Thursday, November 26, 2009

Birding on Thanksgiving

Only one bird is on my list today: Turkey.

When I asked K to write down what she wanted on today’s menu, here’s what she gave me:

Cranberry sauce
Mashed potatoes
Squash purée
Sparkling cider

This translates to “Make all our favorites the way you always do.” (How nice!)

Here's the detail:

Slow-Roasted Turkey with Herb Butter Baste Brush the prepared bird (17lb. this year) with melted butter, salt and pepper liberally, sear at 500˚F for 10 minutes, then cover the roasting pan, reduce heat to 275˚F and roast covered for four hours. Baste every 45 minutes or so, but the covered roasting pan ensures a moist bird and lots of pan juices. Uncovered roasting evaporates the moisture and vents it away! Why lose all that goodness? During the last hour or so, uncover the bird to brown it if you like.
Herbed Bread Dressing D and I agreed that this year we want some dressing cooked in the bird and some cooked as a side dish; usually I bake the dressing separately. I make the dressing from my own homemade oatmeal bread. A large bowl of cubed bread has been drying on the kitchen counter since Tuesday night. This morning I’ll add chopped onions, celery, crispy red Macoun apples (skin on!), almonds, herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme), and perhaps a minced shallot or leek. Season with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. Moisten with a combination of chicken stock, wine, brandy, cider – depending on my mood and what I’m drinking this afternoon. Bakes beautifully as a side dish.
Yeasted Dinner Rolls I have a wonderful recipe for a soft white yeast bread that makes the best dinner rolls. This year’s are square rolls (leftover from last weekend’s anniversary party for CONCORA); usually I make them into crescent rolls. They are so good.Here's the recipe:

Silken Giblet Gravy I’ll brown the giblets in olive oil and butter, then simmer them in broth with aromatics like carrot, onion, celery tops, and herbs. I’ll use the resulting stock to supplement the pan juices for gravy-making. We like it highly seasoned, not too thick, smooth and silky except for the finely-chopped giblets. I bought extra giblets so I can make plenty of gravy for our leftovers. Add a dash of brandy at the end.

Zesty Cranberry Sauce I made the cranberry sauce on Tuesday. I cooked whole fresh berries with cloves, a cinnamon stick, sugar, and a dash of salt, then stirred in the grated zest of an orange at the end. It gelled beautifully and will look lovely in a white dish.
Golden Potato Mash I like Yukon Gold potatoes for mashing. I’ll scrub the spuds and quarter them, leaving the skin on, then boil them with a chopped onion and sprig of fresh thyme. After draining the cooked potatoes, I’ll add plenty of butter, salt, and fresh pepper, then whip them with a hand-held mixer. I might add a little milk if needed, though I prefer a dry sort of fluffiness in anticipation of the gravy.
Green Peas Plain frozen petit peas, steamed. A requirement with mashed potatoes. ‘Nuf said.
Maple-Ginger Butternut Squash Purée This has become a family favorite. On Tuesday I cut up and roasted two butternut squashes, cooking them long enough so that they caramelized a bit. Yum. While the turkey is cooking, I’ll puree the squash with butter, salt, pepper, a bit of ground ginger, and a generous portion of my sister’s best-in-the-world maple syrup. This will go into the special oval casserole dish and bake for a while ‘til it’s hot and a bit browned around the edges. Sometimes I dust the top with finely-chopped pecans before serving. I’ve got some hazelnuts in the pantry, so I might use these instead.
Bacon-Braised Brussels Sprouts Not on K's list, but a new favorite that will complement the other flavors. At Tom and Lee’s house last spring, we enjoyed some delectable Brussels sprouts cooked gently and with some lovely seasonings. We thought we didn’t like Brussels sprouts. I think we didn’t like poorly-cooked Brussels sprouts. A few weeks ago, I tried cooking some and we affirmed that we like properly-prepared and seasoned Brussels sprouts. I’ll repeat that recipe today; it’s a simple braise seasoned with browned bacon and onion, chicken (turkey?) stock and fresh herbs. The trick, as with cabbage and broccoli, is not to overcook. Yum.
Sparkling Cider And fresh cider, a nice cabernet-merlot for D and me, coffee, tea.
Homemade Pies Last night, while K and E and S and N were here (fun!), I baked three pies: pecan (D’s mother’s famous recipe), pumpkin (fresh pumpkin), and cherry. Each of the pies was sampled and approved late last night. Add ice cream.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brahms is Always Right

.Discussion at our house a few weeks ago after a Hartford Chorale rehearsal of the Brahms Requiem:

S: How are you liking the Brahms? [expecting enthusiastic response]

D: Not.

S: ???? It's great music, beautifully crafted, so expressive. What's not to like?

