completely overwhelm both the heart and the head, and one constantly discovers new intricacies, even at the 50th hearing of the same piece!
When I was about 21 years old, I attended a two-week summer course at Oberlin’s famed Baroque Performance Institute (BPI), where, for the first time, I heard the extraordinary soprano aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland Sterben” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is one of his most ravishing compositions, almost unbearably painful in its portrayal of sorrow, requiring a tremendous level of technical control and artistic outpouring from the singer. I remember, with such vivid clarity, my jaw hitting the floor, quite certain that I’d never, ever be able to do it justice. It took a few more years and a firm commitment to my vocal journey for me to feel comfortable with it; happily, it is now one of my very favorite pieces to sing and one that I’m often asked to perform. Singing Bach’s solo soprano cantatas bring me such joy; in particular, the brilliant virtuoso soprano and trumpet work, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Truly, I have far too many favorites to name!
Singing Bach is thrilling in the same way I imagine a mountain climber feels when faced with a new peak that is hitherto unconquered. It is a challenge that requires deep awareness of one’s abilities, great technique, constant adaptation, and somewhere in there one has to stop oneself from getting lost in the abyss that is the sheer beauty of the experience.
BVF: Are you looking forward to being back in Portland in June? Did you have an activity when you were there last that was particularly meaningful?
SP: It’s no secret that Portland boasts not only incredible natural beauty, but an enviable culinary scene as well! My favorite experience from last summer has to be a trip with my hosts to the Portland Head Lighthouse, complete with a picture-perfect sunny day and the most delicious lobster roll I’ve ever had. Needless to say, I can’t wait to be back! On the artistic side, this year’s festival is bringing in some of my favorite early music luminaries. I’m particularly looking forward to singing with countertenor Jay Carter, who is both a longtime dear friend and a sheer delight as a colleague. The final concert of the festival will showcase us in some gorgeous duets by Handel that are not to be missed.I learn so much from my colleagues, and Lewis Kaplan has a great vision for this festival. So, Yes! I can’t wait to come back in June and do it again!