Friday, December 14, 2012

A Quote for Today

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

-Leonard Bernstein

Thanks to my fellow musician-friend and colleague, Ethan, for posting this today on his Facebook page.  It was the perfect sentiment for today.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

YES Vivaldi

My favorite part of this (aside from how well she sings it) is how she rocks out on that German Latin...

Monday, December 10, 2012


The foggy view from home this morning...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music and Life

Thanks to my friend, Steven, for passing this daily gem along today.


A California Post-Thanksgiving sunset last weekend.

A sunset from above...very pretty above the was a pretty dreary day below.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Saint Cecilia

On top of being overstuffed with turkey, there is much to celebrate today in addition to American Thanksgiving. Today is also in celebration of two of the things for which I am most grateful: Music and Benjamin Britten.

I love that Britten was born on St. Cecilia's Day, 1913 - it seems like his extraordinary life in music was destined from the moment of his birth.

A very young Mr. Britten

So, Happy 99th, Mr. Britten and Happy St. Cecilia's Day to all.

A stunningly beautiful performance of my favorite part from Handel's 'Ode for St. Cecilia's Day' sung by Lucy Crowe with Les Musiciens du Louvre.

...But O! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred Organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heav'nly ways
To mend the choirs above...
     - from A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, by John Dryden

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


My family has recently started a new tradition of flying West to gather for the Thanksgiving holiday - a tradition of which I very much approve. Being in my favorite part of the world is always something for which to be grateful.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Elliott Carter

I was quite shocked to receive the news of Elliott Carter's passing on Monday afternoon, which I know might sound strange considering that the composer was just shy of his 104th birthday.  I was lucky enough to meet him for the first time a little less than a year ago, shortly before his 103rd birthday as we worked on the world premiere of his new orchestral song cycle, "A Sunbeam's Architecture".

I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent the brief time that I did with Mr. Carter working on "A Sunbeam's Architecture" last year - it was a real honor and privilege to get to be the first person to sing a new work by one of the greatest American composers - of both this century and the previous one.  While I found the score to be incredibly intimidating at first, I quickly fell in love with the piece, as I felt that it melded the musical heart and mind perfectly.  Yes, it was complex and intricate, but rather than sounding dry, strange, and antiseptic - it was dramatic, riveting, and beautiful.

The prospect of performing the song cycle was an intimidating one to say the least.  There are many musicians who are fanatically devoted to Carter's work, and, as they have devoted so much of their musical careers to deciphering his insanely challenging and intricate scores, they also happen to be some of the greatest musicians I have ever encountered.  The ensemble that was formed for the premiere of his new cycle, which was at a special concert at the 92nd St. Y celebrating his 103rd birthday, was filled with these devoted "Carterians", and putting the piece together with such an elite group of musicians was a nerve-wracking endeavor, indeed.  Even more nerve-wracking was the prospect of Carter coming to rehearsal - I was horrified that I would do something wrong.  For me, singing a composer's work for them often feels like a daunting responsibility. Composers entrust us with the products of their hard work and these pieces that are expressions of themselves.  My worst nightmare is to let them down while delivering their message.  This sentiment was only intensified singing for a master like Elliott, who had been working with the world's greatest musicians for well over 80 years at that point.

It turned out that working with Carter on his piece was a lot of fun.  It was a real treat to see all of these veteran, masterful musicians gathering around Carter, all posing for pictures with him like a throng of teenage girls vying for a picture with Justin Bieber.  Despite being 102 years old, he was very eager to work.  I found him to be much like his music - his mind and ear were sharp, incisive, articulate, and charming.  For me, the most insightful and inspiring part of the whole experience was getting to hear him talk about his vision of the piece.  He said, "I chose these poems because I thought that E.E. Cummings was trying to describe a young man full of enthusiasm - excitable and passionate - who is so concerned with his love affair that he resented the fact that the war took him the general thing is that this has something that is exciting and lively..." and then he smiled and quipped, "That's what an old man says, anyhow."

