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.