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Holding Court: Melinda O’Neal

Melinda O'Neal photoHolding Court is an interview series that features the authors of the new books on display in the King Arthur Flour café in Baker-Berry Library.

In this week's edition, we speak with Melinda O'Neal, Professor Emerita of Music and Artistic Director and Conductor Emerita of the Handel Choir of Baltimore.  With O'Neal's book, Experiencing Berlioz: A Listener's Companion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) readers are introduced not only to the sonic landscape of Berlioz' work, but to the ways that history, biography and literature can deepen and enrich one's appreciation of his music.

What is your book about?

Experiencing Berlioz is about finding touchstones for understanding the music of Berlioz—discovering what works to listen to, what to listen for, and how listening can bring deeper enjoyment.

Where did you get your ideas for this book?

When I first rehearsed a choral work by Berlioz in graduate school, its beauty and originality took my breath away. Then while preparing Berlioz works for performances with the Dartmouth Chamber Singers, Handel Society, Seattle Symphony Chorale, and other ensembles, I looked more broadly at his repertoire. I discovered that the majority of his works are for singers and instruments, not for instruments alone as is commonly supposed. Why this misconception? The central questions then became, what is it about his music—songs, choruses, extended choral-orchestral works, operas, and symphonies—that makes performing and listening to them so gratifying, so compelling? How can I connect others to this treasure-trove? I am grateful for all the Dartmouth performers and students in my courses who contributed to this effort.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

To write this book I needed access to all of Berlioz’s scores, the poetry, novels and plays he set or based his music on, his books and reviews, and the perspectives of every other Berlioz scholar. Live concerts, attended or conducted, were essential so I could hear the music as it interacted with the acoustics of the hall, see the sources of individual sounds, and experience different interpretations. High quality recordings, texts, and excellent translations were invaluable, of course.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

Walking into a music library brimming with bustle and interaction is always a pleasure. I hope those who enter in the future will also find…

  • easy access to as many world-wide styles and genres of music as possible, newest to old and in a variety of formats.
  • multiple recordings of the same repertoire (including rare recordings off the beaten path), so listeners can perceive how different interpretations and performance practices vastly affect the impact of a composition.
  • a silent, calm space. Much of the musical experience takes place from inside out. For example, a performer imagining the sound with only the score in hand, or a composer or improvisor simply imagining, or a listener remembering/imagining. These all require deep concentration.
  • an experimental digital laboratory designed to hear selections as they might sound and feel in spaces altered to different sizes and shapes or played by different instruments and other media.

 What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Aspiring music scholars should perform, listen, attend live concerts, read thoroughly and widely, be well-grounded in music history and theory. Take those graduate courses in bibliography, learn foreign languages, explore music’s intersection with other disciplines, travel. When writing, seek feedback often and be prepared to write many drafts. Most importantly, write about what you know and love.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

I read the daily news, The New Yorker magazine, and mysteries by Donna Leon, Deborah Crombie, and others. As I enter into retirement, I look forward to reading more American history and biographies.

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