Sunday, August 29, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 15: Sons Of

The video clip in the post two down that uses the song "Carousel," from the musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, has made me revisit this musical, whose original cast recording (along with that of the 1976 Joseph Papp revival of Threepenny Opera) was a formative influence in my adolescence.  The musical, a plotless revue, can be directed so as to suggest various settings and narratives, and is often performed by college music and theater departments, since it needs only four singers and a very small musical combo (a single piano, in fact, will suffice).

My favorite song from the show is the poignant "Sons of . . . "  Isn't it everybody's?  When the show was first staged at the Village Gate in 1968, the line "Some went to war, some never came home," was no doubt heard as a pointed reference to the Vietnam War, in protest against which Jacques Brel himself refused to come to America to see what turned out to be a wildly successful revue of his work.  Indeed, the song's final chord, coming at the end of a rhythmically-accelerated phrase and cut off before resolving to the tonic, underscores the sense of childhood truncated, and of a desperate search for children who will never come back.

I could not find a Youtube video of the incomparable Elly Stone singing the song from the original cast recording, but did find something perhaps even better:  Jacques Brel singing it in the original French.  It is really quite wonderful. 

The lyrics, in translation:

Sons of the thief, sons of the saint
Who is the child with no complaint?
Sons of the great or sons unknown
All were children like your own
The same sweet smiles, the same sad tears
The cries at night, the nightmare fears
Sons of the great or sons unknown
All were children like your own...
So long ago: long, long, ago...

But sons of tycoons or sons of the farms
All of the children ran from your arms
Through fields of gold, through fields of ruin
All of the children vanished too soon
In tow'ring waves, in walls of flesh
Among dying birds trembling with death
Sons of tycoons or sons of the farms
All of the children ran from your arms...
So long ago: long, long, ago...

But sons of your sons or sons passing by
Children we lost in lullabies
Sons of true love or sons of regret
All of the sons you cannot forget
Some built the roads, some wrote the poems
Some went to war, some never came home
Sons of your sons or sons passing by
Children we lost in lullabies...
So long ago: long, long, ago

But, sons of the thief, sons of the saint
Who is the child with no complaint?
Sons of the great or sons unknown
All were children like your own
The same sweet smiles, the same sad tears
The cries at night, the nightmare fears
Sons of the great or sons unknown
All were children like your own.

Island Cities

Today's poem on The Writer's Almanac:

You see them from airplanes, nameless green islands
in the oceanic, rectilinear plains,
twenty or thirty blocks, compact, but with
everything needed visibility in place—
the high-school playing fields, the swatch of park
along the crooked river, the feeder highways,
the main drag like a zipper, outlying malls
sliced from dirt-colored cakes of plowed farmland.

Small lives, we think—pat, flat—in such tight grids.
But, much like brains with every crease CAT-scanned,
these cities keep their secrets: vagaries
of the spirit, groundwater that floods
the nearby quarries and turns them skyey blue,
dewdrops of longing, jewels boxed in these blocks.

"Island Cities" by John Updike, from Americana: And Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Music and Memory, part 14: The Carousel

I had the radio on in the kitchen yesterday afternoon during "Performance Today," which has a fun feature on Wednesdays (fun, that is, if you're a total music nerd) called Piano Puzzler, in which the pianist and composer Bruce Adolphe plays a popular or show tune in the style of a great composer, and then asks a call-in contestant to identify both the composer and the tune.  As a committed Brahmsophile, I immediately recognized the composer and the piece Adolphe pinched, Brahms's Intermezzo op. 118 no. 2 in A Major, one of the pieces perhaps most redolent of a sort of restrained but heartfelt nostalgia in the entire western canon.

Adolphe substituted Brahms's B section with the Rodgers and Hart tune "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."  It was skillfully and beautifully done; to hear it, you can go to the Piano Puzzler link above.

I first heard the op. 118 no. 2 while growing up in my culturally-anachronistic classical-music-loving family.  My mother had the Glenn Gould recording, which is why I chose a Youtube video of Gould's performance for my example above.  Gould is not the pianist most aficionados of late-Romantic piano repertoire would immediately think of for this piece, but his performance of it is remarkably true, I think, to the practice of classical restraint that Brahms always used in his most profoundly moving pieces, which serves only to make them infinitely more moving than if they had been composed by one of his more overtly passionate contemporaries.  And Gould brings out the complex network of Brahms's inner voices, teasing multiple melodies out of the piece's dense construction, so that, while you listen, your heart can be broken at several spots and in several different registers of the keyboard.

