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Robert Schumann: Mondnacht

I wanted to talk today about partnerships, which seems particularly apt since Emily and I are presenting Song of the Day collaboratively!

From ages 13 to 18 I would spend as much of my time as possible accompanying the music lessons of my fellow schoolmates. It taught me—despite being quite unaware at the time—a multitude of musical skills that would go on to inform my career.  To make good chamber music it’s not good enough to concentrate solely on your part. One must be fully aware of the other performers and their parts too in order to make truly collaborative music. I found this kind of music-making desperately satisfying, more so even than solo performing.  The electricity of that musical symbiosis (presuming you have a partner who is equally into collaborating as you are!) is utterly exhilarating and without compare. It’s the ultimate partnership.

When I first had the pleasure of hearing my first NYFOS concert I realized, as many of you do, too, that I was witness to an extraordinary collaborative feat: a performance that was greater than the sum of its parts thanks to immaculate and engaging singing, ever-creative piano playing, and brilliant combinations of words and music.

Song composition is an equally exhilarating exercise in partnership: composers muse over poetry and prose and think of ways in which it speaks to them, and how they might further inform the listener of its moods and intentions through their music. The creative possibilities are endless. One of my favorite composers is Benjamin Britten, who, in addition to a long and distinguished career in that field also enjoyed an active life as a performer. He frequently composed for and performed with for his life partner and muse, Peter Pears, himself a superb if somewhat idiosyncratic tenor. That partnership prompted Britten to write some of the most expressive and imaginative compositions such as Peter Grimes, the War Requiem, and a host of original songs and arrangements.

As a young artist at the Britten-Pears School a number of years ago I had the pleasure and privilege of further immersing myself in the musical and personal worlds of Britten and Pears. The couple’s home since 1957 was the Red House in Aldeburgh, a charming seaside village on the English Coast. During the customary tour we were shown the many features of interest, including the foot-operated bell under the dining room table with which Britten would entertain young children by “magically” summoning the housekeeper, and the cowbells on the stairs that Rostropovich would noisily ring to wake the entire household when he was staying there.

But most poignant was the reminder that homosexuality in England was illegal until 1967. Despite having separate bedrooms, their living together was a great risk, and several of Britten and Pears’ colleagues were imprisoned for suspected homosexual acts. It made me realize the extent of the risk that flowed throughout their relationship, and how that must have further informed Britten’s composing and their performing. It is also an enduring reminder that love conquers all in the end.

To close, I wanted to share a performance of these two great men performing Schumann’s Mondnacht from the Op.39 Liederkreis, written in 1841, the composer’s ‘year of song’. It was recorded live as part of an Aldeburgh Festival recital given in the Jubilee Hall on 15 June, 1958. The heavens stoop down to kiss the earth in a mystical nocturnal scene full of the romanticism and atmosphere we associate with the lieder tradition. Theorists and musicologists have written more about this song than perhaps any other. As a student I loved to discover that, among many other things, Schumann used the notes E-B-E (B-natural is H in German) to spell “Ehe”, German for “marriage”, in the piano part. The marriage of music and words is indeed sans pareil. Sadly only an extract of this particular recording was available, so listen to Janet Baker’s performance to hear the entire song.

Excerpt of Britten/Pears performance of Mondnacht

Janet Baker sings “Mondnacht”

Edward Elgar: Where corals lie

I’m so glad to be able to share one of my favorite voices ever with you today. Janet Baker was born in 1933 to a coal mining family in Yorkshire in the North of England. She went on to become one of the most highly acclaimed mezzo sopranos of her generation, known particularly for her performances of Mahler, Berlioz, and Elgar, and for her long-time association with Benjamin Britten. She also specialized in performances from the English song and German lieder traditions, and pioneering performances of Baroque opera.

