Saturday, December 28, 2013

Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth

"…when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this a grievous sin, and at those times, I would prefer not to hear the singer."
- St. Augustine

Words I can get behind.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Pathétiques & Serenades: A Meditation on the Varieties of Gay Experience

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

This past weekend in Kitchener-Waterloo, I had the unusual pleasure of being able to sit out in the audience to enjoy the second half of our concerts, as my performing duties were done as soon the program hit halftime.  Led by their music director, Edwin Outwater, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony played Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathétique', after intermission - a piece I had not really listened to intently in quite a long time.  It actually happens to be one of the last pieces I played in my youth orchestra in Detroit before permanently putting my violin back in its case, so it holds a very special place in my musical heart.  I relished the opportunity to enjoy a live performance of it after singing Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, & Strings at the end of the first half of the program.  However, as I listened the Symphony unfurl and reminisced about days past in which I let my teenage-angst express itself freely as I played impassioned and tortured melodies high on my violin's G-string in the symphony's final movement (an emo-joy that only other angst-ridden teenage violinists will truly understand),  I found myself listening to the piece with slightly different ears than I expected.

Beyond its sheer musical brilliance and heart-wrenching beauty, the Pathétique is legendary also for the fact that Tchaikovsky conducted its premiere just 9 days before dying, perhaps intending his final symphony to be a musical suicide note.  As I listened to the beginning of the haunting last movement, it dawned on me just how gay the evening's program was - seminal works by two great gay composers juxtaposed against each other, with some thematic similarities, and yet starkly different.  The two composers' biographies have many commonalities on the surface: Both were greatly respected and quite famous composers within their respective lifetimes, both were officially recognized by a great many international institutions as well as their respective homelands' monarchs for their work, both were gay men living in times when homosexual activities were illegal.

While both composers' works on the program explored themes relating to death, Tchaikovsky's struck me as so much more anguished - the rawness, brutality, and depth of his depression so unapologetically apparent and there for all of us to witness and experience with him.  It then struck me how different these two composers' lives were, too. Here I was listening to what was quite likely a lonely and tortured gay man's symphonic goodbye to the world, and I had just performed a piece that Britten had written for his life-partner of 35 years.  The dichotomy could not have been more striking - one man had lived a life struggling with depression, unable to allow himself to live openly with any real lover or to develop any type of romantic connection fully in any sort of lasting or deeply fulfilling way, while the other spent most of his adult life with a man who was not only his creative muse, but also the love of his life.  One man quite likely committed suicide, the other died of natural causes in the arms of his lifelong lover. There is a darkness to both composers' works, certainly, but in Tchaikovsky's symphony, personal anguish and inner conflict pour out because they have no other outlet, while Britten's Serenade is music that is inspired by love - a love that was known, accepted, and largely supported in his own wide-reaching community.  In the last song of Britten's Serenade, which is perhaps the darkest moment of the orchestral cycle that explores the various stages of night, the singer welcomes sleep and then begs to never to wake again, asking for the "casket of his soul" to be sealed.  Yet, the solo french horn sounds the call of a distant sunrise just after - a musical gesture that I take as a sign that he will wake up again and life will go on - the cycle will begin again anew.  Tchaikovsy's Pathétique ends with a heartbeat figure in the basses that gradually slows, and then simply stops.

In a year that has seen so many giant steps forward for the gay community here in the US, and so many setbacks and violence against the gay community abroad, the juxtaposition of the two pieces was particularly moving.  How much we have evolved - the evening's concert was conducted by a man who had just happily married his partner in Hawaii in front of their family and friends just weeks before our concerts last weekend. Yet, how much remains the same - gay teen suicide still abounds, making organizations like the Trevor Project still necessary.

While it's such a gift to have such beautiful music in our midst, how tragic it is to think of the abuse and struggles we still endure just to be able to love freely.

