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Ted Hearne: Letter to my father

Last week when Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, my Twitter feed was instantly filled with woke-classical- music-twitter chastising anyone who complained that a rapper won rather than a classical composer. I still haven’t actually seen anyone complaining about the award, just a vociferous preemptive strike against traditionalists and/or elitists and/or racists who don’t approve.

Well, now they have an actual target to train their ammo on: me. I am disappointed that the Pulitzer did not go to a classical or jazz composer. I am disappointed not because I think that Kendrick Lamar isn’t one of the most important artists (as in “artists.” period) of his generation. I love the album Damn. and have been listening to it regularly since June. Also, Black Panther is maybe my favorite movie ever, and his soundtrack for it was a huge part of its appeal. I even risk my three-year- old daughter dropping f-bombs at nursery school because I am willing to corrupt her vocabulary and those of her little classmates because that’s how important I think her knowing something about Damn. and the Black Panther soundtrack in the year of their creation is. But that doesn’t mean I am excited about Kendrick winning the Pulitzer this year.

As long as I have been paying attention to the Pulitzer Prize in music, I have valued it for the attention it provides to American composers who spend careers toiling in obscurity to create genuinely new pieces of music. And yes, I am most certainly chauvinistic and self-interested in this because I choose to make performing new music a central part of the work of my career. But I have made that decision because I truly believe that in order for the body and culture of classical music to continue to grow, adapt, and speak to our time in our time, we must support composers and their works in whatever way we can. I believe this because times change and we as a species will always need composers taking on the huge challenge of creating something new that speaks to experience that we as a people have not known before. Mozart could never have guessed that the Turks and Kurds and Isis would be at war 230 years after he wrote Abduction from the Seraglio. Schubert had no notion of how climate change might impact a February hike when he wrote Winterreise. Wagner never knew a world with Hitler in it when he wrote Meistersinger. My point is that such masters and their masterpieces are treasures indeed, but although their beauty and genius is immutable, their inspiration, context, and meaning cannot expand beyond the borders of the time within which they were conceived. So we will always need classical composers to innovate a musical language that can speak to its time in a way that no piece written before could have.

The Pulitzer prize has always been—in my view—the single most powerful tool (by a long shot) in American culture to turn attention to and confer a mark of excellence on classical composers who have no other comparable way to become known by the wider public. Kendrick Lamar is one of the most famous and celebrated musicians and composers in America, if not the world. Hip Hop is one of the most popular, if not the THE most popular genre of music in America. Damn. is Kendrick’s third consecutive no. 1 selling album. Kendrick has won 87 music awards, including 12 Grammys. He has been a guest at the White House multiple times, and is one of the most powerful people in the music industry thanks to his genuine accomplishment. So why the hell would the Pulitzer Prize Committee confer its prestigious honor on one of the most feted, successful, and famous musical stars of 2017? Why point your spotlight at the sun?! In my opinion, the Pulitzer Prize can do something so much more valuable by bringing attention to classical composers who are creating great new music but who do not have large audiences.

My song of the day is by one of the finalists for this year’s Pulitzer in music, Ted Hearne. I picked this piece, “Letter to My Father” from Coloring Book not only because I think it is brilliant, truly original, superbly written and beautiful, but also because I came to know it because I got interested in the music of another Pulitzer winner, Caroline Shaw. Coloring Book was written for the vocal octet, Room Full of Teeth, of which Caroline Shaw is a member of and for which she wrote her 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning composition Partita for 8 voices. I started listening to Caroline and following her career because I learned about her and her music from the Pulitzer award. She has been given so many opportunities to create new work thanks to the stamp of excellence that the Pulitzer conferred on her. Without the award, I and (much more importantly) many people in a position to commission new works may never have even heard of her. But she has taken great advantage of the opportunities the Pulitzer afforded her and has be able to grow hugely as an artist since 2013.

And it is because I follow her that I came to know today’s song of the day.

I won’t say much about Ted’s amazing song here, but please check out this description of the work from his website.  The way he writes for this unique ensemble creates a harmonic and sonic beauty unlike anything I have ever heard before. Of course, it harkens back to polyphonic vocal writing such as one of my all time favorite songs, Perotin’s “Viderunt Omnes.”

Ted’s song plays a role in the tradition of what we call classical music going back to its origins, and yet is startlingly fresh and original. He uses the human voice and this specific ensemble with imagination and a language that is his alone. This is the kind of work that I think the Pulitzer Prize should use its prestige to lift up and draw attention to. By doing so, it not only helps the composer who wins the prize, but offers guidance and connectivity to the classical music world at large, fosters engagement and a conversation among the entire community about artists that generally do not have a major platform to display their work.

George Crumb: The Sleeper

With today’s song, I want to prepare all my SOTD friends for the opening number of the song program I will be performing at Zankel Hall next season.  (You can purchase tickets starting on August 20 here.)

I must admit that I sometimes feel discouraged by many of my classical concert-going friends’ reluctance to engage in new, challenging, or non-tonal music. New music is almost always hard to approach by virtue of the fact that it is new. Music that is innovative is impossible to fairly assess upon a first hearing because if it is genuinely new, no one has a frame of reference within which to judge the piece. To come to appreciate a new piece takes time! You have to invest some time and mental energy into understanding the surface and the underlying structure of a new piece before you can trust your own ears and brain to comprehend and fairly adjudicate the piece. Just because a song doesn’t have a lovely melody or pleasing piano accompaniment, doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer other delights.

One such song is “The Sleeper.” I am so excited to start my program at Carnegie Hall next year with this weird one because the atmospheric piano and vocal writing will change the energy of the room and tune the audiences ears to the space and the instruments performing in it in a mildly shocking way. It is an example of vivid text setting—Edgar Allen Poe’s cosmic, trippy, slightly creepy poem comes to life. It features such cool effects as plucked strings and a prepared piano, and most excitingly, inward singing! Fans of the band/comedy duo, Tenacious D might believe that Jack Black invented the technique of phonating while inhaling so that you never have to stop singing to take a breath. But here is proof (at the 2:40 minute mark of the YouTube above) that the great Jan DeGaetani had been using it long before any rock singer happened upon the method.

