Unexpected side benefits of the Apple Watch

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I’ve got a new health benefit from the Apple Watch to tout: it deflects canine teeth.

Our old neighbor hosted a garden party on Saturday, and one of the guests brought their dog, a rescue who is devoted to the family. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enjoying the chaos (eight kids, almost all under the age of 10) and was a bit jumpy. I thought it was trying to sniff me, so I put a hand out, and next thing you know it was trying to bite me. Not a play bite either.

I retrieved my now-tattered sleeve from its jaw, talked to the owner to make sure the dog had its vaccinations, and cleaned up. When I looked at my arm, I realized I had gotten lucky; the “milanese loop” band of my watch had slightly deformed under the pressure of the dog’s teeth. If not for the watch, I would have been far worse off than the slight scrape I got.

Apple Watch: like chainmail for your wrist.

Memorial Hall, Harvard University

Memorial Hall, Harvard University, September 11, 2016
Memorial Hall, Harvard University, September 11, 2016

It was an unusual treat to spend so much time in Memorial Hall and Sanders Theater this week. The high Gothic style of the building and the sombreness of the memorial hall proper was a good preparation for the work we were there to sing.

I posted an album of my favorite photos of Memorial Hall to Flickr.

Review roundup: Rossini Stabat Mater, Verdi Aida

The TFC lines up at the back entrance to the Shed prior to Aida.
The TFC lines up at the back entrance to the Shed prior to Aida.

Coming back from Tanglewood is always challenging, and doubly so after a weekend like the one we had August 19 and 20. As I told a co-worker, it feels weird to walk into our office and not hear the magnificent Aida trumpets heralding our approach.

I go back out tomorrow for a Prelude concert (music set to the words of Shakespeare, mostly by British composers) and the Beethoven 9. Before I lose the music in my head, here are a few reviews that came in.

Rossini Stabat Mater with Charles Dutoit: I had never sung this piece before, and surprisingly the BSO had never played it at Tanglewood, and had only played it twice before, in 1974 and 2010. It turns out to be a fairly monumental work that blends sacred and operatic choral traditions, with some seriously intense solo writing (the tenor’s high note in the second movement comes to mind) along with choral writing that runs the gamut from amazingly delicate pianissimi to operatic descending lines. The fifth and ninth movements, sung a cappella, might have been my favorites.

Boston Classical Review (Lawrence Budmen): Dutoit, BSO serve up a Rossini rarity along with a heartening solo appearance at Tanglewood. “Under guest choral director James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus brought gleaming vocal sonority and subtly terraced dynamics to their a capella voicings of the ‘Eeia, mater’ and the lamentations in ‘Quando corpus morietur.’ Dutoit skillfully blended both chorus and vocal soloists with the orchestra’s highly charged playing.”

Boston Musical Intelligencer (James Prichard): Stabat Mattered at Tanglewood. “The choral work that opens the masterpiece (Stabat mater dolorosa) immediately established the high standard that was to prevail throughout the performance. Prepared by guest chorus director James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus once again displayed the smooth voice blending and comfortable control over a wide dynamic range that Boston audiences came to expect from them during the long tenure of founding director John Oliver.”

Verdi, Aida (Acts I and II) with Andris Nelsons: This was an astonishing piece even in performance of only half the opera, with a huge chorus and orchestra supplemented by offstage banda and, of course, the Aida trumpets. We were with a stellar crew of soloists including the stentorian Morris Robinson and Met soprano Kristine Opolais, who happens to be conductor Andris Nelsons’ wife. (The performance featured a total of 17 married couples among the soloists, orchestra and chorus, a fact which did not go unremarked-upon.)

Boston Classical Review (Lawrence Budmen): Uneven singing but thrilling moments in Verdi’s “Aida” at Tanglewood. “For the second night in a row (following a strong showing in Rossini’s Stabat Mater), the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was a tower of strength. The sumptuous sound of the female voices was particularly outstanding in a splendidly coordinated ensemble under guest choral director James Burton.”

Albany Times-Union (Joseph Dalton): A marriage of mighty forces for ‘Aida.’ “…as can often happen in a concert performance of opera, the inner workings of the score, especially the orchestration, were revealed as fresh wonders. Examples were the use of harps with the chorus, and an extended passage of dancing and swaying lines that started in the flutes and expanded into the entire woodwind section.”

Boston Globe (Jeremy Eichler): At Tanglewood, an ‘Aida’ both intimate and grand. “Bethany Worrell, a TFC member, did the chorus proud in her solo turn. Overall the TFC, this time prepared by James Burton, sang with a nuance and confidence that lifted its work notably above the level of other recent outings.”

Berkshire Eagle (Andrew Pincus): With Nelsons’ return, BSO goes adventuring. “The chorus, prepared by James Burton, was a consistent presence as troubled citizens of Memphis.”

Boston Musical Intelligencer (James Prichard): Celeste Nelsons, Opolais, Verdi, BSO, et alia. “Special mention is due soprano Bethany Worrell, a TFC member whose ethereal tone as the High Priestess enriched the texture of the production beyond the few measures of music in which we heard it.”

Summertime rolls

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It’s entering the busy season of my summer, though in reality the whole summer feels both jam-packed and oddly relaxed. Last week: mid-year team offsite. This week: mid-year sales training. Next week: hacker summer camp.

Then there are rehearsals. In late August there’s Rossini, and Aida, and a Prelude concert and Beethoven’s 9th. So of course we’re in high rehearsal mode. I think I’ll have had over 18 hours of rehearsal in the last couple weeks of July by the time all is done.

But right now all I can think about is how much fun it was taking my kids around the Museum of Science on Sunday and watching the Tesla coils make music with The Girl. Turns out that you can translate AC frequencies directly into musical tones.

“Eighty-One”

KGB at the Lilypad in Inman Square, June 1, 2016

KGB at the Lilypad in Inman Square, June 1, 2016

I met some work colleagues at Bukowski’s in Inman Square last night. Generally when I’ve been there in the past it’s been to go to Hell Night, which is a pretty all-consuming experience in itself. Last night I was able to soak in a little more of the ambience.

Like Lilypad, a jazz club that’s only about half a block away from Bukowski’s. As I walked by last night to go to the bar, there was a pretty hot sounding quartet going (Tetraptych, if their calendar is right), but by the time we got back to the club KGB was playing. This trio (Ethan K. on guitars, Patrick Gaulin on drums, Rich Greenblatt on vibes) was sounding pretty good, playing a variety of originals, some standards (a Gershwin tune floated past at one point) and some post-bop stuff.

The last tune was “Eighty-One,” the Ron Carter/Miles Davis standard that he premiered on E.S.P. Here Ethan K. played the melodic line as Greenblatt provided chordal backup, with Gaulin providing elliptical drums underneath. I loved it, but the interpretation was a little different than what I think of as the core of the song, and it got me thinking about what that means.

In the original recording, by the second great Miles quintet on their first album, the essence of the song is the strong central bassline centered on the relationship between F (the tonic) and B-flat and providing rhythmic drive, while the horns play the melody complete with the leap up the octave and into a moment of silence, followed by sustained chords. The same players, with Wallace Roney filling in for Miles on the 1991 A Tribute to Miles, begins with a minute of free playing by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter before going to the melody, and plays up the pause dramatically, with everyone but Carter and Tony Williams dropping out for a whole measure before the tune continues. I’ve heard some live Herbie recordings that do the same trick, with different players spotlighted in the gap, including his V.S.O.P. quintet live recordings from the 1970s. I’ve come to love this interpretation.

Last night, the gap wasn’t there–each player drove ahead into the space, letting the groove take them. It was a great version, but I missed that pause. It clues you in to listen to what’s happening underneath—the groove, the drive, the breakneck craziness at drums and bass that was Carter and Tony Williams at their best.