D: Brahms is always right, but not always good. It's not to my taste. Now, Bach! Bach is always right, and always good.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CONCORA – 35 Years of Choral Artistry

More than 35 years ago, Richard Coffey envisioned an all-professional chorus “to perpetuate and perform with excellence choral music of the highest quality for the broadest possible audience.” That vision became a vibrant and thriving reality, and today, CONCORA continues to enjoy a reputation as Connecticut’s premier professional choir, as borne out by a steady stream of critical praise, awards, and other accolades. The year of celebrations will have its culmination on this Sunday, November 22, 2009, at 4:00 p.m., when CONCORA presents a 35th Anniversary Concert at South Church in New Britain. (More information about this performance may be found at the end of this post.)

CONCORA was the 2003 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award, given in recognition of “remarkable artistic achievement and contributions to the arts in Connecticut.” In 2007, CONCORA was honored as the featured professional chorus in the “American Masterpieces” festival in Providence, Rhode Island. And in 2009, Maestro Coffey received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alfred Nash Patterson Foundation, primarily for his founding and distinguished leadership of CONCORA.

A sampling of appreciation from composers, critics, and other musicians is testament to CONCORA’s enduring appeal and sustained excellence.

“[CONCORA is] one of the finest ensembles heard anywhere at any time.” – From the Springfield press, commenting on CONCORA’s 1976 debut in that city

CONCORA is “the finest chorus in America.” – Composer Ned Rorem, 1998

“. . . a model of choral artistry, meticulous preparation, musical commitment, and vocal sonority.” – Review of CONCORA’s CD Sing, My Soul, published in Choral Journal, April 2002

“From the beginning, they demonstrated the outstanding features of their singing: fine blending, crisp diction, and clear articulation. . . thrilling and nuanced moments. . . an eloquent chorus.” – The Hartford Courant, 2002

“Thanks for the recent performances by CONCORA. It makes all the difference. Sometimes I feel the world is unaware of today’s music. Then you appear, and everything changes.” – Composer Ned Rorem

“CONCORA, led by artistic director Richard Coffey, has delivered sublime performances of [Bach’s] works over the years.” – The Hartford Courant, March 22, 2005

“Fortunately, a spirit of innovation is still present in organizations such as CONCORA.” – The Hartford Courant, September 25, 2005

“Any presentation by CONCORA is well worth attending for anyone who has not heard this ensemble. They’re one of [our] prime jewels.” – Edward Cumming, Director, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

“CONCORA’s absolutely exquisite performance of Two Emily Dickinson Songs…was completely satisfying to me in every way, with beauty, energy, precision, conviction, and, honestly, a perfect rendering of the music. . . I offer my heartfelt thanks to you and CONCORA for one of my most rewarding experiences as a composer.” – Composer Nancy Galbraith, commenting on CONCORA’s premiere of these works, 2007

“CONCORA is a priceless endeavor in our age of mostly vapid art.” – Composer Ned Rorem, 2007

“The Hartford Symphony Orchestra salutes Richard Coffey for outstanding and inspiring artistic leadership of the HSO’s two major choral partners, CONCORA and The Hartford Chorale.” – Major Achievement Award from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, September 25, 2007

The following quotes about CONCORA, excerpted from reviews and articles published over the years in The Hartford Courant, provide an objective assessment of CONCORA’s enduring appeal:

“…one of our region's priceless musical assets…”

“…CONCORA, our prized professional choral ensemble…”

“…the chorus itself is one of the finest entities this area has to offer…”

“…CONCORA plays an important role in carrying on the [choral arts] tradition with excellence…”

“…a distinguished history…”

“…the magnificent choral group CONCORA …”

“…utterly transcendent

“…The rise of CONCORA, which has described a steady upward arc of activity and ambition, is one of the truly amazing success stories of the region's arts scene.”

“…CONCORA, since its founding in 1974, has become a nationally known choral group…”

“…one of the premier musical forces in the state…”

This weekend, I’ll be singing in CONCORA’s 35th Anniversary Concert. Past and current members of CONCORA will spend the weekend rehearsing before presenting a concert on Sunday, November 22, at 4:00 p.m. at South Church in New Britain. CONCORA’s founder and Artistic Director Rick Coffey will conduct, and our founding accompanist, Larry Allen, will be in town to accompany the program and to offer some dazzling solo organ music, as well. There are still some tickets available; contact CONCORA now to reserve your seats. (I’ll be singing in the concert and preparing the program notes.) It will be a very special evening to celebrate a very special ensemble.

CONCORA 35th Anniversary Concert
Sunday, November 22, at 4:00 p.m.
South Church, 90 Main Street, New Britain, Connecticut
Tickets $10-$45.
Ask about becoming an “Anniversary Angel” -- this special ticket includes premier seating and an invitation to a private reception with CONCORA's artists on Saturday, Nov. 21.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Celebrate St. Cecilia Day with CONCORA

.This weekend, I’ll be singing with the remarkable all-professional choral ensemble CONCORA in a concert to mark the group’s 35th anniversary. It is entirely fitting that this concert, the culmination of CONCORA’s 35th anniversary year, takes place on November 22, the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music.

