Saturday, November 6, 2010

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Brothers George and Ira Gershwin

A song recital probably doesn’t sound like a way to have a good time on a Saturday night, but I think they get a bad rap. It was after completing my four required recitals for my bachelor's and master's degrees that I first tried to interweave stand-up comedy into a classical music recital. It wasn’t quite a success, but only because I hadn’t developed the confidence, stagecraft and comedic timing that I have now. Still, the singing was pretty good.
I don’t suppose recitals are supposed to be fun or even funny - generally, it seems to be an atmosphere where laughter should be stifled, lest the performers think you are laughing at them and not with them (see this fantastic skit from the Carol Burnett show below).
Really, all one is required to do in a recital is stand up and sing songs (“one” being the singer, not the audience. The audience is required to sit there, be quiet and listen with astonishment). The songs are usually performed in sets -- a German one, an Italian one, a French one, Baroque, Modern, Romantic, and so forth. It is custom not to applaud between numbers, especially if the composer has deemed them a “song cycle,” just like in between movements of a symphony. This gives everyone the opportunity to shift uncomfortably in their chair, or cough. Kind of like going to the bathroom before you go on a trip - you don’t really have to go, but if you don’t go now, you know you’re going to have to stop and go later. So, phlegm ball or no, I usually find myself coughing between songs in a cycle. Can’t help myself.
There are probably many singers out there who stop giving recitals as soon as they’re no longer academically required to do so. No costumes, no lights, no drama -- what’s the point? Au contraire! I find songs (German Lied, French Chansons, English Art Songs, whatever) to be precious little masterpieces in and of themselves. And in planning my most recent recital - A Night of Gershwin Songs, or as ze Germans are calling it, Gershwinabend - I hope to successfully impart this admiration to my audience.
It has been an all-consuming process. It’s quite different than what I’ve done before, which has been not much more than learn the music. This time, I’m in control of everything - content, programs, song order, interpretation, etc. Here’s a  glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes before a song recital:
First I had to start thinking about why I was giving this recital.
What? What do you mean why? It’s a recital, you sing songs, then everybody goes home feeling a little more elite than they did before. With that attitude, I can see why the general perception people have of recitals is thinking they are boring. In fact, recitals can be very entertaining opportunities to hear exquisitely beautiful music in a very intimate atmosphere. Non-collegiate recitals usually have a theme or an occasion - Songs of Spring, Songs of Walt Whitman, Sturm und Drang, Songs about Cats, what have you.
My recital is a part of a Chanson series, in which there have already been Georg Kreisler and Kurt Weill evenings. On account of my being American, I felt especially qualified to give a Gershwin Song recital. These men (George and his brother Ira) redefined the genre in such a way that I thought it might be useful to talk about what a “song” is in the first place, and what makes theirs so special. So, after choosing most of the repertoire, I began to organize the program in an order to convey my simple message, and that is: song is made up of Text, Melody and Rhythm.
That’s it? Well, I know it doesn’t sound that interesting NOW, but I can’t divulge all my information here, lest you not be surprised at the recital itself.
Often when we go to recitals, there is a program with notes and information about the composer, about the songs’ origins, about the performers, etc. I’ll have a list of the song titles, but this time I won’t write program notes. This is where my confidence, stagecraft and comedic timing comes in -- I venture to tell the audience everything you might otherwise read in the program from up on the stage. In such a cozy setting as the song recital, it seems a shame for people to have their noses buried in notes, squinting to read them in the dimly lit room. 
Aside from providing the audience with a cohesive, coherent, diversified, entertaining hour and a half, I’ve also done my best to assure that there’s an audience to be entertained. Through the magic world of facebook, I’ve been able to advertise the recital to hundreds of people. 
I spent today making different types of flyers - some for handing out to my neighbors, or hanging up in the libraries and the music stores, or leaving at my favorite cafes. I also put a link on my website and made a .pdf file to send out in an eMail to people who, heaven forbid, are not on facebook.
All the while, I’ve been learning my music. Unlike a Debussy Chanson or a Schubert Lied, a Gershwin song is much more open to interpretation - like shape notes, or baroque ornamentation may have been - just listen to the many renditions by stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and even Sting. Now it’s time for intensive rehearsals with my pianist partner (that’s what one of my voice teachers so rightly called an accompanist).
Me and Petra Woisetschläger
These are not the most highbrow pieces ever performed on a recital, but the genius of Gershwin deserves as much musical prowess as one might need to perform Puccini, Händel or Stravinsky. Knowing this, I chose an accompanist who is skilled in both classical and jazz music. In fact, she’s a professor of improvisation, and she has a successful duo with her bass-playing husband. Because of her busy schedule, she has given me full license to make musical decisions regarding stylistic interpretation, in other words, tell her what to do. Are you kidding me? This is seriously like having a genie in a bottle. It’s like asking Jamie Oliver to make me a sandwich. I can rest assured it’s going to be tasty. Having her fulfill my dreams of playing “The Man I Love” like it’s a French impressionistic Prelude - sublime.
Being somewhat of a control freak, I haven’t exactly minded taking complete control of everything that the audience will experience next Saturday night (well, okay, I won’t be providing the drinks or the lights...). But before you start planning a song recital, this is my advice:
You have to know what you’re getting into, and also what you want to get out of it. “Nice work if you can get it - and you can get it if you try!”

A Night of Gershwin Songs: Christine Graham, Petra Woisetschläger
November 13, 2010, 8pm Die Fabrik Frankfurt

(This isn't the first time I've written about the Gershwin brothers. See "Maybe Tuesday Will Be My Good News Day" relating the life and music of Gershwin to the last U.S. presidential election from January 2009!)

Postscript: The recital was a big success! Here's a glimpse of the evening via our Demo Video. If you're in Germany and would like to book this recital, please contact me!


  1. Love this post, Christie. Piano partner indeed. You can sink or soar with who is at the keyboard.

    I'm pretty much limited to choral music these days, and have also been thinking that for the most part "not clapping" between songs, unless there is no pause, is almost passe. Everyone coughs like you said, ruining whatever musical moment is caused by the silence, the ones that clap are made to feel like idiots by the superior snobs that know better and shush them. If they liked it, let them clap. In some music, it's almost unavoidable, most recently with Rutter's Gloria. Try not clapping after that 1st movement. Maybe that's just us rednecks in Texas.

    My solo recital days are LONG behind me, but I feel privileged to have had you involved in the 1 that I was required to give, even though you upstaged me, you diva! :)

    Have a great show. I hope you can post some of the songs so that we can see it here in the states. How about a Rogers & Hart night, maybe not next, but down the line. I think you'd be terrific at interpreting some of those songs.


  2. Ah, you lovely woman.

    My collaborative pianist and I have set up a series of many lecture recitals over the past two years. They always do have a theme, yes, but they also keep me so honest about learning music and being real with the text. Nothing like singing poetry to make one think about things.

    I hope you post some of your recital. Up next for me, "The History of the Opera Aria". Oh! ShOOt! That is really, friggin' hard to sing 8 arias in a row! Yipes! Alas...too late now.

    Then...Español! Woot!

    Love ya, girlie!