Sunday 7 December 2014

Master class

Sir Thomas Beecham once said "In this life try everything once, except morris-dancing and incest". I was never particularly interested in the latter, but I've given a lot of things a try including morris-dancing, bookbinding, genome analysis and sailing. Not all of these ventures have been happy but each has put me alongside true experts at their craft and that has been truly amazing. Over the last couple of years abloggin', I have had some things to say about singing together, on pilgrimage, in competition, and in community. I guess I am now an interested amateur.

Back about 30 years when I was living and studenting in Greater Boston, I was induced to go to masterclass for trainee opera singers by my friend P.  She was a bit of an aficionado and had a sister who was in the process of turning into a professional voice.  Back then it was not the sort of thing I'd usually walk to the far end of the BU campus for, let alone spend two hours largely out of my depth in a sea of song. The event had been arranged because some big star of the opera world was in town and had offered to hear and critique some of the students. I suspect that many of them were not destined for a career in grand opera but were, in the can-do way of performers, prepared to give Puccini a whirl if it meant getting some really good feedback from a pro. The process generated its own compulsion and it was all quite wonderful listening to a succession of young people giving socks to this or that aria.  One particularly large and resonant young chap was stopped in the midst of his blast and asked if he had any idea of the meaning of the Italian that he was singing.  He sheepishly confessed that he'd meant to look up the translation but in the rush of rehearsal for his big chance, he'd let that detail slip.  The expert, being expert at her craft, and despite being American, was not only deeply knowledgeable about the repertoire but also had acquired a sufficient fluency in Italian, French, and German.  She suggested that he shouldn't sound so jolly about the tragic events he was singing about . . . and could he give it another go with that in mind.  The devil is in the detail and the difference between someone who sings for joy and someone who earns money at it lies in working really hard at getting the colour, the timbre, the pace, the raw emotion into and on top of the correct notes.

This dim and distant memory flooded back a few days ago when, after some restless rabbit-holing down the interweb, I found clips I, II on youtube of the real Stephen Sondheim helping two young voice students of London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama to sing his iconic song Send in the Clowns. Two ordinary young women are encouraged to find the true meaning within the music which is a huge ask because they are about 30 years too young for the part. It is nevertheless an extraordinary meeting of minds as student and teacher discuss the multiple dimensions of song and how the written lyrics can be turned upside down by changing the tempo of a phrase - hey, that could be a definition of irony of which I am something of a devotee. Sondheim is completely involved in the scene: perched on his stool attentive, rapt even, with his head cocked like a bird to better hear the music. It's also rather wonderful how respectful the Great Man is of these young women and their native talent - while knowing that it could just be a little improved thus and so. Send in the Clowns has been covered by everyone from Catherine "symmetrical but hammy" Zeta-Jones to Frank "wrong sex" Sinatra but you can't see it better done than by Judi Dench who is the right age having, like Desirée her character, been round the block a few times.

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