Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I wrote a little blurb for the program for this week's performances of Messiah in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan - a real homecoming moment for me. Here it is, for those of you who are not going to be in Michigan this weekend:

The very first time I ever heard Handel’s Messiah, I remember sitting in the first balcony of Hill Auditorium, carefully reading the program notes before the performance, trying to understand what exactly this Messiah-thing was. I was so young I don’t even remember precisely what year it was, but it was long before I ever considered becoming a singer. The reason I remember going was to see my violin teacher play in the Symphony. I had lots of questions: Did it tell a story? Why do we all stand up to sing along with that ‘Hallelujah’ moment? What is an ‘Oratorio’, anyway? My inquisitive mind absorbed as much as it could before the first notes of the Overture. From that moment on, I was transfixed.

The first balcony of Hill was my favorite place to see concerts while I was growing up in Ann Arbor. It felt like the perfect distance from the stage – I wasn’t too far away to feel disconnected (not that distance matters in Hill – the sound actually gets better the higher up you sit), and I wasn’t too close, so I could see all of the action without missing a thing. It was from that first balcony that I caught a glimpse of how powerfully expressive music-making could be, watching Yo-Yo Ma play the Dvorak Cello concerto with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, getting my first taste of great singing live when Cecilia Bartoli gave a recital, and having my heart broken by Les Arts Florissants’ semi-staged performance of Acis and Galatea.

I cultivated my passion for classical music as an audience member in Hill, and it was on the stage that I cut my teeth as a young performing musician. It was in Hill, sitting in the back of the viola section of the Michigan Youth Symphony where I discovered what it was like to play in a large symphony orchestra. A year later, on a whim, as a sophomore in High School, I went to sing a last minute audition for Jerry Blackstone to try and get into the Michigan Youth Chamber Singers. Not having anything else to sing for him, I sang the National Anthem. After I had finished, he said ‘sounds great!’ and told me to go pick up some music for our first rehearsal that afternoon. A few months later, he would assign me my very own first, tiny oratorio solo to sing in Hill in Mozart’s Regina Coeli, and my journey as a singer had begun. I would spend the next 7 years performing intermittently and even recording in Hill as a choral singer and soloist, honing my craft and gaining valuable experience that would set the foundation of what would turn out to be a life in music. To come back to Hill for such an important UMS tradition, standing on stage as a colleague with the people who started me on this life journey, marks not only a dream come true, but the ultimate homecoming.

More information about the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor can be found here and here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


So, what was it like?

In a word – incredible.

Miraculously, I was able to sleep the night before. After two nights of less-than-ideal sleep and anxious tossing and turning, I managed to sleep for an almost blissful 10 hours. I was quite dead to the world, lost in my surreal subconscious.

As I slowly started the morning, I went about my usual routines. I read the news on my iPhone while I debated getting out of bed. I got up and drank a cup of coffee while I wrote my morning pages. As I wrote my pages, I felt my heart rate start to pick up speed, adrenaline starting to course through my veins. It’s ten in the morning, I thought, am I going to feel like this all day? My daily horoscope was waiting for me, as usual, in my email. In what seemed like an eerily apt theme for the day, it encouraged me to have courage in expressing myself.

A couple of hours later, I went to a yoga class downtown, in an attempt to get my body warmed up for the day. I unknowingly signed up for a beginners’ class and was frustrated that it wasn’t more challenging. As the teacher implored us to let go and focus on our breathing, my mind was screaming silently, “I don’t want to let go of anything right now! I want vigorous poses and flow!” I was like a racing horse, restless at the gate, anxiously waiting for the starting gun to fire. After the unsatisfying yoga class, I rushed back to the gym in my apartment to spend some time on the treadmill – where I noticed that when my mind wandered to the evening’s performance, my heart rate would jump up to around 165.

Maybe that yoga class was just what I needed that afternoon, after all.

When I got to the hall, the stage manager greeted me, “Hey, Buddy! It’s good to see you again!” putting me a bit at ease. He remembered me from my previous times singing in the hall, and the strange dichotomy of the familiarity of the hall and the sense of routine that entailed combined with the pressure of it being my “Recital Debut” (yes, capitalized) at “Carnegie Hall” sunk in. I took a moment to be grateful for the familiar faces and surroundings – I don’t know how I would have coped without those comforts there.

Before I knew it – we were off. The first half of the program whizzed past, and by intermission the extremes of bouncing back and forth between excitement and nervousness were starting to wear off, and I noticed that we were really having fun. In the second half, as we started “The Last Rose of Summer”, I looked around the audience, and took in just how many people were there from so many different parts of my life. I suddenly realized that the Last Rose isn’t just about the death of loved ones – I realized that it is also a commitment to enjoy every single second we have with those people important to us while we still have the time on earth together. I looked around the auditorium and saw my parents, my aunt, family friends who took had taken bets on when I would be born, my closest friends from my adolescence, friends from Marlboro, from my Houston Grand Opera Studio days, from my days at the University of Michigan, in addition to friends from this most recent stage of my life in New York. Then I thought of all of the teachers and friends who have passed on, and whom I have had to let go over the years. It occurred to me that with so many of my loved ones spread out all over the world, and with the complexities of life’s logisitics, it can be so difficult to be together, and it dawned on me that the most special part of the evening was that I was able to share that incredible moment with so many people whom I love.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Winter Words

Benjamin Britten to Peter Pears, 17 November 1974:

"My darling heart (perhaps an unfortunate phrase - but I can't use any other) I feel I must write a squiggle which I couldn't say on the telephone without bursting in to those silly tears - I do love you so terribly, not only glorious you, but your singing. I've just listened to a reboradcast of Winter Words (something like Sept. '72) and honestly you are the greatest artist that ever was - every nuance, subtle and never over-done - those great words, so sad & wise, painted for one, that heavenly sounds you make, full but always colored for words & music. What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? I had to switch off before the folk songs because I couldn't anything after - 'how long, how long.' How long? - only till Dec. 20th - I think I can just bear it.

But I love you,
I love you,
I love you ----

Pears' reply to Britten, 21 November 1974:

"My dearest darling,

No one has ever ever had a lovelier letter than the one which came from you today - You say things which turn my heart over with love and pride, and I love you for every single word you write. But you know, Love is blind - and what your dear eyes do not see is that it is you who have give me everything, right from the beginning, from yourself in Grand Rapids! through Grimes & Serenade & Michelangelo & Canticles - one thing after another, right up to this great Aschenbach - I am here as your mouthpiece and I live in your music - And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years.

My darling, I love you ----

Nor can we be thankful enough for all that both of them left us.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Shirley Verrett

While waiting for tonight's showtime to come around, I read the sad, sad news that Shirley Verrett passed away today.

The first impression I had of her singing (which blew me away) was listening to her recording of Verdi's Lady Macbeth when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan - I remember being in awe that we had the privilege of having this extraordinary woman teach at our University.

The thing I really appreciated about the University of Michigan was how supportive the entire voice faculty was of every single singer who came through the program at the time. While I was never a student of Ms. Verrett's, I remember her being one of the most supportive teachers on the faculty while I was there. I will never forget her coming to sit in every single opera rehearsal that any of her students were involved in, watching carefully over the development of her brood of singers, and always willing to offer any singer supportive feedback and guidance. She stood by all of us, and one was always left with the impression that she willed each and every one of us to succeed, regardless of whether we were one of her private students or not. Generous, classy, dedicated, protective, and always the epitome of elegance, she was an inspiration to all of us voice majors there. She will be greatly missed.