Monday, September 24, 2007

...But Life Got In the Way...

I've been away from here for much too long! It seems like I'm only writing about an entry a week these days, though my goal is to do it twice a week.

Things have been kinda crazy though. I sang a recital at the Donnell Library a week ago today. I shared it with my friend Marianne Labriola. I had a great time. I did a Schubert group and a Rodgers & Hart set. That last was a gesture in a new direction for me.

For the Schubert, I did four his late settings of Seidl poems, some of my favorites among his songs: "Der Wanderer an den Mond", "Am Fenster", "Im Freien", and "Die Taubenpost". Each one of them speaks so deeply to me. The first, Schubert's perpetual wanderer addressing the moon, wishing that, like the moon, he could feel that the world and the sky was his home and not that he was a stranger everywhere he went. The second is about the joy of someone who has cut himself off from the world to pursue a contemplative life. The third is the poet gazing down through the night, as if from the sky, at places that are dearest to his heart. And the last one is about a symbolic dove that carries sighs as if they were letters, all in the name of longing. So it's clear why all of those might be dear to my heart.

The Rodgers & Hart was important to me for an altogether different reason. I have written before of my interest in putting together a cabaret program (the theme of which is becoming clearer to me) and this was my first chance to sing some standards in public. I was nervous, and yet with Bill Lewis at the piano and many of my dearest friends in the office, it was not as scary as it could have been.

I sang "Glad To Be Unhappy," "I Wish I Were In Love Again," "My Funny Valentine," and "With a Song In My Heart," which is practically an aria anyway. I ended up singing the second one in my baritone range; I just couldn't make it work singing it up an octave. It's just as well. It took a lot of the pressure.

I had wanted to do "I'll Tell the Man In the Street" from I Married an Angel, but evidently it's a rarity. How was I supposed to know? I grew up with Barbra Streisand's recording on her first album and there are also okay versions by Kristen Chenoweth and Mary Cleere Haran, but other than Nelson Eddy of the original cast, I found out there aren't too many other recordings. I thought about doing it a cappella, but there will be time to suss out the music eventually.
Of the songs I did sing, I thought the last two were the best. I almost lost it when I sang "My Funny Valentine," because I flashed so clearly on all the men that I have loved in my life. And there was one day when NN called me from work on Valentine's Day to ask if I knew the words, which of course I did. In my mind's eye, not only did I see him, but I saw them all. And two of them were in the audience. So even if it weren't for the beauty of the words, I also had a personal association with the song. Anyway, whenever someone sings the meaning of the words, really sings them, the music takes flight. And I could feel it happen here, just as it did in the last two Schubert.

And "With a Song In My Heart"... well, how can you not love it? I tried not to take a page from Jessye's version, but it does have an operatic sensibility that one can't ignore. Interestingly, I was just listening to an early recording of the song by a cabaret singer called Hutch (Leslie Hutchinson), who was evidently the Prince of Wales' favorite singer! Anyway, Hutch is very much a cabaret singer who sells the song with almost no voice at all. Shades of Mabel Mercer, who I am finally learning to appreciate, even love.

The other thing that happened last week is that I was, quite unexpectedly, elected Vice President of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation at our board meeting on Wednesday. I am completely dedicated to the Foundation and its various aims, primarily perpetuating the name of Lotte Lehmann as well as furthering her legacy by bringing art song into the limelight. We now have a composition competition in partnership with ASCAP as well as a vocal competition (for which I judged the finals this past winter). So I'm proud of that.

Giannina Arangi-Lombardi
I have so many singers I've been listening to recently that I absolutely must write about: Delia Reinhardt, Judy Raskin, Povla Frijsh and Félia Litvinne, the last two of whom both proved to be completely different from what I expected, though in completely different ways. Plus Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, whom I've always loved, but now I've heard her Aida and now I'm a raving maniac (for her singing, of course).

So I hope to do entries on each of them very soon.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

My journey to blogdom

I was writing a blog before it was even known as a blog!

On my first audition trip to Germany in the fall of 1999, I wrote a series of emails from the road to friends, family and colleagues. My recipient list topped out at over two hundred. Some of you who are reading this now were among those first readers. A lot has changed since then.

(See what I mean? That tsunami-do went the way of all flesh years ago.)

I had some amazing singing engagements in Germany and in France, but in the end, I returned home to New York, where I have been now for nearly two years. During my time in Europe, I kept my travel emails going at sporadic intervals, but since I’ve been back in New York, I haven’t felt the need to keep them up.

In spite of all the changes in my personal life in the past two years, some things have remained constant, however. Those who know me well are aware of my strong opinions and convictions about singers and singing. Even in high school, my English teacher decided that I would become the chief music critic of the New York Times.

