Wednesday, December 31, 2008


As 2008 turns into 2009, I take a pause from my party preparations to reflect on the moment.

This past year has been one of many moments both trying and rewarding, exciting and tough. As I have gone about my New Year's Eve preparations today, trying to get some work done before the festivities begin, I have traipsed around Manhattan with a lightness in my step and a smile on my face. I look forward to the 2009 with a sense of hope and optimism. On top of all the seemingly positive changes happening in the world-at-large, the knowledge that many changes are to come as I leave my twenties on Saturday and begin a new decade of my life fills me with excitement.

Here's to a wonderful, happy, healthy, fulfilling and fruitful 2009 for all of us.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays

All the best for an joyous and peaceful holiday! Or, as a friend in Houston always says, "Merry Ho Ho!" (yes, that's you, Bonnie Sue!).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Innocence of Handel

About ten days ago, I sat down after beginning a performance of Messiah, and watched the audience. I had comforted the people and exalted the valleys, so I had a long stretch to enjoy the music and watch the faces in the crowd as they took in their yearly tradition of Hallelujahs. Some people obviously had experienced the piece numerous times, mouthing the words to their favorite choruses and swaying along with the music of their favorite arias, looks of happy expectation and excitement on their faces. There were also those clearly experiencing the piece for the first time – the most notable of which was an 8 or 9 year old, red-headed boy in the front row, looking at times interested in what was going on, and at other times, seeing exactly how far he could stick his tongue out or picking his nose.

Much like I assume it was for that little boy, my first experience with the music of Handel was his famously popular (and sometimes too taken for granted) work, Messiah. My parents took me to the yearly concert at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, which was packed to the brim with families taking in the beginnings of their yearly holiday season traditions. So began my love affair with Handel, who remains my stranded-on-a-desert-island composer to this day. My CD collection has had more works by Handel than any other composer since I began buying CDs, and my iPod's most frequently played playlist is a collection of my favorite Handel arias.

When I began to study singing, one of the very first pieces I was assigned by Rosie was "Where'er you walk" from Semele. It was with this aria that I learned the musical structure of most of the arias Handel wrote, and where I began to learn the improvisational freedom of embellishment. Rosie gave me some ideas with which to start, and I took those and ran – inventing slightly new variations each time I sang the piece. The piece actually won me my very first vocal competition, which named me the best high school age singer in the State of Michigan in 1996 and afforded me my very first chance to sing with an orchestra.

I first became acquainted with "Enjoy the Sweet Elysian Grove" when I was studying at Manhattan School of Music. A friend of mine who put on interesting concerts from time to time asked me to sing the one short tenor aria in Handel's The Choice of Hercules. While the complete aria had been written as part of the incidental music for a production of what was to be Tobias Smollett's Alceste at Covent Garden, the play was cancelled and never performed. Handel took the never-performed A section of "Enjoy the Sweet Elysian Grove" and used it again in The Choice of Hercules, where I encountered it for the first time.

The Alceste aria, which invites the listener to enjoy the utopian splendor of Elysium (the place where all souls went to dwell in the afterlife of the Greek and Roman Mythology), is almost a hedonist's anthem. There is nothing to do but enjoy and experience – all is pleasure, and all is blissful, innocent happiness. In the B section, the tenor refers to his listener as an "unpolluted shade" – where else can any journey or story begin but from an unpolluted, clean place? In life, we all start in this place – in a way, many times over – in which we are in a state of blissful ignorance, only to experience something and to learn more about ourselves and the world. This is the part before a layer of the onion is pulled away, inducing the tears that we experience as part of discovering ourselves and our lives.

Removed from its context, "Where'er you walk" seems like a simple prayer for protection from the hurts and growing pains of life and for constant happiness and delight. Even in its context, in which Jupiter seeks to distract Semele from her desire to see him in his true form, a lightning bolt (something that would kill her and which eventually does), these sentiments are layered in – removing it from its context just allows one to focus on the core of what is there. Jupiter seeks to protect her from experience and knowledge that will cause her hurt – a similar sentiment to one that parents feel for their children. As I enter that age in which my circle of friends are beginning to have children, I find myself thinking like thoughts to Jupiter's – may the world bend to your wishes, only show you it's beauty, may it protect you and may happiness always find you. May it not be too painful as you leave the paradise of innocence and gain experience. Thoughts I imagine that red-headed boy's grandparents wish for him on his own life's journey.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Program or A Life’s Journey

Context is a powerful thing. In opera or even oratorio, the context is clear – one is part of a storyline, character is fairly well defined. In art song, context can be ambiguous. That is what makes it so challenging and, yet, potentially so impactful. The possibilities are seemingly endless, and, as a result, the individuality of a performer's personal emotional stamp on a song can be all the more extraordinary. Also, sometimes pieces in a recital have been removed from their original context, imbuing them with new poignancy not imagined before. Not long ago, I went to a good friend's cabaret show in Midtown Manhattan and heard every single song on his program in a new context – each song had seemed to have new meaning and brought me new perspective as an audience member. It seemed that, in a way, I was hearing each song again for the first time. That night, I felt like our worlds and our goals were not all that different.