My favorite recording of the Pathétique - Eugene Ormandy with the Philly Orchestra.  
Movement 4 - Adagio lamentoso:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm in Canada for the weekend, so will miss out on the American Thanksgiving fun, but that doesn't leave me any less thankful for the lovely friends who keep posting this photo from

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back at home. Hope you are eating lots of Turkey. And stuffing. Yes, screw gluten-free for the day and live large.  No pun intended.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Britten 100

A lot of critics and music-journalists often decry the use of anniversaries as programmatic crutches upon which to wheel out the music of composers and fill out their season performance calendars.  Just about all of them have conceded, though, that in the case of Benjamin Britten and this centenary year of his birth, there is good reason to fête this man who was one of the 20th century's greatest composers, as his music is quite underserved outside of his native land.

Since I began my own personal project exploring Britten's music back in 2006, I've been repeatedly told time and time again that "Britten doesn't sell".  What has been gratifying about this centennial year has been watching presenters and musicians alike stop thinking to themselves "Britten doesn't sell" and actually get out there and start selling Britten.

The irony, of course, is that what compels me so much about Britten's music is that it does, indeed, sell. He has the power to touch an audience in ways that few other composers are able.  I've seen this time and time again as my various colleagues and I have watched audiences laugh, cry, and gasp during our recital programs of his music.  I was again reminded of the huge emotional impact his music has last week, during a sold-out performance of his War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony in Strathmore.  Watching people's eyes flood with tears as the piece unfurled, the traditional latin requiem mass angrily/sadly/disbelievingly juxtaposed against the poetry of the killed-in-combat, World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, it was overwhelming to experience the power of his music - just as impactful as any other composer of the "standard" classical music repertoire.  Perhaps more-so, in some ways.  I hope that the great world-wide efforts to program his music this year extend beyond this centenary, and that we continue to experience and explore his music more regularly.  This is timeless music for everyone everywhere - powerful, meaningful and beautiful music that must continue to be played, presented, and heard.

In addition to his music, I think that perhaps the most important aspect of the occasion of this centenary has been the opportunity for us to get to know the man, as well as his music.  Britten was, simply put, and extraordinary human being, and in getting to know him and the biography of his life over the past few years, I have found a hero in him.  Living as a gay man during a time in which homosexual acts were illegal, he not only lived openly and with integrity, but also had the audacity and courage to let his sexuality and his relationship with his life partner of Peter Pears inform his work, creating some of the most beautiful music of the 20th century.  Beyond his relationship with Pears, Britten forged an extraordinary community of incredible individuals and artists around him, who also inspired him. Working together with these people, he set out to change the world around him through his art.  He not only composed great works that explored important themes (such as the War Requiem and Still Falls the Rain, which directly challenge humanity to consider the horrible atrocities we commit upon each other), but also created new venues and platforms for our art-form to flourish and grow (like the Aldeburgh Festival and the English Opera Group), and creatively invented new ways for young people to experience and learn about music (like his opera Noye's Fludde).  He used his music to engage communities not only in a dialogue and meditation about the nature of being human, but also brought them together, fostering a stronger sense of fellowship and a greater appreciation for the arts.

Beyond the simple fact that Britten would have turned 100 today, celebrating Benjamin Britten could not be more timely - as we classical musicians struggle to find our footing in the 21st century, we could all take a cue from his willingness to innovate and engage.  We could all stand to model his keen awareness of the power that music and musicians have to knit communities closer together, and to change not only our own lives, but also the lives of those around us for the better.

A very happy 100th birthday to Mr. Britten, wherever he may be celebrating today in the afterlife.  Our world is a richer and more beautiful place because of you and your work, and I hope we can all take a cue from your work and life as we forge ahead with our own.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Birthday Week 2

NPR Music kindly invited Sivan and I to join their Britten Centenary celebrations this month for their Field Recordings series.  While Britten was living in the US in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he lived for a while in Brooklyn in a group house that boasted such roommates as W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, and even Gypsy Rose Lee.  A colorful crowd, to be sure…

NPR thought it would be fun to evoke the modern version of that Brooklyn bohemian-ness that Britten lived during his American sojourn by hosting a house concert at a modern-day group house in Brooklyn.  

One day to go.  Happy early 100th, Mr. Britten.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Birthday Week 1

A belated thank you to the very sweet and generous audience member at Spivey Hall in Atlanta the week before last who thought to bring this all the way back from their trip to London for me.  It's proudly displayed on my backpack. 

Happy early 100th, Mr. Britten.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Post-Mortem New York City Opera - What Now?

