Magical Night of Remembrance

To my extreme good fortune, Tucson Chamber Artists’ C Minor Mass concerts coincided with the weekend of Tucson’s All Souls Procession.

All Souls Procession

I’d only been to the procession once before, three years ago. It was my last fall living in Tucson and I was so amazed and moved by the experience that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known more about it, and been attending, all of my seven years in Arizona. When I realized this fall that I’d be able to race from the last Mozart concert to downtown just in time for the procession, I bought some black and white face paint and threw it in my suitcase for the trip.

To understand what the All Soul’s Procession is, you really have to go. It was founded by artists in Tucson as performance art, creating new rituals to mourn and celebrate death. It has become an important festival in the life of Tucson, with 100,000 people walking and/or watching this year. People gather at sunset, paint their faces like Día de los Muertos skeletons, and process across town carrying photos and altars to loved ones who have passed. There are also fantastical, unbelievably creative floats, puppets, and costumes. Photos do the best job of explaining it, and here’s a blog with some wonderful pictures and descriptions.

My father had never been to the procession and wanted to check it out, so after my concert at Grace St. Paul’s Church, we dashed into the bride’s room to apply our makeup. There were people at the procession with much better makeup but we did okay (note for next time: spend more than $1 on your makeup).

All Souls Face Paint

Then we raced downtown, circumventing the closed streets with a clever pre-planned route. I did a reveal-nothing change on the sidewalk — middle school gym class taught me at least one useful thing — and transformed myself into a musical Catrina (thank you to this production of Rameau’s Platée, which I saw at the Santa Fe Opera several years ago, for the inspiration).

Muiscal catrina

It was a soft, warm night in Tucson. We positioned ourselves on a sidewalk a few blocks past the start of the procession so that we could see everything pass by. The All Souls Procession kicked off with the Spirit Group leading the way, carrying urns to collect scraps of paper with our names, remembrances and prayers written on them.

Spirit Group member

And then came everyone else, some in organized groups to remember specific people or bring attention to issues,

Nuclear victim remembrance

Others with floats or puppets (like this amazing cantilevered bee that was a statement about what’s happening to the honeybees in this country),

Bee puppet

and others just walking, faces painted, in remembrance. It’s an event that’s at once somber and festive. There are some musical groups that walk and certainly people are talking and greeting friends they spot along the way, but it’s not especially loud or rowdy. It’s a parade in the dark, but so much more than a parade.

To me the most amazing thing about the All Souls Procession is how community-based, democratic and untamed it is. The streets are closed to traffic, but there are no barricades along the route. The only police car I saw was the one that cleared the way at the beginning of the procession. Most people watch it all go by for a while, and then jump in, spectators becoming participants.

After about 45 minutes, my father and I joined the procession and were swept along the route to the finale grounds. Our prayers were added, along with everyone else’s, to the huge URN that was hoisted above the finale stage by a crane. Tucson’s amazing acrobatics-circus troupe, Flam Chen performed on stilts, dancing with fire, and swinging from giant draping scarves. And then the URN was set on fire, sending our wishes and remembrances into the sky as the stage was filled with flames and smoke.

URN in flames

It was an incredible night, and as moving as I remembered. I’m glad I shared it with my father. My emotions always ride high, just waiting for a chance to well up and overcome me. I guess being an easy crier is a curse of the artistic temperament. There were many moments in this year’s procession that made me tear up, but at least I didn’t smear my makeup like I did three years ago. I can’t wait to do it again, and I sure hope I’ll find myself in Tucson for the All Souls Procession next year.


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.


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.

Keep the Music Alive (but not the snobbiness)

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.

Santa Fe Opera

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.