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!

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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

Tschüss, Schütz!

Cheers, that is! 😉

Tonight I will be attending my first performance of the Cantata Singers, at First Church in Cambridge, Mass. This is the second program in a season featuring the music of Heinrich Schütz. The program also features works by John Harbison and Maurice Durufle.

Join me if you can! The concert is at 8 pm, and tickets are $17 at the door.

I recently spoke with Music Director David Hoose about how this Schütz-based season came to be. Here’s a tidbit from our conversation:

Miss Music Nerd: So, why Shütz?

David Hoose: When we mark the 50th anniversary of Cantata Singers during our 2013-2014 season, we will almost inevitably have J.S. Bach as the composer of the year. In order to allow us to begin to turn our focus back towards Bach, we wanted to look at Schütz.

Schütz is probably the first composer the Cantata Singers performed other than Bach. I also have the sense that he really is the first great German composer, and of his time, one of the two greatest composers, along with Monteverdi.

It’s virtually impossible to imagine Bach without Schütz. The music comes out of similar sensibilities, although they were 100 years apart in age. And in so many ways, they’re the most important musical preachers that ever lived. Their connection to their own religious life came out in every possible way through their music. And while Cantata Singers is not a religious organization, anybody who participates in a choral organization understands that that’s what an awful lot of the music is — sacred music.

Stay tuned for MMN’s post-concert recon report, as well as more of this conversation!

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The Strongest Form of Communication: a Conversation with Jeffry George, Part 2

In the first part of our conversation, Jeffry George and I discussed the career path that brought him to his new position as Executive Director of Cantata Singers. In the concluding installment, we discuss why live-tweeting at concerts is not the future of music education, and confess some of our goofily wide-ranging musical tastes!

But first, a reminder: if you’re in the Boston area, you can hear the Cantata Singers on Friday, January 15, at First Church in Cambridge, performing works by Heinrich Schütz John Harbison and Maurice Duruflé. Tickets are $17, and may be purchased at the door or by calling 617-868-5885.

Miss Music Nerd: Cantata Singers does some very exciting outreach, going into classrooms and having kids create their own works.

Jeffry George: They do — it’s great. They work with composers, and it has been very successful. I believe it has served students that wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to this type of music. I would like to see it reach out to as many students as possible. To teach composition at that age — you can’t beat it.

MMN: I didn’t take composition until I was in college, and when I think about what it would have been like to do it when I was 10 or 12, it’s amazing.

JG: Yeah, because by the time we get into college, our world has started to become smaller. When you’re young, your world is pretty big — you can just go for it! I think there’s a real lesson to be learned from young people right now – the way they multitask through media, the way they tear down the walls the rest of us have.

I’ll give you an example. I was having brunch outside one weekend in Denver. There was a young vocal group that placed themselves on the four corners of an intersection – four on each corner. Each corner did their piece, then they relayed across the street. They started to mix it up and communicate musically. It drew such an immense crowd — it was phenomenal.

Not that Cantata Singers would ever do anything like that, but I think there’s an opportunity to learn from that generation. I believe what they’re doing to be no different from the form and structure of the classical period. I don’t know if you agree with me or not.

MMN: I do! Speaking of tearing down walls and multitasking, I read an article online recently about some presenting organizations are encouraging people to tweet during concerts and blog during concerts, and this is controversial, of course, because some people find it distracting. What are your thoughts? Continue reading

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