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Benjamin Britten: Junius’ Aria

Longtime MESS & NYFOS favorite Theo Hoffman absolutely slays this conniving, wicked aria from act 1 of Britten’s masterpiece.

Franz Schubert: Du bist die Ruh

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them. (If the recording does not appear below in your email, please click on the title above to play the song on our website.)

Du bist die Ruh, D. 776 (“You are repose”) [1823]
Music by Franz Schubert; poem by Friedrich Rückert
Performed by Theo Hoffman, baritone and guitar
in Schubert/Beatles (2016)

Du bist die Ruh,
Der Friede mild,
Die Sehnsucht du
Und was sie stillt.

Ich weihe dir
Voll Lust und Schmerz
Zur Wohnung hier
Mein Aug und Herz.

Kehr ein bei mir,
Und schließe du
Still hinter dir
Die Pforten zu.

Treib andern Schmerz
Aus dieser Brust!
Voll sei dies Herz
Von deiner Lust.

Dies Augenzelt
Von deinem Glanz
Allein erhellt,
O füll es ganz!

You are repose,
Gentle peace,
You are longing
And that which satisfies it.

I consecrate to you,
Filled with pleasure and pain,
As your place of dwelling
My eye and my heart.

Tarry with me
And quietly close
The gate
Behind you.

Drive every other sadness
From my breast!
Let my heart be filled
With your bliss.

This sanctuary of my eyes
By your radiance alone
Is illuminated—
Oh, fill it completely.

From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:

I heard my first Schubert Lieder around the same time I heard my first Beatles songs. I was twelve years old and in eighth grade. As a budding “longhair” musician, I had a distinct sense that I was supposed to like Schubert songs, and I sort of did. Hearing them sung by Elisabeth Schumann on an Angel Records “Great Recordings of the Century” reissue, they seemed like precious artifacts of a long-lost civilization. The LP transfer from 78s recorded in the 1920s and 30s only added to their ghostly, foreign aura. As a Jewish kid whose dad had fought in World War II, I continued to have mixed feelings about hearing the German language, even at its purest and loftiest. Still, there was something about that music that allured me, even as it troubled me.

I am happy to report that my feelings about Schubert have also developed over the last half- century. No, I have not exactly gravitated to his music; I’ve been through too many master classes where Schubert’s songs were used to make every singer and pianist feel impossibly tight and incompetent. But working on his music in the context of the Beatles has shone a new, contemporary light on this beloved composer. His songs deal with the same themes the Beatles wrote about 140 years later, and his music often shares their oracular simplicity. And it seems clear that Schubert’s own singing voice was a high tenor, whose falsetto extension was not unlike John Lennon’s or Paul McCartney’s. (That is why it is can be so hard to sing them in their printed keys.)

But I have also come to understand Schubert on a more personal level. It has come to light in recent years that he was a promiscuous man with a strong sexual urge—and that his main attachments were to men. Of course this discovery has been hotly debated; everyone rushes to defend composers from what is still perceived as the terrible taint of homosexuality. But Maynard Solomon’s article Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini is extremely persuasive. Solomon paints Schubert as a hedonist whose prodigious musical creativity was tied to a healthy appetite for sex, food, and drink. Casting aside conventions and societal norms, Schubert courageously forged a life based around sexual freedom in the company of like-minded men. His bohemian circle allowed for the free flow of emotion and the expression of same-sex love on a full spectrum, from Platonic to carnal. They formed a subculture that blended fierce idealism with their shared orientation. But Schubert’s circle also led a clandestine existence; their renegade sexuality and political beliefs made them subject to police raids and even to exile. This is why Beethoven’s nephew wrote, “They greatly praise Schubert, but it is said that he conceals himself.”

Like several of his friends, Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis in 1823, and lived under a death sentence for the next five years. Always prone to melancholy, he vacillated between temporary remissions and crushing setbacks until the disease claimed his life. My mind flashed to the AIDS epidemic, when I watched so many friends fighting for their survival against similar odds. Suddenly Schubert seemed achingly real to me. My view of Schubert had been colored by the arch, cloying interpretations of his songs so prevalent in my early days—and the strangulation of those who attempted them in their original keys. But now I saw a human being I recognized, a brilliant, embattled gay man determined to live life on his own terms.

