Song of the Day: April 19

San Francisco Opera Singer Headshots | Anna Wu PhotographyThis week, soprano María Valdés curates Song of the Day. She will perform with NYFOS next Tuesday, April 26th, in Compositora: Songs by Latin American Women, alongside baritone Efraín Solís. She is a recent alumna of the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera where she sang and covered several roles. Her performance with NYFOS will mark her New York recital debut.

 

Today’s song is brought to you by Joanna Newsom, one of my ALL-TIME FAVORITE singer/songwriters. (Please forgive the exclamation…!) She has carved a very special niche in the folk music realm. Though she doesn’t identify with any particular genre, some have coined her as one of the founding artists of the “freak folk” movement. As usual, the nomenclature gets a bit sticky (but I’m a nerd for this kind of thing so I indulge it). In a nutshell, the genre is characterized by acoustic instruments, pastoral themes, early American folk and avant-garde music. Basically, it is weird and kind of indescribable, but you will totally understand once you hear it.

“Monkey & Bear” is from the album Ys (2006). It is a ten minute song on the album and can be 20 mins+ live. It is a creation story about one of the Ursa constellations. A performing bear, Ursala, searches for freedom in the face of a duplicitous monkey overlord. Luckily, the bear escapes, teaching us a valuable lesson.

Here are the lyrics (you’ll need them!):
Down in the green hay,
where monkey and bear usually lay,
they woke from a stable-boy’s cry.
He said: “someone come quick —
the horses got loose, got grass-sick —
they’ll founder! Fain, they’ll die.”

What is now known by the sorrel and the roan?
By the chestnut, and the bay, and the gelding grey?
It is: stay by the gate you are given.
And remain in your place, for your season.
And had the overfed dead but listened
to the high-fence, horse-sense, wisdom…

“Did you hear that, bear?” said
monkey, “we’ll get out of here, fair and square
they left the gate open wide!

“So, my bride.

“Here is my hand. Where is your paw?
Try and understand my plan, Ursala.
My heart is a furnace
full of love that’s just, and earnest.
Now.
You know that we must unlearn this
allegiance to a life of service,
and no longer answer to that heartless
hay-monger, nor be his accomplice —
(the charlatan, with artless hustling!)
But Ursala, we’ve got to eat something,
and earn our keep, while still within
the borders of the land that man has girded,
(all double-bolted and tightfisted!),
until we reach the open country,
a-steeped in milk and honey.
Will you keep your fancy clothes on, for me?
Can you bear a little longer to wear that leash?

“My love, I swear by the air I breathe:
Sooner or later, you’ll bare your teeth.

“But for now, just dance, darling.
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
Darling, there’s a place for us;
can we go, before I turn to dust?
My darling there’s a place for us.

“Darling. C’mon will you dance,
My darling?
The hills are groaning with excess,
like a table ceaselessly being set.
My darling we will get there yet.”

They trooped past the guards,
past the coops, and the fields, and the
farmyards, all night, till finally,

the space they gained
grew much farther than
the stone that bear threw,
to mark where they’d stop for tea.

But,
“Walk a little faster,
don’t look backwards —

“your feast is to the East, which lies a little past the pasture.

“When the blackbirds hear tea whistling they rise and clap.
Their applause caws the kettle black.
And we can’t have none of that!
Move along, Bear; there, there; that’s that.”

(Though cast in plaster,
our Ursala’s heart beat faster
than monkey’s ever will.)

But still,
they have got to pay the bills.
Hadn’t they?
That is what the monkey’d say.
So, with the courage of a clown, or a cur,
or a kite, jerking tight at its tether,
in her dun-brown gown of fur,
and her jerkin of
swansdown and leather,
Bear would sway on her hind legs;
the organ would grind dregs of song,
for the pleasure
of the children who’d shriek,
throwing coins at her feet,
then recoiling in terror.

Sing, “dance, darling.
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
Darling, there’s a place for us;
can we go, before I turn to dust?
My darling there’s a place for us.

“Darling.
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
You keep your eyes fixed on the highest hill,
where you’ll ever-after eat your fill.
O my darling…dear…mine…if you dance,
dance darling and I’ll love you still.”

