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.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Small World

On Valentine's Day, I was pacing around my dressing room, cramming as much German into my mouth as possible, when Bob, the keyboardist for the Orchestra of St. Luke's, burst into my dressing room a flurry of energy and said, "Hey, Nick! It's great to see you! How've you been? Let's go through these recits…" He promptly sat down at the upright piano in my dressing room and started flipping through his score to find my first recitative. Before that, my conductor friend, Scott, had come down to see if I wanted to run anything before the concert with piano, which I did since I was so nervous. And then, right before the chorus was to go on stage, another friend of mine who happened to be in the chorus and was also named Scott came by to give me a big hug and wish me luck. Later, as the first half ended and we took some bows, I heard the cellist sitting behind me say, "Hi Nick! It's nice to see you…" I turned around and it was Myron, a colleague with whom I had given a concert of Purcell songs (along with Bob) 2 years ago. I smiled as he said, "Long time no see!" James Roe, who organized and played on that Purcell concert two years ago, was playing oboe in the Orchestra that night, as well, and during the intermission he stopped by and gave me a big hug.

When I arrived in St. Paul a few days later, I walked into the rehearsal room and saw a good friend from Marlboro, Maiya, sitting in her new position in the Viola section of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Before rehearsal began, we sat down and chatted, making plans to have a drink after the first concert. Later that evening, when the Chorus arrived to rehearse their numbers, I looked up and saw Eugene, a friend from my University of Michigan days who now teaches at Macalester College, singing with the basses and a colleague, Nicole, from my days at Manhattan School of music singing with the sopranos.

Last week was an incredible journey filled with unexpected excitement and the discovery that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. Because much of the excitement happened on the road, and because the concert at Carnegie happened at such short notice, when almost everyone important in my life was out of town or had other Valentine's Day plans, I couldn't help but feel a bit lonely when someone came by to ask if I had anyone for the backstage list that night and I answered, "No". But as the Carnegie evening and the week in St. Paul progressed, I realized how wonderfully close-knit our musical community can be. While there can be all of the drama and nasty competition that people think is there, there is also an incredible sense of camaraderie and support. People from almost every stage of my life popped up this week, and I came to the realization that through music, I am blessed with more friends than I ever imagined possible and am never really alone.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Change in Plans

After Saturday's impromptu Creation at Carnegie, I went for a drink to celebrate with Scott (with whom I would never have been able to do anything musically useful that night), a friend of Scott's who came to the concert, and my manager and her husband. As we were rehashing the excitement of the evening, I said, "I love the piece so much – now I just want to do it again!"

"Be careful what you wish for, my dear…" my manager said.

Prescient words, indeed.

On Sunday, after brunch with friends and drinks with a friend and mentor from Houston, I went home and packed my carry-on bag for a trip to Montana, where I was planning on rehearsing with my friend Lydia, who is to play my recital in Oberlin next week. She lives out there with her husband, who teaches at the University there. I was excited to get out of the city for a couple of days to visit with them and have a peaceful and beautiful place to revisit the recital program that had consumed my musical January. My plan was to stay out there until Thursday, and then come home to finish cleaning my apartment, host one of my best friends who is visiting the city this weekend, and repack my bags for a two week trip that had me hopping around the country from Oberlin, Ohio my recital to Napa Valley for a fundraising gala to Chicago to sing with the Symphony there.

I had an early flight on Monday, so I woke up at an ungodly hour and headed to Newark, checked in, went through the hassle of airport security, grabbed a bite to eat (it's a pretty dire situation at the Northwest terminal in Newark, I'll have you know), and then noticed that the first leg of my flight was delayed half an hour for a mandatory crew break. I went to the gate agent and asked if I would make my connection in Minneapolis, and he told me most likely not. I would miss my second flight, and the next flight leaving for Montana would leave at 9:30pm. I asked him if there was any other way for me to get to Montana at a decent hour, and he kindly rebooked on a United flight through Denver. This meant I had to change terminals and go through security again, but it meant that I would land in Montana only a couple of hours late, as opposed to losing an entire day in Minneapolis.

