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The BSO Tackles Jeanne D’Arc au Bûcher

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Marin Alsop and the BSO perform Jeanne D’Arc au Bûcher

Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Nov. 17 and 18 at 8 p.m.

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This weekend, Marin Alsop will take her customary place on onstage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But for these performances, in addition to the usual orchestra sections and maybe a few soloists, she’ll be joined by four area choruses (including a children’s chorus), a small cast of actors, and unusual instrumentation such as saxophones (rarely called for in symphonic scores) and the eccentric electronic device known as the ondes Martenot. Not to mention the spirit of a precocious French teenager nearly six centuries dead.

These are the forces marshaled for rare performances of Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s French oratorio Jeanne D’Arc au Bûcher (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”), a piece that represents not only a major undertaking for Alsop and the BSO but also a cornerstone of their season-long celebration of “revolutionary women.” In an era when many major orchestras struggle financially and program conservatively, it is a bold move in every respect. But then, the subject of the piece almost demands that sort of commitment.

Reached by phone in Sweden, Alsop says her initial exposure to Honegger’s piece came piecemeal: “I don’t know if it was a bootleg recording or what, but I only heard snippets of it, and I was very intrigued.” She got hold of a score and “fell in love with the piece, but of course it’s rarely, rarely done.”

Doing some reading on Joan of Arc, Alsop learned that the historic Joan was believed to have been born in 1412. As she planned the BSO’s 2011-2012 season, it struck her that serendipity on the level of Joan’s 600th birthday “wouldn’t come along too frequently,” she jokes dryly. “The season just grew out of it like wildfire.”

Few figures in Western history exemplify “revolutionary woman” better than Joan of Arc. While still a young teenager, she later recounted, she experienced visions in which saints told her she must drive the occupying English out of France. An illiterate commoner, Joan’s passion and her religious zeal eventually found her marching in a man’s armor at the head of the French army as it rocked the English back on their heels. Her military and political successes were monumental for a young woman of any time, much less her own. But she was convicted of heresy and burned alive in 1431, before she reached age 20.

Honegger’s oratorio, based on a libretto by French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel, centers on Joan awaiting her fiery fate and, in the course of conversations with her confessor, Brother Dominic, flashing back to earlier events in her life. First performed in 1938, it’s a suitably eccentric and visionary work, with its spoken, rather than sung, dialogue and its outsized cast and choral requirements.

Asked how many people will be joining her onstage, Alsop says, “I haven’t counted them. The chorus is about 120, the kids are probably 40—are you counting? The orchestra’s gotta be, let’s say 90, then we have probably 10 soloists on top of that. What are we up to?” Later in the conversation, she remembers: “The boy soprano, I forgot him—he’s in there too.”

Alsop says she sees the BSO tackling Jeanne D’Arc au Bûcher as a “natural followup” to its acclaimed 2008 performances and subsequent recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, another massive and complex work that is rarely performed.

“I think this is a little of the conductor disease that more is always better,” she says. “We aspire to these huge projects. I certainly do—I love them. I think part of the impact is the result of corralling all these diverse forces into hopefully the creation of a unified whole. I find that extremely rewarding on every level. I’m always thrilled to bring a piece to the stage that isn’t done every day, kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I think the piece has that impact potential.”

Alsop has already conducted the piece twice: first this summer at the Oregon Bach Festival and more recently with the London Symphony Orchestra. (After the Baltimore performances on Nov. 17 and 18, Alsop, the BSO, and company will perform the piece at New York’s Carnegie Hall Nov. 19.) While she doesn’t sound at all unnerved by the prospect of taking it on again on her home turf, she acknowledges that having so many elements to keep in play—the orchestra, the choruses, the actors—presents a challenge. “Every time I do this project, it’s like a huge blind date,” she says. “You’re hoping it’s going to be great, and you know it has the potential, but you just kind of have to go with the flow.”

One constant in the performances so far is stage director James Robinson, who served as artistic director of Opera Colorado when Alsop was the music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra during the ’00s. Reached by phone, Robinson says that the biggest challenge for him regarding Jeanne D’Arc au Bûcher “is to not overproduce it. We did it in [Oregon] in a very spare, abstract way, and in London even more so. I think we’ll keep on in that fashion for Baltimore and New York.

“It’s not an opera, and it’s not a play,” he adds. “So much of the theater of this piece comes from the orchestra and the chorus.”

Still, it’s a piece built around the central spoken back-and-forth between Joan (portrayed in the BSO’s production by Caroline Dhavernas) and Brother Dominic (Ronald Guttman). “It’s a modern way of looking at someone [like Joan],” Robinson says of Claudel’s libretto. “There’s an anger there. She doesn’t get it, why, after all these things she did right in her life—she put God and country and king before anything—she was betrayed for it. And I think Dominic’s role is to say, ‘This is out of your hands, but if your faith is as strong as you say it is, what you have to do is put yourself in God’s hands.’”

Indeed, it is Joan’s religious fervor, her belief that God was guiding her, that proved her undoing. Having risen to considerable power and influence because of it, it gave those who would see her fail their opening and led her to the fate so dramatically echoed in the oratorio’s final movement. “Nobody could really say that she had betrayed her country or her king,” Robinson says. “The thing that damned her was when she was called a sorceress. Up until 1700, it was really bad if somebody said that you were a witch.”

Joan remains a fascinating figure—as Alsop notes, scholars are still publishing books about her to this day—and one the BSO will return to in March 2012 when it performs Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, a score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which it will accompany live. Alsop says she’s read a lot about Joan, and “what I come away with is that we live in such a different time, that I really try to put myself in the mind-set of 600 years ago in order to have an understanding of how things functioned. . . . If you’re being motivated by superstition as opposed to science, that’s an entirely different mind-set. For me, I guess it’s like time travel.

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