To Music

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To Music

  Me and Rosemary Russell backstage at my professional debut singing Iopas in Berlioz'  Les Troyens  with the Chicago Symphony in 2002.

Me and Rosemary Russell backstage at my professional debut singing Iopas in Berlioz' Les Troyens with the Chicago Symphony in 2002.

I often tell people that the only real reason I sing is because it is that was the only way I could make a living as a professional musician. My initial dream was to be a member of the Chicago Symphony's second violin section (I loved playing inner voices), but when I began exploring singing after having been bit by the drama bug as a high schooler, it became clear that this was my calling.  When I began to study singing seriously as a 15 year old, I had already been studying the violin for 11 years. As a result, I had a good ear and was able to learn music quickly if I could hear it enough times before a lesson with the woman who would be my primary voice teacher from my final years in high school through the end of my undergraduate studies: Rosemary Russell.

Rosemary was aware of my musical training as a string player, and quickly seized upon my voracious appetite for music by assigning me a variety of art songs. Since I had studied French, most of my assignments were either English songs (because it's my native languange) or French mélodies by composers like Fauré and Chausson. The other music I was devouring as a violinist in youth orchestra were things like Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, Elgar's Enigma Variations, Brahms' symphonies, and Mahler's 5th symphony. The very first German art song Rosemary assigned me was Schubert's An die Musik.

After the angsty complexity of the German, British and Russian romantics that I had been passionately sawing away at in youth orchestra, the simplicity of Schubert's two verses in D major was lost on me. On top of having never studied German, I also was still approaching songs from a purely musical perspective. I was less concerned about what they meant, and just reveling in their musical beauty. As a result, I thought the song was simplistic and boring...and therefore arrived at my next lesson not really know it at all.

After warming up a bit, Rosemary wanted us to look at the Schubert, and it became very evident very quickly that I did not know the song. After a minute, she closed the lid to the keyboard, and she turned to me and said: "You know, next year you will be a freshman in my voice studio here at UM. You have to know that if you show up this ill-prepared at any point next year, I will excuse you from the lesson and ask you to come back the following week when you have learned your music."  Completely terrified that had committed an unforgivable sin, I apologized and blurted out that part of the reason I didn't learn the song well was that I simply wasn't sure that I liked it and couldn't find any recordings of the song that I really wanted to listen to. Rosemary looked at me when I said that I wasn't sure I liked the song, inhaled to say something, and then decided against it. Instead, she said, "You shouldn't be learning music from recordings. And while I know you know how to learn music as a violinist, you need to know how to learn music as a singer, which is a very different process."  She then proceeded to spend the rest of the hour using Schubert's ode to the power of music as a means to show me how to teach music to myself. It was the most valuable voice lesson I have ever had in my nearly 25 years of study since then: The principles I learned that afternoon in her studio are the bedrock of quite literally anything and everything I do musically.

Every time I am asked to sing this song in performance, my mind always drifts back to this little vignette from my adolescence, and the great gift that this particular song (of all songs!), turned out to be. Rosemary passed away in 2005, and I miss her terribly. I was so fortunate to have spent those formative years with her. This song is one of a couple that always make me think of her and the many gifts she gave me that have served me so well over the years, unlocking music's power.

I recently performed the song with Eric Zivian playing a 19th century fortepiano on a concert at the Berkeley Festival and Exposition with musicians from the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, which is why it's been on my mind lately.  A translation of the text and a video of the performance is below:

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb' entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf' entfloßen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschloßen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

-  Franz von Schober

 

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A Far Cry Flashback

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A Far Cry Flashback

The fantastic folks at A Far Cry have posted a clip from our January concert of British music as their Flashback Friday contribution this week. The clip is our set of numbers by Henry Purcell, Matthew Locke and Nicholas Lanier which opened the program in Boston at the beginning of the year.  

Thinking back on that week with the Criers, it was truly a high point of the first half of this year. It was a real privilege to collaborate with such serious and dedicated musicians who approach music with such innovation and joy. No note was taken for granted all week, and expression was always at the forefront of what we were aiming for. 

Hope you enjoy this little trip down memory lane.

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Happy Birthday, Helmuth

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Happy Birthday, Helmuth

 Weimarer Bachkantaten Akademie 2016    photo: Marco Borggreve

Weimarer Bachkantaten Akademie 2016   photo: Marco Borggreve

In general, as one gets older, it gets more and more difficult to find true mentors - something that is so important for any artist's continued growth. As classical musicians, we are lucky that our art form still has its elder statesmen: the conductors who keep trekking along, waving their arms and guiding musicians through masterpiece after masterpiece, week to week. I've been incredibly fortunate to work with many of the greatest our field has to offer over the years, and one of the most generous and challenging that I have encountered has been Helmuth Rilling, who celebrates his 85th birthday today.

I met Helmuth under some rather extreme and incredible circumstances on Valentine's Day of 2009, when I jumped in on a few hours' notice to perform Haydn's Creation with him and the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Carnegie Hall (you can read about that surreal experience in an old blog post, here).  Since that fateful day, Helmuth has been an unbelievably generous and supportive mentor - offering me many fantastic and transformative opportunities over the years. Over the past 9 years since we met, I've toured with him everywhere from the Kennedy Center to the German churches in which Bach worked and premiered his masterpieces hundreds of years ago. Among the most rewarding experiences I've had making music with him, my summers with him at both the Oregon Bach Festival and his recently-founded Weimar Bach Cantata Academy, have been extra special. In both of these places, we have had the luxury of time. Those summer weeks with him have proven to be invaluable, in which he has unlocked so many of the multiple layers of Bach's music for me in ways that feel luxurious in these fast-paced days of professional concert life. My perception of Bach's music and the importance of his work has been forever changed because of my time with Helmuth, and I always treasure every moment I get to work with him on these incredible masterworks.

I find that the greatest musicians are the ones who never lose their sense of wonder at what incredible beauty these composers have created. It is so inspiring that despite having lived with Bach's music for so many decades, Helmuth has never lost his sense of wonder and respect for these masterful compositions, and that he even continues to find new things in this music as the years pass. For him, the answers are always to be found in the score, and in what the composers demand of us musicians through the notes they have written down on the page. To experience Helmuth's discipline and insight and to be perpetually challenged by him to do the best work possible has been and continues to be a privilege.  

The happiest of birthdays to you, dear Helmuth. It is an honor to be a part of the incredible musical family that you have brought together worldwide. Thank you for all you have given and continue to give the world through your work!

Check out this wonderful documentary on Helmuth that just aired on SWR:

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Resident

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Resident

Roughly four years ago, shortly after I had made the move West to San Francisco, I received a call from my manager with an inquiry from San Francisco Performances, who were wondering if I might be interested in taking over as their vocal artist-in-residence.  While SF Performances had no idea that I had just moved from Manhattan to the Castro, they had unwittingly given me what was part of the most wonderful welcome to my new home in the Bay.

One of the primary concerns I had about leaving New York City was my ability to work at home. One of the great joys of my musical life during the course of the 8-9 years that I lived in New York City was that I was able to work at home with a fair amount of frequency.  The invitation from SF Performances was a welcome sign that San Francisco would hold the same privilege.  Between my work with SF Performances, the San Francisco Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque and the many other institutions and musical colleagues with whom I collaborate here in the Bay, I must say that I have never felt more welcomed by a musical community.  My musical life and circle of musical friends and colleagues here is one of the primary reasons why I have fallen so madly in love with this city and am so proud to call it home. 

These past four years with SF Performances have been a fun adventure, and tonight's recital at the Herbst is a milestone of this residency.  As the vocal artist-in-residence, SF Performances tasked me with building awareness in the Bay Area of the relationship between music and text, and the art of the vocal recital.  Through this residency, we have organized classes and interactive sessions on exploring what art song is and discussing how composers reflect text in their music with all sorts of groups, including high school and middle school students, university and post-grad students, as well as the general adult audience through salon concerts and community events.  I've also had the chance to mentor young singing musicians throughout the Bay Area, in a variety of levels ranging from advanced students at SF State University to the bright young women of the San Francisco Girl's Chorus and the ambitious young singers of the Bay Area Vocal Academy, and many more Bay Area music education institutions.

Watching so many pairs of eyes light up upon realizing the connections between text and music and seeing the relevance of this timelessly important material to our lives today has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life in music. Cajoling listeners of all ages to give themselves permission to hear the words and music and have the courage to engage with an art form that has the illusion of being only for those who already know about it has taught me that this music really can be for everyone, and that it is up to us, the standard-bearers of this art form, to continue to ensure that people are exposed to it and encourage people to engage with it.  In a day in which generations of the general public have been deprived of basic music educations, due to these programs being cut in schools over the past decades, the work of the SF Performances Residency is all the more important to the art form's continued survival and growth.

Tonight, there will be so much to celebrate. There is the work of these French geniuses of 100 years ago, there is the joyous work of this residency, and there is (of course) also the release of Illuminations, which comes out next week. But beyond all of this, I'll also be celebrating the deeper reasons behind doing all of this: To continue to bring more and more people into the fold, encouraging people to keep loving music, words, and the places where they so beautifully intersect.

