Thursday, December 30, 2010

music to end the year by

1. Stevie Ray Vaughn, "Crossfire"

Let's start this last post of 2010 with a guitar god and a serious groove. Stevie Ray has become my surprising workout partner ever since I doled out the Euros to Femme Fitness on the K√§rtnerring, embracing the sad reality that I need both serious cardio along with some impact reduction on my poor knees. Texas Blues takes my mind absolutely off my joints and puts it right into a spirit of work and sweat. Stevie Ray makes all that grime seem pretty easy.  Maybe he can teach me to grind that hard and stay that chill.

2. Some Orchester with a conductor, "Wiener Blut"

OK, just saw my spelling error, but I'm so pleased with it. Check out the remarkable small string ensemble at the beginning, which FWM just lets them play. The concertmaster sat with me at last year's Christmas party and told me all about playing for Karajan, Kleiber, Levine. The principle cellist played the Giovanni recits with me, he's the one whose grandfather was hired by Mahler to be in the Philharmonic. This clip is from a concert they played last summer during which they also played the Star Wars theme, totally worth checking out on YouTube for the various facial expressions alone.

This week they are all rehearsing for the New Year's concert, set to be broadcast all over the world tomorrow. I got invited to a rehearsal but was turned away at the Musikverein by the Phillies' administration. So was the conductor's wife. There were hoards of tourists trying to talk their way into the hall. The Philharmonic guy told me to come back the next day, when maybe, just maybe, he'd let me in, but only if I promised to hide behind one of the larger pillars so that other people didn't ask questions about why I'd been allowed in. Somewhere, Gustav Mahler is clutching his skinny chest and rolling his eyes.

3. Luciano Pavarotti, "Di rigori armato il seno"

I heard this opera often in the last few days, all the same Schenkerei as at the Met (the black-clad orphans, the super-gay hairdresser, ad infinitum). I never heard the Pav sing this part live, but I thought of him this week and just wanted to hear that voice again.

4. Ella, "Mr. Paganini"

And if you can't sing it, you simply have to SEEpmiddlybiddendeedendop. Heaven, heaven, heaven.  "Round Midnight" is also on this clip, and I hope you are looking forward to health and joy round about that time tonight.

Happy New Year, y'all. Guten Rutsch. Schau ma moy.


Friday, December 24, 2010


We haven't had a tree in years, probably due to a combination of non-Christianity and laziness. We haven't collected ornaments, no garland, no star. Christmas is a fun holiday in our house, don't get me wrong, but it has always centered around friends, meals, and gifts. The decorations of our childhoods haven't made it into our home. I always love going back to the Midwest, especially to my sister's house where the decorating is especially perfect, abundant and detailed but not tacky at all. Her house is gorgeous at Christmastime. Even this, which should ignite both artistic feeling and sibling rivalry, has not inspired me to get off my Yuletide butt.

Well, Vienna, another score for you, delivered at a crucial moment. Just when you're treating me like we're in an extended foreign language version of Mean Girls, you serve up a Christmas miracle: I dragged my first Weihnachtsbaum home on Tuesday.

For weeks, there were no trees to be seen, and I imagined that one must have to go far out of the center of town to find them. Turns out that they just show up late. As in, less than a week ago, Vienna was suddenly full of trees, little knots of trees every few blocks. The whole town smells like pine. There's more. Not only did I go to a Weihnachtsmarkt to buy ornaments, I got MtMn to go with me. I imagine this will be his only such sojourn, but he did it for me: big husband points. We had to walk by tons of crap, but there were treasures to be found: beautiful honey from about an hour outside of town (German word learned: beekeeper = Imkermeister), and six handpainted glass ornaments. I realized even as I bought them that someday I'll be handcarrying a box of decorations onto a plane when we move back to the states. Either that or we'll have to take a boat.

