A candid glimpse behind the mask

Don’t know if this is still in the Wikipedia bio page, but it is revealing:

“This man has a very large ego and has hurt the feelings of a choral singer I know. He can be insensitive. Please proceed with caution. This is the ‘kind version’ of what I actually want to say. Thank you.”

Well, the subject did survive seven years as an assistant to a stellar conductor who, according to what I’ve heard from insiders, bordered on sadistic, despite the heavenly perfection of performances under his baton or the public mask of his celebrity.

As I’ve heard said of surgeons, they tend to adopt the operating room mannerisms of their mentors, however tyrannical, outrageous, or circumspect.

Two people I know who have worked under the entry’s subject have only admirable things to say about him.

For now, I’d like to know more about the anonymous person who posted the entry and why. Perhaps as a cautionary tale for all of us in our leadership roles.

 

Here’s wishing you all could be there

Stephen Sanfilippo is both a wonderful folk musician and a professional historian, two strands that weave together delightfully in his performances and recordings of maritime songs.

He’s a master of the sea chantey repertoire as well as many other seafaring tunes and lyrics – many of which, as he’ll explain, traveled far and wide into the American hinterlands but not back. He does prefer the spelling “chantey” and “chantey man,” for reasons I’ll leave to him to explain. And there are plenty of opportunities to sing along.

Here’s an invitation to his free appearance on Wednesday, January 25, at 6 pm at the Pembroke, Maine, public library, itself an appropriate venue. (I do love the stuffed birds displayed behind him.) The event will be followed by a series of more monthly concerts. Yay!

From his previous appearances here, I can acclaim this is one more facet of what makes living Way Downeast Maine so special to me.

I never expected so much Donizetti

I’ve posted previously on the outstanding and often original finals’ week programming on Harvard’s student-run FM radio station. Each December and May, the regular schedule shifts to a few weeks of special blocks of classical, jazz, rock, folk, world, and many other strands of music I hadn’t even heard of for something the station has trademarked as Orgy, as in “Donizetti Orgy,” which I’ll explain. For accuracy, we should note that final exams really cover closer to two weeks or a tad more.

One year, for instance, they played everything Bob Dylan had recorded. A few years later, a much shorter sequence introduced many of us to Florence Price, a significant Black American woman composer who has since been receiving a posthumous flowering. The decisions are often based on anniversaries, as happened a few years ago when we got to hear everything Beethoven had ever written, in chronological order. Musically speaking, of course. I have no idea about his letters. A year ago, Schubert got the same treatment, meaning a lot of art songs in German, especially. That one nearly became an Orgy of its own for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose son once told classmates what his dad did for a living was make records. Let’s just say that many of these Orgies are highly eclectic.

I did raise my eyebrows in the last round when well over a hundred hours of airtime were devoted to the 225th anniversary of the birth of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, known largely for a dozen or so marvelously florid operas. Turns out he created nearly 70 operas plus symphonies, string quartets, concertos, piano scores, songs, and so on, which were presented, again chronologically, in big blocks over two weeks. Where do the programmers dig up all of the recordings? Is this really some Harvard grad student’s thesis project?

Donizetti (1797-1848) is renowned, along with Rossini and Bellini, for a specialized style of opera called bel canto, “beautiful singing,” which has had a major revival in the past half-century. Today its embellishments, soaring lines, and vocal athletics have become widely embraced, but back when I was first listening, it was all revolutionary. And, among the three, Donizetti was far and away the most prolific.

What made the series significant to me was the way it revealed an evolution over his 29-year career from formulaic provincial stage comedies to what we recognize as Romantic opera. It filled in a gap in operatic history for me, getting from us classical Mozart to gripping dramatic Verdi and beyond. Composing at fever pitch, Donizetti often churned out four new operas a year, many of them in one-act pieces plus others that recycled earlier material before he reached a more sustainable stride. Think of a rock band or pop artist turning out an album, which is only an hour or so compared to a three-hour opera. Or a movie composer, for that matter, who has to create a similar amount of music. Nobody does four a year, right?

In the broadcasts, Donizetti’s early works sounded serviceable but not memorable. They were built on strings of solo arias, choruses, and recitative, which I streamed while working on my own life. That would mean one character in the spotlight, exit stage, and then another. Laundry, cooking, vacuuming, or washing dishes anyone? You know, everyday stuff, with music in the background. Midway into the series and his career, though, the dramatic level rose immensely and caught me in my tracks, especially with the appearance of ensembles of simultaneous conflicting emotions and motivations. Yes, there were hints of things ahead, like the flash connecting one faintly familiar tenor aria with what would emerge later, with nine high C pings inserted as “Ah! Mes mis,” and eventually launch Luciano Pavarotti into international household fame in 1972. (We did hear him in that role around 6 am the final day, when “La Fille du Regiment” aired from a recording of London’s Covent Garden production with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge costarring.)

Quite simply, those were the flashes when I recognized we had crossed over into everything today’s operagoer anticipates, even with Mozart, Gluck, and Handel remaining glorious within their earlier realms.

