Continuo

Photo: Early WindsRehearsals of Early Music vary more than those unfamiliar with the stuff would guess. Explaining to others why I, a non-musician, love sitting in music rehearsals of any sort is an iffy enough proposition in itself, but at least I can condense my main reasons enough that they may appreciate how much watching and listening in on the preparatory process—hearing what the musicians are working on, how, and why, not to mention any backstory of the pieces in question that gets shared en route—informs and enriches my experiences in concert performances. Tell them I love sitting in on rehearsals for early music, and I can get quizzical stares as though I’d said I love the temperate climate of Seattle. Isn’t that where it rains all the time? Well, the Pacific Northwest gets a fair quantity of rain, or it might be hard pressed to maintain its evergreen status, but in addition to lots of other notable and varied climatic features of the region, it gets truly spectacular sunshine as well.

Rehearsals of early music, too, are far more varied and nuanced and, at times, downright surprising than you’d guess if all you’ve ever heard of the entire body of work leading up to the Baroque period is that 30-second clip of background music advertising the local Renaissance Faire.  It can range from the most tender, measured votive chant to the rollicking, rowdy, and bawdy; from plaintive solos through angel-choir harmonies and right on to shockingly modern sounding rhythms and dissonances, early music is an incredibly rich tapestry of sounds.

One thing that does remain consistent in a great deal of accompanied or instrumentally supported vocal music from early Western sources is the use of continuo. To a layman or amateur listener like me, this means that while there will be portions or movements of larger musical works when either the choir sings a cappella (unaccompanied by instruments) for a while or, conversely, together with the majority of the orchestra ‘singing along’ in accompaniment, there are often sections where one or more of the singers, or the entire chorus, is supported by a small group or individual’s continuo playing, too. Continuo is not an instrument, or at least not a specific one; rather, it is the practice of supporting sung music with a continuing and enhancing undercurrent of instrumental accompaniment.

The result, at its best, is that the sounds blend so seamlessly that listeners might well forget that they’re not hearing human voices exclusively, and the instrumental strains seem to disappear into the sound. Yet when the continuo is not played in the same passages, as may be the case in rehearsal, the phrases can sound strangely pale or incomplete.

A great continuo player, like a great accompanist, is a species of artist quite distinct from the great solo instrumentalist or even orchestral player. It is, in very rare instances, possible for one player to excel in all of these roles, but such magical creatures are truly few and far between. What distinguishes the fine continuo artist, and to some extent accompanist, is not only sheer musicality but an extrasensory ability to think in sync with the other artists in the performance—the other players, the singers, the conductor—and a remarkable degree of prescience in always giving just the help or polish needed at just the right instant without either being asked or demanding the spotlight for it. The best so seamlessly enhance the work of those around them that they raise the level of the whole performance in ways that a self-aggrandizing soloist cannot. There’s an element of generosity in the skill set that not only shows true mastery but also the confidence of knowing that such excellence is its own reward and the beauty and pleasures of the concert are great enough to cast their golden glow over everyone.Photo: Lute's Heart

There’s a good lesson in there for all of us, musicians or not, isn’t there.

A Choral Symphony

Listening in on rehearsals for the new Jake Heggie Ahab Symphony a companion to his opera Moby-Dick), I wrote. Tonight (24 April 2013), if you’re not able to attend in person, you can watch and listen to the live streamed performance of the world premiere at 8 pm CST at this link, featuring tenor Richard Croft, the University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra and Grand Chorus and conductor David Itkin: http://recording.music.unt.edu/live. In the meantime, from me:digital artworkCharacteristic Frequencies

Light, to begin, as though it were the dawn,

And whispered voices breathed themselves awake,

And sentience would rise and fall and make

A storm, turn faint again, scarce moving on–

On lyric waves these messages were sent,

Foretelling danger and the pangs of grief,

Then, gentler, sing of comfort and relief,

Follow each graceful passage where it went–

This, while the song comes lapping up at me,

Comes pulling like the most insistent tide,

Whether the sound grows deep or thin and wide,

Draws me on deeper in this sonic sea–

Seek me no more, but let me run aground,

My soul sunk in these waves, and listening, drowned.digital artwork

May I Suggest . . .

