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Song of the Day: May 5

Juilliard castTo celebrate our final NYFOS After Hours of the season, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” which took place this Monday, May 2nd at Henry’s Restaurant, we asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate the Song of the Day blog. Today’s entry is from tenor Gerard Schneider.

 

 

Iris (Pietro Mascagni) – Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira

Today, I have chosen to write about the Act II love duet, ‘Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira’, from Pietro Mascagni’s 1896 opera, Iris. In an opera full of truly beautiful music – the serenade, ‘Apri la tua finestra’, and ‘Inno al Sole’ as prime examples – this duet stands as a crowning achievement of both Mascagni’s genius and the verismo canon.

The story of Iris is indeed a strange one; the young lord Osaka stages a puppet-show with the help of a brothel-keeper in order to kidnap the eponymous heroine. Convincing Iris that she has been taken away to Yoshiwara, a land of paradise, Osaka tries to seduce her but fails to make her yield to his advances. Tired and annoyed by the simplicity of the girl, Osaka leaves her in the hands of Kyoto, the brothel- owner, who exposes her on a balcony of the brothel. There, she is found and cursed by her blind father, who knew nothing of the abduction and thought he had been abandoned by her. Overwhelmed by shame, Iris throws herself into an abyss.

Premiered a full six years before Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Iris was a collaboration between Pietro Mascagni and Luigi Illica; the latter the famed librettist of Andrea Chenier, La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. In line with the fin-de- siecle fascination with the orient, Illica raised the idea of creating a work in the Japanese style as a response to Italian symbolism. Mascagni met the project ‘with great enthusiasm that had no equal’ and immersed himself in the Japanese harmonic style. This led to the inclusion of eastern percussion, including gongs, and use of the whole tone scale in the piece. This is further illustrated by the cyclical nature of the work, beginning and ending with the Inno al sole or Hymn to the Sun.

At first glance ‘Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira’ can easily be dismissed a series of disjointed arias for tenor and soprano. It is on further inspection that the listener can identify the rich, overarching themes present throughout the duet, as well as Illica’s subtle and inventive usage of metaphor. An example of the latter is seen in Un di ero piccina, the point in the duet in which Iris becomes truly fearful or her captor when confronted by his desire to give her pleasure.  Iris describes a wooden screen she has seen in a Buddhist temple when she was a child, depicting an octopus coiling its tentacles around a young woman and pleasuring her, which later leads to her death. This episode is inspired by Hokusai’s 1814 woodcut relief, ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ off ‘Kinoe no Komatsu’, and foreshadows the final fate of Iris.

Once performed more often than Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Iris has fallen largely out of favour. This is due in part to criticisms concerning the dark nature of the work and Illica’s depiction of Japan as a place of fantasy rather than the more authentic realization present in Butterfly. Desperate to avoid the classic melodrama of contemporaneous opera, Mascagni chose to utilize melodic invention and richness of instrumental details to enhance his desired sense of exoticism. This led to further criticisms that the work is not accessible and didn’t complement Mascagni’s existing compositions. Whether a listener chooses to agree with these opinions or not, there is no questions that Iris is an underestimated and oft overlooked masterpiece of the verismo repertoire.

Gerard will appear as Osaka in Mascagni’s “Iris” at the 2016 Bard Summerscape Festival, directed by James Darrah and conducted by Leon Botstein.

Song of the Day: May 2

Juilliard castIn anticipation of our final NYFOS After Hours of the season tonight, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” we’ve asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate this week’s Song of the Day. Come out to see them at 10pm tonight, Monday, May 2nd at HENRY’s Restaurant! Today’s entry is from tenor Samuel Levine.

 

“Come, Let Us Go Back to God”–Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

In art, as in life, there are moments that change everything – moments that, in hindsight, divide our histories into “before” or “after.” Whether it’s falling in love or the fall of the Berlin Wall, the moment happens once, and then nothing is the same. Usually, memory shapes our view of things so that they look differently in hindsight than they did in the moment, but once in a great while, a camera or a microphone is rolling, and the moment of transformation is captured.

Picture, if you will, in Los Angeles in 1951, a packed room with no natural light, filled with men on two sides of studio soundproof glass: the Jewish men in the booth on one side working the sound board, and the Black men on the other side, singing around a single microphone. The minor record label, Specialty Records, was holding largely unheralded recording session for an established Gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, to feature their new, 20-year-old lead singer. The lead-in starts, the back-up singers start harmonizing, all pianissimo, all “ooh,” and after fifty-five seconds, Sam Cooke steps up to the microphone and begins to sing. American music would never be the same.

———-

Sam Cooke had a voice and an artistry like no other. His tenor oozes a liquid, golden sweetness that caresses the inner ear, and his effortless style, smooth delivery, and endless, unfathomable elegance are downright sexy. There’s just something about his singing, about the instrument itself, some divine simplicity filled with longing, somehow simultaneously perfectly balanced and also reaching for something unattainable. As a tenor, and a student of the tenor voice and its history, I find Cooke’s voice to be the most beautiful tenor voice ever recorded.