*

Deep in the night
shone a weak and miserly light,
where the monkey shouldered his lamp.
Someone had told him the
bear’d been wandering a fair piece away
from where they were camped.
Someone had told him
the bear had been sneaking away,
to the seaside caverns, to bathe;
and the thought troubled the monkey,
for he was afraid of spelunking
down in those caves.
Also afraid what the
village people would say,
if they saw the bear in that state —
lolling and splashing obscenely
well, it seemed irrational, really,
washing that face;
washing that matted and flea-bit pelt
in some sea-spit-shine —
old kelp dripping with brine.
But monkey just laughed, and he muttered,
“When she comes back, Ursala will be bursting with pride —
till I jump up!
Saying, ‘You’ve been rolling in muck!
Saying, ‘You smell of garbage and grime!’”

But far out,
far out,
by now,
by now —
far out, by now, Bear ploughed,
Because she would
Not drown:

First the outside-legs of the bear
up and fell down, in the water, like knobby garters,
Then the outside-arms of the bear
fell off, as easy as if sloughed
from boiled tomatoes.
Low’red in a genteel curtsy,
bear shed the mantle of her
diluvian shoulders;
and, with a sigh,
she allowed the burden of belly to drop,
like an apronfull of boulders.

If you could hold up her
threadbare coat to the light,
where it’s worn translucent in places,
you’d see spots where,
almost every night of the year,
Bear had been mending,
suspending that baseness.

Now her coat drags through the water,
bagging, with a life’s-worth of hunger,
limitless minnows;

in the magnetic embrace,
balletic and glacial,
of bear’s insatiable shadow —

Left there!
Left there!
When bear
Left bear;

Left there,
Left there,
When bear
stepped clear of bear.

(Sooner or later you’ll bury your teeth)

Song of the Day: April 18

San Francisco Opera Singer Headshots | Anna Wu PhotographyThis week, soprano María Valdés curates Song of the Day. She will perform with NYFOS next Tuesday, April 26th, in Compositora: Songs by Latin American Women, alongside baritone Efraín Solís. She is a recent alumna of the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera where she sang and covered several roles. Her performance with NYFOS will mark her New York recital debut.

 

Letter to a Lover (Gabriel Kahane with Brooklyn Rider)

Today’s Song of the Day is brought to you by Gabriel Kahane, one of my favorite up-and-coming composers. His works have been lauded by the classical music scene as well as the pop world, having been performed at symphony halls and rock venues alike. His album The Ambassador , for instance, was acclaimed by Rolling Stone Magazine as “one of the year’s very best albums.”

He is joined by a group of similar prestige, Brooklyn Rider. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes them as “four classical musicians performing with the energy of young rock stars jamming on their guitars, a Beethoven-goes-indie foray into making classical music accessible but also celebrating why it was good in the first place.”

I think artists like these are essential to continuing the classical tradition. They offer a solution to our constant efforts to keep classical music welcoming to and relevant to new audiences.

I’ve chosen to share a piece from Gabriel Kahane’s LP, The Fiction Issue. It tells the story of a man (presumably) going to pick up his girlfriend from the airport. The text is forthright but still maintains poetic integrity with its vivid imagery. This quality is typical of Kahane. He talks about everyday experiences, whether mundane or extraordinary—something we can all relate to.

For more information about Gabriel Kahane, follow him on Tumblr or buy his music at

http://www.gabrielkahane.com
http://www.gabrielkahane.bandcamp.com

And visit Brooklyn Rider’s website at
http://www.brooklynrider.com

Song of the Day: April 8

Sarah Nelson Craft headshotThis week’s Song of the Day is curated by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft, who is currently the Program Administrator for NYFOS (until Claire Molloy returns from maternity leave!). As a performer she was most recently presented by Carnegie Hall in a solo Spotlight Recital with pianist Warren Jones as part of The Song Continues. She has also been heard as a soloist at venues such as Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Caramoor Festival.

 

I briefly considered continuing to worship at the altar of my mezzo-soprano idols as I have been doing here over the last several days (Oh, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica Von Stade, don’t think I have forgotten you!) And I was so close to featuring Handel, because I think he wrote the most beautiful melodies on the planet, and I’d love to pay homage to that musical era, which is very close to my heart. And I also thought of my dear Ella Fitzgerald… and Patsy Cline… neither of whom I wanted to neglect (I swear there are some male singers I admire, too!). BUT I decided that for day #5 instead of bringing you an old favorite, I’ll share something that is a newer discovery for me, and something that might be brand new to you.