When he said that, I looked down at the score in front of me, and thought - this was not the music of an old man by any means.  It was the music of a young, passionate man full of energy and emotion.  It got me thinking about the adage, "age is a state of mind."  Clearly this incredible master of 20th and 21st century composition was a man who was young at heart - with an insatiably curious mind, and an energetic passion for his work.  The secret to his longevity seemed clear to me.  He just kept moving forward, focused on the work before him, unstoppable.

My "crazed fan" photo op moment with the master.

There are wonderful remembrances of him from this week's issues of the NY Times here and here.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Today's Horoscope

This was my personal horoscope waiting for me in my inbox this morning.

Your horoscope for November 2, 2012 
 From any point of view, you are entering a terrifically fruitful period, nicholas phan. Today's aspects especially align to promote results, momentum, and fulfillment. Let's hope that you will know how to preserve your integrity in the face of all the invitations that will be made for your company in the near future.

Let me just say: I really am hoping this is true today.  It sounds like a lovely day is in store.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


Why don't more of us classical musicians think about this when we perform?

The full NEC commencement speech is here.  It's worth a read.

TED Talk of the Day

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Post - Sandy

The view of the island where I live in NYC post-Sandy...

The credit for this pic goes to tweeter, Inga Sarda-Sorenson.
It was just such a stunning photo of home, I had to post it.  
Hope you don't mind, Inga...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hilarious moment of the day

"You know, when I hear deaf people speak - "

"Those weren't deaf people - they were foreigners."


"They were speaking Swedish or Norwegian or something."

"They sounded deaf to me."

Debate Party

The best place to watch a debate - in a cabaret/experimental black box theater.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I paraphrase a nugget of wisdom I heard in a master class I observed led by the flutist, Emmanuel Pahud, this morning, but it went something like this:

"...This is precision is important to do this, because when we don't pay attention to these details, we begin to do things out of habit...and all habits are bad habits. Music is meant to be expressive. When we do something out of habit, it has no expression."

Amen, amen, amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Why hasn't EVERYONE seen this movie?

Watching it was the best 76 minutes of my day today.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Today's Muses

A few pics of our muses for tonight's concert at (le) Poisson Rouge in NYC.

The dynamic duo - looking quite handsome, I daresay.

A barely legal Dennis Brain. 
(I think he's 17 in this I guess still illegal in some places?)

Dame Edith Sitwell, in all of her eccentric glory.
 (I LOVE this picture of her - is she getting her hair set? Is she on the set of Star Trek?)

 Osian Ellis working his magic and looking very intense, indeed.

Looking forward to hopefully seeing you there!

If you're not in NYC, be sure to catch us online here starting at 7:30 NYC time tonight!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Celebrate Good Times

If you are in New York City on Monday, October 15 - we're celebrating the release of 'Still Falls the Rain' at the nightclub, (le) Poisson Rouge.  Myra, Sivan and I will be performing selections from both our Britten albums  Special guest Richard Deane of the New York Philharmonic and Atlanta Symphony will also be joining us for one special number.  We'd love it if you could join us to raise a glass or two to Britten!

Doors open at 6:30, and the music will start at 7:30.

Info and Tickets are here.

And for those of you who are not in NYC on Monday night, you can watch us live online here.

Friday, October 12, 2012


I think that when most people think about the University of Michigan, the first thing to probably pop into their head is Big 10 football and the giant stadium that dominates the corner of Main St. and Stadium Blvd.  After that, there are a slew of impressive academic branches to the institution that surely spring to mind, too.  Growing up in Ann Arbor, it seemed normal to me that the Alums of the University often referred to John F. Kennedy's quote in which he called Harvard "The Michigan of the East" - the town is justly proud of the institution that defines it.  One of those branches of the school of which I am very proud to be an alumnus is the School of Music, where I received my Bachelor's degree in Vocal Performance roughly a decade ago.

Today, I am in Ann Arbor to receive the Paul Boylan Award - an award that recognizes "outstanding accomplishments and significant contributions in the field of music, theatre or dance to a recent graduate (within 10 years of graduation) from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance."  There are a lot of fantastic and highly accomplished fellow alumni to choose from when it comes time for the School of Music to decide to whom they wish to give this award, so I am deeply honored to be receiving it today.

