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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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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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