Friday, October 31, 2008

Changing of the Guard

Though I enjoy watching birds all year long, there is a particular excitement to be felt as autumn arrives in all its golden glory. Because my office is in my home, I am able to enjoy the birds at our backyard feeders every day. During the fall, it’s interesting to watch some of our summer resident birds prepare for (i.e., fatten up) and embark on their southern migration. Our summer resident Gray Catbirds, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, and American Robins are long gone, as are the Northern (Baltimore) Orioles that seem to become scarcer each year.

We keep our bird feeders up and filled almost all year round, and many birds come every day to feed and stay through the winter. Our resident Blue Jay flock — three families, I think — is a rowdy bunch. They’re like teenaged boys with hot rods; they come in to the feeders at top speed, slam on the brakes, and come to a screeching halt, scattering the smaller birds just as bullies in the school yard sometimes do. But I love them, with their bold coloring and brassy voices and the graceful upcurving of wingtips as they come in for a landing on the deck rail. They are smart and resourceful, and have figured out how to get seeds out of the feeder that is designed to exclude them. But they have a certain tenderness, too; during their spring courtship, nothing is sweeter than to see the male choose a seed for his mate and place it carefully in her beak. (OK, I’m anthropomorphizing.)

We had a good sized flock (30-40) of American Goldfinches at the thistle feeders during the winter of 2007-2008; occasionally a few Pine Siskins stopped in, as well. The goldfinches visited daily throughout the spring and early summer; they breed in late summer after the thistles have gone to seed. They line their nests with the silky white thistledown; isn’t that a nice thought? The goldfinches have been scarce these past several weeks as they’ve been busy with family duties, but one family came to the thistle feeders a few weeks ago – two parents and four young – as if the parents wanted to show the feeder to the young ones. They’ll be back in a few weeks, if not sooner.

Some birds stop at our feeders only during migration. We’ve had a small flock of Purple Grackles in the neighborhood for the past few weeks; today I noticed that the flock had grown to about three times its usual size, which may indicate that the birds are massing in preparation for departure. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brown-Headed Cowbirds are regular fall visitors, too, stopping in for a snack on their way south. Lovely, glossy, blackbirds. In 2006 and 2007, a single Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder in October; I didn’t see one this fall.

But the most exciting part of the autumn is looking out for our first visitors from the north who come “deep south” to Connecticut for the winter. Just arrived at our feeder this week are the Dark-Eyed Juncos and the White-Throated Sparrows, little beauties that seem to bring winter with them; now that they are here, the days and nights somehow really feel colder. Now I’m waiting for the Red-Breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and Brown Creepers; we had one pair of each last winter.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Book in Hand – A Summer of Hummingbirds

I’ve just finished reading a most interesting book: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey. It seems serendipitous that I should have spotted this on the new book shelf at the Farmington Public Library at a time when I have been curious about Emily Dickinson and the people in her life.

I’ve always been sympathetic to Dickinson’s poetry, but my interest in her as a person was sparked [during rehearsals and performance of] A Heart in Hiding, choral settings by Gwyneth Walker of what she calls “the passionate love poems of Emily Dickinson.”

Dr. Walker’s grouping and interpretation of these “passionate” poems gave me pause. I had never really considered Dickinson as a lover, either as the object of passion or as the active partner in a romantic relationship. I confess that I was skeptical of Walker’s collation and interpretation of these poems; they seemed to me to be spiritual rather than romantic. Dickinson’s appropriation of frankly spiritual, even theological language, accomplished perhaps what she intended, to screen, to conceal, to deflect. I found it particularly challenging to prepare program notes for these settings.

Now, after having done more reading and study (in particular this book, A Summer of Hummingbirds), and having had the chance to work with Walker’s settings for the past few months, I have developed a better understanding of Emily Dickinson and many of her poems; I would write very different program notes now than I did several months ago. Not that my earlier notes were wrong; rather, they were not as complete as I would have liked them to be. I did not to delve too much into Walker’s musical interpretation since I was not convinced that I understood [or liked] it.

