Baptism of Tears.

A little over two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to sing in the final concert of the St. Matthew Passion with the Nederlands Kamerkoor and Holland Baroque, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Coming from rural Australia, the music of Bach had never been a significant part of my cultural landscape before moving to the Netherlands, a country which unfailingly each year has almost daily performances of the Bach Passions in every church and concert hall in the weeks that surround Easter.

Given that I would be performing with musicians who have quite literally performed the St. Matthew Passion hundreds of times, whereas I would be performing it for the very first time, I expected to have a distinctly different experience rehearsing and performing this work than my colleagues. I went into the project feeling ignorant and ill-informed, expecting those around me to be filled with a profound gratification that surely must come from having such a degree of insight and understanding of any piece of music.

It seemed, however, that both ignorance and over-exposure can breed a certain unintentional indifference. Before this project, I had no personal musical or emotional connection to the Matthew Passion. From some of the conversations I had with colleagues, it would appear that performing this piece with such regularity and often with a consistency of approach had led to a certain numbness, the intense personal connection they once had felt so strongly had been stripped away through familiarity. The unrelenting pace of Passion Season inadvertently created musical somnambulists.

How lucky then to have Reinbert de Leeuw to shake us out of our apathy! He came to this work completely convinced and convincing in his own unique, individual understanding of the text and the music. For every single chorus, chorale, aria, or recitative, Reinbert had a clear and considered vision. He was able to take all of us, whether we were singing this music for the first time or hundred and first time, on a path of discovery, stopping at moments along the way to point out a perspective, colour, or detail that would have otherwise slipped by unnoticed.

The sensitivity to the text in the chorales was a particular revelation. The expression was not subjugated to a ruthless tempo, but was instead dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the meaning of the text. Many times during rehearsals, I heard people saying they had never realised how moving a particular moment could be, or they had forgotten the true power of the text. Some singers were moved to tears during rehearsals.

Personally, I was struck by the quintessential humanity Reinbert was able to connect us with. I am not religious, yet the magnitude of the crucifixion story touched me like never before. The degree of suffering, and the injustice of the most innocent being punished for the sins of humanity took on a universal relevance, a story not only for believers, but for all of us who live, and love, and hurt. The clarity of Reinbert’s message made it on occasion profoundly uncomfortable to sing the words. It was not pleasant to mock Jesus on the cross, to rejoice in the spilling of his blood, with the full and deliberate awareness that the consistent cruelty of mankind renders us undeserving of the sacrifice.

But this should not be an easy work to sing.

As a student of historically informed performance, singing the St. Matthew Passion with one of the world’s most versatile choirs and a leading Baroque orchestra, I was initially focussed on how I should sing this music stylistically, thinking that through my correct use of appoggiatura, vocal tone, vibrato, and articulation I would show my engagement with the music. It took working with a conductor from a completely different world to reveal to me the superficiality of those questions. The initial difficulty I had adapting to an unexpected tempo, character or dynamic revealed to me how Early Music has come to be defined by a collection of conventions and expectations, the same Early Music movement that started off as a rejection of unquestioning acceptance of tradition.

Reinbert de Leeuw’s interpretation of the St. Matthew Passion convinced me that instead of asking how we will play a particular piece, perhaps we should be asking why. The style is the way in which we communicate the message, but it is not the message itself. A particular tempo or ornament means nothing in isolation, these musical elements are how we express the thought, feeling, or story that inspires the creation of music in the first place. Even within the realm of Early Music, there is no such thing as a right performance, we should not be concerned whether we are correct, but rather whether we are convincing. And whether the audience or performers personally agreed with each of Reinbert’s musical decisions, there is no denying that each choice proved the contemplation and raw honesty behind his approach, making this one of the most compelling performances I have ever experienced.

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Subtext.

