Looking to Tap into the Zeitgeist? It’s in St. Paul, Tonight!

Zeitgeist New Music presents
Night Singing: Music by Andrew Rindfleisch
October 7, 8, 9, 7:30 p.m.
Studio Z, 275 East Fourth Street, Suite 200, St. Paul MN

A week ago, I was wishing for a couch, but this week I’m upping the ante: what I really need is a private jet to get to all the concerts I’d like to hear! Hey, I can dream…

PhotobucketIf I were in St. Paul this weekend, I would check out Zeitgeist, an ensemble with a 30-year history of promoting and performing music by living composers. The group features woodwind player Pat O’Keefe, pianist Shannon Wettstein, and percussionists Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd. Three of the four (Pat, Shannon and Patti) are former grad school colleagues of mine from U.C. San Diego, so I’ve had the honor of hearing them many times (they’ve even played my music!), and they are fantastic. They’ll be joined this weekend by violinist Alastair Brown, flutist Jane Garvin and cellist Jim Jacobson. Here’s an audio preview of what they’re playing.

PhotobucketThe concert is both a season opener and CD release celebration for a disc of music by composer Andrew Rindfleisch: Night Singing, on Innova recordings. Andy lists grave-hopping as a hobby, and I can attest to that, as he and I both attended a composition seminar in Prague many summers ago which included a side trip to Vienna’s Central Cemetery, where several great composers are laid to rest.

Here I am paying my respects to Arnold Schoenberg:


Speaking of Schoenberg, I think he would endorse Zeitgeist’s mission to present the music of our time! So if you’re in the Twin Cities area, go hear them, and tell them Miss Music Nerd sent you!



Naked and Singing, Making Life Worthwhile

Boston Symphony Orchesra featuring Bryn Terfel: Music of Richard Wagner, Saturday, October 1, 2010
Cantata Singers Chamber Series: Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sunday, October 2, 2010

I didn’t expect to find much of a common thread between the two concerts I attended this past weekend, other than the fact that singing was involved. The contrasts were clear: the outsize grandiosity of the Wagnerian orchestra (Eight horns! Four harps!) versus the intimate chamber setting of the Vaughan Williams; dramatic bombast versus pastoral loveliness; mythic deities versus Vagabonds and Merry Wives; nineteenth century versus twentieth; German versus English.

And yet, these two programs illustrated what it means to love and live in music in profound and uncannily unified ways.

The weekend featured performances by singers at varying points on the music-professional spectrum, from international opera superstar Bryn Terfel, to local stars drawn from the Cantata Singers choral roster, who are active in music education and media in addition to their own impressive resumes as soloists. It was fascinating to see how each singer tackled the soul-rattling challenge of standing onstage in front of an audience with nothing but their voices to shield them from scrutiny.

Of course, every kind of musical performer puts themselves out there, but we often have props to mediate the nakedness of the experience. Instrumentalists have a hunk of wood or metal to hang onto, and plenty to do with their hands – heck, pianists and organists like me have large pieces of furniture to hide behind. But singers just have a body, and it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what to do with the crazy thing, especially when singing from memory, unamplified, with no folder, music stand, or microphone to serve as a musical worry stone. What’s more, pesky composers will often write long stretches of accompaniment where the singer is silent, and has to figure out what to do while standing there waiting for either their next entrance or the merciful end of the piece.

Bryn Terfel (photo: Brian Tarr)

Mr. Terfel had the particular challenge of standing through music that would accompany stage action in a full production. Watching him really brought home to me how singers have to be one hundred percent present and at home in their bodies from head to toe to fingertips. If you’ve ever had to stand in front of a group of people for any reason, you probably know how difficult this is; in such a state of heightened self-consciousness, we automatically adopt postures and movements that telegraph our anxiety and discomfort; it actually takes quite a bit of discipline and practice just to look natural. Mr. Terfel had complete mastery of this skill, and I found his performance thrilling. I always love it when an opera singer (or any singer, actually) can act in addition to singing.

In contrast to his commanding presence while in character, McDoc and I both noticed that he shifted to an unassuming graciousness once the music was over, always turning to face the instrumentalists as Maestro Levine acknowledged sections and individuals. He almost seemed reluctant to fully bask in the audience’s rapturous response, and to return to the stage as the ovations continued. McDoc, being more of a class-agitating rabble rouser than I am, attributes this to Terfel’s background as a farmer’s son. But we both agreed that when he started singing, it was clear he was doing what he was born to do.

