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.
Our first concerts are tonight and tomorrow. We’ve gathered ten of the best singers from around the Triangle,
(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?
Last week in Santa Fe I didn’t just eat gelato (though I did plenty of that – oh stracciatella, how I miss thee); I soaked up much of what Santa Fe has to offer, including a night at the Santa Fe Opera. My father, N and I attended Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, starring Joyce DiDonato.
I was excited to see Joyce live, both because she’s a beloved former student of my teacher George and because she’s a great advocate for opera who reaches out to the public in various ways including her blog. It was a thrill to hear her virtuosity and musicianship; all the singers were excellent. Operas at Santa Fe are a magical experience, especially when the sun sets over the red, juniper-dotted hills behind the stage during the opening scenes, or when real lightning snaps across the distant sky during a moment of intense drama.
But, while its music was completely delightful (lots of great wind parts and wonderful, showy Rossini vocal lines), the opera’s story was boring. Like a majority of operas, it had a pretty dumb plot, and in La Donna nothing much even happened. Comic operas may have preposterous dramatic devices but at least they’re generally entertaining. Tragedies and romances, on the other hand, can be pretty darn static. Several years ago I saw Santa Fe’s production of Strauss’s Daphne. It was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard (and Erin Wall was incredible as the title character), but I found myself wishing they’d done a concert version because there was so little to work with dramatically.
I’m not sure why it finally dawned on me this time, but as I sat there it occurred to me that in the 18th and 19th centuries a boring plot wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Before our modern concert-going etiquette was established, audiences talked among themselves, walked around, and played cards, perking up their attention for the big arias. The reason we find some operas tedious now isn’t just because our TV and Internet culture has reduced our attention spans, it’s because we’re expected to be quiet and attentive through all 3 or 4 hours of an opera that wasn’t written with our kind of audience in mind! It’s understandable that many members of the public don’t want to shell out $50-$100 to sit perfectly still and quiet, with other audience members shooting daggers at them should they dare to clap between movements, cough, or (heaven forbid) unwrap a candy to stifle that cough.
I think about this a lot, about how to inject some of the causal atmosphere of past eras into today’s performances, to make this old music not a museum piece but a living, evolving performance art. Of course, as a performer I don’t want people chatting or playing cards while I’m putting my soul to voice and delivering the culmination of hours of preparation.
But actually, would audience members quietly playing cards–or Angry Birds–be so bad? I don’t want to haughtily snort that question away. I pay attention when musical organizations do something different and it seems to work. I love Seraphic Fire’s 80-minute concerts with no intermissions. Letting audiences have wine or (non-crinkly) snacks during performances seems like a great idea. In most concert formats (though tricky in opera) it creates a connection when performers talk to the audience. I haven’t decided yet what I think of organizations like American Bach Soloists having “tweet decks”–seating sections where attendees are allowed to be on their smartphones but are expected to tweet enthusiastically about the concert–but it’s a novel idea. Crossover performances like this one which got a lot of heat in my circle this week:
are controversial in the classical world, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. If someone watches this video, then looks up Monteverdi on Wikipedia and decides to listen to more of his music, isn’t that great for classical music? If Monteverdi, musical revolutionary that he was, were alive today, would he possibly even dig that electric guitar? A cellist colleague of mine recently started a Facebook discussion about concert wear and whether it was time for male musicians to stop wearing anachronistic 19th-century formal garb (tuxedos) to work and come up with something more modern and approachable for audiences.
For decades people have been saying that classical music is dead, and somehow it lives on. There will always be a small percentage of the public who love classical music and are willing to pay for it, but I think we’re not doing our job as performers if we’re content to play only for them. It seems like a self-indulgent profession if we don’t at least try to reach out to new audiences and to make our music more accessible and affordable to them. To me this challenge isn’t a frustration; it’s an exciting opportunity to play and experiment.
I’d love to know what you think of this issue, and your ideas for keeping classical music continually relevant. Please leave me a comment and vote in the poll below.
Lately I’ve had the luxury of lots of practice time to polish the music for my next month’s worth of gigs:
and work way ahead on some of my repertoire for next season:
These are the tasty musical treats I alluded to in my last posting. This is all such good stuff! Every time I sidle up to my piano I have trouble deciding what to dig into first.
I’m particularly excited about the aria from Keiser’s opera Croesus. I decided I needed a German baroque opera aria to round out my rep list for period group auditions. Um, there’s German baroque opera? you ask? It’s certainly not in the canon of mainstream opera companies, but it did exist (check out the praise the Boston Globe and NYT heaped on Handel’s Almira this year at BEMF), and luckily my trusty network of Facebook friends who are baroque opera nerds helped out with several suggestions.
I chose Elmira’s aria “Liebe, sag’, was fängst du an?” primarily because I could get my hands on it without leaving the house; there’s a decent full score of the opera on IMSLP (let’s take a moment to give thanks for IMSLP). It also happens to be fabulous, with a beautiful lyrical A section and a fiery B section full of coloratura. It’s not long, and leaves lots of opportunity for flashy ornamentation on the return to A. Pretty much the perfect audition aria. You can listen to Sandrine Piau’s rendition here:
But, I haven’t gotten far in learning it because the vocal line in this score is written in soprano clef. Drat!
Copyists and printers of the past must have really hated legder lines, because they used a number of now-obsolete clefs to keep most of the notes on the staff. In facsimiles of original scores or even in 19-century editions like this one, soprano vocal lines are frequently written on soprano clef, with Middle C being on the bottom line instead of on the first ledger line below the staff.
Everything’s just one line higher than it would be in your everyday treble clef, but it’s amazing how reading everything a third off from normal can make your head want to explode. I’m sure singing from soprano clef is one of those brain-exercising activities that can help you stave (oh heavens, no pun intended) off Alzheimer’s.
And I eventually get good at it. Actually I can sing the A section of “Liebe, sag'” just fine. But then the B section begins, and here come those 32nd-note runs:
Yikes is right. I can’t decide which would ultimately be more work, learning the whole aria in soprano clef, or teaching myself Finale and creating an edition I can read. It’s seriously a toss-up. I’ll let you know how it works out.