Schubert wrote his 600-plus Lieder over the span of thirteen years, from 1815 when “Erlkönig” first appeared, to 1828 when he composed his last song, “Die Taubenpost.” We chose that one for tonight’s concert—it was at the top of practically everyone’s wish list, including my German art song guru J.J. Penna. How appropriate that Schubert’s final envoi, a bittersweet paean to “Sehnsucht” (longing) became the last of his songs in the program. Schubert and his friends used the term “hunting for peacocks” to refer to their cruising escapades; that bit of code casts an ironic, tender shadow on the central metaphor of this song, an apostrophe to a carrier pigeon, a symbol of yearning.

I read that every era creates the Schubert they need, and I have no doubt I have created my own image of this great artist, the one I need. The Romantic era liked to portray him as a man composing music in a trance, writing from a deep well of unconscious genius rather than from anything as mundane as a technique. But I see something else: a prolific, deeply gifted young man claiming the right to be who he was, reveling in all his natural urges. I also see a young man fighting for his life. And I meditate on all he yearned for as he sickened and died, his own personal “Taubenpost.”

Puccini: “No, pazzo son” from Manon Lescaut, sung by Beniamino Gigli

On “Going There”

I spent three hours of my day today listening to my fellow young artists here in LA sing arias for each other, with feedback from our fearless leader Josh Winograde, whose job is the hiring of singers. These sessions are a chance for us to get up, sing something that may be a total work in progress, and work through our challenges. One thing that Josh says time and time again is to “give us what we want.” I think this is so poignant, and a topic of much debate among modern musicians.

American singers in particular are trained so acutely to be polished and correct. Years and years are spent in diction and ear training classes so that we can speed-learn whatever is put in front of us. Some of us even have the privilege of receiving years of acting training so that we can not only follow direction, but add our own impulses to our performances. It’s both the blessing and the curse of having the most functional musical education system in the world. We come out of conservatory with every tool we need, but in the end, most of us do not go to the interpretative depths that we could. If we are given all these tools, we should be able to deliver some of the best interpretations around, right? In theory, yes, but in reality, this is far from the case.

Let this be a PSA to all musicians who seek to stand up in front of people and sing them a song: Do not apologize. When you’re about to perform, think about what you would want to see, and then do that thing. The real question is “why would you not go there?”

Someone who exemplified this so much is Beniamino Gigli. He lived from 1890 to 1957, and was arguably the most famous tenor of his generation. He lived a complex life, riddled with scandal. Most great artists do. Think about it. What great artists do we know of who lead simple, by-the-book lives? He created some of the most intense, heart-wrenching interpretations of his repertoire ever recorded. Below is his performance of “No, pazzo son” from Manon Lescaut. He actually interpolates things that aren’t even in the score, but guess what? No one is complaining.

This rant is all to say that we as artists should never settle. We should always seek to reach new depths in what we perform. We generally sing pieces that are well-trodden paths, but we should always seek to add our own unique interpretation. Some may call this gilding the lily, but I just call it being the best musician one can be. Go there. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your audience.

Benjamin Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake

One of the pieces of music that has haunted my mind (and by that I mean made my imagination run wild) since I was first exposed to it is Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Written in 1965 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the piece serves as a meditation on the state of the world and the frailty of man in Britten’s day and Blake’s, about 200 years prior to the work’s composition.

Songs and Proverbs is a truly unique piece, and stands out from Britten’s output and the song repertoire at large. Britten sets the songs as a continuous thought, with the individual songs connected with wild, mystical recitatives. The poems themselves comment on everything from child abuse to murder (Britten’s favorite subjects). I find them to be some of the most poignant songs he ever wrote, although through my experience with them, they are most potent when performed as an opus. They’re such a particular flavor that they’re rather difficult to remove from their natural habitat, as is the case with several of Britten’s other cycles, but even more so here because of the continuous nature of the composition.

