Sunday, December 20, 2009

l'Orfeo of Claudio Monteverdi

Let me say from the get-go that I was completely blown away by this production of l'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi filmed live at La Scala Milano! This is a work that has been called by many to be 'the first real opera' (1609), and what an opera it is. Especially in this fantastic production directed by the genius Robert Wilson. He has set the scene in a sort of Limbo, not quite real but not completely unreal either.The opening set is made up of two rows of Lombardy poplars set against a blue sky, resting on a verdant green field. (The Elysian Fields, perhaps?). A golden lyre hangs down from Heaven.
The singers are costumed in off-whites except for Orpheus and Euridice, who are in black. 'Music' is dressed in gold and some of the other leading singers are in grays and one is in red. Their makeup is from the Comedia del Arte, white faces with very distinctive eye makeup. They all wear gloves in the color of their make-up giving a totally other-worldly effect. As the curtain opens, the cast is frozen in place during the overture and gradually starts moving about. A male dancer with a bird-mask appears throughout the opera tying things together. All the movement of the singers is very stylized. Often, even when moving about, the hands are held still in dramatic poses.
And they can all sing! They sing in a very appropriate style for this pre-Baroque masterpiece, with the correct ornamentation for that period. Georg Nigl was the magnificent Orfeo, singing with great emotion and drama. The rest of the singers were equally good. The ensemble singing was of the highest order.
In the second part as filmed, (The opera is in five acts and a prologue) Orfeo sings a very long, tragic monologue begging to be taken to Hades to free his beloved Euridice. It was mesmerizing. The style of singing Monteverdi composed was monody, a change from the earlier polyphony. You might call some of it extended recitativo, but it is breathtaking, at least the way this crew sang it.
I said to a woman who was sitting behind me in the Warner Theatre, 'They could never bring this off at the Met!'. And they couldn't. She and I were two of only 9 people who had bought tickets for this performance. What a pity. These poor 'opera-lovers' who think that La Bohème is the beginning and end of opera are left in a limbo of their own. As Auntie Mame said, 'Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death!' I couldn't agree more.
Some years ago when in Venice, John and I were visiting one of the incredible churches in that watery city. All along the aisle were enormous statues of Venetian statesmen from long ago. As we turned up a side aisle, we noticed on the floor a small brass plaque which read 'Here lies Claudio Monteverdi'. Small tribute to a great genius, indeed!
The rest of the cast included Roberta Invernizzi as Music and Euridice, Sara Mingardo as Messenger and Hope, Luca Dordolo as the first shepherd, Leonardo Cortellazzi as the second shepherd, Martin Oro as the third shepherd, Luigi de Donato as Caronte, Raffaella Milanesi as Prosperina, Giovanni Battista Parodi as Plutone, and Furio Zanasi as Apollo. Rinaldo Alessandrini led the period instrument orchestra brilliantly, and of course, Robert Wilson was responsible for the incredible staging.
My hat is off to all of them! If you ever get a chance to see this film from La Scala Milano , run, do not walk to wherever it is playing. Bravi a tutti!

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Christmas eating!

Caloric Conundrums
Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we diet!
Peter Paul Rubens loved fat!
He knew just where it was at;
In fact, I'm sure I could have had a ball
With Peter Paul.
His nudes are a treat to the eye,
Well-endowed at the hip and the thigh;
No bony construction for him.
The word he liked least was 'thin'.
An artist of his reputation
Should experience regeneration.
This craze for the skinny and lean
Makes me think of Butterfly McQueen.
These bones that set people ravin'
Make me think of the Bard of Avon!
Now I'm all for equality,
If you're thin, that's just fine, but for me
It's the plump ones who know
The right use of their dough;
It's the fat ones who smile
On their last giddy mile;
It's the corpulent fellow
Who shaketh like Jello
In that Christmas rhyme
That you hear all the time.
So, here's to the well-endowed set
Who eat all the food they can get.
They may shimmy and ripple
And nibble and tipple,
But they look pretty good soaking wet!
(From Save the Wine for Me Another Day, by Herbert Burtis)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Have a very metallic Christmas!

Have a very Metallic Christmas!
Deck the streets with tinfoil holly!
Clinky, clanky, blinky, clink, clank, clunk!
Holly holly's not as jolly!
Clinky, clanky, blinky, clink, clank, clunk!
Red and green no longer say it
Orange and blue, orange and blue, puce, puce, puce!
All the TV stations bray it,
Clinky, clanky, blinky, clink, clank, clunk!
Drink we now the Christmas spirit!
Tinsel, tansel, tunsel, rip, crash, dip!
It's November first! Let's hear it!
Tinsel, tansel, tunsel, rip, crash, dip!
Only forty shopping days so
Hurry up! Hurry up! buy, buy, buy!
Local merchants seem to say so,
Tinsel, tansel, tunsel, rip, crash, dip!
Fast away October passes,
Rustle, wrestle, wristle, push, shove, pull!
To the stores, ye lads and lasses!
Rustle, wrestle, wristle, push, shove, pull!
Here's a gift for sweet Aunt Minnie,
Charge it up, charge it up, never pay!
Only two more months to go. I'll
Never get it wrapped by Christmas Day!
(To be sung to the tune of Silent Night, if possible!)
(From Save the Wine for Me Another Day by Herbert Burtis)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas 2009 at Rood Hill Farm

