Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Repertoire - Woodland Sketches by Edward MacDowell

As my long time readers know, I am planning a solo recital for the fall season.  It has been very nice to choose music of interest to me personally without having to bend to the demands of academia.  I was settled on very little of the program in the early stages.  The only thing that I knew was that I wanted to highlight American music in the second half since it is my favorite school of music.

While exploring the works of Copland and Barber, I encountered lots of familiar works, but nothing that felt right for the program.  I didn't want anything overly dramatic.  I wasn't looking for nationalistic music -- I've had my fill of patriotic music recently -- so I wasn't sure where I was headed.

After working through some of the rags and some small works by Ives, I recalled a couple of charming pieces from my early years of study:  "To a Wild Rose" and "From Uncle Remus."  Both short pieces by Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) are part of his larger work, Woodland Sketches, Op. 51.  As I began to read the score, I expected to find simplistic ditties that would be of little interest;  thankfully I lay aside my preconceived notions and discovered a wonderful example of American music.

Composed in 1896 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Woodland Sketches is MacDowell's most famous composition. Peterborough, which later become the MacDowell Colony, was the site of the composer's family farm and was known for its peacefully serene woodland setting.  The 10 miniature pieces of Woodland Sketches seem to take their inspiration from the natural beauty of the area.

While an example of early American music, the piano suite shows more influence of the French and German schools than of the American composers who were active at the same time.  With luscious harmonic structures, the simple melodies are lovingly supported, transporting the listener to the beauty of the forest.  MacDowell was not a musical lightweight, however; technical demands are made upon the soloist in several of the pieces, most notably "Will o' the Wisp" and "In Autumn." 

Perhaps the closing paragraph of the Schirmer edition's introduction to the work provides the best synopsis of Woodland Sketches' place in history.
A bygone era, gracious and sensitive, has been captured and retained in a series of poetic miniatures, and its piquant perfection of feeling is the result of its clearly defined circumspection.  MacDowell employs a limited harmonic range and a simple melodic line, but his originality and quiet virility has given us not a precious bouquet pressed in an album, but a suite of musical water colors, delectable and tensile, a work not of spurious sentimentality but of genuine sentiment. (Woodland Sketches, Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics, Vol. 1805)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Performance Injuries

For the past few days, I have been following a very lively discussion on performance injuries (specific attention is given to repetitive motion injuries) on the blog of one of my colleagues, Gretchen Saathoff.  Having recovered from her own repetitive motion injury, Gretchen and her readers have raised some interesting points that are thoughtful and informative, representing multiple (and I might add, well-informed) perspectives.  Rather than summarizing the discussion, I encourage you to read the blog "Do You Need an Arm Massager?" and the published comments regarding this important topic. 

While the discussion is approached from a pianist's slant, it offers insight that is applicable to other instruments as well as those who type for extended periods of time. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

Timeless Musicals

My nieces are visiting me this weekend. The girls, ages 10 and 11, are both musically inclined. While living with me last summer, they both began studying the piano. Since that time, they have left the instrument behind and pursued other endeavors. Kristian, the oldest, plays the trumpet while Sara, her sister, is a budding vocalist with quite a nice sound.

After a busy day of activity, we sat down to watch some television last evening. Kristian browsed the many music DVDs that are on top of the entertainment center that I use in my music appreciation class. One movie caught her eye, however; she and Sara wanted to watch Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.

I must admit that I was flabbergasted at the request. In my mind, I expected that they merely wanted to hear a couple of the more famous numbers and would quickly lose interest. To my surprise (and great pleasure), the girls quickly became enthralled in the plot and found themselves humming along with the memorable melodies.

I began to ponder the appeal of musical theater. When we first look at the form, it doesn't sound like something that should really work. How often do we find ourselves in conversation and then suddenly break into song? If you do break into song, people tend to look at you as though you are INSANE rather than as though they are falling in love with you! Even more rare is for the other person to enter into the conversation by joining you in a second verse of the song.

I think there are a few reasons that the American musical works and continues to be a thriving art form. First, the characters and themes are universal. Whether the story is set in Oklahoma, Siam, or a French barricade, we all understand what it is like to be in love, misunderstood, and unsure of ourselves. We can identify with Annie's longing to be a part of a family or Oliver's search for unconditional love.

