Moons and Loons

I have to admit, I’ve traveled to many beautiful places in my life. Quite a few of them I could describe as paradise: Bali, Carmel, the Tuscan countryside

And now I have another paradise to add to that list — Western Montana. N and I were just there for the biennial family reunion of his big and wonderful extended family. Each family had a cabin on Seeley Lake, a place where the sunsets looked like this (this was actually the view from our cabin):

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The temperatures were in the 80s every day but dry, and at night it would dip into the 40s. Besides the family activities, meals and singing, there were many things to do in the area, like canoeing on the lake, hiking to stunning waterfalls,

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and visiting nearby Glacier National Park, which might be the most beautiful place I have ever laid eyes on.

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Being more accustomed to the arid Southwest — a different kind of beauty — I was amazed by the abundance of lakes, rivers and streams, full of crystal-clear blue-green snowmelt.

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The bugs were few and the air smelled fresh with tamaracks and other conifers. It really couldn’t have been more perfect. Lest you fear that this was a nature-only trip and that I missed out on indulging my love of food and of ice cream in particular, a trip into Missoula (a very hip town) for the farmers market yielded ripe local cherries and huckleberries, and on the way back from Glacier we stopped in Bigfork for highly recommended, absolutely delicious huckleberry ice cream.

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The days were long — darkness didn’t fall until 10:00 pm and the sky began to lighten around 4:00 in the morning — and we were there for the full moon, so nights were bright enough to walk along the lake listening to the cries of the loons. I’d never before heard the eery but entrancing call of the loon, and it added a soundtrack to the smells and sights of the cool Montana nights.

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As I fantasized about moving to Montana, I had to remind myself that winters there are long and cold. And snowy. I’m pretty spoiled living in North Carolina where the weather is survivable all year long. North Carolina is nice. But it’s not paradise. And so I know for sure I’ll be back to Montana someday.

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Soprano in Tuscany

One of the best things about my trip to Rome last month was that I got to see a lot of my best friend Lauren, who is living and working there now.

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On Lauren’s balcony

On my last weekend in Italy, N had to head home and I stayed with Lauren and her adorable family. On Thursday that week she texted me that they were thinking of going to the beach in Tuscany that weekend, and was I interested? I had to think about that one for oh, half a second. Probably less.

So Saturday morning they picked me up in their shiny red Fiat 500L, and we drove north. We were headed to Capalbio, their favorite beach town — really a collection of villages scattered across the green hills that roll into the Mediterranean — in southern Tuscany. After only an hour and a half on the road we came to this:

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the customs-house-turned-B&B where we stayed overnight. Look idyllic? Check out the view from the grounds:

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There were ostriches and donkeys on the property so that the B&B could qualify as an agritourism venue, as well as an olive grove and a beautiful rose garden.

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We spent several hours each day on the beach. The setup was just like N and I experienced  in Rome — we rented chairs and bought lunch (wonderful cheese and fried calamari; slightly different fare from what you’d get at an American beach snack bar) at the bar. The beach was much quieter and less crowded than in Rome, and the Mediterranean sea even bluer. There was an exhibition of kite surfers all weekend, and while the kids ran and played we sat in our chairs and watched the kites float across the sky.

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We drove up to the old town, perched atop a high hill, to get views of the landscape below,

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to walk around its sweet stone buildings,

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and to enjoy an afternoon snack, including my last gelato of the trip.

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Cioccolato, vaniglia, and frutti di bosco: a cut above Neapolitan ice cream

The entire weekend I felt like I was in a movie, or maybe a tourism brochure. It was that beautiful, sunny, and peaceful in Capalbio. And being led around by friends who know and love the area and took me to all their favorite places made it even better.

Everything was lovely. After an amazing long night of countryside sleep, I woke up in the bright morning to find this gorgeous crostata which the innkeeper had left for us in the living area and Lauren had delivered to our little apartment:

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We ate well, saw a lot, and relaxed plenty. Even the somewhat horrific traffic on our way back into Rome couldn’t dampen my happiness on my last night in Italia. It was a perfect ending to a very special vacation.