Past and current members of CONCORA will spend the weekend rehearsing and reminiscing before presenting a concert on Sunday, November 22, at 4:00 p.m. at South Church in New Britain. CONCORA’s founder and Artistic Director Rick Coffey will conduct, and our founding accompanist, Larry Allen, will be in town to accompany the program and to offer some dazzling solo organ music, as well. There are still some tickets available; visit or call 860-224-7500 to reserve your seats.

It’s my privilege to have been invited to prepare the program notes for this concert, a “job” which I love, for several reasons. Oh, let me qualify that – I love preparing notes for CONCORA concerts more than for any other group, as I’ll explain.

First, I enjoy the processes of research and writing, so the “work” itself is pleasant. Second, since I love learning, I relish the opportunity to dig deeply into information about the music, composers, and texts, especially if any of these are new to me. Associated with the searching out of information is the discovery of new and useful sources of information. (You should see my huge list of online "favorites,” organized in folders and subfolders and subfolders…) Third, it’s a remarkable process to prepare notes for a concert in which I am also singing; my musical, vocal, historical, and textual understandings develop simultaneously, enriching my experience from every perspective. I never feel more ready for a performance as I do when I have prepared notes for the program.

Finally (and here’s why I love preparing CONCORA notes most of all), it’s always, always a delight, as I progress through the research process, to find the common threads among the selections and to begin to comprehend the subtle thematic connections between the texts, musical selections, moods, and colors that Rick Coffey has chosen for each program. Some programs are easy to conceptualize, such as works by a single composer (as in CONCORA’s annual all-Bach bash), or programs that have an overtly stated theme (such as CONCORA’s upcoming “Christmas in the Americas” program. (That concert takes place on Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 4:00 p.m. at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Hartford, with a snow date of Monday, December 14, 7:30 p.m. Visit or call 860-224-7500 to reserve your seats.)

For Sunday’s anniversary program, Rick has selected a lovely variety of works from CONCORA’s 35-year history. The program includes an excerpt of music that the ensemble sang on its first concert in 1974 (also at South Church), the Kyrie from Schubert’s Mass in E-flat, as well as newer works performed by the group for the first time within the past year or two. The program ranges from England's Chichester Cathedral (Albright’s Chichester Mass) to New York's Harlem (Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday), and from the Renaissance masters (Cantantibus Organis by Peter Philips) to the stunning and fresh choral music of Eric Whitacre and James Macmillan. Music of J.S. Bach forms a fitting tribute to CONCORA members who have passed away, and we will celebrate CONCORA’s outreach to young listeners with a lively set performed by CONCORA-to-GO, a quartet of singers who travel to Connecticut’s schools to demonstrate the joy of choral singing. The intimate sacred music of Ned Rorem will stand in exquisite contrast to lush excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, and we’ll even sing a favorite spiritual, Brazeal Dennard’s lively setting of Fare Ye Well. Organist Larry Allen will thrill you with a rendition of Marcel Dupré’s Prelude et fugue in B majeur (Op. 7, No. 1), music so notoriously difficult that Dupré doubted it would ever be published or even enter the repertoire. (The Gress-Miles organ at South Church is a magnificent instrument; I can’t wait to hear this.) There is more music on the program than I’ve listed here – each selection is lovely and beautifully showcases CONCORA’s signature sound.

In preparing program notes for this concert, the challenge was not to try to thread these selections together musically, textually, or even spiritually. Rather, I simply prepared a small musico-historical note for each piece, noting its place in CONCORA’s history, and occasionally commenting on its particular vocal or musical challenges, thus highlighting CONCORA’s collective artistry.

It’s going to be a fabulous weekend: On Friday evening, a reception followed by a three-hour rehearsal; on Saturday, an all-day rehearsal with a luncheon break (I’m baking focaccia for this meal – enough to serve 65!), followed by an evening reception on Saturday for artists, board, and guests (must break away early to get to K’s play!); and finally on Sunday, a brief rehearsal before our much-anticipated performance at 4:00 p.m.

Do come to hear CONCORA on Sunday – it promises to be a memorable event. St. Cecilia would be proud. Visit or call 1-860-224-7500 today to reserve your seats. Ask about becoming an "Anniversary Angel" -- this special ticket includes preferred seating and an invitation to a private reception with the artists on the evening of Saturday, November 21.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Perfect Balance

Yesterday, Sunday, The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra offered the fourth and final performance of the Brahms Requiem. What a week it was: Monday rehearsal with chorale and orchestra; Wednesday dress rehearsal with chorale, orchestra, and vocal soloists; then performances on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I will be posting a few more essays on some interesting (to me) aspects of our preparation and performance. In the meantime, here are excerpts from two reviews:

From The Hartford Courant:

…It was the Hartford Chorale singers, prepared by music director Richard Coffey [and the vocal soloists] who carried the Requiem. The Chorale nailed the difficult choral entry — from which the spirituality of the work seems to emanate — with perfect balance and lovely German diction.

