My Taste is Super Sophistocated and Edgy . . . Isn’t it?

After a beer and a snack at a Capital Hill dive bar that was, of course, decorated with vintage political campaign paraphernalia, my friend Michael and I headed into the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium for a concert of 20th and 21st century chamber music conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, because I see myself as an adventurous, open minded lover of an ever-evolving artform and I dig New Music. 

I look down my nose at the kind of snobby classical music curmudgeons who are prejudiced against modern or 20th century or contemporary or “weird” or avant garde or experimental music and just put it all into a box labeled “atonal,” and shove it into the basement, never to gaze upon it again. 

I crave new opera, like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys  or Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears; and new takes on the standard rep, like my beloved Willie Decker production of La Traviata. 

That’s of course, not to say that I love everything I see and hear.  I generally find most of what’s come out of the minimalist movement to be just plain boring. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through an entire performance of Nixon in China or Einstein on the Beach.  And I’m pretty sure John Cage is just trolling everyone.  But I certainly wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand without hearing it first. Of course I wouldn’t, and I appreciate these works, even if I don’t particularly want to listen to them. 

No really, please don’t make me listen to them.

There are just some tropes in modern music that I can’t get past.  I’ve always believed that “classical saxophone” is an oxymoron.  And what is with all the crazy-ass insturmention in contemporary chamber music?  You’re going to write a quintet for harp, oboe, violin, viola, and snare drum? Really?  And requiring pianists to get up, reach inside the piano and pluck the strings with their fingers?  (Don’t even get me started on “prepared piano.”)

I was discussing some of this with Michael, a composer of New Music himself, as we left the concert and walked back to the Metro on Tuesday night.  What was with the instrumentation on that Schoenberg Serenade?  I was giving major side-eye when a clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, mandolin and guitar took the stage.  Mandolin and guitar?  You could barely even hear them over the ruckus created by the other instruments. 

“Yes, but, get it?  It’s a serenade?”  He pointed out.

“Well, yeah, I get that, but. . .”

“And it did in certain moments sound sort of Italian . . .”

“In a distinctly Schoenbergian way,” I snarked.

As we walked, I mentioned that my favorite piece on the program was Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance, performed beautifully by Huw Watkins.  “But I guess that was the easiest to listen to piece on the program.”

“It really was,” he said.

And I complained that I was enjoying Tropi by Niccolo Castiglioni but it lost me when the pianist got up and started plucking the the strings.  “It’s just silly to me.”

 “I really like way it sounds.” my companion said.

“Well, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  I guess I’m a snob.”

To that, he bluntly said, “Yes.”

The Power of Sisterlove, or, Why I got so Emotional while Watching Frozen

 

Spoilers for Frozen below, but really it’s just Disney and in my opinion you can still enjoy the movie even if you know what’s going to happen, so read what I have to say.

FrozenSisters

“It’s a blonde sister and a redheaded sister!” I whispered, to my own redheaded sister, as we watched one of the opening scenes of Disney’s Frozen, in which the younger Anna eagerly wakes up her older sister Elsa, asking “You wanna build a snowman?”

We were at the theater on a family outing to celebrate my sister’s birthday.  She’s two and a half years younger than me, and I instantly saw ourselves reflected in the movie’s two main characters as they were introduced, and was holding back tears in the movie’s first ten minutes when the toe-headed Elsa accidently injures Anna with her frosty magical powers.  In the coming years, Elsa forces herself to withdraw from Anna in order to prevent a repeat accident, leaving Anna feeling lonely and abandoned.

Sisters

It would seem that if you spend enough time pointing out the kinds of messages that most Disney movies (and many movies for children) send to girls (and boys) about gender roles, eventually they will listen. Frozen delighted me in how it managed to take a pile of sexist fairy tale clichés and turn them upside down (while still telling a delightful, engaging, funny, sing-along worthy story at the same time).

The central relationship in the movie is between two sisters, neither of which was a villain, or even remotely evil.  When the younger sister, Anna, meets and falls in love with Hans at Elsa’s coronation (and performs the best love duet Disney has presented us with in years), and announces to her sister that they’ve decided to get married, Elsa immediately advises against marrying someone you’ve just met that very day, this sentiment is later echoed by the reindeer wrangling Christoph.  Then, when Elsa, after losing control of her magical powers, causing her Nordic fairy tale kingdom to succumb to an enchanted winter, retreats to the top of a mountain far away from civilization, it is her sister Anna, not a handsome young prince, who mounts a horse and embarks on and adventure to rescue her.

