Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Oberlin Notes

A recent interview inspired me to start publishing my program notes here...if you're in the Oberlin area tomorrow night, please come by and see me and Myra foray the ups and downs of this program.



It is a mark of high praise to declare that a singer is “a real artist”. Since the beginnings of my professional life, I’ve often noticed this dignified title bestowed upon some of the most renowned and remarkable singers of both the present day and the past, and it has sparked many questions in my mind: Is the singer not inherently an artist? What distinguishes a singer from the rest of his/her colleagues in this way?  Even long before I was a professional musician, and just a curious teenager reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I’d been fascinated with this archetype of the artist. What makes an Artist? What is the Artist’s path? What is the Artist’s perspective? Who is the Artist? Are we all the Artist?  Is it a choice that we make?


Tonight’s program is a meditation on the artist, and an exploration of what it means to take on the mantle of that moniker and all that it entails.


Robert Schumann – Dichterliebe


‘The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake

the sense of wonder in the world.’

G.K. Chesterton


There is this sense that artists feel things differently than the rest of us - that they experience emotions and absorb the reality around them with a heightened intensity and hypersensitivity.  In my experience, the greatest artists that I’ve encountered are those that never lose their sense of child-like wonder.  Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe or A Poet’s Love, is an example of this artistic hypersensitivity and wonder.  


Composed in 1840, Dichterliebe was part of a large outpouring of songs that Schumann composed in the tumultuous year in which he married Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher and one of the most famous concert pianists in the world at that time.   In 1840, often referred to as his Liederjahr or ‘year of song’, Schumann composed 138 songs – Dichterliebe stands out as one of the pinnacles of this fruitful period.  


A cycle of 16 settings of poems carefully culled from Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, Schumann’s cycle tells the story of a young poet who falls in love with a woman, only to have his heart torn to pieces when she spurns his affections for those of another man, whom she marries.  The poet falls madly in love during the course of the first 6 songs, his experience of love a heightened and extreme one:  he describes the month of May, in which he falls in love with this young woman as not just beautiful, but wonderfully beautiful; he weeps uncontrollably every time the young woman tells him that she loves him; he equates her likeness to a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary that hangs in the Cologne Cathedral.  In the 7th song, she ends the relationship, and he growls out the first stage of his heartbreak – angrily declaring how he can now see the darkness in her heart and the snake that works through it.  The remaining 9 songs document his journey through the stages of his heightened grief.  The poet’s dreams and nightmares become his reality, his pain becomes so great that he becomes convinced that the flowers around him are speaking to him and he is driven to isolate himself in the forest hills until finally, he calls for a huge coffin in which to lock his feelings of love and pain and for 12 giants to submerge it in the sea.  Schumann’s settings intensify the hypersensitive intensity of the poetry – particularly in the virtuosic piano writing underlying the text, which musically paints the dissonant, almost unresolvable chromaticism of the poet’s heartbreak, making each song a miniature drama of almost operatic proportions.


Benjamin Britten – Winter Words


"Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.

Pablo Picasso 


The inevitable threat that experience poses towards innocence was a theme that always occupied Benjamin Britten, particularly around the time in his compositional career during which he composed Winter Words, a collection of settings of poems by Thomas Hardy.  His Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1952) and opera The Turn of the Screw (first performed in September 1954) make for unsettling listening along this theme; Winter Words was written between the two, earlier in 1954. 


A pacifist in wartime, a gay man during a time in which it was illegal, Britten always felt that he was an outsider of sorts, looking in, a perspective that he felt informed his artistry greatly.  Each of the Thomas Hardy poems in Winter Words focuses on seemingly simple situations, in which an innocent is juxtaposed with some sort of background corrupt with experience.  In ‘Wagtail and Baby’, a baby watches as a bird is drinks from a stream, unafraid of horses, bulls, and serpents, yet is scared off by the approach of a ‘perfect gentleman’. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ juxtaposes a young boy playing his violin with an older convict, chained in handcuffs, who sings along. In ‘Midnight on the Great Western’, an older passenger sits across from a young boy travelling alone in the same carriage, musing on the child’s purity and naiveté that contrasts with the ‘region of sin’ that surrounds him. The artist (Britten/Hardy) observes these seemingly normal and banal circumstances or objects and infuses them with deeper meaning, making them all parables aboutthe imminent threat to innocence, and lamentations on its inevitable corruption. 