There is exactly one tree on our block with electric lights on it, and I suspect they came from somewhere else, because I've seen no such thing in the stores here. Everyone I talk to at the opera puts candles on their trees. Maybe this is less of a fire hazard because the trees are fresh? I guess we find out tonight when we light ours. I do know that the smell of the beeswax along with the pine is, in a word, herrlich. The light twinkling off the ornaments just might be perfect.

Wednesday I went around work giving out present to colleagues, and everybody said the same two things: "Thank you" and "already?" Everything happens as late as possible, so different than stretching it out over a month. Yesterday almost nothing happened at work except gift-giving, plus a big company party in the afternoon. There was singing and a huge buffet and good conversation all around, and promptly at three everyone disappeared to finish the preparations. I was asking people about how they decorate their trees, and no one else had done it yet; that's for Christmas Eve. I found out that lots of my colleagues grew up hearing Bing Crosby and Perry Como.

Wednesday night I sat in the Loge for Rosenkavalier, which turned out to be an exercise in delicious disorientation. The same director did this production and the one at the Metropolitan Opera, which I assisted on several times. The sets vary a bit due to the different sizes of the two theaters, but the action/schtick on stage is almost exactly the same. That was the where-am-I entry point, watching a well-loved piece in a new place with new people but knowing everything that was coming. And then suddenly, beautifully, I realized I was not watching the opera, but watching a group of colleagues and new friends. Under a grey wig and spectacles is a sleepless young father whose second son came quickly in the middle of the night a few weeks back. My new recital partner and friend masquerades in breeches, sword at the ready. The elegant woman in ermine picked up her family at the airport today. This is the experience I've had in other theaters, other homes, shifting in and out of worlds at will. Vienna was warm and foggy and full of lights as I walked home, a little unreal, and I could enjoy the feeling of displacement all the way.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I feel confident in transcribing his song, because he repeated it about seven times in his joyful little voice while sitting on his mother's lap on the crowded streetcar. The sleepy-eyed commuters and the jittery late-season shoppers shared quiet smiles, and he sang loudly, too young to care about what other people were thinking, with absolute concentration.

Danke Danke lydesstah

He was practicing the cool new sounds from kindergarten, probably on the way to his next class to play and sing with friends, have snacks, take a nap, and learn more English. Charlotte, our impossibly beautiful next door neighbor, has already shyly showed me her My First English book, which she puts into her little backpack every day before heading off to class with the other three-year-olds.

Appa bufftau also hai

I can still remember the Christmases of my Lutheran childhood illuminated by a thin chord of magical sounds linking me to the disappearing speech of my grandparents. I can still remember the sounds I didn't really understand: yay air so glawver yulekvel, for dah bre Yesu firt. But I didn't lack understanding either. I was yay, air was being, Yesu will always sound the same. A window only cracked, a sharp lack I feel as on the train as in front of me that little man sings, wide open.

Laika tyment indeskai

In my icecold workplace people walk through the offices with warm smiles and sweet gifts. The world will always be both brutal and generous. Knowing this makes it easier to consider both remaining and leaving. Packing up after the show, I hesitate over my heels and the bouquet from Sunday's recital. I leave those uncomfortable shoes in my office and bury my face in the roses, which are coming home with me.

Thank you, little star.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gifts from the Internet

There are so many! And these few I offer to you this fine morning.

The Language of Yodeling
Hot girl and her friends exploring the erotic joys of the vocal break. So. Damn. Strange.  (PS, this is for you - remember driving down the coast listening to Bruckner...and yodeling?)

Sweet Seemly Sight
Never gets old. Also, it's really, really old.

Hamlet Gonashvili
Always remarkable to find out which artists have already come and gone without you even knowing about them. Thank you, Internet, for making it possible for us to hear this!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Vielleicht...aber vielleicht auch nicht

1. We sit at the back of a balcony box behind and above the front of the stage in the Grosser Saal. The Commendatore is across from us and waves. The Monks from St. Augustine's file into the balcony past us to sing the opening chant. Even the early music bands in this town have a sweetness to their sound. Is that possible? Am I really hearing that hint of Schlag on gut strings? Or is it the wood of the hall itself, still vibrating with a hundred genius ghosts? Or is it the slightly slower tempi of these Vespers that allows slightly longer and more loved tones? Harnoncourt may not be the peppiest Monteverdian, but there he is at 81, in his house, with his band, and the two seraphim cry out to each other and time turns back on itself. Omnes, omnes generationes.

