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Baroque opera: Handel and Purcell

In our musical household, there’s often a race to see who gets to the “turntable” first.  So rather than argue over who got to do which day and which song to pick, we decided to offer song pairings, some linked by theme, time, or place, others by whim. Today it’s Baroque opera favorites.

Phil’s pick – Purcell, King Arthur: What power art thou

For me, the music of Henry Purcell was pretty much love at first hearing. “Dido’s Lament” can do that to you, but the further I explored, the more I loved. As evidenced by the “Lament”, the song “Music for a While”, or the stately and haunting “Chacony” for viol consort, few composers could do so much with a repeated bass line. “What power art thou”, from the semi-opera King Arthur, is an almost one-note song with a repeated progression and an inexorable tread. Part of a masque known as the Frost Scene in Act III, this air is sung by the Cold Genius, who grumpily awakes to Cupid’s call and asks to be allowed to go back underground to sleep and freeze to death. The shivering effects in both voice and strings grab your attention, but it is Purcell’s grave and gorgeous chromatic harmony that holds it.

Aleba’s pick  Handel, Orlando: Amor e qual vento

This week is the two-year anniversary of director R.B. Schlather’s radical staging of Handel’s opera seria masterpiece Orlando, which I had the good fortune to promote. For weeks, RB, his cast and musicians inhabited the very plain storefront Whitebox Gallery on Broome Street. Everything was open to the public. Throughout the afternoons a wide variety of people—music lovers, friends, and strangers who happened to pass by—dropped in, stayed for a while, and then went back to whatever they were doing. It was all quite low key, but as the days progressed the line between rehearsal and performance, and even the line between life and art began to disappear. It was magical. One of the regular onlookers was our daughter Clementine, who was seven at the time. She showed her emerging baroque soul by choosing this aria as her favorite. It’s mine, too.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: “Lord, to thee each night and day” from Handel’s Theodora

My favorite singer of all time is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Watching Lorraine in this performance, I’m awed once again by the depth of the connection between her body, heart, and voice. To me, her sound is like the voice of the earth and of our deepest humanity. In this beautiful staging by Peter Sellars, she embraces seemingly everyone on stage in sequence in the last part of the aria – the listener also feels embraced by the warmth and generosity of her singing.

Handel: “Amor e qual vento” from Orlando

Last year I had the pleasure of working with the young opera director RB Schlather and his ingenious storefront Handel opera trilogy at Whitebox Gallery just off the Bowery. The whole experience was unlike anything I had witnessed in the music world. It was something I will never forget—and I don’t think my 8yo daughter will either. For three weeks RB opened Orlando rehearsals to the public—by luring passersby with a TV in the front window that broadcast everything going on inside. The rehearsals were also streamed online, so you could see them anywhere.

Since I live just a few blocks from Whitebox, it was easy to run over—and several times I brought my daughter and her friends. One day, RB was working with soprano Anya Matanovic, who played Dorinda, on her aria “Amor e qual vento.” He had her sing it over and over, trying out all kinds of physically demanding and wild staging (note: hairspray and makeup application while singing, costume change, jumping on and off platforms…) until it became an absolute showstopper: an aria of transformation and female empowerment, where Anya got to channel all of her considerable charisma, confidence and sass as she turned from a nerdy innocent girl into a woman in total control, like wonder woman in the phone booth.

Anya was a true heroine, and the young girls were dazzled by her—but also by the aria she rehearsed repeatedly, with its delightful trills and ornamentation, which required a lot of stamina and technical brilliance. The tunes of Orlando haunted us for days (RB’s intention). We hummed them in the shower, at breakfast. We bought a recording of Orlando which my daughter still asks to listen to: Rene Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra, with Bejun Mehta (on Archiv). I have RB to thank for this new love of baroque opera. I grew up in a very musical family, but early music didn’t exist in our house. My mother, a pianist who led her own chamber music group, admitted to me that the sound of an early instrument made her ill! So here’s to being bitten by the baroque, sooner or later. Anthony Roth Costanzo put it perfectly, when I told him how hard we all fell for Orlando: “Forever Baroque!!”

Here is Dorinda’s aria (or the hairspray aria, as we call it at home) from Orlando, “Amor e qual vento,” sung by Rosa Mannion with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants:

Song of the Day: November 23

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)NYFOS is celebrating our co-founder Steven Blier this week! In honor of his birthday on November 25, each Song of the Day post this week will be a tribute to him.  Happy Birthday, Steve!  We hope you enjoy these and have a wonderful week!

Today’s post comes from Steve’s lifelong friend Matthew Epstein:

In May of 1965, Steven Blier and I gave a song recital at the Fieldston School. We were both students there, he a 13 year old, I a venerable 17!

It was my ONLY recital appearance, but it was Steven’s FIRST appearance as a collaborative pianist.

Over fifty years of friendship, I have learned a lot from Steve and I like to think he was a bit influenced by me….

I treasure our friendship and revere his amazing accomplishments.

On that 50 year old program was Handel’s “Where ere you walk”, which pointed my way to five decades of Handel!

I have found a You Tube of Rockwell Blake, singing this piece with an astonishing breath control. He was Jupiter in my 1985 Carnegie Hall concert with Kathleen Battle, Marilyn Horne, and Sam Ramey…..20 years after Fieldston and 30 years ago.

Along with our friendship, what a glorious and memorable life in music Steven and I have shared!!


Handel’s “Wher’er You Walk” from Semele sung live in concert at Carnegie Hall by Rockwell Blake

Song of the Day: November 19

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)Leontyne Price sings Handel in today’s Song of the Day from Steven Blier:

Just before I hit the sack I did a routine check of my email. There I found a note from baritone, friend, and colleague Ricardo Herrera with the subject line “Sad News.” I clicked on it both hurriedly and reluctantly, knowing that it would bear the news of a death. Indeed, he was writing to tell me that Daniel Ferro had died at age 94. Dan was a prominent voice teacher, a guru of bel canto. I played for his voice lessons at Juilliard in the early 1970s, when he taught Neil Shicoff, Alan Titus, and Barbara Hendricks, as well as a who’s who of major singers of the day. He was always proud to have put Evelyn Lear’s shattered voice back together, to have mentored Kathleen Battle, and to have given other teachers like Marlena Malas the technical and aesthetic grounding they needed to start their careers. Later on he was the teacher of Hal Cazalet and John Brancy, some of my most valued colleagues.

He took me under his wing when I was a very, very young spud—a 21-year old kid with a degree in English literature and a lot of moxie. Dan was always teaching me as much as he was teaching the singer. I never went to music school, but playing in Dan’s studio my ears were sharpened to resonance, vowel, phrase, breathing—the technical elements of singing with taste and beauty. Those principles, combined with what I learned from Martha Schlamme and Alvin Epstein about acting and programming, were my true post-graduate degree.

In Dan’s memory, here is Handel’s “Care selve” sung by Leontyne Price. It’s not exactly our contemporary idea of Handel style, but…oh my, what singing. I am sure that Dan is now surrounded by such sounds in his new home, the green, heavenly forest. And in case you think Leontyne’s recorded performance was a fluke of the studio, I am enclosing a live performance, just as perfect. (Maybe even better!)

(live performance with David Garvey, pianist, 1963)

(commercial recording, 1967)

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