Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009

As the New Year has approached, I've heard a lot of people tell me how happy they are to bid good riddance to 2009 and welcome 2010 with open, hopeful arms. While I am inclined to agree with that sentiment, there are many incredible and special memories that I have from this past 12 months, as well. 2009 was a year of drastic change that involved learning many life lessons on every level, and while lessons are not always pleasant to learn and growing sometimes involves growing pains, I am so grateful for each and every experience. Thinking back on the past year, many of the happiest and most meaningful moments for me were somewhat quiet ones– their simplicity is what touched me the most deeply:

- A small preview recital that Myra and I gave at Rockefeller University before our recital tour in January. It was one of the most emotionally intense performances that I think we have ever given, and the audience there was especially appreciative. Perhaps because it was early in the morning, I was feeling especially open and vulnerable and just poured myself into it. I discovered a new level of how much one is able to give of oneself in performance that morning.

- Superbowl weekend in Miami – the first real vacation I had taken in a long time. I rediscovered the value of kicking back and doing nothing but soaking in some sun by the pool for a couple of days and exactly how healing that can be.

- Stepping in at the last minute to sing The Creation at Carnegie Hall with Helmuth Rilling and the Orchestra of St. Luke's – That was another day I learned exactly how much I am capable of when I just give myself over to the music and the moment. I felt a dream come true that night.

- Performing Stravinsky's Pulcinella with the Chicago Symphony and Pierre Boulez – need I say more?

- My first St. John Passion Evangelist in Boston in March – It was a weekend of great fun with wonderful musicians who played and sang their hearts out and music-making with a good friend on the podium – the perfect way to experience such a great and important piece for the first time.

- Rehearsing and performing at Marlboro – As it has been for the past two summers, my experience at Marlboro this summer was incredible. My groups worked so hard on our pieces, and I felt like I forged and solidified special musical relationships while working on those projects. It was Marlboro at its best – colleagues and friends working together as hard as possible, for as much time as necessary, and at the highest level with an unparalleled commitment to music. And the audiences are part of what was special, too – so open and attentive in that unique way that is particular to those music-lovers who fill the hall up there in Vermont. It's amazing to see an audience so enthralled by music as strange as Britten's Canticle V or swept up in the stories of On Wenlock Edge or respond so viscerally and excitedly to Monteverdi.

- The cast and crew of Falstaff on the Glyndebourne Tour – The level of camaraderie I experienced this fall while at Glyndebourne was perhaps unmatched thus far. We shared countless laughs, hearty meals, and good times during our three months together. I had the most fun with my new friends as we toured around England, and it was an experience that I will forever treasure.

- Visiting with my family in Glyndebourne – the trips that my mother, aunt, and brother all made to Glyndebourne were some of the best family bonding time we have had in years. It was tremendous fun to show them around what had been my own little corner of England for two months.

There is already so much to look forward to in 2010 that is on the calendar (including the release of this in a few short weeks!), but what I almost am more excited about are the countless unexpected moments in store.

All the best for a happy, healthy, and beautiful 2010!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Fugue

Tonight, what seemed like the never-ending story at the beginning will come to its conclusion as we sing the last notes of the fugue that ends Falstaff, and the 2009 Glyndebourne Tour will come to a close. At Wednesday's show here in Plymouth, I looked up at Elena as she effortlessly sang the first of her three answers to my call of "Bocca baciata non perde ventura…" and felt a twinge of melancholy, sad that we only had one more show to go. It surprised me, because as we had entered the home-stretch of this tour, my homesickness had started to take over, and I was beginning to get excited at the prospect of sleeping in my own bed for this first time since August.

We arrived to start this journey at the very beginning of September, and during a conversation with a friend back in the states the other day, they pointed out that this has basically been like a semester abroad. Yesterday, during a farewell lunch with my dear friend and colleague, Susie, a good friend from my HGO Studio days who has been on the music staff of the tour and also playing the continuo for the Così fan tutte performances, she asked me what I have learned on this tour. It made me think back to student days when our lives were actually divided up into semesters, and our lives changed dramatically in the span of those 12 – 14 week stretches, our minds soaking up new a constant, endless flow of lessons like sponges.

Some of the things I've learned have been new information. Little things like the English have this habit of saying "Are you alright?" instead of "How are you?", which had me thinking that I constantly looked like I was depressed for weeks until I realized what they were actually asking. Many of the discoveries I've made about life and music in the last three months have been a deepening of my understanding of things I already thought I understood thoroughly. I've rediscovered how much I love to perform. After last season's intense study with my teacher in New York, I've had ample practice time to integrate a lot of what I learned there into my repertoire – both new and old – and I have new questions for when I head back. I've learned how to be rooted a bit more in the present moment and really enjoy the positive aspects of my time on the road, despite the great homesickness I feel at times. I've discovered new friends and deepened friendships with old ones. I've dug deeper into Fenton's character, finding more layers to him than I realized were there before. I've learned that we can always give the audience more. At the end of this adventure, I find that while I feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride, I also feel quite humble and more open than ever.

To all of my colleagues in the cast, orchestra, crew, music staff, and chorus these past three months, thank you for an incredible time. It's been an extraordinary three months, and I leave a slightly different person thanks to the good times we have shared together.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turkey and Stuffing

Trolling through Facebook this morning, I chuckled when I saw a Canadian friend's status that read:

"An American tradition: Kill some Indians with small pox, kill a turkey, stuff your gut till you get indigestion, take Pepcid, trap family members together for an extended period of time destroying relationships, and then get up the next day and trample each other to death as you try to be the first to get the discounted flat screen TV at Walmart…"

There have been times that I have appreciated that sentiment, as I have been stuck in insanely long security lines at the airport trying to get home for the weekend or have nearly been trampled in pushy crowds at Whole Foods fighting over whose tofurky is whose. Alas, not this year. Being abroad for the second time on the day of the turkey, I've actually spent the day alone, relaxing, and mentally drifting towards the more grateful intent of the holiday.

Earlier in the year, amidst all of the personal turbulence that I was going through, I was rehearsing the Evening Hymn with Myra for one of our recitals. I found that I couldn't get much past the first couple of pages of the song without starting to cry. It was one of those magical moments of epiphany – one of those moments when a song suddenly becomes personal and makes sense in a new, clearer, and shockingly more specific way. I had been feeling so exhausted and was so overcome with guilt and heartbreak processing the fact that my personal life had exploded so terribly, and as I sang, my thoughts drifted to all that was still amazing in my life despite the turmoil on the surface of things. The knowledge that, even though I was feeling devastated, there were still so many people and things to turn to for comfort overwhelmed me with gratitude.

It's been a tough year, but it's also been extraordinary, filled with astounding revelations and great lessons. Since that moment with the Evening Hymn, I've been a bit preoccupied with thankfulness. It's so easy to focus on the negative for all of us – it's a really great thing to have a holiday that is meant for us to adjust our focus to the blessings in our lives.

I'm grateful to be loved so deeply by a great many people. I'm grateful to love a great many people in return. I'm grateful for the lessons I've learned over the past months about life, love and music. I'm grateful for a loving and extremely supportive family. I'm grateful for the wonderful and generous colleagues I've had over the past year who have taught me so much and provided so much fun. I'm grateful for my laptop and my iphone, which keep me connected to those close to my heart yet far away on the map. I'm grateful for a new apartment to come home to next week. I'm grateful for Glee, which has kept me laughing at my loneliest moments abroad this fall. I'm grateful for friends and loved ones who inspire. I'm grateful for the unexpected surprises that came my way this year. I'm grateful for a life in music.

