On-the-job Training

UPDATE: The servers have propogated! The servers have propogated! Check out the new-and-improved blog at missmusicnerd.com!!

Nothing in technology happens without some bugs having to be worked out, right?

For a while now, I’ve wanted to migrate this here blog from free wordpress.com hosting to my own paid hosting, so I could add several features that I can’t currently have (audio hosting will be simpler, for one thing, I think… I hope…)

It took a while for me to wrangle the site layout until it bent to my will, but I finally succeeded, and yesterday, after checking with support staff from my new host to make sure I knew what to do, I entered the gobbledygook in the various fields and pressed save… and voilà!

missmusicnerd.com vanished into web limbo. Aaarrgh! Dang you, novice webmistress!

I checked with the support folks again and found that I had entered the wrong gobbledygook. They kindly supplied me with the correct gobbledygook, and I have entered it, but the millions of little squirrels running on wheels that power the interwebz will take a while to catch up. Until then, I’m very glad I have a backup here on wordpress.com.

Thanks, wordpress.com! Thanks, support folks! And I’m just glad I did this now, rather than during GRAMMY® week!


Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On: Cantata Singers Make Magic with English Choral Works

Cantata Singers
Friday, January 14th
Music of Elgar, Finzi, Holst and Vaughan Williams

When you go to a Cantata Singers concert, you can always be assured that the programming will be interesting and the performance standards will be high. For example, McDoc and I agreed that the diction was excellent on Friday evening (kudos to vocal and diction coach extraordinaire, Allison Voth!). But the performance went far beyond simply being well-done. From the opening tenor line of Gustav Holst‘s The Evening-watch to the closing orchestral chords of Ralph Vaughan WilliamsRiders to the Sea, there was a palpable sense of magic in Jordan Hall.

While listening to that tenor line, by the way, I felt a sudden, deep desire to go home and write some choral music. That pure musical impulse is a rare and beautiful thing. Too often, it gets toxically diluted with guilt or envy, as in, “Oh, if only I could write something as good – I’d better go try!” or, “I can do that, and even better, and I’ll prove it!” Anything that rekindles one’s love of music is a precious gift. As far as I was concerned, Cantata Singers had done their job within about eight notes.

Lucky for all of us, though, they didn’t stop there!

David Hoose conducts Cantata Singers

The first half of the program consisted of unaccompanied choral works, adding fellow early 20th-century English composers Edward Elgar and Gerald Finzi to Holst and Vaughan Williams (the featured composer for Cantata Singers’ current season). The two Elgar pieces, Weary Wind of the West and The Prince of Sleep were beautiful, and beautifully sung, though they sounded a touch old-fashioned to me after Holst’s open-fourth-based harmonies. But the texts of these first three pieces united them, with repeated images of stillness and sleep. (I wonder why poets like to write about sleep so much, and why singers like to sing about it?)

The centerpiece of this group was Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs, which were lively and charming. I enjoyed the onomatopoeia of the repeated “ding-dong” figures in “Full Fathom Five,” on a text from Act I of The Tempest. “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers,” from Act IV, included the famous lines,

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

…continuing the sleep theme! I was struck by the harmonic shift at the very end of this piece, which reminded me of the final “Amen” of Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem, composed ten years later.

Three folksong arrangements completed the first half of the program: Vaughan Williams’ “Loch Lomond,” for tenors and basses, featuring tenor soloist Richard Simpson, and Holst’s “My Sweetheart’s like Venus” and “I Love My Love.” One might worry that “Loch Lomond” (“Oh, you’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye…) would risk sounding trite and sentimental, but I found this performance warm and appealing.

At any good choral performance, you can usually tell by looking at the choir members that they enjoy what they’re doing. But here especially, you could see, hear and feel their love for the music in their facial expressions and physical presence. You could feel that the audience was enthralled, too – there was an audible group sigh at the conclusion of each piece.

When the first half ended, I was so transported that I found it hard to imagine taking in anything more. But I was curious about Riders to the Sea. Vaughan Williams called it a music-drama, which is a term composers use when, for one reason or another, they aren’t quite comfortable calling something an opera. And indeed, it lacks certain features one might expect from an opera, like a love story or stand-alone arias. It does have tragedy, but unlike a typical opera that begins with love and ends in tragedy, this piece is tragedy all the way.

Riders to the Sea, based on the play by J. M. Synge (best known for another play, The Playboy of the Western World is set on an island off the West coast of Ireland. Its central character is Maurya, who has lost a husband and four sons to the sea. When the piece opens, her fifth son is missing, and she tries to dissuade her sixth and last son from sailing for Galway. By the end, her fears prove to be well-founded.