So friends, please come see my recital at Zankel Hall on Friday, October 26, 2018.  And prepare yourself for this awesome song by listening to it a dozen times at least between now and then!

J. S. Bach: Großer Herr, o starker König

Since I am feeling celebratory after our fantastic NYFOS 30 th Anniversary concert last night, I picked a joyous bass aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Bach has become my favorite composer over the years. He’s just the best not only because of his incomparable technical chops, his innovativeness and originality, the deep feeling that is expressed in his music, his text setting and painting, his brilliant orchestrations, etc. are all among the best any composer ever has to offer. But all of his discrete skills are always tied together and elevated beyond the sum of their parts by the joy of making music that is ever-present in his music. Whenever I listen to Bach, I get jealous of the people performing it! I even wish I played recorder when I hear Bach because he can make even that lame, overtone-poor instrument sound fun and irreplaceable in his writing. Bach seems to get how different instruments communicate certain unique emotional resonances, and I think he understood how certain types are drawn to certain instruments. When I listen to this aria, I hear so much distinct personality in the strings as they flitter in and around the vocal line. I know my flautist friends would love playing their lick in this great jam, and I don’t even have to talk about how fun and deeply pleasurable the trumpet solo is!

After trying to choose among various live video performances of this aria on YouTube, I decided to go with my favorite recording of it—conducted by the exemplary Bachian, John Eliot Gardiner and sung with virtuosic gusto and class by Olaf Bär—even though there is no video of the performance. Let your imagination fill in the delight that must play on the orchestras faces as they saw and toot their way through this joyous romp.That’s another thing I love about Bach: the fact that the great and powerful king cares not for splendor is a cause for celebration for him. Amen!

Francis Poulenc: Tu vois le feu du soir

I once asked a pianist friend of mine to read through “Tu vois le feu du soir” with me and he asked, “what’s this song about?”  I have never had a more difficult time answering that question. So I just shared the text with him. Here is the mysterious, surreal text of the poem.  The literal meaning is impossible to discern, yet the language is so beautiful and evokes a profound sense of meaning…it’s just hard to describe that meaning.

Tu vois le feu du soir
Music by Francis Poulenc; poem by Paul Eluard

Tu vois le feu du soir qui sort de sa coquille
Et tu vois la forêt enfouie dans sa fraîcheur

Tu vois la plaine nue aux flancs du ciel traînard
La neige haute comme la mer
Et la mer haute dans l’azur

Pierres parfaites et bois doux secours voilés
Tu vois les villes teintes de mélancolie
Dorée des trottoirs pleins d’éxcuses
Une place où la solitude a sa statue
Souriante et l’amour une seule maison

Tu vois les animeaux
Sosies malins sacrifiés l’un à l’autre
Frères immaculés aux ombres confondues
Dans un désert de sang

Tu vois un bel enfant quand il joue quand il rit
Il est bien plus petit
Que le petit oiseau du bout des branches

Tu vois un paysage aux saveurs d’huile et d’eau
D’où la roche est exclue où la terre abandonne
Sa verdure à l’été qui la couvre de fruits

Des femmes descendant de leur miroir ancien
T’apportent leur jeunesse et leur foi en la tienne
Et l’une sa clarté la voile qui t’entraîne
Te fait secrètement voir le monde sans toi.

You see the fire of the evening emerging from its shell
And you see the forest buried in its coolness

You see the bare plain at the edges of the straggling sky
The snow high like the sea
And the sea high in the azure

Perfect stones and sweet woods veiled succors
You see with a golden melancholy
Pavements filled with excuses
A town square where solitude has its statue
Smiling and love a solitary house

You see the animals
Malignant look-a-likes sacrificed one to the other
Immaculate brothers with confused shadows
In a desert of blood

You see a handsome child when he plays when he laughs
He is indeed smaller
Than the little bird on the edge of the branches

You see a landscape with savors of oil and of water
Where the rock is excluded where the earth abandons
Its greenness to summer who has covered it with fruits

Women descending from their ancient mirror
Bring you their youth and their faith in yours
And one, her light the veil that draws you in
Makes you secretly see the world without you.


As with “Flor de Yumuri” yesterday, this poem and this song, I think, speak to deep, universal, and unutterable aspects of human experience.  Eluard, in my personal lexicon, is a brilliant exponent of post-modernism. By this, I mean that he is incorporating into his poetry an acknowledgement that humanity’s entire conception of existence is itself unique to humans.  The way that our brains process signals from the outside world and interpret them to our consciousness is not common to all living things, and yet we do know that the outside world is there, however dimly or incompletely we perceive it.  Some reactionary types see post-modernism as an attempt to dismantle rightful power structures in society (and there is a debate to be had about what makes any given power structure “right”). Today, for example, issues of gender and sexuality are a hot button as so called “postmodernists” argue that gender is the product  entirely of socialization rather than biological function. There is no inherent “girly-ness” as we know it, rather a system of gender identity that reinforces male dominance. “Conservatives” may argue back: that’s ludicrous! There are obvious differences between men and women, and men should in fact dominate because of those differences.  As I try to think through the various arguments I come across on these issues, I often find that both sides have valid points, and yet I find that both miss the big picture by insisting on a one-or-the-other approach. It seems, regrettably, that in our age of polarization the grey area is becoming a forbidden zone.