Second, music can express emotions more effectively than words alone. The example that is currently on my mind is from The Sound of Music. The lyrics of "Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good" are beautiful alone; once they are paired with a simple, yet passionate melody, however, they take on a life of their own and clearly express the growing love between Maria and Captain von Trapp. Need a few more examples? Think about "Memory" from Cats, Les Miserables' "Bring Him Home", and "He Had It Coming" from Chicago for more examples of emotionally explicit music.

Finally, the musical's power is found in its ability to transport us into the story in a way that movies cannot. While the musical uses the same ingredients as the modern movie -- specifically plot, scenery, and score -- the musical magically draws the audience deep into the action and makes them an active observer in the powerful drama. While I can't explain the "why" behind the phenomenon, I know it occurs based upon my personal experience. It is this quality that makes the American musical attractive to young and old alike, as demonstrated last night in my home.

I have had the joy of watching a classic movie musical with Kristian and Sara. Last summer, they had their first experience with a live show: the national touring production of Wicked. I think it's time to have a return visit to the theater with these girls and see if I can insure that they are bitten by the musical theater bug....it's an adventure that I hope they will continue to enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Beyond the Page

Notes, rhythms, dynamics, phrase markings, tempi......all of these are clearly communicated to the performer on the page. Even when impeccable attention is given to the many details of the score, no two accomplished musicians will present the same piece in an identical manner. This truth speaks to the importance of the musical aspects which are not on the page -- those extra-musical ideas that we bring to the stage.

The importance of the unprinted musicality was made painfully obvious to my own ear recently. I am in the process of recording two CDs and have received an initial version of the Christmas album for preliminary review. As I prepared to listen, I was rather apprehensive because I recalled my emotional and physical state on that Thursday afternoon. My mind was filled with a laundry list of things that had to be completed in the closing days of the summer semester and my body was beginning to drag as a result of the many recent demands of church, home, and work. As I listened to the recording, my concerns were obviously justified; the playing was accurate for the most part, but it was flat, lifeless, and -- well, let's just cut to the chase -- quite BORING! This wasn't an issue associated with the recording technician or the quality of the instrument. The problem was that I was not in a place to communicate musically on the day of the recording.

Many musicians play their instruments with great technical facility and amaze us with their virtuoso displays. For me, such performances are thrilling in the moment, but their power is short-lived. I would rather listen to an interpretation that speaks to me at the deepest level -- one that expresses the unique ideas of the recitalist. In a perfect world, we never have to choose between artistry and technique. Sadly, I'm only human and sometimes find myself having to choose between technique and musicality-- we all do from time to time if we're willing to admit it. Without fail, I choose artistry. I choose to communicate with my audience through the music's voice rather than play merely the notes on the page. Without communication, my performance is nothing more than a metronomic regurgitation of the notes on the page that is no different from that of any second-rate pianist.

Needless to say, I'm arranging a date for another recording session. To get ready for this round of studio time, I am continuing to review notes and fix problematic passages, but more importantly, I am taking the time to rest so I am emotionally and spiritually prepared to musically communicate those messages that are most important to me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reflections on Recording

Last week, I spent an afternoon at the piano in the sanctuary of my church to record two CDs. I have been through the process a few years ago, but this time it involved a different setting and a different production team. Here are a few things that I have learned about myself, recording, and music.

First, I am a huge critic of myself. Regardless of whether we are talking about my writing, playing, relationships, or leadership skills, I can always see where things could be improved drastically. On one hand, this is a great asset because I am constantly pushing myself to new levels of excellence in everything I do. On the other hand, my perfectionism can be crippling -- never allowing me to accept that anything is good enough. I cannot count the tasks that I have left undone because I couldn't execute them in the manner in which I wanted.

The recording session reminded me of the importance of practice. For various reasons, the repertoire selection process for these CDs was delayed a bit longer than I would have liked. This resulted in learning some of the passages rather quickly and figuring out how to navigate them musically. While the performances might be acceptable in a public performance, it drives me CRAZY to hear the errors----er, shortcuts---repeatedly on the recording.

