Friday, December 19, 2014

Holiday Brass and Chorale Concert

This evening David and I heard a lovely program of music for Chorus and Brass presented by Music of the Baroque, directed by William Jon Gray. Mr Gray is the regular conductor of the group and prepares the chorus for appearances by our favorite conductor in the world, Jane Glover. Mr. Gray is no slouch! He conducted a varied program with energy and sensitivity in the wonderful space of St. Michael's Church in Old Town, Chicago.

The chorus sounded fine; much better than at last year's holiday concert under a different conductor. Mr. Gray and Ms. Glover apparently agree on the sort of sound a choir should make.

There was also en excellent brass ensemble, a wonderful 'cellist, Barbara Haffner, and a fine organist, Mark Shuldiner. Vocal solos were taken by members of the chorus. I especially liked the work of baritone Kevin Keys.

The repertoire ranged from the likes of Gabrieli, Victorio, and Monteverdi to Jean Berger and Tarik O'Regan (whose work I especially liked).

It was a fine concert in a wonderful room, both visually and acoustically.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advent Vespers

This afternoon David and I attended an Advent Vespers service at the Monastery of the Holy Cross. We actually thought it was going to be a concert by the Chicago Chorale, and they were represented by a group of 12 singers who sang very well in a few pieces. They were basically appearing as the church choir.

Most of the singing, however, was performed by the monks of the Abbey. They performed the service, singing plainchant in Latin. I had thought that after Vatican II, most English speaking Catholic churches used English for the services. However...

The monks sang very nicely, processing with incense, wandering all about the church.

Image result for tomas luis de victoria  Tomas Luis de Victoria

The small group from the Chicago Choral, about 6 men and 6 women, sang very well choral music of Tomas Luis de Victoria. The conductor is Bruce Tammen. Mr. Tammen has an unusual technique of conducting this type of music. Everything is a downbeat. 

All in all it was an interesting experience.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


This afternoon David and I heard a program presented by the Fourth Coast Ensemble, Karen Ann Bacon, soprano, Bridget Skaggs, mezzo-soprano, Zachary Vanderburg, tenor, Reuben I. Lillie, baritone, Luciano Laurentiu, piano and organ, Stephanie Bouwsma and Maria Storm, violins, and Jennifer Ruggieri, harp.

  Karen Ann Bacon      
   Bridget Skaggs

The program loosely followed the various sections of the Magnificat, with compositions from composers as different as Georg Philipp Telemann to Samuel Barber with various degrees of success.

    Zachary Vanderburg

Mr. Lillie has a fine baritone voice with a good, easy top. He has excellent diction. The other singers had basically good voices with areas that could stand improvement. They used music for the most part of the program, which places a barrier between the singer and the audience. The program would have a more professional feel with a memorized presentation.

Mr. Laurentiu was an excellent pianist but had less success at the organ. Ms. Ruggieri was excellent in her harp work and the violinists were fine in their part of the program.

 Reuben Lillie
Two of the singers are soloists in the choir of  St. Paul and the Redeemer Church, where David also sings.

We visited Christkindlmarkt right across the street from the Chicago Temple, where the concert was held. Did a bit of Christmas shopping in this German-traditional marketplace. A chilly interesting afternoon.

Finished with a wonderful pizza and salad at Giordano's. Talk about an international day!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I loves you, Porgy!!!

Well- I can tell you one thing for sure:Eric Owens has one hell of a bass voice! And I mean that in the most complimentary way. Tonight at the Chicago Lyric Opera's performance of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, he made William Warfield look like a piker. 

   Eric Owens

I heard Warfield, along with Leontyne Price and Cab Callaway in the 1953 revival of the opera in New York City way back when. That's a hard act to follow.

His strong, clear voice, along with excellent diction, and strong dramatic presence, made his performance one I will long remember.

The rest of the cast was very strong both vocally and dramatically. Bess, sung by Adina Aaron, was sung with beautiful tone but poor diction. She seemed bent on coloring vowels in a way that kept you wondering what word she was trying to say.But the sound was lovely and she is a good actress. No Leontyne Price, but then, who is?
    Adina Aarons

Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clara, Norman Garrett as Jake, Karen Slack as Serena, Eric Greene as Crown, and especially Gwendolyn Brown as Maria were all excellent. Several chorus sopranos who had solo lines sounded glorious.

The one exception was Jermaine Smith as Sportin' Life. Not only was there not enough voice present in most of the range, he took such liberties with 'It ain't necessarily so' that were vulgar and out of character, that it ruined that number for me. Cab Callaway, all those years ago, sang the socks off this role.

One dramatic touch that was missed here, that I saw in the 1953 production, was at the end, when Bess has gone off to New York with Sportin' Life, and Porgy say he's going to New York to find her. In the earlier production he says 'Bring me my goat!', and a little goat is brought on stage attached to a wagon. He sets off to New York on his knees behind the goat. I always have to cry at that moment.

(In the original productions, Porgy spends the whole opera on his knees on a little wheeled platform that allows him to get around.) 

In this production he was on a crutch the whole time, and at the climactic moment said 'Bring me my crutch', and sets out to walk to New York.

