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Guest DJ Andreas Scholl: Friends, Collaborators And The Power Of Pop

Countertenor Andreas Scholl.
courtesy of the artist
Countertenor Andreas Scholl.

It's hard to think of a singer of any type who performs with more color and clarity than Andreas Scholl. The Times of London has called the German countertenor a "storyteller supreme, daring his audience to stay fully engaged for every compelling second."

Recently honored with a Grammy nomination for his album of music by Henry Purcell called O Solitude, he's just wrapped up a run of Handel's opera Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera performed with soprano Renee Fleming. And he's just released a new album of Bach arias with the Kammerorchester Basel and conductor Julia Schroeder.

When Scholl was in Manhattan for his last Rodelinda appearances, we invited him into our New York bureau for a different kind of storytelling. We asked him to share his favorite music with us, no genres barred. He came back with an amazing range of choices, from jazz to Irish folk tunes to a song from a contemporary Israeli singer/songwriter to his own — yes, his own — dance club tune, which he wrote, sang and recorded after a very unfortunate encounter with Slovenia's national airline.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the breadth of Scholl's taste. This is a singer with a quick laugh — and one who, despite his exquisite artistry and mastery of ancient music, will be the first to rail against musicians he calls "specialist idiots," the kind of experts prone to hosting "a symposium in Brussels about the trill in the court of King August Andriessen from late autumn 1648 to early spring '49 ... who think the world holds its breath because they are arguing whether this trill is done from the upper note or the lower note."

For this session, Scholl brought us all kinds of treats and rarities, including enchanting performances by the Ireland-based trio White Raven and a solo by the trio's tenor, the American singer Robert Getchell; an excerpt of a new Stabat Mater by Marco Rosano, written for Scholl; and the aforementioned, light-hearted ode to Adria Airways. Dig into the audio above to hear all these delicious goodies.

What Scholl fans may not yet know is that his creative spirit isn't limited just to the musical realm. He's also become a rather accomplished videographer, and helped create a film documentary, The Animal In You, about his singing teacher, Richard Levitt, whom Scholl has succeeded as a professor at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. (The film, directed by Scholl's friend Mariano Wainsztein, went on to win a competition sponsored by the National Board of Review and has been screened in New York.)

In that indie filmmaker spirit, Scholl brought one of his own videos to our attention. It's a visual meditation on the Jimmy Webb song "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress," performed by Fleming, a friend and frequent collaborator, with the astounding jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

"If you're exclusively specialized on one subject," such as early music, "I think you lose touch with the real world," Scholl says. And he adds that his love for and exploration of all kinds of music feed right back into his own performances.

"What's authentic," he says, "is love for what I do. Authentic is what was the composer's intention, and I need to get there. It's more interesting to have a wider range of tastes and perspective. My singing teacher says, 'Every classic[al] music singer should sing musical comedy, should sing a little bit of musicals, a little bit of pop, to express this.'"

In pop music, Scholl adds, "I cannot hide behind the composition. With any standard repertoire, students walk up to me and sing it as many people before them have sung it, and it's a safe bet. The audience knows what to expect from Dichterliebe or from a Winterreise, or from Dowland songs even. There's other singers that have done it before us, and if I do it as they do, it's not a bad thing. But the difficulty is that then I hide behind the established standard, I don't come up with something individual, and that's the nice thing behind pop music. The interpretation is not about technical perfection, it stands and falls with the character of the singer, with an individual singer who has to sing it as if he or she really means it.

"That's an important lesson for classic music singers ... Be the music you sing, and don't fulfill standard expectations of an audience."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.