I'm not going to continue blogging an evaluation of my playing right now. I have to do some more critical listening to the CDs and don't want to become overcritical of myself at this juncture. Once the entire process is complete, I will probably write a bit more about it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Marketing Yourself

After the many years of school to prepare for a career in the field of music, I have recently been confronted with a necessary responsibility for which my classes and hours in the practice rooms did not prepare me. In order to have a successful career as an independent musician, I must have a marketing plan in place. I have been blessed recently by two friends who are excellent marketers who have freely given of their time, talent, and insight. By no means do I want to suggest that I am now an authority on the subject. On the contrary, I know that I am student in personal marketing; my hope is that I can share a little of what I am learning to help others like me begin thinking about their marketing plan.

In my mind, marketing is basically equated with branding your name. My goal is that whenever someone is looking for a pianist, teacher, coach, or author, that my name will come to mind. In order to have people make that connection, I have to get my name highly visible and keep my name before my target audience.

Many piano teachers would begin the process with running an ad in the classified section of the local newspaper. I've been there and done that -- with very little success. After a 5 week run of a rather sizable ad for piano lessons at the beginning of the fall, I received 9 calls. Of those calls, 3 resulted in students. To put it bluntly, newspaper advertisements alone simply do not work. There must be more.

The current source of information in our society is the Internet. As daunting a task as it may be, a credible musician must have a web presence that is both informative and attractive. My website at the moment is a work-in-progress and should be ready for public consumption in the coming weeks. Did I build it myself? No way.....I'm not that technologically savvy. Website designers are readily available in most areas and can build a functional site for you at a fairly reasonable cost. (Or you can hope to be lucky like me and have a friend volunteer to build it.)

An additional Internet marketing prospect that I never considered is the social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. By setting up a Facebook fan page, I now have a central location (in addition to the coming website) to inform people of my performances, alert them to exciting news and connect with other musicians from around the country. I was intimidated by the fan page design at first and relied heavily on my Internet-marketing acquaintance, Michael. I must admit that as I work with the page more and more, Facebook has made the nuts and bolts of it all fairly user-friendly. I think most people can get a basic page going without too much difficulty.

Based upon the recommendation of a dear college friend, I began blogging. My first foray into the blogosphere was personal in nature. We quickly realized that writing was something I enjoyed and that I was fairly good at it. As conversations moved into my professional life, it became clear that I could also have a lot to say about music and its many avenues. That's when Collaborations was born. By simply writing quality posts on a regular basis, I am creating another web presence for myself and establishing myself as an authority in the field of music. With some slight edits and development, many of the blog posts I have already written have been submitted for publication -- yet another branch of the marketing plan.

Lastly, I'm working to make myself more visually recognizable in my community. Posters, programs, flyers, and newspaper reviews now all feature the same headshot in order to provide continuity to my marketing plan. Charitable donations of piano lessons and private performances are being made to arts organizations for upcoming auction fundraisers. I'm finding every opportunity to be an active participant in the arts scene of the community -- that means I'm attending shows and concerts of all types, volunteering in children's theater companies, and providing free lectures for parents on the benefits of arts education in the the lives of their children.

My marketing plan is definitely evolving and growing daily. It takes a serious commitment to keep everything going, but I'm certain that I'll begin to see the fruits of the labor sooner rather than later.

What is the one tool in your marketing plan that is unique to you? How has it been effective?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Musicals Galore

My life of late has been filled with watching musicals. Last week, I reviewed a new video production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! I was considering showing this new production featuring Hugh Jackman to my music appreciation class. Instead, I opted to stay with the tried and true and showed Sondheim's Into the Woods. On Saturday evening, I headed over to Playhouse on the Square in Memphis to see their production of Hairspray. By the end of the week, you might have caught me humming "Agony" right after a rousing chorus of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning."

I began to think about my fondness for the American musical and tried to understand why they have such a firm grip on my heart. As a child, I had very little knowledge of musicals -- or of theater at all, for that matter. My first experience with the theater was with a community production of Carousel in 1988. I was cast as a member of the chorus, but quickly moved into the role of rehearsal pianist. As a teenager of 16, I had no idea that the score was rather difficult; I just knew that I had found an exciting role that allowed me to be a crucial part of every scene. That was how the musical theater bug first bit me.