And that's just to name a few of the things that I'm thankful for.

To everyone back home (and a few abroad): May you have a very Happy Thanksgiving - I hope you have just as much and more to be grateful for.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Community

During my last two weeks in Lewes, while various members of my family were visiting me to see the shows, I took two tours of the Charleston house – the home of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and the summer home of the Bloomsbury Group. The house and the grounds are stunning – sculpture protrudes seemingly from every plant in the garden, and the walls, furniture, doorways all served as canvases for these artists' creative output throughout the house. Objects as simple as lampshades provided ample opportunity for not only painting and upholstery, but even pottery and sculpture. As I walked from room to room , I was awed at the sheer abundance of color, design, and beauty – it was as if these people were so overflowing with creativity, they could scarcely find enough surfaces to paint.

As our guide took us on a tour through the house, she spent a little time in each room relating anecdotes about the group and their various relationships, friendships, and affairs. Later, in the gift shop, I perused the many books about the various members of the group that they were selling, many of which contained letters they wrote to each other – their fierce commitment to their art and to each other was not only astounding but inspiring. While the Bloomsbury group were not a formal society of any sort and their association, it seems, was purely social for the most part, I couldn't help but think that the huge creative output by each member of the group (which included incredibly accomplished artists and intellectuals like Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and John Maynard Keynes) must have been spurred on by the great sense of community they obviously had. I imagined their lazy summers spent lounging together, idly discussing literature, politics, and their love affairs, and I felt a twinge of envy.

I've been working at a snail's pace through Finding Water, Julia Cameron's latest Artist's Way book, and a lot of the exercises pose the question: who defines one's own artistic community. I always find that when I think about those people who are closest to me, I am lucky – I find that I repeatedly count the same 10 or 15 people among those people that I trust. It's a rather large number of people who have been and continue to be there through thick and thin. But when I consider where each of these people live – I am saddened by how spread out across the map they are. They live in Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, Cologne, Atlanta, Portland, Ann Arbor, Concord, Lexington, and New York – not to count the couple who are musicians and live out of their suitcases, like me. Compound on this my transitory life and a move across country not too long ago, and I realize that I've been feeling a bit groundless for the past couple of years. On the one hand, I am grateful for the travel, as it allows me to get face time with everyone. But it's the regular contact and the sense of home that one finds in loved ones that I long for. It makes me anxious to get home so I can start getting settled into my brand new place that I moved into at the end of the summer (and haven't seen since then) and throw a housewarming party.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scene Stealers

Here are two shots from one of our balance calls on the road. The first is of Nanetta - Elena Tsallagova - sitting at the bar that is the set for Act I, scene i - a part of the set we only get to enjoy at balance calls. She is not only intensely fun to perform with, but she inspires me with her singing at every performance.

And here is one of the real scene-stealers of the show - he and his feline friends make appearances in each scene, disinterestedly observing all of our antics throughout the opera, seeming quite bored in that manner which only cats are capable of. This one watches as Dr. Caius unsuccessfully confront Falstaff, Bardolfo, and Pistola at the top of the show.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Most Striking Image I Saw Today


At the Tate Britain as part of the Turner and Masters exhibit.An adventure with my good friend and flatmate-for-the-month, Susie. In the midst of a plethora of stunning landscapes, this one stopped us in our tracks.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Visitors

After the shows opened, I was lucky enough to have some family visitors come visit to see a couple of the performances. One who has come many places to see me in the states made her first journey overseas to see a performance in Glyndebourne - my aunt. Recently retired, she has been able to take advantage of her new-found freedom to do what she loves best - explore the world. She's been all over the world, but has never been able to work it out before to come see me sing when I am abroad. It was nice to be able to be an excuse for her to be able to visit somewhere new. An added bonus of having her as a visitor was that it allowed me to do what I never seem to get to do on the road. Be at tourist.

Here's a picture of her engaging in her other favorite pastime.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Stir Crazy


The other day, one of my colleagues called, begging me to go out with him to Brighton, which is not far from Glyndebourne. He said, "I have to get out of here – I going out of my mind. I mean, I love it here, but I'm just not used to having this much free time. It's driving me crazy – I need to be doing something!" He explained that, accustomed to normally working on a concert schedule, he wasn't used to having to waiting around for so long in between performances and devoting such an long time to just one thing. Instead of having an intense week of rehearsal and then a series of back-to-back concerts, stir craziness was setting in during these multiple days off between shows.

When I first arrived here, I was anything but restless – I felt stimulated and energized by our intense rehearsal schedule that provided a consistent regularity for our first month here. It was nice to be in the same place for an extended period after running around all summer, with a regular regimen to my days and weeks. But by the time my colleague called the other day, as the rehearsal schedule was winding down and our opening approached – I felt very much the same way, and I acquiesced. After a year of only concerts and recitals in which I was constantly on the move, learning new music, and either constantly rehearsing or performing, I could relate to his unease with so much free time and such a long period on just one project. We had a lovely night out filled with martinis, red wine, stimulating discussions about life and music, and a really lovely Italian meal.

A day or two after our opening, the cast's hive-mindedness that I wrote about a while back took an inconvenient turn – we all came down with the same cold. For the second show, six of us showed up complaining of being sick, and while it hasn't (thankfully and touch wood) descended into any of our throats, it has forced me to take it easy most of the last week. With the exception of one mini-excursion that I took with my aunt who was visiting last week, I've pretty much been confined to resting at home in an effort to get better, and unable to really practice on my days off.

The thing that has been most unnerving about all this free, idle time, beyond feeling restless – or perhaps a symptom of my restlessness – is that it allows my focus to drift from healthy pursuits that keep me locked in the moment and enjoying all that I have in my life now towards thoughts of what I don't have. I can slowly feel the goals and dreams that I am aiming for turn into resentments and jealousy of things that I don't have – a general sense of impatience has started to pervade. Once I say these things out loud to one of my closest confidants, I immediately realize how ridiculous I sound complaining when I have so much to be grateful for and proud of. Immediately, everything is put in perspective. Still, it scares me how easily my hopes and aspirations can be pushed across the line to obsessions and expectations.

It's so easy to slip off track, but I'm so thankful that I have such a good network of colleagues and friends to point out when I am going astray and guide me back to where I want to be.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Gay Icons

Last weekend, I traipsed into London to catch the very last day of the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The Gallery had asked ten gay, public figures to choose six of their own icons – heroes or people, either straight or gay, who influenced or somehow had an impact on forming who they are in the present day. The selectors' choices were widely diverse, ranging from life-partners and family members to Virginia Woolf to The Village People. I gazed at portraits of people with life stories both familiar and completely unknown to me, moved by their tales of courage, strength, intellect, innovation, integrity, pride, and, at times, tragedy. About halfway through I noticed that in the middle of it all was a table stocked with silver and white cards asking us to write about someone we considered to be an iconic figure. It got me thinking about who I would have chosen as icons. I found it difficult to choose just six, and I found myself wondering exactly what an icon was to me. Was it a famous person or group whose image was ubiquitous who I looked up to? Was it a personal hero who inspired me? I began to wonder if there was a difference.

At times, some people debate with me the purpose of being on Facebook, Tweeting, and having a blog, and question my decision to open myself up to a seeming lack of privacy. I always reply to those people that I only share what it is that I wish to – I, like any blogger or person on Facebook, is as open as I choose to be. Funnily enough, I almost hit one of those boundaries when thinking about this post. While ruminating about the Gay Icons exhibit and thinking about blogging about it, I found myself incredibly shy and self-conscious about revealing who I consider to be important and influential to me, and it has, as a result, taken me a long time to draft this. I thought it was a strange time for my sense of privacy to kick in. Regardless, here are few of the people, a sampling of my own personal heroes that I look up to, that I would have chosen.

