Thursday, September 30, 2010


It's my first blog post from Italy! MtMn and I have made a short-notice trip to Trento, where I am filling in for my boss DM and representing the Staatsoper (addition for my Merkin friends: yo) at a competition for conductors. The situation is unreasonably comfortable: great hotel, jaw-dropping Italian food, fascinating company. The jury communicates in English, German, and Italian, and I'm getting to know the two non-smokers better than my other equally compelling colleagues who flee the concert hall at every conceivable break. And the competition is a real learning experience; I've never judged one for conductors before. The rep list was put together by a man who knows his stuff. Brahms 2 is there, but so are Zerbinetta's aria and the Sprecher scene from Zauberfloete. We get to see right away the depth of each candidate's training, listening, and curiosity. And then there's all that you can't explain, why the (very good) orchestra suddenly sounds warmer for one person, larger for another, edgy for the next. Often these results bear no relation to how the conducting (addition for my Merkin friends: carving) looks. We go out to pranzo and talk about the mysterious and totally unique combination of skills possessed by every good conductor. Today we will cut a field of eight (six men, two women, seven countries) down to five finalists.

But I wanted to tell you about last night, so let me back up. We were collected at the airport by the president of the association whose name is on this competition (which seems actually to be run by the conductor of the orchestra, and the relationship between the organizations is beautifully unclear). He speaks only a little English, so he had another friend along. This man is a retired banker capable of charm in three languages, and he switched effortlessly between them while regaling the president, myself, and MtMn with the history of Trentino and South Tyrol. We went down the autobahn at about 95 miles per hour, the Dolomites jutting on either side of us and the stars bright in the sky. In the middle of his stories about palace construction during the Council of Trent, our host mentioned that on Thursday night there would be a small concert in our honor, featuring the mens' choir sponsored by their association. Just a few traditional songs, nothing more.

After we chose the semifinalists yesterday, this was confirmed by the conductor. We had to do this to make some of the sponsors happy, he said. He'd never heard the choir before, but he promised there would be two or three numbers, and then we could eat and beat a hasty retreat.

This is not actually how it all went down. First of all, no matter how the music sounded, we would have stayed long for the food. A table in the center of the simple room (it turned out we were in the house of our driver's grandfather, the founder of the association) groaned under plates of sausage, prosciutto, grapes, breadbox-sized wedges of gorgonzola, liters of local wine and mineral water, and housemade cannoli. We were doomed, we were done for. But before we approached, of course, there had to be just a few songs.

You've probably already guessed that the choir knocked our socks off. They are not classical singers in any sense. They make their noise in a natural, untrained way, singing traditional songs traditionally (the brilliance of their beautiful, compact vowels is something I'd love to import). Of the 35 men in the group, three can read music.One of those is the leader, the brother of our driver, also a grandson of the founder, and he teaches each section (11 tenors, 9 leads, 7 baritones, 8 basses) by rote. They sing everything a capella, in Italian, French, German, and several dialects that are ear-bending combinations of all three. Pictures of the choir from 1926 onward fill the walls of the house, and I looked at them during the concert, at younger versions of the performers, at their fathers and grandfathers. The current group ranges in age from 24 to 77, young and old guys of all professions carrying the tradition forward, all of it dependent on staying in one place, preserving a language, a way of rehearsing, a set of shared relationships.

They stand in a half-circle, in two rows. Their leader, the grandson of the founder, stands at the far end of the first row, singing with the basses, and he conducts them with his eyes and the most minimal use of his right hand. A small widening and strengthening of that hand produces a huge, lusty sound that fades to a whisper when he turns the hand over and softens its gesture. He opens his blue eyes a little, and the music warms. He sharpens his stare, the rhythm solidifies.