Coming late to the party, as is my wont, I have only recently discovered the AMC television series Mad Men.  It happened when my husband was out of town.  We don't have real television here, so, after seeing the first episode on a free site that has since shut down, I took to downloading every other episode of the first season.  I got a couple of free ones through an Amazon promotion, and then I couldn't stop.  I watched the first-season finale last night, which includes a brilliant, marvelously-acted scene in which the troubled ad-man Don Draper makes a pitch to Kodak to create the campaign for its new slide projector, overriding the client's initial branding instructions and calling the device, in his own copy, "The Carousel."  (You can watch the scene here; copyright laws prevent me from embedding it in this post.)  Advertising, Draper tells them, is about nostalgia, which, he says, means in Greek "the pain from an old wound."  A Mad Men fan site challenges Draper's definition, translating the Greek as, essentially, homesickness -- or, for Brahms, who wrote several songs with the title, Heimweh.  Here is the best known of his Heimweh songs.

The text, by Klaus Groth, is translated thus by Leonard Lehrman:

Oh, if I only knew the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
Oh, why did I search for happiness
And leave my mother's hand?

Oh, how I long to be at rest,
Not to be awakened by anything,
To shut my weary eyes,
With love gently surrounding!

And nothing to search for, nothing to beware of,
Only dreams, sweet and mild;
Not to notice the changes of time,
To be once more a child!

Oh, do show me the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
In vain I search for happiness,
Around me naught but deserted beach and sand!

There is a large, lovingly restored belle-époque carousel in a public park within walking distance of our house.  It's painted with idyllic childhood scenes à la Kate Greenaway, and it booms out its highly-orchestrated turn-of-the-century tunes from a period Wurlitzer calliope.  Admission is free, so when we ride it, we usually ride it for an hour or so, which gives my son all the time he needs to pretend that each separate ride is one of the stations on the Metro-North Railroad from our old neighborhood in the Bronx down to Grand Central Station (he, train-obsessed, also calls the carousel "the magic turntable").  This also gives me time to think.

Occasionally at the carousel I see a haggard young redheaded woman.  She is surrounded by seven redheaded children between the ages of about one and thirteen, and is pregnant with another.  A social worker with a name badge sits on a bench and looks on.  I have seen this mom waiting for her kids by the parking lot, talking with the social worker, and then seen a minivan taxicab pull up and all the kids piling out of it, including the baby in a car seat. The mother has plastic grocery bags full of soda and chips for their picnic, and they all make their way over to the playground area, where the social worker helps with pushing the little ones on the swings and mediating their childish disputes.  My friend who knows the director of a local foster-care agency tells me that this mother has lost custody of these seven children temporarily, and of an eighth permanently, while awaiting trial for soliciting johns for one of her pre-teen daughters.

The orderliness and cleanliness, the gay music, the ethos of innocent fun represented by the carousel make me think of Wallace Stevens's poem "The Anecdote of the Jar."  Like Stevens's jar, our carousel makes the "slovenly wilderness" surround its artfulness, its artifice, its order; but our carousel, like Don Draper's Carousel, also dispenses a false nostalgia, the longing for a home that most likely, for most people, has never really existed.

Here is some vintage carousel footage from Coney Island, set to the song "Carousel" from the original cast recording of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ode to the Yard Sale

Good one today on The Writer's Almanac.

A toaster,
A plate
Of pennies,
A plastic rose
Staring up
To the sky.
It's Saturday
And two friends,
Merchants of
The salvageable heart,
Are throwing
Things onto
The front lawn –
A couch, a beanbag,
A table to clip
Poodles on,
Drawers of
Potato mashers,
Spoons, knives
That signaled
To the moon
For help.
Rent is due
It's somewhere
On the lawn,
Somewhere among
The shirts we've
Looked good in,
Taken off before
We snuggled up
To breasts
That almost made
Us gods.
It'll be a good
Day, because
There's much
To sell,
And the pitcher
Of water
Blue in the shade,
Clear in the
Light, with
The much-handled
Scotch the color
Of leaves
Falling at our
Shoes, will
Get us through
The afternoon
Rush of old
Ladies, young women
On their way
To becoming nurses,
Bachelors of
The twice-dipped
Tea bag. It's an eager day:
Wind in the trees,
Laughter of
Children behind
Fences. Surely
People will arrive
With handbags
And wallets,
To open up coffee
Pots and look
In, weigh pans
In each hand,
And prop hats
On their heads
And ask, "How do
I look?" (foolish
To most,
Beautiful to us).
And so they
Come, poking
At the clothes,
Lifting salt
And pepper shakers
For their tiny music,
Thumbing through
Old magazines
For someone
They know,
As we sit with
Our drinks
And grow sad
That the ashtray
Has been sold,
A lamp, a pillow,
The fry pans
That were action
Packed when
We cooked, those things
We threw so much
Love on, day
After day,
Sure they would mean something
When it came
To this.

"Ode to the Yard Sale" by Gary Soto, from New & Selected Poems. © Chronicle Books, 1995. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Music and Memory, part 13: By the Waters of Babylon

"Sing to us," they said, "one of Zion's songs."  O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?

