Monteverdi & Minestrone

It’s warming up in south-east Queensland. Our short “winter” has passed, but I took one final opportunity last week to make a big pot of soup before it gets too hot to enjoy it properly. After all, no one wants to be eating soup during a sultry Brisbane summer.

When I lived in Melbourne, one of my very dear friends was Cathy. She’s a fellow soprano, and we’re both somewhat foodies as well (she probably more than me, but we do both love cooking). She also moved to Brisbane for a while shortly after I did, but these days she’s off having adventures in Japan. While we were both down south, however, Cathy and I used to meet at my place for ‘sing and bake’ days. Or sometimes ‘sing and soup’ days. Basically we would cook something together and while it was in the oven or on the stove smelling more and more delicious we would pull out a pile of music and sing through whatever we felt like, just for fun. Mostly duets of whatever we could find in the public domain – Bach, Vivaldi, Monteverdi and so on. We’re both reasonably competent sight-readers, and it was great fun to note-bash our way through something fast and sprightly, with the added challenge of getting our heads around Italian or German. Then we would reward ourselves with the results of our culinary efforts. And tea; there was always tea.

It was Cathy who introduced me to what is now one of my all-time favourite classical CDs, Teatro d’Amore. It’s an album of instrumental and vocal music by Claudio Monteverdi, by the excellent and sometimes blissfully unconventional ensemble L’Arpeggiata. Several tracks feature soprano Nuria Rial, and current darling of the countertenor world Philippe Jaroussky – who are just fabulous, there really are no other words to describe them. Cathy and I attempted a few of the tracks, like Pur ti Miro (which we later ended up performing for friends and family in a small, informal lounge room soiree last year) and Chiome d’oro, which we found a duet setting of instead of the solo version on the album. But the one which I will always associate with Cathy and ‘sing and soup’ days is the final track, Zefiro Torna (literally ‘Zephyr Returns’, Zephyr being the Greek god of the west wind):

“Zephyr returns and fills the air with good scents, and warms the waters, and, whispering in the green branches, gets the flowers to dance in the meadow.”

Very appropriate for the second day of spring! This music makes me all kinds of happy. And whenever I hear someone say that classical music is slow and/or boring, this is what I want to play them. I wish I could sing it even half as well as Nuria Rial! But I can continue to dream (and practice).

Anyway, I’m sure that on at least one occasion Cathy and I made the recipe below. I thought I would share it here so that you can also have the complete Monteverdi & Minestrone experience!

What you need

An onion

Carrots (2-3 depending on size)

Celery (probably 2 sticks, I usually match the amount of carrot)

A leek

A handful of green beans (or more if you have small hands or really like beans)

Stock (chicken or vegetable, cubes or liquid, they’re both fine – you’ll want about a litre, maybe slightly more)

Tin of tomatoes*

Tin of kidney beans (butter beans, cannellini beans or a bean mix also work)

Small pasta like macaroni, shells or spirals (about a cup, uncooked)

Garlic (2-3 cloves)

Herbs (fresh if you have them, but dried will do – I try to use fresh basil and Italian parsley, and supplement with dried oregano or thyme. Whatever is in your pantry that is vaguely Italian is fine.)

Grated parmesan cheese (the actual cheese, not that strange powder that is supposed to pass for cheese which people put on bolognese)

A good olive oil

How to turn it into the most amazing minestrone ever

  1. Go to iTunes or the album’s website and buy Teatro d’Amore. Play it loudly somewhere near the kitchen.
  2. Joyfully chop all your vegetables. I dice everything fairly finely, but it really depends on how chunky your like your soup. I chop the beans into 3-4cm pieces.
  3. Heat a little oil in a large soup pot, and sautee the onion, carrot and celery for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the stock, leek, beans and tomatoes and bring to the boil.
  5. Reduce the heat, add enough water to make sure the vegetables are covered, and then leave on the stove simmering for about the length of time that it takes to listen to Zefiro Torna eight times. (That’s approximately an hour for the party poopers who don’t think they could handle quite that much Monteverdi. Oh, and a note about adding water… better to add a little too much but let it reduce down than to not add enough initially and have to add more later, which will make it more watery and less flavoursome.)
  6. While you’re listening to Nuria & Philippe serenade you, finely chop your herbs and garlic, and mix them together in a small separate bowl with the grated parmesan, 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and some salt and pepper (and any dried herbs you’re using). You want to make a thick pesto-like paste, so just add as much oil as you need for it to hold together.
  7. After about the sixth time through Zefiro Torna, cook and drain the macaroni.
  8. When the soup has had about an hour of simmering (timing is not crucial, give it longer if you like), add the cooked macaroni, kidney beans and the pesto. Stir and increase heat again until just starting to boil.
  9. Serve with a little extra parmesan sprinkled on top, and with your favourite bread. (If you’re looking for something simple to make yourself that requires no yeast or rising time, I heartily recommend this sour skon.)

*At some point in the cooking process I was momentarily distracted by the music and inadvertently added the tin of tomatoes which also included sliced green olives, thus creating a sort of Spanish-influenced Italian soup. But Nuria Rial is from Catalonia, so it’s all OK… and it still tasted great!

Posted in Solo Vocal Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Sorry for the long absence between posts. Instead of writing about music I’ve been busy experiencing it, travelling around Europe, exploring cities, making new friends and of course gathering more stories, musical and otherwise. I’m back in Brisbane now and have gradually returned to something resembling a normal routine, but it was just too difficult to write from the road. Pretty much every day was filled with activity – which made it busy but wonderful!

There are lots of things I could write about music I discovered while I was away, especially since the final week of my trip was spent at the Dartington International Summer School in the UK where I did some vocal masterclasses and a fair bit of choral and small ensemble singing as well. Such a fun and inspiring week, and a terrific way to be exposed to a lot of new music all at once. But I thought I’d start by recollecting my short time in Prague. Being a bit of a whirlwind tour (six countries in 33 days), each place I visited seemed to have an overriding theme for the brief period I was there. Berlin for me was mostly about Cold War history, politics and culture; Spain was primarily a linguistic journey (through both English and Spanish, and the often intriguing differences between them); Iceland showed me the beauty of the natural world like I’ve never seen it before. But my two days in Prague were quite a musical couple of days, spent meandering the streets, hearing live music, and visiting the graves and museums of the Czech Republic’s two most notable composers.

It started with a four hour train ride from Berlin which, after crossing the Czech border,  takes a delightfully scenic route along the river Vltava (or the Moldau, in German) and into Prague. Through most of the trip I just put in my earphones, listened to some very appropriate Smetana and gazed out the window at charming villages. Arriving about lunchtime I wasted as little time as possible in getting out of the hotel to explore, but instead of heading into the centre of the city which I was saving for the following day, I walked south through backstreets until I reached Vyšehrad, or the High Castle, which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings. From up here, you not only get great views over Prague in all directions, but it’s here that both Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák are buried in the cemetery next to the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul.

The good mood I had enjoyed all morning was tainted only momentarily by a grumpy ticket woman at the entrance to the castle. My guide book had informed me that admission to Vyšehrad was free, but neglected to say anything about the small museum (really just one room with a few pictures and maps in it) at the front entrance which cost a tiny sum to look around, and so I sauntered in not even thinking about a charge or realising that what I was walking into was even a museum. Suddenly I was being told off by an indignant woman in Czech. A few other tourists glanced at me suspiciously. Yet every sign in the entire room had an English translation on it except for the one with the admission prices, so they weren’t exactly making it easy for the non-locals. I paid the equivalent of about one Aussie dollar to look around for all of three minutes, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the ticket woman on me the whole time. I couldn’t tell if she thought I was about to steal something or if she merely considered me a bit thick, but I quickly left to explore the rest of the grounds.

A sunny blue sky and a good view soon helped me forget the unfortunate encounter, and I wandered around the grounds and gardens taking a few pictures and people-watching before going into the cemetery. It’s not a very big place, but many of the graves are small and quite close together, so if you’re looking for someone in particular it could take a while to find on your own. Fortunately there’s a small map at the gate, with a list of prominent Czechs and their locations, so finding the musicians I’d come to see wasn’t too difficult. Smetana’s grave is marked by a rather austere obelisk; Dvořák’s on the other hand is a little more elaborate, and a much larger plot which is part of the long wall of tombs behind a cast iron fence. I couldn’t help feeling that the inequality of headstones was a little unfair given that Smetana has been referred to by many as the “father of Czech music”, but I suppose Dvořák is the better-known of the two by people outside the country, and possibly more revered in his own lifetime.

If you read my post last year about the Sibelius monument then you’ll know that one of my favourite things to do when I travel is to listen to music while out visiting culturally or historically important sites. Finlandia under the composer’s sculptured monument in Helsinki. Arvo Pärt in the oldest church in Estonia. Italian renaissance polyphony in the duomo in Verona. So it seemed only natural that I would honour each composer at their grave by doing the same. I found a place to sit not far from each tombstone where I could close my eyes and listen. (Note: This sometimes attracts odd looks from people.)

I confess that it was only in the lead up to my trip that I really started to acquaint myself with Smetana’s work, and so Vltava seemed the obvious choice, the famous movement of  Vlast (My Homeland) which is of course named after the longest river in the country. The opening portrays the river from its beginning as two small streams near the border with Austria to the south, and then becomes gloriously expansive as it flows through Prague and broadens on its journey towards Germany to the north. Wandering along the banks of the river the next day and crossing the iconic Charles Bridge, it was hard to resist humming the main theme which I’m sure is deeply rooted somewhere in the consciousness of all Czechs. However, I find it sad knowing that Smetana was completely deaf by the time he wrote it at the end 1874 – he never got to hear for himself the piece which most people know him for.

While I was more familiar with Dvořák’s music and could have chosen a number of things (the New World Symphony, the cello concerto, something from the Stabat Mater), I was moved to listen to one of my all time favourite arias, ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka. The first time I heard a recording of Renee Fleming singing this it literally stopped me in my tracks. I am quite a recent convert to opera, but this may have been one of the first things which really hooked me. There’s a brief synopsis to the storyline on Wikipedia, but it shares similarities with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid – Rusalka is a water nymph from Slavic mythology, who falls in love with a human prince. But as with all tragic love stories, their love comes at a cost. This aria is Rusalka asking the moon to tell the prince of her love. (Rusalka was also the name given to Dvořák’s house in Vysoká, a town about an hour south west of Prague where he spent much of his life and wrote some of his best and most mature works. You can just hear the wooden summerhouse and the small lake, and the large garden dotted with apple trees. It’s all right there in the music.)

So that was the beginning of my two days in Prague, supplemented nicely by street performers outside Prague Castle and around Malá Strana, and a ‘custom made for tourists’ but nonetheless excellent concert by a string quartet in the Old Town. I also passed a pleasant hour at the Dvořák Museum on my final morning listening to samples of his music sitting next to an upstairs window. Such a beautiful city with such a rich musical heritage. I will be back.

Posted in Orchestras & Instrumental Music, Solo Vocal Music, Travel | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Flying Orchestra

Since moving to Queensland about two and half years ago, I’ve really come to love my new home. In fact, recently I’ve had so many “I love Brisbane!” moments when I’ve been out doing ordinary things: people-watching in the city, strolling home from a friend’s place under starry skies after a cup of tea and chat, standing at the bus stop in the morning on the way to work and counting how many palm trees I can see (I think it was about sixteen without even really trying). With the exception of this week, Brisbane does a pretty decent winter and it’s mild and sunny most days, even if the temperature drops quickly as soon as the sun goes down. I do like it here.

Last year I discovered I really beautiful children’s book which is set in Brisbane, and it’s also about music. Chances are anyone in Australia with kids under five already knows about it, but that’s not me; I heard about it during the homily at a wedding of all places. The illustrations are just gorgeous and while Brisbane doesn’t really have any world-famous icons that make it obvious where the pictures are of, everyone who lives here will know City Hall (still undergoing renovations) and the view from Southbank across to the city. So when I’m walking past City Hall on my way into work, I often think of this book.

