‘You have to have a sense of drama,” says Jane McKinley as she talks about the Dryden Ensemble’s upcoming “Versailles Revisited.” The event combines musicians and actors to enliven the scandalous stories and majestic music that filled the 17th century French court of Louis XIV.
Audiences can listen in this weekend when the ensemble, dedicated to playing baroque music on period instruments, recreates that era’s voices and music at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Solebury, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, April 20, and at the Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary on Sunday, April 21.
“I find (mixing actors and musicians) a really good format because it puts the music in context. When the audience hears what was going on in the period, it gives the music depth and helps the average concert goers understand the music better,” says the Hopewell-based McKinley.
The second Versailles-themed program created especially for the ensemble by artistic director McKinley (another was created in 2009) the spine of the work comes from the letters of Madame de Sevigne, an intelligent and accomplished witness to events at the court. Sevigne wrote more than a thousand letters, mainly to her daughter, and recorded the personalities and intrigues of the day.
“Madame de Sevigne was not part of the court,” McKinley explains. “She was a noble woman, and she was a very good writer. She was orphaned at 11 and raised by her uncle, who gave her a good education. Her letters are very intelligent and witty and give an idea of the personalities involved. You get a sense of her as a person. She was very kind and well thought of by everyone. And she lived during an interesting time.”
That interesting time and the personalities encountered are the stuff of history and literature. Figures include the music-obsessed Louis XIV, who — besides studying string and keyboard instruments and excelling in dancing — engaged more than 150 court musicians who played throughout the day; royal finance superintendent Nicolas Fouquet, whose rise in prestige was met with a fall from power and a languishing in prison; Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan, the trusted soldier and inspiration for the novel “The Three Musketeers”; the envious Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who had the ear of the king and filled it with lies; and the cultivated Francoise Athenais de Mortemar, Louis XIV’s official mistress and a person of suspicion during a wave of royal poisonings.
“The story will unfold in the letters. When there’s something dramatic going on in the text, it is followed by something dramatic in the music. Something happy and light is followed by bright dance-like music,” says McKinley.
Just as the writing, which also includes selections from Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” comes from the period, so does the music. Composers selected for the events include Jean-Baptiste Lully (who performed in ballets with the young Louis XIV); members of the prominent French musical family, Couperin; and Marin Marais (who was the subject of the 1991 film “Tous les Matins du Monde”).
To develop the script McKinley spent the last several months reading, finding passages, and putting post-it notes on whatever passages she felt would tell the story. She then typed it out, shaped it, edited, and began arranging it.
“I had ideas of pieces that I wanted to perform,” she says, “but until I have the script together, I don’t know exactly where it will go. I had more spaces for music. The format (of ‘Versailles Revisited’) starts with an introduction and alternates between text then music, text then music. I like to have the music respond to what has just been read.”
McKinley says the catalyst for the work comes from “my interest in history, and I studied music history. I am certainly interested in sound and rhythm, coming to it as a musician.”
She is also interested in poetry, as indicated by the organization’s name.
The Ensemble, incorporated as a non-profit in 1994, honors 17th-century English playwright, translator, and poet John Dryden. Among the poet laureate’s well known works is his poem dedication to the patron saint of music, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.” It opens by stating that the universe was formed from heavenly harmony, an idea that resonated with the composers of Dryden’s day. Baroque composers Purcell and Handel set his writings to music.
The name was adopted because of the artistic connections and, McKinley says, “it was the first name that musicians who joined to create the group could agree on.”
She adds: “Since the group was named, I have actually become a poet,” though it was something important to her all her life.
McKinley grew up in St. Ansgar, Iowa. “My family was one of the families that were not Norwegian or German,” she says, adding that her heritage was “English, Scottish, with a little bit of Dutch.”
Her father was a farmer, working primarily with corn, soybeans, and oats. Her mother was a high school English and drama teacher.
“It was a very small town, a thousand people, but we had an excellent music program in our public schools. The teachers were very good and well trained. We did a lot of things they usually don’t do in public schools. We learned to sight sing in the fifth grade. There was a very strong tradition of instrumental and choral music in the midwest when I was growing up. I think it had a lot to do with the German influence. We had a strong band and a choir with 180 singers, and this was in a school of 500. And the band was 100 people. Almost everyone participated in something,” she says.
McKinley says that she started playing clarinet but changed to the oboe when she was in fourth grade. “I was given a musical diagnostic test, scored very high, and was asked if I wanted to play the oboe. I jumped at the chance and never looked back. I was that the attraction was both the sound and the fact that I was only one who would be playing it. That appealed to me,” she says.
She played through high school, and though she had considered studying science and medicine in college, she changed her mind. “When I was between 16 and 17 I decided that I did not want to play music as a hobby and wanted to study it seriously. I think for me it was an emotional outlet that I needed at the time. I had lost my oldest sister when I was 12 (killed in a car accident) and my parents were so devastated there was this silence at home. I was coming to terms with the silence.”