The main wisdom I’ve attained in getting older is that I know a lot less than I thought I did.  And yet, although there are many mysterious things about life, just because we don’t know the answer to those mysteries doesn’t mean there is no answer.  I find such beauty in the post-modernism of Eluard because he is brave enough to live in the mystery and plumb its dark secrets. I don’t believe that evil is some external force that acts on people. We all possess the potential to do ill. The moral battle we all must fight is to see ourselves clearly and honestly enough so that we don’t allow ourselves to justify doing something evil. There is a seductive comfort in certitude: I know I’m right so whatever I have to do to defend what’s right is justified. That feeling gives one not only a sense of righteousness, but a sense of power and control over the chaotic world, too. It is threatening and destabilizing to probe past the conscious mind which makes order out of the atoms buzzing all around us. This song somehow peeks beyond the paradigm of the conscious mind and through its evocative imagery, rustles up something moving and disturbing, and I think, something true. Poems exist because they are the best way to articulate an idea that can’t be contained by prose or orderly, linear thinking.  In other words, Eluard couldn’t have said it better.

Jorge Anckerman: Flor de Yumurí

Hello again, NYFOS Song of the Weekers!  The last time I took over this blog for a week, parsimony was not an aspiration that guided my writing.  This time I will keep it brief, and I promise to try to avoid words like “parsimony.”

I will ask you to indulge me in taking a moment to congratulate the whole NYFOS family, but especially Steven and Michael for making it 30 years.  I’m sure most of you reading this post are more than familiar with the genius at work throughout the decades of NYFOS programs and performances, so I won’t tell you what you already know.  But I will add that my work with NYFOS was one of the most significant experiences in forming who I am as an artist, singer, and recitalist.  Long may NYFOS provide the sustenance for lovers of song of all stripes that it provides us year in and year out.

I will be performing today’s song of the day, “Flor de Yumurí,” on our NYFOS 30th Anniversary concert tomorrow (Tuesday) night!  I sang this song with Steve only once before, so I was a little surprised when he suggested this song for the big anniversary concert.  I loved it and loved singing it that one time we performed it, so I am thrilled that we are bringing it back, and I have discovered a much deeper meaning in the song this time around. At first listen, it is a typical “come be my baby” love song.  Its laid-back, definitely-not-trying-too-hard Cuban groove struck me—as we kids used to say back then—super chill.  Since those *cough*cough* years ago, I have gotten married and had a kid, and when I came back to the song this time around, I found something much more profound than a simple seduction.

Here is Steve’s translation of the song:

Beautiful flower of Yucayo
At birth Yumurí took my image
into its crystal surface
That river is
where I long to see my face
reflected always.

Come, O my love, to the shore
of this golden river
With your arrow and your caney.
Come you’ll see how the river
with its waters weeps
The lament of the Siboney.

Come, for the flower of your Yumurí
ardently awaits you.

Thanks to Steve’s scholarship (and the assistance of his Spanish teacher, Dorothy Snyder), I learned four crucial details about these lyrics: 1. The Yumurí is the most beautiful valley in Cuba through which flows the Yumurí river.  According to pre-Hispanic, indigenous legend, Yumurí and his beloved from a rival tribe, Albahoa (think Cuban Romeo and Juliette) eloped and, fleeing their families, drowned in the river that became known thereafter as the Yumurí. 2. Yucayo is the aboriginal name for what is now Matanzas, the seaside city in western Cuba. 3. The Siboney refers to the Taino indigenous people of western Cuba. 4. A caney is a little hut.

These folkloric details changed my entire understanding of this song.  I had sensed something essentially Cuban about it and assumed it had to do with the music’s rhythm and the poetry’s attitude.  Those, of course, still pertain. But these legendary aboriginal references locate the poem not in modern Cuba, but in a distant past and among an ancient people.  I know virtually nothing about Cuba’s history or politics, so this one time I won’t speculate about such things in my typical, amateur way.  But I will share my instinctive understanding about this song that these details have evoked for me: the ancient, mythical lovers—like the Siboney people themselves—were doomed, but their ultimate destruction is what gives meaning and beauty to their story.  All of us are destined for death, but our lives have meaning because we love and make a life and home for ourselves despite that knowledge. We see ourselves as a part of the land and the natural world from which we spring. We are all the flower of an ancient people, and we will all return to the beautiful river that gave us life.  This is a fairly universal nugget of wisdom, perhaps, but it’s the local details that give these pepitas de sabiduría the specificity and spice to bring them to vivid life.

And this is why I am so happy to be performing this song on NYFOS’s 30th anniversary concert.  Songs like “Flor de Yumurí” speak to deep, ineffable aspects of human life, and the best way to speak to the universal and immutable aspects of humanity is through the most local and specific means. In other words, NYFOS concerts communicate the meaning of life…so come to the concert tomorrow!

Song of the Day: December 4

Paul-Appleby1-PhotoCredit-Frances-Marshall-500x330This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day!  You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here).  And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!

from Paul Appleby:

Sorry these blog posts have been so long, you guys—the title of today’s song could serve as the title of these posts! Apologies, and thanks for your forbearance of today’s grand finale! Also, there will be homework as I am sending you forth with more reading assignments. But since you did so good listening to the Stockhausen and Reich and Bolcom in their entirety yesterday (you did, right?), I’m gonna go easy on you today with just one pop song (albeit two versions of it).

I am writing this blog on December 3, my dad’s birthday, and so I offer up today’s song as a little birthday tribute to him and his influence on me as a song fanatic and recital programmer. My dad’s primary creative outlet through the years has been his practice of the art of the mixed tape. If you’ve seen High Fidelity, it’s like that. Recital programming is the same beast, at least for me. I pick songs that I like and cobble them together in an order that creates a deliberate flow of songs such that their music and texts resonant so that their overtones comingle to create some kind of message and thematic meaning.

My dad’s magnum opus was nothing less than his 300 favorite songs ranked and organized into 20 or so CD’s collectively referred to as Millennial Madness (I can’t believe I just italicized that). Each CD came with an annotated track list in which the excellence of his choice in song was generously explained to all the friends and family members to whom he forced it upon gifted the collection. Liner notes, program notes…basically the same thing. I think these songs were also a way for my dad to communicate to his friends and family—and me, his song apprentice of sorts—in ways that I couldn’t understand until later in life. It’s fair to say that some of the songs he shared with me weren’t about what I thought they were, but in retrospect, they told me a story about himself that he didn’t have the ability to relate directly. It was an important lesson about how we need and how we use songs to connect to each other.

