Myths and Hymns

I’m long overdue in sharing this, but my chorus, MasterVoices, is producing something incredibly special this season: Adam Guettel’s “Myths & Hymns” presented in four chapters. The piece thoughtfully places Greek myths alongside freshly orchestrated Episcopalian hymns to meditate on the ways we strive — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to bring meaning into our lives: through Flight, Work, Love and Faith.

“Chapter 1: Flight” premiered a month ago, and I think it’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve been a part of. It includes six pieces, each presented as a video, each video directed by a different talent, and featuring a truly remarkable array of soloists from Renee Fleming (!!!) & Kelli O’Hara of the opera & Broadway worlds, to Take 6 of gospel and a cappella fame, and many others you may recognize if you’re a regular theatergoer in NYC…or, if you’re not, then they’ll be new voices for you to discover! (And, of course, if you pay attention, you’ll spot me a few times; vocally I contributed to all of the songs except for the opening piano duet and Pegasus ūüôā )

If you enjoy this (and I’m confident you will), consider joining our watch party for “Chapter 2: Work” on YouTube, February 24th, starting at 6:30pm. Also, if you enjoy this, please consider making a donation. The video is completely free, but, as I’m sure you know, the arts — and performance arts in particular — have been hit hard during the pandemic. MasterVoices has done a lot to keep people working and producing inspiring, joyful pieces like this one, but with no ticket sales this season we’re depending on individuals to give freely — and any amount helps! (Donation links are in the video description). And now (finally!) I give you, Flight!

Notes from a Pandemic

Looking ahead.

The clever reader will notice that my last blog post was from February 2019, nearly two years ago, so my absence from this site cannot be attributed to the covid-19 pandemic that ignited the now clich√© “dumpster fire” that was Anno Domini 2020. No, it’s had much more to do with the fact that, simply put, I had nothing to say. Or, rather, nothing to say that I felt like sharing. It wasn’t just my blog either. I haven’t revised the novel I worked on so painstakingly. I’ve barely even written in my physical, personal journal, which has been a matter of habit for decades. I suppose I’ve been on retreat for the last two years or so, very much engaged with the people who are physically in my life and intimately connected to me, but approaching society at large — and social media — with a permanently raised eyebrow.

2020 didn’t help much.

And let’s face it, 2021 isn’t off to a very auspicious start, but after sitting out awhile, I feel like putting my toe in the water to check the temperature, and maybe I’ll dive back in.

My goal, if I can see this through, is to write about books and wine and theatre and art just as before, with a special emphasis on my own creative projects and what they mean to me, why it is I feel compelled to write and produce and make them.

The difference with this go around is that there will be a lot of focus on knitting. I can’t tell you how many miles of yarn I’ve shaped into garments while in lockdown, but I can tell you that, whereas my desire to write diminished in the past year, it was replaced by a desire to make things by hand and to revisit an art form I learned how to do fifteen years ago, but have only now begun to inch towards mastery.

The desire to make things led to a desire to show them off to people who would appreciate them. In order to do this, I created an instagram account (@knitphen) almost exclusively dedicated to following people involved in the fiber arts. Interactions with other knitters, crocheters, dyers and makers of all sorts really pushed my skills forward and made my stance towards social media soften a bit. So here I am, back at it on the blog, with a focus on sharing and growth, inspiring and being inspired by others.

Let’s get (re)started.

Night Songs & Love Waltzes

47384327_2047790578644245_8302776883930464256_oValentine’s Day may have just passed, but that’s no reason to let that lovin’ feeling wilt away like the dessicated bouquet of flowers you’ve got dropping petals all over your table. Keep the love alive by coming to hear MasterVoices’ Night Songs & Love Waltzes, a night of Liebeslieder (German love songs) by the masters of Romantic music! (Here’s the official MasterVoices promotional text):

This evening of songs and piano works will feature the music of such influential Romantic era composers as Felix Mendelssohn, Clara and Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms, as well as today’s Ricky Ian Gordon and Stephen Sondheim, and the poetry that inspired them. With soloists including soprano Nicole Cabell, mezzo Kate Aldrich, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Nmon Ford, and duo pianists Anderson & Roe, Night Songs and Love Waltzes will display multiple musical configurations, including vocal solos, duets, trios, and quartets; men’s chorus, women’s chorus, and the full MasterVoices chorus; as well as arrangements featuring cellos, horns and duo pianists. 

In the days ahead I’ll post video links to the various artists we’ll be working with, but don’t wait for that in order to buy your tickets. Get them here, and we’ll see you on March 1st!

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‘Babes’ in Review

MG_8756BabesToyland

Look two heads to the right of Kelli O’Hara, hovering over the female cellist in the second row of the chorus: c’est moi!¬†

Our two performances of Victor Herbert’s¬†Babes in Toyland¬†took place this past week at Carnegie Hall and the Tilles Center; the reviews are in, and — by and large — they’re all great! ¬†I want to contribute my thoughts to the conversation with the chorister’s-eye-view of the experience, but it’s late on a school night, so for the moment let it suffice that I merely round up the official opinions.

Broadway World

Theaterscene

Berkshire Fine Arts

Classical Source

La Scena

Huffington Post

Voce di Meche

ZealNYC

 

Babes in Toyland

Toyland” is possibly the first song I ever learned. ¬†I’m not sure. ¬†I only know that it entered my repertoire at some time before I have memory of it doing so. ¬†I don’t remember if it was a snow globe or a music box or what it was that put it there, but that tune has been in my head for a very long time.

Which isn’t to say¬†I ever imagined getting to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall in the company of Broadway and theater legends like Bill Irwin and Kelli O’Hara, but that’s exactly what will happen later this month when my choir, MasterVoices, presents Victor Herbert’s¬†Babes in Toyland as part of our 75th anniversary season. ¬†Babes is¬†a show that has remained popular since its creation in 1903, yet hasn’t had a showing in NYC in over 80 years.

Might be 80 more before you get another chance to see and hear this fun show with its iconic score, so don’t miss it!

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Mahler for Vision

Funny how certain pieces of music have a way of appearing in our lives just when we need them.

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Emil Orlik’s etching of Mahler (1902)

After my grandmother died last year and her funeral was over, I was eager to get back to normal life. ¬†At that time MasterVoices was hard at work rehearsing Mahler’s 2nd Symphony — the “Resurrection” symphony, written in honor of a friend of his who died unexpectedly. ¬†We’d started the season with it, performing with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and we ended the season with the same piece, then with the New York Youth Orchestra — just a week or two after her funeral. ¬†The piece was a vessel for my grief, exactly what I needed to sing at that moment.

Well. ¬†As I noted in my previous post, my grandfather died last month. ¬†Just a few days before it happened I got an email from MasterVoices saying that we’d been asked to participate in another performance¬†of Mahler’s 2nd, this time under the baton of George Mathew as a benefit for HelpMeSee, an organization that is fighting to end cataract blindness. ¬†I wasn’t going to sing it — we just finished Bach’s St. John Passion, this concert will take place four days later. ¬†I figured I might need a break (and, more importantly, I need to finish my novel draft by the end of the month to submit it to Jersey City Writers to be workshopped in March!).

But then my grandfather died. ¬†I remembered how much the piece helped me after grandma’s death, it seemed wrong to turn down the opportunity perform it once more — and coming so soon after my grandpa’s death, it just felt like more than a coincidence. ¬†Like they say, you can ‘call it odd, or call it God,’ but coincidences like this can’t be purely accidental.

So I said yes. ¬†The performance will take place this Monday at Carnegie Hall (click here for tickets). ¬†It is truly one of the most glorious pieces of music to sing. ¬†When we sang it with the IPO I didn’t have the loss of loved ones weighing on me, and even then I couldn’t sing it without tearing up by the end. ¬†I’ll probably look a mess after the concert this Monday, tear-filled as I’ll surely be, but I’m looking forward to it.

Please attend and support a wonderful cause!

(Somewhat semi-unrelated, but a few years ago I wrote a piece on Verdi’s Requiem and how it has had a similar way of calling me to it under interesting circumstances. ¬†I looked it up just now and saw that it was written on 11 February 2015 — two years ago to the day! ¬†Call it odd, or call it God.)

Here’s a link to a video of the final movement of the symphony, the part that features the chorus. ¬†(WordPress has changed its structure and won’t allow me to insert the video into the post as I used to do without buying an upgrade package. ¬†Grrrrr!!)

 

“Bach’s Holy Dread”

mv-sjp_horizontal-1If it’s a coincidence, it’s a rather remarkable one.