If you just read the libretto, you can’t help but find the whole affair unrelentingly woeful:

MAURYA: They are all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…. I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south… I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.

But Vaughan Williams’ sensitive treatment of the text adds another dimension, ennobling the work’s humble characters by honoring their human experience of fear, loss and facing mortality, our own and that of our loved ones. The music becomes more peaceful and transcendent toward the end, even as the words march toward resignation.

Riders to the Sea soloists take their bows

The soloists – Lynn Torgove as Maurya, Lisa Lynch as Nora, Claire Filer as Cathleen and Brian Church as Bartley – performed their roles with focus and commitment, and the semi-staged production was an unexpected theatrical treat at a choral performance.

Speaking of the theatrical element, conductor David Hoose brought stage director Alexandra Borrie on stage for a well-deserved bow after the performance concluded, and I couldn’t help but notice with some envy the fabulous dress she wore. I didn’t get a clear enough photo, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that this little black cocktail dress with its asymmetrical cut-out neckline was…


Seriously, though, either of the two halves of this program were worth the price of admission alone. If you’re in the Boston area and have an opportunity to hear Cantata Singers, do not pass it up!

Miss Music Nerd Recommends:

Vaughan Williams: Riders to the Sea; Flos Campi; Household Music

There Is Sweet Music: English Choral Songs, 1890 – 1950

Gustav Holst: The Evening Watch and other choral music


Friday News: Vaughan Williams in Boston, GRAMMY.com, and Theremin on TV!

PhotobucketHappy Friday, music nerds! I’m pleased to announce that my first grammy.com post is up! Click to sample some GRAMMY Classical Delights!

Furthermore, I will be interviewing several GRAMMY nominees in the coming weeks, so be sure to stay tuned! (I’m editing the first one now, which was conducted by phone with someone Very. Big. on Monday. I’m so excited!)

On the home front, tonight McDoc and I will be attending a performance by Cantata Singers, who continue their Ralph Vaughan Williams-centered season. The program includes a semi-staged performance of Vaughan Williams’ one-act music drama Riders to the Sea, as well as works by Edward Elgar, Gerald Finzi and Gustav Holst. Tickets will be available at the door, so if you’re in the Boston area and looking for something classy to do tonight, tell ’em Miss Music Nerd sent you!

No matter where you are, you can enjoy my latest find in the ever-popular Theremin category, which is dear to my heart, as many of you know. Click here to watch a character on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory expand the Theremin’s repertoire! (Tip: advance the video to around 14:30; the show will play after a commercial.) It’s already a very nerdy show, but it gets a tip of the nerd glasses for bringing nerdy music into the equation, too!


Lisztomania! (An Interview with Yakov Zamir)

JP Concerts presents: Lisztomania Times Two
Thursday, January 13, 7:00 pm
St. John’s Episcopal Church
1 Roanoke Avenue, Boston (map link)
$10 at the door

Any classical music nerd worth his or her salt can tell you that the composer Franz Liszt is best-known for writing fiendishly difficult piano music, and that he was a piano virtuoso of rock-star stature during his lifetime. (Only and über-music-nerd would have gone so far as to sit through the 1975 film, Lisztomania featuring Roger Daltrey. I can’t give it a thumbs-up, but it is an interesting cultural curiosity!)

Less widely known is Liszt’s extensive catalog of songs for voice with piano accompaniment. But that will change if countertenor Yakov Zamir has anything to say about it. Zamir has embarked on a project of performing and recording Liszt’s songs with Janice Weber, critically acclaimed pianist and Liszt specialist.

Zamir and Weber are performing this evening in Boston, along with fellow Liszt enthusiasts, sopranos Farah Darliette Lewis and Meena Malik, and pianists Artem Belgurov and Rachel Hassinger.

Miss Music Nerd asked him for the scoop, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

MMN: Your voice type is countertenor, but your voice quality is different from the non-vibrato, baroque sound typically associated with that. How would you describe your voice?

YZ: I’m classified as a countertenor because that is the range I sing in. It describes a male voice in the contralto range, that is, topping out a fourth or fifth higher than a tenor.

I sing with vibrato just about all the time – that is the natural voice production when you want to fill a large space and carry over an orchestra. Lots of countertenors sing with vibrato now, so my voice is not unique in that way. But my voice is an expression of my soul, my personality, and since I am unique, my voice is also unique!

MMN: How did you become interested in the vocal music of Franz Liszt?

