Thursday, November 25, 2021

Another Verdi Requiem

I love to write about the Verdi Requiem.  I could do it all day long.  A few years ago I started a project I intended to be Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems.  I couldn't complete it, because the work is just so overwhelming at times.  Plus, you know, life and stuff.

Gustavo Dudamel
Photo:  Tristram Kenton for The Guardian
I happened upon this 2013 performance, which I did not know, with great delight.  This was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under Grant Gerson), at the Hollywood Bowl. I can only say that I have found a new performance that ranks high among all of those recorded performances I know.

I have often written that I most often notice a conductor when something has gone amiss. Most of the time I expect a conductor to know what he's doing. In this case, nothing went amiss. I appreciated the final result in the performance. Not every conductor makes the same phrasing choices, but that is sometimes where the interest lies, no? I quite appreciated the stately and reverent tempi Mr. Dudamel chose for some of the contrapuntal sections, as opposed to the frenzied tempi one sometimes hears. I have no complaints with the LA Phil or with Mr. Dudamel, and by golly, I can not find a single reason to complain about the LA Master Chorale. 

The quartet was almost the quartet of dreams. I might hesitate to cast Vittorio Grigolo in the tenor role, but he did indeed give a lovely performance.  Keep in mind the first Verdi Requiem I ever heard boasted Placido Domingo in the tenor role, so I usually appreciate a tenor voice of more size and warmth. Mr. Grigolo, however, allayed all my fears, and gave a fine performance. He even had a trill when required. 

I had seen Michelle De Young in Philadelphia as Eboli. I was told she was ill at the time, so I did not think it kind or professional to assess her vocal accomplishments in that performance, although I did hear pleasing sounds and was impressed by her commitment to the role regardless of vocal state in the moment. In this Verdi Requiem performance, we heard great vocal skill and accomplishment and witnessed great commitment to the Requiem text. I have more than once stated that "Liber scriptus" should part one's hair, and in this case Ms. De Young did not disappoint. She also gave an admirable performance in "Lux aeterna", a section that I have seen cause very highly skilled and accomplished mezzos panic. 

Ildebrando D'Archangelo was the bass of dreams. I have before written that it is so unusual when "Mors stupebit" ends in tune that it sounds wrong when it happens. It happened here, but did not sound wrong. His "Confutatis" was spell-binding, and his ensemble work in trios and quartets was beyond reproach. He might be my favorite soloist in this quartet. Even though he's a bass.

Juliana Di Giacomo was the soprano. I quite loved watching and hearing her. Every soprano is judged by the "Libera me" when she assays the Verdi Requiem, and I must say she did quite well. She had power, she had legato, she had a floating sound in her high voice when required. The "Requiem aeternam" section of "Libera me" was heavenly. In those sections when Ms. Di Giacomo and Ms. De Young sang duets, I was completely entranced. One often approaches "Agnus Dei" wondering whether these soloists are equal to the task, and after a moment, I had no fear.  Their "Recordare" also was amazing.

In sum, I think I must come back to this performance often. I love many performances of Verdi Requiem, and there are some I love less.  As I mention, this will rank high on my list. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Do you believe in magic?

Recently I wrote a blog article about things I have experienced as an opera lover. People I have met, performances I have witnessed.

Today, largely because US Thanksgiving is this week, and I will host a YouTube live stream today with the theme of Thanksgiving, I started thinking of magic. Some people don't like the word magic, associating it with whatever is the opposite of God in their minds. I myself only associate magic with God, or the Divinity, or whatever name you have for what is beyond our own human comprehension. We don't need labels or definitions, but we do need to know those things for which we are thankful. Those things that cause wonder in the moment and in memory.

Here is partial list of those moments of magic I have seen. Not surprisingly, many of them center around vocal music:

  • I was once brought to tears when interviewing an opera company creator upon hearing his vision of fostering complete understanding in young singers, in the way that young singers in the age of Rossini or Verdi would have known the language and the cultural references intimately.
  • I have seen magic in the acts of love from family and friends that I could not begin to number.
  • I was present for Angela Meade's first Norma and for Jennifer Rowley's explosion into the opera world as Maria di Rohan. I later saw Angela Meade perform Norma in another production that brought me to tears.
  • Years ago, just before I was to undergo surgery, I was sitting alone in a wheelchair in a hospital corridor, without my glasses even, and a wonderful woman came along and offered so much reassurance that I think she surely must have been an angel.
  • I saw Talise Trevigne as Bess in Porgy and Bess, one of three productions of Porgy and Bess I have seen.
  • I can not witness the opening of Oklahoma! without crying. (There was a time in my life when I could not cry.)
  • At a retreat talent show, I saw a very lovely and gentle man who must have been 80 if he was a day transform as he performed a speech from The Glass Menagerie on stage.
  • I have a dog, so I know about love. 'Nuff said.
  • I can not count how many performances I have seen of the Verdi Requiem. I don't need to, and there will never be too many.
  • I saw a performance of La Boheme that had me sobbing when Mimi died (sorry if that's a spoiler), and had me sobbing even more when the soprano who sang Mimi appeared in a curtain call, not dead after all! This was a mid-level semi-professional production, with young and passionate singers.
  • I have seen amazing beauty in the yarn work of people I have met and want to meet.
  • I have seen art work that took my breath away in museums and public works around the world.

I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea. There is magic in the world. There is wonder. There beauty.   

Please remind me of this when I forget it. I have in the past, and I know I will in the future.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Let's Talk Larynx

When hearing conspiracy theories about certain world events we won't discuss here, there are often two views: LIHOP and MIHOP, or "Let it happen on purpose" or "Made it happen on purpose". I think these two terms are very useful in discussing vocal technique.

I think most singers and instructors would agree that the best vocal result occurs when pharyngeal space is optimized by the position of the soft palate and the larynx.  The problem is almost always in how that is accomplished. I myself was taught early to force a low larynx (MIHOP), which resulted in excess tension, even if the resulting sound was temporarily slightly improved. The long-term result is more and more tension, growing barriers such as what I call the brick wall between me and any kind of a high voice, and a wobble.  I could easily manufacture a temporarily pleasing sound, but the end result was not good.

On the other hand, there have been times when fortune has favored me temporarily with enough ease and relaxation that the optimal pharyngeal space was achieved accidentally (LIHOP). I was a little disconcerted. In fact, there have been moments of vocal freedom when I was actually made dizzy by the sensations.  

Singers and teachers talk LOW LARYNX, LOW LARYNX, LOW LARYNX all the day long. Some very popular singers have a sound that seems manufactured to me, so I suspect they might have found a way to MIHOP while keeping a necessary degree of freedom. More power to them. On the other hand, there are successful singers who sound as if they have found a way to LIHOP, who receive criticism because some don't think their vocal sounds are dark enough--not enough manufactured sound. Where is the balance?

Manuel Garcia uses a laryngoscope
Where, indeed, is the balance? I think it is different for every singer. I could digress at length about pedagogical methods. (For the record, I think "Imitate me!" is a ridiculous method and those teachers who practice it should be tortured and then starved to death in the Tower of London. I do not exaggerate when I say this.) It is not an accident that some singers learn to associate pharyngeal space with bad tension and a larynx that is pushed down by conscious effort.  I am full of resentment that I was over 40 before someone taught me that a laryngeal position that is not ideal is the result of excess tension. Some teachers have told me that uncomfortable tension was a fact of life. 

Clearly I favor the LIHOP approach. I think the objective is to remove barriers to LIHOP rather than to MIHOP. There is a philosophy that works for me in most areas of life when I practice it: take the right actions and let go of the results. In fact, one of the best teachers I ever had taught her own version of that philosophy, stating that even judging by sensation over sound might not serve the singer consistently, because human bodies are not by nature consistent.  Those who are familiar with the Serenity Prayer might have a little practice in trying to determine which things they can or should control and which they can't. Remember that the last line of that prayer refers to the wisdom to know the difference.

Where am I going with all of this? What is my intention in writing this article? In truth, part of it is just to vent, but I also want people to talk about these things. I think there is too much "This is my method--either it works or it doesn't!" in this world. (Not to mention the often associated "If it doesn't work, the problem is you!") I think there is not enough discussion about finding what works for the individual student. In fact, I truly believe the most successful teachers are those who find the best way to connect with the student to communicate the principles of taking the right actions and allowing favorable results to happen. We are focused too much on product over process, when ensuring the most healthy process, although sometimes more difficult, often results in a greater, more consistent, and longer lasting product.

There it is. Take what you like and leave the rest.