What fun it’s been to host this week and ponder my favorite songs and performances! For my last day, I thought I’d look back to one of my earliest singer memories, one of the first pieces to leave a huge impression on me as a singer, and the first piece that got me hooked on early music. My big solo senior year of high school was Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. There’s so much to love about this piece. One thing I adore is the little trio of shepherds acting as the nymph’s “back-up singers” (2 tenors and a bass). This clip I’ve shared leaves out the first part, but the piece as a whole includes an ensemble section both before and after the nymph’s lament where they set up and conclude the story. In the main section, there is a totally different vibe as she passionately laments her fate, and the shepherds interject with narration and commentary. There is something about the relentlessness of that very simple, repetitive four-note ground bass that is so heart-rending. I can’t get enough of those excruciatingly beautiful dissonances and the shape of the line and the rhythms he uses so wonderfully to evoke her distress.
I looked to see if i could find a recording of it that I liked, and was pleased to see one of my favorite mezzo-sopranos, Bernarda Fink, had recorded it, and gorgeously so! (Figures I should end this week with a nod to yet another mezzo role model!) Fink is maybe not quite as famous as some of the big names I’ve mentioned on previous days, but I look up to her very much as she comes up quite often for me when I’m researching repertoire, especially art song – she very often seems to have recorded whatever it is I’m working on, and I always love what she does. On this piece I think she has the perfect balance, for my taste, of the clarity of tone needed for this style but still with so much body and color and spin. And on top of that she gives such a detailed and emotional delivery of the text and character. I was very glad to happen upon this interpretation of one of my all-time favorite pieces!
Thanks to NYFOS for inviting me to host!
What do you know, I’m finally featuring a non-mezzo! As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, pianist Alden Gatt and I decided to pair John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben for our recent Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert. We liked the idea of providing a contrast with the very traditional woman’s role depicted in the Schumann, and we also wanted to feature the words of a woman poet herself (not just the words of a fictional female character). I ended up really falling in love with this cycle. The text is by Mirabai, a sixteenth-century Hindu mystic poet and saint. What I love about her story, particularly when juxtaposed with the woman in Frauenliebe, is that she ended up completely rejecting her traditional role, showing incredible independence and determination. There is some uncertainty about the exact details of her story, but what I’ve gathered is that when her husband (from an arranged marriage) died in battle, the custom was that she throw herself on his funeral pyre, which she refused to do. Already a devotee of the deity Krishna (aka “The Dark One,” whom she considered to be her real husband), her devotion grew even stronger. Rather than remain at the palace with her in-laws, who kept trying to torture and kill her, she escaped to the city to write poetry to Krishna and sing and dance in the streets.
John Harbison set six of her poems, as translated into English by Robert Bly, for which he took some of the inspiration from Indian musical elements and also incorporated unusual scale patterns and complex rhythms. He does a fantastic job of evoking the various states of mind in each of her poems ranging from defiant to transfixed, bewildered to ecstatic, with quite a bit of eroticism alongside the religious devotion. Harbison is so effective at capturing that sensuality as well as her passion and the energy of her dancing. As you can hear, Dawn Upshaw also captures all of those varying aspects of Mirabai so convincingly in her recording with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. She brings such vitality to her singing and her diction, really bringing the text and the character alive. The style is also complemented so well by the ringing clarity of her voice. You’ll note this is the version as he arranged it for chamber ensemble. It was originally written for piano, as I performed it, and the two versions have quite a different vibe at times – while the chamber ensemble is able to achieve so many different and wonderful colors, I am a bit partial to the percussiveness that comes across with the piano. It’s hard to choose which is best! If you want to hear the piano version, there aren’t a lot of recordings out there, but there is a really nice one with Warren Jones and Georgine Resick.
Rather than singling out one song, I decided to share the entire cycle because I feel like they really need each other as a whole unit in order to be fully appreciated. And they are so varied, it’s hard to pick one that represents the whole. I will say, the one that I get the biggest kick out of is the third song, “Why Mira Can’t Go Back to Her Old House” (at 5:32 on this recording). It was by far the hardest to learn, but just ultimately so much fun to sing and to listen to. Mirabai doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of her — “Approve me or disapprove,” she says here. And then, implying that other people just can’t comprehend the higher plane on which she operates: “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulder; And now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious.” Gotta love her.
I have to feature the work that loomed largest for me this year, Robert Schumann’s iconic Frauenliebe und leben. I finally learned it all and performed it after years of wanting to do so but never finding the time or the right venue to make myself just do it. The right time turned out to be my April recital for Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series which I performed with Alden Gatt, a wonderful pianist and friend of mine. Since I first became acquainted with the cycle in grad school (having been assigned the first song), I just loved it — stunningly beautiful songs with such a great arc and variety of moods and so many wonderful harmonic moments. Looking more into Aldelbert von Chamisso’s text, of course, I learned that it is considered controversial by some because of its very traditional depiction of a woman’s life and her place in society; some of the lines, imply she worships the man she loves like a God, which of course makes us feminists bristle! I admit I was a little iffy about it at first. Yes, this woman was obsessed, and yes, she put everything she had into her husband and her child, but of course in the end that leads her to be completely destroyed by the death of her husband, so it’s not exactly a 100% rosy picture of what it meant to be a woman at that time. And though it can feel problematic to a modern audience, in the context of the life of an 18th-century woman, who would not have been able to own property of her own, and who wasn’t allowed as much of a life outside of her family, her obsession with marriage and motherhood makes more sense. (And let’s be honest, who among us of any gender hasn’t gotten a little obsessed with a newly-found love interest and been unable to think of anything else for a time?) Though it’s written by a man, the delving so deep into the perspective of a woman in this way was an unusual thing at that time, so I actually came to feel that it honored women in its way. And the way Schumann felt about his love, Clara, I always thought he understood these same feelings himself. It’s a complicated issue to which a short blog-post can’t do justice, but I read many articles on both sides of the topic, and there are a number of interesting and valid points of view out there to read!* Nonetheless, even before I had really come to terms with my appreciation of the text, I have always found the music to be undeniably sublime.
It was hard for me to single out one song, as they are all wonderful in their own way, and they all work best together as a unit. The song I probably enjoy singing the most is “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” — I really love that one. But I think the most special piece is the sixth song, “Süsser Freund.” It captures such a sweet, tender moment, as she is lying in bed with her husband; she is emotional knowing that she is pregnant, but he doesn’t know it yet. My favorite musical moment in the entire cycle is the start of the middle section of this song (around 2:00 in this recording) and the next several measures after that – she has just finished saying “I want to whisper all my happiness in your ear,” before the piano sets up this section, and then something about that melody that follows and the harmonies beneath it, as she says, “Do you know now why I weep these tears?” just melts me.
It’s also a nearly impossible task to pick a recording among the many fantastic ones that are out there! Besides this one here, I have some other favorites of the entire cycle including Elly Ameling, Janet Baker… oh, too many to name. But especially in listening to this particular song, I just really loved the way Anne Sofie von Otter delivered the tenderness of this piece — the diction, and sensitivity, and the warmth — it’s all there. And the sensitive playing of pianist Bengt Forsberg complements von Otter’s artistry so wonderfully. I love the way she sings the entire cycle, so check that out as well. (Of course you could go down a YouTube rabbit hole if you’re not careful!)
Well, it looks like this Song-of-the-Day week has turned into a rave about another one of my mezzo-soprano idols each day! And I’m okay with that. 🙂
*Side-note: another way we “dealt” with the potential discomfort with the traditional text is to pair it with Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, which present quite a different take on the role of a woman! More on that tomorrow!
I love that music can have the power to transport you to a place and put you right inside of a memory. There are certain pieces of music that I experienced in such a powerful way the first time I heard them that they bring back an incredibly strong emotional and visceral memory whenever I hear them again. “Baïlèro” from Chants d’Auvergne is one of those pieces. In the early 20th century, composer Joseph Canteloube put together volumes of folk songs from the Auvergne region of France (in the local language, Occitan) and harmonized and arranged them for voice and orchestra. This one, the second song in Volume 1 is by far the most well-known. There have been a number of wonderful recordings of these gems (Kiri Te Kanawa’s and Victoria de los Ángeles’ among the great ones), but I’m partial to Frederica von Stade’s recording; not only do I think she brings the most wonderful charm and warmth to it, but it was she who was singing when I first heard this piece, so I have always associated it with her voice since that day. I was already a huge fan of hers, looking up to her more than any other singer at the time. I was early in grad school, having just started the switch from soprano to mezzo-soprano, and my teacher introduced me to several recordings of hers, as she was a sterling example of all of the repertoire that suited me. When I went to spend the summer as a student at Brevard Music Center before my final year of grad school, I could not have been more excited when I found out she was the big guest performer who was coming to do a concert with the orchestra. Along with two of my mezzo friends there, we were determined to soak up as much of her as we could during her visit, so the three of us found out what time her orchestra rehearsal was, and since it was in an outdoor rehearsal venue, we were able to wander over and have a listen. I will never forget the feeling as we got closer and closer and started to hear the lush opening orchestral bars of Baïlèro for the first time. And then von Stade’s voice came in and began to waft over the instruments in the most breathtaking way, and we were stunned. All three of us fawning mezzos burst right into tears, we were so overwhelmed by the moment. That memory still makes me verklempt to this day.
A recording doesn’t quite do justice to the power of the live performance, but in this clip you can at least get a sense of how satisfying and heart-melting her timbre is on this gorgeous piece of music. The richness of Canteloube’s orchestration transports you to the mountainsides of France, really evoking the feeling of a gorgeous day, birds chirping, with two shepherds calling out to each other from across a valley. I love the way the voice just sort of hangs out on that repeated note, like those shepherds calling out; the way the harmonies slowly change around that simple vocal line, it just wraps around you like a warm hug. Needless to say, von Stade’s performance of it in the big venue at Brevard the next night was just as stunning, though that first rehearsal is always what will stick with me. Singing several other pieces from the Chants d’Auvergne that night, she could not have been more charming as a performer (nor more kind and down-to-earth as a human), and from that night on I was determined to perform these with orchestra some day. More than a decade later, I am finally fulfilling that dream! On October 28th I’ll be doing a set of 8 of the Chants d’Auvergne (including “Baïlèro, of course!) with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra at the Brooklyn Museum (near where I live and where I grew up!), and I can’t wait. Von Stade’s inspiration will be with me for sure!
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 briefly considered continuing to worship at the altar of my mezzo-soprano idols as I have been doing here over the last several days (Oh, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica Von Stade, don’t think I have forgotten you!) And I was so close to featuring Handel, because I think he wrote the most beautiful melodies on the planet, and I’d love to pay homage to that musical era, which is very close to my heart. And I also thought of my dear Ella Fitzgerald… and Patsy Cline… neither of whom I wanted to neglect (I swear there are some male singers I admire, too!). BUT I decided that for day #5 instead of bringing you an old favorite, I’ll share something that is a newer discovery for me, and something that might be brand new to you.
I admit to not being that up on my jazz – I have a few great albums that I got in high school that I’ve listened to many many times over the years (Thelonious Monk, John Coltraine, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and several Ella CDs), but my knowledge of the genre is far from thorough. Since I tend to be partial to jazz that’s on the traditional side, I’ve always really liked everything I’ve heard from Duke Ellington, but I had no awareness of the music he wrote for classically trained singers!
I was introduced to it when soprano Candice Hoyes unearthed a whole album’s worth of Ellington rarities for her debut album, On a Turquoise Cloud, in 2015. This track, “Heaven,” is from Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, which the composer called “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” It premiered right here in New York in 1968 at St. John the Divine Church, but no recording of this has surfaced. It’s hard to believe this Harlem gem was little known, but it’s very exciting that a singer of my generation has chosen to interpret it.
Hoyes is made to sing this repertoire – she has the soprano chops to soar into the stratosphere as well as the style and range to pull off the soulful jazzy low notes. I knew her as a high operatic soprano (I’ve had the joy of singing opera and art song repertoire with her many times), so when I went to hear her sing jazz at Minton’s in Harlem for the first time, I was blown away! Her cool, confident performance would have made Ellington proud, I have no doubt.
Hoyes’ recording of this song really captures the soul, beauty, and versatility of Ellington. I love how she employs such a variety of vocal colors, and I love how the arrangement builds and ends with her super soprano-y riffs! This song (and her album in general) is so soothing and dreamy, not to mention that it’s a really cool aspect of New York song history. Enjoy!
It’s been such a treat to write for the NYFOS blog this week. Thanks for going on this journey with me!
I’ve just got to feature a piece I’m obsessed with, not a “song” per se, but an opera duet, one of my favorite moments in all of opera, one that I occasionally find myself listening to over and over again because I can’t get enough of it: “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. I love bel canto opera to begin with, and to me this duet is the epitome of the beauty and excitement of this style. It’s SO satisfying. The slow section sucks you right in and washes over you with its warmth, and then the fast section, exhilarating with its syncopated rhythms and soaring thirds, is impossible to listen to it without a giant smile on your face! (In my case happy tears are usually involved as well… it’s what you might call “bel-canto-induced ecstasy.”) The fact that it’s about the building of a strong female friendship makes it that much more rewarding.
There are several wonderful and classic recordings of this, but when it comes to video clips, I have a soft spot for this one with Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland from an Ed Sullivan Show telecast in 1970. It’s partly because Sutherland/Horne was the first Norma/Adalgisa pairing I ever heard, and because I don’t think it gets any better than Marilyn Horne on Adalgisa — it’s probably my favorite thing in her voice (and there are a lot of things I love in her voice). When she begins this piece, I can just feel myself absolutely melting. The other thing I love about this particular clip is the old telecast look — it makes me somehow nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive, a time when opera stars were household names and were regulars on mainstream television. Not to mention the fact that I get such a kick out of their late-60s/early-70s style here (that hair!!) — Horne looks so absolutely radiant in that green dress with the never-ending sleeves! But most importantly, these are two of the most glorious voices of our time. The beauty and resonance and seeming effortlessness of their sound, their legato, their phrasing, the elegant way in which they hold themselves — it’s bel canto singing at its best.
This piece also holds some beautiful memories for me — I first really took note of the duet several years ago when I was an apprentice artist in the Bel Canto at Caramoor program. I had heard “Casta diva” many times but didn’t know the rest of the opera very well. Will Crutchfield played a recording for us during one of his lectures (I’m fairly certain this was the lecture on legato) which included a clip of this duet. I remember being especially captivated by Horne’s Adalgisa. And that summer, we happened to also be performing Norma up at Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, so we young artists were the chorus. It was one of the most exhilarating and memorable chorus experiences I’ve ever had (notwithstanding the 90+ degree heat and profuse sweating from everyone on stage in the semi-outdoor theater). For starters, standing mere feet from Angela Meade while she sang “Casta diva” was thrilling! And Bellini’s chorus music was so much fun to sing (especially the “Guerra, guerra” chorus!). But then, when we weren’t on stage, I hovered just offstage in the wings to watch the rest of it go down; I just about bawled from the emotion of watching that duet for the first time, with Meade and Keri Alkema as Adalgisa, in the absolutely electric atmosphere that is the packed Venetian Theater. Unforgettable.
And now I’m finally learning the duet myself (about to perform it in recital with the wonderful soprano Reyna Carguill on May 1st at 2:30pm at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village — shameless plug!), and so I have been working on it with one of my coaches and mentors, none other than Marilyn Horne herself. It’s more than a little surreal to sing the opening line for Adalgisa herself and then have her pipe right in on Norma’s line, clearly in the style of Sutherland! Just priceless.
So it seems my obsession with this duet will not end any time soon! I hope to sing the whole role someday, but for not I will wallow in the joy of this scene. Enjoy this clip, and then go look up all the other wonderful Norma/Adalgisa pairs of the past! Who are your favorites?<
A composer that loomed large in my childhood, and one I’d love to introduce to those of you who may not have heard of him, is Al Carmines. He was a key figure in the Off-Off-Broadway scene of the 60s — as Associate Minister of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, he helped found Judson Poet’s Theater, which produced experimental theater pieces. In the late 60s he started writing his own musicals. My parents happened to meet at Judson (in the church choir) in the late 60s, and the music of Al Carmines was the soundtrack to their early relationship. Al was still at Judson during the first few years of my life, and his wonderful musical/oratorio about the Nativity story, Christmas Rappings – not your typical Christmas play, I assure you – was still being produced every year for most of my childhood. In my family we not only went to see the yearly performance, but we listened to the soundtrack every year while decorating our Christmas tree (and still do), singing along to the entire thing at the top of our lungs. Christmas Rappings is still produced every couple of years at Judson, and I never miss a chance to see it!
My parents used to get out their records of Al’s various other musicals on occasion and wax nostalgic, but I didn’t know those other musicals all that well. (I did know several of his quirky and wonderful hymns well, which we sang frequently on Sundays at Judson.) It wasn’t until I was well out of college that I really got to know this Al Carmines song, my father’s favorite, “Capricious and Fickle” from Promenade, written in 1969. The brilliant words by Maria Irene Fornes along with Carmines’ heart-wrenching score totally captivated me — that up-the-octave repeat and key change on “that true love catches you by surprise” is quintessential Carmines, and by the way, he was famous for writing just a bit out of a singer’s comfortable range! — but it’s this emotional performance by the incredible Alice Playten that leaves me in tears by the end of the song every time.
[Side note/anecdote: I feel very lucky that when I was born, Al was still at Judson Church, and he was still writing a song each year for all the children that were born at Judson that year. Fortunately for me, I was the only one born in my year, and so I got my very own Al Carmines song about me that I will never forget!]
