Human

The Night Before

The night before Christmas was always a mini-celebration.  In my family we’d sometimes open up one present to whet our appetites.

The night before your birthday is often a good night, even if you can’t get to sleep so easily.  You fall asleep thinking about what a great day it’s going to be.

Or the night before your wedding.  Or the night before a big vacation.  Or the night before you start that new job.  All the possibilities of the next day, caught up in your visions of sugar plums dancing in your head as you envision success.

The night before is for visualizing the next day.  It’s for the same anticipation that you feel before you check to see if your lottery numbers won, except it’s the entire time falling asleep.

Always cherish the night before, and treat it with the respect it deserves for welcoming the happy tomorrow.

Musician, Son

Someone in the audience

No matter what stage you’re on, when you’re performing, there’s always a special joy if you know someone in the audience.  It makes everything more real.  Maybe because there’s a witness.  Someone there to hear the tree fall, so that the noise it makes matters.

A performance isn’t a performance without an audience anyways; otherwise, it’s a dress rehearsal.  Part of the energy generated when performing live is connecting with the audience.  But when you have a connection already–co-workers, classmates, family, those two random elderly ladies you met in the parking garage on the way to the concert–it turns the thrill of performing live up to an 11.  Even if it’s those two elderly ladies who dutifully wave at you from their seats as if they’ve known you for decades.

But having your parents in the audience is always a special treat.

Especially if they drove for 12 hours to get there.

Fan

Tom Cruise Is Jack Reacher

There’s something mesmerizing about an actor at the top of his game.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series tells the story of a 6’5″ 250-pound muscular ex-military policeman who, after leaving his position, foils bad guy after bad guy as he hitchhikes his way across the country.  The character as envisioned in the books is an unstoppable force of nature, a chivalrous knight errant capable of outthinking, outlasting, or outgunning his opponents.  Whether it be his eidetic memory, his force of will, or his extensive combat training, Jack-None-Reacher gets it done.

Now put 5’7″ Tom Cruise in the role.  Fans of the book series howled.  Sure he’s an action hero, but how could tiny Tom Cruise, he of the slippery spy Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, the smarmy Maverick in Top Gun, the earnest lawyer in A Few Good Men… how could he ever possibly play the unsentimental, determined Reacher?

Pretty damn well, it turns out.  It’s unclear whether it’s camera tricks or they just surround him with short people, but however they did it, when you watch either of the Jack Reacher movies, you forget it’s Tom Cruise in about 5 minutes, and feel a thrill every time you see a Reacher with both brains and brawn take down another opponent.  Cruise completely inhabits the character of Reacher, and becomes unmistakably him.

There’s a lot to like and dislike about Tom Cruise as a person.  But it’s hard to deny that he’s a phenomenal actor.  Would that we all could be that good at our craft.

Human, Marketer

Vacations, not quite unplugged

It’s really nice to take a vacation unplugged.  To leave it all behind… and to know that there’s nothing you can really do to help out with all those responsibilities you left behind.  (Like the responsibility of writing daily blog posts.)

And yet… there are advantages to a vacation that’s not quite unplugged.  When you’ve told everyone who depends on you that you’re available in emergencies, and will be checking just in case.  Then you’re not bottlenecking everyone while you’re gone.

A not-quite-unplugged vacation gives you the best of both worlds.  You’re aware of any work issues.  But you’re not on the hook to respond to each and every urgent incoming message demanding your attention.  Best of all, you can pick and choose the messages to respond to, at your vacation-enabled pace, so that when you do return, you’re not buried in rampant problems.

(As long as there’s not, like, an actual work emergency, because then you’re not enjoying the rest of that vacation…)

Musician

Finding Triumph in Lord Nelson’s Mass

Cross-posted from my blog about singing, Just Another Bass

Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass.  Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.

Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear.  In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.  (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!)  The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood.  By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800.  Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements.  And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.

Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt.  We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world.  His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.

Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound.  He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing.  I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding).  Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures.  He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.

It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride.  Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury.  That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.

Musician

Exploring the Pizzetti Requiem

Cross-posted from my blog about singing, Just Another Bass

Our upcoming Friday night Prelude performance at Tanglewood is a pretty spectacular collection of a cappella choral sacred music.  The backbone of the program is Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem, a hauntingly beautiful setting of chant-like melodies that have been a joy to internalize and sing.

The Choral Scholar’s well-written (and rather exhaustive) analysis of the piece explores more of its historical context, including a lot on Pizzetti’s influences. Born in 1884, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s career was primarily as a conservatory teacher, rather than as a prolific composer, though he was responsible for several choral works. As a frequent music critic, he held disdain for 20th century compositional trends such as those introduced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, advocating frequently for a return to the Renaissance traditions of great Italian composers.  In 1922 he was commissioned to write this Requiem during a period of personal transition: his wife had died unexpectedly, and his 16-year tenure at the Istituto Musicale in Florence had come to an end.  “I was in such an emotional state,” he reflected later, “that I became overwhelmed by the tremendous immensity of the text,” as he contemplated his beliefs and sought comfort in choral expression.

Given his preferences, the style of the music is described as neo-Renaissance and neo-Medieval; it’s not hard to imagine monks in some forgotten time canonically chanting these plainsong melodies. But unlike most early music, it’s also dramatic and expressive: the dark, gloomy Dies Irae with its hollow theme; the sudden magical appearance of major keys in several places to represent heavenly light or salvation; the glorious expansiveness of the Sanctus; the pleading of the Libera Me.  Coupled with a shifting landscape of counterpoints and imitations — and choral textures ranging from the simplicity of unaccompanied basses to the extravagance of a heavy 12-part three-chorus anthem — and we have our hands full as a chorus trying to capture the soul of this composer.

