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.

My first Pops Independence Day concert

This Fourth of July will be a first for me. After five years of membership in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I’ve hit the big time. Bigger than singing with James Levine? With Sir Colin Davis? With Renée Fleming? Maybe. I’ll be singing my first Fourth of July concert with the Boston Pops, as a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

I don’t know yet whether I’ll be on stage, but I think just being there at the Hatch Shell on the Fourth is going to be reward enough. I grew up with local Independence Day concerts at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, but even I knew that the Boston July 4th was The Real Deal. But somehow I missed my opportunity the last time the TFC performed with the Pops, and for a few years they haven’t sung.

But now–the year of the 125th anniversary of the Pops, and the 40th anniversary of the TFC–I’ll be there. You can even watch me on local TV — though, alas, not the national broadcast, as all our numbers will be in the first half of the show. But if you’re in the Boston area, set your DVRs!

On being on the Business Blogs list on Boston.com

For about the past week, my blog has been linked from the Business page of Boston.com. Which is odd, because this isn’t really a business blog. Sometimes I write about technology strategy, occasionally about marketing; frequently about product management. But you’re just as likely to find posts about music, or turning 40, or the history of a 140-year-old singing group here.

So in the interests of truth in advertising: if you want all business writing all the time, better check somewhere else. If you don’t mind coming in on the middle of nine years of my writing about things that catch my attention: welcome.

Probably not what he had in mind.

In other musical news, the first ten seconds of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms makes a pretty good ringtone:

[audio:http://www.jarretthousenorth.com/wp-content//1PreludepsalmXxxviiiVerses13And14.mp3|titles=Symphony of Psalms (1931 recording)]

Recording courtesy the Internet Archive, who had a copy of a 1931 78RPM recording of the symphony conducted by Stravinsky the year after it premiered. I’ll be singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra when we perform the work, alongside the Mozart Requiem, at Tanglewood on July 16, reprising our performance from last fall.

On the record

The BSO announced two new albums this week. I’m looking forward to hearing the Carter, and am ordering multiple copies of TFC: Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Not because it’s my chorus (I’m not on the disc–these were small group recordings that went through the year I started with the chorus), but because the repertoire is astonishing. A pair of Bruckner motets, including the Christus factus est, the Lotti Crucifixus, the Frank Martin Mass, and of course Copland’s In the Beginning.

Of course there’s a small irony–the cover photo shows the group holding music! But it’s a great image of a large Prelude concert group in Seiji Ozawa Hall. One of these days I’d love to be in that setting; our Prelude performances have been done by small groups since I joined the chorus, so I’ve never performed in Ozawa.

A visit from the Virginia Glee Club

I was going to write up Monday night’s Virginia Glee Club concert yesterday, but a couple busy days at work and a rehearsal last night ensured that I would get beaten to it (see the Tin Man’s writeup of the New York concert here). So I’ll just give a few thoughts about my experience at Monday night’s concert at Wellesley College.

First: I had not been back to visit Wellesley since our spring trip with Club in the spring of 1991. I saw an old friend (now the editor in chief at Rosetta Stone–time flies) there, but don’t remember much else except the beauty of the campus and of Houghton Chapel. On Monday night, it was a different story, largely because I arrived after dusk and had to scramble to get to the concert on time. Parking in the dark, I found my way back to the chapel via a brisk walk and got there in time to catch a little pre-concert warmup by the Boston Saengerfest singers. As I oriented myself, I saw a tall goateed man in a tux with a Virginia bow tie coming my way, and was delighted to finally meet Frank Albinder after various conference calls and emails. As we were chatting, up came another familiar face–Alex Cohn (Club ’97), now writer and photographer at the Concord (NH) Monitor. It was starting to feel a little like old home week.

Then the concert started. The Wellesley College Choir were lovely (vocally), performing many numbers from memory, and their conductor Lisa Graham was energetic and brilliant. Their performance was followed by a four-number set by the Boston Saengerfest Men’s Chorus. It was observed near me that the average age of the men in the chorus must have been about 70, but their energy through their numbers was unmistakable, and the tenor soloist in the third number had a brilliant voice. And then there was their performance of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” which had the entire Wellesley Choir in giggles.

Afterwards, the Glee Club joined Saengerfest for a joint performance of a few songs, then went through their own set—beginning with “Alle Psallite Cum Luja,” continuing through a set of more modern works (“Embraceable You,” an hysterical song about the real meaning of “Glee”), and then an alumni sing-along section. I had forgotten more than I remembered of Frederic Field Bullard’s “Winter Song,” but “Ten Thousand Voices” and the “Good Old Song” were permanently embedded in my brain. And the joint performance of the Biebl  “Ave Maria” with the Wellesley Choir was something else again too–not an SATB arrangement, but the two choirs traded verses before performing as a double chorus at the end.

