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.

photo 1

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:

photo 3

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.

dalahorse

the puffy down parka and a Dala horse in Minneapolis

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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.

Lucky in Life

How lucky am I, that I get to have a life of music. That’s what I was thinking Saturday night as I drove home from a second day of fun and successful rehearsals with Les Sirènes.

Whenever I get frustrated by the many challenges of a performing career — the travel, the financial uncertainty of stringing gigs together into a livelihood, the pressure of performance, the danger of slipping into professional envy of another singer’s great gigs — I say to myself, “wait, you are making A LIVING doing the thing you love most.” It may not be an easy living, but since I don’t love anything else as much as I love singing, it sure beats doing anything else.

Les Sirenes performance

One of the things that makes all the pressures easier to handle is my colleagues. It’s hard to describe how wonderful it is to be in rehearsal with others who breath music, sharing knowledge and opinions and laughs, or to take the stage in performance together, the electricity between us radiating out into the audience.

Sometimes in the middle of a rehearsal or performance I look around me, and I can hardly believe that I’ve made it to a point in my career when I get to make music at the highest level with other musicians who are leaders in their field.

Knowing so many professionals comes in handy in a pinch, too.

In 2009 I formed Les Sirènes, a Boston-based baroque chamber music group, with my dear friend Kristen Watson. Freelancers have crazy schedules, and it turned out that Kristen and our harpsichordist Michael Sponseller weren’t available for our concert yesterday in Durham. Our cellist Cora Swenson Lee and I made calls to a soprano and a keyboardist we’d worked with in other groups, and we quickly had two very excellent substitutes lined up for the trip to North Carolina.

In just two days of rehearsing with Clara Rottsolk and Dylan Sauerwald we pulled together a polished and moving concert of French baroque music. We were able to work quickly because we communicated so many ideas on the fly without words, and because we enjoyed each other’s company and musicianship so much. Our concert was two hours of joy for me and I think also for our audience, many of whom were moved to tears by our closing piece, Couperin’s luscious Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres.

Regrettably, I did not get a recording of the concert since I failed to ensure there was space on my recorder’s memory card (and oh, am I grumpy about that). But we have the pictures to prove it, and maybe we’ll get to do it again sometime.

Les Sirenes

Thank you to my gracious and talented colleagues, and to all the people who support my career and the lives of musicians everywhere.

Kickstarter Adventure

Our Voices of a New Renaissance concerts last weekend were a huge success. They were musically excellent and exciting, and the size and response of our two audiences were better than we’d even dared to dream. We ran out of programs Saturday night! We now have an official group photo:

VOANR group photo

And it’s on to Phase Two. Now that we’ve successfully launched VOANR, it’s time to plan for the group’s future. We want to make an even bigger impression with our next concerts, to reach new audiences and cement VOANR’s place in the Triangle’s music scene. To fund our January 31-February 1 Love and Loss concerts, we’re raising funds through a project on Kickstarter.

I’ve been a Backer to several (7, according to Kickstarter) friends’ Kickstarter projects, and I’ve always looked forward to being involved in a project of my own. So far it’s been a blast. First, N and I created a goofy project video. And then we launched our project

Kickstarter project

— and then we waited to see if people were as excited as we were, and if they’d become Backers.

The response has been overwhelming. The generosity of our fans, friends and families is thrilling, encouraging and humbling. In the first 72 hours we exceeded 20% of our goal. I’m pretty addicted to checking our project’s dashboard on Kickstarter’s site:

Kickstarter dashboard

Now we just have to start writing amusing and informative email updates to our Backers, and to keep up the momentum until we reach our goal. Click here to see where we are.

A Musical Launch

For a couple years N and I have talked about starting a professional choir here in the Triangle, and last spring we decided to stop talking and make it happen. There isn’t a professional choir here that specializes in early music, nor one that performs across the entire 3-city area, so that gave us inspiration for our group: Voices of a New Renaissance.

VOANR logo

Our first concerts are tonight and tomorrow. We’ve gathered ten of the best singers from around the Triangle,

Voices of a New Renaissance members

(one of them missing from this photo, but official group photos coming soon!) and our rehearsals so far have been thrilling.

The program for this weekend is titled Sacred and Profane and it explores both the sacred and the secular sides of vocal music. We’ll sing Renaissance favorites like Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” (and its little-performed second part, “Sitivit anima mea”) and “Hosanna to the Son of David” by Weelkes, plus selections from Britten’s multi-movement “Sacred and Profane” which is stunning, and Craig Wiggins joins us for lute songs by Dowland and his contemporaries.

N is conducting, and I volunteered to manage the business aspects of the group, along with singing in the choir of course. I always need to have a project going, and I’ve enjoyed the organizational and promotional aspects of the smaller groups I’ve managed, Les Sirènes and the Swara Sonora Trio. Running VOANR seemed like a logical next step. N and I have been busy getting everything up and running, but so far it feels like everything is totally under control. Are we crazy?

If you’re in the Triangle area, please join us tonight or tomorrow. Complete concert details are on our website, www.voanr.com. If you’re far away and you want to follow VOANR’s progress, find us on Facebook or join our email list.

And wish us luck!