Back in September, just before the post-New York City Opera era dawned, I was in the midst of the maelstrom of mounting Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago's second annual Collaborative Works Festival.  One of the things I had programmed on the final concert of the festival was a set of Beethoven folk song arrangements for singers and piano trio, to be performed by myself, soprano Kiera Duffy, and some of the members of eighth blackbird, the highly-acclaimed ensemble that normally specializes in new music.

After a Beethoven rehearsal, the violinist and violist of the group, Yvonne Lam, and I were discussing the effect performing new music has had on our work with 'old' music - the music of what we classical musicians consider the 'standard' repertoire. Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc.  Yvonne echoed a sentiment that I have often thought of performing new music, something that I briefly discussed in an interview in Toronto recently: "...doing a lot of new music makes you look at the rest of music in general with fresh eyes, because you're so concerned with how to communicate what's written down on the page to an audience that you suspend all sense of expectation. You look for the reason and purpose behind everything, so that every gesture is intentional."

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the classical music world, in general, could benefit from this type of thinking.

For anyone who has been living under a rock lately, it's been a rough go for our industry as of late.  Two really sore and greatly discussed situations somehow seem emblematic of the struggles we have been experiencing.  Having just celebrated its 110th birthday, the future of the musically head-less Minnesota Orchestra remains extraordinarily unclear and seemingly hopeless after more than a year of a lock-out of the musicians by the orchestra management. Also, the New York City Opera has closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy.

The NYCO situation has been the fodder for much gnashing of teeth in the press, and rightly so.  The world have lost one of the most important platforms for the art form of Opera for the past 70 years.  Much has been written reminiscing about memories of the past, documenting its final moments, as well as analyses of what went wrong and who exactly is to blame.  It makes sense - we are grieving an epically tragic loss, and it is natural for us to go through these stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance.

I've had to go through my own grieving process with the collapse of the NYCO.  The most immediate sting is that I was slated to sing the title role in the company's next scheduled production, J.C. Bach's Endimione.  This is obviously not happening now, and I feel most of the feelings that I listed above quite acutely.  I'm sad that this fascinating project is not to be, and that I have lost this opportunity to perform this beautiful and largely unfamiliar music.  I read all of the accounts of what went wrong and think, "if only…". I'm angry that I signed, in good faith, a document that bound me to the company for that period, turning down numerous (and at times lucrative - both artistically and financially) offers for that period, only to be left with a two month hole in my normally (thankfully) over-full calendar.  I also have accepted that this is the way that the proverbial cookie has crumbled, and I am now trying to figure out what to do with myself with this unexpected period off, grateful that this is just a blip on the screen of my life and not a complete system-fail requiring a reboot, like it could be and has been for so many others.

My own history with the company is somewhat mixed.  While the company gave me my first operatic opportunity in Lincoln Center shortly after I left the Houston Grand Opera studio as Damon in their exquisitely beautiful production of Handel's Acis & Galatea, this NYCO cancellation is actually the second that I've had to grapple with - I was scheduled to perform Nemorino in a production of L'elisir d'amore that the company was planning to tour through Japan back in 2009.  The tour was cancelled because of the company's inability to raise or allocate the funds necessary to take the company to Asia.  Thankfully, those plans were abandoned in a timely and responsible fashion, long before being announced or production had begun.  Regardless, I've always been grateful to the company for offering me the exciting opportunity to make my operatic debut in New York City.  I learned valuable lessons during my short time there, and, perhaps most importantly, I had one of the most special and enjoyable operatic experiences of my career during that production.  When things were going right there, it was a great place to be.

So why did I start off this whole diatribe with that little vignette about a short, post-rehearsal conversation in Chicago?  Like performing new music (as well as the music of Benjamin Britten this past year) has shown me, I think it's time to start looking at our arts organizations in a different way - like new music, with fresh eyes. As our venerated institutions become older and more established, it is easy to begin taking their existence for granted.  The demise of the New York City Opera should be a lesson and warning to us all in this regard.

