Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back to the past

For the past two nights we have been listening to that Italian Blue-Plate Special, Cav and Pag. But with a difference. The tenor was Beniamino Gigli. Good night! I had forgotten how wonderful he was. He lived from 1890-1957 and was considered one of the finest tenors in the recorded history of music. The son of a shoemaker, he won first prize in an international singing competition in Parma. He débuted in October, 1914 in La Gioconda in Rovigo and débuted at La Scala Milano in 1918. He rose to prominence after the death of Enrico Caruso in 1921. His voice, in contrast to Caruso's, was lighter and sweeter. But he could bring intense drama into any role he portrayed.

In this recording from 1934 and 1940, he was assisted by Iva Pacetti as Nedda, Mario Basiola as Tonio, Giuseppe Nessi as Pepe, and Leone Paci as Silvio in the Pagliacci, and by Lina Bruna Rasa as Santuzza, Maria Marcucci as Lola (of whom more later), Gino Bechi as Alfio, and Guilietta Simionato as Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana. Both operas were recorded with the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milano.

His singing is effortless and beautiful. He soars where Caruso sometimes sounded like he was going to blow up, which, of course, he eventually did. Gatti-Casazza made the mistake of firing him from the Met when he refused to take a pay cut in 1932. Lily Pons and Rosa Ponselle also refused to sell themselves short at the same time. Much later Maria Callas did a similar thing that caused her unfortunate departure from the Met.

But the voice- It is simply amazing to hear this effortless, gorgeous production of sound and emotion. We seldom hear this happening in today's singers. Pavarotti did it for a while, but should have stopped sooner. Domingo can still do it. Alfredo Kraus did it practically up to the moment of his death as did Jon Vickers. There are several tenors now singing at the Met, from Mexico and South America, who have this resilience and beauty in their voices. Everyone else might as well stay at home.

I often wish that today's young singers would listen to some of these great voices from the past and see what they are missing.

Going back to Italy after being fired from the Met he became the favorite singer of Mussolini. After the war, a concert at Covent Garden showed the world what they had been missing during those years, and his fame increased.

His recordings should be studied by every young tenor who wishes to have a career. He was simply wonderful.

Giulietta Simionato went on to have a brilliant career in Europe and in America. Maria Marcucci wound up in Chicago. In the early fifties I heard her sing in Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall) in a bizarre concert that equalled anything Florence Foster Jenkins ever did. Not a happy ending for her, I'm afraid.

My dear friend, the late great soprano, Lucilla Udovich, with whom I performed many times, was on a train going from Milano to Rome. She was speaking with another singer, who happened to be sitting next to her. The woman said to Lucille, 'You should sing for my teacher.' Lucille did. The teacher was Beniamino Gigli, who immediately launched Lucille's career in Italy and abroad. She continued to sing in the great opera houses of the world until back problems halted her career. When I met her in Rome in 1982, she was no longer singing in public. Through a mutual friend, Sister Camella Gambale ( who is no slouch as a singer, either) we met Lucille and asked her to sing for us. This gorgeous voice poured out of this woman who could barely walk and who had to sit when she sang. I told her that she must be heard. We did a series of concerts together with her sitting and singing. Gigli was right. She was also an amazing singer. That was a very joyful moment in my life when I first heard her sing. Serendipity!

I tend to harp on the fact that most of today's singers just don't seem to know how to sing. You be the judge. Listen to some of these old masters of the voice. Listen to Gigli; listen to Lucille's Turandot. They are a hard act to follow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Something different!

Now for something completely different-

I usually write about singers and singing on these pages, but tonight, just back from a magnificent violin concert by a young man who is destined to have a great career, I want to write about him.

Yevgeny Kutik.

I first heard Yevgeny play about seven years ago when he auditioned for, and won, the first Ferris-Burtis Foundation Scholarship. A very accomplished young woman had played for us first; she was also a violinist. Then Yevgeny played and removed all doubt that here was someone very special. At 17 he played with the emotion and musicianship of a much older performer. He blew us away!

Over the past seven years the Ferris-Burtis Foundation has tried to help Yevgeny in his education and now, in his career. We made a gift of tonight's concert to Smith College, where for the past two years I have been Adjunct Professor of Voice. A packed house roared their approval after each selection. Beethoven, Franck, Silver, Schnittke, Williams, Saint-Saens. Each delivered with passion and a blinding technique. To me he is a young Heifetz! And I had the pleasure of hearing that virtuoso several times in my youth. Yevgeny has the same silken tone which can turn to steel when appropriate. Infallible fingers and an unerring sense of style and musicality.

His pianist Timothy Bozarth equaled him in depth of emotion and flawless technique every step of the way.

When John Ferris and I established the Ferris-Burtis Foundation at the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation we had no idea that we would turn up a genius on the very first outing. But we did. And I was there tonight to cheer him on. The Foundation will hope to support him in the future, in what is bound to be a brilliant career, with enormous pride.

Bravo Maestro!!

Tax deductable contributions may be made to the Ferris-Burtis Foundation, Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, 800 North Main Street, Sheffield, MA 01257-0400. This Foundation plans to continue our support of this brilliant young artist as he enters a major career.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On becoming the song

'Mary becomes the song!' Olga Averino, my long-time friend and mentor, said this about Mary Carter years ago when we were sitting together in her Cambridge apartment talking, as usual, about singing and singers. After years of teaching and listening to singers from the past and present, Olga said that she had become slightly jaded about singers in general and about a few in particular. But she loved Mary's singing and her involvement in what she sang.

I have quoted this phrase several times in these pages, and have been wondering, can everyone 'become the song'? Is one born with this gift or can one learn how to do it? Both Olga and I were of the opinion that it is obvious to any careful listener when a singer is genuinely involved in the emotion of the text and the music and when they are 'play-acting'. The whole sound of the voice is different. It is the same when someone is telling you something untrue: a lie, even a white one, never rings quite right in the ear.

I guess it is truth that enables one to become anything, but a song in particular. I have always encouraged my students to study the text of the song carefully, learn the degrees of meaning and emotion found within, and then 'Just sing the damned song!' That's another of my pet phrases.

I have had students with wonderful voices who could never fully convince me that they knew what they were singing about. Memorizing the words is only one small step. Any parrot can do that. Whether one is singing in English or another language; whether or not one is fluent in the language in which he or she is singing, at very least within the song, one must have plumbed the depths of every word, every phrase. Otherwise, one is singing a lie. Maybe a white one, but a lie nevertheless.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson always became the song. Janet Brown always becomes the song. Jane Bryden, Karen Smith Emerson, Judith Gray, Peggy Noecker, all have that same gift that pulls the listener into the web that they are weaving. I'm bragging a bit because all of these women have studied with me. Nathaniel Watson and Jim Maddalena become the song. Ben Luxon, God knows, became the song. I'm still bragging because they have worked with me as well. I'm a very lucky teacher! They all were granted a wonderful gift which they helped to grow as they fully entered the world of song. I could mention a number of other well-known singers who do this out of hand. Christa Ludwig, Montserrat Caballe, Teresa Berganza, Phyllis Curtin, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and on and on.

But then there are those, who shall remain unmentioned, who never quite reach that depth of intense commitment to their art. Pretty voices but superficial involvement. As Olga used to say after hearing a luke-warm rendition of a song or aria by a beautiful voice, 'Well, now, what else can you do?'

Becoming the song is not something a teacher can hand a student. The teacher can help the singer find a deeper meaning in whatever he or she is singing, but then it is up to the singer to give up 'wordly cares', push everything else out of the way, become the song and just sing it- with feeling.

A mezzo I once heard sing in a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, at which I was playing the organ continuo, asked the conductor, 'Do you want this with, or without, emotion?'

Well, if I have a choice.....

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's not Kate and Allie

Richard Dyer invited us to listen to an amazing evening of rare recordings of the songs of two of the great singers of the 20th century: Kate Smith and Helen Traubel. I know this seems like an odd match; but Richard and I are both great fans of these two singers. I have written several times about the magic of Helen's singing, but this time I want also to write about the amazing voice of Kate Smith.