The songs are about the bells in the valley, the way to the church, the young girl at the mill, the soldier marching off to war, and we ask them to keep singing and then after dinner they sing some more. The leader has his choir, his neighbors, his friends, hold the final notes for impossible seconds, and they stop on a dime when he suddenly closes his hand.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

smooth sailing

Why is my bike commute so awesome? It's partly my bike, which is a beauty. I went out to Cooperative Fahrrad in the Gumpendorferstrasse, a first-rate street name if I ever heard one, and bought myself a real cool old lady's bike. Like, if Miss Gulch one morning suddenly took a yoga class and got a mani-pedi, this is what her bike would look like: big and not fast and made for those rough Kansas rural roads (or the cobblestones of the Ringstrasse) and yet a snazzy white with unnecessarily cool leather handgrips. There's a bike path along the entire Ring as well as along the Donaukanal, so it's smooth sailing for me all the way to work. As the air gets cooler and the leaves start to change, the chilly mornings grow more precious, and the pedals beneath my work shoes and the wind in my face take me right back to Union Street and my first bike, my September path to Sibley Elementary, the thrilling freedom that came along with that first set of wheels, with getting there by myself. I feel giddy every time I ride, about twelve years old, tops.

No bike riding today, however, with the rain coming down and the gray fog of autumn beginning to settle over Vienna. Saturday started on the streetcar and continued in a morning of piano practice and an afternoon of "The Wire" episodes and Skyping with family. I looked at online pictures of the flooding in downtown Northfield, recognizing some familiar faces among the locals sandbagging a riverside bar against the rising water. I savored the memory of last night's dinner party which was full of great food, new friends, and lots of music (including MtMn). Tomorrow is my first recital at the Opera, with two young ensemble members.

Preparing to make music, taking a little leisure, keeping in touch with my faraway family, enjoying the company of engaging and warm people that generous fate puts unfailingly into my path. This could be a weekend at any time, in any city. There is sudden joy, sharp and unspectacular, in finding this familiarity.

The window is open to the rainy night, the wind in my face. Freedom.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time Slice #3

It's cloudy and quiet on a Sunday morning, not that early, but all of the 9th Bezirk still seems to be sleeping. Sipping on a huge mug of fragrant tea, I look out over another day of events both personal and monumental. Either I've entered some huge and rare cone of synchronicity, or this is just what life is like.

Today marks both the Staatsoper conducting debut of a friend and the memorial service of a mentor. I have the privilege of rejoicing in the friend's fine accomplishment and remembering the mentor's unforgiving brilliance. I also have to think on the association we all share with the San Francisco Opera. Friend and I both trained there at different times, mentor and I worked there.

Tonight also happens to be the final performance of our La Boheme, and that opera will always bring San Francisco memories to my mind. The piece is completely interwoven into my early professional life. It was the first thing I ever prompted, back when the aforementioned mentor was my reluctant teacher. It was my daily work and inspiration as I was discovering a gorgeous city, navigating a wholesale change in my life, and drowning in a challenging new job.

Sipping tea. Is this a memory?

Every professional relationship, every next step was born in that house. Friendships stretch back to those days. Life in three cities happened because of them. Friends who are sending congratulations toward the Vienna debut, friends who will stand in tribute at the War Memorial, all these threads stretch back that far, intertwine, fold in on themselves.

Today begins with these delicate threads. I can know about beautiful singing in Houston and exciting rehearsals in New York as the sun breaks through Vienna's morning clouds. It is delicious to sit here slightly unsure of where and when I am. Soon MtMn will wake up and we'll ride our bikes north for a bit, and I imagine that the activity and terrain will bind me firmly to time and place, but right now life feels vertical, all at once, a slice.

Willkommen. My the angels lead you into paradise. Keep in touch.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