Rosemary Russell – Rosie was the first voice teacher that I worked with for an extended period of time – from the ages of 16-22. Over those six years, she not only taught me the basics of singing, but also fostered the love of music that she saw in me. During my study with her, I hungrily chewed through a vast amount of repertoire, from songs to oratorio arias to opera. From her, I learned what it is to be a musician – not just a singer, and how technique and expression serve each other. One of the most valuable lessons she ever taught me was that there are many ways to make a career in music, and that not any one of them is less honorable or less successful than the other. She inspired in me the courage to pursue this passion of mine full-throttle. The lessons she gave me continue to teach me to this day, and I suspect for many years to come. Many times over have I had a moment in which I think to myself, "oh yeah…that's what she was talking about…" She passed away in the fall of 2005, and I have missed her greatly ever since.

Dan Savage – Not only have I been entertained by his column Savage Love as well as many of his books for many years, but I've found inspiration in both the advice he gives and in those varied people who seek it. Listening to his podcast and reading his column, I've learned that both diversity and acceptance are beautiful things to be celebrated enjoyed, and in doing so, our lives will be richer. Also, I greatly admire his political activism and very vocal criticism of the government's denial of our civil rights as gay people. There is great strength and pragmatism in his message to his audience, whether it be listeners seeking sex and relationship advice or viewers of CNN hoping to catch the latest debate on gay politics.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears – Britten's biography was the very first biography of a composer that I had ever read . I found myself fascinated by the story of his and Pears' lifelong relationship – a partnership that was not only a personal one but also artistic and creative one. Such total synthesis of two lives is a goal I think that most couples aspire to, and to see it achieved in a gay couple makes it doubly moving. Their story, coupled with their incredible artistic output have inspired in me not only a great love for Britten's music, but also the drive to always keep pushing ahead musically and artistically.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – During my first year in the HGO studio, I was quite busy with many small assignments on stage. On one of the few nights I had off and to myself that first season, I sat down on my couch and put in a tape of the Glyndebourne production of Theodora and found myself transfixed as I watched Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Irene. I couldn't tear my eyes away as I was hypnotized by her total commitment and her earthy musicality – every note poised with energy and direction. She quickly became one of my favorite singers to listen to. I've striven for that kind of commitment in my own music-making ever since.

Martin Katz – I first met Martin at the University of Michigan as a freshman at the School of Music when working with one of his Master's students. During my time at Michigan, I worked with him through many of his students, sang under his baton in my first performances of Fenton, and studied with him in two of his song classes. The most important lesson I learned from Martin was the relationship between text and music, and how both feed each other - and how powerful the combination of the two really can be when we dig deep as performers. He, along with Rosie, nurtured my love of songs and recital repertoire, and really taught me how to perform them. I have always been grateful to him for it.

Brendon Watson, Jennifer Erb-Downward, Erin Marie Williams, Leah Plunkett, Tory Dicarlo, and Josh Cowen – These six people are the people who have been my closest friends since my days in High School in Ann Arbor. Our friendships were deepened and cemented shortly after I came out of the closet at 15 or 16, and they have supported me at just about every major moment in my life. Each one of them is incredibly successful, accomplished, driven, intellectual, open, thoughtful, loving, caring, insightful, and incredible fun. It is from them that I have learned how to really listen and what the true meaning of friendship is.


Erin Marie Williams and Brendon Watson


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Heart

Yesterday, I went to visit Martin Isepp for lunch. Martin is an incredible vocal coach with whom I've spent the past three summers working on various song repertoire at Marlboro. My summers working with him have deepened my love of lieder and reconnected me with my passion for music in general. He's pushed me to demand the best from myself in my work and to constantly dig deeper. The main thing I've taken from him, though, is the importance of conveying the heart of the music. In all of my sessions with him, I am constantly humbled by how great the music we perform is and how much it demands of us, and at the end of our sessions I am always left feeling as if there is always further for me to go in being able to convey all that is there. At one point during our lunch yesterday, I was asking Martin for some feedback about a recital program that I have been thinking about for an upcoming recital tour next fall. After listening to some of my ideas, he considered them for a moment, and then said in his gentle manner, "it sounds like it could be really lovely, but one has to be careful not to get too intellectual about things."

Lately, I've noticed a lot of PR-hype about the booing at the new Tosca at the Met (which I did not see, being in England), and many reviews complaining about how the director's "concept" seemed to get in the way of the emotional impact of the piece and Puccini's vision of the story, leaving audiences, at the very least, dissatisfied. I've also seen many blog posts recently offering young artists as much business advice as possible so that they can groom themselves to be picked up by one of the many apprenticeship programs now that audition season is upon them. It's all had me thinking about being a bit "too intellectual" about things for the past month, so what Martin said resonated with me and struck a chord. It's all reminded me of my young artist days at HGO and at Glimmerglass, when I heard a ton of advice about what to sing in auditions, what to wear in auditions, I reformatted my resume countless times, spent hours in the copy room making sure my audition notebook was just right, fussed over which headshot to pick, and lost many an evening pouring over the internet worrying which manager would be best for me to contact or which program should I apply for. Yesterday at lunch, I recounted to Martin a story about how I used to offer the most difficult and flashy list of arias, trying to market myself as a certain type of singer, of a certain fach. The catch was that I was not really singing the music that I really had a passion for. I over-thought everything in order to fit myself into the box I thought I needed to fit into in order to move ahead. So, rather than have any sort of fun preparing and performing these pieces, I would simply fret and worry. I used to get incredibly nervous every time I auditioned, because rather than focus on my joy in singing, I was trying to sell myself as something. In the end, I realized that I was only selling myself short.

Hearing Martin's counsel, I also thought about a video celebrating Leontyne Price's NEA Opera Award last year (via Yankeediva) that I've watched a couple of times over the past few weeks. In it, Ms. Price said two things that really struck me. The first was: "To sing, I think, is the most human. You are the vessel, everything depends on how YOU feel as a person…you must have JOY to deliver this sound," and the other was: "…it needs ALL of you to be delivered, it needs EVERYTHING you have, but you must ENJOY giving everything you have."

While all of the business ends of this vocation are crucial to know and our intellects are vital, I was reminded yesterday that what is most important is that we not lose our passion in what we put forth as singers and musicians. Every time we open our mouths to sing, it's our responsibility to say what is in our hearts. Otherwise, it's just noise.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fenton

Inside the front cover of my Falstaff score is a little sticker that states that the score was a gift from the University of Michigan Friends of Opera, an organization that sponsored voice scholarships and opera productions at the University. In the fall semester of my senior year at the University, I learned the very first role I ever performed in Italian out of that Falstaff score - Fenton. The year before, we had staged the act I, scene ii Fenton/Nannetta duets for my scenes in opera workshop, and I was so excited to have a chance to get to perform the role in its entirety. I spent the end of my second summer at the Aspen Music Festival dutifully working Fenton's words into my mouth and emblazoning the notes he has to sing into my brain as I looked forward with anticipation to my first foray into the land of Verdi that autumn. Each time I look into the score, I see all of the notes I made translating each and every word and jotting down the directions our conductor, Martin Katz, gave us in rehearsal.