I firmly believe that the sole purpose of any artist and any arts institution is to serve the communities around them. This week, I am in Baltimore to perform Britten's War Requiem with the Baltimore Symphony.  The War Requiem, is the ideal example of this idea that our art form exists to serve the communities around us.  The piece, composed for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during World War II, was written as a piece of healing. It is a cry for reconciliation, and for peace.  Even though its poetry was written to decry World War I, and the music composed to grieve the losses of World War II, the piece remains just as relevant today as it ever has.  We still live in a world in which we send our youngest and brightest off to be killed in war - we still have fallen soldiers to mourn and violence to contemplate.

As part of my work with the Symphony, I have been asked to spend time talking with various classes of high school and middle school students about the piece.  In speaking about this piece with these young people, I am reminded of how unfamiliar all of the classical music repertoire is becoming to much of the American public.  This music is less and less frequently taught as part of a young person's general education.  The most exposure many people get to classical music is the occasional snippet of Carmina Burana in a car commercial or the talented young girl singing Puccini's 'O mio babbino caro' on Insert-Name-of-Country-Here's Got Talent.  It is shocking to me in my travels how often a city's residents are completely unaware that their home boasts its own Symphony or Opera, let alone a chamber music series.  If this is the case - why do we continue to operate with the assumption that everyone is as familiar with our art and its institutions as we are?  We've spent lifetimes training to achieve the level of musicianship and administrative expertise we need in order to bring this music to the people around us.  We've forgotten that we are specialists.  We've lost sight of the the fact that we exist to educate.

We must stop taking for granted that all people know this beautiful, rich repertoire that is 'Classical Music'.  We must even stop taking for granted that everyone is familiar with us as performers and institutions - many people don't know who we are, what we do, and why we do it.  Our media marketplace is too crowded for us to take that for granted anymore.  We must make sure that every gesture we make is intentional and not a motion that we simply take for granted because it's something we've always done or just a desperate act of survival.  We must engage the communities around us beyond begging for them to dig us out of our grave.  We must look at why and how we are relevant, and how we relate.

It is our responsibility as classical musicians to enable the communities around us to experience and discover this beautiful, potentially life-changing music.  In doing this, we will engage these communities in a dialogue - reminding both ourselves and everyone around us why we are relevant, why what we do is important, and perhaps in the process bring our increasingly divided communities together.

This is not just the job of us performing artists (who must examine our programming and artistic vision) but also of the boards and administrations of these organizations, as well.  Just as artists exist to serve the communities around them, it is the responsibility of those communities to support and protect them.  In this sense, we are all guardians of this music.  We are all artists, in this way.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween

It's a strangely wet and humidly spooky day here in Toronto. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Canadian Rehearsal

The Toronto Symphony, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and our fearless leader, Peter Oundjian.

The Roy Thomson Hall Mothership hovering above the stage. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

Musical Education

Some food for thought from a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece:

 "...'There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.”'

That’s an observation worth remembering at a time when music as a serious pursuit — and music education — is in decline in this country.  

Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life..."

Read the whole piece here:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Singing With Haiti

I'm very excited to be taking part in a benefit concert next week at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral for a new charity, Sing With Haiti.

Sing With Haiti's mission is to raise funds and resources to support the ongoing work and rebuilding of Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  The school, which was destroyed in the devastating 2010 earthquake, and provides roughly 1500 children each year with a formal music education.  To learn more - please watch the short video above.  The undaunted will and spirit of these young musicians and their dedicated teachers is inspiring, and it is a beautiful touchstone to remind us all about the importance of music in our lives.

If you're in the Bay Area next Wednesday evening, please join us for a beautiful night of music-making on Nob Hill.  It's quite the line-up of artists, including Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Jake Heggie, among other beloved colleagues.  You can get tickets and find out more information here.  If you aren't around, please consider making a contribution to Sing With Haiti via their website - remember, every bit helps and no amount is too small to make a huge difference to these young people. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

2013 Collaborative Works Festival

This week has been amazing.

I meant to post about it towards the beginning of the week, before the festivities began, but blogging got lost in the shuffle as we got swamped in last minute details and preparations.  I'll post more next week, once the dust settles, but in the meantime, below is my Artistic Director's note for this year's program.  

For those of you in Chicago who were able to come and join us this week - THANK YOU for an incredible week and sharing in the beauty of this neglected and rich repertoire!

