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.

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Featured image from www.hockinghills.com

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.

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