Wednesday, October 27, 2010


A week and a half ago, Myra, Ed, Abby and I all packed our bags (Myra and Ed packed Abby), and we traipsed off to Columbus, Georgia for the first performance of our little recital tour. We pulled up to our hotel late Friday night and after a deliriously exhausted search for the nearest Walgreens to buy some survival items we forgot at home, we collapsed into our beds in the wee hours of Saturday, hoping for a full night’s sleep before our first big step from the rehearsal room into the concert hall.

We had a leisurely day relaxing and resting up for the show (Ed, trying to make the most of his adventure out of NYC, wanted very much to experience the magic of Waffle House for the first time), and then headed over to the theater at 4:00 to rehearse a bit in the hall. Not having any idea what to expect, we were awed to walk into a wonderful, state-of-the art facility with a gloriously resonant recital hall and a beautiful Steinway. Myra played a few notes to test out the piano and turned to me saying, “Wow…we’re being spoiled…” The hall was a wonderful size with an incredible acoustic. Beautiful, warm wood surrounded us, and behind us was a fantastic-looking organ. We were excited to play with such a fantastic space.

After having spent so much time rehearsing all of this music by ourselves, both Myra and I had never felt more ready to take a recital program out on stage – we both felt relatively calm, and excited to see what was going to happen when we added an audience to the mix. It was a really fun performance, although I have never felt more exhausted from a program. An evening filled with a myriad of intense ups-and-downs and so much complex, intricate music, it took incredible focus and energy to give the audience all that we wanted them to have after our hours upon hours of rehearsal and discovery.

While in some ways performance is the end goal, it is still a part of the learning process and merely a stop on a long journey. Stepping out in front of that appreciative audience in Georgia, their energy foreign and fresh to our music-making, brought out in us a different kind of focus and adrenaline in which new intricacies and subtleties of the songs started to open up to us, and we started to scratch the surface of newer, deeper layers in many of the pieces. It’s one thing to talk to yourself, but it is quite another to communicate your thoughts to another person – through dialogue comes discovery.

It’s been a real luxury this past week to revisit each of those moments again in the rehearsal room, exploring those new possibilities of expression and depth. So often, once a program or show is up and running, there is no time or chance (or willingness) to revisit and build upon the discoveries that we happened upon once an audience in the room transformed our solitary music-making into a moment of communication and dialogue. Tonight, we take our recital out for display again, this time up at SUNY Oswego. I’m really excited to see what new things we discover tonight – which doors and pathways this audience will open up for us, and the new worlds to which they will lead.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I hope you are all wearing purple today like this little guy...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Michelangelo and Cavalieri

“I think the effect of America was to broaden one, encourage one and to shake one. I was in danger of becoming parochial, and this worried me. One reason I didn’t set English in America, though, was that I became discontented with the contemporary setting of English. It was necessary for me to get away from setting English for a time. I felt bolder with another language, or no language at all.”

-Benjamin Britten

Arguably, the most challenging set on our upcoming recitals is the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. The music is harmonically complex and intricate, and the vocal lines require all the technical virtuosity of any bel canto cavatina – super-seamless legato lines, an ability to float long, high phrases, the flexibility to be able to jump smoothly from the top to the bottom of the staff. But the greatest challenge these pieces pose is Michelangelo’s poetry itself. Trying to understand 550 year old Italian is the first hurdle to jump when trying to make sense of Britten's compositional choices and instructions.

When most people think of Michelangelo, they often will think first of his gargantuan, masterpiece of the naked male form, David, or of the iconic image of God reaching out to Adam that he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. At a party this summer, I was chatting with a woman who taught art history at one of the colleges in New York. When I mentioned these settings of his sonnets, she exclaimed, “Oh my! I’ve been teaching about Michelangelo’s art all of these years, and I never even realized he wrote any poetry!” More famous as an architect, painter, and sculptor, his poetic achievements often fall by the wayside when considering his artistic output.