But the movie’s greatest flip-flop comes when, just as she had feared she might, Elsa accidently curses Anna again, this time “freezing her heart,” and causing her to slowly freeze to death.  Anna is told that the only remedy for a frozen heart is “an act of true love,” and she believes that act must be the magical “true love’s kiss.”  (She must have grown up watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast.) In the movie’s climax, Christoph is rushing to save Anna with the required kiss, but just as she is about to freeze over, Anna retreats from him in order to save her sister from being murdered by the movie’s villain.  As Anna steps in front of the villain’s sword, she freezes into a solid, icy statue, and Elsa (and I along with her) cries over the loss of her sister and the bravery of her sacrifice.  But it is this sacrifice that proves to be the act of true love that breaks the spell.  Anna is thawed, and Elsa realizes that she has the power to end the enchanted winter.

Allow me to break this down for you again, in case you missed it:  The heroic Christoph, as he rushes to save the day, is made superfluous by two sisters who discover that they can solve the problem on their own.  And then, at the end of the movie, just like so many action heros before her, Anna is rewarded for her valor by getting a kiss from the hot Scandinavian Christoph.

I don’t know what has led to this welcome change in tone from Disney.  Maybe it was criticism from Feminist Frequency and Advice from a Cartoon Princess, or the success of Brave, or the wild popularity of the Hunger Games (in which the lead character makes her own sisterly sacrifice)?  But I hope Disney keeps moving in this direction.  And I hope everyone takes their Daughters (and sons!) to see Frozen.  Or if you’re lucky enough to have one (or as lucky as me to have two!) go see it with your sister.

 

Singing in Church: The Musician as Tradesman

I don’t particularly like singing in church.  I don’t believe in god, and I don’t think that religion is a force for good in the world.  But I often find that I don’t always mind singing in church either.  The kind of skills required for church choir gigging feel to me like they are the very essence of what it is to be a professional classical musician: You are handed a piece of music, and, along with the rest of the ensemble, must be able to perform it successfully with little to no rehearsal.  There’s no applause.  No one person is in the spotlight.

This must be what it feels like to practice a trade that takes a great deal of study to learn and master, but once you do, it is routine.  You’re like a computer coder asked to write a program that will perform a certain set of calculations, or a surgeon tackling his 500th appendectomy, or an auto mechanic fitting a Honda with a new set of brakes. You know what to do, it’s a fairly simple task, and you try to execute it as elegantly and efficiently as possible.

And sometimes it feels like being in an exclusive secret club.  We have coded messages that we read from; the incredibly complex language that is musical notation.  There is a person at the front of the room, waving his hands in a semaphore you learned to understand in middle school choir, and learned to perform yourself, rudimentarily, in college.  And then there’s the subtler skill of finding yourself among a group of musicians that you’ve rarely, if ever, performed with before, and managing to integrate into a single organism by listening and sensing breath, pulse, harmony.

Of course, sometimes it just doesn’t click.  Last night, I was singing with a choir I’d had the privilege to join a few times before.  We started in on a wandering, ethereal piece of renaissance polyphony.  It quickly became apparent that we were not in agreement about tempo, thus the harmonies didn’t line up and fell out of tune, and the whole thing fell apart.  The conductor motioned us to stop. He signaled that we would try again, this time he would break up the pulse into four short beats instead of two slow ones. On the second try, the choral machine’s gears fit together to turn at just the right pace. When it was over, we exhaled, congratulated ourselves on the recovery, and went home

A Postlude of Clueless Grownups

That comment was one of the first to appear in my Twitter feed last night shortly after the Metropolitan Opera’s premier of the much anticipated Two Boys, a new opera with a score by hipster wunderkind Nico Muhly and libretto by Craig Lucas, began in a performance that was streamed live at the Met’s website.  I’m not sure if the above tweet’s author could foresee that it would describe perfectly the public’s reaction to the opera this morning.

I certainly didn’t.  I was surprised this morning, when, mind still fluttering with the swirling orchestrations, elegantly cacophonous choruses, and Alice Coote’s hauntingly beautiful singing that I had heard tell the darkly tragic story the night before, found Anthony Tommasini’s review on the New York Times website.  Then I read Anne Midgette’s take in the Post.  The reviews for the opera that I had been so enchanted by were largely negative, while the sentiments expressed in my corner of Twitter, populated by tech-savvy opera fans and performers, were full of nothing but adoration.

The cause for the sharp divide in how the performance was purcieved quickly became apparent:  reactions from the major news publications and the (beloved) snob contingent over at Parterre Box mostly panned the piece, while most of my peers and I were gushing.  One particularly vicious comment on Parterre outlined several seemingly carefully selected comments from twitter by “women under 30,”  side-by-side with comments from the Parterre’s chatroom.  The twitter comments basically amounted to “OMG THIS MUSIC IZ SOOOO GREAT!!!” while those from Parterre complained of how boring it all was.

In the words of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff:  “Parents just don’t understand.”

My friends and I agree that these guys just didn’t get it, and they didn’t get it because they never experienced it.  They don’t know what it was like to stay up hours and hours after your parents went to bed, sitting in front of the computer and communicating with strangers from all over the country or the world.  They didn’t know what it was like to hide behind a screen name and lie about your age and appearance, disguised as a fantasy version of yourself, and feel the virginal blend of curiosity, excitement, and squeemishness when the conversation became explicit.  You had heard the warnings about predators who lured young teens, but you knew you would never fall for that.

And maybe all the mature opera fans who didn’t care for this opera know all about the chat rooms of the late 90′s and early aughts, maybe they were there, having illicit conversations of their own, but they still don’t get it.  Why?  Something that I think people seem to forget as they grow older is how, when you’re a teenager, every experience is heightened.  Every emotion, every obsession, every crush, every anxiety, to a child of 13, 15, maybe as late as 18, has the gravity of a black hole in space sucking you in.  Those late night internet chats, to us, at the time, were enormously important, and Lucas’ libretto combined with Muhly’s score to recreate that feeling in a devastatingly tragic way.

So here are some choice selections from my own Twitter feed during the performance:

Now, the opera world has spent a lot of time lately wringing their hands about how to “save opera,” how to “attract younger audiences.”  By all accounts, the audience at last night’s premiere skewed much younger than the usual Met crowd.  If more performances like Two Boys is the bitter pill that can cure opera from whatever disease it is inflicted by, will the establishment swallow it?

Unexpected, Unplanned, Art-Induced Ecstacy

It was the sort of perfect early autumn day where the sun is warm, but there’s a sort of cool breeze, and the sky is blue and cloudless, and I was walking back to the metro under the influence of several mimosas that I had enjoyed at brunch with several close friends, when I happened upon one of my all time favorite divas, Leontyne Price.

Leontyne

It’s not something I do very often, but upon seeing this ad, I thought, well, it’s not like I’m in a hurry, and admission to the Smithsonian doesn’t cost a penny, so I decided to go in to the gallery and take a look.  When I asked about the ad I saw, the woman at the information desk directed me to the third floor where I found an exhibition of portraits of great American entertainers, which included the above portrait of Leontyne Price, and two other opera singers, Marian Anderson and Maria Callas, alongside portraits of the likes of Duke Ellington, Ethel Merman, and Leonard Bernstein.

Marian

I had only intended to see the exhibit advertised with the portrait of Leontyne, but it’s so easy to succumb to an art binge once you’re in the gallery, isn’t it?  So, of course, as I was making my way back out of the gallery, a flashing light caught my eye, and I went to take a look at the large exhibition room of modern art where that light was coming from.  I became immediately drawn to a sculpture of a horse built from driftwood, whose skeletal form was striking and beautiful from every angle.  Ok, just this hall and then I’ll head home, I thought, and wandered around to look at the other works on display.

gallery

I never could have guessed what was about to happen to me as I made my way into a darkened alcove where there was a colorful installation painted on the wall and floor, with colored lights shining on it.  It seemed to glow.  Neat, I thought the artist used a black light on florescent paint.  But then, as I started to leave the dark room, I noticed that something had changed.  It had turned red.  Oh, the lights change color.  As I made my way back into the center of the room, the painting changed again.  I gasped as the lights now made the paint appear black and white.  It was like it was an entirely new painting.  I sat down on the bench as the light began to alter again.  Now light was focused on just one small area of the painting, leaving the rest black, now the light changed to a blue-green tint causing one shape to appear to emerge in three dimensions; as the light and colors continued to change the painting seemed to come alive. Maybe it was the mimosas, but I felt a knot in my stomach as my pulse quickened.  I suddenly felt quite emotional.  It was beautiful and strange and haunting and cheerful and sad.

I’m not sure how long I sat, bewildered and in awe of this magnificent art installation, but eventually I made myself get up.  Outside the darkened chamber was information about the artist and the work:  

David Hockney
Snails Space with Vari-Lites: “Painting as Performance”

When I read in the blurb that Hockney had a long career designing sets for opera, the emotional response I had experienced seemed to come into context.  This art installation is like a silent opera, with all the drama and catharsis a good opera ought to have.  It moved me, just as an opera should.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so affected by a piece of visual art.

All of this is to say that, the next time you’re out wandering the city, and you see an ad promoting an art exhibition, go take a look!  You might find something unexpected and wonderful.  And if you’re in DC, go see this piece!

 

Symphony Concert Cancelled: Musicians unable to play due to Drooling over Sexy Condructress

File under:  Things that have Never Happened

I have a habit, when an idea for a blog entry occurs to me, to send an e-mail to myself with the idea.  For months now, I’ve had an e-mail sitting in my in box which says simply, “conductor gender gap.”

