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[Los Angeles... to Beijing...] to Seoul... to Lexington

My blog "eyes" are bigger than my writing "stomach." I always want to write more than I seem to be able to summon myself to do. This summer was a very busy, transitional one. At the end of July I packed up everything in Los Angeles and sent it off to Kentucky while I went to Asia for three weeks.

on the road from the midwest to LA in 2005, Petrified Forest National Park (AZ) [ah, even squinting in the sun... how young I was once]

on the road from the midwest to LA in 2005, Petrified Forest National Park (AZ) [ah, even squinting in the sun... how young I was once]

In 2005, I moved to LA ready to start my doctorate at the University of Southern California (USC) after living in central Indiana for nine years. At the time, Indianapolis was my idea of a "big" city, and I didn't really know anyone in SoCal or what the area would be like. In fact, in trying to find a place to live I was so scared to drive up a steep hill in Silver Lake I immediately backed my car out on Sunset and left - the bars on the first floor windows everywhere were intimidating - the large numbers of people living on the streets surrounded by huge quantities of trash was disturbing.

LA Opera choristers in costume from the infamous Robert Wilson production of Madama Butterfly in 2009

LA Opera choristers in costume from the infamous Robert Wilson production of Madama Butterfly in 2009

Over nine years, I made LA my home. USC offered amazing colleagues and amazing connections with the city. I found hikers and runners to help me tackle hills and then mountains. I was blown away to have the opportunity to work at Los Angeles Opera and support productions showcasing talented people I had admired for years from afar.

And now again, it has been time for life to move on - for my fortunes to move me back East. Now I live in Lexington, KY, and I am back in the academic arena working at Transylvania University, a small liberal arts school with a passion for interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary teaching and strong teacher-student relationships. I reflect a lot now on my own undergraduate experience at Butler University and my first "real" teaching job at Earlham College.

above: Earlham College Women's Chorus, Fall 2003 right: Transylvania University Choir, Fall 2014

above: Earlham College Women's Chorus, Fall 2003

right: Transylvania University Choir, Fall 2014

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The Asia experience helped "dis-orient" me from LA enough to make the move to KY less of a shock, but I know I do not yet understand what it will be to become a part of this area. My week in Beijing was my first visit to mainland China, and my two weeks in Korea was my first time in my mother's country since the USC Chamber Choir tour in 2006. 

When I first arrived in Beijing we had a judges meeting for the China International Choir Festival competition. As people introduced themselves, I realized I was among some very influential conductors, composers, and other performers from around the world, and I had to ask myself "how do I fit in?" Fortunately everyone was tremendously encouraging. I learned as much as I could while I taught as much as I could with my presentations:

second day presenting "Beautiful Bodies, Beautiful Music" with my mother, uncle, and aunt in the audience

second day presenting "Beautiful Bodies, Beautiful Music" with my mother, uncle, and aunt in the audience

  • Contemporary Choral Music from the United States
  • The Use of Gesture in Rehearsal
  • Score Study as Means for Interpretation and Memorization for Performance ("It's in the music")
  • Beautiful Bodies, Beautiful Music: enhancing music making through body awareness and practical applications

I plan to share more about these in the research section of the site, but for now, let me clear my head and prepare my heart for my debut performance at my new school.

Beijing!

From Los Angeles to the Bay area to Hong Kong to Beijing... it's hard to know what day or time it is yet. However, I made it in one piece and am honored to be participating in the 12th China International Chorus Festival and the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) World Youth Education Conference. So far, the big "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" moment was seeing the painting of Mao in Tiananmen Square on our way to opening ceremony at the Great Hall of the People.

University of Southern California (USC) Chamber Singers singing an arrangement of "Pure Imagination" from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Opening Ceremony, the Great Hall of the People)

Tiananmen Square

I am very excited to meet so many fine musicians from around the world and hope to teach others at least half as much as I think I will learn. I am so proud of USC. The Chamber Singers performed in the opening ceremony last night and will be giving a concert both here and in Seoul this week. It makes me think back to our Asia tour in 2006 - an unforgettable experience.

Three days

It's been nearly a year since my last post, but I figure now is as good a time as any to break the silence. Holy Week began last Sunday with the waving of palms and exclamations of "Hosanna" (I even managed to work the Sanctus from Fauré's Requiem into the mix) and begins a hard journey that has to go down before it can rise again this Sunday with Easter.

