A Musical Journey
A Musical Journey from Chile to Germany and the United States
by Christine Gevert
Is it still unusual in the 21st century to be a female organist, conductor, leader of a musical organization and a producer of concerts? Yes, it is, and national studies reveal that women in these positions still earn much less than their male equals. (According to a study by Chorus America from 2005, female choir conductors earn about 74% of what male professionals in this field get, and the women apparently also take on a greater work load). This sounds discouraging. But actually I don’t regret at all being a female musician and entrepreneur in the field of performing arts, and would not change my profession for anything else.
Growing up in a music loving family in Chile—both my grandmother and my father wanted to be professional pianists, but social and financial circumstances didn’t allow that—I started learning music formally at a very young age. As a rebellious teenager of twelve I decided, after eight years of piano lessons, that I did not want to sit by myself and practice any longer. I also hated performing in public. So I gave up playing the piano. But not music, of course. Having sung in a Lutheran church choir for some years, and at home regularly with my family, I joined a concert chorus that not only performed the great choral masterpieces with a large professional orchestra, but also went on tour throughout our long country. As the youngest member of the chorus, I not only experienced great friendship and support from my fellow singers—among them my mother —but soon was drafted to help the professional section leaders run rehearsals. I was given this role thanks to my keyboard skills and ability to speak three languages—something I had never even thought about before that, since I grew up bilingual and learned the third language early at school. While work with the chorus was a fantastic experience for me, it also was a bit tricky to be leading so many adults at such a young age, and initially I did not quite understand the concept of leadership. Good friends and mentors guided me, so I started to understand more of the complexity and subtlety of being a leader to people who want to learn music.
At school, career counselors advised me to study medicine or engineering, as they felt that with my high grades I would get bored as a professional musician(!) Luckily, shortly after graduating from high school, I met my first great teacher: Alejandro Reyes, a conductor and organist who had just returned from studying and working in Germany for six years. He taught me organ, choral conducting, basso continuo, vocal technique and music theory. Soon I became his assistant at his Chamber Choir Collegium Josquin that performed mainly early music. He coached me so efficiently that after a half year I obtained two positions, one as choir director and organist at the Santiago Community Church (the capital’s main English-speaking religious institution), and one as an organist at the German LutheranPauluskirche. These two positions made it financially possible for me to enroll at the Universidad de Chile to study music theory. Those years (the early 1980s) were difficult years in our country, as people started to rebel against a 17-year long dictatorship, while the Chilean economy went into a major crisis. Between street demonstrations, curfews, and many other restrictions (no freedom of speech, no right to assemble, shootings, friends in exile, fear and violence) it was very precious to me to study music with great musicians who had decided to stay in the country to uphold a high cultural level. Among them were composers like Cirilo Vila (a Messiaen protegé), Carlos Botto, Federico Heinlein, and musicologists Samuel Claro and Luis Merino.
After completing my degree at the university, my mentor Reyes urged me to go on to Europe and study at the source of Renaissance and Baroque music, which I loved most. With his support I gained a scholarship and went on to study organ at the Hochschule für Musik und Kunst in
Hamburg, Germany with Prof. Wolfgang Zerer. A whole world opened up for me during those years. Practicing and performing at the four manual Beckerath organ of St. Petri—one of the five main city churches—was incredibly uplifting. It was exhilarating to encounter a liberal society that offered so much available literature on music, philosophy and the arts. During those years I immersed myself in studies of early music performance, guided by outstanding teachers and performers. I encountered the harpsichord, and fell in love with this instrument, which I started to explore with the great European performers, whose masterclasses I attended widely.
At the same time I started pursuing more choral conducting, and learned how European conductors applied the principles of historically informed performance practice to their work with vocal-instrumental ensembles. The first time I listened to Beethoven’s Third Symphony played on period instruments at a masterclass with Hermann Max in Cologne, I had an epiphany. The transparency of the sound made the piece seem completely new: themes and melodies, rhythms and even harmony emerged in a way that I had never heard before. I felt I understood Beethoven for the very first time, and my whole approach to musical performance changed irreversibly.
