All hail Joan of Arc, in music -- but in London?

LONDON Thu Nov 3, 2011 7:31am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - This weekend concert and filmgoers in London can celebrate the upcoming 600th birthday of Joan of Arc, girl soldier and Maid of Orleans who donned male clothing, put on armor, rallied the demoralized French army and defeated the...English.

"It's important that we pay homage to history, so we don't repeat it again," American conductor Marin Alsop said, with a chuckle at the incongruity of praising St. Joan, who had visions from God and heard voices saying she should fight the English occupiers, on the home ground of her sworn enemies.

Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the only woman to head a major American orchestra, will lead the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in Swiss composer Arthur Honegger's rarely performed oratorio "Joan of Arc at the Stake."

The orchestra also will perform live a modern soundtrack for the 1928 Carl Dreyer silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" while Alsop and others will participate in discussions about the woman who elevated the child king Charles VII to the French throne and was burned at the stake as a heretic for her efforts.

"She's been embraced as an icon and a symbol by the far right and the far left and the feminists and the non-feminists," Alsop told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"She's a really fascinating historical figure because she's able to be adopted and molded to whatever interest a particular cause has. It also opens up a great discourse, and one that I often have to participate in, regarding women in unusual leadership roles."

Here's what else Alsop had to say about the lessons to be learned from the life of the virginal woman warrior, whom many scholars say was born in January 1412, why she has inspired painters, composers, writers and playwrights over the centuries, and what audiences will be missing if they don't hear the oratorio by Honegger, who also wrote music for film, flute and one of whose best known pieces is a "symphonic movement" for a steam engine.

Q: So she was basically a complete nutter, no, whose luck ran out when everyone, including the French, ganged up on her and lit the bonfire in Rouen?

A: "You know I immediately thought, 'Well, she's hearing voices, she probably suffered from some kind of schizophrenia,' but that doesn't bear out. Her behavior apparently isn't typical of that and she was a very religious and very pious young woman and she also grew up in a highly violent and politically charged time and geographical region.

"She was one of these people caught between many different languages, many different cultures. I think it was a complex world and quite a frightening world that she fell into. There was a security and safety in these voices and these visions that were triggered by the church bells and of course everything revolved around the church in those days. so it wasn't that out of line to be communing with the saints."

Q: What do you think she was like? The picture passed down through history is of a person of peasant stock who was naive and had barely a clue of what she was doing -- a bit of an idiot savant, perhaps.

A: "She didn't really have a grasp of the world political situation. She felt loyal to France and she felt loyal to her king without really understanding the broader political context but somehow I think the fact that she was possessed by these voices from God, I think people responded to that in those days. And this is strange -- perhaps we better give some credence to these things, because you never know... And of course one of the main topics that's discussed all the time is her virginity and also fact that she wouldn't wear female garb. She adopted the title 'pucelle' which means maid but it's a word that we don't really have in English, it's a person who is virtuous and has certain qualities...and this resonated with the people. The soldiers who fought alongside her said she was beautiful, that she was very womanly but they never felt any kind of sexual tension. It was clear she was above that, the base human needs. It's so fascinating, I start to get a feel for the flesh and blood person, which is really exciting."

Q: And what about this Honegger oratorio? Usually when a piece is tagged "rarely performed," the rare performance you hear proves there's a good reason for that.

A: "People don't know that Honegger was one of the most prolific film composers in history. He wrote over 42 film scores and he had a very distinctive view point about music and about art in general, that it needed to be all inclusive and embracing. His music is extraordinarily eclectic and it goes from one genre to another.

"In this piece the listener will hear everything from dissonance to beautiful consonant tonal writing, to jazz to all kinds of things. He loved different sounds in the orchestra so instead of French horns he used saxophones which gives it that contemporary jazz quality. Also he employed the Ondes Martenot (the electronic whoo-whee-whoo sound of sci fi films) and that's very cool. That has a huge role when Joan hears this howling dog -- 'whooo' -- you hear it on the Ondes. And in the trial the judges are cannibals. You have the sheep and the ass, the tiger and they're all sitting in judgment on Joan so we know exactly where Honegger stands."

(Joan of Arc Legacy weekend with Marin Alsop and the London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican and LSO St Luke's, Friday, Nov 4-Sunday November 6. www.barbican.org.uk)

(Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato)

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