The songs I’ve offered up over the last few days shook me by the shoulders and handed me this piece as my last choice. I realized mid-week that the songs I’ve chosen, and the majority of songs throughout history either celebrate our connection with each other, long for that connection, or grieve over its loss. Sondheim’s words sum it all up for me and they do it in both a contemporary and a timeless way. The melody sounds simple, though of course it’s not, and it takes root in your teeth and bones.
I have one more thing to add as I finish my week where No Song Is Safe. I sang a concert with NYFOS years ago that focused on really new songs—some still wet with ink. It was challenging, stimulating, sometimes frustrating and ultimately it was an experience that helped form me as a craftsperson. I cherish every opportunity to breathe a little of myself into each song I sing as a result. Those precious few days that I got to spend with Steve Blier and John Musto at the piano were thoughtful, revelatory and encouraging. I came away with a clearer sense of myself as a story teller and I felt welcomed into a distinctly particular family in the world of song. Since then, that family has become the Royal Family. I’m thrilled to come back in a couple of weeks and share the stage with Steve again. There’s nothing quite like it. For a singer, it doesn’t get any better.
I couldn’t submit five choices without choosing one piece operatic. Ok, it’s a bit long but it’s Richard Wagner, the early years when he was still in his ‘bel canto’ period. And baby, could he ever write a melody and throw some rockin’ orchestration at it.
The Dutchman is looking for a little peace of mind here. This is one tormented guy for lots of reasons. He is in need of serious redemption and is meant to finally find it in the love of a good woman. Turbulent seas in the orchestra, soaring vocal lines, dead silence—all here. This is human torment agonizingly yet glowingly set to music. I use the word human, though we at my house refer to the Dutchman as Wagner’s version of the Undead.
The Dutchman in this recording ain’t half bad either, if I may say so myself.
Straight to the skinny on this song:
It comforts me and allows me to open old wounds so they can heal. It reminds me why I love and it shows me again and again how much I am loved. Groth’s words teach me to love better and they tell me what a privilege it is to be the reflection of another’s goodness—to see him whole and well so that he can see it more clearly himself. I get to do that. Wow. There’s love and genuine hospitality in action. And if it weren’t for Johannes Brahms, well, I probably would have never even heard these words, and definitely never in a way so transcendent.
When Jessye Norman sings it, well, be prepared to be healed. It’s an aural laying on of hands—a two scant minutes of bliss.
My mother, Helen Joyce drove an eggshell Cadillac until she couldn’t drive any more, and the sprawl of West Texas required she spend lots of time in her car. She and I agreed on all things “Willie” and we differed on most things political, but when his cd in her Caddy landed on this track, all our differences blew away with the West Texas wind. We sang along with him most times and she always had it playing when I came to town. Our common ground was “Living in the Promiseland”. I love it for that and also because it makes me feel home.
Willie himself said he was surprised at how relevant the song seems now. He also said, “I’m happy to smoke a joint with anybody.” Just so you know…
Happy Friday! What a week it has been. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to share my thoughts and some of my favorite songs with you. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and am grateful to you for spending the time with me. Today, I’d like to bring us full circle by returning to Stephen Sondheim and declaring our Song of the Day: “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George.
With music and lyrics by Sondheim and a beautiful book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George opened on Broadway in 1984 and has been revived several times since (you can currently catch it at the Hudson Theater and I hear it’s fantastic!). The musical was inspired by George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The show weaves a fictional tale of Seurat’s life and the process of creating the aforementioned painting, and is a beautiful expression of the artist’s struggle to be relevant and heard. It eloquently captures the all consuming nature of artistic life and the price one pays in pursuit of perfection. It constantly asks the question: What is your Art worth? In truth, one’s art is so connected to one’s self that the subtext of this question (What are You worth?) is equally as difficult to answer. In my mind, the constant conflict of trying to do right by those around you while serving a higher artistic calling is what makes the piece so universally relatable. One does not have to be artistically inclined to understand such a paradox, and perhaps it is this common denominator that makes the musical so timeless.