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La Spiaggia: At the beach, Italian style

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The Italian vacation to which I alluded in January is come and gone. And it was wonderful. I ate so much great gelato, pizza and pasta that I will have to do a separate posting on the food. Since N and I spent 9 days in Rome for our honeymoon in 2012, we’d already done a lot of the must-do things in that city, and we were free to plan each day — or not — as it came. This time, after a few days, we were ready to get out of the city. We opted to head to the beach.

From Rome, you can take the Metro straight to the beach at Ostia Lido. It’s only about half an hour from the city, and you can transfer to the train to the beach on the same 1.50 Euro ticket that got you started on your journey. It’s a bargain and a great getaway from Rome that doesn’t even have to take your whole day (which is good because we got a late start after a lazy morning and a trip to our neighborhood outdoor market for our picnic lunch).

Since the journey was ridiculously affordable and we were warned that the public beaches might be crowded, we planned to pay to enter one of the private beaches, and we went armed with the name of a recommended beach. All the beaches have their own bars (a bar is a coffee shop that also serves beer and wine, some cold food like pastries and panini, and maybe even hot food) and usually bathrooms and chair rentals, but private beaches offer more space and well, privacy. They have fancier bars or maybe even nice restaurants serving fresh seafood, and if you want to shell out, you can rent a private cabin for changing. It seemed like it would be a fun cultural experience.

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But we got sidetracked by a cultural experience of a different kind. On the train, we were befriended by an old Italian man. Actually, he engaged us in friendly conversation with several people on the train, and they all discussed the beach we had chosen and what bus would get us there once we got off the train.

Then our friend offered to take us to his favorite beach. With our limited Italian we gathered that it was the public beach where he, retired and with a free senior citizen pass for the Metro, goes every single day. We made sure there were bathrooms, umbrella rentals, and of course, a bar, and then decided we’d follow him. Why pass up the opportunity to experience something alongside a local? Also, his beach was a short walk from the Metro, two stops closer to the city, so we’d be on the sand faster and with a guide to get there we didn’t have to worry about taking the wrong bus and ending up somewhere way down the coast.

When we got off the train, the old man showed us the fountain where he always fills his water bottle (Rome has these ubiquitous and wonderful drinking fountains that continuously dispense safe, delicious drinking water), and then treated us to coffees at a bar on the way down the street! He delivered us to the beach, negotiated with the attendant for us to pay 5 Euros instead of 6 (too much, he said) for an umbrella, then shook our hands and went to his favorite spot to bake in the sun.

Sure, the beach was crowded.

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It was full of young Italians — not under umbrellas — and young central and eastern Europeans as white as us, who were more likely to be protecting themselves from the sun. We lounged under our umbrella for hours, taking breaks to splash in the (still chilly) Mediterranean waters and walk along the beach. We ate our picnic of bread, cheese, and ripe cherries, and didn’t even need a trip to the bar for further provisions. Our friend came to say goodbye to us, and we left not long after him, wandering our way back to the Metro for a tired, contended ride back into Rome.

 

 

 

Gigging on the rails

I spend an awful lot of time on airplanes, but my true love, transportation-wise, is the train. Relaxing in a quiet train car is so much more comfortable and civilized than being buckled into a tiny seat at 35,000 feet, the views from the train are wonderful and you have time to take them in, and then there’s that old-fashioned romance of riding the rails.

I was pretty excited, then, when my flight arrival in New Mexico last month turned out to be early enough for me to take the commuter train, the Rail Runner, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. I’ve wanted to take that ride since the Rail Runner began service in 2008, but the timing never worked out and I usually have to take the Sandia Shuttle whose vans and drivers are perfectly nice but you know, it’s not the train.

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We left downtown Albuquerque on a gorgeous sunny morning,

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and began a scenic journey past mesas and arroyos,

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through Indian pueblos,

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and finally into sight of Santa Fe and the stunning blue of its Sangre de Cristo mountains.

