Put It in the Books: My Freshman Year at MSM

It’s finals week at Manhattan School of Music. Juries took place last week, so all of the practice rooms are silent and empty. Even the hallways are quiet because classes are over and everyone is busy cramming in their own quiet places. I’m currently sitting in the library staring out at a blooming Riverside Park and thinking about summer. I’m also thinking about leaving this place until September and it’s making me feel really low.

How is it that freshman year is over? I’m now a quarter of the way through my undergraduate degree and I still haven’t gotten used to people calling me “collegiate”. Looking back, I feel like I’ve changed a lot since high school and that I can do so many more things now than I could have a year ago. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of riding the subway, and now I have the entire map memorized – even the trains I don’t ride. Picking up a phone and calling, now a fellow, adult is second nature. I don’t even think twice anymore about jumping at opportunities, musical or nonmusical, for which last year I would have gotten cold feet. Musically, I can’t even fathom how much I’ve changed: In both vocal maturity and mindset.

I think back to September when I got up to sing in my performance class for the first time. I sang Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. I was so nervous introducing myself that I pronounced “Spinnrade” like an ignorant American would say “spin class”. My nerves allowed me no dynamic contrast, so the whole buildup to hysteria that the song is known for was not there. After sitting down and watching other people get up and naturally express themselves, I felt so behind.

Now I think back to last month when I got up in front of over a hundred people and sang several intense, long runs of coloratura in Handel’s famous “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from Messiah at the Spring Vocal Recital. After eight months of building up support, stamina, musicianship, technique, expression, language, and countless other factors with my teacher, I felt comfortable enough to get up and sing a challenging piece, which everyone and their mother knows, in front of a large number of people. I even sang it at a faster tempo than normal, which felt all the more exhilarating. I later did the same at my jury in front of a faculty filled with former iconic Met artists like my teacher Mark Oswald, Mignon Dunn, and Catherine Malfitano to name a few.

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Performing “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’ at MSM with my mom (Susan Spector) on November 7, 2015

In between September and April, I did a few other things of which I’m pretty proud: I organized an arrangement, with the help of my mother Susan Spector, Second Oboe of the Met Orchestra, of “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Weber’s Der Freischütz for soprano, oboe, and piano to perform at the Fall Vocal Recital. A prominent oboe obbligato is orchestrated in the aria, so we took advantage of it. We also performed a recit and aria from Bach’s Wedding Cantata for my Baroque History class along with a couple of classmates of mine on cello, double bass, and even harpsichord. I played Principal Horn on a soundtrack of Don Giovanni for an NYU film project and for the MSM Senior Opera Theater’s production of Delibes’ Le Roi l’a Dit, which was an American premiere! As a member of Symphonic Chorus, I performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra led by Jacques Lacombes in Berlioz’s Lélio at NJPAC and in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, one of my favorites, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with Kent Tritle leading the MSM Symphony. I took a fun, but challenging, course on Richard Wagner, my favorite composer, and his Ring Cycle. The class was so enjoyable, as we had such engaging discussions and listened to Georg Solti’s brilliant recording, that it didn’t feel like work. Not to mention that last semester I earned straight ‘A’s and a 4.0 GPA. Do you see why I’m going to miss this place over the summer?

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Kent Tritle conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo: Sally Benner

I’m also going to miss the incredible friendships I’ve made. Unlike high school, I feel like I’ve finally found common ground with the classmates I see everyday and an ideal place to make friendships that last a lifetime. It may sound cliché, but what they say about music bringing people together is true. I find now that when I am with a group of friends, I think in terms of instruments we have for chamber music rather than names. Some of my favorite nights at MSM were spent laughing and accompanying my friends on piano for fun while they rehearsed their pieces for lessons. Other nights we’d go out and take advantage of the city by going on subway adventures downtown to try the newest trending dessert places or go to the Met. Since most of my new friends are from outside New York or even outside the United States, I’ll have to wait until September for more adventures.

I not only learned from my teachers and my friends, but living in New York has enabled me to go to countless performances at the Met, David Geffen Hall, and Carnegie Hall. I got to witness live the premieres of the Met’s two best productions of the season, in my opinion, Lulu and Elektra. I also managed to see several of my favorite orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, who brought a cycle of Beethoven symphonies to New York in the fall. Before their concert featuring Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 and No. 7, I attended a master class by Fourth Horn Sarah Willis, after which everyone who brought a horn got to participate in a flash mob. Not just any flash mob, however: In this flash mob, we played on the roof of Carnegie Hall, followed by the offices inside Carnegie where we played for Executive Director Sir Clive Gillinson. Even by getting outside the conservatory, New York helped me to learn more about music and performing this year by welcoming professional artists from around the world to its stages.

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“Flashmobbing” on the roof of Carnegie Hall with Sarah Willis and twenty-five other horn players, November 20, 2015 ©Rob Davidson

I know this probably sounds like bragging and shameless self promotion, which it probably is. However, I only wanted to express just how happy I am with myself about completing my first year of college and why I will miss MSM over the summer. Many say the transition from high school to college is one of, if not, the hardest in one’s life. I’m happy with my results.

One other tidbit I am proud of from this year is an amazing opportunity I am going to have this summer. In March, I interviewed for an internship position at Opera News, and, well, I got it! For eight weeks this summer I will be working at Lincoln Center in the Opera News office, assisting F. Paul Driscoll, the Editor-in-Chief, and other staff members. Afterwards, I’ll be returning to MSM in the fall to begin my sophomore year. Who knows what next year will bring?

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My Bucket List: Singing in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

Last week I checked off the biggest bullet point on my bucket list I had accounted thus far: Singing in a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”. As part of a collaboration with the Oratorio Society of New York, the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Choir, Women’s Chorus, and Symphony under the direction of Kent Tritle performed at no less than the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine – the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in the world. With 450-500 musicians total, a huge noise was made, especially with the help of Saint John’s gigantic pipe organ. The church played a role as an instrument itself, in that the reverberation of the sound produced lasted close to eight seconds. While this piece is normally performed in a concert hall with minimal reverberation, the cathedral added excitement to an already thrilling work. This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on March 2, 1916. I not only got to check this ultimate bucket list item off once, but twice- as a second performance was added only a few weeks before our scheduled single performance on February 25 by popular demand.

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*** New caption *** American Premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra Academy of Music, Philadelphia 2 March 1916

 

One might ask why singing in Mahler 8 was at the top of my bucket list. Why not sky-diving or backpacking through Europe? That question could be answered in many ways, but maybe it’s enough that I have and will continue to go backpacking long distances to see this symphony, let alone perform in it. As of today I have seen, including performances in which I have participated, approximately nine performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. That is nine more than most people on Earth will ever see or dream of seeing. How could I have seen so many performances of a work that is so rarely done? The forces are too gargantuan for it to be done regularly- even in New York. To those unfamiliar with Mahler’s Eighth, here are, roughly, the forces required: One festival-sized orchestra with multiple doublings, organ, piano, off-stage brass, eight soloists, two SATB choirs, and a children’s chorus.

My dad and I, we like to think famously, have traveled over the last eleven years to see this work done as many times as possible, specifically on the East Coast. The first time I saw it we had driven up to Tanglewood to see it with the Boston Symphony. I was only seven years old and, shaking in my seat in the Shed because of the organ, knew that I had to perform in that symphony one day. We later made multiple trips to Philadelphia, back up to Tanglewood, to the movie theater for live simulcasts, and to venues in New York.

Mahler’s symphonies also got me to enjoy symphonic repertoire and helped me along my own musical road. For a while opera was the only performing art that appealed to me; I found sitting in concert halls watching orchestras play hour-long symphonies to be torturous. That changed when I found myself enraptured for an entire hour and twenty minutes of both vocal olympics and orchestral aerobics in Mahler’s Eighth. Symphonies could have that many singers? Mahler’s Third Symphony was the first Mahler symphony I ever saw performed live, and despite its vocal presence, I give it credit, along with many works by Wagner and Strauss, for influencing me to play the French horn. I really don’t see how anyone could go see a symphony that starts with eight horns all playing forte in unison and not want to begin horn lessons immediately afterwards. Thanks to Mahler, I learned to truly appreciate live instrumental music.

