I Like Boys. Specifically Boy Sopranos.

Boy Soprano

Boy Soprano

If anyone has ever had the pleasure of hearing a great boy soprano, or treble if you don’t like colloquialisms, you’ll understand the tone of this post, because its unlike anything in the music world, which is why I felt compelled to write about it.

The origin of the boy soprano goes back to Pre-Christian times, when boys were used to sing chants in Jewish services, and continued through the rise of Christianity.  Bach was considered a great boy soprano, which frankly should only serve to depress us even more considering he towers over us musicians anyway.

There are but a small handful of works calling for boy soprano in the repertoire.  The most famous is probably either Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hear My Prayer” or “O For The Wings Of A Dove” or the “Miserere” of Gregorio Allegri, but there are a couple other examples that hold a special place in my heart.

One is the Symphony no. 4 of Mahler.  The soprano solo in the finale was originally conceived for boy soprano (as it is supposed to be a child’s view of heaven), however it is virtually never performed this way.  To the best of my recollection, there are only two recordings of the piece that use boy soprano.  One is Leonard Bernstein’s DG recording with the Vienna Philharmonic with soloist Helmut Wittek, and the other is the woefully underrated Anton Nanut’s performance with the Ljubljana Symphony and soloist Max-Emanuel Cencic.  It’s worth hearing both performances for a variety of reasons, but to hear the music sung by a true boy soprano is reason #1 to me.

My perception is that the music is simply too difficult to pull off for such a young soloist, which is probably why you don’t hear it very often.  Both of these now-no-longer-boys certainly sing the part well, but it lacks the refinement that the music warrants, child’s view or not.  They simply cannot bring the nuance and color to the music that the Dawn Upshaws of the world can, and, ironically, cannot convey the childlike innocence of the movement to the same degree, at least in my opinion.

However, there is a work in which a boy soprano is preferable to their grownup counterpart, and it’s the Faure Requiem.  One of my favorite pieces of music, made even better when sung with a boys chorus and boy soloist on the Pie Jesu.  Perhaps it associates itself better with the old St. Paul approach of mulieres in ecclesiis taceant (which is to say silence from the women) when choirs were almost exclusively male, but whatever it is, it works like magic.  The Pie Jesu goes from being a beautiful creation to a life-changing experience, IMO.  There is a great recording with George Guest conducting the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge on Decca that everyone owes it to themselves to hear.  Do it.

Now, this has been a poorly written, kind of generic post, but there’s a reason for it.  I’ve been listening recently to a fine Naxos recording of a Jewish First S’lihot service with celebrated cantor Benzion Miller.  And in this recording is a boy soprano who absolutely makes my hair stand on end, and I mean in the good way.  I’ve pieced together a little sample of what he sounds like for those that care to take a listen (about 2 1/2 minutes).

Boy Soprano Sample

I wish I could tell you his name, but he goes uncredited on the recording.  But what a haunting sound.  It’s no exaggeration to tell you that this has been stuck with me for over a year, and I still can’t shake it.  Nor do I want to.

I Was At A Concert: Stern/Kansas City Symphony

Kansas City

Kansas City

Tonight Sandy and I took a trip downtown to attend a Kansas City Symphony performance featuring Mahler Symphony no. 1, which is enough to draw me out into bitter arctic winds. Michael Stern, son of some violinist named Isaac and principal conductor of the orchestra, was apparently “pleased to be back in town.” I’m not sure why with the weather being what it was, but to each his own.

The concert began with the Nielsen Helios Overture, which is a fantastic piece.  In general.  Not necessarily tonight.  As a horn player, I appreciate the general terror associated with playing this, and octave slurs are no piece of cake for any horn player at any time, but the section as a whole had more clams than either some reference to soup or a much dirtier reference to a house of ill repute.  It didn’t destroy the performance, but it didn’t feel like the sun was really all that committed to getting out that day.  What did destroy the performance was the sloppiness of most of it.  Entrances were askew, the trumpets and trombones were behind, and the strings in the fugato were not together.  I guess this performance as it relates to the brilliance of the sun fits in rather snugly with the sub-freezing temperatures and snow.

Phase 2 of the program was the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no. 2 with a young soloist by the name of Kuok-Wai Lio.  I didn’t know this piece going in (I dig the 1st concerto), and came away feeling like Mendelssohn should look into pursuing this composition thing full-time if he hasn’t already.  Mr. Lio was pretty good all told, although it never felt like he really got delicate in the 2nd movement when the music was clearly treading down that path.  The sloppiness of the orchestra continued here, and if it’s bad in Nielsen, it’s worse in Mendelssohn, who begs for clarity and crispness more than most, IMO.  It was a decent performance, and the soloist will presumably be heard from again, but I was fairly underwhelmed with everyone not named Felix associated with this.

After intermission, Mahler.  I confess to being pretty impressed with the large majority of the performance, even if I disagree with many interpretive aspects.  The first movement began pretty well, with good balance on the A, but the woodwind calls and the descending half note line were both…you guessed it…sloppy.  The offstage trumpet fanfares were cleaner, but they were not nearly distant enough…they could just as well have played on stage into the stand and gotten the same sound, which is bad as far as I can tell.  The “Ging heut morgen ubers feld” unfolded pretty nicely, although it felt rushed by the end of the exposition (both times), which doesn’t bode well for the end of the movement.  The movement’s climax was pretty stellar, and I thought my head was going to explode from the cymbals and bass drum…more from them later.  As I suspected, the end of the movement was frenzied, but not quite in the best possible way.  They made it, though, and 27 people clapped for a second, so folks took to it.

