Marital Music-making

It’s the beginning of the crazy time (read: Christmas season) for musicians, so I’m late on posting this blog. I didn’t want to miss the chance though, to write about a fun musical day I had a couple weeks ago when my husband conducted an all-Beethoven program,

Nathan Leaf conducting

of the Raleigh Civic Symphony, with his NCSU choirs, and North Carolina Symphony and NCSU faculty players as soloists, in Meymandi Hall downtown.

NCSU at Meymandi Hall

I sang Beethoven’s song “Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe” as a warmup for the Choral Fantasy, which uses the same tune, and it was a delight to sing in that beautiful hall with the talented Tom Koch playing piano with me.

Even more fun, though, was getting to share a dressing room with my husband.

dressing room sign

Since he’s a college choir director and I’m a freelance soprano who travels the country, we don’t get to perform together very often, and it was a treat to prepare together and perform on the same stage. During intermission some of Nathan’s students were walking by our room and one of them said, “oh, they get to share a dressing room because they’re married!” Hey, we’ll take the perks.

And on a side note, having a private dressing room is totally awesome — since many of the groups I sing with perform in churches, I’ve changed in choir rooms, nurseries, and sacristies, and when I was on Arizona Opera’s school tour years ago we had to do costumes, wigs and makeup in an honest-to-goodness custodial closet once — but dressing rooms, even in major halls like Meymandi, aren’t that glamorous. They’re usually in the basement or some other windowless place, and they’re pretty basic: counter, lights, sink, chairs (but usually not very comfortable ones). They do often have private restrooms which is really nice.

inside a dressing room

But you get your name on the door and that’s pretty special. And sometimes it’s your name and your husband’s name on the same door, which is even better.

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Magical Night of Remembrance

To my extreme good fortune, Tucson Chamber Artists’ C Minor Mass concerts coincided with the weekend of Tucson’s All Souls Procession.

All Souls Procession

I’d only been to the procession once before, three years ago. It was my last fall living in Tucson and I was so amazed and moved by the experience that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known more about it, and been attending, all of my seven years in Arizona. When I realized this fall that I’d be able to race from the last Mozart concert to downtown just in time for the procession, I bought some black and white face paint and threw it in my suitcase for the trip.

To understand what the All Soul’s Procession is, you really have to go. It was founded by artists in Tucson as performance art, creating new rituals to mourn and celebrate death. It has become an important festival in the life of Tucson, with 100,000 people walking and/or watching this year. People gather at sunset, paint their faces like Día de los Muertos skeletons, and process across town carrying photos and altars to loved ones who have passed. There are also fantastical, unbelievably creative floats, puppets, and costumes. Photos do the best job of explaining it, and here’s a blog with some wonderful pictures and descriptions.

My father had never been to the procession and wanted to check it out, so after my concert at Grace St. Paul’s Church, we dashed into the bride’s room to apply our makeup. There were people at the procession with much better makeup but we did okay (note for next time: spend more than $1 on your makeup).

All Souls Face Paint

Then we raced downtown, circumventing the closed streets with a clever pre-planned route. I did a reveal-nothing change on the sidewalk — middle school gym class taught me at least one useful thing — and transformed myself into a musical Catrina (thank you to this production of Rameau’s Platée, which I saw at the Santa Fe Opera several years ago, for the inspiration).

Muiscal catrina

It was a soft, warm night in Tucson. We positioned ourselves on a sidewalk a few blocks past the start of the procession so that we could see everything pass by. The All Souls Procession kicked off with the Spirit Group leading the way, carrying urns to collect scraps of paper with our names, remembrances and prayers written on them.

Spirit Group member

And then came everyone else, some in organized groups to remember specific people or bring attention to issues,

Nuclear victim remembrance

Others with floats or puppets (like this amazing cantilevered bee that was a statement about what’s happening to the honeybees in this country),

Bee puppet

and others just walking, faces painted, in remembrance. It’s an event that’s at once somber and festive. There are some musical groups that walk and certainly people are talking and greeting friends they spot along the way, but it’s not especially loud or rowdy. It’s a parade in the dark, but so much more than a parade.

To me the most amazing thing about the All Souls Procession is how community-based, democratic and untamed it is. The streets are closed to traffic, but there are no barricades along the route. The only police car I saw was the one that cleared the way at the beginning of the procession. Most people watch it all go by for a while, and then jump in, spectators becoming participants.

