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Hugo Alfvén: Skogen sover

Happy summer! Today is the summer solstice and here in the northern hemisphere we will see the most daylight hours we’ll have all year. I remember being enchanted by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and marveling at how special the light seemed in the nighttime scenes that were shot outdoors. (Fun fact: that film is the source material for Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.) I got to experience that magical nighttime lighting first hand when I was in Stockholm several years ago during the month of June. Even after the official sunset around 10:00PM, the sky maintained an ethereal glow. It only seemed like the sun went behind a cloud for a few short hours before peeking out again for the official sunrise around 3:30AM.

Appropriately for the first day of summer my choice for the Song of the Day is the gorgeous “Skogen sover” (“The Forest is Asleep”) by Hugo Alfvén on a poem of Ernest Theil. The song is a musical and poetic rendering of being in the forest during one of those exquisite, light filled evenings in June. Just the sound of the piano alone captures that special glow of the sky after sunset. The sustained, spun out melody gently floats through the shimmering harmonies to evoke serenity and love. This song is a wonderful reminder to live life in the present and to savor the beauty of this moment before it passes.

Skogen sover.
Strimman på fästet flämtar matt.
Dagen vakar i juninatt.
Tystnat har nyss hennes muntra skratt,
redan hon sover.
Vid hennes sida jag stum mig statt.
Kärleken vakar över sin skatt,
kärleken vakar i juninatt.

The forest is asleep.
A streak of light flickers in the sky.
Day watches over the June night.
The forest’s joyful laughter has now become quiet,
already the forest is sleeping.
I silently lie down in the forest.
Love watches over its treasure,
love keeps watch in the June night.

Here is a recording of the fabulous Jussi Björling accompanied by pianist Nils Grevillius.

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
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.

Francis Poulenc: Sanglots

I used to practice yoga regularly but I’ve fallen out of it in recent years. I guess this is a gentle reminder to myself that I want to get back into it. I reaped multiple benefits from practicing yoga: physical, mental, and spiritual. The word “yoga” literally means “union” and the concept that ‘we are all one’ is one of the primary teachings of the practice. Certainly the yogis do not have exclusive rights to the idea that humanity is interconnected. Many philosophies and religions share their own interpretations of that belief. If you subscribe to any aspect of this concept of oneness, you are likely as disturbed as I am by the current discord and division in our society. Of course, our own individual views of complex issues like politics, gender, race, religion, citizenship, socioeconomics, (the list obviously goes on…) make it difficult to agree, but can’t we strive to love and respect each other even if we disagree?

Banalités, Poulenc’s set of five songs on poems of Guilluame Apollinaire, ends with “Sanglots.” The opening lines of the song refer to the human race as being interconnected from the beginning of time:

Notre amour est réglé par les calmes étoiles
Or nous savons qu’en nous beaucoup d’hommes respirent
Qui vinrent de très loin et sont un sous nos fronts

Our love is ruled by the calm stars
now we know that in us many men breathe
who came from far away and are one under our brows

The song then continues with rhapsodic waxing of the hopes and dreams of humanity wearing its heart on its sleeve (or in its right hand as Apollinaire puts it). But as the song continues, the ultimate message is not of contentment but of despair and resignation. Poetic images of pain and disappointment abound. The bottom line is that humankind cannot avoid its predetermined fate of suffering. Not a cheery notion, but my take on it is a little less severe. To me, this song is a reminder that even though life can be difficult and painful, we need to be good to each other and treat each other with kindness and compassion.

I selected two different recordings of “Sanglots” as they each have their own merits. The first one is straight from the horse’s mouth: Monsieur Poulenc playing with Pierre Bernac (the two premiered it in 1940). Because Bernac’s voice can be a bit of an acquired taste, I chose another recording with Dalton Baldwin playing with the suave-voiced Gérard Souzay.

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.

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.

Emmanuel Chabrier: L’île heureuse

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a Francophile and that French is my favorite foreign language to sing. I have visited and performed in France almost yearly since the 1990s. On my first trip to Paris, Tobé Malawista, my beloved friend and colleague in The Mirror Visions Ensemble, introduced me to her longtime coach Irène Aïtoff, who taught me everything I know about singing in French. Madame Aïtoff worked with many great singers during her long life and was known for her demanding, high standards of French pronunciation. She was a remarkable woman who left a large legacy behind. I am grateful to have known and worked with her. (Thank you, Tobé!)

