Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Martin Isepp

A friend was saying to me recently over the holidays that it seemed to her in our current fast-paced age, true mentors are hard to come by.  In some ways, I felt a bit of truth to her words, and if that is truly the case, I feel incredibly lucky to have had so many people who I would consider mentors throughout my years as a musician so far.  One of the greatest of these for me would most definitely be the pianist, coach and conductor, Martin Isepp.

I’ve often said that my four summers at Marlboro saved my relationship with music.  After a few years of hustling to carve out a beginner’s foothold in the tough and competitive operatic world, I arrived for my first summer at Marlboro burnt out, somewhat jaded, and a tiny bit unsure why I was going there in the first place.  Hindsight being 20/20, when I look back at that version of myself standing perplexed and terrified at the threshold of my first, rustic dorm room on the Marlboro campus, I strongly believe that the main reason the fates had brought me to Marlboro that first summer was because I was starved for inspiration.  Martin was one of the main people in whom I found that inspiration which I so desperately needed.

Over the course of my four summers at Marlboro, I explored with Martin the many complex layers of the songs of Britten, Schumann, Vaughan Williams, Brahms, Wolf and Mozart.  As Martin guided me through the twists and turns of all this music over the course of our many sessions at Marlboro together, I came to understand that his approach to music came from a place of deepest respect and love for the art form.  A tough and demanding coach, he never let one note of music be poorly sung, nor one phrase pass by unexamined or unstylishly turned. Yet, despite being so rigorous and exacting, his manner was, for the most part, very gentle.  If he didn’t like something one did, he would sigh as if disappointed that you had broken his favorite piece of china and then begin to go about gently prodding the musician he was working with in a different direction, gradually cajoling them to approach the phrase or note in a way that would suddenly unlock the mysteries of the music at hand. At the end of these moments, the “eureka!” light bulb would shine brightly, and the cobwebs of confusion and musical befuddled-ness would disappear.  The music would flow again, and the composer’s intentions and the musical drama of the moment would suddenly be crystal clear.  Always expecting the best, and constantly pushing those that worked with him towards the highest levels of excellence, I found myself in our sessions reaching again for greater heights for the first time in years.  I experienced some songs I had known for years in a completely different light after bringing them to him – for instance, Schumann’s “Schöne Wiege” will never been the same for me after our sessions on Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 24.  Martin revealed the profound depth of the song's protagonist’s pain at leaving the town where he met his beloved by simply adjusting the tempo of the song in one of our sessions, transforming what I once thought of a simple, pretty, melancholy song into a richly layered, complex, heart-wrenching piece of music just as dramatic as any operatic aria ever composed.  After years of neglecting the world of Lieder and Art Song while running the beginner’s operatic rat-race, through our sessions together I rediscovered my passion for the music that made me fall in love with the art of singing.  At a time in my life when I felt that I was starting to lose touch with my wonder, respect, and love for music, Martin rekindled the fire inside of me, reconnecting me with the calling that pushed me to pursue a life in music in the first place.

The news of his passing on Christmas day is a true loss for our musical community, and he will be sorely missed.   As the person who delivered the sad news to me on Monday said, “it is difficult to imagine a person with greater integrity, musical instincts and knowledge, and kindness. There is quite simply, no replacement for him.”  I could not agree more.

Martin, I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration, encouragement, and mentorship you have given me and the musical world around me.  May you rest in peace, and may we remember you forever in our world of song.

Courtesy of YouTube, one of Martin's performances at Edinburgh - with Frederica von Stade: 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Ho Ho 2011

To all those celebrating the holiday today (and taking an online break from the festivities), a very Merry Christmas to you!

As my final concert of 2011 included an ondes martenot last week at Carnegie Hall, it only seems fair and hilarious to celebrate with these youtube performances of some carols on its sister instrument, the theremin:

Silent Night:

O Come All Ye Faithful:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:

And on a more serious note, here's a beautiful performance of one of my favorite carols:

Happy Holidays to all!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Rules

A few years ago, I was rehearsing with a pianist for an upcoming concert, and I couldn’t remember what the rule was regarding whether to approach a trill from above or directly on the note when singing a certain composer’s music.  I asked her if she remembered the rule, and she said to me, “I don’t do rules.”

While her response seemed hilariously rebellious at first, I came to see a lot of logic to her point.  Much like Italian cuisine, which varies so much from region to region, so do people’s ideas of “rules” in music.  Encounter an Italian from one region of Italy, they will tell you that unequivocally you do not use garlic when preparing a certain sauce.  Travel just an hour south, and ask an Italian from that region about said sauce, and they will tell you unequivocally that you MUST use garlic when preparing that sauce.  Both are equally convinced that they are telling you the rules, despite the fact that they are telling you the opposite.

Much the same thing happens in music, particularly when musicians speak of the music of the dead.  After my pianist friend’s comment above, this strikes me as also hilarious, because let’s be reasonable – how can we really know?  I always want to say, show me your time machine and let’s go talk to those composers.

Now I understand that we do know some information about how this music was performed – most composers that are in the standard canon of performed classical music have left writing and documented evidence of their tastes.  Rossini wrote often of his distaste for his singers ornamenting his music, and he is documented as being highly critical of what has become the standard, modern-day technique of tenors to carry our chest voices up to the very tops of our ranges.  Nevertheless, when was the last time you heard Una voce poco fa without any ornamentation or a tenor singing Count Almaviva without heroic high notes?  These things are generally accepted as “rules” today and are expected in performance.

Then again – these dead composers were once flawed, imperfect human beings, too, and often contradicted themselves.  Handel was also a bit critical of singers overly ornamenting his arias, but then again, you look at some of the ornaments he himself wrote, and you get a mixed message in terms of “performance practice”.  My colleague, Ann Hallenberg, showed me some of the ornaments he wrote for her arias in Ariodante while we were on a concert tour of the opera this summer, and I tell you, they are crazy.  Sure, they are beautiful and exciting to listen to, but they look slightly insane at first glance.

Handel’s Messiah is one of these pieces that is often subject to “rules”, yet interpretations of it widely differ. To say that the piece is performed in a wide variety of styles is an understatement, and it is performed in many different versions with different cuts and different singers singing different arias.  Just to give you a taste of the wide range of possibilities, here are two examples of the many ways the first tenor aria can be performed:

The first time a younger version of myself encountered a version of Messiah that didn’t conform to my expectations or the set of rules of the piece that I had in my hot-headed, young noggin, I reacted initially with a very closed mind.  But what I quickly noticed is that whether a particular style or version is to my taste or not, each one, when performed with conviction, brings out something new in the piece that I have never heard before.  I’ve sung the piece in so-called “authentic, period-style” performance with period instruments, and I’ve sung performances of the piece with modern-instrument orchestras that approach the piece with more of a romantic flair, and what I can say is that the piece is never the same for me.  This weekend with the Baltimore Symphony, I experienced yet another interpretation, and yet again, there were new aspects of the drama of the piece that the conductor brought out that I had never heard in the piece before.  The piece was yet again kept fresh for me – this is part of what I find so amazing about this music.  There is so much in it to be brought forth and emphasized, and there are so many ways to interpret it.  In the end, whichever "set of rules" the performers choose to subscribe to, the performer has to decide what is to their taste and commit to it.  The point isn’t the rules, but what it is that you want to say.

Just for fun, here's a video of one of my favorite moments in the piece: