Thoughts on Johan Botha

New York Times: Johan Botha, Operatic Tenor, Dies at 51. I woke this morning to news of the great tenor’s untimely demise in my Facebook feed.

I sang on stage several times with Botha during the James Levine era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was on tap for the most heroic roles: Waldemar in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Florestan in Fidelio, Walter in Meistersinger. His was a magnificent voice: as I wrote in 2007 about his Florestan, his voice could convey both sheer power and powerful emotion. His rendition of the “prize song” from Meistersinger has always stayed close to my heart for its sheer magnificence.

I think, though, that I’ll always remember him for his approachable humanity. He always was glad to see the chorus, and could be relied on to liven rehearsals, especially as he grew more comfortable: clowning during Don Carlo, or bringing beer steins onto the Tanglewood stage for himself and James Morris. (They drank water from them.)

And, of course, in this miserable 2016, the cause of death was cancer. It was just six weeks ago that he headlined a cancer fundraiser in South Africa at which he was prominently billed as a “cancer survivor” and having been given a “clean bill of health.” That performance now stands as his final bow.

The video at the top is an audience film of the intermission bow from the 2006 Symphony Hall performance of Gurrelieder under James Levine, featuring Karita Mattila, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Botha. The latter two have been taken from us, both by cancer, and Levine himself will never again walk as nimbly as he does in this footage. It’s a sobering reminder that none of us are allotted much time.

Remembering J. Reilly Lewis

Bach-for-All-Seasons-Beth-Lewis

In the late summer of 1994, twenty-two years ago, I was recently graduated from the University of Virginia and desperately missed singing. I had sung in the Virginia Glee Club for four years and hoped that I could find a similar experience in a chorus in Washington DC. I didn’t find something similar, but I did find J. Reilly Lewis.

Several other Glee Club members had sung in Reilly’s Cathedral Choral Society and spoke highly of it. I had fond memories of the National Cathedral from a young chorister’s field trip when I was in elementary school. It seemed like a good idea. A few weeks later, I was frantically studying my score on the Metro and wondering if I had lost my mind.

You see, I had been exposed to comparatively unusual repertoire as a Glee Club member: lots of Renaissance and medieval music, some modern works (my lifelong love of Arvo Pärt’s music dates to the 1992 Tour of the South), spirituals and Virginia football songs. But very little of the symphonic repertoire for chorus. We had sung a few works in collaboration with other choruses: Mahler 2, the Fauré Requiem, the Duruflé Requiem, and Orff’s Carmina Burana. But that was about it.

So imagine my surprise when the first piece we sang was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a challenging work even for mature singers, much less someone straight out of college. Piling on the difficulty, I had spent the summer unconsciously stretching my range, singing along to a lot of female singers (Tori Amos and Shannon Worrell among them). So when I auditioned for Reilly he cast me as a first tenor, not the second I had sung since high school. Suffice it to say I was in over my head.

But I loved it. And I loved singing with Reilly. And that made up for a lot.

Reilly was a musician’s musician. Unlike many conductors I’ve sung with since, he had a keen appreciation for the possibilities and limits of the human voice. He liked to lead us in a warmup borrowed from Robert Shaw in which we sustained a four or eight part chord on a neutral vowel, then shifted to a bright “ah” and heard the harmonic overtones bloom forth in the resonant acoustic of the Cathedral. He led us in other Shaw-inspired exercises over the years: lots of staccato on “doo,” the occasional marching-while-fuguing to ensure that we locked in the parts and could keep the rhythm, and other slightly crazy exercises. He was almost unflappable, so much so that when he lost his temper at a soloist who didn’t make it for a dress rehearsal it was striking.

But most of what I remember singing with Reilly was the repertoire, and the musicians, he introduced me to. I sang my first Mozart, Brahms and Verdi Requiems with him. I will always remember the Modern Mystics concert we did in 1997 or 1998, with music of Tavener, Gorecki and Pärt—in particular the Pärt set (“Solfeggio,” “Cantata Domino canticum novum”) that we sang in the side of the nave next to the positive organ. Copland’s “In the Beginning” from the balcony under the rose window in the rear of the nave. The Bach St. Matthew Passion.

And the Christmas concerts. For a man who legendarily had difficulty choosing Christmas music—he associated the season with the death of a family member—he put together some stunning programs, including the Pärt Magnificat, the Tavener “God is With Us” and “Thunder Entered Her,” Kenneth Leighton’s spine tingling setting of the Coventry Carol, and many more.

Of course, there were the guest musicians. Robert Shaw, first with Hindemith’s When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d, which he had commissioned many years before, then with a return to the Missa Solemnis a year before Shaw died. Sir David Willcocks, who grew so frustrated with our altos’ inevitable inability to follow his beat in the resonant echoes of the Cathedral that he turned around and beat time with his ass, shouting, “Follow this!” And, of course, Dave Brubeck, who came to play his “To Hope!” with us, and who—far from laughing when Reilly jokingly said “I’ve always wanted to do this” before playing the first few bars of “Blue Rondo A La Turk” for him—said “Keep going!”

Inevitably, too, I remember the disappointment when I told Reilly I was taking a leave from the Cathedral Choral Society. I had started singing with the Suspicious Cheese Lords—I was never a founding member, but joined a few months into the group’s existence and found there repertoire that I had missed, starting of course with the Tallis Lamentations of Jeremiah. And I was working crazy hours and newly married and applying to business school. We discussed it over dinner at the Lebanon Taverna. He was so completely consumed with music that he couldn’t understand why I, and other young singers, would want to back out and let our lives be consumed with other things.

I hadn’t seen him since I left Washington. Now I won’t see him again until we meet together with Bach, and Brubeck, and Shaw, and Sir David, and all the others on the other shore.

Friday random 10: Prince esta muerto

I break the normal rules of the Friday Random 5 once again, this time for the obvious reason. I wasn’t as completely shocked by Prince’s death as I was by Bowie’s, but that’s partly because Bowie had just dropped an incredibly compelling new album that in retrospect clearly laid out what was happening to him. With Prince’s death, I’m still a little numbed by the suddenness of it. So I turn to his music.

Mom warning ahead: Prince wrote about sex so I will too.

Just 4 the Tears in Your Eyes: I still can’t believe that this song was only a b-side. I heard it for the first time 22 years ago when I picked up his first, and best, career retrospective, the three-disc monster Hits/B-sides compilation. It’s an appropriately somber note on which to start this retrospective and a useful reminder that Prince had spirituality as well as sensuality working for him.

Shy: Depending on how I feel at the time, this is either a monstrously underrated track from the underrated The Gold Experience, or it’s an arch piece of songwriting. I figure, the way life is, it’s probably both. But I love the way he builds the track off the footsteps of the protagonist, adding just a lead guitar, then building the track out on top of the rhythm guitar pattern that falls in behind the verse.

Adore: The slow jam that closes out Sign o’ the Times, complete with horn section and falsetto for days. An endlessly fascinating love song. This is definitely the song that Beck was listening to when he wrote “Debra.”

One of Your Tears: From the in-retrospect seriously interesting Crystal Ball rarities collection. I understand why this track remained a rarity; when your song has the narrator’s estranged girlfriend sending him a used condom in the first verse, it’s kind of amazing that it can actually recover. But the stacked harmony that fills out the chorus has insinuated itself into my brain.

Come: Okay, now shuffle is just playing with me. The salacious horn-driven title track from another underrated Prince album from the early 1990s and probably the most explicit paean to cunnilingus ever written. It appears that this song was a last minute addition to Come (the album), but it doesn’t sound like it. I hope Heaven has a horn section this funky.

Scarlet Pussy: Another early b-side, I think of this as the early flip side to “P. Control.” While it’s unusual in early Prince songs for having a female protagonist, the song doesn’t escape reducing her to her sexuality. But it’s got a George Clintonesque narrator, an electrofunk backbone, and an unforgettable chorus. So there’s that.

I Would Die 4 U: What does it say about this song that it’s probably the least memorable of the hit singles from Purple Rain? Only that Purple Rain is an album so full of win that it couldn’t have been written by anyone else. The beats and the one-note verse and the minimal arrangement (synths, handclaps, synth bass) all add up to something a lot more than the parts.

Interactive: Another Crystal Ball number, this is a rock number that featured in Prince’s Interactive video game CD. (Has a more early-90s sentence ever been written?) I don’t think the rock that Prince was writing in the early 90s was his best stuff, but this track is pretty good, particularly the guitar work.

P Control: The remix version of the lead-off track from The Gold Experience, this is another track on Crystal Ball. This version adds scratching and backing vocals and plays around with the instrumentation on the bass track, but it’s otherwise the same great song. I’ve always loved this song because it plays gleefully with the dirty words and paints a portrait of the most independent of his female musical protagonists, in which the only way the narrator wins a chance with her is by acknowledging and respecting her strength. That’s a long way from “Scarlet Pussy.”

Hide the Bone: Yeah, OK, shuffle, we get it. I should listen to Crystal Ball more often.

BonusCloreen Bacon Skin. After “Hide the Bone,” I listened to about another hour of miscellaneous Prince stuff before this track came on. Another treasure from Crystal Ball, a fifteen minute funk jam with just Prince on bass and Morris Day on drums, featuring Prince doing an impression of an elderly James Brown via George Clinton and … really, I don’t know what else to say because if you weren’t already looking up the song on Youtube by the end of that sentence, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Composition note: I dictated this via speech to text while driving to Charlottesville, only to lose it when the WordPress app hiccupped, so had to rewrite it from scratch.

RIP Andy Grove

Andy Grove, courtesy Esquire
Andy Grove, courtesy Esquire

CNN: Andy Grove, former Intel CEO and personal computing pioneer, dead at 79. It’s worth taking a second this morning to think about why we remember what Andy Grove did when other pioneers of silicon are mostly forgotten.

Motorola, Texas Instruments and others built chips. Andy built an ecosystem.

While Wintel may rightly be regarded as an example of a noxious monoculture, mostly because of the Windows side of the equation, Andy recognized the potential for personal computers and ensured that they would run on his chips. And he recognized that Wintel was only one ecosystem that could have been built with Intel as its foundation—witness his convincing Steve Jobs to shift the architecture of Macs away from PowerPC to Intel chips in 2006.

I had an opportunity during the 2001 MIT Sloan Tech Trek to meet Andy. He spoke with a bunch of MBA students for a few minutes, and took questions. He struck me as a long thinker, so I asked him a long thought question: how long could Moore’s Law continue to hold before the physics of small matter caused it to bottom out? He was airy as he said it was a “20 year problem.” And he was right: he knew that there was plenty of room to continue innovating on the silicon. He didn’t say it, but I suppose he was more focused on the business of the ecosystem; even then you could read the writing on the wall that the antitrust suit, a resurgent Apple, and mobile computing were about to take the wind out of Microsoft’s sails.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get to talk to a more brilliant man (not counting Bill Gates, but I never got a chance to ask him any questions as an intern). Rest in peace.

I came to David Bowie, as to all good things, late. My memories of his music in childhood were fragmentary: “Dancing In The Street” was a top 40 hit, and “Let’s Dance” impinged on my consciousness. Later, WNOR and WAFX played that of his material that had been admitted to the classic rock canon: “Suffragette City,” “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” “Rebel Rebel.” I had no idea what lay behind those works.

I came to the better parts of Bowie obliquely, which is appropriate. In the fall of my last year at UVA, Philip Glass’s “‘Low’ Symphony,” based on Bowie’s first album with Brian Eno, came out on CD. It went into my odd heavy rotation. I didn’t check out the album it came from until later, after their collaboration “Outside” had twisted my head, obsessed my thoughts, and ultimately left me cold.

Eventually I found “Low,” but the first listen befuddled me. Then “‘Heroes,'” which was an entirely different story – the title song is probably the only one of his works I can sing from beginning to end. Slowly I was catching up.

I made it through “Ziggy,” “Lodgers,” then “Station to Station.” At which point I began to appreciate what all the fuss was about. The level of the funk he was pulling off in that record!

By contrast the first listen to “The Next Day” underwhelmed me. I’m going to go back and listen to it again, but at the time my dominant impression was “He’s been sick.” The once mighty voice was thin, though still powerfully emotive. And I won’t claim prescience, but it did remind me of the way that Chris Whitley’s voice was eroded in his last recording, or Yauch’s. I probably didn’t think the C word aloud.

But I managed to leave that impression behind. Because the lead single from his now-final album, ★, lifted off the top of my head in a way that his work hadn’t for a while. The skittering drum work of Mark Guiliana anchored a performance by the rest of his band that was at once exhilarating and familiar after the modern jazz I had been consuming for years. And the aesthetic of the video… well, I finally understood Bowie as a complete artist. And I will probably have nightmares with buttons for eyes for a long time.

I devoured the album when it came out last Friday, pausing only over “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” It sounds like a valediction, I thought.

Then this morning, and the place in my mind that was consumed by Bowie’s vital comeback realigned in an instant. It wasn’t a comeback. It was a parting gift. Bowie’s performance in “Lazarus” was completely convincing because he knew what it was to be in a hospital bed.

So now he’s gone, and I’m left to marvel at the wild oracular talent, the body of work that it left, and how far ahead he was and how far I had to go to catch up with him.

RIP, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

One of the great composers of the late 20th century passed away today. Like many others, I discovered Górecki’s music through his Symphony No. 3, and turned quite a few other people on to him the same way. I will always remember an afternoon in late spring 1994, a few weeks before I graduated from the University of Virginia, sitting in the middle of the Lawn across from the open door of my room, listening to Dawn Upshaw’s voice at maximum volume with Craig Fennell and Diane Workman and deciding that this Polish composer had a lot to say.