Though I will never be a scholarly purist who insists on performing on period instruments only, the value added to the music of any era by historically informed performance is immense. No theoretical study could have given me the experience I gained by performing with period instrument orchestras (L’Arpa Festante, Berliner Barock Solisten, Leipziger Barock Orchester), and vocal and instrumental chamber ensembles in the European venues (churches and castles) where much of this music originated . It was also a privilege to play on historic organs such as the Baroque instruments of the Netherlands (1692 Arp Schnittger at Martinikerk in Groningen), East Frisia (1694 Grotian at St. Stephanus in Pilsum), the northeast of Germany (1637 Stellwagen at St. Jakobi Lübeck, 1680 Arp Schnittger at St. Peter & Paul in Cappel, 1686 Arp Schnittger at Evangelische Kirche in Hamburg-Bergsted), Alsace (1741 Silbermann at St. Thomas in Strasbourg), and also many modern instruments built by first class builders on historic models or using completely new designs. The complex dimensions of the Baroque aesthetic—most strikingly its “inequality”—becomes apparent in tuning, voicing, tone quality and balance (in the case of the organs, the pipe registers) and of course also through the visual and tactile experience of the original or period instruments.
Another great revelation for me was how the cultural, sociopolitical, religious and philosophical aspects informed the performance style of the good musicians. Through my mentors this intellectual aspect of the music became a vital basis of the way I would approach any repertoire. The study of the sources of music theory and performance; forewords to original editions and treatises; theology, mythology and the way people lived (travel journals); as well as writings about all other artistic fields (including such disciplines as landscaping and garden design) started to become part of my framework for performances. Performing early music had become for me a complex, but very satisfying and always exciting endeavor.
When I moved to the east coast of the United States in 2001 just after September 11, 2001, the path for my musical career did not seem so clear. Then, two years after my arrival, an opportunity arose for me to build my own musical program in a small town located between Boston and New York in the northwest corner of Connecticut: Lakeville. Far from the large cities in which I had spent my entire preceding life, I founded a music program: Crescendo. Based at an Episcopal church, it had the support of parishioners and friends from both the local and New York City area.
The idea for Crescendo was conceived during the ten months in which I lived and worked at this church exclusively. During this period, I embarked on a three-month-long series of weekly concerts for world peace (alternating organ and harpsichord recitals, as well as a single performance with a vocal ensemble I had formed at the church). After this series, I was able to recruit singers from several area choirs to perform together in a choral concert. The enthusiasm that these projects generated in the local community was all I needed to get going in the fall of 2003.
My vision for Crescendo’s music program was to build an auditioned amateur concert choir, a smaller vocal ensemble, and to produce concerts of rarely heard repertoire of early music with historically informed performance practice. An important part was also the education of our own singers, the young generation, and our audiences. Our first project was a series of seven lectures and seven workshops on the history of vocal music and singing technique. A few years later, the organization became an independent not-for-profit. Later, I brought together our own chamber orchestra of period instrument players. Some of the leading professionals in early music joined the ensemble, and we now have a stable core group of string and wind players from Boston, New York, and further away. The repertoire choice of large Baroque works that have never or seldom been performed in the US has attracted established professional singers such as soprano Julianne Baird, and a group of young specialists like countertenors Nicholas Tamagna (New York), and Martin Near (Boston) among others. Having been a professional music editor for Amadeus in Switzerland has enabled me to produce my own editions of works that otherwise would not be performed because of the lack of scores. Some of the US and east coast premieres we have presented are: Bartłomiej Pekiel’s Missa Concertata La Lombardesca (2012), Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Christoph Graupner cantatas (2011), Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa Votiva (2010), Latin American and Hispanic Renaissance and Baroque works (2010, 2011), Telemann’s Oratorio Kapitänsmusik (2009), and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Requiem à 15 (2008).