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Lili

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Lili

Before I get going with this post, just a quick note to say that I will be blogging here on this website from now on.  My previous entries over at Blogspot will remain up there as long as blogspot remains a thing. Perhaps, if I ever manage to find a free moment, I may at some point move some of that archive over here. Either way, as infrequent as I have been over the past few years, grecchinois lives on.  I simply have a new blog web address.  Now, on to the post:

  Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger

Considering how much very loud opining there has been lately amongst the Classical music community about the dearth of diversity in programming, I must admit that I am extraordinarily surprised that so few people have mentioned Lili Boulanger.  March 15, 2018 was the 100th anniversary of her death, and I would have thought that more people would be writing about her in this age in which article after article is being published decrying how few female composers are being programmed enough by our leading classical music institutions. This article about the Cleveland Orchestra basically went the classical-music equivalent of viral a couple of weeks ago, just days after the anniversary of Lili's passing. I saw it posted on countless colleagues' social media accounts - yet I've seen little-to-no mention of Lili Boulanger. 

In an industry that is obsessed with celebrating anniversaries, it is shocking that the centenary of her death barely registers on the radar.  Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday is all over the news, and I can't tell you how many times I've heard presenters already excitedly mention Beethoven's upcoming 250th birthday in 2020 in artistic planning discussions, yet a Google News search of Lili Boulanger's name reveals little more in the English-speaking musical press than a cursory post about the centenary of her death on Slipped Disc that doesn't elaborate much on its headline beyond a link to an older post about Lili and a youtube video of her Nocturne for violin and piano.

I don't compare press mentions to imply that composers like Bernstein and Beethoven shouldn't be fêted, because they are white, male composers or because they are so often performed as part of the standard repertoire.  On the contrary, I strongly believe that their work should be celebrated, and that there is every reason to take advantage of these anniversaries to do so.  Considering how many major symphony orchestras have 52-week seasons, there is more than enough opportunity to celebrate them as we are, and to celebrate the work and tragically short life of Lili, as well as the work of other under-performed female composers and composers of color. 

Looking forward to Tomorrow's recital at the Herbst Theater here in San Francisco, Lili's music takes the prime spot on our program. My recital partner, Myra, and I will perform 8 of the 13 songs from Lili's song cycle, Clairières dans le ciel. Since the cycle is so long in its complete form, it was only possible to perform parts of it for this program. As she herself excerpted 8 of the songs to be orchestrated, I took that as a clue that it would be appropriate to perform these 8 songs of the cycle on their own (Myra and I are planning on performing and recording the cycle in its entirety in a future season).  Despite the fact that we will perform only excerpts of the cycle tomorrow, it will be the longest set we perform that evening, as well as the most musically and vocally demanding. I previewed the final song of the cycle, Demain fera un an, at a Community Music Center concert this past Friday, and the audience was astonished at how forward-sounding and large-in-scale her one song was in comparison to the other songs written by her male colleagues and teachers that we performed that afternoon.

While there were other female composers during the time of Lili's life, Lili stands apart as a trailblazer, which is remarkable considering that she died at the young age of 24.  At just 19 years old, she was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix du Rome in 1913, ten years after the ban on female contestants was lifted. The Prix du Rome was an important competition that launched the careers of many a famous French composer, including those of Debussy, Massenet, Bizet and Gounod. During the years of the Belle époque, female composers were mostly only permitted to write simple parlor music and most often eventually assumed roles as music teachers (such as Lili's hugely influential sister, Nadia) or stopped composing altogether after marriage (like Alma Mahler, who's only surviving compositions are roughly 15 art songs which were composed before her marriage to Gustav). The lifting of the ban on female competitors opened the door for women to begin pursuing careers as serious composers who would write larger scale works. Lili did this upon her historic victory, and she did so with a compositional voice that was distinctive, sophisticated and boundary-pushing. Had she lived longer, one wonders where her pioneering vision might have taken music history over the course of last century.

Both Myra and I have fallen in love with Lili's songs as we have prepared this new program, and we can't wait to dive further into her music in the coming seasons. Lili's music is important, beautiful and transfixing - one doesn't need the excuse of an anniversary to program it.  It should be performed all the time and on any occasion - just like we perform Bernstein and Beethoven whenever we wish. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful thing that we will get to fête her tomorrow night at the Herbst during this centenary year of her death. If you're in the Bay Area, we hope to see you there. 

In the meantime, here is a youtube video of Lili's final composition: her Pie Jesu for voice, string quartet, harp and organ:

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