Each rehearsal we’ve had so far has followed a similar pattern.  When we start out, perhaps with a read-through of one of the movements, I’d confess that the chorus sounds like we’re each strongly representing our own parts.  And then slowly over time, we become less of a collection of individual voice parts and more of an ensemble. Our conductor James Burton has smiled as he points this out: “I can see you listening to each other.”  And we’re getting faster at that; I’d say it took 30-60 minutes during our initial rehearsals last month, and about 15 minutes before we congealed into a unit yesterday.  It’s a tangible difference in our sound and collective approach.

With the vertical harmonies this piece advocates, our ears must continually attune to the chords we’re creating together.  The structure of the music requires constant mental awareness of balance, like a delicate pyramid of circus acrobats.  Often one voice part is clearly the lead actor while the others provide the staging, though dynamically it may only be mezzoforte vs mezzopiano.  Rhythmic intensity is the only way to avoid languishing through the rising and falling chants and losing tempo.  And since we’re unaccompanied, it’s easy to lose pitch on some of these descending lines, so our scores are littered with tiny up-arrows over notes in the greatest danger of going flat.

All this makes it sound like a pain in the butt to sing, but nothing could be further from the truth.  To create this magical sonority is a welcome challenge of not just our individual talents but also our ability to sustain a cohesive purpose in our choral communications to the audience. Throughout James Burton’s tuning of mechanics and technique has been an undercurrent of effort to align our intent behind each moment of the piece.  Capturing glimpses of that in each rehearsal has been nothing short of exhilarating, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with a wider audience on Friday.

Human

Beyond Your Expectations

One of the best kinds of joy is when you set what you think are high aspirations, and then to your surprise do so well that you blow those aspirations away.

Three examples for you to contemplate:

In 1899, one of Thomas Edison’s first inventions, the stock ticker, got the attention of the President of the Gold & Stock Telegraph company for which Edison worked.  This president, General Lefferts, wanted to pay him for the rights to use it.  Edison was trying to muster up the courage to ask for what he thought the invention was worth.  From Edison, His Life and Inventions:

He called me into his office, and said: `Now, young man, I want to close up the matter of your inventions. How much do you think you should receive?’ I had made up my mind that, taking into consideration the time and killing pace I was working at, I should be entitled to $5000, but could get along with $3000. When the psychological moment arrived, I hadn’t the nerve to name such a large sum, so I said: `Well, General, suppose you make me an offer.’ Then he said: `How would $40,000 strike you?’ This caused me to come as near fainting as I ever got. I was afraid he would hear my heart beat. I managed to say that I thought it was fair.

In the early 1970s, Stephen King was a school teacher making $6400 a year, raising a family and selling short stories to men’s magazines for a couple hundred dollars each.  He had a minor breakthrough when his novel, Carrie, became the first to be accepted by a publisher.  Doubleday paid him a small advance of $2500.  He and his wife discussed the possibility of the paperback reprint rights being sold.  It was a dream, he acknowledged, but King’s best guess was that it might bring between ten and sixty thousand dollars, of which he’d get 50%.  Thirty thousand dollars was 4+ years of teaching.  “It was a lot of money.  Probably just pie in the sky, but it was a night for dreaming,” King recounts in his book On Writing.

King goes on to recount the Mother’s Day in 1973 that his agent Bill Thompson called, long after he had forgotten about Carrie.

“Are you sitting down?” Bill asked.

“No,” I said.  Our phone hung on the kitchen wall, and I was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.  “Do I need to?”

“You might,” he said.  “The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.”

[…] I was completely speechless.  I stood there in the doorway, casting the same shadow as always, but I couldn’t talk.  Bill asked if I was still there, kind of laughing as he said it.  He knew I was.

I hadn’t heard him right.  Couldn’t have.  The idea allowed me to find my voice again, at least. “Did you say it went for forty thousand dollars?”

“Four hundred thousand dollars,” he said.  “Under the rules of the road” — meaning the contract I’d signed — “two hundred K of it’s yours.  Congratulations, Steve.”

I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept.  Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face-to-face was telling me I’d just won the lottery.  The strength ran out of my legs.  I didn’t fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.

“Are you sure?” I asked Bill.

He said he was.  I asked him to say the number again, very slowly and very clearly, so I could be sure I hadn’t misunderstood.  He said the number was a four followed by five zeros.  “After that a decimal point and two more zeros,” he added.

Not even sure what to do, Stephen King felt compelled to go buy his wife a Mother’s Day present, so he went to the local drug store and bought the most extravagant thing he could find there… a hair dryer.  When he returned home, she was there.

I took her by the shoulders.  I told her about the paperback sale.  She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again.  Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.

A final story, which I captured in a podcast interview.  Kristen Wylie, a former coworker of mine from Franklin, Massachusetts, had been taking her two daughters Amanda (12) and Katie (9) to singing, acting, and dancing lessons. On a whim while attending a class in New York, they joined about five hundred other girls during an open call auditioning for the musical Annie. the third national touring production of Annie.  They were thrilled to get a callback for the next day, calling that alone a victory.  Little did they know that they’d work their way through callback after callback, and both succeed in earning a spot as two of the six orphan girls for the third national tour, performing a couple hundred times across over 90 U.S. cities.

The lesson?  Work hard, aim high, and expect success… but don’t stop when you get there. The best rewards may be yet to come.