Friday, January 23, 2015

Michigan-inspired Serenades

Post-performance shot backstage with the amazing David Cooper

In a way, if one thinks about it, much of Britten's music after 1939 is, in a way, inspired by my home state of Michigan.  One night, in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, the relationship between Britten and Pears escalated from a professional friendship to the intense romance that knit the two together for the rest of Britten's life.  A quote from one of Pears' later letters to Britten:

"I shall never forget a certain night in Grand Rapids -- Ich liebe dich, io t'amo, jeg elske deg(?), je t'aime, in fact, my little white-thighed beauty, I'm terribly in love with you." 

Over lunch yesterday, David Cooper, the principal horn of the Dallas Symphony and my fantastic co-soloist for our performances of Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn & strings this weekend in Dallas discovered that we are both from Michigan. David is from Lansing, and I was raised in Ann Arbor.   Thus, it all comes full-circle and is a particularly Michigan-inspired weekend in Dallas.  

Yes, Michigan, indeed...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pink Elephants

A week from tonight, I'll be performing with guitarist, Eliot Fisk, with Da Camera of Houston. The program is comprised of music performed by Sir Peter Pears and the famed guitarist, Julian Bream - who accompanied Pears with increasing frequency towards the end of Britten's life, the period when Britten wasn't anymore able to accompany Pears in recital due to the deterioration of his right hand after undergoing heart surgery in 1973.

Bream and Pears
The program opens with a song that I initially thought was just a simple silly song, but has over the past couple of months given me pause.  As I've studied it in preparation for our concert next week, I've found myself pondering the song much more than I ever thought it would, because of it's strange and uncharacteristic (for Britten) message.  The song, the opening song of Britten's cycle for tenor and guitar, Songs from the Chinese, is a strange call to ignore the cares of the world - an admonition to keep one's head down, and remain detached.

The Big Chariot 

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You won't be able to see for dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don't help - on the big chariot;
You'll be stifled with dust.
Don't think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

While I can see Britten's attraction to the poem as a warning to protect one's innocence (and therefore one's unsullied, na├»ve happiness), the admonition to not think about the "sorrows of the world" strikes me as a strange one to draw the attention of someone like Britten, who was very much aware and conscious of the sorrows of the world around him.  A staunch pacifist and deeply thoughtful man, his work centered on so many socially-conscious themes, including the plight of the societal outcast and the futility and waste of war.  When thinking about the song in that context, there's something about the choice of the poem that strikes me as strange.

Mentioning this to Eliot yesterday in rehearsal, I also noted that the song is very much like the proverbial admonition to not think about the pink elephant in the room.  Each time I've come to study and practice it, I find myself thinking of nothing BUT the sorrows of the world. Whether they be the recent horrible terrorist attacks in Paris, the beheadings by ISIS in the middle east, or even the quadruple homicide that occurred the other night, just blocks away, while I was onstage performing Les Illuminations with the San Francisco Symphony (parade sauvage, indeed...) - I find myself pondering nothing but the world's woes as I sing it.

Perhaps this is part of what drew Britten to the poem in the first place?  Perhaps it appealed to him on multiple levels? The effort to protect fragile innocence?  The futility of that effort? Or perhaps he had simply come to think it actually was good advice, the world a no less dangerous, volatile, and threatening place than any previous era in human history?  I'm not sure.

Either way, I can't stop thinking about the pink elephant in the room.

Hear Ian Bostridge and Xufei Yang perform the piece below:

Friday, January 09, 2015

Beginnings / Illuminations

So...I only logged in one solitary post here in 2014.

The main reason for this is that 2014 was quite simply an incredibly busy year.  I mean that in the sense that it was both incredible and it was busy.  That said, I've not totally abandoned this blogging thing in any way whatsoever.  I simply took a bit of a hiatus.  Hiatus over.

I've had the subject of beginnings floating around in my head as 2014 turned into 2015 - it's a topic that frequently occupies my mind around this time each year.  Perhaps that is a large part of why I feel compelled to end this holiday from the blogosphere (do people even call it that anymore?).  It's the time of year for fresh starts, I guess.

Rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony this morning
photo credit: Lolly Lewis
Speaking of beginnings, I begin my string of 2015 performances tonight here in my new home of San Francisco (layers upon layers of beginnings!) with a set of performances of excerpts from Britten's Les Illuminations with the San Francisco Symphony in its new experimental performance space, Soundbox (yet another beginning).

Britten composed Les Illuminations in 1939, during a heady, tumultuous, and life-changing time in his life, as well as in the world at large. With the world descending into violence and upheaval around him, and Britain being pulled into World War II, it was during this time that he crossed the Atlantic for the first time, following W.H Auden and Christopher Isherwood to the US.  It was also during this time in America that Britten's relationship with Pears transformed from a professional friendship into the romantic partnership that would last until his death in 1976.  The seventh song of the cycle (which we're unfortunately not performing on this weekend's program), Being Beauteous, is even dedicated to Peter Pears.

Each time I return to a familiar piece in my repertoire (which Les Illuminations is, for me), I find new layers of meaning open up to me upon revisiting it.  This occurs for a variety of reasons, mostly ones that have to do with marinating, time, and age.  This time is no different.

Arthur Rimbaud
It's not difficult to see why Britten was attracted to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, who's poetry comprises the texts of Les Illuminations, during this time. Rimbaud's poetry reads much like an acid-trip - he views the seemingly mundane world around us through a haze of wonderment, insanity, and eccentricity.  Cities and the people and things which inhabit them are seen as the gods and supernatural creatures of Greek mythology - the world is a wild and divine place, and these things which we normally take for granted are suddenly fantastical, beautiful and monstrous.  With the home he knew in Great Britain and Europe seemingly falling into chaos as Hitler pushed towards another world war, and traveling around a foreign country far from home, it's understandable why he was drawn to these works.  His world was turned upside-down, surely almost feeling like a surreality rather than a reality.

Thinking about this context in which he composed these songs, it feels timely to be singing such pieces about the savage and beautiful world in which we live.  With the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris these past few days all over the news, the world still seems like a savage and bewildering place.  On a more personal level, my new home city, San Francisco, is also a strangely beautiful place: singing these songs this time, I find myself thinking a bit about the sense of wonder that I experience every time I look out at the Bay and its bridges, or the savage parade of characters that one passes by in the Castro every day.  

There is one phrase that Britten was first drawn to when composing these songs, which repeats multiple times throughout the cycle:

J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage

"I, alone, hold the key to this savage parade"

This is a bold statement for Britten to fixate on, yet, again, an understandable one.  Here he was: a stranger in a strange land, a pacifist in a violent maelstrom, a gay man in a straight world...and an artist.  An artist looking in from an outside perspective.  In a way, it seems like Britten is making a declaration about himself as an artist here.  As if he is saying, from here on out, this is how I am going to define my work - this is the beginning of a new chapter in my music.  Listen up.

As beginnings go, I must say, it's an impressive and a beautiful one.  I'm really grateful to get to perform parts of it tonight.