On Friday, January 16, I have the pleasure of performing at The Barns with two of the WTOC’s marvelous alumni. Keith Phares and Patricia Risley weren’t here at Wolf Trap at the same time, but they subsequently met at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and today they are the proud and exhausted parents of 5-month-old twins. (I’m possibly more excited about seeing the babies than I am about seeing Keith and Patricia. Shhh.)
If you’re in the DC area, and you want to find out more about the concert before joining us at The Barns, read on. If you’re reading from further-flung places, and you’re curious about the kind of preparation that goes into a performance like this one, you’re also in the right place.
17th & 18th-Century Italian Songs
Per la gloria d’adorarvi (Bononcini)
Amarilli, mia bella (Caccini)
Sebben, crudele (Caldara)
Caro mio ben (Giordani)
Nel cor più non mi sento (Paisiello)
Se tu m’ami, se sospiri (Pergolesi)
Tu lo sai (Torelli)
If you’re a singer, you’ll recognize this line-up. These songs are among a few dozen that form the backbone of most singers’ early training. And therein lies a blessing and a curse.
A blessing because this music is truly beautiful and (in the best way) unforgettable. You know how pop musicians talk about ‘hooks’? The melodies in these songs are like fish hooks. They grab hold of a piece of your brain and don’t let go for weeks. Every time I come back to them, they overtake my musical consciousness. On a very basic, global, non-operatic level, just good tunes.
A curse because most of us come to them when we are struggling hard with the basics of our craft. The Italian makes no sense, the style seems like an uncrackable code, and good vocalism is elusive. So our early experiences with these songs tend to leave a murky impression.
It is so wonderful to come back to them, as I have repeatedly, after many years away. To find that they are so potent and so very timeless, and to enjoy unearthing them from the layers of confusion, incomprehension, and anxiety that surrounded them the first time around :)
For the pianist, there’s another wonderful layer of interpretation. These songs are part of the Baroque operatic tradition, and therefore the actual “accompaniment” that’s printed in the music is only an interpretation (“realization”) of the shorthand that the composers left behind. There’s a skeleton there, determined by the bass line in the left hand and the chords that are implied. But exactly how it gets played is an opportunity for individual creativity. (For the musicians among you, this is a figured bass exercise.) There are stylistic parameters and limitations, but there are many decisions the pianist can make about chord texture, voicing, register, and dynamics. It brings the pieces alive in yet another way, and it allows for some very individual give-and-take with the singer.
As a postscript, here are Keith’s comments on this set: Patricia gave birth to our twin son and daughter on August 21st (our fourth wedding anniversary, incidentally). Needless to say, we’ve been singing to them, which means all sorts of great excuses to practice upcoming repertoire (if maybe a little softer than we’d normally practice). Patricia has found “Sebben crudele” to be particularly effective at getting Molly to stop screaming.
Five Movements for My Father (Susan Kander)
It’s been a wonderful journey to explore this cycle of songs written for Keith Phares in 2005. Keith recently recorded them, and he clearly has a wonderful affinity for this music and these texts. He met composer Susan Kander in 2001 when her son Jacob was singing the role of Young Pip in OTSL’s Miss Havisham’s Fire.
This is truly vocal chamber music, written for baritone, violin, clarinet, cello and piano. At this point, all of the instrumentalists have been prepping on their own, and we get together for the first time on Monday. The added interest and expressive possibilities that come from adding other musicians to the mix is tempered just a bit by the additional complexity and challenge of coordinating all 5 of us.
Here’s the composer’s description: For better or worse, I don’t come from the academy, I come from the theater. My roots run deep in musical theater especially. Five Movements for my Father is essentially a mini-opera and a monodrama in which the singer portrays a character at critical movements over his lifetime. Music allows us to live more viscerally through these moments with them. It tells the story of a man’s life: we meet him way back in the last century as an exuberant college student, follow him to 1930’s Paris as a young poet, return home with the excited GI after WWII. Decades later he looks back over his lengthening marriage and finally, now an old man after the turn of the 21st century, he vents his anger and sadness at the current state of his beloved America. The music loosely follows the times and locales, starting in the ultra-romantic swirl of the early 20th century, on to pointillist France, back to swing era USA, before drifting loose into the latter 20th century. I wrote this piece in 2005 for my father for his 82nd birthday.
The first movement feels raw – the musicians really create the storm that underlays Sam Ashworth’s poem. This is as true a sonic description of adolescence as you’ll ever hear, and my experience as a musician in the texture is pretty much similar to what it must feel like (not that I can remember…) to be a teenager. It’s tough to play, and the adrenaline is tougher to manage. It’s pretty easy to get lost, too, and all senses are on high alert. And when the hormones and the thick chromatic textures and the shifting rhythms dissipate, and the baritone sings “By the time I have reached college the rain has stopped and the sun is shining,” over an eerie and still open fifth harmonic in the strings, the relief is physical, mental, and emotional.