Anyway, I learned this method of communication from my dad, and I am living proof that it can be an effective one—I wouldn’t be married to my wonderful wife Jacqueline if not for one mixed tape of Elvis Costello (son of a Liverpudlian in more ways than one) songs.

When I first got to know Jacqueline, I was a junior at the University of Notre Dame and she had a boyfriend. We were both music students and had met recently working together in a chamber music concert at school on—I swear I’m not making this up—Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer. After a rehearsal (she was playing piano II), we found ourselves checking emails in the music department computer lounge and ended up having long gab session in which she totally turned me on to Radiohead. I was more or less in love from that moment on. So a few months later when her dumb boyfriend told her that he was thinking about breaking up with her (to my baby boomer readers, we call this “going on a break”), trusty Paul was there to comfort Jacqueline with a shoulder to cry on and a mixed tape (a CD or course, but the nomenclature is fixed) of sad songs by Elvis Costello to console her. I owed her a proper introduction to my favorite songster (during that period of my life) in return for her introducing me to Radiohead, after all. There was an ulterior motive, of course. There is no shortage of deliciously bitter break-up lyrics (e.g. “sometimes I think that love is just a tumor/you’ve got to cut it out”) in Costello’s catalogue, so I used songs like “Next Time ‘Round” and “In the Darkest Place” as a Trojan horse to slip in songs with unsubtle hints of my feelings in lyrics such as “I-S-T-A-N-D-A-C-C-U-S-E-D of loving you.” Not trusting Jacqueline’s commitment to words (she’s more of a harmony kind of girl), I even included a “Lyrics Quiz” of the matching format. Match the song title with the obscure lyric from the song. I didn’t point to the really obvious declarations of love, but I wanted to sharpen her ear so she’d catch those too. I entitled the mix “Ms. Misery: When Your Dreamboat Turns Out to Be a Footnote,” which managed to use lines from two different songs on the mix including today’s song of the day. Within a few weeks she was MY girlfriend.

About a year and a half later, Jacqueline had begun her arts administration career at Notre Dame’s Debartolo Performing Arts Center and had to accompany the university’s student orchestra to New York to perform a St. Patrick’s Day concert with the Chieftains at Carnegie Hall. Who should turn up as the surprise guest artist for the concert but Elvis Costello himself! Effective as that mixed tape had been, he didn’t hold the same idol status for her that would have stopped me in my tracks had I been there, so Jacqueline had no compunction about approaching him as people were milling about backstage of Carnegie Hall waiting to rehearse the concert. “Mr. Costello,” she said, “I need to thank you. I would not be with my boyfriend if it were not for you,” and she proceeded to recount the contents of the mixed tape. I don’t think she even realized how many deep cuts were on that mix—all the songs were equally unknown to her—so I must say how incredibly proud I was that she dropped titles like bonus tracks from All this Useless Beauty as well as “Everyday I Write the Book.” He was amused and pleased to hear of his contribution to our happiness, and left Jacqueline with this little present for me:










In case you can’t make out the handwriting, the inscription reads, “To Paul Glad to be of service Look after this gal Elvis Costello.” It is prized.

Now, the subtitle of this mix tape is something that I took immense pride in when I learned Jacqueline had shared it with the man himself, not just because it is clever and funny and perfectly deployed (if I say so myself), but because I was flouting the conventional wisdom among Elvis Costello fans and critics that his “Everyday I Write the Book”—and the entire Punch the Clock album for that matter—was shallow, over-produced pop that was not worthy of his talent. Perhaps because I’m just young enough, I was never aurally enmeshed in the synth excesses of the 80’s and the cynical commercialization of pop music that a lot of 70’s singer-songwriter fans perceived in 80’s pop. For example, I don’t remember my dad ever pointing to the songs on that album as exemplar’s of Elvis’ talent, so in this case I will allow myself to take full credit for the insight that “Everyday I Write the Book” is a wonderfully crafted, first rate song. I think a lot of baby boomers were led off the scent by the shiny surface of the song and so dismissed it as an artistically compromised grab for wider commercial success. I think by now the record is clear that Elvis Costello has never sought that kind of success but has always pursued songwriting styles and sounds that intrigued him and that he wanted to learn from as a songwriter. But I think he must have been discouraged so much by the reaction of his fans to this song that he came to hate it. That’s what he told fellow songwriter Ron Sexsmith when he asked Elvis if he didn’t mind him covering it when they toured together a few years ago. Costello now credits Sexsmith with teaching him “how to sing it” and he tends to do it like this when he performs it these days (in this case as a duet with Ron Sexsmith)

Even Elvis Costello himself fell victim to the trap of mistaking his own song for its arrangement. But I can honestly say that I prefer the original version! Its sound world evokes the insouciance of the lyric’s clever wordplay, and this hilariously campy video featuring Charles and Diana stand-ins underscores that youthful irreverence.

This has been the nature of the mainstream ever since blues and rock’n’roll took over our concept popular music.  Since the music and its arrangement on a recording represent a version of the core harmonic progression and melody that is the song.  To my mind, it is of little value to cover a song just to recreate the recording you learned it.  The interesting thing is when a new version— like Ron Sexsmith did with our song of the day—changes the atmosphere, the instrumentation, the affect of the song in order to explore corners of it that the original version entails in its DNA but doesn’t make manifest in its original arrangement.  In praising the Beatles’ songwriting in 1968(!), Ned Rorem makes this point brilliantly in analyzing the sophisticated compositional structure lying under the surface of the their eminently approachable recordings (thanks to Steve Blier for bringing this article to the attention of the cast of our Schubert/Beatles program).