“Move On” is the eleven o’clock number in which George’s former lover and muse, Dot, appears to him in a vision and offers some much needed guidance. The two lyrics that resonate most deeply with me are:
“Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be.”
“Anything you do,
Let it come from you
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.”
Over the years this advice has brought me much courage and comfort. I’ve chosen to share a more mature snapshot of the show’s original actors, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, revisiting their roles of George and Dot. The love, wisdom, and nostalgia in their eyes gets me weepy every time and I instantly feel that spark of creation being fanned within my soul after viewing.
Readers, I hope you all had a wonderful week, but for the days when the universe is less than kind I leave you with this Song of the Day “Move On”. May it lift you up and set your eyes on the horizon. Thank you again for being here, my Friends. I hope to see you on April 19th for our Sondheim Celebration! Until then… XO-M
Wednesdays, am I right? Humpday. Notoriously sluggish and reminiscent of pushing a two ton boulder up a steep hill in 98 degree heat. The weekend is still a hazy finish line miles from where you stand. Optimists might try to chime in with, “But Wednesday means the work week is half over!” If I’ve consumed the appropriate amount of caffeine I can usually muster a polite smile or chuckle, but heaven help them if they try to hit me with that glass half full nonsense before noon… Shade. Will. Be. Thrown. I find the best way to fight the Wednesday doldrums (that doesn’t involve day drinking) is with music, which brings me to our Song of the Day: Bad Self Portraits by Lake Street Dive.
I have so much respect for Lake Street Dive. My introduction to them was via their cover of Jackson 5’s I Want You Back which went viral in 2012 (check it out: it’s fantastic!). I was struck by Rachel Price’s colorful, flexible vocals, instantly became a fan and have followed them ever since. In addition to Rachel, the band is made up of Bridget Kearney on upright bass, Mike Calabrese on drums, and Mike “McDuck” Olson on trumpet and guitar. Whenever I need that extra lift in my step (whether at the gym or trying to get excited about an early morning audition), their unique sound pumping through my earbuds helps me feel ready to tackle anything.
In truth, most of their tunes are worthy of highlighting today. However, when I open my spotify artist library, the tune I gravitate towards first is usually Bad Self Portraits. It has that perfect beat that puts a Top-Model power strut in my step. On first listen one might find the lyrics are a little sad, but I find them empowering. For me, it’s the story of a person whose life took an unexpected turn, but they were determined to make something of what they’re left with. The classic lemons to lemonade theory (I may throw shade at the optimist before noon, but at heart I’m a silver lining kind of gal!).
Just as the lyrics of Bad Self Portraits are open to interpretation, so too is the definition of Lake Street Dive’s musical sound. When asked to describe their style, the band says they strive to sound like “the Beatles and Motown had a party together.” The result is a sound that falls somewhere between popular and swing era jazz (with the slightest hint of classic Patsy Cline-esque country on songs like So Long). But whatever the style, their New England Conservatory training shows in their fierce chops and classy musicianship.
That may be the thing I love most about Lake Street Dive. Those chops shine just as brightly live, making their concerts equally, if not more, impressive than their discography. So often I fall for a band and shell out big bucks to see them perform, only to be seriously disappointed. They’re merely a product of a talented producer/sound engineer. Not Lake Street Dive. I recently attended their show at Music Hall of Williamsburg and was on cloud nine for weeks from the experience. The concert was inspiring and made me hungry to find ways to bring the same authenticity and abandon I witnessed into my own work. These guys rock and I hope their path to success leads onward and upward. I can’t emphasize it enough: check them out!