I’ve always been interested in finding ways that two of my favorite topics, classical music and feminism, intersect, and with a dearth of woman on the podiums of the world’s orchestras, this was an obvious source of blogging inspiration.  But I could never quite figure out how to approach it.

Enter Vasily Petrenko

The young and hot (in more than one sense of the word) music director of the Oslo Philharmonic has enraged level-headed classical music fans after some pretty backward remarks he made in an interview with a Norwegian newspaper.  Norman Lebrecht’s blog* has the following translation: 

I believe that when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business. Another side is that orchestra musicians respond better to men at the podium. They have less sexual energy and can better focus on the music.  A sweet girl on the podium makes them think about other things, says Petrenko.

When one is angry it is advisable to count to ten.  1. . . 2 . . .3 . . . 4 . . . oh fuck it.

Let’s break this down.

I believe that when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business.

Any woman who has ever tried to advance in any professional field has probably encountered this sentiment at some point.  “Women dont work good cuz women make babies.”  This is Feminism 101.  In the 21st century, society still believes that when a man and a woman start a family, it must be the woman who sacrifices her professional career to care for children.  This is the “Having it All” debate.  There’s not much point in discussing this first part of Petrenko’s statement because feminists have been discussing it for fifty years.  So let’s move on.

Orchestra musicians respond better to men at the podium. They have less sexual energy and can better focus on the music.  A sweet girl on the podium makes them think about other things, says Petrenko.

First of all, does the phrase “sweet girl” give anyone else the willies?  I’m interested to know if it sounds just as creepy in the original Norwegian.  (I’m looking at you, Aksel!)

Now, what this remark says to me is that Petrenko is incapable of seeing a woman as anything more than a sex object.  It makes me wonder how he is able to concentrate on conducting when there might be a “sweet girl” caressing her cello in the front row of his orchestra?

Petrenko has since apologized, claming that his comments were misconstrued, and he has the utmost respect for the likes of Marin Alsop, but if you ask me, his attitude points to a glaring problem in classical music. 

Think for a moment.  How many famous conductors can you name off the top of your head in ten seconds:  James Levine, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, Esa Pekka-Salonen.  Oh look!  They’re all men.

How many famous women conductors can you name?  Marin Alsop.  Wikipedia lists only 65 women in its catalogue of women conductors

This season, Jane Glover will make her conducting debut with the Metropolitan Opera, leading the orchestra in (the most misogynistic opera ever written) Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  She will be only the third woman ever to lead the Met’s orchestra.  That’s three women since 1880.  Hooray for feminism!

It would seem that this is a glass ceiling that has only begun to crack, and the likes of Vasily Petrenko are working to keep it in tact.

*A blogger who finds sexism abhorrent, unless, of course, it’s used to smear a musician he doesn’t like.

How my Body Issues are Negatively Affecting My Singing

Hint:  Not in the Way You Might Expect . . .

Relax and breathe!”

My voice teacher has said these words to me a thousand times.  Sometimes it’s, “Relax and breathe!” and sometimes its “Relax and Breathe!” 

The funny thing about studying something as finely detailed as classical singing is that your teacher can say the same thing over and over again until finally one day you suddenly understand what she means.

“Relax and breathe.  Relax your belly and breathe!”  She said, and with the addition of those two extra words it hit me. 

You see, as a woman, a kind of big woman, a woman whose body tends to store extra weight front and center, a woman who has on at least one occasion been mistaken for pregnant, I have trained myself to “suck it in.”  My default, as I go about my day, is to hold my abdominal muscles in a way that pulls my belly as much as possible in toward my spine so that it appears slimmer.

I never realized that this was holding my singing back.  In the privacy of my teacher’s studio, I allowed myself to consciously relax my “suck it in” muscles and let my gut out.  I inhaled.  I sang the phrase again.  It was stronger, cleaner, and easier.  It was a major revelation.

And I realized, that I’ve got a major hang-up to get over if I want to be able to sing well.  If I’m going to release those muscles in order to take a decent singer’s breath, I’m going to have to learn how to not be ashamed of my pot belly, something I’ve been trying to hide for my entire life.  Even when I’ve been at my thinnest, I still felt like I had a bit of a gut.  But when I let go of it the difference it made in my singing is undeniable.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to feel comfortable enough to “let it all hang out.” I don’t think of myself as a woman who hates  her body.  I’m generally pretty comfortable in my skin, and I have learned how to find clothes that are flattering, and I own more than one pair of Spanx.  I’m rather proud of my breasts, I’ve got great hair and I often get compliments on my complexion.  I’m not model-thin, but I’m not huge either, and I’m healthy.  I’ve just got this one issue.

I think the first step is just to make a habit of releasing when I’m alone in the practice room.  Maybe then, that habit will unconsciously carry over to the concert hall.