30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 25, In Praise of One’s Own Time

So much classical musical blather is about how “it used to be better.” I have done my bit in this department, and to atone will wrap up this month with wonderful performers who are active now. Today, for example, I encountered this delight, by pianist I didn’t know, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, from a tribute album to Poulenc and Piaf.

Here’s the album, talk about music with a subtle smile, and charm and style for days.


Beautiful Picture: Diagram of A Newspaper Office, 1922

Check out this fascinating 1922 diagram of the long gone Washington Star‘s building on Penn. Ave in DC. Linked from “Ghosts of DC” where you can find the full file with amazing detail. Quite a sizable library! But the noise from the linotype room, just above the writers, must have been intense–and I assume the whole building shook when the presses were running. Not something that happens with a blog, alas.


30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 23, Magda Olivero

The cult of the operatic diva is one of the things that makes outsiders to opera a little curious (or put off, even). Although smitten in my past with certain singers, I am mostly past that stage, for better or worse. By midlife, you sort of find yourself saying, “they don’t make divae like they used to.” Even if this is perhaps not an entirely bad thing, when one of the genuine articles departs, it’s something to note.

The soprano Magda Olivero was one of these inimitable ones. She died this September at age 104, and Ira Siff captures what she was all about in his Opera News appreciation, well worth reading. Here is an excerpt from his tribute, describing her Met debut at an age when many opera singers are long since out to pasture in Bloomington or some such place.


But it was not until 1975, at the instigation of her great admirer Marilyn Horne, that the Met finally invited Magda Olivero for three performances as Tosca. She made her debut soon after her sixty-fifth birthday. Although the audience was wildly demonstrative, this was no mere nostalgia event. After a few minutes to warm up and conquer nerves, Olivero’s voice was astonishingly fresh, shedding decades by Act II. At the second performance, this listener was treated to the most touching, spectacularly sung “Vissi d’arte” of his experience. During Act III, Olivero’s ascent to a spectacular, lengthy high C and plunge down two octaves into chest voice on the line “Io quella lama” earned her a spontaneous ovation. This old-school audience response was inspired by the artist’s old-school stage deportment; it was an evening that, in the best sense, turned back the clock whenever she was onstage. Olivero’s total belief in the reality of the drama prevented her performances from ever being reduced to shtick. And her prodigious technique and breath control spoke of a bygone era, but one in which she was unique among veristas, none of whom matched her vocal capabilities.

You can find a pirate of the Vissi d’arte in question online, as well as the NYTimes notice.

Oddly, I found this bit of “The Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz from some Italian TV show more touching, not least for the smile in her voice that her sweet toned tenor evokes.

It’s all a bit odd, and not voices that you’d cast today; (nor would you hear an opera duet on a general interest TV show for that matter.) But you feel with her, and with him too, that you know a bit about them through their singing, and that bit you know is authentic.

30 Days of Musical Tidbets: Day 22

Yes, I realize I have got to catch up with my daily posts, and for today a terrific performance of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” arranged for 4-hand piano by husband and wife team Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung.

duetsFour-hand keyboard music, although great fun to play, is often anything but fun to listen to for others. The piano is, after all, a percussion instrument, and getting the rhythm perfectly in sync–particularly for pianists, who, let’s face it, can be a little wayward in the counting department–is tricky.

But this is a model of how it’s done. (And also of the intimacy of 4-hand, which made it such a stand in for flirting in 19th century fiction).

Another magical piece in this repertoire is Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, here with the starry pair of Lang and Argerich.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 20, Cheapskate’s Guide to Live Classical Performances

Cost is often something that scares people away from classical concerts. The “brand” for lack of a better word, seems pretty tony, and people automatically assume that tickets for live performances will be out of reach.

Although some tickets for famous performers at big venues are indeed pricy (although not necessarily more so than those of other live events), there are lots of ways to hear classical music less expensively. Here are a few I use, and I’m sure there are others.

Symphony Hall: Famous Friday afternoon concert "Rush Line" waiting chance for unreserved seat

Symphony Hall: Famous Friday afternoon concert “Rush Line” waiting chance for unreserved seat

Reduced-cost “day of” tickets. Many classical organizations have rush or discount tickets and if you can spare the time to get to the venue early, you may get a very good seat for less than a movie ticket. I attended a lot of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts this way. Check the web sites for the policies (often called “rush tickets” and sometimes limited to students).