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It was Spring Break week for Albuquerque students, so a lot of families were riding up to Santa Fe for lunch or shopping. Despite the happy chaos, the ride was relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable. Sometimes the Rail Runner’s tracks closely parallel I-25 and you can see the cars and drivers streaming up the highway to Santa Fe, but for a lot of the ride the tracks are hidden from view of the road and it can feel like you and the people you’re riding with are the only souls for miles around, the lone beings enjoying the quiet blues and yellows of the scenery in all directions.

In Bernalillo I got some seat mates, a woman and her two adorable young granddaughters who were on their way to Tomasita’s for lunch. It was fun to visit with them, and I told the woman about my concert with Santa Fe Pro Musica and what I was doing in New Mexico that week. She said she’d try to come. People say that all the time. But, lo and behold, she appeared at my final concert with her parents as her guests, and I was surprisingly delighted to see her there. It’s like sharing that train journey forged some kind of relationship between us,something more real than what happens when you chat with a stranger on a plane or in a checkout line.

It was the perfect way to kick off a wonderful, sunny week of great music in Santa Fe.

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This Gig brought to you by Green Chile

I am in Santa Fe — probably my favorite place on earth — this week for Baroque Holy Week concerts with Santa Fe Pro Musica. They’re in the magical Loretto Chapel, and I’m singing two great pieces: Pergolesi’s Salve Regina in C minor and Handel’s Gloria.

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In case you haven’t figured out by now, I like to experience places not just by their sights and sounds, but just as importantly by their tastes. And I have some favorite tastes from this favorite place of mine. Last summer I rhapsodized over Ecco Gelato, which scoops up arguably the best gelato in the U.S. Today I’m here to talk to you about green chile.

In New Mexico, chile — both the green made from fresh chiles and the red made from dried chiles — is a culinary staple. New Mexican cuisine features red or green chile sauce, or both (which is called Christmas), on almost every dish. And any self-respecting non-New Mexican restaurant will let you add green chile to your eggs or your burger or your pizza or your pasta.

New Mexicans put chile in everything, from nuts, to popcorn, to hummus, to candy.

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When I was in Indonesia five years ago with the Swara Sonora Trio, several people we met told us that spicy chile (also an important ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine) was good for singing voices. I decided to take that questionable fact and run with it. I ate a lot of spicy sambal that month.

This week I am off and running again, moments after arriving in Santa Fe Tuesday morning. I checked into my hotel and then hopped down the street to the Guadalupe Cafe for a lunch of cheese enchiladas with Christmas.

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I used to think Guadalupe Cafe had the best green chile in town, but they’ve moved and the menu is different and it just didn’t taste the same. The red chile was pretty good but the green had little taste. Still, it was a tasty meal.

Unfortunately, like many singers I have problems with GERD (acid reflux), so I have to be judicious about my consumption of GERD-activating foods. I waited a couple days until my next green chile experience: a green chile grilled cheese sandwich at Luminaria, which paired nicely with their slightly spicy black bean soup.

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I was wondering whether I could squeeze in two more chile meals before leaving tomorrow, but yesterday I overdid it. I went to one of Santa Fe’s most famous restaurants, Tomasita’s, and ordered their vegetarian combination plate.

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I admit with shame that I scarfed down the enchilada, taco, most of the beans, rice and chile sauces, and then followed it with a sopapilla (which was really not a good choice — fried dough after all that cheese and chile? but it was soooooo good torn into bits with honey poured into the pockets). The red chile was very good, but I should stop kidding myself and ordering Christmas all the time, because I’m a green chile girl. Tomasita’s green was wonderful, and I’m sure I wouldn’t hurt red chile’s feelings by leaving it off my plate next time.

Chile may be good for the singing voice, but acid reflux is not. I spent the rest of the day getting mine under control with ginger tea, carrots, and a carefully timed lavender gelato. Luckily I still sang well last night, and finished the Handel Gloria at quite a clip!

