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To Preserve and Protect

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With Tyne Daly about to star in a Broadway revival of Terrence McNally's 1995 dramedy, Master Class (which was inspired by the master classes given by Maria Callas in 1971-1972 at the Juilliard School), this is as good a time as any to talk about what master classes can do for young artists. Unlike Callas, many of the professional musicians who give generously of their time to conduct master classes at music conservatories and programs for young opera singers have a vested interest in passing on the knowledge they have acquired in the course of their own performing careers.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music offers numerous master classes during the course of its academic year, most of which are open to the public at little or no charge. Perhaps because I come from a family of teachers and librarians, I find these classes offer incredible learning experiences for the audience as well as the participating musicians. Why? All too often, music lovers are so obsessed with what they hear in a classical music recording (product) that they ignore the artistic process that leads to making certain creative choices.

For most artists, it's all about the process (which is, after all, their life's work). Some master classes may concentrate primarily on improving a musician's technique. But, for the most part, these sessions help to open up a music student's mind to different ways to explore a piece of music, opportunities to learn about shading, phrasing, and color from a veteran, and pointers on how to avoid bad habits.

While the style of each teacher may vary widely, the artists conducting master classes these days are rarely as insecure as McNally portrayed Maria Callas to be in his play. They are not there to inspire diva worship, but to teach.

They were all once students at a conservatory. Many of them (even at the tail end of their career) still consider themselves to be students because they are constantly learning about their craft, about history, about music, and about the world in which they live. One of the most thrilling teachers, to my mind, is composer/pianist/author Stephen Hough, whose advice on technique and interpretation is backed by an encyclopedic knowledge of music history

If you have never seen it, set aside some time to watch the following video clip of a master class conducted by Barbara Cook at The New York Public Library. It runs a little more than two hours, during which you will witness young singers learning how to shape and mold a lyric, change the way they approach a musical line, and discover what the art of song interpretation truly involves.

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Having recently sung her final performances in a staged opera and made her Carnegie Hall farewell, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade conducted a fascinating master class last week at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Prior to beginning, she spoke briefly about why the Conservatory means so much to her, stressing the role of conservatories and other arts organizations in "protecting and preserving music."

Von Stade's master class was far more animated than one might have expected. The veteran singer (who likes to have herself a good time onstage) didn't hesitate to use every trick at her disposal to get her students to relax and try to be more human in their approach to the music. Sometimes that meant jumping around or dancing in front of the students; at other moments von Stade shared her joy in the health and beauty of their voices. As is so often the case, certain key points were stressed:

  • Many students tend to sing the music they have prepared quite loudly without realizing that starting loud leaves the artist fewer possibilities for shading, nuance, and a chance to build the strength and power of the vocal line.
  • Some students have worked so hard to learn and memorize the music that they haven't paid sufficient attention to what an aria is about or what the character is trying to communicate at that point in the opera.
  • Some techniques which might work well for a singer who is 23 years old might not work so well when the singer is 43 or 53.

With Kristin Pankonin accompanying on the piano, von Stade worked with the following students:

  • Tenor Michael Jankosky sang Lurcanio's aria, "Tu vivi, e punito" from George Frideric Handel's Ariodante.
  • Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi sang Cherubino's aria, "Non so piú cosa son," from the first act of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Considering that von Stade has been hailed as one of the greatest Cherubinos of her time, it was interesting to hear some very practical advice from her. She asked Choi to take off her shoes, run a lap around the stage, and then start her aria. Why? Teenage boys are often breathless with excitement and, in all honesty, von Stade believes she has run a quarter mile onstage during each performance as Cherubino.
  • Soprano Kelsey Harris sang Pamina's aria, "Ach, ichs fühl's" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
  • Mezzo-soprano Yang Hai sang "She wanted the mink" from Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetters Daughter. As an added benefit, von Stade had invited Zheng Cao (who had originated the role of Ruth in the opera's world premiere) to join in the master class, thus giving Ms. Hai the rare chance to work with the artist who had learned the music directly from the composer.
  • Soprano Samantha McCurry sang Marguerite's "Jewel Song" from Charles Gounod's Faust.
  • Christina Burroughs sang the Countess Almaviva's aria, "Porgi Amor," from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro..
  • Mezzo-soprano Sara Couden delivered such a well conceived and dramatically crafted rendition of Madame Flora's aria, "Afraid, am I afraid" from Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium that both von Stade and Cao were almost speechless in their admiration of the young artist's talent.

Throughout the 2-1/2 hour master class, von Stade's generosity of spirit and joy in making music was an inspiration to all in attendance. Master classes are rarely so much fun to watch!

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Across town, 42nd Street Moon (whose mission is to present "lost musicals" from the 20th century) has been staging a revival of the original version of 1927's Strike Up The Band. With music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, librettist George S. Kaufman's sterling wit shines through as always ("Mother, I had no idea you were a destitute!").

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Stephanie Rhoads and Gabriel Grilli in Strike Up The Band
Photo by: David Allen

The show has been crisply directed by Zack Thomas Wilde with some of the company's most adventurous choreography to date created by Alex Hsu. As always, the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl gets a little complicated. Although Timothy Harper (Luke Chapman) may pine for Anne Draper (Sharon Rietkerk), Anne's mother (Stephanie Rhoads) has fallen on hard times and wants to make sure both women marry well.

Aspiring reporter Jim Townsend (Michael Scott Wells) may have the hots for the daughter of cheese mogul Horace J. Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli), but Fletcher's sniveling assistant, C. Edgar Sloane (Ben Euphrat) is actually a double agent who also has a crush on Fletcher's daughter, Joan (Samantha Bruce).

Add in some comic relief from a befuddled Colonel Holmes (Eric Wenberg) and the always hilarious Benjamin Knoll as George Spelvin and there is plenty of romantic and comical confusion to fill the evening.

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Luke Chapman and Sharon Reitkerk in
Strike Up The Band (Photo by: David Allen)

This particular production was exceptionally strong from a vocal standpoint, with Samantha Bruce displaying a beautiful lyric soprano and Sharon Reitkerk (who could be a great Fanny Brice) proving to be a genuine comic find. As is to be expected, certain chestnuts from the Gershwin catalog still have an undeniable appeal. Classics like "The Man I Love," "I've Got A Crush On You," "Soon," and the rousing title song never lose their freshness and charm.

In an era when the United States is engaged in more wars than anyone could possibly desire, Kaufman's libretto lands plenty of timely barbs at the sheer folly of going to war because it might be good for business.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape