Tuesday, July 31, 2007

First Public Performance Tonight

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
We're singing the Palestrina Mass tonight at St. James Cathedral, so that will be our focus in rehearsal today. We haven't even sung the Credo yet. I would guess that will be first up in rehearsal this morning.

It was interesting, yesterday, running through other segments (Kyrie, Gloria, etc) that we already "know." We've had so little rehearsal time and covered so much new music (at least compared to what I'm used to) that it almost felt as though we were doing new pieces rather than ones we have already worked on. This will be the biggest challenge for me, I think - singing out confidently in performance when I'm still very reliant on the score to simply find the notes and rhythm. Fortunately, there are many singers here who are much more experienced than me, and I know they will carry us through. Still, there are only six of us in the First Alto section, so you can't exactly disappear into the crowd!

David Woodcock is our rehearsal conductor, and Peter Phillips has been sitting quietly behind him during these rehearsals. You almost forget that he is there until he hears something that he is unhappy with. Then, Phillips stands very quietly and gradually makes his way to the podium, very slowly as we keep rehearsing. Though we do our best to keep singing away and fix whatever we're struggling with, once he's on his feet it won't be long until he takes over to work on a point that he finds particularly important.

It will certainly be interesting, tonight, to be singing in a totally different venue (cathedral acoustics, rather than the dead room we've been rehearsing in at the University), with a new conductor (Peter Phillips will conduct in concert). We have one hour of rehearsal in the Cathedral before the Mass, so I guess we'll figure out the transition then.

Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus à 8 Voix

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
This is another amazing piece of choral music that I have only heard on recordings, and never thought I would have the opportunity to sing. It was composed around 1718, decades later than the Palestrina works we've been singing, and I must say, it was a pleasure to dig into the lush dissonances in this piece.

We're working terribly hard, and the concentration required to keep sight-reading all this new repertoire a cappella is really draining. Despite how tired my brain is, I find myself in a continual state of exhilaration. One transcendent musical experience after another.

And, Kathleen (my choir director) will be happy to hear that my sight-reading, and in particular my counting, get better every minute. Improve or die!

Random Moments from Tallis Tutor Sessions

Dateline: Seattle: Tallis Scholars Summer School
• After working for ten minutes on a single phrase ("et tibi da bo," meaning "and I will give unto you"), Tutor David Woodcock finally seemed satisfied. "That is absolutely....." (loaded pause) "......nearly very good."

• "Polyphony requires that the quavers be strictly in rhythm, absolutely together." This is British for talking about eighth notes. "Crotchets" are quarter notes. We're in another world here, and we're spending a lot of time on our quavers.

• Peter Phillips worked with us on a Gesualdo motet for an hour after dinner last night, 'just for fun." Actually, sight-reading Gesualdo a cappella is kind of fun - the kind of satisfaction you get from finding your way through a very dark forest. At one point, Phillips cautioned: "Tenors, you're flat. Singing out of tune in Gesualdo is a dangerous game."

Mt. Rainier Rises Above Seattle University

Dateline: Seattle: Tallis Scholars Summer School
We've had gorgeous weather, atypical for Seattle, all week. The days are crisp and sunny - cool enough for a jacket in the morning and evening, getting up into the seventies during the day.

As Seattle natives are wont to say when they have clear weather: "Oh, look - the mountains are out!"

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Allegri "Miserere"

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
Last night we all attended a concert at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle, where our teachers (the Tallis Scholars) sang along with a local professional group, Peter Phillips conducting. It was amazing, and enlightening to see all the things they keep haranguing us about put into practice. In particular, they are all over us about brighter vowel sounds (much brighter and more forward than the way we have all been taught to sing by choir directors here in the U.S.). Hearing this very small group create such a full, sparkling sound pretty much convinced me.

They did a stunning performance of Allegri’s famous Miserere. It is one of the most famous pieces of a cappella religious music performed today. I have heard recordings, but never heard it live before last night. It was gorgeous – the main, 5-part choir in the center of the cathedral, the small, 4-part “chant” choir (with Jan as the soprano soloist doing all the famous High Cs) up at the altar, and Andrew at the back of the aisle singing the lines of the psalms (which fall in between the chorus bits). To think that we’re going to perform this same piece on Friday night….can’t imagine it.

