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.

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Music for a Siege

Ever since grad school I’ve been interested in Latin American baroque music. I always jump at an opportunity to sing it, so I was excited when my friend Pablo Mahave-Veglia invited me back to Grand Valley State University in Michigan to perform Bolivian composer Estanislao Miguel Leyseca’s Miserere with faculty and students there.

GVSU early music ensemble

Early European music from Central and South America is a hot topic in the musicology world these days — after all, there’s not much new classical music left to be discovered in the Old World, but scholars are busy digging up manuscripts from church and cathedral archives on this side of the pond, and creating new editions like this one.

Leyseca score and program

The Leyseca Miserere is not actually baroque. It was written in 1781, and that date would place it in the Classical period. However, music from Latin America of that time is a fascinating mix of styles and periods. Because Spanish settlements in the New World were separated from Europe by so much time and space, there wasn’t the same concept of current fashion or of musical elements going out of style. Composers were free to draw on whatever influences and traditions they chose. In the Miserere there were grand choral movements reminiscent of Monteverdi’s great Vespers of 1610, solo movements that made me think of the Mozart C Minor Mass (written one year after Leyseca’s work) I was preparing at the same time, and a little of everything in between. It was wacky, but a lot of fun, kind of like A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas but for real.

I’m glad I attended the pre-concert lecture by Dr. Bernardo Illari, the musicologist who prepared our performing edition. He gave the context for the Miserere, which Leyseca (who immigrated to Bolivia from Sevilla, Spain) composed during a siege. While a group of the native Aymara people trapped the inhabitants of La Paz inside the city for six months, Leyseca wrote the Miserere as a musical show of strength and European dominance. I had never before thought of the political implications of Latin American classical music. Now I’m not sure what to think about this fascinating music, written and usually performed entirely by Europeans, to subjugate a native population whose land and power had already been stolen.

Dr. Illari’s lecture has given me something to ponder, and not just in the case of Latin American colonial music. Doesn’t so much music throughout the course of history have a political agenda? Performers can get away with ignoring this fact; musicologists can’t. Since I didn’t have all the answers in time for last Saturday’s performance, I decided to appreciate Leyseca’s Miserere for what it is musically — eclectic and charming — to have fun making music with good people, and to enjoy my time in the pretty city of Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids