Operatic Olympics

Mon, Aug 13, 2012

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As I was in Europe for the first week of the Olympics this year, I was in the right time zone to catch a lot of the events on TV in between stops on our concert tour.  Even though I’m not really a huge sports fan, I’ve been fascinated (like most of the world) with the Olympics since I was a kid.  There is something utterly awe-inspiring watching the extraordinary feats a human body can accomplish.  Whether it’s watching someone swimming or running faster than one can imagine, or doing the most intricate series of twists and backflips flying through the air after having jumped off a 10-meter platform into the water, watching what these athletes are able to do with their bodies never ceases to amaze me.

There is an element of this kind of athleticism and jaw-dropping physical virtuosity to opera, as well.  All musicians at the highest levels train just as vigorously as these Olympic athletes do, we must in order to achieve the same level of mastery that these athletes must achieve in order to make it to the Olympic level of competition.  I know that the stereotype about singers is that we are all fat ladies wearing breastplates and carrying spears.  And, yes, in some cases, that stereotype holds true.  But singers, just like all humans, come in all shapes and sizes, and just like these athletes, our bodies are our instruments. The physical demands required of any singer to project their voice over a 150 piece orchestra into a 2000 – 4000 seat theater without any amplification all while running around on stage are quite strenuous. So, like athletes, singers must train like athletes in order to perform the amazing feats that are performed on stages like the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Opera House.  I just can’t help but see the similarities when watching the Olympics, and I think that this is a large part of what makes going to the opera so exciting.  I think of it as vocal figure skating or gymnastics – we watch people dressed up in costumes, moving around to music, waiting to see if they will land their vocal equivalent of a triple axle or double back flip.

One of the most “Olympic” singers alive today is Cecilia Bartoli.  She is capable of doing the most amazing things with her voice.  Her vocal range is extraordinary, allowing her to sing many soprano roles as well as lower mezzo-soprano roles.  She jumps back and forth from the bottom to the top of her range with ease, has phenomenal breath control that allows her to sustain phrases seemingly endlessly, and perhaps can sing faster than anyone else on the planet.  Here are a couple of videos that show case all of that – the first is her performing Fiordiligi’s first aria from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and the second is her performing Cinderella’s final aria from Rossini’s telling of the familiar fairy tale.  You’ll hear a lot of the virtuosic athleticism I’m talking about here – when I listen to her, I never cease to marvel “Wow…humans can do that…”
Come Scoglio:

Nacqui all’affanno:

Watching the final of the Men’s Gymnastics High Bar competition the other day, I found that I was holding my breath as I watched the Dutch gymnast, Epke Zonderland, literally fly around the high bar as if he had been born to spin and float around the apparatus as he won the gold medal in that event.

As I watched, I strangely found myself thinking of this video of Cecilia Bartoli singing the Vivaldi aria, “Agitata da due venti.”  Somehow, both make my jaw drop in the same way, and I continue to marvel “Wow…a human can do that…”

Nicholas is one of the featured soloists on “L’Olimpiade,” a new Baroque pastiche based on a libretto by Metastasio set during the ancient Greek Olympic Games, that was released in May of this year and is available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

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“Moonrise Kingdom” and Britten for All

Thu, Aug 2, 2012

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I know that I am generally the vocal music correspondent for the Ecstatic Living Room, but I had to veer a bit from my normal realm of responsibility to talk about the movie Moonrise Kingdom.

I went to go see Wes Anderson’s latest film a few days ago at the suggestion of a friend, who was just sure that I was going to love it.  That friend knows my taste well — I was completely enraptured from the first scene.  In the opening montage of the film, the cameras wander from room to room of a house on a rainy day — in one of the rooms, a group of children are playing around a record player, listening to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which becomes the opening soundtrack to the film.  The montage is at once nostalgic and sweet, and yet, at the same time, an incredibly sophisticated shot, seamlessly moving through each room of the house, introducing us quietly to each of the film’s main characters and transforming the mundane idleness of a rainy afternoon into a visually stunning work of art. Britten’s music is woven in throughout the rest of the film’s soundtrack, providing a musical backdrop that is the perfect reflection of the wacky misadventures of the the movie’s two child protagonists.