It is with great joy that I welcome you to Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago’s second annual Collaborative Works Festival. The Collaborative Works Festival represents the pinnacle of CAIC’s programs, furthering its mission to make Chicago a world home for art song and vocal chamber music. Last year CAIC proudly inaugurated this festival to rave reviews, and we are very happy to be back now for year number two.

We are excited to have expanded the Festival from two to three concerts, in addition to including our traditional master class. This additional concert inaugurates a new and important annual event in Chicago: the Collaborative Works Festival Solo Recital. In America, we find fewer and fewer venues with a commitment to the recital repertoire. Chicago, with its rich tradition of opera and choral music, is the ideal place to turn this trend around. Now, each year CAIC will ensure that Chicagoans are able to enjoy at least one major vocal recital, and we are pleased that trailblazing countertenor David Daniels will inaugurate this Festival tradition. Beyond redefining his voice category for the modern public, David is one of the greatest recitalists of our time. This will be his first recital appearance in Chicago in almost 15 years. We want to ensure that Chicago audiences have the opportunity to hear singing artists of this stature in recital on a regular basis.

This year’s Festival celebrates the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. While Britten’s masterful compositions were vital to the development of classical music in the 20th century, his contributions range beyond his compositional output and discography. Part of what Britten saw was that, to push the boundaries of the art form, new venues and avenues would have to be explored, and it was in this spirit that he formed both the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival. CAIC was formed much in this same tradition – it was born out of our commitment to art song and vocal chamber music; the Collaborative Works Festival is one of the new platforms we have created to help this repertoire continue to flourish and grow. It seems fitting that we dedicate this second Collaborative Works Festival to Britten’s life and work.

I am quite proud of this year’s lineup of guest artists and am extraordinarily grateful to each of them for sharing their world-class artistry with Chicago. I would also like to express my gratitude to our presenting partners for the opening concert: The Poetry Foundation and The University of Chicago Presents. They have been invaluable, providing expertise, guidance, and resources. Most importantly, I would like to thank you, our audience of supporters, for showing your interest, dedication, and love for this incredibly rich art form.

I look forward to meeting you all at the upcoming concerts and having the opportunity to chat with you in depth about this beautiful music and these wonderful performers. In the meantime, enjoy the Festival!

Nicholas Phan
Artistic Director

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Schubert Break

Photo by Alessio Bax.
Amazing start to the week.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Moonrise from the sky this evening.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rules of Flying

As a frequent flyer of the often un-friendly skies, I appreciated this little gem from Buzzfeed today...

Happy friday everyone!

Friday, August 09, 2013


I'm sorry to report that next weekend's Ravinia performances of Britten's church parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace, will not take place.  Via James Conlon's website:

James Conlon has cancelled two August engagements to undergo surgery to remove an inflamed portion of his colon as a result of diverticulitis. The surgery will take place in New York, and Mr. Conlon’s prognosis is for a full recovery following three to four weeks recuperation after surgery. 
Affected concerts include his August 17 Ravinia Festival performances of Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace with singers from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Trinity Episcopal Church, and an August 23 engagement presented by the La Jolla Music Society, as part of LA Opera’s Britten100/LA Festival, featuring the SummerFest Chamber Orchestra performing Britten’s Simple Symphony and Prelude and Fugue. 
Mr. Conlon is expected to have resumed normal activities by the time of his next scheduled appearance, conducting Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Metropolitan Opera, opening on October 11.

I hope you all will join me in wishing Maestro Conlon all the best for a very speedy and easy recovery. Get well soon!

Monday, August 05, 2013

Kickstarting the Collaborative Works Festival

So, in case you didn't know this already, in addition to running around singing all the time, I'm the Artistic Director and a founder of new-ish organization in Chicago that promotes classical art song and vocal chamber music, Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago.  The pinnacle of it's programs is the annual Collaborative Works Festival.

Preparations for the 2013 Collaborative Works Festival are underway and progressing fairly smoothly!  Our line-up of artists is complete: we have an extraordinary roster of guest artists this year, including countertenor David Daniels, soprano Kiera Duffy, Grammy Award winning mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, pianist Martin Katz, members of the Grammy-Award winning ensemble eighth blackbird, and more!  You can check out complete information on the festival at our website here.  We also are very excited to be partnering with both The Poetry Foundation and The University of Chicago for our opening night concert. 

