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

 

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.

6 Degrees of Career Connections

I’m having a great time teaching at East Carolina University,

ECU pirate

and lately have been thinking about the crazy path that led me to my last-minute appointment here. As I always tell young singers who ask me for advice, it’s all about connections. I can count on two fingers the number of gigs I’ve gotten from a blind audition (Arizona Opera) or unsolicited promo packet (Portland Baroque Orchestra) rather than through some kind of personal contact. Even those lucky breaks were probably helped by names and places on my resume.

Sometimes it’s fun to trace the connections backwards and follow a gig back to its origins. So here we go…

I ended up at ECU thanks to a recommendation from Andrew Scanlon, the organ professor here. Andrew had never heard me sing or seen me teach, but I met him last year when my friend Misty Bermudez came to Greenville for a (wonderful) recital with Andrew.

mistyafter Misty and Andrew’s recital

I know Misty because we sing together in Seraphic Fire. This teaching gig is one of many connections I’ve made over the past 5 years through Seraphic Fire. And I ended up a member of this great choral ensemble based in Miami because of two people. Two completely different paths led me to Miami. I’ll call them Path A and Path B.

Path A ends with tenor and conductor Matthew Tresler, who lobbied Seraphic Fire’s director Patrick Quigley for a couple years to hire me.

matt2Matt Tresler, right – also pictured is our dear friend Nathan Krueger

I know Matt because we sang together for several seasons in the Santa Fe Desert Chorale (the Desert Chorale first brought me to Santa Fe which is one of my very favorite places in the world).

I got into the Desert Chorale thanks to recommendations from (Path A1) Ron Downs, a baritone in the group whom I knew from my years singing in Washington, DC, and from (Path A2) my post-college voice teacher Nina Hinson, who was teaching at the Santa Fe Opera and knew the Desert Chorale’s director Linda Mack.

Paths A1 and A2 have the same beginning in James Busby,

jamesat the Santa Fe Opera, some year 2005-2008

my high school and college church choir director and coach. He sent me to Nina for lessons when I moved to Boston after college. He also gave me the names of churches to sing for when I moved to Washington a year later, and it was through people that I met at those churches that I eventually ended up singing with Ron who told me to audition for the Desert Chorale because it was a “cool summer gig.”

There’s one more step backwards along Path A, but wait for it.

Path B ends with Gabby Tinto,

gabbyOn my first Seraphic Fire gig in 2008

a soprano and darling person who was then working for Seraphic Fire (besides singing in the group), opened my updated audition packet and said “I know that girl. We sang in the chapel choir at Northwestern together.”

I went to Northwestern University for my first year of college. I went to Northwestern because Evelyn Pollock, my roommate at Tanglewood’s high school summer program who was a year older than I and Northwestern-bound, told me it was “the only place for a smart musician.”

I went to Tanglewood for the summer at the recommendation of my beloved high school and college (once I transferred to Brown) voice teacher, Kathryne Jennings.

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And here’s where Path A and Path B join at the front end too: it was Kathryne Jennings who sent me to James Busby for a coaching before my Tanglewood audition, and James asked how my high C was, made me sight-read the Allegri Miserere, and hired 17 year-old me to be a section leader at S. Stephens, and then years later sent me off to Washington with names and references.

I could go back farther, to my father who called the Brown voice department when I was 15 to ask who was taking private students, or the family friend who recommended that we call Brown when I was looking for my first serious teacher. Every path starts somewhere, and at the beginning it’s impossible to predict where it will lead you.

mattDesert Chorale cameo concert 2006, directed by Matt Tresler
(also pictured are Randall Murrow, Nathan Krueger, Angela Young Smucker, Mitzi Westra, Dan Buchanan, and Emilie Amrein)

You might say Path A and Path B had an even more important coming together: Matt and Gabby, who each recommended me to Seraphic Fire and who had been friends since they were in grad school at the University of Miami, finally realized a couple years ago what everyone else knew — that they were in love — and were married in San Francisco on June 1 this year. Like I said, you just never know.

From BART to Bluegrass

Yesterday I had to make space in my wallet for my shiny new ECU ID card (so excited to be able to check out books and scores from a music library for the first time since I finished my masters at the U of A),

photo 1

and I stumbled upon a pocket containing fare cards from the public transit systems of a few cities I’ve sung in lately. It made me feel well-traveled and cosmopolitan to lay them on the table.

photo 2

They’re nice reminders of great music and fun times I’ve had in New York,

ch

San Francisco,

sf

and Boston.

bos

As I scanned through my photo collection to choose the city photos above, I got tired just looking at all the places I’ve been in the past year. I adore travel and it’s one of my favorite parts of my job. Sometimes though, it’s the best thing in the world to have a beautiful fall weekend at home and a free evening tomorrow to go hear some bluegrass music downtown.

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!