But there’s more to him than that. Cooke composed; was an astute businessman; he founded a record label, as well as a publishing company, both of ground-breaking for a Black artist at that time; and was active in the struggle for civil rights. Both Black and white audiences loved his songs, something unheard of previously. Now, he is called the “inventor of soul music,” by which means: what we think of as Soul music, the Motown sound that inspired the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, which would eventually inspire the birth of Hip Hop and R & B, and influence every kind of modern popular music, would be
unimaginable without the work of Sam Cooke. His were the shoulders upon which Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, James Brown, Beyonce, or Kanye West stood, and stand. In my opinion, Cooke gets plenty of credit for his performing and recording career, but not nearly enough for the developments he brought into American musical and cultural life.

Cooke did have quite the career, though. Some of his songs, like “(What a) Wonderful World” has become a Hollywood staple of young love, and the jaw-dropping “A Change is Gonna Come,” which Cooke wrote himself, has become an anthem of the American Civil Rights Movements, and remains a touchstone for social justice activism; other hits, like his breakout “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” survive as near-perfect distillations of soul music at its best: they astonish us aesthetically, while seemingly defying us to keep from moving our hips. His rapturous “Nothing Can Change This Love” was the first dance at my wedding. By the time of his death at age 33 in 1964, he had over thirty Top 40 Hits to his credit. His voice, his compositions, and his songs linger in the ear and in the American imagination.

Yet Cooke lived hard, and there’s no disputing that, at the time of his sudden death, some of the bloom and beauty of his voice had faded, the victim of late nights, bad habits, and a grueling schedule. And then that sudden death: he was shot dead by a hotel manager in Los Angeles, under what can mildly be described as dubious circumstances, once again robbing Americans of a Black icon of the 1960s through violent means.

———–

But let’s rewind. Before the shooting, before the hits and the fame, before all of the events and work that elevate him in popular and musical memory, Sam Cooke was the son of a preacher man (no, really, he was) from Mississippi. And he got his start just as you might expect: in the church. He was performing regularly by age six, and continued on throughout childhood and adolescence, always with Gospel groups. His big break would come before his twentieth birthday.

It was 1950, and the 19-year-old Samuel Cook (the “e” was added later) was hired to replace a prominent member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers, R. H. Harris, after his retirement. Though confined to Gospel’s niche market, the group was a major force in American music– they’d performed at the White House, recorded Billboard hits, and performed all over the country, making soulful, technically sophisticated music, and developing as tremendous in Black Christian music. They were stars. As such, this job was a big, big break for the soon-to-be superstar, and the recordings from this time prove the point. In 1951, Specialty invited them to lay down some tracks.

And there we are again, in that dark room. Cooke steps up to the microphone. In hindsight it’s easy to see this, but with the entrance of that voice, an era of American music was over: segregation.

And not just Black/white segregation! At the time of this recording, there was a sharp, irreconcilable divide between sacred and secular music in the Black community… a musical artist either “had religion,” or did not, and audiences followed one or the other, according to their own religious leanings. Yet here was a Christian artist who could not confine himself to the Church: his goal was to reach as many people as possible, and he couldn’t do that while restricting himself to Black sacred listeners only. In a few years, he would strike out on his own, singing secular music, but bringing the musical sensibilities he knew from the Church. Here, not for the first time, he was a trail-blazer. The likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the Reverend Al Green, and Marvin Gaye (who was born Marvin Gay, and added the extra partially in reverence to Cooke, his hero) would follow suit.

But Cooke would be among the first to disrupt musical segregation by color, too. He appealed to white listeners in a way that no Black artist had before, while retaining his massive appeal among Black audiences. Musical segregation would not be eliminated by 1956 (or by 2016, for that matter), but the practice of classifying music either for the “white” pop charts or the “Black” R&B is now knocked-out, and it was Cooke who landed that first, powerful punch. Furthermore, the racial diversity of their audiences helped spark some artists in the 1960’s to speak out against segregated performance venues: in this way, music and musicians became an essential part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Most of all, though, just listen to that voice. If you’re a fan of singing, and of the history of vocal-musical communication, as I am, listen to the way he spins the lines at his first vocal entrance. Imagine that this artist would create vocal sounds that were unheard of to all but Black sacred music listeners at the time.

Hearing that sound, know that suddenly the sound world of the Ink Spots, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Nat King Cole suddenly became the sound of the past: beautiful, extraordinary even, but no longer cutting-edge. Suddenly, the world of Motown, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder became possible, became inevitable. Soul was coming into being. History and culture had turned, all of a sudden– more was possible, the world of sound would get richer, and all of us would have to change.