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…

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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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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:

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

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

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

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Opera Shorts in New York!

Well, music nerds, I know that experiments in human cloning are sort of frowned upon in most sectors, but dang it, I need more than one of me!

I’m slated to attend two concerts here in Boston this weekend: the BSO season opener Saturday, and Cantata Singers’ program of songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams on Sunday.

PhotobucketMeanwhile, I heard it through the Twittervine yesterday that New York-based group Remarkable Theater Brigade is presenting a program of 10-minute operas at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night. How cool is that? I am seriously contemplating hopping on a Bolt Bus to go see it. All I need is a couch to crash on in the NYC area… Anybody?

I just love the combination of title and graphic, too. Keep your shorts on, opera lovers – Opera Shorts is almost here!

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The Boston Wagner Society Brings a Slice of Wagner to New England (Plus, a Pop-up Soprano!)

BWSemblemDalia Geffen loves the music of Richard Wagner, but she got tired of having to travel long distances from her home in Boston to hear it performed live (Boston is not a big Wagner town; New York is the nearest place to hear him regularly). So she founded her own group, the Boston Wagner Society, whose mission is “to promote the enjoyment and knowledge of Richard Wagner’s enchanting and profound operas.”

The Society presents lectures on Wagner-related topics as well as concerts of his music. I attended their May concert, “Exquisite Love Duets and Solos,” featuring excerpts from Rienzi, Lohengrin, Siegfried and Tristan und Isolde. The singers included soprano Andrea Matthews, heldentenor Alan Schneider, soprano Joanna Porackova, and mezzo-soprano Rachel Selan; they were heroically accompanied by pianist Jeffrey Brody, who serves as Music Adviser to the Society in addition to his active career as a composer, conductor and vocal coach.

Ms. Matthews never thought she would sing anything by Wagner; she was more disposed to Handel and other repertoire better suited to her lighter-than-typically-Wagnerian voice. But Dalia Geffen persuaded her to try the role of Elsa from Wagner’s Lohengrin, and all I can say is, I would never have guessed when I heard her sing excerpts from the role that it was her first performance of Wagner!

I snapped this just before a couple of audience members rushed the stage. Okay, they didn't, but wouldn't that have been awesome? 😉

I was very impressed by the quality of both the singing and the acting – sometimes you have to settle for one or the other, and I particularly value good singers who can also act. The Bridal Chamber Scene from Act 3 of Lohengrin was the highlight for me; Ms. Matthews and Mr. Schneider did a wonderful job of conveying the drama and tension of the scene, where Lohengrin attempts to deflect Elsa’s natural curiosity about the mysterious knight she has just married.

You can read a synopsis of the whole opera here, and an English translation of the libretto here, but for brevity’s sake, I give you a condensed version of the scene, Lolcat style!

LolcatsLohengrinLohengrin: U haz a happy?
Elsa: Yes, I haz a happy! You iz gift from from Ceiling Cat!
Lohengrin: You is sweet like byootiful flowr!
Elsa: Kthx! Srsly, tho, who are u? Where u from?
Lohengrin: Alas!

Seriously, though, it was great singing and great acting. 🙂

I didn’t feel deprived in any way by the concert performance setting, as opposed to a staged production with costumes and scenery and all, but it helped that I was already somewhat familiar with the stories involved. A gentleman sitting next to me told me he enjoyed the performances very much, but didn’t quite understand what was happening during the Love Duet and Brangäne’s Watch from Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde. “I don’t know why that one soprano stood up in the middle and then sat down again,” he said.

TIBtriptych

He was referring to Rachel Selan, singing the role of Brangäne, whose voice of warning interrupts the love duet between Tristan and Isolde. It made sense for Ms. Selan to be seated inconspicuously beside the piano while she wasn’t singing, but I can see how that arrangement might confuse those less familiar with the story.

Branganepoof

After the performance, I chatted with Paul Geffen, Marketing Director for the Society (and Dalia’s husband). He spoke of the joys and challenges of running what he called a “Mom-and-Pop opera company,” decribing it as a “labor of love” and this “crazy thing we do that seems like it’ll never come together, but does at the last minute.” He also spoke admiringly of Dalia’s persistence and dedication to her cause, and her skill at rallying support for it. I concur — I’m sure that if she had her way, the Society would be mounting fully-staged productions!

Watch for the Boston Wagner Society’s eighth season beginning in the Fall, and tell ’em Miss Music Nerd sent you! 🙂

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