Conquering Fear at BSM Brass Week

Last week I conquered one of my greatest fears: Sleepaway camp. The idea of leaving my tempur-pedic mattress and guaranteed air conditioning to venture to essentially the middle of nowhere had always troubled my mind. For the last few summers, I’ve scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed seeing fellow high school musicians posting photos from countless summer programs such as Tanglewood, Chautauqua, you name it, as I sit in my comfy chair with my laptop wearing sweatpants. Even though I have spent the last several summers continuing voice, piano, and French horn lessons from the academic year, and even participating in a chamber music day camp on piano last summer, I still felt like I could have been accomplishing more at a program that would require me to sleep over. This summer was the summer I would cure this personal fear.

For seven whole days I ate, slept, and played French horn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at Berkshire Summer Music, a program initiated my Met Principal Trumpet David Krauss and his wife Kristen that is just in its second year of operation. The program is held on the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college during the academic year for child prodigies and geniuses who graduate high school before the twelfth or eleventh grades. The first week of the program is dedicated to brass players, and is thus known as Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week. For a program so new and small, the faculty is incredibly rich, including David Krauss, MET Principal Trumpet; Joseph Foley, Principal Trumpet of the Rhode Island Philharmonic; Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara, First and Third Horns of the MET Orchestra; Toby Oft, Principal Trombone of the Boston Symphony; and Denson Paul Pollard, Tenor/Bass Trombone of the MET Orchestra. Each day was packed with studio classes, lessons, coachings, mock auditions, recitals, and concerts by faculty and students, leaving me with little to no time at all to fret about being away from home. In fact, by the time I left the camp after the final concert, I was sad to say goodbye.

I felt very intimidated the first day I was there. Many of my new fellow campers had already gone for years to Tanglewood, Kinhaven, Interlochen, and other famed summer music institutions. I was a rookie, and I knew it. I was not only a camp rookie, but as I was coming from a background spiced more with opera and vocal repertoire, my knowledge of horn and brass repertoire was fairly limited. I figured out by the second day that this did not matter at all. In a master class held by Javier Gandara, I played an arrangement of “Va tacito e nascosto”, one my favorite arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, featuring a huge horn solo. It was neither a concerto, nor a fancy etude. After having listened to others perform pieces for him such as the Weber Concertino and etudes by Gallay, I walked in somewhat sheepishly feeling that my Handel was overly simplistic. Never would I have thought that I would learn so much about articulation, phrasing, color, and singing through the horn with my uncomplicated piece. I had Strauss 1 and Dukas’ Villanelle as complex pieces on the back burner for the master class, but from a piece as simple as “Va Tacito”, I learned so much, thanks to Javier’s amazing insight. It is astounding just how much he knows about the horn.

Later on, I even gained enough confidence to play the excerpt from the opening of Mahler 9 in front of MET Principal Horn Erik Ralske, who had just played that very same solo so elegantly with the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in October. I had been there to see it and had been moved to tears by his playing. As one can imagine, I was scared right down to my socks. My heartbeat was just as irregular as that of Mahler when he was writing his Ninth; The first movement is underscored by an uneven beat which is meant to symbolize Mahler’s failing heart and health. I then remembered: this is summer camp. We’re all here because we share a love for music and we’re here to help each other. This isn’t an actual audition or performance. I played the solo flawlessly, and with Erik’s invaluable advice, I was able to make more not only of the notes and phrasing but even the rests- something to which I had not previously given any thought.

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 Horn Studio on the steps of the Kellogg Music Center. Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara are pictured on the top row

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 Horn Studio on the steps of the Kellogg Music Center. Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara are pictured on the top row

Despite my trouble sleeping during the first couple of nights, it was worth the tossing and turning to try new things at camp that I would never have been able to do lounging at home in my sweatpants. Never before had I played in horn quartets, let alone octets. On the first night, I ended up spontaneously joining a pick-up horn quartet in which I played some of my all-time favorite pieces: The Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhäuser, The “Wach auf” chorus from Die Meistersinger, and a bit of Schumann’s Konzertstück. I was even introduced to composers of whom I had heard, such as Gabrielli, but whose music I had never actually played. It did not matter that other people in the group were in the middle of or had completed their masters or bachelors degrees at prestigious conservatories, while I had not even begun pursuing my degree at MSM on a completely different instrument. We all simply loved the horn and the sound it makes. The horn octet in which I played was the performance portion of our horn studio class. Throughout the week and at the final concert, we played Abendsegen from Hansel und Gretel (I played fourth horn next to Javier- MET Third Horn!!), an arrangement of “Soave sia il vento” from Così fan tutte, and arrangements of Requiem and Kyrie, Rex Tremendae, and Sanctus from the Verdi Requiem. After years of feeling honored to be able to listen to these pieces in opera houses and concert halls, it was even more of an honor to actually play them. The feeling of playing in the very quiet beginning of the Verdi Requiem is indescribable.