One of the challenges Michelangelo’s poetry poses is its philosophical nature. Rather than celebrate landscapes or create stories about fictional people, his poetry is a written philosophical meditation on the events of his life. Michelangelo didn’t start composing poems until after his completion of David in 1503-1504, and while he wrote intermittently for the next 25 years, his most productive period as a poet did not start until 1532, when he was 57 years old. It was in this year that he met a young man named Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Michelangelo became infatuated with the much younger Cavalieri (Cavalieri was only 23 years old at the time), writing around 50 poems for and to him, musing on the nature of his love for him and struggling to remain within the bounds of propriety while doing so. While it is pretty evident that Cavalieri didn’t requite Michelangelo’s passion, he remained one of the artist’s closest and devoted friends throughout his life - he was one of two people at the artist's beside when died in Rome in 1564. The poems to Cavalieri literally burst at the seams with the intensity of Michelangelo’s passion for the young aristocrat. Most of the poems in Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo come from these sonnets to Cavalieri, creating an aural snapshot of the most intense period of their long, close, and tumultuous friendship.

Britten composed his settings of Michelangelo's sonnets in Amityville, New York in 1940, during his sojourn in America at the beginning of World War II. Of the seven sonnets that Britten chose to set in this first song cycle that he wrote for Peter Pears, six are poems that Michelangelo wrote expressly for Cavalieri. The final sonnet of the cycle (which is actually the earliest poem and is the only one not for Cavalieri, dating from right before Michelangelo met him circa 1530), with it’s images of love “holding him captive” and beauty “binding him fast”, anticipates many of the themes that occur in much of his artwork for Cavalieri. At the end of the second sonnet of the cycle, “A che più debb’io mai…”, Michelangelo revisits this theme, bluntly naming the cause of these passions by making a bit of a pun on Cavalieri’s name:

“Se vint’ e pres’ i’ debb’ esser beato
Maraviglia non è se nud’ e solo
Resto prigion d’un cavalier’ armato.”

“If to be happy, I must be conquered and bound,

it is no marvel that I, nude and alone,

remain the prisoner of an armed cavalier.”

Rape of Ganymede - Michelangelo's drawing for Cavalieri, ca. 1532

One of the prevalent themes in Britten’s music is the plight of the outsider. Many of the main characters in his operas are outsiders of one sort or another: Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, and Aschenbach in Death in Venice are just a few examples. In these poems, Michelangelo is the outsider – he desperately wants to get into the heart of Cavalieri the way Cavalieri has pierced his own. In the fourth sonnet of Britten’s cycle, “Tu sa’ ch’io so’…”, Michelangelo pleads for Cavalieri to stop keeping him at bay and to break down the barriers he holds up against him. Britten writes awkward octave leaps, and syncopated rhythms, setting the text about breaking down the wall on high g-sharps and a's, in an intense and loud tessitura.

“A che più indugio a salutarci omai?

Se vera è la spreanza che mi dai

Se vero è il buon desio che me concesso,

Rompasi il mur che l’uno e l’altro messo

Chè doppia forza hanni celati guai.”

“Why ever do we hesitate to greet each other?

If it is true, the hope that you give me,

If it is true, the good desire that comes over me,

Let us break down the wall between one and the other

For hidden sorrows have double power.”

The Punishment of Tityus - Michelangelo's drawing for Cavalieri, 1532

Disarmingly sweet, loving, passionate, tortured, angry, hurt, helpless, vulnerable, pleading, Michelangelo’s sonnets to Cavalieri paint with words the frustrations and pain of being consumed by a passion that is not returned in kind. The experience of feeling unrequited love has remained little changed in the past 550 years.

“…I enjoyed setting them all. The Rimbaud and the Michelangelo cycles were necessary for me to shed the bad influences of the Royal College. With both the French and the Italian I was perhaps responding to Nietzsche’s call to ‘mediterraneanize music’. The Italian songs have predominantly sunny lines. I am sure Purcell felt the same way in his own day about this, for surely he was influenced by French and Italian music too. As the technical question of setting a foreign language, I am not a linguist…but I pride myself that I have a feeling for languages, even if I don’t speak them very well.”

- Benjamin Britten

Monday, October 11, 2010

Coming Out Day

I want to take a pause from writing about our upcoming recital program to wish a Happy National Coming Out Day to one and all.

