PUTNEY—As part of its latest artist residency, Yellow Barn in Putney welcomes eight newcomers who have created Salon Séance, an immersive and interdisciplinary experience.
Salon Séance is a concept concert which brings together an actor (who channels a composer from the past) with musicians performing curated repertoire, bringing together the composer, the performer, and the audience in the same room.
Salon Séance has won several awards, including Tarisio’s Young Artists Grants and the Britten Pears Foundation’s Britten Award for its uniqueness and creativity.
Creators Mari Lee and Simon Lee write: “Each of our Salon Séance projects focuses on a single composer who has left a considerable amount of writing besides their musical creations. The historian is responsible for the scholarly research and the musicians for the musical product of the composer.
“Our findings are shared in rehearsals through discussions on how various circumstances may have led to the composer’s musical message, and together we try to find a convincing interpretation of the works presented. The culminating presentation is interdisciplinary — combining music, theater, history, and literature.”
This latest version of Salon Séance explores the relationship of composer Benjamin Britten with the poet W. H. Auden.
Britten and Auden were important figures in 20th century British culture. They met through the GPO Film Unit, whose mission was to produce films for the General Post Office.
The unit’s most famous film, Night Mail (1936), featured music by Britten and poetry by Auden. Auden moved to the U.S. in 1939; Britten followed three months later.
Their creative collaboration continued in the U.S. with an operetta, Paul Bunyan (1941). Britten set Auden’s libretto, based on the American folktale, to music incorporating American folk songs and styles.
Shortly after, Britten and Auden had a falling-out, never speaking to each other again after seven years of close friendship. When sailing back to England in 1942, Britten wrote his final setting of Auden’s poetry, Hymn for St. Cecilia, an unaccompanied work for choir.
The Salon Séance Artist Residency will culminate with a semi-staged performance at Next Stage on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m., which will conclude with an open discussion between musicians and audience members.
Violinist Mari Lee will be joined by violinist Brandon Garbot, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Mihai Marica, and pianist Julia Hamos to perform chamber works by Britten. Actor Philip Stoddard will portray the composer in the Feb. 23 performance directed by Mikael Södersten. The script was written by playwright Noelle P. Wilson.
“Rather than putting on a mere concert, with Salon Séance my colleagues and I have staged a musical evening in which an actor channels the spirit of a composer in order to explore questions about his or her music,” Lee says. “Our goal is to stop boring audiences with music that they do not understand and therefore cannot relate to.”
Lee says that, in order to make music more accessible, “my brother and I came up with the idea of having the composer interact with us. Many of us have often wondered what got into a composer’s head when he or she writes a piece of music. What was his or her way of looking at life? Wouldn’t it be cool if they could give a talk about these things? With Salon Séance, we are trying to do justthat: to give the voice to the composer.”
Easier said than done, no?
As most of the composers of the traditional repertoire are no longer alive, Lee and her colleagues have invented a new way to bring back a musician from the past, through a séance in which a medium channels the spirit of the departed composer. Of course, it is all a scripted illusion, but one where the goal is to make the music more vivid for the audience.
“Our hope is to break the traditional way classical musicians engage with an audience,” Lee says. “Of course, we could have some expert stand up and lecture the audience about the music, but that can be pretty dreary. That’s what program notes do, and few bother to read them. What is missing to make this exciting is the emotional connection.”
Emotional connection has become vital for Lee.
Mari Lee may be a very successful classical musician who has performed extensively in such prominent venues as the South Bank Centre, Wigmore Hall, Le Festival de Radio France Montpellier, Menuhin Festival Gstaad, and Carnegie Hall. However, a recent experience made her shift gears.
“I was born in Japan but am Korean,” Lee explains. “I may be a third-generation Korean who has lived in Japan, but you can never become a Japanese citizen unless one of your parents is Japanese. So although I have never lived in Korea, I have a Korean passport. I do not have Japanese citizenship. Nor do I have one in Korea.
