Category Archives: Music

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.”

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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?

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.

One Singer, Two Masters

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of private master classes, one with a singer who is in the midst of a fairly prestigious international opera career, and another who is retired from one. For the first, I sang In Quelle Trine Morbide, from Manon Lescaut.  It’s probably my best aria right now.  For the latter, I sang Non Mi Dir, an aria that I’ve been struggling with.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get feedack on my singing from some experienced mentors who know the biz.  I’m so grateful to these singers for taking the time to listen to me and two of my fellow students and offer their advice and wisdom. 

Here are some takeaways:

  • I need to work on breath control and support.  I knew this.  Now I know it more.  “You’re not supporting well and it’s causing pitch problems.”
  • Nerves are also a problem.  I also knew this.
  • I should put Non Mi Dir on the back burner, and spend some more time with Dove Sono.
  • I need more coachings.  I should start doing them regularly.  I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it.
  • I have potential to be a proper dramatic soprano, but I need to stick to lyric soprano rep for now.  For the second time in my life I was told that I could sing Turandot one day.  In the meanwhile, I could look at the lighter soprano role from Puccini’s final opera, Liu.
  • “Get a girdle.”
  • I asked whether I ought to look at Mimi. “No one’s going to cast a big girl like you* as Mimi.  You don’t look consumptive.”
  • “You’re tall, good looking, and you’ve got a big voice.”  Thank you.
  • I need to trust my teacher. 

*I’m nearly 6 feet tall and 200 lbs.  Total Amazon.

Paul’s Case Makes a Case for Small Opera

I started to write a formal review of the opera I saw over the weekend, with everything a reviewer should say about the music, the staging, the singing and acting, and then I stopped and deleted it because if that’s what you want then you can read the Washington Post.

Paul's Case

What I really want to say is what I’m starting to find so appealing about compact opera.

The opera was Paul’s Case, the latest production from DC opera start-up Urban Arias, whose slogan is “Opera.  Short.  New.”  I had seen one of their earlier productions which, frankly, left me less than impressed, but I’m glad I gave the company a second chance, becuase this world premier opera by Gregory Spears proved just how big opera can get when you keep it small.

Here are some things that I liked about Paul’s Case:

  • The way it was staged on a sort of runway through the center of Artisphere’s black box theater, with the audience seated on either side added a dimension of Hunger Games style voyeurism.  You see the faces of your fellow audience members across the room as you all watch the title character burn hot and fast and, ultimately, up.
  • Three women play three of Paul’s teachers, as well as three maids in the Waldorf Astoria, and also a sort of Greek chorus setting the stage, commenting on the action, and creating the train whistle effect which is integral to the story.  They are  a sort of jury in Act 1, then accessory to the crime and perhaps even executioner in Act 2.
  • The singing was very good, but not at the expense of anything else.
  • The sparse set which included just a few pieces of furniture and a series of industrial looking lamps which hung low over the performers heads lent a sense of practical frugality which contrasted with Paul’s longing for a life of art, beauty and pleasure.  And, I expect, kept Urban Aria’s budget small which brings me to my final point:

In a world where there is sadly too little arts funding to go around, opera companies should be following Urban Arias lead in doing more with less.  By choosing to perform new works, they are helping to perpetuate what too many journalists keep calling a dated or dying art.  They are providing a service to the community by keeping ticket prices low.  They are employing young, and up and coming performers.

And one more thing, it’s something I’ve noticed every time I’ve attended a performance of this kind, the small audience was utterly engaged.  People don’t buy tickets to an event like this so that they can be noticed by the Washington elite, or to impress  their new girlfriends.  They don’t show up because they feel like they ought to like Verdi in order to be respected by their fellow intellectuals.

People who come to shows like the ones being produced by Urban Arias do so because they love art.  They want to see what new idea is being presented and how, and they might love it and they might hate it or they might find it sort of lukewarm, but they are there and they are watching and listening with their whole minds and they are discussing it over drinks afterward.

Isn’t that the sort of audience we really want?

The Album I Can’t Stop Listening To

Ok, as usual, I’m a little late to the party on this one.  I recently discovered that there is more to the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ouvre than the popular Thrift Shop.  I seriously can’t stop listening to their album The Heist.

Now, my knowledge of hip hop (I don’t even know if it’s supposed to be hyphenated or not?) goes just an inch beyond none, so I can’t really speak to the quality of the album or Macklemore’s rapping skills.  What I like about it is the way it paints a picture of the life of the struggling artist that I, as a struggling artist myslef, find wonderfully relatable and encouraging.  Even the very tongue-in-cheek Thrift Shop fits into this theme, as it addresses trying to look hip and edgy and current with very little money to spend.

The album opens with 10 Thousand Hours, an almost religious invocation whose titular hook references the concept popularized by Malcom Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours of dilligent practice to master a skill.  Macklemore brags that after years of working toward his dream he finally has the priveledge of doing what he loves for a living, finally getting an “iTunes check,” and “payin’ rent.”

10 Thousand Hours moves right into a relentless, fast-driving anthem about the thrill of performing.  Mackemore’s lightning-fast rapping about letting “the stage lights shine on down,” and “giving it back to the people, spread it across the country,” and then the hook comes in:

“And we go back; this is the moment;
Tonight is the night; we’ll fight till its over.
So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us.”

That song makes me want to dance until I collapse.

There is a track about the strain the pursuit of success as a performer can put on a relationship, a track about refusing to compromise your art for money, a couple very candid tracks about dealing with addiction.

Then there’s Jimmy Levine, a tense, high-energy epic, reminiscent of Eminem’s Lose Yourself.  It tells the story of breaking into the office of a record label in order to demand an audience with the president.  It declares “All I ever dreamt about was makin’ it.  They ain’t givin it, I’m takin’ it.”  It ends with a little twist that I won’t spoil.

I listen to this album and I think, Yes!  I can put in my 10,000 hours, and I can make the sacrifices I need to make in order to achieve the life I want.  Macklemore dreamed of being a rapper.  He and Ryan Lewis independently produced an album that, as of this writing, has sold over 600,000 copies.

I dream of being an opera singer, and making my living on singing.  I dream of traveling from opera house to opera house, portraying heroines like Tosca, Norma, Minnie, Aida, maybe even Isolde or Sieglinde or Brunnhilde.  The Heist makes me feel like I’m just 7,000 or so hours away from that.