From September to early February during piano/choral rehearsals for our Mahler 8, I found that I was the only one enjoying them. Getting people to learn Mahler’s notes and intervals was like pulling teeth. After all of my own experiences I had had with my dad, it made me sad to see everyone around me view Mahler in a distasteful light, or toss him away as a ridiculous composer. Many complained about the difficult vocal lines, some even claimed that we college students shouldn’t be touching Mahler- even the choral parts. Once we got into the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine a couple of weeks ago, however, people realized how big of a deal his symphony actually is. Everything came together, and everyone began to have a good time. Chorus met orchestra, both met soloists, and a chemistry between the three lit up the entire cathedral. In only a week, most people in my choir learned to love and appreciate Mahler, which, on my part, was a really heartening and reassuring thing to see. We also introduced a whole lot of people to Mahler’s Eighth who had never experienced it before: The audience and us.

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Kent Tritle leading the MSM Symphony, MSM Symphonic Choir and Women’s Chorus, and the Oratorio Society of New York in Mahler 8 at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. © Sally Benner 2016

Mahler said writing his Eighth Symphony was the grandest thing he had ever done. To describe it, he said “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” I am not one for having “out-of-body” experiences, but being in the middle of Mahler’s description motivated me to become one who does. I felt as if my soul had floated up to the Heavens he had opened and that my voice had become part of the “planets and suns revolving.” Having my dad there to witness my singing in both performances made it extra special. That is why singing in Mahler 8 was at the top of my bucket list.

To Shush or Not to Shush?

As we live in the age of the iPhone, there is no question that the average attention span of the human race is getting shorter. While they are useful and have changed twenty-first century lifestyle for the better in many ways, they undeniably contribute to many of our distractions. This issue makes activities such as concentrating at work, driving, and even going to the opera more difficult. This lack of attention motivates us during a performance to stare off, steal a glance at our watches or maybe even our phones before directing our eyes back to the stage. For some, the problem is made worse by having an even shorter attention span and/or not knowing the rules of concert etiquette. Back when my father was attending Met performances as a college student, he would see printed articles in his programs going in depth about the practice of performance etiquette. After an incident I saw play out last week at the Met, it would seem that a revival of this is desperately needed.

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David Pershall being shushed as Papageno in Virginia Opera’s production of The Magic Flute

Last week I paid a good sum of money to sit in a very nice orchestra-level seat at the Met for one my favorite operas. Through all of the first act, a young couple seated across the aisle from me whispered continuously, noisily feasted on Altoids and chocolate wrapped in crinkly foil, and passed an iPhone between them which had to have been dropped on the floor at least three times. A brave man at the beginning of Act II decided to put an end to it by executing a quick and quiet “sh”, providing the rest of us with peace for the duration of the act. At the end of the act, I overheard the shushed victim reprimanding the hero, saying something along the lines of, “If you ever shush me like that again I’m going to punch you.” I was horrified by this and intended to thank and reassure the man who gave us the chance to hear Act II without interruption, but unsurprisingly, the man did not return to his seat to enjoy Act III. For all I knew the man was back at home already, knowing that it was not worth trying to enjoy the performance, a performance he without a doubt paid a handsome sum for, just as I did.

What is to be done? Has concert etiquette been buried so far into the ground that it is worth giving up one’s enjoyment of a performance at the expense of rude patrons? Has the  attention span of an average audience been so mangled with by new innovations like the iPhone, that someone with a more focused attention span is looked upon as the bad guy? Two thirds of the tickets for an average performance at the Met are priced at over $175, meaning those coming have made a serious investment. Going to the opera itself does not have to be serious, but taking into account other people’s enjoyment always has to be taken seriously.