Another thing that I had never done before is play a composer’s music for a composer himself. American composer Eric Ewazen joined the camp for a couple of days to listen to ensembles play his pieces in master classes and recitals. One morning, I woke up having never heard of Eric Ewazen or his Grand Canyon Suite for horn octet. In the afternoon, I was playing the first movement of it under his baton. In the evening, we sat at the same table for dinner discussing Wagner and other fun music trivia. Any anxiety about my lack of knowledge of his music was completely wiped away by his beaming smile, as I sat fascinated by the fact that I was eating dinner and conversing with a live composer. Thanks to BSM Brass Week, this was made possible.

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 students and faculty. Eric Ewazen is pictured in the blue plaid shirt. (From left to right at the bottom of the photo: Erik Ralske, Javier Gandara, Denson Paul Pollard, David Krauss (up a step), and Toby Oft)

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 students and faculty. Eric Ewazen is pictured in the blue plaid shirt. (From left to right at the bottom of the photo: Erik Ralske, Javier Gandara, Denson Paul Pollard, David Krauss (up a step), and Toby Oft)

Berkshire Summer Music became a family. I would be sitting alone at a table for dinner, and it would later fill up with renowned faculty and students, who are now friends, from all over the world. Discussions ranged from different types of mutes to appreciation of the structure of Bruckner symphonies versus Mahler symphonies to Wagner’s Ring. We even watched all of Das Rheingold together as part of BSM Brass Week’s movie night. By the end of the week, I felt like I truly belonged at this wonderful institution, surrounded by great and talented people. Now, I feel ready to take on any previously scary-sounding six to nine week music program out there and meet more of the small world of classical music. Thank you, BSM Brass Week, for helping me conquer my fear…and enabling me to learn a lot about music and a bit about myself, too.

Things to Learn from Marilyn Horne: The Song Continues

Marilyn Horne’s autobiography, published in 2004 with the help of Jane Scovell, serves not only to discuss her career and artistry, but also to enlighten young singers in their endeavors to become professional musicians.

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She begins her book telling how she played the mighty and powerful soldier Tancredi, who has been exiled in Rossini’s opera of the same name. In the end, Tancredi wins a victorious battle and is united with his lover Amenaide for a happy ending. Throughout her book, Horne evokes this very confidence as she fought for her career in music; never was there any doubt in her mind that she could make it, even if it took embarking overseas to Europe for opportunities. She eloquently described the fear factor of this whole process, crossing over the Atlantic to countries in which language barriers were prevalent, living conditions were questionable, and the uncertainty of success, even after traveling such great distances, loomed. (Nowadays, as she mentioned, singers are able to start their careers in the United States, whereas up until the mid to late twentieth century singers were obligated to venture over to Europe and beyond).

Cover of Marilyn Horne's 1989 recording of Rossini's Tancredi

Cover of Marilyn Horne’s 1989 recording of Rossini’s Tancredi

As the book is written chronologically, she also describes how she was able to overcome the loss of her parents, siblings, friends, and many others in order to get her job done on the stage; an almost impossible feat in light of such emotional events. This confidence factor that she carried throughout her career is something young singers should take to heart and remember over the course of their trials and errors.

However, just as Rossini revised the ending of Tancredi to have him mortally wounded in battle and learn then that his lover never betrayed him, Horne goes into great detail the pain and anguish the very life of a singer caused her. Even though opera singers largely have individual and self-motivated careers, they all have people in their lives who can be affected by the unattractive aspects of the career: traveling being a big factor. It is clearly shown through her warm reverence that family meant a lot to Marilyn Horne, even though she could not be around for every single life event. She and Henry Lewis loved each other dearly, yet due to the gruesome aspects of the life of a singer, as described by Horne, their marriage was not meant to succeed. There was no operatic betrayal involved, like that found in Tancredi, it was just a real-life, offstage tragedy.

On a lighter note, Horne’s humor made her book truly enjoyable. It is evident how funny she is simply based on what she did for her career. Even at the times when her weight became an issue, she managed to turn it on other people. When one German opera company hesitated in hiring her because of her weight, she stood back and sang a ringing “Ritorna vincitor” for the director, who later ended up hiring her. As weight has become a prevalent issue in recent years for singers due to the Met Live in HD series and more stress placed on productions and “vision”, carrying Horne’s passive and humorous attitude towards the matter is an idea to keep in mind. It is a shame that there was even a slight chance that Marilyn Horne’s weight would have spoken louder of her ability as an artist than her immense talent, corresponding to what happened earlier last year with Irish Marilyn Horne-esque mezzo soprano Tara Erraught at Glyndebourne.