Here is the recital tour program:


Enjoy the sweet Elysian Grove from Alceste

Where'er you walk from Semele


Le plus doux chemin

Chanson d'amour




Liederkreis, Op. 24

Morgens steh' ich auf und frage

Es treibt mich hin

Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen

Lieb' Liebchen

Schöne Wiege

Warte, warte wilder Schiffman

Berg und Burgen schau'n herunter

Anfangs wollt' ich fast verzagen

Mit Myrten und Rosen



Winter Words, Op. 52

At Day-close in November

Midnight on the Great Western (or the Journeying Boy)

Wagtail and Baby (a Satire)

The little old Table

The Choirmaster's Burial (or The Tenor Man's Story)

Proud Songsters (Thrushes, Finches, and Nightingales)

At the Railway Station, Upway (or the Convict and Boy with the Violin)

Before Life and After


How Blest are Shepherds from King Arthur

Olinda in the Shades Unseen

Evening Hymn

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Recital Adventure

On the 16th of January, I will commence my very first recital tour in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago. After my recital in Chicago, I will appear at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and then finish the tour in Oberlin under the auspices of the Marilyn Horne Foundation.

When I began to study singing and started to shift my musical focus away from the violin, opera was largely not what captured my attention musically. At first, I had a brief brush with Musical Theater, but soon after that, it was the early Italian songs that many young voice students are assigned to sing and a lot of art songs. Opera was not much on my mind, and while I knew that I wanted to sing classical music for a living – I really had no idea of what that entailed. All that was important to me was that I had found a way to make music a central part of my life.

Once I settled on my first teacher, Rosemary Russell (who was a professor at the University of Michigan at the time), I applied myself to studying voice with the intensity that I had studied the violin previously. I still played in my youth orchestras and took violin lessons, but I added my solo voice work and a couple of choirs to the mix. In finding Rosie, I had stumbled onto perhaps the biggest blessing in my musical development. I found a voice teacher who saw the innate passion that I had for music and exploited that fire in me to spur me onwards to faster and faster growth. Having started out as an organist herself, she understood my instrumental background and showed me music that met my interests where they were and piqued my curiosity to discover more. As a violinist, my musical upbringing had been Bach and Vivaldi concertos, the symphonies of Mahler, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. I didn't have a clue as to who Verdi was. My very first experience with Rossini was playing the second violin in "Una voce poco fà" – I kept getting lost, because it was just not music that made sense to me – it just seemed like an endless series of boom-chick-chicks. Rosie somehow understood this about me and started me off on the songs of Fauré, lieder by Schumann and Schubert, folksongs of Britten, songs by Purcell, Vaughan Williams and Finzi, and Handel arias. She would tell me to buy certain books of songs, and I would bring them to my lessons, where she would meticulously circle all the songs that she thought I should look at as a place to start. I would rush home after each lesson, devour the music as fast as my brain and throat could consume it, and come back the next week with more than we could get through in an hour. Each new song she guided me towards was like a new, shiny gem that entranced me – it was like there was an infinite amount of musical beauty in the world to discover, and I couldn't become familiar with it all fast enough.

The upcoming recitals feel like a bit of a trip to the past for me – preparing for them, I am constantly reminded of the passion for music that she nurtured in me and all the things I learned in those first six years of study with Rosie, who passed away in 2005. I'm also reminded of my many other mentors along the way, as well – but it is Rosie who has been popping up the most these past two weeks as Myra and I have started to dig into this material.

Having picked out the program myself (as with most recitals), I feel a stronger personal connection with this venue of performance and this music than other musical adventures I get to go on. So for the next month and half or so, the blog will mostly be devoted to my thoughts on the recital, the anecdotes that come up, and discussing the program itself. It's mostly what is consuming my thoughts these days, and it will be fun to ramble on about it as I prepare and swim through all of this music in the coming weeks.