Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tonight's the Night!

OK, yes.  I have been neglecting my poor little blog.  I promise that will change!

It's a good feeling to begin the day of a performance feeling comfortable with all of the music.  Tyson Deaton and I have spent this week putting everything together and merging our interpretations.  There have been arguments (as there almost always surely will be) and we have had to call the composer of one of the pieces to mediate.  But, everything has been settled now, we're on the same page and I feel like it's going to be a very good program.

One little note to my audience tonight.  The first half of this program is very heavy, dramatic, and maybe a little long.  It deals with war and death.  I just want you to know that the second half is lighter, more hopeful and much shorter.  If you make it through the first half, you're home free!

So, come on out and enjoy an evening of great poetry, good music and two good musicians (if I do say so myself)!!

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Brand New Song

I just love the smell of new music on the computer.

Today I received the finished score of "To a Stranger," a piece I commissioned from composer David T. Little.  The commission was made possible by a very generous grant from the Walt Whitman Project (Greg Trupiano, Artistic Director) in Brooklyn, and pianist Tyson Deaton.  It's a unique piece that, I think, captures the meaning of this poem.

The piece came with an interesting note from its composer saying,
In an odd way, this song is as much a stranger to me as the characters it discusses are to
each other. That is, I can’t say that it is recognizably my music, to the same extent that
another piece of mine would be. Still, as I was writing, I had a strange feeling that we
knew each other—this piece and I. That I knew what was to come next, though I didn’t
always know why; that the piece and I knew each other’s secrets, though it still felt slightly
foreign. Though this is nothing like I had ever experienced before, I suppose it’s fitting,
given Whitman’s words.
When I spoke with David this afternoon in a little Lincoln Center cafe in New York, we discussed how the piece captures a "subway moment" of one person seeing another and in an instant the thoughts expressed in the poem shoot through their head.  I'll talk about this more when I discuss the poem in a few days, but that moment was very much on Little's mind while he composed.  I think the music captures the formation of those thoughts and I can't wait to dive into it when I return to Knoxville.

It's a rare treat to begin work on a piece of music days after its completion.  I look forward to continuing the collaboration with David, Tyson and Carol!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Text Discussion #12: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd - Memories of President Lincoln

William Neidlinger only sets the first verse of "Lilacs" in his song "Memories of Lincoln."  Rather than wade through all sixteen verses here, I am only going to discuss the verse Neidlinger set.  Some great criticism of the whole poem can be found here, and the whole text can be found here.

Lilacs at sunset in Ft. Tryon Park, New York.
Photo from berk2804 on flikr.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in
          the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilacs blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

A Change in Personnel

A quick little update regarding personnel for one of the performances.  Due to an unforeseen conflict, Carol Zinavage will not be able to perform with me on October 14.  Because of scheduling conflicts with the hall, among other requirements, I was not able to reschedule for a date where we were both free.  So, Tyson Deaton will now play this performance.  Carol will still prepare the program with me and remains a vital part of the team I've assembled for these performances.

A HUGE thank you goes out to Andy Wentzel and the faculty at UT for being flexible with me on this issue!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The First Rehearsal

I mentioned earlier that today was the first rehearsal for the recital with piano.  Well, it happened, and it was good!  It went much better than I had expected.  Those expectations aren't knock against the fantastic Carol Zinavage, I mean it to say that with repertoire like this, one never knows what putting the pieces together is going to be like.

Fortunately, we were both prepared and got through the Rorem, Richard Pearson Thomas AND the Urqhart sets in about an hour and a half.  If you're familiar with the Rorem pieces, you know they are very difficult individually for both the pianist and the singer.  Putting the two parts together is even more difficult due to the way they are sometimes set against each other and the close harmonies that result.  The Thomas pieces are even more problematic with the thick textures and complex rhythms and harmonies.

With "new" music, it's always interesting to go into a first rehearsal like this.  Usually there are few recordings available, if any, or those that are available are not good resources because (speaking generally) one performer is not prepared, the recording used an older edition of the score, or the quality of the recording is so that you can't really get anything from it.  So, you're going in a little blind, which isn't always a bad thing.

