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; 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 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 [ensemble]'s upcoming performances. “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.

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. For example, 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 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. One would think that after making the mistake two or three or four or five or six times they might notice it.

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 I prepares to sing 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!

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. 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 [ensemble] finished its final piano rehearsal of Brahms’ first masterwork, the Requiem.

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.

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 almost 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 [ensemble] performed the Verdi Requiem, we used scores published by the German publisher C.F. Peters. The sung 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 [ensemble] singers missed out on Verdi’s insights because we did not have translations?

[Ensemble] is presently in the final week of preparation for its upcoming performances of the Brahms Requiem. 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 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 tragen
Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck – Rather slow and with expression

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

Movement IV: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen
Mäßig bewegt –Moderately moving

Movement V: Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit
Langsam – Slowly

Movement VII: Selig sind die Toten
Feierlich – Solemnly

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

Monday, November 2, 2009


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.