hearing voices

Walking through a large repertory opera house will probably always be one of my favorite things to do. I finished up a coaching last night at 6 and opened my office window. On the Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz below, the live video transmission of Tannhäuser began, and the first burnished notes floated up to me along with the combined music of steps, conversations, and streetcars. Somewhere around the beginning of the Venusberg music I closed my email and walked into the hallway, where that same music took on a new, ghostly timbre as it traveled up from the theater five floors below. It grew louder and brighter as I passed the half-open door to the catwalk and faded as I entered a rehearsal room to check in on Pique Dame. Under the brilliant, busy piano whispered important voices, saving their effort and tone for the theater. Back in the hallway, I heard the mens' chorus from the half-open door. In the corridor that leads into the house itself, I couldn't hear anything, and then in the lobby outside the top balcony there was just a hint of Wagner, as though from a distant radio. Into the Kinderzelt, a tent on the roof of the opera house, where the children's opera rehearses: tinny upright, dead acoustics, young singers working to be understood by the kids that will fill the tent come Sunday. It was intermission when I headed back to the theater, where I had intended to hear the rest of the opera from my usual seat in the company loge. But I kept wandering, up to the catwalks for Act 2 and the backstage for Act 3. I took such joy in this evening, hearing the various musics of the house from the shadows. The intimacy of it, the privacy, was balm for my overextended spirit. The paying guests were at the party and I was a servant listening in secret, and that meant the grand house was truly mine.

Late in the evening, MtMn went down into our street to help our visiting friends get the luggage out of their car. I leaned out of our window, five stories up, and listened to familiar voices floating up to me, and waited for our guests to enter our home.


Friday, September 10, 2010


MtMn has been felled by his first Austrian cold virus. He sleeps as I start my day perfectly thanks to his Naschmarkt trip and mad cooking skillz: homemade bread, cheese from Cheese Land, cafe au lait with cinnamon. It's a beautiful morning on a day of somber memory. Nine years ago, MtMn drove off to his stressful law office while I stretched out my morning in similar fashion. Even as I think on the large events, results, and meanings of that day, I also think of breakfast, the simple beginning of every morning, the way we help each other through that and then through the days and nights.

Yesterday was a day of simple but meaningful triumph; work got done, results were obvious, no drama was attached. If every day contains this, something wonderful will be underway, something definitely worth a certain level of exhaustion.

Maybe because today is today, maybe because of the small steps forward, but probably just because of Mozart (and the mad skillz of the Wiener Sängerknaben), this is what brought unexpected tears to my eyes at work last night:

Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden,
Die Sonn' auf goldner Bahn,
Bald muß die Nacht, die düstre, schwinden,
Der Tag der Weisheit nahn.-
O holder Friede, steig hernieder,
Kehr in der Menschen Herzen wieder,
Dann ist die Erd ein Himmelreich,-
Und Sterbliche sind Göttern gleich.

Soon the resplendent sun on its golden path will announce morning's arrival.
Soon black night must disappear and the day of wisdom draw near.
Oh beloved peace, come down and return to the hearts of men.
Then earth will be a heavenly place, and humans like the gods.


Monday, September 6, 2010

These three days

The first time I ever saw a Schubert song, I was in the basement of a house in Nürnberg. I was on a high school exchange program, and my guest bedroom was sonically insulated by thick floors and located right next to a room that housed a harpsichord and many books of Lieder. I stayed up late into the night reading through that treasure, discovering that world.

Then Saturday, I played "An die Musik" in in the city of its birth.

The first time I ever saw the word "Prater", I was curled up on the floor between stacks of books in the Arizona State University library. I'd ended up playing rehearsals for the music school's production of Cosi, and, bitten hard, I was poring over every score I could get my hands on. This score was huge, and I had just recently cracked the code of the strange use of German articles (Er? Ihr? Euch? for one person?). But "Prater" I had to look up. Later, when I finally worked on Rosenkavalier, I practiced the weird vowel combinations and alien consonant alterations (I ho hoyt a...what?) that I heard the experienced artists using.

Then Sunday, I walked in that there Prater, and I heard that sing-song talk all around me.

My first opera house was, lucky me, San Francisco's. There I learned what life in a great company could be. I watched a great orchestra develop, watched the chorus morph into something different each day. I was part of a young artist ensemble that worked like dogs and soaked up lessons from the great visitors, singers and directors and conductors. Later, I was part of the music staff, and that transition was the first of many growing up in this far-flung, professional and personal family.

Then yesterday, I took the streetcar home, having seen three operas in 24 hours, all of which included people I am training, have trained, have worked with, have known forever, was happy to finally meet, whom I have admired for years.

The details of each day are overwhelming, frustrating - but the takeaway!