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!



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.


Not With A Bang, But A Hymn: Cantata Singers Presents Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Cantata Singers Chamber Series
Vocal Solo and Ensemble Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Sunday, October 3rd, 2:30pm
Longy School of Music
1 Follen Street, Cambridge, MA
Admission: $20 at the door, or click here to purchase

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of getting to know Cantata Singers, a Boston choral group founded in 1964. The group began with the mission of performing Bach cantatas, which were not widely known at the time (such a state of affairs is hard to imagine now, isn’t it?). Since then, they have expanded their programming to include works from five centuries, including the present one. For the past few seasons, they have chosen one composer to focus on; last season, they changed my mind about Heinrich Schütz. This coming Sunday, the group kicks off a season-long celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I won’t need any convincing here — I’m just going to bask!

PhotobucketI sat down recently with Allison Voth, Music Director for the group’s Chamber Series, to talk about their upcoming concert (among many fascinating things), which will feature selections from the composer’s extensive repertoire of songs and hymns for soloists and small ensembles. She has a very interesting and varied musical career, which includes writing supertitles for opera productions, a deeply fascinating and music nerdy topic that I plan to bring you in the near future! But for now, let’s meet Allison and talk about the fabulous concert she’s presenting this weekend.

Here’s one of the pieces you’ll hear… Then click Mr. Readmore below for the rest of the story!

Mr. Readmore says read on: Continue reading

Art Song’s Rich Palette: the [plain] song in Boston

As I sat down to hear members of the {plain] song perform the Spanish Songbook by Hugo Wolf, it occurred to me that someone not already thoroughly steeped in the classical music world might well ask, “Why should I bother going to hear a bunch of songs in a language I don’t speak, written by an Austrian who died over a hundred years ago.” It’s a fair question. What, if anything, is relevant and appealing about this music in 21st-century America?

Well, I have a few possible answers. First of all, you can’t help but admire the talent and artistry of the performers. Classical performance is not just any old hobby; it requires years of study and practice, usually starting in childhood. I think you could appreciate the sheer beauty of the music, even if you didn’t understand a word being sung.

But the best reason, I think, is that art song contains such a rich palette of expression, and hearing it live, you really get to see the performers embody it. The experience is both intimate and expansive, drawing you into an individual’s experience as recounted from the singer’s point of view, while transcending any specific story (who hasn’t been in love and agonized over it, after all?). With its mix of sacred and secular songs, the Spanish Songbook encompasses a full range of human emotion: from grief to joy, contemplation to playfulness, and especially longing, both erotic and spiritual. There is humor, too – in one song, the singer asks her headache to go away.

One quirky detail: the title of the collection is the Spanish Songbook, but it is sung in German, which seems random, but it is simply because the composer knew the poetry as translated into his native language. This is the kind of inside baseball that can make classical music seem intimidating and off-putting, I’m afraid; my friend who was at the concert with me said, “And here in my ignorance, I thought the songs would be in Spanish!” A brief explainer is necessary in such cases.

If you’re in the Boston area, you have two more chances to hear this program, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Click here for details, and tell them Miss Music Nerd sent you!


The Art of Song in Boston

the [plain] song is a group of ambitious young musicians whose mission is to share their passion for art song. From their website: “For centuries this intimate genre has synthesized the works of the greatest musical and literary minds in history. the [plain] song believes that the shared cultural heritage represented by the medium of the art song has continuing relevance and importance in today’s world.”

This weekend in Boston, the [plain] song launches their inaugural season with a presentation of Hugo Wolf‘s Spanish Songbook. It’s the first of a series of four concerts showcasing most of the output of one of the greatest art song composers of the 19th century. Performers include singers Ferris Allen, Katherine Growdon, Emily Quane and Jarvis Wyche, with pianists Elizabeth Avery and David Collins.

The program will be performed three times:

Thursday 9.16.2010, 7:30pm
JP Concerts
St. John’s Episcopal Church
1 Roanoke Ave.
Jamaica Plain, MA

Saturday 9.18.2010 4pm
Endicott College
Center For The Arts,
376 Hale St. Beverly, MA

Sunday 9.19.2010 2:00pm
St.Anne’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church
147 Concord Rd.
Lincoln, MA

Free admission, with with a suggested donation of $15. Tell them Miss Music Nerd sent you!