For my first Song of the Day I chose Chabrier’s beautiful “L’île heureuse,” which is one of the many songs I coached with Madame Aïtoff. The broadly sweeping lines of the melody colorfully express the two lovers’ joy and passion as they journey to that “happy island.” I love the sparkling ritornello in the piano, which to me suggests the undulating expectation of the ecstasies to come upon arrival. No doubt this is a very sensual song and, like all good things in life, the anticipation of getting to that “happy island” is more than half the fun. Here is a recording of the incomparable Irène Aïtoff playing with baritone Frank Léguérinel.

Benjamin Britten: Night covers up the rigid land

It was crucial to include Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in Manning the Canon. He was not only one of the twentieth century’s most significant musicians, but also one of the first out-gay composers in history. He lived with his longtime partner, the tenor Peter Pears, for whom he wrote most of his songs and many of the leading roles in his operas. It was an act of defiance to flout England’s intense pressure to stay in the closet. “Gross indecency,” aka gay love, was still grounds for punishing same-sex lovers—the barbaric law that had sent Oscar Wilde to prison. In 1952 the great mathematician Alan Turing was entrapped and brought in on those charges. He was forced into hormone therapy and lost his security clearance. Eventually he took his own life.

Turing’s suicide puts Benjamin Britten’s and Peter Pears’ courage in perspective—and let’s add W. H. Auden into that group as well. He and Britten were close friends during their university days, and it was the free-wheeling, promiscuous Auden who actively encouraged the reticent composer to explore his sexuality. But the two men were never bed partners, in spite of Auden’s wishes. He fantasized a long-term romantic and artistic relationship with Britten, whose talent as a very young man already pointed to a place in the musical pantheon. They worked on a few projects together at the beginning of their careers, including the opera “Paul Bunyan” and the song cycle “On This Island.”

Britten instead fell for a young tenor, Peter Pears, and began to distance himself from Auden. It saddened the poet to watch his relationship to Britten dwindle, and he wrote a poem about his feeling of abandonment, “Night covers up the rigid land.” Britten then took the poem and set it to music, turning their estrangement into an ex post facto collaboration. Passive aggressive? A left-handed olive branch? A final twist of the knife? I don’t know. But a fine song, yes. 

Here it is, sung by Philip Langridge and played by Steuart Bedford. 

Poulenc: Montparnasse

Having just finished the NYFOS season in New York with our Lorca program, tossed off a Gershwin concert for our gala a couple of weeks later, and presided over my twentieth-fifth anniversary concert at Wolf Trap with music ranging from German Lieder to Cuban rumba, I am now in the throes of preparing a revival of Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay LifeThis program debuted exactly 10 years ago—and not at NYFOS. At that time there was a bit of resistance from our board—gentle but palpable—against a show with an explicitly gay theme. Fate intervened in the person of my buddy Jesse Blumberg, the founder and Artistic Director of Five Boroughs Music Festival. He wanted me to do a project with them, and enticed me by asking, “Is there a show you’ve been dying to do, but can’t schedule with NYFOS?” “Well….I’ve always wanted to do an evening devoted to gay men.” “Done.”

Jesse and I came up with a passel of ideas, whittled them down, and found a strong arc for the show. I wanted to illuminate contemporary life, but also delve into music by gay composers from the classical canon. We had a devil of a time deciding what to call the concert. Our working title, clearly unusable, was SCHLONG BIRDS. Jesse sent me a list with more punny titles—ranging from corny Dad-jokes to some that were wildly off-color. But among them was “Manning the Canon,” which I loved. We added an explanatory clause, “Songs of Gay Life,” and solved our hardest problem. 

The show was such a success with Five Boroughs that Michael Barrett urged us to bring it to NYFOS the following year. “And this is how all our shows should be: 75-80 minutes, no intermission, compact, contemporary.” “Manning the Canon” went from being the unwanted child to being the poster child for NYFOS. Our 2010 revival earned us a startling rave review from Anthony Tommasini at the Times—I never thought we’d earn his approval by programming Cy Coleman—and we brought it back once more in 2011. That night I promised myself that I would program “MTC” for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I could not have anticipated what a big hoopla June of 2019 was going to be, nor did I have an inkling of the political background we’d be encountering. I just knew I wanted to commemorate the birth of the Gay Movement with this material and a cast of brothers.

Two of those brothers have been in every iteration of the concert, Matt Boehler and Scott Murphree. I can’t imagine this show without them. This year we’re adding in two newbies: baritone Efraín Solís, who recently sang our Lorca concert, and tenor Daniel McGrew, making his NYFOS debut. I look forward to watching Matt and Scott teach them the choreo for “You’re the Top,” our closer.

