On the Eighth Day of Christmas

The eighth day of Christmas should have been sparkly and shiny and new. I should have woken up to find that all kinds of things were different and everything was positive and diamonds had rained down from the sky during the night. The eighth day of Christmas was New Year’s Day, and none of that crap happened.

None of it.

It was sunny, though, which was good for my fuzzy head. No, it was not fuzzy from a night of partying. (See previous post.) My head tends to get a little cottony on New Year’s Day, I think precisely because I expect things to be different and they’re totally not, except there’s a whiff of some sort of expectation in the air and everybody’s off and I get the feeling like everybody has something to do, and I feel bamboozled by the whole magic trick-that’s-not-really-a-trick. “Oh! Behold! A shiny new year!”

“Madeja look.”

New Year’s Day is a holy day in the Catholic church: the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The purpose is to honor the role Mary played in bringing about the salvation of the world. I’m not the most religious person – mild to moderate at best. But I am a cantor at my church, and I sang the noon mass. Just me, my favorite accompanist and the contemporary group, who showed up ready to really play. Music is an alive thing, breathing and morphing, and sometimes the group just doesn’t gel. But other times, it really gets into a groove. And the instruments tend to change from week to week, which keeps things fresh even though it’s mostly because someone flaked out and another person stepped up. (A violin this time!) As a singer, I get inspired by this kind of stuff – people who just know what they’re doing and don’t need much direction, who can look at the music and play, and elevate the experience without saying a word. When you’re Catholic and a music person and a good two decades younger than nearly all of the people you see in front of you, you will take every chance you get to change things up and get them out of the rut of the status quo. The people in the pews usually respond.

I think they respond because the music becomes a spiritual power boost, which everybody can use. It doesn’t have to be some big thing. It doesn’t have to scream “religion” or “God” or “miracle” at you. It can just be an old hymn you hear in a new way, by virtue, even, of where you do and don’t take a breath. Like reading a poem and not stopping your momentum at the end of a line. Oh! That’s what that means!

The mass was a minute from starting when I looked at the accompanist and pointed to sheet music that was sitting on top of the organ (which she wouldn’t play today – the contemporary group is more of a piano crew). “Are we doing this?” I mouthed.

“Oh! We can,” she mouthed back.

“Offertory?” I suggested. It’s the moment when the altar is prepared for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the gifts are brought forward by parishioners. Technically, this piece is not liturgically correct to sing at that time, but it’s the only place to do it without making the mass longer. And nobody likes it when the mass is longer.

She nodded. “What key?”

“A-flat.”

The contemporary group zinged up the music enough that we were fairly enjoying ourselves from the beginning of the service, and I could tell the Frozen Chosen were, as well. Cantoring is like teaching, I think: you look out at a sea of dead faces and you’re trying to think of something that’s going to wake them up and bring light to their eyes. Music can do that if you play and sing it right. Even the old stuff. Plus it helps that we’re still in Christmas carols.

But when it came time for the Offertory, we took it down a notch. The contemporary group left their instruments. On the piano, the accompanist played the first few measures of Schubert, measures most people recognize very quickly. And I sang.

Ave Maria, gratia plena…

It is one of my favorite pieces to sing. The only trick is that it’s a bit of a pressure piece. It’s not something you sing all the time; it’s for special occasions. Weddings. Funerals. Feasts and solemnities of Mary. So when you do it, it has to be special.

It has to shine.

I sang the Ave Maria for my grandmother’s funeral in 2007. She had basically ordered me to do it, and I knew if I chickened out, or sang it badly, she would haunt me with murmured “That was nice, dear” sentiments that really meant, “I would have thought my eternal sendoff would be a bit better.” I was medicated and prayed to every saint I could think of for help as I climbed the stairs to the choir loft to sing it. I didn’t love how it went, but it was enough, thankfully, to keep my grandmother quiet.

I sang it for my sister’s wedding in 2002. Sister 2 played piano.

I sang it for my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s funeral two weeks ago. The family had requested it. They remembered it from the wedding.

It’s a piece that matters, that means something to people. A piece they close their eyes to. A piece that rings in their breath-filled chests when it’s over.