In A Summer of Hummingbirds, author Christopher Benfey explores some surprising parallels and connections between and among the lives of writers Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), and Mark Twain (1835-1910) and artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), and uses these connections as a means to illuminate and analyze trends in art, philosophy, and popular culture in the years following the American Civil War. Benfey offers fascinating insights, connections, and anecdotes about these important thinkers and artists and some of the ideas and loves they held in common.

Much of the “action” of the book oscillated between Amherst (Massachusetts), where I once lived, and Hartford (Connecticut), near where I live now, so I felt many personal connections, too.

Though I found this book fascinating from beginning to end, by the time I reached the final pages, I was uncomfortably aware of the very fragile threads that Benfey found — or spun — to weave his narrative together. I sensed the essential rightness of his basic premise: that these particular thinkers had much in common, and that their work reflected and articulated many of the ideas and themes prevalent in the culture of the time. However, some of his conclusions seem to be more conjectural than factual, and the book seems to be an expression of Benfey’s wishful fantasies about this group rather than a solid analysis of a substantial body of evidence. It might have been better treated as a substantial article rather than a full-length book. (As I often do, I question the role, knowledge, and efficacy of this book’s editor, who did not wield a strong-enough hand in challenging Benfey’s assumptions and helping him to create a stronger overall narrative.)
Still, I found here much food for thought. I also appreciated being introduced to the life and work of artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), whose paintings of hummingbirds and orchids brought the heat and shimmer of the tropics home to his war-weary compatriots (see example here, Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871, National Gallery of Art).

As always, the more I learn, the more questions I have… so it’s off to the library again. Yes, there is an abundance of good information available online, but I will never give up the delights to be found in browsing at the library, nor will I ever give up the tactile pleasure of the book in hand.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding the Right Voice – Singing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

An ensemble in which I [used to] sing is in rehearsals for upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the Choral). The choral finale (“Ode to Joy”) is perhaps the most taxing choral music I’ve ever sung. In a recent essay, I explored some of the questions and issues I consider in preparing choral music from varying periods, traditions, and styles. Here’s what I have been thinking about as I prepare for rehearsals and performances of Beethoven’s remarkable Choral Symphony. (And yes, one must prepare for rehearsals, as well as for performances: vocally, musically, and intellectually.)

It’s interesting to compare the vocal challenges of singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with those of his Choral Symphony. Though the vocal portion of the Choral Symphony comprises only 15 or 20 minutes of singing, compared to the 80 or so minutes of choral singing in the Missa Solemnis, I find the Symphony much more difficult from a vocal perspective. Why? Mostly because of its tessitura; that is, the vocal range in which most of the singing is concentrated. While the soprano part for the Missa Solemnis requires a greater range from top to bottom, and includes a great many tension-blasting melismatic passages where one can race around (vocally!), the soprano part for the Choral Symphony requires long stretches of pretty-similar singing, much of it sustained at the very top of the range, around high A.

The sopranos of the chorus must sing about 75 high A s (yes, someone has counted them), and many of these are sustained forte or fortissimo over many measures. Try singing a note near the very top of your range, very loud, and holding it for about half a minute. No vibrato! Perfect intonation! It has to be beautiful! Don’t let the pitch sag! Clear as a bell! Blend with the rest of the section! Enunciate the German! Decrescendo, sustain the pitch, don’t breathe! then crescendo to fortissimo! Don’t faint! Ach du lieber! Now, try doing that about 20 times, and in between, sing low, medium, high, soft, low. And every time you get back to those high As, they have to be as fresh and pure as the first time around.

High A is definitely not my favorite pitch to sing. I have a minor passagio (break) around that point, which means that I shift from the middle part of my range to a higher, lighter part. High B-flats are always better! (I would have been very happy if the whole Symphony were in E-flat major instead of D major, which Beethoven probably chose to take advantage of the brilliancy of the trumpets and timpani.)