I would continue to work with this community theater throughout my high school and undergraduate years. What I was considering a summer pasttime turned out to be a valuable investment in my future. During those summer vacations, I became familiar with the scores to Gypsy, The Sound of Music, The Pajama Game, Oliver!, and Camelot. Every fall semester at Pepperdine University brought a full scale musical. These gave me opportunities to play the scores to Oklahoma!, The Fantasticks, She Loves Me, and Into the Woods. The Fantasticks became my first performing job as I played the show for three different companies in the Los Angeles area in the following years. Finally, a new door opened to me -- musical director of the Santa Monica Civic Light Opera's production of My Fair Lady. Even though I was underprepared for the position, the lessons I learned on the podium were invaluable and have not been forgotten.

Perhaps my love for musical theater is associated with my familiarity with it. I think there is something more at work though. When I am involved with a musical production -- whether as part of the directorial team or as support staff -- I am intimately involved with the development of the show and have an opportunity to influence the audience's experience. Few things are as powerful to a musician than aiding an audience in exploring a character's emotional journey through song.

I suppose that explains my love for the theater better than anything else. I relish the rush that comes from adding music to powerful lyrics and setting the imagination free to explore new realms of human experience and emotion.

How about you? How did your relationship with musical theater begin? Feel free to share the gist of your story in the comment section below.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Selecting the Christmas Musical

It's July, so that means it's time to begin the search for this year's Christmas musical for the church job. It is insanely early to begin thinking about Frosty and the gang, but I have learned from experience that a selection needs to be made by the end of August in order to keep stress levels to a minimum. With the selections that I have seen in the catalogs this year, I am not expecting great things and anticipate that the selection process will be more difficult than in years past.

What makes a good Christmas musical? The answer to that question can be as varied as the noses on all the music directors in the world! Since this is MY blog, I'll give you my ideas of what I'm looking for. Some of these will hopefully be common to most of us; the other ideas will at least get you thinking. So, in no particular order, here are my considerations for finding the perfect Christmas musical for kids.

1. Theologically sound. I do believe this is the most important issue in selecting any type of music for your children's program. While most of the musicals we will review appear to be rather basic in their presentation of Biblical truths, a thoughtful examination of the script and lyrics will normally reveal some theological stances in the background. It is important to make sure that these positions are in agreement with the statement of beliefs of your local congregation. For instance, if a musical builds on the assumption of eternal security and your congregation does not take this stance on salvation, this is probably not the selection for you. I make it a practice to have a team of teachers review the finalists in the selection process to make sure everything is sound before I make a final choice.

2. Casting requirements. This seems like an obvious consideration, but I cannot tell you the number of times that I have heard from music directors that they started rehearsals for a program only to find out that they didn't have enough participants to bring it to stage. If you have worked with the kids for any length of time, you have a good idea of whether a kid will "definitely" participate or whether you should classify him as a "maybe" or a "no way." I generally don't pre-cast my shows (selecting people for roles before all the commitments are made), but I do come up with a possible -- and realistic -- cast list based upon who participated in my last show. This doesn't mean that you won't run into trouble with casting (a fact that was obvious with the last musical I did), but it can help to rule out some shows simply on the basis that you can't cast it. I don't want to waste my time looking at a musical for 30 kids when I can only be assured of a cast of 15.

3. Musically interesting. The music needs to be interesting to me as well as to the children. If I'm bored with the show -- even on the first hearing -- I'll have problems during the creative process and the final production will be flat and unexciting. Similarly, if the kids don't find the music energizing, you are going to have a difficult time getting them to stick with you for the long haul of preparing the production.

4. Unit Set. A musical that changes scenes is a logistical nightmare unless you have a committed crew of stage hands. Even if you have the bodies who are willing to do this job, but have no experience with it, I still recommend moving to the next show! You will have enough on your hands preparing the children during production week; you don't want the added stress of trying to train stage hands on the intricate choreography of making scene transitions work smoothly. Look for musicals that use a single setting for the entire story. The best scenarios are those that are in "generic" spaces -- a choir room, gym, classroom -- since your stage can easily be decorated to suggest these places without having to bring in a lot of props.