From In the Spotlight:

So many [people] love choirs, orchestras, and the great musical works that feed them, with the monumental “Ein Deutches” Requiem [sic] being one of the most cherished. The instruments and vocals all meet with the other necessary element of the ritual sharing of sonorous beauty -- the audience. These are people who hope to leave those great halls changed, at least for the moment; and somehow better for having been there. … The orchestra and chorale were very well prepared for the pairing of Romantic era works on the bill. The orchestra performed both pieces concisely, with dedication to the score and an understanding of the style of the period. Although there were some of the inevitable balance issues that occur when voices and instruments occupy the same time and space, the chorale and orchestra performed admirably throughout the Brahms.


HSO Director Auditions Start With A Challenging Shift: Guest Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos Takes Some Getting Used To
By Jeffrey Johnson
The Hartford Courant, November 14, 2009,0,7569054.story

Schumann & Brahms: Hartford Symphony & Hartford Chorale [at] The Bushnell, Hartford, CT

By Terry Larsen
In the Spotlight, November 14, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009


.Make some applesauce this fall. Make it now, while the apples are fresh and crisp and juicy,

It’s so easy, and so good.

First, get a Foley Mill or food mill. This is an inexpensive, easily obtainable hand-powered mill that makes it possible to make the best applesauce ever.

Buy good apples. I like to use Cortland apples or a blend of Cortlands with a few tart Macoun or Macintosh apples thrown in.

Wash them carefully and remove any leaves. Don’t peel them!
Cut the apples into chunks, removing any blemishes. I cut small apples into halves, and cut the medium and large apples into quarters. No need to remove stems, cores, or seeds. Don’t peel them! Just don’t – there’s a reason.

Put the cut-up apples into a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I use my Dutch oven), add some fresh apple cider (¼ to ½ cup or so, depending on how many apples you’ve used and how juicy they are), and throw in a cinnamon stick or two, or a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. That’s it! Don’t add sugar. Just don’t. The apples are already sweet and flavorful. The cider adds a bit of concentrated flavor. Really, try this without sugar and see what you think!

Cover the pot, bring the apples and cider to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer until the apples are very soft. Mushy, even. It’s OK to let it cook longer if you are busy, but longer cooking won’t make it better. In fact, I like to stop the cooking after 30 minutes or so to preserve as much of the fresh apple flavor as possible. Stir it all up once in a while to ensure that the apples cook evenly. If it looks dry, add a splash more cider, but not too much. This will probably not take more than 30 minutes, depending on the quantity.

Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool a bit.

Position the Foley mill over a large bowl. Start processing the apple mixture through (all at once for a small amount, in batches for a larger quantity). The seeds, cores, and skins will remain in the mill – the lovely, warm, fragrant, applesauce will pile up in the bowl and soon people will start coming into the kitchen to ask, “What smells so good?”

And now you will see that the red of the apple skins has created a lovely pink color in your homemade applesauce. When you taste it, you’ll discover a flavor that you simply can’t get in a jar. Many people who taste my applesauce ask, "How much sugar did you use?" They are always surprised when I answer, "None!"

This applesauce is delicious on its own, warm or cold. D had a bowl last night with fresh date-nut bars. I love it hot over buttered toast. K likes it for breakfast with toast on the side. It keeps for a week or more in the refrigerator, and freezes beautifully.

We have a big week ahead – tech and production week for all three of us – so I’ve planned some “comfort foods” to have on hand, and this applesauce is one of them.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Desk Work

Last week I wrote:

This morning I indulged in some “desk work” with my Brahms Requiem score, in preparation for The Hartford Chorale’s upcoming performances with The Hartford Symphony. “Desk work” entails sitting and staring silently at the score. Well, there’s more to it than that, of course; what I’m actually doing is thinking, working over the music in my inner ear, embedding words and rhythms in my memory, analyzing the forms and structures of the music, and taking time to understand how my part fits into the entire work. “Desk work” is entirely separate from practicing, which is vocal work done at the piano or (sometimes) with a recording. Sometimes during desk work I go to the piano to work out an intellectually challenging vocal line or to unravel some knotty counterpoint, but most of the “desk work” actually takes place at the island in the kitchen, laptop at the ready, so that I can enrich my thinking with research and supplemental information. (Read the whole essay HERE)

The “desk work” part of performance preparation is so important (to me, anyway) that I thought I’d expand on it a bit.