In the film, the film’s two lead characters are a young boy and young girl who are in love, and who concoct an elaborate and sophisticated plan to run away together sometime in 1965.  The two embark on a complex and wild journey into the wilds of the island they are living on, managing to outsmart, outwit, and elude the adults who are supposed to be their caretakers at almost every step along the way.  Much of the music that was chosen for the film was music Britten had composed for young people as a way to introduce them to the art form.  Something that has always impressed me about Britten’s music for young people is that it is always incredibly sophisticated.  Britten was fascinated with youth and the precious value of innocence his entire life, and it is clear that he knew that children have much more sophisticated minds that most adults give them credit for.

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is an elaborate set of a theme and variations that takes the listener through the various sections of the orchestra, showcasing what each instrument and section does and the variety of sounds that they make.  The piece begins with the entire orchestra playing an arrangement of a theme by Purcell, and then Britten tours the orchestra through each following variation on that theme.  The piece ends with the entire orchestra playing an incredibly complex fugue, climaxing to an exciting finish.  Britten never simplifies or assumes that his intended audience won’t be able to understand, just because they are young.  The piece is just as intricate and complex as any of his other compositions — he assumes intelligence and a sophisticated capability of understanding.

A key piece of his music that features prominently in the film is his church parable, Noye’s Fludde.  Britten composed the piece with the intention that it be performed by a mostly-amateur cast in a church or a large hall — most of the roles in the opera are written for children, and it is at a local church production of the piece (in which Wes Anderson’s leading lady is dressed up adorably as a raven) that the film’s two lead characters meet and fall in love.

Another part of “pop” culture that I have been taking in lately is HBO’s new show The Newsroom.  At the beginning of the series’ pilot episode, the show’s lead character, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sounds off at a Q and A session at Northwestern University about how, once-upon-a-time-not-too-long-ago, American people used to value intelligence, not stupidity, and celebrated the power of knowledge.  The show has gone on pursuing this theme, by dramatizing the production of a news show, musing on the importance of an informed, educated electorate.  It’s a theme I completely subscribe to when I consider my life as a performing classical musician.

I learned my lesson about this a long time ago the very first time I programmed Britten on a recital in Kirksville, Missouri.  I worried that a small, American town might not appreciate his music, and programmed a lot of lighter, more “accessible” fare around it.  In the end, it turned out that the music that drew in that midwestern audience was Britten’s music — not the lighter, less complex, less intricate music that surrounded it. Seeing Wes Anderson’s nostalgic take on a bygone era, and hearing and seeing how he so tenderly and lovingly wove Britten’s music throughout the film, I was reminded why I am drawn to his music both as a listener and as a performer.  He assumes and celebrates the power of the human mind while never losing touch with the intricacies of the human heart.  He ignites the imagination through his music — reminding us that this music, like all music, truly is for everybody.

Nicholas’s first album focusing on the music of Britten, “Winter Words,” was released in 2011 and was included on the New York Times Classical Music Gift Guide, as well as Best Of Year lists for the New Yorker and the Boston Globe. He releases his second Britten album, “Still Falls the Rain,” on October 9.

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Tune In, Turn Up #3: An Apology and an Old Friend

Tue, Jul 24, 2012

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Somehow, I’ve managed to continue my fool’s errand of listening to my entire iTunes library in alphabetical order by artist/composer. Last I checked in, I was at the tail end of the B’s; I’m now just about to make it to E, and with my sojourn in the D’s almost done, I have an apology to make and old friend to praise.

First, the apology. People who know me musically know that I’m not a fan of bel canto operatic repertoire, pretty much at all. I liken listening to, or even watching, bel canto to eating whipped cream. Nothing wrong with whipped cream, but there just isn’t much there for me — I generally go for savory over sweet to begin with. Compound that with the fact that a composer like Bellini is generally considered more ‘serious’ and worthy of note than one like Offenbach, and we’re really in business. And lest it sound like I’m just prejudiced, I did listen to Bellini’s La sonnambula with as open a mind as I could muster, and finished it not feeling much of anything at all.

Then I listened to Anna Bolena.

