Thursday, May 28, 2020


Thanks for the memories, I guess
(jeez Snapchat way to put me in a bad mood)

Believe it or not, today marks exactly one year since I embarked on #1Summer50Concerts. In a way, it's Classical Music Geek's first anniversary, too -- I had a couple posts before that, but May 28, 2019 was the real, no-turning-back launch.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that the much-awaited sequel to #1Summer50Concerts is a summer where in-person live music doesn't exist at all. I miss concert halls. SO much. I've been watching livestreams, of course, and pre-recorded concerts. They're not the same. I don't expect them to be the same. And frankly, I can't find it in me to review them because, as I said in my last post, the fact that they exist supersedes quality. Performers are trying to make us happier, trying to help us cope, and evaluating their performances feels short-sighted and wholly irrelevant in such a crazy time.

I don't really have much to say -- nothing's happened except that I've turned into a grandma who sleeps till noon, cooks a lot, goes on the same daily walk, and still doesn't practice. It was a nice life for the first couple weeks. I'm bored now. Maybe it's time to start practicing.

I'm going to try to keep posting through the summer, but there's only so many times I can write the same "5 Things You Should Listen To This Week" article. For now, a Mozart aria that's been stuck in my head for days, taken from a concert that my best friend and I watched together over zoom a two nights ago (if you're wondering how that works: "3...2....1....go!" *press play together*). Sabine and Raphaël are among the more powerful musical power couples of today.

Anyway, happy anniversary to me. Here's to many more years of blogging, most of them hopefully better than 2020. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Collective Corona Memory | Pandemic Musings

Igor Levit on Twitter: "Heute Abend wieder: Livestream Hauskonzert ...
Igor Levit's recording setup
I've had a lot of time to think lately. Here are some of my thoughts. Disclaimer: they're not so optimistic.

Every night since the world started quarantining, German-Russian pianist Igor Levit has been reliably livestreaming short Twitter concerts from the living room of his tiny Munich apartment. Nothing extravagant, just a piano, an iPhone whose microphone occasionally cuts out, and a musician determined to improve someone’s—anyone’s—day. On one evening, Brahms’s left-hand arrangement of the Bach Chaconne. On another, some short selections of Schubert. To celebrate his 32nd straight day of streaming, Levit played Beethoven’s bizarre 32nd piano sonata for nearly 20,000 viewers.

Some musicians, like Levit, have been alarmingly productive in quarantine; others (myself included) not so much. As COVID-19 wiped my calendar cleaner than I’d seen it since middle school (from 20 hours of orchestra, choir, and opera rehearsal per week to a big, fat zero), I started to panic . But my solace fell in watching others make the music that I couldn’t; Levit and his colleagues came to the rescue, helping me to have the best of all possible quarantines in this best of all possible worlds (as my Grandpa Paul would have said, “How do you like them apples, Leibniz?”).

Concert halls all over the world are shuttered for the foreseeable future. Musical organizations lay on the verge of financial ruin, trying to retain their solvency without crucial revenue from the final three months of their seasons. Musicians are doing their best to make ends meet even though the market for their services has suddenly dried up.

And yet, one could argue that there is no better time to be a consumer of classical music. As physical concert halls close their doors, virtual concert halls have opened their Zoom rooms, scratching audiences’ itch for live music. Scroll through Facebook on any given day and you’ll find musical gems scattered among the fear and apprehension. A violinist friend playing a minute of a Kesha cover to a backing track. A full rebroadcast from a summer festival whose 2020 iteration has already been canceled. A piece of Renaissance polyphony rewritten as a handwashing song.

A favorite of mine from Singapore's Red Dot Baroque

Like everyone, I’m trying my best to live “in the moment” right now. Yet I can’t help but wonder how this crazy time will live on in the collective memories of musicians and musical consumers alike. People are more willing than ever to embrace the Internet as a means of sharing their musical talents with the world. But, despite this zeal, distanced live music now feels less like a serendipitous outpouring of artistic inspiration than a manifestation of crisis.

Take Igor Levit. I’ve been watching his livestreams as often as I can make the time. The idea of someone playing music for me in real time brings me some meaningful amount of solace as I’m quarantined alone in my apartment. But after COVID-19 is gone, I’ll probably never reach for those archived recordings. Why would I choose Levit recorded on an iPhone when I could listen to any of his masterfully engineered, “just one more take” studio albums?

Levit is doing the best he can in the face of crisis. But right now, we’re measuring “quality” on a different scale than usual. The mere existence of live performances supersedes our conventional notions of musical quality — who cares if these performances aren’t studio- or stage-quality as long as I can watch them from my living room? But five, ten, twenty years from now, once COVID is but a section in our history textbooks and we have renewed access to the live music we currently lack, will anyone remember the art that we are now finding so meaningful, or will we see it as compromised and unpolished? Will anyone want to remember that art, let alone anything of this traumatic era?

We’ve been continually looking to the Spanish flu of 1918 as a reference point. But another tragedy of the time offers damning clues as to what might happen to corona art. In 1914, at the start of World War I, the British army sent Harold Triggs to fight in the trenches of Ypres, Belgium. He brought with him a modified cello, little more than a hollow box outfitted with four strings and an endpin. The instrument brought joy to those rendered listless by an otherwise bleak battle theater. But after the war, it sat untouched on a luthier’s shelf for a hundred years before British cellist Stephen Isserlis used it to record part of an album of WWI-era music. Even then, the trench cello was merely a tool to recreate the historical soundscape of a generation that had since passed — no one who was alive during The Great War wanted to revive music that was so inexorably associated with trauma, loss, and suffering.

The trench cello may have been a viable wartime alternative to a Stradivari, but once the guns fell silent this ingenious instrument almost instantaneously became nothing but an artifact. I’m worried the same will happen for hundreds of innovative COVID-era projects, simply because they were realized in a time when resources were thin. Large-scale “corona” commissioning projects. Daily pajama-clad practice sessions from isolation. Multi-tracked videos captioned “Day __ in Quarantine.” All the tidbits that brought the world some semblance of light in a dark time, forgotten and gathering cyber-dust on a Facebook server in Altoona, Iowa.

The massive amounts of musical content that I’ve seen in the last six weeks have made me laugh, cry, ooh, and aah. After this period is over, of course I’m going to remember the suffering, the loss. But I want to remember the silver linings, too. And COVID-music is perhaps the biggest silver lining I’ve seen so far.

Everything from these few months will be labeled “corona,” whether it’s culture, politics, or cooking (who could forget when the world turned to sourdough for comfort?). It’s up to future us whether we probe beyond that label into the content itself.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

A Birthday Zoom | Pandemic Musings

And that was just page 1

My aunt turned 55 a couple days ago, so today she threw a "soirée" (3pm for me, 9pm for some, noon for others) to celebrate. The fine print: "Everyone (kids and adults!) is encouraged (not required) to give a little performance of music, poetry, etc., max 4 minutes."

My brother and I cobbled together a movement of the Byrd Mass for Four Voices -- we were planning on doing it anyway (just for funsies), but we figured that would take some of the performance anxiety out of the equation. Turns out, Zoom thinks the video sounds much different than we wanted it to. Oh well.

Here are a few other things that happened:

A Nobel Prize-winning physicist presented a fascinating experiment in relativity as he attempted to orchestrate a Zoom performance of his favorite Hungarian round. Only about half of the 20-some people in the call knew Hungarian. Maybe a third knew how to operate Zoom. Needless to say, it was not together. But hey, it was fun.

A couple of my cousins played a movement (the first 57 seconds) of John Cage's 4'33'', at which point the chat blew up -- "What happened?" "I think we lost them!" "Oh no!" I tried to assure everyone that this was according to plan. No one believed me.

A few great performances of Suzuki book Bach minuets. Makes me hopeful for the next generation of musicians.

Lots of poetry, some uplifting, some dour. You can really tell who is taking this quarantine in stride and who has had enough already.