If I had a tear near my eye by the end of “Ten Thousand Voices,” I had more from laughter after the show talking with Frank and the Club guys about past tours and their current endeavors (and seeing Frank and Lisa Graham exchange hats, above). I hope that all continues well for them on the road and that their crowds in DC and Virginia are full to overflowing.

On winning a Grammy

Last night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Levine conducting, won a Best Orchestral Performance Grammy for our 2009 recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. I blogged our nomination a while ago but am still delighted that we won. All the hard work seems worthwhile today.

Not that my work, as a member of the chorus, is onerous. In fact, I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world today. We all come from our day jobs to Symphony Hall or Tanglewood, rehearse, and perform, and get to be part of something great together with musicians who train for decades to take that job.

So today, I’m grateful to the musicians of the BSO for letting us come along for the ride, and to our maestro James Levine for leading us down paths of excellence. (Even if, during the concert run for this recording, he did get mistaken for Keith Lockhart.)

Preparing the MacMillan St. John Passion

It’s that time of year again. My colleagues and I in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus have put away our Holiday Pops scores in preparation for tackling more sublime repertoire. This upcoming concert, the US premier of James Macmillan‘s St. John Passion, a joint commission by the BSO and the London Symphony in honor of Sir Colin Davis’s 80th birthday and under his baton, should fit that adjective nicely.

The Boosey and Hawkes catalog entry for the Passion dryly notes the choral “level of difficulty” as “5 (the greatest).” Other singers have noted some of the challenges without going into details. At the risk of going in over my head, I’ll take a shot at describing both the difficulties and their payoffs.

Voices: The Passion is not shy in its use of choral forces, leveraging a small “narrator chorus” to perform the role sometimes filled by an Evangelist solo in the Bach settings of the Passions, in addition to a large chorus performing the traditional functions (Pharisees, crowd reactions, and chorales) and some more dramatic semi-soloistic roles (Pilate and Peter), with only one role for a true soloist, Christ himself. That’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of work for the chorus, which is not unusual for any Passion. What is a little more unusual is the…

Vocal writing: The text of the Passion is Latin and English, with traditional liturgical poems added to the Biblical text. The narrator chorus is written with plainchant in mind, but is generally written in four-part harmonies that are miles away from traditional Gregorian forms and rhythms. The chorus’s parts are even more gnarly, with vocal effects ranging from Sprechstimme and eight-to-twelve-voice chromatic passages to simultaneous juxtapositions of the Stabat Mater text with an English-language lullaby inspired by the Coventry Carol. The vocal ornamentation and rhythms are unusual as well, with Christ’s muezzin-like melismas reminding us that the original Biblical setting would have been more at home with the vocal traditions of the Middle East than that of Bach. For a chorus like the TFC, used to memorizing everything from the old warhorses like the Beethoven 9 to modern works like the Bolcom 8th Symphony, the combination of all of the above suggested that having scores in the performance might be a really good idea. That said, there are substantial portions of the work that are now firmly lodged somewhere in my cerebellum and won’t go away. And that’s due to…

The overall effect: MacMillan has a lot of forces and tools at his command, and he uses them to move the narrative of the story through to its inexorable conclusion with a lot of jaw-dropping effects along the way. Peter’s triple denial of Christ, sung by four-part men’s chorus, trips over itself singing, “I am not… I am… not,” dropping an octave down from vehemence into a piano unison in a strong psychological portrayal of the shame of the lie. The chorale on Judas’s betrayal of Christ (“Judas mercator pessimus”) begins gangbusters with a condemnatory declamation before improbably melting away to a jewel-like setting of his request of a kiss from Christ for the second sopranos and second tenors, then  sets the “Melius illi erat” (“It would have been better if he had never been born”) as a Renaissance motet accompanied by fast recitation of text (an effect not unlike the library scene in Wings of Desire). The Crucifixio employs the classic cross vocal motif as a starting point (a four note melody moving down and up around a central tone), suspending Bach chorale harmonies on long whole-note phrases that decrescendo into a stunned silence.

But it’s the Stabat Mater in part 7 that really brings home the genius of all the moving parts of the work, with narrator chorus describing the fate of Mary, the inner voices sing the Latin poem in a breathtaking melismatic canon of fourths and fifths… and the outer voices (soprano and bass) sing a gentle lullaby to the deceased Christ, all at the same time–before closing on a quote from Bach made utterly personal: “Your sacred head is wounded.” It’s one of those moments outside of time that don’t come along too often in symphonic repertoire. I’m looking forward to continuing to journey into the work. Hopefully some of you can be there for the performance with me.

