Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gearing up for Fall

Though most of the summer has been relatively cool and rainy, the last week or so it has been hot here in the suburbs of Philly. Outside now there are thunderstorms rumbling, and I imagine the heavens will throw the spiggot any minute. That's kind of how I feel about my life right now. Pretty soon the tap is going to turn on, and I will be going non-stop for about three months. Certainly, it is the problem to have. Here's a sampling:
  • I guess the biggest thing I have coming is Barber of Seville with Opera Delaware. I am really thrilled about this, as it is my first crack at Figaro. Over the past several years I have been doing bigger and bigger repertoire (like Rigoletto & Macbeth), and it is really good to have this (Barber) to make sure I am being kept honest and that I haven't lost flexibility or lyricism in my voice. On top of that, it is just a joy to sing. . . once I've figured out how to sing it. ;-)
  • Coming sooner is a performance with the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I'll be singing Tonio in a concert version of Pagliacci. Way "back in the day" I did this with Opera San Jose, and I am really happy to get another chance to sing it. The character is a joy to play, even though he is a wretched man. (If you are a baritone, you have to learn to like being bad). Also, the Prologue that I get to sing is one of my very favorite arias of all time. I feel each voice part has pieces of music that are reasons to want to be that voice part--"Il prologo" I feel is one of those for the baritone.
  • Along with the opera performances, I will also be performing every Sunday morning at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE as a member of the church choir (in the first service) and the Westminster Vocal Ensemble (for the second). In addition to our weekly duties, we'll be performing two baroque settings of the Magnificat (Vivaldi & Pergolesi) for our annual Christmas concert.
  • And speaking of Christmas, just today the Christmas carolling season began with "Christmas in August." The Kimmel Center (one of the primary concert venues in Philadelphia) was kicking off a promotion for the holidays and they asked the carolling group that Courtney and I worked with last year to perform. Now I'm used to working on Christmas music early. . . but this was truly odd. On the other hand, a gig is a gig.
  • So there is all this performing happening, but I also have some new locations that I will be teaching. In addition to Temple Music Prep (where I have been teaching this past year), I will begin teaching at Penn University (not on the faculty, but voice lessons for credit) and at the Sanford School in Hockessin, DE.

Phew! I better get some shut-eye. I gotta lot of work to do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The value of Art

My good friend Jessi Baden-Campbell sent this to me about an hour ago, and I thought I would share it with you. It is a quote from Rachael Maddow who, as many of you know, has a political talk show on MSNBC. She was invited to speak at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires this year, and so her comments are aimed at dancers. I think, though, that it is not much of a stretch to apply the comments to all arts. In fact, that may be the intent.

“Sometimes we choose to serve our country in uniform, in war. Sometimes in elected office. And those are the ways of serving our country that I think we are trained to easily call heroic. It’s also a service to your country, I think, to teach poetry in the prisons, to be an incredibly dedicated student of dance, to fight for funding music and arts education in the schools. A country without an expectation of minimal artistic literacy, without a basic structure by which the artists among us can be awakened and given the choice of following their talents and a way to get to be great at what they do, is a country that is not actually as great as it could be. And a country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not being a great country. It is a service to our country, and sometimes it is heroic service to our country, to fight for the United States of America to have the capacity to nurture artistic greatness.”

“Not just in wartime but especially in wartime, and not just in hard economic times but especially in hard economic times, the arts get dismissed as ‘sissy’. Dance gets dismissed as craft, creativity gets dismissed as inessential, to the detriment of our country. And so when we fight for dance, when we buy art that’s made by living American artists, when we say that even when you cut education to the bone, you do not cut arts and music education, because arts and music education IS bone, it is structural, it is essential; you are, in [Jacob’s Pillow founder] Ted Shawn’s words, you are preserving the way of life that we are supposedly fighting for and it’s worth being proud of.” -Rachel Maddow

Oh, by the way, here is the link to the source: http://dancingperfectlyfree.com/2009/08/10/rachel-maddow-on-dance-art-and-society/

Growing up in a two party household (mom is a dem, dad is GOP), I learned that it is not polite to mix politics with your dinner conversation or your art. Art was to be put on a pedestal and revered, studied, dissected or even worshiped. It was not, however, to be used as a tool for political and/or social ends. Though I understood that some artists did preach their politics in their work, that road was not for me. That road was dangerous, especially as a practitioner of an art that requires so many people and so much money to produce. Besides, I am an interpretive artist not a creative one, (I would think to myself). I don’t create the message. I am a vehicle for the composer or the conductor or the director or the producer or the Board. I am a medium. I sing songs primarily by European men who have been dead for at least half of a century. Just sing your songs, keep your head down, practice your Italian and try to get thinner for your next audition.