If you do it right.

For me, the only way to do it right is not to sing it myself. Rather, I have to open my mouth and let it come through me from somewhere else. Otherwise I worry too much about tempo and tone and where I can breathe, and it just doesn’t do. I run out of air, I go a little flat, I push a little. I make it about me, and it loses something. It loses shine.

On the eighth day of Christmas, I turned it all over to the gift I’ve been given instead of the brain I use, and I let it come through me instead of from me. I sang it for my grandmother all over again, for my sister and her husband, for his grandmother. The pews stilled. Eyes closed. My cottony head cleared.

It shined.

And a new year began.

woods

Music Monday #7: Working the Steps

Today I’ve decided to post on a piece I’m actually working on right now, as opposed to something I’ve sung in the past or with which I’m familiar. It’s an Italian aria (aria=opera or oratorio solo, usually focusing on one particular theme) called Selve amiche, written by Antonio Caldera.

No, you should not know who that is. But so that you will: he grew up in Venice and was a choirboy at a basilica. He became the conductor at the court of the Duke of Mantua (you shouldn’t know who that is, either). Two years later, at the age of 31,  he wrote an opera now referred to as Opera pastorale. Of interest in this opera is that it uses the same libretto (lyrics) as La costanza in amor vince l’inganno… which was another opera written by Caldera. But he wrote it all to different music for Opera pastorale. 

Why did he do that? Well, La constanza was written for a public theater in Macerata, with paying guests who bought tickets. Anybody who wanted to see it could see it. What’s distinct about Opera pastorale is that it was performed in Rome in a private theater with invited audience members… and that meant (drumroll, please) women were allowed to perform in it. The character who sings Selve amiche is called Sylvia, and she was played by a woman in Opera pastorale. That wasn’t allowed in Rome’s public theaters at the time, which is how we wound up with a bunch of eunuchs singing soprano.

Poor guys.

Selve amiche is very short and not terribly broad-ranged. It only covers an octave, and a moderate one at that. My voice teacher let me choose from three pieces to study next, and I chose this one for two reasons: I need to work on getting more resonance in my middle range, and I need to work a little more on the close intervals that this piece exhibits in its “runs” (phrases containing a string of relatively fast-paced notes). You don’t care about why I chose it, but I wanted to show you the value in a piece that’s relatively simple, even in opera. They’re not all unapproachable and complicated, and since this aria’s quiet plea is simple, I think its composition matches it well.

Apart from that, it’s just pretty. In the opening scene of the opera, Sylvia is struggling with matters of love, and she wanders into the woods to try to find some solace.

Lyrics and translation:

Selve amiche, ombrose piante, fido albergo del mio core,
Friendly woods, shady trees, faithful shelter of my heart,

Chiede a voi quest’alma amante qualche pace al suo dolore.
This loving soul asks of you some peace for its sadness.

With that simple request, in this simple piece, I ask that you simply close your eyes and listen to Suzana Frasheri sing. Happy Music Monday.

—————
Featured image from www.hockinghills.com

carmina

Music Monday #6: Wheel! Of! Fortune!

If that’s an apt way to describe Carmina Burana, then Carl Orff is Pat Sajak and the chorus is the announcer guy.

“Tell him what he’s won, Bob!”

“Iiiiiiiit’s a lifetime of struggle and miseryyyy! Interspersed with periodic excitement and falling in love with flirtatious young maidens, or at least lusting after them, you’ll endure a lifetime of hardship! mayhem! and mental anguiiiiishhh! Happiness may be fleeting, but it’s still worth the ride! And! You get to get drrrrunk!”

That is a decidedly less artistic and poetic way to sum it up… but still valid. And not altogether far off from Orff’s approach, really, come to think of it.

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a litany of Nots: It’s not an opera. It’s not that old (Orff wrote it in the 1930s). It’s not even all in one language. Some of it is in Latin, some German (and not even just plain German… Middle High German), and allegedly, some of it’s in French, though I can’t find it identifiably in my score. Which means… it’s not all one cohesive work.

