Wednesday, November 22, 2017

R.I.P. Dmitri Hvorostovsky -- Farewell to a unique vibration

Some 15 years ago, I sang in a concert honoring the pianist Dalton Baldwin on his 70th birthday.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky, already a world star also sang in that concert. Other than the occasional brief greetings at an event, that was our only significant interaction.  The baritone however is one of the singers who captured my imagination when I sang as a baritone and was doing the competition circuit.  He was three years older than his colleague Bryn Terfel. Their vocal duel in the final round of the 1989 edition of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition is the stuff of operatic lore.  The two became inextricably linked, at least in the minds of baritones of that generation.  Both had particularly rich voices for their vocal category.  Hvorostovsky, a lyric baritone took on the Verdian repertoire and Terfel, probably more suited to Verdi opted instead to focus on Wagner.  Whether their darker hued voices confused those that were hiring, or that the gatekeepers opted to Fach up these two vibrant artists because the need for bona fide dramatic voices was being felt already in the early 90s is anyone's guess.  Most likely both reasonings played a role.

Hovorostovsky, if not a truly dramatic baritone in voice, was one in spirit.  He understood the Verdian temperament, he had the requisite cantilena and the physical presence to inhabit the Verdian baritone.  In an operatic arena that was more and more dominated by electronic media, he appeared at just the right time to become a world star.  In certain lyric roles like Rossini's Figaro, Onegin, Valentin, Prince Yetletsky and even Posa, he was unusually convincing:




His beautiful baritone voice was however not made for the heavier parts like Renato in Un ballo in maschera, or Di Luna beyond the cavatina.

One particularly significant contribution was his championing of Russian Romances (Art Songs).  His many recordings encouraged developing singers, myself included, to look at the Russian song repertoire with less fear of the language.




Dmitri Alexandrovitsch Hvorostovsky, like most of the singers of his generation came to symbolise a turn in the modern operatic aesthetic:  A unique vibration above all else.  His unique voice is immediately recognisable.  His emotional commitment to every sung moment is unmistakable in his plaintive voice.  The often used Verdian direction: "con voce spiegata" probably found true meaning in his declamation more than any that come to my mind.  He was not the "next Bastianini" as many in the operatic world wanted to label him, thinking it would be great marketing.  No, he was the "first Dmitri Hvorostovsky!" And that is much more important and lasting.  I am personally thankful this artist has walked this earth and left us with his unique and unforgettable vibration. I will always hear his voice whenever I hear this Tchaikovsky song:




...Thou thy earthly task has done, home art gone and ta'en thy wages...(Shakespeare)

© 11/22/2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Time Is On the Side of the Persistent

There are too many axioms that advise patience and persistence in the pursuit of an objective.  That should be obvious and commonsensical to anyone who takes the time to think.  However, it has never been the habit of the common man to be patient.  Otherwise there would not exist so many philosophies suggesting that longterm accomplishments require time and hard work.  Our societies, if not at their onsets, then certainly the more they develop, have aspired to make quick use of the few who by happenstance have acquired certain competences, rather than invest in the seriousness of those who engage their pursuits with commitment, regardless of how long they take.

After some 30 years of teaching singing, it has been my observation along the way that those who have had an easy path find it difficult to face challenges because they were not trained for them.  The number of singers who have a brilliant start and end up as "a flash in the pan"are too numerous to mention and in fact even useless to spend time on.

There is a well-known saying:  

"You can take the horse to water, but you cannot force it to drink."

The saying should be updated to say: 

“You may take the horse to water but do not expect it to drink!”  

I would never tell a student “you cannot.” But occasionally it might be a good idea to test a student’s resolve by saying so and see how they respond!  Then again I’m not one for head games and there are enough people in the word who revel in discouragement. Students will not lack for opportunities to be discouraged. Whether our students take our teaching and advice seriously is not in our control.  We must use our limited time on those who are serious, determined and engaged.  They will reveal themselves.

And so I celebrate some students this week who are enjoying the earned fruits of their hard labor.  I am proud of them and celebrate our teamwork.  It is the most extraordinary experience to watch the moment when a singer resonates with his/her unique vibration.  It’s like meeting a hiker who was lost in the woods for years and kept looking for the path home and found it. In essence, the path to excellence is a search for one’s personal truth.  We teachers are Tenzing Norgays guiding a new climber to the top of Mt. Everest.  It’s an exhausting climb and we cannot waste such energy on the “weak of heart.”  Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to make it to the top of Everest could not have done it without Tenzing Norgay, who worked as a lowly porter on several expeditions.  However that experience prepared Norgay to be a proper guide and partner to Sir Edmund.  Norgay’s remarkable training was necessary for success.  Yet Norgay’s skills would not have been worth much in that expedition if Sir Edmund were not committed and prepared.  The recognition was given to both equally.  But it is not about recognition from the outside.  I would have been interesting to see how the two men interacted.  There must have been an extraordinary level of trust between them.

In honor of those who persevere and take the road less traveled in search of their truths, and out of respect for my own time, I must say no to the uncommitted.  I will invest in the “Amateur” but not the “Dilettante.”  The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority “prefers” to believe they are inadequate out of fear of failure rather than that they have it in themselves to achieve! 

Finally, I honor the most accomplished among us.  There are some fortunate ones who have had a relatively easy path in their early stages, leading to early successes. Instead of resting on their easy laurels, they challenge themselves to reach ever greater heights.  They are the few who end up inspiring millions. Unfortunately only a few will act upon that inspiration.

©  11/16/2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Legato: A more global concept

Legato: (mus) Un gruppo di note eseguite senza interrompere il suono tra l'una e l'altra (A group of notes executed without interrupting the sound from one [note] to the other).

This is the musical definition from the online dictionary of Italy's premiere newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera.  It is a fair definition.  The discussion continues however when we ask ourselves:

"how can there be interruption between one note and another?"

 1. The obvious is that there is an actual silence between notes (staccato--detached).

However, interruption can be also perceived:

2. When an unvoiced consonant appears between vocalic sounds and vocal fold vibration is perceivably stopped, or

3. When a voiced consonant is experienced as remarkably less vibrant than surrounding vocalic sounds, or

4. When resonance is lost or reduced from one vocalic note to another.

When we analyse a vocal line in that way, it becomes immediately clear that legato is not only a musical concept (e.g. think of the direction of the phrase) but rather a technically global concept that will be effected by breath management, phonation and resonance issues.

In other words, "interruption" can be perceived as not merely an interruption of sound, but also as a change in the quality of the emission (e.g. intensity, resonance balance or even vocalic integrity when one vowel is sung over several notes).

This should serve to explain that the Italian Bel Canto Tradition has left us a number of words that symbolise vocal technique in a global and organic manner.  Taking words like legato, appoggio, morbidezza, squillo, etc, in literal and one dimensional terms is tantamount to a misapplication of the greater philosophy of Bel Canto.  All the pieces are interrelated!

© September 27 2017