Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Handel's La Resurrezione (NDR Radiophilharmonie - Hannover)

Wow, it's been ages ago - I simply forgot to blog about this concert.

A good friend, and my husband's boss, is a massive fan of all that is baroque. For his birthday, he invited the two of us and a few other friends to join him in attending a concert of G.F. Händel's rarely performed oratorio "La Resurrezione" (the Resurrection).

It was performed by the NDR (Northern German Radio) Radiophilharmonie orchestra in the NDR Landesfunkhaus Niedersachsen (Lower-Saxony State Broadcasting House) as part of their baroque concert series.

I was a little skeptical since the orchestra is not a specialized baroque orchestra and I had never heard of any of the soloists (but that doesn't mean much, to be honest). The director, Michael Hofstetter, however was someone I had heard of as a specialist in baroque opera. That, and Hannover being a hot-bed of baroque music, I figured it would probably be good after all.

I was not at all disappointed with the orchestra and the conductor and his interpretation. It was a large orchestra, with many added baroque instrumentalists (who were sadly not credited anywhere, not even in the program!), including 2 theorbo players, 1 theorbo/baroque guitar, harpischord and Viola da Gamba players (whom I actually know (Irene Klein, Berlin) and spoke with in the interval). Irene Klein is an excellent Viol player and she had several obligato parts in the arias, which I very much enjoyed. The Radio Symphony orchestra played sensitively and/or dramatically as needed. The acoustics of the hall are excellent for instrumental music and it was a delight to listen to them. The Radio Choir was also excellent, but they had a thankless job. 2 pieces one each at the end of each act.

The singers on the other hand, while not bad, were nearly all of them not very good, in my humble opinion. I know, I have this problem: Being a voice teacher and attuned to hearing the slightest faults in a voice makes it nearly impossible for me to enjoy vocal concerts. It's rare for me to hear a voice I'm completely pleased with.

Unfortunately, there was only one voice I found little fault with (the Tenor, Bernhard Berchtold, who sang the part of St. John, the Apostle). The only things I didn't appreciate was his lack of dynamic variation (all on the quiet, gentle side - could be worse, right?) and his utter lack of legato singing. He was also often short on breath, probably from not singing legato. Otherwise, the quality of his voice is quite fine. A light, lyrical tenor with perfect diction - really the only singer whose words were understandable and correct. He has an advantage being a tenor though.

The next best singer, Stephanie Houtzeel, Mezzo-soprano, who sang Maria Cleophas, sang with a rich, even tone and was very musical, with lots of variation. The biggest problem with her was that she was impossible to watch. So much tension! One of the people we were with likened her physical presence to that of ??? (drat! can't remember his name right now (pop musician), it's been on the tip of my tongue for hours now...). She would stiffen her right hand and shoulder, pull her head toward her left (!) shoulder and grimace, singing basically out of one side of her mouth. That just screams that things aren't working to me. She was, however, very deft at covering it up, and she really does have a fantastic talent. Just makes me sad that there's obviously no one telling her these things, or that she hasn't noticed it herself and gotten help. We singers are just too proud sometimes. Or scared.

As for the other singers: The 2 sopranos and the bass, all have beautiful voices and loads of talent, all spoiled a bit by technical deficiencies. Kirsten Blaise, who sang the Angel, was thrillingly facile in the coloratura bits, and had a good sense of the dramatic. But otherwise, her big problem was that when she sings loudly the registration is too chest register dominant, which then drops out when she takes the weight off. The effect is that she has essentially two voices and only two basic dynamic levels with which to sing: loud and dramatic (and shrill) or quiet and breathy, which is certainly an emergency measure but she uses it for dramatic effect, so it comes across as artistry. The juxtaposition of these two modus operandi is a bit shocking to the listener's ear. Heidrun Kordes, who sang Maria Magdalena, has left little impression on me after a few week's removal, I'm afraid. I remember having some pretty distinct impressions, though. Ah yes, she had some pretty odd throat constrictions, which popped into "view" on certain vowels, most notably, (E) as in "bed" or "said". This was unfortunate because otherwise, she has quite a lovely voice. The bass/Lucifer, Josef Wagner, had just one dynamic: fortissimo, epidemic among basses as well as poor diction.

