Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rossini meets Bach

Before our last concert of the St. John, one of my colleagues (who is also a close friend) came to my dressing room to say hello, saw my suitcase, rolled his eyes and said, "oh…you're one of those singers…" He was disappointed that I wasn't going to hang around for the evening and go out on the town to celebrate with him and his partner. But after so little time in my new apartment and being surprised to be spending an unexpected extra week in Chicago, I had decided to run right home straight after our last matinee. I made that choice for two reasons – firstly, because I was anxious to have some time to enjoy sitting on my new couch, and, secondly, because I knew that I had to get to work on my next two upcoming projects.

While being back at the CSO was an incredible, fun, and exciting opportunity, I lost a bit of time in terms of preparing for the two huge projects that are on next on my docket – St. Matthew and Il barbiere di Siviglia. While I have done Barber before – I haven't even looked at the score since 2003, and (as I posted the other day) this St. Matthew Evangelist will be my first. To make matters even more stressful, three days after my first performance of the St. Matthew Evangelist, rehearsals begin for Barbiere in Portland, leaving me just enough time to fly home, unpack, then repack, and fly off to Portland. So, while I have been trying to enjoy some time at home these last three weeks, I have been forced to keep my nose to the grindstone, so to speak. The morning after I returned home, sheer panic set in, and I dove directly into a daily routine with an intensity and total immersion that I rarely experience outside of my summers at Marlboro.

This process has quite literally felt like burning a candle at both ends – Rossini and Bach are two very different, almost opposite musical forces to contend with. Rossini is all about virtuosity, flexibility, and bel canto technique, the needs of the voice dictating the musical line and phrasing. Bach sits on the opposite end of that spectrum, requiring the singer to treat his (or her) voice like an instrument. Rossini requires ego, bravado, and showmanship. Bach has no room for such qualities, demanding humility, meditation, and selflessness. The one thing that both do require is a lot of practice.

As I settled into my working rhythm, my initial panic gradually gave way to enjoyment, and I started to notice that burning this musical candle at both ends was, much to my surprise, yielding numerous positive and unexpected results. Almost immediately, I found that rather than feeling like I was juggling two voices, my work with one composer would inform my work with the other. I discovered I didn't need to feel quite so rushed in Bach. I discovered that I could stand to be a lot more precise and clean in my approach to Rossini. I also discovered things that were non-musical, as well. One day, writing my morning pages, pondering my fraught and nerve-wracked relationship with Rossini, I found myself posing the question: Am I anxious that I won't live up to the music or am I more scared of what my colleagues and the audience might think? Considering an answer, I realized that whenever I feel nervous about Bach, it is because I am afraid I won't be able to do justice to the music. Disturbingly, I also became aware that my nerves about Rossini did not stem from the same source. Identifying that fear was incredibly liberating, and also allowed me to finally open up and take some huge strides forward with Mr. Rossini, as I applied my more Bach-ian psychological approach to practicing his music.

Normally, it's difficult to be this disciplined when I am at home – at times it can be exhausting, and it can be easy to feel blocked. But these past few weeks, I've really enjoyed myself and felt myself enjoying singing in a way that I haven't in a long time. It's been three weeks in which I feel there have been countless discoveries and technical growth spurts, making me very excited for the weeks to come.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tenors, Bach and Passions

After my unexpected week back in Chicago, I still find myself in the land of Bach and the Passions – this time in the realm of St. Matthew. In a couple of weeks, I'll make my way through my first Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion. When it comes to these two larger-than-life pieces, I feel like I've had the opportunity to discover each aspect of them in the perfect order. In college, my teacher, who loved these pieces dearly, pushed quite hard for me to begin learning them, hearing the possibility for them in my voice, but I never really dug in very hard without the impetus of an upcoming performance to force me to learn them. So, I bought the scores and glanced at them in college, but didn't really pick either of them up in earnest until my first St. Matthew Passion with Music of the Baroque a couple of years ago, in which I sang the arias.

The tenorial responsibilities in these passions differ greatly in terms of difficulty. All four roles (one tenor narrates the story as the Evangelist and another sings the arias in each) are challenging in the way that all of Bach's vocal writing is, but their challenges vary as does the level of difficulty. In both Passions, the challenge to singing the arias is the prolonged amount of time one has to wait before singing anything, as well as the fact that it seems that when Bach was writing the arias, he had two very different singers in mind, as the technical requirements and hurdles differ vastly from one aria to another. In the St. Matthew, the first aria and recitative are fairly high in tessitura whereas the second aria sits a lot lower. In the St. John, the differences are even greater. As in the St. Matthew, one aria sits significantly higher than the other, but the lower first aria is also quite dramatic and disjunct with the relatively heavy orchestration of a full string orchestra, while the much higher second aria requires not only some of the most delicate and controlled singing Bach ever demanded from a tenor (it is only scored for two violins and continuo) but also the utmost endurance. The phrase are almost never-ending, requiring incredible breath control and smooth, legato singing. The arias in St. John are perhaps some of the most technically treacherous music Bach ever wrote for tenor.