As is usually the case with Britten, there seeps in a strange, abstract religious connotation. In the first recitative, we have four exclamations which set the philosophical yet somehow sultry tone of the entire piece:

The pride of the peacock is the glory of God. 
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God. 
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

And then we dive into Blake’s brutal, twisted, yet undyingly honest world.

Giuseppe Verdi: The Sleepwalking Scene from “Macbeth”

Today’s blog post is less about a particular song and rather what I have been experiencing as of late after having made the move from New York City to Los Angeles, where I just joined the young artist program at LA Opera. It has been such a beautiful move in so many ways. Exploring new places is always a perk of this job, but even more so now that I have the ability to drive, which I haven’t for the past 23 years. I love LA’s stark polar-oppositeness to New York. Of course, I have inklings of missing Manhattan, but The West has a wonderful, strange mysticism that I am enjoying thoroughly. To have a brand new home base for the next few years is a very special thing, and I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that it is a great fit.

My first production here at the LA Opera is Verdi’s Macbeth, with Placido Domingo singing the title role, and a cast of some of the most brilliantly produced voices I’ve ever been around. Even the covers for the leading roles are absolutely world-class. This being said, I feel totally inadequate and out of my element in a Verdi rehearsal room. Firstly, I was not born with a Verdian instrument, so the music hasn’t been on my performance radar whatsoever. Secondly, there is something about the darkness and brutality of the Verdi vibe that just doesn’t lend itself to what I love so much about the creation of this art form. Steven Blier and I were in San Fransisco to perform a recital together, and we went to go see Don Carlo at SFO. It was a stellar cast, and there were incredible moments, but I walked out feeling strangely disconnected, a feeling I do not usually experience leaving the opera. Steve turned to me and basically said, “you know that was a very good Don Carlo, right?” I thought about it, and he was absolutely right. I could not pinpoint what I did not relate to about the piece, but I suppose it was just that. I simply did not relate to a 4-hour epic about the Spanish Inquisition.

This is not to say I don’t love Verdi’s incredible scores. Macbeth is filled with some of Verdi’s most epically haunting music. Take the curse music from Rigoletto (even though Macbeth precedes it) and essentially expand it across four acts. My favorite part of the entire piece (although it is a very hard call) is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Maybe I’m biased, because this is the scene in which I make my humble debut with the company as the Doctor, who bears witness to the madness of Lady Macbeth. This scene has quickly become one of my favorite mad scenes in opera. Am I a huge fan of Verdi’s setting of the works of Shakespeare? Eh. Not in the long run. However, under a microscope, each of the key moments in the plot are set with the type of intensity that only Verdi can supply. We are left with some absolutely incredible pieces of musical drama.

If I felt strange and out of place in the rehearsal room, my discomforts were quelled when we got into the theater. It turns out Verdi didn’t write Macbeth for a rehearsal room, and it is certainly something exhilarating to be onstage in a gorgeous 3000+ seat house hearing these singers do what they do (and doing a bit of it myself), learning from the dark, majestic sect of this art form called Verdi. Here for your listening pleasure is Maria Callas singing Lady Macbeth’s final grand scena, the Sleepwalking Scene, from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.

Song of the Day: July 10

(from baritone Theo Hoffman — Thanks, Theo, for your selections this week!)

Today I travel to London to compete in Placido Domingo’s Operalia! Because of his huge involvement in the zarzuela repertoire, there is a portion of the competition devoted to the genre. I’ve had an amazing time preparing two zarzuela arias. Steve Blier helped me pick, of course. This cheeky tune is a young man’s song of devotion to his new wife on their wedding day. In the song, he asks the silversmith how much silver is needed to steal a kiss from the lips of a woman. Wish me luck!


Song of the Day: July 9

(from baritone Theo Hoffman. Theo participated as a 2014 Caramoor Vocal Rising Star in our annual residency at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, NY.)
Today’s post is a throwback Thursday to our Caramoor concert in 2014, Ports of Call. This song was performed marvelously by Annie Rosen and Steven Blier. I had to reprise it today, partially because I’ve been listening to it so much recently. Here it is performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Peter Serkin. “Calling You.”