Personally I'll dedicate this "Three Days" to Paul Salamunovich. He featured prominently in my last entry as a key contributor to my acquaintance with Duruflé's Requiem (although we would not meet for nearly another decade). This gentle giant of the choral world passed away two weeks ago, and on the day the news broke, I listened to my recording of our meeting in March 2013. At some point early on, his wife Dottie entered the room to graciously offer coffee and then, reflecting on what she must have heard from others at the recent ACDA (choir director's) convention, said (with some considerably large but loving grains of salt):

Paul Salamunovich in his office (framed reproductions of his LA Master Chorale CD covers hang on the wall behind him)

Paul Salamunovich in his office (framed reproductions of his LA Master Chorale CD covers hang on the wall behind him)

 

 

 

 

he's an icon, he's a legend, he saved lives... a couple of other things... I think he also walks on water, but I don't remember if that's true or not... I looked at him, and I think "Really?"... so remember, you are in the presence...

Though it may be hard to remember in the midst of difficult times, making music can make a difference. I have tried to follow in the footsteps of those who have given so much to the art that moves, communicates, brings together, and educates while crossing social, language, and cultural barriers; if I can get one tenth as much accomplished as any one of those, I would consider myself blessed beyond imagining.

I am hoping to find my way through a field that has been struggling to evolve with the times. News of company closures, contract disputes and lockouts, the disappearance of tenure-track positions, etc. has been hard to accept. On Ash Wednesday, the congregants of Westwood Presbyterian Church were asked to write down what they would leave behind and what they would move toward during the forty-plus day season of Lent.

For me, I asked and continue to ask for discernment for myself and for this profession as we all journey down and look for our way to rise again.

Circles in the sand...

There have been a few moments in the last few weeks which brought to life the idea of synchronicity. A few weeks ago I returned to Indianapolis to celebrate the retirement of Professor Henry Leck from Butler University. He was conducting a performance of Durufle's Requiem, and I offered to give some words on the music.

Conductor Paul Salamunovich in his home office (his copy of a portrait of him and Durufle hangs behind him, Durufle's copy still hangs in the former Durufle residence in France).

Conductor Paul Salamunovich in his home office (his copy of a portrait of him and Durufle hangs behind him, Durufle's copy still hangs in the former Durufle residence in France).

In the spring of 1999, Henry returned from an all-state and strongly endorsed the Durufle Requiem after having heard Paul Salamunovich conduct it. At the time I was looking for a topic to propose for the Butler Summer Institute, a $2,000 grant with on campus residency. After spending the summer of 1999 analyzing the work, I applied that research to my senior honors thesis and graduated in 2000. I've assisted many performances of the work and most recently sang it in 2008 under the baton of Paul Salamunovich himself while he was the interim conductor of the USC Chamber Choir. Paul himself actually prepared the chorus for a performance that Durufle himself conducted in Los Angeles. From Durufle to Paul, from Paul to Henry, from Henry to me. What a small world, and how lucky I am to be a part of it.

My study of the Durufle led to my dissertation exploring Faure's Requiem and its place in the genre (the works that influenced it and its influence on works like Durufle's). I owe Henry a lot for introducing it to me.

Composer James Mulhulland proffers a very juicy roast to Henry Leck after the concert.

Composer James Mulhulland proffers a very juicy roast to Henry Leck after the concert.

Also recently, I had a little time to spend in Little Tokyo and found myself at the sushi bar in Oomasa. I first ate there in the spring of 2005 at the tail end of the ACDA National Conference. Who knew that a few months later I would be moving across the country to live here and begin my doctoral studies at USC? Here it is 2013, and I find myself more comfortable ordering sushi (and getting around the sprawl that is Los Angeles). It's hard to call myself an Angeleno, but I have been living here for nearly 8 years. Since I lived in Indiana for 9, I'll soon have to rethink how to answer the classic question: "Where are you from?"

I've definitely spent a lot of time thinking about my past and that slender thread that ties us from where we were to where we are, how little we know about what the future will bring, but that there will be those special coincidences that tie us back to our communities.

 

The Gospel According to the Other Mary

“[t]he Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

– Charles Jennens (referring to now-famous libretto he provided to George Frederic Handel)

God!

And I mean it both ways: as invocation and exclamation. I just witnessed what I believe will be one of the greatest musical-theatrical works of the 21st century, and it's only 2013!