Since my family moved to Ann Arbor when I was only 2 years old, and I remained there until I finished college 20 years later, to say that the University of Michigan School of Music had an indelible imprint on the foundation of my musical life is an understatement.  I was running in and out of the School of Music building multiple times a week from the ages of 10 - 22 for everything from violin lessons, viola lessons, youth orchestra rehearsals, youth choir rehearsals, my first voice lessons, theory and music history classes, diction classes, opera rehearsals, and more. It was the hub of my musical education from the moment I decided I wanted to be a professional musician around the age of 11 until I embarked on the first steps of my professional career.  

I often tell people that most of what I needed to know, I learned at U of M.  I don't think that is an exaggeration - I quite literally grew up there.  The musical foundation that I learned there has served me well through every up and down of this musical life, and while I have been lucky enough to have many additional mentors since, I am forever grateful for the incredible faculty at Michigan who took me under their collective wing, taught me the value of a curious mind, a disciplined practice, and inspired me to reach for the stars.  Without them none of this would have happened, and I wouldn't be the musician and person that I am today.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Happy Coming Out

I am able to wish everyone a Happy Coming Out Day just in the nick of time...can't believe I almost missed it...

Here's a lovely video about coming out from the folks at The Stranger:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Still Falls The Rain

'Still Falls the Rain' was released yesterday...oddly enough, it was a rather Still-Falls-the-Rainy day here in New York City yesterday, as well. It seemed rather appropriate and was hopefully an auspicious sign...

If you haven't already, you can order your copy here:

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Saturday, October 06, 2012


I became obsessed with kale this week. Am I the only one who feels phenomenal after eating it? I'm obsessed, I tell you.

Starchy Heart

Yes, folks, that is a potato he is holding.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Simple Pleasures

People often ask me, "What are you thinking about while you are sitting in front of the orchestra, waiting to sing?"

Tonight, I was thinking about how the bassoon countermelody - when the violas first come in with the Ode to Joy theme - in the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony is one of the most happy and joyful countermelodies I've ever heard.

It makes me smile every time I hear it.  I daresay, it is my favorite part of the Ludwig's 9th Symphony.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

How Cool Is This?

Congratulations, Alan. You are a true master.

Pre-Ode-to-Joy Run

Where the Canadian government magic happens...

Québec looks pretty across the river...

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Close Encounters

The ceiling of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa makes me think a little bit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


Somebody loves me.


Oh are so civilized with your small sizes that are actually small.

Yes, Autumn, Yes.

Duly Noted

Thank you, Jenny Rivera, for passing this along.

And thank you, Janet, for the kind reminder to get back to it.  I needed that.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Operatic Olympics

My most recent guest post at the Ecstatic Living Room blog...

As I was in Europe for the first week of the Olympics this year, I was in the right time zone to catch a lot of the events on TV in between stops on our concert tour.  Even though I’m not really a huge sports fan, I’ve been fascinated (like most of the world) with the Olympics since I was a kid.  There is something utterly awe-inspiring watching the extraordinary feats a human body can accomplish.  Whether it’s watching someone swimming or running faster than one can imagine, or doing the most intricate series of twists and backflips flying through the air after having jumped off a 10-meter platform into the water, watching what these athletes are able to do with their bodies never ceases to amaze me.
There is an element of this kind of athleticism and jaw-dropping physical virtuosity to opera, as well.  All musicians at the highest levels train just as vigorously as these Olympic athletes do, we must in order to achieve the same level of mastery that these athletes must achieve in order to make it to the Olympic level of competition.  I know that the stereotype about singers is that we are all fat ladies wearing breastplates and carrying spears.  And, yes, in some cases, that stereotype holds true.  But singers, just like all humans, come in all shapes and sizes, and just like these athletes, our bodies are our instruments. The physical demands required of any singer to project their voice over a 150 piece orchestra into a 2000 – 4000 seat theater without any amplification all while running around on stage are quite strenuous. So, like athletes, singers must train like athletes in order to perform the amazing feats that are performed on stages like the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Opera House.  I just can’t help but see the similarities when watching the Olympics, and I think that this is a large part of what makes going to the opera so exciting.  I think of it as vocal figure skating or gymnastics – we watch people dressed up in costumes, moving around to music, waiting to see if they will land their vocal equivalent of a triple axle or double back flip.... (read more)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"Moonrise Kingdom" and Britten For All