I started my morning, as I usually do, by reaching for my iPhone and catching up on the news and blogs that I follow. For me, National Coming Out Day began by reading this story about the latest LGBT teen suicide in Oklahoma over the weekend. Not a very celebratory way to start the day.

Seeing all of the increased media attention to the high rate of LGBT teen suicides, reading about terrifying hate-crimes in the city in which I live, and watching stories of harassment unfold in the town in which I grew up, the importance of today has an even greater poignancy and sense of urgency. There is a lot of talk about the right to Free Speech these days, between Andrew Shirvell’s harassment of the student body president of the University of Michigan and the Westboro Baptist Church's case that was heard by the supreme court the other day. After recently finishing this book about life in North Korea and seeing Mao’s Last Dancer this weekend – seeing how so many people around the world are not free and do not have the freedom of voice that we have here, the value of having that right is not lost on me.

Today, I just wish that people would consider this: With greater freedom comes greater responsibility. Words once said cannot be taken back. Speech freedoms have been restricted many times throughout history and are so even now in many places, because words carry great power. They have the power to heal, to unite, to revolutionize, to inspire, to lead. They also have the power to hurt, to divide, to destroy, and – as the media has been showing us these past few weeks – to kill.

Our youth – our future – are dying because of the messages that they hear. These messages of hate are inciting disunion and horrible acts of violence. Maybe it would behoove us all to do as our parents admonished us when we were children, and think before we speak.

I shared my own coming out story a few years ago here. To those of you who are out and proud of who you are and to our allies - thank you for your strength and inspiration. Today is in celebration of you.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


“Purcell is not fully appreciated in this country. Dido and Aeneas is unquestionably a masterpiece, but it is not a box-office success and therefore it is rarely performed. It’s the same old business of inveterate philistinism of this country…Purcell is a great master at handling the English language in song, and I learned much from him. I recall a critic once asking me from whom I had learned to set English poetry to music. I told him Purcell; he was amazed. I suppose he expected me to say folk music and Vaughan Williams.”

-Benjamin Britten

The other day in rehearsal, Myra noted that the broad stereotype of British people is that they are a very “buttoned-up” people. I noted that another broad stereotype is that they have a reputation for being hard partiers who enjoy their drink. In a similar prejudicial fashion, when I initially encountered Purcell’s music, as much fun as I thought it was to sing, I always imagined him as a rather prissy, wig-wearing, “buttoned-up” British church organist in tights and a waistcoat living some sort of stable, elegant, courtly existence. I was quite surprised to discover that, while the clothes I imagined him wearing were an accurate guess, the times he lived in were anything but prissy or “buttoned-up”, and while he may have been an important musical figure at court, the courtly experience at the time could hardly be described as elegant or stable.

Purcell was born in London in 1659, during the last year of the only period in which England had no ruling monarch in its long history. Purcell’s early childhood took place against the backdrop of the fall of the Commonwealth of England, and the restoration of the monarchy with the coronation of Charles II. During his short lifetime, he saw multiple dramatic power shifts occur within the English Monarchy - by the time of his death at the age of 36 he had served 4 different monarchs. In those years, life expectancy was short. Less than a year before Purcell’s own early death, Queen Mary II died of smallpox shortly after her 32nd birthday – both events Purcell was commissioned to write music for. One theory is that his death was caused by his becoming sick after being locked out of his house in the cold by his wife after returning home too late one night. These were people who lived passionately and for whom the adage “life is short, play hard” had a much more intense poignancy than it carried in Reebok shoe ads a few years ago. This intense passion and the high stakes of the events in their lives comes bleeding through in every note of Purcell’s music.

