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Symphony concert not to be missed – Mozart’s Requiem

On November 21, 2019 and November 23, 2019, the Louisiana Philharmonic will be performing Mozart’s Requiem, and I highly encourage everyone, even those who are rare symphony-goers to attend.

You see, a work of this size requires a full orchestra, a full choir, and a set of opera singers for its success. That’s a lot more musicians on the stage collaborating than in your typical symphony concert where you’d have a full orchestra playing with a soloist and then just a full orchestra. And it is something to be appreciated.

Also, works like Mozart’s Requiem are particularly soul-stirring in my opinion. This work was one of the last works that Mozart composed before his death – he worked on it in the second half of 1791 and died in December 1791, leaving the work unfinished (ultimately finished by a student of his, named Franz Xaver Sussmayr). Parts of the requiem were performed for Mozart’s own funeral mass. The history of the work has been enshrouded by myths and untruths by scholarship since its inception – a most recent example is the film Amadeus, so the work itself has some spectre surrounding it. But even without knowing any of that, it is sublime to hear, see, feel, and experience. It touches my soul.

You can read more about the history of the work in Michael Steinburg’s excellent Choral Masterworks: a Listeners Guide. Oxford University Press, 2005 (pp. 219-229).

IF you can’t make the concert, add it to your future events to look out for (along with all great choral masterworks). If you’d like to hear a performance from youtube, please see below and enjoy!

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Best thing I’ve seen all day. Flash Chorus!

Not to overly spoil the surprise, but the following video depicts a random group of people bursting into “Va Pensiero” at a mall.  Well-worth watching.

Couldn’t stop smiling. Who knew there were flash choruses?  I NEED to participate in one ASAP.

In other news, this is the article from which I got the video.  Apparently “Va Pensiero” only became a rallying cry for Italian unification some years after its publication, contrary to common lore.

The image of Verdi as a “revolutionary” composer . . .  became standard in the early 20th century; it was encouraged during the Fascist years (the state-sponsored 1941 Verdi celebrations were a high point), and was sustained post-war by a continuing adherence to the “heroic” aspects of Italian nationalism.

In spite of all this latter-day boosting, there is, alas, no evidence that the chorus excited patriotic fervour in its early years (a often-repeated tale about it being encored on opening night by enflamed patriots is a blatant invention).

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Operalia Competition Final Round Available to Stream for free!


Renowned tenor, Placido Domingo’s opera competition designed to encourage rising young singers, held its final round over the weekend in Verona.  Presumably, youweren’t there (and neither was I), but never fear, we can watch the entire final round online!

For the entire performance and a list of the results, click here (via medicitv).

For info about the competition, click here.

Curiously, I wasn’t able to find competitor bios.  If you happen to stumble upon them, please share!

Here’s photos of the 1st prize winners, soprano Aida Garifullina and bass-baritone Ao Li.

Ao Li, bass-baritone from China
Ao Li, bass-baritone from China

Aida Garifullina, soprano from Russia
Aida Garifullina, soprano from Russia

music education piano performances piano technique practicing tips vocal performances

Playing musically through the use of adjectives, metaphors, and imagery

piano lessons new orleanspiano lessons new orleans

I.  Summary of recent article and its suggested exercise

I recently read an article that suggested a few exercises to help musicians play with more musicality.  The first exercise involves brainstorming a list of adjectives – at least 100 adjectives so that you (or the person you are directing to do the exercise) is forced to move beyond the more quotidienne adjectives such as “happy and sad.”  Once you have the list, the author suggests that you take five of these adjectives, all contrasting, and experiment with playing  a passage of music in such a way as to evoke those descriptors.  So for example, you might play the opening of Fur Elise hysterically, exhaustedly, furiously, nervously, and sullenly.  When you do this, assuming you are doing it successfully, each iteration of the phrase should be markedly different in shading, articulation, tempo/rubato, and other expressive devices.  For example, a hysterical rendering of the opening of Fur Elise, might be at an allegro tempo with an accelerando feeling and would likely be forte or involve a rather drastic crescendo.  But it could also waver between two emotions very quickly and therefore go from fast to slow, loud to soft, legato to marcato, accelerando to ritardando to communicate that.

By contrast, a rendering of the opening phrase which would communicate exhaustedness, would probably be heavy handed and slow, like a windup doll that was puttering out, running out of steam.

One point the author makes is that, ideally, you would want to try this exercise out with at least one partner.  When playing the excerpt, you would have them try to guess the adjectives which you are trying to evoke.  As the author mentions, if they cannot guess, you need to revisit your attempt.  The author says:

 It’s interesting to note that when the performer’s intention isn’t well-formed or clear, the audience response is invariably inconsistent. On the other hand, when it’s ‘real,’ it’s easy to deduce that emotions don’t lie. They seem to bypass the intellect and leap straight into the music, through the performer to the audience.

new orleans piano

II.  Thoughts on the suggested exercise

I love it to a certain extent although I think it would be best to work on applying different emotions to technique and other exercises.  That way, you can focus on defining one (or a few) emotions for a piece and really work on committing to it.  Plus, it seems best to integrate this kind of work into a routine practice rather than just working on it with the occasional musical passage.

