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.

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.

Music in the Jungle

One of my favorite things about singing with Seraphic Fire is spending time in Miami. As an Arizona girl I generally prefer dry climates and wide-open landscapes, but I’m also fascinated by tropical places. The sheer abundance of green, growing, creeping things amazes me. Last week I took photos of some of South Florida’s natural phenomena, including:

huge banyan trees
banyan tree

that form a canopy over the streets,
banyans over street

orchids growing outdoors on trees,
orchids

yards full of the exotic plants we keep in pots as house plants in the rest of the country (though my schefflera did flourish outside in Rhode Island one summer!),
outdoor house plants

plants growing into and onto each other,tropical plants and tree

and palm trees swaying overhead.
palm and banyan trees

Not a bad place to sing, eh?

Singing the Reasons I Sing

My life is not bad. A week ago I flew out of RDU into a quiet, silvery evening —view from plane

 

— and landed here to make some great music.Miami beach

 

Okay, we didn’t actually sing ON the beach. But in between rehearsals and performances with Seraphic Fire, my colleague-friends and I did get some beach time and some great meals together.

It was Seraphic Fire’s season closer, Cathedral Classics. We sang a sightly different program, drawn from some of the greatest hits of choral music, for each of the five concert nights.

Cathedral Classics program

For me it was a sweet musical trip down memory lane. Since my career has tilted more towards solo work, I don’t sing a lot of these pieces very often anymore. But back in the day I sure did.

When I was seventeen I stumbled into my first paying church gig, at S. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Providence. It was a serious music program, and many of the pieces above were in our regular repertoire. While in college at Brown I also sang in the Chorus which tackled a lot of interesting and challenging music. Singing the Duruflé and Rachmaninoff triggered memories of my undergrad days. Back then I was wide-eyed, each new musical experience expanding my concept of the world and what I could do in it.

Choral singing helped me find my way professionally as a young singer. I don’t know if I’d be the lucky woman I am, flying around the country to make great music with great people, if it weren’t for Byrd, Allegri, and Vaughan Williams. Thanks, guys.