The 2nd movement was easily the fastest I’ve ever heard it.  I didn’t time it, but I would be surprised if it took much more than 6 1/2 minutes.   That kind of tempo works well in the Scherzo, but the Trio needs a little time to breathe, IMO, and it didn’t here.  There wasn’t nearly as much insanity as I would like on the trills preceding the last note of the Scherzo statements, which was a drag, but the ensemble finally started to pick up in this movement, and the ending was very crisp.

The 3rd movement was problematic tempo-wise.  Maestro started it off VERRRRRRRY slow, and I was getting pretty interested to see how this would go throughout.  Of course, that tempo didn’t last, and it got noticeably quicker as time passed.  That didn’t stop him from trying again after the B section (which was very nicely balanced and clear), with the exact same results.  The tempo it actually ended up being was fine, but it would have been interesting as hell to hear just what might have been.  The bass solo was very good, IMO…which is to say not so good that it doesn’t sound strained in a good way.

The 4th movement was absolutely spectacular.  The percussion were as good a section as I’ve heard in this movement…extremely tight and distinctive.  Terrific excitement in the opening section, and an awfully good transition into the first slower section.  I thought this section was very good.  Often times, it can be affected way too much, but Stern just let the music happen naturally to its betterment.  The second big/loud section was pretty good all told, although there were again some prominent flubs in the horns on the D major half note theme that eventually carries the piece home.   The second slower section was not quite as well manicured as the first, but still very good, and better than countless recordings I’ve heard over time…still great balance, and warmth in the string sound despite pretty nippy acoustics in general.  The viola “announcement” to begin wrapping it up was very engaging, and the music leading up to the final apotheosis (to use the word apotheosis) was handled expertly.

And then the  expertness went flying out the window.  The final tempo was rather brisk at the beginning, but I figured with the “Pesante” coming up it would be fine.  Except there was no “Pesante.”  There wasn’t anything.  There was just a guns blazing, balls to the wall, Steve McQueen style race to the finsh line, which no one won.  It was better than the Sinopolis and Dudamels of the world who ride the tempo all over the place like fucking Zorro, but still…it felt like you had overcome all these great obstacles and climbed to the highest of peaks only to throw a pie in someone’s face and make balloon animals for the children.  Furthermore, it leaves you little room for a stringendo in the last 20 bars or so, which we can all support.  There was an attempt at one, but it didn’t really pan out.  A terribly disappointing end to an otherwise VERY stellar reading of the movement, and a pretty strong reading of the entire symphony.  Special Gold Star to principal horn Albert Suarez, though…that guy is officially on my “you, sir or madam, are a bad ass” list.

Two other quick notes: the Lyric Theater, while surely possessing Old World charm that I don’t know about, feels like sitting in a 7th grade science class…probably the worst seating I’ve ever sat in, not just in the history of concerts, but in the history of seating.  They’re moving to a new hall in a few years, maybe even deservedly, but in the meantime, I guess I don’t have to wonder what it’s like to hear a Mahler symphony in the basement of a Pizza Hut anymore.  Also, if you happen to be in Kansas City and like Italian food, check out Garrozzo’s.  Tremendous food, dim lights, good wine, family pictures on the wall, bizarre location in the middle of a nowhere 5 blocks…it has it all.

I’ll wait until next season to give them another crack…Alban Gerhardt playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto along with Kodaly (Dances of Galanta) and Rachmaninov (Symphonic Dances) will force open the wallet.  Until then, believe me…I was at a concert.

Music Associations In Your Mind

Last night we went and saw the Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire, at the indie theater near our apartment.  Good movie, spiritually uplifting, etc. but certainly not the best picture I saw over the last year (that honor still goes to In Bruges as of this moment).  One thing about the film that I did enjoy tremendously was the music: Indian music with hip-hop spices (taste like cardamom?) mostly.

One song in particular brings me to this post.

The song is called “Paper Planes” by MIA, and it’s as catchy as anything I’ve heard in a while.  In the film, it is used in a montage showing the two brothers, now orphaned, doing the hobo thing on a train running across India, hustling for money and food in whatever ways they could.  It was a beautiful use of the song, and the scene as a whole was really good.

But my mind had something else going through it at the time.

I can never hear this song again without immediately flashing back to Pineapple Express (a movie which, by the way, was better than Slumdog Millionaire last year).  You could use this song as the background to a movie about how Mahler was the first owner of the 49ers and how The Big Lebowski was inspired directly by the Arab-Israeli conflicts since 1947, all narrated by Thomas Friedman, and I would still immediately think of Dale and Saul.

But that’s the whole point.  That’s what music should be.  Sandy associates Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” with Little Rock, AR because she first listened to it while driving down there.  I can still remember vividly missing 2 classes in college because I was listening to Yuli Turovsky and I Musici di Montreal perform “Prayer” by Ernest Bloch, and I listened to it about 20 times in a row because I was completely transfixed (I still am to this day) by that music.

I think I probably should have tried to write something scientific about how it works, or why we do it, but I figured I’d just mention that it’s cool.