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Heir Apparent

As both tenor and conductor, PAUL AGNEW carries the Baroque banner for Les Arts Florissants.
by Jennifer Melick. 

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© Oscar Ortega
“Libraries are packed with pieces we haven’t even scratched yet.”

ONSTAGE AND OFF, Paul Agnew projects a soft-edged but intense lyric precision, with bursts of endearing goofiness. This is the haute-contre tenor well known to devotees of Baroque opera, who have heard him in Charpentier’s Medée, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie and the unforgettable travesty title role in Rameau’s Platée. In conversation, Agnew’s voice rises and falls dramatically; words are emphasized, italicized, as in the speech of an elected Parliament official (thank the Oxford education) or an actor or master teacher used to putting across ideas to large groups. This makes sense, because conducting has become a major part of Agnew’s career with Les Arts Florissants, and he has become increasingly visible as caretaker of the ensemble’s tradition.

Agnew first led Les Arts Florissants in 2007 in Vivaldi’s Vespers in France and Austria. “We were on a bus, I think in Germany, and I was in the back of the bus, and Bill [Christie] was in the front of the bus,” says Agnew. “We’d done a concert the night before, and then Bill wandered down the bus, and that always makes you think, ‘Uh-oh, what did I do? It seemed to go well.’ And then he just sat down beside me and said, ‘Why don’t you conduct the ensemble for this Vivaldi project?’ And that was amazing.I now do three or four projects a year, and I take on quite a lot of responsibility.” 

The tenor has swapped stage for podium in several operas, most notably a well-reviewed Platée, which he conducted at home and on tour in 2014. Since then, his U.S. conducting gigs have included appearances with Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, the North Carolina Symphony and Seattle Symphony—the last a Handel Messiah in which he also sang the tenor solos. He has a date in December with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Curating concert programs is a passion for Agnew; the first recording project he led under the Les Arts Flo brand was 2011’s Lamentazione, which features a particularly striking sixteen-part setting of the “Crucifixus” text by Antonio Caldara. Suspensions are rendered so precisely it’s almost shocking—minor-second intervals take on laser-like heat when performed with this type of straight tone—and rests between the notes have palpable drama and tension. For most of the piece, sopranos float ghostlike above the slightly richer brew of the lower moving parts. When the harmony magically shifts up about three-quarters of the way through, it’s like a window suddenly opening and light pouring in. 

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Agnew at work in 2015 with the young performers of the Jardin des Voix project
© Philippe Delval

I met with Agnew last August during the annual one-week “Dans les jardins de William Christie” annual festival, on the grounds of Christie’s magnificently restored home in Thiré, France. For nearly ten years, Agnew has codirected the Jardin des Voix project, educating young professional singers, who perform at the festival and elsewhere. “The idea is to take kids who have reached the end of their conservatoire education and need to make the incredibly difficult jump between being entirely unknown but being completely formed, to getting onto the ladder where you’re going to get heard, get some auditions, a bit of a reputation,” says Agnew. “And from that reputation, as I and others have experienced, it takes off. But getting over that—that’s really tricky.” Agnew lives in southwest France with his wife, Aude Balestic (Les Arts Flo’s production and tour manager), and their two-year-old son. “I seem to be moving constantly south,” he jokes, having started in London, then relocated to Brighton, Normandy, Paris and Monthoiron. “But I think this is as south as I want to go.” 

As associate music director and associate conductor, Agnew has become de facto upholder of the tradition established by Les Arts Florissants, which now regularly partners with the Juilliard School’s historical performance division. “Juilliard was one of the last bastions of what I call the ‘international conservatism,’” says Christie, with raised eyebrow. “The string faculty—years ago, when you talked to them, they made funny grimaces and unpleasant comments, as did a number of the modern-instrument teachers, you know. Now, this can no longer happen. We’ve got generations now of kids who can play this stuff a lot better than I could—a lot better than the people of my generation. That’s really true.”

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Agnew at work in 2015 with the young performers of the Jardin des Voix project
© Philippe Delval

As proof, there’s Les Arts Florissants’s January 2015 performance at Paris’s newly opened Philharmonie, where eyewitnesses reported rock-concert-style stomping and cheering. It was Les Arts Florissants’s thirty-fifth anniversary, but it also ended with a sneak-attack seventieth-birthday celebration for Christie, and you might get a little misty-eyed watching video footage of a “Fortunata dies natalis” Baroque-style parody of Monteverdi and Charpentier conducted by Agnew and composed for the occasion. (“I wrote variations on happy birthday, very sombrely, and it was great,” says Agnew.) For years, he adds, “Bill has been digging into this repertoire, finding it, understanding it, researching it, performing it. He wants this huge movement—which he in a big part is responsible for creating, particularly in France—to continue. There are thousands of works still to do, and the libraries are packed with pieces we haven’t even scratched yet. And so, I’m part of that. I’m a new person who is going to push the ensemble on.” spacer 

Jennifer Melick  is managing editor of Symphony magazine. 

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