Meet-Up and Online Newsletters In DC, there is a very active classical music Meet-Up, which frequently has offers for discounted tickets. Through that resource, I found out about a Kennedy Center mailing list you can join for notice of last minute deals for unsold tickets and sometimes deep discounts on advance sales. Look for these kinds of resources in your areas: in addition to Meet-Ups, these sort of resources can be associated with a venue, an individual company, or a presenter. Of course, they want your email in return and the right to market to you, but if it’s relevant info, it’s a perhaps a reasonable trade.

Ushering/volunteering This is not particularly my thing, as I’m fairly promiscuous in my musical tastes and don’t want to spend say every Thursday at the symphony. But people I know have found it a practical way to hear a lot of good music (or see theater for that matter).

Trusting to luck Just showing up an hour early at a hall and seeing if somebody has a ticket to give away is a risky practice. I would not recommend it for a concert you have your heart set on. But it has worked for me. Ticket resale is sort of a murky practice at many venues, but giving away an extra is kosher, so some people prefer to do that, even for sold out shows.

Conservatories and Music Departments’ OfferingsIf there are musical education organizations in your community, check out their free concerts. Elite outfits, like Indiana University and its world class opera program, or the amazing string faculty at New England Conservatory give performances that are deeply satisfying experiences. But even if you aren’t lucky enough to be near programs like those, it’s likely that there will be music worth hearing in your community, be it at a school, a religious or community organization, or another non-profit. They will be happy to have you: musicians want to perform!

Roll your own I have turned from a critic to a participant over the years, and now play chamber music with friends and sing in amateur ensembles more often than attending concert. Opportunities abound and they are rewarding in themselves, and also frequently lead to chances to hear other concerts. Even if you are not a musician yourself, informal house concertsare cropping up all over, and these can be nice ways to experience music.

With all the money you save going to free or low cost shows, you can consider funding that once-in-a-lifetime concert going experience. Most music lovers have a “dream list.” A friend of mine wants to go the New Year’s in Vienna concert at the Musikverein. I’m content with watching that one on TV, but if you know a cheap way to get to La Scala, Bayreuth, Teatro Colón, or the Berliner Philharmoniker, let me know!

30 Days of Music Tidbits: Day 18, Industrial Musicals

Despite knowing all of West Side Story and My Fair Lady by heart as well as living and dying by Sondheim. I had never heard of the phenomenon of the “industrial musical.” Turns out during the mid-20th-century heyday of the art form, companies commissioned musical theater creators to do custom shows for their sales meetings etc.

There is a new book about this odd phenomena and it looks pretty wonderful. From a blurb on their website:

industrial musicals

Through the rare souvenir record albums presented in EVERYTHING’S COMING UP PROFITS, an alternate show-biz universe emerges: a universe in which musical theater can be about selling silicone products, or typewriters, or insurance, or bathtubs. Some of these improbable shows were hilariously lame. Some were pretty good. And some were flat-out fantastic.


I guess the practice didn’t die out completely. In 2006, there was a musical at the Wal-Mart share holder meeting. I bet Equity artists were NOT invited.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 17: Quick tips for preparing your written materials: A guide for performing classical musicians.

Over years of steady (if part-time) work as a music journalist and as program annotator, I’ve read a lot of résumés, bio-sketches, programs, web sites etc. for classical musicians. They are sometimes, even often, a bit of a mess, felled by typographical errors, out of date copy, fuzzy writing, and unusable visual or other resources.

They don’t do the job of presenting the artist in a clear, engaging way, and certainly don’t help the harried program note preparer or music critic find a needed fact and get on with it.

In the spirit of helping (with what is admittedly one of the world’s less pressing problems) here are some tips on improving editorial materials for classical artists (with singers in mind specifically).

1. Establish a set of consistent, and easily updated editorial materials and keep them fresh. Go for quality over quantity, both for your sake and those of your readers. I would recommend a résumé, and at most a bio in two flavors, short and long. Be strategic about the way the bio is written: build it out in modular sections  that can be swapped out and supplemented when there are new things to add, rather than requiring a redo from scratch.