There is an exception to the preference for unit sets. If a scene change can be suggested by bringing in a couple of small set pieces and changes to the lighting, I would be willing to do it. When in doubt, let your motto for set design always be K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, Stupid!) In the end, you'll be glad that you did!

5. Applicable to modern society. While there are some wonderful musicals from the past that I greatly enjoyed as a child, many of them simply will not translate to today's kids. The music sounds dated, the topics are archaic, and they don't address issues in a kid's life. While we are looking to produce good theater, as a church director our first priority is (or at least SHOULD be) ministry to kids. If the story and the message aren't going to speak to kids, then it's not a show on which we need to invest our ministry time; leave that production for the Community Youth Theater down the road.

6. FUN! Even though this is the last thing on my list, it's importance is very high on the list. If the show is not FUN, kids aren't going to get excited about it and you'll spend the majority of your time trying to pump up the kids rather than working on making the show the best it can be.

There are some ways that you can increase the fun level for any show. Movement is an obvious choice. Start small and simple, but be ready to let it all out. My kids LOVE to dance while singing.....and it keeps the show's energy HIGH the whole way through. Don't forget about bringing in props or costumes that will make the kids laugh as well. The most important key to a FUN show, however, is YOU! Your advance preparation is crucial so you are confident and relaxed in the rehearsal process, allowing you to smile and play with the kids when things are getting tough for them.

This list is not intended to be all-inclusive. The fact of the matter is that my requirements will change depending upon the congregation with which I'm working. As you prayerfully review the options, you'll find the show that is right for you.

*If you are looking for a Christmas show, make sure you don't miss this budget helper! Lifeway Stores have an offer of 5 preview paks for $25. You'll want to take a look at the choral catalog in the store and find the full page ad before making your selections. Sadly, the offer is limited to titles that are on the shelves and doesn't apply to all the paks. My experience yesterday was that the associates were unaware of the offer, so take the choral catalog with you to the register; once you show it to them, they are happy to help.

Let the holidays begin!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Christmas in July

Silent Night.....Joy to the World......Carol of the Bells.....These are just a few of the pieces that are on my practice list at the moment. I find it so ironic that I'm playing Winter Wonderland in shorts with the air conditioning set at a cool 72. Why you may ask? Next week, I head into the recording studio to begin work on a Christmas CD.

Honestly, since I only play these arrangements for such a short period of time each year, I tend to forget that there are actually some tricky passages in the arrangements. It's surprisingly nice to have the luxury to actually work out some of the fingerings and rhythms that I just glossed over last Christmas.

As though that wasn't enough, it's also time to begin listening to Christmas musicals for the church and begin making selections about what we'll be doing this year. Rehearsals will start in October for the children, so I need to get a selection made this month in order to have two months of planning with my production team prior to rehearsals. I'm beginning to wonder how many different arrangements of Away in a Manger there can be for children's choir; sadly, I'm not running into very many of them that I actually like!

I'm ready to put up the tree and hang the garland as all this Christmas music is getting me in the mood for the holiday season. If only the summer weather would cooperate! Anyone want to join me for some egg nog and Christmas cookies?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Recital Planning

Since summer tends to be a period of less performance opportunities for me, I have traditionally used this season as a time to plan recital programs for the upcoming season. Currently, I am selecting repertoire for a solo recital to be performed this fall in the Memphis area. This will be my first solo recital in nearly 6 years, but I am looking forward to it. As I was thinking through possible repertoire, I began to consider the various methods of building a program that I have used over the years as well as those that have been intriguing to me in their possibilities.

The standard method of putting together a classical recital is to present material in chronological order, making sure that each historical period is represented. This academic approach has a definite advantage. Since compositional techniques became more complex throughout the ages, such a method creates a diverse program that will keep the audience's attention. On the flip side, however, the recital can feel like an academic exercise in its rigidity. Additionally, performing works from every historical period on a single program can create difficult transitions and extremely differing technical requirements for the pianist.