I am very interested in hearing responses to this. What are your thoughts? Is there a better way to stifle noisy audience members, or is better to sit and suffer? Do you have your own stories to tell? Please comment below or tweet me @MsOperaGeek.

The 2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild Holiday Card, Designed by Melanie Spector

2015 handed me some incredible opportunities. I was accepted to Manhattan School of Music, am studying with my first-choice voice teacher, and I even got to see my favorite team, the New York Mets, battle it out in the postseason – to the bitter end. One last opportunity granted to me in 2015 was to have the honor of designing the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s holiday card. After seeing some of my other works, such as my 2013-14 Met Season drawing, those on the Guild were interested in having me design their card. Here is the final product:

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The front of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild Holiday Card © Melanie Spector 2015

As the English-version of Die Fledermaus is being performed at the Met right now and as it is always associated with New Year’s Eve and the holiday season overall, I figured it would be a perfect theme for a holiday card. Champagne bubble letters, I believe, are appealing to everyone. I did have another idea, however, that I was hoping would pull through as the favored design of the two I created. Here is my other card design:

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2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild holiday card alternate design © Melanie Spector 2015

One with any prior knowledge of opera would understand that this is a reenactment of the end of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Instead of Tosca stabbing Scarpia with a knife, however, she kills him with snowballs. The two candelabra set on either side of him are seen in any production that is true to the libretto. The snowman is obviously not in the libretto, but I thought it would be a nice touch to a relatively vulgar holiday card. This design was not chosen to be used, however, I’m sure I can make use of it in the future.

I hope all of you readers have a wonderful new year. Thank you so much for keeping up with my posts in 2015. I look forward to writing more about opera and other subjects in 2016. Happy New Year!

Ms.OperaGeek’s Favorite Classical Music Performances from 2015

2015 was a great year for classical music performances given in New York. From some of the new productions put on stage by the Met to visiting orchestras at Carnegie Hall, the stages of New York oozed with talent. I estimate having attended around fifty to sixty performances just this year, but here are some of my favorites, in chronological order, as I look back on 2015:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony, January 2015

This program featured Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting both Yefim Bronfman in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony. What I took especially from this performance was the honor of being in the same hall as the CSO brass section. Even without the leadership of Dale Clevenger, the longtime Principal Horn of the CSO who retired two years ago, the notoriously clear and rich sound of their brass section plays on. Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with a gentle horn call, followed by the “Rhenish” which gives very generous parts particularly to the horns. The symphony itself is in E-Flat Major, a heroic key and a favorite among brass players. The Chicago Symphony played it heroically at that.

Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, January and February 2015

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Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

With the help of two ghoulish new productions by Mariusz Trelinski, a terrifically haunting evening of two rarely staged works was presented. It is doubtful that Iolanta would have been performed at the Met without the help of Maestro Valery Gergiev, who conducted it superbly. Both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala, Iolanta and Vaudémont respectively, gave proof of how their voices have grown and how they are going to take on heavier roles in the future. Nadja Michael’s intensity as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle drew the audience in with her, as Mikhail Petrenko contrasted with an eerily passive portrayal of Bluebeard. Trelinski’s production made the evening. His use of eternally dark moving projections and ominous voices and noises coming from speakers around the house made it like a ride in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland rather than a dismally dark experience.

La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera, February and December 2015

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John Osborn, Joyce DiDonato, and Juan Diego Flórez in La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera; Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I had never seen such a battlefield of coloratura singing before the Met finally brought Rossini’s La Donna del Lago to the stage in 2015. Both casts, in the 2014-15 season and the 2015-16 season, were made up of all-star bel canto repertoire artists: Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato, Daniela Barcellona, Lawrence Brownlee, and John Osborn. Each time the trio in Act II between the two tenors and Ms. DiDonato came back, I would sit at the edge of my seat, frozen and immovable, as I witnessed the “battle of the high Cs” between John Osborn and Juan Diego Flórez and later Lawrence Brownlee. Then came the final aria of the opera for Elena, “Tanti affetti”, or “so many emotions”, which is exactly how I felt hearing Ms. DiDonato nail all her runs every single time she went for them. It was amazing to not only hear a new addition to the Met’s bel canto repertoire, but to also hear an entire cast of artists who are always consistent and perpetually prepared.

Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Ein Deutsches Requiem, March 2015

As part of their US tour, the Vienna Philharmonic brought with them one of their specialities: Brahms’ German Requiem. Listening to those Viennese musicians play that music was like comfort food. It felt as if the music was coming straight out of their veins as they played and breathed together as one being. Daniele Gatti conducted gently, exactly what the piece deserves. Diana Damrau and Christian Gerhaher, both accomplished singers of lieder, gave personal and intimate performances as the two soloists. The Westminster Symphonic Choir exemplified versatility, as they sang powerfully in the trembling “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” and later came all the way down for a very moving “Selig sind die Toten”. One could pick up on the great amount of care given by every person on stage to deliver Brahms’ non-liturgical messages to humankind.

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, Mahler: Symphony No. 6, April 2015

In April the Boston Symphony toured to Carnegie Hall with Christian Teztlaff and the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shostakovich 10, and Mahler 6, all conducted by Andris Nelsons. The Beethoven was played tenderly by Teztlaff with a very interpretive and relatively long cadenza. Both the Shostakovich and the Mahler were fluid and chamber-like under Maestro Nelsons. Instead of going for the big band sound like many conductors do, Nelsons went the other way for a smoother, more velvety sound even out of these two huge works. His animation on the podium, even solely in his eyes as they connect with his musicians, is always worth the price of admission.

Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Beethoven: Symphonies No. 4, 7, and 9, November 2015

The Berlin Philharmonic is the rock star orchestra of the twenty-first century. Tickets to see them at Carnegie Hall are the highest for the entire season each year they tour. From Karajan to Abbado to Sir Simon Rattle, their sound has been transformed into possibly the best in the world as far as classical orchestras go. These rock stars gave it their all as they brought with them a cycle of Beethoven. Out of the three symphonies I saw them perform, my favorite had to have been Symphony No. 7. Yes, many complain that it is performed too often, but when it is performed that well and with such high standards as those of the Berlin Philharmonic, it is a perfect choice.

An entire section of violins sounded like one violin, their blend was that melded. The winds’ first priority was to listen to each other, as they moved and made eye contact as they commingled. Albrecht Mayer, the Principal Oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, paid particular consideration to listening to his fellow musicians and blending his sound. The brass playing sounded magnificent. As always, they were perfectly in tune and created a big, clear sound together. Sir Simon Rattle looked like he was having a blast as he danced and leaped on the podium. At times, however, he would stop conducting the orchestra entirely, demonstrating that the trust between him and the musicians is unquestionably mutual.

Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, November 2015

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Marlis Petersen in Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera; Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

To call Marlis Petersen a stage animal is an understatement. How she ran around the stage while simultaneously singing Lulu’s long and strenuous part boggled everybody’s mind. She practically won the Olympics. A busy new production by South African director William Kentridge allowed some of the attention drawn to Ms. Petersen to be drawn elsewhere, as projections of newspaper clippings and encyclopedia entries were blotted with inky drawings of people, including the characters on stage, Alban Berg, and others. It was eccentric, but for an opera as kooky as Lulu where everyone is busy dying, the production was allowed to be busy too. The Met Orchestra outdid themselves by effortlessly playing Berg’s complicated twelve-tone rows.

With 2016 coming in, I am very excited for all the performances the new year has to offer. Thank you, 2015, for a fantastic year of performance-going!

 

Two Generations on Morningside Heights

In six days’ time, I will be moved into Andersen Hall at Manhattan School of Music in order to begin my studies as a vocal performance major. I will be living in New York City, the city that has brought me so many friends and opportunities and so much baseball and music over the last eighteen years. I’ve always dreamed of living in the Big Apple, even though my parents, who have both lived in New York in the past, have warned me of the loud noises and pungent odors that can rise from the street and prevent me from getting shut-eye. To me, the excitement trumps all, and that is why I am as anxious as ever to move into my dorm room.