It’s called The Flying Orchestra by local author Clare McFadden, (you can see her reading the whole book on YouTube, with musical accompaniment) and it’s a beautiful short story about the orchestra which is always in the background, playing the soundtrack to all the events in our lives, big and small. It begins:

“Some days are so windy that even the angels lose their balance from the top of City Hall. It’s always a day like this when the Flying Orchestra blows into town.

Their concert program is a busy one – a violin solo when someone misses their train, a symphony at the airport for a traveller coming home, a concerto when someone stays awake all night thinking, and a sonata for a sad moment at a birthday party.”

That’s about a quarter of it so it’s not very long. If you have young children – or if you don’t – I highly recommend it.

Last week as I walked through the lovely tree-lined streets of suburban Ashgrove on a sunny morning, my flying orchestra was playing this. Just because.


I’m actually going overseas today for a month, heading to Europe for various wonderful adventures, including a friend’s wedding, a volunteer program and a music summer school. I am so excited, but the last few weeks have just been insanely busy, and I think I’ve only had one weekend since Easter where I haven’t had a rehearsal, concert, wedding or church service to sing at. It was last weekend. So that’s why the blog’s been quiet, as I demonstrate the near impossibility of maintaining a good writing habit on top of good work habits and good singing practice habits.

I will try to post at some point from the road though, as I’m pretty sure my flying orchestra has some Mendelssohn lined up to play for me in Berlin, and some Dvořák and Smetana in Prague, and maybe some Rodrigo in Spain.

What’s your flying orchestra playing for you today?

Posted in For children, Literature, Orchestras & Instrumental Music | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bach and Casals: A chance meeting in Barcelona

I finally finished reading Eric Siblin’s brilliant book The Cello Suites the other day. What a fantastic read! For all lovers of classical music – and even all potential lovers of classical music (by which I mean everyone else) – this really is a book not to be missed. The premise is simple: Eric Siblin, a reviewer of pop music, falls in love with the Bach Cello Suites upon hearing them live in performance one day and is compelled to trace their story. But what follows is a seamlessly-woven narrative of three stories, not just one.

First, there is Bach’s own story – his life, his family, his career, his manuscripts, his employers and patrons, his colleagues. For a composer that actually didn’t leave behind a great deal in the way of solid documentary evidence of his life and work, Siblin has done the most amazing job of researching Johann Sebastian Bach (not to mention all the other Bachs, of which there were dozens!) and bringing him to life for twenty-first century reader. Then there is the famous Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, without whom the world may never have known about these six obscure pieces for solo cello. Casals’ story lies against the backdrop of political turmoil of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and Casals himself spent much of his life in exile from his native Spain. Eric Siblin writes a poignant and moving exploration of Casals’ musical, political and personal life. And then there is Eric’s own story – immersing himself in the music of Bach, interviewing dozens of cellists, listening to every available recording of the suites, visiting places that Bach and Casals would have known well in their lifetimes, and even beginning to learn the cello himself. It’s a story that borders on obsession, but we have much to be thankful for his infatuation because he’s given us a brilliant book from it.

At the end of March I was fortunate enough to experience all six suites in concert in St John’s Cathedral by Brisbane cellist Patrick Murphy. Such a great evening, with refreshments served between the second and third suites (and again between the fourth and fifth) to break up the performance a bit. I was only part way through the book at the time, but the fact that I’ve been reading it slowly over the last couple of months has meant that I’ve delighted in dragging out my exploration of Bach, Casals and the music. I didn’t even want to come to the end of the book, I was enjoying it that much.

Since this is a blog about music and stories, I thought I’d share one of the early passages from the book in which Siblin paints a picture of the day the thirteen year old Pablo discovers a published copy of the Cello Suites (which at the time would have been little-known – those who knew of them were mostly academics who considered them purely technical exercises). It’s an account he pieced together from Casals’ own recollections, from wandering Barcelona, and from various other bits of research, but he writes like he was right there beside the young cellist. I feel like I can hear this story in the way Casals plays the first prelude – that, and it transports me right back to Barcelona. (Photos are my own from about February 2008.)