YZ: I discovered it while living in Israel, around twenty years ago. In a music library, whilst collecting songs by various composers, I happened upon his Tre Sonetti di Petrarca. I liked them so much that I sang them on a 6-city recital tour I made of India, in 1992, and then sang them also in London and in Tel-Aviv and elsewhere in Israel.

I wanted to sing lots of Schumann during the bicentennial of his birth, in 2010, and then I realized that 2011 is Liszt’s bicentennial year. I made a plan of collecting and transposing Liszt songs, and once I found that the first versions of a number of his early songs were beautiful and rarely performed, I knew I had the kind of rep I would want to learn and perform. Since then I have been selecting groups of his songs that particularly appeal to me, and those have included settings of poems by Italian, French and German poets.

MMN: The songs you sing have been transposed to fit your higher range. Have you had any complaints from your piano accompanist, Janice Weber?

YZ: Janice is a veteran Lisztian, having played and recorded some of this composer’s most technically difficult solo piano works. She has had no problems with playing the transpositions of these songs… in fact, they fit very nicely on the piano in those keys.

Liszt wrote a few songs for mezzo or baritone that I can sing without transposition, but most of his songs are simply in the wrong tessitura for my voice, so I have them transposed until they are comfortable. This was a normal and regular practice until the 20th century with classical music, and is still the rule with jazz and pop vocalists. (Editor’s note: the intrepid music copyist tasked with creating these transposed versions is none other than your truly!)

MMN: Anything else you think my readers should know?

YZ: Your readers should know that Liszt was virtually forgotten as a composer soon after his passing, and that his compositions are not highly regarded by most of the music critics and music professors that I have encountered. The Bs (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner) are considered the top of the food chain, and Liszt is depicted a musical scavenger, a showman, an imitator and popularist, not a serious composer… or so they say.

I’ve been reading Alan Walker’s three-volume biography of Liszt and listening to whatever recorded tracks I can find, and respectfully, I disagree with the academicians. At this point I would say I enjoy singing Liszt songs at least as much as Schumann and Schubert — and that is a big surprise to me.

One more thing: tonight’s concert will feature settings of poems by Victor Hugo, a personal friend and close associate of Liszt when he was living in Paris. As readers may know, Hugo was the author of “Les Miserables”, inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical theatre blockbuster.

MMN: I’m looking forward to hearing tonight’s performance!


Music Marketing Madness!

Music Nerd Andy, who keep tabs on the classical scene in St. Louis and environs, passed along an offer from his home team, the St. Louis Symphony, along with this comment:

Why can we sell Mahler tickets at a fraction of retail cost? Because we’re CRAAAAAAZY!!!!!

(I’m sorry to say that this offer went out yesterday, and thus is no longer valid! My apologies to St. Louis area readers! I encourage you to go to the symphony anyway, if you possibly can, whether it’s to hear Mahler, Mussorgsky, or Idina Menzel.)

I have mixed feelings about this kind of marketing in the context of classical music. I know that presenting organizations have to do what they can to attract and retain audiences, and I’m all for coming up with light-hearted and engaging marketing campaigns as an essential part of that. But when you start stealing from your local car dealership’s playbook, it might be time to brew a cup of tea and do a little soul-searching. We have a stodgy, uptight reputation to uphold, after all!

I don’t mean to pick on St. Louis exclusively, of course. For a while now, I’ve felt that every time a music organization employs a cutesy tag line like “Too Hot To Handel” or “Go for Baroque,” they should have to pay a fine, with the proceeds going toward music education in the public schools or something. What’s that you say? Respectable and successful musicians are using those very phrases with impunity? Well, alrighty then – more power to ’em!

Anyway, I’m hardly one to talk. I think I feel an inspiration coming on… I’ve got it: Monster Truck Opera! The curtain opens, a baritone steps onto the stage and sings, “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

In all seriousness – well, almost all –  I must give a tip of the nerd glasses to the SLSO’s publicity genies for including a “More Cowbell!” reference in the campaign, along with this tasty tidbit of music history:

Did you know that preceding Christopher Walken & Will Farrell’s hilarious “More Cowbell” skit on Saturday Night Live, Mahler specifically scored music for the cowbell in his Sixth Symphony to evoke the pastoral imagery of the Alps?

It’s true, you know… and it’s a bit I wish I’d thought of myself!


What It’s All About

Happy New Year, music nerds! Can you believe we’re a week into 2011 already?

I must confess, Miss Music Nerd has been a bit of a basket case for the past month or so. The holiday season can be a very hectic time for any musician, but if you’re a church musician – well, to say it’s a working holiday is a massive understatement! In addition to that, McDoc and I moved to a new apartment just before Thanksgiving (yes, we’re crazy, we know), and moving, even locally, is always a travail. And finally, McDoc has been arranging for a lot of business travel in the coming months, to prepare for that fast-approaching day when his time as a resident comes to a close, and he has to have his next step all queued up. Oh, and then there’s the GRAMMYS®! I will once again serve as the community blogger for the Classical Field – look for my first official post very soon!

