INTERVIEW Expanding on Minimalism

‘The Tech’ Interviews Conductor Miguel Felipe About Thomas Jennefelt’s Villarosa Sequences

Boston Choral Ensemble

Thomas Jennefelt’s Villarosa Sequences

November 20 — First Church, Cambridge

November 22 — Old South Church, Boston

The Boston Choral Ensemble prepares for its 2009–2010 season featuring Thomas Jennefelt’s Villarosa Sequences on Friday, November 20 at First Church in Cambridge and Sunday, November 22 at Old South Church in Boston. The Tech interviewed conductor Miguel Felipe about the upcoming program. More information about this performance and the Boston Choral Ensemble can be found at

The Tech: The Boston Choral Ensemble (BCE) has a very specific mission statement. Could you tell me more about that?

Miguel Felipe: BCE is was founded about nine years ago; I’ve been here for six years and as part of my own musical evolution — and therefore that of the group’s — was to move towards a group that’s dedicated to exploring musics of all genres and time periods and in ways that draw the connections and, not so overtly, demonstrate the relevancies, and the connection to daily life. Now we’re a group of around 32 who are interested in innovative performance style and bringing music to people in a way that they aren’t going to traditionally hear it.

TT: What do you look for when you’re listening to a piece of music?

MF: First things first (and if it doesn’t meet this characteristic, it’s enough to altogether skip the piece), it needs to be written with a strong sense of the voice and it needs to be well-crafted. We’re not talking about genius right now, we’re talking about competence. If the composer’s music doesn’t lie well for the voice, I’m not interested. That’s not to say that I’m not interested in difficult pieces; difficulty is, by no means, a reason to pass over a piece. But there has to be some sense that the singer will be gratified and be able to enjoy performing the piece. Occasionally, texts are what draw me into a piece, but by no means is that a defining characteristic. For instance, this upcoming concert there are no texts, and that’s not an issue.

TT: I guess this is a good segue into the Villarosa Sequences. When you first heard the work, what was something that grabbed you?

MF: I remember the very moment I first heard it — I was in a city in Northern Indonesia for a conference, called Manado: we were in a rehearsal room, a conference room, that there was a choir trying out some of their repertoire. And I wanted to go see how they were. And as I walked in, the women were working on their movement, the Virita criosa. I was just a casual observer, I had no idea what was going on, listening to them perform it, I thought, “Oh my God! What is this?” It’s not quite like anything you’ve ever heard. I was immediately compelled. That night, they did at least one or two other movements, I do know that they did Claviante brilioso, which is, perhaps, one of the most enjoyable movements of the whole thing. And after hearing the two, I spoke with the conductor, and I since made contact with the composer and a number of commissioner of the movements and things went from there.

TT: Let’s go ahead and talk about the piece; one word that really comes to mind when you think about the Villarosa Sequences is an extreme sense of “minimalism” — am I wrong in saying that?

MF: Certainly, one hears much of that in Villarosa, that there is a sense of minimalism. Indeed, there is much repetition, a steady pulse, largely diatonic pitches and relatively ‘minimal’ means. So it is of the minimalist strain, but perhaps one could call it post-minimalist. Perhaps unlike other minimalist examples, there is this great amount of expressiveness that you don’t hear in the minimalism of the ’70s or the ’80s. There are moments when the sopranos are singing their hearts out on beautiful, lyrical melodies, or the baritones have a sweeping gesture that’s almost a Romantic feeling.

TT: What would you listen for, as an audience member, when you’re first coming to this work?

MF: Well, it sounds a bit like trance music — something that came out of the 1980s New York club scene, the popular brother of minimalist music, which is the concert-hall brother of trance. So people who are more well-versed with popular music (let alone with trance) can come to this and feel more at home than with the traditional Germanic 19th century Romantic situation. When I listen to minimalist music, the first thing I do is to try and get into the “groove” — that constant, steady, rhythmic “groove” — and to me, that’s actually quite beautiful, and I connect quite well with that steady “groove.”

TT: How does BCE’s mission statement fit in with this concert in particular?

MF: BCE is constantly focused on bringing what we think is good music to people and trying to illustrate why it’s important, beautiful and relevant. In my estimation, we have a wonderful ensemble that could pull off the motets of Bach so well, could do Brahms, could do so much that, and quite honestly, audiences would come out for in droves. I think that, in Boston, there are already quite a number of groups that are fantastic at doing those. But there’s also a need for people pushing the envelope forward; we hope to be part of that necessary dialog just as other groups focus on some of the more canonical repertoire. They’re establishing what’s culturally central; we’re trying to suggest where that culture is going.