* * * * *

It was a leisurely stroll through the streets of Barcelona, past the heroic monuments and flower stalls, the Gothic arches and fashionable cafes, that rescued the world’s greatest cello music from obscurity. To imagine the scene, which took place one afternoon sometime in 1890, we have to picture Pablo and his father walking along the Ramblas, the city’s most celebrated avenue, shaded by plane trees, lined with neoclassical mansions, and teeming with markets selling fresh flowers, local produce, and birds in cages.

At thirteen, Pablo was small for his age, shorter even than the cello he was carrying, with close-cropped black hair, searching blue eyes, and a serious expression out of synch with his youth. His father, visiting from Vendrell, had a few hours to spend with the young cellist who was making a name for himself in the big city – they called him el nen, “the kid”. Pablo, who preferred his Catalan name of Pau, was working seven nights a week in a trio at the Cafe Tost, which was well known for its coffee and thick hot chocolate beverages. Earlier in the day Carlos had bought Pablo his first adult-sized cello, and the two had their eyes open for sheet music the boy could use for his cafe concerts.

They strolled in the vicinity of the Columbus monument, towering sixty-two metres above the eight bronze lions at its base. It was a fiercely proud Columbus, the world’s highest, clutching a parchment in one hand and pointing to the Mediterranean with the other, as if suggesting future discoveries. At some point Pablo and his father would have left the singing birds of the Ramblas and entered the tangle of narrow, twisting streets near the waterfront. Ironwork balconies were draped with laundry and flowers. The occasional stone gargoyle screamed mutely. There was a faint smell of the sea.

Father and son made their way through the cramped streets to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop. As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music, some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black lettering: Six Sonatas or Suites for Solo Violoncello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal Bach composed music for cello alone?

Pesetas were paid for the sheet music. Pablo could not unglue his eyes from the pages, beginning with the first movement, the prelude to everything. He glided home through the twisting streets to the rhythm of a music that was taking shape in his imagination, the sensual mathematics of the score filling him from footsteps to fingertips.

He would have heard the first prelude as an opening statement, improvisatory, like a leisurely stroll that ends serendipitously. The ground is prepared for all that follows: structure, character, narrative. The comfortable pulse undulates into more intricate passages. The baritone soliloquy grows in intensity, solidifying, gathering strength, ascending a great height where a vast panorama reveals itself. Pause for one beat. The stakes are raised. Struggle is pressed into service. In time, a satisfying denouement.

Pablo looked again at the score. He would practice it every day for twelve years before mustering the courage to play the suites in public.

* * * * *

Pages 37-39 of The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin. Published (in Australia) by Allen & Unwin, 2009.

Posted in Literature, Orchestras & Instrumental Music, Travel | 1 Comment

Comfort Food

Just a short post today – I know I’ve been a little quiet lately. Well, quiet on here, but very busy elsewhere. Time flies when you’re learning about rocks and singing Bach. (Not at the same time.) I had the most wonderful Bach-filled day yesterday: a six hour rehearsal for a concert I have coming up in a fortnight, followed by an incredible once-in-a-decade performance of the complete Bach Cello Suites which I went to at St John’s. I suspect I will write about the cello suites in a future post, but today I just want to share a simple but beautiful piece that it turns out has been lurking in my iTunes for several years. I probably listened to the whole CD when I first acquired it, but it was only recently that I was struck by the magic of this particular track.

I’ve written a couple of times here and here about the enjoyment that can be found in purposefully setting out to discover new music. I think it’s a really valuable and important thing to do (especially if you are a musician), because being exposed to the unfamiliar is how we broaden our tastes and influences, which in turn helps us grow. But I think I also need to acknowledge the flip side of that – sometimes what you really want is the comfortingly familiar, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either. I was reminded a couple of weeks ago when I hit a short bout of illness that there are times when the body, mind and soul just crave simplicity, not challenge. I had the best of intentions for my next post (i.e. this one) to be Composer Date #2, but try as I might I couldn’t summon the energy or the right frame of mind for choosing a composer and exploring unknown musical territory. During the few days where I did nothing much except sleep, my body asked for comfort food, and so did my mind.