So, how does one sing the Choral Symphony without blowing a gasket, developing an aversion to ledger lines, or hating Beethoven altogether? It takes some preparation and consideration of historical, musical, and vocal contexts.

Scoring and Vocal Assignments. Beethoven calls for larger vocal and instrumental forces than had generally been used previously, and he often calls upon the musicians to play and sing very loudly for very long periods. Sometimes the instruments double the vocal parts; sometimes they are playing contrasting parts. In either case, the voices need to be heard over, through, and beyond a very large orchestra. Singing without vibrato and with a clear, focused tone will help the voices to blend and carry. Lightness, clarity, purity of tone.

Ensemble Size and Distribution. It’s easy to get carried away with the energy, emotion, and sheer physical exuberance of this music, but one does so at the risk of vocal injury. The [ensemble] has 170 singers; at least 72 of these are sopranos, and 37 are first sopranos like me. With that many voices, none of us needs to scream. Only at a few places do we really need to sing very, very loudly. It’s too easy to get too loud, at which point the voice becomes…ugly.

Program Considerations. The Choral Symphony is the only work on this program that the [ensemble] will be performing, so our voices should be fresh,. But we have performances back to back on Friday and Saturday, so we’ll need to pace ourselves so as to be fresh for the second performance, as well.

So, What is the “Right Voice?” For me, lightness and clarity is key to not getting tired. The more vibrato I allow in this sort of singing (especially in loud passages), the heavier and less pleasant the voice becomes, and the more quickly I tire. Each singer must learn to sing lightly and 'healthily" throughout the work, saving the "big sound" only for the several moments when it is truly required. With 160 voices, none of us needs to shout too much.

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Book in Hand – Vermeer’s Hat

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening book: Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, by Timothy Brook (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008). Dr. Brook, Principal of St. John's College and Professor in Department of History at the University of British Columbia, has devised a delightful means of exploring and explaining the surge in global travel and trade in the 17th century.In the several chapters that comprise his narrative, Dr. Brook identifies common objects that may be seen in several of the paintings of Delft artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), reveals how these objects came to be part of everyday life in 17th-century Delft, and examines how their creation, import, and use transformed trade, tradition, and human relationships around the world, not only at the time, but for our lives today, as well.
Among the objects he brings to our attention are the beaver hat of the title, as seen in Officer and a Laughing Girl (ca. 1658; click here to see an image) and silver coins weighed in a scale, as seen in Woman Holding a Balance (ca. 1664; click here to see an image). Other items or activities brought forward for our consideration include tobacco, porcelain, maps and map-making, and exploration itself.
In exploring the means by which these objects and commodities were discovered, obtained, and traded, and examining the extent to which they became part of everyday life, particularly in Delft, Dr. Brook weaves a tale of adventure, intrigue, piracy, politicking, material desire, racial and social prejudice, ambition, and greed, all set within the expansive and expanding world of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In his examination of A View of Delft (1660 or 1661; click here to see an image), where several boats of varying sorts crowd the riverbank, and the headquarters of the Dutch East India trading company dominates the skyline, Brook helps readers to understand the enormous role that trade, specifically global trade, played in the everyday lives of Delft's citizens.
Though the story starts in Delft, where Vermeer made his home, we necessarily visit North American and Canada, where we learn through first-hand accounts how the European demand for beaver pelts (from which the luxurious felt hats were made) led to the devastation of indigenous people and the ultimate domination of the continent by European-born explorers and country-builders. We also travel back and forth from China, whence Dutch traders brought back samples of the exquisite porcelain ware that sparked a craze for similar goods across northern Europe. That “Delftware” on your sideboard has a long and fascinating history!
Dr. Brook also takes us to Argentina (the “land of silver”), where Europeans took control of silver-rich land and imported slaves from Africa to bring the plentiful precious metal out of the earth. Much of the silver ended up in China, where it was traded for the porcelains, silks, and other goods so much in demand in Europe. Because the Chinese valued silver more than gold, the Europeans realized huge profits on their silver operations.
Dr. Brook spins these tales with an engaging, informed, but never pedantic voice. As he is primarily a scholar of Chinese history, he brings deep understanding to his explanation of the developments, influences, products, and people of that China and its neighbors. Too often, it seems, our studies of European explorations during this period focus on European interests and outcomes; this book brought a welcome balance. Though I was familiar with the broad outlines of much of the content covered here, I found myself continually surprised and delighted with the many serendipitous discoveries Dr. Brook shares, and grateful for the new understanding I developed for this important part of our history.
I’ll be recommending Vermeer’s Hat to our book group. Later this week, I’ll learn what they thought of Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka (read my review here), which was my choice for our October discussion-meeting.
An interview with Timothy Brook may be heard at:
I haven't yet listened to this podcast.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Beethoven 9 - Always New, Always Compelling

