Soprano finds her voice right at home in Baroque repertoire

By David Fleshler

Kathryn Mueller performs Vivaldi arias with Seraphic Fire and the Firebird Chamber Orchestra March 20-24

Soprano Kathryn Mueller made her debut in a town of 2,000 in the mountains of eastern Arizona, an old Mormon pioneer settlement called Pinetop.

The choir director of Community Presbyterian Church, whose ability to spot talent was apparently pretty sharp, noticed the 7-year-old girl’s voice and asked her to sing Away in a Manger in a Christmas program. The performance was a success, and the little girl was smitten with the applause and the fun of performing for others.

“I was thrilled to get so much attention from everyone in our church and to find out that my singing made people happy,” said Mueller, now 35 and pursuing a thriving professional career. “That’s still my favorite part of performing—connecting with the audience—and it all began that day. I was bitten by the bug then, the attention that I got, and I loved singing.”

Mueller, a member of Seraphic Fire for six seasons, will be in the solo spotlight in the Miami choir’s next program titled “Vivaldi and the Soprano: Vocal Fireworks” with the Firebird Chamber Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera principal trumpet Billy Ray Hunter. They will perform works of Vivaldi and Bach that are full of virtuoso fire, instrumental dramatics and long, sustained melodies. The performances will take place March 20-24 in Miami, Boca Raton, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

After her experience in the church Christmas program, Mueller resolved to become a professional. She majored in music at Brown University and earned a master’s degree in performance at the University of Arizona.

As she developed her voice, she discovered it was best suited to the music of the Baroque and Classical periods. Let others with larger voices portray Parisian courtesans in love or fly over Nordic battlefields to recover the bodies of fallen heroes, Mueller would spin out the complex coloratura of Mozart, Bach, Handel and other pre-Romantic composers (although she soloed recently in Brahms’ German Requiem). In addition to Seraphic Fire,  she is a regular with Santa Fe Pro Musica and American Bach Soloists.

As an early music specialist, she relishes the opportunities for more varied styles of singing than would pass muster in standard operatic repertoire, using vibrato on one note and a straight tone on another, for example, or varying the brightness or darkness of her voice. “In opera you’re sort of yelled at if the vibrato stops for even a second,” Mueller said. “In early music you get to mix it. You can get away with making a sound that might actually be ugly in order to portray a certain passion. A lot of early music singers, if they’re singing the word ‘die’ or ‘suffer’ or ‘pain,’ they’ll sort of scoop down and maybe be even a little bit flat, and it’s on purpose for expressive reasons.”

She is engaging this repertoire at a time when the early music world is closer than ever to the musical mainstream, as opposed to a time not long ago when such specialists were considered more scholars than musicians, with an output that often felt dry and academic.

“I think when the early music movement started, there was a big difference in the style of singing and playing,” said Mueller, who lives with her husband, a college choir director, in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But now that the movement has matured, especially in singing, I think the early music singers that are out there now are really using the same good, healthy technique that opera singers are using.

“The two have come together. Major opera companies do Handel operas now, or mainstream orchestras bring in Baroque specialist conductors to work with the orchestra. And as they’ve come together, I think the style of singing has improved in both directions.”

Kathryn Mueller performing with the Carmel Bach Festival

Thomas O’Connor, music director of Santa Fe Pro Musica, with whom Mueller sang Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate and several Bach cantatas, said she brings to her performances a strong rhythmic sense,  an awareness of the text and a sense of her part’s harmonic context.

“She’s smart. If the repertoire is Baroque and you have a dissonance, whether it’s an appoggiatura or a dissonant passing tone, she doesn’t have a layer of vibrato over that note that interferes with the harmonic device that’s happening at that moment,” he said. “Her voice is so well suited to that repertoire. She understands the text, she really tries to elicit the meaning of the text, to understand the meaning of the text and not get caught up in ‘This is a beautiful melody, my voice, listen to it.’ That’s not her approach at all. It’s really focused on the music.”

Eric Holtan, music director of Tucson Chamber Artists, recalls Mueller’s performance of Et Incarnatus est from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

“It’s a stunning piece of music in and of itself. but that particular performance was particularly striking, so electrifying and in a manner that just pulls you into that music as a listener,” he said. “It’s devilishly difficult and Kathryn just makes it sound so easy.”

“Her ability to get inside the music and find the essence of what makes it beautiful is really compelling,” he said. “I think that makes her stand out from many of her peers. There’s plenty of great singers out there in terms of their technical facility, but I daresay there aren’t that many great performers.”

The program with Seraphic Fire consists of Vivaldi’s sacred motet In furore iustissimae irae, Bach’s Cantata No. 51 Jauchzet Gott and a Vivaldi concerto for two violins.

For the Bach, a virtuoso work for soprano, trumpet and orchestra, Seraphic Fire will see the return of Billy Ray Hunter, a virtuoso whose playing was a highlight of last season’s performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass. “Having Billy and Kathryn together is something of a dream team for Cantata 51,” said Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire’s founder and artistic director. “It’s very seldom that you get two people of such a high level in the same room for even one night, and we’re doing it for five.”

Even though the Vivaldi may be unfamiliar to many listeners, Mueller said it will appeal to audience members who appreciate the composer’s other works.

“The string writing of Vivaldi is so wonderful and so exciting,” she said. “I think the very opening instrumental introduction reminds me a lot of The Four Seasons. So I think people familiar with that work will say, ‘Oh yes this is the Vivaldi we love.’ It has fabulous virtuosic singing. It’s sort of about the power of God, the wrath and the mercy of God.”

Kathryn Mueller, Billy Ray Hunter and Seraphic Fire perform March 20-24 at churches in Miami, Boca Raton, Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.; 305-285-9060.

Posted in Articles

Leave a Comment

Fri Mar 15, 2013
at 1:22 am
No Comments