So I guess that’s how I would describe this piece, which is an arrangement of a traditional American song that I already knew well. There’s something rich and wholesome about this music, and there’s an innocence to it as well. It’s not pretentious and doesn’t try to be something it’s not – it just is. But it’s also not so simple that it has no substance; there are some beautiful chord progressions in there (1:50-2:00 is yummy), and I love the unassuming but nonetheless integral piano accompaniment. The warmth of that choral tone also seems to have divine healing properties – it certainly made me feel better, anyway, listening to it several times a day. The recording is from a group conducted by Tony Funk, an inspiring musician who I’ve worked with several times and have truckloads of respect for.

So this is my “comfort food” – my chicken soup, my hot buttered crumpets with honey, my jelly and custard with icecream. If you’re in need of some comfort as well, then I’d start right here. Do your soul a three minute favour.

What’s your musical “comfort food”? Please feel free to leave a comment and share something.

Oh, and I promise I’ll return to dating composers… soon…

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A musical remembrance for Japan

I think it says a lot about us as human beings that we instinctively turn to music during times of crisis and sadness. Whether personal, communal, national or global crises, once the numbing sensation of shock wears off, we are so often driven to music – driven by an unspoken knowledge that music is the great healer and will do for our grief what no other medium can achieve in quite the same way. This is not a new revelation, of course – I’m just telling you something that I suspect you already figured out a long time ago. Maybe when you went through a break up, or had to choose music for the funeral of a loved one. There’s a sense that the music that accompanies you through this part of your life matters in a way that it didn’t before. Layer upon layer of meaning is entrenched in music that has the privilege of seeing us through a difficult time.

I found myself musing today about the influence our global interconnectedness has on collective grieving in the twenty-first century.  How the outpouring of a grief response from a planet with several billion people on it, a great many of them sharing the same sadness at the same time for the same reason, has only been possible in the last ten years or so. Less, even. And how, thanks to the wonders of technology, the same music can be a channel for processing that sadness among people who have never met and will never meet. Is it just me who finds this extraordinary?

I’ve noticed a few tributes to Japan popping up today in various forms, marking the one year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that swept across large parts of coastal Japan with astonishing devastation. The music I’m sharing today is not actually about Japan. But it could be. And one of the reasons why I find it so moving and poignant is because it seems to be one of those songs with the power to bring people together through a shared experience. The song, called Requiem, was originally written in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami which took the lives of more than a quarter of a million people on Boxing Day 2004 and in the weeks following.

I first heard the piece last year sometime – I discovered the choral arrangement below first – and only later found out that it was a setting of a song by popular/folk/country singer Eliza Gilkyson. (Who I actually saw perform live in Melbourne a few years ago, but I didn’t know about this song then.) And not long ago I found a radio interview with Eliza where she talks about her impetus for writing it:

“We were all just glued to the television, all of us just watching these horrific events unfold. And almost immediately there was a benefit where a lot of major stars did a fundraiser on television. And I remember I watched the fundraiser, and I was touched by people stepping forth and asking for help and donations. But at the time I was struck by the actual music they were playing. I felt it was so disconnected to the event and somehow I was inspired to write something that would connect in a more visceral way, to create a vehicle for grieving for victims of the tsunami.”

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in September 2005 she found herself thinking more about Requiem again.

“I think people here in this country because of what’s happened in New Orleans have been wanting to find songs that address what this country’s going through right now. I thought that once again there was this need to grieve, and I was grateful that I had a piece of music that could offer that prayer and that option for consolation of some sort, some sort of image of compassion. I was glad I had a song that could address it, it’s been a sad time for everyone.”

Clearly, this was a song that people responded to. The choral arrangement by Craig Heller Johnson, who conducts Conspirare, has pretty much gone viral itself and has been sung all around the world, even by people for whom the underlying religious sentiment of the text is not personally significant. (Oh, and for the interested folk among you there’s also a short clip where Eliza talks about her use of Mary as the archetype of compassion, despite not being particularly religious herself.)

