Back on the Road

You might have noticed a lull in the postings on this blog…

For the past five months I’ve been up in a different kind of air: the whirlwind of new parenthood.

Kathryn & Baby ABaby A was born on September 17 in perfect health and he’s a joy, even if he doesn’t like to go to sleep. Right now he’s into playing with his toes and EATING — he loves food and now that he has tasted rice cereal and sweet potatoes he thinks he should get to try everything N and I eat.

Before he was born, I had no idea how long to take off before hitting the road again for performances. Would I be ready for Messiahs in December? Could I keep that awesome opera gig that would happen just 6 weeks postpartum? I’m sure it’s different for every singer, but as it turns out I’m glad I was conservative. When the weekend of that opera rolled around, sad as I was to have cancelled on it, I couldn’t imagine being out singing when I was sleeping only a few hours a night and having trouble carving out time to practice.

Eventually I got a practice routine going — well, depending on the day and nap schedules — and my voice snapped back into shape. I started slow with local performances in December and January, and then last week took off for my first away gig, a thrilling Haydn Lord Nelson Mass with Seraphic Fire. Thanks to dear friends there who hosted us, I was able to bring A and my parents came to watch him while I was at work.

Patrick and orchestraIt was a lovely week. It felt great to be back doing what I do, with great colleagues who are friends too. It was more exhausting than usual since I had to tend to baby at night, and I couldn’t go out after concerts and socialize with my friends, but it was really fun to have A there and nice that I didn’t have to leave him behind for my first trip. The richness that came into my voice last year — whether it was because of pregnancy or a result of the work I’d been doing with my teacher, or both — has remained, and I felt vocally strong. The concerts were a collaboration with the New York-based period orchestra The Sebastians, and all three nights were big successes. We got an excellent review (I got a shout-out for my solos in paragraph 7). And being in Miami in February was not bad either.

MiamiThe main difference in singing for me now is sleep. I used to be so uptight about sleep! If I got only 6 hours before an important performance I would be super grumpy, and try desperately to nap before the concert so that the reduced sleep hours didn’t ruin my performance. After singing that first gig in December on only three hours and discovering that my voice worked just fine, I have a fresh new perspective. The anxiety and hours-of-sleep counting have diminished. I hope that outlook remains once A is sleeping through the night, which I pray is soon, though I’m not counting on it…

This weekend it’s off to Alabama to sing with the Mobile Symphony. It’s a short trip and I am leaving Baby A at home, so wish N luck on his own!

Advertisements

A Lifetime of Memories with Monteverdi

Earlier this month I got to perform Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 with Seraphic Fire. Not only are the Vespers an awe-inspiring, joyful work that I could sing every day of my life, but all my performances of it have been under extraordinary and memorable circumstances.

They’ve all been with Seraphic Fire. Some great friends and colleagues have been along for one or two, or all three of our Vespers experiences. The first was in the winter of 2009, when we went to Kalamazoo, Michigan to record the work in collaboration with the top choir from Western Michigan University.

recording

It was my first really serious recording session, and the first of several I’ve done with GRAMMY-winning producer Peter Rutenberg.

VespersCDjacket

That album made it to the top of the iTunes classical chart, and garnered Seraphic Fire its first major national publicity with a story on NPR’s All Things Considered.

But long before the album was released, the epic recording session and winter weather we survived generated memories and stories we’re still telling today. We were all a bit younger then,

michigan

With my “Pulchra es” duet partner, Abigail Haynes Lennox

and before the recording session we sang a concert in the middle of a Wisconsin blizzard.

gabbysnow

Gabby’s reaction to the blizzard (note snowflakes on hair)

Luckily we lived to tell it all, and most importantly to perform the Vespers again.

The next year, we sang the Vespers in Miami, Coral Gables and Ft. Lauderdale, and then took them on tour to Mexico City. We gave three very special performances, two in the Catedral Metropolitana at the center of the city’s Zócalo,

catedral

and one at the splendid Art Deco concert hall Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Carnegie Hall of Mexico.

Palacio

This time I got to duet with the lovely Rebecca Duren, and it was when I first met the incredible lutenist John Lenti.

You better bet that tour yielded extra-musical stories and experiences, too. There was the manifestación (protest) that delayed our first rehearsal in the Catedral. There was our triumphant climbing of the pyramids at Teotihuacan,

pramid

a day spent in Chapultepec Park,

Chapulin

and of course all the delicious Mexican food we ate during our week there.

As Patrick always says, you never know when or if you’re going to perform a great work again. Lucky for me, Mexico 2010 wasn’t my last Vespers. Seraphic Fire was invited to perform the work at the ACDA Eastern Division Conference in Baltimore this month. We gave two overwhelmingly received headliner concerts in the beautiful – visually and acoustically – Baltimore Basilica, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the U.S. We also got to stay at the very nice convention hotel on the Inner Harbor, which certainly didn’t make the trip less pleasant.

Baltimore

The view from my room in Baltimore

This time we collaborated with the fully professional choir of DC’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They were wonderful. We did most of our rehearsing at the Shrine, and after our Baltimore concerts we returned to DC to perform the Vespers one more time at the Shine, an unbelievable 3,000-person worship space.

basilica

Theorbo dream team of John Lenti and David Walker in the Basilica

Musically these were stunning and rewarding performances. The week was even more meaningful for me because I got to temporarily live and work in DC again. I lived there ten years ago, before heading to Arizona for graduate school. Even though I knew I wanted to go away and gain the polish I needed from grad school, I loved living in Washington and always thought I’d return.

