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.


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?


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.


“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?

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.


*** 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.


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.

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.