July 28, 2011

Umbrian Serenades: Concert in Spoleto at Sant'Eufemia

How often do you have the opportunity to sing sacred music with a wonderful group of singers in a 12th century Romanesque space? That is exactly what I am doing with the Umbrian Serenades program in Spoleto this evening at Sant'Eufemia, a de-consecrated church off the main plaza in Spoleto Italy.

I've been in the heart of Umbria singing with the Umbrian Serenades - a wonderful choral program founded by Paulo Faustini and Holly Phares - for a little over a week now. There are 25 of us. We've rehearsed quite a bit over the past week (making music is serious business but also serious fun), and in the process have gotten to know each other quite well. How can you not when you stay up late sipping grappa, sharing stories, and experiencing the magic that is Spoleto during fabulous meals and jaunts about town?

There is something special in making music with like-minded singers in such an amazing place as Spoleto, and in a sacred place such as Sant'Eufemia. The acoustic is phenomenal. And as for Spoleto itself, it has a sweetness about it that is at once palpable and ineffable. The food, the people and the light- all meld together to create a chiaroscuro delight. You must come and experience it for yourself. You won't be disappointed!

July 25, 2011

Umbrian Serenades in Spoleto Italy

It's early here is Spoleto- a beautiful town in the heart of Umbria, Italy. And even though it is not quite 7 am as I write, the light is luminous, as though one is inside a painting by Giotto. Words can't quite describe it. What am I doing here in his amazing place? Singing with the Umbrian Serenades, a choral program founded by Paulo Faustini and Holly Phares, colleagues from my student days at Westminster Choir College. All three of us were here in the 1980's as part of the Spoleto Festival. And here I am again (I still can't quite believe it), singing under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, Musical America's 2004 conductor of the year, and the director of Westminster Choir.

Being in Spoleto after 26 years reveals one thing: you can go home again. As it is, my first experience being in Spoleto was life changing: I had my solo debut singing in the Faure Requiem, heard an orchestra up close for an extended period which changed how I sang (hearing a good string section opens up the ears), and made music for the first time on a high level. And while I am not here as a soloist or singing with an orchestra, the Umbrian Serenades is a high level musical experience. 

Singing with Joseph Flummerfelt again as a absolute joy. This is a man who is a legendary choral musician. Rehearsals are all about making music, which becomes immediately apparent in the first rehearsals with his deceptively simple exercise of singing in parallel fifths. Not an easy exercise, this tunes our 25 voices together in a way that mirrors the light outside our rehearsal space (a 16th century chapel).  It glows.

We'll be singing on the Duomo porch tomorrow night, which will be followed by three concerts later in the week. I'll be writing more about the experience as the week progresses. But right now, a wonderful breakfast awaits, and then a full day of rehearsal, which will be followed by an Umbrian cooking class. We'll be making the local dish: Strangozzi. And I'm so sorry you won't be here to taste it and the glass of red wine that will go along with it.

More about Spoleto and the Umbrian Serenades in the days to come.

July 11, 2011

Charles Kullman

I thought Charles Kullman should appear again since I referenced him in my post on Lanny Ross a few days ago. Both tenors studied at Yale, sang in the glee club, and were students of Anna E. Schoen-René at the Juilliard School.

One has the distinct impression when listening to Kullman that he didn't have a big voice, but rather, knew- or was taught- how to make the most of what he had. I am thinking the latter! His vocal production is unforced, yet quite resonant.

Legion are the singers who strain to sing repertoire that is more dramatic than the voice can withstand, yet, upon hearing Kullman, one has the sense that he knew where the cliff was. That comes with expert training which he seems to have have gotten under the tutelage of Schoen-René. Of course, I am harping when I mention (yet again) that students of Kullman's generation were made to develop vocal technique for at least two semesters before they were allowed to sing repertoire. Vocal training was systematic in nature, progressively difficult and unrelenting. Students learned to create - among many things-  a beautiful tone with full voice, then mezza voce, decrescendo and crescrendo, trills, and finally, the messa di voce- all with clear unobstructed vowels. Force was not a consideration.

It took a heck of a lot of work.

July 8, 2011


Francesco Lamperti 

He vehemently deprecates intelligence and an inquiring spirit in his eleves, and refuses to have anything to do with them unless they render him a blind and unreasoning obedience. I do not want the wrong-headed: you must obey me like a dog! is a favorite axiom of this agreeable gentleman. - Dwight's Journal of Music, 1877 

July 7, 2011

Lanny Ross

Believe it or not, there was a time when the line between classical and popular singing hardly existed, at least technically speaking. One only has to look to a singer like Lanny Ross, a tenor and Yale graduate who studied with Anna E. Schoen-René at the Juilliard School in the 1930's.

Anna E. Schoen-Rene was an exponent of Pauline Viardot-García and Manuel García, and taught the García principles of singing to her students in a formalistic fashion, that is, she insisted that they sing scales and exercises for a whole year before singing any repertoire. Who does that today? In any case, under her tutelage, Lanny Ross did not pursue a career in opera, but got his start in the burgeoning business of radio, where he sang for more than 25 years. He also appeared in a few films in Hollywood and had his own television show in the 1950's. He sang in a style that would now be considered anachronistic on The Voice, which only points out how great the divide between classical and popular music has become. Here he is singing We Mustn't Say Goodbye from the 1943 film Stage Door Canteen.

Mr. Ross sounds like a classical singer to our ears, one that might be singing Tamino in The Magic Flute. Is the listener hearing the technique that was handed down to Manuel Garcia I from Giovanni Anzani, a student of Nicola Porpora? That is one question to ask. One way to mull the matter over would to be find another tenor student of Schoen-René. We are in luck. Charles Kullman, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera, can be heard here singing The World is Mine Tonight. Kullman also studied with Schoen-Rene at the Juilliard School. While Kullman sings with a fuller tone than Ross, both men sing with clear vowels, smoothness of delivery- and dare I say- similarity of placement.