Odds and ends blogging

Reentering after a week-plus of travel and family time is a little challenging, but I’m managing it. This morning was, of course, errandsville: getting shoes fixed, getting a tire ordered for the car, voting.

It strikes me as unlikely that the profession of cobbler still exists, given the increasingly disposable nature of shoes. But I’m glad it does; I’d much rather spend tens of dollars to fix a pair than $200 to replace them. The cobbler in Arlington, around the corner from my son’s old preschool, works in a cluttered shop on a cash only basis but does phenomenal work. I don’t know who’ll take his place when he’s gone

And voting: my son will enter kindergarten in the fall, in (redistricting willing) an extremely crowded elementary school. So it’s time for our town to deal with Proposition 2 1/2. Fortunately, our town seems pretty rational about the whole thing, recognizing that the high quality of the schools is what makes our homes worth something. So I’ll pay a little more for the privilege of sending my son to one of the finest public school systems in the country. Seems like a fair trade.

Slouching toward spring

  
It’s April 4, the day on which we remember the passing of Martin Luther King, Jr. So of course it’s snowing. 

This has been a weird winter—very little precipitation, freezing days and 70° days. And now that spring is (calendrically) here, the weather is determined to make up for it. It snowed four inches before noon yesterday, then the sun came out and melted most of it. Now it’s snowing again, hard, and will for most of the day. 

I’m having a hard time getting in the mood for spring. Even the thought of going to Charlottesville in a little over three weeks to celebrate the Glee Club’s 145th doesn’t cheer me up. Well, much. I need this snow to be done. 

Happy first day of spring

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After a warmish winter, it seems only appropriate that we got about five inches of snow on the first day of spring. We are hardy souls, though, and have already dug out and sent the kids to school (albeit two hours late).

There are other signs of spring, too, like the imminent arrival of the orchestra rehearsals for this week’s performance of the Kancheli “Dixi” with the Boston Symphony. More to come…

An appreciation of John Oliver

Boston Globe: Tanglewood chorus director Oliver to step down.

I auditioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus almost ten years ago. In that audition, I showed my lack of symphony and opera experience by singing a work by Landini — a good audition piece for an early music ensemble, woefully out of place for a symphony chorus. But John Oliver took a risk on what he heard and invited me to join the chorus. And he let me continue to participate through travel, at least one blown reaudition, and the appearance in the chorus of many other more qualified singers.

In the process, he has taught me a great deal as a singer, including:

  • Sing with the whole body as an instrument. Be aware of the resonant space in your head, the position of your body, the depth of your breath.
  • Language matters deeply. Articulating precisely conveys not just words but meaning.
  • Memorization allows you to inhabit the music deeply and fully — and sometimes builds electricity in the performance via sheer terror.
  • Connect with the conductor and the audience.
  • Be committed completely. Don’t settle for less, in yourself or others.
  • There isn’t one “correct” interpretation of a musical work. Be open to what others bring to it.

There is much to be said for John’s tenure as founder and director of the TFC, and I’ll write it someday. For today, I’ll  just note my gratitude for this acerbic, demanding, opinionated… and secretly generous man, and for what he taught me as a singer.

Welcome, Andris Nelsons

Boston Globe: BSO names Andris Nelsons music director, succeeding James Levine. An exciting day. I sang with Nelsons last summer at Tanglewood in a deeply felt (if a little idiosyncratic) performance of Symphony of Psalms. I also watched him conduct the BSO in a spine tingling version of Ravel’s La Valse that was easily the best musical moment of the Tanglewood anniversary concert. Can’t wait to sing with him again.

Late August

Tomatosauce

Ah, late August. The temperatures are still high (well, high by Boston standards, anyway–growing up, 83° was more like a warm fall afternoon) but you can tell summer is getting to be a little long in the tooth.