When it comes to “Classical” music, there is only one set of specifically written notes values and rhythms that a perform can choose from for “Die Taubenpost,” for example, because the song exists entirely on paper in the precise way the chords are voiced the rhythms laid out.  The song is expressly the music on the page, not a performance of it.  For deeper reading on this idea, consider this essay by composer and musicologist John Halle.  For me, love of the Beatles’ songs predated my love of Schubert, but these essays help me understand why they carry equal import to me despite their essential differences.

What inspired me to pick today’s song is that Elvis Costello is currently doing press to promote his new book, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (which I plan on reading as soon as I finish this damn blog), and I listened to his recent interview on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron.  It’s a great interview for hard core Costello fans and neophytes alike because he discusses music and songwriting in amazing depth in a short time.  One thing he said made me holler in agreement when he mentioned that some criticized his album King of America for being too country and others criticized his album from the same year (1986) Blood and Chocolate for being too distorted to which Elvis replies, “it’s such an idiotic thing.  It’s just music. There’s nothing to fear.”  I guess that quote sums up what I’ve been trying to say all week.  Franz Schubert and Paul McCartney are just people like you and me, and their music is just music.  So come to our Schubert/Beatles concert on Tuesday at Merkin Hall and enjoy some music!

p.s. Another shout out goes to my dear friend John Welsh and his own version of Millennial Madness, the Welsh 100. [please link over “Welsh 100” : http://welsh100.blogspot.com/]  It’s a great, fun, longwinded read and it reflects my own taste in pop songs rather closely for the hardcore Applenuts out there (hi mom!) who care to know. John is my dear friend since 5th grade.  Of all our dorky adventures along the way through high school and college, our proudest is undoubtedly our Elvis Costello/Radiohead cover band (you get the significance of these two bands by now). It was just John on guitar and me on piano, and although we never performed anywhere other than our living rooms (I think his mom Jackie might be the only person to ever hear our versions of “Karma Police” and “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”) we were nonetheless our favorite band.]

Song of the Day: December 3

Paul-Appleby1-PhotoCredit-Frances-Marshall-500x330This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day!  You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here).  And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!

from Paul Appleby:

It is fair to say that this whole week’s series of blog posts have all been an attempt to illustrate why I think the categories of classical and pop songs are less important than we collectively have insisted on as a culture at large.  I am not trying to say that there is no distinction between the two—of course there is.  And each has its traditions and legacies. A big part of the difference lies between literate music, which is to say music that is written down as a score with specific, detailed notation, and illiterate music that is created and performed by musicians who don’t read music. But this is a discussion for tomorrow’s blog post (consider yourself teased). All I’m saying today is that the fundamental reason I like a Schubert song or a Beatles song is the same.  And lord knows I love me some good old esoteric, weird music. For example is this Stockhausen solo piano piece not deliciously fun and mysterious and punk and theatrical and funny?


I break out in hives of annoyance when I am told by “classical music” fans that they “don’t like contemporary music” as if it was one thing. Like, you hate the music of George Crumb and Jake Heggie and Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich and John Luther Adams and you can categorically say that because they are all similar enough to dislike wholesale? At least say “I find it hard to approach so I haven’t be able to spend the time exploring it sufficiently to come to a fair and honest judgment about it.” All these “new” composers are just trying to discover new methods of communicating ideas and feelings because we keep needing new ways to express new experiences, you know, as a species as we evolve culturally and otherwise. I know that I need me some Tehilim in my ears real bad after a turbulent, stressful flight, for example and that I can’t get the same comfort or release listening to anything else. So thank heaven Steve Reich came along and turned his talent and energy to organizing sound in the unique, original way he did.

So please don’t tell me that Reich and Stockhausen are in one category that you summarily dismiss. You might dislike these two pieces of music but you can’t possibly you dislike each one for the same reason.

When it comes to song, I do believe there is a difference, though. Songs are things one sings, and so there are limits to what constitutes a song. In my understanding this is a song (obviously, and a beautiful one that makes me feel things nothing else does) but this (like how I tied in the Beatles?) is not (which is not to say it is not a beautiful piece of art). Songs also play a major role in all of our education. Who among us learned the alphabet unattached to a tune? Who among us has babysat a child for more than 30 minutes without resorting to song? I facetime with my 13 month old daughter all the time when I am on the road and singing is often the last thing I want to do with her. I always do, though, because nothing engages her attention like a song from daddy. I swear music and songs are the evolutionary juice that galvanize disparate areas of our baby brains and collects language and abstract thinking and math (rhythm) into a single mental process. Even the way I count to 10 for my daughter is a song: each number has a lilt that indicates the beginning, middle, and end of the sound image representing each number (if you don’t hear it, compare the way you say “nine” and “ten” when counting to a baby…it’s called a cadence.) My point is that a song involves language on some level and therefore must always be tethered to the artificial construct of language. As such, there is a limit to the degree of abstraction in a song.

WHOA WHOA WHOA, Paul, this is getting way too theoretical! Before this turns into the last Paul Appleby blog you ever read, I will skip ahead to the song of the day (finally) which I can tell you is my favorite song: “First Meditation” by No Song is Safe From Us blog contributor himself, the great Bill Bolcom!

This song is the penultimate song—perhaps even the 11th hour song as Steve Blier might say—of Bolcom’s 7-song song cycle “Open House” to poems of Theodore Roethke. Bill must be the most accomplished composer I have encountered in terms of the breadth of technical accomplishment he employs in his work. And importantly, he never uses this skill for its own sake but always at the service of expressive truth and authenticity. In this song, he utilizes this astonishing skill to express the emotional and psychological life of this most magnificent American poetry I know. Bill is not afraid to go from 2nd Viennese school to pop or “banal” music (his words) and anywhere else musically that serves the text. But he shifts from technique to technique and style to style in a way that magically creates a cohesive, aesthetic consistency. The man just has good taste, I guess.