I hope to have my driver's license by the end of the year, but I need to practice a lot more than I have been, and practicing has proven logistically hard to arrange.  This month I've been taking my son, who I anticipate will be diagnosed with a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, to an agency that provides occupational therapy to help him develop his fine motor skills and find creative ways to address his sensory-seeking behaviors.  This agency, while lovely, is located in a post-industrial ghetto, surrounded by abandoned factory buildings and bordered by a defunct railroad track with tall weeds growing up through the ties.  We can take the bus within a half-mile of the agency, but then we have to get off, walk down a struggling neighborhood block, and plunge through the desolation.  The first time we did it, I was more scared than I've ever been anywhere in New Yor City, but made it seem like a fun adventure to my son.  Then I got used to it, and started to become interested in our surroundings.  Sometimes we see a solitary figure walking on the tracks.

Yesterday we were running late for various reasons, and I called a cab to take us to my son's appointment.  The cab driver was a young woman whose beauty was unmarred by her multiple tattoos and piercings.  The agency my son goes to has the words "handicapped" and "children" in its name, and she asked me about it and what they did. Her son, it turned out, received services for a high-functioning spectrum disorder from another agency, one that I've heard is located in an environ slightly scarier than ours (there is a high number of spectrum disorders among boys in my new city, but that's a different story).  My cab driver's hands on the wheel were slender and long-fingered, unencumbered by any jewelry, including a wedding ring.  For some reason that I can't explain, my heart went out to her.  While I waited for my son in the waiting room, tears came to my eyes and I prayed for her.  I kept thinking of how we are all in Babylon, in exile from what is good and beautiful.  And it seemed to me that those of us who strive to bring heaven down to earth, to create small utopias of goodness where there appears to be none, are perhaps in the most desolate kind of exile of all.  Of those people who order their lives according to daily mass and prayer practices, I know of few who have any real sort of peace in their hearts.  Just as I cling to the cross out of desperation, knowing that there is no salvation without it, the people I know who engage in orderly devout practices sometimes appear to be white-knuckling it.  And I stress that there is nothing wrong or untoward about that; it's simply the way it is.

I thought about the wide social gap between my cab driver and myself, and about the fact that disability is the great leveler.  And I thought about all the beautiful things I've always wanted to do, here and elsewhere:  there must, I've always thought, be something I can do to help other people with the skills that I have.  But the skills I have are so specialized, and there's so little concrete, applicable need or place for them.  Going to sing beautiful music for the pierced and tattooed is not going to save them.  Bringing beautiful music into the schools is not going to save their children, whether spectrum-disordered or otherwise.  I remember doing a small concert tour in rural Wisconsin about ten years ago, and, before one performance, speaking to a high-school chorus.  I observed their rehearsal, and noted that the best soprano was about six months pregnant.  During question-and-answer, a boy raised his hand and asked, "What are you doing here?"  I scrambled for a sincere answer that wouldn't further widen the gulf between us -- something in between the cynical "It's a gig," and the idealistic "I'm here to show you something beautiful that will uplift your soul and help you make a deeper connection with our shared humanity."  I don't remember now what I said.

I consider myself lucky to have been brought up in what may have been one of the last homes of my generation whose inhabitants listened to classical music.  There's no doubt that this family pursuit formed the basis of my life as a musician.  As a result, however, I have spent my entire adult life practicing a craft that has little-to-no value or perceived benefit in our culture, and for which there is a tremendous dearth of opportunities to make back the copious amounts of money invested in advancing to the level of professionalism.  There's been talk recently about the necessity for classical musicians to become "teaching artists," doing outreach in the schools, but with education budgets cut to the bone, and with -- The Mozart Effect notwithstanding -- unquantifiable outcomes for the students expected to benefit from this exposure -- this might just be another pipe dream (my trip to Wisconsin ten years ago was funded by local educators influenced by the ambiguous Mozart-effect research).

There are varying degrees of exile.  I remember well the existential friction I felt practicing my profession as a singer and dissertation-writing musicologist once I had gotten married and moved to the Bronx -- an existential friction I would give much to struggle against now.  There was an old man in our neighborhood, a successful retired plumber from the County Roscommon, who had bought an old house a block away -- a house where a bishop had been born, grown up, and come back to live in his retirement and finally die -- and was renting it to an Irish music school.  The plumber from Roscommon knew my singing (it would have been hard not to if you walked past the corner where we lived on a summer day), and he came over on the very day I was home having a miscarriage to offer me unlimited access to the house for my practicing.  I was in no emotional state, and I politely rebuffed his kind and neighborly offer, because it wasn't really space I needed to practice my craft; it was child care.  But soon thereafter, we moved here.  And I realize now that I wasn't in exile in the Bronx anywhere near to the extent that I romantically believed.

Where we live now, I see an exile much more severe all around me.  My heart's longing is to comfort that exile, but I am currently stymied as to how.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rats with Wings: A Love Story

While most New Yorkers hate pigeons, I love them, so I had to share this post from the New York Public Library's blog.