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The University of North Texas Collegium Singers in dress rehearsal for their performance at the Berkeley Festival of early music, June 2012, Dr. Richard Sparks conducting. Yes, *that* Richard Sparks.

MUSIC.

Having had my senses immersed in the bath of fall season-opener concerts of all sorts lately, to the literal tune of hundreds of voices and instruments in symphonies, marches, art songs, musical theater melodies, electronica, motets, chaconnes, folk songs, choral masses, lullabies and all sorts of other lovely music, I am reminded as always at this time of year that such an intense schedule of events, however fabulous and rich they are, can be exhausting. More importantly, though, I am reminded that it’s also invigorating, inspiring and often utterly thrilling.

It’s also the time of year when the European choral magazine for which I proofread and text-check translations goes back into full production for the year. The articles and news items are all full of reviews of the summer season’s festivals and conferences and the amazing machinery that underlies these productions, from choosing and ordering music scores through civic action, political efforts, fundraising, singer scholarships, educational programs for participants and audiences, performers’ uniform shipping, young composers’ symposia, etc, and right on down to whether ‘civilian’ supporters of the group are allowed to arrange the music stands or chairs onstage if the local symphony hall union members are on strike. At the heart of it all is such a profound passion for music that millions of people worldwide, including those from countries and cultures one might be surprised to find even having the time or energy amid their economic, social or yes, war-related battles to sing and to listen to singers. If there’s a genuinely possible force for world peace, my friends, it may well be in music.

More personally, it’s music that is a central force for my own happiness, for a large number of reasons. Every one of those listed above comes into my own life and being regularly. But as you know, I am partnered for said life with a musician, and so the whole topic comes that much more sharply into focus. Music has been a glue for us two from the very beginning of ‘us’. Ask our mutual dear friend, a fellow musician, if I were single and might therefore be ‘available’? Check. Collaborate over a large-scale music performance and its visual presentation as a way to get to know each other a bit, hovering around each other during rehearsals and preparation? Check. Go on a first date to a Mark Morris Dido and Aeneas dance performance [yes, truly spectacular, by the way] for which my suitor had prepared the singers? Check!

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Since thousands vie for the dozens of positions in the final selected groups, high school students in Texas undergo a rigorous preparation for All-State Choir auditions, studying the literature in workshops and camps across the state each summer to compete in their local and regional trials before the year of All-State even arrives. This is the UNT group working in the summer of 2012, rehearsing in the camp organized and run by Dr. Alan McClung, assisted by UNT students and graduates and conducted each year by a different guest conductor–this year, by my spouse. What can I say, it’s what he does. And what I love to hear and see.

What followed is, was and ever shall be musicocentric. Our honeymoon (more about that in a future post) was built, in fact, around my fiance’s conducting gig–a gig including, naturally, our aforementioned Dual BFF as accompanist–at a choral festival in Veszprém, Hungary, arranged under the auspices of the parent organization that spawned the magazine for which I still do editorial duties, if you can follow that sprawling, meandering melody line. One might say that it all began with music and went racing straight downhill from there. Or, if one feels as I do, that music has brought uncountable joys into my life from earliest memory to the present, and will sustain me until the end. In any case, one of the clear high points of musical pleasure has been attending the myriad concerts, events, conferences, performances, and festivals that bring musicians and music lovers together all over the world. A huge number of our favorite people are those whom we’ve met in and through all of this music-related stuff. We have deeply loved ‘family’ literally around the world whom we’ve met and with whom we’ve bonded through musical acquaintance.

