Monday, January 26, 2015

Shenson Recital at Stanford: Part 1, Back to the Books

After the recital with Robert Huw Morgan at U.W., 1996
Back in November 2010, when I had the pleasure of singing Gershwin songs with the incomparable Petra Woisetschläger at Die Fabrik in Frankfurt, I wrote a bit about the process of planning and performing recitals. Since then I’ve only sung one other recital, an ambitious concert of songs by American Women Composers for the Archive Frau und Musik, also in Frankfurt, with pianist Sara Okamoto. Now, thanks to the recommendation of my college crony, Robert Huw Morgan, who collaborated with me for two splendidly challenging recitals at the University of Washington, I have another rare occasion to take on the difficult but rewarding task of creating a program for the Shenson Recital Series at Stanford University this April.

For our second recital in Seattle, Robert and I featured the first half of Poèmes pour Mi by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a nine-song cycle divided into two “books” that the composer wrote for his first wife in 1936.  Inspired by our previous collaboration, we decided it would be appropriate for our reunion (after 19 years!) to pick up where we left off and present the second half of the cycle.

Great. So one set was chosen. I now had to come up with ideas for the remaining three-quarters of an hour of music. This was a daunting prospect -- for a long time you feel like you’re staring at a blank page. Then, when you’re up to your elbows in stacks of music from the library, the sorting out of material is just as formidable a task as coming up with the ideas in the first place. The other recitals that I’ve sung provided me with a framework -- degree requirements, Gershwin, American Women Composers. That really narrowed things down. But for Stanford, I’d been given free rein in choosing the repertoire. So, now all I had to do was sift through 400 years worth of vocal literature and see what caught my eye. Easy peasy.
I proceeded to whittle down the stacks of music by examining a few factors - what’s the venue, who is my audience, and what can I give them that perhaps another singer cannot?

In the Gershwin program, I felt a certain sense of authority to present these songs as an American in Germany. Given that the concert was part of a chanson series, and coupled with a talented improvisational pianist, we could add our “mustard” to it unlike anyone else in the whole neighborhood (in fact, I don’t even think we could perform it the same way twice). For the recital of American Women Composers, I was able to introduce works of women I knew personally, and sing in my own language to boot.

As an American giving a recital in America, however, both of those party tricks wouldn’t impress anybody. And even though I’ve been living and working in Germany for almost two decades, the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms und Co. are nothing new to the average American student of singing. Nor do I consider myself much of an expert on the Romantic era, even though I share a birthday with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28th - mark your calendar!).

In recent years, I have gained a reputation (and honed an ability) as a singer of “Modern” music. The beginning of the 20th century was a fantastic time for art, when composers broke free from established norms and created their own systems (e.g. Schönberg’s 12-tone music) or ignored the rules completely -- and they have been doing it ever since. This brought my thoughts back to Messiaen and his Seven Modes of Limited Transposition (thanks, graduate school!). Just a few years after he composed Poèmes pour Mi, Messiaen was drafted into the French army, then captured and imprisoned in Görlitz. From there he composed his famous Quatour pour le fin de temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Prompted by his biography which ties him to Germany, albeit in an unpleasant manner, I decided to search for music relevant to World War II, exploring the time frames shortly before, during and shortly after.

So I hoofed it back to the library to start researching. Although the Frankfurt Public Library has a lot to offer, nothing can beat the stacks of  the  University of Washington School of Music Library, where I spent hours at the big wooden table in the alcove, overlooking the collegiate gothic quad strewn with cherry trees, blossoming in the Spring.

Since we performed our last recital 19 years ago, I’m about 19 pounds heavier (maybe more), and Robert’s beard is about 19 inches longer (maybe less). I couldn’t be happier to begin this highly underestimated venture of planning and performing a song recital, for which I am now approximately 19 times more qualified than I was then.

Tune in next time to see what else we have chosen for the program!

Next up -- Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963): Lamento

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