Composer and conductor Paul Halley (under whom I sang in Gaudeamus a few years ago) always stressed the importance of “desk study,” the term he used for working silently with a score, not playing or singing aloud, just hearing it internally and mastering it intellectually. Silent score study is especially helpful for sorting out rhythmic and textual issues. In fact, Paul’s advice had been in reference to his own preparation for Gaudeamus’ thrilling performance of Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, which is rich with complex rhythms and dense text, all in Russian.

Silent study of melodic and harmonic aspects works best for people who can actually hear the music in their “inner ear” when they look at the dots and squiggles on the page. I am lucky to be able to do this quite easily, so I find silent score study effective in learning all aspects of the musical score. (Sometimes I have the opposite experience: often when I hear music, it “writes” itself across my inner eye, even appearing on multiple staves for orchestral works. This is why I can’t hold conversation easily when there’s music going on. If you want to beat me at Scrabble©, put on some music while we play.)

Here’s what my personal “desk work” covers:

Prepare the Score. First – and this must take place well in advance of the first rehearsal, and certainly before any personal study can begin – I edit and prepare my score according to the director's instructions, if any have been given. (Read more about that HERE.) I love this process! It gives me a chance to study the score as a whole, not just my own part; it provides an opportunity to see how the director intends for the voice parts to interact; and helps me to understand that my part is just one of many threads that make up the whole work. If no instructions have been given, then I do my own prep, erasing marks from used scores and adding any notes or cues I might need. This is also a time to note errors or other areas in the score that need to be checked with the director or one's section leader (or, when I am serving as section leader, to pass on to my section).

Prepare the Texts. Next – and this is essential for any vocal music – I study the texts so I can understand what I’m singing about. If the text is not in English, I must find and read a translation, and write the English translation into my score if it is not already present. I can’t emphasize how important this is. If you don’t know what you’re singing about, you might as well be playing an instrument instead of singing.

Listen. It’s always nice to listen to recordings, score in hand, in order to develop an understanding of the work as a whole. Get the big picture. Listen and watch the score, but do not sing. Look at parts other than your own. Listen for how the orchestra or other instruments interact with the choral parts. Mark your score with cues or other notes to identify entering pitches, rhythms, etc. Recently, I’ve listened to two different recordings of the Brahms Requiem; they are very different. One was vocally ravishing (Shaw); the other (Klemperer) offered more insights into Brahms’ orchestration and how the vocal and instrumental parts complement each other (important to understand prior to orchestra rehearsals and performances next week).

Internalize. During silent “desk work” practice, I concentrate mostly on texts and rhythms, as described in the opening paragraph of this essay. This sort of study can’t be done during rehearsals or even during vocal practice; it must be done prior to joining with the other singers.

Analyze. In order to sing in a meaningful way, one must (in my opinion) have a basic understanding of the form and structure of the music. For example, a chorus may be asked to differentiate (by varying dynamics, vocal color, articulation, etc.) the subjects and countersubjects of a fugue. (Fugues are very common in large choral works, especially those with sacred topics and texts.) How will one be able to do this if one does not know where (or what) the subjects and countersubjects are? And some understanding of fugal structure is helpful in understanding (and executing) the subtle melodic differences that can occur in restatements of fugal subjects. In our Chorale rehearsals, there’s one spot in the Brahms Requiem that is confusing for many sopranos – that F/F# confusion in the sixth movement! (m. 226) Perhaps they do not understand the reason for the use to F-sharp where F-natural had been used in the previous iterations (it has to do with the harmonic movement in the fugal episode) so they continue to sing “by ear” and continue with the F-natural. Ouch.

Read. I should add here that by this point, especially for a large work, I will have already done a fair amount of background reading on the composer and the music, particularly when I am preparing a large work, as is the case now as The Hartford Chorale prepares to present the Brahms Requiem next week. This reading will often include a scholarly biography, the best program notes I can find (and there are some lousy ones out there!), musical and textual analyses, and other relevant materials. Many of my discoveries, questions, and musings end up in essays on this blog. Click HERE to read my preview essays on the Chorale’s upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem.

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

Don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance of Brahms' wonderful Requiem. Call for your tickets today!

The Hartford Chorale
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra

PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Who Really Composed the Brahms Requiem?

Yesterday The Hartford Symphony issued an email promotion for the upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem by the HSO and The Hartford Chorale. The message included the photo of Johannes Brahms shown at left. I suppose that this near-iconographic image of Brahms, taken in 1889 when the composer was 56, is useful as a sort of shorthand to communicate “Brahms-ness.” Certainly this is the image most of us bring to mind when we think of Brahms: the bearded elder statesman of German music of the mid-19th century. But many of his compositions with which we are most familiar were written much earlier in his life, before he grew the famous beard and before age and illness had whitened his blond hair and beard.

