In 1986, I had the honor, among all the male members of the Westminster Choir, to participate in a concert version of Rigoletto with Renato Bruson and Cecilia Gasdia conducted by then Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti. This was the beginning for me of many experiences with this magnificent conductor who not only made great music but inspired the young members of the Choir every chance he got. During my time in the Westminster Choirs, I must have participated in at least two productions yearly with the Philadelphia Orchestra and took part in two recordings: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Berlioz’ Romeo et Juliette with Jessye Norman, Simon Estes and John Aler and James Morris among the soloists for the two works.
On one occasion when we were preparing Bruckner’s Te Deum, Maestro Muti visited the campus as he always did for the first round of rehearsals. In the Salvum fac populum, which includes a tenor solo, Maestro Muti began singing the solo in a very clear, pretty (if a little unsupported) voice. It looks as if he was going to sing the whole solo, but when he got to the tenor high A, he took it one octave lower, and the Choir burst into laughter, because it looked like, up to the last minute, he was going to go for the A. He, laughing, jokingly reprimanded us for laughing at him. We were clearly laughing with him. At our rehearsal the next day in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, where we performed, the soloists were present. Frank Lopardo was the tenor and I vividly remember Mark S. Doss as bass soloist. When we got to the Salvum fac populum, Mr. Lopardo ripped into the solo, but when he got the high A, he turned to the chorus and took it an octave down, to which the normally very concentrated Westminster Choir under Joseph Flummerfelt, lost it and burst into a roar of spontaneous laughter. You see, Maestro Muti explained that for our benefit, he called Mr. Lopardo in the night, who was traveling from Milano and prepared the joke with him. Some 25 years later, I am here retelling the story on this blog. I have a great love for this man, and was very happy that he is the recipient of the Nilsson Prize. Furthermore, it is my great hope that Maestro Muti will be around for a long time and as this tenor voice of mine is taking shape, I put the dream out in the Universe that I might sing with him one day. But my dream is not the subject of this blog!
Who is going to save our art? How many times do we complain about how the art form is degrading by superficiality, etc? And how many times the young singers who want to connect to the upper echelons of the business claim that everything is fine and that we middle-aged and older fogies are nostalgically remembering the past to the detriment of the future?
Recently the great violinist and conductor, Gidon Kremer wrote his now legendary letter of withdrawal to the Verbier festival administration, explaining his need to be true to himself and music by withdrawing from the superficiality of the music business for the sake of the art. There were as many letters from conductors and other musicians in support of Maestro Kremer’s letter as there were business types who thought the letter was unfair. But that this letter made its way through the Web so quickly speaks to its resonance throughout the music world. Yet there is no movement to reverse this on a large scale. Does this mean that the world of music is not run by the artists, but by the business people? By the money? Rhetorical question! The bookkeeper is running the arts and that is the problem!
It is easy to talk about the problem, but what do we do about it? My students often ask me about this. To me, it is quite simple. We start with ourselves!
For my part, I teach a principle that requires a little bit of time in the case of singers who come with muscular imbalances. But I put the hours in to make sure it does not take any more time than it needs to, but the student must be committed to the time that it should take. Too many are not interested in a solid technique, but a quick fix. I’m uninterested in those frankly and I usually know them when I meet them. So I teach them as long as they can stand it, hoping they will leave with principles that might help them if they ever realize that there are no shortcuts.
For my part, I do not charge students more than they can afford. I charge professionals more than aspiring professionals and work out a price with my students while teaching them as often as they need to be taught to really make a difference. Yet it takes a lot of my time and as my studio grows I have to find ways to make it work more efficiently, but the quality of the teaching must not be compromised.
For my part, I keep challenging myself as an artist, till aspiring in my new tenor incarnation to be the best artist that I can be. At 45 years old I should be skeptical of ever singing at a high professional level again, but I will be sharing my exploits with you soon. I begin with a fund raising concert in Washington D.C. on 29 October 2011 to raise money to rebuild a music school that was destroyed in the Haitian Earthquake in early 2010. Then I will participate in a reading of Mozart’s Idomeneo. Sounds humble? Yes! But little steps lead to bigger steps. I am not afraid of time!
And that is the problem in general. As a teacher, I encounter a lot of singers who are afraid of the passing of time, while aspiring to master an art form that is supposed to be timeless. The irony is disarming!
But on the positive side, I work with a studio full of singers who are willing to take the time to do it right. And it pleases my heart so very much that I discovered the Muti clip this morning while I had my morning coffee at Starbucks in Berlin, near my studio, after traveling on the night train from Bonn, having heard one of the singers I guide in a thrilling performance of the title role of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. More important, I drove her from Zwickau to Bonn on Sunday because she needed to rest after her triumph the night before as Tosca in her home theater. Her Manon sounded totally fresh, after that full-out Tosca the night before. That is old school! As long as there are musicians like this excellent soprano, who embodies patience, we will not have lost it all.
But for the art of music to conserve its dignity, it will be up to all of us to have the guts to take the time to do it right and believe that at the end of the day, substance trumps a nice hairdo and a six-pack any day! If you don’t believe it, become a pop singer! Nothing wrong with it! Just don’t be a pop diva posing as a classical musician! The two are and should be two different things that share certain elements. For the record, I am a proud owner of a six-pack, but I am not going to present myself to La Scala tomorrow because of it. If it serves me in addition to a fully developed musical talent, so much the better, but I would never want to go to my grave wondering if I only got to sing because of it!
Every sign is pointing to the end of the superficial excesses in our culture during the past generation. I firmly believe that the values that made singers like Birgit Nilsson will dominate again. I recommend we all join the reconstruction!