Another part of my vision for Crescendo involved conducting contemporary choral music premieres and experimental fusion, and so we commissioned our first works for the chorus from two New England–based composers: John Myers and Cheng-Chia Wu, who wrote pieces mixing American and Chinese traditions (2013). My longtime ensemble partner Rodrigo Tarraza (we founded the baroque duo Les Inégales in 1995 in Europe, and have performed and recorded for over 18 years now) is an early music professional on traverso, and also a jazz fusion performer on saxophone and EWI. On those instruments he was able to produce for us acoustic-electronic improvisations on Carlo Gesualdo’s Tenebrae motets (2008). Earlier (2007), we produced a multimedia performance of Hugo Distler’sDance of Death Op. 12/2, in which visual artists animated a colored reproduction of the panoramic mural of the Lübeck church (destroyed during World War II), and modern dancers and actors performed as well. The film of this collaboration between Crescendo and Bard College at Simon’s Rock became a main feature of the 14th European Art Macabre Conference in Florence, Italy in 2008.
We are now entering the 10th anniversary year of Crescendo. At the same time it seems as if the journey is just beginning. There is so much repertoire to be explored, so much knowledge and so many skills to pass on to our singers, instrumentalists, and audiences through workshops, masterclasses and lectures. New collaborations with local schools are just beginning. Recently I was invited to hold a performance-lecture about the harpsichord at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was delighted by the fierce interest and engagement of a large group of 5– to 12-year-old children. Over the years I have also become a great advocate for the legacy of Wanda Landowska.
She became a harpsichordist at the beginning of the 20th century, when there were literally no instruments and the Baroque keyboard literature was barely known to pianists. Her great talent as a performer, her fearless journey to revive this music, her engagement with the intellectual elite of her times, her ability to bounce back from disaster and despair after World War II, her multidimensional approach to music both early and contemporary, and her connection to the audiences and to her world have been an invaluable inspiration to me. In the US very few people understand, much less teach about such a legacy. By mere destiny I came to live in Lakeville, the same town she lived in, and although my efforts to promote her cultural legacy (the Landowska Tribute Festival from March to October 2009) did not seem to resonate significantly with the New England early music scene, they generated invitations for me to perform in Poland (2011) and France (2012). When bringing a harpsichord performance and talk about Wanda Landowska and her legacy to 80 school children in June of 2009, they responded with great focus and enthusiasm. They got it! This is one of the powerful reasons why I would not change my career for anything else.
—Christine Gevert, August 2013
Christine Gevert, organist, harpsichordist and conductor, holds a master’s degree in organ and early music performance from the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hamburg, Germany. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music theory from the Conservatorio Nacional de Chile, she studied choral and orchestral conducting in Berlin, Germany and harpsichord in London. She has taught at the Berlin Church Music School, the Universidad de Chile, and the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile. She has played solo recitals as organist and harpsichordist all over Germany and performed with and conducted ensembles and orchestras such as the Berliner Bachsolisten, the Berliner Barock Solisten, Leipziger Bachchor, La Gioia, L’Arpa Festante, Musica Poetica, Chursaechsische Capelle, Estudio MusicAntigua, and Ars Antiqua Lipsiensis. In Chile, she performed with Collegium Josquin, Capella Antiqua, Pentagrama, Orquesta Sinfónica de Chile, and Orquesta de Cámara Universidad Católica. In 2005 she conducted the Orchestre du Chambre Français. She has recorded for Carpe Diem records, Berlin, and can be heard on the early German Baroque CD Dulcis Memoria. She has led masterclasses in Germany and Chile and the US, and has appeared locally at Music Mountain, the Berkshire Choral Festival and the Amherst Early Music Festival, as well as the Washington DC and the Boston Early Music Festival, as well as many other east coast venues. Since organizing a yearlong tribute to legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in 2009, Christine has been invited to play solo recitals at the Narol Early Music Festival in Poland and the Landowska Auditorium at Saint-Leu-la-Fôret, France. Founder and artistic director of Crescendo, Christine, has directed her own chorus and period instrument orchestra in several Baroque east coast and US premieres. She works with and leads a variety of ensembles in New England and is currently music director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lime Rock, CT.