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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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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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

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!

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It Gets You Every Time!

RockportHarborsunsetWhen McDoc and I were on vacation recently, we were taking a leisurely walk at the end of the day, and had the good fortune to be out at just the right time to watch a beautiful sunset, with its astonishing palette reds and pinks and oranges stretching across the horizon before giving way to purple twilight. The thought occurred to me, and I said it to McDoc, that even though the sun sets every day, watching it never gets old; in fact, it can still take your breath away no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.

I think beautiful music has much the same effect.

Two days ago, I wrote a post about the “Summer Sings” being presented by Masterworks Chorale, a chorus McDoc and I sing with. The second event of the series took place last night, featurng the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré. I’m quite familiar with this piece; I played the organ for a performance of it at my old church in San Diego; I conducted two movements of it with a community college chorus; and I’ve listened to it umpteen times, because McDoc plays the recording frequently (we have a whole Requiem playlist on heavy rotation, which may sound morbid, but it isn’t, really!). I’m basically sick and tired of it, to be perfectly honest! I still think it’s a beautiful piece, of course, but I thought I had become immune to it due to such frequent exposure. 😉

So there I was, minding my own business, singing along during the rehearsal portion of the evening. I was feeling pretty smug about how well I remembered the alto part, and what I didn’t remember, I was sight-reading like a fiend! Woo hoo!

Then we got to the last movement, “In Paradisum.” The altos don’t do much in this movement, which starts with a long, soaring melody for the soprano section. Here’s the Latin text and English translation:

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.

I was digging on that soprano line, just appreciating the beauty of the music, to which I was perhaps not so immune after all! Then as I read the words, I felt a lump in my throat, and out of the blue, I started thinking about VirgoMom; this coming August, it’ll be 10 years since she passed away. By the time they got to “et cum Lazaro, I was toast. It was darn near impossible for me to come in on that last “requiem,” and the fact that the alto line at that point is set to the tune of “Three Blind Mice,” as I had frequently reminded my college chorus students, didn’t help one bit! 😉

What about you? What work of art never fails to move you, no matter how accustomed to it you think you are?

“In Paradisum” from Requiem by Fauré
Note: the audio is a little glitchy on this video, but I liked the performance.

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Music for Juneteenth!

Happy Saturday, music nerds! Today was a busy day; McDoc and I went to a graduation party for one of his fellow residents (that’ll be McDoc two years from now!), and I spent most of the rest of the day… drumroll… composing! Woot! Oh, and there was also some activity in the Miss Music Nerd Bureau of Graphic Design, but the details have not yet been cleared for release. 😉

So today’s post will be brief: music to mark a holiday that 36 states officially celebrate today: Juneteenth. It’s a commemoration of the time in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, courtesy of federal troops who arrived to reclaim the state for the Union. (The proclamation had been issued by President Lincoln over two years prior to that; if only they’d had Twitter in those days…)

Here’s some great music to mark the day — enjoy! 🙂

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, sung by Kathleen Battle and the Boys Choir of Harlem

A Change Is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke

Lift Every Voice and Sing, sung by Ray Charles

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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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