I admit to not being that up on my jazz – I have a few great albums that I got in high school that I’ve listened to many many times over the years (Thelonious Monk, John Coltraine, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and several Ella CDs), but my knowledge of the genre is far from thorough. Since I tend to be partial to jazz that’s on the traditional side, I’ve always really liked everything I’ve heard from Duke Ellington, but I had no awareness of the music he wrote for classically trained singers!
I was introduced to it when soprano Candice Hoyes unearthed a whole album’s worth of Ellington rarities for her debut album, On a Turquoise Cloud, in 2015. This track, “Heaven,” is from Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, which the composer called “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” It premiered right here in New York in 1968 at St. John the Divine Church, but no recording of this has surfaced.  It’s hard to believe this Harlem gem was little known, but it’s very exciting that a singer of my generation has chosen to interpret it!
Hoyes is made to sing this repertoire – she has the soprano chops to soar into the stratosphere as well as the style and range to pull off the soulful jazzy low notes. I knew her as a high operatic soprano (I’ve had the joy of singing opera and art song repertoire with her many times), so when I went to hear her sing jazz at Minton’s in Harlem for the first time, I was blown away! Her cool, confident performance would have made Ellington proud, I have no doubt.
Hoyes’ recording of this song really captures the soul, beauty, and versatility of Ellington. I love how she employs such a variety of vocal colors, and I love how the arrangement builds and ends with her super soprano-y riffs! This song (and her album in general) is so soothing and dreamy, not to mention that it’s a really cool aspect of New York song history. Enjoy!
It’s been such a treat to write for the NYFOS blog this week. Thanks for going on this journey with me!

Song of the Day: April 7

Sarah Nelson Craft headshotThis week’s Song of the Day is curated by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft, who is currently the Program Administrator for NYFOS (until Claire Molloy returns from maternity leave!). As a performer she was most recently presented by Carnegie Hall in a solo Spotlight Recital with pianist Warren Jones as part of The Song Continues. She has also been heard as a soloist at venues such as Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Caramoor Festival.

 

I’ve just got to feature a piece I’m obsessed with, not a “song” per se, but an opera duet, one of my favorite moments in all of opera, one that I  occasionally find myself listening to over and over again because I can’t get enough of it:  “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. I love bel canto opera to begin with, and to me this duet is the epitome of the beauty and excitement of this style. It’s SO satisfying. The slow section sucks you right in and washes over you with its warmth, and then the fast section, exhilarating with its syncopated rhythms and soaring thirds, is impossible to listen to it without a giant smile on your face! (In my case happy tears are usually involved as well… it’s what you might call “bel-canto-induced ecstasy.”) The fact that it’s about the building of a strong female friendship makes it that much more rewarding.

 

There are several wonderful and classic recordings of this, but when it comes to video clips, I have a soft spot for this one with Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland from an Ed Sullivan Show telecast in 1970. It’s partly because Sutherland/Horne was the first Norma/Adalgisa pairing I ever heard, and because I don’t think it gets any better than Marilyn Horne on Adalgisa — it’s probably my favorite thing in her voice (and there are a lot of things I love in her voice). When she begins this piece, I can just feel myself absolutely melting. The other thing I love about this particular clip is the old telecast look — it makes me somehow nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive, a time when opera stars were household names and were regulars on mainstream television. Not to mention the fact that I get such a kick out of their late-60s/early-70s style here (that hair!!) — Horne looks so absolutely radiant in that green dress with the never-ending sleeves! But most importantly, these are two of the most glorious voices of our time. The beauty and resonance and seeming effortlessness of their sound, their legato, their phrasing, the elegant way in which they hold themselves — it’s bel canto singing at its best.

 

This piece also holds some beautiful memories for me — I first really took note of the duet several years ago when I was an apprentice artist in the Bel Canto at Caramoor program. I had heard “Casta diva” many times but didn’t know the rest of the opera very well. Will Crutchfield played a recording for us during one of his lectures (I’m fairly certain this was the lecture on legato) which included a clip of this duet. I remember being especially captivated by Horne’s Adalgisa. And that summer, we happened to also be performing Norma up at Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, so we young artists were the chorus. It was one of the most exhilarating and memorable chorus experiences I’ve ever had (notwithstanding the 90+ degree heat and profuse sweating from everyone on stage in the semi-outdoor theater). For starters, standing mere feet from Angela Meade while she sang “Casta diva” was thrilling! And Bellini’s chorus music was so much fun to sing (especially the “Guerra, guerra” chorus!). But then, when we weren’t on stage, I hovered just offstage in the wings to watch the rest of it go down; I just about bawled from the emotion of watching that duet for the first time, with Meade and Keri Alkema as Adalgisa, in the absolutely electric atmosphere that is the packed Venetian Theater. Unforgettable.