The wonderful thing about the diligence with which I studied this score the first time is that all of that hard work stuck. I've revisited Fenton couple times since then, in excerpts (in a scenes program at Manhattan School) and as a cover (while at HGO), and every time, coming back to him is like revisiting an old friend. No other role has felt so comfortable and so easy to remember when it comes time to revisit him.

Here in Glyndebourne, one challenge has been to remain open about my ideas about Fenton. Having lived with him so long, I've developed some pretty specific ideas about who he is dramatically and musically over the years, and as I've been presented with some new ones, I've noticed that it has been a bit difficult for me to be open and consider them, thinking instead, "But no! It's this way!" It's sort of been a spin on that age-old adage of it being hard to teach an old dog new tricks. It's incredibly easy to simply fall back on what one knows and just ride the wave, skimming the surface.

Thankfully, mostly due to the wonderful team of colleagues that have been working on this production, I've been able to realize that my knee-jerk reaction has been far from optimal, and been able to give things a good, college try, seeing where they take me. And lo, and behold, they have taken me to so many new places and deeper levels than I thought were possible before. I've had dramatic questions answered that confused me before, musical phrases are taking on a new life, and my perception of Fenton's relationships to those around him has come to a clearer focus – most especially with Nannetta. My experience here so far has left me feeling that I am somehow able to be inside Fenton's shoes with a bit more specificity and richness.

On the day of our opening performance, I cannot express enough gratitude to the Falstaff team and cast for such a great rehearsal process and to wish them all the best for a great run of shows. We have 16 of them (15 + 1 student matinee), so I cannot wait to see just how much more this will take flight and grow with each show.

Pictured above from top to bottom: Harry Nicoll (Bardolfo) and Colin Judson (Dr. Caius); Kathleen Wilkinson (Mistress Quickly); Thomas Blunt (Assistant Conductor), James Gaffigan (Conductor), and Elena Tsallagova (Nannetta)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Smith Made Me Cry


Being abroad for so long involves a lot of alone time, which, in turn, allows for a lot of time to catch up on TV. As I haven't had cable for the past 4 years, I've mostly relied on watching TV shows on DVD anyway. The day before I left for England, I took a couple of hours to run around San Francisco (where I was vacationing before I came here) to buy some essentials for my three-month tour survival kit. Along with stops at Walgreen's and Kiehl's for things like my facial scrub and contact lens solution, I also knew that I had to stop somewhere to pick up some seasons of television on DVD. I have learned these past few years that TV can be dicey abroad (although I have since discovered that it is not so bad here in the UK, despite having only 4 channels...). As I traipsed around the city, I yearned for the days when Tower Records and Virgin still existed, and then it occurred to me to duck into Border's. I ran around the store picking up some reading material and then browsed the picked-over, messy, small DVD section for things to keep me entertained. Thankfully, I did find one of the TV shows I was looking for -
This American Life, Season 2.

Watching the final episode last night with my friend Susie, I found myself holding back tears as they told the story of John Smith - or of many different John Smith's. I was caught off guard at this portrait of the fact that regardless how different each person's life seemed to be, the journey of life is something that each one of them had in common. I'm not really sure how to put it into words, but I found myself relating to these vastly different people in different stages of their lives, feeling some sort of primal connectedness. Somehow, the stories of these vastly different men and boys became the story of everyman. As humans, our life journeys are so different, and yet so the same. It was This American Life truly at their best.
Do yourself a favor in case you missed it and rent it. If you are a Netflix member, you can stream it instantly here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Revelations in the Dreamscape

I dreamt the other night that I was standing on a hill, watching many of the people in my life. I noticed that, one by one, they would get bigger in size, kind of like in that horrible sequel to "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids". At first, I panicked, thinking that they were succumbing to some sort of virus, and the dream suddenly took on a strange, Sci-Fi, zombie-thriller turn. I ran from person to person, trying to pull those people closest to me away from the infected. What confused me was that they didn't seem to be scared of getting infected, and I would watch in horror as they would expose themselves to the infected and then become giants. I ran, confused as to where to go, horribly upset to watch those I love succumb to what I perceived as a horrific disease, guilty that I couldn't save them, and terrified to my core that I, too, would catch it, and that my life as I knew it would be over. Then suddenly, it dawned on me that every single one of these people had clear ideas of what their goals were and it was for that reason they were all getting bigger. Right before I awoke, at what turned out to be the end of the dream, I realized that I didn't need to be afraid anymore, and that getting bigger was a good thing – not a thing to be scared of.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Teamwork

The post I labeled as "Random" the other day was actually more a bit of synchronicity than I let on earlier. In rehearsal here at Glyndebourne, the recurrent theme has been teamwork, and for a show as ensemble-oriented as Falstaff, nothing could be more important to get this show on its witty, sharp feet. My colleagues here have created a sense of camaraderie that I have found rarely paralleled in other operatic experiences that I have had. It's not that I have worked with a plethora of prima donnas or that most of my past colleagues have been a string of difficult personalities – it's more that this particular cast has gelled in a way that I have only experienced a few times before, and I know enough to recognize just how special this experience is proving to be as it unfolds.

One of the odd symptoms of our hive-mindedness has been to show up for rehearsal color-coordinated. Tuesday we all came to work wearing some matching shade of pink, purple (as you can see from the slightly blurry picture above). Wednesday and Monday, we all wore black. It's been happening since the first week of rehearsal – the joke about getting the memo to wear a certain color to work grew old by the beginning of the second week. I've never seen anything like it.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Random, but Cool

I can only imagine the kind of teamwork it took to pull this off...


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oh We, Like Sheep

The view from my "office" these past few weeks:


It's kind of surreal and idyllic all at the same time.

Going to work everyday is...well...unbelievably easy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hiatus, Interrupted

It's been a bit over two months since my last confession.

I never intended to take a break from the blog. It just sort of happened. I felt guilty about it. Occasionally, I would sit down to write something, but, inevitably, I'd stare at a blank screen, the cursor blinking back at me, and I would realize that I had nothing to say.

A good friend of mine and I were talking the other day over lunch, while watching at the sheep that graze here in the lawns surrounding Glyndebourne, and she related a story to me about a friend who had just been through a rough time personally and had simply dropped off the face of the earth. "I really hate that – when someone you consider a good friend just disappears, you know?" she said. I replied that I actually sort of understood. Sometimes, after some rocky transitions, one needs to take some time alone, to isolate. It gets exhausting having to explain things over and over, to relate the same stories again and again. It's like a crab retreating into its shell to protect itself and to recover.

This summer, I got tired of thinking about heavy things over and over. I grew tired of thinking in general, frankly. I just wanted to have some fun and to simply live my life for a bit. I wanted to be accountable to no one and just enjoy being in the moment. I dragged my feet responding to emails. I took forever to return phone calls. My blog posts dwindled to nothing. And instead, I immersed myself in the people immediately around me and the music at hand. The most time I spent in any one place was no more than 3 weeks. I hopped around the world, from Oregon to Vermont to Germany to Scotland to California to England. I swam in ponds and kayaked in rivers, I hiked up a mountain, and I sang my heart out. It was liberating, exhilarating, and fun.

Here in Glyndebourne, I'm feeling life taking on a regularity and normalcy. With a pretty consistent rehearsal schedule and an incredibly quaint cottage all to myself, I've found myself starting to slowly come out of my shell of hibernation. I'm finding comfort in being told where to be each day and then coming home and cooking myself dinners after rehearsal. I'm rediscovering the discipline of yoga every morning, and I'm starting to reach out again to those people closest to me. My inbox is slowly being cleared, and I am tending to my responsibilities beyond music after ignoring them for ages (like my 2008 taxes…). And as I ease my way back into the fold, I notice that I am incredibly happy to go to work every day, and I am beginning to enjoy this crazy, nomadic, musical life in a deeper way than before.

