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Joseph Schwantner: Black Anemones

When I was in college I had my first encounter of actual “contemporary” music that was written for a singer. A graduate student was performing Joseph Schwantner’s Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro and I was mesmerized. Up to that point I had only heard the usual “classical” songs that most young singers know about. I am not from a musical family and I grew up in a small town in Texas, so I had a limited knowledge of any music that was out of the ordinary. I wasn’t aware that songs like these existed, and I was enthralled with the unconventional sounds and sonorities that pushed the boundaries of what I understood music to be. These songs were originally written in 1980 for soprano Lucy Shelton. When I heard them I was eager to find similarly “contemporary” songs for my own voice. Lucky for me, I have since had the privilege of singing a lot of recently written music.

“Black Anemones” is the second song in Schwantner’s Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro. The text is an English translation of the original Spanish and is full of vivid imagery depicting a fantastical yet ominous dream. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are often weird, illusive, and unsettling. Frustratingly I can’t seem to remember enough details of them to piece any kind of narrative together. My dreams hover over my first waking moments like a quickly evaporating fog. I often wake up from a dream with a dull pang of apprehension and only a vague memory of the specifics. Even though I don’t necessarily identify with the dream Pizarro describes in her poem, I relate to the anxiety and disorientation that it conjures up.

Mother, you watch me sleep
and your life
is a large tapestry
of all the colors
of all the most ancient
murmurs,
knot after twin knot,
root after root of story.
You don’t know how fearful
your beauty is while I sleep.
Your hair is the moon
of a sea sung in silence.
You walk with silver lions
and wait to estrange me
deep in the rug
covered with sorrow
embroidered by you
in a fierce symmetry
binding with thread
of Persian silk
the pinetrees and the griffins.
You call me blind,
you touch my eyes
with Black Anemones.
I am a spider that keeps spinning
from the spool in my womb
weaving through eyes
the dew of flames
on the web.

Here are Dawn Upshaw and Margot Garrett.

Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash: That’s Him

Today is the first day of rehearsals for the revival of the upcoming Manning the Canon concerts. Several years have passed since our last performances and I am excited to come back to it; it’s always an enlightening experience revisiting a program after some time. It will be a joy to reunite with Steve Blier and Matt Boehler and I’m looking forward to meeting and working with our two new cast members: Efraín Solís and Daniel McGrew.

In the spirit of World Pride and 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I chose today’s Song of the Day for my husband and love of my life for over 27 years. “That’s Him” is from One Touch of Venus (1943) and Kurt Weill’s unencumbered melody and Ogden Nash’s unpretentious words are sheer magic. Written in the form of a “list song,” Ogden Nash rattles off a long list of situations to describe just how truly special someone is. In this case, a list of simple analogies gives a more accurate description of a loved one when a formal definition would be elusive or inadequate. I am the first to admit that I am not especially quick-witted or good with words, and so I leave the cleverness of defining what my husband means to me up to Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash. I love you, Matthew, more than I could ever express.

You know the way you feel
When there is autumn in the air,
That’s him, that’s him.

The way you feel when Antoine
Has finished with your hair,
That’s him, that’s him.

You know the way you feel
When you smell bread baking,
The way you feel,
When suddenly a tooth stops aching;
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him, that’s him.

He is as simple as a swim in summer,
Not arty, not actory.
He’s like a plumber when you need a plumber:
He’s satisfactory.

You know the way you feel
When you want to knock on wood,
The way you feel 
When your heart is gone for good:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him.

You could shuffle him with millions,
Soldiers and civilians,
I’d pick him out.
In the darkest caves and hallways
I would know him always,
Beyond a doubt.

Identification 
Comes easily to me
Because that’s he.

You know the way you feel
About the Rhapsody in Blue:
That’s him, that’s him;

The way you feel about a hat
Created just for you:
That’s him, that’s him.

You know the way you feel
When the fireflies glimmer,
The way you feel
When overnight your hips grow slimmer:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him, that’s him.