Christmas 2009
Alas, dear friends, it's been a while
Since I have tried to make you smile
At foibles rare and stories merry.
So I've saddled up my dromedary
And plan to do a little better
In sending out a Christmas letter.
Now that we have dumped the Bushes
We all have less pain in our tushes!
And Yoyo Ma, and yes, yo' Mama
Are doing well with B. Obama.
It would be great if he could do
All the things he's promised to.
But our Congress is the pits.
All it does is give me fits!
We should really fire the bunch.
Then I'll take you all to lunch!
Bon Noël to kin and kith
And all my colleagues up at Smith.
To friends at home and friends away
I send you cheer on Christmas Day.
In January I got busy
Traveling 'round. It made me dizzy.
Peg and I to Puerto Rico
Singing loudly, 'Tico-tico'.
Then to Florida once, no twice!
Seeing cousins. That was nice.
February, off to GLAD
To fight for things that make me mad.
An activist at seventy-eight
Meant quite a lot to fill my plate.
But someone has to take a stand
To bring equality to our land!
Then in March we did the deed;
Filed the suit to fill a need.
Only time and strength can do it
If lazy Congress e'er gets to it.
March was filled with interviews
Once the press received the news.
'Don't be mad and don't be peevy;
'Specially when you're seen on TV.
April brought a wondrous Saul.
The Harvard Choir just had a ball.
Ed Jones led the joyous mob;
Nat and Janet did their job.
They're the best to come along
Bringing splendor in their song.
Friends and singers from the past
Showed how friendship's made to last.
John remembered by a throng
In majesty and love and song.
May brought Cabarets galore
In Sandisfield and at the Shore.
Peg to sing and I to croak
Made a supercilious joke.
Then in June, did something vital:
Played an actual keyboard recital.
July and August lots of pals
Came to visit, guys and gals.
Then, dear friends, I put my tux on
And did a gig with Rachel Luxon.
I went Dutch in gay September:
New York City. I remember
Living there in 1950
Gosh, those days were really nifty.
Traced my lineage to the roots
From Alberti and his off-shoots.
October, published A Wet Noodle
Covering the whole kit 'n caboodle
Of how to play with speed and ease
Leschetizky in a breeze.
Fall Break- Off to hot Savannah;
Could have used an iced cabana!
Lovely houses, squares to see
But flat is not my cup of tea.
While staying there: quite an alarm!
A crocodile bit off an arm
Of a fellow sinking putts.
Not for me, dears, I'd be nuts
To wander round with club in hand
And then to lose it in the sand.
They sliced the croc to find the arm
And reattached it. So no harm.
I'll let you know if it still works.
Don't play golf where this thing lurks!
Why not take up table tennis
Where crocodiles will seldom menace.
To Jan and Jerry's for Thanksgiving;
They really help you know you're living.
Soup to nuts, a great repast;
Gourmet food from first to last.
Though my mind is in a fog
I began to write a BLOG!
Topics: Music, also Singers.
I have writ some real humdingers!
It feels good to poetize,
Cast my words before your eyes.
Do my best to make it scan
And rhyme according to my plan.
So my dears, I've had my say
Wishing you a happy day
And an even happier year.
Keep the faith, be of good cheer.
May your Christmas Day be cosy
May your cheeks stay bright and rosy.
This is how my greeting ends:
Christmas love to all my friends!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frauen Liebermann und Leben

While this blog is really dedicated to talking about music and singers, in particular, I feel compelled to say something about the debacle that is going on in Washington over Health Care. As far as the slogan of the Senate and House goes: 'We don't care'! They are all trying to cover their asses so they will be re-elected at the next election. 'To Hell with the American people'!
I have to single out the Senator from my neighboring state of Connecticut as the biggest a-hole of them all. Nothing makes me happier that I am a citizen of Massachusetts than his re-election. I hope the voters of Connecticut are as happy about him as I am. Unfortunately, they are stuck with him for another two and a half years.
He will apparently do anything to gain the spotlight. He doesn't want a public option; he doesn't want an extension of Medicare. But he wants to keep his A-Plus Federal Government Insurance, you can bet! He is the ultimate 'We don't care' health plan provider. He is also the Senator from the state that has more insurance companies in it to pay his bills than about anywhere else!
When he comes on TV I do the same thing with him that I did with George W. Bush for eight years; I hit the mute button. I can't stand that shit-eating smile of his.
If only that would work in real life. Both the smile and the mute!
If he has his way, nothing good will come out of Washington for this possible relief for millions of Americans who have little or no health care options. We will continue to pay, through our taxes and increased insurance payments, for the millions of people who wind up in Emergency Rooms with no insurance, and for whom we wind up paying enormous amounts of money for their last week of life, which probably wouldn't be their last week if they had had a way of getting health care at a reasonable cost throughout their life, and which might have let them live healthier lives.
We are the richest country in the world, we spend more money on health care, but have a shorter life-span than people in most European countries have who have a health care plan that covers everyone from cradle to grave. In France, even if you are not a citizen, you get full coverage. And we have the nerve to berate the French! Freedom fries! Gimme a break!
Whew! It was good to get this off my chest.
Now, back to singing: on Sunday I will see a live film from La Scala, Milano of Monteverdi's Orfeo. That will get me back where I belong in music! But not for long. I'll let you know how I like it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