Ned Rorem – selected settings of Walt Whitman 

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.

- Henry Ward Beecher


One of the most influential American poets, Walt Whitman was inspired by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental essays to turn to writing poetry at the age of 37.  Believing himself to be the new, distinctly American poet that Emerson described in his essay The Poet, Whitman sent Emerson a copy of the first edition of his collection, Leaves of Grass, crediting Emerson with helping him “find himself.”  The influences of Emerson and his Transcendentalist colleagues are clearly visible in Whitman’s poetry, particularly in his early poem, Song of Myself.  Despite general praise and enthusiasm for his work from transcendental icons Emerson and Thoreau, neither was able to fully embrace his poetry.  Whitman took Transcendentalist views of the self and nature to a level where neither Emerson nor Thoreau were particularly comfortable – specifically into the realm of sexuality.  For Whitman, the celebration of his own sexuality was his declaration of the self – it was part of the self-discovery of one’s own divinity through nature, which the transcendentalists meditated and preached upon (something that is addressed in his poem tonight, As Adam Early in the Morning).


An American Schubert who has composed more than 500 songs, Ned Rorem (b. 1923) has been frequently drawn towards Whitman’s writing throughout his compositional career.  Rorem is well known for his prose writing in addition to his compositional output, and his famously confessional and frank diaries could be considered his own Song of Myself.  As with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, while his diaries have been well-regarded, his frankness about his own sexuality (and that of his contemporaries) was considered controversial at the time of publication.   When writing his songs, Rorem has confessed to often choosing poetry for mostly practical reasons, looking for poetry with sounds that express and conform to the music he already has inside him.  Whitman proves to be an exception to this rule, however, as Rorem has writtenLooking back, I find that the dozen Whitman poems I have musicalized over the years were selected less from intellectual motives than because they spoke to my condition at a certain time.  I adopted them through that dangerous impulse called inspiration, not for the music, but for their meaning.”  In a sense, then, this set of Whitman settings by Rorem is a unique assertion of the self within his compositional output. 


Jake Heggie – Friendly Persuasions


“Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing.”

- Marc Chagall


No art is made in a vacuum. All artists seek to communicate with their community and the world around them and are inspired by various catalysts and muses. Jake Heggie’s song cycle, Friendly Persuasions, is a portrait of an artist through the eyes of the community of fellow artists and friends around him.  Commissioned by Wigmore Hall as part of a celebration of the songs of Francis Poulenc in 2008Heggie’s song cycle paints a picture of the famous French composer, through four vignettes, each involving a transformative figure in his life.  In the first song, the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (the woman largely responsible for reviving interest in the harpsichord last century), pressures Poulenc to finish his concerto for her, the Concert champêtre, one of many famous pieces she commissioned for the instrument.  In the second song, Poulenc is showing new settings of Cocteau for the baritone, Pierre Bernac, who championed his songs and often performed with him.  In total, Poulenc composed 90 songs for BernacThe third song is a reminiscence of Raymonde Linossiera woman who was very influential in early on Poulenc’s life, introducing him to many of the poets whose writing he later set to music.  His feelings for her were so strong that, despite his homosexuality, he proposed marriage to her – a proposal which she turned down, causing a falling out between the two, which was leftunrepaired when she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1930 at the age of 32.  Poulenc continued to dedicate pieces to her memory throughout the rest of his career.  The fourth song focuses on the French Resistance poet Paul Éluard, whose poetry he set while in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II as a gesture of defiance against the Germans.  Poulenc considered ÉluardBernac and Landowska to be the “three great meetings” of his professional life.


“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means

and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, 

it moves again since it is life.”

– William Faulkner 

In the end, perhaps this is the role of the singer as artist: Simply to be the vessel that allows the stranger to look upon this multi-faceted art form that is song.  To breathe life into the words and notes on the page, unlocking the visions of both poet and composer from their arrested state and allowing them to again become living things – acting as catalysts between a time past and the present day, reminding all of us that the experience of being human is one that is timeless.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

More Zweig Insight

“In general it is almost a necessity among poets that poetic feeling should be transmuted into religious feeling. But the creative poets of active mentality and intellectuality build their own religion, while the sensitive or passive poets pour out their flood of feeling for God in the form of existing rites and symbols.”