And on top of it all, I feel this blog itching inside me, asking to be written again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bach

My eyes flared open, I rolled over to look at the time on my phone. 6:34 AM. I groaned inwardly at the light flooding through the translucent curtains in my dorm room and put a pillow over my head, vainly hoping to shut out the light and fall back asleep. Instead of dozing, I calculated exactly how much sleep I had managed to get – about 5 and a half hours. I thought of a Men's Health article I read in an effort to distract myself from realizing that I was running on an elliptical machine at the gym the other day which informed me that in order to lose weight, prolong my life, and maintain my immune system's strength among other things I needed to make sure I get 8 hours of sleep a night. Catastrophic sequences in my frenzied mind fired off from there, and, irate at my inability to quiet my mind, I desperately endeavored to meditate in the hopes that I would drift into dreamland. I eventually gave up, and dragged myself to the gym to get the day started.

On the way to the gym, I chatted with the Marlboro Bookstore shopkeep, and we complained about the chilly, wet weather that has plagued us so much of the summer. She worried that winter would be unbearable. I silently thanked the heavens I wouldn't be here for it and hopped on the elliptical.

The day continued with a rehearsal in the concert hall of the Britten that I will be performing with my friend, Sivan, this weekend, and being in the hall, we recorded our rehearsal. The knowledge that the devilish imps that microphones are were hanging at the front of the stage set off the tiny, yet oh-so-potent critical demons off in my mind. A veritable peanut gallery of bitchiness distracting me from the task at hand – to sing seven minutes of T.S. Eliot poetry.

By the time I got to lunch, I could barely bring myself to enter the table's conversation, my temples throbbing, and my neck and back stiff and whining. I left to try to lie down for a bit before my next rehearsal, but again sleep eluded me.

I arrived just in time for a rehearsal of a Bach aria with Lydia and Yvonne, and we kicked off the rehearsal complaining about a variety of kvetches: the cold weather, the dryness, how tired we were, the fact that everyone is getting sick, the toilet that was plugged for an entire day in my dorm, the acoustic in the rehearsal room in the Presser building, the price of lip balm. About 10 minutes into the rehearsal, there was a moment of silence, and Yvonne began to play. Lydia joined her, gently improvising a flowing continuo line to accompany her, and we were off. Melodies and counter-melodies flowed together and then apart. Yvonne and I handed off phrases to each other, Lydia guiding us harmonically the whole way with the figured bass in her part. We were so exhausted, the music just poured out of us – we didn't have the energy to get in the way. Yvonne and Lydia approached and then played the final cadence, and there was silence. We could hear the wind rustling through the leaves outside, and we looked at each other. It felt as though a peaceful, profound, and deep contentment had taken us over without us even realizing it. Nothing else mattered, and, somehow, we were happy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Nerves

A few weeks ago, I was standing in front of the Atlanta Symphony at their first rehearsal in their summer home, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater at Encore Park, listening to the winds trade off the opening themes of Ecco ridente in cielo from The Barber of Seville, while sweat dripped down the sides of my face. As I took in my first breath to sing the opening lines, I felt my heart racing in my chest, and I realized that my perspiration was not only due to the sweltering heat.

The first time I sang the Count in Barber was in 2003, at the end of a pressure-filled, intense, and mind-blowing summer. I had just finished my first year in the HGO Studio, and earlier that summer had competed in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, sung my very first Carmina Burana with the National Symphony, and was experiencing my first summer as a Wolf Trap Filene Artist. By the time my first rehearsal for Barber came round towards the end of the summer, I was beginning to feel myself crack under the pressure of all of the incredible opportunities that had come my way in those months. The Count was the most difficult role I had ever encountered up until that point, and that summer at Wolf Trap would be the first time I ever performed a leading operatic role in a professional situation. It was also the second time I ever performed any Rossini in public for a paying audience. Warming up for that first rehearsal at Wolf Trap, I started to wonder if my voice was pretty enough. Would I be able to sing as fast as I wanted? Would my high notes come out? What if the conductor hated me? What if I didn't get along with the director? Did my colleagues all think that I sucked? My inner dialogue was creatively catastrophic as my worries and nerves overwhelmed my logical mind. By the time I opened my mouth to sing the first notes of my aria, I was convinced that I was going to be fired for my substandard-ness.

Midway through rehearsal, I realized that I could not live the rest of my life with that kind of neurotic drama going on in my head. It made it almost impossible to sing and sucked any sort of enjoyment I got out of making music. I resolved myself to finding some help when I got back to Houston, and the minute I got home after rehearsal, I bought a copy of The Artist's Way and have done morning pages almost every day since then.

Back in my Atlanta hotel, trying to relax and unwind after our rehearsal, I remarked on the phone to a friend that The Barber of Seville sent me into therapy. While I said that somewhat jokingly, it held a lot of truth. Barber forced me to change the way I approached music. It was, until that point, the first time I felt so much terror of performing that I wasn't sure if I would be able to pull it off. It was the first time I had ever questioned myself so profoundly that I wondered if I was cut out for a career in music. Facing that again for the first time in six years in Atlanta, I was quite vividly reminded from whence I came.

Putting on a brave face, I feigned calmness and nonchalance the day of the concert, but inside, I felt as if I were right back where I had been all those summers ago at Wolf Trap, questioning myself and my ability to negotiate Rossini's virtuosic and naked musical terrain. But this time, as I warmed up for the concert, all the work I had done dealing with my nerves the past six years started to seep in, and I found my nerves and self-doubt turning into adrenaline that was fuel for my focus. Midway through the aria, the first piece I sang on the concert, I realized that everything was going just fine, and that it was, in fact, fun. I felt myself relax, and I began to enjoy the summer night and getting to entertain the people who had braved the heat and humidity to hear this fun, lighthearted music.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Mini Escape

Before the simple intensity of Marlboro began this week, I carved out a couple of days of vacation for myself to visit one of my best friends for a fun and adventurous weekend in Portland.

The weather was phenomenal, so we took every advantage to be outside that we could.


All that being outside made me want to move west…

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Advocate

Yesterday, the Advocate published a profile piece on me in the online edition of their magazine. You can check it out here.

I am really grateful for the opportunity to be profiled in a magazine that I've read since before I came out of the closet. The magazine was one of the first places I saw being gay as a positive and not something that I had to hide or be ashamed of. It was really exciting to read through it yesterday morning, and get to see the final product of the interviews that I gave towards the beginning of the year, when the author was beginning the piece. The only awkward part of all this is that in the time since I gave those interviews, my personal life has changed significantly with the end of my marriage with Jeremy. For those of you who are visiting this blog for the first time because of the article, you can read my brief entry about our break-up here. I just feel that out of respect for Jeremy, it is necessary to direct you there.

While reading the article, I was taken back to last fall when we did get married, and I found it difficult to avoid ruminating over the maze of steps that led to where we are now. One lesson that I have learned is that politics and affairs of the heart do not mix well. Between the pressure of the deadline of Prop 8 and the November election, and my passion for our civil rights it was difficult to discern whether or not I was actually ready to take that step in our relationship. I obviously was not. But, I live, and I – hopefully – continue to learn. I hope that the gay marriage tide keeps moving in the progressive direction it has been since last November's devastating setbacks, and I look forward to a day when it is considered normal for any couple in love to get married.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Deepish Thoughts

Last week, I kept warning the many friends who came to witness my debut concerts with the San Francisco Symphony that I only had "five minutes of glory" in the program, feeling slightly guilty that they were going to sit through the entirety of the concerts just to see me sing. Of course, being a tenor, the thought that they would enjoy the parts of the concert that didn't include me didn't cross my mind until they all expressed their thoughts on the program in my dressing room after.

