I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I am writing this blog post while waiting for my departing flight in the Vienna Airport – I am quite literally “going home” to visit my family in Rochester, NY. My nomadic existence as a singer is equally exciting and challenging, with the loss of a sense of home being by far the most difficult thing to deal with. I have learned the importance of bringing “home” with me wherever I travel, whether through the comfort of daily rituals, exercise, exploring, or listening to certain pieces of music. I found this recording of “Goin’ Home” a few years ago, sung by one of my favorite baritones, Lawrence Tibbett. Whenever I listen to it, it evokes a powerful sense of longing, of melancholy, of dreaming of home. Tibbetts’s voice is as powerful as it is delicate and he explores both extremes wonderfully. This poignant setting of an African American Spiritual to Dvorak’s haunting theme never fails to ground me and make me feel connected to my own home, no matter how far away I might be.
There are some artists that just embody perfection when at their best. Cecilia Bartoli seems to be able to turn anything she touches to gold. She has superhuman control of her voice, especially in her stratospheric coloratura and hushed pianissimi. In this recording of the “Pie Jesu” from Fauré’s Requiem, she delicately phrases each note with a sensitive musical understanding, adding vibrato at just the right moments. Maybe she plans these musical choices ahead of time, or maybe they are how she feels it in that moment – either way, the expression in her voice approaches the sublime.
Listening to artists of Cecilia’s caliber is often what gives me the momentum to continue on this career path. It reminds me that when all is said and done, what really matters is just sharing in music with a listener and hopefully creating a moment of beauty in the world.
After Sinatra and Strauss, now for something completely different. There is something ethereal and other-worldly about the polyphony of the late Renaissance. It has the ability to transport the listener and rejuvenate the spirit. In particular, this setting of the Miserere stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it, forcing my mind to slow down and simply absorb the music (usually with my eyes closed).
My love of sacred music developed while I was in college at the Juilliard School. Through searching for a church job during my second year, I was lucky enough to join the choir of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church on West 46th & 8th. I started to enjoy the challenge of blending with other voices, singing with the purest tone possible, and discovering the vast repertory of sacred, ensemble-driven music that had previously been unknown to me.
Take twelve minutes out of your busy day, sit down with a cup of tea, and enjoy this glorious piece.
My second “Song of the Day” stems from nostalgic memories of my time in Europe. After spending a summer with the Lehar Festival in Bad Ischl, Austria, I gained a newfound appreciation for operetta as a genre – particularly for the attitude and energy it takes to make operetta bubble and float. Something I love about this profession is the travel, getting to spend time immersed in different places and cultures. What’s more, I have found that performing works so steeped in national identity – you can’t get more Austrian than a Strauss operetta – pushes my understanding much deeper into the words and music on the page. Austrians are fiercely proud of their musical tradition. Singing Die Fledermaus to audiences for whom operetta is such an integral, beloved part of their history unlocked a kind of artistic experience that is difficult to describe but could definitely be felt.
The second reason for my choice lies in the extensive amount of time I spent visiting and living in Hungary. In Hungary, practically every dish is served with fresh paprika (dried chili) which many people carry around in their pocket wherever they go, just in case their meal isn’t spicy enough. Many Hungarians will say that paprika not only exists in their dishes, but in their blood and spirit, too. Austrian operetta meets the passionate, fiery Hungarian spirit in “Her die Hand, es muss ja sein” from Johann Strauss’s Der Zigeunerbaron, sung in this recording by Hermann Prey.
P.S. I should mention that I’m writing this blogpost from the Johann-Strauss Gasse in Vienna!
I’d like to start off my “Song of the Day” week with an artist everyone can agree on – the man, the myth, ol’ blue eyes himself – Frank Sinatra. I’ve had a recurring fascination with Frank since I was a kid. The older I get, the more my appreciation and respect for him grows. There were lots of recordings lying around the house where I grew up, but I gravitated towards Sinatra and Elvis, doing my best to imitate them in my pubertic teenage voice. In a way, I think Frank’s recordings primed my ears to appreciate operatic voices later on. Indulging in recordings of Thomas Allen and Bryn Terfel at the tender age of 15 might not have thrilled me as much had I not spent so much time listening to Sinatra’s already, admiring his iconic, recognizable sound. Not to mention, a performance by Frank is a certified lesson in charisma, confidence, and style. He just has “it.” Whatever “it” is, Sinatra is the definition.
