Tenor Ben Bliss has been singing J.S. Bach since the days of high school choir back home in the Kansas City suburbs. Now, he travels the world bringing Baroque and Classical music to life with a voice hailed by Première Loge as “close to the ideal.” After making his debut with H+H at our 169th Messiah this fall, he’ll return to the Symphony Hall stage as tenor soloist on the star-studded roster for Bach Easter Oratorio, March 31 + April 2. We sat down with Ben between rehearsals to learn more about his practice, his perspective, and what we can expect from his performances next weekend.
When did you first encounter Bach’s music? What role has it played in your musical life?
My mom is also a singer—she’s the longest-tenured member of the opera chorus at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City—and like me, she has a voice that fits very well in the Bach and Handel and Mozart space. I grew up hearing that music in my home, and sometimes we sing duets together at church. Then in high school, I was pretty heavily involved with my school’s choir, and we sang a good amount of Bach. In my senior year, the choir traveled to Leipzig. It was my first time going abroad! We sang at Bach’s home, and then we sang Lobet den Herrn [BWV 230] at his grave. Standing a few feet away and singing his music was pretty surreal. It made the music feel more personal. Bach wasn’t just some guy in a white wig 400 years ago: He’s right here!
We had a great program at my school. Actually, I grew up in the same suburb of Kansas City as Joyce DiDonato and we both give a lot of credit for our musical lives to the role of music in our early lives. At that time, it was a big part of the public education system—I hope it still is.
Interestingly enough, my first professional gig as a soloist was also singing Bach. I sang the St. Matthew Passion with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. Then, I sang a Bach cantata with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was another mile marker in my career: one of my first big solo gigs with one of the major orchestras in the country. I haven’t realized until this conversation that Bach has played such an important role in my musical life!
When we think about historically informed performance, we often think about playing on period instruments. Since your instrument is a part of your body, what does historically informed performance mean for you?
It’s kind of like looking at the fossils of a dinosaur. On the one hand, you can try to imagine what it looked like, and its lifestyle, and things like that. But I remember reading an article about an archaeologist who found some kind of fossilized remains that allowed them to recreate the larynx and voice box of a dinosaur in three dimensions. Using 3D modeling and air flow and all these different forms of physics, they were able to recreate what that creature might have sounded like. A living instrument such as the voice can resurrect things from the past, like these pieces of music, and make them alive again in a very unique way. It’s interesting to feel like a link in that chain connecting the modern world to human creativity from centuries ago. Not to mention the pleasure and satisfaction of singing that music!
To put that into practice, you put on a different hat when you sing this kind of music. There are some stylistic and technical things—little ornaments you would do and things like that. I’m always very curious to investigate and learn from other musicians about the stylistic impulses and traditions of a certain time and to play within those boundaries. There was so much variation in how this music was played in its own time, depending on the orchestra, or the conductor, or the singers, or the country, or the context. It’s like the different ways people now would play Sibelius or Stravinsky. So, I show up with my idea of how it fits in my voice—and with an open mind. Until you show up and see how it’s all going to come together in this setting, with these people, in this time, you don’t really know how it will sound.
What goes into your preparation for a performance?
Preparation is one of my favorite parts! I take some time to do quiet table work with the score, listen to recordings, translate the text, and see what message it’s trying to communicate. It’s a really fun process—and an important one for a musician to enjoy, because it makes up 95% of the actual work you do. Showing up on performance day is hopefully the most fun part, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What stands out to you about performing with H+H?
I had a really strong reaction when I performed with H+H for Messiah last fall. I was impressed and taken with the quality of the ensemble and the friendliness of the players, but my biggest takeaway was the audience! In this country, classical music isn’t always treated with the same sweeping romance as it is in Europe, so sometimes—in my experience—the audience response isn’t as enthusiastic, and the reach isn’t as broad. But in performing with H+H, I found the audience to be very engaged and responsive.
The people I spoke with after the concerts knew so much about the style and the history, too. It was really refreshing to perform for an audience that appreciates not only good music, but particularly this niche. Of course, there’s excitement in performing for someone who hasn’t had much exposure to classical music: introducing them to it and seeing their honest reactions. But when you spend so much of your life with this music, it’s just a pleasure to sometimes be able to perform for people who speak the same language and can appreciate the nuance. I don’t think I’ve found that to quite the same degree anywhere else. I’m really excited to come back to Boston and share more experiences with the H+H audience.
Why should people come to Bach Easter Oratorio? What do you hope they take away when they leave Symphony Hall?
I’ve learned to express what the music means to me and leave the experience of the audience entirely up to them. If every person in the audience left with exactly the same emotion, it wouldn’t be that interesting! But no matter what you get out of it, this is really exceptionally beautiful music that is not often performed live. It’s a great opportunity to hear something unique with a high-quality ensemble in one of the greatest concert venues in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. What’s not to like? If I lived in Boston and I wasn’t in the performance, I’d be buying a ticket, too. Come check it out and see what it means to you.
Join us for Bach Easter Oratorio, March 31 + April 2, to see Ben in action! Click here to save your seat.