What it is is a rip-roaring good time.

Carmina is actually a conglomeration of old poetry that Orff found and cobbled together and made work in a comprehensive form. And he wrote it to showcase dancers, not singers.

Wouldn’t know it by listening, I can tell you that. Or singing. This is some exhausting stuff. It is relentlessly rhythmic. It requires a ridiculous amount of concentration. Nobody gets a break, ever. Orchestral percussionists least of all. One of the times I performed this work was on a stage too small for the full orchestra and 120 voices needed to carry the piece. I stood on the percussion section. There was a bass drum about six feet from my right ear. The little drummer boy (as I called him) kept stealing my water bottle. Thought he was funny.

He was wrong.

One of my singer friends and I once drove the percussionists crazy with questions. They have to pull out all the stops (and, seemingly, all the intstruments) for this piece, so we were loaded with inquiries.

“What’s that?” 

woodbrass.com

“A cabasa.” 

“A keilbasa?”

Unamused glare. “No. A CAbasa.”

“Oh. What’s that?”

musicselementary.com

“A vibraslap.” 

(Cue giggles.) “A vibraslap?!?!”

(Another unamused glare.) “Yes.”

“C’mon (gasp) you made that up.” 

“No. I didn’t.” 

“What’s that thing that looks like an egg?” 

alibaba.com

“That’s an egg shaker.” 

“Ohhh.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to perform four runs (three- to five-performance series of concerts) of Carmina, with four different conductors. The first time, it was sans dancers. Second time, mit dancers. Third and fourth time, non dancers. When I found out about the dancers the second time, I was flummoxed. Wouldn’t they just be… distracting? How would they handle the 5/4 time in the “Raia” movement? That’s a dance movement, but in 5/4 time it’s pretty damned tricky to count for dancers. It must be a nightmare for choreographers. Dancers count One-Two-Three One-Two-Three or One-Two-Three-Four One-Two-Three-Four or One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six One-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six or the ever-popular Five Six Seven Eight!

But… One Two Three Four Five One Two Three Four Five…?

That’s just messed up.

Not the point, though, today.

The point is, Carmina features one of the most recognized but least understood pieces of music in the “classical” realm, in my opinion: “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.”  Commonly known as “O Fortuna.”

Which I’ve always thought sounds a bit like an ode to a canned fish.

 Carmina is a powerhouse work. I mentioned it’s exhausting stuff, and it is; singers run through the vocal ringer on it. It’s more than an hour long and we almost never stop (“Raia” being the only brief movement out of 22 that doesn’t have a vocal scoring). It’s worse for the men than for the women; the men have an entire sequence (subtitled “In Taberna”) about a rousing drunken festivus of drunkenness and what happens after that.

It features a soliloquy from a black swan as he’s roasting on a spit (which is evoked by an intentionally squeaky clarinet) and a dude who’s won some sort of King For the Time Being Contest… until the people who are presently celebrating him eventually kill him.

Also there’s something about riding a horse.

Told you it was wild.

Like life. Which is, of course, Orff’s whole point.

“Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” serves as a bookend for Carmina. Not only is it sung in the beginning of the work; it’s sung at the end, too. Thereby completing the cycle. Closing the circle. Rounding out the wheel.

You’ve heard it in movies, commercials, viral videos, etc. etc. etc. But you may never have known what it was about.

A portion of they lyrics and translation:

O Fortuna O Fortune,
velut luna like the moon
statu variabilis, you are changeable,
semper crescis ever waxing
aut decrescis; and waning;
vita detestabilis hateful life
nunc obdurat first oppresses
et tunc curat and then soothes
ludo mentis aciem, as fancy takes it;
egestatem, poverty
potestatem and power
dissolvit ut glaciem. it melts them like ice.
Sors immanis Fate – monstrous
et inanis, and empty,
rota tu volubilis, you whirling wheel,
status malus, you are malevolent,
vana salus well-being is vain
semper dissolubilis, and always fades to nothing,
obumbrata shadowed
et velata and veiled
michi quoque niteris; you plague me too;
nunc per ludum now through the game
dorsum nudum I bring my bare back
fero tui sceleris. to your villainy.
Sors salutis Fate is against me
et virtutis in health
michi nunc contraria, and virtue,
est affectus driven on
et defectus and weighted down,
semper in angaria. always enslaved.