Aaron Copland once said, “You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down… some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.” Frank might not be Copland’s composer in this instance, but his recordings make it pretty clear how it was to be Frank during those days. This video of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” ranks up there in my book as one of the very best recordings of Sinatra performing live. See what you think of it.
A strange dress rehearsal. There is a fancy dinner in the hall tonight and I was given to understand that that the staff wanted to start their setup around 6. But they were actually chomping at the bit to start rolling tables in at 4, which made it hard for me to concentrate or play with any sense of repose. I started well—really making some music on that pre-pre-pre-war Knabe—but then flipped to “get-to-the-double-bar” mode when I felt the restaurateur and wait staff literally breathing down my neck. One cast member got very emotional and couldn’t finish a song; another blew a whole lot of lyrics towards the end of the show. It’s all show biz, and it didn’t worry me; I take some comfort in the fact that we did not peak at dress rehearsal. But pleasurable? No.
Truth to tell, our final run didn’t go at all badly. The small invited audience went crazy for the concert, and that’s reassuring. The singers did a lot of good work, and if I can play this show with that much psychic disturbance around me, tomorrow should be a breeze. I shall sleep peacefully, and stay calm until my normal five-minutes-to-showtime freakout.
I am pleased to report that we had a great success yesterday–the real deal, not just a rosy blog report. Something quite astounding happened in the hall, the thing I most wanted but was aftraid to hope for. No, I was not surprised that the concert went well, nor that the hall was full. I knew we had class-A singers and wonderful songs, and that we’d gotten to capacity on pre-sale and reservations. And the cast was on fire yesterday, everyone at his/her peak (and beyond). But there was a kind of electricity in the place that I don’t always feel even when performances are going like gangbusters. The public’s receptivity to the music was palpable to me, as was their excitement at hearing such beautiful voices in their town—up close and personal. They were a dream audience, making every connection, grooving out on the words and music, and gorging themselves on the artistic smorgasbord. I feared the inevitable comparisons with past programs I’d done here, but the consistent comment was, “What a great group! But you always have the best singers.”
When I play in big metropolitan concert halls, especially in New York, I often feel I am trying to feed people who are already sated. I’ve got to give them the equivalent of a truffle-asiago-crab stuffed gnocchi doused with saffron-infused olive oil, or I don’t even get their attention. Years of playing in the Big Apple have forced me to up the ante year by year, so I habitually aim pretty high and am rough on myself when I feel I have not quite grabbed the gold ring.
But this audience, many of who are actually Manhattanites during the cold months, received the music in a way I have not experienced in some time. At the intermission, a friend came up to me and said, “This is hitting me so hard. I’m just so moved by the music, I’ve been crying—and laughing—and I feel as if I need to go home now just to recover.” “But….you won’t do that, will you? I mean, you’d miss the Cuban songs,” I stammered. “No, of course I’m staying! What I mean is…I needed this music, and I had no idea how deeply I needed it.”
I too had felt that Orient “needed” music, but I didn’t realize how much. It turns out that the people in this town are starving for concerts. On the way home, a woman saw me driving down the street in my wheelchair and said, “WAIT! Stay there—I’ll be RIGHT back!” She went back into her house and came out with a chilled bottle of champagne. She tore across the street and gave me the gift. Then she got quite emotional. “I want you to have this. The thing is…you’re the reason people want to be alive.”
We had our first runthrough Friday. Praise the Lord, the program works just fine. No major snags, everyone in decent if not transcendent voice—high notes ringing out like crazy but a little huskiness in the lower part of the voice. If that’s fatigue, it’s the good kind. The piano in the hall is not, shall we say, an instrument of great beauty. When I am feeling inspired, I can sound decent; when I am in a more “get-to-the-double-bar” mode, I sound like a retired cement mixer to myself, or a bandleader at a regional junior high school. It was no one’s day to reach the pinnacle, but we settled on some staging ideas and (as I predicted) ran the songs for memory. The structure of the program is perfect. Today felt like seeing an apartment with bare walls and no furniture, as you imagine how beautiful it will be when the decorators and the florists arrive.
