Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What is it about the ancient Greeks?

...from Berkeley
Singing Elisa

I continue to almost-but-not-quite* binge-read my way through Deborah Crombie's marvelous Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery novels.  Over the weekend, while performing my debut as Elisa in The Handel Opera Project's chamber performance of Handel's rarely performed but ravishing score of Tolomeo, I also finished the fifth in Crombie's series, Dreaming of the BonesI found the denouement surprisingly moving--surprisingly, because being moved isn't what one always finds in British murder mystery novels.

To avoid any spoilers, let me just say that vengeance not-quite-a-la-Elektra rears its retributive head in Crombie's #5. Crombie refers to Elektra several times in her tale, including at the very end, which got me contemplating vengeance, as my Handelian character, Elisa, has her own, much, much milder attack of a different kind of vengeance. (A princess who is spurned by the man she loves--who turns out to be a prince in disguise who loves another--Elisa luckily lets her better self comes to the fore before she poisons said unlucky lover, whom she, instead, lets live and love. She doesn't quite get as far as loving the one she's with, but hey, she's a Handelian princess, right?)

All this brought me back, yet again, to that other "E" character, Elektra--especially as I just performed in a house concert of Strauss' Elektra again this past summer--and to her primal cry for vengeance, vengeance driven by the will of the Greek gods externally manifesting the internal needs of the human psyche. Which all goes to show that in such a deeply Jungian, collective-consciousness sense, in their plays, mythology, and all-too-human gods, the ancient Greeks got it right, mining key human emotions--vengeance,  retribution, and expiation all being at the core of so much tragedy, right down to this very day.

Perhaps the most moving of all for Elektra and Crombie #5 is the single voice crying aloud against evil that was once committed, and for it to be made right.Who'd a thunk that a mystery novel could generate such disturbing, philosophical thoughts? And yet the best ones do.

What I'm reading: Deborah Crombie's #6, Kissed a Sad Goodbye

What I'm listening to: Can't get Tolomeo out of my head, nor, for that matter, the Poulenc, Delage, and Tailleferre from last week.

What I'm working on: songs by John Harbison and David Garner, for concerts later this spring and our tour to Krakow this summer.

*Oh and why almost-but-not-quite binge reading?  Well, beyond my first time singing as Elisa over the weekend, I also performed some lovely French music in concert on Tuesday with Ensemble for These Times and on Wed. as well. It's hard to binge-read at full throttle when you're performing, as adequate sleep and concentration are prerequisites for singing well and staying healthy.  But I have to admit that the Duncan-Gemma duo created quite a temptation, taking all my professional will power to put them down.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Deborah Crombie and La Traviata

...from Berkeley

Happy MLK Day!

It's always such a pleasure when the arts mix, more specifically, when books that aren't regular old nonfiction or historical fiction about musicians drift into the world of opera and music-making (although those books are fun, too, of course). And it's an even greater pleasure when the author gets it right.

Of the many books that fit this description, my mind immediately goes Bel Canto, by the marvelous Ann Patchett (I'm an immense fan of her writing and gladly read everything she writes).   And then there's the sub-genre of books and specifically murder mysteries set in the opera house, such as Cat Melodia's delightful Ding Dong the Diva's Dead (such a lovely turn of alliteration in that title!).

Unfortunately, writers don't always get the details right...and yet, from my experience, this often isn't even the author's fault. Here I'm thinking specifically of a colleague who is a very fine writer--who shall remain nameless--and whose excellent books are set in the world of music and musicians as a backdrop to the very human drama within them.

This writer got the emotional details of what it's like to be a musician very right, so much so that I was disappointed when there was a tiny discrepancy (a symphony said to have been written by a composer whom I knew had never written one or something along similar lines of musical minutia).  When I asked my writer friend, the reply was that the publisher had thought that the type of music they were referring to was not well known enough for the general public and asked that it be changed to something better known. As it was completely incidental to the plot and characters, my colleague acquiesced, of course. Understandable, but very sad on a number of levels, not the least of which being the notion that the average American reader can only be counted on to recognize a handful of classical music forms, nor to be willing to learn a new music term.

Returning, though, to today's blog title--as in what does Deborah Crombie really have to do with La Traviata?--I've recently started enjoying Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mysteries, having been turned onto them from another colleague/book-friend's strong recommendation.  The third book in the series, Leave the Grave Green, is set in an operatic household, and Crombie gets the details right, down to the details about the origins of La Traviata.  Besides my telling you that one of the characters is a retired soprano and voice teacher who had sung quite a Violetta in her time--hence the connection with La Traviata--you won't get any spoilers here about whodunit in this highly enjoyable murder mystery, but if you like English murder mysteries with appealing detectives from Scotland yard and good local color, I'd suggest you read this one. You may well find yourself drawn into reading Crombie's whole series...I'm certainly hooked!

To come: more on La Traviata. For now, what books have you read that are set in the symphony hall or opera house, that aren't about musicians and music, per se? Comment if there's one you especially like.

Here's just a tiny plug for two of my performances this week: first Tuesday's Noontime Concert in SF with my contemporary chamber music group, Ensemble for These Times, of 20th century French rarities and masterworks (Tailleferre, Poulenc, Debussy, Delage, and the Boulangers)--tomorrow!-- and Sunday's performance of Handel's Tolomeo with The Handel Opera Project in Berkeley. I'm singing the role of Princess Elisa, scorned by the prince she yearns for and loved by the wrong prince.

What I'm listening to and working on: the above (surprised?)