L'Histoire du Soldat

Tonight I witnessed an absolute tour de force when my good friend and sometimes student, Ben Luxon, simply took the stage apart in his role as the narrator in Stravinsky's l'Histoire du Soldat. With a very able chamber orchestra he kept a large audience totally in the palm of his hand as he portrayed all the various characters in this incredible work, going with ease from the Soldier to the Devil to the Old Man to the Old Woman in lightning speed.
Ani Crofut, Ben's stepdaughter was lovely as she danced the part of the Princess.
But it was Ben's evening. The energy he produced was palpable. It simply poured off the stage of the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington back to Row L where I was seated. I have seen Ben on stage a number of times previously, but this was his crowning role to date as an actor!
Having had an enormous career as an operatic baritone, then losing his hearing and being forced to stop singing concerts and opera must have been an unbearable trauma for him. His operatic career took him to most of the world's great opera houses- Covent Garden, The Met, La Scala, on and on.
Having to give all of this up seems unimaginable. But with his incredible acting instinct, he takes his place as one of the great actors of our time.
I told him once, having seen him perform in Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood, 'You should never be allowed off the stage.'
Tonight's performance proved this to be true.
Bravo, Ben!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Performance anxiety?

Public performance must be a part of the musical training of any serious musician. While it's fine to enjoy singing in the shower, to have a career in music one needs to stand up in public and share the wealth. Whether you are a singer, an instrumentalist or a composer, merely performing for yourself has a limited reward. We all need to share our talent with others and performance is the way to do that.
This week my six voice students at Smith College did just that. They stood up before an audience of family, friends, and strangers and sang. They all did very well. The more opportunities they have to perform, the better they will become at doing it.
Any young performer may have 'performance anxiety'. There are some of us who are born 'hams', who love to do nothing more than stand up in front of people and show them what we can do. But more of us may have questions in our minds about performing which will affect the way we present ourselves on the public stage.
For example, I asked my six young women to dress for an afternoon concert. You sing better when you present yourself in the best possible format. The way you look is one part of this.
A most important part of performing is the kind of preparation you do beforehand. Very few people can 'wing it' and get away with that kind of performance. One must have a thorough knowledge of the music, and in the case of singers, the text one is presenting. If you are unsure about what you are about to do, nothing very good will happen.
I remember as a young performer, I was given the plum job as Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster under the great Searle Wright at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University, my alma mater. At the beginning of the fall term that year, Searle told me that instead of doing five noonday services in St. Paul's Chapel, we would do three services and two half hour organ recitals. He said, 'You take Tuesdays and I'll take Thursdays.' At that point I had done exactly one full organ recital in my life! Needless to say, I worked my fingers off practicing all hours of the day and night to prepare for this barrage of public performances. Hitherto, I had often been nervous when I had to perform in public. Faced with a new program to learn and perform every week, I soon found out I had no time to be nervous. I just had to get myself ready and play the program. It was this pressure placed on me that brought me to the point where playing a recital became a joy rather than a job. I learned to love performing.
This is what all musicians must learn to do to get themselves out of the shower and onto the public stage.
I have told my voice students that my epitaph will be 'Just sing the damned song!' This is after the hours of practice, of course!
There have been numerous times when I have performed and become so committed to my program that time seemed to slip away. One instance was a concert in Weill Hall with my duo-piano partner, Eleanor Benoist. We were playing a tough program but had worked together many long hours. During the performance, when we came to the last piece on the program, I suddenly thought, 'How did we get here so soon? Did we leave something out?' Well of course, we hadn't, but our concentration was so complete that time had simply slipped away. It seemed to have sped up!This kind of experience is a good end to aim for by any performer.
My students will present another recital at the end of spring term and we will do an informal recital for each other sometime before that. Practice makes perfect.
Even though all of them may not become professional singers, they will have had this wonderful experience of the love that comes back to one when the audience joins you in the appreciation of music: they applaud! Applause is palpable love being sent to you over the footlights. That is the greatest feeling in the world!