I knew something was up when the “Sinfonia” started, and by the middle of the first act, I was completely hooked. The music is charming, yes, but there’s an understated beauty to it, and it just sounds like there’s a lot more variety and depth to anything I heard in La sonnambula. There are shades of Mozart, too, which I always appreciate. In short, I may have been a little too harsh on bel canto — I won’t make it to Rossini for a couple of months, though, so we’ll see what happens. Here are Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing “Va’, infelice, e teso reca” in Vienna last year:

And finally, the old friend. Full disclosure: though I was a classical piano student for a good decade or so growing up, classical music and I had a bit of a messy falling out after I stopped taking lessons. It wasn’t until my college choir performed Handel’s Israel in Egypt several years ago that I truly learned that classical music was just as vibrant, humorous, and soul-achingly beautify — if not more so — than any other music out there. After that performance, I embarked on a huge catch-up session, listening to as much classical music as I could from my college’s library. One day, early on in the project, I came upon a CD of music by Erno von Dohnanyi. I lived in Cleveland as a child and knew Christoph von Dohnanyi’s name well, and, after finding out the two were related, checked the CD out immediately. On it was his Konzertstuck for Cello (which is wonderful), as well as his Variations on a Nursery Theme.

Never before has a piece of music so accurately captured what I love about art before. It begins with a stormy, Wagnerian introduction, so sturm und drang it almost feels like a parody… which, of course, it is. After the thunder rumbles off to the distance, a razor-sharp blast from the orchestra signals the start of the theme: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. What follows is a set of a dozen variations, each lampooning a composer active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both Strausses get a variation, as well as Wagner, Saint-Saëns, and Brahms. It also contains an incredibly virtuosic piano part that swirls and dances around the orchestra as it plays Dohnanyi’s twisted version of a Music History lecture. I could go on for ages about this piece, but suffice it to say that it is one of my oldest favorites, and will continue to be for quite some time. Here is Zoltán Kocsis playing the variations:

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Two Milestones and Three Favorite Recordings

Wed, Jul 11, 2012

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I turned 50 years old today.  As it turns out, there’s also a second milestone on the near horizon: this fall will mark my 25th anniversary working in the music business.  Hard to believe that the time has passed by so quickly, but I’m so grateful that classical music feels no less important to me now then when I first fell in love with it back in college.

As a bit of a thank you note to the artists and composers that have made a special impression on me over the years, I put together a list of 50 favorite recordings.  You can read that list here at my blog for Huffington Post.

Soon after the list was published, a few people dropped me a note to ask which, of those fifty recordings, were my very favorites. I deliberately alphabetized the list by composer, rather than tried to rank the recordings in some kind of “Top 50” countdown, to avoid making impossible decisions about which recording ranked higher or lower.  Still, if push came to shove and I absolutely HAD to choose my top three favorites, I’d likely pick the three described below. Each selected work is from a composer who possesses a very distinct and recognizable sound, but all three works have an obvious connecting thread:  they all celebrate nature.

So drumroll please: my top three favorite recordings….

Number 3 – Philip Glass: Powaqqatsi

So, I’m giving my number three slot to Philip Glass’s music for Godfrey Regio’s visionary 1982 film Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation.  The title comes from a Hopi word meaning “parasitic way of life.” The phrase has many meanings in the context of the film, but the principal meaning, as revealed in Regio’s stunning imagery, is the degradation brought about by wanton industrialization.  Long before there was talk of global warming, this film – and it’s predecessor in the “Qatsi trilogy,” Koyaanisqatsi – made it clear that a way of life that ravaged the natural environment was dooming our species to physical and spiritual misery.

The subject matter may be deep, and often dark, but Glass’s score is luminous.  It is, to my taste, the richest, warmest and most human music he has composed.  There’s a strong element of world music in it, with thrilling drumming and exuberant singing. Listening to it – or, even better, watching the filming, is an utterly transforming experience.

The trailer:

The recording: Philip Glass Ensemble


The DVD:

Number 2: Olivier Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles (“From The Canyons to the Stars”) 

Since I think I did a pretty good job of summing up my love for this work in my Huffington Post blog, forgive me for doing a little self-borrowing here!

It was conductor Myung-Whun Chung who first introduced me to Messiaen’s music with a recording of the explosively original Turangalila-Symphonie that really shook me. As Deutsche Grammophon’s press agent, and later U.S. label chief, in New York, I dedicated a lot of time and resources to promoting the label’s Messiaen’s releases, probably the most gratifying work I did while working in the recording industry.

Chung’s recording of Messiaen’s “Canyons” came out long after I left the label, but it’s probably the version of this visionary work that I return to most. Messiaen wrote it on a commission from the great arts patron Alice Tully, who sought a work to mark America’s bicentennial. The result is a mystical, kaleidoscopic depiction of “God’s Country” — the beautiful canyons of Southwest Utah, including Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park — complete with Messiaen’s trademark birdsong transcriptions and a battery of percussion including an instrument invented by the composer (the geophone!). The eighth movement, “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran,” is more soothing to the soul than any music I have ever encountered — it is the quiet breathing of God’s universe at peace.

