Monday, January 26, 2009

The Final Sigh

"Time past can never come again."

- Olinda in the Shades Unseen, Anonymous

"Let not youth fly away without contenting, Age will come time enough for your repenting."

- How blest are Shepherds, from King Arthur, John Dryden

Winter Words ends with the anguished cries of "E'er nescience shall be reaffirmed, How long?" – how long until we return to that blissful, pure ignorant oblivion of innocence? How long until we die?

How to answer that question?

Musically speaking, the obvious choice of an answer was to return to a musical nescience of some sort. I wondered for awhile about programming some folksongs – music in one of it's most pure, unadulterated forms. Instead, though, I chose to look at Purcell – the inspiration and musical nescience for a lot of Britten's vocal writing. In the three songs of Purcell that I chose, I found not only a musical response to the experience of Winter Words, but also an answer to Hardy's tortured and impatient question, how long? It turns out, all too soon.

We traverse our paths through life, stumbling, taking seemingly wrong turns, and feeling lost along the way. Yet, as Olinda discovers in her shades unseen, time past can never come again, and we, as the shepherd from King Arthur implores us, must not let our precious time on this beautiful planet pass without enjoying every moment of it.

Someone told me last night that I think too much, and they are right. After a recent performance of the Evening Hymn, the presenter asked me if I felt like it was a bit of an autobiographical performance. I wasn't sure what to say then, but now I can see that it is, in a way. What is so special and personal to me about this program is that I do think a lot on my life and loves, my stumbles and my mistakes, my joys and my pains – at times, too much so. I look at people who seem to know how to be happy, without cares, and with seeming innocence with a touch of envy in my heart that wonders, "what is their secret?" As I've discovered lately, it's enjoying the moment at hand and gratitude.

The Evening Hymn comes as the final sigh of the program. It's a look at all that is great and beautiful, all the blessings in our lives - those things that are the overwhelming evidence that we are constantly surrounded by some sort of higher power - and gives profound thanks. No matter the circumstance, there are always silver linings to the every cloud, and all that we really need, we already have – if not in surplus. No matter how imperfect we are, we are deserving of that bounty, and that is a truly humbling and deeply happy thought.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Bite of Experience

When I set about programming these recitals, the only thing that I was sure of was that I wanted to explore Winter Words again. The question then became where to go from there? The answer came in the final song of Britten's cycle, Thomas Hardy asks, " 'Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed – how long?" That idea of the cycle of life really struck me – we begin our lives in a state of innocent, naïve, vulnerable, and blissful ignorance only to have that clean slate marred by the grit, pain, and emotional chaos of experience. Life continues on, each experience carrying us forward to the next step on our circuitous paths, much like a never ending spiral. When it seemingly ends, the cycle begins completely anew – or so we assume, as none of us living really know what lies beyond that final step that is death.

In each of the songs in the cycle, in one way or another, that dichotomy of innocence versus experience is explored, with increasing intensity as the cycle progresses. There is a keen awareness in each of the songs of the transitory nature of uncorrupted innocence, oftentimes with the narrator focusing on the children or a child that is blissfully unaware of the growing pains that are to come. Somehow, I hear a sense of envy – sometimes slight, other times overt – in these observations that feel like one is looking back at times. It is a kind of coveting of happiness and bliss lost through mistakes and discoveries made, that becomes most present in the last, anguished cries of "How long? How long?" in the final song.

Monday, January 19, 2009


The view from my apartment window in Chicago last week. It was so cold that the lake was steaming.