In actuality, my responsibilities in the Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-flat major amounted to much less than five minutes of glory – it was much closer to about two and half to three minutes of the roughly 51 minute piece. But a glorious few minutes they were. In our second and last rehearsal, Maestro referred to the section in which I sang (the "Et incarnates est" section of the Credo – a trio in A-flat for two tenors and a soprano in this Schubert setting) as follows: "For the audience, there is life before hearing the 'Et incarnatus' and then there is life after hearing the 'Et incarnatus'." After hearing that, a cellist sitting behind me muttered, "Whoa – no pressure…", sending the entire lower strings and myself into fits of laughter. For the rest of the Mass, I sat at the front of the stage in my tails (and in my new suit on Thursday afternoon) listening to Schubert's music and trying to look appropriately engaged and respectable.

The most frequently asked question last week was "what are you thinking while you are sitting up there?" Here are is a sampling, in no particular order, of some of the random thoughts that went through my head during the four concerts:

  • I love this 'Kyrie'
  • There are four people asleep in the center section of the audience
  • Wow, this chorus sounds good.
  • Oh, there's Debbie and Will.
  • Wow, MTT is really committed to everything he does 150%. I could learn a lot from watching this man. It's like he has no fear and his completely and solely focused on the music and how he wants it to be shaped. It's such a calm and yet intensely passionate focus. Amazing.
  • I wonder what the median age of this audience is today?
  • That measure sounded so much like Mahler
  • That passage sounds just like the Verdi Requiem
  • The bass is walking out incredibly slowly today
  • Why is everyone I got tickets for sitting so close?
  • Why is that woman leaving now, of all times?
  • It's so quiet during this pause! No coughing! Who knew it could be possible?
  • I really am looking forward to eating that burger at Zuni tonight
  • I hope I wasn't flat…
  • The ladies of the chorus are always so in tune there – it's so lovely
  • Ahhh…another fugal finish…

Monday, June 01, 2009

Onwards

There has been a sense of waiting to these first five months of the year. As I have struggled to adjust to all that has changed in my life since the turn of the year, I have been awaiting my chance to run away partly as a longed for escape as well as a chance to physically spur the process of moving on. As we enter the sixth month of 2009 and summer officially approaches, I find myself staring down a very long tunnel as I consider my travel schedule for the rest of the calendar year. In the past, this kind of beginning to a long stint of touring would simply seem depressing to me, as I would find myself dreading the dull ache of missing home for so long. But the paradigm of my life is different now, and I find that while I do still dread the prospect of ache of missing certain people (those people in whom I find my home these days), I find that I now perceive these next months of travel with anticipation and excitement, as well. It's a refreshing feeling, and for the first time I have the sense that I am going to be able to really enjoy and savor the luxuries and benefits this nomadically musical life affords me.

The next six months will see me in San Francisco, Atlanta, Marlboro, Buffalo, Rheingau, Edinburgh, as well as touring through England. Among the musical highlights I'm looking forward to, I'll get to debut with two symphony orchestras and two conductors that I have dreamed of performing with for many years. I'm also excited to continue along my journey of exploring Britten's music by diving into the Canticle V at Marlboro and performing my first Nocturne when I return to the Rheingau festival. And those are just some of the musical highlights. I've got many friends to look forward to spending time with, beautiful places both familiar and unfamiliar to see, a couple of stints of mini-vacation that I've built in to my schedule, and the excitement of finding a new physical home - all in all, a lot of things to look forward to with happy anticipation. Also, there are all of the unexpected surprises that come along throughout an adventure to look forward to, as well.

Today is the first day of travel, as I head off to spend some free days in San Francisco before my debut with the San Francisco Symphony next week. Let the adventure begin…

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Prom Queen

On a decidedly unmusical note, this little story via the Slog made me smile this afternoon. Unfortunately, at my high school, we didn't have prom queens or kings. We cast lucky people in all of the roles in Saved by the Bell, instead. Imagine being voted Kelly Kapowski.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Barbiere auf Deutsch

Getting ready for an upcoming concert with the Atlanta Symphony has me revisiting Count Almaviva for the first time in many years. Coming back to Rossini is always a humbling experience, as I find that from a technical standpoint there is always further to go, regardless of how well it went the last time. I envy my colleagues who seem to be able to roll out of bed singing the stuff, tossing it off like it is the easiest thing in the world.

Trolling Youtube, I stumbled across this today, while studying various performances of the Count's first aria in the show. At least I only have to sing it in Italian.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Culture

In the weeks leading up to my venture here in Kansas City (I was a KC virgin up until my arrival yesterday afternoon), I've had numerous people give me their impressions of this city, which have been unanimously positive. I didn't know much about it beforehand, except that I had some very good family friends and a couple of wonderful colleagues who hailed from here. In recent weeks, as tomorrow's concert loomed closer and closer, people have described it as one of their favorite cities, and they've ordered me to go to a variety of places to eat barbequed flesh of various sorts. One random preview that made me smile was when a friend showed me this video from the local news over drinks at another friend's house. I would be so overjoyed if this woman came to our concert tomorrow.


Anyway, in my less than 24 hours here so far, I am totally charmed by the place. Upon my arrival at the airport, my driver even offered to give me a short tour of downtown before he dropped me off at my hotel – something I've never experienced from someone who works for a car service before. I've been impressed by the happy, easygoing, and welcoming atmosphere every moment since.

Last night, after a drink and quick dinner with the conductor and horn player, I ran to see some friends perform in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's fun production of Pirates of Penzance. As I took my seat up in the top of the balcony of the almost sold-out theater, the person in the seat next to me started up a conversation. He asked me where I was from, and I told him that I flew in from New York City that morning. A little while into our conversation, he rolled his eyes and said for some not-so-evident, self-conscious reason, "Well, I mean, Kansas City isn't quite as cultural as New York." Taken aback, I looked around me at the multitudes of audience around us and pointed out that the crowd indicated that Kansas City was doing just fine on the culture front. About an hour into the performance, hearing the audience's uproarious and uncontrollable laughter and applause after each number, I wondered when the last time any classical music venue in New York was sold-out with an audience so clearly and naturally enjoying themselves on a Wednesday night. People here quite obviously genuinely enjoy their culture just fine. I'm quite impressed, Kansas City, quite impressed.



Saturday, April 18, 2009

Doors and Maps

"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."

-Helen Keller


I came across that quote on a longtime colleague's blog while catching up on my blog-reading this morning, and I marveled at how little tidbits of wisdom seem to drop unbidden into our lives whenever we need them.

Right around the turn of the New Year, the door that was my relationship with Jeremy unexpectedly, abruptly and jarringly closed, leaving me bewildered, sad and wading through seemingly endless waves of grief. It made our marriage one of the shorter ones on record, I am embarrassed and sad to admit, and it has changed, to steal a turn of phrase said to me the other day, the map of my life in fundamental ways that have left me feeling, at times, lost, dazed, and utterly confused.