All those who know me are well aware of the fact that I am not particularly good at expressing my feelings. Or rather, I am not very good at expressing my feelings to those who are the subject of them. I’m terrified of rejection and being vulnerable, so when I really value someone, like, or love them, I don’t say anything. I shy away from confrontation, so never tell people when they have done something I think is wrong, annoying or unfair. Instead, I bottle all this up until it inevitably explodes out at some point, usually in a singing lesson, shocking my teachers into thinking I’m some kind of psycho who has breakdowns over being asked to alter the length of an appoggiatura.

I’m not touchy about my appoggiaturas, but if anyone criticises my trill, they had better be prepared to watch me go all kinds of crazy.

I’ve become so skilled at suppressing my feelings, I often I manage to hide them from myself. At least while I’m awake.

Going to sleep is one of the most entertaining parts of my day, because every night without fail I have ridiculously vivid, absurdly detailed dreams. Usually it’s just my brain processing the day that just happened in its own nutcase way. But every now and then my brain identifies some kind of deep-rooted emotional issue or situation going on that it feels I’m not addressing properly, and tries to bring it to my attention.

But of course, seeing as I can’t have a conversation with my brain without being completely off my rocker or in a surprisingly moving animated Disney film, my subconscious has to try and communicate through symbols. In many instances, it is not very original. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I dream that I am swimming in the ocean, but the waves are getting bigger and bigger, and the sand is being constantly eroded, creating a cliff that makes it impossible to get out of the water. Everyone else is having a lovely time at the beach, and I’m the only one that notices there’s a frigging tsunami headed our way.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been stressed out over the rapidly approaching deadline of my Master thesis, but trying to convince myself (and my supervisor) that everything is just fine and dandy, and that have ample time to do everything I should have been doing for the last eighteen months.

My brain isn’t buying any of that crap. In place of the standard “in over your head” dream, it has substituted one where I’m about to reach the summit of a huge mountain, but I spark an avalanche that over the course of many video game like levels, destroys not only me, but all of my friends and any other randoms unfortunate enough to be on my dream mountain.

Yes, my subconscious quite literally has the subtlety of an avalanche to the face.

Which makes me a bit dubious about my other consistently recurring dream. Whenever I am feeling doubtful about my musical path, or feeling trapped by a particular creative situation, I dream that I have to safely guide my family’s old cat through swamps and lakes filled with crocodiles that want to eat her. I’m pretty sure the cat represents my artistic identity. Which is a bit insulting, because it means my subconscious thinks my creative soul looks like this:

Floss

No wonder I sing so well.

It’s not you, it’s me… I just need some space.

I often complain about the Dutch lack of kinaesthetic awareness. I think that in two and a half years in the Netherlands, I’ve been bumped into by more strangers than during all the other years of my life combined. I accept that sometimes this happens because the top of my head sits so far below the standard Dutch eye level. But mostly I think it’s a matter of personal space.

Australia has a population of 23 million. The Netherlands has a population of about 17 million. However, Australia is about 205 times larger than the Netherlands, which means I require about 160 times more personal space than the average Dutch person.

Australia vs. Europe

You would think that with a large population in such a tiny area the Dutch would be more, not less considerate of getting in other people’s way. But having spent the Christmas break (plus a bit more) in Australia and being instantly overwhelmed by the crush of people upon my return to Den Haag, it has been illustrated time and again that this is not the case.

I’ve identified four public spaces that are favourite congregation points for Dutchies:

1. At the end of an escalator. Because it’s inefficient to move to the side to figure out which direction to take, in case you end up on the wrong side. Much better to deliberate exactly in front of the escalator.

2. In the middle of a flight of stairs. A perfect place to catch up on some gossip, make Saturday night plans, or ponder the meaning of life.

3. In the crossroads of busy pedestrian corridors. With relentless tides of foot traffic coming from every direction, the best approach is to plant yourself like a rock in the middle of all oncoming traffic in order to consult Google Maps.

4. Immediately inside or outside a doorway. It would appear the Dutch value the ambiance of a shop as much as the products they sell, as they prefer to step just inside a shop in order to decide whether they actually want to peruse the merchandise. And if they do perchance make a purchase, they will hover immediately outside for a few minutes, just to be conveniently close in case they end up with buyer’s remorse.