On our way to the recital, merely blocks away from the hall, we were stopped at a traffic light, when Myra looked to the right and pointed out that I had apparently opened up a new restaurant on the South Side of Chicago.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Yesterday evening, Myra and I walked out onto the stage of Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago, and performed our first performance of this program that we have been working so hard on since Thanksgiving. It was the first time we had a public to formally witness the flow of the program, and it was quite the fun adventure. From the moment we blasted off with our first Handel aria until the Hallelujahs of Purcell's Evening Hymn, we explored the experiences of life – it's ups and downs, some of the joys and some of the pain. It was a real challenge to put all of this raw emotion out in front of an audience and have the courage to be vulnerable, but I think we both succeeded. The audience seemed to really enjoy themselves, many smiles in the hall after we were done. The recital flew by, and before we knew it, we were having fun singing a couple of encores and then on our way to celebrate at a restaurant nearby. Many, many thanks to the wonderful people at the University of Chicago Presents, who were the most gracious hosts, and who were so generous to grant us this all-too-rare and treasured opportunity to perform a recital on their prestigious series.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Heart Breaks

Someone was talking to me about breaking up the other day, and discussing how it is a loss that must be grieved when a relationship ends. They went on to discuss the five stages of grief that we experience, sometimes all at once: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Working on Liederkreis Op. 24 lately, I have been able to see exactly how the heartbroken protagonist of the cycle experiences each stage painfully and traumatically. In the context of our recital program, it is as if the love who had captured his heart in the Fauré songs has spurned him, leaving him to grapple with that rejection and loss. In the first song, he hopes against hope for a glimpse of his love, endlessly frustrated that she won't see him. In the second, he excitedly awaits the meeting with his love that he has been longing for, although it apparently does not go well, as in the third song, he is destroyed by everything he sees around him, as it reminds him of what he has lost. He begs for death in the fourth song to end his pain, and resolves to leave his home, where he first met his love, in the fifth. In six, as he flags down the sailor to take him away, his anger consumes him and he blames his love for his burning pain. In the seventh, as he sails away, he tries to take in the beauty of his surroundings, but still the bitterness and hurt inside his heart remains. In the eighth and ninth songs, he finally accepts what has happened, and attempts to put it all behind him, hopeful for a kind of reconciliation one day.

A friend pointed out to me the other day that pain and hurt are inevitably part of what comes with the experience of falling in love, and that we must know that going in. Somehow, that knowledge never prepares us for the blinding anguish that we suffer when our heart is broken, and something that we innocently hoped would continue to bring us joy and happiness forever suddenly disappears, leaving us bereft.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Love’s Youth

Here is one of the gems that have popped out at me while rehearsing the Fauré set these past couple of weeks :

"Le jour qui luit est le meilleur;" – Lydia, Leconte de Lisle

The day that dawns is the best one.

If only we could think that way all the time, right? How happy we would always be…

We all have many experiences that lead us away from our innocence – it seemed to make sense to begin an exploration of experience in the recital program with the experience of love, that experience that has proven to be a seemingly endless source for the inspiration of all kinds of artistic forms of expression. The beginnings of love are so amazing and mind-blowing. The person who has become the apple of our eye is like a drug that we can't seem to get enough of – it is impossible for that initial desire to be sated. Everything about the other person is enjoyable, and our heart seems determined to open itself to experiencing them regardless of circumstance or reciprocal desire. Such unabashed enthusiasm always feels fresh and new each time I have experienced it, and, in a way, it is different each time. Each time I have fallen in love, it is as if the innocence in my heart cannot help but release itself from the chains of my experienced inhibitions.

I first heard Le plus doux chemin on a recital of French music that I performed at Wolf Trap with Steve Blier. Steve had chosen the song to start off the program and had given it to my dear friend Aaron Judisch. I've been intrigued by the song ever since. It seemed to lead perfectly into Chanson d'amour both in terms of key and text – both songs refer to a "rebellious one", in this case, seemingly an attractive quality. In Le plus doux chemin, the sweetest path is the one that leads to love's doorstep, despite love's rebelliousness. Chanson d'amour is an outpouring of a lover's heart – a list of all the qualities that he cherishes and enjoys in his rebellious lover. Lydia was the very first French song that I ever studied – Fauré quickly became one of my favorite composers after discovering that song. Both Nell and Lydia are passionate dedications of love – the unrestrained pledges of the heart that we innocently and daringly put forth in order to experience one of the greatest joys life's journey has to offer.