I totally see those two birds singing to each other—one inside a green house one outside—as if I were watching a film. I feel the skin of the old lady’s cheek, and I feel the bumps sitting in the back of that metaphorical bus as the air takes on its deep night chill. Both the bleak existential crisis and the simple loveliness of nature described in the poem are vibrantly present yet nuanced in the music. All of these images are given such accurate tonal depiction in the music, and they add up to a statement about human life and experience that I don’t know how to explain or elucidate more clearly than this song does in its own language. Someday I might try to translate the song into rude prose just so I can better understand its effect on me, but I hesitate to even try because I do already get the song in a deep way and I don’t need to be able to articulate it in a linear, cogent way to feel it or understand it better.

Enjoy, and once you have really taken this great song in, listen to the whole of “Open House” and then please find me a chamber orchestra to perform it with. PLEASE!!!

Song of the Day: December 2

Paul-Appleby1-PhotoCredit-Frances-Marshall-500x330This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day!  You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here).  And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!

from Paul Appleby:

I am not a scholar.  I realize that this sentence is painfully obvious to you, my #nsisfu friends, but I just want you to know that it is equally obvious to me.  I am a performer, and everything that I read, think, say, or write about music, songs—most things really—are at the service of that calling.  I am writing this disclaimer because the whole thrust of my interpretation of Schubert’s “Die Taubenpost” is pretty specious. The point I would like to make—but it is also a question I’d like to raise to all of you—is that as a performer, I find that I have to find a personal connection or pathway into a song and discover a distinct interpretation based on that mental journey in order to perform it successfully.

Not everyone will agree with this including audiences and other performers. For example, I recently listened to an interview with Mark Padmore—an artist I greatly admire and one who has devoted his career in large measure to performing art song—in which he argues at the 15” mark about performing lieder that “the job really is to present the music and present the piece to an audience for them then to make up their minds rather than to do an interpretation that tells them that ‘you must understand it in this way.’”  I appreciate his point and the deep respect for the music that undergirds this philosophy.  I can’t, however, execute this approach in performance because I am never not an audience of the song myself.  I don’t wish to force my view of the song on anyone, but I also choose not to be an empty carafe to convey the score from its source to its consumer.  My carafe is half-full (optimist that I am) and what gets poured out into the audience’s cup is a blend of the song and me.

And this is the special responsibility that I have to myself and to my audience when programming a song recital.  I must only program songs that resonate with me and to which I have something to offer.  For example, I really love Britten’s Winter Word and I long to perform it, but I haven’t figured out a way to stand up and sing “Before Life and After” and mean it. And I love the song! I just haven’t been able to put what I have viewed as a misanthropic worldview in my voice and not be untrue to myself.  The earnest yearning of Britten’s setting doesn’t leave room for irony or distance. My views are evolving, though, and I think I might be able to get behind this song someday if I do enough yogic meditation.  But I won’t perform the cycle until I can resolve the dissonance between myself and the message I perceive in those words and music.

But sometimes a song such as “Die Taubenpost” strikes me in a powerful way that I can’t quite explain to myself.  This is often when my imagination kicks into gear to provide the narrative or intellectual hook that I can grab a hold of before shoving offshore into new waters with a song. (Sometimes I turn into Peter Grimes and the song is my apprentice—too much thinking can destroy a song.) To find that hook, I sometimes invent shit.  So what?

One such invention is that I imagine Schubert and Mayrhofer were lovers. Ok, well if it makes you more comfortable, maybe more like in a Sebastian and Charles.
Of course there is no documentary evidence of such a relationship and it was as likely (or more likely, I’ll concede) as not that anything approaching romance between the two existed. But whether this notion is fact or fiction is immaterial to me as a performer and certainly will not inhibit me from drawing on the imagined complexity of these two artists’ personal relationship to inform my emotional and intellectual understanding of Schubert’s settings of Mayrhofer’s poems. Maybe it’s a tool for me to project my own feelings into their songs and poems. All the better if it enriches the life of the song inside my own mind and subsequently inspires my musical and textual presentation.  I am not going to write anything remotely suggesting this imagined romance in something as serious as a program note, nor would I admit to it to any gentiles (i.e. those who don’t read this blog). But for whatever reason, I imagine these two massively talented, somewhat volatile young party boys brimming with passion for life and art and politics and each other’s creative efforts until the inherent instability of such a relationship tears them apart.

But joking aside, Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s “Abschied,” for example, coincides chronologically with Mayrhofer moving out of the flat they shared, and in my imagination this was because they broke up.  What else could account for such a reluctant, mournful farewell as this?

Well, Graham Johnson’s typically assured and well-researched take could.  But when I stand on stage and sing this “Abschied,” I am Schubert and I am Mayrhofer singing to one another as they go their separate ways.  No one in the audience knows that (and please don’t tell Graham Johnson) but I am able to tap into something specific and palpable that makes the experience of the song meaningful and personal to me. Isn’t the pursuit of such an experience why we listen to songs in the first place?

In my early, more casual days of listening to Schubert, I had heard “Die Taubenpost” several times and I always found it lovely, pleasant, and extremely well-written.  But I didn’t conceive of it as the overwhelming emotional powerhouse that I did after I encountered this version of it:

By the end of this seemingly munter and froh song, Hermann Prey had me absolutely balling my eyes out, overwhelmed with sadness.  Of course I rushed to learn more about Hermann Prey and what sadness might have been inside him, but more importantly what sadness he connected to in this song.  So I read up on “Die Taubenpost” and discovered it was the last song Schubert ever completed, and he likely put the double bar lines on it within days of his death. No wonder there is such an undercurrent of mourning.