My grandfather used to keep pigeons on his rooftop when he was a boy, and his mother used to say: "Mangiano d'oro, cacano piombo" (they eat gold, they crap lead).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

So Much Depends Upon a Red Monster

We don't watch real television in our house.  We don't have cable, so we don't get network, which is simply a continuation of how it was in our old lives in New York City.  But occasionally I do come across real television in my daily life.  Today, for instance, while my son was at his occupational therapy appointment, the television in the waiting room was tuned to Sesame Street and, though I was supposed to be proofreading a draft of my book proposal, Murray the red monster drew me in like a magnet, as he always does when I happen to see Sesame Street.

Why?  Because he's live from New York.  The segments with Murray are shot on the streets and in the parks and playgrounds of my beloved city, and the letters and numbers of the day are the subway lines!  When I see Murray, my heart pounds and my eyes cloud up.  In some ways I'm very glad to not live in New York now, but boy, do I miss it in other ways.  Murray the monster is like a red flag waving randomly through my quotidian life, the wistful banner of serendipitous nostalgia.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Prayer and Memory: A Turtle in the Hole

A long time ago, when I walked across the street one lunch hour from my day job to Saint Peter's Church in lower Manhattan and sought absolution for my abortion (the anniversary of which was, incidentally, yesterday), the kindly priest in the confessional said to me, among other things, that you never have to say a formal prayer in your life.  This crossed my mind as I thought about how I would respond to Tertium Quid's meme, which is an invitation to discuss your three favorite prayers.  I am not an obvious person for this meme, since my prayers are generally overly-emotional and guided by the pathos and desperation which are so commonplace to me that they could very well be dodges (which thought makes me recall with some longing my Buddhist sister's cool injunction to me to "Tame your mind"; if only things could be that easy).

In fact, I keep a sort of random, rolling devotional practice going throughout the year.  I strike up novenas at odd times to whichever saint has caught my fancy at the moment, which may or may not be related to the proximity of that saint's feast day.  I'm currently saying the profoundly powerful novena to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (St. Edith Stein) suggested here.

But there are three prayers I say every day, or almost every day.  They are the prayer of Saint Francis, the prayer of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and the Divine Mercy chaplet.  The first two I say in the morning and also at night, if I remember, and the chaplet I try to say at three o'clock each day, though occasionally I will skip a day if I have an appointment that requires me to be with people outside of my family.  The days I do say it, it's usually on the fly.  Today, for instance, I said it while walking two miles in ninety-degree heat while pushing the stroller.

1. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
    where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon:
    where there is doubt, faith ;
    where there is despair, hope
    where there is darkness, light
    where there is sadness, joy.

    O divine Master,
    grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood, as to understand;
    to be loved, as to love;
    for it is in giving that we receive,
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

I'm sorry if I've just tune-virused that saccharine hymn "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace" into your ear for the rest of the day ("To be loved as to love with all my sou-ou-oul . . . "  Okay!  Sorry!).  It's not clear whether this prayer actually was written by Saint Francis, but it's long been attributed to him.  And the saccharine hymn, which I have sung as a cantor countless times -- in French as well as in English! --  has militated somewhat against a more contemplative delving into the words.  But I turned to the prayer in earnest after reading Mary Karr's conversion-and-recovery memoir Lit (which some of us are reading and discussing over here).  Karr describes memorizing the prayer while still essentially an atheist, after a year of white-knuckling her recovery from alcoholism, and repeating it with her young son at bedtime each night. 

Saint Francis is himself treated with a sort of saccharine pseudo-reverence in our age, and not only by Catholics, but it's meet to recall that he was a penitent, and the founder of an order of explicitly-named penitents.  What Mary Karr, in recovery from alcoholism, found salutary about his prayer is that it is about dying to self, which is perhaps the hardest thing for an alcoholic to do, as well as a crucial component in his recovery.  I say this prayer daily now because my inclination is to grab all of the good stuff for myself and run away, and, though I pray for the Holy Spirit to transform my selfishness, arrogance, and self-regard into humility and charity, I need a mnemonic to help me think and act differently in order to prepare myself for that hoped-for transformation.

But the prayer describes what, in my better moments, I really do want for my life:  to bring joy to those who are sad, light to those in darkness, through the tools I have at hand -- the disciplined practice of beauty.  The prayer of Saint Francis is even a kind of boddhisattva vow -- my sister would be proud -- asking that others are given peace, love, and happiness before the supplicant himself.

2.  Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will.  All that I have and possess you have given to me; to you, Lord, I return it; all is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will.  Give me your love and your grace, because these are enough for me.