In any case Reader, thanks for sticking with me through what is debatably the crankiest day of the week. You’re a champ. You got this. Wednesday is no match for you…and should you need a little extra TLC, I hope this tune will help you turn it around! XO-M
Back for more then? Thanks! Before we get to the Song of the Day, let’s talk about the Youtube Rabbit Hole Effect. You’re probably not familiar with the term (because I made it up), but you’ve definitely experienced the phenomenon. Things start innocently enough. You click on that intriguing video your friend posted to Facebook, or perhaps you went directly to Youtube to watch that hilarious cat video to brighten your morning…either way the ending is the same. One video leads to the next and before you know it, you look up from your device to find the sun is setting. You’re left wondering how you became so easily distracted and how on Earth you missed lunch! Call me Alice, but I love falling down the Rabbit Hole. From an artistic perspective, Youtube is a fantastic study tool for artists and an incredible platform for self-creative types. I have found some truly interesting material hiding in Youtube obscurity. So, when time permits I sit down at my computer with a pot of tea, pick a subject, and let myself tumble down.
One day while following the Rabbit (have I killed this metaphor yet?), I discovered In Short from the song cycle Edges. What makes this piece Song of the Day worthy? Well, I keep a mental checklist of qualifications a song must fulfill for me to get excited: Do I connect to this emotionally? Does it suit my voice? And WWSBS (What Would Steven Blier Say)? I award extra points if the song is up-tempo and/or funny (a rarity in the soprano repertoire). Though I’ve admittedly never shown the song to Steve, I like to think that he’d find it as amusing as I do and give it his blessing.
Edges was composed by the songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. You may recognize them from their recent Oscar win for best original song (City of Stars from La La Land), or from their currently running Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. Edges predates both those accomplishments but is just as deserving of your time and attention. Though often performed as a musical, Pasek and Paul describe the piece as “a song cycle that confronts the trials and tribulations of moving into adulthood and examines the search for love, commitment and meaning.” They wrote the piece together as 19-year old college students in 2005, and in 2006 the duo was awarded the Jonathan Larson Award for up and coming composers. In many ways their work reminds me of Sondheim, displaying a conversational lyricism ripe with storytelling and imbued with a distinct musical voice.
So have a listen and I hope you enjoy Whitney Bashor’s fabulous rendition of In Short. Disclaimer: the language gets a little colorful at times, but any tune that manages to have the words “Get dysentery!” stuck in my head is a Rabbit Hole gem to be shared. XO—M
PS—How incredible is Whitney Bashor?! Whitney, if you ever read this call me for coffee sometime. You’re my hero.
So it looks like you’re stuck with me for the next five days. I for one can’t wait to share some tunes with you and offer a bit of insight into my musical mind…or at the very least my spotify library. Let’s jump right in together!
My song for you today is So Many People from Sondheim’s Saturday Night. I love Sondheim. His prowess as a composer and lyricist makes him, in my mind, one of the most influential and important artists of the last century. His words are a masterclass in storytelling and his music, while simple sounding to the ear, is often incredibly complex.
Completed when he was just 23 years old, Saturday Night tells the tale of a group of friends in Brooklyn getting together on the weekends and weighing their dreams of Manhattan with the comfort of home. The piece is considered Sondheim’s first musical and was scheduled to open in 1954 on Broadway, but was cancelled due to the death of its producer, Lemuel Ayers. Saturday Night would remain unproduced until 1997, and had to wait until 2000 for its New York City premiere Off Broadway. Sondheim’s remarks after seeing the piece on it’s feet makes him all the more endearing to me. He said, “I don’t have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all —except fondness…There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics—the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, leave it. It’s my baby pictures. You don’t touch up a baby picture—you’re a baby!”
Why this song then? Well, my love for this piece is two fold. So Many People was among the first of many incredible songs Steve Blier would introduce to me in our decade of collaboration and friendship. We were doing a program of Rodgers, Sondheim, and Guettel and my knowledge of Sondheim at the time was slim. Steve sent me home to learn So Many People and my heart just melted. I found it to be one of the most romantic sentiments ever written.
I thought the man for me must have a castle.
A man of means he’d be, a man of fame.
And then I met a man who hadn’t any.
Without a penny to his name.