It’s intense.

There are astounding variations in dynamic (volume). That’s on purpose, to reflect both intensity and the changing winds of fate. Do not adjust your speakers… unless you want to really hear the words, which are damned difficult to articulate well sometimes. If you want to download a version, I highly recommend the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus, Marin Alsop conducting, if you can find it. Without further ado… “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” from Carmina Burana, written by Carl Orff and performed, in this case, by Chor der Deutchen Oper Berlin, and the Orchester der Deutchen Oper Berlin. Video here is irrelevant; I try to find the best musical representation of the work, not the best visuals.

Hang on tight, close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

—————
Featured image from Angela Sterling/http://www.ballet-dance.com/200405/articles/images/carmina.jpg

dwelling place

Music Monday #5: Nice Place You Got Here

I always nearly forget about my Music Monday post, and then I always freak out a little trying to decide what piece to give you. But this time, I remembered early enough to keep both things from happening. I was sitting in church yesterday, between song-leadings, listening to the readings while trying to keep my bra from peeking out of the neckline of my dress, and one of the readings was about the many rooms in God’s house, and that led me to this week’s post.

It’s one of the better-known movements in the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s called “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” Translation: “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” Though it was composed in German, it is often sung in English, so you might recognize the piece and not the words. The scripture is quite familiar to Christian singers and classical composers alike; it is taken from the book of Psalms. But the reason for the piece is much more touching.

Brahms lost his mother in 1865, and it was a loss so devastating that he needed to write an entire work to help him cope. Ein deutsches Requiem is a requiem in the emotional sense, but not in the literal sense. As I think I mentioned in last week’s Music Monday post, a requiem is a traditional Catholic funeral mass, using the rites of Christian burial as prayers, imploring God for the forgiveness of sins. But Brahms defied tradition when he wrote this work in a way that would have scandalized Vienna, where it was premiered, movement by movement, over the course of a couple of years.

First, he wrote the thing in German.

That’s not right.

It’s supposed to be in Latin.

Second, he wrote it in the wrong key. Requiems are written in the morbid and sad D minor. He wrote his in the more uplifted and hopeful D major. By the second note of the first movement (“Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”), the audience would have realized his folly. Ornate fans would have stopped flapping so people in powdered wigs could mutter to each other in shock over his defiance and sacrilege.

But it wasn’t folly at all. Brahms wasn’t writing the traditional requiem, because the traditional requiem focuses on the dead, and his or her supplications and appeals for forgiveness, as well as the appeal for eternal rest.

Brahms wanted to focus on the living, those left behind.

(Apparently, the Rapture would have made this selection apropos, as well, if it had happened. There’s wifi in heaven, right?)

When I performed this work with the chorus I belonged to, our director gave us a great little piece of history for reference. Brahms was writing Ein deutches Requiem while the Civil War was ending here. Not so long ago, really. Our director also shared this incredible tidbit: Ein deutsches Requiem ends with a sentiment about one’s works living on after they’re gone. As Brahms was nearing the end of his life, he one night sat in his kitchen with a friend, throwing manuscripts into his wood-burning stove.

Throwing manuscripts into the fire.

Because he didn’t think they were good enough, and didn’t want them to be found after his death.

Um, Hey, Johannes... you've LOST YOUR MIND! STOP IT!

I’m sure they would have sucked. Seeing as how they were Brahms.

Killin’ me, Johannes. Killin’ me.

Here (linked with the word “listen” below) is a recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Otto Klemperer. It was digitally remastered in 1997, but originally recorded in 1961. It is generally regarded as one of the best and most faithful recordings of the work. (Apparently, Brahms is hard to conduct; my own director calls himself “Brahms-impaired,” though I can’t understand why.)