Last spring, I posted a series of essays on Beethoven and his magnificent Missa Solemnis (check this blog’s subject index). (Of course, this librarian indexes all her posts by subject(s)!) Those May 2008 performances were my first experience with this work. As usual, I supplemented my musical preparation with research and reading, and came away from the experience with a new appreciation for Beethoven as a spiritual person (with qualifications; see my essay on this topic, in particular the paragraph headed “Spirituality”). The investment of time and thought changed my understanding and appreciation of Beethoven and his music.

Now, as I prepare for performances of Beethoven's iconic, remarkable, and utterly unique Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), I find myself marveling that 184 years after its completion, this work is still fresh and compelling. Though most of us on stage will have performed it before, there are members of the [assembled musical forces], and surely of the audience, who will experience it for the first time. Even after 184 years and countless performances, the “Choral” Symphony will always be new for someone. This was made manifest in a recent conversation with my 15-year-old daughter.

The other day, as my husband (who also sings in the [ensemble]) was listening to a recording of the Symphony and working hard at memorizing the fourth movement (yes, we will be performing from memory), my daughter was delighted, not only in the magnificent music, but in the text itself. She could hardly keep from dancing through the house. (Freude!)

A few years ago she had pointed out to me, very astutely, that Beethoven had been wise to devise a simple melody for the “Ode to Joy” theme (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken”). “It’s like a folk song,” she said, adding that “Beethoven wanted people to remember it. It’s easy to remember and anyone can sing it. That’s important for music that carries such a big idea.”

This time around, it was the thrilling syncopation that underscores the most important line of the text (“Alle Menschen verden Brüder” — “All people are brothers”) that moved her most. In her words: “It pushes all the energy, and the whole idea, forward!” (It is very sad that in many hymnals and other instances where this melody has been used the syncopation is smoothed over and made foursquare, supposedly to make it “easier” to sing.)

Her other “amazing moment” is the otherworldly and ethereal pivot modulation that flings us from D major to F major (“steht vor Gött,” or “stand before God,” at measure 330) in preparation for the drop into B-flat major for the Turkish march. She was left speechless with joy and amazement, as most of us usually are at that remarkable moment. (That is also one of the best soprano moments in the choral repertoire!)

Of course, those who have known and loved the Symphony for a long time would agree that these are the “big” moments and the “big” ideas, but it was moving to watch her discover these on her own, and enlightening to hear her analysis of what makes them special.

Being an avid student of history (especially via the wonderful lectures from The Teaching Company), she knows a fair amount about Beethoven, his life, his music, and his leadership in the progression of musical development from what we call the “Classical” period to what we now call the “Romantic” period. “He was a radical, wasn’t he?” she observed. “You know, if he were alive today, he’d be playing an electric guitar.” She’s right!

When I perform the Symphony later this month, I will sing for everyone who will be hearing it for the first time. I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Miracle of Cooperation and Common Purpose

In the midst of this endless election season, I naturally find myself considering what qualities we find desirable in the people who put themselves forward to be our leaders. Recently, as I have been rehearsing with five very different choral ensembles, I have also been thinking about what qualities are desirable in a good chorister. It seems that the two skill sets are not all that different.