I often end up startled and alarmed whilst out and about in the Netherlands as people encroach upon my personal space . To those Dutchies that I jump away from with a look of horror and disgust, it’s nothing personal. I just need my space.

Space that happens to be the exact same height, depth and breadth as you.

Full circle.

The last Christmas I spent in Australia was in 2010. My first European Christmas occurred the following year, and was in fact my first time in Europe at all.

A friend from school was living in Germany at the time, working as a rocket scientist, and had extended an open invitation to anyone who wanted to visit her. I had planned to go to the UK after New Year’s anyway to have trial lessons and suss out schools before auditions the following year, and was easily persuaded (and in turn easily persuaded my parents) to extend the trip by a few weeks.

In that first week of questionable, alcohol-fueled life decisions in Germany, the Rocket Scientist introduced me to the BFGD, or Big Friendly Giant Dutchman. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone that tall at that point in my life. He arranged a brief sojourn in Amsterdam for us, including seeing a concert at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ.

In a nice bit of symmetry (which I always interpret as the universe telling me I’m doing the right thing with my life), I recently performed at that very same music hall as an intern with the Nederlands Kamerkoor. Right before boarding a flight to bring me back to my first Australian Christmas since that European holiday in 2011.

Since moving to the Netherlands, I’ve had many people ask me what Christmas is like in Australia. Some even question whether it happens at all! (Answer – yes, we have Christmas. We’re in the southern hemisphere, not on Uranus.) Basically, the essentials remain the same: family, food, presents, food, not working, food. But there are a few key differences, namely:

1. Summer

Seeing as we’re on the other side of the world, our Christmas occurs in the middle of summer. We still sing the traditional carols like Jingle Bells, they just make no sense. The Christmas holidays are part of the longer summer holidays, and so the family get togethers can be huge, as everyone is free to travel to whichever relative lives closest to the beach.

2. Salad and seafood

Many families still do the traditional roast ham, turkey and chicken as part of the Christmas lunch or dinner, though more often that not these are served cold rather than hot. But where we Australians really come into our own is with the salads – the more unusual the flavour combinations, the better. Seafood is also a pretty important element on many Christmases now – why eat turkey when you can have prawns?

3. Presents on the 25th

I’ve always found the European thing of opening presents on Christmas Eve really strange, not realising that this is the more “authentic” tradition. But for us (or at least my family), Christmas Eve is just a large feast and then filling stockings and putting remaining presents under the tree. Christmas morning is when you open the gifts.

4. Trifle

Trifle is hands down the most important aspect of Christmas in my family. For those poor deprived souls who have never experienced trifle, it is a pudding made from layers of sponge cake soaked in jelly, fruit, custard and cream. My grandmother was always in charge of making the Christmas trifle, and it would appear that since her passing, the recipe has become a thing of legend. No fewer than four children and grandchildren claim to have been taught the secrets of the trifle at her knee, yet all disagree on crucial aspects of the recipe. I personally believe that I alone know how to make the real thing, as in fact my last Christmas in Australia was also my grandmother’s last Christmas, and I made not one, but two trifles under her supervision. I’ve tried to make two trifles in The Hague, neither successful. But I might head back this time armed with Aeroplane Jelly and some crushed peanuts…..third time lucky!

 

Merry belated to Christmas to anyone reading, and Happy New Year!

 

 

In vino veritas.

I will freely admit that I am someone with a rather unsophisticated approach to wine. I do not see it as a magical elixir derived from a tradition honed and perfected over millennia. I do not see it as divine nectar, the swirling of its veiled complexities an expression of its inherent virtue. No, in my world wine is grape juice for grown ups.