I find it shocking how rare it is to find a classical singer you can actually understand. Concern these days is often placed solely on a "beautiful" sound at the expense of nearly everything else. If singers would pay more attention to vowel quality and intensity many of the inconsistencies and "problems" would melt away and the tone become more unique and truly beautiful. But many are so busy covering up technical deficiencies they have no idea how to actually remedy them.

OK, off my soap box now. It all sounds quite dire what I've written, but I think most listeners would have been quite satisfied with the concert and the level of musicianship and the quality of what was offered. All in all it was an excellent concert, me, I would just like to hear a good singer more often than not.

The concert is being broadcast on NDR Kultur Radio (98.7 MHz) on 26 June at 8:00pm (20:00). Listen and tell me what you think!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Catching up - UK trip

Wow, I'm a bad blogger. I have fun and perhaps interesting things to blog about and I don't manage to get around to it...

2 weekends ago Magnus and I attended some friends' wedding in Sheffield, England. We took the opportunity to visit some other friends in N. England and had a bit of a whirlwind trip because of it. We stupidly flew to Manchester instead of Newcastle, which would have been wiser, because we then jumped into a rental car and drove the 3 hours to visit Tony Smith of the StarShipSofa.

This was our first face-to-face meeting, in the flesh, as it were and it was quite exciting! Tony records the new weekly Sofanauts show on Friday afternoons and so I appear on episode No. 5 as a live studio guest! What a gas! You can listen to all or a bit of it here: Sofanauts No. 5 In case you don't know, the Sofanauts is a new panel-type podcast in which Tony invites 2 or 3 guests and there is much talk and discussion on current events or issues in the Science Fiction community. It's fun, but perhaps only if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Tony and Mrs. StarShipSofa are gracious hosts and the kids are great! Their house is beautiful, full of bright colors and quirky art and character. Tony's daughter vacated her room for the night so Magnus and I had a bed to sleep on - thank you E! Tony receives complimentary copies of several new books each week and they are starting to pile up. He practically begged us to take a few off his hands. So we did. Titles by Hal Duncan, Cory Doctorow, Anne and Todd McCaffrey, Patricia Biggs and Alison Goodman. We had a lovely evening just gabbing about various and sundry over dinner and into the evening. Unfortunately, we had to leave relatively early the next morning to drive to Sheffield for the wedding, which started at 1pm.

The wedding and the reception were beautiful and we knew a couple of other people at the wedding. The couple being married were Jane and Anthony and Jane and I sang in the CtK Choir together in Frankfurt and Jane took singing lessons from me for about a year. I suppose I met Anthony at the same time as Jane, because he came to Frankfurt to visit our choir director, Stephen Hartley, and sang with the choir when he was there. It was lovely to see Stephen and Joyce, whom I haven't seen since he left Frankfurt. We never managed to travel to York to visit them while we were living in London. For shame! I fizzled pretty early and we skipped the Ceilidh in the evening, which I would have loved, but I think fast energetic dancing is out for the time being... (more on that later).

On Sunday we drove up to Lancaster to visit our friends Andy and Lizzy and their 8 month old Phoebe. We had a great time just catching up. We visited the Butterfly House in Williamson Park near the Ashton Memorial and I took some photos with my new Nokia, but they're not so great. Let see:

Friday, May 08, 2009

Report: 15th Free the Voice seminar in Frankfurt

Near Easter each year, Dr Hochs Konservatorium and the German Musician's Association host and sponsor the singing technique seminar "Free the Voice". Cornelius Reid himself gave the masterclass for the first 10 years and handed the reigns over to Carol Baggott-Forte, when, at 92 years of age, he decided it was too much to travel to Europe. I first attended the seminar in 1996 and have been hooked on Funtional Voice Training ever since. I attended every year when Cornelius was still coming, traveled to New York City to have lessons with him and found myself teachers employing his theories here in Germany. The first year Carol took the masterclass over I was only in town for 1 day, so I listened and was impressed. She seems to channel Cornelius in mannerisms, but she has her own style. She is extremely knowledgeable and yet intuitive, combined with a kind of fearlessness she gets amazing results in a short period of time, just like Cornelius did.