What I'm reading: the next Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery by Deborah Crombie

Monday, January 11, 2016

Strauss' Brentano Lieder

...from Berkeley
Richard Strauss, 1918, (Max Liebermann)

Catching up a bit here, but the week before Thanksgiving, I heard a fabulous concert at the SF Symphony, conducted by the ever-masterful Michael Tilson Thomas, which I alluded to in last week's post: Strauss' Brentano Lieder and Serenade, Op. 7, plus R. Schumann's Spring Symphony.  The program notes were illuminating and interesting (as they generally are at SFS), with an excellent essay on musical length and proportion by James Keller.

I already talked about Schumann's Spring Symphony last week...now on to the Strauss.

The Brentano Lieder (Op. 68) are famous in soprano annals as being fiendishly difficult, due in large part to their tessitura, but also to their vocal demands.  Their tessitura (where they sit in the voice and range, for those of the less-vocally inclined among my readers), is super high, especially for song repertory.  One thinks of them in the same breath, for example, as Debussy's Quatre chansons de Jeunesse, in terms of where they sit for the voice.  Neither set is in my repertory, nor will they be, at least in their entirety, as I'm not a coloratura.

Soprano Laura Claycomb sang the pants off them. Brava!

Strauss, age 22
She performed the first five, ending with the tour-de-force "Amor," and skipping the last, "Lied der Frauen."  Who'd miss it after her mastery of the puckish, insouciant vocal lines Strauss wrote for his soprano in the middle four songs, especially in "Amor"--and besides, it's really written for a different kind of soprano than the rest, requiring a different kind of vocal heft (as is the first, "An die Nacht," which she also sang beautifully).  Strauss wrote the Brentano Lieder for the Elisabeth Schumann; she is said to have only performed the entire set once, in 1922.

NB: The matching bookend to the Brentano Lieder from Strauss' own repertory is his cycle, Vier letzte Lieder, written some 30 years later. These, however, are for more of a Marshallin-Sopran (the Marshallin being one of the roles from Der Rosenkavalier, my favorite Strauss opera and one of my favorite operas ever written...a topic for another day, though)--and thus are songs on the bucket list of works I want to perform in my career.

The Serenade?  A winds-only 10-minute amuse-bouche that shows how talented Strauss was, as it came off his 17-year-old pen.  A charming piece.

What I'm reading: Deborah Crombie's A Share in Death and Philip Kerr's March Violets (both excellent recommendations from a friend), having read--out of order for the series--his Lady from Zagreb.

What I'm listening to: Trois poemes desenchantes by Maurice Delage (for E4TT's concert on the 19th), Handel's Tolomeo (I'm singing Elisa in it on the 24th), music by Polish composers Martyna Kosecka and Zygmunt Krauze

What I'm working on: the first two of those, plus songs from Tailleferre's Six chansons francaises and Poulenc's  nostalgic "Les chemins de l'amour."

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Thanks to Clara

Clara and Robert
...from Berkeley

The lives of Romantic era composers Robert (1810-1856) and Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896)
seem eternally fascinating... Such biographical riches to mine and contemplate! As I've been continuing to think about this musical couple ever since blogging about Clara last week, I was reminded about Robert and specifically his marvelous Spring Symphony.

We can thank Clara for its genesis and composition.

Clara was a strong proponent of Robert's works--and not simply out of love for her spouse, as despite a few blind spots, she was a savvy performer and a canny judge of talent, In today's music-making world, we think of him mostly for his small forms and miniatures, i.e., his songs (Dichterliebe, Liederkreis, the ever-sexist but eternally beloved Frauenliebe und -leben, and more) and piano works (Papillons, Carnaval, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, etc.).  If those were all he'd written, his place in the annals of Western music history (to wax pompous for a moment) would be guaranteed, for Robert was, indeed, a brilliant composer.

But, in fact, he wrote beautifully in large forms and for large ensembles as well. And his Spring Symphony is a case in point.

Last week, I was listening to the radio in the car (yes, Virginia, actual, real radio--KDFC, and the station can thank me for that free plug--although I do often listen to Spotify, SoundCloud, Sirius, et al, as well), I tuned into the middle of a familiar symphonic piece on the radio, one that I couldn't initially identify. It was somewhat Beethovenian, but, of course, it wasn't Beethoven; its orchestral language in the first movement was so muscular and its second so lyrical; it sound so very familiar.  What was it?  Not Haydn, Beethoven, not Schubert, and certainly not Mozart. After a long, big duh moment of potential senioritis, I realized I was listening to Robert's wonderful Spring Symphony.

After years of my not having heard this work--really not since I was a graduate student, a lacuna that plan to avoid in the future, as the piece doesn't deserve my or anyone else's neglect--Robert's Spring Symphony has come up twice in two months for me, first at an excellent SF Symphony performance about a month ago and now last week. What a fabulous piece!

And the back story (which James Keller's excellent program notes for the Symphony in November had also reminded me of)...

As of 1838, Robert had dabbled a bit with writing for orchestra and for larger forms, but not with great success and conviction.  Then in 1839, Clara wrote, "...don't take it amiss if I tell you that I've been seized by the desire to encourage you to write for orchestra. Your imagination and your spirit are too great for the weak piano."  Robert took the hint, with his 1841 Symphony No. 1 (Op. 38, in Bb).  

Clara was quite right. He did have the right stuff for writing for orchestra.  

Do you agree or disagree? 

What I'm listening to: Debussy's Cello Sonata, Handel's Tolomeo, Schumann Spring Symphony

What I'm reading: Before I Fall, The Tsar of Love and Techno, A Share in Death

What I'm working on: Tailleferre, Handel, Poulenc, and Delage, all for performances later this month.