Existential Pilot: A New Music Group That’s Going Places!

I have to confess: I get a little jaded sometimes. I ask myself, “Is being a musician really worth it?” I mean, except for a very lucky few, it’s not glamorous, it doesn’t pay a lot, it can be very time-consuming and stressful, and the tax returns are a bear! (Being self-employed makes for a lot of red tape, paradoxically, as anyone who has ever floundered in a sea of 1099s can attest!)

But just when I’m about to chuck it all and learn how to be an accountant or dental hygienist or something, I have an experience that shows me that it really is worthwhile.


I recently made the acquaintance of a the new music group Existential Pilot when they visited Boston on their first official tour. The group’s members are current students and recent alumni of the University of Michigan, which has a very well-respected music program. The members are:

William Zuckerman, composer, pianist and electronic performance
Ezra Donner, composer and pianist
Claire DiVizio, soprano
Jonathan Lubin, composer, pianist and electronic performance
Zoë Aqua, violin
Mark Dover, clarinet

I met the group for coffee the afternoon of their performance here in town, at First Church in Boston. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the concert itself — it was a Wednesday night, and I had a choir rehearsal to run… But I did get to hear most of their dress rehearsal, and that was pretty cool, because it was like having a private command performance just for me!

While fortifying ourselves with coffee beforehand, we chatted about how the group formed, what the different members are up to individually, and this business of running a new music group in general. There’s no set playbook for it — no one has written a “Forming a New Music Group for Dummies” as far as I know. One thing that really helps is advice and encouragement from others who have already done it, and composer-pianist Ezra Donner mentioned a few composers and groups who have mentored them, including composer Joan Tower, the groups Eighth Blackbird, and Time for Three, who said to them, “You can do this!”

EPClDuo EP will certainly have no shortage of material to perform. The program they presented on this tour consisted entirely of music by the three composers in the group, but they intend to issue a call for scores sometime soon, and branch out into playing works by other emerging composers as well.

I admire this spirit of generosity and cooperation. When I saw that there were three composer-pianists in the group, I had visions of dueling keyboards, both the piano kind and the computer kind. But the embarrassment of keyboard riches seems to serve the group very well. In fact, I was sorry to hear Jonathan Lubin was on the injured list that evening, and was unable to accompany soprano Claire DiVizio on his song, This is the Garden. Ezra stepped in and learned the piece on just a few days’ notice, but I wouldn’t have guessed that from hearing their dress rehearsal!

I also got to hear Ezra play his own Sonata no. 1 for Piano, which had energy to spare, with driving rhythms and harmonies based on 4ths and 5ths. His Sonata Judaica for clarinet and piano gave clarinetist Mark Dover a chance to rock ‘n’ roll as well.

EPVlnDuoI heard two of William Zuckerman’s pieces: Sinuous Rills, for violin, clarinet and piano, and a movement from Music In Pluralism, for violin and piano. William mentioned that he was influenced by minimalism, and we had a playful conversation about that, because I had to confess not being a huge fan of that style. But I didn’t really hear minimalism in his music — it had plenty of arpeggiated chords in the piano and ostinato-like passages, but it didn’t stay in one place or try to evoke a meditative or trance-like effect the way minimalism does, to my mind. Actually, I felt his music was rather romantic, full of drama and sweeping gestures, conveyed quite effectively by violinist Zoë Aqua.

It was great to spend time with these musicians on their first tour — funded, incidentally, through kickstarter, which helped them harness the support of generous family, friends and beyond. I hope it’s just the first of many successful ventures for them!

You can hear several audio excerpts on the Existential Pilot site — just click “Listen” on the lower right.


WMMN-TV Presents: Recital Video: With a Little Help From My Friend

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One of the drawbacks of being a pianist is that you can spend an awful lot of time playing alone, unlike other instrumentalists who, almost by definition, play in orchestras, bands, or chamber ensembles most of the time. I didn’t discover chamber music until I got to college, and it made me want to just… sing!

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for musical collaboration if you put yourself in the right place at the right time!

I especially love accompanying singers. This video is the first of two songs on my recital, where I was joined by the wonderful singer, and my good friend, Peter Terry. The song is a setting of a text from the Song of Solomon (adapted by yours truly). As I mention in the video, it was performed at McDoc’s and my wedding ceremony (but not by me!). Enjoy!

More to come… 🙂


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