With that, I'm happy to provide a positive update and say that I'm very happy with today.  Being much further ahead of where you thought you were is always a pleasant surprise!!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Composer Spotlight - Gerald Busby

Gerald Busby is an absolutely delightful person, if you ever get the chance to meet him.  That opportunity came to me sort of by accident.  After I had decided what I was going to program on this Whitman recital, I had to get the music.  Most of it was available through the invaluable Glendower Jones at Classical Vocal Reprints.  However, Gerald's piece, "Behold this Swarthy Face," was not, and Glendower did not know whom I should contact to get it.  So, I put out an inquiry on Facebook to see if anyone knew how to get in touch with Gerald.  Nothing.  I searched online.  The material available didn't have any contact info that I could use.  He did have a Facebook page, but it didn't look as if he used it much, and I wasn't even sure if it was really him or not.  After exhausting the options I figured I had, I decided to email Thomas Hampson.  It was his album, after all, that introduced me to the work, so I guessed that he might be able to give me some guidance.  I found an email address for his NYC office and fired off a message, expecting to wait several days for a response since he was just a little busy with an international superstar career.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Musings on Preparation

I've spent the past month making the initial preparations of the music for this recital and have reached the point where I'm ready to start putting things together with a pianist. In fact, I'll have my first rehearsal with the wonderful Carol Zinavage on August 5.  We'll have about seven weeks (probably 7-14 hours) to put everything together before I have to travel out of town for another engagement.  When I return, we'll have four days (probably 2 hours) before the performance to brush up the work of August and September.  That might not sound like a lot of time, but in this business where operas can be rehearsed and performed in the span of two weeks, it's plenty.  (To highlight the luxury of time, I will have even less time with my other pianist, Tyson Deaton.  We will probably have 4-6 hours of rehearsal together before we give our first performance in February.  Because of that, we've been in constant communication on the music, discussing what we've learned from our solo practicing.  I'll have the advantage of having already performed the music when we have our first rehearsal, which will lighten the burden of our rehearsals.)

With that, I thought I would take a moment and share some thoughts on preparation and the music so far.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Text Discussion #11: Reconciliation - Drum Taps


Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, 
          and ever again, this soil'd world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin--I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Concert Dates Announced

Here are the dates for the Whitman recitals.  I'm very excited about these concerts and am looking forward to the prospect of adding a couple more to this schedule.

All but one date will feature the entire program.  Due to time constraints, the concert in Pembroke, NC will have a shortened program.  Those details will be available closer to the performance.  Carol Zinavage will play the concert in Knoxville and Tyson Deaton will play the other dates.

October 14, 2010: Knoxville, TN
February 17, 2011: Hartsville, SC
March 2, 2011: Pembroke, NC

See this page for more information!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Text Discussion #10: Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night - Drum Taps

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night
(word in italics indicates cuts by Richard Pearson Thomas)

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses,
          (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade--not a tear, not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward was your death,
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
And there and then bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade, swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Text Discussion #9: Dirge for Two Veterans - Drum Taps

Dirge for Two Veterans

          The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
          Down a new-made double grave.

          Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
          Immense and silent moon.

          I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they're flooding,
          As with voices and with tears.

          I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
          Strikes me through and through.

          For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
          And the double grave awaits them.)

          Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,
          And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

          In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,
('Tis some mother's large transparent face,
          In heaven brighter growing.)

          O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you sooth me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
          What I have I also give you.

          The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
          My heart gives you love.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Quick Comment on Comments

It looks like there is steady readership building (albeit a small one, but we're new!), and now that we're talking about poetry, I'd like to invite you to comment on my interpretations, your interpretation, or whatever in the comment section.  One of the reasons I started this blog was to tap into other people's readings of these poems.  Honestly, those other interpretations can inform my interpretation.  Plus, I really enjoy the back and forth that can happen when two or three informed decisions come together.

