It is incredible how this simple plaintive melody that begins with a note materializing out of nothing, suspended in space, never fails to affect me profoundly. Whenever I hear George Frideric Handel’s aria “Ombra mai fu,” I am transformed. The work exemplifies the enormous power music has to lift and move one’s spirit.
In this aria from Handel’s opera Serse, first performed in 1738, the Persian king sings to his beloved plane tree, praising its beauty. It is preceded by a brief recitative (“Frondi tenere e belle”), which delicately sets the pastoral mood. Together they last just over three minutes and in that short time you are transported to another world. The song is a simple ode to a tree, but in it there is everything—a moment of fathomless grace and a nearly 300-year-old example of how being mindful can reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary.
I vividly remember the first time I heard a live and ravishing account of the work at the 1998 Mostly Mozart Festival by French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann and Concerto Köln. There have been so many brilliant performances since then. However, the two that stand out for me are by countertenor Andreas Scholl and the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—Andreas, for his pure and angelic delivery, and Lorraine for embodying all of humanity in her rich, earthy, and soulful embrace. Listen and I dare you not to be moved.
Andreas Scholl, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, 1999 (for best quality, I suggest the Harmonia Mundi recording.)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Harry Bicket, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, 2004
With today’s selection I’d like to pay homage to two of my favorite things: a favorite composer and a favorite singer who combine in the most wonderful way on this track. There’s no singer I admire more than Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She was everything I aspire to be as a singer and performer, and I truly regret that I was never able to see and hear her live before she left this earth way too soon. Her recordings of Bach cantatas and Handel arias are some of my favorite recordings of all time. I came across her Handel album for the first time in graduate school, and the track that absolutely took my breath away was “As With Rosy Steps The Morn,” from Theodora. A sublime Handel melody is more effecting to me than just about any other kind of musical moment, and this one is high on the list of his pieces that just hit me right in the gut. Combine Handel’s music with Lieberson’s voice, and time seems to stand still; it’s a kind of magic that brings you to tears for its beauty.
In this video you can see her perform the aria, as the character of Irene, in the 1996 Peter Sellars production at Glyneborne (the aria proper starts at 0:50). The earthiness and freedom and honesty of her singing is enough to stop you in your tracks, but seeing how she brings that to her performance physically and emotionally shows what a truly next-level artist she was. What a treasure. I could listen to this all day.
I’ve just completed a successful time at the 25th annual Moab Music Festival. It’s a big achievement which I am proud of. NYFOS is celebrating our 30th year starting next month, so this seems to be a big anniversary year for me. Moab and NYFOS have converged on many occasions, but never around the music of Bach. There are so many specialty groups now that specialize in early music, which includes Bach. At NYFOS I guess we feel that Bach is covered. You can hear him lots of places, and his music continues, rightfully so, to be recorded by every new artist that wants to climb that great musical mountain.
In Moab, baritone Jesse Blumberg sang my favorite aria of Bach’s in my favorite place to make music—a grotto 20 miles down the Colorado River. Musicians and patrons have to take a boat to get there, the silence is profound, the acoustics pure. I asked Jesse to sing this because Lorraine Hunt (pre-Lieberson) sang it there with me, and it has remained indelible in my memory. Here is Lorraine in that aria—“Schlummert Ein” from the Cantata “Ich habe Genug” on a fairly early recording. I think Lorraine got even more magical and dove even deeper in her music making toward the very end of her life, but this recording still captures her melding of her voice, text, and emotion in a way that was unique to her, and shall stay with me till my dying day.
Summer is full of nature, and it’s the time we usually get out into it, and let our senses partake of the beauty, inhale smells, and feel warm breezes on our skin. Then there is the plucked flowers perspective. Death is imminent, but the rose lives on as an unworldly comfort to us still in nature. Here is the translation of the Berlioz’s “La Spectre de la Rose” from Nuits d’ete. And following the translation, the link to the song performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She is the rose whose art visits me at night, and whose love and I can still feel in her voice.
Open your closed eyelid
Which is gently brushed by a virginal dream!
I am the ghost of the rose
That you wore last night at the ball.
You took me when I was still sprinkled with pearls
Of silvery tears from the watering-can,
And, among the sparkling festivities,
You carried me the entire night.
O you, who caused my death:
Without the power to chase it away,
You will be visited every night by my ghost,
Which will dance at your bedside.
But fear nothing; I demand
Neither Mass nor De Profundis;
This mild perfume is my soul,
And I’ve come from Paradise.
My destiny is worthy of envy;
And to have a fate so fine,
More than one would give his life
For on your breast I have my tomb,
And on the alabaster where I rest,
A poet with a kiss
Wrote: “Here lies a rose,
Of which all kings may be jealous.”
J.S. Bach is still the guiding light for most of us who have studied and practice classical music. He created a kind of purity that I think married humanity with the loftiest concept of God. I personally find Bach is enough, without religion. And when Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is singing, I feel like I’m safe and loved and touched by grace. Please listen to “Schlummert Ein” from Cantata No. 82 Ich Habe Genug. Lorraine taught it to me, and I will never forget our performance on the Colorado River. If there is a God, she was there.
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.
Lorraine Hunt. I have NYFOS (and Michael Barrett, who programmed the 92nd Street Y and presented Lorraine’s NY recital debut in the mid-90’s) to thank for introducing me to Lorraine. So many memories. No need to try to define Lorraine. As Alex Ross wrote: “In the days after she died, I tried to write about her, and failed. It felt wrong to call her ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary,’ or to throw around diva-worship words like ‘goddess’ and ‘immortal,’ because those words placed her on a pedestal, whereas the warmth in her voice always brought her close. Nonetheless, empty superlatives will have to do. She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard.”
Here she is singing Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. “Remember me…”
This week our SoTD curator is composer Susan Botti who will host and curate the second installment of NYFOS Next 2016 on Febuary 11th alongside fellow Manhattan School of Music faculty member, Richard Danielpour. Botti is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Orchestral commissions include works for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In addition to performing her own vocal works, she specializes in the vocal performance of contemporary music by a diverse range of composers. Thank you, Susan!
Calling You by Bob Telson (Baghdad Cafe) (1987)
This song has an essential-ness about it. Nothing extraneous. It sounds of the desert, and the wind. It haunted me after I saw it in Baghdad Cafe (as sung by Jevetta Steele)… and then surprisingly, I heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing it as an encore in a (beautiful) recital, and the song became even more resonant to me. A great song transports the singer and the listener. Lorraine was and is a great inspiration to me. I treasure the memory of her singing this song that night, and am so grateful it was captured.
Here is the original version from Baghdad Cafe sung by Jevetta Steele:
Here’s some more Bob Telson…
One of my favorite singing experiences was being a part of the Gospel Choir at Berklee College of Music. I was in awe of the soloists and the way they embodied the music. Musical structures connect with message and words, and become a point of departure for improvisation and virtuosic vocal expression. It was a thrill to just ride the musical waves in the supporting ensemble. The Gospel at Colonus (which I saw at BAM’s Next Wave Festival) added the dimension of Greek theater to the mix – soul-stirring…
from The Gospel at Colonus – Bob Telson/Lee Breuer (1985):
How Shall I see you Through My Tears? (sung by Jevetta Steele)
Stop, Do Not Go On (The Blind Boys of Alabama)
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