I was thinking about this on Monday night, as The Hartford Chorale finished its final piano rehearsal of Brahms’ first masterwork, the Requiem. (We’ll perform the work four times late next week; dates and ticket details are at the end of this post.)

Brahms was just 35 when he completed the Requiem in 1868, 33 years before the famous photo shown above was taken. At left is a portrait of Brahms from 1866 or 1867, around the time he was composing and revising the Requiem (which had its premiere in 1868).

To me (having just turned 50), 35 seems very young, but as we hear in the Requiem, Brahms had certainly achieved musical maturity, though he may still have appeared youthful.

Does this beardless face surprise you? Though Brahms had tried several times in earlier years to grow a beard, it was not until 1878, when he was 45, that he succeeded. He never shaved the beard off, grew it long and full, and remained bearded for the remaining 19 years of his life. So though we usually think of Brahms as bearded, he was actually beardless for most of his adult life.

Here’s a selection of photographs of Johannes Brahms from his youth to his old age. It’s a remarkable sequence. He was considered very good looking, especially in his younger years. Though many young ladies sighed after him throughout his life, he remained unmarried.

The lovely oval portrait at left shows Brahms around 1853, probably aged 20. He remained very boyish, with an unchanged voice and beardless cheeks, until well into his forties.

This pencil portrait of Brahms, also dating from 1853, is by the French artist Jean Joseph Bonaventure Laurens (1801-1890). It's my favorite of all Brahms images.

Here he is around 1860 (left), still boyish at age 27 but beginning to express the seriousness and strength that would characterize much of his music.

The intense and stubborn character for which he was famous is evident in this portrait from 1862, around age 29 (right):

The next photo at right is my other favorite portrait of Brahms, made in 1874 when he was forty-one. I love his thoughtful expression and the sense of quiet confidence that implies an intense inner vision. His eyes were bright blue.

In this portrait (left) from 1878 (about ten years after he completed the Requiem), we see that Brahms has finally succeeded in growing a blond-brown beard.

His incessant cigar smoking aged him prematurely, and he was to die of liver cancer in 1897, at age 64. The photo shown below at right was taken in 1896, when he was already ill. But his sense of humor is evident in those twinkling blue eyes.

The Hartford Chorale’s rehearsals for Brahms' Requiem – youthful and mature, powerful and tender – have been wonderful, and tickets are selling briskly.

Don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance! Call for your tickets today!

The Hartford Chorale
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I’ve been rereading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – certainly one of the best novels of the last fifty years – it’s brilliant and wrenching and very subtle. The mood of regret that pervades the book brings to mind this poem, one of my favorites.

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my anguish and restore thy light,
With dark forgetting of my care return.

And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn
Without the torment of the night's untruth.

Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:

Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain.
And never wake to feel the day's disdain.

Samuel Daniel (1562-1619)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Expressive Language

One of the things that every English-speaking musician – professional and amateur – must master is the presence in musical scores of instructions in languages other than English. Most often, these markings are in Italian, which seems to be the most widely used language. And some of these, of course, are used so frequently that soon become so familiar that they need no translation, such as markings for tempo (allegro, andante), volume (piano, forte), and expressive style (such as dolce, meaning sweetly, or marcato, meaning with marked emphasis).

Of course, composers will often add specific instructions or descriptions in their native tongues, and sometimes there will also be notes, instructions, and other jargon printed in the language of the country where the score was published. Sometimes this yields an interesting combination.

Last year, for instance, when The Hartford Chorale performed the Verdi Requiem, we used scores published by the German publisher C.F. Peters. The liturgical text, of course, is in its original Latin, but the title page, preface, primary translation of the Latin, and other peripheral texts are in German. An English rendition of the Requiem text is the only part of the score that has been translated to English. Where Verdi has used standard Italian musical directions (andante, sotto voce, crescendo, leggiero, etc.), these are printed in Italian. Verdi also offers copious interpretive instructions that are not “standard” musical terms. When he penned his manuscript, surely he wrote these in his native Italian. In the Peters edition, these are rendered in German, without any English translation. It seems very odd to see, in this most Italian of Italian music, an instruction like this: Äußerst leise, mit düsterer Stimme und sehr traurig (“Very softly, with mournful voices”). It’s too bad that English translations, either in the music or in a separate list, were not offered in this edition that is sold in English-speaking countries. I translated these terms on my own (and also found them online in simpatico Italian in a facsimile of an old Ricordi edition), but I wonder how many Chorale singers missed out on Verdi’s insights because we did not have translations?

The Hartford Chorale is presently in the final week of preparation for its upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra (see details below). Several weeks ago, I went through my score to look for and translate any terms that are unfamiliar to me. Turns out that they’re all in familiar Italian except for the major tempo descriptions at the head of each movement, which are in German. I’ll post the translations here for the benefit of any other Chorale singers who might find these useful. (The tempo markings for movements III and VI are in friendly Italian.)