A performance by one of these people who "just started learning guitar" but is already quite good -- if you're reading this, I envy you.

So many people talking over each other. SO. Many.

It was fun. Hopefully the next one won't have to be on Zoom.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Completeness | Pandemic Musings

I'm really not sure whether my attention span has increased or decreased since quarantine started.

And with that, Facebook calls. See you in 15 minutes.

Our reward for getting three sentences in: my favorite opera scene EVER,
taken from the production of Les Indes galantes that I briefly discuss below.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, me and my attention span.

But I don't usually have the attention span to sit down and listen to "complete" anything. At concerts, my mind often wanders (yeah, I admit it). My favorite albums usually have a little bit of a lot of things -- just look at what I've reviewed so far.

Lately, though, I've found myself seeking out more "complete" musical experiences. Last week, I listened through all of Britten's Turn of the Screw -- I don't usually listen to operas, it feels like a piece of missing (maybe I like to see staged works?). Just a couple days ago, I made it through the six hours of music that make up Marais's second book of viol pieces. And now, I'm on a recording of Bach's complete keyboard music (volume 3 of many).

I wonder if having more time necessarily translates to more attention. I feel like the answer is no. Then why am I seeking out "completeness" all of a sudden?

Maybe I'm overthinking this. Yeah, I think I'm only seeking out "completeness" because it's new to me and I'm getting bored of only listening to skittish concept albums.

That said, my favorite "complete" experience that everyone should have this break: the Paris National Opera's production of Rameau's Les Indes galantes is available on You need a European VPN, but it's well worth finding one. My friend and I started at 9pm and planned only to watch until the end of act two (the opera is a prologue plus four acts). It was so fantastic we didn't stop until the bitter end. I can't provide the link or else I might be sued, but go. Do it. You have the time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Free to Be...You and Me | Pandemic Musings

Free to Be... You and Me - Wikipedia
All I really want is for this cast to come read me a bedtime story... 
WHO: Marlo Thomas and Friends (you know a lot of them, trust me)
WHAT: my childhood
LABEL: Bell Records

Free to Be...You and Me was an elementary school in-the-car CD. Once I hit sixth grade, the CD went back on the shelf. I didn't listen to it again for about ten years.

Out of the blue, I found Free to Be stuck in my head a few months ago. It was one of those mornings where I had sacrificed half my night's sleep to wake up and churn out an entire paper that was due that day at noon....not a great day. But once I'd sent the paper off (for better or for worse), I put the album on just to get it out of my head.

It's crazy how much content we miss in our childhood favorites. I mean, I remember my mother very clearly telling me I was not allowed to sing the soundtrack from Hair anywhere near my elementary school -- I didn't understand why until I listened back in high school. Sodomyyyyy....fellatioooooo...

Anyway, I never internalized the message of Free to Be...You and Me, even though it's right there in the title. Upon relistening, it was kind of right there -- all genders are equal, a concept we still struggle with today for some odd reason. God, I must have been one oblivious child.

I have to say, the experience of listening to Free to Be as 21-year-old gay guy instead of a 8-year-old kook, now that the lyrics form full sentences in my head instead of just sort of isolated words to memorize...I quickly realized what I'd missed. I cried a little bit. Or maybe a lot. I was running on four hours of sleep, the details are a little blurry. Probably a lot.

Again today, I was humming through the soundtrack. I just have to say: it hits every time. That indescribable feeling of wanting to smile, cry, laugh....and then it just overflows as you throw your head back and sing along at the top of your lungs. Sorry, neighbors.

It's all still oddly relatable. Just like Aesop's judgments of morality still ring true today, so will Marlo Thomas's for my children, and their children. Do good. Be nice. Treat others right. Though I will admit, the thought of a 22-year-old Dudley Pippin (who, according to Thomas, is "just about your age, or maybe just a little bit older") contesting that he didn't knock over the school sand-table made me chuckle. Especially considering that my former residence hall does, in fact, have a sandbox for some reason.