2. I walk through the thickly falling snow under the white and red Christmas lights, past the Stephensdom covered in white, past drunk crowds of friends laughing loudly and slipping on the ice. My glasses fog over when I step into the pub. He has fans, a table of young people who want to talk about guitars and take his picture. People throw their money into the upturned Stetson. I'm on a black elevator goin' down/Little Joe from Kokomo it rattles to the ground/The dice is laughing at the man that he throwed/You're goin' over to the lowside of the road. 

3. "I find it driven."
I play it again, the soprano waits, he stops me.
"Am I too fast?"
"No, it's not a tempo question - I just think each eighth note needs to be more suspended, not leading into the next. Otherwise it sounds too casual."
I smile. "Maybe that's my American Oberflächlichkeit."
He laughs. "No, no, it's not superficial! It's just too...directed, somehow. Maybe that's what's American about the way you play it, you have a goal. Beloved, hurry up!" Now all three of us laugh. He smiles, just barely: "For Americans, or for most people today, a love song is just, JA. But in this aria we need to hear, well, maybe...but also, maybe not."
Sylvia breathes and begins. Vieni ove amore per goder t'appella.


Friday, December 10, 2010

so close and yet so far

I followed through with an act I could not complete past the threat stage last summer: I deactivated my Facebook page. From one angle this looks completely mad, to disconnect from a huge group right at a point of enormous frustration. I need my friends right now (like there's ever a time when you don't need your friends). But I had the same instinct right when I was leaving Texas, and there's something right about it for me. Hard to explain. Maybe it's this: living in a world that isn't real to me yet, where I am such a stranger and so lacking in connection, I need something stronger. Facebook is so fun and casual and I have enjoyed it so much, but the calories are pretty empty. I think it might keep all of us from spending just a little more time and effort on the most important people in our lives...or maybe that's just me.

So if you're my friend and you read this, please follow me, or save this link, and tell my other friends about it. And call me, or write to me. I'll call or write back. I miss you.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010


So MtMn has been practicing a lot, but I was still surprised when he announced he was playing a solo gig at a local English-speaking hangout. a solo guitar gig. With singing. See. all of that is stuff he can do and has done throughout a long musical life of playing every style imaginable, but two hours of solo singing and strumming is something new. Saturday night was his debut, and it felt like another huge step in our current reinvention of our life. It was absolutely new to watch him singing the blues, Robert Johnson and Taj Mahal and the occasional Soundgarden, in a crowded cafe packed with people escaping the frigid night. At the same time, it was life as it always has been (or at least as it has been since 1983), me in a dark and crowded bar with friends watching him perform across the room. As I have a thousand times before, I settled into a chair and listened, watched strangers listen to him, let the detritus of a long and frustrating day wash away to the strains of "La Grange".

At 11:30 we walked, MtMn and MSMB and me, from that pub to the Stefansdom, ready to experience a real moment of Vienna weirdness, a performance of the Mozart Requiem that would end precisely at the moment of the composer's death. The performance of the piece was excellent, actually, good soloists and orchestra and a superb choir (check them out here - different performance but it will hook you on this group). I won't lie, I was dozing during part of it (it was late and freezing!). But here was the great Requiem happening in this beautiful space at the insane hour of midnight plus, and when at the end the priests came out with the bells and the incense and the cross to solemnly process through the church followed by all of the musicians...well, it was crazy, solemn and sincere yet kitschy and hilarious. 

Vienna in December is dark and damp and yet glowing with Christmas lights and the roasted chestnuts sold on every corner, and it greets me every morning with a tight little smile. Is it a movie set or a mirror? Half a world away my baby brother turns forty and my grandmother sleeps at Fort Snelling next to her veteran husband, and my heart runs back in that direction with every second beat. Yet here we are this morning in Glasergasse 3 (not at the opera house thanks to Immaculate Mary) with the window open to the sun-warmed winter air, drinking coffee and hanging out, making plans.