- Stefan Zweig, Paul Verlaine

Monday, November 09, 2015

Insight for the Day

"Lyricism is thinking without logic (although not contrary to logic), association not according to laws of thought but according to laws of intuition, the whispering of vague emotions, hidden correspondences, darkly murmuring subterranean streams. Lyricism again is thought without consequence, instinct and presentiment, leaping quickly in lawless synthesis; it is union but not a chain formed of individual links, it is melody but not scales." 

 - Stefan Zweig

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Happy 4th

Happy 4th, y'all.  After a week of seeing iconic government buildings lit up like rainbows, this one feels just a bit different and special to me.

Enjoy some Stravinsky and enjoy the day. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Love Wins

Waking up to the news of the Supreme Court of the United States' ruling legalizing gay marriage this morning, was an incredible and overwhelming sensation.  All day, I've felt so joyous, jubilant, emotional, enfranchised and empowered as the news has sunken in as a reality.  Surrounded by rainbows everywhere in my recently adopted home of San Francisco, where Pride celebrations have now stepped into overdrive, I couldn't be in a more perfect place to celebrate this historic, beautiful day.

A dear friend wrote to me today, expressing his admiration for last night's performance of Beethoven's only opera "Fidelio" at the San Francisco Symphony.  He eloquently pointed out:

"...It is, in a very special way, only fitting to listen to, and perform, Fidelio on this day, as the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled same sex marriage to be a constitutional right.  Leonore is Justice.  Still, with this historic ruling the battles will not be over.  At any rate, the triumphant final scene is now Beethoven’s very apt salute in celebrating Gay Pride this weekend..."

I couldn't agree with him more. This piece, about the strength of the marriage bond, and it's ability to triumph over the forces of hate and evil, could not be a more appropriate piece to perform to celebrate the day. If you happen to be in the audience tonight and see some tears streaming down my face as we sing that final chorus, you'll know it's because this day is a day I never could have dreamed would come during my lifetime when I came out of the closet as a young teenager twenty years ago. That scared and vulnerable teenage self is still very much a part of my core, and to him - today is nothing short of a miracle.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Oleg and Pierre

Oleg Bryjak, center
A quick throwback Thursday post on two fronts. Firstly, remembering the bass-baritone, Oleg Bryjak, who was among the 150 passengers on the Germanwings flight that crashed in the French Alps on Tuesday.  I had the chance to sing with Oleg back in 2010 during a production of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algieri at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein.  Oleg was a wonderful colleague - smart, funny, and an incredibly strong singer with an impressively agile and powerful voice, he was truly fearless on stage. All of the news about this Germanwings plane is more disturbing and upsetting with each update, it's hard to digest and leaves me bewildered, shocked, and just sad.

The above picture from the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 2010 is a great testament to Oleg's amazing and uplifting stage presence. I hope he is resting in peace.

Secondly, and on a more uplifting note, another fearless musician, Pierre Boulez, celebrates his 90th birthday today.  On a day when so many horrifying revelations are coming to light about how so many people's lives were prematurely cut short on Tuesday, it only feels that much more poignant to celebrate the 90th birthday of this great man.  

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Maestro Boulez - we performed some Stravinsky together with the Chicago Symphony in both Chicago and at Carnegie Hall a few years back. It was a monumentally inspiring week of music-making for me, and an experience I will always treasure. Because it was such a special  week, I feel lucky that it's documented so beautifully on recording.  NPR has a fantastic birthday tribute to him here.  As the ever-insightful David Robertson says about him at the end of the piece: "There are relatively few people who have this impact on the world, and Pierre is definitely up there among the major personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries."  I couldn't agree more.  Happy Birthday, Maestro.

Pierre Boulez

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Old Lutes

See how happy he is, playing his lute?

The text of the second song in Britten's Songs from the Chinese, 'The Old Lute', which Eliot Fisk and I performed recently at the Menil Collection with Da Camera of Houston, has been nagging at the back of mind since our concert a few weeks ago. 
The Old Lute

Of cord and cassia-wood is the lute compounded;
Within it lie ancient melodies.
Ancient melodies weak and savorless,
Not appealing to present men's taste.
Light and colour are faded from the jade-stops;
Dust has covered the rose-red strings.
Decay and ruin came to it long ago,
But the sound that is left is still cold and clear.
I do not refuse to play it, if you want me to;
But even if I play - people will not listen.
How did it come to be neglected so?
Because of the Ch'iang flute and the zithern of Ch'in.