For starters, the tomatoes are starting to come in. We only have a handful of tomatoes on the plants this time around; I have no idea why, except that we didn’t spend as much time with the plants this year. So we’re supplementing with the big boxes of seconds that are starting to show up at Wilson Farm and using those for our annual tomato sauce exercise. The process looks something like this photo set from last year, except this year we didn’t have a big crop of cherry tomatoes so I diced the big ones by hand instead of using the food processor. We make about a dozen to 20 quarts every year, and they last all through the winter and into the high summer if managed right, even given our relatively high pasta and pizza consumption. Case in point–we opened the last 2010 jar just last week.

So I’m making sauce. Instead of mowing the lawn (it can wait a day) and instead of napping while my son naps, which I might regret later. But right now it’s feeling like the right thing to do. Because sometimes you have to take a look at the future and say, I want to be ready.

Star time with the Pops

We had an unusual Holiday Pops concert last night. It wasn’t the normal Monday night audience by any stretch of the imagination–unless your “normal Monday night audience” includes an active and a retired US Senator, the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and more than your average number of glitterati.

Last night friends of Senator John Kerry “bought the house,” and the program was a mix of a traditional Pops Christmas program, including “Sleigh Ride,” “White Christmas,” singalongs, and the TFC’s famous “Twelve Days of Christmas”; patriotic program (“God Bless America,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever”); and encomium to the senator on the occasion of his 25th year in office. And the tributes came from a bunch of different directions: documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spoke and presented a short film about Kerry’s career that came off like a campaign puff piece. James Taylor sang three songs and expressed his congratulations to the Senator. Governor Deval Patrick gamely read “The Night Before Christmas” while tossing out his best wishes. Senator Kerry’s Swift boat crew came and his second in command offered a salute that left the senator choked up. Former Senator Max Cleland (who had been shamefully swift-boated himself) did not speak, but got about as much applause as Kerry did. All the time the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was at the back of the stage, watching or singing.

And then there were the two musical highlights. Senator Kerry conducted the “Stars and Stripes Forever” with a surprisingly good sense of rhythm, though he occasionally gave his downbeat as an up-beat, but with an endearing amount of mugging self-mockery that left one in mind of an amiable crane; his face as the chorus entered was beaming.

And Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow, better known as Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, gave a little lesson in folk singing, discussing the past and their connection with the Senator. They performed “A Soalin'” as a duo, then began “Light One Candle,” which the TFC has been singing this season. At the chorus they began to wave to the audience to sing along, so a few of us joined quietly; when they heard us, Paul waved us to sing louder. So we sang backup to two of the most significant living folksingers on that tune, and then on “Blowin’ In the Wind.” All my coffeehouse dreams of youth realized.

One of these days, I’m going to have to put my performance resumé together. It would have to include: “Sang with Renée Fleming, Dave Brubeck, and Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow” and “Sang in ensembles conducted by Robert Shaw, James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, and John Kerry.”

Backstage at the Hatch Shell, July 4, 2010

At rehearsal at the Hatch Shell

This weekend I had one of those eerie experiences where you step into a picture you’ve always watched, but never imagined yourself in.

When I was growing up, the Fourth of July meant band concerts at Fort Monroe–if you’re growing up in Tidewater Virginia, military base concerts are your best bets for live music and fireworks–but it also meant the Boston Pops on TV. I remember vividly watching in the late Fiedler years, then later in the John Williams era. I made a pilgrimage to see the event in person in 2001, at the dawn of this blog. When we lived in Seattle we’d watch the show televised from the Hatch Shell and think about being in Boston. When we moved back to the area, we watched on the big screen at Robbins Farm Park, or else simply flaked out in front of the TV (the best place to watch the Aerosmith spectacle from a few years back).

But I never dreamed I’d be singing on the stage, in front of about 800,000 people. We had a warmup concert on the 3rd with an audience in the tens of thousands, but it was no preparation for the crowds, the heat, and the excitement. The music for a July 4 concert can be expected to be the usual patriotic numbers, and this year did not disappoint, but there were also some truly moving moments, such as the tribute to the Kennedy brothers–which, judging from the feedback on Twitter was a highlight of the show (at least for some). I hope we get a chance to do the show again soon–maybe with a few more lyrics and less humming.

See also: my photos from the weekend.