The pub gig might be regular. so he's practicing.

Jesus left Chicago and he's bound for New Orleans.
Workin' from one end to the other and all points in between.

Took a jump through Mississippi, well, muddy water turned to wine.
Then out to California through the forests and the pines.

You might not see him in person but he'll see you just the same.
You don't have to worry 'cause takin' care of business is his name.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Passing through

The last five days have redefined my whole idea of being "unterwegs", on a journey. I'm on one wild ride, unsure from moment to moment of time, day, temperature, century - of location in general. I'm either nailed to the spot or unmoored, and sometimes I experience both conditions simultaneously. It started on Friday when I got the news of my grandmother's passing. On Facebook. I hadn't heard any news in the morning, but there was my brother's status update casually glanced at the rehearsal break. I had half of my mother's number dialed when I realized it was the middle of the night in Minnesota. I called my bro, who had since gone back to bed, and so I returned to rehearsal. The next days were a frustrating mixture of poorly timed attempts to connect to my funeral-planning family (that seven hour gap is a nasty beeyotch when your heart is aching and everyone involved has a big to-do list) and extremely taxing rehearsals (it happens, art can be hard. Stop laughing.). It was exhausting, disheartening, and lonely.

But that's only part of the story. I was also filled with gratitude and joy because at home a few weeks ago, Grandma gave me the gift of two good days, great conversations, a special burst of energy. I could talk to my sisters and brother and mom and dad on my phone, on my computer, practically for free and for as long as we pleased (I'm old enough to remember precious, painfully rationed long-distance calls). And miraculously, I was there in the church briefly on Sunday when the funeral took place, thanks to Skype. I saw the beautiful faces of my family, their faces were in my home and my face was there at Vision of Glory Lutheran. I saw one nephew's nervous smile before he went to prepare for playing the piano during the service, and as he turned to go I thought, my every family event up till now, I've been sitting at the keyboard.

We'd had a pianist as our dinner guest that evening with his flautist wife and their brilliant daughter, new friends that lit up a heavyhearted weekend with laughter and conversation. We enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast, ate with abandon, and did the dishes together. Normally I'm the kind of person who refuses help with washing up in my kitchen (control freak, duh), but this night I didn't. Earlier in the day, my sister had called about her eulogy; she was taking ideas from everyone in the family. One story she mentioned was about how Grandma and Mom did the dishes together and sang, as Grandma had once done with her sister. So I let my new friends help me with my dishes (albeit no singing), and there was something deeply moving about that, although I'm glad I didn't have to try and explain it. After they went home and my static-y Skype call was over, I opened both sets of windows to the snowy Viennese night and took a long breath of cold winter air.

Clarity and collaboration, there may be something to this pairing. It will be a while before I can write about this week with any of the former. The orchestra is finally here in our Giovanni rehearsals, along with our music director, and finally the piece begins to take shape. I'm playing the recitatives with two stunning partners, cellists who are splitting the performances. So there are three of us collaborating on this project, and of course the work is faster and light years better with the addition of two sets of ears, minds, and hearts. I rehearsed with one of the two gentlemen this morning, and that was ninety minutes of grace. Not only am I challenged to a new level of elegance by his musicianship, I was given the gift of his total engagement with and enjoyment of our work, of his profession. I asked him how many times he had played Don Giovanni. He smiled and mentioned that next season would be his last before retirement, and as we talked he spoke of his grandfather, who joined the Vienna Philharmonic in 1892, who played under Mahler and Strauss and who collaborated with Brahms. 

A quick email check before rehearsal contained glowing reports of the eulogy and the piano solo. Outside my windows it was snowing hard, and I had to hurry downstairs. Behind me my boss gave the downbeat, and the orchestra thundered on all sides the music that will outlive us all.