All of the songs we chose for this opening set of songs deal with some aspect of love. In this later, more elaborate version that we chose to start the recital, ‘If Music be the Food of Love’ starts off hesitantly celebrating the connection between love and music. As the poet implores us to sing on until he is “filled with joy” in the recitative-like opening section, Purcell gradually writes more and more florid, virtuosic runs of sixteenth and thirty-second notes until the music explodes with happiness and rapture, not coming to it’s first real cadence until 12 measures into the piece. While the poet writes of pleasures invading “both eyes and ear”, Purcell starts off another section of the music, in a flowing, quick 3/8 tempo, with more sixteenth notes whizzing by in both the bass and the vocal line, creating the sense of being surrounded by an orgy of fairies and sparks flying about, leaving the poet ecstatically high and quite spent by the time he reaches Purcell’s resigned and exhausted final section of the piece. ‘If Love’s a Sweet Passion’ (which we excerpted from Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen), while seemingly only a simple tune at first, is actually quite sophisticated and sexy once the singer starts to sing – musing on why love hurts so good. Purcell sets lines that hint at the sado-masochistic pleasures of love like “Yet so pleasing the pain is, so soft is the dart…” to suspensions of kinky seconds and fourths that roll around on top of each other throughout the phrase, never seem to fully resolve for measures at a time. In ‘Not all my torments’, Purcell fills what at first glance seem like two simple pages of innocuous music with all the pain and frustration of unrequited love. Melismas fall hopelessly on the word ‘torments’, climb desperately through jagged rhythms to uncomfortably dangerous heights on ‘pity’, and wander lost through dark and seemingly aimless harmonic paths on the word ‘sorrows’. ‘Sweeter than Roses’ captures the electrifying excitement of a first kiss – the piece starts off in an otherworldly reverie where one isn’t sure exactly quite where one is, the kisser singing slowly and rapturously of this new sensation that has stopped him in his tracks. And suddenly he explodes as he sings about how his body ‘shot like fire all o’er’, singing arpeggios that jump from the bottom of the staff to above it, leading straight into a celebratory fast section in 3/4 time, where drunk with this new sensation of hormones and emotion, he sings flowing, party-like melismas on ‘victorious’ and high with enthusiasm and elation repeats ‘all’ way too many times effort to convey that everything he touches or sees is love to him.

Sexy, dark, sweet, kinky, naughty, tortured, painful, excited, rapturous, ecstatic, funny, sensuous, desperate, florid, virtuosic, spare, simple – Purcell’s music is all of these things and more. It is nothing less than genius in its construction and range of expression, almost unparalleled in its ability to musically convey the ups and downs of life.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


When Myra and I discuss our upcoming program, the word ‘challenging’ inevitably comes up again and again. The program is challenging in a variety of ways – both for the audience-member and for us as performers. At first, it was a word that made us hesitate – but now we are realizing that it’s actually something to celebrate and enjoy.

There is a lot of fun in facing a challenge, because suddenly there’s a game with hurdles and obstacles to overcome. Confronting challenges, we somehow become the heroes of our own romances, questing through long, twisting, dark and scary paths, and coming out the other side somehow better, more self-aware, and with new skills that we have acquired along the way. There is little that compares to the sense of pride and accomplishment after breaking through a barrier or figuring one’s way out of a labyrinth and solving a puzzle. For us, the barriers are linguistic (trying to understand 500-year-old Italian), the hurdles are vocal (negotiating Purcell’s roulades and Britten’s tessitura), the puzzles are poetic (understanding Hardy’s esoteric imagery), and the tests of our endurance are not just physical (singing sixty minutes of music with little respite), but also mental – we must maintain our focus and conviction throughout all of this. Otherwise, we’ll fail in our responsibility to tell each of these little stories in as much gripping detail as we can and give the audience the most complete experience possible.

Succumbing to fears and nerves is boring. Imagining ourselves as knights in shining armor, fighting battles, going on quests, and rescuing princesses is much more exciting. It will be fun to bring audiences along for the ride.

Monday, October 04, 2010


Here are some historical tidbits that I have been considering as we have been preparing for this recital tour. Some of them are a bit random, but I've found them fascinating as I have been thinking about these composers and poets and the worlds that surrounded them. Digging deeper and deeper into the emotional core of their works, it never ceases to amaze me how little the human experience has changed over the past 550 years.