I went on to sing a few of his works, particularly as part of a concert of 20th century choral music with the Cathedral Choral Society, but also during a program with the Cascadian Chorale. As a singer, it was fascinating how so few notes, so few suspensions, could carry so much emotional content and be so impossibly challenging to sing.

As I write this, Górecki’s “Amen” just came up on my iPhone, as if to say: as with all composers, what’s important is still with us.

Other obituaries: The Rambler.

Remembering Steve Bognaski

I learned this morning that a Virginia Glee Club friend, Steve Bognaski, died two months ago on Valentine’s Day of a heart attack. He was 38, and left a wife and two children.

I’m kind of flabbergasted. Steve always was one of the most bighearted guys I knew, full of life, a dedicated singer, and capable of highly vocal joy. It doesn’t seem fair that he’s gone.

I count myself fortunate that I was able to meet up with him when I was in Charlotte in September 2007 for the iTSMF show. He was excited about his family’s upcoming move to Suffolk, Virginia. I am sorry I didn’t see him more often in the time since graduation.

Isaac Hayes, RIP

I was two or three years out of college when I first listened to Isaac Hayes seriously. I had picked up Shaft in college but, aside from the title track, it didn’t speak to me. I mean, flutes? Really? I just couldn’t get past the instrumentation. I knew there was something funky there but it wasn’t finding me.

And then I picked up, for some unknown reason, the soundtrack to Stealing Beauty, which leads off with Hoover’s (later Hooverphonic’s) “2 Wicky.” I was never a big Hooverphonic fan, but “2 Wicky” set off all kinds of bells in my head, primarily because of the opening, which I knew had to be sampled from somewhere. I did some digging and found it had come from the lead off track on Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, an album I had always assumed was a goof like Shaft. But I was hooked on that opening guitar + backing vox riff, so I picked up Hot Buttered Soul.

And I couldn’t put it down.

That weekend I was driving around Raleigh, North Carolina, with some college friends–we were there for a wedding–and I couldn’t pull the disc out of my car player. I must have played “Walk On By” and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” about a hundred times that weekend. The album was so over the top, so drenched in drama and sound, but somehow it touched the same funky center, breathed the same groove, as the Parliament and James Brown that I had been marinating in for the previous four or five years. And it reached deeper than those cuts in some ways–Hayes projected a pain and vulnerability that you’d never hear from the Godfather of Soul.

I was smacked sideways when I heard yesterday about Isaac Hayes’s death. It seems like someone who touched the human condition so deeply shouldn’t be allowed to go so quickly.

N. Marie Brackbill, 1943 – 2008

My aunt Marie passed away Monday afternoon. This one hurts. Unlike my grandfather, who had been in ill health for quite a few years before his death in January, we didn’t even know how sick she was until two months ago.

My aunt was one of the strongest people I know. Stricken with juvenile arthritis at the age of nine and spending the next two years in the hospital recovering, she was put on a path at an early age that might have limited her potential. But she recovered her mobility (albeit with the aid of multiple joint replacements over the years), learned to drive, went to college, became a teacher, and then did a career change into accounting, business, and quantitative analysis. She was always independent, stubbornly so, living alone for many years.

It’s not her stubborn independence that I’ll remember as much as her sense of humor and her willingness to treat me as an adult when I was still very much a kid. She treasured the company of her cats, and let me name one of them. At the time we were both reading Lord of the Rings, so I suggested Boromir. Yes, it was a geeky thing to do, but she had already named one cat Bilbo Baggins, so we were very much on the same wavelength. Boromir it was. And she was always a lot of fun to be with. I still remember dinners out with her at the Corn Crib, a corny pizza place with a warped sense of humor (a sign above the door said, “In the event of nuclear war, will the last person to leave please turn off the soup!”).

It was during her early years as an accountant that she came to stay with my family when I was growing up. I think it was because she spent so much time with us that she had such a strong influence on me. I don’t think I’d be half the bookworm I am without her, and I know I wouldn’t be as brave. She was never one to hold back what she thought and never one to bite her tongue when she thought something was wrong. In her last days, we used to hold out hope that she would pull through by saying, “At least she’s still got her sharp tongue.” When my sister was sufficiently alarmed by updates on her health to drive through the night to get to see her, my aunt’s first words as she walked through the door at 3 am were “You’re an idiot!” And of course she was right, she was always right.

I’m really angry about her passing. To watch her struggle for so long against her various illnesses, only to see her get blindsided by the left hook of cancer, is maddening. Not only that: the fact that her cancer was so advanced when it was diagnosed makes me think, if only it had been caught sooner! But ultimately that’s self delusional: her cancer was a type that has a very poor cure rate, and we know it was very aggressive. I suppose I’m angriest for selfish reasons: I wanted her to be a part of my family’s life for a very long time. I miss you already, Aunt Marie.