The New Yorker published Alex Ross’s¬†fantastic piece on J. S. Bach’s religious beliefs — with a heavy focus on the St. John Passion —¬†barely more than a month¬†before our (MasterVoices‘) presentation of this incredible work at Carnegie Hall (Feb. 9). ¬†Whether you intend to come to our concert or not, you should really check out this article.

(And you should come to the concert…I mean really, why wouldn’t you? ¬†It’s so easy: You can buy tickets right here.)

The Lost Generation FOUND: or, How I’m Learning to Stop Kvetching and Love the Americans in Paris

"You are all a lost generation." ~Gertrude Stein

“You are all a lost generation.” ~Gertrude Stein

In October of this year, my choir — MasterVoices — will present the New York premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon‘s opera,¬†27,¬†about the literary and intellectual salons held at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the years between the world wars. ¬†Hemingway and Fitzgerald are characters. ¬†So are Picasso and Man Ray. ¬†It should be a heady romp of an opera!

Because the opera is so literary, I decided it would be fantastic if I could bring my College Bridge Senior English class to see it, but this posed a challenge: How in the world would 12th graders ever truly appreciate the work without some knowledge of all the key players?  Or, for that matter, how would I?

See, I’m somewhat poorly-versed when it comes to the Lost Generation. ¬†I know all the big names of the era that any self-respecting English major should know, but I haven’t ever spent much time with them. ¬†I read “The Old Man and the Sea” in 7th grade twenty-five years ago and remember very little of it beyond the fact that I disliked it. ¬†I tried to love Hemingway by reading¬†The Sun Also Rises on two separate occasions but found the book to be a tiresome chore. ¬†I’ve never been gaga about¬†Gatsby¬†like a lit-lover is supposed to be, and I think I opened up Gertrude Stein’s¬†Tender Buttons¬†once while in college, read a single poem, shuddered, then promptly returned to it to its shelf in the library. ¬†Thus ended my time with the Americans in Paris in the 1920s. ¬†To me they seemed purely hedonistic and self-absorbed, and really self-important. ¬†I didn’t have much of an interest.

And I might have left them there, sitting on the shelf and continuing to accrue accolades from everyone but me, but for three things: this upcoming Ricky Ian Gordon opera, as I’ve said, and Joyce and Woolf. ¬†They’re of the era and of the ilk, more verbose than their American counterparts and a thousand times more cerebral and difficult…and yet I adore them. ¬†As an Irishman and a Brit, there might be an argument for the difference of their literary output, but, most things being the same, I ought to be able to find something worthwhile in their American peers, right? ¬†So it occurred to me that the only reason I ever came to love Joyce and Woolf in the first place was due to my professor, Richard Hood, who provided rich, detailed background to their lives and times that gave their writing a context and a point of approach. ¬†He made their writing feel vital to a young twenty-something in the late 1990s, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful and now need to replicate for my own students.

I never had that with the Americans in Paris — I’ve never read them in the context of a class — but if I’m going to enjoy performing in an opera about them, and if I’m going to provide my students with a richly satisfying educational experience, then I’d better damn well get studying and teach myself so that I can pass the knowledge on.

everybody-behaves-badlyWhich is what I’ve been doing. ¬†First, I made a third attempt at¬†The Sun Also Rises, and this time I finished it. ¬†I won’t say it’s become my favorite book or that Hemingway’s genius dripped from the pages in any obvious way, but I really did like it — so that’s a start. ¬†I’m currently reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume,¬†a book that seems to have been released to coincide exactly with my interest in the subject matter; it came out at the beginning of last month, just as I was piecing together my course of study. ¬†Blume’s book has acutely sharpened my appreciation for and interest in Hemingway.

Anyway, in the days and weeks to come, I plan to post my explorations of the works I read in a way that is meant to be shared with my students, but will hopefully be of interest to any reader who stumbles across my blog. ¬†I’m coming at this with an open mind, yes, but, more importantly, with a humble mind. ¬†My previous encounters with the Lost Generation¬†writers have left me feeling dismissive of their talents, but this time around my thought is, “You know what? ¬†They are beloved for a reason.” ¬†Rather than try to trash them, I’m going to try to see what it is that others see, and I’m going to share this experience with my students.

And with you. ¬†So if you’re reading this and you have any reading suggestions for me, please feel free to pass them on in the comment section. ¬†Otherwise, keep checking in for updates!