“In fact, I don’t have citizenship anywhere in the world. I have not lived in Japan for many years. I went away to study music from a young age, first in England and then in Germany, and for the past two and a half years I have lived in New York. I had been living my life as a itinerant musician.”
However, that situation changed several years ago.
“My brother became ill, so my parents wanted me to come home to be with them and him,” Lee continues. “I did, and for the first time in many years, I was actually living in Japan. This proved to be difficult for me.
“I had been living in the rarefied support from communities of music makers, and here I found myself on my own and I needed to find a job. Since I was not a Japanese citizen, this turned out not to be too easy. People were reluctant to hire an outsider, even though I was born in Japan.
“In the end, all I could find was work in a restaurant. While in the past I had been practicing my violin up to seven hours a day, now I found myself using that time washing wine glasses.”
This utterly depleted all Lee’s energy and she could no longer find the stamina to practice her violin at all.
“Also, I quickly discovered that for the first time I was around people who did not know or understand classical music,” Lee says. “What’s more, they were suspicious of me because I was a classical musician. They thought I was a snob and elitist.”
After some time in the restaurant, barriers began to break down, and Lee soon was invited to explain what she does, as well as the music she performs.
“At first, I was disappointed in myself because I lacked the ability to explain this music in a way they would understand,” Lee adds. “I never before thought about a manner to engage people on this subject. After some effort, however, I began to get through to them. They started listening to me. Some said, ‘thank you, I never knew classical music could be so accessible and interesting.’”
The moment proved to be revelatory for Lee.
“This was more rewarding than winning another musical prize for excellence,” she says. “My priorities had changed. No longer did I feel it necessary to lock myself away for hours and hours rehearsing.”
Now Lee wanted to connect with living people, especially those who didn’t know the power of classical music.
“I began wondering if I could put what I have discovered into a project of live music that would make music more engaging for novices, without dumbing it down,” she says.
The starting point for Salon Séance was discussions Lee had with her brother Simon, who was studying history and philosophy at school. Both wondered how figures from the past could come alive for them.
“We were also discussing people much more remote than a recent composer like Britten, or even Mozart and Handel,” Lee says. “We wanted to know how someone comes to understand, from ancient history, someone like Plato or Aristotle.”
Their conclusion was they had to make a leap of discovery. Salon Séance was the outcome.
“Do you ever wish you could meet someone from the past?” Lee asks on the Salon Séance webpage.
“Musicians and their audiences often wish to converse with composers because insight into the life and times of a composer can enhance the musical experience.
“Unfortunately, many of the composers of the classical repertoire that we prize are no longer with us — luckily, Salon Séance brings composers back to life! We aim to instill in people interest and curiosity for music by helping them develop a personal connection to the composer and the music.”
The first manifestation of Salon Séance channeled the modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg.
“Since Schoenberg can be seen as a notoriously difficult composer, we used his writings to help make his challenging work more accessible for audiences,” Lee says.
The composers chosen for each Salon Séance are often made for practical reasons.
“For this version of Salon Séance we chose Britten because he was easier for my brother to research,” Lee says. “Britten wrote a lot about his music, and that material is readily available in archives. Using his talks, essays, and letters, around 90 percent of Wilson’s script is in Britten’s own words.
“It is also important to get the musical works right. Britten wrote interesting chamber works for strings, which is important, as I’m a string player myself.”
The actor who channels Britten doesn’t dress up like him or in any way resemble the composer.
“Remember, he is not portraying the composer, but is a medium channeling him,” Lee says. “Therefore, either a man or a woman could be our actor. When Salon Séance did Schoenberg, my brother who is young and Asian channeled the elderly German composer.”
Such open-endedness actually made auditioning actors to channel Britten rather difficult for Lee.
“When we put out an audition call, we did not specify, race, gender or age,” Lee says. “We ended up with 250 applicants for the role. Since the variety of applicants was so huge, it was difficult to compare one with another. We couldn’t use the traditional ways one does to see if an actor fits a part.”
Like so many things surrounding Salon Séance, this too required — what else? — a leap of faith.