Close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

mozart score

Music Monday #4: Holy Commercial

Last week, I regaled you with the amazingness of the Flower Duet from Lakme’ and mentioned how it’s been used in commercials. I think it’s sort of bizarre when commercials use classical and opera pieces that are seemingly completely unrelated to the product they’re pushing. Case in point: this week’s Music Monday sampling.

I have Comcast cable, and the monopoly company has been running an ad lately in which people and objects sort of jump out of a television screen at a viewer who’s rather blown away by the whole thing. Nevermind that I don’t want that to happen in my house, ever, and I find it to be a fairly meaningless ad. The reason it caught my attention at all is because of the music it uses.

It’s the “Sanctus” movement from Mozart’s Requiem.

Ah, Mozart’s Requiem. I said in my first Music Monday post that I have had a love affair with it for years. I sang it in France. I’m letting that sentence fall flat because of the link; I don’t want to launch into the whole thing right now, so you can read a bit about it in that previous entry if you want. Point is, the Mozart Requiem is a very well-known work in choral circles, and it absolutely rings and echoes and soars in French churches, be they made of marble or humble stone with dirt floors. We did it in both, plus a more modern, plaster-walled place, just because we could.

The work has a back story that’s almost mythical: Mozart was commissioned to write it for the late wife of a stranger. Our Wolfgang and his wife Constanze were desperate for money and she was getting increasingly anxious about it. (Wolfgang was a bit devil-may-care about things like this; he had other things to worry about, like the Emperor.) But Mozart was becoming increasingly ill, and seemingly going mad; he felt the work would kill him.

He was right. Though he wrote the foundation of the entire work and had completed parts of it, he died in the middle of writing the “Lacrimosa” movement (coincidentally, the only movement in the work that concentrates on grief).

With her husband dead, Constanze was left to search out someone who could finish the commissioned piece so she could get the much-needed payment. Constanze was not a gold digger… she was just really strapped for cash, with mouths to feed and a husband dead at 36. Eventually, she convinced one of Mozart’s associates, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the work.

That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

The “Sanctus,” for those unfamiliar with the Catholic rite of worship and, more specifically, the funeral mass (which is what a requiem traditionally is), is the part of the mass that translates to the Holy Holy Holy. It beatifies God during the consecration of the bread and wine, in the liturgy of the eucharist. It’s a song of praise, and Mozart makes it triumphant in the midst of mourning and fear and heartfelt requests for the forgiveness of sins… but it still has plenty of the darkness that comes with the fear of God in that moment when a soul hovers between Earth and either Heaven or Hell.

Which is why I find it odd that Comcast uses it in their commercial.

There are so many beautiful moments in the work, it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite, but the “Sanctus” movement is one of mine, for the sake of one single line. Throughout all the rehearsals and performances of the Requiem, I was next to my friend Bill, who has a gorgeous tenor voice. Every time we got to this one phrase, when my soprano part dipped lower and his complementary tenor part soared higher, it was all I could do to keep my sound going; the phrase just takes my breath away. It boils down to one note, really, but Mozart was so brilliant in the way he structured the chord that it just opens the whole thing wide. Below, the link to the movement, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. I regret that I do not know which choir he is conducting or when and where the recording was made. The phrase I adore begins at 1:09, and the tenor note to listen for is at 1:14-1:15. As usual, I encourage you to find better quality recordings on your downloadable music provider of choice; if you do, I suggest a recording on the London Digital label, of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Georg Solti and featuring Cecilia Bartoli, Arleen Auger, Vinson Cole and Rene Pape as soloists, with the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoperchor. (That’s a choir.) It was recorded live in Vienna in 1992, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. If you want to buy the CD, the cover looks like this:

 

Apart from checking on the time for that tenor note… close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Mozart Requiem, K 626, V. Sanctus

lakme

Music Monday #3: The Ahhh Factor

I’ve been feeling pretty anxious the last few days, due to factors in life that can’t be controlled or changed. Usually, if anxiety shows up, I clam up, which means I don’t do anything with music other than listen to it. That might sound perfectly lovely, but I generally sing along. If I find myself riding silently while U2 is playing in the car, I know I have a problem. So I have to force myself to sing along, instead.

