Puffy Down Perfection

This week I’m heading to Chicago for two awesome concerts with Wayward Sisters. Lucky for me, I’ve missed the Polar Vortex, but it’s still going to be Chicago cold there, with wind chills in the single digits. And that means it’s time to break out my puffy down parka.

puffy down parka

I’ve had this coat since the summer I graduated from high school. I grew up in cold places — the mountains of eastern Arizona and apple country in northern Rhode Island — but when I chose to start college at Northwestern University just outside Chicago I knew I’d have to prepare for a different kind of cold.

I headed to EMS at the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleboro. My friend Anthony happened to be working there that day, and he helped me choose the warmest possible coat to protect me from the single digits and brutal winds of Chicago’s winter. It worked. Back then I wore it with a huge fleece hat and full-size earmuffs underneath said hat. I survived an especially long, cold winter in Evanston thanks to my parka.

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sporting my fleece hat during a college-era visit with my best friend Lauren

I ended up transferring to Brown after that year, and in Providence I only had to break out the puffy down parka for the few coldest days of the year. After one year in Boston post-college I headed south, and haven’t lived north of the Mason-Dixon since. The parka lives in my closet most of the time now, only making an appearance when I travel to far northern climes. The big fleece hat is long gone, and this month I’ll probably pair my parka with the woolen Peruvian hat I bought on a cold night in Querétaro, México four years ago:

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Now they make parkas that are just as warm but more stylish and less, well, puffy. I suppose I could replace my trusty blue parka but it works great, has lots of pockets of just the right sizes and locations, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Well, except for the fact that the zipper pull snapped off in the wash a couple years ago, and it now requires some complicated and dexterous maneuvering to get it zipped. But I’m loyal to my puffy down parka, and it’s taken me lots of places. Just in the past few years it has kept me toasty in Kalamazoo, Green Bay, Chicago, Minneapolis, South Bend, Milwaukee, and Moline. The coldest thermometer reading my coat and I have ever experienced was -15 one night in Green Bay.

NotreDame

with Seraphic Fire at Notre Dame

I’m not a person who needs four seasons. I’d be perfectly happy living somewhere where I could wear skirts and sandals 365 days a year. I hate the cold, but I know how to bundle up against it. And this week, bundle up I will.

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the puffy down parka and a Dala horse in Minneapolis

New Year, New Journeys

Happy New Year, all!

It’s 2014, and that means a whole new year of music and travels for this soprano. The coming months include gigs in Chicago with Wayward Sisters, Raleigh and Durham with Voices of a New Renaissance, Baltimore and Washington with Seraphic Fire, at Duke with the Choral Society of Durham, and across the San Francisco bay area with American Bach Soloists. And that’s just the first 2 months of 2014. Oh, and I forgot to mention the faculty Liederabend at East Carolina University. Don’t tell my mother; she thinks I overschedule myself and unfortunately, as usual, she’s right.

But there’s a gelato-flavored light at the end of the tunnel. In May after I finish my last gig of the 2013-2014 season I get to fly to Rome on a journey purely for fun — to join N on his choir tour, visit dear friends, and eat again at all our favorite restaurants. Serious quantities of frequent flyer miles are a not insignificant consolation prize for all those hours in cramped airplane seats. Just two years ago it was miles that made our Roman honeymoon possible.

I’ll fly right from that last gig (in Miami with Seraphic Fire) to Italy. I’m super excited about this because every time I arrive into Miami’s beautiful terminal,

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I’m happy to be there but partly wish I were connecting on to somewhere else. You see, MIA is the gateway to Latin America and the Carribean. From Raleigh there are 3 direct flights to Miami every day on American, and they’re usually full. But most of those travelers don’t have South Florida as their final destination. They’re either getting on cruise ships to sunny, beachy places, or they’re connecting to another flight to somewhere even more exotic. Here’s are the places I hear as we’re landing and they’re announcing the connecting gates for everyone on the plane:

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I know, it’s obnoxious to whine about going to Miami when most of the country is daydreaming about mojitos on South Beach, but it’s hard to walk by departure boards like this:

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and not indulge in a few dreams of my own. So in May I’ll be wheeling my little suitcase up to a departure gate, passport in hand, making a dream a reality.

Caroling towards Christmas

It’s the busy time of the year. A lot of freelance singers make a substantial portion of their annual income during the month of December, singing the Messiah and other holiday concerts. It’s a fun season, but it can get overwhelming and stressful to have your busiest professional time coincide with the limited weeks to run around buying gifts, visiting loved ones, baking cookies, and juggling holiday parties. That confluence of events isn’t unique to singers or even musicians. Retail workers have it a lot worse, because they’re extra-busy and they have to deal with grumpy, beleaguered shoppers. At least we get to sing for happy audiences who tell us we’ve made their holiday season more special.

And the music is great too. Singers love to complain about the 15 Messiahs they have to sing this year, but really they love it. And though there are plenty of terrible Christmas carol arrangements filling the stores all month, some of those carols are dear to our hearts, and are woven into old and cherished memories.

Christmas carols are some of the earliest songs I can remember singing. The past two weeks I was in Miami singing Seraphic Fire’s Candlelight Christmas concerts. One of the pieces we sang — and recorded for our new Christmas album — was a new arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by the group’s director, Patrick Dupré Quigley.

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I was reminded that this was my Number 1 Favorite Carol when I was a very little girl. I don’t think I knew most of the lyrics or even the carol’s name, but I loved singing that long, melismatic line on the word “gloria.” To a girl of 4 or 5 that “gloria” seemed to cascade up and down forever, and it was just so beautiful. I think I called the carol “Gloria.”

My very favorite carol now, as a grownup, is Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Christina Rossetti’s evocative poem and Holst’s spare and loving musical setting create a magical moment in time. It’s almost like a mini-movie, capturing the wonder of the nativity scene. Seraphic Fire also recorded a new arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the young Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis.

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Her setting is for choir, harp, mezzo-soprano solo, and soprano/mezzo-soprano duet. It’s really lovely — in one section you can hear the snow falling in a gentle repetitive pattern in the alto line — and I was lucky to sing the duet with the incomparable Amanda Crider. I can’t wait for the disc to come out so I can share the piece with you all.

Until then, enjoy the season and all the carols, old and new. What’s your favorite?

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.

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.