Song of the Day: July 8

(from baritone Theo Hoffman)
Jeff Buckley is the king of the heartbreak ballad. Your breakup playlist isn’t complete without “Grace” or “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” not to mention his absolutely definitive cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” His voice is filled with longing and plangency. His unique vocalism is matched by a similar, tender approach to the guitar. A few months ago, a friend sent me this live cover of Dido’s Lament, “When I am laid to rest,” from Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas. You’ve probably heard it, but you’ve never heard it like this. The only thing that could potentially top this in terms of rock to classical crossover, would be Bob Dylan singing “Erlkönig.” On a more serious note, this recording holds real gravitas when one reflects on the fact that two years after this performance, Buckley drowned at the age of 30 in a tragic accident on the Wolf River in Memphis. He was just about to record his second album. There are some who theorize suicide. He did, after all, wade into a treacherous undercurrent fully clothed, albeit in good spirits and in the company of a friend. He also made a number of random phone calls to loved ones with whom he had not spoken in a long time, as if to tie up loose ends. It should also be pointed out that there were no traces of drugs or alcohol in his system when the tragedy occurred. Should these theories be accurate, one can only wonder if he sang this famed Purcell ballad as an anticipatory farewell. Alas, all we have of this great artist is a highly-acclaimed debut album and several live performances. I am truly thankful that this is among them.

Song of the Day: July 7

(from baritone Theo Hoffman)

St. Louis Blues – Ella Fitzgerald (originally W.C. Handy)
I have some incredible memories with this particular rendition of “St. Louis Blues.” The first person who played this for me was my dear friend, collaborator, room mate, and factotum della città, Lachlan Glen. Ella embodies the perfect balance between incredible precision and absolute carelessness. One imagines that Ella might have had ten different “ossiae” (variation options) in her head, but let her musical, animal subconscious choose for her. These characteristics make her the legend she is. This track is my favorite scat solo anyone has ever performed. Just when you think it can’t go any farther, she goes to the place you want her to go. It is an insane, yet perfect release of pure energy. This is now what I listen to before every performance in order to find the spontaneity that I always want to achieve. Don’t worry, the next time you hear me sing, I won’t trail off into 256 bars of scat solo…or will I? Steeeeeeeve?!

Another amazing scat worth checking out is this live recording of “One Note Samba.” Finding all the references to other songs is like a game of “I Spy.” Enjoy!


Song of the Day: July 6

This week’s Song of the Day posts come from Theo Hoffman. Theo is a young baritone who has appeared in several NYFOS Emerging Artist, NYFOS Next and gala programs over the past couple of years, and we’re sure we’ll hear a lot more from him in the years to come. Thanks, Theo!
Familiarity – Punch Brothers
The Punch Brothers are somewhat unclassifiable. The band is deeply rooted in bluegrass tradition, but happens to be made up of complete virtuosi, so their output incorporates classical elements galore. Chris Thile was a child mandolin prodigy, and in 2006, brought together this musical phenomenon. He recalls, “We got together one night just to drop a ton of money, drink too much wine, eat steaks, and commiserate about our failed relationships.” Great start if you ask me.
Nick Katz, a good friend of mine and phenomenal bass player for the band Caverns, turned me on to these guys back in 2010. However, I wasn’t bitten by the Punch bug until this past spring. I was on a gig in Portland, ME with the Symphony. I was in a bit of a lonely rut. It was the evening before the performance, and I was walking home when I saw on a poster that the Punch Brothers would give a concert that night. I happily shelled out whatever nominal fee would perhaps make me feel better. It worked. These guys restored my happiness and faith. I found myself swaying, weeping, and foot-stomping to this energetic, cheeky, wondrous music.
They happened to be touring their newest album, The Phosphorescent Blues, which had come out only a few months prior. It features some of what I believe to be their best songs, and also includes selections by Debussy and Scriabin. “Familiarity” has quickly risen to the top as my favorite. It is an epic suite in four distinct sections (or ABCA’ if you want to be formal about it). It depicts the rise and fall of a love between two people, specifically in the age of information and social networks, an age which is gradually making real love more and more difficult to achieve and keep. The heart-melting final section is worth the entire song, so even if you’re not hooked at first, stick with it. This gives me life when I need it.

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