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High Notes
Program Notes

Linda Strandberg || Mary Jo DuGaw || Steve Bryant
sopranos, countertenor
photo: Demian
This program highlights high-voiced singers and their high notes. It’s not all glass-cracking coloratura, but vocal composers know that high notes are just the thing to convey the emotional peak of a dramatic song or provide the “ta-da” ending that signals applause time.

True to this year’s concert series theme — “Can Classical Music be Funny?” — the program includes some outright comedy, from Bernstein’s high-toned “What a terrible awful movie!” to Gershwin’s Broadway witty “Blah, blah, blah.” More subtle strains of humor can also be found in Rossini’s gondola race-commentary and in Musetta’s teasing waltz.

The mixed program of solos and duets is also a feast of languages — seven in all — from the Slavic Russian and Czech tongues to the more commonly heard Romance languages. For the listener, that means a broader sonic palette of subtle cultural clues that mark a nation’s music.

Finally, it should not be surprising that most of the pieces performed tonight are about love won or lost. Has there ever been a better reason for singing?

Gioacchino Rossini: La Regata Veneziana

This duet depicts a Venetian gondola race in the words of two onlookers who cheer on their favorite beau. It was one of the many vocal chamber works Rossini wrote after his early retirement from opera composition. Designed for the entertainment of guests at his regular musical soirees in his home, these short works are often compositionally astute and always highly entertaining.

Antonin Dvorák: Holub na javore

Drawn from Dvorák’s Moravian Duets and sung in Moravian-accented Czech, this piece is characteristic of these folk-like melodies in their simple yet beautifully finessed treatment. Also typical is the enormous variety of rhythmic pulse, which commands the listener’s rapt attention.

Lentel holúbek na pole,
aby nazobal své vole.
Jak své volátko nazobal,
pod jaboreckem posedal.

From the sky a small dove flew down,
Took his meal from the field so brown.
When he had pecked his fill at last,
Under a maple tree he passed.

Pod jaboreckem má milá
zelený šátek vyšívá.
Vyšívá na nem vinecek
že ju opustil synecek.

There sat a maiden in the shade.
A green babushka she had made.
She embroidered very slowly,
Weeping for love that’s not to be.

Vyšívá na nem zružekvet,
že ju opustil celý svet,
Vyšívá na nem vinecek
že ju opustil synecek.
Roses of red her needles sew,
But in the world not one will know.
So with her tears embroiders she there,
There in the shade this maiden fair.

Camille Saint-Saëns: El Desdichado

Saint-Saëns here applies his suave French style to this Castillian Spanish text, which he sets to a bolero dance rhythm. The rhythmic punctuation accents the passionate angst of a disappointed lover.

Hubbard Miller: Four Songs

A man both complicated and simple, Hubbard Miller grew up on a ranch in Eastern Oregon, becoming a first-rate cowhand while coming to terms with an immense talent for music. With a musical voice both fresh and unique, he embraced a multitude of styles. Most of his songs set human experience against a backdrop of the larger cycles of life on earth. “Let the world spin” (from the text of Spinning Song) sums up Hub’s deep commitment to nature, a bond unbroken in his lifetime.

Clément Philibert Delibes: Serenade from “Le Roi L’a Dit”

This bon-bon airily portrays the returning pleasures of Spring, coyly suggesting that it’s time to make like the birds and the bees. Sure, it’s kitschy, but it’s fun.

Déjà les hirondelles
Rapportent sur leurs ailes,
Messagères fidèles
Tous les parfums d’avril.

The swallows hither winging,
Their carols gay are singing,
Their welcome message bringing
With sweet perfumes of Spring.

Voici les hirondelles
Ecoutez leur babil! Ah!
L’espoir va renaître aux coeurs de vingt ans;
Ouvrez la fenêtre au gai printemps.

Ah, see the swallows winging,
And hear their caroling, ah!
New hope is returning to youth in its prime,
Haste, open the window for gay springtime.

L’abeille court, alerte,
Sur las fleur entre’ouverte.
La plaine est déjà verte,
L’air frémit dans les bois,

The bee is swiftly flying For flowers half open sighing, The plain in verdure lying,
The quivering air is stirred.

La plaine est déjà verte,
Tout murmure à la fois.
L’espoir va renaître aux coeurs de vingt ans;
Ouvrez la fenêtre au gai printemps.
The plain in verdure lying,
Hear nature’s murmured word,
New hope is returning to youth in its prime,
Haste, open the window for gay springtime.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Rasvet (Dawn)

Tchaikovsky songs and vocal chamber music are unjustly ignored, presumably due both to the lingual challenges and the former Cold War mentality that discouraged singing in the language of our “enemy.” This glorious duet, which depicts the delicate transformation of night into morning, shows the luxurious experience that awaits the adventurous listener.