CAIC just launched a small Kickstarter campaign to help raise a little extra money to cover some of the production costs of this year's festival. In case you aren't familiar with Kickstarter, it's a great crowd funding platform that allows individuals and organizations raise a lot of money through lots of smaller pledges from individuals.  The catch to Kickstarter is that, if we don't raise our minimum goal by the deadline - CAIC won't receive any of the donations pledged. As of today, there are 13 days left! This year, we are aiming the kickstarter campaign to help us cover the cost of venue rentals, and we have set a minimum fundraising goal of $4,000.  $25 is the most common pledge on kickstarter -  right now we are only 130 individual $25 pledges away from reaching our goal!  

If you have already donated or just simply can't donate, it would also be MOST helpful if you could help us spread the word about the campaign. The link to the campaign is: 

I hope that you will be able to make it down to Chicago for our festival this September to witness the fruits of your pledges.  It's going to be an amazing long weekend of concerts, and I would love to be able to share this momentous occasion with you.

I can't thank you all enough personally for your continued support of CAIC, and thank you so much for helping spread the word!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tuesday in the Park with Ben

soundcheck with The Knights in Central Park

In case you're free tonight, my concert with The Knights is going to be broadcast live tonight by WQXR from New York's Central Park starting at 7:30pm East Coast time. You should be able to tune in and listen in here.

There's a little preview of the concert in the New York Times here: 

Also - if you want to hear me talk about Britten and tonight's program a bit, you can hear some of my interview with WQXR host, Naomi Lewin below!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My View Today

In the midst of an slightly insane week, I am enjoying a day in paradise. I love the Rockies.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Missa Solemnis Words

I sing my first Beethoven Missa Solemnis tonight here in Oregon.  It's a piece about which I have felt extraordinarily mixed and unsure for most of my life.  My first voice teacher revered the piece, as do many musicians I respect greatly.  I've become more convinced after these past few days of rehearsal with Helmuth, who is always an expert at unlocking musical mysteries for me.

A few words that have come to mind for me when thinking about this piece:

- complex
- unexpected
- focus
- challenging
- complex
- demanding
- expansive
- grand
- majestic
- dense
- rich
- lobster bisque

Here's Leonard Bernstein conducting the Kyrie - one of the best parts of the piece.  It's quite an opener.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Jordan Hall in Boston is pretty.

And yes, that is an army of guitars onstage. A gaggle of guitars?

Very much looking forward to tomorrow.

Disdain Me Still

" surfeits with reward, his nurse is scorn."

Could one imagine a more tragic and deeply sad sentiment? How could love surfeit? How could one ever loved to the point of excess, to the point desiring it no more?

Oh, Dowland...that's a rough one.

Friday, June 14, 2013

For The Weekend

Here's today's sweet video that I stumbled across on my morning surf of the innerwebs:

Happy Friday.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

This I Believe

Loved this 'This I Believe' segment about singing that I stumbled across this morning:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Happy Birthday Richard

Thanks to my myriad of friends with good taste on Facebook, I was reminded that today is the birthday of one of my favorite composers, Richard Strauss.

Happy birthday, Maestro.

Thanks for bringing us music like this:

Saturday, June 08, 2013

On The Art of Self-Criticism

During my last week in Portland, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to the mother of one of the Portland Opera Studio Artists during his annual recital at the Portland Art Museum (each of the Studio Artists performs a recital annually during their tenure in the Portland Opera Studio).  We sat together and watched together as her son gave quite a good performance of lieder and art songs.  After the recital, I turned to her and said "Congratulations for your son! He did a really wonderful job tonight."  

She replied, "Thank you so much, I thought so, too, but he is always his harshest critic."

"Of course he is," I said. "That is the mark of a serious artist." 

This trait of being harshly self-critical is something that I have frequently noticed in both myself and my performer-colleagues, particularly among singers.  When we give a live performance, it is incredibly easy to focus on every little foible and flub that goes awry, and from our microscopic perspective, each one of those tiny specks looks to be a mountain rather than a molehill. Things that most audience members won't even notice become unforgivable, mortal sins. We see a train wreck as opposed to a piece of jewelry with a patina that only accentuates it's beauty.