My first exposure to her warm and supple voice was from a now-legendary 1965 recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Composed in 1844, the five songs to texts by five different poets including Elgar’s wife, Alice. Originally written for soprano and piano, they were arranged for orchestra and contralto by the composer and first performed in that arrangement in 1899 – the singer replete with a mermaid costume!

As an undergraduate at Cambridge University we were frequently reminded that English music was somewhat inferior to music from the Continent – by which was meant Germany. Elgar was dubbed “poor man’s Wagner” and the pastoral songs of Quilter, Finzi, and Vaughan Williams were known as “cow pat” music! Elgar’s songs are not his strongest pieces, but the Sea Pictures are masterful gems of text setting and orchestration.

Despite Thomas Arne’s famous ditty assuring that us that “Britannia rules the waves,” the nineteenth-century view of the sea was still one of intense mystery, cautions respect, fear, and land-based admiration. The music reflects this aesthetic with great intensity and imagination. The moody rocking and foamy swirls of first piece, Sea Slumber Song, draw us into a maritime fantasy that pairs beautifully with the idiosyncratically modified vowels and lusciously drawn-out consonants of Baker’s recording. The whole cycle is a delight, became one of the soundtracks of my childhood from age 10.

I wanted to find out more about Dame Janet, her incomparable voice, and to discover more her recordings. I was desperate to hear her perform live but learned that she retired from singing in 1982 at age 49 (and she is still very much with us!) My teacher, who had worked with her and Britten as a student, later recalled that she wanted to go out on a gloriously high note (excuse the pun). Such a modest and self-disciplined performer was she that 35 years have passed since she sang a note in public. But her performances are still “discovered” on a daily basis by new and eager listeners through her recordings, reminding us that the legendary voice is very much alive and well. Keep the legend alive and pass this recording on!

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.

Ella Fitzgerald sings “Bei mir bist du schoen”

James and I are thrilled to be hosting #SongoftheDay this week. Music is what brought us together. We met singing in church, while he was music director at St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square, and I was a last-minute soprano sub for an Evensong service (quartet!) in May 2010. The rest is history, as they say. We celebrated our wedding in July 2016 in the Berkshires, with an additional blessing ceremony in the UK at Jesus College, Cambridge (James’ alma mater) in August. I had toyed with the idea of singing this song at our wedding in July, but in the end we were happy not to be performing on our memorable day!

Growing up, this tune was one of my absolute favorites. Jay Lichtmann, one of our dear family friends (and principal trumpet for many years with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, where my mom is still a violist) made me a mix tape in 1986 with jazz standards sung by Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Needless to say, I fell hard and fast for these amazing ladies. I sang all the time: in choir, around the house, while I was practicing the violin. I am happy to share this song on our first day hosting #SongoftheDay for NYFOS. I love the history of this song, and the lyricist shares the name of my paternal grandfather, who was Dr. Jacob Werne (of Russian Jewish origin). Fun fact: both of my paternal grandparents were pathologists, who lived in Jamaica, Queens;  they were avid classical music fans and devoted patrons of Carnegie Hall. The Andrews Sisters made this song quite famous (it became their first major hit, earning them a gold record, the first ever to a female vocal group), though Ella’s rendition is my favorite. The orchestration reminds me of some fabulous evenings spent at Henry’s listening to the Goyishe Christmas program.  Since it was recently the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth, I wanted to recognize her centennial with our first post of the week. This is also a fitting tune to dedicate to my dear, darling husband on the week of his birthday (May 5th)!

History courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (Yiddish: בײַ מיר ביסטו שיין‎, “To Me You’re Beautiful”) is a popular Yiddish song composed by Jacob Jacobs (lyricist) and Sholom Secunda (composer) for a 1932 Yiddish comedy musical, I Would If I Could (in Yiddish, Men Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht, “You could live, but they don’t let you”), which closed after one season (at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn, New York City). The score for the song transcribed the Yiddish title as “Bay mir bistu sheyn”. The original Yiddish version of the song (in C minor) is a dialogue between two lovers.

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