Sunday, October 24, 2010

Visiting singers of the past

This evening we played a VCR that has been gathering dust in my archives for much too long. It is First Ladies of the Opera filmed for the Bell Telephone Hour in 1967. The Bell Telephone Hour used to be a staple in my home growing up, first on the radio and later on TV.

Donald Voorhees introduced each Diva and had a brief interview with her. First was Birgit Nilsson who opened with 'Dich teure Halle' from Wagner's Tannhäuser. With her brilliant, radiant tone she blazed her way through the aria in fine fettle. She then sang 'In questa Reggia' from Turandot, which she apparently sang at the Met. I heard her sing many roles there but, somehow, missed that one. While hers is certainly not an Italianate voice, she could belt out the high tessitura required for the role. It brought back memories of Salome and Elektra that I had heard her do in the house. Her Tosca, on the other hand just didn't work in her Nordic voice.  But it was truly a voice for the ages.

Next came Leontyne Price, that great American soprano. She sang 'Io son l'umile ancella' from Ariadne Lecouvreur of Cilea and 'Pace, Pace, mio Dio' from La Forza del Destino. I had heard her sing the Verdi many times in the hall but never the Cilea. The thing that amazed me the most about her singing was that every breath she took was a nose breath! That's a no-no in my Book of Singing Rules, but for her it worked. Later in her career I heard her sing this aria with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall. By that time in her career her middle voice had almost disappeared and the malediziones started in a very strange nasal place in the middle of her voice. Perhaps if she had taken a mouth breath and relaxed the larynx it would have worked better.

Then came Joan Sutherland, whose recent death saddened the world of opera. She sang the 'Bell Song' from Lakme with incredible bravura and amazing agility. Nobody could nail those high 'E's' like Joan! She also sang an oddity, 'Io no sono piu l'Annette' from Ricci's Crispino e la Comare, which I had never heard of. Her coloratura was simply incredible. Every note right on pitch, a perfect natural trill, and a speed in fioratura that boggles the mind. I had always heard that she had never sung the 'Queen of the Night' role, but recently, when visiting a friend, heard a rcording from Covent Garden in which she did just that. We won't see her like soon again, if ever.

The last was Renata Tebaldi who sang 'Voi lo sapete' from Cavalleria Rusticana of Mascagni and 'Suicidio' from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. This was an amazing voice that often flatted the top notes but had an enormous 'chest voice' akin to that of Marilyn Horne.

A trip back into musical history. I was fortunate to have heard all of these women on stage during their heyday and, sometimes, into their decline. I remember hearing Tebaldi at the Met toward the end of her career. She had a high 'C' to sing and turned and simply screamed offstage left. She was one who should have retired a little earlier.

What a lucky discovery to find this film which I hadn't looked at in years and remember all the glorious times I had been in the audience for these four Divas. Each was unique. Each had a brilliant career, and each will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace by anyone in today's stable of artists.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Three for the price of one!

This evening I was privileged to present the Elektra Ensemble in concert through the Ferris-Burtis Foundation of the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation. This brilliant young group of artists raises the emotional temperature of the room in every note. They are Brunlida Myftraraj, violinist, from Albania, Melissa Morgan, 'cellist, from Connecticut, and Igor Lovchinsky, pianist, who is from Russia.

Their riveting program started with the Trio für Klavier, Violine, und Violoncello by Frederic Chopin and concluded with the Trio, Opus 15, by Bedrich Smetana. Their approach to both pieces is through excitement, intense emotion, and brilliant technique. The concert was a gift of the Ferris-Burtis Foundation, Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, Sheffield, MA which supports young artists in their musical careers.

This amazing group of fine musicians has a brilliant career in its future and the Foundation hopes to continue to help them in their future concert life.

Tax-free donations may be made to Ferris-Burtis Foundation, Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, 800 North Main, Sheffield, MA 01257-0400.

The Ensemble may be contacted at  or

I can be reached at

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Give him a hand!

Last night I played a concert with a soprano in which something happened to me for the first time in a long while: my right hand worked almost as well as it did in 'the old days'! 'The old days' represent all of my performing life that went on before I slipped on the ice about eight winters ago while walking Casha on Rood Hill Road, and broke the fifth metacarpal in my right hand. The moment I hit the ground on this apparently dry dirt road, having stepped on the one patch of ice available in Berkshire County, I thought, 'You've done something really bad!' Casha came over to me lying there on the ground and looked down at me, as if to say, 'What are you doing down there, Dad?' She's not exactly a St. Bernard with the cask of brandy around her neck, (which I could have used at that point), but she knew this was not a part of our usual winter walk.

I agreed!

At the ER they X-rayed the hand and gave me the bad news. I had cracked the fifth metacarpal, which is the bone that runs through the hand below the fifth finger. They temporarily splinted it and sent me to an orthopedist who put on a permanent cast.

After a few weeks the cast came off and I found I was unable to make a fist. I could scarcely bend my fingers. So much for playing with curved fingers as I was taught by Pearl Fairchild seventy-one years ago.

I did months of therapy on the hand, which helped, but I was not able to do much at the piano. I had had to cancel a number of concerts that had been scheduled that spring. A one handed pianist is not much good in a Strauss song! I did go to New York City on a bus while still in the cast, (since I couldn't drive yet) to work with Lorraine on something or other. She seemed happy to have a one handed voice teacher.

Little by little I tried to play simple things on the piano. I think it was a full year before I tried to perform again. I found that first, I had developed some arthritis in the hand (which the rheumatologist said was not unusual) and second, I had lost a good bit of stretch. Previously I could reach one note over an octave with that hand. Now I had trouble barely reaching an octave.

I set about 're-writing' anything I played; shrinking large, filled-in chords to smaller versions of the harmony, so I could at least make it sound as if I were playing the right notes.

Bit by bit the hand has improved over the past eight years and last night, for the first time in a very long while, I was able to play Strauss, Duparc, and Rodrigo without pain and without cheating too much on large chords.

I am surprised that at my age this kind of recovery, however long in the coming, is possible. I thank my wonderful mentor, Carolyn Willard (a student of Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, who, in turn, studied with Theodor Leschetizky) who taught me how to play the piano. Had it not been for the careful study I did with her in the 40's and my eight hours a day at the keyboard perfecting the technique in those days, I would be doing something besides playing the piano these days, which is, along with teaching, my life.