In short, there’s a lot going on.

At times like this, I find it’s really easy to get overwrought, to lose perspective, to view the work that I love as a chore, simply because I feel so frustrated about not being able to keep up. Fortunately, the universe eventually arranges to remind me what it’s all about.

Believe it or not, I actually have a hard time getting myself to just sit down and listen to music, without doing anything else. I tend to be so busy doing other music-related things – practicing, planning, reading and writing about music – that the thing itself gets lost in the shuffle. The other day, McDoc had put on a CD of opera duets, the kind of greatest hits compilation that hard-core music snobs might sniff at. I had been to-ing and fro-ing in my usual frantic way, and I decided, for once, to take a break, lay on the sofa, and just listen.

The next track to come up was “Viens, Mallika,” the so-called Flower Duet from Léo Delibes‘ opera Lakmé. It’s so well-known, you’ll probably recognize it even if you’ve never heard of Delibes or his opera. The piece has been used in commercials for chocolates and airlines, for crying out loud! The music is so familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how beautiful it really is.

Laying there on the sofa listening to this, I was able to reconnect a bit with why I love music in the first place. When I slow down and give myself a chance to really feel the music in my bones, I’m transported – yet at the same time, I feel completely and effortlessly rooted. Everything is in balance, and all is right with the world, at least for a few moments at a time.

It’s comforting to know that a respite from my obsessive tendency to worry and obsess and overthink everything is always a available to me, if only I’ll reach out for it. I’m just lucky I have McDoc to act as DJ when I’m too frazzled to do it myself!


Sing Handel in Boston, Bring Healing to Haiti!

JP Concerts presents: Sing Messiah!
Saturday, December 11, 8 p.m.
St. John’s Episcopal Church
1 Roanoke Avenue, Boston (map link)
$10 Donation includes score rental

Happy Holidays, Music Nerds!

Photobucket‘Tis the season for performances of Handel’s Messiah, both the all-pro and sing-along variety. And Boston, being the turbo-charged classical music mecca that it is, boasts many opportunities to get in on this holiday tradition. Today I would like to draw special attention to one that McDoc and I are involved in, because it will benefit a very good cause!

PhotobucketIn April of this year, McDoc went on a medical mission to Haiti, where he spent a week caring for patients who had sustained spinal cord injuries in the January earthquake. The mission was organized by Boston Healing Hands, the local affiliate of Healing Hands for Haiti, an organization with a 10-year history of providing physical rehabilitation services in Haiti. This excerpt from their mission statement explains what they do better than I can:

Healing Hands for Haiti supports and encourages the Haitian people in providing quality physical rehabilitation services for themselves in a spirit of self-determination, independence and human dignity with a focus on empowering Haitians with disabilities

Before I began learning about McDoc’s medical specialty, physical medicine and rehabilitation, I had very little awareness of the kinds of ongoing, long-term care needed by people with the conditions the specialty treats. Did you know that when someone undergoes an amputation (of which there were many in Haiti resulting from earthquake-related injuries), they need very specialized care in order to be fitted for a prosthesis and use it successfully? And folks with spinal cord injury need ongoing follow-up care as well. Healing Hands for Haiti’s medical volunteers not only provide direct care; they also train local caregivers to continue this crucial work.

McDoc has the opportunity to go on a second mission to Haiti, in March 2011. He’ll volunteer his time (and one of his three annual vacation weeks!), but there is also the matter of travel and living expenses, which total about $2,000 per team member. That’s where Handel comes in: proceeds from this Saturday’s sing-along Messiah will help support McDoc’s mission!

So if you’re in the Boston area and you love to sing, please join us on Saturday! Even if you don’t sing, you’re welcome to come and listen. Accompaniment will be provided by the Young Artists Philharmonic, led by conductor Isaac Kramer, and featured soloists include Megan Bisceglia, Nathan Keoughan, Farah Darliette Lewis, Joshua Pelkey, and Yakov Zamir.

If you can’t make it on Saturday but are moved to help, here’s how: checks payable to Boston Healing Hands may be mailed to:
Boston Healing Hands
Box 465
Milton MA 02186

If you designate your donation as in support of Dr. Brian McMichael, it will help McDoc directly. Thank you so much!

To help you prepare for the event, here’s a vocal warm-up courtesy of Random Acts of Culture:

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