2. Pangur Bàn
I’ve known the Samuel Barber / W. H. Auden “The Monk and His Cat” for a long time, and it was great fun to dig into this very different approach to the same 8th-century Irish poem. Barber’s take on this touching relationship between the old man and his white feline companion is pretty straight-forward – with a lilting, rocking accompaniment that doesn’t stray too far from its harmonic home. Kander’s pointillistic approach is a great deal of fun, with the cat literally scampering through the piano, string, and clarinet parts. Cursed with dander allergies, I am not a cat person. But thanks to Lucky, a member of Rahree’s household, I can conjure up this scene :)
The poetry of William Carlos Williams enters the picture in the middle of the cycle. (Remember his Red Wheelbarrow from freshman English class?) In this third movement, the description of an apple left for a month on the porch rail (“beautif’ly and completely rotten) is wondrously spun over a pungent jazz quartet. (The singer’s instruction is “very Mel Tormé”)
4. Of Asphodel, that greeny flower
I’ve been spending time with the entire poem as I try to dig inside this movement, probably the most straight-forward of the set. Perhaps it intrigues me most, because its place in the cycle most closely represents the chapter in which I soon find myself. The poetry is, in WCW’s style, full of images that engage all of the senses. But somehow it’s the abstract language that draws me in the most.
for you and me
as one who watches a storm
come in over the water.
We have stood
from year to year
before the spectacle of our lives
with joined hands.”
From the entrance of the singer “Art is What? Art is shit” through the always timely WCW quote in the middle “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die mis’rably ev’ry day for lack of what is found there” to the angry ending that circles back to a quote from the angry young man in the first movement, the Soliloquy is a roller coaster ride.
We will particularly enjoying presentin this cycle next Friday, because of our own connection with a life-long friend of John Kander – Tom Tuch, a devoted Wolf Trap fan and donor, and a published author, will be sitting in the front row.
Merton Songs (Frank Ferko)
I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain years ago, and although I can’t exactly say that I have a deep understanding of his faith and philosophies, they’ve been a source of amazement. These three songs are part of a larger set of five.
Composer Frank Ferko: “In Wisdom, the poet somewhat humorously contrasts the concepts of knowledge and wisdom.”
I particularly like the instructions to the pianist in the “knowledge” part of this brief song: to play in a “rather dry and academic” style. Well, for a large part of my life, I had no trouble with this.
Reduced to This
Composer Frank Ferko: “Reduced to This expresses, somewhat humorously, the poet’s frustration in using language to communicate. While reading this text with the intention of creating a musical setting, I could not help but make an association between the poet’s frustrations and those of many composers in the past century who experimented endlessly with new techniques but often ended up with little or no content in their music. Merton’s first two lines express the feeling concisely: “Alone/With nothing to say.”
Two minutes of deliberately frustrating music. Don’t be afraid. We’ll take care of you.
Song for Nobody
Deliberately (I’m sure) evocative of the Satie’s hypnotic Gymnopédies, this final song is balm for the previous song’s anguish.
In the composer’s words: “Images of nature are frequent and abundant in Thomas Merton’s poetry (as the third poem in this set has already demonstrated). So it is appropriate that Song for Nobody was inspired by a flower which blossomed off-season—all by itself—in my dining room window while I was writing this music. At about the same time that this lone flower appeared, I also discovered a tiny bunch of marigolds growing out of a crack in the concrete sidewalk behind my apartment building in Chicago. Perhaps the flowers were initially singing for nobody, but I think not. They were singing to me.”
Banalités (Francis Poulenc)
If you aspire to sing or to spend your professional life with singers, please do not fail to forge a relationship with poetry. I think I’m so happy in this business because words have always been a second love, after music. So that when they combust, it’s the best thing in the world. I always wonder what it’s like for singers and pianists for whom an appreciation for language is a difficult thing.
Now, I don’t really pretend to understand Apollinaire. Even though French was my second language (even before Italian), and I started college as a French major. Actually, I have a pretty decent relationship with the text of Banalités until I get to the final movement…
1. Chanson d’Orkenise
Other than not really understanding how or why the town guards are knitting (??), this opening replica of a folk song is sheer fun.
If you’ve been around vocal music for a while, you’ve probably encountered this gem. Wow. How can a composer paint this complete a picture in a minute and a half?
3. Fagnes de Wallonie
Right now, I’m stuck on the composer’s direction at the beginning of this movement (“extremely quickly, in a single bound.”) as well as the suggested metronome marking (half note = 92). OK, I can’t play it that fast. Windswept moors, indeed.
4. Voyage à Paris
As enjoyable as a trip to Paris should be, but not nearly as long :)
I’m a bit too seduced by the sheer aural content of this piece. The playing of it seems to be quite enough. The poem is intriguing and undeniably beautiful, but I can’t bring any of it into focus or really marry it with the music. More work to be done.
I can’t get this one out of my mind. For so many many reasons.
I’m a bit of a Schumann junkie. I first tackled Carnaval on my undergraduate senior recital. I’ve played almost every piano piece he wrote (after a fashion, of course, in the privacy of my living room:), and I’ve had multiple encounters with many of his songs and cycles. My essential nature is somewhat northern European, and so many of the German composers make visceral sense to me in a way that the Mediterraneans do not. (I may be one of the few opera people I know who had to learn to love Verdi. Don’t flame me.)
The love story that was Clara and Robert Schumann is heartbreaking. On romantic, personal, and professional levels. And even more breathtaking is Clara’s loss of Robert to mental illness. I was a Registered Music Therapist for a brief time in my 20’s, and I spent a handful of years working in a psychiatric institution. Jake’s duet takes me back.
The scene is really led by Clara, whose music is crushingly earnest. Robert is just a shadow sometimes (without text, just vocalism), and a few times he is fully present, breaking through in a very touching way at the end. His music is a glimmer of familiarity with an overlay of pain and confusion – like looking at an old picture through a maze of cracks.