It's 10am for Jakub Józef Orliński. He is currently in the middle of a tour of North America with his pianist Michał Biel, and right now he is in Quebec, where it’s snowing. He is covering seven cities, with nearly as many climates as time zones, yet the Polish countertenor still manages to spare us some time. Although he is not quite awake, he is still beaming: his new album Vivaldi: Stabat Mater has just been released by Erato – Warner Classics. You might think it was Vivaldi that launched his career for that matter, given the millions of views accumulated on YouTube, since 2017, for his famous video in Aix-en-Provence. But Orliński’s answer is rather modest
“I’m not so sure. The reason the video was so successful was because it was filmed under such distinctive circumstances and because I wasn’t all dressed up like I would be for a concert, I was dressed like a “normal” person. But before that I had already studied for two years at the Juilliard School in New York and took part in many projects in the USA and Europe. So yeah, the video was a success, a lot of people saw it and of course, I gained a lot of visibility, but I wouldn’t say that it made me famous, because… I’m still not famous actually! And what is being famous anyway, what is fame? Haha!”
Maybe we should challenge him on this point, as were not sure we share his opinion, but we are already under his spell. Whether he’s known online or not, Orliński has had a strong connection with Vivaldi, and in particular his Stabat Mater, since the beginning of his career.
“Of course I sing a lot of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and all the great Baroque composers, but Vivaldi has something special, he has his own way of processing the voice. Handel has wonderful lines; you can feel that he is working on the vocal side. Vivaldi, on the other hand, writes for the voice as if it were an instrument, and I love this bias, even if it is very demanding. I have sung Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater many times in my life. It’s one of the works that accompanied me from the very beginning of my musical career, when I was studying in Warsaw. That’s why I always had the idea in mind to perform it with an orchestra. It was one of my greatest dreams. And it came true in 2012, in a small village in northern Poland where an organ festival was being held. It was a church concert which wasn’t too pompous or modest, and I really had an incredible experience, which has firmly stayed in my mind and in my soul.”
Eight years later, another dream came true. In 2020, Orliński had the opportunity not only to record Vivaldi’s masterpiece of sacred song with the Capella Cracoviensis ensemble, conducted by Jan Tomasz Adamus, but also to shoot a professionally staged and produced 21-minute musical short film. A major, first-class project which, after years of work and performances, has developed into the one Orliński presents to us today:
“This piece is a view into empathy, and I approached the film we have devised in the same spirit. Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater is very special to me. It has been with me for years, from my studies in Warsaw, to the many concerts with Il Pomodoro and other orchestras, to the famous festival in northern Poland. I think it made me grow, I have matured with him and through him, until I knew exactly what I want to show, what I want to say and how I want to sing it. And in 2020, with the Capella Cracoviensis, I was finally able to record it.”
From the first small auditions during his studies to this production for Erato – Warner Classics, his approach to the work has evolved:
“Yes, things are very different today. At the time, I was so excited whenever anyone hired me to do a Stabat Mater motet! Ten years later, with the progress I've made and all the work I've done on my voice, I've completely changed my approach. I start much more from the emotions, the texts and what we wanted to represent in the video, everything is more grounded, filtered through my experiences and my feelings, and much less thought out in terms of pure technique. No longer thinking: Oh, at such and such a moment, I have to impress the audience!”
But Orliński’s lyrical evolution isn’t only due to Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater as he has had no shortage of projects. His previous albums, Anima Sacra (2018), Facce d’amore (2019) and Anima Aeterna (2020), show all the curiosity and open-mindedness of a countertenor who often dares to venture into uncharted territory by performing works that have been very rarely recorded. It is all the more interesting to observe him tackling a world-famous masterpiece, such as the Stabat Mater, which has a plethora of discography:
“My philosophy is always the same: not to reproduce the performances of others, but to start from my own vision of the work. Of course, I have also listened to the recordings of other singers, like those of Andreas Scholl, which are, in my opinion, the best of all time, and are sources of inspiration, but I forbid myself from copying them. And on the other hand, I don’t force myself to distinguish myself from other singers either. I just go my own way without constantly asking myself how they did it.”
It is however common practice among journalists, critics or music lovers to appoint "the best performance" or "the best recording"... But this doesn’t worry Orliński:
“When you record very famous pieces, there are bound to be people who say "Oh, what an achievement, that's fantastic" and others who say, "Oh my God, what a horror, that's unlistenable". But when you are an artist, when you go in front of people to share something with them, you have to be prepared for both love and hate, because you get both.”
We, for one, are die-hard fans! Orliński finds great depth in this recording, especially in providing the vocal line with rich ornamentation that also gives it a new melancholic dimension. As for his countertenor voice, it may still be quite rare in classical music but there is no denying that this range – and Baroque music as a whole – has seen a massive increase in popularity in recent years. Is there a reason for this?
“I don’t know THE answer, but in my opinion, with regards to Baroque music and not just countertenors, but also all Baroque singers, it’s completely crazy what has happened in the last few decades in terms of tone and technique. And also the number of orchestras that play this music and go on tour. It must have something to do with the way Baroque music is performed: the level is extremely high. But it also has to do with social media, with the people who make this music very close to us and who make it known outside the music world. There are people who normally don’t listen to Baroque music and who, all of a sudden, decide to go to a concert. For example, a few years ago I played a concert in Frankfurt with my pianist Michał where there were so many young people that I said to myself: what is going on here, this is completely crazy! And they all stayed at the end to say hello, to take a selfie or ask for an autograph... We were very impressed."
Tours, concerts, studio recordings, video shoots… As a great ambassador of Baroque music, Jakub Józef Orliński, has a tightly packed schedule, and yet seems to coordinate everything with a certain coolness. What is his secret
“As a performing artist, I started talking about “career strategy” with my managers very early on, because I knew that I wanted to remain very versatile and because I knew very early on that it was perfectly possible to do everything at the same time. I have four main jobs: operas, studio recordings, piano concerts and orchestral concerts. Plus special projects. And every season I try to plan as much of everything as possible, because they are all completely different things and therefore very different sources of satisfaction, happiness and fulfilment."
Jakub, you have all our admiration. One last question before we finish: in the midst of all these projects, do you still have time for your second great passion – breakdancing?
Yes! I always try to find time for breakdancing, because I need it, it’s essential for my physical and mental well-being. When I’m on tour, like I am now, I get a bit frustrated, because I haven’t been able to train properly for a week. Of course, I always do a physical warm-up before singing, but that’s not enough for me. Every now and then I need to relax by doing a little breakdancing.”
So let's hope that Jakub Józef Orliński gets a moment to practice in his hotel room and let us relax in our own way: by getting lost in Vivaldi's Stabat Mater. Each to their own!