August 15, 2012

Corona & Chiaroscuro

This glorious 18th century dome in the 12th century church of S. Michele Arcangelo is located in Bevagna, Italy, where I had the pleasure of singing with Umbrian Serenades this summer - the town, not the church, I should note. (We performed in a older church up the street that is now deconsecrated performance space.) The Romanesque S. Michele Arcangelo was made over in high Baroque style in the 18th century and subsequently restored to its original appearance in the 1950's, the domed chapel surviving, perhaps, because of its virtuosic craftsmanship. When I first saw it after walking through the unadorned nave, I thought: "This is the essence of chiaroscuro." Light illuminating darkness, the term applies to the art of painting as much as it does singing. In the latter, it has everything to do with the perception of tone.

Here is a view of the church looking from the altar to the entrance, the chapel in the picture above is off to the left in the foreground. As you can see, the restoration of the sanctuary has stripped it of its Baroque ornamentation, leaving simple marble, stone and stucco. 

The crypt underneath the altar is a large space resonant space, perfect for concerts. I stood in the middle of the room and sang a few bars of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, imagining monks doing something similar a thousand years ago at the birth of polyphony. It was, well....magical. 

Narrow windows in our concert space let in just enough light to give the impression that, in a darker age, the room was womb-like and full of mystery. Domes, arches, vertical architecture and high ceilings with strategically placed windows in all these these spaces impel one to look - no - think and feel upwards. It is the same with beautiful singing in an earlier age. Old world pedagogues often talked about the dome at the back of the mouth while making a circle with a hand above the head, telling students to sing into the corona and spin, spin, spin the tone. You don't hear this much in pedagogical circles anymore seeing that we've gotten anatomically oriented and mad about function, parts and trying to control everything. My own teacher would cut right through this and say: "Your mask starts here!" While pointing to her upper lip. Then: "It ends here!" While pointing to the crown of her head. Need I say that this is a matter of listening rather than doing? 

August 13, 2012

Umbrian Serenades 2012

I returned to Spoleto, Italy, for two weeks this summer, singing with the excellent a-cappella group Umbrian Serenades which was founded by my friend Paulo Faustini. We spent a week rehearsing before singing in an informal concert on the porch of the Duomo, which is what the Westminster Choir used to do during the Festival of Two Worlds. That the Westminster Choir's conductor - Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt - was our Maestro, only made the it that much sweeter, at least for me anyway: Dr. Flummerfelt asked me to sing the baritone solos in the Fauré Requiem with the Westminster Choir in 1985. So yes, you kinda-sorta can go home again.

The porch has excellent acoustics and sends the voice far out into the piazza. As it is, my fellow Serenaders and I stood on the same steps as I did when a graduate student, only this time, I was using reading glasses as you can see in the video below. Ha! There I am in the white shirt on an upper step, looking over my big ol' chunky reading glasses, lowering my head in order to see the Maestro. Of course, this isn't the smartest move for a singer. Things can get cramped, twisted, pinched and held. Did I suffer? No, of course not. I've been around the block more than once. But in retrospect, I should have either worn my gold-rimmed bifocals or clear half-lensed readers so I wouldn't have had to lower my head to see. It would have made for a better performance for both the audience and me. I mean: who wants to watch Harry Potter sing? (Side note: I recently received a text on the aging choral singer and don't remember reading anything about singing with reading glasses.)

The young singer, men especially, can have a tendency to lower the head in order to fix the larynx and obtain a deeper tone, which, I hasten to note, is always a bad idea. It comes off as false. 

"Lift your head!" I say to a young bass-baritone who has a beautiful, but overly dark voice. 

"But I can't hear myself!" He replies.

"You'll want to get used to what you hear when your head is level."



"But it sounds...." Words fail him. 

"Do you feel anything in your throat?" 


"Good!  What do you hear in your head?" 

"It sounds...... raspy." 

I tell him Giovanni Battista Lamperti talked about the singer's audition in Vocal Wisdom, saying that, when the vibration of the voice is correct, it may sound like phlegm, and that - in modern terms - this is what bone conduction sounds like. His eyes pop open. 

"That's it!" He says. 

Funny, isn't it, how old things are new again?  

Keep your head up, dear reader, and let the audience see your face. It conveys your thoughts and emotions after all. 

Soprano- Edie Yeager - a wonderful colleague with a gorgeous voice.