Monday July 3rd, 2011
Venice, Queen of the Adriatic
Today is the flight to London to take part in one of GJ’s Songmaker’s Almanac concerts at Wigmore Hall. These concerts haven’t been around much of late, due to reasons that are mapped out here
in his notes. This particular concert is about Venice and there are four singers. All of the pieces were either premiered there, are about Venice or are written by Venetians.
I am full of anticipation about this process and acutely aware that I need to be very prepared for the first rehearsal. I am also acutely aware that because of the nature of these concerts – 4 singers = a lot of ensembles, a lot of pieces that are adapted to fit into this specific context, and some inevitable last minute changes in repertoire – I am not at all sure how the program is going to flow together-
Monday July 4th, 2011
Venice, La Serenissima / (or, the most serene sleep of the singer)
I spent most of this day recovering from jetlag from flying into London: that is, recovering from hours of interrupted sleep from nursing my 10 month old son, and then a transcontinental flight. AKA: welcome to London zzzzzzzzzzzzz
Tuesday July 5th, 2011
Venice, City of Masks / And the dutiful student
Today was the first rehearsal. It is an honor in any context to perform with Graham Johnson (GJ), so I arrived at rehearsal at his home with anticipation and excitement, and of course some nerves. Jet lagged as I was, I launched into the rehearsal with excitement, because when I have the privilege to work with such an artist I know that what I am really there to do is to listen and to learn.
Case in point: One of my solo pieces is a song by Gounod. It is strophic (versed), so it was simple enough to learn the notes. My French diction and language skills are pretty good so the words were not such a problem. Getting it together was not really the issue either. However, GJ looked up at me after the first run through and asked me: do you know what this ‘chain’ is around Venice?
Here is the poem so you can ask yourselves that same question:
Not a boat is stirring
in red Venice,
not a fisherman is on the water,
not a light appears.
The waning moon
half-veils her brow
with a cloud
sewn with stars.
All is still, except for the guards
with their long halberds
keeping watch on the ramparts
of the arsenals.
Oh! Now more than one
in the moonlight
for some young gallant.
Under the amourous breeze,
dreamy Vanina passes,
in her floating cradle,
while Narcissa readies herself
for the party,
putting on her black mask
before her mirror.
Let the old clock
in the old Doge's palace
count the long boredoms
of its nights.
On the nonchalant sea,
counts neither its days
nor its loves,
for Venice is so beautiful
that a chain around her
Is like a necklace
thrown around beauty.
I knew this poem was by Alfred de Musset
(1810-1857), and it isn’t the original one he wrote. I knew that the last two stanzas of the last two musical verses were added, perhaps at Gounod’s request, and much of the original poem was cut.
The poem seemed innocuous enough, even though the harmonies had a very mysterious quality about them. So I answered very quickly: “the chain is a metaphor for love’s entrapments. Or even perhaps a comparison to a beautiful but ‘bought woman’.”
Not exactly. (Although perhaps the ‘bought’ woman is more in line).
In fact this song that seemed so simple when I first looked at it is rather complicated: GJ responded in this way: No, these chains are not about love. These chains are in fact the chains of a Venice that, in 1797, after it was conquered by Napoleon, was turned over to Austria in the treaty of Campo Fornio. Even though there were some power struggles, it didn’t really become a part of Italy until 1866. So Musset is speaking of a Venice that is not itself. However, even though it is in chains, it wears those chains like a beautiful woman wears a necklace. AH! This of course also explains the old Doge who counts away the long nights in boredom, as he and his compatriots have been thrown out of power and now have nothing to do. This explains why the (Austrian) guards keeping watch over the arsenal are in the poem at all. Venice had the largest army/navy on the continent. The arsenal was unrivaled. In fact, it was the largest industrial complex up until the industrial revolution -- able to mass-produce the parts of a war ship that could be assembled in one day. So the guards are keeping a strict eye on what is a very important and strategic place that is now in Austrian hands. The fact that these guards silently keep watch is ominous because it means that there is no real struggle in Venice even though it might have had the means to defend itself. This now also explains the first verse with the cloud that passes over the waning moon. Here is the real metaphor: It is Venice that is half veiled and waning.
GJ spoke of a Venice that still reeks of the ‘sins’ of the past. A Venice that after it was a city of commerce and trade, became a city of tourism even before it was in Austrian hands. Before 1797 it was in the power of the conservative Doges (democratically elected dukes who held the position until death) who allowed it to flourish with its social vices and was the “pleasure” capital of the world. This was birth place of Cassanova and similarly in the 20th century, the home of Baron Corvo, AKA Frederick Rolfe, a Cassanova of another kind who favored young men ages 16-18. He cites the line in the Musset about Venice the indolent or lazy, and likens it to a Venice that just ‘takes’ it. In other words, it is a city where everyone and everything is up for sale. Not a very lovely idea, but surely interesting for this song. Did Gounod understand the nuance? I think so, otherwise he would not have set the verses that he did. The truth is, he is not Schubert or Wolf or Monteverdi or Britten who would have handled a text like this with so much more specificity. The language of Gounod never makes it obvious. Certainly it is not within the French style to point these things out literally either. But just as I had my ‘aha moment’ with the text, I also realized that it is indeed why there is an ominous quality in the musical harmony even though the rocking motion of the traditional gondola song is always there underneath. Perhaps that is the true meaning -- Venice is a city that has a mysterious and dark underbelly, but on the surface, it is peaceful, exciting and above all beautiful.