I had to go and fall for so much less than
what I’d planned from all the magazines.
I should be good and sore.
What am I happy for?
I guess the man means more than the means.
I grew up hearing conventional New England wisdom like, “Remember, it is just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor one!”…so these lyrics prioritizing happiness held special appeal. Fast forward a few years to a date with my now-husband rather early in our relationship. A beautiful singer, actor, and pianist in his own right much of our early courtship was spent sharing songs with one another at the piano (a common music nerd mating ritual). “I have to show you my favorite Sondheim song!” I squealed. And so I sang So Many People for him—to him really, and I poured my whole heart into it— laying the charm on thick because, duh this guy was for keeps! We finished. He was silent. I thought I’d rendered him speechless with my romantic gesture when he sweetly said, “I’m not sure how to feel about that song… should I be offended?” Oops. For me the song said, “Your love outweighs all material things”…but what he heard was “Damnit, why did I fall for this schmuck!?” Thankfully, I still got the guy…but here’s hoping you’ll see it from my perspective and fall for the song as I did. XO—M
On “Going There”
I spent three hours of my day today listening to my fellow young artists here in LA sing arias for each other, with feedback from our fearless leader Josh Winograde, whose job is the hiring of singers. These sessions are a chance for us to get up, sing something that may be a total work in progress, and work through our challenges. One thing that Josh says time and time again is to “give us what we want.” I think this is so poignant, and a topic of much debate among modern musicians.
American singers in particular are trained so acutely to be polished and correct. Years and years are spent in diction and ear training classes so that we can speed-learn whatever is put in front of us. Some of us even have the privilege of receiving years of acting training so that we can not only follow direction, but add our own impulses to our performances. It’s both the blessing and the curse of having the most functional musical education system in the world. We come out of conservatory with every tool we need, but in the end, most of us do not go to the interpretative depths that we could. If we are given all these tools, we should be able to deliver some of the best interpretations around, right? In theory, yes, but in reality, this is far from the case.
Let this be a PSA to all musicians who seek to stand up in front of people and sing them a song: Do not apologize. When you’re about to perform, think about what you would want to see, and then do that thing. The real question is “why would you not go there?”
Someone who exemplified this so much is Beniamino Gigli. He lived from 1890 to 1957, and was arguably the most famous tenor of his generation. He lived a complex life, riddled with scandal. Most great artists do. Think about it. What great artists do we know of who lead simple, by-the-book lives? He created some of the most intense, heart-wrenching interpretations of his repertoire ever recorded. Below is his performance of “No, pazzo son” from Manon Lescaut. He actually interpolates things that aren’t even in the score, but guess what? No one is complaining.
This rant is all to say that we as artists should never settle. We should always seek to reach new depths in what we perform. We generally sing pieces that are well-trodden paths, but we should always seek to add our own unique interpretation. Some may call this gilding the lily, but I just call it being the best musician one can be. Go there. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your audience.
One of the pieces of music that has haunted my mind (and by that I mean made my imagination run wild) since I was first exposed to it is Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Written in 1965 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the piece serves as a meditation on the state of the world and the frailty of man in Britten’s day and Blake’s, about 200 years prior to the work’s composition.
Songs and Proverbs is a truly unique piece, and stands out from Britten’s output and the song repertoire at large. Britten sets the songs as a continuous thought, with the individual songs connected with wild, mystical recitatives. The poems themselves comment on everything from child abuse to murder (Britten’s favorite subjects). I find them to be some of the most poignant songs he ever wrote, although through my experience with them, they are most potent when performed as an opus. They’re such a particular flavor that they’re rather difficult to remove from their natural habitat, as is the case with several of Britten’s other cycles, but even more so here because of the continuous nature of the composition.
As is usually the case with Britten, there seeps in a strange, abstract religious connotation. In the first recitative, we have four exclamations which set the philosophical yet somehow sultry tone of the entire piece:
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
And then we dive into Blake’s brutal, twisted, yet undyingly honest world.
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