This prayer is from Saint Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises.  The particular hook for me is that the supplicant surrenders his memory to God.  Baudelaire wrote, "J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans" -- I have more memories than if I had lived for a thousand years -- and I often feel this way myself.  Sometimes it seems that nostalgia is my drug of choice, and that, like all addictions, it creates a soft, padded place around me that cushions me from the jagged edges, the boredom, the loneliness, and the frustrations of everyday life.  Memory compels me, entrains me, and sometimes torments me, and I frequently ask myself, and God, what to do about it.  If something good can come out of these memories, I have bargained with the Almighty, then let me keep them; and, if nothing good can come of them, if their retention only causes me, and others, pain -- which I fear is often the case -- then please take them from me.

Memory, nonetheless, is the driving force of this blog, and I hope and pray that soemthing good will come from the storehouse of my memory, through this medium, for someone else.  The notion of giving one's memory to God and allowing Him to inform it, to infuse it, to direct it, brings with it the promise of release from memory's chains on the one hand, and service to the healing potential of memory on the other.  So I say these words each morning and night, even when to say them is essentially a lie.  Like the recovering addict, I keep "acting as if," as I wait for the transformation that can come only from the Holy Spirit.

3.  The Chaplet of Divine Mercy
On one of the coldest mornings I've ever lived through, in January of 2004, I took four subways to the ass-end of the Bronx to attend a "Day of Prayer and Healing"given by the Sisters of Life at the Convent of Our Lady of New York.  In the chapel, where we convened, was a huge image of the Divine Mercy, which I had never seen before, and I was wondering what the rays were doing emerging from that saccharine old image of Jesus from my grandmother's picture of the Sacred Heart.

I learned the Divine Mercy chaplet that day, and I made my confession to a wonderful CFR (Friars of the Franciscan Renewal) priest, Father Joseph Mary, who had been a restaurant chef and a major sinner before his own reversion to the Catholic faith.  He gave a talk in which he described how he had used to love rambling through the woods looking for snakes and turtles.  One day before his conversion, he told us penitent women, when he was pretty well in the grip of serious sin, he had the opportunity to go to a rural area for a holiday, and he went hiking through the fields.  He saw a hole in the ground of the kind that's used to drive a fence-post, and the goofy thought crossed his mind, "I wonder if there's a turtle in that hole?"  He looked down, and there was a turtle in that hole.  He scooped it out, and as he did so, an inner voice said to him, you are that turtle, and I AM lifting you out of your own hole.

I had a great time at confession, if that can seriously be said, because I so respected and felt such a fellow-feeling for Fr. Joseph Mary's sensibility.  For my penance, he gave me the Divine Mercy chaplet.  I had never said it before, and I said it at home that night. I thought it would take a long time, like the rosary, and was surprised when it was over so soon.

Am I supposed to say here that the prayer and my daily practice of it have changed my life?  They have, though not in ways that I can quantify.  But reminding yourself of the truth on a daily basis, even at times when lies surround you (and even at times when lies seem more comforting and appealing) has got to change you down to your very molecules.  The truth is that His mercy is God's greatest attribute, and, if my memory truly serves, may it serve to reveal to others, including to you, my readers, this truth.

I am tagging Melanie at The Wine-Dark Sea, Sally at Castle in the Sea, and Maclin at Light on Dark Water to continue this meme, should they wish to (hmmm, I see the recurrent water metaphor here -- must have to do with the ocean of mercy).

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Repost: Breaking Dawn

This morning I switched on the radio, which, for such a routine act, is one that I always approach with eager anticipation: What will it be today?  What strains will knit together the invisible community of listeners?  Well, it was eight o'clock, so I knew it was time for Saint Paul Sunday, a program I often listen to with great interest.  This time, I heard the restrained, wistful opening bars of my favorite Schubert song, "Im Frühling," and the whole scene was suddenly uncannily familiar to me.  I knew that the voice I would hear in a second would be soprano Dawn Upshaw's, and I recalled that at exactly this time last year the exact same show was broadcast.  As a hopeful communicant in the unseen guild of radio listeners, I was disappointed.  But, in the spirit of Saint Paul Sunday, I am rebroadcasting the post I wrote one year ago today about hearing the Dawn Upshaw program -- itself a rebroadcast from 2006 -- for the first time.

I'm pretty sure that I will never own an iPod, in spite of the offer my Music 101 students made last year to buy me one if they all got A's (they didn't, and they didn't). The truth is that the technology doesn't attract me. The idea of walking around in the big world while cocooned in your own predetermined soundscape strikes me not only as personally isolating but even as potentially dangerous, and I'm sure it's not what Saint Paul had in mind when he set forth his injunction to be in the world but not of it.