He’s like a book directly from the printer,
You look at him, he so commenceable.
He’s comforting as woolens in the winter:
He’s indispensable.

You know the way the way you feel
That you know you should conceal
The way you feel
That you really shouldn’t feel:
Wonderful world, wonderful you,
That’s him.

Osvaldo Golijov: Lúa Descolorida

Today, I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces of all time for soprano—“Lúa Descolorida,” by Osvaldo Golijov. The piece was premiered in 2002 by Dawn Upshaw and the Minnesota Orchestra. The recording below is from Dawn’s album “Voices of Light,” and features her long-time pianist/collaborator Gilbert Kalish. The poem is written in Gallego (the language of the Galicia region in Spain), by the Galcian poet Rosalía de Castro. Golijov’s composition was inspired by Dawn’s versatile and sparkling voice. The majority of the piece sits in a Dawn’s low, colorful, chesty register, creating a mournful sobbing color throughout the declamation of text. Golijov’s melismas frame the piece, and take Dawn seamlessly through her sparkling higher registers. Although it is clear that the vocal writing in this piece is virtuosic, the atmosphere of this song feels stunningly and appropriately intimate.

English Translation by Osvaldo Golijov:

Moon, colorless
like the color of pale gold:
You see me here and I wouldn’t like you
to see me from the heights above.
Take me, silently, in your ray
to the space of your journey.

Star of the orphan souls,
Moon, colorless:
I know that you don’t illuminate
sadness as sad as mine.
Go and tell it to your master
and tell him to take me to his place.

But don’t tell him anything,
Moon, colorless,
because my fate won’t change
here or in other worlds.
If you know where Death
has her dark mansion,
Tell her to take my body and soul together
To a place where I won’t be remembered,
Neither in this world, nor in the heights above.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Six Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 38

At the turn of the century, political unrest and a new desire (and ability) to travel the world led many classical composers to call America their new home. One such political event was the Russian Revolution, which forced Sergei Rachmaninoff to flee to America around 1918. Though he longed for his home country, he earned great success in front of American audiences. Most of his fame (and money) came from his performing and conducting concerts in the 20+ years immediately following his arrival in the country, which allowed him time to complete only a handful of compositions during this period, the only vocal piece being his Three Russian Songs for Chorus (1926). Therefore, these Six Songs for Voice and Piano, Op. 38 are the final lieder he wrote the year before fleeing his home country. Prior to this cessation, Rachmaninoff had composed over 80 songs for voice and piano, making this stark halt in vocal composition poignant and a bit devastating. Dawn Upshaw and Margo Garrett brilliantly perform the subtle nuances and mastery of his compositional style during this time. He adapted the style of his later compositions to fit the demands of his American performing career. The subtleness and style of these lieder are very unique and not heard in much of his later work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6EgRj1iu1w

Stephen Sondheim: The Girls of Summer

To continue with our celebration of summer, here is a Sondheim gem sung by Dawn Upshaw, warning us about the dangers of “The Girls of Summer.”

John Harbison: Mirabai Songs

What do you know, I’m finally featuring a non-mezzo! As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, pianist Alden Gatt and I decided to pair John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben for our recent Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert. We liked the idea of providing a contrast with the very traditional woman’s role depicted in the Schumann, and we also wanted to feature the words of a woman poet herself (not just the words of a fictional female character). I ended up really falling in love with this cycle. The text is by Mirabai, a sixteenth-century Hindu mystic poet and saint. What I love about her story, particularly when juxtaposed with the woman in Frauenliebe, is that she ended up completely rejecting her traditional role, showing incredible independence and determination. There is some uncertainty about the exact details of her story, but what I’ve gathered is that when her husband (from an arranged marriage) died in battle, the custom was that she throw herself on his funeral pyre, which she refused to do. Already a devotee of the deity Krishna (aka “The Dark One,” whom she considered to be her real husband), her devotion grew even stronger. Rather than remain at the palace with her in-laws, who kept trying to torture and kill her, she escaped to the city to write poetry to Krishna and sing and dance in the streets.

