Down to the Wire


Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken

Last week was a pleasant break from the ferocious pace that I’ve been working at this semester. I’ve been working on a few performance projects, and they all have concerts in April. I guess I should have been working harder on preparation last week, but I know that I should be busy from tomorrow until April 25th.
The first thing on my plate is to prepare for my concert at 4pm this Friday, April 9 at All Saint’s Episcopal Church on Woodstock. I’ll be singing and, for the first time in public, playing organ.
I’ll be singing “Süsser Blumen Albraflocken,” a German aria by Handel. It’s from a collection called “Nine German Arias,” but its extremely obscure. I’ve been trying to track down an English translation, and not only is there none available, but the collection of poetry that the words were taken from is also too obscure for an English translation. I’ll be performing this with the baroque ensemble we have at Reed, led by the capable Bonnie Garrett (director of private music instruction).
I’m not a very experienced singer, and perhaps it’s true that everything I do presents a challenge that I’ve never encountered before. Still, learning how to accurately ornament the vocal line in this piece has pushed me out of where I am comfortable. We’ve worked out some notated trills and ornaments, however part of what makes a performance special is making them sound like they’re spontaneous. It also requires me to think really hard about rhythm and phrasing, because we’re adding notes to the spaces that I might be able to cheat a breath from. Vocal trills are also something that I’ve been working hard on, and I hope come off successfully.
At that concert, I will also be playing the Little Prelude in C Major by J.S. Bach and a Duo from a suite by Louis-Nicholas Clérambault. I had tried to prepare something more ambitious for the recital, however it’s probably best to go with things I am comfortable performing. In the course of submitting information about the piece for the program, I discovered that the little prelude was probably not even composed by Bach. This is frustrating. When I started taking lessons at the beginning of the year, I did not yet have the coordination in the hands and feet to do something with them together. The Prelude was the first thing that I did that was genuine organ music by Bach. Except that it isn’t. I’m very fond of the Clérambault duo, however I don’t have much to say about it. Come to my concert and hear it.
I’ll be happy to be done with that concert, however I don’t really have time to rest on my laurels, because I have to start preparing for my April 23 composition recital. Actually, before I can prepare for the performance, I have to write the piece. Most of the details have been worked out. I’m writing a vocal setting of a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970): Dove la luce (Where the light). I’ll be accompanied by a string quartet, the Portland new-music institution fEARnoMUSIC. The music only exists now in fragments, and it’s my job this week to arrange those fragments into a whole that can be incrementally improved.
This is not to say that no work has gone into the piece. Selecting a text is one of the hardest things for me. This is the general thought process that went into selecting this poem: English is out. There are some really powerful English-language art songs, but I don’t have the compositional chops to pull that off yet. It’s a problem in all classical-music vocal music; operas in English can sound melodramatic if you understand the literal meaning of words, choral music can turn from poignant to somber and cheesy on a single bad line of text, and English speaking audiences can’t help but compare art (classical music) songs to pop songs. I wonder if the same problem happens with Italian audiences listening to Italian opera or song. So that leaves other European language poetry (I’ll cop to being too lazy to try and set a Chinese or Japanese, or Native American or African language song). German is out because I’m tired of singing German (Handel above and Haydn below). Which really leaves Spanish and Italian as viable choices.
Then comes the content of the poem. I felt uncomfortable using some of the mainstays of classical composition: religious texts I don’t believe in or texts from political movements I’m not a part of. Some were a function of myself as a person; I don’t feel like I have anything important to say about big topics like love, death, or the meaning of existence. It had to be serious without being melodramatic, and allow for whimsy without being stupid. Finally, once you’ve narrowed it down on these criteria, it has to be able to be sung. That’s a lot of thinking, and a lot of work.
It’s a pretty flexible text, and it has a very clear and suggestive structure, so I think I’ll be able to complete it and feel proud of myself. But I have a lot of work to do this week.
Finally, I have a ton of work to do to prepare for my role as Lukas, the farmhand in the April 25th performance of Haydn’s Der Frühling, the Spring section from his oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons). In the Spring section, most of the music is carried by the chorus. The soloist play a much smaller part than in, for example, Handel’s Messiah oratorio. It’s still music I need to learn, though, and after this Friday, I will be working on it intensively.
That’s April. I’ve been working on these things all semester, and it’s now getting to be the time when individual choices about how I use my time will make a big difference.

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