I missed the goat!

Ward Stare led the fine orchestra, always keeping a good balance with the singers, which seems to be a CLO thing. I think partly because part of the orchestra pit may be below the stage as in Weimar, which would make the difference.

A very imaginative set by Peter J. Davidson, good costumes by Paul Tazewell, and lighting by Mark McCollough made the production come alive.

The fine chorus, prepared by Michael Black was sensational in the magnificent choral moments.

It was a glorious evening! And that Eric Owens can sing for me any time!!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

And the winner is.....

I must confess that tonight I spent from about 7:30 to 10:30 just watching Jane Glover conduct. From her amazing fingers, arms and body emerged the mighty Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach. She has an electric connection to the splendid chorus and orchestra of Music of the Baroque that is unequaled in my experience. A flick of a finger or a sweep of an arm brings forth wonderful sound. She is the best!

Image result for jane glover

Barbara Butler, the co-principal trumpet nearly stole the show in the pieces she was involved in, tossing off mind-boggling passages with ease. The continuo players and the entire orchestra were top notch.

Of the vocal soloists I felt that Roderick Williams, the baritone was the best. He sang with a lovely sound and with great ease. Paul Agnew, the tenor, was fine in the recitative passages, with his voice able to go to voix mixe and falsetto easily. He was less successful in the arias.

The mezzo, Krisztina Szabo, has a fine voice but needs to find her bottom range, which was mostly not there.

The soprano of Yulia Van Doren troubles me. It is just not a very well organized voice. She was practically inaudible in duets and trios, a bit better in her solo pieces, but with a tendency to yelp high notes.

But the kudos of the night go to Jane Glover. She will be conducting Britten's War Requiem at the Berkshire Choral festival next summer. I look forward to hearing that performance.

I have never conducted this work but I have prepared soloists for a number of performances. In the 1950's I worked with Pamela Munson on the mezzo solos. She went to the Metropolitan Opera at that same time. My first Met singer.

Recently I worked on the bass soli with Nathaniel Watson, who is performing the work in Montreal.

So I have a vested interest in how the solos are sung.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Tonight David and I saw an exciting production of Pericles, ostensibly by William Shakespeare, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Probably Will wrote only the last part of the work and the rest may have been written by George Wilkins. The director was David H. Bell, who brought a lot of excitement and energy to the production, including energetic dancing and acrobatics as well as a fine cast who performed with all sorts of excitement.

The costumes, set and lighting were all excellent by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, Scott Davis, and Jesse Klug. The excellent cast was led by Ben Carlson as Pericles. The rest of the very large cast often played more than one role and were superb.

   Ben Carlson

I'm not a Shakespeare expert, but I agree with Wikipedia that the first part of the play was weaker writing than the second part, which is more apt to be Shakespeare.

I had never heard of this play until now and was surprised how well it came off.

We followed it by a fabulous dinner at Rive, also on Navy Pier, where I had Dover Sole that was out of this world.

A perfect Chicago evening!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

For crying out loud!

Talk about 'full-throated singing!' Tonight the Chicago Lyric Opera put on a tour de force' production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. And I do mean FORCE.

The entire cast had vocal pipes that could be heard in Kankakee. There were some excellent voices with some problems in several cases.

The best is my opinion was Yonghoon Lee, tenor, as Manrico. This is a superb voice which was beautifully used. He sings with great flexibility and incredible shading but can still deliver the dramatic high note in spades whenever needed. This is a tenor to watch.

Amber Wagner as Leonora has a rich Dramatico Spinto voice of large proportions. Her acting leaves something to be desired. At times she just didn't seem to know what to do. Several of her high notes were pushed beyond the point of any return to say nothing of beyond the point of beauty. She wisely left out a couple of climactic high notes that I have heard other sopranos take and to which I was looking forward. One high note could almost be called a scream.

Image result for stephanie blythe

I was expecting more from Stephanie Blythe as Azucena than I heard. Not more volume. I heard her just fine. Hers was the largest and loudest voice on the stage but she just didn't seem warmed up enough for 'Stride la vampa' early on. Much of the high work was flat. Later on she seemed to get into gear and produce some better singing but I thought she was disappointing at the end of the opera when she tells Count di Luna that he has just killed his brother. The ending lost drama in the way it was staged.

Quinn Kelsey as the Count di Luna sang very well throughout and was able to match the other voices in the ensemble numbers; the last act trio, for instance.

Andrea Silvestrelli has a very impressive bass voice which sometimes sounds as if the voice had him rather than he having the voice.

J'Nai Bridges sang well in the role of Inez with a fine sounding mezzo voice.

All in all it was an exciting evening. Of course with this opera it's hard not to have an exciting evening, but Chicago Lyric put on a good production with an imaginative set and good lighting.

And then, of course, there was the 'Anvil Chorus' with several hunky choristers beating on anvils. Not too bad!


Monday, November 3, 2014

Breathe deeply

A long-time student of mine recently gave me a 'Shout-Out' on Facebook. It was a very flattering opinion of my work as a teacher of voice over the last 64 years. My, that's a long time!