To get to the nut of what was going on in this song I had to determine two things: 1. Who or what is the pigeon? 2. Who is the “Liebsten” that the pigeon visits on the personas behalf? What is important in answering these questions is that the poet, Seidl, and Schubert may have different answers to this question, so let’s assume that Seidl meant what he writes and the pigeon is a metaphor for this idea of Sehnsucht.  What Sehnsucht is would make for at least another five blog posts so I’ll let the dictionary definition suffice for now.  But knowing Schubert’s circumstances when he wrote it, and knowing how carefully and deliberately he chose the texts he set to music, this text must have been of major importance.  I’ll let my imagination tell me that this poem somehow summed up Schubert’s sense of his entire life.  Of course, given the elaborate relationship arch I have created between Schubert and Mayrhofer, a thought I had was that perhaps the beloved in question is Mayrhofer himself, or maybe Schubert’s soul mate, his one true love.  Perhaps it represented all those he loved in his life: friends, family, lovers.  Maybe he meant life itself. Perhaps Schubert sees himself already on the other side of death and the distance his tireless bird flies is between the two realms.  AH HA! There’s an idea, Paul! In this case, the bird can easily function as its stated metaphor of longing tinged with nostalgia and regret for a loved one lost, or for the very past itself. But to me, I think it is something more too.  I believe that the pigeon for Schubert was his very music itself—of course since this is my imagination and my fantasy, the bird is his songs.  A bird sings, after all.  Schubert, despite mourning the loss of his still-young life, found something jangly in G major that spoke to the hope that he would live on through his music.  His gift was his trusty friend all his life through happy times and sad, health and sickness.  I like to think of this song as a thank you note to whatever that gift in him was.  I am getting moved just writing these ideas out! Is that what Schubert wanted to say?  I don’t know, but that’s what I hear, and that’s what I sing.

Song of the Day: December 1

Paul-Appleby1-PhotoCredit-Frances-Marshall-500x330This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day!  You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here).  And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!

from Paul Appleby:

Of all the Beatles songs on NYFOS’s Schubert and Beatles program, John Lennon’s “Julia” is the one that I was most eager to program and most dubious about working in the context of a song recital.  There is something about the chord progression that I could see working à la Schubert, but I was concerned that the best and only worthy version of the song is John’s haunting solo performance of it on the White Album. Thanks to the genius of Steve Blier and Charles Yang we have come up with my favorite Beatles arrangement of the concert. I was drawn to the aspects of the song that speak to so many (a million Beatles fans can’t be wrong, or something like that) but felt somewhat invasive and larcenous to appropriate such a personal song. But in the end, I feel that the manner in which we will perform it honors Lennon’s song and his voice but also seeks to illustrate the universal and immutably human slipstream that this tune glides along.  

“Julia” has always had a powerful effect on me, but I hadn’t really understood why until I became a parent. The song is dedicated to John Lennon’s mother who was killed by a drunk driver walking home one night when John was 17. This knowledge is especially heartbreaking in the context of their history—I imagine John Lennon had a rare appreciation of his relationship with his mother because, as he said, “I lost her twice.”  The mystical colors of the song’s poetry and atmosphere—simple and concise as they are—go deep into the profound intimacy of the relationship between mother and child. It articulates something about how that relationship affects us children everyday of our lives. But he also gives poetic voice to how we recreate the intimacy we first learn with our parents later in life with our spouses. I know this sounds weird and gross, but it’s our nature, man, and it’s beautiful. Somehow this little song manages to express something mysterious and complex about being a child, a parent, AND a spouse in a few two-line verses and a bridge.

But this is what great songwriters do. They take their own (often traumatic and tortured) lives and craft from their unique personal experience words and music that are specific enough to be authentic and broad enough to resonate with the masses. The Beatles were the songwriters who brought this particular genius—seen previously in the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter, etc…if you’re reading this blog you know who I mean—to rock’n’roll and in turn elevated the expressive possibilities of the form beyond its generic limitations.

The Beatles also managed to achieve these artistic heights just as the idea of mass global media was approaching maturity. It was never just about the songs with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it was about their haircuts and their charm and talent and how they became signifiers of an entire culture in upheaval. It still is about ALL of those things (“as it was in the beginning” and so forth). As a result, we Beatles fans develop something like a personal relationship with them (maybe not bigger than Jesus, but you get the point) and this feeling enriches our experience of their songs.  But I do believe (credo might be a little strong) that it does all start with the songs. The songs draw us in again and again, and because a songwriter like John was brave enough to share a song like “Julia” with the world, the love of the song leads us to learn about John and the story of his mother and of his marriage to Yoko which leads us back to the song—a virtuous song cycle, if you will pardon the word play.

I bother to describe this cycle because I experience Schubert and his songs in the same way. The songs draw me in and their genius and beauty compel me to understand their creator better. We will never know as much about Schubert, biographically speaking, as we do about John Lennon (with him predating global mass media and whatnot), and yet I still find myself seeking and finding a kind of personal relationship with Franz Peter all the same. I end up imagining details of Schubert’s life that are almost certainly inaccurate, and yet feel real enough to me as I spend time with his songs. My next blog post will describe an example of how that works in my mind and how it influences me as a performer. But for now I will leave you with the song in question for today’s post.

I assume you are all exceedingly familiar with the original recording of Julia so I won’t bother posting it here. Instead I am sharing this performance of the song by John and Yoko’s son, Sean Lennon. Sean isn’t much of a singer, but it is nonetheless moving to hear him sing a song written by his father dedicated to his mother and maternal grandmother.  And the montage of images on the screen behind him during the performance is cool too:


Song of the Day: November 30

Paul-Appleby1-PhotoCredit-Frances-Marshall-500x330.jpgThis week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day!  You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here).  And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!

from Paul Appleby:

Hello NYFOSNUTS!!! If you are reading this blog, you are my people. NYFOS is not just the names on the masthead or the performers it presents after all, but the community of song aficionados and music lovers who cherish a little clever word painting above most other things in life whether it be found in a sacrosanct Lied or that Argentine canción or “Skylark.” You and me, well, we are a special tribe, the guardians of the hidden-in-plain-sight art of song, and the scholars and evangelists who go forth with joy spreading the gospel according to Blier. You know the one I mean: the one that preaches deep research and open mindedness to the vast, varied, rich panoply of song that we humans have been cobbling together all these millennia. We gather at the shores of the “lakes of delectation” each season to board Mr. Blier’s pleasure cruise of song and sail out into uncharted waters of words and music. I myself am a devoted consumer of “Song of the Day” so I take this responsibility to provide one for you each day this week with no small sense of pride in and duty to my fellow readers.