We flagellate ourselves like this, telling ourselves that we are being serious, that we are being hard workers, as if there is virtue to our suffering. And to a certain extent I really believe that there is truth to that sentiment - it is important to constantly hone our craft and acknowledge that we are continual works in progress until we retire.  But when taken too much to heart, this can be a line of thinking that is crazy-making and self-abusive. 

During my first summer at Wolf Trap opera, I learned this lesson on the first day of rehearsal for our production of Barber of Seville that summer.  As I warmed up for our first musical read of the show that day, I found that I could barely sing.  My heart was racing, my breath was shallow, my palms were sweating profusely.  The first rehearsal whizzed by in a blur, and I hated myself for every single note that came out of my mouth, thinking they all sounded ugly and wrong.  When we broke for lunch, I was shocked and surprised when everyone was telling me how great and exciting it sounded.  It was at that moment that I said to myself: "I simply cannot live the rest of my life dealing with this kind of anxiety.  It's paralyzing. I need help."  Immediately after rehearsal, I went and bought a copy of the Artist's Way.  Primarily through that book, I quickly learned to find a balance between acknowledging the positive aspects of my work and being constructively critical.

In yoga, instructors lead students through a series of poses that are balanced with both sides of the body.  Whichever poses are done on the right, are also always done on the left.  In doing many of these poses, the experience is quite different from side to side, as we all have a weak side and strong side.  I am very much a right-handed person, and as a result, my right side is much stronger than my left.  Poses which focus on the left side of my body are always more difficult for me to sustain, because it is my weaker, less-used side of my body.  As a result, during my practice, I tend to focus more on those left-sided poses.  Those are the poses that I constantly tweak, and the poses that often frustrate me.  The poses on my right side are the ones through which I tend to glide. They are the poses in which my mind starts to wander.

It occurred to me the other day - why do I get so frustrated with the weakness of my left side, yet take the strength of my right side for granted?  That really isn't fair of me to ignore my strengths while I only give focus to my weaknesses.  I thought back to that conversation at the recital last week, and the same thought occurred to me about musician's practice and work.  We aren't fair to ourselves when we only beat ourselves up for the little things that went awry.  It's dangerous and ungrateful to ignore all of the amazing things that we just did surrounding our little mistakes.  We should take the good as well as the bad. We should enjoy and savor our strengths, while finding compassion and patience for our weaknesses. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Last One

Last night we closed Falstaff at the Portland Opera. :-(

Many thanks to my colleagues and friends in Portland for a magical month and some change - it's been an incredible time.

Portlandia - I will see you in about five proverbial minutes. :-)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Floating House

Henry, who filmed the preview featurette for Still Falls the Rain last year, has recently posted a short about some friends who built a house boat out in San Francisco.  The video tells the story of the moment they found out if their house would float or sink. There are some amazing shots of their house (which was recently profiled in the New York Times) floating across the San Francisco Bay.

Check it out - it's a little fun for your friday. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Some Science About Music and Us

Coming from a scientific family with a great interest in music (and being a musician who is rather obsessed with music, myself), I found this little clip a rather fascinating moment while sipping today's morning coffee.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Internet and Our Brains

The irony of posting this video here is not lost on me...

Friday, May 10, 2013

Falstaff Opens

Falstaff opens tonight at the Portland Opera.  If you want to catch a glimpse of what we've been up to these past few weeks - watch this little preview below:

Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Love Letter to Portland

The Hawthorne Bridge at night
A couple of weeks ago over drinks, the General Director of the Portland Opera, Chris Mattaliano, turned to me and asked, "Listen, I know you love it here, but what exactly is it about this city that you love so much? I've been here for 10 years now, and this place is very much home to me, so now I am a bit biased towards this place.  I'm just curious, from a visitor's perspective, what is it about this place that draws you to it?"  It's been a question I have been pondering over the past few weeks that I've been rehearsing here in Portland.