He called me 'A brave soldier in the fight against vocal ignorance'. I guess that maybe he is correct. I like to teach singers who do smart things.

Herbert Burtis

Throughout my teaching career I have tried to make singing easy, comfortable, musical, emotional, fun for all of my students. Sometimes I have even succeeded! 

I have been amazed at how many professional singers have come to me with vocal problems that we have been able to solve simply by teaching them how to take and use a 'Singing Breath'. There is no great mystery to this; but so many singers seem to avoid doing it correctly that it puzzles me.

Without this kind of breath, you may just as well forget good singing.

The longer I teach, the more simply I teach. I have been known to say that I am like a gardener; I weed voices, throwing away the things that don't work and trying to plant ideas that do.

I have heard horror stories from students of past vocal lessons they have taken with other teachers that leave me breathless. I can't imagine how anyone can sing going through all of these un-necessary vocal and physical gyrations. I try to give students a sure-fire, easy method of 'singing breathing' that always works.

The exercise is this:
1. Blow out all your air.
2. Inhale, listening to the sound the air makes as it passes down your throat. It should sound like 'aw'.
3. Immediately blow some air out using an 'H'. This is what I call the 'Bernoulli Action'.
4. On this moving column of air, sing a vowel.

It will automatically release the sound freely and focus perfectly without you getting in the way.

This is always lesson #1 in my studio.

Try it. You may like it!

Once you make this a habit, a muscle memory, you can add notes, words, drama, emotion, what ever you wish and you are singing beautifully and freely. 'Art is the emotion expressed on the technique.'

It is at this point that you can follow my dictum:
'Just sing the damned song!!'

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thank you Julian!

 It's so nice to have smart 'cellist friends. This answers the questions I posed in yesterday's blog. Thank you Julian Muller! You are the best! Here is his email to me:

Julian Muller

Dear Herb,

I read your blog post and a few things come to mind. I think that the lack of vibrato could be part of the intonation problems. In regards to the pitch sounding flat I not not sure whether they used Baroque tuning. Modern tuning is A at 440-442 and there is an average consensus in Baroque ensembles who try and adhere to certain performance practice of the baroque time period that the A is around 415. I am not sure whether they did this in the concert you went to or not. In regards to the squeaks etc. That probably just comes from slightly improper technique. They were most likely using baroque instruments, which use gut strings and these are very difficult to play on and to project a big sound. In our modern era we have emphasized a bigger sound with our modern instruments and steel strings and I think this mentality may subconsciously enter into baroque playing at times. These instruments are very difficult to play and the touch of the left hand on the strings has to be very light as well, so these could be issues for intonation and pure sound. I hope this answers some of your questions, its kind of difficult for me to assess the extent of your questions without hearing the concert itself but I hope this clears some things up!
All the best,

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Go for Baroque

This afternoon I heard an interesting concert of Baroque 'cello music in the wonderful Music Barn that David and Dominique Low have erected on their estate in Norfolk, CT.

The concert was performed by students of Phoebe Carrai,who teaches at the Juilliard School and at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge.

The performers were Ms. Carrai,Oliver Weston, Sarah Stone, Dara Bloom, Alexander Nichols, and Caroline Nicolas. They are certainly a talented young group of musicians en route to careers in Baroque music.

The undoubted star of the afternoon was harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenbout, an incredibly gifted musician whose playing has the sensitivity, musicianship, and technical facility of my own harpsichord teacher, Gustav Leonhardt, who was called by one music critic "The greatest keyboard player in the world'. Any keyboard! Mr. Bezuidenbout is right up there with Gustav!

Mr. Bezuidenbout played the  E Minor Set of Louis Couperin and the fiendishly difficult Toccata in D Minor for harpsichord by J.S, Bach. His playing left me, and most of the audience breathless.

The fine harpsichord used today was on loan from my friend Carl Dudash, who builds these instruments iin his workshop in Norfolk.

The rest of the program included works by Domenico Gabrielli, Francesco Gemminiani, and Josef Myslivecek.

All of the players performed with musicality and assurance.

I have a few questions about Baroque 'cello technique. I have performed with several fine 'cellists and viola da gambists. I'm sure the technique is different with each instrument and for the period from which one is choosing the repertoire. I am not sure how to explain the squeaks and brief high pitches, that I occasionally heard, that had nothing to do with the composition being played. The high pitches sounded like unintentional harmonics, where the finger is not fully depressed on the string. Occasionally I was bothered with intonation, which I know can be tricky on any 'cello. I chalk this up to the fact that the Baroque 'cello is played with little or no vibrato. As with early music singers who sing without vibrato, this can cause the pitch to sound flat. Also it was chilly in the room so cold fingers could have something to do with this.

I'm only guessing at this since I do not play the 'cello myself, but having performed with Scott Kluksdahl (who is one of the teachers of today's Oliver Weston') and with the wonderful Julian Muller (who is a part of the Ferris Burtis Foundation), these extraneous sounds need an explanation.

I've already written to Julian about this.

Thanks to the Lows for bringing music like this to their wonderful concert hall in the Litchfield Hills!