Rehearsal Magazine: Can you tell me a little about what Messiaen's Harawi means to you, and why you decided to perform it?
Lotte Betts-Dean: We first performed a section of the work in Feb 2015 as part of a recital at the Royal Academy of Music that also included the Judith Weir we will be performing in Melbourne, Songs from the Exotic, and a beautiful Swedish song cycle by Sigurd Von Koch, Exotiska Sånger. It's a piece I had been wanting to perform, as I've always been a huge fan of Messiaen and have performed some of his songs before from Poemes Pour Mì. When we started working on Harawi we instantly fell in love with the piece and knew we wanted to eventually perform the whole piece.
Joseph Havlat: I've always been a big fan of Messiaen, but my first proper introduction came through my teacher Joanna MacGregor, with whom I worked on his 'Oiseaux Exotiques' back in 2013. I admit I was not very familiar with Harawi until Lotte suggested it - I think I had listened to it maybe once. Looking through it myself though it proved to be just as satisfying to play as his solo and concertante works. I'm basically just a sucker for thick, lush harmonies so it's right up my street. I like working on big, multi-movement pieces like this too, as it allows the span of the emotional journey to be greater and requires a lot of thought into its architecture and pacing.
RM: How did the work initially come to your attention for that 2015 recital?
LBD: It's a piece I had been interested in learning for quite a few years after stumbling upon it while researching repertoire back when I was an undergrad at Melbourne Uni. When we were offered this recital at the Academy I knew it would be a perfect choice. I had just met Joseph and was wildly impressed with his playing - especially of contemporary repertoire - and this is certainly the type of song cycle that requires a very skilled pianist. It's an incredibly virtuosic and challenging part and I had felt I had found someone with whom I would feel confident attempting it with.
RM: Absolutely! A piece like this must require a lot of trust between the pianist and the singer. I read that the work is staggeringly difficult for both performers. Can you tell me about some of the challenges it presents?
LBD: I love singing music that challenges me, both vocally and extra-vocally. This piece certainly pushes both singer and pianist and the prospect of getting it under my belt was really thrilling to me. When I met Joe I knew I had found someone I could trust with this piece- he is supremely gifted and confident, yet also surprisingly relaxed in his playing, which certainly puts the singer at ease when tackling this sort of music. Rhythmically it's extraordinarily challenging and relentless in parts, and as is typical of Messiaen, it certainly isn't a walk in the park melodically either. Some of the material is repeated and recycled in the work which makes our task a little easier, but I would say it is probably the hardest piece I've sung to date.
JH: A piece like this does indeed require a lot of trust. The indivudal rhythmic and melodic intricacies within both the voice and piano mean that a successful performance requires complete understanding of the other's part. There are no time signatures, and each bar is often a different length to the previous, so you've got to make sure that you are both feeling the same pulse, even if that is also changing frequently as well. Messiaen can be somewhat easier to perform than other contemporary music in that it is still mostly based on scales (albeit ones Messiaen has himself developed), so there is still a harmonic system that you can instinctively latch on to when thinking about phrasing, colour or even just pitching notes - it is not completely atonal. Pianistically, there are numerous technical difficulties, mainly stemming from the fact that the music is not written to naturally fit under the fingers. It's often awkward and thick, meaning there's a lot of work to be done to even play the notes in the first place, but then to properly voice each chord etc. Messiaen also likes his imitation as well, and there's frequent birdsong which appears everywhere in his works, but also directions to imitate other instruments - bass clarinet, french horn, bells etc. All this is the same for much contemporary music, but this is part of why I enjoy doing it so much. It's like putting together a difficult jigsaw puzzle.
RM: Can you tell me a bit about the collaborative process of putting this work together? What does a standard rehearsal look like for you at the moment, and how much of the work has been done away from your instruments?
LBD: Often I will do a lot of the "homework" on my own prior to the initial rehearsals, but with this piece it was different. We learnt it together, in a way. Of course there is the initial process of learning the notes- Joe was incredibly helpful (and patient!) while I polished the more difficult phrases and intervals. As we became more familiar with the piece the rehearsal process became surprisingly easy- it is very melodic in parts, and idiosyncratic to Messiaen's style, so it became more about repeating it in chunks to the point where we felt comfortable.
JH: I did a lot of work on my own simply learning notes, it's not the kind of piece you can start at the first rehearsal with no prior preparation. We'd go through song by song, only really working on the parts where we are together (there are lots of sections that are just solo piano). The method of rehearsal would change depending on the song, but usually, we would try and get it all together at once (melody + rhythm + harmony), as that was the best way to find out what didn't work, and from there build up from rhythm, adding melody and then harmony. Once we were confident in the notes themselves, we went back and thought about the structure and phrase, and see if anything needed changing from what we did instinctively. I guess the first couple of rehearsals were mostly spent on the gritty note-bashing stuff until we had that down, and then it became a little more musical and thoughtful. We learnt the first half of the piece first because we only performed that in our original recital, which turned out to be a good thing as it allowed us to internalise the first 6 songs. Coming back to it about a year later we've found it's all still there which is very reassuring.
Did approaching this piece differently by working on it together from the start change the way you were able to approach things like making musical decisions about phrasing and emphasis?
JH: Approaching the piece together is good; I like working that way because nobody feels like they're 'catching up' and it allows us both to still be flexible, which is definitely a requirement in a piece like this. On the first play through, listening to how Lotte sings a phrase, or where she breathes, or the tonal colour she uses is a great second opinion on how a song functions and is structured. The text is so unusual and imaginative that it frequently completely altered much of my view of the piano part once I'd heard them together.
What is your advice for producing and programming concerts for young performers? Is there anything you've learnt having put on your own solo recitals, as well as your performances with Ensemble x.y?
JH: Variety is what you need when programming, especially when you're working with new music. You need to keep the audience and indeed the performers on their toes. I find a theme always works well when thinking of what pieces to put together - it can be as broad or specific as you want - but you still want to have pieces linked together in some way, no matter how different they may be aurally or conceptually. For example, we recently had an x.y concert centred around the Fluxus movement stemming from John Cage, which involved a lot of theatrical music, improvisation and performance art. Before that, we've had a concert centred around chamber music that has 3 clarinets in them (because we had 3 clarinets available). I had a solo concert last year centred around folk music, where I played music by Hungarian and Czech composers that were based on folk melodies or dances, and then ended with a piece I'd written myself based on Hungarian folk melodies. I find it good to write down any programming ideas I get, whether it's thinking of two or more pieces that I think might complement each other or a theme for a programme etc.
Joseph and Lotte prest Messiaen's Harawi on Tuesday April 25 at 7pm, at Richmond Uniting Church. Tickets are available here. Artwork is Jean Fautrier's "Reclining Woman IV" 1942.