I can’t be sure why this helps, but I have my theories, one of which is that singing (properly) requires controlled breathing and controlled posture. Sorta like yoga. And controlled breathing can really help with those times when your nerves are shot. It doesn’t really matter what you sing; all that matters is that you sing. At least, that’s all that matters to me, because I always wind up feeling better. Even if all I’m singing is U2.

So with that in mind, I was trying to think of something I’ve sung that I’ve found the most relaxing. And what I realized is that, although some things go much farther toward relaxing me if I’m just listening… it doesn’t matter what I sing; the effect is the same. More fodder for my controlled breathing theory. The other theory, for me at least, is simply that singing puts me in a better place, and a place in which I have to concentrate if I want to do the job. I can’t – and don’t – think about anything else once the music starts. My focus has to be completely on the notes, the language, the conductor (if applicable) and the demands of the piece. The fact that the complexities of music simply shove everything else out of the way makes singing work better for me than any other form of stress relief.

All this is very helpful… for me. But if you need something to which you can just listen and be relaxed, I think I have the piece for you. And it’s not even obscure. It’s the Flower Duet from Lakme’. You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I bet you’ve heard at least four measures.

Lakme’ is an opera composed by Leo Delibes. It’s set in India, under British rule in the mid 19th century… but it’s sung in French. (That happens a lot in opera. Stories set in China but sung in Italian, etc.) Lakme’ is the daughter of a Brahmin priest. She, of course, falls in love with a British imperialist soldier. But Lakme’s father is enraged that the soldier has been on his property and vows to avenge his daughter’s honor, yadda yadda yadda. The Flower Duet’s actual title is “Sous le dome epais,” (there should be some accents in there that I can’t make happen… an ^ over the O in “dome” and a ‘ over the E in “epais.”) It’s sung very early in the opera… first thing, in fact. It’s called the Flower Duet because Lakme’ and her servant, Mallika, are singing it together while they gather flowers from a riverbed.

It’s been used in a lot of commercials, which drives me crazy, because a few of them have taken some liberties that I find offensive. Anyway, British Airways and Godiva Chocolates have both used it in major ad campaigns in recent years, and it can be heard playing in the background of a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s “The American President” when President Shepard goes to Sydney’s house for dinner. (I can’t find a clip online. Grrr.)

What entrances me about this piece, and particularly this recording from Dame Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbie’, is how absolutely flawless it is, and how effortless it sounds. If you don’t sing this kind of music (arguably a coloratura, which Sutherland was famous for), you have no idea how hard it is to make a duet this closely composed sound like it’s a walk in the park. The lilts, the ebbs and flows, the turns of musical phrase in perfect symmetry in volume, accent and tenuto (which means a sort of drawing out of a note) are astonishing. Opera singers are often divas and don’t really worry about whether another singer can keep up, but Sutherland and Berbie’ clearly listen to each other so well and so closely, and the music is written so impeccably, that the recording can do nothing but make you feel good. So, sit back, relax, close your eyes and click here. (And then possibly click the play button, I dunno).

Happy Music Monday.

westminster-choir-600

The Royal Whoa… Music Monday #2

Alright, fine, I give. It’s Music Monday, so I can’t post about Osama bin Laden. And I’ve been trying not to, but I have to mention the royal wedding. I was so trying not to, but then I realized that it fit in perfectly with the second entry for Music Monday. I don’t know about you all, but if you’re anything like me, you didn’t particularly want to watch the wedding, but it sort of found you and made you do it. I wound up seeing 90 minutes of it – the ceremony itself, actually, sans commentary, replayed on MSNBC on Friday night. (Huzzah… no banality! I don’t need you to point out the various members of the Ministry of Silly Hats; I can see them just fine myself.) Once we got past the fact that the new Duchess of Cambridge was truly lovely in her gown and veil, the ceremony became all about the music, for me. Weddings are weddings. It’s the music that gets you.