So, if you disagree with me, don't be afraid to say long as it's in a civil tone.  I don't mind listening to other points of view, and if I don't agree with you, I'll respectfully tell you why as we discuss our differing opinions.


Text Discussion #8: A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim - Drum Taps

A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim

A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on the stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step--and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third--a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you--I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Text Discussion #7: Beat! Beat! Drums! - Drum Taps

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!--Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows--through doors--burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet--no happiness must he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain;
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums--so shrill you bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums!--Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities--over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers' bargains by day--no brokers or speculators--Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier--you bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums!--Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley--stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid--mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's entreaties;
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump, O terrible drums--so loud you bugles blow.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Text Discussion #6: O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy - Drum Taps

I want to explain for a moment how these poetry discussions will take shape.  I will first publish the whole poem (with two exceptions I will note as they come up in the rotation).  Like the earlier posts, I'll italicize the words the composer chose to set if they did not set the whole poem.  Following the poem I'll lay out my interpretation based on these points:
  • What I thought the poem was about
  • How I interpret Whitman's use of various words and tone
  • Discussion of any symbolism I see, if any
These are all very subjective points and I'm sure others will have different opinions.  That is one reason why I'm writing this blog.  I want to hear those other opinions, and if I think they are better than mine, I'd be willing to examine them further.  I'm also going to try to approach these texts separate from the music.  Sometimes that will be easy as I haven't begun musical work on all of the pieces yet.  Sometimes that will be difficult because the composer's interpretation is already ingrained.  When I discuss the song itself, that is when I will put the two interpretations, mine and the composer's, side by side to see where they are alike, where they are different, and how those differences can be reconciled.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Text Discussion #5: The Real War Will Never Get in the Books - Specimen Days

This will be a lengthy entry because the entry in Specimen Days is long and Rorem set the first and the last words, then cut heavily in the middle.  So, as I've done in the previous posts, and because the context is important, I'll publish the whole entry and italicize the words Rorem set.

Making the Cut

Putting this program together has sometimes been a little difficult (as I outlined an earlier post, my original idea for a layout failed).  My next task was to put the poems and songs I had chosen into an order where they told a story or where there was some semblance of one poem leading to the next.  The sets where the composer had already made that choice for me was easy, although I'm still wondering if the Rorem is a good place to start.  My decision there is more musical than textual, but I haven't quite decided for sure.  What has happened in the first half is that I've tried to take a journey though the different scenes of the war beginning Whitman's prose and mostly first hand accounts, followed by his poetry that is mostly a re-telling of experiences had by the soldiers.  After that, I move to the assassination of Lincoln with a song that incorporates two poems Whitman wrote for that historical moment and one of the "Drum Taps" poems that the composer uses for a different purpose, a poetic funeral march for the dead President.  I'll talk more about that when it comes up in the series on musical discussions.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Text Discussion #4: Inauguration Ball - Specimen Days

Ned Rorem sets most of this entry.  After hearing some feedback saying that the strikethrough was difficult to read, I'm going to italicize the words Rorem set while publishing the whole entry here.

Inauguration Ball

March 6.--I have been up to look at the dance and supper-rooms, for the inauguration ball at the Patent office; and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they presented to my view a while since, fill'd with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredricksbugh.  To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz; then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother's son amid strangers, passing away untended there, (for the crowd of the badly hurt was great, and much for nurse to do, and much for surgeon.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Text Discussion #3: An Incident - Specimen Days

"An Incident" is part of a larger entry in Specimen Days titled "Hospital Scenes.--Incidents." This larger entry contains two accounts or observations from the hospital (Carver hospital) and two tellings of happenings on the battlefield after the fighting that day had finished.  The writing in all of these accounts is very straightforward and blunt, as we will find in a moment.  These other smaller entries don't have any bearing on the text Rorem chose to set, so I will simply point you to where you can read them, if you are interested.