My latest post at the Ecstatic Living Room:

I know that I am generally the vocal music correspondent for the Ecstatic Living Room, but I had to veer a bit from my normal realm of responsibility to talk about the movie Moonrise Kingdom.
I went to go see Wes Anderson’s latest film a few days ago at the suggestion of a friend, who was just sure that I was going to love it.  That friend knows my taste well — I was completely enraptured from the first scene.  In the opening montage of the film, the cameras wander from room to room of a house on a rainy day — in one of the rooms, a group of children are playing around a record player, listening to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which becomes the opening soundtrack to the film.  The montage is at once nostalgic and sweet, and yet, at the same time, an incredibly sophisticated shot, seamlessly moving through each room of the house, introducing us quietly to each of the film’s main characters and transforming the mundane idleness of a rainy afternoon into a visually stunning work of art. Britten’s music is woven in throughout the rest of the film’s soundtrack, providing a musical backdrop that is the perfect reflection of the wacky misadventures of the the movie’s two child protagonists.
In the film, the film’s two lead characters are a young boy and young girl who are in love, and who concoct an elaborate and sophisticated plan to run away together sometime in 1965.  The two embark on a complex and wild journey into the wilds of the island they are living on, managing to outsmart, outwit, and elude the adults who are supposed to be their caretakers at almost every step along the way.  Much of the music that was chosen for the film was music Britten had composed for young people as a way to introduce them to the art form.  Something that has always impressed me about Britten’s music for young people is that it is always incredibly sophisticated.  Britten was fascinated with youth and the precious value of innocence his entire life, and it is clear that he knew that children have much more sophisticated minds that most adults give them credit for.
Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is an elaborate set of a theme and variations that takes the listener through the various sections of the orchestra, showcasing what each instrument and section does and the variety of sounds that they make.  The piece begins with the entire orchestra playing an arrangement of a theme by Purcell, and then Britten tours the orchestra through each following variation on that theme.  The piece ends with the entire orchestra playing an incredibly complex fugue, climaxing to an exciting finish.  Britten never simplifies or assumes that his intended audience won’t be able to understand, just because they are young.  The piece is just as intricate and complex as any of his other compositions — he assumes intelligence and a sophisticated capability of understanding.
A key piece of his music that features prominently in the film is his church parable, Noye’s Fludde.  Britten composed the piece with the intention that it be performed by a mostly-amateur cast in a church or a large hall — most of the roles in the opera are written for children, and it is at a local church production of the piece (in which Wes Anderson’s leading lady is dressed up adorably as a raven) that the film’s two lead characters meet and fall in love.
Another part of “pop” culture that I have been taking in lately is HBO’s new show The Newsroom.  At the beginning of the series’ pilot episode, the show’s lead character, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sounds off at a Q and A session at Northwestern University about how, once-upon-a-time-not-too-long-ago, American people used to value intelligence, not stupidity, and celebrated the power of knowledge.  The show has gone on pursuing this theme, by dramatizing the production of a news show, musing on the importance of an informed, educated electorate.  It’s a theme I completely subscribe to when I consider my life as a performing classical musician.
I learned my lesson about this a long time ago the very first time I programmed Britten on a recital in Kirksville, Missouri.  I worried that a small, American town might not appreciate his music, and programmed a lot of lighter, more “accessible” fare around it.  In the end, it turned out that the music that drew in that midwestern audience was Britten’s music — not the lighter, less complex, less intricate music that surrounded it. Seeing Wes Anderson’s nostalgic take on a bygone era, and hearing and seeing how he so tenderly and lovingly wove Britten’s music throughout the film, I was reminded why I am drawn to his music both as a listener and as a performer.  He assumes and celebrates the power of the human mind while never losing touch with the intricacies of the human heart.  He ignites the imagination through his music — reminding us that this music, like all music, truly is for everybody.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Album Cover

So here's the latest "Still Falls the Rain" update - we just chose an album cover yesterday!