Another common approach to planning a recital is the thematic approach. These recitals often come with catchy titles that put the audience at ease and make the performance a bit more accessible by a general audience. Some titles that I have performed or that I am currently developing with chamber ensembles include "Bodacious Bombshells" (works by female composers whose last names begin with the letter B); "Mixed Up Composers" (compositions that SHOULD have been written for the flute); and "It's Howdy Doody Time" (pieces for the child in all of us). Such programs can become very annoying if planned in close proximity to one another. My experience has been that many of these recitals require lots of research to find the music and often result in the selection of inferior repertoire that fits the prescribed parameters. While I DO enjoy thematic recitals, I recommend planning these over time in order to find the best repertoire rather than trying to force music to fit the theme.

The final two methods are similar to each other and ones that I have not yet used personally. The first is the common approach of presenting an entire program composed by a single composer. The difficulties arise from two contrasting scenarios -- either there is simply too much music to choose from or there's not enough. The other (and the one that I find most interesting) is based upon a single date. How interesting it would be to prepare a concert of works that were all published in the year 1901 (the one I'm currently exploring). This method allows for the continuity of period, but opens lots of variety by traveling around the world musically. I chose this year because of my love for Ravel's Jeux d'eau. Currently, I am examining works published in that year in the United States, England, and Germany. As my search continues, I'll expand to other countries.

How about you? What's your favorite method for planning a recital? Is there an approach you always thought would be interesting to try, but never had the opportunity? I'd love to hear about it!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Understanding Classical Music - Program Music

The development and impact of program music in the Romantic period is actually quite interesting. Program music is instrumental music (generally orchestral in nature) that tells a story and has a strong literary connection. Let's take a closer look at some of the specific forms of program music and the music's development during the 19th century.

Incidental music is music that was to be inserted between the acts of a play originally. The most famous example of incidental music is Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Its connection to Shakespeare's play of the same title is evident. At this early stage of program music, the composition was inseparable from the influencing literature as both the musical work and the literary work were performed together.

Moving ahead historically, we come to the works of Franz Liszt. Liszt brings the tone poem and the symphonic poem. The tone poem is a single-movement orchestral work that has a literary connection and tells a story; the symphonic poem is essentially the same thing except that it has multiple movements. Some of Liszt's tone poems include Don Quixote and Don Juan. It is interesting to note that Liszt's program pieces are no longer performed in conjunction with their inspirations. The assumption is that the audience is familiar with the story of these great works of literature.

The symphonic poem is extremely similar to the program symphony. The differences are so particular that we will consider them as the same thing for the purpose of this introductory discussion. The most famous example of a program symphony - and probably of program music period - is Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. This monumental composition is interesting for two reasons. First, Berlioz produces his own literary inspiration for this work. The writing is the result of his opium-induced dreams and his infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson. Since the audience will not be familiar with Berlioz's storyline, program notes are provided at each performance and serve as an explanation of the piece.

The second important aspect of the Symphonie Fantastique is the development of the idee fixe. This recurring musical theme will assist in developing the composition's story and will later serve as the impetus for Wagner's development of the leitmotif and its use in his musik drama, The Ring of the Neibelung.

Finally, our journey takes us to Czechoslovakia and the music of Bedrich Smetana. Smetana's symphonic poem Ma Vlast includes the world-renown composition The Moldau. Inspired by the geography of the Czech countryside, The Moldau is program music in variation. While no single literary work is alluded to as Smetana's inspiration, much of the native folklore is set on the river's banks. Smetana's composition allows program music to include inspiration from natural settings in addition to literary works.

Understanding Classical Music - Romantic Opera

When examining opera of the Romantic era, three giants immediately come to mind: Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. By examining each composer's melodic structures, literary sources, compositional techniques employed, and their philosophies on both music and society, one will begin to observe similarities and differences between each.

Verdi's melodies are marked by their long, flowing lines. It is clear that the Italian composer is more interested in the musical structure of his works than the poetic structure of his libretti. Verdi does not shy away from scandalous topics. During the 1850's, his operas address topics such as kidnapping, prostitution, and venereal diseases. Because of his taboo topics in addition to his political statements, Verdi had difficulty with the Italian censors throughout his career. The operatic master was in constant awe of the writings of William Shakespeare; Verdi would base three of his operas on Shakespeare's plays - MacBeth, Otello, and Falstaff - while drafting scenes for a setting of Hamlet throughout his career.