A year ago, when the Japan earthquake and tsunami hit, it resurfaced again in online tributes, including a version on YouTube with a backdrop of photos of the devastated areas. I’ll admit it – I find it hard not to cry when I watch it, and it’s a moment of truly cathartic release when I do. To know that I’m just one of thousands of people who probably have this reaction too is somewhat comforting. Living in the world today means that we’re never really disconnected from global crises, and global expressions of grief. And I think that’s a good thing. So today I find myself listening to this, as I recall the sadness of the events last year, and the deeply human need to process loss and devastation in times of natural disaster. Thinking of the people of Japan, as they continue to rebuild their homes and lives.

Posted in Choirs & Choral Music, Folk & Popular Music | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Date #1: Seduced by Scriabin

My goodness, life gets busy doesn’t it? Working, singing, dating… well, probably more of the first two and less of the last but they’ve all kept me occupied recently. At the end of January I started a new job in a field completely unrelated to anything I have ever done in the past (geology, of all things! Insert rock music jokes here) so that’s claiming a fair amount of my mental energy lately. Last weekend I was out of town for a rehearsal weekend to do some intensive work with Brisbane Chamber Choir on repertoire for the current season, and the first performances are now less than a week out. And I’ve also been busy booking a month-long European trip in July this year, so nutting out all the details of that has left less time for extras like blogging and listening to new music.

A couple of weeks ago you’ll recall that I issued myself a challenge – in addition to going on five real-life dates in five weeks, I’m also attempting to go on five “blind dates” with composers to see if I click with anyone new. Reading more of Christopher Lawrence’s book Swooning is also making me aware of just how many composers there are out there whose names I am familiar with but whose music I’m not. Names that I have often heard on the radio or read in books and that I can link to places and times, and in many instances I even know who their contemporaries were. However, if pressed I couldn’t identify or name a single one of their works. So I decided these would become my primary criteria for a “blind” date:

1) not knowing anything about them beyond very sketchy biographical details, and

2) not being able to hum, recognise or instantly name any of their music.

So I have embarked on the journey, selecting a handful of composers and trawling the interwebs for recordings of their work, actively listening (as opposed to having it on in the background) to however many pieces it takes to find something that resonates with me. For some composers that might happen instantly, and others might take a little while, but I’m assuming for the moment that I can find something to like of even the most obscure and “out there” composers. [Note: If you want to put that to the test and recommend someone extreme, go ahead – I’m up for a challenge!]

So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to the guy behind door number one.

* * * * *

When I was a kid, my parents had a poster on the back of our kitchen door that was a sort of timeline of notable Western classical composers. Every composer was represented by their own coloured line (different colours for different nationalities) and their life span was mapped out in comparison to each other so you could see who was alive when. In the bottom left corner was a panel of photos or portraits of selected composers, maybe twenty-five or so. Many were looking straight ahead, but for the few that weren’t, my brother and I used to make up silly explanations for what they were thinking, or where their gaze was directed. The one that sticks in my mind the most is Alexander Scriabin, who had a moustache more suited to a cartoon character than a real person, and who had a distinctive starry-eyed, wondrous, gazing-off-into-the-distance kind of expression. But what was most amusing was that, in our kitchen, he was looking longingly at the tins of cat food lined up along the top of the pantry. So in our house he became “Scriabin, the composer who liked cat food”. Yes, really. Until very recently, whenever I heard his name THIS is what came to mind.

Poor Alexander. What a reputation to have. Pretty sure this is a major disservice to a man who pushed some serious boundaries with his music during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. So I’ve set out to correct this perception, and see what he was really like. (Note: I can fairly confidently say, however, that I would never go on a real-life date with someone if the only thing I knew about them was that they liked cat food. Just saying.)

Well Scriabin was quite the character, as it turns out. Born into an aristocratic family in Moscow in 1871, he grew up surrounded by pianos and pianists and became pretty fascinated with the instrument from an early age – apparently somewhat precocious, he would often demand that his aunt play for him, and when he was a bit older started building his own pianos. So, you know… probably not the most sociable of kids. There was an unsuccessful attempt to conduct an orchestra comprised of local children, and he would put on little performances of his own short plays and operas with puppets, presumably to whomever he could get to watch them. I can’t help imagining a cross between Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons, and Schroeder from the Peanuts cartoons. With a moustache.