On the other hand, I love the technology of radio. Quite the opposite of iPod-inspired isolation, radio gives the listener a thrilling, tenuous connection to a whole secret society of fellow-listeners. The ineffable sensation of being up late at night and turning on the radio to encounter an unexpectedly profound musical experience has given me some of the best moments of my life. It's been both profoundly comforting and wildly exciting to imagine a hidden community listening along with me in those dark hours; it's given me a delicious sense of shared struggle, of silent companionship -- the feeling that, as poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote, "Somebody loves us all." I remember waking in the middle of the night once in Brooklyn and switching on my lo-fi clock radio to hear the beautiful soprano-alto duet “Weg der Liebe II” from Brahms's Opus 20 duets, a piece I knew and loved well. That was twenty years ago, and it still stands out as one of the most beautiful moments of my life (and, if you want to know what beauty is, go here and download the piece for free right now in the version I heard that night, with soprano Judith Blegen, mezzo Frederica von Stade, and pianist Charles Wadsworth. And then, if you want to have a good cry, go here to read the translation). As George at the excellent music-and-culture blog The Big City writes: "There’s a lot of recordings I hear on the radio that I also own, but it’s special to hear them being broadcast, with that extra helping of serendipity and the feeling that you’re sharing your pleasures with others."

So it was with a thrill that I switched on the kitchen radio this morning to hear the opening chords of my favorite Schubert song -- and one that has deep personal meaning for me -- "Im Frühling," played by a pianist who masterfully evoked the music's tension between tender hope and melancholy resignation (the text is here). But when the voice entered, I was confused. I've heard many of the great singers who are currently active, and I'm quite skilled at recognizing voices, but this one sounded unfamiliar. I noticed that, although the singer was a soprano, she was singing the song in the low key, and it didn't sound quite right to me. There was a slight but telltale American accent in the delivery of the German, a distinctive conversational way with the text that I thought was a little overdone, and vibrato added only at the ends of phrases, as a nightclub singer would do. It took me until the third stanza to realize that the singer was Dawn Upshaw.

I'd always felt ambivalent about Ms. Upshaw's work. I had great admiration for her musicianship, her commitment to new composers and new works, and her ability to shape a unique, non-operatic career path as a classical singer. I had seen her début at the Met as Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro in my teens, and, as an aspiring singer, was impressed with her youth, the directness of her expression, and the sweetness of her voice. But I had always found her vocal resources somewhat limited, and had disliked her habit of compensating for their limitations by an attention to the text that bordered on mannerism. Stanislavski is reputed to have told a young actor: "You must love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," and I had never been quite sure where Upshaw's true love lay.

And, frankly, I was jealous. Dawn Upshaw was having the career that I and a couple of my friends aspired to. We didn't really want to sing opera. We wanted to sing new music -- contemporary, untried, or forgotten repertoires -- but we'd been told that American singers couldn't have careers as recitalists, and that we'd have to make a name for ourselves in opera in order to be able to perform what we really wanted (I came to personal grief doing as I was told, but one friend was able to mostly circumvent the opera world and become well-known as a specialist in twentieth-century music).

I was up in arms when I heard Dawn sing George Crumb's iconic ensemble piece Ancient Voices of Children at her Carnegie Hall début in the late 1990s, for she didn't just sing; she also did some sort of interpretive dance during the instrumental interludes, which struck me as sacrilege. Then, in the last half of the recital, she sang folk songs with a microphone and some banjo pickers accompanying her, which struck me as smarmy.

Still, the fact was that the enigmatic Upshaw -- was she supremely talented or unjustly promoted? my friends and I could never quite decide -- was having the career we all wanted. A college friend went to a prominent music festival one summer, and when the new semester started, I wanted to know all about her experiences there. "Who were the guest teachers?" I asked her. "Oh . . . Dawn," she said airily, and I ground my teeth in envy at her first-name relationship with La Upshaw. Another friend, also a soprano, used letterhead from the law firm where she temped as a secretary to write to the Metropolitan Opera management, charging them with deception because she was convinced that they used a body mic for the slender-voiced Upshaw. Dawn seemed like a genuinely nice person, but we heard rumors about her ruthless ambition. "She lies about her age," someone whispered, as if everyone else in opera didn't. One friend, a pianist who was a great Upshaw admirer, was disappointed when he worked as the rehearsal pianist for an opera in which she was cast. She didn't really talk about anything except her kids, he said, and he concluded, therefore, that his idol was "a very boring lady."

But later, when I served as a graduate teaching assistant in the music department in one of my university's senior colleges, I was in the women's bathroom one day talking with my accompanist about an upcoming performance, when a stall door swung open, and out came . . . Dawn Upshaw. She was much taller than I'd imagined, and was dressed in a simple black dress with an old red cardigan half-buttoned over it. She came right over to us and asked me about my performance with unfeigned interest. It turned out she was adjudicating an audition for an opera training program that had rented one of my university's recital halls for the purpose. I managed to stay on my feet and stammer out the truth: that I had admired her and her work greatly, and for many years.

