Soprano Joyce DiDonato has a long history of busting through the clay pot of the concert hall and searching out fresh conceptual turf.
The celebrated singer, a Grammy winner based outside Barcelona, has helmed several ambitious projects aimed at bringing music and music education to underserved communities, including refugee children in Greece and inmates at Sing Sing.
Her latest endeavor, “Eden,” finds DiDonato, 53, teaming up again with her longtime collaborator, the mostly Baroque orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro led by conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, for a touring program that draws from four centuries of music.
Opening with “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives, in which DiDonato vocalizes lines penned for trumpet, the program spans eras, from the 18th century with Czech composer Josef Mysliveček (an aria from his oratorio “Adamo ed Eva”) to the chronically overshadowed Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Valentini (his “Sonata Enharmonica”). There are healthy helpings of Copland, Gluck, Handel and Mahler for good measure, as well as a fresh commission from the British composer Rachel Portman.
Just as the musical scope of “Eden” seems to zoom out from time itself, so, too, does the activism at the core of the project. With “Eden,” DiDonato aims to offer a planetary perspective on the climate crisis, pairing performances with educational initiatives that encourage young people to engage with environmental action in their communities. Several stops on her ongoing tour of “Eden” incorporate local children’s choirs as well.
Over the next two years, DiDonato will bring “Eden” (as well as thousands of seeds supplied by Botanic Gardens Conservation International) to 45 venues across five continents, including Strathmore Music Center on April 24, presented by Washington Performing Arts. I caught up with her by phone as she was preparing for tech rehearsals in Chicago. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Not to be too punny, but can you tell me about the genesis of “Eden”?
A: It’s impossible not to make all those metaphors. I talk about seeds and roots and branches, and it’s all very inherent to this project. A few years ago with Il Pomo d’Oro we did this project “In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music” and it was sort of a career-defining project where I took my love of concert, theater and storytelling, and smashed it together into something that felt a bit new for the classical music world, with the intent that it would inspire people to really think about that bridge between exiting the concert hall and going home.
After a handful of concerts over what ended up being a three-year expansion project, we said we have to continue on this kind of model, and the only thing worthwhile singing about in about five years’ time, which was 2022 as is it turns out, will be the climate. I hit roadblock after roadblock trying to formulate a concert that I’d want to invite people to. I sat with it for a long time. There’s a level of disconnect in people that allows us as a society to not take care of our surroundings, our environment.
And there’s a disconnect that allows us to welcome a huge division between people, and to fuel it. Our best moments in history are generally those where we work together across all of the barriers. And so it has turned into something shining a spotlight on the beauty of nature, paralleled so beautifully in classical music: the harmony and balance that are inherent to nature. We have a teacher here. We have a guide.
Q: What inspired you to open the show with the Ives work?
A: We were speaking a lot about the approach we wanted to take, the atmosphere we wanted to create, we were tossing out words like “meditative” and “hypnotic.” He was inspired by the Ives and I didn’t know the piece at that time. I listened and it was “Eden,” the underlying strings for me really represent infinity, the cosmos, something really indefinable, but always present. I knew immediately from the first sound of the strings that’s the place I wanted to start. Then you have this very plangent, perpetual, constant simple question, which of course is not simple, and then the chaos grows and grows, and I thought, this is the moment we are living right now.
This sounds a little naive, but during the pandemic, I was watching flowers come out of the ground, and they had no concept of masks or vaccines or plagues or pandemics or now wars. They’re just doing what they do. That is that underlying string section. And yet, the humanity of that searching voice, at times timid, at times bold, certainly feels like what I’m experiencing.
Q: Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson seem to serve as a centerpiece to the show. Can you tell me about those poems and your relationship to Copland?
A: I have always loved Copland. It was always present in my household. I know that music. I see it. I feel it. I smell it. It’s home base for me. The position of it was really deliberate. Just from a sonic world, these woodwinds come back and it starts to put order to the chaos of the Ives. Even the open strings that arrive in the Copland hark back to the Ives. It feels like an anchor point. But what was imperative was that we present the character of Mother Nature in her nurturing quality, not the destructive one, which is what we see in the headlines.
It’s the only thing we talk about. We talk about the floods and the droughts and everything that’s coming. We’re only focused on the destruction that is happening, or the rearranging, however we want to categorize it. And it was very important for me not to forget how nurturing Mother Nature is. Every breath we take comes from her. It’s a very tender presentation of Emily’s poetry through Copland’s depiction of it, and it gives us a moment to remember just what it is we’re not taking very good care of.
Q: The piece on the program I was more unfamiliar with was Josef Mysliveček’s oratorio from “Adamo ed Eva.”
A: I didn’t know his music at all! It was one of the last additions to the show. We were missing classical music and were looking so hard at Mozart, and we just didn’t find the right thing. Giulio D’Alessio knows much more about that repertoire than I do, and he found this oratorio and it’s really extraordinary. First of all, it gives a chance for the orchestra to be completely in their element. It’s a piece that sounds familiar, because it’s in a language that we already know and love.
It brings a little bit of the drama in opera to the stage, and it really is describing what is splashed across the headlines: I will destroy your seashores, I will burn your verdant hills, I will spread a plague among you because you’ve forgotten where you come from. It’s a little over the top, it’s a little campy, which of course I love, but it’s also extraordinary to have a text written 250 years ago and be so blazing relevant today.