Click here for the archive of profiles that takes you behind the scenes with some of the featured performers who bring their special talents to Emmanuel Music.
Soprano Brenna Wells never sang at Emmanuel Music under founder Craig Smith, but she savors the memory of a master class with him during her Master’s year at The Longy School of Music. “Craig was legendary, and I was over the moon to study with him,” Wells recalls. “I had chosen and learned the Bach aria Qui tollis peccata mundi from the Lutheran Mass in A. Craig had strong opinions, and as he coached me he kept teasing me about how much better the cantata version of this aria is. Those strong opinions were so much a part of his personality.”
Smith taught Wells a valuable lesson that day. He explained that Bach is notoriously hard on singers, giving them few opportunities to breathe; he advised that she breathe early and often so that she’d need fewer breaths later. “Craig was right, and I still follow his advice and pass it on to my students,” Wells says.
This experience was Wells’s first with Bach, and it immediately had an effect on her career. At the end of the class Wells was invited to sing in her first production of the Bach B minor Mass. She realized immediately that a wonderful new musical path had just opened for her.
Throughout her musical training Wells has taken on new challenges and emerged the better for the experiences. She was always musically inclined, starting Suzuki violin lessons before age four and piano lessons after that. Because she had a habit of singing around the house, her parents urged her to join the school choir. Reluctant to enter the limelight, Wells took their advice, and was chosen to solo after just one week in the group. She rose to the occasion and soon became increasingly serious about music under the instruction of some exceptional public school music teachers.
Another “sink or swim” experience came when Wells, who grew up outside Seattle, came to a summer program at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Her first extended stay away from home was both thrilling and intimidating. She fell in love with the music and the program, where she studied choral and solo works and was taught by musicians as diverse as YoYo Ma, Thomas Hampson, and Bobby McFerrin. Wells relished being in a group of talented young musicians and stimulating teachers, but also found the experience one that pushed everyone to new limits. “Almost every night a girl in the dorm was on the phone crying to her parents that she wasn’t up to the challenge,” Wells recalls. But the teachers were encouraging and Wells emerged a stronger person and better singer for the experience. “This summer training was a defining moment in my decision to pursue music as a profession,” she now says.
Wells sought multiple academic settings to develop her art. She spent her undergraduate years at West Washington University, a liberal arts college close to home with an excellent vocal program. Her vocal performance major prepared Wells to return east to Longy, where she focused on recital repertoire, chamber music, and new music.
Immediately after completing her Master’s degree, Wells was ready to learn more, and specifically to focus on early music. She headed to Aldeburgh, England and entered the Benjamin Britten-Peter Pears program in the music of Bach and Purcell. “I was the only American and the only one with scarcely any experience with this repertoire,” Wells says. “It was another sink or swim situation, in fact like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool.” She recalls that director Michael Chance would ask her to prepare a difficult piece such as Bach’s solo cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen and come prepared to sing it the very next day. “I’d go home, panic, and then sit down and learn the piece in record time. This kind of training showed me I could do more than I ever had expected.”
All of Wells’s training experiences have led to a varied and satisfying career in Boston. In this 2014-15 season she has been named one of Emmanuel Music’s Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellows. This award recognizes young musicians of exceptional promise and offers them opportunities to perform in solo or prominent roles with the ensemble. Wells is a featured soloist in Emmanuel Music’s March performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Her solo, Ich folge der Gleichfalls, is a personal favorite that Wells has sung more than once before. “Of the two soprano solos in this work, mine is the cheerier. It has tricky chromatic passages, moves quickly, and has some coloratura moments. You might even say that Bach has cheeky moments here. It’s a piece I love to sing,” Wells says.
This season Wells is also singing in a number of Emmanuel Music’s Sunday cantatas, in concerts large and small throughout the bicentennial year of the Handel and Haydn Society, and also with Boston Baroque. Wells has become largely but not exclusively an early music singer who loves and knows the repertoire well.
One 2013 performance stands out from Wells’s usual fare: the 50th anniversary Rolling Stones concert in Boston. Scott Allen Jarrett, one of Wells’s friends and the director of music at the Back Bay Chorale and Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, was hired to put together a chorus for the encore You Can’t Always Get What You Want. He hired Wells as one of the singers and her husband John Paulson as a second conductor; each conductor led a large group of singers at one end of a large horseshoe arrangement. “The Stones were great, both friendly and professional. We did two complete run-throughs – including Mick Jagger’s dancing during the sound check,” Wells says. The performance posed unusual challenges. “It was so hard to hear with the chorus so spread out and with 15,000 screaming fans in the mix. But we really sang, and sang well. I was eight months pregnant and succeeded in singing a series of high Cs that lasted for eight measures or so. That was an achievement!” The performance was an unforgettable experience and one more time when this singer did indeed get what she wanted.