Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is It Crowded in Here?

Remember Sybil? I guess she made an impression on me because I was in thrall of a music therapy career at that time, fascinated by all manner of personality disorders. (Plus, my own very sheltered childhood included a Sally Field fixation.)

There have been far too few hours in these recent days. The combination of the abrupt frequent changes of gears and the lack of sleep has made it seem as though a temporary (purely recreational) dissociative identity disorder might be just the ticket.

Thelma, Mild-Mannered Arts Administrator

Thelma has been dogged by guilt this week, for she has let many things slip through the cracks. Ready or not, opera will be happening in just 6 weeks, and she is ill prepared. Verdi orchestra parts must be created, Handel cut lists must be finalized, and Candide roles must be assigned.

Web page content needs to be fleshed out, program copy begs to be written and supertitles cry out for attention. Guests artists and teachers must be booked for seminars. (She's thinking that a website development session might be helpful - not the nuts and bolts, but how to find a designer and what to expect.) And Thelma knows that there's no time for any of this nonsense once artists arrive. On your mark... set... administrate!

Ella Mae, Fearless Accompanist

If Ella Mae were of a younger generation, she'd call herself a Collaborative Pianist. But old habits die hard.

She had far too good a time playing a concert last week. Crazy transpositions and lead sheets and all. The day of the performance, just in the nick of time, she remembered an important lesson. Rehearsing with singers gives a pianist a good amount of inadvertent practice, but only on the "sung" portion of the rep. But what about those preludes, interludes and postludes... when no one is singing? That's when the audience listens to the pianist. Oops... those are the parts Ella Mae always forgets to practice. But she generally found her way to that magic place between accuracy and fakery, and she made some pretty good music.

Singers for this program were former Wolf Trappers, and it was such a joy to make music with them. Being a mentor is wonderful, but it's refreshing to shed the coach/teacher mantle and just be a colleague.

Priscilla, Inspirational Opera Lecturer

Remember the Inside Opera class that began March 24? Imagine Priscilla's surprise when she realized that it was really happening the same week as the aforementioned rehearsals. Teaching this class seemed like such a good idea a few months ago...

Priscilla managed to pull off Session 1, and the response was gratifying. She had a great time with the Florentine Camerata, Monteverdi, Handel, deux ex machina and Farinelli. By tomorrow evening she'll figure out how to jam Mozart, bel canto, librettists, supertitles, baritones, and commedia dell-arte into 90 minutes.

Mazie, Crazy Jazz Pianist

Overlaid on all of this opera are crazy fun rehearsals for Cy Coleman's City of Angels. Mazie is having the best time with all these cool half-diminished and major-minor-ninth chords. Yum. She did a production of On the Twentieth Century a lifetime ago and has been waiting 25 years to get back to Cy.

Harriet, the Happy Housewife

Well, Harriet hasn't been to the grocery store for 3 weeks, so she's not going to win any awards. But she did do laundry today, and she swept up the worst of the dirt on the floor. She made a quick shopping trip to look for a new sofa, but got into a fight with Mazie, who quickly established dominance and blew the sofa budget on a cool new Yamaha S90ES. I guess Harriet can sit on the floor a little longer.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mixing, Fading, Slicing and Dicing

Remember the Volpone recording from last summer? Just for yucks, I revisited blog posts from that period and relived briefly that sickening roller coaster we rode last June. I see that I promised to chronicle the whole messy road to those recording sessions. I never followed through, and now I'm doubtful I will. In truth, I had already forgotten exactly how painful it all was, and I'm reluctant to dredge it up.

No matter, for it's the first day of spring and I'm in Boston (where to all appearances, it is still cold, grey winter...). We're doing the final master of Volpone, and having a better time of it than we should.

Credit goes to the performers who gave us some really fine material with which to work. Also to Soundmirror, who deftly mixed professionalism with understanding for our peculiar limitations. To the Musto/Campbell team for giving us such wonderful material. And to John Musto for always knowing the precise location of the intersection of high standards and the real world.

Anyway, I am a recording studio virgin, with precious little confidence that I can make any contribution to this project. But John says that I hear things only dogs should be able to hear, so I guess that's good?

He says we're gunning for a Grammy Nomination for Best Recording of a Guy Who Feigns an Illness for Money. Vote for us.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Verdi, Handel, Strauss, Bernstein...

Wolf Trap's 2008 season has had its official unveiling, so this summer's opera schedule is now public!

Start here.

Links for details on individual shows:

Tickets available starting March 29.

More detail and backstory on each project in the weeks to come.

I'm on "vacation" in Blacksburg VA today, starting the wind-up pitch that will land my younger child in college next fall :) I'll post again later this week from the recording studio, where we're mastering Volpone!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"My spirit these days is lost in a maze..."

I have always steered clear of reporting on (or any pretense of "reviewing") performances that I've seen. And this one won't be any different. But because I was at Carnegie's Weill Hall last night for the New York Festival of Song's Bastianello and Lucrezia, I can't let the occasion pass without comment.

If you don't know it already, I do not come to this as unbiased. I've long been an admirer of William Bolcom's music, and for the last 6 years I've had the pleasure of becoming an eye witness to John Musto & Mark Campbell's wizardry. They wrote Volpone - a truly funny opera (not because I say so, but because people laughed and laughed and laughed) for 12 singers and 28 instrumentalists. Then they wrote Later the Same Evening - a piece that touched me deeply when I saw it "cold" (John sent me a score but my life was traveling at warp speed and I never opened it...) last fall. In the intervening time, John busied himself by doing things like writing and performing piano concerti, and Mark spun out a one-man wonder called Songs from an Unmade Bed.

OK, so you get it. I'm a fan.