Mel Brooks as a Brooklynite baby trying (and failing) to figure out his gender. Diana Ross speculating on adulthood. Harry Belafonte singing about the joys of parenting. Former Penn State defensive tackle Rosey Grier reassuring us that it is, in fact, alright to cry. Carol Channing reminding us that NO ONE likes housework -- I was ironically hanging my pans up to dry as that one came on. And Marlo Thomas doing all of the above and more. A mastermind, a workhorse, a true talent.

It reminds us that all these untouchable celebrities are people too. People who care. People who love.

Oh, and I still know all the words, even ten years later. Some things are just etched in your soul forever.

I know it hasn't aged perfectly -- there are many more genders than the two that they mention, of course. But we can't fault them for not mentioning that in 1972. This album (and the TV special that aired with it) is historically important, full of fantastic music and storytelling, and will make me want to sing along until the day I die. You're never too old for Free to Be...You and Me. I wish I'd discovered that sooner.

And let me tell you, it's aged better than 95% of the classical canon, including Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, quoted and parodied extensively by Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones in the second-to-last song of Free to Be. Maybe that's the next step with problematic classical music -- parody it so much that the message loses all its gravity. A crazy and impractical solution, but in theory it would probably work!


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Donizetti and Desperation: Some Tracks From This Week | Pandemic Musings

Remember that time I whined about being in "day umpteen" of quarantine on, like, day 10? Ha. Haha. HAHAHAHA.

Apparently I've been busy, because I haven't written for almost a month. But of course I've still been listening to lots of music -- what else am I going to do while I cook meals for five and then eat the entire pot in one night?

Side note: any of you ever make a whole loaf of bread and then finish it in 24 hours? I'm down to a heel of the focaccia I made yesterday. Note to self: solo quarantine is terrible for the waistline.

Anyway, here are a few memorable bits of music from the past couple weeks.

David Lang: "penance and remorse" from the little match girl passion
Theatre of Voices; Paul Hillier, conductor

A few nights ago, in some sort of tired, cranky, stir-crazy fever dream, I seriously considered mounting this piece as the capstone to my music degree. The next morning, I woke up and decided that maybe post-midnight quarantine Emery shouldn't be calling the shots.

Dieterich Buxtehude: O clemens, o mitis, o coelestis pater
Julie Roset, soprano; Ensemble Clematis

According to Julie Roset's Facebook fanpage, she got her bachelor's in 2019 -- and in Europe, bachelor's degrees are three years. So basically, she's a year older than I am. Her first solo album dropped, like, a week ago. What have I done with my life? (I should mention that the first phrase of this Buxtehude was so perfect that I forgot about the dish I was washing and spent the next fifteen minutes sweeping ceramic shards from my kitchen floor...maybe that says more about me than about Julie Roset though?)

Meredith Monk: "Wa-Lie-Oh" from Songs from the Hill
Marc Mauillon, baritone

An album to be experienced, not to be talked about.

Richard Strauss: the last five minutes of Ein Heldenleben
Gothenburg Symphony; Kent Nagano, conductor

I'm never in the mood to listen to Strauss. Except yesterday, I was. Brought me right back to Disney Hall, watching an aging, but ever lively Zubin Mehta conduct Heldenleben with the LA Phil on the weekend of my 18th birthday. I've said it once and I'll say it again: thank god for the $10 student ticket.

Marin Marais: "La Polonoise" from Suite in d minor (Second Book of Pieces for Viol)
François Joubert-Caillet; L'Achéron

I watched this one video ~20 times the other day. My findings: harp is just so totally the best continuo instrument. Plus, how cool is that 10th century church they're recording in?

Gaetano Donizetti: "Chacun le sait" from La fille du régiment
Erin Morley, soprano and piano; from the Metropolitan Opera's livestreamed gala

I go on a lot of walks in the only New Haven neighborhood with living rooms that big, I wonder if I've walked by Erin Morley's house? (also, what a performance holy crap) (also also, bel canto usually gives me hives but for some reason yesterday I only wanted to listen to music I don't usually like? I think quarantine broke me)

Anaïs Mitchell: Way Down Hadestown
From the original 2010 concept album

There's something so comforting about this original version -- no pomp, no circumstance, no huge swing-band dance number. With the call-and-response, it's almost campfire-y in a way. Intimate, muted, warm, fuzzy.