But that will be my last green chile experience this trip. Unless I think I can swing a breakfast burrito at the airport tomorrow morning…

All Grown Up, and teaching to prove it

I have a lot to catch up on. My crazy traveling months of 2014 are over, with just a couple lovely gigs left before the 2013-2014 season calls it quits. I’ve been too busy to sit down and compose thoughtful blogs, but I’ve been saving up experiences and ideas to write about once I finally got to this quieter time.

One of my favorite — and most nerve-racking — experiences was teaching a master class at my alma mater, Brown University, last month.

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I’ve enjoyed my first year of college teaching immensely, and I feel like my ECU students are training me to become a better teacher each week I work with them. But a master teacher? I wasn’t so sure about that. The only time I’ve taught master classes was 5 years ago when the Swara Sonora Trio went on tour to Indonesia, and most of those were team-taught with my baritone friend and colleague Nathan Krueger. Even worse, I knew that my beloved high school and college voice teacher, Kathryne Jennings, would be there, and that I’d be working with some of her students. What could I possibly have to say to the students of — and standing before — the woman who taught me so much of what I know about singing and performing?

I figured I would probably survive, but I was nervous. Just being back in Providence on an unseasonably warm March day though, made me happy and more relaxed. There’s nothing like visiting your college town, returning to familiar haunts and sparking memories of those formative years when you were figuring out just who you were.

Before my class I walked around campus. Never one to miss an old favorite (or new and exciting, for that matter) food, I stopped along Thayer Street at my favorite crêpe & smoothie place,

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and then checked out how much has changed since I graduated. For example, the old Silver Truck upon whose questionable late-nite food offerings so many students of my era gambled their lives has been replaced by much more upscale offerings:

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and the recital hall, where I gave all my recitals and so many other performances of my college years, has gotten a very spiffy acoustic and aesthetic overhaul, including a sleek modern lobby:

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But many things look exactly the same. The music building, occupying the old Orwig mansion, didn’t seem to have changed at all.

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Looking for a place to compose myself before I taught, I ducked into the seminar room where I spent many an early morning class attempting be coherent. It seemed as if I’d last walked into the building (likely a couple minutes late) and made a beeline for that hallway just months ago.

I got to see Kathryne just before the class started. She gave me a big hug and assured me that I would do well.

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She was treating me like a colleague and I felt like one, but at the same time I was transported back to the comfort of our student-teacher relationship, when she created confidence by helping me prepare for every aspect of a good performance. I flashed back to so many words of encouragement before student recitals, and somehow it made me feel like a professional.

And I had a lot of fun. I realized I had something to say after all, and I worked on different things with each student, from phrasing and articulation, to different tricks and tools for increasing breath support, to interpretation and acting. All the students were smart and engaged, and reminded me why I loved my years at Brown, being surrounded by people like that, so much. I’m pretty sure I said some of the things Kathryne says to her students all the time but heck, teachers always like to hear someone else reinforce their ideas. My moment of triumph and complete assurance came when I noticed that Kathryn was taking notes on a few of the things I said. Some ideas I’ve picked up from other people along the way, and integrated into my teaching, were worth writing down!

It was my wonderful Brown Chorus director, Fred Jodry, who asked me to come back to Brown to teach a master class, and by miracle it worked out perfectly for my one free day while I was in Boston to sing with Musicians of the Old Post Road. Fred and I have kept in touch all this time (he’s good at that), and in fact in recent years he has just happened to be in several places I’ve performed, from New York to San Francisco. Fred was a young, cool professor when I was at Brown, and he still seems pretty young and cool to me. In fact, no one I saw seemed any different than I remembered them, but I suppose we have all aged and learned more than a decade’s worth since I was an undergrad.

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When the class had ended and I had answered the last student’s question, Fred and Kathryne and I went for a lovely dinner at the Waterman Grille on the river. It was warm, civilized and relaxed, and we hadn’t run out of things to talk about before I needed to hit the road back to Boston.

Only recently have I had experiences that made me feel like a “real grownup.” My transition from grad school to a performing career was so gradual that there was a never a moment when I felt “ah, now I am an adult.” Even getting married to N didn’t do it, because that just felt natural, and I moved into the house he’d already bought before he met me.