So it's not really useful for me to wax rhapsodic about what a satisfying evening at the theatre I had yesterday. I could barely contain my pride at the former Wolf Trappers on the stage, I wondered at how something like this is created from whole cloth, I laughed (actually I snorted a few times... sorry to my seatmates...), and I cried. (Not just metaphorically. Actually. And I'm kind of repressed.)

Rather, I spent the train ride home firmly in the left brain camp, re-examining and asking questions. None (I hope) rhetorical.


Comedy. Hard. That's why no one tries it (in the opera biz) these days. It's dangerous stuff.

When it's good, why is it so very very good? Timing is almost everything. Mark's rhymes are unparalleled (who else can rhyme "blurry" with "chimichurri" and get away with it?), but the deft ways in which the composers delivered the verses were key. An audience knows when it's being manipulated, and if it's done skillfully, we begin to trust the stage. We stop second-guessing, commenting, and assessing, and relax.


And once we've relaxed, and begun to experience the music and the story in real time, literally riding along with the performers, we become vulnerable. At, at that moment in Bastianello, something simple and poignant happens. Had this very human moment in the story happened without the benefit of the laughter before, we probably would've still be on our guard. Taking note of the voices we liked, wondering about the structure of the piece, obsessing about the diction or the lighting or the staging. But my guard had been let down, my inner critic silenced. And I cried. Context is everything.

Opera? Music Theatre?

Yes, an old and very tired topic. But having heard Mark's rhymes set by theatre composers, it strikes me how not-different this is from off-Broadway. (Notice I didn't say Broadway, but that's a whole different rant.)

It is opera, for these singers don't need microphones, and the composers have tapped into their marvelous wide-ranging instruments. The harmonies, melodies and rhythms are intricate and sometimes happily unexpected (read: non-formulaic). But it has surprisingly little in common with what's happening at the Met (or on any other large stage in the country).

The Bigger Picture

New, creative, compelling art is being created like this in many places. This one is within my orbit, so it's the one I know. But I'm sure that in small theatre companies, concert halls and galleries all over, there are evenings like these. In this particular case, there are only 3 performances in the "run." Then hopes that someone else will perform them again someday.

Now this isn't one of those diatribes against world premieres not getting second productions. Well, it is, but with a markedly different slant. When we bemoan the disappearances of new works after their premieres, our disappointment is focused on the amount of effort and skill that went into creating and producing the premiere, and what a shame that it doesn't pay off over a larger period of time. Not a purely mercenary scenario, but let's just call it a practical one.

I get stuck on a different dilemma. My brain freezes up when I try to figure out why the effect of something so clearly satisfying comfortably stops at these several hundred people. What is wrong with us (me) that these kinds of performances can sustain me for weeks and make me go on and on about them? (If you're still reading, you can attest.) And why - no matter how evangelical I might be to my nonbelieving friends - can't I get anyone to believe me? Opera doesn't intend to be elite these days, but we're lying if we say it hasn't ended up that way by default. Why can't we get anyone else to care?

Ooh, now I'm really whining. Very unattractive. A sign that I've run out of ways to shed any light on this.

And since I can't close with some music, I'll give you a snippet of Bastianello's first monologue. I'm sure Mark wouldn't mind.

"My spirit these days
Is lost in a maze
Of scholarly thought
And well-worded rot.
Of theories of art
And Hobbes and Decartes
The murky morass
Of hours spent in class.
No wonder when there
I long for the air...
Up here,
Close to the sky,
Among the branches,
Above the world.
Up here,
Where the view is clear
And goes on forever."

(I took a cast photo to post, but it includes A Very Famous Person - a colleague of Steve Blier's - of whom I probably shouldn't post a picture without permission.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Remain Agile, Recalculate, Make It Up As You Go Along

Words to live by. Or at least I'll try.

Last week's news that Canada's Radio Two is making an all-too-common cutback in classical music reverberated around the blogosphere. I know that the right thing to do is to react with disbelief and indignation. But (and I probably shouldn't admit this), that's not working for me any more.

Radio 2 came up in a conversation on Friday evening with RB - a terrific Canadian musician and brilliant guy who was playing at The Barns. We all shook our heads and tsk-tsked, then RB simply acknowledged that no matter how we resist it, this landscape is changing. And we should simply remain agile.

Why was it such a relief to have an esteemed colleague move beyond the griping?


Weeks ago Roger Bourland devoted a brief post to his Nüvi . The analogy stuck, and I've become determined to live my life According to Garmin. That little GPS device manages to be simultaneously meticulous and flexible. After barking demands to "turn right," "turn left," if her directions (I love/hate that Roger's Nüvi is a she) aren't followed, she simply says "Recalculating." And starts over from wherever she is. No recriminations, no guilt, no fuss. I aspire to this.

I Love Neuroscience

OK, I'm a nerd. I'll even admit to my newest addiction, the Neuromarketing Blog.

Over at Musical Perceptions, Scott summarizes a new study of the neuroscience of jazz improvisation. Now don't tune out... it's not as dry as it sounds. Basically, the part of the brain that is associated with self-censorship and inhibition is (not surprisingly) lacking in activity during improvisation.

I'm also fascinated by recent studies that show the same electrical activity in musicians' brains when they're just thinking about performing as when they're actually doing it. Don't ever doubt the value of mental practice. I once learned an entire Wagner opera (well, sort of... well enough to play rehearsals) on a plane.


Why is the hour we lose for DST worse than, say, the hour we lose en route to Chicago? I sorely missed my hour of sleep, but was happy to greet the crocuses (croci?) and maple tree buds in the front yard.

I'm off to New York on Tuesday for the premiere of the Musto/Campbell Bastianello and Bolcom/Campbell Lucrezia with the New York Festival of Song at Carnegie Hall. Can't wait.