Not long after that, Upshaw was diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease that was soon to take her great colleague and friend Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, (you can see them together in a radiant performance by Upshaw of "Angels ever bright and fair" from Handel's Theodora, an oratorio about early Christian martyrs, here in an updated production directed by Peter Sellars), and she did a recital tour without bothering to cover the baldness that resulted from her chemotherapy treatment. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007, the first singer to be so honored, and became the director of the vocal arts program at Bard College's new conservatory. After my son was born, I used to take him to a playground in a posh suburb north of New York City that was a quick train ride from where we lived in the Bronx. I knew that Dawn Upshaw lived there, and I always hoped I'd run into her again, but I never did.

The last time I saw Upshaw was exactly a year ago, when my dear friend Really Rosie and I went to see the New York premiere of La Passion de Simone, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's oratorio about Simone Weil (Upshaw is shown as Simone above, with dance Michael Schumacher; the production was also directed by Sellars). The performance made me critical of Dawn for all the reasons I always had been, and made me love her for all the reasons that I always have.

The radio program I had flipped onto by chance this morning turned out to be a rebroadcast of a Saint Paul Sunday show from 2006, with Upshaw accompanied by the great American pianist Gilbert Kalish. You can listen to it here.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Gift

Lord, You may not recognize me
speaking for someone else.
I have a son.  He is
so little, so ignorant.
He likes to stand
at the screen door, calling
oggie, oggie, entering
language, and sometimes
a dog will stop and come up
the walk, perhaps
accidentally.  May he believe
this is not an accident?
At the screen
welcoming each beast
in love's name, Your emissary.
-- Louise Glück

Thursday, August 5, 2010

If I Forget Thee Jerusalem

By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat and wept,
remembering Zion;
on the poplars that grew there
we hung up our harps.

For it was there that they asked us,
our captors, for songs,
our oppressors, for joy.
"Sing to us," they said,
"one of Zion's songs."

O how could we sing
the song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue
cleave to my mouth
if I remember you not,
if I prize not Jerusalem
above all my joys!*

*Alternately translated as:  "May I never be able to play the harp again if forget you, Jerusalem!/May I never be able to sing again if I do not remember you,/if I do not think of you as my greatest joy!"

Monday, August 2, 2010

Music and Memory, part 12: First Chinese Presbyterian

Rodak has asked me to post my own pictures of New York on this blog. which I almost never do, since my photos are virtually all of my friends and family.  But as I was going on my rounds during last weekend's trip back, I got lost in Chinatown -- yes, this can happen, even if you've lived in the city your entire life -- and found myself walking past a place which was familiar to me, the First Chinese Presbyterian Church:

Which is hard by the Manhattan Bridge overpass:

What, you may wonder, was my connection with this place?  Well, the First Chinese Presbyterian Church was the site of my first orchestral gig, singing the soprano solos in the Vivaldi Gloria with a pick-up orchestra of conservatory students and a chorus of elderly Chinese ladies.  The alto soloist was a good friend of mine, who's gone on to an important career, though not an especially lucrative or renowned one.  We were conducted by a marvelously gifted South American lesbian, who had won a scholarship to the Tchaikovsky Institute in Moscow as a teen, but had switched her ticket at the last minute and gone AWOL from the conservatory, landing up in New York instead.  Upon disembarking at JFK, she fell in with the Moonies, and lived at their compound for a while, selling flowers on the street, but by the time I worked with her that was all in the distant past.  I have no idea what she's doing now.

I am not making any of this up, and I thought I would take a commemorative photo as I passed by.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 11: Song of Love

A family event brought me back to New York City this weekend, and my schedule permitted me, while on my way to the event, to pop in at my old university for a bit of practice in the music department.  I have a gig in Boston in a few months' time, singing the kind of virtuosic music that my career at one time was based upon, and I am conscious of having to work in specific ways to be able to sing it creditably once again.  While practicing, I recalled how, when my knack for singing florid music was discovered by my teachers and coaches, and I began to exploit it, I thought it would save me somehow.  I might not be the best singer in the world, I thought at the time, but I can do this special thing that many of my peers cannot; and it became not so much a badge of honor in my craft as a musician, as a weapon of assault in my battle to carve out a life for myself as an artist.  When my first marriage ended, and when, not long after, the World Trade Center was attacked, that artistic quest stuttered and stumbled.  I applied to my doctoral program, and after being admitted, took the opportunity to turn away from the virtuosic music that had gained me a small reputation, and towards the music that spoke the most deeply to me, but which I doubted I would ever be hired to perform, music that can best be described as non-virtuosic, even deliberately anti-virtuosic.

