Friday, April 18, 2014

Verdi Simple?

  I am a complete Verdi nut, and he is my favorite opera composer.  Verdi completely changed the style of Italian opera in several different ways.  He started by writing in the belcanto style with his earlier operas.  However, even in those operas he increases the size of the orchestra and puts greater demands on singers then his predecessors Bellini, and Donizetti.  I am not saying that Bellini and Donizetti weren't demanding on singers, because they were.  Verdi increased those demands.  Singers who are not appropriate for certain Verdi roles can damage their voice.
   I would like to inform everyone who reads this that Verdi's works are never simple even though it might sound that way at times.  Verdi did get more complicated as he matured.  The characteristic um pa pa in the orchestral accompaniments essentially ceased to exist in late Verdi.  For example you never hear it in Aida, Otello or Falstaff, Verdi's last three operas.  You do hear it in his earlier works, but it always serves a purpose.  People say they don't like Verdi because of the um pa pa.  I say yeah whatever.  Try singing Verdi, then tell me that.  Verdi is among the hardest composers to perform for opera singers.  Verdi put insane demands on singers at times.  If you're not the right singer for the role of Otello, you could be done for career wise for example.  Verdi's early stuff may sound simple, but the vocal demands are as great or even greater than his later works.  Verdi characteristically wrote in a high tessitura for all voice types, including the chorus in his operas.
   Verdi's simplicity is not simple at all because it always serves strong purpose.  Let's look at a few musical examples that sound simple but are not.  The aria "La Donna e mobile" from "Rigoletto" sounds simple doesn't it?  It's deceptive because it's very hard to sing, and also the Duke is an evil guy.  Conte di Luna's aria "Il balen" from "Il Trovatore" sounds simple, but baritones refer to it as impossible to sing.  The melody is simple sounding, but again di Luna is an evil character.  The men's chorus in Rigoletto where they are telling the Duke how they abducted Gilda is a catchy tune.  However, the men are describing an abduction, plus rhythmically this piece has to be  very tight.  It's the conductor's job to keep the rhythm tight.  Verdi is hard to conduct because it is exposed.  My point of all this is to point out the subtle genius of Verdi.  There are many examples of Verdi' music sounding simple, yet being really difficult.  The subtle simplicity really comes across to the audience.  Verdi can make lust, kidnapping, and evil sound so simple and catchy which is absolutely genius.
   Verdi's level of maturity as a composer throughout his career is what makes him so fascinating for me personally.  Verdi completely changed the aria/cabaletta form, used the concerted finale at the ends of acts when he needed it,  not as a formula, reformed the baritone voice and mezzo soprano voices and put them in a class by themselves.  Those are only a few of the ways in which he changed opera.  So, for those who think Verdi is simple or boring, I would urge you to look at the librettos while listening to his operas.  Verdi went from going with the trends to completely changing Italian opera.  It's pretty fascinating if you think about it for a minute.  So, he is far from simple and just um pa pa in my opinion.