Christmas 2009

Things have been a little quiet on the blog, even on the linkblog, this month. That’s because things have been anything but quiet in the rest of my life.

We have all but finished the addition project; I’ll be posting pictures of the finished work later. I’ve been insanely busy at the office, running from a web platform release (our seventh this year) to a couple of large projects to budget meetings. Then there’s been Holiday Pops. I still have a couple more concerts to sing for that…

Christmas itself has been a little challenging this year. My father-in-law fell on the second night of his visit. Originally we thought he was OK, but his pain was getting worse, so we took him to the hospital. Turns out he had a compression fracture of one of his lumbar vertebrae. So he’s spending Christmas in the hospital (that’s a seasonably snowy picture from the hospital window above), and we’re not very festive at the house. He seems to be getting better; hopefully we will have some time with him here at home soon before everyone has to go back to work.

Not that being home isn’t work–what with putting together Christmas presents and moving into our new bedroom, I’ve been a busy beaver indeed. But I’ve still taken time out to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (on one of our Christmas presents–a new bigger flatscreen, so that we can put the old one in the basement guest bedroom). After all, I need to thank Mr. Schulz’s creation for driving a ton of traffic to my blog–the number one search term since Thanksgiving around here has been “charlie brown christmas tree,” leading to an old article about Urban Outfitters’ replica of the tiny real Christmas tree from the show (and amazingly, they still make it).

Ah well. The rest of the family can nap. I’m off to figure out how to cook the duck breasts we got for Christmas dinner. Maybe we’ll give the recipe with the cherries and port sauce another go. Or shall we just do a sweet cherry sauce? A pomegranate-wine sauce? Balsamic and apricot? The blood orange sauce I made for Valentines Day in 2005? Or maybe I’ll just punt and do a pan sauce. We’ll see. I like having these kinds of dilemmas.

Grammy-nominated blogger

The Grammy nominations for 2009 are out, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is on the list (along with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, of course). Our recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe with the BSO under James Levine got the nod.

I was kind of hoping that our Brahms Requiem recording would be nominated–it’s certainly a more prominent chorus role, and I think it’s one of the best recordings available of the work. But I’m not complaining.

The only question is: do I put “Grammy nominated” on my resumé now? (Of course not, but it’s fun to contemplate.)

Update: I would be doing my BSO colleagues a disservice if I didn’t note that the album is also up for Best Engineered Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance.

Open letter to Peter Vadala

Please also see the follow-up to this post.

I was watching the evening news tonight, something I do rarely, when my attention was caught by a local item about a man named Peter Vadala being fired from his job because he “expressed his opinions” about gay marriage.

The story went on to clarify: a coworker mentioned that she was getting married to another woman, he apparently told her at length how wrong he thought gay marriage was. She complained to HR and he got the sack. The termination letter was then described, in which the company essentially said, you’re welcome to your beliefs but don’t use them to make other people uncomfortable in the workplace. Now he’s on MassResistance.org telling people in other states that if their state legalizes gay marriage, they too could be fired.

The real lesson of Peter Vadala, though, is that if you can’t keep from using your beliefs as a bludgeon, you can be fired. And rightfully so.

Here’s the letter I wrote to him through MassResistance:

I’m sorry for Peter Vedala that he hasn’t learned an important professional lesson: don’t impose your beliefs on others.

I’m also sorry that he hasn’t learned about Christian charity.

I was further sorry to see him digging himself in further in continuing to claim that he is being persecuted for his faith. If I were his manager, I would have terminated him in a heartbeat for creating a hostile work environment, and I would have had cause.

Beethoven 9 with Lorin Maazel

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be Maestro Levine’s first complete Beethoven symphony cycle (he’s never conducted the 4th). But he ruptured a disc, is still out following surgery, and so the entire cycle has been taken by guest conductors. For the orchestra, it’s been a high profile opportunity to show their musicianship under a variety of batons. For me, I’m getting used to Lorin Maazel‘s style and getting ready to head into our last rehearsal prior to tonight’s performance.

He’s got an interesting style. During last night’s piano rehearsal, he put us on our toes by asking for adjusted dynamics, entrances, pronunciation, and balance in a number of sections. I think some of the chorus, who sing this work every summer at Tanglewood, were surprised. I’ve only sung it once before and was more or less rolling with the punches. After the orchestra rehearsal following, he turned to the basses and said, “You sang that part better than I’ve ever heard it sung”–high praise indeed.

The whole run is sold out, but it should be on Boston area radio on Saturday night.