31 May 2011

I Hear America Singing

Juilliard students in Gianni Schicchi, April 2011
Tomer Zvulun’s very funny staging featured
these brilliant costumes by Vita Tzykun.

The musical “season” in New York City ends, more or less officially, with Memorial weekend; parachuting into its final weeks and attending so many performances, I’ve found myself barely able to absorb, much less to write about, what I’ve heard.

“The Americans are always prepared,” Gabriel Bacquier once said to me in an interview. “It’s true! You’re the perfectionists.” Returning to New York at the end of the spring season (musically speaking), I’ve been reminded of Gaby’s words — and reconfirming them. My musical calendar has been chock-a-block full, and I’ve attended performances by artists both established and starting out.

Classy master: Joyce DiDonato as the Composer
Strauss’ Ariadne at the Met, May 2011

The need for thorough preparation can seldom be more apparent than it was (for example) to soprano Ana María Martínez, negotiating the tricky lines of Marvin David Levy’s Passover oratorio, Atonement, in four languages (English, Latin, Greek, and Ladino, a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid). Another Passover oratorio — this one by Paul Dessau, Bertolt Brecht’s third-favorite composer — found baritone David Adam Moore doing something similar in Hebrew, in a score that had never before been performed complete.* Neither oratorio persuaded me completely, but Ana, David, and their colleagues permitted me to give each score a fair hearing — and that’s exactly what we require of singers in such circumstances.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a couple of chances to see even younger American artists in the very midst of their preparation, both in auditions for a major foundation grant and in performance at the Juilliard School. In the interest of discretion, I won’t name the foundation in question, and it’s to be noted that I didn’t hear each and every audition. Still, there was a striking distinction between the first set of singers, those who are still studying; and the second, those who have launched their careers already and are seeking a little extra financial support. (Not to mention the prestige of winning a competition.)

We in the audience couldn’t see the competition jury
and could only imagine what they looked like.

The distinction was surprising, namely that the less experienced singers were more impressive. One friend observed that this was because “they’ve spent less time with bad teachers,” and he may be right. But I’d seen a couple of the more experienced artists in professional productions and found them very good.

It’s hard to say what went wrong, though I suspect part of the problem is the desire to hit judges with everything you’ve got — which appears to be a mistake. Blasting away at your listeners in rep that’s a little bit of a stretch for you is a proposition completely different from getting cast and coached by someone who believes you’re going to be right for a part.

In both segments of the audition process, the singer began with an aria of her choosing, then sang a number requested by the judges. In every case, the second aria was a better fit, vocally and temperamentally. Nerves may have something to do with this, but it’s sometimes true, as well, that singers don’t hear their own voices as clearly. (Any more than anyone else hears herself as others hear her.) Even when I was underwhelmed by a selection or an artist, I was impressed with every young singer’s poise and musicianship, and most of them had clean diction in several languages, too: this, surely, is part of what Gabriel Bacquier was talking about.

Gianni Schicchi at Juilliard, April 2011
Staging by Tomer Zvulun, costumes by Vita Tzykun

On April 27, I attended a double bill of comic operas at Juilliard: Ravel’s L’heure espagnole (which I’d never seen) and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. In a small theater, where voices needn’t strain to be heard, in a production staged by grownup professionals, both of these ensemble works give young artists a chance to put into practice what they’ve been studying, and Schicchi especially gives several of them real opportunities to shine.

As a general rule, I’m a little reluctant to critique student performances: in a learning process, one ought to be able to make mistakes without too many consequences, and everyone onstage earned at least a passing grade from this audience. That said, two of the young singers in Gianni Schicchi impressed me very favorably indeed: Lacey Jo Benter (a formidable Zita) and Alexander Hajek (Schicchi himself) knew exactly what to do when handed two of the juiciest roles in the repertoire, and they’re clearly ready to graduate to major assignments.

I’m even more reluctant to single out young artists who participate in master classes, but the kids who worked with Joyce DiDonato at Juilliard on May 6 provided me with instruction: how it is that Americans get their famous preparation, and what they do with it. In a sense, the class represented the missing piece in the puzzle I’d been working on for a couple of weeks.

For example, in most cases the Juilliard kids were able to grasp almost instantly the points Joyce was trying to make, and they were able to incorporate them immediately. “Can you try it thus-and-such a way?” she’d ask, and by golly, the next time they opened their mouths, they’d do just as she asked. That bespeaks a thorough training, familiarity with one’s instrument, and terrific instincts, as well. It made Joyce’s master class more gratifying than some others I’ve attended: I really felt as if we were getting somewhere.

Juilliard’s Gianni Schicchi:
Benter (standing, center) and Hajek (seated)

It was gratifying, as well, to hear Joyce discuss her own artistic process, the results of which I know so well but the nuts and bolts of which I’d only guessed at over the years I’ve been listening to her. She stressed the need to do a tremendous amount of groundwork — and then, once you’ve got the music and words thoroughly learned, you’re ready to explore, to experiment, to to take risks, to play.

Thus, when you’re ready to perform for an audience, you’re free (a word Joyce used about 8,000 times in the course of two hours) to deliver the color or effect or gesture that (in your now thoroughly prepared opinion) you like best.

Surely one reason it’s so much fun to listen to Joyce is the sense she gives that communicating with us brings her pleasure. Music is a two-way street, and she’s having fun along with us. And that sort of calculus works in reverse, too: if some of the competition auditioners I heard were dreary, was it not because they weren’t having fun? Yes, they’d prepared each aria thoroughly, but toward a specific goal, which unfortunately wasn’t to communicate but was instead to win.**

Cecilia Hall shone as Concepcion in Juilliard’s Heure espagnole.
Staging by Tomer Zvulun, costume by Vita Tzykun

Whereas with Joyce, Ana, David and other singers I admire, I invariably get the sense that, on a profound and personal level, they need to share with us what they’ve learned about a piece of music. If we don’t like it, too bad, but at least we’ll have heard it performed with ease and authority, and the reality is that these people are going to bust if they don’t sing.

As is so often the case when I’m listening to artists in fields other than my own, I find it easy to find the parallels between their work and mine — in fact, it may be easier for me to take lessons from a singer than from a writer. My defenses drop, perhaps, and my admiration isn’t tempered by jealousy. (After all, there’s no way I could do what a trained singer does!) And 20 years after I completed the graduate writing program at Columbia, I wonder whether I ought not to have attended a music conservatory instead. I’d still be a lousy musician, but I’d know more about life.

*NOTE: The claim of a world premiere for the Dessau oratorio was made by the conductor of this performance, Leon Botstein. Since that gentleman is also the president of the college attended by two of my godchildren, I would be disinclined to dispute his claim (even if I were capable of doing so), and along similar lines, I applaud his conducting with avid enthusiasm that will endure unabated at least until the kids graduate from Bard. Indisputably, however, David Adam Moore’s performance in the oratorio represented his Carnegie Hall debut, and I was greatly pleased to witness such a landmark occasion.

**In a story I wrote for Opera News, back when I barely knew him, Darren Woods warned me about the dangers of singing for the wrong reasons in an audition. A singer has to be herself and to sing for herself, he said; she should set short-term personal goals and not try to impress other people. It may sound counter-intuitive, but by golly, I see the proof all the time.


Joyce DiDonato said...

LOVE reading your take on all of this. (was it really 8,000 times? I thought surely I hit 10K!!!)

Alexander Hajek said...

Thank you for the kind words.