My oral exams dictated that I present before a panel of professors on a piece that I had sung in the second of the three recitals required by my program, and I chose Schumann's famous song cycle Frauenliebe und -Leben -- A Woman's Love and Life (I have the recording of that recital, and consider it to be one of my most convincing performances).  Frauenliebe is based on poetry by Adalbert von Chamisso, whose publication of the poems in book form in 1830 caused a small sensation; young women in particular inundated the poet with correspondence, amazed that a man had apparently been able to unlock the language of a woman's heart and express it so faithfully.  The poems Schumann chose for the cycle tell the story of a young woman who falls in love, marries, has a child, and suffers the death of her husband, and his song cycle is truly cyclical, a sort of closed circle like a wedding ring, ending with the same music -- the theme "Seit ich ihn gesehen" -- with which it begins.  One of the many remarkable things about Frauenliebe is that alone among the great German Romantic song cycles of the nineteenth century, it is sung from the point of view of a woman.  While the famous "male" cycles -- for instance, Schubert's Winterreise, Schumann's Liederkreis, and Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen -- all address the issue of striking out into the world, and trying -- and failing -- to negotiate one's way in it, Frauenliebe takes place in inner space, in the interior of both the home and the heart.

When I was a young singer on various singer listservs, there was a good deal of discussion about Frauenliebe.  Some principled sopranos and mezzos (the piece has a low tessitura and, though it can be sung by sopranos, it's more commonly done by mezzos) declared that they would never, ever sing it.  They deemed it rather appallingly sexist:  the woman's first statement is "Since I first laid eyes on him, I seem to be blind"; when the unnamed beloved proposes to her (offstage, as it were), she cannot believe that princely he has chosen lowly her; she sings an ode to her engagement ring, explaining that it has given her a purpose and saved her from a life that would otherwise have been an endless expanse of barren waste.  (Some of these same thoughtful singers also declared Aaron Copland's arrangement of the old American song "I Bought Me a Cat" off-limits, for its last verse, "I bought me a wife, my wife pleased me/I fed my wife under yonder tree," etc. )

When I was preparing my arguments for my final doctoral exams, I did a great deal of research on Frauenliebe, on Schumann, and on his wife Clara (above), the great pianist who was also a composer in her own right.  I found out some interesting things:  for instance, pace the principled women on the singer listservs who eschewed the piece, it was also sung by men in the nineteenth century, notably by the prominent German baritone Julius Stockhausen.  And I came upon a concert program that Clara Schumann had performed with some colleagues after Robert's death, in which she split up the cycle, interspersing its eight songs with other works by her husband.  In my orals, I also addresed what I believed was an undercurrent of Christian mysticism in the piece, and indeed, some commentators have noted both Marian and quietistic themes in the cycle.  I was nine months pregnant at the time, and was busting out of a clingy gray maternity dress that I had never worn before, the kind that looks cute on the internet, but turns out to be somewhat bizarrely fetishistic when you put it on, but by then you're out the door and it's too late, because you have a date with destiny. 

All of this went through my mind in the solitude of the practice room yesterday.  I was delighted to be there, in the bowels of the place where I had spent some of my happiest years, and where I gained one of the deepest feelings of connection -- to my craft and to my life -- that I had ever received.  Nonetheless, it was a bit jarring to be practicing virtuosic music in the place where I had begun to embrace music that was its aesthetic and even its ethical opposite.

Coincidentally, I recently watched the 1947 film "Song of Love," which stars Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann and Paul Henreid as Robert; Robert Walker also appears as the sensitive young Johannes Brahms, secretly in love with the efficient, angelic Clara.  The film fudges the details about the complicated relationships between Robert and Clara, between the Schumanns and Brahms, and between the Schumanns and Liszt, among other things.  However, one of its main themes is the contrast of virtuosity -- in the movie, construed as soulless, empty, morally suspect -- with the deliberate practice of anti-virtuosity espoused by the Schumanns.  There is a wonderful scene in which Clara sets forth her manifesto of pure music before the virtuoso pianist (and relentless womanizer) Franz Liszt while playing her husband's song "Widmung" (Dedication) -- right after Liszt has performed his own bravura variations upon it.  The young man who says, "Such technique, Mr. Liszt; I don't know what to say," is Brahms, also a great pianist -- who in real life fell asleep the first time he heard Liszt play.  It is interesting that Liszt calls Clara "the reigning saint of music," because the mid-century cult of anti-virtuosity, of simplicity in music, was, like much in the Romantic movement, indeed an attempt to find truth, purity, and the essence of the spiritual in art.

Hepburn's piano playing was dubbed by Artur Rubinstein, uncredited.  Here is Rubinstein/Hepburn playing Schumann's beautiful "Träumerei," a piece which both begins and ends the film, as Schumann's "Seit ich ihn gesehen" both begins and ends Frauenliebe und -Leben.  It could serve as the theme song of Romantic anti-virtuosity; "Träumerei" is the most famous piece from Schumanns Kinderszenen -- Scenes from Childhood -- and is a fitting anthem for the ethos of simplicity and purity and the Romantic striving after what is essential and true, but which will always elude us on this earth.
Here is the late, lamented Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing "Seit ich ihn gesehen," no. 1 from Frauenliebe.  It is a marvelous performance, and really captures the ethos of Romantic simplicity.  The text and translation can be found here.