John Harbison set six of her poems, as translated into English by Robert Bly, for which he took some of the inspiration from Indian musical elements and also incorporated unusual scale patterns and complex rhythms. He does a fantastic job of evoking the various states of mind in each of her poems ranging from defiant to transfixed, bewildered to ecstatic, with quite a bit of eroticism alongside the religious devotion. Harbison is so effective at capturing that sensuality as well as her passion and the energy of her dancing. As you can hear, Dawn Upshaw also captures all of those varying aspects of Mirabai so convincingly in her recording with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. She brings such vitality to her singing and her diction, really bringing the text and the character alive. The style is also complemented so well by the ringing clarity of her voice. You’ll note this is the version as he arranged it for chamber ensemble. It was originally written for piano, as I performed it, and the two versions have quite a different vibe at times – while the chamber ensemble is able to achieve so many different and wonderful colors, I am a bit partial to the percussiveness that comes across with the piano. It’s hard to choose which is best! If you want to hear the piano version, there aren’t a lot of recordings out there, but there is a really nice one with Warren Jones and Georgine Resick.

Rather than singling out one song, I decided to share the entire cycle because I feel like they really need each other as a whole unit in order to be fully appreciated. And they are so varied, it’s hard to pick one that represents the whole. I will say, the one that I get the biggest kick out of is the third song, “Why Mira Can’t Go Back to Her Old House” (at 5:32 on this recording). It was by far the hardest to learn, but just ultimately so much fun to sing and to listen to. Mirabai doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of her — “Approve me or disapprove,” she says here. And then, implying that other people just can’t comprehend the higher plane on which she operates: “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulder; And now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious.” Gotta love her.

Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur: Make Our Garden Grow

I first encountered Candide in a college production that my high school’s Thespian Club attended.  It was exciting and irreverent and the “Make Our Garden Grow” finale had me walking on air.  I talked about the show so much that my mom bought me the double LP (1974 version with the red cover), which I played over and over in my bedroom. Thanks, Mom!

In the context of the story, any utopia is suspect, and the verdant domestic future Candide imagines in the finale is no exception.  As soon as the company has sung it into being, the bubble is burst.  “Ah me, the pox.”

But when the song is unlinked from the story, the audience is allowed to indulge in its lovely sincerity.  As Jamie Bernstein has written, “the soaring chorus seems to be telling us that growing our garden is a metaphor for the flowering of mankind itself.”   I especially love the moment when the orchestra drops out and everyone sings acapella.

I’ve chosen the performance from the PBS Broadcast of “Bernstein at 70,” a birthday concert at Tanglewood on August 25, 1988.  Seiji Ozawa leads Jerry Hadley and Dawn Upshaw. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing who is in the supporting ensemble in front of the orchestra.

“Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide (1956)
Lyric: Richard Wilbur
Music: Leonard Bernstein

If you’re grasping at names, here is the cast list from the BSO’s online archive. Is that Jamie and her siblings at the far left at 3:25?

The New York Times’ report on the event is here.

Stephen Sondheim: The Girls of Summer

‘The Girls of Summer’ by Stephen Sondheim has long been a favorite song of mine. It was a treat to hear it sung so beautifully last week by Meredith Lustig at the NYFOS gala at Carnegie Hall, with Sondheim himself in view of the stage. What a perfect song this is: sultry and mournful, with a twist just at the end. This is a song that I remember from several NYFOS programs, and I have a fond memory of singing it a few years ago, accompanied by James at the piano. Yes, my English husband can play Sondheim just fine.