Kate Smith- now how can you be more American than that? I remember coming home from school for lunch in Battle Creek, Michigan, and hearing her fifteen minute radio broadcast from Lake Placid, NY, every day at noon. She and Ted Collins, her manager, would chat about whatever and she always signed off with 'Thanks for listening, folks'. I don't remember her singing on the noon program, but that was a while ago! She also had an evening radio show where she sang wonderfully and later had a similar television program. She was a good sized woman. In my book, Sing On!, Sing On!, I have said that I do not believe that fat resonates. Kate- and Helen, and more recently, Barbara Cook and Tyne Daly, may make me change my mind on that subject! Whether it resonates or not, they certainly know how to use their avoir du pois  to great advantage.  Someday I may write another book on this caloric subject: The Fat Voice?

Whatever it was- Kate could sing. We heard popular songs from the 30's and 40's that were recorded from various broadcasts she had made. Her sizable voice could have led her to an operatic career, but she chose to stay with 'pop' music. She could carry what I call a 'belt' up to D an octave above middle C without a hint of strain. She could also do the same thing in a sweet, mellow head voice. Her breath was simply amazing. Any number that ended on a high note, you knew she could sing the note as long as she wanted. I doubt that she ever had a voice lesson. She was what Olga Averino would have called 'a natural singer'. I wonder if Olga ever heard her?

In the CD we listened to, she sang many songs from that era of the thirties and forties: what I call my growing-up days; some of which I knew- like 'Deep Purple' and 'God Bless America', and many I had never heard. I think it was the Philadelphia Phillies that used her recording of 'God Bless America' to open their games just a few years ago. She became a sort of mascot for them. She was certainly an American legend!

She lived in Lake Placid, New York, and I think that those noonday broadcasts may have originated from there.

She was an American phenomenon. I was surprised, having just heard Tyne Daly a few nights ago, how much her singing reminded me of Kate's. Not the sound, but the ability to belt, sing sweetly, loud and soft with ease. This is a trait not often heard in today's pop singers. Today's group of pop singers needs a microphone tucked between their vocal cords even to be heard. They either mumble or scream. What ever happened to pop singing? Thank you Tyne Daly and Barbara Cook for holding up a great tradition!

The Helen Traubel recording was of her performance of "Frauenliebe und -Leben", the wonderful Schumann song cycle that encompasses a woman's emotional life from first sighting her beloved until his death in twenty glorious minutes. I have a fond memory of my dear Lorraine singing this work in Alice Tully Hall some years ago.

Helen, Kate, Barbara, Tyne, and Lorraine all have that incredible emotional energy that surpasses anything else. As my dear Olga would say, 'They became the song.' Would that all singers could do that!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mary Beth Lacey

Mary Beth Lacey strode on stage at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield tonight in spike-heeled, open toed, pink pumps and a lot of Irish wit. In her current role as Tyne Daly she sang and acted her way through a barrage of eclectic songs from Broadway and other venues in a voice that seemed to be able to do just about anything it wanted to. Belt, sweet, head voice; it all worked.

This was the first time I had seen her cabaret act, which is a relatively new venue for her, and she is sensational. In a black, short skirted two piece number, she waltzed around the stage relating stories of her career and of show business in general.

Having just seen Barbara Cook at the Mahaiwe a couple of weeks ago, a comparison was inevitable. Of course Barbara is 83 and Tyne is in her 60's, but they both have that show-biz edge that cuts through the crap.

Her wide-ranging choice of music was amazing. Many of the songs I had never heard before. There were also some old favorites starting with a George M. Cohan song from 1904. She sang a Piaf type song in very good French and could toss off dramatic numbers or funny songs with equal ease.

There is something indomitable about these Broadway Babies who have been around for a few years that knocks me out. The energy and verve that both women showed was vital. At one point, perched on a stool, showing her gams up quite a ways beneath her skirt, she quipped, 'These are my original legs!'  And they're still good.

Her pianist, bass player and drummer were excellent and it was a great evening. I was happy to be there.