The listing idea is really brilliant.  Many students have not really thought much about a wide range of emotions and certainly don’t have the vocabulary for it all.  Having them brainstorm a list is great because it really makes them explore emotions past the simple “happy, sad, scared, tired” level.

To help students brainstorm their emotion list, ask them to look at the emoticon lists in their phones, ipads, and other devices and attach a word to each one.  That should get them started.  Once they’ve got that list, help them find synonyms (or most importantly, near-synonyms) for their initial list of words.

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III.  Related exercises designed to aid the musician to communicate

In college, my voice teacher used to have these flashcards sitting atop her piano.  On them were written nearly every kind of emotion and attitude I could think of at the time.  While I was vocalizing at the beginning of each lesson, she would randomly draw from the stack and hold up an emotion that I was to portray as I sang.  One of the purposes was to get me to work on the acting side of being a singer.  At the time, I hated it.  I was one of those singers (who had long been a student of piano) that didn’t understand the importance of acting and portraying a character.  I thought all that mattered was hitting notes and phrasing, etc.  I used to cringe with embarrassment when she would pull from the stack.

Now, as a teacher, I think that those exercises were some of the most important that I could have learned as a young singer and a young musician.  A singer must first and foremost connect with the audience on a visceral level – if she sings wonderfully but is stiff and has no stage presence, her performance will not be a success.

voice lessons
Jolly Stewart, my college voice professor

However, what I also learned from those lessons applies equally to the singer and the instrumentalist.  While stage presence and the ability to effectively convey the text of a song is vital, another perhaps more important benefit of “acting” is that if you portray the proper emotion effectively, much of the work of phrasing and planning appropriate breaths will follow.

This works for the pianist because even young children can understand that there is a difference in how you would play a scale if you were sad or happy.  To understand and feel a musical passage that way – rather than by the gut understanding of musical phrasing and interpretation that you develop, say, through discussions of the conventions of pedaling and listening to professional performances – will oftentimes result in more exciting and original interpretation.

At any rate, I think that all pianists and vocalists alike could benefit from the demands of the emotion flashcard stack and should routinely use it.

One last thought – one of the most effective methods of getting a topnotch performance out of a student I learned as a student myself.  In high school, in a lesson with Frank Heneghan, I was instructed to come up with a story line for the Debussy Prelude “Minstrels.”  The story was non-sensical but full of imagery – certain melody lines were associated with characters and types of personages.  Through this technique, I remember feeling like I really connected to the piece in a new way and my performance was vastly improved.  So here’s the advice, always try to come up with phrase by phrase imagery or story lines.  I often tell students that they should try and come up with a music video for the piece or to imagine a Fantasia-like cartoon to go with it.  That idea, in combination with the training in understanding a broad range of emotions, should produce some truly wonderful results.

piano lessons
Frank Heneghan with student

Fantasia is a great model for designing your own imagery


vocal performances

Aafje Heynis

A new discovery of mine.  Somehow I’d yet to have the pleasure of hearing this lovely voice until a friend of mine introduced me via this YouTube video:

I’m not entirely sure whether my enchantment came from the vocalist or from the piece or from the circumstances, but I’m enchanted, that’s fore sure.

Here’s some biographical details on Heynis.

Aafje Heynis (born 2 May 1924, Krommenie) is a Dutch contralto. In 1961, she was awarded the Harriet Cohen International Music Award. A tea rose, hybridised by Buisman 1964, was named after her.
[edit] Biography

As young as aged four she sang in the child choir and together with her father at the harmonium. On the advice of Jan Mienes, the conductor of the choral society in her native town of Krommenie she auditioned for teacher Jo Immink in Amsterdam with an arrangement of the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from Wagner’s “Tannhauser”. After that from 1946 to 1949, her singing teacher was Aaltje Noorderwier-Reddingius and was given good advice by Laurens Bogtman, the great oratorio singer.

She quickly established her reputation, to begin with in the field of oratorio. With her performance in Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the direction of Eduard van Beinum, she attracted wide attention. She performed many concerts in churches, Lieder recitals, and numerous performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For the Philips label she made a whole series of recordings of works by Brahms, Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn.

However Aafje Heynis showed a particular preference for Gustav Mahler, one consequence of which was a legendary recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Here she is singing Strauss’ “Morgen.”

For comparison, here’s a recording of Morgen with which I (and most others) are very familiar.  The Great Elisabeth Schwarzkopf:

And for some more Heynis examples:

Because I’m pretty sick (flu or something), I’m going to forego analyzing these performances for now.  Instead, I’m just going to listen.  Feel free to share what you think, however.