Speaking of unforgettable, I hope you will agree that “Capricious and Fickle” falls into that category:
And to give you a further taste of Al’s genius, here is the opening to Christmas Rappings, which Al always played himself. As Michael Feingold’s Village Voice obituary said of Rappings, “Its iconoclastic approach is indicated by its opening number: the Gospels’ genealogy from Abraham to Jesus, puckishly set as a history of Western classical music from Bach to John Cage. As performed by Carmines himself at the piano, it was a yearly source of ineffable joy.”
Of course I have to feature my #1 favorite singer, Teresa Berganza! Although she is absolutely stunning on any repertoire, when she sings Spanish music it is just perfection. One of the song cycles that I love the most (both to sing and to hear), one which Berganza performed better than anyone, is Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas. It’s a wonderfully diverse collection of songs, bringing together melodies and dance rhythms from all over Spain. There are vastly differing moods among them, but as a set they are strung together so perfectly. It’s hard to imagine one without all the rest of them. But I chose “Jota” because I just love the mood it conveys, and the rhythm with the triplets in the introduction always make me giddy. This upbeat lover’s serenade anchors the set as the middle song of the seven and is a lovely bit of brightness between the two slow, utterly breathtaking tunes that surround it.
This set was written for piano accompaniment but is also frequently done with guitar, which I’m particularly fond of on these pieces (though, to be fair, the original piano part quite successfully captures the feeling of a guitar). I’ve performed the set four times and so far only with guitar! I think “Jota” is particularly delightful in the guitar version.
I have a recording of Berganza singing these songs with guitarist Narciso Yepes which I adore, but I found this lovely video of her performing them with guitarist Gabriel Estrellas in a recital broadcast by the BBC in 1987 (gotta love the 80’s sleeves on that dress!). I’ve included a second video of her performing “Jota” with pianist Gerald Moore from 1960, when she was just 25, and as an added treat, that video contains the last three songs in the set as well.
I could listen to that easy, warm, pure voice of hers all day long. And watching her perform, with such an open expression and generosity of spirit that shines through, I’m always inspired. I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!
When I started thinking about picking five songs for the blog, at least twice as many songs came to mind right away (and more followed) – I’ve left off so many favorites! I even left off my very favorite song cycle to sing, which is Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, partly because I couldn’t quite find one “definitive” recording on YouTube that I could settle on. But at least I’ve now given a shout out to Debussy, so I can live with that!
I have to begin with a composer that means a lot to me, and one of the most moving and profound songs ever written: Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from his Rückert-Lieder. I had sung a few Mahler songs on my graduate recital (from his Des knaben Wunderhorn collection), and I really loved them, but it wasn’t until 2014, when I happened to receive two offers to sing Mahler with orchestra (Symphony No.2 and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”) that I became obsessed! It just doesn’t get more sublime than those two pieces of music. I subsequently made sure to program a Mahler set on my Carnegie Hall recital (not including these same pieces, but three other wonderful songs), and I took it as a very good omen that a portrait of Mahler was hanging over the piano in my backstage dressing room that evening. I think he’ll always hold a special place in my heart!
But getting back to this particular song – it just gives me the chills every time I hear it. It’s the captivating melody, the serenity, the orchestration with the utterly human English horn and the etherial harp, and most of all, it’s the heart-wrenching dissonances. The music alone is enough to break your heart, but Friedrich Rückert’s poem takes it over the edge, and Mahler couldn’t have set it more perfectly. There is ambiguity in the words (see translation below) – certainly a sense of melancholy but also a contentment with fact of shutting out the world and living “in my heaven, in my love, and in my song.” The music depicts this tension so effectively – the melody keeps trying to ascend, but the orchestra keeps pulling it down. Moments of optimism give way to turmoil. In the most satisfying moment of all, on “Ruh,” the exquisite dissonance gives away the internal conflict underneath the supposed “rest.” Even though the piece has such an underlying resignation, I can’t help but feel like ending on the word “Lied” (“song”) is somewhat hopeful, especially from an artist’s perspective – the world may be too much to handle at times, but we have SONG.
Apparently Mahler said that this piece was truly him, that he identified very deeply with the poem, and perhaps that is why it is such a gem, such a perfect marriage of music and poetry.
There are many beautiful recordings to choose from, but I had to share this stunning performance by one of my idols, Dame Janet Baker, from 1967:
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!
Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.
Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!
It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.
I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • email@example.com