When I landed in Denver, I turned my phone on and saw that I had 5 voice mails. This does not bode well, I thought. One of them was from my manager, who asked me to call as soon as I could. The tenor colleague who has cancelled on Saturday was still ill, and had to cancel a run of The Creation (in English, this time) with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra – would I be able to adjust my travel plans and do this? One really should be careful for what one wishes for, I thought. I also felt bad for my ailing colleague who had to cancel two of these now – being sick is a real drain when you are a singer.

Needless to say, of course I was happy to do it and adjust accordingly. So, I talked with Lydia and we adjusted our rehearsal schedule so we could get what needed to get done in two days instead of three, and I came here to St. Paul on Wednesday for a day of rehearsals, which, after last weekend, felt luxurious.

My couple of days here have been fantastic – my colleagues are brilliant singers and a conductor whose music-making I have admired from their recordings that I have collected over the years, and they sound wonderful. The orchestra is incredible, as is the choir – and I am getting to experience this incredible music for yet one more week. It's a real treat, and I am enjoying every minute of it. My dream come true is being prolonged, and I am relishing every second that it lasts.

The only catch – I'm on the road for 3 weeks now, and I've only got a suitcase with 3 days worth of clothes…

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Work

Yankeediva posted this video earlier in the week.

It made me think of this little tidbit:

"The best things are nearest: breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of God just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life"

- Robert Louis Stevenson

Watch it - it's long, but carve out the 20 minutes for yourself. It's worth it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Einspringen or Jumping In

Each morning, I have a routine that I follow pretty religiously. After I wake up, I reach for my journal, write my morning pages and then turn on my computer and check my email. Every day, there are four emails that I can count on to be waiting for me in my inbox in the morning: the headlines from the New York Times and the Washington Post, a daily account summary from my bank with my balance, and my horoscope. Yesterday, not having slept well the night before, I wrote in my morning pages how good it was that I didn't have to sing anything important since I was so tired. I turned on my computer and looked at my horoscope, which read:

"Don't be too controlling right now. The events of the day could proceed at a rapid pace, and you might not be able to exert much influence over them…Even if you want to accomplish a dozen tasks, try to adopt a more flexible attitude about the day."

I sort of thought to myself that it was kind of a boring horoscope and proceeded to get ready for the day. All I had planned was a short rehearsal down at Carnegie Hall with a conductor friend, Scott, for an upcoming St. John Passion that we are doing next month with his choir in Boston, burgers and beer with my voice teacher, and then a play-date with my good friend Jen and her baby, Sophie. Hopping in the shower, I found myself wishing that I could just crawl back into bed and take a nap instead of going to meet Scott, who was in town this week to participate in the Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop and sing in the chorus of Haydn's The Creation with Helmuth Rilling and the Orchestra of St. Luke's yesterday at Carnegie. As I was stepping out the door to go to Carnegie, my manager called.

"Nicholas, sweetie darling – well, first of all, how are you?" She said.

"I'm doing ok, how are you?"

"I'm fine – now more importantly, where are you?"

"I'm in my apartment, why? What's going on?"

"Well, the tenor who is to sing tonight's performance of The Creation is apparently not feeling well and is at the doctor now – I've been asked if you have performed the piece and might be willing to step in, in the event that he needs to cancel?"

My day had suddenly begun to move at a "rapid pace".

On the phone with my manager, I was paralyzed for about a minute, unsure of how to proceed. I wanted to help out – the piece is one of the greatest pieces of music written, and to be able to do it in Carnegie Hall with such a great conductor and colleagues would be a dream come true. The catch was I had only performed the piece in English – and they were doing it in German. Did I think that I could stand on the stage of Carnegie Hall and perform this bear of a piece (for the first time auf Deutsch) with such outstanding colleagues and with no rehearsal? As calmly as I could, I asked my manager to tell the people at Carnegie that I would think about it, but that I needed to look at a score to see if it would be possible.