After a few seconds of reflection, McKinley adds, “Now looking back I see so many connections with poetry that I didn’t see at time. I was pretty serious about writing, but it was never something that I focused on in college.”
McKinley attended Northwestern University, where, she says, “I set up my own ad hoc program, oboe performance and music history. I set it up because I wanted to study languages and take art history courses. Part of the thing is that I have always been interested in different disciplines. When you are growing up you’re often forced to choose between things. I was really an interdisciplinary type of person.”
She played a variety of music as an undergraduate, she says, but “I got more and more interested in early music. I performed a lot of medieval and renaissance music as well. At that time the early music was the new thing to do. It was really challenging to find out how to perform the music. Later music has a lot of notations. But early music you have to reconstruct. And with renaissance and baroque music you were expected to embellish the music, I found that challenging as well.”
Since Princeton University has an excellent program in music and historic musicology, she came to New Jersey, received an MFA, and had a life-changing meeting with “a really good amateur flautist” and electrical engineer. “The summer after my first year I met my future husband, although he was from the Netherlands and went back to finish his degree there. Then we stayed in this area. That was in the fall of 1977,” she says.
While her husband joined the staff at the Sarnoff Center (now SRI), she began playing freelance for chamber groups from Washington, DC, to Massachusetts and continued her own musical development, “I bought a baroque oboe and studied at Oberlin Conservatory for three summers. Then I went to study in Vienna for six months.” She also joined area music performing groups, which led to Dryden.
“A number of us had been playing with another group, but it needed a new start. So rather than change that group, we just started a new one. The core of Dryden is instrumental. We use choral, but they’re invited as guests. The core is sort of five or six people, and we augment something if requires it.”
Having two children was also a factor. “I started the Dryden Ensemble so I could have something close to home that was exciting and challenging and didn’t involve travel. I turned down quite a few jobs. You have to make choices, and I think I made the right ones.”
The ensemble, which has a Princeton address, presents three annual programs twice each, making six concerts per year. They also produce a fundraiser with a theme that combines music and food.
“I do quite of lot of the administrative work, and we have a treasurer, Jack Tomlinson, who handles all the financial aspects,” McKinley says. Ticket sales and contributions allow the ensemble to pay rentals, actors, and musicians, and cover the costs for brochures.
The organization has a core audience and addresses situations common to all presenting group: an aging audience, competing events, and the reality that people are busier and working longer hours than in the recent past. “We’re actually trying to get younger people to our concerts. We started a campaign and are sending out letters to teachers and giving reduced tickets. We are in the beginning stages, but people are pleased by our outreach.”
The Dryden Ensemble, however, has a distinguishing feature that offers an opportunity to area audiences. “Hearing baroque music on the instruments for which is was written can bring it to life in a way that modern instruments do not,” says McKinley. “Part of it is also style. Many performers of historical instruments have immersed themselves in the various styles of the period and understand the music on many levels. In French baroque music there are lots of ornaments and embellishments, and it takes time to become familiar with them and to execute them so that they grace the melodic line rather than disrupting it.”
To make the point, McKinley says that when she heard (the French baroque composer) Rameau for the first time on period instruments, “it was a life-changing experience. The colors and timbres of the instruments themselves made the music come alive.”
The music for the upcoming concerts comes alive with five other like-minded musicians who make up the ensemble: oboist Julie Byre, violinists Vita Wallace and Andrea Andros, seven-string bass violist Lisa Terry, and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins.
The event is also enlivened by the involvement of actors Paul Hecht and Roberta Maxwell. “They have been very helpful in shaping the script,” says McKinley. “They bring decades of experience to the project. The script has been going back and forth between us by E-mail for several weeks now. Paul and Roberta are my dramaturgs.”
That experience is evident by the credits of the two New York-based actors, introduced to McKinley by colleagues. Hecht made his Broadway debut in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” and followed with other Broadway shows, including “Night & Day” with Maggie Smith, Tom Stoppard’s “Invention of Love,” the original company of “1776,” Shaw’s “Caesar & Cleopatra” with Rex Harrison, and more. Maxwell appeared this season with Ethan Hawke in Chekhov’s “Ivanov” at Classic Stage in New York City and as Edna in McCarter Theater’s recent production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” She has appeared on Broadway in “Equus,” “Othello,” “Henry V,” and on numerous regional and off-Broadway stages.
McKinley’s connections to the sound of music and voice continue with her freelance playing, her creation of books of poetry (such as her 2011 “Vanitas”), and in productions where she and fellow musicians recreate the sounds of a time.
Versailles Revisited, Dryden Ensemble. Trinity Episcopal Church, Solebury, Pennsylvania, Saturday, April 20, 7:30 p.m. Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, Sunday, April 21, 3 p.m. $10 to $35. 609-466-8541 or www.drydenensemble.org.