1469 Lorenzo de’ Medici takes power in Florence

1475 Michelangelo Buonarroti born in Caprese, Italy

1488 Michelangelo apprenticed to the painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, in Florence

1490 – 1492 Michelangelo taken in by Lorenzo de’ Medici

1492 Christopher Columbus sails to the New World

1494 Girolamo Savonarola assumes power from the Medici in Florence

1496 Michelangelo moves to Rome

1498 Savonarola executed by order of Pope Alexander VI in Florence

1499 Michelangelo carves the Pietà

1503 - 1504 Michelangelo begins composing poetry

Michelangelo completes his sculpture, David

1508 – 1512 Michelangelo paints the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

1532 Michelangelo meets Tommaso de’ Cavalieri

Niccolò Macchiavelli’s The Prince is published

1533 Elizabeth I born in Greenwich Palace, England

1551 Giulio Caccini is born in Rome, Italy

1559 Elizabeth I crowned Queen of England

1564 Michelangelo dies in Rome, Italy – Cavalieri is at his bedside

1567 Claudio Monteverdi is born in Cremona, Italy

1597 The first opera, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, produced in Florence

1631 John Dryden Born

1642 – 1651 English Civil War

Establishment of the Commonwealth of England

Charles I beheaded in London

1653 Oliver Cromwell becomes “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth”

1659 Henry Purcell born in London, England

1660 Charles II returns to England from exile

1661 Charles II’s coronation at Westminster Abbey

1679 Purcell becomes Organist of Westminster Abbey

1683 Purcell’s Sonatas in III Parts – his 1st printed work – published

James II’s coronation at Westminster Abbey

Johann Sebastian Bach born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach

1688 The Glorious Revolution – James II deposed from the throne

1689 First known performance of Dido and Aeneas

The Bill of Rights passed by English Parliament

Mary II and William III crowned as joint Sovereigns

1691 Purcell composes the music for King Arthur

1692 Purcell composes The Fairy Queen

1694 Purcell writes "Come Ye Sons of Art" for Mary II's 32nd Birthday

Mary II dies of smallpox, Purcell commissioned for Funeral Music

1695 Purcell composes The Indian Queen

2nd Version of If Music be the Food of Love published

Purcell dies and is buried next to the organ at Westminster

1698 First Volume of Purcell's Orpheus Britannicus is published

1702 Second Volume of Purcell's Orpheus Britannicus is published

1838 Victoria crowned Queen of the United Kingdom

1840 Thomas Hardy born in Dorchester, Dorset, United Kingdom

1861 Prince Albert dies

1871 Hardy publishes his first novel, Deperate Remedies

1891 Hardy publishes Tess of the d’Urbervilles

1895 Hardy publishes Jude the Obscure

1898 Hardy publishes his first collection of poetry, Wessex Poems

1901 Queen Victoria dies on the Isle of Wight, United Kingdom

1902 Edward VII’s coronation in Westminster Abbey

1910 Peter Pears born in Farnham, Surrey, United Kingdom

Edward VII dies at Windsor Castle, United Kingdom

1911 George V’s coronation in Westminster Abbey

Gustav Mahler dies in Vienna, Austria-Hungary

1913 Benjamin Britten born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, United Kingdom

Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiere causes a riot in Paris

1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary

World War I begins

1917 Russian Empire collapses

1919 Treaty of Versailles is signed

1928 Thomas Hardy dies in Dorchester, Dorset, United Kingdom aged 87

1936 Britten and Pears meet for the first time

Edward VIII abdicates the British Throne to marry Wallis Simpson

1939 Germany invades Poland – World War II begins

Britten and Pears move to the United States

1940 Britten composes Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22

1942 Britten and Pears return to England

1944 The Western Allies invade France

1945 Britten’s opera Peter Grimes premieres at Sadler’s Wells in London

United States drop atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan

World War II ends

1947 The English Opera Group is formed

1953 Britten composes Winter Words, Op. 52

Elizabeth II’s coronation in Westminster Abbey

1961 Britten writes the War Requiem, Op. 66

Bay of Pigs Invasion

1973 Britten completes Death in Venice, Op. 88 – his last opera

1975 Janet Baker premieres Britten’s dramatic cantata, Phaedra, Op. 93

1976 Britten dies in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, United Kingdom

1986 Pears dies in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, United Kingdom