I guess it was inevitable. Wednesday was come-to-Jesus time, and on Thursday we welcomed Mary. Not the Sainted Mother, but stage director Mary Birnbaum, our Guest Artist this week. We’d all wanted some help staging the two group numbers and the two boys’ duets. I also nurtured a hidden desire that Mary might do a little laser surgery on the solo pieces.
Of course I got all my wishes. Kern’s “Enchanted Train” received a fizzy, charming, organized floor plan, and Mary also waved her magic wand over the encore, Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”—just one simple move in course of the piece, but the whole thing imbued with depth and emotion. For the duets Mary gave us a lot of ideas and staging, and I’m not sure we can keep all of it. The boys and I are unsure if the big band songs or the meeting hall space can bear that much theatricality. Still, it was like doing a shopping spree at Saks. You’re probably going to return a few things, but you come home with shopping bags filled with fabulous stuff. In the cold light of (Fri)day we’ll figure out what we can actually afford.
Mary gave amazingly insightful notes to the singers on their solo pieces. Once again I realized that artists need to hear things put in many different ways—and said by several different people—before they incorporate them. Yes, I admit I had a couple of moments where I thought, “I said the exact same thing yesterday!…” And there followed a moment of weird insecurity—“Maybe I can’t make myself clear any more…?” But Mary did something a visiting teacher can do more easily than a resident teacher: she cornered the singers into forming personal subtexts and sharing them out loud. It’s a lot for an artist to reveal, and since we are living and working in such close quarters I feel a certain discretion, a need to leave the singers some privacy. I think I am in their faces enough as it is. As a result, I try to corral a singer into finding a personal meaning in every song, but I don’t tend to make them blurt out, “This is like the time my grandmother poured scalding water on me,” or “This like when they took another soprano for the job because she was sleeping with the director.” I weave stories, lend scenarios, parse the poems, explain the cultural environment of the song, and make a framework. This is in fact a big help—and then I keep rehearsing until I feel the artists have taken ownership.
Mary is a bit bolder. And with the concert three days away, boldness was the right step. Mary, who studied mime in Paris, also has a keen eye for physical posture and gesture. She was only on board for one afternoon, but her art detonated with tremendous, benign force.
The fourth day of rehearsal is always the come-to-Jesus moment; it’s the last day you can really work in depth, get to the fundamentals, take on the big issues. There is something I want each cast member to focus on as we head towards Sunday’s performance, but by tomorrow they’ll be very focused on memory, repetition, security, control. So today was Art Day, and it was tiring. If something isn’t quite right vocally or a bit undefined musically, it takes tact and delicacy—and a certain passive-agressive indirection—to get a singer to turn the corner. You see, these are usually the very same issues many, many other coaches and teachers have addressed before and the singers have done this dance plenty of times. On the one hand, they truly want me to help them conquer the problem, but a part of them just wants me out of their face.
As a result, I feel I have about a thirty-five second window in which to make the point I need to make, and I have to be believable—while shedding some kind of new light on what is certainly an ongoing challenge. What made me happy today was that I went after a series of subtle and complex artistic matters with each of the cast members, and they took some big strides forward. The British songs need a kind of pristine elegance and hauteur; the Cuban ones need a loping rhythmic feel and a command of street Spanish; the American songs need a special combination of insouciance and precision. At these moments I thank God I was an English major. I certainly didn’t write well when I was in college, but I read a lot and wrote a lot and thought about language a lot. Coaching is like cracking the code before the alarm goes off (and the defenses come up). Today, codes got cracked, and the singers made huge and surprising progress.
Meredith, as it turns out, did not bring us more sorbet from Frank. I understood her reasons, but I admit I was crestfallen. She did bring us a local melon for dessert—a Sugar Baby, which is a small watermelon with yellow flesh. The cast posed with their desserts at the end of a very long, very interesting day.
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