There have been innumerable awkward moments over the past months since that door shut, and almost everything – like bad break-up songs that suddenly take on a new and somewhat irritating poignancy at times like these – has the potential to remind me of this incredible change in my life. Nonetheless, I have found that I have really wanted to remain somewhat private up until now about it all. A student asked me at a question and answer session a little over a month ago whether all the travel and time away required of me was hard to deal with in my personal life. A journalist remarked to me during an interview that it must be difficult maintaining a relationship over such great distances. The answers I found that I could muster were simply – yes, it can be difficult and it is hard. And it has been.

Despite the sadness, remorse, and guilt that I have felt about that one, significant door being shut, I find that Helen is wise. There are multitudes of possibilities for happiness and fulfillment before me. Taking stock of my life in those moments when I am firmly locked in the present, I am able see new adventures both musical and personal that await and promise to bring much happiness, growth, and fulfillment, and I regard them with excitement and anticipation, reveling in the new-ness and exhilarating unpredictability of it all. The challenge has been keeping my focus pointed both forward and in the present, and not looking backward at what was and is, ultimately, no more. Reading tidbits of wisdom like the one above, it's frustrating to know that such things are easier said than done, and that while there is much to look forward to and enjoy in terms of the incredible possibilities that are in front of me, there is no shortcut around the pathway of grief.

In the meantime, as I am home to celebrate Greek Easter with my family for the first time in almost a decade, I am trying to focus on the parts of the "map of my life" that remain constant and unchanging, grateful for the stability and comfort that they provide.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Handel

250 years ago, my favorite composer both to sing and to listen to died on this day.

Here's one of my favorite pieces that he wrote:




Tributes and news stories here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Key of Joy

"For a moment, death let herself go, expanding out as far as the walls, filling that whole room and flowing into the room next door, where a part of her stopped to look at the sheet music open on a chair, it was suite number six opus one thousand and twelve in d major by johann sebastian bach, composed in köthen, and she didn't need to read music to be able to know that it had been written, like beethoven's ninth symphony, in the key of joy, of unity between men, of friendship and of love. Then something extraordinary happened, something unimaginable, death fell to her knees, for she had a body now, which is why she had knees and legs and feet and arms and hands, and a face which she covered with her hands, and shoulders, which, for some reason, were shaking, she can't be crying, you can't expect that from someone who, wherever she goes, has always left a trail of tears behind her, without one of those tears shed being hers."

- Death with Interruptions, Jose Saramago


I've always loved D major (so clean, simple, and bright with its two sharps), but reading this last night made me feel like I've been taking it for granted all these years.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Rat Race

On my way to my lesson today, I descended down into the bowels of the 96th street subway station hoping that a downtown train would come quickly and whisk me away to where I needed to be. I stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down the tunnel to see if a train was nearby, when, through the sound-shield of my ipod, I heard the piercing sound of rats squealing. I looked down into the dirty cesspool of the tracks and saw two rats fighting viciously over a paper cup from McDonald's. They squealed at each other, teeth snapping ferociously, jumping to surprising heights to get out the way of their opponent's biting jaws, all while trying to make off with the used, dirty piece of litter. I puzzled over why they would battle so intensely over what, from my perspective, seemed to be a meaningless scrap of trash. Then I thought, if some other, larger being looked at my life – the battles that I choose to fight, the things that I think are important to me that I choose to worry and fret about – would they be just as baffled?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Spring Cheer

Yesterday, I woke, as I usually do, swimming out of a dream. In this particular dream, I was accidentally mooning the Queen of England on a state visit to Chicago, because I was lost running around with my pants falling down in the hotel where she was staying. One minute I was struggling to pull up my britches in a red-carpeted hallway in some Magritte-esque version of Chicago, the next I was conscious, lying in a foreign bed, my eyes taking in the grey light of the morning that streamed between the slats of the blinds in the bedroom where I was staying in the reality of Washington, DC. The slapstick cheer of my dream melted away into the dreariness of reality.

A short while later, while I was on a damp and muddy run through Glover Park, I noticed the dead-brown leaves covering the forest floor giving way to the multitude of tiny bright-green plants that were springing back to life and creating a new carpet on the ground. Looking up, I saw the wintry, skeletons of the trees slowly being taken over by white and pink flowers and yellow-green buds. All signs that spring is awakening. Letting go of my sense of dread at the prospect of yet another grey day, I splashed happily through the mud and puddles of what were April's first showers.

Handel's L'Allegro ed il Penseroso – the reason I am here in DC this week – abruptly begins with the tenor standing up and singing, "Hence, loathed Melancholy!" Being from Michigan, and having grown up with countless, sunless, cloud-ceilinged, dreary winters, I tend to associate grey days and Winter with doldrums and, well, melancholy. Seeing all of the new or resurrected life bursting forth brought me new subtext for my opening lines tonight – Hence, loathed winter and in with spring!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Welcoming Neighbor

Before heading back to my apartment on Sunday after returning from Boston, I trekked up ten blocks to a close friend's house for a quick dinner so I could catch her and her adorable one-and-a-half year-old daughter before it was the little girl's bedtime. Leaving her apartment and beginning the walk back to my place with my suitcase, I noticed that it had started to rain again. Not quite a downpour, yet certainly more than drizzle. A healthy spring shower.

I debated catching a cab for the ten block journey, but decided against it. It's not too long of a walk, and I thought that I could make it without getting too drenched. I was mistaken. About half-way home, the shower picked up and became a heavier rainfall, big drops soaking my suitcase and blurring the lenses of my glasses. My leisurely walk turned into a wet slog, and I began to grumble. Too close for a taxi, I began to resent the wet chill that was seeping into my bones, and the seemingly endless number of grey days of the past few weeks. Not looking forward to coming home to an empty apartment, I groaned inwardly and quickened my pace.

Once in my building's lobby, I stood, dripping water onto the terrazzo floor, waiting for the elevator. As soon as the door started to open, I nearly bowled over the kind, older gentleman who is my neighbor that lives across the hall from me. I looked at him apologetically, and said, "I'm so sorry, Mr. K!"

"That's ok, young sir!" he said.

"Have a good evening, Mr. K," I said.

He looked at me and replied, "You, as well. Keep making beautiful music. I wish you well!"

I smiled as the elevator door closed, and the elevator lifted me home.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Twittering Bach

In an effort to find yet another way to procrastinate and putter away all my time, I have joined Twitter. While I am still trying to figure it out, I am beginning to find a use for it, and it is starting to serve as a place for me to start fleshing out ideas for this blog. I am hoping that it will help me post on here a bit more regularly. You can follow my tweets here.

While preparing for this St. John Passion that performs here in Boston tonight, I experienced a lot of the usual stress and frustration that learning Bach entails. I always come to a fresh Bach score cockily expecting it to be easy to learn, and I am always surprised and confounded by how tricky his music is with its unexpected and oddly kinky harmonic twists and turns. His music, drenched in faith and humility, requires those same attributes from those of us who perform it. That is probably why I find Bach more rewarding to perform than any other composer. In a way, it is the ultimate heilige Kunst, musically speaking.

This being my very first performance as the Evangelist and having lost some preparation time because of the unexpected concerts I had a couple of weeks ago, I felt a greater amount of anxiety wood-shedding it at the piano than I previously have experienced. In an effort to distract myself from the stress, I found myself turning Facebook to procrastinate – often putting whiny statements about the Bach up as my status. Before I knew it, people were posting comments on my status updates offering support, humor, wit, and perspective. Quite unexpectedly, a website that I generally view as time-sucking exercise had suddenly turned into a community that I could turn to for artistic support.