Obviously my aspirations led in different directions, but that has not kept me from expressing my opinions quite freely, and sometimes rather eloquently. The idea of creating my own blog came to me as I began working on revisions to my website about six weeks ago. I filed the idea away, unsure that I actually had anything of real interest to say. But I found the inspiration I needed from traveling the subways with Brigitte Fassbaender.

Recently EMI has reissued four volumes of Fassbaender’s early lieder recordings for Electrola, and though they are only sporadically available in the US, they are self-recommending to anyone who loves great singing. Has there been a greater lieder singer since Lehmann? If so, I need to be convinced. Mind you, I am a great admirer of Souzay, of Baker, Schreier, Ameling, and more recently Quasthoff, Goerne and sometimes Terfel (note that there are several significant names missing from that list!). But Fassbaender’s intensity and commitment are unique. When her voice was in optimum working order, as it is in these recordings from the mid- to late-seventies, she is without peer.

As do so many city dwellers these days, I get through the usual bustle and madness by listening to music on my headphones. Mine are connected to my iRiver, which I also use to record my voice lessons and which I affectionately refer to as my Object. The Object has very little storage space, so every few days, I replace the music I have been listening to with something new.

My tastes are very eclectic. I won’t say that I’m not a musical snob, because my standards are very high, but I do spread my net pretty wide. (Well, I may have a few hidden musical vices, but I'm not revealing all my secrets in my first posting.) Depending on my state of mind, on any given day I might be listening to Ileana Cotrubas or Rufus Wainwright, Pam Tillis or Georges Thill, Piaf or Magda Olivero, Dusty or Supervia. On these particular days of which I am writing, I had loaded Fassbaender onto the Object.

I am deeply affected by whatever music I am listening to, no matter if I’m at home, walking down the street, in the concert hall or riding in the subway. The frequency and intensity of my transcendent listening experiences can often be in complete opposition to the situation I might be in at that moment.

The other day I was heading downtown on the 1 train. As usual, I left the apartment about five minutes later than I had intended, so I had busted my ass to get onto the arriving train. I sat down totally winded. One reason I was a little late, of course, was because I had to get set with my music before I left the apartment.

Brigitte was singing Schubert, who is probably my favorite composer (I will certainly have more to say about him in subsequent postings), and I felt my heart rate slowing as my breathing got deeper. Around 103 Street, she began singing An die Musik, surely one of Schubert’s most popular songs, though not one I treasure most among his output. And yet this day, I found myself overwhelmed by the song.

How can anyone who loves music not have experienced this depth of gratitude to that art that this song reveals? I know that there have been moments in my life that without the transcendent power of music, I probably wouldn’t have survived. I have felt this way ever since I was a very young child, and I feel it even more now.

Hearing an artist like Fassbaender or Lehmann (especially as the final encore of her 1951 Town Hall farewell recital, where she breaks down before the final line) sing this song reminds me of why I chose music as my life’s calling in the first place (or, more accurately, why Music chose me). I sat in that subway car with my eyes pressed shut, feeling the tears welling up behind them, knowing that if I opened my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to keep from weeping. So I just kept them closed, dwelling in the depth and breadth of feeling that had been stirred in me.

Two days later, I found myself once again in the subway with my headphones on. This time I was at Times Square, surely the most abhorrent place in all of New York. Whether in the crush of the crowds in passageways and on platforms too narrow to accommodate them, or above ground, where eager tourists soak up the wholesomely corporate family values of Mickey Mouse (along with a good deal of bare skin, courtesy of Madison Avenue), I always feel as if I were entering the seventh circle of hell. In other words, hardly a place to find inner calm.

Passing through the gauntlet that is the platform for the uptown 1 train, one often hears a poorly-tuned and ear-splitting steel drum playing an inaccurate version of Für Elise. The crowds are impenetrable, and there is no midwest brand of politeness: in this glut of bodies, New Yorkers grab whatever few square inches of breathing room they can get and budge not one millimeter. My patience is always completely spent by the time I reach the far end of the platform.

At the end of this particularly long day, I was completely frazzled and at my wits’ end. Who should be singing in my ear at this point but Brigitte once more, and this time the selection was even more apposite. Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Suddenly it was as if I was floating over all those bodies, buoyed up by the suspended ecstasy of Mahler’s unending musical line and Rückert’s blissful text, imparted with such a sense of profound peacefulness by the glorious Fassbaender, passing beyond all of the insanity into a world where I was untouchable. Music is not always an escape, but sometimes when one needs to move into another sphere, music is the most efficient and meaningful way of doing so.

So I dunno... maybe I have something to say in a blog after all. Stay tuned. I look forward to your comments.

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