If you haven’t done so yet, or not recently enough, may I suggest that you ‘get thee to’ the nearest conference, symposium or festival involving music as soon as you’re able. If, like me, you aren’t an active participant, know that every artist needs his or her cheerleaders and fans and supporters, and that your mutual love of the art will mean more than that you stood onstage during the work or the bows. Yes, even non-musicians can and should pitch in–even those with no sense of pitch can fold programs, stuff envelopes, recruit audience members and donors and board members and political supporters, can drive the shuttle that carries the singers and their accompanists from venue to venue at the festival, and can buy tickets and bask in the glorious sounds from town square to church nave to school ‘cafetorium’ to symphony hall and shout a resounding Bravissimi! to all and sundry.

Beyond that, though, the immersion of being in a place where a huge number of people, participants and supporters and happy observers alike, have come together from a wide range of territory for an extended period of days solely for love of music–that is a wholly different and magical experience everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy at least once. So I commend them to you, the small-scale community events offered by your local affiliated high schools and the international events hosted by long-lived organizations in exotic places and every variation on the theme you can find. I promise you will leave with a song in your heart and memories to last you to when all of your other memories have faded to dust and perhaps beyond. If music be the food of love, play on! For though in this line opening his play ‘Twelfth Night‘ Shakespeare exposed the Duke of Orsino’s conviction that being surfeited with love (in this instance, via its musical surrogate) would cure him of his hunger for it, I think that quite the opposite is true: if they are excellent, the more we experience them and are filled with them, the more we crave both love and music.

Food of that sort for thought: visit first the websites and then the events offered by your local choirs, bands, orchestras, theaters, and performance companies. My own favorites are hosted by professional organizations of music educators, conductors and performers simply because those are the ones I’ve naturally had the privilege to attend, as consort to my musical prince charming, and these all offer performances by top artists that are open to the public, sometimes even with free admission. Explore them! The organization that ‘sponsored’, or inspired and was the jumping-off point for, our honeymoon with its Singing Week in Veszprém–with its half-dozen ateliers conducted by musicians from Europe and North America and singers and whole choirs from all over as well–was what is now called the European Choral Association-Europa Cantat and it hosts a wide variety of such choral events throughout each year, with a focal youth choir festival occurring triennially in places like Passau, Leicestershire, Barcelona, Utrecht, Torino (2012), and Pécs, Hungary (a locale to be repeated in 2015).

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Just this month, the newly minted University Singers at UNT performed their first concert of the season with my spouse at the helm. If you live in or near a college town, you’ll find endless opportunities for attending all sorts of musical events, many of them free and most of them truly outstanding–after all, these people are all here gaining expertise for what may be their whole life’s passion, and performers need great audiences too.

Pop, folk, jazz, rock, blues, punk, bluegrass, Early Music, all flavors and kinds of music and individual organizations from the Oldtime Fiddlers [I once got to run the stage lighting for their competition in Washington state–fabulous fiddling, huge fun and even some fantastic yodeling!] to the Verona Opera [I can say from my one experience there that genuine opera under the stars is something not to be missed, even if it’s still 40°C when the singing ends in the middle of the night]: there is something for practically any musical taste out there, and many of them that I enjoy immensely are included among these. My personal pet organizations among the professional gang also include many others: IFCM (International Federation for Choral Music), ACDA (American Choral Directors Association), ACCC (Association of Canadian Choral Communities), TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association), Chorus America, the Boston (odd-numbered years in June), Berkeley (even-numbered years in June), and Vancouver (annually in August) Early Music festivals, and ever so much more.