However, I feel that having a developed palate and some kind of knowledge about wine are markers that prove you’re an intelligent, independent, well-rounded adult. The fantasy of being the perfect hostess, able to provide the ideal pairing of excellent wine to compliment every stage of an exquisite (but not excessively elaborate) meal holds fairly strong appeal for me. I once did a wine-tasting tour in Chianti in an attempt to develop my wine appreciation skills. All that happened is I got incredibly drunk before noon on a Wednesday. You can take the girl out of Australia…

There is one area in which I can claim to be an expert however. Years of post-performance, post-exam, post-opera, pre-lesson, what-the-hell-it’s-a-Tuesday drinks with a wide range of singers has given me a good understanding of some pretty basic principles in the conservatory singer – wine relationship. For instance:

  • If your favourite wine is cheap and/or comes in a cardboard box: you are a musician.
  • If your favourite wine can be described by any combination of the words fruity, sweet or sparkling: you are a soprano.
  • If your favourite wine is beer: you are an alto.
  • If your favourite wine is a 1973 Domaine de la Romanée Conti Grand Cru: you are a tenor. Nobody else gets enough work to afford such expensive taste.
  • If your favourite wine is whiskey: you are a bass.

Through extensive research (both active and observational) I have been able to identify a peculiar phenomenon that occurs far more frequently among singers than among the general populace. When normal people drink wine, they use their senses to draw conclusions and pass judgement on the wine. When singers drink wine, the overpowering insecurities that have driven them to alcohol in the first place mean that the wine ends up acting as some kind of oracle, drawing conclusions and passing judgement on the drinker.

In order to help singers everywhere make full use of the opportunity for self-discovery each glass of wine occasions, I have developed:

B’s Helpful Guide to Wine Tasting.

  1. Look at the wine in your glass. What colour is it? Is it murky and unclear, like your coloratura? Or is it pretty and bright, like the singer that got booked at the audition you did today? If your wine is in a teacup, bowl, or goon sack, feel free to skip this step.
  1. Swirl the wine in your glass. This will help liberate your inhibitions from any vestiges of good judgement. If you spill the wine at this step, you might want to slow down.
  1. Take a deep sniff of the wine. Do you smell the aroma of disappointed dreams? Of unfulfilled potential? Or do you smell the enticing scent of future possibilities? If the last one, you are probably a first year student, and should be aware that your naive remarks are probably annoying the older students who have developed more sophisticated palates capable of discerning the full range of cynicism offered to them by their wine.
  1. Sip the wine and swirl it around your mouth. What flavours can you detect? Is there the metallic tinge of crushing student debt? Or the syrupy flavour of guilt for not having learnt your aria before your lesson this week? How would you describe the texture? Is it full bodied, like how you feel in your concert dress after gaining the fresher five? Or weak, like your commitment to practicing?
  1. Swallow the wine, and pay attention to the aftertaste. Is it unbalanced, like you in movement class? Is it awkward, like the Monday following an opera after-party when everyone pretends they didn’t hook up with each other 48 hours earlier? Does the aftertaste linger, like the student in the lesson before yours, who always asks your teacher complicated questions right as your lesson is supposed to begin?
  1. Repeat steps 5 and 6 ad libitum. This is the most important step, and deserves much practice.
It's medicinal, I swear.

It’s medicinal, I swear.

In vino veritas, in cervesio felicitas.

Climbing the Green Mountain.

For the last few months, it seems I have spent every waking hour (when not on Netflix or in Spain) doing some kind of admin or organisation for a new project I’m involved in. A bunch of friends and I have set up an ensemble that will explore the music written for three female voices in Ferrara and Rome in the first half of 17th century. We’ve got a few concerts lined up in Belgium and Italy, along with a masterclass with the formidable Jordi Savall.

In addition to addressing the administrative details of dates, rehearsals, repertoire and travel arrangements, I’ve had to take a much more active role in the musical preparations for this project.

