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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!

Tchaikovsky: Yeletzky’s Aria

Style, ease, grace, beauty, power and a wonderful reminder that perhaps perfection is attainable.

Tchaikovsky: A Tear Trembles

One tiny step for mankind: I finally finished the program for NYFOS’s Tchaikovsky concert next January. It had been about 82% done for several months, and I kept swearing I just needed a weekend to polish it off. But the longer I looked at the playlist, and the more I listened to the songs Antonina Chehovska and Alexey Lavrov and my colleague-slash-student Nikolay Verevkin had suggested, the more I waffled. A slew of good songs, but few that barreled into the obvious-perfect-vociferous-yes category. I find that this is typical of composer-centered programs: their oeuvre starts to seem like a big bowl of polenta, a delicious but uniform mush.

In these situations, I need time to play songs over and over again and see which ones rise to the surface. If I am impelled to check my email as I am playing a song, it moves down the list. But if I instantly hit re-play, it rises. One of the winners was “A Tear Trembles,” which I must have played eight or nine times in a row. It struck me as one of the true Tchaikovsky gems, and it was also a song on both Alexey’s and Nikolay’s lists. Here is a lovely performance of it by Pavel Lisitsian, a Russian baritone of Armenian descent (1911-2004). He was a Bolshoi Opera stalwart from 1940-1966 where he sang all the leading baritone roles—Germont, Escamillo, Yeletsky, Valentin, and tons of Russian opera. He had one those amazingly Italianate Soviet voices, and he wrapped his music in a mink-lined caress. Lisitsian was a legend in his time, renowned as a recitalist with over 1000 songs at his command. When he came to the States in 1960 to sing a recital at Carnegie Hall, he also sang a single performance at the Met: Amonasro in Aïda. He knew the role only in his native language, so he addressed his daughter (Antonietta Stella in the title role) and everyone else onstage in Russian. Lisitsian was the first Soviet-era singer to appear at the Met. His Met debut was also his Met farewell, but in those few hours he made history.

Adam Guettel: Awaiting You

I had hoped to get all of my NYFOS shows programmed by the end of summer. Labor Day came and went, and I still hadn’t finished them. In fact, my Tchaikovsky show was a complete blur. I felt as if I had let myself down, and was ready to drown my sorrows in a vat of Haägen-Dazs. But then two things happened. (1): I realized that summer isn’t actually over till September 21st, and (2): I woke up at 3 in the morning last Thursday, and in my sleep I’d figured out a fantastic way to do Pyotr the Great. I am declaring this a victory. Yes, I still have a few more songs to choose, but I am 85% of the way there. I am pretty sure that NYFOS audiences will get a chance to hear John Brancy belt out this beauty by Adam Guettel, albeit in a lower key. “Awaiting You” has all the Adam trademarks—a gorgeous harmonic progression, a lyric that provokes and stimulates, and a white-hot opulence that never fails to conquer me. Here is the unbridled Billy Porter, who gave the first performances of the song.

Tchaikovsky Recital (Vishnevskaya/Rostropovich)

This week I’m still exploring the role of the accompanist, especially from unusual, unsuspected talents. Here is soprano Galina Vishnevskaya who married the famous cellist Rostropovich, but here Rostropovich is at the piano for an entire recital of Tchaikovsky. He plays wonderfully. Sometimes you have to get close to the original source and these two really get Tchaikovsky. It seems Rostropovich could make music on anything. What a gift.

Tchaikovsky: Gently the soul ascended to heaven

Last summer, it was Rachmaninoff. This summer, Tchaikovsky. I am listening to every song he ever wrote, in preparation for a concert in New York on January 24 (with a Washington, DC preview on the 21st). Going through scads of art songs is a daunting process. My brain notates plain, digital facts like: “2/4 time, ternary form, hints of Russian folk song, nasty spot in the piano writing, exposed low note at end.” My soul, on the other hand, is playing a mean round of “Huckle Buckle Beanbag,” murmuring “You’re getting warmer…you’re getting colder…” as the songs pass by. Of course, I am ultimately looking for songs that tell the story of Tchaikovsky’s inner life, which is the thing that really interests me. But the beginning of the process is a little like computer dating. I scan song after song in search of something that attracts me.

I’m not very far in the process—I have 165 romances to go, God help me—but I did find myself playing this one over and over again: “Gently the soul ascended to heaven,” opus 47, #2. This being a Russian poem, the soul has flown to its eternal reward, but is still weeping. Why, ask the other souls? “Because here there is nothing but the sound of joy. But I still remember earth, where there is so much suffering. And I want to go back there, bringing consolation and comfort!”

Tchaikovsky could spin out melodies with the ease of Richard Rodgers (another composer on my desk this summer). This graceful song, which has the lilt of a ballet piece, also has a strange gravity. My brain can’t figure out where it comes from, but my soul feels it.

Song of the Day: October 5

This week’s Song of the Day curator is Russian soprano and international star Dina Kuznetsova. You can hear Dina in NYFOS’s upcoming show From Russia to Riverside Drive on November 8 (Boston) and November 10 (New York), performing songs by Rachmaninoff, alongside some of the Jazz Age music that Rachmaninoff heard during his time living in New York.

from Dina Kuznetsova:

It gave me acute pleasure to read and listen to the blog. It seems that people who love art song share similar obsessions, which do not have a genre boundary. From jazz singers to Sondheim, from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson to the Barry sisters, to…nearly anything and everything.
There is so much repertoire that I love that choosing five entries proved a difficult task, but for my first entry I dip into a childhood memory. My selection will be a song by Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “Not a Word, My Friend” (op.6, #2, written in 1869). I’ve sung Tchaikovsky’s operas and songs, and they hold some of my fondest professional memories, but this song I did not sing (or at least have not yet sung…).  It belongs to my Grandmother, a constant and beloved and yet a mysterious presence in my childhood. She was from an educated family, with unrealized but deeply felt artistic sensibilities. Some of her family members perished in the Gulag; she lived through World War II, and suffered innumerable losses at which I can only guess.
“Play this,” my grandmother once announced, pulling out a thin sheet of paper and putting it in front of me. I started to read: “Not a word, my friend, not a sound, We will be silent together, for silent are weeping willows that lean over the tombstone…” I played the melody—short, repetitive phrases; the melody did not seem to develop…
At my twelve or so years, I was not impressed. I wanted DRAMA in sad songs, a sweep, an outcry, much like in Liza’s arias in Queen of Spades. So I put it aside. After that, I heard my Grandmother murmuring the melody to herself. And it stayed with me—that was the song my Grandmother loved. Now, decades later, I try to imagine what the song meant to her, and it is a poignant memory.

Translation: (words by Alexei Plesheev)
Not a word, my friend, not a sound,
We will be silent,
For silent are the weeping willows
That lean over a tombstone.
They bend and read
In your tired heart
That there had been days of shining happiness,
That happiness is no more.
Not a word, my friend, not a sound,
We will be silent,
For silent are the weeping willows
That lean over a tombstone.


Georg Ots (1920-1975), Estonian baritone, was a huge celebrity in the Soviet Union. He sang classical repertoire in major opera houses, but was propelled to wide fame when he starred in a 1958 Soviet movie “Mister X”, based on The Circus Princess, an operetta by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán.
Here Georg Ots singing Tchaikovsky at a live concert in 1962.


Some bonus tracks:
The second version of Tchaikovsky’s song, by the legendary Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, live from 1964 concert, with Mstislav Rostropovich on the piano.


Georg Ots as mysterious and dashing “Mister X”, a nobleman who abandons the aristocratic life and becomes a circus acrobat.

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