This has to be my favorite thing about song. This little known, seemingly simple strophic gem is completely ripe with history, beauty, color and passion. This is hardly a rare thing in this genre either. Amazingly, the more you delve into the poetry and the music, the more you understand how life really was for the people who lived when this music was written. If you don’t believe me, here it is in another version on Ben Binders’ Podcast on Schubert and the Biedermeier.
So folks, that is what I learned in school today.
Wednesday July 6th, 2011
Venice, City of Bridges / Write yourself… or rather …perform your self
I heard an interview that GJ recorded for Wigmore Hall
today. In it he said this (paraphrased):
“Britten said that the most a composer can do is to write oneself into the pieces one composes”, meaning that you cannot copy from someone else and be true to your art.
It got me thinking. Does the same thing go for musicians as well?
It isn’t as if we are writing the pieces ourselves, but with so many recordings out there that are technically perfect and full of bravado, one has to be original to make any mark at all in this business. But how do you do that??? If what he says is true, to be original, it has to come from inside. However, if that is the case, the first thing you have to do is to trust your instincts. Sometimes I think that is the difference between being a good student and being a professional. A student listens, learns and mimics well. The professional has finished with this and can make ‘instinctual’ and spontaneous choices that seem like second nature but are really a complicated equation of past experience, past performance (heard and performed), how the day is going, knowledge of history, language, musicality, text and the musical style. The way all this is integrated into the voice or the keyboard is what separates you from the crowd. But with all of this in your arsenal, there is something else you need as well. I believe another word for originality in this particular case is authenticity. If what you are performing rings true for you, it will ring true for your listener, even if they don’t know the music or don’t know the poem. In other words, if your instincts are right and what you are saying is authentically in your own ‘voice’ you are definitely going somewhere…
I got started on this subject today because of the above Britten ‘quote’ and because of a conversation I had today with GJ about recordings. He was very perturbed about musicians learning their music through recordings. Let me be clear, he was not talking about learning about other performers, listening for enjoyment or listening to learn about technique or comparing artists performing the same repertoire. He was talking simply about mimicry as the easiest solution to learn your music. The idea is that if you haven’t done the work to integrate the music into your own body and find your own authenticity, there cannot be any originality to what you do. Thoughts? Comments?
Thursday July 7th, 2011
Speaking of authentic…
walked in today in the middle of our rehearsal. Rather – Sarah Walker WAFTED into the Wigmore today while I was singing Britten… I didn’t stop exactly, but I didn’t sing the correct notes either. Or the correct rhythm. In fact my mind kind of did a loop-di-loop and then stopped working. “Oh Graham” she said… “I just need to stop here to catch my breath”… “do you mind if I listen for a while?” – “No of course not.” (HA!) She was there to record an interview. How lovely. Graham asked… “you know after Martha sings her Britten, then Joanne sings Baba’s aria from The Rakes Progress. Did you ever sing Baba, Sarah?” (…insert look of mock surprise…) “Oh Graham have I sung Baba…Sooooo many times.” We were then regaled by a full-on version of one of her scenes. A capella. Awesome.
At any rate, for the rehearsal today it was just the tenor and I because the other two singers were unavailable, and we were at the hall rehearsing the program for a few hours. It has a number of scene shifts and traffic patterns around the stage so there was all that to work out, but mostly it was just a joy to get to spend three hours in that hall singing and rehearsing. I then spent lunch with Graham and Ben and then we were off to the BBC to record a little session for In Tune with host Sean Rafferty for BBC3. We each sang two songs. Bliss.
Friday July 8th, 2011
CONCERT DAY! / Venice, City of Water
At this point I think it is time to say that if you have not seen or heard a concert like the ones that GJ has put together then I urge each and every one of you to figure out when and where you can do this. He pairs Rossini with Schubert with Shakespeare with Gilbert and Sullivan, and I’ll tell you, when the music arrives with a thud on your doorstep it all seems quite intimidating. I mean G&S with Vaughn Williams with Schubert?!?! But you know what? The transitions have been so well though out, the key relationships so beautifully connected, the colors in his piano playing so lithe that they seem able to shape shift from one form to the next, so there is never any question that in this context, they belong together. What might seem odd at first glance is now a seamless ribbon of music that floats from the serious to the hilarious and back again in one long line. All of us in this next generation of song performers are very proud of our skills of programming works in new ways, ie., not in dutiful groups of composers performed in chronological order from early music to modern – the typical recital form. We are trying to experiment with form in this way to make interesting themes and bring out the subtleties of these pieces, but folks, GJ pioneered this. To my knowledge he was the first, and honestly, I am not sure if he will ever be matched. There is just something about the way his mind works that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Oh, and by the way, he is a phenomenal writer. Run to the book store to buy his books – everyone interested in song should know about him and read what he has to say. Go here to see what is on sale.
This performance was the second time I have performed at Wigmore since winning the competition in 2007, and it felt different this time around. I felt more at home and more relaxed and less like I had anything to prove. It was lovely. It also didn’t hurt that my colleagues were wonderful. Our tenor Ben Johnson has a truly gorgeous voice –both for the worlds’ opera stages and an intimate recital hall. It is an honor to share the stage with him. Marcus Farnsworth was a veritable force singing Poulenc, and his languages were to die for. Joanne Thomas’ Baba the Turk made you laugh with glee and startle out of your chair at the same time.
I believe I have already given away how I feel about GJ, so I will just end this little diary with his program notes
on the concert and his written history of the Songmakers. Thanks for reading.