Thursday, September 16, 2010

First Impressions, part I

I’ve been thinking a lot about first impressions lately – those moments that are so perfectly and entirely represented in all their awkwardness by those painfully cheerful stickers that say “Hello! My name is…”

My first night at Marlboro this summer, a young Italian pianist came up and introduced himself to me saying, “Ciao, I am Gabriele! I think we are working on Britten together – Michelangelo Sonnets, yes?”

“Yes! It’s nice to meet you!” I said, immediately charmed by his Italian accent.

“What else are you working on here?”

“Oh…Dichterliebe, some Telemann Cantatas, Britten’s Birthday Hansel, Britten’s second Canticle…”

“Whoa! You like the Britten, eh?”

  • My first impression of Gabriele: young, disarmingly affable Italian pianist.
  • Gabriele’s first impression of me: nice American singer with eccentric musical taste.

At our first rehearsal, after our first reading of the sonnets together, Gabriele said (again, with his rather charming Italian accent), “Wow…this music is amaaaazing - is incredible!” He paused, thumbed through the score and said, “But I don’t understand nothing about it yet.”

“Have you played any Britten before?” I asked. He shook his head no. He scratched his head, looked confused at the music and said, “Let’s try it again!”

  • Gabriele’s first impression of Britten: strange, fascinating, confusing – amaaaaaazing!

My own first impression of Britten was quite different. The first time I encountered Britten was as a 16 year-old second violinist in my youth orchestra in Detroit when we played his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. At our first reading, I was immediately excited by the majestic beauty of his orchestration of Purcell’s initial theme which forms the basis for the piece. I was fascinated by how Britten showcased each section of the orchestra, exploiting each instrument’s range of color and expression. It was like being part of the an aural Wikipedia (had such a thing existed at the time). I was excited to be playing a piece that showed off and explained this incredibly complex and expressive musical entity that had become my life’s obsession since I started playing in orchestras at 11 years old.

  • My first impression of Britten: exciting, beautiful, cool, brilliant – fun!

15 years later, at a rehearsal this March with Myra, my own first of impression of the Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was not so different from Gabriele’s this summer at Marlboro. After our first reading of the songs, I said to Myra, “These feel really great in my voice – yet they seem kind of academic and strange.” Myra agreed – they did seem kind of dry and bizarre on first read, not understanding much of the Italian and having a missed a few (or many, at times) notes and/or rhythms here and there. Despite those initial impressions, I said to her, “Still, there is something in me that is really intrigued and excited by them and feels really drawn to them...I can tell that we are barely scratching the surface of what is here.”

  • Our first impression of Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo: academic, strange, dry – yet we’re intrigued without quite knowing why.

It turns out that, in this instance (as often happens), our first impression was wrong. The sonnets are anything but academic or dry – they are packed full of an intense passion that is both heart-wrenchingly frustrated and disarmingly tender in its confessional vulnerability.

But more on that the meantime, I'll leave you with that first impression of Britten I had at our first meeting 15 years ago:

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