‘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…

Traveling the Sistine Road (of Promise…)

Rehearsals have been underway for Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Road of Promise for several weeks now.  I can report that the Chorale is in fine voice and really enjoying working with this fascinating piece.  I was trying to think of how to describe it to someone recently, and it was hard to categorize.  It was originally an epic musical in the late 1930s titled The Eternal Road, the origins of which Janet Pascal has chronicled thoroughly here.  From what we’ve learned during the rehearsal process, it was quite possibly the most massive musical ever staged, with seven acres of set pieces, a 100+ person cast, and a length of nearly five hours.   This unwieldiness meant that revivals weren’t likely, so the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music commissioned a shortened version, which is The Road of Promise.

11078082_813690508720931_5446364770332979057_nAs a choral singer, you don’t get the full effect of a piece until you perform it with the orchestra and soloists, and there’s not a recording of this work yet (although there we’ll be: we’re making it!), but here’s what I can tell you.  While it is shorter in terms of time, it doesn’t seem to have lost much in terms of sound.  Weill’s sonic palate was rich and bright in this score, and his phrases are painted in broad strokes.  It’s luscious, even when we only have a piano to sing with; I can only imagine what the orchestra is going to sound like.

The story recounts a number of tales from the Old Testament as a Jewish community huddles fearfully in its synagogue during a pogrom.  Werfel’s lyrics, therefore, have the chorus perform one moment as God’s voice on the wind as he tells Abraham to spare his son, Isaac, and another moment as a choir of trumpeting angels.  Meanwhile, on the ground, you’ll hear us raucously rejoice as we worship the golden calf, pout grumpily as Joseph’s brothers who wish to kill him, and so forth.  It’s gorgeous music that relays profound subject matter, but it’s also quite a lot of fun to listen to.

So as I thought about how to describe it — lush sonic color, Old Testament themes — it occurred to me: this is the musical version of the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not just saying that to be cutesy.  Most operas and oratorios that deal with the same biblical subject matter hone in on a single story to explore in depth, but this work brings as many tales to life as it can in order to tell a much bigger story, which is exactly what the Sistine Chapel does.

So there you go.  I don’t know if anyone has ever described a musical work as ‘Sistine,’ but that’s what The Road of Promise is:

Huge. Breathtaking. Demanding. Gorgeous.

 

(AND tickets are still available!  May 6th and 7th at Carnegie Hall!)