The first thing that struck me was that everyone was singing. As a cantor at my church, I know it’s not easy to get everyone to do that… although there’s long been a tacet understanding that Protestants are better about this than Catholics. (Perhaps I could get them to sing if I were a royal. “I am wearing a sword. You shall sing.”) Anyway, I love the sound of voices raised together, because it transcends individual talent or ability, and magically, it sounds beautiful, whether they’re singing a hymn or a Garth Brooks tune.

When the congregation – all 1,900 voices – joined in “Jerusalem,” I couldn’t help but grin. I sang “Jerusalem” when I was 13 years old, and I found it a fascinating and purposeful piece. The lyrics are a poem written by William Blake, about the theory that perhaps Jesus was in England for part of those missing years of His life between the ages of 12 (presentation in the temple) and 30 (the beginning of his public/biblically accounted ministry). Did He go to England? I would imagine it would have been tough to get there from Mesopotamia back then, but the hymn is a gorgeous, anthemic what-if.

Beyond that, though, I was glued to the stunning strains of the chorus. What a beautiful sound those men and boys made.  No matter what they were bringing to life, it was flawless. But there was one piece in particular that stood out, to me. It was the psalm, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” I thought the composition sounded very familiar, not because I’d heard the piece before, but because I suspected I knew the composer. This was when I started wishing there were a banner on the screen telling viewers what piece was being sung and by whom it had been composed. So I went to the Google machine the next day and looked it up.

Hot dog, I win! I correctly guessed that the composer was John Rutter. Do I get a commemorative Will & Kate Plate?

Rutter is a contemporary British composer, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and renowned for his choral writing. I have known his work since I was 13. In fact, one of the first pieces I sang with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, back in 1990, was something he wrote. In my early teens, I sang several of his pieces, and as I have gotten older, I’ve been lucky to sing even more of them. Sometimes they’re a little schmaltzy, but they’re always soaring. My choir friends and I joke that one is not allowed to breathe while performing his stuff… ever. His phrases are lovely, long and legato. If you could see his scores, you would see extended, sweeping lines drawn over the staffs and under the notes to indicate that you-are-absolutely-not-allowed-to-breathe-here-or-here-or-here-or-here-no-I’m-not-kidding-it-sounds-better-this-way-trust-me.

He’s right.

 So, in honor of the marriage of HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, I present to you one of my favorite John Rutter pieces: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” The blessing is old. The idea is simple. The piece is breathtaking and timeless. And it’s one of the first choral pieces I ever sang. This performance is by the Westminster Abbey Choir - the same folks who sang at the wedding. I don’t know for what occasion they sang it. My personal belief is that they cheat because they breathe too much… but still, it’s lovely.

I always encourage you to find higher-quality recordings on the music downloading service of your choice, be it iTunes or whatever. And always… close your eyes, give up distraction and simply listen.

Enjoy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZN1mryHEnQ&feature=related

music

And Now For Something Completely Different…

There’s more to me than snark, you know.

No, really, there is.

And so I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking about mercilessly exposing you to what is probably my greatest passion in life, without even asking you if you want me to.

I’m talking to, like, five people, so it’s not like I’m jeopardizing a massive following, here. But I kind of like you guys, so hopefully you won’t desert me. I’ll get back to funny snark on Tuesdays, I promise.

What I’m thinking about doing is a Music Monday series. I’ve worked this out scientifically, based on the following transitive property of singlecell’s version of math: Mondays suck.  Music makes us happy. So, if I do a Music Monday series, then theoretically, I could make readers/listeners happier on a day that is famed for suckitude.

I like it.

Here’s the catch: my passion is classical, choral and opera music.

Ohhhhh, you say. If you could look worriedly at one another, you would.

So why am I doing this to you?

You could blame it on my middle school music teacher, Amy Sullivan. She recognized that I had a fair voice, and recommended me for the Indianapolis Children’s Choir’s Choral Festival, held every summer since the ICC’s founding in 1986. The festival is like camp, but without the sleepovers and mean pranks. I went, and spent a week immersed in music. At the end of the week, the camp kids got to sing a concert with the choir kids. And after that, the choir held auditions for the camp kids interested in becoming members.

You know I totally signed up. And I made it.