One of the fire pits at my favorite Portland Happy Hour haunt - Nel Centro
Part of what I adore about this city is that it feels so familiar.  I've spent at least a little time here each year since 2005, so I know the city quite well now. I have a few favorite haunts that I love to visit each and every time I come, and it's extremely easy for me to settle into a routine here, as a result.  The city is quite beautiful, with a lot of amazing outdoor spaces to go for a walk or a run and catch a breath of fresh air.  The food and wine here are phenomenal.  So is the coffee. Also, one of my closest friends lives here, and so between the familiarity of the surroundings and the sense of community that I feel here with that  particular friendship, this place always feels a bit like a home away from home to me.  There is also something about this place that reminds me a lot of where I grew up Ann Arbor.  The city is filled with many liberally-minded academics and artist-types, and there is a sense of openness here that is quite special.  The people here are very laid-back and mostly easy-going, but they have an intensity and passion for their lives and work, as well.  It is easy to meet people and strike up interesting conversations at one of the many adorable places there are to eat, drink, and be merry.  And then, of course, there is Portland's mad obsession with Happy Hour.  

Angela Niederloh during rehearsal at the Keller Auditorium
My close, Portland-dwelling friend is a colleague I met during my first year in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Angela Niederloh.  There was something about those years together in the HGO Studio that felt like we survived operatic boot camp together, and a more than decade-long friendship was forged during the fires of that experience.  We grew up at an exponential pace together artistically, musically, vocally, and personally during those years, and have been there, holding each other's hands at most every step along the way since as we have navigated the personal and professional ups and downs of the roller-coaster that is life.

Morning hike with Angie
One of the biggest blessings about this particular sojourn in Portlandia has been that I am getting the first opportunity in many years to sing with Angie again, as she is singing Mistress Quickly in our production of Falstaff which opens here tomorrow at the Portland Opera.  I mentioned this at the opera company's meet-and-greet towards the beginning of our rehearsal period for Falstaff, and elicited a giant chorus of "awww..." from the people assembled.  I can't stress the special-ness of this moment enough, though.  After running around the world, constantly changing cities and colleagues almost every week, it is a truly unique opportunity to be able to make music and share the stage for such an extended rehearsal/performance period with such a close friend of so many years.  It's not only been great fun, with many shared laughs about a variety of subjects (Angie is a master of witty, quirky humor), but also an incredible chance to reconnect with a trusted soul who reminds me of who I am, what is important, and what life, music, and friendship are all about.

Morning coffee at my favorite riverside café haunt - Bean and Tree
I know I haven't written as regularly or very much here at this blog over the past while, and I must say that it's been mostly because I've been so busy running around from place to place - I've felt a bit like I've lost touch.  I've been doing a lot of concerts over the past few years, and as a result have found myself in a different city practically every week, without any time to ease into being there. Being so busy flying, settling into the hotel room, and running to rehearsal or a performance, I've not had a lot of opportunity to ask myself what I am thinking beyond when and where I need to be and what am I singing today. Being able to sustain a nice and stable routine here in such a familiar and loved place, for a few of weeks has been the ultimate luxury.  I've been able to find layers in rehearsal when I go to work, I've been able to find layers in life when I go to yoga class or just sit in my favorite café to write my morning pages, and I've been able to find a little bit of the beautiful balance between work and play.    Now, after a few weeks of that beautiful balance, I find myself at this page again.  Funny how that works.

The coffee at Mother's, my Portland breakfast haunt of choice
The icing on this wonderful Portlandia-cake is that we are about to open one of my favorite operas ever written tomorrow evening: Verdi's Falstaff.  In my opinion, it is the ultimate piece of musical theater - the music and the drama are inextricably tied, and it truly has everything: hilarity, beauty, sweetness, spice, drama - the list goes on.  It is a piece that reminds me how much I love being in the theater, as it is one of those operas that can only be fully appreciated by experiencing it live, in the opera house.  I want to wish my colleagues at the Portland Opera many thanks for a fun few weeks of wonderful work and all the best for a fantastic run and a great opening tomorrow.

And to the city of Portland - in the words of the Golden Girls: Thank you for being a friend.

Springtime sunset in Portlandia

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Great Pumpkin...

...has arrived at Falstaff rehearsal in Portlandia. Charlie Brown seems to be missing, though.