Tuesday, September 27, 2016

From the City of Brotherly Love

I've had this nagging itch to write more regularly here the past couple of months.  I've ignored it as best I can, but I'm slowly realizing that I need to pay attention to that insistent, prodding voice/feeling.  So, I think I am going to try to post daily for the next little while.  I can't promise anything profound, but it's about time for me to start writing more again.  Plus, I have a lot of ideas and news that I hope to share on here over the next few months, so why not get into the practice of it all again?

It's been a rather densely packed time lately, and (thankfully) it shows no signs of letting up for another couple of weeks.  In the last 6 weeks, I've toured Bach cantatas and masses through many of the Bach cities in Germany, revisited some Scarlatti with my dear Philharmonia Baroque colleagues at Tanglewood, mounted our fifth Collaborative Works Festival in Chicago, and made my Asian debut performing and recording more Bach cantatas in Japan.  Just yesterday, I found myself getting off a plane here in Philadelphia, where I am excited to be for a week of Mozart with the Philly Orchestra.

Good evening, Philadelphia #TouringLife #HotelViews #Mozart

It felt fitting to land just in time for last night's presidential debate here in this city in which our great nation, for all intents and purposes, was born.  Watching Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spar with each other while sipping my anxious feelings in the hotel bar, I had the distinct feeling that we are, as a nation, on the precipice of an important turning point in American history.  I really do believe that this great experiment in democracy has the potential to change dramatically (and perhaps collapse in on itself) depending on the outcome of this upcoming election.  For me, last night's debate only highlighted just how great the threat our democracy (and the world) faces in November truly is.

Here we go... #debates

I find myself with an unexpected free day here in Philly, which is fantastic.  It allows me some extra study time to continue preparing for next week's Stravinsky adventures back home in the Bay, as well as an opportunity to catch the much raved-about 'Breaking the Waves' at Opera Philadelphia tonight.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Simple Songs

Tonight is a special milestone, as the 5th annual Collaborative Works Festival opens tonight in Chicago.  The annual vocal chamber music festival is presented each year by Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, an organization devoted to the preservation and promotion of art song and vocal chamber music that I co-founded with two amazing colleagues, Nicholas Hutchinson and Shannon McGinnis, back in 2010.

Having been a part of launching and growing this Festival for the past five years has been an incredible privilege that has affected me deeply, most notably focusing and honing my artistry - enhancing my passion for this art form with a deep sense of mission.  As we go into tonight's opening concert, I am deeply grateful to my phenomenal co-founders Shannon and Nick for all that they do to make this organization grow year after year, working with the army of world-class artists, incredibly generous donors, amazing board members and advisors, and devoted volunteers that we have been lucky enough to call the CAIC family.  It's been an beautiful and exciting journey so far, with the past five years seeing inspiring performances from my colleagues, magical educational moments, and exponential audience growth all combining with the overwhelming generosity of our supporters to build a much-needed platform for this exquisite, intimate art form.

It seems only fitting to celebrate this 5th anniversary with a song - with one that was a featured part of last year's Festival, but also which encapsulates all that we have been trying to do over the past five years at CAIC - to sing simple songs.

Here's to reaching 5 years, and to looking forward to the many more to come.

Leonard Bernstein
Simple Song from 'Mass'

TEXT (Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz):

Sing God a simple song:
Lauda, Laudē
Make it up as you go along:
Lauda, Laudē
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all,
For God is the simplest of all.
I will sing the Lord a new song
To praise Him, to bless Him, to bless the Lord.
I will sing His praises while I live
All of my days.
Blesed is the man who loves the Lord,
Blessed is the man who praises Him.
Lauda, Lauda, Laudē
And walks in His ways.
I will lift up my eyes
To the hills from whence comes my help.
I will lift up my voice to the Lord
Singing Lauda, Laudē.
For the Lord is my shade,
Is the shade upon my right hand,
And the sun shall not smite me by day
Nor the moon by night.
Blessed is the man who loves the Lord,
Lauda, Lauda, Laudē,
And walks in His ways.
Lauda, Lauda, Laudē,
Lauda, Lauda di da di day.
All of my days.

Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano
recorded LIVE at San Francisco Performances, January 28, 2016 (Salons at the Hotel Rex)

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

Producer / Recording Engineer: Lolly Lewis
Recording assistant: Emma Logan
Mastering / Mixing: Piper Payne, Coast Mastering

Cinematography: Catharine Axley, Kristine Stolakis
Editor: Catharine Axley

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Bach in Bach-Country

I've been privileged to return for another amazing week in Thüringen - the land of Bach - for another amazing program of Bach Cantatas and Masses with Helmuth Rilling as he leads an academy for young musicians from around the world interested in the music of Bach.  What a privilege to watch these musicians from so many different countries and continents to come together to make this amazing music written by this devoted genius from hundreds of years ago.

Bach's music is truly the touchstone to which I always return when attempting to find my center.  Perhaps it's just a symptom of the fact that I was raised musically studying his violin concertos, but no composer has taught me more about music, vocal technique, nor instilled in me such a sense of awe and humility.

Also, what a privilege to have this week to work alongside Maestro Rilling yet again - never have I met someone so invested in the growth and deepening of artistry of those who surround him, regardless of age or level of experience.  I really feel a true sense of musical family with this man who has lived with the music of Bach for so many years.  He is a constant inspiration.

Here's a short documentary about last year's academy...this year has been no less revelatory and touching:

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.