I chose Poulenc’s “Montparnasse” for today’s song. We do it in a section of art songs about romantic fantasy. Apollinaire’s poem is a self-portrait that recreates his early days in Paris after he emigrated from Rome.  His poem looks at his young self with rueful self-deprecation, but Poulenc’s music fixates on the wide-eyed blond teenager with an unmistakable cloud of desire. Apollinaire conjured up a 19-year old with clothes from Old Navy. Poulenc transforms him into an Abercrombie model. He may be dumb, but with those looks, who cares? 

Here is Ian Bostridge, with my friend Julius Drake at the piano. I don’t think of Bostridge as a sexy musician—meticulous and scholarly is how I’d describe him. But he and Drake create a gorgeous, gauzy mist in their performance of “Montparnasse.” Chapeau, gentlemen. 

POULENC/Apollinaire: Montparnasse (Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake, pianist)         


Chris DeBlasio: Walt Whitman in 1989

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

Upcoming Birthday Boy Walt Whitman simply looms too large to appear only one day this week.  But for our final post, we’ve selected not a Whitman text, but a Whitman tribute.  “Walt Whitman in 1989”, a breathtaking poem by Perry Brass, imagines Whitman, who had visited and volunteered in hospitals during the Civil War, doing the same at the height of AIDS Crisis.  Chris DeBlasio, a young and very promising composer just recently diagnosed, included this poem and 4 others by Brass in his song cycle All the Way Through Evening, before dying at the age of 34.  “Walt Whitman in 1989” went on to be included in the original AIDS Quilt Songbook.  Perry Brass still lives and works in New York, and is a frequent and wonderful supporter at concerts; he graciously accepts applause and accolades when this song, and others featuring his poetry, are performed.

Here is a recent performance of “Walt Whitman in 1989” by Christopher Dylan Herbert, a 5BMF favorite, and Chris Reynolds.  If you watch via YouTube you can experience their beautiful work on the full cycle.   

If you come to Manning the Canon on June 25th, you’ll hear this song live, sung by Efraín Solís, near the end of the evening.

That’s all from us – it’s been a pleasure to share this week of songs with you.  Big thanks from 5BMF to NYFOS; we can’t wait for next month!

John Wallowitch: Bruce

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

A drag song!  There had to be one, and Steve B. sure picked a winner.  Much to my regret, I had never heard of John Wallowitch until Steve introduced me to this hilarious and memorable song.  The sharp-witted Wallowitch and his impeccable rhymes make me grin whenever I recall them.  I also have a special appreciation for the eponymous hero, Bruce, which was also my father’s name.  It’s nearly impossible, albeit incredibly amusing, to imagine my dad in any of the scenarios depicted in these lyrics.

Here’s a clip of John Wallowitch performing “Bruce”

As fabulous as this performance is, however, you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Steve Blier and Matt Boehler do this song.  I’m in stitches the entire time, EVERY time.  Don’t miss Manning the Canon on June 25th!

Tchaikovsky: Amid the din of the ball

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

It’s great to be back hosting Song of the Day, and Donna and I are excited to share some previews of our upcoming co-presentations with NYFOS next month!  I thought I’d start it off with one of my all-time favorite songs EVER, which somehow happens to be featured in Manning the Canon.  When Steve Blier and I first discussed this program over ten years ago, we knew we wanted to include a piece by Tchaikovsky, and I must’ve put this one forward, though I can’t remember exactly if he did as well.  Steve was looking for songs not only by gay composers, but ones that he felt could illuminate a theme or experience of gay life.  He contextualized this song beautifully for me, as not just a missed encounter at a social event, but as secret, forbidden attraction that grows into a haunting keep-you-up-at-night fixation… “Do I love you? I do not know.  But it seems that I do.”

“Amid the din of the ball” was one of the first songs I learned after my first lessons in Russian diction at CCM with Ken Griffiths.  I was drawn to its dreamlike waltz feel, its elusive but somehow incredibly vivid images from strophe to strophe, and the way Tchaikovsky spins his gorgeous melodic gifts from a noisy ballroom into a solitary bedroom. I had the pleasure of performing this song with Steve in two sets of Manning the Canon performances years back, and I really can’t wait to hear him waltz with the fantastic Efraín Solís on June 25th.  

Here’s a version by the late, great Dmitri Hvorostovksy, with pianist Ivari Ilja:

Stay tuned for more songs from Jesse, Donna, and 5BMF this week!

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