Monday, April 7, 2014

In Memory of John Shirley-Quirk

 On April 7, 2014 we lost an amazing human being, musician, and teacher.  John Shirley-Quirk was an English bass-baritone who premiered many works by famed British composer Benjamin Britten.  I admit that when I first encountered Mr. Shirley-Quirk as a freshman at Peabody I was really intimidated.  He was giving a master class and was being pretty stern with the participating students.  However, over time I got to know a wonderful man and a legendary artist who I viewed as a god like figure.   He had an amazing speaking and singing voice, is on well over a hundred recordings and he sang all over the world.  His voice was beautiful and he had a uniquely wide vocal range from bottom to top.  He also had a great sense of humor.  For example, I was reading German out loud in a monotonous voice because I was tired and he said "I don't want to be put to sleep.  Wake up!"   I also remember him telling someone in a master class that they sounded like they said pee because they didn't put the final consonant on at the end of a word.  I always enjoyed the laid back and friendly atmosphere of his repertoire class, and he cared a great deal about all of his students.
   John Shirley-Quirk had great success in his career, and as a teacher.  I would say that riding in a boat with Benjamin Britten indicates some serious success.  Despite his success, he also faced a lot of tragedies in his life.  He lost two wives, Patricia Hastings and Sara Watkins Shirley-Quirk and his daughter Emily.  These loses were not only tragic, but to my knowledge completely unexpected.  I attended Emily's funeral in 2001, and I really admired the strength Mr. Shirley-Quirk exhibited during the funeral.  I don't know how anyone can go through something like that, especially considering Emily was only fifteen.  He came to school and taught the following day.  I could see he was in great pain as anyone would be, but I was really impressed with how strong he was and how strong he stayed.
     There are many memories I have of John Shirley-Quirk.  I remember singing Beethoven 9, and he was the bass soloist.  He also recorded that same solo for famed conductor Carlo Maria Giulini.  I also remember singing the Mozart Requiem for a 9/11 memorial concert and he was the bass soloist.  I remember him singing parts of Britten's War Requiem from memory in a workshop he was giving on the work.  Also, I remember him singing "Auf dem Kirchofe" by Brahms, and also he sang the first song of "Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 39" for me in a class.  I had to sing it again after that, which was an impossible act to follow.  I also remember him being really pissed off at me once in a recitative class for holding the penultimate syllables too long.  He was absolutely correct of course.  He is on many famous recordings with many famous conductors and pianists.   Probably my favorite of them all is his recording of Vaughan William's song cycle "Songs of Travel."  Mr. Shirley-Quirk's interpretation of that work sets the standard for performances of the work.  He is also on a famous recording of Mahler's eighth symphony under George Solti, and Handel's "Messiah" under Colin Davis to name a few.
    I was fortunate to work with Mr. Shirley-Quirk many times, and to be able to hear him sing in person many times.  I wish I had been able to see him again over the past decade. We all have to go because dying is a part of life, but it is always sad to lose someone you love and admire.  Mr. Shirley-Quirk will be missed by all who knew him, and the world of classical music will also miss his fantastic singing and sensitive musicianship.

First Spring Blog Post

Happy spring!  Yesterday's weather was showing some good signs of spring.  Not so sure about today, but oh well.  Anyway, I have several concerts coming up that are worth mentioning here.  The first is this Saturday at 4 pm at Barclay Square near the Princeton Forrestal Center.  That's Princeton, NJ not Illinois.  I will be singing some songs and duets with soprano Amy Suznovich, and Lynda Saponara will accompany us on the piano. We will present a unique variety of songs and arias, including some music in Polish.  After that I have Holy Week at St. Catherine of Siena church in New York City.  Hopefully after that we will still be able to stand up.  Then I am producing a concert called "Aftermath Recovery Benefit Concert for Haiyan Disaster Survivors" on Saturday May 3, 2014 at 7 PM.  I have a wonderful lineup of singers, plus my aunt Lisa Bottalico dancing flamenco and The Philippine Chamber Rondalla of New Jersey will be playing.  We will sing "Bayan Ko" with the Rondalla accompanying.  The event is sponsored by web of compassion.  If you cannot attend and
still want to donate to
the Typhoon Haiyan Relief Effort please go to  My goal is to have a full house at Christ Church, where the event will take place and to raise 2,500 dollars.  I hope to see you all there.  I am also involved in a repeat of the recital with Amy Suznovich at Highland Park Public library on Thursday June 5, 2014 at 7 PM.  In addition I have a concert at the Intrepid museum in NYC on May 15, a concert at St. Catherine of Siena on May 18, plus I am covering a small role with Chelsea Opera and singing in the ensemble of "The Tender Land" on June 13 and 14.  So, things are pretty busy.  It is good to keep busy though.  Even though I will be exhausted I don't mind.