Letter to a Young Singer

Your correspondent has jut spent a busy week in Melbourne enjoying the intense experience that is the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. The experience has again focussed the mind on the challenges of musical competition and the subjective influences which invariably guide the outcomes.

Another competition looms this month in which your correspondent and Mrs Oz have a great interest. This is the 2015 Joan Carden Award, the finals of which will take place on Sunday 16 August in the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. Three finalists will strut their stuff alongside the wonderful Sydney University Graduate Choir, with full orchestra, all under the direction of Christopher Bowen OAM. As the competition looms, your correspondent was prompted to write a letter to a young singer:

“As the date approaches I have been thinking about the challenge of competition. Even if I knew much about the technical aspects of singing I would not dare explore this realm. You have excellent coaches to do this work. If I look at the other finalists, however, there is an interesting complexity: the three of you are very different in style. How then does one shine against a showy soprano and a characterful baritone?

The answer lies, I believe, in singing with intelligence. Your voice has a natural beauty: the task is to use this to communicate with the audience by interpreting the poet’s and the composer’s emotions based on a strong understanding of them both, their backgrounds and their personal emotional involvement in the creative process. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” has been called one of Mahler’s finest songs. Clearly it must be delivered with great beauty, yet tempered with an understanding of why Mahler may have been attracted to Rueckert’s verse. One writer pointed out that Mahler may well have been reflecting on his early creative years when he was yet to be appreciated for the talent he undoubtedly had. This did not make him sad or angry, and indeed this is not a sad or angry song. Rather, it is a reflective song about the creative process and its challenges. If I be not understood, then surely it is best to stand back from the turmoil, cut off the influences of external irrelevancies and focus on that wonderful spirit of creativity. Alone? Only in one sense: that sense of aloneness one cherishes when in love, to be alone with the beloved. In this case the beloved is impersonal, but none the less real: the artist is in a metaphorical heaven, together with art he loves. Mahler said of Rueckert’s poetry:”this is lyric poetry from the source”. And a powerful source it was, Friedrich Rueckert being a true man of letters, an expert in Oriental literature and a keen observer of the human condition. Mahler was clearly greatly impressed by Rueckert’s poetry, and wrote the music at his summer villa in Carinthia built, it is said, as a refuge from the hurly burly of Viennese life. Where better to be than with one’s lover, even an inanimate one, by a lake in summer.

So the song is only in part one of solitude. Reflective yes, but in the end a love song, an intimate, emotional song to the creative process. So, “Ich bin gestorber….” is in fact a happy statement, as in “dead to the world” in glorious sleep. But in this case the glory is not sleep, but of being in heaven; in love with song. You, dear young singer, would not be doing what you do were you not in love with art song. All you have to do is convey this love to your audience.

As an aside from all this, who would have known the Australian Research Council has a Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Does Australia need such a research centre? Maybe it’s a little indulgent. But it is possible a young singer could learn something from such a centre. Last night there was a performance in Sydney by the wonderful vocal ensemble I Fagiolini who combine expertise in a cappella Renaissance and contemporary singing. In a pre-concert talk one Alan Maddox from the above mentioned Centre suggested an interesting link between musical performance and oratory. A singer is as much an orator as a lawyer or politician, having to sway the audience as much by communicating appropriate emotional content along with inspiring words and music. In Renaissance times orators were taught a special language of the body (stance, hands, feet) along with the tonal qualities and facial expressions necessary to deliver great emotional impact. Of course we have modulated these aspects to some degree nowadays, except perhaps for full-blown opera performances. This notwithstanding, the point is clear that a singer should not be afraid of using all their faculties available to deliver emotional impact.

As you hone your performance, may these thoughts be of some benefit. Otherwise there is little to say except perhaps a heartfelt toi, toi, toi.”

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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