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 fĂȘte 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.