2. Keep track of versions of documents by clearly naming and dating them (in both the file name and inside the doc). A file naming convention is good, for instance Violetta_Valery_Bio_Short_11_14_14.docx. Note the filename, author of the doc and important details right in the document as well.

3. Make it as easy as possible for all involved to tell at a glance whether materials are up to date and what to do if they aren’t.  Nothing wastes time (and annoys editors) like trying to determine which of 3 or 4 different versions of bios flying around as email attachments should be used for a program. One approach is to write something like “Violetta Valery’s s bio was last updated 11/17/14. Please check, http://www.allaboutvioletta.com for the latest version).  Alternately, you can just say something like this, “This biography valid for the 2014-2015 season only, see the web site for more info” and make a point to do an annual update. Importantly, if you have doubts about your ability to keep the web site up, be realistic with yourself, and don’t set up expectations you can’t meet.

4. Avoid excessive revision. Good: an opera singer slightly reworking a bio to emphasize her achievements in song as she prepares to make her debut in a distinguished lieder series. Bad, completely rewriting a bio because you got cast as the cover Marullo for a big opera company. Also, while it’s reasonable to present the best possible take on your background, don’t lie and don’t inflate. Singing “Ines” in a volunteer performance of Trovatore at Una Volta Opera Company of West Pitchfork, Montana, is all well and good, but does not a major credit make. Arts editors and presenters are savvy readers and can generally read through pad and discern what credits actually mean for the career in question. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.


“Chicago,” not the musical, the authoritative style guide.

5. Choose and abide by a consistent copy-editing style. This is simple to describe although not so simple to do. It means applying consistent rules for things like the capitalization of titles, names of composers, working with foreign terms, abbreviations, etc.  Style guides also specify which choice should be made when several options are acceptable (form of titles, writing out numbers, certain spellings, use of the serial comma, the way sources should be cited etc.) Newspapers frequently use the Associated Press Style Book. Academe typically uses a style guide specific to the discipline or the big kahuna of style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style. None of these is targeted to the needs of practicing performing artists and presenters (as far as I know, there is not a resource tailored to this task). If that’s all too much for you, just make sensible rules for yourself and follow them. (Keep track somewhere of your decisions.)

6. Set reasonable expectations of yourself and enlist others to help. If writing and updating these materials is not a strength, don’t sweat it. There is probably an English major in your life who would be happy to help. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a service to help with this–although in truth, I’m not much of a copyeditor. (Extra points to readers if they can spot all of the inconsistencies and other errors in this post!) Professional writers at all levels have editors, so it’s certainly no shame to ask for help on your materials.

6. Provide a range of photographs in usable formats. Print requires higher resolution photos (300 dpi or greater is preferable) and for a large photo, this may make it inconvenient for emailing. Provide a print and digital-friendly format of key photos (again, don’t go overboard) on your site for download (or in a cloud resource). Provide a caption and a photo credit, and explain any restrictions on use. Make other media (audio clips, video) as easy to use as possible (for instance, making sure it can be embedded).

7. Abide by copyright and other IP requirements. Don’t use materials without permission and don’t put your presenters in the position of inadvertently using copyrighted materials unlawfully. Just because it’s on the web and can be downloaded, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use in your press kit or materials you submit for a program. Also, “fair use,” is a complicated issue, in that it is a decision that is dependent on a number of relative factors, one of which being whether there is any commercial interest involved. Given that marketing and promotion are implicit in a singer’s biographical and other materials, there is a risk in assuming that material could be used on a fair use basis automatically.

7. Be on time and responsive. There are a lot of things to juggle for artists, god knows, but stay on top of this, and don’t let the line go dead on this topic. Many presenters and program editors pull their hair out waiting for long-requested materials, or holding a spot to accommodate a program change or bio update. Playbill–and most other publications–fine presenters for late material, and, of course, late changes breed opportunities for errors. Managing things in a timely fashion will be enormously appreciated, as will be being forthright when problems come up. A practical example: if you can’t get a program note you had hoped to write done in time, call and explain yourself. That will give enough time to consider a “plan B” (for instance, doing a Q&A on the program that can be pulled together in two days). Just hiding in a bunker and not answering email for two weeks risks making a minor glitch into a major hassle.

Your editorial materials are not the most important part of your tasks, certainly, but handle them professionally from the get go and they’ll add polish to your presentation, save everybody some time and headaches, and might even open some unexpected doors.