Interview with Countertenor Ian Howell

ABS’s next concerts, Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4), will feature countertenor Ian Howell as the vocal soloist in Bach’s cantata, Gott soll allein, mein Herze haben, BWV 169 (“God alone shall have my heart”) and Vivaldi’s psalm setting, Nisi Dominus. Howell is well-known to ABS audiences from triumphs in Handel’s Messiah, his Distinguished Artist recital during the 2012 ABS Festival & Academy, and the ABS recording 1685 & The Art of Ian Howell. We asked Mr. Howell about the upcoming performances and the works he will be singing.

Ian Howell, countertenor

Ian Howell, countertenor

At the May concert, Bach, Vivaldi, & Handel, you will perform two extraordinary works: Bach’s solo cantata Gott soll allein and Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus. Starting with Bach, what draws you to his music?

Bach’s voice is unique, even among his contemporaries. He had the ability to craft complex musical structures that shine with beauty and pathos. I think that his music for alto especially offers a view into the emotional depth we are all capable of (and have always been capable of) experiencing. Bach’s alto arias, liturgically, seem to function as a vehicle for each congregant’s personal experience of the greater theological message. This music isn’t about describing a scene, so much as telling a personal story. “Es its Vollbracht” from the St. John Passion leaps into the present moment, bringing not just the listener to the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, but the scene at the cross into the listener’s modern heart. Similarly, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (God alone shall have my heart) views the idea of grace through a personal lens. Rather than ask for the sins of the world to end, the gorgeous aria Stirb in mir (Die in me) asks that all desire for the sinful world die in the heart of the listener. This is very personal music, almost offering the congregants a ready-made, first person prayer to give to God.

What are the particular artistic challenges and rewards of Gott soll allein?

I think first of all, Bach’s music is challenging for technical reasons. He didn’t write idiomatically for the voice. One gets the sense that he composed at the keyboard where long lines, large leaps, and awkward text underlay were non-issues. However, once that is mastered, the real challenge is to get in a proper theological frame of mind. Far from the emotionally reserved quality of modern Protestantism, Bach’s theology actively engaged people on an emotional and ecstatic level. Bach’s cantatas were the soundtrack to this liturgy, which gives us permission to sing his music quite passionately. Breaking through the façade of propriety is then the second challenge when singing Bach. Gott soll allein presents more opportunities than challenges. For example, the aria, Stirb in mir features an organ obbligato that weaves around the vocal line; or perhaps it is an alto obbligato that weaves around an organ melody. Bach brilliantly uses the organ and voice as a single instrument. At times the organ heightens the affect of the voice with ornaments. At other times the organ executes a large leap, or a fast scale to a pitch out of the alto’s range. This is truly Bach composing his theology: The organ (God’s grace) does what the flawed human cannot, yet remains ever near. Finding the way to perfectly execute this idea is challenging, but makes this one of the most rewarding works to sing in the repertory.

Tell us about Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus. What is it like to sing this “concerto for voice”?

Nisi Dominus could not be more different from Gott soll allein. Vivaldi writes for the voice in a very idiomatic, Italianate style. In a sense, Bach’s cantata features music to draw attention to the experience of the listener. Here, Vivaldi means to draw attention to the singer. Florid passages of coloratura and long lines that require expert breath management are alternately found in each movement. Here the challenge is that all coloratura is not the same. Vivaldi composed this work for a specific singer who’s voice moved in a specific manner. Learning this piece has felt like ironing out wrinkles in a shirt. The result, however, is dazzling.

What do you like to listen to most when you are not studying a role or learning a new work?

I think that I probably listen to Bach’s Trauerode (BWV198) about once a week regardless of what else I’m doing. In all sincerity, I think it is the best piece of music ever composed. I’m on the voice faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music where I teach vocal pedagogy and direct a voice analysis lab. We’ve been doing a lot of research lately that has me listening to Leontyne Price’s recording of Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder, Nellie Melba’s Porgi amor from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Cecelia Bartoli’s recording of Hai luli by Pauline Viardot. I just love a well-registered female voice; a countertenor can learn a lot about how to sing by listening to top-notch female singers. My wife and I also have a 10 month old at home now, so I’m listening to a lot more Elmo than before.

What are some of your favorite things to do when you visit San Francisco?

I used to live in San Francisco in the early 2000s when I sang with Chanticleer. Our rehearsal space was across from the Mission Dolores Basilica, so my memories of that time taste and smell like a taqueria. If I can make it to Poncho Villa or Taqueria El Toro in the mission for an al pastor burrito with a cup of horchata while in town, I’m a happy guy.

What is it like to work with Jeffrey Thomas?

Jeffrey is one of the best musicians (let alone conductors) I have ever had the chance to work with. I always say that he is a “singer’s conductor,” but I suspect that a violin soloist would think of him as a “violinist’s conductor” and an oboist similarly so. You get the sense that he is always aware of the multi-level quality of this music, and would never let you sing outside the larger goal—be it the pace of harmonic progression, the mood of a scene, the manner in which the chromaticism of a recitative must develop, etc… Yet, he always manages to draw out the best contribution I can make to the whole. His rehearsal process is detailed and deliberate, and I think that the result is an incredibly refined performance. My colleagues and I just love singing and playing with ABS.

Come hear Ian Howell perform at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo in three Bay Area venues and in Davis, May 1-4. Tickets are available at or by calling the ABS Office at 415-621-7900.