What a wondrous work!

Recording: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung (DG):

CD and downloads:

Number One: Mahler Symphony No. 3

I’ve written about my annual “First Day of Sumner” ritual, which has, as its centerpiece, listening to Mahler’s Third Symphony (here’s a link to that post). And after thinking about it for a while, I think I’d have to say that this work really is my favorite piece of music.

As Mahler explained in a program that he ultimately held back from publication with the symphony, each of the six movements depicts a stage of evolution from “inanimate nature” to “universal love.”  Movement one, lasting a full half hour, originally bore the heading “Pan Awakes – Summer Marches In” [the mythical figure Pan was the God of summer – and many other things].  The rugged beginning – with its howling, sliding trombones – seems to convey the heaving of the earth itself as it thrusts up the rocks and meadows and mountains.  Slowly but surely living matter begins to appear (as you listen you can easily guess when this happens), and march music (that comes back stronger and stronger) captures life taking hold and growing in abundance and power.  The last five minutes of this movement can knock you off your seat if you play it loudly enough!

The graceful second movement is “What the Flowers of the Meadow Tell Me,” followed by “What the Animals of the Forest Tell me”.  The mysterious fourth movement, “What Mankind Tells Me,” features a solo female voice singing texts by Nietzsche (the same source that would inspire Richard Strauss’ most famous work) asking the question “What does the deep midnight say?”  Sunlight returns in the fifth movement with a choir of boys’ voices imitating the angels in a song featuring texts from Mahler’s favorite folk poems, The Youth’s Magic Horn:  “Heavenly joy is a happy city.  Heavenly joy knows no end.”  I won’t hesitate to say what I think about the final movement, “What Love Tells Me”:  it is, in my mind, the most beautiful and expressive 20-plus minutes of music ever written (crying during the last three minutes is practically inescapable!).  As famed Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange puts it, “With this hymn of praise to the Creator of the World, conceived as the supreme force of Love, Mahler took the final step on the road to Eternal Light.”

Recording: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Haitink (Philips Originals):


Bernstein’s first recording of Mahler’s Third with the New York Philharmonic is a great one, and comes in a terrific set of all nine of the composer’s symphonies.  Well worth having, and a set of Mahler Symphonies belongs in ever music lover’s household.

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How Do You Start Your Day?

Thu, Jul 5, 2012

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Many of us are careful about the first thing we eat each day. Breakfast is a great chance to start off on the right foot with some fresh fruit, granola, yogurt, a smoothie perhaps; healthy things that you trust will get you off to a good start, give you energy and nutrition to help you do what needs to be done. But have you ever applied this oversight to your mental diet and the first thing you put in your head each day?

I am often surprised when I see that many of my friends start the day by turning on the TV and watching one of the big morning shows. I guess I like the morning shows as much as I like a Dunkin Donut — which is to say I’m generally happy to consume it, but it doesn’t make me feel good. I prefer to start with something I consider healthy before indulging in the greasy sweets; and for me, it‘s always first a musical choice.

With the choice of music it’s the same: what’s going to be that first thing you listen to and  how will it impact your day? Some folks will go straight to pop music and/or hip hop at a highly caffeinated volume level, just as some folks will start their day with a Red Bull. You see what I’m getting at.

You may want to try starting your day with something that is just simple and beautiful… and perhaps with a little caffeine. For me lately, the green tea of morning music is the piano sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I actually came rather late to Mozart; when I first really started to listen heavily to classical music, Mozart for me was just too completely co-opted by the ‘adults’ and a symbol of middle-of-the-road programming. I must confess my appreciation of Mozart’s music has matured, perhaps as a consequence of my own maturity…

But back to my breakfast metaphor:  I typically begin my day with a number of  light healthy snacks and drinks, which is why I have been gravitating to Mozart’s piano sonatas. They are typically bright, sometimes green, sometimes ripe and always add up to something that is completely nourishing.

Here is one example, the opening of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major K 330 (first movement), played by the incomparable Krystian Zimerman and on which I will begin to rest my case. Try starting your day here and see how it affects you.

Do you have any favorite works you like to listen to first thing in the day? Let us know.

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