Usually for a concert, musicians perform from modern editions of scores, which some musicologist or editor of some big publishing house has kindly put into nice legible, clear notation. However, for this project, we’re performing some music that doesn’t exist in modern editions, and for a few pieces I’ve had to go about transcribing the weird mensural notation into something more readable. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out whether a mark in the manuscript is a dot, a rest, or just a meaningless splodge of dirt. I’ve been confused by clefs I’ve never seen before (seriously, since when was the mezzo-soprano clef a thing?) and spent hours trying to find two missing beats in the alto line. Even I know it makes no sense to have a piece thirty one and a half bars long.

A sonic screwdriver would fix this.

But B, I hear you ask, why are you complaining? Surely this is not a difficult process for you? After all, haven’t you spent years studying music? Haven’t you obtained degrees that tested your aptitude for these things? Don’t you possess the skills necessary to do this job?

Well, no. No I don’t. Why? Because I’m a singer.

When I was studying in Australia, it was a given that the singers as a group uniformly sucked at Aural Skills. We’d go to class, we’d struggle through the chord progressions, the cadences, the sight-reading, the rhythm exercises, and my personal nemesis, melodic dictation. Then when it came to exams, we’d either all cry, fail, or go with the universally successful “But… I’m pretty?”

What do you mean, fail? Look at my hair!

However, when it came to dictation exams, no amount of tears or hair-flipping could redeem me. Yet as a zealous high-achiever, there was no way in hell I was going to let stupid Aural Skills drag down my GPA. So I negotiated an arrangement with the Piano Kids.

In addition to Aural Skills, all students at the Con had to pass two years of Music Theory courses. These were taught by composers who felt that our understanding of basic elements of musical composition would be enhanced by watching really old films with classic scores, listening to confusing allegories of rocks turning into chickens, and learning five different synonyms for “fuzzy” in order to better understand the harmonic language of Debussy.

Clearly, the Piano Kids had too much practice/procrastination to do to bother going to Theory classes. Clearly, I was too stubborn/lazy to practice melodic dictations. So it was agreed that I would go to Theory, sort the examinable content from the pretentious wank, and allow the Piano Kids to copy my answers in all the exams. In return, they would ensure optimal seating arrangements in Aural exams in order for me to copy their melodic dictations. We justified our duplicity by arguing that our actions were defended by Freedom of Information. We were merely exercising our right to access the information contained on the other student’s paper.

I had no real qualms about not addressing my deficiency in these academic musical skills. I thought, when would I ever need to note down some melody I heard or figure out a chord progression in under three listenings? I wasn’t planning a career in ethnomusicology or reproducing cheap, Spotify knock-off versions of songs not licensed for streaming services.

But recently, my laziness has come back to bite me in the behind. For this new project, we want to include an arrangement of a Monteverdi duet stolen from, copied off, ahem, inspired by a particular recording. Which has required me to not only learn how to use Sibelius to create a decent score for the additional instruments, but to spend a depressingly long time doing which is essentially two-part melodic dictations.

So there you have it kids. Don’t cheat in school. It makes stealing intellectual property later on in life so much more difficult.

Brain ache.

The rain in Spain.

In contrast to the seven weeks spent gallivanting around Italy and Portugal last year, this year I managed to secure a measly two weeks off from work. Which meant only two weeks somewhere away from the Dutch weather. Based largely on my childhood adoration of Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving (and slightly as an “up yours” to Portugal) I decided on Spain. By chance, my oldest friend, Loz, was going to be in Europe at that time, and we agreed to holiday together.

Both Loz and I are by nature slow travellers: two weeks in one city is perfectly normal, as we both like to get a feel for a place by getting lost at our leisure. We both like being able to have a regular café, and believe that frantically dashing around the top tourist sites is unlikely to offer an insightful impression of a new place. However, for our Spanish sojourn, we decided to be different for once and pack as much into two weeks as possible, trying to get an overview of a country, rather than an overview of a city.

Our itinerary was as follows: a few days in Barcelona, followed by a flight to Valladolid where we spent an afternoon, a day in Salamanca, a few days in Madrid, a couple of days in Seville, a day in Córdoba, a day in Granada and a couple of days recovering at the beach in Nerja.

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