It seems strange to look back and realize that El Nino premiered in 2000. I don't think composer John Adams originally conceived it to be presented dramatically, but I guess his longstanding collaborative relationship with director Peter Sellars inspired them to turn this story of Christ's birth into an "opera." And now, they have looked at the last part of Jesus' life in order to create The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It unfolds very much like a Bach Passion with an Evangelist (here the three countertenors serving as narrators), the characters (Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus), as well as the chorus (they provide both commentary as well as step in to take part in the action).

So the "Other" woman is Mary Magdalene, too much maligned to me it seems. I remember my sister and I going to our first musicals as children. A trio of shows was touring to Beavercreek, Ohio's Nutter Center, and for whatever reason, our parents bought us a pair and let us go to each by itself. We must have been quite young, maybe 13 and 11. Anyway, as we entered the building a man yelled at us and handed out pamphlets. I'll always remember my sister's innocent voice asking the question (and, in case you are wondering, this really happened): "Karen, what's a whore?" We were going to see Jesus Christ Superstar, and some Christian protesters had come out of anger that Mary Magdalene, portrayed as a prostitute, could love and be loved by Christ in a physical/romantic way. My instinct was to protect my sister who would probably never have picked up these overtones from the storyline anyway. What an education...

Anyway, Peter Sellars has extrapolated the Other Mary's side of the Passion story: how it was Martha who tended to the household duties while Mary sat at Jesus' feet, how Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, how the women witnessed the Crucifixion, how they came to the empty tomb and finally realized that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.

With these biblical texts and stories [like Bach, he uses the vernacular which, for us Americans, is English] he adds other poetry [some in Spanish] to construct two multi-scene acts.

Walt Disney Concert Hall was not designed to present opera, so everyone has come up with creative solutions to handle the additional (non-musical) aspects of this production. The costumes were relatively simple, mostly relaying the story through color (blues for Christ's tight knit community, white for the resurrection). The only set pieces were a few platforms and boxes that "became" the table in the Upper Room, Golgotha, the tomb.

I am no movement expert, but it seemed that Mr. Sellars was using both a kind of sign language (certain gestures to reinforce certain words, e.g. "spices" was reflected in the picking up of spices with one hand from another and bringing them to the face/nose as though you would smell them) as well as a lot of intricate movement brought off beautifully by several dancers.

The dancers could either serve as individual characters or, this I thought was even more unique and powerful, as a sort of visual reflection of the inner spirit of a singing character. The woman most often moved alongside Mary, as companion hand-in-hand, as the inner "life force" compelling to move, and in numerous other ways.

The men both could relate to Lazarus and Jesus. Both were incredibly powerful men with very physical choreography, and the death and resurrection scenes (first of Lazarus and then of Jesus) were particularly poignant and provided the arch structure of each act.

John Adams' orchestration was colorful without trying to make a point of it. The use of electric bass was particularly enveloping and effective; the percussionists had many opportunities to shine; and then after many of the most agitated moments there were such expanses of calm and breath. The pacing was wonderful.

Of course the cast was tremendous. I've now been honored enough to hear the legendary Kelley O'Connor live (twice in just about six weeks I think). Dr. Dehning and all of USC is so proud to call her one of their own. Such a great voice and a very engaging actress. Tamara Mumford was one of the most lovely contralto voices I've ever heard - low notes that sound sweet and rich and just as colorful as the rest of her range. I've been told the three countertenors are Indiana people. Go Hoosiers! Russell Thomas as Lazarus also acquitted himself very well.

I could have used a touch more of Kelley's voice in the amplification (it seemed more present in the short rehearsal I observed Tuesday), but otherwise balances were as pretty sweet as they could be.

The Master Chorale was tremendous. One should expect no less. They held their own as actors as well as the fabulous singers they are. Many of the aleatoric effects asked of them were eerily expressive. I really want to see a score. Congrats to each of the 48 members as well as to their fearless leader Grant Gershon, who will be conducting Friday night's performance.

It is hard to imagine being in Maestro Dudamel's situation. The demands of his profession and then demands of home and country must have weighed on him in the last few days, but he was as gracious as ever to deflect and distribute praise all round. That is real grace under fire.

All this to say, if you can see it, go. I think they'll probably release a recording next year, but going to a performance is the 3D immersive experience. I know I'll treasure this night for a long time.