***Apropos of nothing, here’s a video of my aforementioned professor, Richard Hood, playing the banjo as he’s wont to do. ¬†A man of many, many talents; he not only taught modernist literature, he toured the country (world?) with his bluegrass band, led humanitarian trips to Haiti and moved me cross-country from Ohio to California. ¬†Hemingway may or may not be a genius, and Stein probably isn’t (not really…), but Hood sure as hell is!

 

Beethoven’s 9th – Beginnings and Endings

obeythoven

Obey!

The 2014-15 choral season is drawing to a close.¬† It’s been an interesting one which, for me, began and will end with Beethoven’s 9th (aka the “Ode to Joy” symphony).¬† As the launching and landing point, “B9” has provided quite an interesting emotional arc to the season.¬† The initial performance was a benefit for a local animal shelter performed at a church in Chelsea.¬† The chorus was small, but so was the space, so we made a mighty noise and the character of the piece really rang out. Two months later we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and wickedly funny as the Collegiate Chorale brought “Not the Messiah” to New York audiences with an all-star cast (that included Eric Idle!).¬† From there we got serious and explored themes of persecution, anti-semitism and intolerance with our next two offerings: “The Defiant Requiem” (Verdi’s Requiem presented as a memorial to the

The Symphonic Spectacular featuring Yefim Bronfman, piano, Peter Oundjian, conductor, and the Orchestra of St. Lukeís performing in the  Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York, on July 14 ,2013. photo by Gabe Palacio

The Symphonic Spectacular featuring Yefim Bronfman, piano, Peter Oundjian, conductor, and the Orchestra of St. Lukeís performing in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York, on July 14 ,2013.
photo by Gabe Palacio

victims and survivors who performed it in the Terezin concentration camp) and Kurt Weill’s “The Road of Promise,” a restaging of his “The Eternal Road” that tells the story Jews banding together during a pogrom.¬† These works took us to dark places historically and emotionally, but allowed for beautiful moments of music to pierce through them.¬† It’s important for us to visit those moments of the human story of which we are not proud so that we remind ourselves of our capacities to commit atrocious acts.¬† But it’s equally important to engage with works of art that remind us that our capacities to love, forgive and create exist in equal measure.¬† This is what Beethoven’s 9th does, at least for me, and especially this year falling where it does at the end of a mostly dark season. How different it feels after so many rehearsals concerning death and oppression to sing the following (translated from the German):

Obeythoven_56

However only the cockroaches and Carol Channing will be left to hear it…

Joy, beautiful spark of Gods,
Daughter of Elysium, 
We enter drunk with fire,
O heavenly one, Thy sanctuary!
Thy magic powers reunite
What custom has strictly divided;
All men shall become brothers
Where Thy gentle wing abides.

Furthermore, we’ll be performing it under the baton of Maestro Peter Oundjian as part of the opening night of the Caramoor Music Festival’s 70th anniversary celebration, an appropriately grand, verdant setting in Westchester County to present such lush, spirited music. In a few more weeks I’ll be able to share news of the 2015-16 season, but for now…

Reflections — a reading of memoir vignettes from the Jersey City Writers

memoirflyerIt was Joni Mitchell who “looked at life from both sides now” and saw a different view from each side, but it was bell hooks (I think) who said that you’ll never get to the truth of any story until you look at it from at least seventeen sides, far more than the usually requisite two. ¬†In that spirit, I invite you to join the Jersey City Writers‘ night of memoir fragments to hear stories from thirteen writers; not quite seventeen (sorry, bell), but I think you’ll hear thirteen very distinct voices from thirteen very different lives that might scratch against some interesting truths about our common humanity nonetheless. ¬†I’m very proud to say that this will be my first public reading in Jersey City, a city I’ve come to love despite being a die-hard Hobokenite. ¬†I’m excited for others to hear the works of the Jersey City Writers, a group of extremely talented people who inspire me every time I attend a workshop, a writing marathon, a prompts night…or any number of the other fantastic writing events they sponsor.

Please come out for it — I know you’ll be entertained, moved and impressed.

6/17, 7pm, Brightside Tavern, 141 Bright Street, Jersey City¬†— FREE!

And apropos of nothing, here are two versions of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.” ¬†Every now and then I’ll watch young Joni sing the cute song she wrote, and it’s beautiful, but it’s clear that old Joni understands it so much more. ¬†She gives it the weight and truth that her younger self could never fully know.

“Something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”