A strong nationalist, Verdi repeatedly expressed his belief that the government should have little involvement in the daily lives of its citizenry. The chorus of the Israelite captives from Verdi's early work, Nabucco, became a song of the Italian patriots and the cry in the streets became Viva VERDI! On a personal level, Verdi felt as though the strongest relationship a person had was with the family. Many of Verdi's strongest operas showcase strong father-daughter relationships, probably as a result of the loss of his young daughter early in his career.

Puccini continues the Italian opera tradition begun by Verdi. In contrast to Verdi, Puccini recognizes the beautiful musicality of the Italian language, resulting in his speech-inspired melodic lines. In an effort to be more realistic and true to actual conversations, Puccini's vocal lines are generally short and more conversational in style. Another effect of his efforts to be realistic - a movement known as verismo - Puccini focuses on historically accurate fiction for his libretti.

Although an Italian, Puccini was forever an exoticist; he was greatly interested in all things foreign. Many of his operas were set outside of the Italian countryside, in such exotic locations as Japan, the American west, and the bustling city of Paris. In order to be true to his verismo tendencies, Puccini traveled extensively in order to research the physical settings of his operas and their native sounds. Philosophically, Puccini believed that the arts could address pertinent issues in the lives of their patrons by dealing with modern issues in modern situations for a modern audience.

Richard Wagner was the most disparate of the three Romantic opera composers. Like his contemporary Verdi, Wagner was a nationalistic composer. His melodies are not tuneful or easy to sing; this can be largely attributed to his use of the leitmotif in his compositions. The leitmotif is a compositional technique that is closely akin to the concept of the idee fixe introduced by Berlioz earlier in the Symphonie Fantastique. The leitmotif served as a musical representation of a person, place, item, or concept throughout the duration of the opera. The technique was most effectively used in Wagner's masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung.

While many of Wagner's musikdrammas were based upon Nordic mythology, the literature we most commonly associate with the German composer is his anti-Semitic tract entitled "Judaism and Music." In this document, Wagner basically states that all the problems found in music are a result of the influence of the Jews.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Balance Issues

Last night, the 3-D Trio presented our Patriotic program at Buntyn Presbyterian Church. The recital went well for the most part and everyone seemed to have enjoyed the music. The only frustration on the part of the performers were all related to issues of balance.

Buntyn is a beautiful facility with high ceilings and lots of exposed wood. The acoustics are wonderful. There is one major problem for me though: the piano (a 5'4" baby grand) is not located on the stage, but sits on the floor at the front of the congregation. My colleagues opt to stand on the stage above me while I'm on the floor. I understand the desire to utilize the stage as is, but also know that the arrangement is making balance issues extremely difficult.

In order to allow the flute to take full advantage of the piano's resonance, we always play with the lid on short stick (at least). In an effort to lessen the overpowering tendencies of the piano in this arrangement, we have turned the piano around so the sound is shooting upstage; the result is that there is a nice balance in the performing area, but that the sound is bouncing off the back wall and giving the audience a double dose of piano! Our dilemma was further compounded last night by the selection of repertoire that was not in an optimum range for our soprano, requiring that she use a microphone for the entire recital. Throw in a lot of piccolo (an instrument that I HATE trying to accompany because of the inherent balance issues) and you are beginning to understand my frustrations.

The obvious solution to my mind is to use a traditional standing arrangement. However, if my colleagues are not willing to make this concession, what options do you see other than playing the entire program una corda? This space is baffling to me at the moment. I'll try to post a video in the near future from this space so you can see and hear the issues.

What have been your worst arrangement issues that caused you balance issues? How did you combat it? Once I come up with a solution for this performance space that we will continue to use (since it is free and readily available to our ensemble upon request), I'll let you know what we're doing and how it's working for us.

Now I'm going to try to catch up on some rest and reading.....my arms and shoulders are killing me at the moment!


Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Power of Words

While reading through the blogs I follow this morning, I came across this wonderful article by Valerie Kampmeier entitled "Talking to Your Students." It's has been a great reminder to me at the beginning of an extremely busy down how powerful my words can be. Not only will they shape the attitudes of my students, but the words I speak will also effect my experience throughout the day. Take a few minutes to read Valerie's post and think about the words you say....you may find yourself realizing that you need to change a few!