Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Vilcek Foundation Prizes 2008

Last night I attended the splendid annual award dinner for The Vilcek Foundation. Supporting the work of foreign-born artists and scientists who make significant contributions to society, the Vilcek awards stand in stark relief to the bellicose immigration debate that so inflames certain sectors of society, especially during this campaign season.

The 2008 winners were Inder Verma for biomedical science and composer, Osvaldo Golijov for the arts. Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences and Ara Guzelimian, Provost and Dean of the Juilliard School presented the awards. Dawn Upshaw, a musician closely associated with Golijov's music, gave moving and personal remarks. In his acceptance speech, Osvaldo observed that as an immigrant to America, he was able to come here to follow his own dreams, but that for so many who come here, it is for the dreams of their family and their children's future.

My sister, in fact, is foreign-born. Kelly was born in Korea and joined our family when she was three years old through a Holt adoption. Currently a transplant nurse with the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, her work literally saves lives everyday. I am immensely proud of what she does and the vital contribution she makes to her community.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Divine Issa

Last night I completed my part of Issa's new recording project. The songs are moving and spending time around Issa always puts me in a remarkable state of mind.

Watch her web site for the release of the new material.

This picture below is of Issa and me after a performance at Carnegie Hall a couple years ago.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sight and Sound

Because there are so few notes to play, the English horn part in Verdi's Falstaff offers plenty of time for sitting and listening. The first entrance is 20 minutes into the opera. It lasts for about two minutes and then there is nothing for an hour and a half (depending on tempi, rubato, etc.), which is not a bad thing in such a fascinating piece. Verdi's score overflows with delightful details. Some of these musical devices propel the story or comment on the action, many, on the other hand, are simply there for pleasure, both for the audience and the performers. Even after dozens of performances, I find new delights and relish familiar ones.

On Friday afternoon, my friend Joan Easton and I went through the Asian art galleries that overtook the Fuller Building for Asiaweek 2008. The 17th-century Indian miniatures in Francesca Galloway's gallery are breathtaking (you can see them until March 27, 2008). A small picture of a nilgai by a Mughal artist (c. 1610-12) captivated us. Joan, pointing out the array of intricate details in the background, imagined the pleasure the artist must have took in adding fanciful touches, a bird here, a branch there.

As I sat in the pit of the State Theater yesterday afternoon, with Falstaff going on all around me, I thought about the picture of the nilgai and Joan's comments. The musical pleasures were so delightfully complex as they danced throughout the orchestra, all I could think about was Verdi's pleasure in creating them. He must have thought about various musicians he knew, and those he never could, enjoying the aural spectacle he created.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hooked on Bach

I attended the New York Philharmonic's St. Matthew Passion last night with Kurt Masur conducting.

James Taylor was a revelation in the key role of the Evangelist. His performance was a full of clarity, artistic commitment, and virtuosity used for expressive impact.
Thoughts from my teacher

Albert Fuller said at the first Helicon Symposium in 1985, that "these days we usually hear 18th-century music played on 19th-century instruments with 20th-century Russian technique, which is fine for the music of Stravinsky, but screws up the colors in Bach."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thinking about Sound

Last night I played solo English horn for the opening of Verdi's Falstaff at the New York City Opera. The first entrance of the English horn is in Part 2 of Act I and is unusual for a Verdi Cor Anglais melody in that it's not sad. Most often in bel canto opera, when the lower member of the oboe family is hauled out, it's to intone the most heart-wrenching, soul-searching melodies. In this case things are quite different. The opera's four women have just been introduced—Alice Ford, Nannetta, Meg Page, and Mistress Quickly—when Alice and Meg discover that the love letters each received from Sir John read, save the salutations, verbatim. His wooing words and false ardor are painted in the orchestra with a somewhat loping English horn solo, dripping with feigned earnestness as it meanders down to the instrument's lowest range. The characteristic timbre of the English horn rising from the pit suggests serious business. Playing on those expectations, Verdi reveals the author's untrustworthy intentions with a joke of orchestration. The final note of the melody—a D below middle C—is out of the English horn's range, so that note is given to the clarinet. The sudden change of timbre on the very culmination of the melody makes the whole affair risible. As the letter becomes more ardent, the English horn follows suit with even more elaborate material, but the melody is ultimately maladroit and a bit bottom-heavy. (Consider the source.)

Last night before the performance, my friend Steve Hartman, who played principal clarinet, brought two instruments over to where I was warming up. One clarinet was pitched in B-flat and the other in A. He wanted to see which horn gave the best timbral effect in that passage. The experiment was great fun, and the result, I think, really hit the mark. (He used the B-flat clarinet.)

Thinking about sound and finding its invisible shades of meaning is a remarkable way to spend ones life. Verdi's music, full of imaginative propositions, can only come to life in the living breathing musicians lucky enough to be playing any given evening.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rainy Day Views from Helicon's New Office

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ives Songs

I've been gorging on Ives songs. With their amalgamated styles and cultural admixtures, these songs represent the ravenous American search for a voice, equal parts old world & new world, optimism & naiveté, known & undiscovered.