I'm very excited about it!  Now that this step is done, we can start progressing with the rest of the CD booklet design.

To those of you who have contributed to the album's Kickstarter campaign: Many, many thanks for your continued support and generosity!  We are half way there with five days to go!  If you think about it, only 100 more $50 pledges, and we will have hit our goal - so please keep spreading the word!  If you haven't pre-ordered your advance copy of the album by pledging your support you - do so now before the campaign is over!
In the meantime - have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy Independence and a Plea For Help - Thank god our Founding Fathers didn't decide to declare independence in winter

Happy 4th to all of you who are celebrating Independence Day today!

I hope you are all enjoying fantastic fireworks and grilled meats of every variety.  I'm celebrating in Eugene, Oregon, in between moments of frantic St. Matthew Passion studying...

In case you haven't had a chance to pledge your support for the "Still Falls The Rain" Kickstarter campaign yet, we are only 6 days away from the finish line now and about 40% of the way there! The catch with Kickstarter is that if we don't raise 100% of the fundraising goal, we will lose ALL of the money pledged so far.  So it is important that we reach that finish line in time!

Pledging your support is not only a fantastic opportunity to help bring some extraordinarily moving music to the world, but it's also a great opportunity to pre-order your own advance copy of the album.  In case you haven't checked the album's Kickstarter page out yet, every pledge-level reward includes an advance download or advance CD - a pledge as low as $50 includes both!  We're only 120 $50 pledges away from reaching our goal, and this blog gets about 100 visits a day.  If everyone who visited this blog in the next 24 hours stopped by Kickstarter and pre-ordered a copy of the album by pledging their support - just imagine how much closer we would be towards that goal and bringing this album out into the world!

To those of you who have already pledged - I cannot thank you enough for your support and generosity!  Please help to continue to spread the word!  Many, many thanks and Happy Independence Day!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Alan Cumming and 8 Days To Go

I just thought I would check in here with a little update about my latest recording project!

Let me start off by saying a big THANK YOU to all of the backers who have pledged so far to the Kickstarter campaign for Still Falls the Rain!  We're just short of 35% of the fundraising goal with a little over a week to go - so if you haven't joined the list of people who have already pre-ordered an advance copy of the album by pledging their support, there is still a little time left to do so.  If we don't raise 100% of the fundraising goal - we lose all of the money pledged - so it is imperative that we get there in the next 8 days!  No pledge is too small, and every little bit helps!

photo by Francis Hills
The latest update regarding the album is that last Friday, we recorded the final tracks of the album!  There are a few readings of Edith Sitwell's poetry that are interspersed throughout Britten's piece, The Heart of the Matter. I am excited to report that the phenomenal actor, Alan Cumming, was kind enough to do the readings for the album.  Alan is currently performing a one-man production of Macbeth at the National Theater of Scotland, and was generous enough to take some time out of his busy rehearsal/performance schedule to record the tracks in a studio in Glasgow, Scotland.  Through the wonders of the internet, the album's producer was patched in to the Scottish studio from a studio in NYC, and we were able to quickly get the final tracks of the album down.  Alan's readings of this poetry are incredibly moving - it's stunning poetry, and even more stunning to hear Alan's expressive delivery of the text.  Now that this final piece of the puzzle has come into place, I am even more excited for you all to hear the finished piece!
Again - I am so grateful for your support of this project.  I am so excited that we are nearing the finish line, and it is YOUR support that is nudging us closer and closer to our goal.  In the meantime, if you have already pledged your support, please keep spreading the word about this campaign by posting about it on your Twitter feeds/Facebook pages, etc., I would be eternally grateful. This is a fantastic chance for any Britten-lover you know who will enjoy this album to pre-order their advance copy of the album!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Just as I was starting to prepare myself for some serious summer downtime, life took one of it's usual unexpected turns, and I am off now to step in for an ill colleague at the Oregon Bach Festival for some Bach and Mendelssohn over the next few weeks.  So, while I had initially planned on spending this week exploring new recipes in my kitchen and catching up on entire seasons of TV that I've missed via Netflix in between casual study sessions of Brahms and Schubert, I'm instead hurtling across the country in a flying steel tube with wings a few weeks earlier than I expected.  While I am already a little homesick (a perpetual state of being bittersweetly combined with gratitude for the fact that I get to sing for a living), I'm very much excited to get to spend some extra time in the Pacific Northwest.  I think it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I can't wait for some time to explore and enjoy it a bit more.