Now, Ms. Maddow speaks to an idea that has been growing in me for sometime. That is the idea that art is not a thing, it is an act—a verb. It is a verb that encompasses so many other verbs like create, imagine, interpret, practice, develop, network, nurture, fundraise, promote, perform… and on and on. I have come to believe, and what Maddow says so eloquently, is that practicing your art is in and of itself an act that has value to the society even though the society does not value it, and those of us who continue to practice art under these conditions are patriots of a kind. For the country needs its art and its artists to tell us who we are, where we have been, and where we might be going. It is a sacrifice to devote one’s self to that necessary practice that is so underappreciated. So take heart, friends. There are those who understand and who take up our cause even when most do not. We must continue to make our case that we as artists deserve a place at the table where decisions about the future of this country are discussed and planned, that they may provide valuable insight and to our country’s leaders and creative solutions to our country’s problems.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mandy and Patti: Together Again for the Very First Time

I was so excited when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to see Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone. A friend of a friend who didn't need the tickets had asked if she knew anyone who could use them. She had instantly thought of Courtney and I, but then started to have second thoughts because Mandi and Patti are not opera singers. . . um, Puh-shaw! These people are Broadway royalty. Evita, Sunday in the Park with George, Gypsy, The Baker's Wife, The Secret Garden, Les Miserables, Falsettos, Sweeny Todd. . . (ok, I had to look some of those up) but OMG! I was already thinking of spending actual money to see this concert, but decided against it because, well, have you looked outside? The sky is falling. Anyway, here were some tickets being offered to us for free. It's a sign.

So the next night, Courtney and I get all respectable lookin' and head down to Wilmington for the show. Our seats were way house right on the first balcony, but that was okay because the theater is not that large (1300 maybe). Piano and stringed bass are waiting stage right, and the stage has about twenty "ghost lights" (a lightbulb on a stand) strewn about. Lights go down. Musicians take their places and start into a pulsing vamp. . . and there they are sitting side by side singing "Another Hundred People" (Company).

I have to admit, it's a little surreal to be seeing in person people that you have seen on TV and heard on albums for most of your life. Surreal-good, not surreal-weird. The concert was set up very much like a classical recital (or even one long song cycle per half) in that there was not really any pause between songs. If there was any talking, it was the scene that surrounded the song that was to be sung. This made for very much a montage-y kind of feel, which normally annoys me, but in this case it seemed to be the most efficient way to get as many songs in as possible with their context. That, and you have some of the most wonderful performers around, so they make it work.

They had some extended sections of particular musicals which was great including the main love scene from South Pacific ("A Cockeyed Optimist", "Twin Soliloquies", "Some Enchanted Evening"), and selections from Evita (big surprise), Merrily We Roll Along, and Carousel. It was great to see some real actors do the South Pacific, and thinking "oh, that's what that scene is about" all the while sheepishly remembering my 19-year-old attempts at Emile de Becque. Carousel is probably my favorite musical of all time, so I was very pleased to see that programmed at all.

Other highlights included "Getting Married Today" (Company) with Patti LuPone spitting out some of the fastest and funniest patter I have ever heard live. Amazing. Mandy Patinkin taking over the room with a fierce "Franklin Shepard, Inc." (Merrily We Roll Along) and then moments later singing a touching and (yes, I'll say it) poignant "Somewhere That's Green" (Little Shop of Horrors).

So, for the most part I loved it. In fact, in almost every part I loved it. But I can't let my vocal snobbery lie. Patti was having some vocal issues. She was consistently flat in her middle chest voice. My guess is that she was tired and/or was dealing with her health. Two of her numbers listed in the program were not performed. And Mandy, well, Mandy has a voice technique that is unique to him. And honestly I'm glad for that, because I don't know that I would like it if there were a whole lot of Patinkin wannabes running around and going into falsetto every chance they could.