Brian Church and Cantata Singers Ensemble (photo: Miss Music Nerd)

The Vaughan Williams program on Sunday showcased the soloists of Cantata Singers in a wonderful variety of expressive modes. I don’t think a savvy music lover could be faulted for expecting a Vaughan Williams song recital to be a lovely yet fairly monochrome parade of one singer after another presenting two or three shades of nostalgia and melancholy. But on this occasion, we were instead treated to a dazzling palette, touching upon so many fundamental elements of human experience.

Baritones David Kravitz and Alan McLellan conveyed the longing for home in “Linden Lea” and the Songs of Travel; the alternating joy and heartache of love were amply represented, notably by soprano Lisa Lynch in “Goodbye” from Along the Field, and mezzo-soprano Carola Emrich-Fisher in “Tired” from Four Last Songs. The pitfalls of enmity and avarice were searingly conveyed by soprano Angelynne Hinson in “The Song of Vanity Fair,” from Pilgrim’s Progress, and tenor Jason Sabol in “A Poison Tree” from Ten Blake Songs.

Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford discover they have received identical love letters from John Falstaff (photo: Miss Music Nerd)

I was pleasantly surprised by the dose of gently farcical comedy, administered in two excerpts from the opera Sir John in Love: “When Daisies Pied” and “Thine Own True Knight.” The scenes were charmingly acted by Majie Zeller, Sara Wyse-Wenger and Ms. Emrich-Fisher. And on the other end of the expressive spectrum was the uplifting and redemptive spirituality of the Five Mystical Songs, with baritone Brian Church supported by vocal ensemble.

The first page of Cantata Singers’ season program book (an edifying document worth the price of admission in itself) features a quote from Vaughan Williams that includes these words:

Why Do We Make Music? …we do not compose, sing, or play music for any useful purpose. It is not so with the other arts: Milton had to use the medium of words whether he was writing Paradise Lost or making out his laundry list; Velásquez had to paint both for his Venus and to cover up the dirty marks on his front door. But music is just music, and that is, to my mind, its great glory.

I confess that I sometimes feel jaded, skeptical and world-weary; I wonder if this rather ridiculous profession of music is at all useful or worthwhile, or if it’s just a luxury, an expensive hobby that doesn’t feed the hungry or cure the sick. (Just ask McDoc about my existential angst – he deserves a medal for putting up with it!) But when I manage to get my butt on the piano bench or in a concert seat and shut off my monkey mind for a while, I’m re-converted. The soul has to be fed, too, and it’s a musician’s job to do so, both for ourselves and our audiences – everyone for whom life wouldn’t make sense without it.


Boston Symphony Season Opener: Preview with Lolcats!

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, October 2, 2010, 6:00 pm
Music of Richard Wagner, featuring Bryn Terfel, baritone
Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston

Tomorrow night, McDoc and I will get gussied up for a fancy shindig: the BSO season opener! (It’s black-tie, dahling!)

Maestro James Levine, just off the injured list with back trouble, will lead an all-Wagner program: excerpts from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Walküre, and Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). I’m not the world’s biggest Wagner fan (don’t tell these folks!) though I do love me some Tristan und Isolde. But I am looking forward to hearing Bryn Terfel sing, and I think everyone should hear the Ride of the Valkyries performed live at least once. Do you think I’ll get in trouble if I start singing “Kill da Wabbit“? along with it?

PhotobucketSpeaking of Wagner, earlier this year I attended a concert of his music put on by the Boston Wagner Society, and while writing about it, I got the hare-brained idea to translate part of the love duet from Lohengrin into Lolspeak. The obvious next step was to caption a kitty picture to go with it.

Behold: Lolcats Opera!! (And if you think that’s irreverent, check out the Lolcat Bible!)

I think it’s only fitting to preview tomorrow night’s BSO program in similar fashion. Here are a few highlights:

“Was duftet doch der Flieder” (Hans Sachs’ Monologue), from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg:


“Die Frist ist um” (The Dutchman’s Monologue), from Der Fliegende Holländer:


And of course, Ride of the Valkyries, from Die Walküre:


And so, if you get your opera on in Boston tomorrow night, tell ’em Miss Music Nerd sent you!


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