Last night at rehearsal of [ensemble and instrumentalists], I wondered to myself, “What do each of these 170 diverse singers and their leaders need to do in order to create a unified experience? How must each of us prepare, perceive, react, and act in order to identify and realize our individual and common goal of communicating truth and beauty, through music, to our audience?”

Any good chorister knows the answers to these questions, and puts them into action week after week. In fact, I think that most choral singers will agree that this common striving — and its results — is among the most satisfying and elevating of our life experiences, not just for the pleasures of music, but for the way of living that we embrace as choristers that influences our lives and attitudes beyond the rehearsal hall and concert stage.

I found myself thinking — well, wishing, really — OK, it was an impossible fantasy — Anyway, I imagined how wonderful it would be if our political leaders were brought together to form a chorus and rehearse together for just one evening each week. I soon began to envision the choral rehearsal as an ideal environment for diplomatic and leadership training.

So, how would my fantasy chorus be organized? First, I’d choose meaningful repertoire that would, in its texts and music, speak to a common humanity. (Oh, there is so much from which to choose!) On the podium, install the best choral conductor you can find: one who can lead with artistry and humility, one who can command discipline with grace and humor, one who understands and deeply loves both texts and music, and who can instill that passion in each singer. Finally, engage an accompanist who is an artist in his own right, and one who is in sympathy with the director. Happy is the choir that has a mutually-elevating team of this sort at the front of the rehearsal room.

Now, consider the questions I posed earlier: What do 170 diverse singers, plus their leaders, need to do in order to create a unified force? How must each of us envision, perceive, react, and, ultimately, act in order to identify and realize our individual and common goals? Here’s what I came up with, in no particular order:

A good chorister is reliable. He arrives in good time. (“Early is on time, on time is late!”) He is prepared for the rehearsal. He makes and keeps his commitment to the season, to the rehearsals, to the performances, to his fellow choristers, to the Director, to the music, to the audience. Imagine if all our leaders were reliable and kept all their commitments.

A good chorister is gentle. Some ensembles begin rehearsals with stretching exercises and backrubs for and by seat mates. A good chorister notices what sort of back rub her neighbor enjoys, and also notices what is uncomfortable, so that she can avoid hurting her neighbor. Imagine if all our leaders were gentle and looked for ways to comfort their neighbors, and took care not to hurt them.

A good chorister is a good listener. He listens carefully so that he may find out how best his voice will fit in with the others. He listens to himself, so that he might never make an ugly sound. He listens to his neighbors, so that he might blend with them and uplift his section. He listens to the entire chorus, so that he might understand the larger vision and understand that he is just one of many. Imagine if all our leaders were good listeners, and were able to listen in all these ways, and understand their place in the larger scheme of things.

A good chorister takes responsibility. She raises her hand to take responsibility for her error if she sings a wrong note, makes a wrong entrance, or klutzes a cut-off, so that the Director need not interrupt the rehearsal to correct the error. Imagine if our leaders admitted their errors freely and took responsibility for correcting their wrongs.

A good chorister keeps his area clean. He puts his chair away in the proper place, and takes care of his own water bottles, cough drop wrappers, etc., so that no one has to clean up after him. If he sees that someone else has forgotten to put away his chair, he takes care of it. Imagine if all our leaders dedicated themselves to keeping the Earth clean, and pitched in to help clean up what has already been made dirty.

A good chorister is respectful. She is respectful of her music, keeping it clean and in good condition so that others may use it at another time. She is respectful of the rehearsal process, keeping quiet when it is not her turn to sing, so that others may listen and learn. She is respectful of those who sit and stand near her, being careful not to jostle or bump. Imagine if all our leaders were respectful of us, of each other, and of themselves.

A good chorister is helpful. He wants his fellow singers to do well. He carries an extra pencil or cough drop and offers it when his neighbor is in need. He contacts a fellow singer who has been absent to offer information on what happened at a missed rehearsal. He mentors a new member. He volunteers. Imagine if all our leaders looked for ways to be helpful to others.