Into Tomorrow, Endlessly Singing

You all know by now that I am not a singer. I get asked all the time, since I’m married to a choral conductor (who happens to also be a lovely singer himself) and I hang out with an enormous cadre of the vocally talented. When I demur, I get asked what kind of musician I am, then, because after all, so many denizens populating the rest of our joint life are outstanding composers, instrumentalists, conductors, and all of the rest that, well, it just seems so obvious. In truth, I did take the obligatory childhood music lessons–about five years at the piano, if you remember–ending with a certain rueful amusement on my teachers’ part but no great skill on mine, plus a brief period of voice lessons from a well-meaning coach who’d heard my sisters and me sing and gave the elder two of us a go. Where again, my failure to learn to read music with any ease was further complicated by my inability to understand and make use of the very important concept of singing with a head voice. Having become accustomed over my earlier years to being mistaken for Dad on the phone, or for an older girl because I was extremely shy and therefore more reserved than many kids my age plus having a relatively deep voice for a girl, or for a more skilled singer than I really was because I was willing to sing any part–and did, at one point, sing in all four choral sections because that was how the need was distributed in my various school and church choirs–well, it all probably let me learn a whole array of bad vocal habits that pretty much put the kibosh on my becoming an actual skilled singer. The likely absence of a notable native vocal “instrument” wouldn’t’ve helped either, had I tried to force the issue, but by the time that I hit high school and time management demanded that I narrow down my interests a bit, choir fell off the list other than occasional singing at church. Who knew I’d end up partnered with this guy!

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Sketches from a Swedish Radio Choir rehearsal, my husband conducting (if you've seen him conduct enough, you can recognize even the rough sketch of his hand positions) . . .

But as I also pointed out some time ago, the influence of music and of singing remained large and happy in my life, even if I was not destined to be a producer of them. I continued to love listening, cultivated many musical friends who provided the sonic tapestry that was the backdrop of my happiness, and even collaborated with musicians on projects where they provided the aural elements of a performance and I the visual imagery to accompany it. For a few years, I served on the Concert Committee that produced a reasonably ambitious season of musical offerings at our church, which was conveniently located just across a university campus from the music department where many of my fine-musician friends happened to work. It must be added, in fairness, that the draw of being on said Committee was not purely musical but also deeply social, what with all of the musicians and music-lovers therein, and also exceedingly delicious, because most of the musicians I’ve known are committed eaters if not foodies and so the Committee’s meetings quickly evolved into elaborate gustatory events as well.

And that’s precisely why music has remained so largely writ in my life, if not burgeoned and positively exploded, over the years since: music is so intertwined with so many parts of what I love in life that I can’t separate one happiness from another. If music be the food of love, play on! What hasn’t followed for me is what followed for Duke Orsino, because I never found either that I became surfeited by listening to good music or that I became surfeited with love by loving life with musicians–one in particular. Tough luck, your Grace! So I am not dutifully following, wagging my tail obsequiously, as I go to a rehearsal and sit in the darkened hall while choirs work their repertoire into their voices and souls to prepare for performance; I am both absorbing the inner workings of music that don’t exist in me innately or by scholarly wisdom, so to appreciate and bathe in the final production all the more, and also having the beauty of the practice itself wash over me in waves that can inspire me to write, to draw or paint, to design my better garden bed or concoct a more delectable dish for dinner. Waves that, at their best, lift me out of myself and let me feel the singing pass through me as though I, non-musician-non-singer that I am, with spasmodic dysphonia that presumably means even if I ever figure out my head voice and/or learn to read music, I won’t become a great singer–as though I myself were singing.

So, though I may struggle to sing a simple ditty nowadays, I have this magnificent vicarious experience available to me that few are privileged to share, and in this rather out-of-body experiential way expect to sing my way through the rest of my very happy future. As I do the usual end of the year assessments and look ahead to what I imagine and hope for the year soon to come, the imagery is suffused in every possible way with music. I am immersed in song. I write lyrics because I cannot sing them. I listen to rehearsals because I cannot read music well and don’t know the inner workings of music preparation the way performers and conductors do. I attend concerts because the kinds of beauty and grief, daring and humor, poignancy and brilliance that come through well made music embrace, interweave and transcend all of the other parts of my life so that I feel transported, changed to a better self. As though I too am singing in a song that may never have to end.

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Conducting another Sparkling performance . . .