 

And now I’m finally learning the duet myself (about to perform it in recital with the wonderful soprano Reyna Carguill on May 1st at 2:30pm at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village — shameless plug!), and so I have been working on it with one of my coaches and mentors, none other than Marilyn Horne herself. It’s more than a little surreal to sing the opening line for Adalgisa herself and then have her pipe right in on Norma’s line, clearly in the style of Sutherland! Just priceless.

 

So it seems my obsession with this duet will not end any time soon! I hope to sing the whole role someday, but for not I will wallow in the joy of this scene. Enjoy this clip, and then go look up all the other wonderful Norma/Adalgisa pairs of the past! Who are your favorites?

 

Song of the Day: April 6

Sarah Nelson Craft headshotThis week’s Song of the Day is curated by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft, who is currently the Program Administrator for NYFOS (until Claire Molloy returns from maternity leave!). As a performer she was most recently presented by Carnegie Hall in a solo Spotlight Recital with pianist Warren Jones as part of The Song Continues. She has also been heard as a soloist at venues such as Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Caramoor Festival.

 

A composer that loomed large in my childhood, and one I’d love to introduce to those of you who may not have heard of him, is Al Carmines. He was a key figure in the Off-Off-Broadway scene of the 60s — as Associate Minister of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, he helped found Judson Poet’s Theater, which produced experimental theater pieces. In the late 60s he started writing his own musicals. My parents happened to meet at Judson (in the church choir) in the late 60s, and the music of Al Carmines was the soundtrack to their early relationship. Al was still at Judson during the first few years of my life, and his wonderful musical/oratorio about the Nativity story, Christmas Rappings – not your typical Christmas play, I assure you – was still being produced every year for most of my childhood. In my family we not only went to see the yearly performance, but we listened to the soundtrack every year while decorating our Christmas tree (and still do), singing along to the entire thing at the top of our lungs. Christmas Rappings is still produced every couple of years at Judson, and I never miss a chance to see it!

My parents used to get out their records of Al’s various other musicals on occasion and wax nostalgic, but I didn’t know those other musicals all that well. (I did know several of his quirky and wonderful hymns well, which we sang frequently on Sundays at Judson.) It wasn’t until I was well out of college that I really got to know this Al Carmines song, my father’s favorite, “Capricious and Fickle” from Promenade, written in 1969. The brilliant words by Maria Irene Fornes along with Carmines’ heart-wrenching score totally captivated me — that up-the-octave repeat and key change on “that true love catches you by surprise” is quintessential Carmines, and by the way, he was famous for writing just a bit out of a singer’s comfortable range! — but it’s this emotional performance by the incredible Alice Playten that leaves me in tears by the end of the song every time.

[Side note/anecdote: I feel very lucky that when I was born, Al was still at Judson Church, and he was still writing a song each year for all the children that were born at Judson that year. Fortunately for me, I was the only one born in my year, and so I got my very own Al Carmines song about me that I will never forget!]

Speaking of unforgettable, I hope you will agree that “Capricious and Fickle” falls into that category:

And to give you a further taste of Al’s genius, here is the opening to Christmas Rappings, which Al always played himself. As Michael Feingold’s Village Voice obituary said of Rappings, “Its iconoclastic approach is indicated by its opening number: the Gospels’ genealogy from Abraham to Jesus, puckishly set as a history of Western classical music from Bach to John Cage. As performed by Carmines himself at the piano, it was a yearly source of ineffable joy.”

Song of the Day: April 5

Sarah Nelson Craft headshotThis week’s Song of the Day is curated by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft, who is currently the Program Administrator for NYFOS (until Claire Molloy returns from maternity leave!). As a performer she was most recently presented by Carnegie Hall in a solo Spotlight Recital with pianist Warren Jones as part of The Song Continues. She has also been heard as a soloist at venues such as Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Caramoor Festival.