They were singing from an version of the piece that is Peter Phillips’ own edition – he has worked hard to try to restore it to what he believes is something close to the original, mid-17th century edition. Earlier in the afternoon, he gave us a brief lecture about the history of this piece. It was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to be sung in the Sistine Chapel during matins on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. At the end of the Tenebrae service, 27 candles would be extinguished one by one, and at the end, the pope would kneel in prayer as the Miserere was sung by the Cappella Sistina (the Vatican Choir) in an embellished, improvisational style that included improvised counterpoint. The piece was so highly valued that it was forbidden to be copied or performed outside of the Sistine Chapel – under penalty of excommunication!

Several copies were smuggled out, but none included the signature improvisations, so it was hard to duplicate the magic of the Vatican choir. Then, during Holy Week, 12-year-old Mozart was taken by his father to the Vatican for services. He listened, and went home and wrote the whole thing down from memory! That copy has unfortunately been lost, and there have been many, many versions over the centuries (including Mendelssohn’s, who also listened to a performance and then attempted to capture it on paper). The one we will learn this week is the Phillips edition, and he was quite passionate in talking about what he believes was authentic, and why. As he admitted, “It’s not Renaissance, it’s not polyphony, and it’s nothing at all to do with the Sistine Chapel.” But it certainly is beautiful.

Such an interesting week this is. I am off to dive into another morning of rehearsal. We will finish learning the Palestrina Mass today (and a good thing, since we’re performing it tomorrow night).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Our First Alto Section

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
There are five first altos and we’re feeling pretty good about our section. I am sitting next to the most incredible singer – a countertenor named Omar, from Puerto Rico. He is so musical and absolutely note perfect (which is a blessing, since I am not the world’s best counter, as anyone in my St. John's choir can tell you). I am a better singer just by virtue of singing next to him. What a stroke of luck for me!

Day Two Begins

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
We’ve had a half hour warm-up followed by 2.5 hours of rehearsal, with just one short break. I didn’t realize that we are singing the Palestrina Mass in public on Tuesday night – no wonder we are rehearsing it with such intense focus! As of lunchtime, we have pretty much got the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus at the point where we are working on nuances. Incredible.

This is challenging me to the absolute limit of my talent, concentration and experience. We do not rehearse again until 2:30. The young ones have all headed off to start rehearsing in their “small groups.” I personally do not plan to talk again until 2:30, so I can rest my voice. My goal by the end of the day is to have formed one small group and picked some music. If I can get that far (plus survive further rehearsal and singing all the way through Compline at 10pm), I’ll call that a great first full day.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Taking A Cappella to New Heights

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
Wow. This is very intense.

After a brief barbeque and some opening remarks, we headed into the ballroom for our first Full Chorus rehearsal, conducted by Peter Phillips. We were split into two separate choirs (so that we had eight parts – SATB + SATB) and began to rehearse Palestrina’s Missa Laudate Dominum omnes gentes – his setting of a full mass, 64 pages long.

There is no piano in the main rehearsal room – it is simply a big, empty ballroom with chairs for the two choirs, a conductor’s music stand, and three other chairs for the Tutors to observe. We get our pitches from David Woodcock, who strikes a little silver tuning fork on the bone behind his ear and sings the opening notes. Then we are off, in eight parts, sight-reading in Latin, completely a cappella.

We would work on a section, then he would stop us and talk, giving us performance notes. Then, without ever giving us a pitch, he’d say “OK – rehearsal bar 25, a G minor chord. And….3….4” and we’d be away again, somehow opening our mouths and remaining perfectly in pitch.

I’ve never done anything like this in my life – definitely my most challenging musical experience ever. Both exhausting and absolutely exhilarating.

Lauren is a lovely young woman from Georgia, currently in college, studying to be a choral director. Her enthusiasm is palpable, and as we walked together from dinner, she marveled at the once in a lifetime experience of being among people “exactly like me.” I share that feeling. Singing choral music makes my heart sing - I have loved it my whole life, and especially like singing in Latin, which I have done since I was a little girl. This is not exactly a mainstream hobby – it can be hard to explain the passion I feel for choral singing to other people in my life. So, to find myself among a group of people exactly like me – as Lauren said – is a bit like going through life as a closeted alien, and suddenly finding yourself among a whole group of aliens that you didn’t know were out there! And, since we are bound together by the music, it is an unusually diverse group demographically speaking. The 59 of us come from all over the U.S., as well as a smaller number from Canada and Europe, one each from Kenya and Japan. I would say about ¼ of the attendees are college music students. The rest of us range from late 30s to late 70s. We speak exactly the same language. It’s extraordinary.