Part of the my nervousness about this St. John, aside from it being my first one and having to learn it under a bit of a time crunch, was because I was preparing it on my own, trying to be both continuo and Evangelist all at once. Arriving in Boston and meeting with the continuo players and the conductor brought huge relief, as it felt so much easier to finally be playing with others, especially with colleagues as good as these. As it turns out, my continuo colleagues are St. John novices, as well, so it has been a real treat to discover the piece for the first time together and figure out the intricacies of how we are going to tell the story. What has been especially wonderful about these rehearsals is how deeply each and every person involved is invested in the piece. The choir has been preparing for this for months, and the orchestra is really committed to every detail of telling the story and the music, as well. It's been a really special few days, and I'm really looking forward to our performance tonight.

All the best to my colleagues here in Boston for a great performance, and many thanks for an incredible couple of days of music-making and story-telling.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chores

Simply staring at the pile of mail that needs to be sifted through on top of my piano, the stack of 1099 forms that remind me daily that tax season is nigh, the layer of dust that is covering my shelves in the bedroom that begs to be swiffered away, the cart full of clothes that need to be taken to the Salvation Army, and the multitude of other mundane chores that awaited my return home inspires an incredible feeling of fatigue. Feeling much too grand to deal with these things the week after my whirlwind tour of the United States a couple of weeks ago, I have let them stare back at me and nag at my consciousness. Of course, avoiding them has contributed to my sense of imbalance as of late, and I find that aside from practicing a lot simply out of necessity, I've not been able to get a lot of my to-do list accomplished. It's put me in a bit of a little funk the past few days.

The last tour of hopping from concert to concert was a really exciting moment in my career. In a way, after it was over, I really felt like I had taken a huge step towards a new level both artistically and professionally. For the first few days after Carnegie, I felt proud and happy of all that I had accomplished and really wanted to rest, relax, and bask in that feeling of success. But relaxation has given way to restlessness, and the simple things that all people need to take care of are not-so-subtly pulling me back into my routine again. The world keeps going moving on, and I have to keep up with it and find my back into the flow of it all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Unexpected Steps Forward

Spring seems to have made its first appearance here in the past couple of days, and the warmer weather has encouraged me to emerge from my hibernating state after my multi-stop jaunt across the country a couple of weeks ago.

My tour of the country culminated with a concert in Carnegie Hall with the Chicago Symphony of the program that we performed in Chicago the weekend before. After the concert ended, I immediately went into vacation-mode for approximately 24 hours. At the end of the next day, I realized abruptly that I actually was not able to remain on vacation mode and that I needed to park myself at my piano and pound notes into my throat for the next two concerts I have coming up.

The catch has been that I picked up a little sinus infection after the Friday concert in Chicago, and while that hasn't affected my singing at all, it did stop up my left ear, and my hearing has been distorted since then. Under normal circumstances, I probably would make use of the time off to simply rest and recover, but I've had to chain myself to the practice room these past ten days, since I want to have these next two programs learned in time.

The oddest thing has been that even though I would think that my lessons would be fruitless and frustrating because of my being a bit sick, my blocked hearing has forced me to get out of my own way in my sessions with my teacher. I marvel at how the effort I normally put into mastering my technique can get in the way of achieving my goal. Having to let go because I can't trust my own ears right now, in these last few lessons, I've actually made some of the greatest strides forward that I've made in a while. Something that seemed initially to be an obstacle has instead become a stepping stone.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Heroes

This past weekend, I sang at a fundraising gala for the Napa Valley Youth Symphony. As I walked out on stage to sing the final number of the evening, I looked back at the children and teenagers of the youth orchestra that crowded the stage, their instruments poised to play the first notes of Make Our Garden Grow from Leonard Bernstein's Candide. One young man, who could not have been older than 8, was too little to sit, and therefore was standing next to his stand-partner. His bow, marked with a little piece of yellow tape to show its center much like my first violin bow had been, was set and ready to play the first chord. Looking back at those kids, I was reminded of my own youth orchestra days - days that I have been thinking about a lot this week since I left Napa.

My very first summer at Interlochen, just after finishing the 8th grade, our orchestra played, among other things, excerpts from Stravinsky's Firebird. It was my first taste of Stravinsky's music, and I found myself transfixed. When I returned home to Ann Arbor after camp was over, I rummaged through my father's collection of recordings to see if he owned a recording of the complete piece. What I found was a recording with a flashy, red, yellow, and blue cover of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Boulez conducting. A few years later, my youth orchestra in Detroit was tackling Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and as I struggled to understand the piece, I looked for a recording to put my confusing second violin part into some sort of context as I studied it. I wrestled so diligently with that piece that I moved up 10 chairs from the back of the second violin section all the way up to the front when it came time for challenges that semester. The recording I turned to was also conducted by Maestro Boulez and the CSO. Just a couple of years ago, long after I had given up the violin and was singing professionally, I turned yet again to an album recorded buy the same forces as I was trying to make sense of Bartók's Cantata Profana when I performed it a couple of years ago with the St. Louis Symphony. Throughout every phase of my musical life, I have always looked to the recordings of Maestro Boulez and the CSO when it came to understanding music composed last century.

Today, sitting in my chair on stage at Symphony Center here in Chicago during our afternoon rehearsal, I looked up from my Pulcinella score at Maestro Boulez beating time with his hands and marveled that I was here actually making music with these people who, whether they know it or not, have taught me so much about music. For those parts of the rehearsal that I wasn't singing, I found it very hard not to stare star-struck and gape in awe that I am actually here this week.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Mistakes

In one of the elementary school music rooms that Lydia and I performed outreach programs in last week, there was a poster on the wall that colorfully displayed the following:

"It's ok to make a mistake when you've tried -.
It's a mistake not to try."

Coincidentally or not, just a day earlier, I read the following:

"If God is all powerful, and I believe that God is, then there is no such thing as an irreparable mistake."
-Julia Cameron, Finding Water


I'm still trying to let that all sink in.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reaching Out

I looked at the clock that was encased in metal grating to protect it from any number of disastrous possibilities and took note of the time. 9:35 am. I groaned inwardly at the uncouthness of the hour and took in my first breath to sing, hoping that whatever came out wouldn't sound too ugly. I looked at the army of 85 five-year-olds sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor in front of me and ceased to care about my sound. The only important thing at that point was to try to keep their attention for the next 25 minutes.

Some of them started to sway to the music. Some just stared, entranced and fascinated. Some covered their ears with their hands, whispering too each other, "He's so loud!". Some squirmed. One boy started air-drumming. A couple others raised their hands, trying to signal that they had heard something I had asked them to listen for.

After we finished the song, we took comments and questions. Some quotes from the peanut gallery:

"You made me sad three times – my ears hurt."

"You're pretty good."

"I play the violin!"

"You're not in the Choristers!"

"Take it easy, Ruth!"

"But they're NOT in the Choristers!"

"I think that the Knight got away from the witch!"

"I think that the Knight died."

"I think that the Knight and the Witch lived happily ever after."

"How old are you?"

"My mom just turned 30!"

"Are you famous?"

"Are you rich?"

"I forgot."

"Did you have to sing that song in English?"

"Do you like to sing?"

After our last song, the school principal thanked Lydia and I for coming to perform, the kids and their teachers applauded, and the teachers tried to round up their students and file them out of the gym back to their homerooms in as orderly a fashion as possible. In the midst of all the ruckus, one little girl came up to me and said, "I'm gonna give you a hug, because you were really good." She gave me a big hug, and ran off to catch up with her fellow classmates as they headed off to the next new experience.