The Mendelssohn piece I'm jumping in for this weekend actually is providing me with an opportunity to sing a piece that I have been dreaming of performing since college.  Die erste Walpurgisnacht is a secular cantata that is a setting of a Goethe text that Mendelssohn set in 1831.  The piece completely captured my imagination, hitting all of my sweet spots when I was as a 19-year-old sophomore in the University of Michigan Chamber Choir.  Between singing about druids and pagan rituals and the fact that it is German Romantic music at it's most exciting and dramatic - both the history nerd AND the angst-ridden, teen drama queen inside me were having a heyday. There is a nice tenor solo in the piece - at first, the tenor portrays one of the druid priests calling for the start of the Walpurgisnacht rites that everyone is there to celebrate.

When I first saw how beautiful and exciting the opening tenor solo was at our first read through of the piece in college, I fell in love with the piece and ran straight to a practice room to properly learn it so that I could start working on it at my next lesson and sing it for the upcoming audition for the solo.  In the end, to my great disappointment, they gave the solo to one of the fantastic Doctoral students that were studying at Michigan at the time (there was a plethora of very talented tenors studying at Michigan while I was there).  Being a 19 year old with a very limited perspective on life and music, I remember feeling so sure that I would never have the opportunity to sing those fantastic opening lines ever again.  I swallowed my disappointment and sang my heart out in the chorus for the concerts, nevertheless enjoying the chance to get to know the piece during the weeks that we rehearsed it that semester.

Since getting the call to jump in at the Bach Festival, it's been great fun to reminisce about my college excitement about the piece and be reminded about the passionate curiosity for music that drew me to this wandering minstrel's life.  I wish my ailing colleague a very speedy recovery, and I offer him profuse thanks for giving my disappointed inner 19-year-old self the opportunity for a bit of delayed gratification.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Miscellaneous Catch Up

When I went to repost my latest guest post from the Ecstatic Living Room here, I took a peek over at my blog archive and realized that I've been a bit neglectful of this blog during the first six months of this year.  It was completely unintentional - life and music just overtook me, as they can do sometimes, and there just hasn't been much opportunity to write about it.  It's summertime now - so I'm hoping to jump back on the bandwagon...

One of the projects that has kept me a bit busy has been recording my second Britten album for Avie.  You can see a bit of footage from our recording sessions in the video above.  After recording Winter Words, which focused mainly on the music the resulted from the relationship between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, I felt that the next step was to explore some of his other relationships that inspired his composition.  After becoming fast friends and exploring Britten's music extensively together during our summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, the harpist Sivan Magen and I decided to record all of his harp/tenor compositions for the Welsh harpist, Osian Ellis, and Pears from the end of his life.  And after performing Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings a few times over the past couple of years, I found myself also fascinated by his musical friendship with the horn player, Dennis Brain.  Horn player, Jennifer Montone, and I became friends after performing his Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain a few years back on her Carnegie Hall debut recital, and it seemed a natural fit to record the piece together along with some other music he wrote for Brain and Pears to round out this album about Britten's other muses.

I've recently launched a Kickstarter Campaign to help raise some funding to ensure the album is finished properly in time for it's release date this fall.  You can read more details about the recording project and the concept behind the album there, as well as basically pre-order a copy of the album.  A kickstarter pledge as little as $25 will not only get you an advance copy of the physical CD of the album, but it will also make you an important part of bringing this music to audiences around the world.  Sivan, Jen, and Myra (my good friend and beautiful pianist-collaborator from Winter Words) are all incredibly proud of the work we did at the recording sessions in January, and we are very anxious to push this album to the release date finish line.  We are incredibly grateful for your generosity and any support that you can give!