But hey, it was a wonderful show. A wonderful evening of theater and music, and has made several lasting memories for Courtney and me. What more could a theater-goer want?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Notes on Rossini's Stabat Mater

So, I have put up on the blog a list of the performances that are coming up in an effort to fulfill the first directive of the blog (i.e. keep people informed about the performing I am doing). This box will be updated when necessary/when I get more performance opportunities. I am also thinking that I would give a little background and personal observations about these pieces in this space. So without further ado. . .

The first entry is a concert of Rossini's Stabat Mater, which is a wonderful and surprising work. If you are going in looking for The Barber of Seville, you may be a bit disappointed. This is a solemn and reflective piece, much more like his opera serio masterpiece William Tell. This piece was written late in Rossini's life, after he had all but retired from composing. Rossini was requested by a Spanish clergyman to compose this piece in 1831, to which Rossini consented but under condition that the score should never leave the posession of the clergyman and that it never published. Unfortunately for Rossini, a few years after the piece was finished the clergyman died, and his heirs wished to sell the score. After a court battle, Rossini retained the rights to the score, however "the cat was out of the bag." Rossini was persuaded to have the score performed publicly in Paris in 1842, which was received with overwhelmingly enthusiasm.

The piece is based on a poem of unknown authorship, though it has been traditionally attributed to Jacopone di Todi (d. 1306), an Italian lawyer who, after his wife's death, became a lay member of the Franciscan order. Though we are unsure of the authorship, what is clear is the Franciscan emphasis on the understanding of the suffering and death of Jesus. The text begins with the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, watching her son die on the cross. It goes on to be a prayer to Mary asking that she may allow the petitioner to suffer along with her at the foot of the cross, that the petitioner might learn to love Jesus more fully. This text was adopted by the Catholic mass in the late 15th century, but was removed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) because it's origins were not biblical. But it was reinstated by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, and standardized in the late 19th century by the reforms associated with the Monks of Solemnes. Many settings of this text have been made by notable composers such as Pergolesi (1736), Hayden (1773), Verdi (1898), Szymanowski (1926), and Poulenc (1950). The conductor of the Sydney Symphony, Gianluigi Gelmetti, says of this piece: "The manner in which Rossini uses this splendid, vigorous and powerful text in such a 'human' fashion--in the strong and beautiful meaning of the expression--is something extrordinary. The Mother suffering at the foot of her Son's cross...is a universal expression of humanity--grief, affection, distress, hope--that today just as yesterday belongs to everyone."

The concert will be given by the Westminster Presbyterian Church Choir under the direction of Paul Fleckenstein, who will also be our orchestra at the keys and pedals of the organ. Diana Milburn (sop), Noel Archambeault (sop), and Neil Darling (ten) will be the soloists (along with yours truly). It should be a good time (er, a somber, reflective time anyway).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A-one, and a-two, and a. . .

So, I'm trying something. I am not sure where this is going, but I am curious.

The intent is threefold. The first is to answer all those friends, and family members, and friends of family members who say, "Brian, you don't live anywhere close. What's happening with you? What is going on in your life? Where are you performing? What are you performing? Can you get me free tickets". . . okay, they don't ask all those things. But there are people in the world who are regularly interested in what I am doing. And so I have set up this blog to be the first and last word in what is happening with my performance schedule and my life as a performer. You're welcome, Nancy Moore. :)

Secondly, I have to admit, I have been inspired by my friend Derek and his blog here, and my friend Jason's blog for his family here, and the blog for the cutest baby on the internets, Julian Roth, and frankly a number of others from various good people I have met in my life. And I thought, heck, if they can put together a blog that well, I can certainly put one together poorly.

Finally, as implied above, this is an experiment, and I am excited about it. I am not sure what I will write (excuse me--blog) about, though I imagine there will be posts about music in general and my life as an opera singer and neo-natal academic. There could be posts about current events, and my grave concern for this country. I can only assume there will be posts about my lovely wife (pre-approved by herself, of course), and/or learning to live on the right-hand coast where "go down the shore" means "go to the beach," and other such nonsense. But, whatever the reason, I am excited to share these things with whomever wishes to spend the time to read them.

So, thank you for stopping by. I'll do what I can to post on at least a semi-regular basis. And, I hope to see you back some time.