I have practiced Bikram Yoga since April 2002; a practice that began in Santa Fe where I attended college, and this practice continued when I moved to NYC. James and I practice yoga together in the hot room, and we started taking classes together soon after we started dating in the summer of 2011. Bikram NYC is a wonderful community of people and every so often the owners of the studios present a cabaret performance featuring students and teachers from the community (all proceeds are donated to a charity). The Triad Theater on west 72nd street often hosts this cabaret evening, and I had the pleasure of performing on the program several years ago. It is fun to be out with people in the world when you typically see them for 90 minutes of grueling exercise in a 110 degree and 40% humidity room wearing minimal amounts of clothing!

Drag Queen Chelsea Piers was our hostess for the evening, and when James accompanied me to the stage she asked, “who is this?” and I replied, “my pianist”. “I bet he is,” Chelsea replied. There may or may not be a video on YouTube somewhere of this performance.

James and I were lucky enough to share the stage that evening with Brad Mehldau and his wife Fleurine, who, incidentally, are also students of Bikram Yoga. It was a memorable evening! I sang Jake Heggie’s ‘Animal Passion’ from Natural Selection, a throwback from my master’s recital program in addition to ‘The Girls of Summer’. Those chords are so nostalgic, especially during these first days of spring as we have a foretaste of the summer ahead. This version contains some stunning singing by Dawn Upshaw; she spins this tune so beautifully. And we are happy to share this song on a hot day that feels like the dawn of summer here in NYC.

Hugo Wolf: Ganymed

I fell in love with this recording of Dawn Upshaw’s Naumberg recital with Margo Garrett on the piano when I was a student at Juilliard. It was actually Steve Blier who divined that this song would turn out to be a life-changingly meaningful piece for me, and assigned it to me to learn when I was studying with him there. I have him to thank for all the transcendent experiences I have had “channelling” this song for audiences. I don’t usually talk about performing in such a rarified light, but whenever I do this piece I feel like I am living the experience of Ganymed’s assumption into the heavens… the tremolos in the piano in the final section (starting at 3:17 in this recording) to me beautifully depict the boy Ganymed’s assumption into Olympus, passing through towering clouds.

I love Dawn’s performance of this piece for its dreamlike, sexual/spiritual yearning, and Margo’s subtle and painterly playing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIAgCDaFPOA

I am an unabashed language nerd and love translating the poems that I sing. Here’s my translation of Ganymed:

Ganymed

Wie im Morgenglanze
du rings mich anglühst,
Frühling, Geliebter!
Mit tausendfacher Liebeswonne
Sich an mein Herz drängt
deiner ewigen Wärme
Heilig Gefühl,
Unendliche Schöne!
Daß ich dich fassen möcht
In diesen Arm!
How in the morning clarity
you glow around me,
Spring, my beloved!
With thousandfold love raptures
presses itself on my heart
your eternal warmness
of holy feeling,
unending beauty!
If I could only grasp you
in these arms!
Ach, an deinem Busen
Lieg ich und schmachte,
Und deine Blumen, dein Gras
Drängen sich an mein Herz.
Du kühlst den brennenden
Durst meines Busens,
Lieblicher Morgenwind!
Ruft drein die Nachtigall
Liebend nach mir in die Nebelthal.
Oh, on your breast
I lie and ­­­yearn,
And your flowers, your grass
Press themselves against my heart.
You cool the burning thirst
of my breast,
lovely morning wind!
There calls the nightingale
Lovingly after me in the misty valley.
Ich komm’, ich komme!
Wohin?  Ach, wohin?
Hinauf!  Hinauf strebt’s.
Es schweben die Wolken
Abwärts, die Wolken
Neigen sich der sehnenden Liebe.
Mir!  Mir!
In eurem Schosse
Aufwärts!
Umfangend umfangen!
Aufwärts an deinen Busen,
Alliebender Vater!
 I come, I come!
Where?  Oh, to where?
Upwards!  Upwards I strive.
The clouds float
Downwards, the clouds
bow down to yearning love.
To me!  To me!
In your breast
Upwards!
Embracing, embraced!
Upwards to your breast,
All-loving Father!

 

 

 

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