In the meantime, I promise that my accidental blogging hiatus is over, and I look forward to being back here on a more regular basis...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Robert's Romance and the 19th Century iPod

My latest guest post at the Ecstatic Living Room blog...

At a concert I gave with the pianist, Jeremy Denk, about a week and a half ago in Chicago, Jeremy described the piano as the "iPod of the 19th century".  In the days before iPods, CD players, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, record players, and phonographs - the days during which the majority of the standard classical repertoire was written - if one wanted to hear some music outside of the concert hall, one had to make music themselves. Pianos were the primary way of doing that and experiencing in one's home.

My partner and I recently purchased a new upright piano for our apartment, and it has been a fun opportunity to pretend like we're back in the 19th century, playing our 19th century iPod in our home and making music together, mostly sight reading through songs as we laugh at our silly reading mistakes along the way.  Perhaps because Jeremy and I were so focused on Schumann for the past couple of weeks in preparation for our concert in Chicago, my partner and I have also been exploring Schumann's many songs, some of which I think are perhaps some of the most beautiful songs ever written.

In one of the more romantic stories in Classical music history, after a long and dramatic courtship, Robert Schumann finally married his great love Clara Wieck in 1840.  The two were madly in love, but were prevented from marrying for a long time by Clara's father, who disapproved of Robert, thinking him an unsuitable since he was a poor composer.  As the tension of their protracted and fraught engagement finally released, and they were able to be married, Robert suddenly had a flood of songs pour out of him - he composed 168 songs in 1840 alone, and in the process elevated the whole art form of song to an entirely new level.  Among the songs he composed that year are his famed song cycles Liederkreis Op. 24 and Liederkreis Op. 39Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman's Life and Love), and his incredibly beautiful song cycle about a poet's infatuation and break up with his love, Dichterliebe (which Jeremy and I performed last week in Chicago).

In a ridiculously romantic gesture, Robert grouped together the first 26 songs he composed that year into a collection entitled Myrthen and gave them to Clara as a wedding present.  The first song, Widmung (Dedication), is perhaps one of his most beautiful compositions.  While I don't understand why there are Jellyfish floating around in the backgroud of this video, here is one of my favorite Lieder singers performing the song:

Du meine Seele, du mein Herz,
Du meine Wonn', O du mein Schmerz,
Du meine Welt, in der ich lebe,
Mein Himmel du, darein ich schwebe,
O du mein Grab, in das hinab
Ich ewig meinen Kummer gab.

Du bist die Ruh, du bist der Frieden,
Du bist vom Himmel mir beschieden.
Daß du mich liebst, macht mich mir wert,
Dein Blick hat mich vor mir verklärt,
Du hebst mich liebend über mich,
Mein guter Geist, mein beßres Ich!

- Friedrich Rückert

You my soul, you my heart,
you my bliss, o you my pain,
you the world in which I live;
you my heaven, in which I float,
o you my grave, into which 
I eternally cast my grief.
You are rest, you are peace,
you are bestowed upon me from heaven.
That you love me makes me worthy of you;
your gaze transfigures me;
you raise me lovingly above myself,
my good spirit, my better self!

Imagine getting that as a wedding present from your brand new husband -  we should all be so lucky...

I've linked to some of my favorite recordings of each of these cycles above.  If you're in the mood to immerse yourself in the results of Robert Schumann's romantic high in 1840 and experience the products of his honeymoon bliss, check out one of those recordings above.  In case of you are curious, here's a recording one of the songs that my partner and I have fallen in love with during our explorations at our new piano.  It's called Schöne Fremde (Beautiful Foreign Land), from Liederkreis Op. 39.

Es rauschen die Wipfel und schauern,
Als machten zu dieser Stund
Um die halbversunkenen Mauern
Die alten Götter die Rund.

Hier hinter den Myrtenbäumen
In heimlich dämmernder Pracht,
Was sprichst du wirr wie in Träumen
Zu mir, phantastische Nacht?

Es funkeln auf mich alle Sterne
Mit glühendem Liebesblick,
Es redet trunken die Ferne
Wie vom künftigem, großem Glück.