Movement I: Selig sind, die da Leid tragenZiemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck – Rather slow and with expression

Movement II: Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie GrasLangsam, marschmäßig – Slow, moderate march
Second section: Etwas bewegter – With somewhat more motion

Movement IV: Wie lieblich sind deine WohnungenMäßig bewegt –Moderately moving

Movement V: Ihr habt nun TraurigkeitLangsam – Slowly

Movement VII: Selig sind die Toten
Feierlich – Solemnly

Our rehearsals have been wonderful, and tickets are selling briskly – don’t miss what promises to be a magical performance!

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

Call for your tickets today!
The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at

Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sitzprobe Review

Last night The Hartford Chorale had its sitzprobe rehearsal led by Constantine Kitsopoulos, guest conductor for our upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and candidate for the soon-to-be-vacant post of Music Director of the HSO. Yesterday I wrote about sitzprobe, discussing the derivation of the word itself, as well as its traditional function in the opera house and as it is used by The Hartford Chorale (you can read that posting HERE).

As I wrote yesterday, it’s common practice with a symphonic chorus like the 170-voice Hartford Chorale that the chorale’s own music director (ours is the marvelous Richard Coffey) prepares the chorus over several weeks of rehearsal, and then hands us off to the conductor who will lead the performances. (Of course, Mr. Coffey also conducts some of our performances with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra, particularly in the Baroque literature that is one of his specialty areas, as well as all of the Chorale’s independent productions.)

At the beginning of any rehearsal with a new conductor, there’s always a subtle undercurrent of concerns, uncertainties, and questions: What will he (or she) be like? Will he like our sound? Does he understand the voice, the singing instrument? How will he work with text, not only the management of vowels and consonants, but the meanings of the words and their relationship to the music? Will he be respectful of us as musicians? Will he work with the technical detail we’ve mastered over the past seven weeks (cut-offs, dynamics, etc.), or will he make lots of changes? What relationship has he developed with Mr. Coffey, and how will that be manifested during rehearsal? Most important: In just one rehearsal, will we be able to develop a rapport with this man who will lead us and the orchestra through four performances of this profound and deeply human music?

It turned out to be a wonderful evening. Maestro Kitsopoulos started off on the right foot by being suitably impressed by our greeting to Mr. Coffey. (“Good evening, choir.” “GOOD EVENING, MR. COFFEY!”) It really is impressive if you’ve never heard it before: 170 voices greeting our maestro in perfect unison, fortissimo, con amore. (Certainly this is the mark of a good choir with a good conductor!) And it was even better when Mr. Coffey introduced Maestro Kitsopoulos (“GOOD EVENING, MAESTRO KITSOPOULOS!”) – Maestro Kitsopoulos just laughed with delight. It was a good start.

One could almost hear a susurration of relief waft through the room as we sang the first movement, and as we began to understand that this is a conductor who understands the vocal instrument, reads German and can translate as he goes along, loves Brahms, admires the Chorale and Mr. Coffey, and respects the hard work we had done over the past few weeks. He was gracious with the soloists, appreciative of our accompanist, and kept an eye on the clock. He was polite, funny, and engaging. (If you think it's odd that I mention respect and politeness as important factors, then you've never endured a rehearsal with a nasty, condescending director.)

Best of all, it was really wonderful that he took us through each movement, without stopping, before offering his comments or suggestions. We were able to get the “big picture” of how he would shape each movement, and he was able to hear us sing for long stretches, gauging how well we responded to his direction, getting a feel for our dynamic range, our tone and color in different passages, how we handled textual matters, etc.

Often, when we have these one-shot rehearsals with guest conductors, or even with the HSO’s own music director, we rarely run entire movements. Some conductors will start and stop frequently, fine-tuning specific musical moments or making small adjustments. While these may all be legitimate and valuable proceedings, the quest for perfection is often undertaken at the expense of making music together from the start and getting to know each other as musicians. We’ve sometimes worked with conductors who stop so frequently that they never get through entire movements in sitzprobe or even in dress rehearsal. The end result in these cases, of course, is that the performance might be the first time we’ve actually gone from start to finish of entire movements. That is disconcerting, indeed (pun intended).

Our upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem represent the beginning of the HSO’s search for a new music director, as the incumbent, our friend Edward Cumming, will move on after the 2010-2011 season. It would be wonderful (but wholly impractical) if each candidate could conduct a choral work so that the Chorale could have the opportunity to evaluate the candidates and offer our collective assessment to the HSO search committee. While the candidates must primarily be instrumental conductors, of course, it also seems important that whoever is engaged must also be able to work effectively with a symphonic chorus. The Chorale performs two or three times each season with the HSO, and if reviews and audience reaction are any indication, the choral works are eagerly anticipated and very well-received. This has been especially true in the past five years or so, during which time The Chorale has improved so markedly.