It always seemed to be the same situation, that I was traveling when Carol was in Frankfurt and so I had one lesson with her until 2006. By that time I'd moved to London and was gladly informed that she was doing a seminar in Brighton, just a short train ride away. It was amazing. I had had a bad cold, basically losing my voice and 3 weeks later it hadn't really recovered. I was still having trouble with notes in the upper passaggio and above and I was traveling to the US the week after the seminar to sing concerts with Elysium. Ack! Carol worked magic on my voice, took me in a new direction, which has turned out to be the beginning of wonderful changes in my voice and technique and I felt like I'd never sung better! Since then I've attended nearly every class Carol has given in Europe traveling to Lyon and Paris, France and to Frankfurt and also organized for Carol to teach in Hannover in February.

This years seminar was a good experience. I was able to attend for an entire week, listening to lessons for upwards of 6 hours a day and having 3 lessons myself. Unfortunately, I had had a(nother) cold just after the St. John's Passion concert and was still hacking up pflegm from under my larynx just days before going to Frankfurt. I had a lesson on the first day of the seminar and the cords were still swollen. They decided they were done after about 15 minutes. Until then it was a very good lesson. :-) I waited until the end of the week to take the other 2 lessons and they were great.

I wanted to insert the recording of my last lesson that I made on my phone, but for some reason it won't upload. Sigh.

Listening to lessons is a very valuable experience as well and I always try to listen to as many as I can. It's interesting to hear the progression from one lesson to the next as well. Carol's focus is more and more on professional singers and teachers of singing, so the level of the singers attending is quite high. There's not a whole lot of relevance for my own teaching since I teach beginners, young singers and amateurs for the most part, but it's ear-training which is all-important.

And the great news is that it appears Carol is serious about moving to Europe for at least part of the year. Her husband is Italian and she really enjoys doing these seminars here so they are now taking steps to make it a reality. She doesn't know where they'll "settle", but anywhere in Europe would be really helpful and facilitate any classes she gives around Europe. w00t!!!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Report: St. John's Passion / Johannespassion - Wiesbaden

Man am I behind! I sang the soprano solos in the St. John Passion at the Bergkirche (Hill Church) in Wiesbaden over a month ago! In my defense, you might remember that when I returned I was still in the midst of my enforced (by our ISP) internet-less period. Then, Magnus and I took off for our Easter visit to the In-laws in Italy. I had about 24 hours at home before I left for Frankfurt where Carol Baggott-Forte was teaching for a week. I'll write about that in a subsequent post.

Anyway. Overall, my experience was a good one. I had an easy trip to Wiesbaden, arriving quite early. The other soloists were very nice, which is always a plus and I had a chance to chat with the Alto soloist (who actually lives in Hannover too) and the Bass soloist. I was a little nervous for the rehearsal, which I attribute to wondering so much whether I was prepared enough and concerned that it had been so long since I sang in such a production. My singing wasn't stellar in the rehearsal, but it wasn't horrible either.

I stayed with my good friend and colleague, Bastian Baumann, who played the portative organ for the Passion. That was a stroke of luck because we were able to run through my arias at his house on the day of the concert. Bastian has a lovely way of getting the best out of me, giving clear suggestion as to how to improve things. He does this in such an encouraging way and that helped to calm my nerves.

The church was full to the brim and there were several of my former pupils from Frankfurt as well as my friend Caroline in the audience. We soloists were able to sit with our backs to the audience when we weren't singing, which for me was a God-send. The soprano soloist has but two arias to sing in this oratorio and Bach was so kind as to put one within the first 15 minutes and the 2nd (more difficult one) within the last 15 minutes. If that doesn't sound like a bad thing to you, then picture sitting in a cold church for an hour and a half between arias while your voice and your body falls asleep. Sitting facing the orchestra and choir meant that I could discreetly sing along with the choir and thereby keep my voice alive. It worked beautifully and I was even more satisfied with the 2nd aria (Zerfliesse mein Herze) that I was with the first (Ich folge dir gleichfalls).

Overall, I'd say the quality of this production was extremely high. The choir was, as usual, excellent and Christian Pfeifer (the Music Director and conductor) put together a fantastic baroque orchestra. I can't wait to hear the recording. When I get it I'll post my arias for your listening pleasure either here or at MySpace (providing the link, of course) or both.

The one review that appeared in the local paper after the concert was quite favorable all in all. The critic was slightly less impressed with my performance that with the other soloists, writing "Diane Severson proved to be very discreet and agile, she could, however, gain a bit more aplomb." I actually felt rather calm during the concert and could concentrate well on singing the music and being in the moment, but I guess I can't be surprised or wonder much about the critique.