While Seraphic Fire was there we stayed in an Embassy Row hotel (also amazingly nice – the ensemble is moving up in the world!) within walking distance of my old neighborhood. I got to eat at my very favorite restaurant, Sette, stop in at my old office and great the folks at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and walk up to Woodley Park for brunch with my two best girlfriends from my days there. One of those friends, Susan Lewis Kavinski, sings in the Shrine’s choir and I got to see her all week long in rehearsals and concerts. It was quite a week.

Susie-Kat

With Susie at the National Shrine

I sure hope this wasn’t my last chance to sing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. But I have to say, any future performances have a lot to live up to. They can’t be just ho-hum spectacularly artistic concerts, because the work has set a high standard for me in terms of life experiences connected to it, and memories to be made.

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

New Year, New Journeys

Happy New Year, all!

It’s 2014, and that means a whole new year of music and travels for this soprano. The coming months include gigs in Chicago with Wayward Sisters, Raleigh and Durham with Voices of a New Renaissance, Baltimore and Washington with Seraphic Fire, at Duke with the Choral Society of Durham, and across the San Francisco bay area with American Bach Soloists. And that’s just the first 2 months of 2014. Oh, and I forgot to mention the faculty Liederabend at East Carolina University. Don’t tell my mother; she thinks I overschedule myself and unfortunately, as usual, she’s right.

But there’s a gelato-flavored light at the end of the tunnel. In May after I finish my last gig of the 2013-2014 season I get to fly to Rome on a journey purely for fun — to join N on his choir tour, visit dear friends, and eat again at all our favorite restaurants. Serious quantities of frequent flyer miles are a not insignificant consolation prize for all those hours in cramped airplane seats. Just two years ago it was miles that made our Roman honeymoon possible.

I’ll fly right from that last gig (in Miami with Seraphic Fire) to Italy. I’m super excited about this because every time I arrive into Miami’s beautiful terminal,

20140104-182639.jpg

I’m happy to be there but partly wish I were connecting on to somewhere else. You see, MIA is the gateway to Latin America and the Carribean. From Raleigh there are 3 direct flights to Miami every day on American, and they’re usually full. But most of those travelers don’t have South Florida as their final destination. They’re either getting on cruise ships to sunny, beachy places, or they’re connecting to another flight to somewhere even more exotic. Here’s are the places I hear as we’re landing and they’re announcing the connecting gates for everyone on the plane:

20140104-182607.jpg

I know, it’s obnoxious to whine about going to Miami when most of the country is daydreaming about mojitos on South Beach, but it’s hard to walk by departure boards like this:

20140104-182624.jpg
and not indulge in a few dreams of my own. So in May I’ll be wheeling my little suitcase up to a departure gate, passport in hand, making a dream a reality.

Caroling towards Christmas

It’s the busy time of the year. A lot of freelance singers make a substantial portion of their annual income during the month of December, singing the Messiah and other holiday concerts. It’s a fun season, but it can get overwhelming and stressful to have your busiest professional time coincide with the limited weeks to run around buying gifts, visiting loved ones, baking cookies, and juggling holiday parties. That confluence of events isn’t unique to singers or even musicians. Retail workers have it a lot worse, because they’re extra-busy and they have to deal with grumpy, beleaguered shoppers. At least we get to sing for happy audiences who tell us we’ve made their holiday season more special.

And the music is great too. Singers love to complain about the 15 Messiahs they have to sing this year, but really they love it. And though there are plenty of terrible Christmas carol arrangements filling the stores all month, some of those carols are dear to our hearts, and are woven into old and cherished memories.

Christmas carols are some of the earliest songs I can remember singing. The past two weeks I was in Miami singing Seraphic Fire’s Candlelight Christmas concerts. One of the pieces we sang — and recorded for our new Christmas album — was a new arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by the group’s director, Patrick Dupré Quigley.

20131215-211255.jpg

I was reminded that this was my Number 1 Favorite Carol when I was a very little girl. I don’t think I knew most of the lyrics or even the carol’s name, but I loved singing that long, melismatic line on the word “gloria.” To a girl of 4 or 5 that “gloria” seemed to cascade up and down forever, and it was just so beautiful. I think I called the carol “Gloria.”

My very favorite carol now, as a grownup, is Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Christina Rossetti’s evocative poem and Holst’s spare and loving musical setting create a magical moment in time. It’s almost like a mini-movie, capturing the wonder of the nativity scene. Seraphic Fire also recorded a new arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the young Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis.

20131215-211306.jpg
Her setting is for choir, harp, mezzo-soprano solo, and soprano/mezzo-soprano duet. It’s really lovely — in one section you can hear the snow falling in a gentle repetitive pattern in the alto line — and I was lucky to sing the duet with the incomparable Amanda Crider. I can’t wait for the disc to come out so I can share the piece with you all.

Until then, enjoy the season and all the carols, old and new. What’s your favorite?

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.

20131006-230052.jpg

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.

operaprogram

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.