Monday, April 29, 2013

What's the Greatest Voice You Ever Heard?

Needn't be  "classical". Janis Joplin and Adele would make my list.

Please leave your own choices on this blog. I want to make a collection over the next month to encourage myself and others to listen to one and other's choices. Don't be shy. There are no wrong answers.

A listener died and left me crates and crates of back issues of OPERA NEWS.
So all of these crates were a rich play ground for me.
I first received this magazine in 1968 at age 12 and have been a subscriber ever since. But I manage to hang on to very few.

(Wife: You are NOT
bringing that shit in here!")

I rediscovered one of my favorite issues, from 1999 which asked the question up in the title. Other sings were asked. Peters loved Sutherland. Moffo loved Callas and de los Angeles. Horne loved del Monaco, Stignani and Tebaldi. Hampson loved De Luca. Farrell loved Ponselle. Chookasian loved Farrell.

I've been listening a lot over the past weeks trying to gather my own list. Its impossible. Like the ol' potato chips, its impossible to choose just one.
With one exception, I limited myself  to only one voice I never heard live. I could have, had I gone to Russia, as this artist lived to a great age and was reportedly still singing well at the end of his life:


This rich voiced Armenian baritone seldom appeared outside the old Soviet Union. Reports would come back form the USSR and Europe about the Armenian baritone with the beautiful  voice. This is The Greatest Voice I Did NOT Hear Live

Lisitsian sang a lot of Italian Opera-in Russian-Rigoletto, Germont, Amonasro. He sang a lot of lieder and art song, always in Russian translation. Remember up until fifty years or so ago vocal music was generally sung in the language of the audience. I chose Yeletsky's aria to show you Lisitsian's gorgeous legato, and I always enjoy hearing a great voice sing in his own language. What a Great Voice!

Hold the phone, here. What's the criteria for a GREAT voice. Vocal beauty/quality? Diction?
Characterization? All of it. Every scrap. A beautiful voice that says nothing is a bore. A flawed voiced used expressively (Callas, Sills) can be very exciting. A stentorian, exiting voice with nothing much behind it can be dull . I want to hear a sound ion which to wallow and a wonderful legato.



I heard this tenor live many times. It was late for him, but she made no cuts, never dodged a note, never cheated. Pavarotti cancelled his apeearance at a gala in New York in 1996. Bergonzi, then 72 walked out unexpectedly. The place went bananas before he uttered a sound. It was not a young man's voice and the top notes weren't rock solid in his prime. Never mind. Carlo Bergonzi kept the line and sweetness of tone.

Here's Bergonzi in 1970:

And the winner is....

This voice never failed. It was louder, richer, high and faster than anyone else. he one thing you don't get in recordings is the most important element: Presence. Birgit Nilsson's voice was an arrow aimed right between your eyes. Pavarotti could sing a piano than projected  beautifully to the cheap seats. Marlyn Horne made the most fiendish music sound easy-and magnificent. She never cheated, either. 

But THIS voice. I don't think there will ever be another like her. There will be, and their are magnificent voices but this artist could sing it all. And again, the voice was huge and warm in person, elements hard to capture on recordings.


Dame Joan. And still champ.

 Isn't this hard? What about Pavarotti, Caballe, Domingo, Horne, Janet Baker, Merrill, Pape, Leontyne Price...oh wait I have room fotr an encore. This vocie and this specific performance are incredible. Enjoy:

Who are your great voices? Leave your choices here:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


It's hard to know what to say about Boston and what to say about April 19th

That's Patriot's Day, little known outside New England. It's a state holiday in Massachusetts: no school, no work, parades, pancake breakfasts, battle reenactments and scads of hula hoops and tri-corn hats.
The American Revolution began with the battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, around 5 a.m. People in Concord MA will tell you the American Revolution began there at Concord Bridge. Yes the battle continued in Concord, but those of us from Lexington have long allowed our neighbors to rave on.

April 19 became a "Monday holiday" years ago. I'll say this for Concord, their celebration has always kept to the actual date. The Boston marathon is run on Patriot's Day. For me the day was magic as well because the Metropolitan Opera always opened their spring tour at the War Memorial Auditorium, close to the finish line. The War Memorial was great for the boat show and bad for the opera but one made do.;

In short, April 19 or the Monday closest to it was a time for celebration. It was a great day. Now look
what's happened

April 19, 1989 rape and beating of the Central Park Jogger
April 19, 1993 David Koesh and the Branch Davidians firebombed in Waco, TX
April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh blows up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City killing nearly 200, many of them children
April 15 (for the 19th) Bombing at the Boston Marathon, killing three including an eight year old child, injuring many others. On e police officer killed later that night.