Shopping for flooring and installing hardwood in our house last fall finally did it. Buying our first-ever new car in December was further confirmation that maybe I was a real grownup. And this master class was finally a professional experience that made me feel like a real grownup, like maybe, just maybe, I know what I’m doing. So I’m really glad Fred asked me. And having not only survived but actually having had a pretty darn good time teaching a master class, I look forward to doing it again.

 

 

A Lifetime of Memories with Monteverdi

Earlier this month I got to perform Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 with Seraphic Fire. Not only are the Vespers an awe-inspiring, joyful work that I could sing every day of my life, but all my performances of it have been under extraordinary and memorable circumstances.

They’ve all been with Seraphic Fire. Some great friends and colleagues have been along for one or two, or all three of our Vespers experiences. The first was in the winter of 2009, when we went to Kalamazoo, Michigan to record the work in collaboration with the top choir from Western Michigan University.

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It was my first really serious recording session, and the first of several I’ve done with GRAMMY-winning producer Peter Rutenberg.

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That album made it to the top of the iTunes classical chart, and garnered Seraphic Fire its first major national publicity with a story on NPR’s All Things Considered.

But long before the album was released, the epic recording session and winter weather we survived generated memories and stories we’re still telling today. We were all a bit younger then,

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With my “Pulchra es” duet partner, Abigail Haynes Lennox

and before the recording session we sang a concert in the middle of a Wisconsin blizzard.

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Gabby’s reaction to the blizzard (note snowflakes on hair)

Luckily we lived to tell it all, and most importantly to perform the Vespers again.

The next year, we sang the Vespers in Miami, Coral Gables and Ft. Lauderdale, and then took them on tour to Mexico City. We gave three very special performances, two in the Catedral Metropolitana at the center of the city’s Zócalo,

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and one at the splendid Art Deco concert hall Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Carnegie Hall of Mexico.

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This time I got to duet with the lovely Rebecca Duren, and it was when I first met the incredible lutenist John Lenti.

You better bet that tour yielded extra-musical stories and experiences, too. There was the manifestación (protest) that delayed our first rehearsal in the Catedral. There was our triumphant climbing of the pyramids at Teotihuacan,

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a day spent in Chapultepec Park,

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and of course all the delicious Mexican food we ate during our week there.

As Patrick always says, you never know when or if you’re going to perform a great work again. Lucky for me, Mexico 2010 wasn’t my last Vespers. Seraphic Fire was invited to perform the work at the ACDA Eastern Division Conference in Baltimore this month. We gave two overwhelmingly received headliner concerts in the beautiful – visually and acoustically – Baltimore Basilica, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S. We also got to stay at the very nice convention hotel on the Inner Harbor, which certainly didn’t make the trip less pleasant.

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The view from my room in Baltimore

This time we collaborated with the fully professional choir of DC’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They were wonderful. We did most of our rehearsing at the Shrine, and after our Baltimore concerts we returned to DC to perform the Vespers one more time at the Shine, an unbelievable 3,000-person worship space.

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Theorbo dream team of John Lenti and David Walker in the Basilica

Musically these were stunning and rewarding performances. The week was even more meaningful for me because I got to temporarily live and work in DC again. I lived there ten years ago, before heading to Arizona for graduate school. Even though I knew I wanted to go away and gain the polish I needed from grad school, I loved living in Washington and always thought I’d return.

While Seraphic Fire was there we stayed in an Embassy Row hotel (also amazingly nice – the ensemble is moving up in the world!) within walking distance of my old neighborhood. I got to eat at my very favorite restaurant, Sette, stop in at my old office and great the folks at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and walk up to Woodley Park for brunch with my two best girlfriends from my days there. One of those friends, Susan Lewis Kavinski, sings in the Shrine’s choir and I got to see her all week long in rehearsals and concerts. It was quite a week.

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With Susie at the National Shrine

I sure hope this wasn’t my last chance to sing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. But I have to say, any future performances have a lot to live up to. They can’t be just ho-hum spectacularly artistic concerts, because the work has set a high standard for me in terms of life experiences connected to it, and memories to be made.