Felix Mendelssohn: Herbstlied

Mendelssohn wrote a large collection of vocal duets, which were suitable for home entertainment or singing by children’s chorus. This typically fine example is a miniature that compresses a world of experience into two minutes of rapid-fire discovery.

Christoph Willibard Gluck: Scene from Orfeo ed Euridice

Gluck’s justly famous opera is rarely heard in its original Italian version, which was composed for and premiered by the Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni in the role of Orfeo. Alto-voiced Guadagni was well known for his acting — he had studied with Britain’s revered thespian David Garrick — and was thus a perfect choice to advocate for Gluck’s more reformist operatic style, which favored a more direct expressive style, serving the story rather than the celebrated singers who performed it. The action in this opera is driven by the well known story of Orfeo, who travels to the underworld to retrieve his beloved Euridice under the condition that he must not look at her, nor reveal this condition of her liberation. Naturally, she takes offense and insists on talking it through before they go anywhere. The result makes for high tragedy — before Amore comes along and sets things right for an all-singing, all-dancing finale.

—— Orfeo ——
Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte, Come, join your husband!
—— Euridice ——
Nò, più cara è a me la morte, Che di vivere con te! No, I prefer death to living with you!
—— Orfeo ——
Ah crudel! How cruel!
—— Euridice ——
Lasciami in pace! Leave me in peace!
—— Orfeo ——
Nò, mia vita, ombra seguace
Verò sempre in torno a te!
No, my life, like a shadow
I will always hover about you!
—— Euridice ——
Ma per chè sei si tiranno? But why are you so brutal?
—— Orfeo ——
Ben potrò morir d’affanno,
Ma giammai dirò perchè.
Even if I die of anguish,
I will never tell you why.
—— Together ——
Grande, O Numi, è il dono vostro,
Lo conosco e grato io sono,
Ma il dolor, che unite al dono,
É insoffribile per me.
Great, O Gods, is your gift.
I know it and am grateful.
But the pain you link with your gift
Is unbearable for me.
—— Euridice ——
Qual vita e questa mai che a vivere incomincio! What life is this that I begin to live?
E qual funesto terribile segretto Orfeo m’asconde? And what fateful, terrible secret does Orfeo hide from me?
Perchè piange e s’affligge? Why does he weep and grieve?
Ah, non ancora troppo avvezza agli affanni, che soffrono i viventi, a sì gran colpo manca la mia costanza; Ah, I am still not inured to the agonies the living suffer. My endurance falters under so great a blow;
Agli occhi miei si smarrisce la luce,
Oppresso in seno mi diventa affannoso il respirar.
The light wavers before my eyes,
My gasping breath is stifled in my breast.
Tremo, vaccillo, e sento frall’angoscia e il terrore da un palpito crudel vibrarmi il core. I quake and reel, and through my anguish and frights I feel the cruel shuddering of my heart.
Che fiero momento,
che barbara sorte,
Passar dalla morte a tanto dolor!
What a terrible moment,
What a harsh fate it is,
To pass from death into such suffering.
Avvazzo al contento
D’un placido oblio,
Fra queste tempeste si perde il mio cor.
Vacillo, tremo.
Imbued with the bliss of a calm oblivion,
Among these storms my heart is lost.
I reel, I quake.
—— Orfeo ——
Ecco un nuovo tormento! Here is another torment!
—— Euridice ——
Amato sposo!
M’abbandoni cosi?
Mi struggo in pianto,
Non mi consoli?
Il duol m’opprime i sensi,
Non mi soccorri!
Un’altra volta, oh stelle,
Dunque morir deggio senza un’amplesso tuo,
Senza un’addio?
Beloved husband,
Are you abandoning me like this?
I dissolve in tears;
Won’t you console me?
Grief numbs my senses;
won’t you rescue me?
A second time, O Stars,
I then die without your embrace,
without farewell?
—— Orfeo ——
Più frenarmi non posso,
A poco a poco la ragion m’abbandona,
Oblio la legge,
Euridice e me stesso, e …
I can hold out no longer,
Slowly my reason deserts me.
I am forgetting the pledge,
Euridice and myself! And …
—— Euridice ——
Orfeo, consorte, ah … mi sento … languir. Orfeo, my husband, I feel myself pining away.
—— Orfeo ——
Nò, sposa … ascolta … se sapessi
Ah! Che fo?
Ma fino a quando in questo orrido inferno dovrò penar?
No, my wife, listen to me! If only …
Alas, what shall I do?
How long yet must I suffer this hideous hell?
—— Euridice ——
Ben mio, ricordati … di … me! My darling, remember me!