Many of the Orgies really are once-in-a-lifetime events. With Donizetti, for example, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever again hear most of what was introduced. Simply tracking down rare pieces would be an overwhelming challenge.

Let’s see what May brings. Those kids at WHRB really do deliver.

Three contradance highlights

All of them regard waltzing, rather than the facing lines that give New England contradances their name.

I should mention that there’s something special about waltzes, which usually come just before the break after the first hour or so and definitely at the conclusion of the evening. In fact, one girlfriend would always grill me about my waltz partners on those nights she decided instead to stay home.

The first memory here involves a dance at the town hall in Bowdoinham, Maine, always special in my experience, especially those when the band centered on three families of musicians.

At the break, as I was conversing with a lovely potential dance partner, I noticed that a young fiddler, maybe six years old, was still on stage and teaching an even younger fiddler some music. It was enough for me to say, “Hey, it’s a waltz, let’s dance,” and we did, soon joined by others. I looked up and saw the amazement in her eyes. You know – If we play, they will dance – as an epiphany.

~*~

Years later, elsewhere, I was telling that story to a fantastic young dancer as we waltzed.

Her eyes lit up.

“So you’re the one!”

~*~

And then, at a Bob McQuillan retrospective honoring the rerelease on CD of an earlier LP, the partner I had for the waltz was named Amelia.

Coincidentally, the same as my step-grandmother, fondly recalled.

And the waltz was titled “Amelia’s Waltz,” composed by Bob for the daughter of a beloved band member.

The same one, it turned out, circling with me and ever so light on her feet.

~*~

I’m getting teary as I relate all this, but there you have it.

Not a bad way to spend a dark Saturday afternoon

This has the makings of a fine Saturday afternoon tradition through gloomy winter around here. Not that it won’t work on a sparkling day, either.

Moose Island Contradance Band. Photo by Rachel A. Williams.

The local contradance band has another monthly performance at the Old Sow grill coming up, and the previous one, as you can see, was a hoot.

It attracted a handful of sit-in musicians in addition to an appreciative audience that packed the house.

Plus, monthly dances at the arts center are set to resume at the end of January after a long Covid hiatus.

Reflections from the stage of the Quoddy Voices concert

Singing in front of an audience is a relatively new experience for me, one arising in my retirement years, mostly through Boston Revels’ top-caliber community chorus and related events.

What I can say is that from the stage, each performance has been thrilling and transcendental, even when not necessarily perfect. Most remarkable is the oneness we sense as a company making melody and harmony.

Before the Covid restrictions and my relocating to Downeast Maine, I was commuting from New Hampshire to Boston as a baritone in the Revels Singers, first under George Emlen and then Megan Henderson. The ensemble ranged from 40 or so to maybe 80 members, depending on the season. Its classical and world folk repertoire was drawn largely from the shows the organization had produced in its more than a half century, with music in nearly 30 languages and spanning a good millennium of history. Many of the arrangements, editions, and original compositions were by our conductors or others affiliated with Revels.

~*~

These days I’m with a much smaller group, Quoddy Voices, which is also led by a fine conductor, pianist, and composer, John Newell, and I’ll proclaim that its standards and abilities are just as high.

We just concluded the second pair of programs with me as a member, and once again I must admit moments of listening to the others in amazement and then wondering how on earth I ever managed to be included. Yes, it’s humbling and challenging.

Technically, we’re a chamber choir – for the concert, 20 singers. Among other things, it means any slipups are more exposed.

(Photo by Jessica J. Williams)

Our program, a Harvest of Song, put us ahead of Thanksgiving and the crowded holiday schedule at the arts center. That meant a shortened rehearsal schedule, but online practice scores of our parts definitely made a difference.

Compared to Revels Singers, our repertoire engages more in works other choirs are also exploring, which led us to three pieces by Florence Price, the first Black American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. She’s finally being widely discovered, nearly 70 years after her death. From our point of view, her writing is deft, with touches of jazz and flashes of difficulty. The bass line in one score movingly upheld the axiom of less is more.

From living composers we had two widely performed works by Englishman John Rutter, who is admired for pieces that fit the voice like a latex body suit; Californian Frank Ticheli’s masterpiece, “Earth Song”; a lively Calypso in 5-4 time by the now 95-year-old Harry Belafonte; and a haunting 35-year-old Dan Forrest’s setting of a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem.

From old masters we had a deeply reverential motet from Romantic-era Anton Bruckner and sections of Baroque brilliance from Henry Purcell’s 1692 “Ode to Saint Cecilia’s Day,” which foreshadows Handel and his Messiah but with sides of pagan homage, as English poets of the time were wont to do.

We concluded with Randall Thompson’s classic 1940 “Alleluia,” drenched in sadness, as the composer admitted, but becoming quite polyphonic and agitated before introducing a single second word at the end, a seven-part, two-note amen.

While all of these works are widely known in choral circles, all but the Thompson were new to me. I had heard the Thompson only in a broadcast just a year ago and earlier from an old buddy who raved about singing it with his chorus.

Our audiences, as usual, were attentive and enthusiastic.

~*~

So now some of us are scheduled to do some informal caroling before Christmas.

And then, come February, we get to see what our director has in store for us next.