I headed down to Carnegie and met Scott at the stage door and asked to peek at his score for yesterday's performance – instead of looking at the St. John that we were supposed to be rehearsing, we ended up trying to assess if it would be possible for me to sing The Creation, if I had to. After a lot of encouragement from Scott and going through the score with him, I thought to myself, I could, if it came to it. From there – the day turned into a bit of a blur. Unfortunately, the tenor did end up cancelling because he didn't feel well. I ended up singing the entire piece for Maestro Rilling in his dressing room with Scott at the piano, and he then gave his approval for me to go on. Before I knew it, I was running home to grab a bite to eat, study my score, cram as much German into my mouth as possible, and put on my tuxedo.

Once it was established that I was going to perform yesterday, my focus took over and kept me relatively calm until I walked out onstage, bowed with my colleagues, and sat down. As the orchestra started to play the first, sustained c natural that begins the piece, my mind started to wander just a bit. I thought, exactly how long has it been since I have sung this piece? I quickly did the math and realized that it had been seven years. By the sixth measure of the introduction, the insanity of what I had volunteered to do dawned on me. Looking at the audience, I thought, what am I doing? How am I going to do this? It was then that I realized that it was too late for that train of thought, and that I simply had to buckle down, focus, and give this everything that I had. The chorus sang their first entrance, the orchestra played a very loud C major chord behind me, I stood up, a chill went down my back, and I began to sing as if my life depended on it. Once the first note was out of my mouth, I noticed something else – I was actually having fun.

Under so much pressure, I would have thought the concert would have passed by in a complete blur, but it was quite the opposite. My focus was so intense that each moment of the performance is burned into my memory vividly. It was an incredible experience to make music so spontaneously with such phenomenal musical colleagues in a performance. The most incredible moment for me was standing during my favorite part of the piece – Haydn's musical depiction of the very first sunrise. As the orchestra slowly and majestically let their musical sun rise behind me, I felt my skin tingle as I looked out into the Hall, my eyes watering just a little. As I wove my phrases of recitative in between their orchestral interludes, I marveled that I was singing some of the most beautiful music ever written with some of my musical heroes in one of the most exquisite halls in the world. I was acutely aware that I was experiencing a dream come true.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Drawing Board

Last Friday, Myra and I traipsed out on stage, and our program (minus the few little moments of unanticipated excitement that are the "magic" of live performance) flowed easily and naturally – our music-making pliable, in the moment, and fun. Having a couple of performances under our belts at that point, our knowledge and command of the program was such that we were able to bend and shape things according to each nuance of storytelling that wanted to express in the moment, making us feel like we were doing our best to serve the muses of music and drama. After the concert, we headed back over to the Upper West Side to celebrate with drinks and food, and then I took the rest of the weekend to relax and enjoy what felt like a successful month of recitals.

Tuesday arrived, and I looked at the calendar and noticed all of my upcoming projects that had been sitting on the backburner these past two months as I focused to try to get through the chaotic hell of the holidays, the turning of the new leaf that was my 30th birthday, and the intense period of preparation for these recitals. I headed off to a voice lesson Tuesday evening, and started to work on some Stravinsky and some Britten. The phrases felt uncoordinated and unrefined, the words felt clumsy in my mouth, and I found that I was often unsure of where I wanted things to go. There was a fair amount of stopping and starting as we woodshed, and the progress we made was slow and arduous. It felt like I was a toddler taking my very first steps all over again. I looked back on all the hard work I had done for the past two and a half months on the recital program, and realized that I took it for granted. I saw that I was expecting the same artistic command to just be there with this newer music that I was only starting to tackle. Walking to dinner afterward, I tried to let go of my impatience and frustration and sought the grace to be a beginner again with each step through the snowy streets of Manhattan.