A good chorister is willing to change. Though she may have sung a particular piece of music many times with another conductor, she will lay aside that interpretation for the sake of bringing unity to the interpretation of the director on the podium. Imagine if all our leaders were flexible in their thinking and willing to try new ways of doing things.

A good chorister remembers why he is there. He is there to make beautiful music with other people. At each rehearsal and performance he re-commits himself to beauty, not just for himself, but for every person in the rehearsal room, and later, in the audience. Imagine if all our leaders remembered why they are in leadership positions, and re-committed themselves each week to service and to the greater good.

A good chorister envisions and embraces a common goal. She leaves her ego at the door. She engages her energies and sympathies toward the common good. Imagine if all our leaders were willing to lay their egos aside. (That alone would address most of these other issues, yes?)

A good chorister is committed to making the world a better place. Though a choral concert may not change the world, it will make it more beautiful. Musicians commit countless hours to creating peace and beauty. Imagine if all our leaders were truly committed to making the world a better place, for always, and invested their time not in warmongering, but in the creation and sustenance of beauty and betterment.

Imagine how the world might be if our leaders had the attitudes, and work ethic, of good choristers! Could they do it? Could they experience — and embrace — the miracle of cooperation and common purpose that we call “making music together?” Imagine how it could change the world. I know how it has changed me.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Let’s Do Lunch

The other day I drove by one of my favorite birding spots, a lovely area surrounded by farm fields, a river and a connected backwater, mixed-growth woods, athletic fields, and country roads. The variety of habitat makes it likely that I will see something interesting each time I pass by. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a close look at a wondrously beautiful common bird, such as the Hooded Mergansers that stopped at the backwater last spring. Sometimes it’s an exciting chance to see a rarer bird up close, such as the half-dozen blue-morph Snow Geese that were in with a flock of Canada Geese in the fields last fall.

I enjoy seeing rare and beautiful birds, of course, but what really interests me is watching the behavior of familiar birds as they go about with their most interesting lives. And when I can watch any raptors (hawks, eagles, falcons, etc.) up close, I am thrilled.

Last week, as I drove past the athletic fields, I spotted a large, juvenile Cooper's Hawk perched on a chain link fence less than a foot away from an American Crow. When I got my binoculars on the birds, I could see a second Cooper’s Hawk on the fence just beyond, and two more crows sauntering around on the grass below. (Without question, crows saunter. Grackles, on the other hand, swagger.) (Ever notice how crows tend to go about in threes?)

The two hawks, probably first-year siblings, were intent on snagging one of these crows for lunch. They swooped, stooped, dived, blocked, and bumped. The crows ignored them. One of the hawks finally grabbed the crow on the fence, seizing it by the leg and dragging it to the ground. The crow detached himself from the hawk, settled his feathers, and sauntered over to his buddies on the lawn. After one or two more passes, the hawks gave up and flew off together.

Though these were good-sized hawks, about the same length (15-21 inches) from crown to tail as the crows, they lacked the bulk and confidence of the larger crows. The crows, knowing that these inexperienced hawks did not pose a threat, remaining bemusedly unconcerned, reminded me of high school seniors ignoring the annoying antics of freshmen boys.

Cooper’s Hawks do prey primarily on birds, but they usually target smaller species. Around my bird feeders, they have good luck with Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. A few years ago, an adult Cooper’s Hawk visited my yard frequently and, over the course of a week, obligingly dispatched six European Starlings that had been hogging the suet feeder. (Starlings are a non-native species that has done great harm to native birds, and I was glad the Cooper’s ate every single one of them.)

A few years ago right outside our kitchen window, a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk (smaller cousin of the Cooper's) went through much the same exercise with a Blue Jay. Both birds are about the same size. The hawk managed to get one talon locked around the Blue Jay's leg; the jay hung upside down, squawking and screaming. Finally it had the wherewithal to reach up and peck repeatedly at the hawk's leg, forcing the raptor to release it, and off it flew. Both birds were rather ruffled.

Like life, enjoying birding is as much about serendipity as it is about intent and design. Sometimes, you find the good stuff just by taking time to stop and look.