 

 Of course I have to feature my #1 favorite singer, Teresa Berganza! Although she is absolutely stunning on any repertoire, when she sings Spanish music it is just perfection. One of the song cycles that I love the most (both to sing and to hear), one which Berganza performed better than anyone, is Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas. It’s a wonderfully diverse collection of songs, bringing together melodies and dance rhythms from all over Spain. There are vastly differing moods among them, but as a set they are strung together so perfectly. It’s hard to imagine one without all the rest of them. But I chose “Jota” because I just love the mood it conveys, and the rhythm with the triplets in the introduction always make me giddy. This upbeat lover’s serenade anchors the set as the middle song of the seven and is a lovely bit of brightness between the two slow, utterly breathtaking tunes that surround it.

This set was written for piano accompaniment but is also frequently done with guitar, which I’m particularly fond of on these pieces (though, to be fair, the original piano part quite successfully captures the feeling of a guitar). I’ve performed the set four times and so far only with guitar! I think “Jota” is particularly delightful in the guitar version.

I have a recording of Berganza singing these songs with guitarist Narciso Yepes which I adore, but I found this lovely video of her performing them with guitarist Gabriel Estrellas in a recital broadcast by the BBC in 1987 (gotta love the 80’s sleeves on that dress!). I’ve included a second video of her performing “Jota” with pianist Gerald Moore from 1960, when she was just 25, and as an added treat, that video contains the last three songs in the set as well.

I could listen to that easy, warm, pure voice of hers all day long. And watching her perform, with such an open expression and generosity of spirit that shines through, I’m always inspired. I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

Song of the Day: April 4

 

Sarah Nelson Craft headshotThis week’s Song of the Day is curated by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft, who is currently the Program Administrator for NYFOS (until Claire Molloy returns from maternity leave!). As a performer she was most recently presented by Carnegie Hall in a solo Spotlight Recital with pianist Warren Jones as part of The Song Continues. She has also been heard as a soloist at venues such as Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Caramoor Festival.

 

When I started thinking about picking five songs for the blog, at least twice as many songs came to mind right away (and more followed) – I’ve left off so many favorites! I even left off my very favorite song cycle to sing, which is Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, partly because I couldn’t quite find one “definitive” recording on YouTube that I could settle on. But at least I’ve now given a shout out to Debussy, so I can live with that!

I have to begin with a composer that means a lot to me, and one of the most moving and profound songs ever written: Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from his Rückert-Lieder. I had sung a few Mahler songs on my graduate recital (from his Des knaben Wunderhorn collection), and I really loved them, but it wasn’t until 2014, when I happened to receive two offers to sing Mahler with orchestra (Symphony No.2 and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”) that I became obsessed! It just doesn’t get more sublime than those two pieces of music. I subsequently made sure to program a Mahler set on my Carnegie Hall recital (not including these same pieces, but three other wonderful songs), and I took it as a very good omen that a portrait of Mahler was hanging over the piano in my backstage dressing room that evening. I think he’ll always hold a special place in my heart!

But getting back to this particular song – it just gives me the chills every time I hear it. It’s the captivating melody, the serenity, the orchestration with the utterly human English horn and the etherial harp, and most of all, it’s the heart-wrenching dissonances. The music alone is enough to break your heart, but Friedrich Rückert’s poem takes it over the edge, and Mahler couldn’t have set it more perfectly. There is ambiguity in the words (see translation below) – certainly a sense of melancholy but also a contentment with fact of shutting out the world and living “in my heaven, in my love, and in my song.” The music depicts this tension so effectively – the melody keeps trying to ascend, but the orchestra keeps pulling it down. Moments of optimism give way to turmoil. In the most satisfying moment of all, on “Ruh,” the exquisite dissonance gives away the internal conflict underneath the supposed “rest.” Even though the piece has such an underlying resignation, I can’t help but feel like ending on the word “Lied” (“song”) is somewhat hopeful, especially from an artist’s perspective – the world may be too much to handle at times, but we have SONG.

Apparently Mahler said that this piece was truly him, that he identified very deeply with the poem, and perhaps that is why it is such a gem, such a perfect marriage of music and poetry.

There are many beautiful recordings to choose from, but I had to share this stunning performance by one of my idols, Dame Janet Baker, from 1967:

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

========

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!