The challenges to both Evangelists are not just the normal vocal and harmonically challenging twists of Bach's vocal writing, but also the intellectual and dramatic challenge of narrating the story of each passion. In both cases, the Evangelist is responsible for the flow of the evening, linking the varied sections of each piece, and engaging the audience over a period of more than two hours. It's a lot of German, a lot of harmonically brilliant and strange recitatives, and a lot of storytelling. Vocally, the St. John is lower in tessitura than the St. Matthew as well as a bit shorter in length. I find the St. John Passion a bit more dramatic and direct, whereas I find the St. Matthew more meditative and longer, which, combined with it's much higher tessitura, requires much more concentration and focus as a result.

The order that I have had the opportunity to learn each of these parts has been ideal, and I am grateful for the chance that seems to have led me to these various circumstances. Beginning with the most manageable of the four roles, I was able to discover what the experience of performing one of these Passions is like. Then, by learning what seems to me to be the easier of the two Evangelists, I was able to make my first foray into telling this story and begin to get an understanding of what kind of responsibility that entails. Being pushed to learn the St. John arias so fast and in such a pressure cooker, now viewed through the luxury lenses of retrospect, was ideal. I was forced to look past the intimidation I felt when examining their technical pitfalls and rise to the occasion. Being with such a first-class group of colleagues inspired me to push through that intimidation, as well. And now, having had all of these experiences with both Passions, I feel ready to tackle what I consider the greatest challenge of the four - St. Matthew's high-voiced and long-winded story-teller.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chicago’s Magnestism

After the mad rush of the Marlboro Tour and a concert of incredibly challenging Bach Cantatas and the Magnificat in Philadelphia the following week, I tried to settle into a comfortable routine of being at home for about ten days before hopping off to Chicago for some concerts with my good friends at the Music of the Baroque. I got off the plane in Chicago on a Tuesday afternoon and immediately felt the calmness of being somewhere familiar. It was so nice to know where to go in the airport, know the person who was picking me up, and just feel the comfort of being in the part of the country where I grew up. As diverse as my ethnic background is and as much of the world I have traveled these past 9 years singing, I am a Midwestern boy at heart, and there is a certain sense of hominess I feel in Chicago that I never feel any other place I work. As I stepped out of the airport, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Part of my relief was the knowledge that after the Music of the Baroque concerts, I would begin a month off – my first chance to spend more than 10 days in at once in my new home, and to put my feet up and relax a bit. I spent my week in Chicago visiting with some very close friends who live here as well as friends who were in town to work. I also sang at a few Chicago high schools on my days off as part of an educational program that Music of the Baroque has. My educational colleagues and I drove from school to school, sharing many laughs along the way, taking the rather early class times in stride. Rehearsals for the MOB concerts were great fun, as I was making music with friends – we laughed our way through much of the rehearsals and just enjoyed working our way through three scores of rarely performed pieces by Handel (my favorite composer to sing).

After the concerts, I stayed for a few days to see a performance at the Lyric and to visit with my aunt, who lives nearby. I flew back home to New York on Thursday afternoon and immediately unpacked my bag. I was excited to get home, as I had just ordered a new couch and piano, which were to arrive on Friday. Once I had reorganized my place Friday afternoon and had enjoyed sitting on my new couch for a few minutes, I headed out to for a meeting with my manager. As I was making my way down to her office, my phone rang – it was my manager. "Nick – I have an urgent matter to discuss with you: The Chicago Symphony just called…" she said. "You're kidding…" I said.

It turns out that a colleague was not well, and had to cancel singing the tenor arias in the St. John Passion this week. After some decision making on both ends (I had only ever performed the Evangelist – not the arias), I had a flight booked to go back to Chicago and a rather pressing reason to park myself at my new piano to woodshed. Saturday, I repacked my freshly unpacked bag, and Sunday morning, I found myself flying straight back to where I had just been. At rehearsal on Monday, I saw a colleague who had just played the MOB concerts and who also is playing these concerts with the CSO. He smiled when he saw me, and said, "Long time, no see!" and I replied "This city is like a magnet – I just keep getting pulled back!"

The week has been pretty spectacular, despite the stress of learning these incredibly difficult and tricky arias and needing to get them up to a very high level so quickly. My colleagues are some of the best people in this repertoire in the world, and having the unexpected chance to sing with CSO again is pretty dreamy.