I don't know what the good burghers of Boston and Lexington are going to do about Patriot's Day in the future. My guess is a rousing fuck you to those who would use this or any day for violence.

But the day is tainted by violence by the sick and deranged toward the innocent . And yes, I know all about the U.S. bombing Baghdad and the horror of Vietnam.

I have a number of unhappy memories of growing up in Lexington-not the town's fault! I have only wonderful memories of Boston. All through Jr. high and high school, Boston to me meant freedom. I often skipped school to crash Sarah Caldwell's rehearsal at the Opera Co. of Boston (theater in the combat zone...yay!) to sit in the Boston Public Library Meeting Room, to eat pizza in a dive on Boylston Street-almost smack in what became the bombing site-and to go to X rated movies since I could pass for 21.

I would get off the Red Line at Charles St., and walk down to the public garden. I loved that walk down Charles Street to this day. That walk was my Freedom Trail. I would walk all over the city, by myself and loved every minute of it. Even if I did nothing else, walking through Boston never disappointed me.

A dear friend , a city, has been wounded. People have been killed and badly hurt. I wish I could be there just to walk around again. Boston is beautiful and for me was filled with opportunity. I lived in the city, I went to B.U. and I had escapades I shudder to remember. And enjoy remembering as well. What a time! What a city!


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Some Notes on the Brahms Requiem

I generally delay writing program notes for late in the week, and I usually use another blog. I 'm giving
pre-concert talks on the Brahms Requiem this year, and with the bombing in Boston can't wait any longer in expressing my devotion to this work.
Trinity Church, Boston

I first heard Ein deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms at Boston's Trinity Church, about thirty-five years ago. Trinity is one of those magnificent stone structures built by the Brahmins.It's house of worship as awe inspiring as the grandiose banks of the day were meant to be. Trinity Church is also quite close to the bomb site at the Boston Marathon of two days ago. I heard the performance back in the day with friends who were much smarter, more serious and better informed about life than I ever was. My post adolescent cynicism was mightily challenged by the beauty, both simple and grand of this music in such impressive surroundings. There was organ, and oh, mighty it was, no orchestra and a large choir. I was hooked.
Johannes Brahms

Brahms was a German Protestant. There's no earth shaking rabble rousing call to punishment and death favored by the Latin liturgy. No Dies irae here: "The day of wrath will dissolve the earth into ashes".

Brahms assembled the texts himself, from Luther's bible. He uses the psalms, the apocrypha, Revelations, Ecclesiastes and parts of the Gospels and Letters of Paul. There is no mention of God, Jesus or any reference to the deity anywhere. If the opening music is dark, it is a darkness of reverence rather than of fear. The first words come from Matthew:

Seling sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getrostet werden
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted

It goes on: Die mit Tranen saen, werden mit Freude enten
                 They that sow in tears shall reap in joy

To say that nothing in the Brahms Requiem hit s you over the head unexpectedly is a compliment. There are unpredictable harmonies if you want to dig enough (I don't) The fifth movement, a soprano solo was added by Brahms after the premiere. This may be a nod to Christiane Brahms, the composer's mother, who died as work on the Requiem began. Brahms denied for years any association with his mother's memory. Yet here he sets,

Ich will euch trosten, wie einen seine Mutter trostet
I will comfort you as one whom his mother comforteth  (Isaiah 66:13)

Robert and Clara Schumann
There's another specter at work.. Robert Schumann died in 1856. A few years earlier, as sketches for the Requiem began, Schumann threw himself into the river in an attempted suicide. Tertiary syphilis destroyed his mind. He was eventually hospitalized and starved himself to death. Schumann, renowned as a great composer in his lifetime, was an astute music critic, and knew a winner when he found one. He was young Brahms's mentor and father figure. Things go all the more complicated when the young Brahms became infatuated by Clara Schumann. Yes, she assumed a maternal role-she had six children of her own-and she it was to whom Brahms showed many a sketch that eventually became  great symphony or concerto. It is evident that Brahms's feelings for his paternal friend's life were complicated and uncomfortable. Cara Schumann lived to a great age dying in 1896 a year before Brahms and some years older than the composer who both idolized and needed her.