My first day at Kinhaven, circa 2010

Thomas Ford: Since First I Saw Your Face

Virtual madrigals were exactly what my aching heart needed this week. Look hard, you might see some familiar faces. (video here)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Album Reviews: My Liederabend | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

You may notice I haven't posted in a few days. This week, I learned that online school is still a full-time job when you procrastinate as much as I do. Oh well.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been listening -- in fact, as assignments pile up, I've been listening more than ever!

A few nights ago, I had a particularly difficult and long-winded problem set. Long enough that I feel like I can put "reconstructing sounds of proto-Quechuan" on my resumé now. I found myself hankering for lieder, so I put on one album after another and next thing I knew, I had gone through four full albums.

I figured it prudent for my time (and yours) to do a mini-reviews post rather than four full-length posts. So here you go: a summary of my liederabend.

1. The Contrast: English Poetry in Song
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Quilter, and Huw Watkins. Released on BIS in February 2020.

I don't believe in God. But I do believe in Carolyn Sampson. And that's kind of the same thing.

I think there might have been a time when Carolyn Sampson was a strict early music specialist, but thankfully she's branched out. Of course, her Bach solo cantatas are still my favorite out there, but her musical sensibility applies so well to everything and anything, from heavily stylized French baroque to quirkier selections like these. I'm not going to try to find words to describe her voice, but let's just say this: I sent this album to a good friend and her reaction was (verbatim): "Who is this angel, and when can I see her live?" Joseph Middleton has that perfect touch of a pianist who specializes in lieder, never overshadowing the voice and always magnifying its drama. They are the unstoppable duo.

2. A Lesson in Love
Kate Royal, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Works by pretty much anyone you can think of. Released on Warner Classics in February 2011.

The program of this album is all over the place in the best possible way. Cabaret songs, Schumann and Brahms, folk music of America, Britain, Ireland, France, all in some of the best versions I've heard. Case in point: almost every soprano has recorded "Gretchen am Spinnrade" at some point, and Royal's rendition is easily in my top three (right up there with Carolyn Sampson). Her American music is better than most American singers -- two different takes of William Bolcom's jazz-twinged "Waitin'" give the varied program a distinct contour and a resounding cadence, and a short pastorale of Copland left me halfway to tears. Malcolm Martineau accompanies the simple British airs -- think "Danny Boy" and "O Waly, Waly" -- with just as much tender attention as the more conventionally difficult music on the program.

3. Art Songs
Fiora, soprano; Paul Hankinson, piano. Works by a lot of people, look for yourself you lazy bum. Self-released in 2002.

I'm pretty sure Fiora hasn't thought about this album in awhile. She's now a successful singer-songwriter with 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But before she hit her fame in that field, she released a single album of art songs -- she's a classically trained vocalist and composer. Honestly, I was really impressed. She's got this lovely syrup to her voice, fluid and unencumbered by excessive vibrato. Her program has a couple standouts, including the opening movement from Hindemith's "Das Marienleben" (a piece that makes me regret not being a soprano) and a beautiful original setting of "The Watcher" (couldn't figure out who the poet was).

4. The Divine Muse
Mary Bevan, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Haydn, Schubert, and Wolf. Released on Signum Classics in January 2020.

Haydn's vocal works never get the love they deserve. Recently, I've fallen in love with Arianna a Naxos, a virtuosic monodrama depicting the scene where Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Fiery, passionate, and vocally demanding, the music suits Mary Bevan's full voice perfectly, Ariadne's agony clear from her frenzied inflections. She cools significantly for selections from Wolf's vast vocal opus, the crunchy harmonies providing latticework for her calming melodic overlay. And of course, you can never go wrong with Schubert. Overall, a fabulous album -- though maybe not as fabulous as her recording of Holst's set of four songs for soprano and violin, one of my favorite pieces ever (I have a lot of favorite pieces ever).