   - Joseph von Eichendorff

The treetops rustle and shiver
as if at this hour 
about the half-sunken walls
the old gods are making their rounds.
Here, behind the myrtle trees,
in secretly darkening splendor,
what do you say so murmuringly, as if in a dream,
to me, fantastic night?
The stars glitter down on me
with glowing, loving gazes,
and the distance speaks tipsily,
it seems, of great future happiness.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Mozart's Perfection and Imperfection

In honor of my first performances of Don Giovanni here in Atlanta, a reposting of my recent post at the Ecstatic Living Room on some of Mozart's Operatic Arias:

As I’ve started rehearsals for my very first production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni this week in Atlanta, I’ve been thinking a lot of about Mozart lately.  At every break in rehearsal, someone inevitably sighs, “oh….this music is so incredible…”, and it’s gotten me thinking about how Mozart was truly at his best when he was writing opera.  His music for the theater is perfectly balanced; it celebrates humanity’s perfection in its imperfection.  When you look at all of these situations and characters, they are so flawed and incredibly messy – yet Mozart’s music is so beautifully balanced. His music praises human imperfection, as if he knows that the beauty of being human is found in the patina of all our flaws.  It’s messy and clean all at the same time.
Being in this Mozart frame of mind, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share some of my favorite Mozart arias here.  Incidentally, they are also some of my favorite operatic arias, period.
As I am currently in rehearsals for Don Giovanni, why not start with one of my favorite moments – Leporello’s aria, Madamina, il catalgo è questo.  At this point in the opera, Donna Elvira, a Spanish noblewoman who has been seduced and then dumped by Don Giovanni, has followed (stalked?) Giovanni all the way from Spain.  Giovanni manages to evade her, leaving his servant Leporello to tell her the truth – that she is just one of thousands of women who fill his little black book of conquests.  Listening to Leporello, Don Giovanni sounds like quite the impressive stud…or a sex addict.
My dear lady, this is a list
Of the beauties my master has loved,
A list which I have compiled.
Observe, read along with me.
In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one;
But in Spain already one thousand and three.
Among these are peasant girls,
Maidservants, city girls,
Countesses, baronesses,
Marchionesses, princesses,
Women of every rank,
Every shape, every age.
With blondes it is his habit
To praise their kindness;
In brunettes, their faithfulness;
In the white-haired, their sweetness.
In winter he likes fat ones.
In summer he likes thin ones.
He calls the tall ones majestic.
The little ones are always charming.
He seduces the old ones
For the pleasure of adding to the list.
His greatest favourite
Is the young beginner.
It doesn’t matter if she’s rich,
Ugly or beautiful;
If she wears a skirt,
You know what he does.
Next, let’s move to perhaps one of Mozart’s most famous arias: “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from The Magic Flute.  I’d venture to say that it’s one of his most favorite compositions simply because it is fierce music – it’s insanely dramatic and when you hear a woman sing it (or a boy), its just simply astonishing that a human voice can make those sounds.  At this point in the opera, the Queen of the Night is imploring her daughter Pamina to murder the high priest Sarastro, threatening to disown her if she doesn’t follow through.  Whenever I see this, I always hope for Pamina’s sake that she has a good therapist waiting for her in the wings, so she can work through all the inevitable mommy issues she is bound to have after hearing that aria being screamed in her face.  Here’s my favorite recording of this aria, sung by soprano Edda Moser:
Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned be forever,
Forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature
If Sarastro does not turn pale [in death] because of you!
Hear, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!
My third favorite aria is perhaps my favorite aria that Mozart ever wrote, “Un’ aura amorosa” from Così fan tutte.  At this point in the opera, the soldiers Ferrando and Guglielmo have placed a bet with Don Alfonso on their girlfriends’ fidelity – in order to test their girlfriends’ faith and love, they disguise themselves as traveling Albanian soldiers and attempt to seduce each others’ lovers.  Sure that Don Alfonso is going to lose, Ferrando daydreams about what it will feel like when this prank is over, and enjoys the beauty and strength of the love he feels.  It’s perhaps one of the most tender and sweet moments ever composed in opera.
A breath of love
From our treasures
Will afford our hearts
Sweet sustenance.
A heart nourished
On the hope of love
Has no need
Of greater inducement.