And the evening wasn’t over yet. At 9pm we walked to the Chapel, where Andrew Carwood ran a rehearsal in which he taught us the Compline service. It is an ancient, contemplative evensong service – all sung, in Gregorian Chant (complete with chant notation). At 9:45 we sang the service, as we will every night. It is beautiful, but I must say that by this point, I was completely exhausted.

Carwood is an extraordinary singer and conductor. He has just been appointed Music Director of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The opportunity to sing for him (and to do the Compline with him) is quite something. Welcome to St Paul's Cathedral - Appointment of new Director of Music

I’ve made another friend here, a soprano my own age, named Roberta. As we walked together from rehearsal to Compline, we shared our fears about the “small groups” that will be forming over the next 24 hours. These consorts can choose from 150 pieces of music that the Tallis Scholars have brought with them, we’ll perform for each other in a private showcase on Thursday night, and some of the best may be slotted into Friday’s concert, which is open to the public. Roberta and I both confessed to being nervous about this. There are some great singers here, and people who know each other from coming in previous years. I have a sickening “please pick me” feeling in the pit of my stomach – worried that no one will want me in one of these groups. I was glad to hear she is feeling the same. I suspect that all the newbies do. We will see how it goes in the morning.

At the moment, I am completely exhausted (having arrived at 2:30 am this morning on a long delayed flight from New York's JFK). Do not pass "Go," do not collect $200. It is straight to bed for me.

The Singing Begins

Dateline: Seattle. Tallis Scholars Summer School
We’ve begun, and as with any performance-oriented endeavor, the butterflies calmed down once the singing started.

We started with a warm-up and then began what was called a “Singing Safari,” designed both to let us get to know each other, and to let each of the four Tallis tutors know us. We rotated through four, 25-minute sessions, in groups of approximately 16 people. Each session was with a different tutor and devoted to reading a different composition by an Italian Renaissance composer.

It was pretty rough around the edges, but by the time we were through, I was feeling as though I can, indeed, do this. My final session was with David Woodcock, who is a powerful conductor - he was working on musicality and phrasing even as we were learning the notes. And the two Tallis members who will be our singing teachers, Janet Coxwell and Andrew Carwood, were simply outstanding. I was amazed at what they were able to accomplish with us in 25 minutes, and can’t wait to work with them all more!

Summer Singing School Starts Today!

I arrived in Seattle late last night, to participate in the Tallis Scholars Summer School at Seattle University. The Tallis Scholars are the premiere performing/recording group dedicated to Renaissance choral music. The theme of this year's program is "Music for the Sistine Chapel."

This is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I applied last year, but was only wait-listed. This year, I applied and was accepted. A week of singing challenging choral music is so exciting - culminating in a performance (that will be recorded) on Friday night. I feel both very excited to start singing, and also a little nervous about whether I am good enough.

I will know very soon. Our first rehearsals start mid-afternoon, and go through 9:30 pm!

Click on the link below to see more about program.

Tallis Scholars Summer Schools, TSSS, Seattle, Peter Phillips, Tallis Scholars, Renaissance choral music

Monday, July 23, 2007

Post-Potter reading? Suggestions from the Cincinnati Enquirer

Reading experts are recommending Seymour Simon's "Einstein Anderson" series for post-Harry Potter reading. I heartily agree. Si Simon and I are collaborating on a new multi-media series. He is a wonderful writer for kids and tweens.

The Enquirer - Post-Potter reading? Some ideas

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter Night

It's an amazing thing. I have been producing television for kids and teens for over two decades, and everyone knows that as teenagers grow, they distance themselves from things they loved in their childhood. "My Little Pony," "Pokemon," "Bratz." "In Synch," "Digimon." They are absolutely passionate about it, and then they outgrow it.

Somehow, these rules do not apply to Harry Potter. As I write this, my high school junior and her friends (some of them recently graduated) are at Barnes and Noble, taking part in the Harry Potter party that will culminate with the release of the books at midnight. They are wearing handmade t-shirts that read "Harry Potter Fan Since 1998." Mind you, they were seven years old when this phenomenon started. They were so little, the first Harry Potter books were read aloud to them. And still, they love it.