Do come and hear The Hartford Chorale and the HSO perform the Brahms Requiem under the direction of Maestro Kitsopoulos – I think it will be wonderful. Call for your tickets today!

The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Tonight The Hartford Chorale will rehearse in a sitzprobe led by Constantine Kitsopoulos, guest conductor for our upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem with The Hartford Symphony Orchestra (and candidate for the soon-to-be-vacant post of Music Director of the HSO).

Sitzprobe. Sounds painful, doesn’t it? Well, what is it? And why is it important?

The word is from the German sitzen (to sit) and proben (to rehearse).

The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians offers two related definitions. The entry proper for sitzprobe reads as follows: “Term used in opera houses, in virtually all countries, for what is normally the first rehearsal of an opera with orchestra, during which the singers remain seated on the stage; this, undertaken when the singers have learnt their parts, is intended to show them how their own music fits into the total musical texture as supplied by the orchestra and the other singers without the distraction of acting.” In the Grove Opera essay on Rehearsal, one may read the following passage: “A particularly important occasion is the Sitzprobe (the German word is current in all English-speaking countries), a rehearsal where the singers sit and work with the orchestra and conductor to sort out purely musical problems, undistracted by the demands of the staging.” An opera sitzprobe may take place on the stage or in the rehearsal hall.

The Hartford Chorale’s sitzprobe rehearsals are quite different and far simpler than opera sitzprobe. Of course, we are not preparing an opera, so we do not have to consider staging, costumes, lighting, and other technical concerns. Our interest is entirely musical and, from the chorister’s perspective, consists in learning how the orchestral conductor will handle tempi, transitions, moods, cues, and the like. This will be our first session with him, since our rehearsals up until now have been led by Richard Coffey, Music Director of The Hartford Chorale. This is a fairly typical arrangement, wherein the chorus master prepares the chorus, then hands it off to the conductor who will actually lead the performance(s). (It can be a real challenge to prepare a work with one conductor, then perform it with a different conductor. Not only might each conductor have his or her own interpretation of the work, but will surely have a distinctive conducting style. )

Our sitzprobe takes place not in the concert hall, and not with the orchestra, but in our regular rehearsal hall, with Jim Barry, the Chorale’s excellent accompanist, at the piano. There will probably be a lot of starting and stopping, instructions (pencil at the ready!), and repetitions of key passages. It’s likely that we will not sing through any movement in its entirety. Or it could turn out to be completely the opposite: Maestro Kitsopoulos may run the entire work from start to finish, and convey instructions later to Maestro Coffey, who will pass them on to us. Or it might be something in between those two extremes. The point is: Be prepared, be flexible, and be willing to sing the music differently than we have been doing in our rehearsals over the past several weeks. Polite attentiveness, flexibility in vocal and musical interpretation, and a gracious accommodation for our guest conductor are essential to a successful sitzprobe tonight.

Next week is “tech week” – On Monday we have our only working rehearsal with the orchestra; we’ll need to have all of tonight’s adjustments clearly marked in our scores and present in our collective consciousness. On Wednesday, it’s dress rehearsal with orchestra and soloists, then our first performance follows on Thursday night, with additional performances on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

Tickets are selling briskly – don’t be left out! Call for your tickets today.

The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, November 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 14, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford

To purchase tickets, contact:
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra
PHONE 860.244.2999
or online at
Discounted tickets may be available via for some concerts.


The fall colors here in Connecticut are unbelievably beautiful this year. I laugh sadly at the "reports" in the newspaper that tell us that the colors are "so-so" or "not really very good" this year. Well, it has been cloudy a lot this month, so not every day is brilliant, but how can one ever call autumn's scarlets, golds, oranges, and russets "so-so" or “not really very good”?

What do people expect? To me, the fall colors, whether muted or brilliant, are always beautiful.

I guess people in our society expect perfection. Our over-hyped media sets us up to expect perfection. Big perfection, knock-your-eye-out perfection, once-in-a-lifetime perfection. But since Big Perfect Perfection rarely happens, people are often disappointed.

For those of us who seek out and savor small perfections, perfection is all around us, abundantly.

Yesterday afternoon D and I walked around our neighborhood: past the small pond, down to the old bridge near the meadow, and through the cemetery by the river. We saw breathtaking colors in the sky, trees, grasses, and birds. D spotted a fox, which is always a special treat. We picked up a few scarlet leaves – they were perfect. We watched a sapsucker feasting on poison ivy berries, pulling them from a vine that wound through a golden-leaved tree arching over a backwater on the little river. We walked through a flock of white-throated sparrows, enjoying their high-pitched lisping calls all around us. We watched a huge red-tailed hawk soaring in front of the enormous rising full moon. The air was fresh and cool, with a bit of warmth from the late afternoon sun. We walked and talked together.