My dad and me on Columbia's campus staring in the direction of MSM and the Columbia chemistry building. Photo credits: Susan Laney Spector

My dad and me on Columbia’s campus staring in the direction of MSM and the Columbia chemistry building. He is sporting a Manhattan School of Music shirt while I sport a Columbia polo. Photo credits: Susan Laney Spector

Specifically, I will be living in a cute corner on the West Side of Manhattan called Morningside Heights. Located between 110th Street (Cathedral Parkway) and 125th Street (the Southern point of Harlem), the neighborhood holds many of the city’s finest learning institutions: Manhattan School of Music, Columbia University, and Barnard College being some of the most renowned. As the area is populated largely by young college students, it is often a warm and bubbly place to be. Why do I know this? Yes, I did spend a lot of time walking around the neighborhood during my breaks at Manhattan School of Music Precollege, however, there is an even bigger reason for my knowledge of the area.

My father also attended college in Morningside Heights, spending a grand total of nine years at Columbia University obtaining a doctoral degree in Chemistry. From him, I have learned the ins and outs of Morningside Heights: Where to walk, where not to walk, where to eat, what businesses have replaced others, etc. For years, even before I had any idea what MSM was let alone that it is located in the very same neighborhood, my parents and I would walk around Columbia’s campus as he would point out where he used to live and attend class. I would gaze at the iconic copper green roofs, the lush green lawn, and the broad steps stacked up to Low Library with Butler Library glowing from across campus, and find it hard to believe that something so spacious and gorgeous could be found in the heart of New York City. He would share past stories as we turned the corner on 116th to Amsterdam Avenue after sauntering across campus. One funny story I always love to hear him tell is how a take-out place called “Ta-Kome Foods” was located directly across Broadway from the esteemed Columbia School of Journalism.

He introduced me to the best place to get pizza in the area: V & T, and where to waddle up the street afterwards to get the best desserts in town: The Hungarian Pastry Shop. According to Dr. Spector, the menus, tables, and atmosphere are exactly the same as when he was going to Columbia, with the exception of a rise in price.

My dad in his laboratory while he was obtaining his PhD in Chemistry at Columbia University

My dad in his laboratory while he was obtaining his PhD in Chemistry at Columbia University

Nine years, four years for his undergraduate degree and five for his graduate, sounds like a long time to be at one university, but he had his reasons. Even though he was accepted to Princeton for graduate school, which has possibly the most beautiful campus on the planet, he decided to stay in New York. Why? Because Columbia is only seven subway stops away from the Met. For nine years, he completed his studies during the day and took the 1 train down to the Met at night (or during the day for Saturday matinées), to see countless stars such as Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Jon Vickers, Sherrill Milnes, Kurt Moll, and Martti Talvela to name a few. He also would take the 7 train out to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play. He even went to a game on the first night he moved into Carman Hall at Columbia his freshman year. He knew that New York was the right place to be not only to go to school, but for great music, exemplary artists, and the Mets as well.

This coming school year, I am going to begin my own Morningside Heights adventure, living only six blocks north at 122nd and Broadway from where my dad started his. I have even started mine a bit early, as I have become the tour guide that my father has been for the past eighteen years in order to help my roommate find her way around. She is a classical pianist coming all the way from Shanghai, halfway across the world. I had the delight of seeing her face light up and her mouth gape wide open when we stumbled upon the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which she had never seen before. This colossal sanctuary has been under construction since the time my dad was in school, thus, forming another connection between his time in Morningside Heights and mine. I also had the opportunity to take my dad’s position and introduce my roommate to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, where we savored their various cakes and tarts with sides of cappuccinos and Viennese coffee. Even from our dorm room windows, we will be able to see iconic components of Morningside Heights such as Riverside Church and the tomb of the eighteenth President of the United States: Ulysses S. Grant. By knowing the neighborhood and now acting as a tour guide, I feel as if I’m passing on a family tradition.