I figured I would start the week off by offering you a song that means a lot to me personally and which affords me the opportunity to tell you a bit about me and my history with song as a performer. As any good NYFOSer worth her* salt would, I hesitated to include such a DTD (“done to death” for NYFOS neophytes)* chestnut as Beethoven’s “Adelaide” because you are all undoubtedly already terribly familiar with the song. It’s not like Beethoven is in need of a champion, am I right? All the same, this song has special significance to me because it is the one that introduced me to “art song” (whatever that means) and started this whole I-want-to-be-a-classical-singer thing. Let us not forget, every well-known song was to us once an undiscovered country of delight.

In the spring of 1999, I was obsessively and endlessly listening to two albums: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond, and Fritz Wunderlich and Hubert Giesen’s recital album with Lieder of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. Let me explain. After three years of journeyman work in the South Bend School Corporation-wide summer Broadway musical production, I was cast as the eponymous hero of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Old Testament musical. At 15, it was my time, my moment, and I approached the task with a seriousness and focus that was new to me. I wanted to kill it!

At that age, I was beginning to comprehend not just the depth of technical skill that good singing required, but also the more complicated, sometimes mystical phenomenon of the relationship between a performer and her public. This was a lesson I had begun to learn when my parents had taken my siblings and me to see Donny perform Joseph in Chicago a few years earlier. I had come away from that performance thinking “I can and I need to do that” and “what’s the deal with these middle-aged women freaking out over Donny Osmond?” By the time I was preparing to sing the role myself, I had learned more about Donny’s place in pop-culture and realized that his audiences weren’t thrilled simply by a great performance of Joseph. It was DONNY-OSMOND-AS-JOSEPH.* It was THEIR Donny on stage, that unbelievably cute and talented kid with that big Mormon family, all the campy late-70’s splendor of Donny and Marie, the oxymoronic American fantasy of a sex symbol made of purity and probity. It was the fact that he was still sounding and looking so good in the 90’s that excited them.

This felt unfair. If one (myself, for example) could sing and act the role of Joseph better than Donny Osmond, one should be hired to do it. Of course I didn’t appreciate just how talented and skilled Donny Osmond was as a performer on his own merits, let alone his much more complicated role of ironic-cultural-icon-Donny-Osmond. And I certainly hadn’t considered the business side of show business including such practicalities as marketing and the ticket sales that would increase thanks to Donny’s name-recognition. So I listened to that recording of Joseph with severe critical scrutiny and set out to best Donny at his own game. I may not have his fan base, I told myself, but I will be a better Joseph!

With this goal in mind, I started taking voice lessons. I drove with my learner’s permit and my mom over the Michigan border to Niles to see Mr. Ginter, an adjunct professor of voice at the University of Notre Dame. I told him I wanted him to teach me how to sing the role of Joseph better. He told me he would teach me classical singing and classical music, and that I could apply the technique to any repertory I liked. So we started with some early Italian songs (“Caro mio ben,” of course) and after a few weeks, Mr. Ginter got me started on Schubert and Schumann. I had already studied some French and German at school, and I had taken piano lessons since the age of six, so I was able to learn and enjoy these songs. They were for me, however, merely etudes, technical exercises to prepare me for the big gig. Sensing my lack of commitment, Mr. Ginter assigned me the song “Ich grolle nicht” from Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe and sent me home with Fritz Wunderlich’s recording of it. I popped the CD in that night (this is before iTunes libraries) and let the first track start while I looked over the liner notes. It was Beethoven’s “Adelaide,” and within the first 30 seconds I felt as if I had heard this song before. I hadn’t, but there was something so elemental in the chord progression in the piano intro and something so simply lovely in Fritz’s voice singing “Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten” that it felt like this song had been played everyday in my crib as a baby and although I had forgotten it in the intervening years, it had always been a part of me. This has happened to me a few times with such songs as Schumann’s “Widmung” or Paul McCartney’s “I Will,” and songs that strike me in that way live close to my heart.

I must have repeated “Adelaide” twenty times that night before jumping ahead to “Ich grolle nicht.” Between Fritz’s overwhelmingly powerful yet beautiful, controlled singing and the self-righteous rage of that song, I was in. By the time I jumped back to Fritz’s perfect recording of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” it was over. As when I saw Donny Osmond sing Joseph, I told myself, “I can and need to do that.” With Fritz Wunderlich though, and with this music, I never felt competitive. I was in awe and I was his student. I discovered that the process of learning how to sing like Fritz was far more fun and fulfilling than trying to outdo Donny.

Now coughcough years later I am still learning from and aspiring to the example of Fritz Wunderlich’s singing. I have listened to his “Adelaide” for over half of my life now! And although I know every color and contour of his recording, I hear it every time with new ears and new amazement. The challenge and joy of singing classical vocal repertory is that you the singer are always changing vocally, physically, emotionally and therefore must constantly attend to your technique and your aesthetic approach as your vocal and communicative strengths and weaknesses shift over time. The life-changing moment of hearing this song was not just about the performance, it was the discovery of an art-form and the pleasure of entering into its discipline. As a performer I can tell you that those magical moments in a performance when everything clicks and you are not just impressing but communing with the audience mean a lot and are the prize for all that work. But they are not enough to sustain me through the hardships of a career as a professional musician. The gift that Fritz and Beethoven gave me that day was the passion for the process of music. I was so stunned by the beauty of that recording that I have spent my life since seeking to understand what made it so beautiful and collecting all the discrete bits of knowledge and wisdom about music and performing to better understand and better manifest such beauty myself.

So here is Fritz:

*I like to use a lot of parenthetical statements, hyphenated compound words, referring to God and notions of individuals as females in my blogs, ya dig?

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