After about 45 minutes, my father and I joined the procession and were swept along the route to the finale grounds. Our prayers were added, along with everyone else’s, to the huge URN that was hoisted above the finale stage by a crane. Tucson’s amazing acrobatics-circus troupe, Flam Chen performed on stilts, dancing with fire, and swinging from giant draping scarves. And then the URN was set on fire, sending our wishes and remembrances into the sky as the stage was filled with flames and smoke.

URN in flames

It was an incredible night, and as moving as I remembered. I’m glad I shared it with my father. My emotions always ride high, just waiting for a chance to well up and overcome me. I guess being an easy crier is a curse of the artistic temperament. There were many moments in this year’s procession that made me tear up, but at least I didn’t smear my makeup like I did three years ago. I can’t wait to do it again, and I sure hope I’ll find myself in Tucson for the All Souls Procession next year.

Mozart Revisited

Last weekend I was in Arizona to sing Mozart’s grand C Minor Mass with Tucson Chamber Artists. It was a musical homecoming, and a chance to reflect on how far we’ve all come in the last seven years.

TCA concert poster

The last time Tucson Chamber Artists (TCA) did the C Minor Mass was in November 2006. It was an ambitious project for TCA and director Eric Holtan — the first large-scale concert for the upstart group then in its third season — and there was a lot of good publicity and excitement in the community in anticipation of the concert.

I sang in that performance, where the soloists stepped out from the choir and the pickup orchestra was made up of some of the best professional and grad student players in town. It was my second season singing with TCA, and I was used to seeing 50-100 people at each performance. We filed into St. Michael and All Angels church to begin the C Minor Mass and were overwhelmed to find ourselves facing a standing-room-only crowd. The excitement inspired everyone to give a thrilling performance, and the audience responded by leaping to their feet in appreciation. I remember getting teary during the final bows for applause that seemed to go on forever. That concert launched TCA as a force in the Tucson music community.

The concert helped launch my solo career, too. In 2006 I’d just finished grad school at the University of Arizona and was beginning to make my way as a professional. I’d had only a handful of opportunities to solo with an orchestra, so I was excited when Eric asked me to sing the “Et incarnatus est.” Here’s Barbara Bonney, one of my heroes, singing it:

I don’t think I knew then how difficult the piece was, and just concentrated on managing my breath as I spun Mozart’s impossibly long, luscious phrases. The ecstatic review we got for that concert (you can still read it online here) was my first personal review, and I still sometimes use the “glorious high notes” quote in my bio.

So here we were seven years later, marking Tucson Chamber Artists’ 10th season with another performance of the C Minor Mass. Now TCA has glossy programs, a CD produced by GRAMMY-winning producer Peter Rutenberg about to be released, and the kind of budget that allows Eric to bring freelancers like me into Tucson for projects. Now I fly around the country performing with orchestras and chamber groups, and have quite a few reviews to my credit. I’ve sung the Et incarnatus est in auditions and competitions — including at Carnegie Hall in this year’s Oratorio Society of New York’s Solo Competition finals — in the years since, but always with piano. This was my first crack at it with orchestra since 2006, and I’ve figured out a few things technically in the past seven years.

Everything came together easily this time. Rehearsals were a breeze. All the musicians were in good moods and excited for this musical celebration. The performances were truly excellent. Our audiences loved us. I was in good voice and felt like I sang both the meandering lines of “Et incarnatus est” and the crazy low notes of the “Christe eleison” about as well I possibly could. It was the kind of work week — musically, personally, and emotionally satisfying — that makes me marvel at the luck that lets me do what I love for a living.

TCA in rehearsalDress rehearsal on Halloween

In the past couple years my mother, who was at some of those very early concerts of Tucson Chamber Artists, has frequently said, “isn’t amazing how far you and Eric have both come since TCA began?” I’ve always agreed, but it didn’t fully hit home until the final minutes of our last performance Sunday. Seven years ago we were good, but this time we were very, very good. Here we were making incredible art for an audience whose love for the music was palpable, and I was surrounded both onstage and in the audience by good friends from different times and places in my life. At the last few bars of the “Hosanna” my eyes welled up, my voice cracked, and I had to drop out of the chorus for a few notes while I got my emotions in check. Every time I perform a great work of music, I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to sing it again — you never know. To revisit a work under such meaningful circumstances, well, that’s another thing entirely.