This is how Ives closes the companion essay to his collected songs:

"Some of the songs in this book, particularly among the later ones, cannot be sung,—and if they could perhaps might prefer, if they had a say, to remain as they are,—that is, 'in the leaf,'—and that they will remain in this peaceful state is more than presumable. An excuse (if none of the above are good enough) for their existence, which suggests itself at this point, is that a song has a few rights the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left hand side of the street—passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it? If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet's castle, or the prosodic law, will you stop it? Must it always be a polite triad, a 'breve gaudium,' a ribbon to match the voice? Should it not be free at times from the dominion of the thorax, the diaphragm, the ear and other points of interest? If it wants to beat around in the valley, to throw stones up the pyramids, or to sleep in the park, should it not have some immunity from a Nemesis, a Rameses, or a policeman? Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?—to enjoy itself, without making a bow, if it can't make a bow?—to swim around in any ocean, if it can swim, without having to swallow 'hook and bait' or being sunk by an operatic greyhound? If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly,—to sing what cannot be sung—to walk in a cave, on all fours,—or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith, and try to scale mountains that are not—Who shall stop it!

—In short, must a song
always be a song!"

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Yankee Diva

How lovely to receive a comment from Joyce DiDonato last week for the Hugues Cuenod posting. Hughie is all uplift and inspiration. In my experience, it was simply impossible for anything feel impossible when around him, and certainly impossible to feel down.

I first encountered Joyce's singing while playing principal oboe in the Houston Grand Opera in 2004. For the HGO's 50th Anniversary Gala, she sang the finale from Rossini's La Cenerentola. She gave me such frissons that I could barely play my part. It was one of those performances by which others are judged—and usually found wanting.

Her blog—I've been a reader for some time—is great, so I am happy to add it to my links at the right. One of her posts this summer spoke to me so strongly that I have referenced it to friends as we've worked through the complications of Albert Fuller's death. In the face of the monumental losses experienced in the opera world last year, she wrote about the idea of carrying on the work of those who offered us our greatest inspiration.

" . . . it seems impossible to think of going forward without these great people among us, these immense presences in our lives. It almost seems perverse that we should still be able to hear and observe them in song after they've gone, but thank God we can. It makes me all the more grateful they gave so freely and willingly of their art so that we may have an eternal glimpse of their spirit here among us. And yet, it also amplifies for me how little we ever know about any artist that stands before us. How fragile, indeed."

The link in the text above is my addition, naturally. You can read the rest of Joyce's post here.

Carrying on in the face of loss will characterize our paths more and more with each step. As we go, we release our strongest, deepest memories into the world through our work, our music, and our lives, and in so doing experience the truest stuff of life in all its inscrutable wonder.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

On the Wing of Tiny Bits of Sound

"Language is the psychic vessel that the invisible Argonauts we call internal objects use to travel from our mind to the Other, the outer world, in order to explore it and to interact with whatever they encounter in it.

This fact still fills me with wonderment: Images, thoughts, and affects can leave one’s mind and journey on the wing of tiny bits of sound. Even more wondrous, they can be sent into another mind, a mind that can “read” these thoughts, “feel” these affects, and register foreign fantasies and be changed by them without even being conscious of it. We are used to speaking and listening, so we take for granted the amazing fact that language links the minds and the hearts of two separate individuals and allows them to exchange meanings."

by Joseph Simo

From "On healing Eve's Grief" published in Psychoanalytic Review, 87(2), April 2000

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Guest Appearances

I was happy to make a guest appearance on the web site of German organ virtuoso Ansgar Wallenhorst. He found my earlier posting about his New York recital in October and asked if he could add it to his site. His site seems very interesting . . . if my German were only a little better . . . or even existed.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Advice to young singers

From Hugues Cuenod as published in "With a Nimble Voice—Conversations with François Hudry" Translated by Albert Fuller (1999)

"I would say first of all to take music seriously and not try to advance too quickly. Then I would say not to make a recording before having matured at length in their roles. Above all, I believe it's necessary to acquire an extra-musical culture and to profit by having other activities of a refined nature. I always remember a young man in Copenhagen with whom I was working on Don Quichotte à Dulcinée of Ravel. A little while before the lesson I had gone to visit a museum where there is a beautiful canvas by Daumier depicting Don Quixote. I told this young man to go look at this picture for a half-hour so that he could understand why his interpretation was not satisfactory. He did, and sang much better at the following lesson. That's the kind of advice I like to give. Go to museums, read, don't restrict yourself by working only on music and your exercises. Take half your time for study and use the other half to see the world, to look at painting, to eat well. (I don't dare speak about the rest . . . ) All that is of the utmost importance for having a balanced and interesting life."

And then this for all of us, singers or not. Hudry observes to Hughie that "happiness seems to have been the principal companion of your life."

The singer's responds, "That's because I am content with little and turn to advantage all the tiresome things that happen to me. I remember uniquely the good moments of my life, and I believe that my existence could be summed up by a completely secular trinity: the gift of music, the gift of idleness, and the gift of being kind and agreeable with my friends. Voilà!"

Voilà, indeed.