He became a remarkable pianist and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, but as he got older he delved into all kinds of weird and wonderful philosophies – he was into mysticism and theosophy but also exceptionally narcissistic, attaching a great deal of significance to his birth date (Christmas Day in the Russian Orthodox calendar, but 6 January in the Gregorian). So he effectively believed himself to be a bit of a cult figure, also having been influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas about the coming of a superhuman. And he had periods of alcoholism, which fuelled his belief in his own omnipotence. So, deluded and mentally ill seems to be the consensus nowadays. Scriabin also claimed to be synaesthetic, experiencing music as colours, but a fair amount of research into synaesthesia over the last century would suggest he probably wasn’t, and that it was more likely psychological in his case, rather than neurological. The fact that his personal colour wheel aligned neatly with the circle of fifths is probably a little too convenient, shall we say.

His music started out being heavily influenced by the great Romantic composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt, but he increasingly played with unusual tonality and chromaticism and developed a sound world that was distinctly his own. He was innovative and highly controversial, well-liked by some and wildly unpopular with others, but most certainly famous within his lifetime. Most of his music was written for the piano, but he produced some orchestral work too, primarily a piano concerto and several symphonies. One of these symphonies, or symphonic poems as they’re commonly referred to, is the Poem of Ecstasy. Scriabin called it his “Orgiastic Poem”; Christopher Lawrence says it’s the only orchestral work he knows of about multiple orgasms, complete with phallic trumpet. (And if that doesn’t make you go and have a listen, then what will?!)

If you think Scriabin’s life was unusual, by the way, then consider how it ended: at the age of 43, a large pimple underneath his moustache became infected and he died of blood poisoning. Given that, at the time of his death, he was in the process of writing a large scale work to be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas with lots of bells and whistles like scent and light and dancing, and which was somehow supposed to bring about the end of the world, I think he would have been rather disappointed to pass away so unglamorously.

Anyway, I had a meander through quite a few of his works on YouTube, in search of a piece that would help me connect with this mad genius. I’ll be honest, it took me a little while. It’s not all pour-yourself-a-glass-of-red-and-lie-back-on-the-couch-while-the-music-washes-over-you kind of experience. It’s not unpleasant either, but some of it does feel like a completely different musical language to what I’m used to (although I do think my tastes are continually broadening). Which is fine, that was the whole point of this exercise, right?

I started my exploration fairly randomly, just typing his name into YouTube and clicking on the first few things that came up. I think I’ve figured out that his later work (basically anything from 1900 onwards) is going to require some dedication on my part to really appreciate it. Like the Poeme Satanique, or the aptly-named Ironies in C Major (because it isn’t – until the very last chord). But when I listened to pieces which date back to his teenage years and early twenties, I found some of it was really quite accessible. There are a series of 12 Etudes (studies) from 1894 that are very beautiful – I liked No. 11. But I was really hoping that somewhere there would be a piece that from the very first bar would have me saying “Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for!” And there was.

When the piano starts so poignantly just as the clarinet takes over the theme (about 1:37), it’s like tiny raindrops just starting to make ripples on the surface of a still lake. I love the intimacy of the orchestra as it repeats what it had to say at the very beginning, but lets the piano join the conversation over the top. I love the images that accompany this track as well – very other worldly. It fits somehow. This is the second of the three movements and the other two are wonderful as well, but the opening of this movement might be one of my new favourite passages of music. Totally entrancing.

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Second date potential: 3/5

Well, what girl can resist a Russian megalomaniac who thinks he’s God, writes some powerfully erotic music, and sees C major in vibrant crimson? I would love to say 4 based on the beauty of the piano concerto, but alas Scriabin didn’t stay 24 forever. I will definitely come back to his work at some point, and I’m glad I took the time to learn something about him, but I’m not sure if there’s a long-term future here. At least I don’t still think he likes cat food.

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