Thanks to my dad, I now know Morningside Heights like the back of my hand. It is a charming neighborhood and truly one of my favorite parts of the city. I look forward to walking in his footsteps as I get on the 1 or 7 train; waddle up the street after a big meal at V & T; see a great artist live at the Met; watch a Mets game; or take in the beauty that is Morningside Heights.

Being An Opera-Loving Teenager

A Teenager's Opera Blog

This week’s post was written by the wonderful Melanie Spector, a fellow opera-loving teenager and blogger- you can check out her blog by clicking on her name and you can also check her out on twitter here!

“Being an Opera ­Loving Teenager” by Melanie Spector

Being a teenager who likes opera is interesting. Many argue that opera companies today should use modern communication, like social media, to encourage more teenagers to discover opera, while others are there to remind us that opera was created for the older elite. I, in any case, am a proud and avid teenage fan of opera who has loved the art form all my life.

Personally, my love for opera was assisted by my mother’s line of work: She is the Second Oboist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. My father is also a big fan. I wish I could say that I would…

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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.

Meistersinger Memories

The Metropolitan Opera puts Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the stage this month. The cast includes South African heldentenor Johan Botha in the title role; James Morris/Michael Volle as Hans Sachs; German soprano Annette Dasch as Eva; Paul Appleby as David; Karen Cargill as Magdalena; and Hans-Peter König as Pogner. Die Meistersinger is being welcomed back to the Met with open arms, as last season’s repertoire included no Wagner whatsoever. The last time the Met performed Die Meistersinger was in March of 2007; I was only nine at the time. However, even at my young age, I went to the see the opera several times, and I was seen singing on stage in the final scene of Act III alongside the Met Chorus, James Morris, and the Met Orchestra, all under the baton of James Levine.

My parents introduced me to Wagner at a very young age, when I incidentally heard a broadcast of Siegfried from the Bayreuth Festival at age five. This spawned an interest that swept my family upstairs to watch the entirety of the Otto Schenk Ring on DVD, and a year later, to the Met to see the Ring live (with my teddy bear, of course). Wagner’s music, from then on, had a greater meaning for me.

I joined the Met Children’s Chorus when I was eight years old, and only about six months later I was cast as a supernumerary, a character that does not sing or speak, in Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. I knew before entering the chorus the season before, 2005-06, that Die Meistersinger would be on the stage that March. I wanted so badly to be cast, knowing that it was Wagner’s music and that it happened to be my father’s all-time favorite opera. It would have meant the world to me to sing the music of the very composer who harvested my interest in opera.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

In February of 2007, to my luck, I was cast in Die Meistersinger: The first opera in which I actually had a singing role. I vividly remember my mother picking me up from my fourth grade classroom so we could go into the city for “our” rehearsals. At the Met, the ten of us in the Children’s Chorus would change into our costumes, mine included a beautifully embroidered white frock, a brown apron, and a flower and ribbon-bedecked wreath pinned in my hair, and we would then head down to the Met stage. The assistant directors gave us directions about our entrances, exits, where we would leave props, how we should avoid getting in the way of the artists, and other crucial information. We would run the scene a couple of times each rehearsal, so I constantly hoped that James Levine or the directors would want to run it more than once so I could go back on the stage in my costume (or because I did not want to return to school for the last part of the day). I even once joked with Johan Botha, our Walther von Stolzing, backstage that he would have to win Eva again when we did a repeat of the scene. He let out a boisterous laugh.

The day of the final dress rehearsal came. Both of my parents were there: My mother played Second Oboe in the orchestra pit, and my father was in the audience. There was a twist, though: I sat in the audience with my dad for Acts I and II before I was called to warm up backstage for Act III. It felt so good to experience seeing Die Meistersinger for the first time with him, as he had been telling me for years how much it meant to him, and how much he looked forward to the day when he would share it with me live. That day had come.

I watched Johan Botha, James Morris, my mother, Maestro Levine, and many of the same people performing in this current December run give it their all in the first two acts. My dad then took me backstage so I could perform with them in the next act. We warmed up, put on our costumes, and headed down to the stage after we heard “Children’s Chorus to the stage (along with hundreds of others)” on the backstage PA system. After the quintet at the end of Act III Scene 1, Wagner wrote a ninety-second interlude to the second scene of the act. That is how long the talented, hard-working Met stagehands have to change the set of Sachs’ home into the meadows in the outskirts of Nürnberg for the song contest. Standing off stage right, I stood in disbelief as stagehands swirled around Sachs’ books, furniture, and desk, replacing them with banners, greenery, backdrops, and benches, let alone at least a hundred choristers and soloists. The soloists from the quintet would skip offstage just near where I was standing, so I would get waves of hello from Matthew Polenzani, who sang David, and others. It truly felt surreal to be in the middle of all of this.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Members of the  Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus skipping around the tailors

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Members of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus skipping around the tailors

After ninety seconds, most of the chorus ran or jumped onstage in excitement for Johannistag, the festival being celebrated. My entrance came just after the curtain opened, when the timpani starts rumbling. I remember the assistant director telling me “Run on right after the sausage man”, or one of the many merchants on stage selling his craft at the festival. I ran on, big-eyed, to see 4,000 faces in the Met audience, the Met Orchestra creating swells of sound, and everyone on stage enjoying the festivities. The shoemakers, the tailors, and the bakers would arrive, in that order, to present their products and make us laugh. Each of the children in the chorus were given little, fake trumpets to skip around the dancing tailors in a circle (I was always worried about tripping in my dress).  Soon after the dance started, in which all of us taunted David about “Lena” watching him dance with other girls, pointing in different directions of where she was to confuse him. The dance suddenly stopped because the master singers  were about to enter in the procession. John del Carlo, who sang Kothner, would always be one of the first masters out, walking downstage with his radiant smile. Hans Sachs would always enter last, picking up one of the children as he marched downstage to the sound of our cheers. After whispers of “Silentium”, the Chorus serenaded him in the great “Wach auf”, or “Wake up”, chorus, describing how a new day was dawning. I stood front and center, right next to James Morris, without an obstacle in the way of James Levine’s beat. Sachs responded in his monologue, praising the masters and the arts, leading to the song competition itself.

The choristers returned to their places and sat down in the grass, under the hot lights, to enjoy the contest. Beckmesser, sung by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, began his song. He had stolen the lyrics from Sachs in the previous scene, but unfortunately he memorized the words incorrectly. We all laughed at his making a fool of himself until he stopped and blamed his performance on Sachs. As much as I feel the real children at the festival would have wanted to stay and hear Walther von Stolzing sing the Prize Song, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus chased Beckmesser offstage after he embarrassed himself. All of us then went back upstairs to the Children’s Chorus studio, changed out of our costumes, and greeted our parents at the stage door close to midnight.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Laughing at Beckmesser

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Laughing at Beckmesser

Four more performances would follow this final dress rehearsal, and each of them were completed in the same fashion as the last. At all five performances, including the dress rehearsal, I shared the first two acts with my father in the audience, and sang on stage in Act III.

Seeing the final dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger last Friday afternoon was tough. As I enjoyed the entirety of my Children’s Chorus career, even seeing the Children’s Chorus now sing in operas like Carmen and La Bohème makes me wistful. The children in this run are actually only supernumeraries, so they do not get to sing in the “Wach auf” chorus. However, seeing those kids up on the Met stage taking in that scene and being surrounded by Wagner’s music felt fulfilling, in that I was given the chance to perform in 2007, in place of someone else, and now someone was taking my place. Many of us choristers who sang in those performances in 2007 are now in college or are seniors in high school, and some of us are pining for careers in music!

It also made me feel good to see my mother playing in the orchestra pit, just as she was seven years ago: The lady who drove me into rehearsals, who I waved to in the orchestra pit, and who played in those very performances, continues to make me proud today. I still wave to her at every performance I attend at the Met, from the audience side instead of the stage. Die Meistersinger will always hold a special place in my heart, both as an opera and as a symbol of my family’s love of and devotion to music.