Author J.K. Rowling has expressed extreme dismay at the "spoilers" who have reviewed copies of the book that were obtained via early, unauthorized release. She shouldn't waste another second on this. Would any real Harry Potter fan read a spoiler review? NO WAY. They want to be there, buy their own copy of the book, and sit down to read it cover to cover.

For a change, it's not hype, and it can't be spoiled. It is the real deal.

Chasing Rainbows

My friend, the painter Rebecca Darlington, has launched a blog that explores the thoughts behind her current work, in which she paints all manner of everyday items strung on clotheslines. I love her creative impulse, that our lives are like wash hung on the clothesline for all to see.

I'm both tickled and a little embarrassed to see that one of her earliest entries is about a painting called Chasing Rainbows

© 2007 Rebecca Darlington

In her post, Rebecca writes This painting was inspired by a pair of shoes that a good friend of mine wore home from a trip to L.A. Designer shoes from who knows what fancy avenue. My mind started spinning about where the shoes had been and how the gal had experienced life while wearing them.....Dates, love in the air, traveling across the continents for love, chasing rainbows in her dreams. These are definitely articles from a 21st Century woman.

I lent Rebecca my shoes for this painting, and I've known all along that it was somewhat biographical. The NYC subway map, the vintage linens, an empty wineglass, a book open to the page where the reader left off, a casual bunch of roses.....items personal to me, pinned to the line. I am smiling now, as she writes about it. These past two years have certainly been an adventure for me, both personally and professionally. And I have, indeed, traveled across continents for love.

In fact, I'm in the last stages of writing a book proposal for a memoir/self-help book about online dating for women over 40. I can’t tell you how many times women have asked me where I met my partner, and when I tell them I met him online they exclaim, “Oh, I could NEVER do that.” And I think to myself, “Oh, but you MUST do that!”

I decided to write the book as a practical guide to getting started, staying safe, and using the many resources available on the Internet to help women over 40 in their search for a compatible, loving partner. I think of it as a personal toolkit for women who hope to be in love again. The response so far has been very good, and when and if it's published there will be a lot more of my intimate life "hanging on the line"!

See Rebecca's blog by clicking on this link.
You on line: Chasing Rainbows

Sublime Summer Morning

I've just come in from whacking my way through the brambles (even in long sleeves my arms are scratched). It's wild raspberry season here in the Hudson Highlands, and breakfast starts with a bowl of fresh berries. It's a competition between myself, the birds, and the deer to see who gets the most, but I did pretty well this morning.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Incident in Manhattan

Shortly after 6:00 this evening I was at my computer when a news alert popped up on MSNBC: "Explosion Reported in Midtown Manhattan." Simultaneously, my cell phone began to ring. I answered the phone and heard my sister Joan's voice, sounding strained and scared. "Elizabeth. The explosion happened right outside my building. What is happening? I am trying to decide what is the safest direction to walk."

She was in her office on the seventh floor when the building started to shake, the windows were suddently covered with mud....and then the glass blew out. Everyone headed for the staircase and, since the building felt stable, had decided to stay there. They didn't know what they would encounter if they headed outside. Suddenly the police burst in, yelling "Get out, get out!" Which is when my beloved sister called me.

She said frantically into the phone, "Can you hear the sound?" I couldn't, given all the confusion. "It sounds like the biggest wind I have ever heard, and it just keeps going and going," she told me. My only advice, given the sketchy information available, was "take off your shoes" (being Joan, of course she was wearing useless shoes), "and head east as fast as you can."

Hours later, we know the details, and thank goodness, it was not as bad as we all originally feared, though certainly bad enough. I love my sister so much. It touched me more deeply than I can ever explain to know that her first call was to me, her big sister "Elizabeth." Thank you, God, for letting it be ok.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Nealons in residence at Highland Lake!

Every summer, in the second week of July, my family gathers at Highland Lake, Pennsylvania, near where I grew up. Most of us manage to make it every year, though we are scattered throughout the northeast, Minnesota, and Texas. This year nearly everyone is present - both of my parents, all nine of us siblings, six assorted spouses, and 22 of the 24 living grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 20.

It is a wonderful time, with the kids constantly either in or on the water in paddle boats, canoes, and kayaks. We have to cook enough food for an army every day, but that's ok because my sisters and I make the most of the time we spend yakking, chopping and cooking together. I snapped these two photos, of lacrosse sticks and fishing rods, thinking with a smile that even if no one was in evidence outside the cabins, it would be obvious to any observer that the family is here in full force!