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Marilyn Horne giving a master class at Carnegie Hall on January 13, 2014 (Pete Checchia/Carnegie Hall)

It was a delight reading about Marilyn Horne’s career as both a singer, and later the proponent of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, launched on January 16, 1994. The organization allows young artists to explore the world of recital-based singing, and to participate in master classes, a few of which are held at Carnegie Hall annually during the week of Horne’s birthday, held by guest artists and Ms. Horne herself. I have had the lucky opportunity over the last few years to attend her master classes, as well as adjunct ones taught by Christa Ludwig and Anne Sofie von Otter, in 2014 and 2015 respectively. She is sharp as a tack when it comes to dealing with singers’ proper breath support, of which she is a huge advocate, as well as diction, and having an idea of the background information. In her 2013 master class, I vividly remember her getting on a singer, whose art song was based on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for not having read the play. This proved to be a valuable lesson in song preparation for not only the poor singer but to every vocal student sitting in Carnegie Hall that night. Her tact and aptness in her preparation during her career showed brilliantly in her autobiography, just as they do in her master classes.

I would recommend this book to vocal students who are looking to pursue solo careers like she had. Many of the hardships she described relate to traveling and feeling far away from home, therefore, I think anyone pursuing a career that requires being separated from family and friends would appreciate her confessions of how tough that life can be. Her book was truly enlightening, just as she acts as a beacon of light for the next generation of classical vocalists.

A Tribute to Margaret Juntwait: The Host of My Days

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Margaret Juntwait in the MET Opera Radio booth

Earlier this morning, the longtime radio host of the Metropolitan Opera Margaret Juntwait passed away from ovarian cancer. She died at the age of 58. The last Met broadcast she hosted and the last time her voice touched the ears of opera enthusiasts live was during last year’s New Year’s Eve gala of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow. To think that her beautiful voice will never soar live through the airwaves again is tragic.

I first met Margaret Juntwait when I was an outgoing, nine-year-old fourth grader. I had joined our elementary school’s Literary Magazine committee, and as MET Opera Radio SiriusXM was new that year, I wanted to write a feature on it. She kindly agreed to be interviewed about it, and I finally had the opportunity to journey to the sixth floor of the Met where the radio department is located. When I arrived, she was just as sweet to me, a nine-year-old literary magazine reporter, as she would have been to a New York Times critic or anyone from the press. I asked her the questions I prepared and she answered them to the fullest.

Little did I know that after our interview she would ask me if I would like to be interviewed on MET Opera Radio as one of the first guests on the new station. I had only joined the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus about a year earlier, and I had only mentioned the fact that I was in it once to her. I could not believe it! My family and I ventured back up to the sixth floor during a March 2007 broadcast of Turandot, in which I would be interviewed during one of the intermissions. She made me feel right at home; I did not feel nervous at all. She made the interview seem as if I was talking to an old friend; we were chatting, laughing, and even singing a little bit! I will forever cherish that sensation of friendship that she made real that night live in the studio.

Every morning I wake up to MET Opera Radio. I keep my stereo singing all through the night because I cannot get enough opera during the day. Sometimes I would even wake up in the middle of the night to Margaret’s recorded introductions to a 1980s broadcast of L’elisir d’amore, or credits after a long haul of Götterdämmerung. I one time even joked with her that I used to think she would sneak in my room and talk to me in my sleep. That is how close a presence she was, even though there were always a stereo and microphone between us.

Each morning at 7:30 when my dad and I leave the house for school, we often check what the 6:00 AM broadcast is (even though most of the time I know what it is from already having checked), or what excerpt is being played. Whenever it was timed well enough so that Margaret could tell us what it was, my dad and I would look at each other and say simultaneously, “That’s our friend!”.

In the evenings after dinner, my family and I always gather in our den to listen to MET Opera Radio broadcasts on certain days of the week. As I launched into my homework or a new book or my newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter, I would smile when I heard Margaret arrive on the air welcoming everyone for the night. It was comforting to know that she was hosting my evening’s soundtrack as I worked on my assignments. During intermissions, William Berger often asks trivia questions, for which one can email answers to radio@metopera.org to get possible shoutouts. Whenever I was mentioned for my responses, Margaret would cheer or even say “what a surprise!”, because she always admired my knowledge of the art form.

Once I was ready to fall asleep, Margaret’s voice would often be the last one I heard for the day. Sometimes if I heard her, I would say “Goodnight, Margaret!” before I turned over and shut off the light. I wish I could have had a chance to say that “Goodnight” in person, just as she said to me hundreds of times at the end of live broadcasts. Her curiosity, passion, and love for opera will be missed by the thousands of people who tune into MET Opera Radio and WQXR every week.

As I enter as a freshman vocal performance major next year at Manhattan School of Music, just as she did after her senior year of high school, I will think of her as I walk through the hallways and when I continue to have MET Opera Radio playing in my dorm. Thank you, Margaret Juntwait, for always being a part of my day, a familiar voice, and a friend. You will be missed.