An Incident

In one of the fights before Atlanta, a rebel soldier, of large size, evidently a young man, was mortally wounded top of the head, so that the brains partially exuded.  He lived three days, lying on his back on the spot where he first dropt.  He dug with his heel in the ground during that time a hole big enough to put in a couple of ordinary knapsacks.  He just lay there in the open air, and with little intermission kept his heel going night and day.  Some of our soldiers then moved him to a house, but he died in a few minutes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Text Discussion #2: Specimen Case - Specimen Days

"Specimen Case" is from an excerpt of "Some Specimen Cases" where Whitman writes about several wounded soldiers he is visiting.  During 1863 Whitman served as a visitor to the wounded, both Confederate and Union, in the hospitals around Washington.  I'll talk more about this later in a series of posts on Whitman's biography.  For the purposes of this discussion, I think it is enough to say that Whitman was devoted to what he saw as his duty and his contribution to the war effort.  Even though he was a strong pro-Union man and abolitionist, this devotion went beyond that.  His caring for soldiers from the South and the North prove this.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Composer Spotlight: David T. Little

One of the benefits of doing this program has turned out to be the number of living composers featured.  Of the eleven composers whose works I'm performing, five are still living.  To my colleagues in the musical theater world, that might not sound like a big deal.  It is, however, a big deal in the classical singing world since a great majority of our time is spent singing music by composers long since dead.  Throughout this year, I'll be posting about these composers, my conversations with them (if I've had one), and their music.

As I said in an earlier post, when I began researching this recital I knew that I wanted to commission a work for the program.  Whitman is the most frequently set American poet, so one would think that there was plenty of material to choose from.  There is a lot of material, however, I felt like this program in particular afforded me the opportunity to add to that collection by commissioning my own song.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Text Discussion #1: A Night Battle - Specimen Days

For these text discussions, I plan to go in program order, at least as it stands at the time of writing.  The first set on the program is Ned Rorem's War Scenes, which is a set of five songs drawn from Whitman's Specimen Days.  This work of prose was put together from snippets of Whitman's diaries.  He compiled these writings at the request of "an insisting friend" who wished to know more about the poet's life and his encounters.
You ask for items, details of my early life...You say you want to get at these details mainly as the go-befores and embryons of "Leaves of Grass."  Very good; you shall have at least some specimens of them all.
Rorem's songs come from Whitman's extensive writings about the Civil War, particularly the years 1863/'64.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Themes and Variations

I hate themed recitals.  To me, the singer is saying that he doesn't feel like the music can stand on its own.  Now, a lot of people don't agree with me, and honestly, that's okay.  Differences like that keep our business vibrant.  After reading that, you might look at the title of this blog and think, "Well, gee, this is a blog about a themed recital."  True, to a point.  It was a challenge I thought a lot about, however, the poetry won out in the end.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I've made a couple attempts at blogging, but this is the first time I'm doing it on a personal level. In October, I will perform a recital made of song settings of the poetry of Walt Whitman. I wanted to start this blog to chronicle the process of putting the recital together. I thought this being Whitman's birthday week, it was the perfect time to launch this blog and begin my public journey with this music and poetry.

I call this "The Year of Whitman" because it is a year from now that I hope to give the final presentation of this recital in New York as part of the celebration of the poet's birth. While that is still up in the air, I'm keeping it as a goal and my fingers crossed!

Obviously with a performance set for October, I have already decided on the songs that will appear on the program. One of the first posts I'll put up here will take you through my thoughts as I decided on the set-up of the program and which poems I would feature. Following that I hope to start with a discussion of the poetry, taking one poem a day and talking about my thoughts on the interpretation of the poem. Once I have worked through these poems, I'll approach the music and look at how my interpretation of the poem works with the composer's and how I'll look at resolving any differences. Throughout these discussions, I'll talk about other happenings related to the recital: venues, rehearsals, program adjustments, and other bumps and little victories along the way.

My hope is that this blog will serve as an outlet for me to get my thoughts out in the open while at the same time allowing a discussion of those thoughts with whomever wishes to offer a constructive piece of advice...if anyone actually reads along! Ultimately, I hope it will serve to promote some great American music and American poetry.