—— Orfeo ——
Che affano! Oh, come mi si lacera il cor!
Più non resisto,
smanio, fremo, deliro…
Ah! Mio tesoro!
What agony! How my heart is torn!
I can no longer resist.
I shudder with frenzy, madness, delirium.
Oh, my treasure!
—— Euridice ——
Giusti Dei, che m’avvenne,
io manco, io moro …
Just Gods, what is happening to me?
I faint … I die …
—— Orfeo ——
Dove trascorsi?
Ove me spinse un delirio d’amor!
Sposa! Euridice! Consorte!
Ah, più non vive,
La chiamo invan!
Woe is me!
What has possessed me?
To what has love’s madness driven me?
Wife! Euridice! My spouse!
Alas, she is not alive.
I call her in vain.
Misero me!
La perdo, e di nuovo e per sempre!
Oh legge! Oh morte! Oh ricordo crudel!
Non hò soccorso, non m’avanza consiglio!
Io veggo solo, (Oh fiera vista!)
il luttuoso aspeto dell’orrido mio stato!
Saziati sorte rea, son disperato!
Woe is me!
I have lost her again and forever!
Oh law, o death, o cruel memory!
For me no help, no wisdom can avail.
I see only (oh desparate sight!)
the funereal visage of my hideous existence. Be sated, evil fate, I am without hope.
Che farò senza Euridice!
Dove andrò senza il mio ben?
What shall I do without Euridice?
Where shall I go without my treasure?
Euridice, Oh Dio! Respondi!
Io son pure il tuo fedel.
Euridice! Oh god, answer me!
I am your true, faithful slave.
Ah! Non m’avenza, più soccorso,
più speranza, nè dal mondo nè dal ciel!
Alas, no salvation, no further hope,
neither from earth, nor from heaven!

Giacomo Puccini: Musetta’s Waltz

Descended from a long line of musicians, Giacomo Puccini began his musical studies at a very early age. He was a pupil of Ponchielli at the Milan Conservatory, where he began composing operas, an endeavor that would encompass nearly all of his composing life. In fact, he was the last Italian composer to concentrate almost entirely on opera and to achieve an enduring international success in so doing. In La Bohème (1896 - the title means Bohemian Life), he succeeded in placing memorable, well-characterized song melodies within a seamless texture. It is in the Verismo style of the late 19th Century, where the characters are everyday people struggling with common people’s problems. This is a story of a group of poor artists living in Paris’ Latin Quarter. In this aria, Musetta is using her wiles to attract the attention of her former lover, Marcello, who is unsuccessful in his attempts to ignore her.

Quando me’n vo’, quando me’n co’ soletta per la gente sosta e mira, e la bellezza mia tutta ricerca in me, ricerca me da capo a piè;
ed assaporo allor la bramosia sottil, che da gl’occhi traspira e dai palesi vezzi intender sa alle occulte beltà.
When I go out alone, people stop and stare,
and everyone admires my beauty — from head to toe; and then I taste the subtle desire that emanates from their glances. And so the fragrance of desire excites me and makes happy!
Così l’effluvio del desio tutta m’aggira felice mi fa! E tu che sai che memori e ti struggi, da me tanto rifuggi? So ben: le angoscie tue non le vuoi dir, so ben ma ti senti morir! And you, you who knows how you struggle to resist the memory of that desire, why do you shun me? So be it: you won’t admit it, but you feel like dying!

Leonard Bernstein: What a Terrible Awful Movie!!

Leonard Bernstein, born Louis Bernstein, gifted conductor and composer, was equally successful in writing symphonic music of profound content and strikingly effective Broadway shows. In its flamboyant juxtaposition of moods, the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti is more like a Mahler symphony than a musical comedy. As Humphrey Burton says in his biography, Bernstein, “[Trouble in Tahiti] sustains a poignant lyricism, throughout its savage Strindbergian portrait of marriage on the rocks. The show-stopping number ‘What a terrible awful movie!’ is a comedy burlesque which pokes brilliant fun at American colonialism and Hollywood escapism.” The satirical lyrics, intoned by a small vocal ensemble functioning as a Greek Chorus, place Tahiti beyond the world of the popular song forms that Bernstein once described as the heart of his score.

George Gershwin: Blah, Blah, Blah; Someone to Watch Over Me; I Got Rhythm

George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershvin, had an extraordinary career that began when he was 16, playing the piano in music stores to demonstrate popular songs. As far as worldly success was concerned, there was no period of struggle in Gershwin’s life; one of his earliest songs, Swanee, written when he was only 19 years old, became enormously popular, selling more than a million copies, and 2,250,000 phonograph recordings. He studied harmony and counterpoint with such prominent American composers as Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger. Possessing phenomenal energy, he produced musical comedies in quick succession, using fashionable jazz formulas in original and ingenious ways. As Schoenberg said when asked by Gershwin for composition lessons, “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.” His brother and most frequent collaborator, Ira Gershwin, wrote the lyrics to the three tunes presented here.

Notes © 2002, Steve Bryant
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