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.



Friday, January 23, 2015

Michigan-inspired Serenades

Post-performance shot backstage with the amazing David Cooper

In a way, if one thinks about it, much of Britten's music after 1939 is, in a way, inspired by my home state of Michigan.  One night, in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, the relationship between Britten and Pears escalated from a professional friendship to the intense romance that knit the two together for the rest of Britten's life.  A quote from one of Pears' later letters to Britten:

"I shall never forget a certain night in Grand Rapids -- Ich liebe dich, io t'amo, jeg elske deg(?), je t'aime, in fact, my little white-thighed beauty, I'm terribly in love with you." 

Over lunch yesterday, David Cooper, the principal horn of the Dallas Symphony and my fantastic co-soloist for our performances of Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn & strings this weekend in Dallas discovered that we are both from Michigan. David is from Lansing, and I was raised in Ann Arbor.   Thus, it all comes full-circle and is a particularly Michigan-inspired weekend in Dallas.  

Yes, Michigan, indeed...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pink Elephants

A week from tonight, I'll be performing with guitarist, Eliot Fisk, with Da Camera of Houston. The program is comprised of music performed by Sir Peter Pears and the famed guitarist, Julian Bream - who accompanied Pears with increasing frequency towards the end of Britten's life, the period when Britten wasn't anymore able to accompany Pears in recital due to the deterioration of his right hand after undergoing heart surgery in 1973.

Bream and Pears
The program opens with a song that I initially thought was just a simple silly song, but has over the past couple of months given me pause.  As I've studied it in preparation for our concert next week, I've found myself pondering the song much more than I ever thought it would, because of it's strange and uncharacteristic (for Britten) message.  The song, the opening song of Britten's cycle for tenor and guitar, Songs from the Chinese, is a strange call to ignore the cares of the world - an admonition to keep one's head down, and remain detached.

The Big Chariot 

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You won't be able to see for dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You'll be stifled with dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

While I can see Britten's attraction to the poem as a warning to protect one's innocence (and therefore one's unsullied, na├»ve happiness), the admonition to not think about the "sorrows of the world" strikes me as a strange one to draw the attention of someone like Britten, who was very much aware and conscious of the sorrows of the world around him.  A staunch pacifist and deeply thoughtful man, his work centered on so many socially-conscious themes, including the plight of the societal outcast and the futility and waste of war.  When thinking about the song in that context, there's something about the choice of the poem that strikes me as strange.

Mentioning this to Eliot yesterday in rehearsal, I also noted that the song is very much like the proverbial admonition to not think about the pink elephant in the room.  Each time I've come to study and practice it, I find myself thinking of nothing BUT the sorrows of the world. Whether they be the recent horrible terrorist attacks in Paris, the beheadings by ISIS in the middle east, or even the quadruple homicide that occurred the other night, just blocks away, while I was onstage performing Les Illuminations with the San Francisco Symphony (parade sauvage, indeed...) - I find myself pondering nothing but the world's woes as I sing it.

Perhaps this is part of what drew Britten to the poem in the first place?  Perhaps it appealed to him on multiple levels? The effort to protect fragile innocence?  The futility of that effort? Or perhaps he had simply come to think it actually was good advice, the world a no less dangerous, volatile, and threatening place than any previous era in human history?  I'm not sure.

Either way, I can't stop thinking about the pink elephant in the room.

Hear Ian Bostridge and Xufei Yang perform the piece below:



Friday, January 09, 2015

Beginnings / Illuminations

So...I only logged in one solitary post here in 2014.

The main reason for this is that 2014 was quite simply an incredibly busy year.  I mean that in the sense that it was both incredible and it was busy.  That said, I've not totally abandoned this blogging thing in any way whatsoever.  I simply took a bit of a hiatus.  Hiatus over.

I've had the subject of beginnings floating around in my head as 2014 turned into 2015 - it's a topic that frequently occupies my mind around this time each year.  Perhaps that is a large part of why I feel compelled to end this holiday from the blogosphere (do people even call it that anymore?).  It's the time of year for fresh starts, I guess.

Rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony this morning
photo credit: Lolly Lewis
Speaking of beginnings, I begin my string of 2015 performances tonight here in my new home of San Francisco (layers upon layers of beginnings!) with a set of performances of excerpts from Britten's Les Illuminations with the San Francisco Symphony in its new experimental performance space, Soundbox (yet another beginning).

Britten composed Les Illuminations in 1939, during a heady, tumultuous, and life-changing time in his life, as well as in the world at large. With the world descending into violence and upheaval around him, and Britain being pulled into World War II, it was during this time that he crossed the Atlantic for the first time, following W.H Auden and Christopher Isherwood to the US.  It was also during this time in America that Britten's relationship with Pears transformed from a professional friendship into the romantic partnership that would last until his death in 1976.  The seventh song of the cycle (which we're unfortunately not performing on this weekend's program), Being Beauteous, is even dedicated to Peter Pears.

Each time I return to a familiar piece in my repertoire (which Les Illuminations is, for me), I find new layers of meaning open up to me upon revisiting it.  This occurs for a variety of reasons, mostly ones that have to do with marinating, time, and age.  This time is no different.

Arthur Rimbaud
It's not difficult to see why Britten was attracted to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, who's poetry comprises the texts of Les Illuminations, during this time. Rimbaud's poetry reads much like an acid-trip - he views the seemingly mundane world around us through a haze of wonderment, insanity, and eccentricity.  Cities and the people and things which inhabit them are seen as the gods and supernatural creatures of Greek mythology - the world is a wild and divine place, and these things which we normally take for granted are suddenly fantastical, beautiful and monstrous.  With the home he knew in Great Britain and Europe seemingly falling into chaos as Hitler pushed towards another world war, and traveling around a foreign country far from home, it's understandable why he was drawn to these works.  His world was turned upside-down, surely almost feeling like a surreality rather than a reality.

Thinking about this context in which he composed these songs, it feels timely to be singing such pieces about the savage and beautiful world in which we live.  With the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris these past few days all over the news, the world still seems like a savage and bewildering place.  On a more personal level, my new home city, San Francisco, is also a strangely beautiful place: singing these songs this time, I find myself thinking a bit about the sense of wonder that I experience every time I look out at the Bay and its bridges, or the savage parade of characters that one passes by in the Castro every day.  

There is one phrase that Britten was first drawn to when composing these songs, which repeats multiple times throughout the cycle:

J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage

"I, alone, hold the key to this savage parade"

This is a bold statement for Britten to fixate on, yet, again, an understandable one.  Here he was: a stranger in a strange land, a pacifist in a violent maelstrom, a gay man in a straight world...and an artist.  An artist looking in from an outside perspective.  In a way, it seems like Britten is making a declaration about himself as an artist here.  As if he is saying, from here on out, this is how I am going to define my work - this is the beginning of a new chapter in my music.  Listen up.

As beginnings go, I must say, it's an impressive and a beautiful one.  I'm really grateful to get to perform parts of it tonight.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Travel and Bigotry

A post from Mark Twain today (thank you to my FB friend for posting it and drawing my attention to it) - I couldn't agree more...


Image source is here.



Saturday, December 28, 2013

Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth



"…when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this a grievous sin, and at those times, I would prefer not to hear the singer."
- St. Augustine

Words I can get behind.