"But even if I play - people will not listen."  I find it somewhat cheeky of Britten to have chosen this poem to set to music - it is, of course, one of the most beautiful songs out the cycle of six, and one can't help but feel as though he is poking fun at 'present men's taste' somehow.  Again - it also seems somewhat contradictory to his artistic philosophies, as he spearheaded a movement of British composers to look backwards - his music was profoundly impacted by the music of Henry Purcell and John Dowland.

Certainly, it’s because my most recent album released on Avie records last week is full of songs by composers (lute-players, even!) who have been dead many hundreds of years.  Perhaps also it's because a friend and colleague posted this article about declining arts audience numbers to his Facebook wall the other day, that I find myself wanting to debate the poem, which has become some sort of metaphor for the so-called 'death of classical music' in my mind.  Needless to say, I found it ironic that we performed the song a few weeks ago in front of a packed audience.

This past summer, my partner was doing a bit of work for the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, a biannual early music festival that takes place in Berkeley, CA.  As a result, I was able to attend the opening concert of the Festival - a concert of 15th century music for shawms, period bagpipes, recorders, and sackbuts performed by the ensemble, Ciaramella. The thing I found most fascinating and shocking about the performance was that the hall in which this concert was being held was packed to the gills with the most enthusiastic audience members.  There was even one particularly excited woman who was wearing a 'Got Shawms?' t-shirt.

Who would have thought there was an audience for shawms and 15th-century counterpoint?  Most people I know don't even know what a shawm is.  Yet, there we were, sitting in a completely full house - full of people who not only knew what shawms were, but were legitimate fanboys and fangirls of the ancient instrument, cheering with the same level of gusto as pre-teen girls at a One Direction concert.  This was a clear demonstration to me that an audience can be truly built for any kind of music of quality.  

During that concert, I found myself thinking about the organization I co-founded four years ago with two, amazing colleagues in Chicago, Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, an organization that is committed to promoting art song and vocal chamber music.  Much like the shawm, most people I encounter who are not classical musicians do not know what an art song is.  As we have built CAIC up from scratch over the past four years, it has become increasingly evident that many people are simply not familiar with this surprisingly large niche of classical music, and I've found it requires a lot of explanation when trying to build awareness of our little organization and its mission to promote and protect this intimately beautiful corner of the classical music repertoire.  Nonetheless, like the early music movement built a brand new audience over the past 35 years, CAIC, too, has continued to grow in Chicago – our audience numbers expanding healthily season after season. Listening to the shawms drone on and looking around at that enthusiastic and sold-out audience last summer, I felt like I was seeing what is possible with passionate advocacy and strong commitment to spreading the word about great music and music-making.  I found myself optimistic for the future of CAIC, as well as the future of classical music, in general.

It is not infrequent that when putting together projects or discussing the subject of recitals or repertoire with many people on the administrative side of our industry, I hear the words: “Oh, that won’t sell.”  These words really disturb me to my core: Underlying this defeatist statement is the belief that, even if we play, people will not listen. They’re just not interested.  Instead, we should subscribe to the tried and true – look at past audience numbers, see what has been popular, and just keep repeating that formula. 

In a digital age which has inundated us with an infinite number of options of art and entertainment from which to choose, it’s not that people will not listen.  It’s that they don’t see the option amidst the dizzying myriad of choices.  If they aren’t seeing it, it’s not a matter of a lack of interest, it’s a matter of cultivating that interest through drawing in the potential listener, the potential audience-member.  In these less simple times in the media, that means advocating and advertising a bit more loudly, with more insistence, and more creatively.

The songs on my most recent album are structured so that when one listens to them in order, they tell the story of a young man who falls passionately in love for a woman and who is ultimately destroyed by the fire of that passion. Aside from feeling that the repertoire naturally lent itself to it, the main reason I chose to structure A Painted Tale so that it had a dramatic framework and told a story was because I wanted to draw attention to dramatic and emotional power of these seemingly simple songs.  I wanted those already familiar with these songs to hear them with fresh ears and in a different context.  And I wanted people completely unfamiliar with them to have a reason to pause when considering that dizzying myriad of options as they browsed for something to listen to. 

In just the first week of its release, A Painted Tale debuted as one of the top 25 bestsellers on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart. And while that is a tiny milestone in the larger scope of things, it gives me such great hope for the future of this amazing art form that is classical music.  

We are playing, and people are listening.