For the next three years, I sang under the incomparable direction of Henry Leck, the founder of ICC. He taught us sight-reading, technique, mechanics, theory and solfege (that Do Re Me stuff that Julie Andrews whipped out in The Sound of Music… only actually educational). He also taught us discipline, focus, self-confidence and listening. And languages. In three years, I sang in 15 languages. Kids are sponges. They absorb this kind of stuff so easily it’s ridiculous. And I was a total sponge for this. I fell in love.

At 13, I was part of a 65-singer ensemble who traveled to New York City for an international children’s choral festival. We sang in Carnegie Hall, performing several pieces ourselves, and then performing several others with about 750 other kids.

Let me say that again: when I was 13, I got to sing in Carnegie Hall.

Hi. That’s insane.

Two years later, I had the incredible fortune of going on tour to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. We sang in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. (Hawaii was just a two-day respite before we got home.) We stayed in homestays with the families of the kids we performed with in Canberra, Melbourne and Auckland. I’m still friends with my Melbourne family.  In Sydney, we sang in the Opera House, just to see what it sounded like. (There are several concert halls and performances spaces in the Opera House, each one represented by one of the “sails” of the architecture. Each hall is acoustically built for a specific type of music performance. You can learn more about it here.)

That choir was the single most formative experience of my life. When I was too old to sing with them anymore (women’s voices change, too, and at the time, the choir limited singers to age 8 – 15; it’s been expanded greatly since, as other subdivisions have been added over the years) I kept singing with my school choir. In college, my classes, internships and jobs interfered with choir, so I took voice lessons instead. After I graduated, I was working all kinds of screwy hours and couldn’t sing anywhere; I stopped  four years. Then one day I was sitting in church, thinking about how much I missed my music. Duh. I joined my parish’s choir and started cantoring at mass (leading the congregation, without the choir).

Life carried me to other states after ICC. In 2005, I heard my local choral arts society perform. I’m referring to them as the “local” choral arts society because I’m mysterious and don’t tell the blogosphere where I live, exactly, but don’t take it to mean this is a podunk group. We’re talking the best talent in the (culturally significant) city, under the direction of a stellar musical mind, and in a strong and mutually beneficial partnership with the “local” (astounding, amazing) symphony orchestra, which is captained by a world-renowned conductor.

I had to audition. Somehow, I got into the group, and found myself surrounded by brilliant singers with far more knowledge and training than I– several of whom had taken classes from Henry Leck. I was challenged, I was learning… I was loving it. In 2007, I went with the choir to France to perform Mozart’s Requiem in Paris, Oiron and Montelimar. I can’t go into the absolute awe of this trip here, but I’m sure I’ll tell you about it another time. When I took my current job, I had to give up the choir; it was the single most difficult part of taking the job, and my heart still aches for having left.

Music is a universal truth. Not everyone is touched or moved by paintings or sketches, architecture or sculpture, dance or literature. But somewhere along the line, some kind of music will move everyone to tears, or to chest-swelling, breathtaking awe. It has done this to me so many times, because I have been so blessed as to be part of the groups with which I’ve sung, and I’ve been exposed to such wonderful, miraculous music in the process. That’s what I want to share with you, to give you the chance to cry with an indistinguishable, but immutable, emotion at the turn of a phrase… or to feel your breath catch in your throat as a note soars… or to wonder at the brilliance of a composer who knew just exactly how to make a feeling sound.

Don’t worry. It won’t hurt a bit.

First installment comes now. This is a piece we sang in New York in that festival. Imagine 800 trained children’s voices filling Carnegie Hall with this sound. “I’m Goin’ Up A-Yonder” is a spiritual, arranged, in this recording, by Walter Hawkins. I’m pretty picky about finding these recordings, so what I find will always be the best representation of my best judgment, though I can’t swear the recording quality will always be top-notch. This is a performance by the Lenoir-Rhyne Youth Chorus in Hickory, NC. I would suggest, with no offense to these beautiful kids, that you close your eyes and listen, rather than watch. I hope it moves you, as it has moved me every time I’ve heard or thought of it for the last 21 years.

Happy Music Monday.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK5EQnEFwA8