Shall we decide that the third movement is about Robert Schumann? If I could sing at all, I would want to sing this:

Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss
Lord, make me to know there must be and end to me 

The entire work opens with Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. The German Requiem ends over an hour later with

Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben
Blessed are the dead, that die in the Lord form henceforth

And only at the end of this great work are the dead comforted, the previous hour taken up with comforting the living.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Until I Say Goodbye

Until I Say Goodbye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel with Bret Witter c. 2013 Harper Collins

I want you to go and buy this book. Keep it at home, in the office, in the car. You don't have to read it now. The next time you want to whine about spouses, kids or hemorrhoids, I want you to take out this book. Your spirit will soar and you will never complain again.

Susan Spencer-Wendel had it all. You could just hate her. She was the crime reporter for the Palm Beach Journal; she had a happy marriage to a hunky husband and they had three gorgeous kids. They lived in West Palm Beach, FL where the sun never sets and snow is something on which to pour flavored syrup in a paper cone. Oh, and she's a beauty.
One day Susan noticed that her left hand was withered. There followed numbness from one hand to the next. Eventually she found a doctor who looked her in the eye and said, "There's no doubt you have ALS".

 ALS: aka Lou Gehrig disease. All the muscles in the body die. There is no treatment and no cure. The mind is unaffected as the body slowly but surely fails and the patient becomes trapped in paralysis until death. Life expectancy about 2 years. No promise they'll be two good years.

Susan decided she was going to have one great year and hope for more. Her book is clear abut her diagnosis and about her condition. She continues to deteriorate, chapter by chapter. She's still with us, unable to walk or speak.

But what a year! Pay attention to what you have. Go after what you want. Susan took each of her children on a special trip of their own "making memories". Mind you, her oldest child was 14 at the time, and the youngest has Asperger's. An adoptee, Susan finds her birth mother, a fading hippie in California. The search for her birth father takes her to Cyprus (she's in a wheel chair by now) Her father is dead. His family embraces Susan as one of their own.

Susan's adopted mother, a Greek beauty named Tee struggles with her own serious illness and a continuing case of mother-daughter angst. Susan goes from vital,  busy and energetic to a woman unable to raise her arms, then unable to walk, her speech fading and" finally John has to wipe me."

This is not a depressing book! To say it is demeans Susan and her family. She has no denial about her condition but she will not give in to despair. Making memories for her kids is important to her. Planning a life for her beloved husband John, the hero of this book,  is important to her. She is thrilled when this book sells well and gets a movie sale. She can leave her loved ones financially well off and she works mighty hard to insure they won't be worse off without her.

 Read the book, say a prayer for Susan's family and go and hug your own. And don't you DARE be sad!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Having Survived 'Ulysees'

Every year I choose books to read ten page at a time. Last Christmas it was the turn of James Joyce's Ulysees. I read Molly's final Yes I will Yes on March 31. I rather like the symmetry.

Of course I needed a study guide, but mine was little help. The academic writing was denser than James Joyce and a damn sight less entertaining. And no, I did not re-read The Odyssey before my first journey to Sandymount Cove. I do know and love Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz Les Troyens but I can't say the helped much in the Dublin of June 16, 1904. Here's a lovely sight of that Dublin:


I loved this book. I was a bit relieved to see it end in the way you are relieved at the end of a long race. You don't come in first but maybe in the top 100.
What I especially loved is the diction. Molly, Leopold, Steven, Blazes Boylan and the scene in the pub
reminded me so much of my grandparents. My grandmother never set foot in a pub as far as I know, but I can hear her voice discussing Paddy Digman's endless wake and funeral.

The idea of eating a pork kidney is repellent. Molly Bloom makes me think of dirty knickers.She's either just getting out of bed or plotting to get back in-with whom is the question.

Catholicism is invoked n the first line, as Buck Mulligan prepares to shave singing "Introibo ad altarei dei". The church is set up with Leopold Bloom is Jewish, yet can still enjoy a good wake, Glory be to God. The structure that had me guffawing was Episode 17-Ithaca--it's nothing less than the Roman Catholic Catechism. From the austerity of the questions to the windy replies.

We are spared nothing, from Molly's kickers to Leopold pooping, to dialogue reflecting the crunch of shells
underfoot. James Joyce was either supremely talented or crazy as hell. I think they go together.
Sylvia Beach, owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, published Ulysses in 1922 and was nearly arrested for her pains. How I would have loved to have spent a day in her bookstore, with Joyce at the tea table and Hemingway arguing and Stein and Toklas glaring and huffing out.

I'm not writing this very well. I'm incapable of writing about Ulysees in a linear way. But I loved it.