Chorally Yours: Whitacre’s “Water Night”

Did you ever hear a piece of music that reverberated within every single cell of your body or caused each hair on your head to stand on end?  A piece of music that you craved over and over, and each time you listened to it you heard something new?

Today we’re taking an exuberant dive into the setting of Octavio Paz’s poem Agua nocturna, composed by the much-acclaimed Eric Whitacre as “Water Night”.

But first, a caveat.  My meager vocabulary, choral and otherwise, is not going to do this piece justice.  No amount of witticism or schmancy terms like “pan-diatonic” are going to convey to you, appreciated reader, just how much this music has changed the neurons firing in my brain.  All I can offer is what follows.

“Water Night was just one of those pieces,” Whitacre writes on his website.  After spending the day with his friend and mentor Dr. Bruce Mayhall and being convinced to finish his degree, Whitacre went home and opened his book of Octavio Paz poetry.

I can’t really describe what happened. The music sounded in the air as I read the poem, as if it were a part of the poetry. I just started taking dictation as fast as I could, and the thing was basically finished in about 45 minutes. I have never experienced anything like it, before or since, and with my limited vocabulary I can only describe it as a pure and perfect and simple gift. It has become one of my most popular pieces, and I’ve heard countless people who sing it or hear it describing the same feeling I had when I wrote it down. I remain eternally grateful for this gift.

“Basically finished in about 45 minutes.” Fact:  in college, it took me at least one week to write one mostly lousy 16-measure hymn.  Fact: despite my composing shortcomings, I am able to recognize that the music Whitacre wrote exactly matches Paz’s text.  “Sounded in the air” indeed. It’s stunningly beautiful.

Here is the text in its entirety:

Night with the eyes of a horse that trembles in the night,
night with eyes of water in the field asleep
is in your eyes, a horse that trembles,
is in your eyes of secret water.

Eyes of shadow-water,
eyes of well-water,
eyes of dream-water.

Silence and solitude,
two little animals moon-led,
drink in your eyes,
drink in those waters.

If you open your eyes,
night opens, doors of musk,
the secret kingdom of the water opens
flowing from the center of night.

And if you close your eyes,
a river, a silent and beautiful current,
fills you from within,
flows forward, darkens you,
night brings its wetness to beaches
in your soul.

Octavio Paz, 1914-1998
(Adapted by Eric Whitacre, Translation by Muriel Rukeyser)

Now listen to the Brigham Young University Singers, and read the text as you listen. (I’m not bossy, just excited.)

A few thoughts:  I love those opening measures.  I see them like a piece of obsidian- smooth, glassy, deep black.  The word “shadow” is beautifully jagged. The basses give “dream-water” perfect gravel.

Moving on, the diction on “solitude” is perfect- a gently curved “u” instead of straight and flat.  It’s extremely subtle but has a tremendous effect.  Can you hear and feel the slightest crescendo/decrescendo here? The tempo also picks up slightly, adding to the pulsating sound.

There’s nothing to say next except that you just heard the most brilliant chord ever written.  What better way to express the opening of one’s eyes?


A beautiful, well-timed decrescendo takes us to “the center of night”.  The last measures, focused on “a river”, again pulsate with those tiny crescendos and decrescendos (“flowing forward” is flawless) and gets gradually quieter until the final word “soul”.  I want to hang onto that one word, that final chord, forever.

For those of you who have a hankering for a serious theory analysis of this piece, this Wikipedia page does a darn good job.  Thanks, Michael Scott, for the recommendation!

As you no doubt can tell, I am quite taken with this piece.  I’m perpetually in awe of the gift composers possess.  Whitacre achieves the remarkable in this stunning musical painting, paying great homage to a much-lauded and Nobel-winning poet, and giving us a timeless gift.


There’s Always Room For Cello

“Ah, Juilliard.  It was like prison, but with cellos.”  ~Robin Williams

Yesterday, somewhat plagued by the darkness in this world and the mind-boggling disrespect mankind has for human life, I found myself listening to the Benedictus of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace. Classical music is a balm to a ragged soul, after all.  The first few minutes, during which only a cello sings a mournful melody (with a touch of flute and other strings), are transporting.

Soul soothed, albeit temporarily, I began thinking about the cello and what a beautiful instrument it is, then wondered about its provenance…

The first cello-like instrument emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century. Until then, the violin’s earliest precursor, the viola da braccio, was the instrument of choice.  Artisans such as Andrea Amati, Gasparo da Salò and Paolo Maggini wanted to expand the violin’s sound to deeper ranges, thus the instrument had to be built on a much larger scale and the violoncello (“big little violin”) was born.

By the end of the 16th century, a standard bass violin (violone) had been established and was often partnered with the violin in the music of that day.  Wire-wound strings were invented in the mid-17th century in Bologna and produced a much louder sound with more ring than the conventional gut strings.  It was then that the first real cellos were built and used for solo performances.  Violones were literally sawed apart and resized to fit the new design.  But by 1710, Antonio Stradivari unveiled what became the design and proportions of choice, and it is the famed luthier’s design which remains in use today.

By the turn of the 19th century, performance experience had led to refinements in design, including a higher string tension (producing a clearer tone), a thinner, taller bridge and a sharper neck angle.  The end of the 19th century saw the invention of the endpin for resting the cello on the floor, whereas previously the instrument had been held between the calves.  The endpin proved essential for stability and height during playing.  In the 1920s, steel strings gifted the cello with longer-sustained notes, clearer sound, and amplified volume.

In 2012, a Stradivarius cello built in 1707 and one of sixty surviving of its kind, sold at auction for well over six million dollars. Nicknamed “The Countess of Stainlein“, it was once owned by violinist Niccolò Paganini. In 1822, it nearly suffered an untimely and malodorous demise in a Milan city dump. In the late 1990s, it underwent a meticulous two-year restoration.

Perhaps the most widely known and beloved music written for the cello are the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach.  Other landmark compositions include Dvorák’s Cello Concerto (a front-runner here at Sib Rev), Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto in A Minor.  And for those of you who claim you have never listened to the cello, queue up “Good Vibrations”, “Eleanor Rigby”, or “Strawberry Fields Forever” for a classical sneak-up.

Lastly, after all of this highbrow music history, I would be remiss if I did not mention the phenomenon that is the styrofoam cello.  Far from the days of Stradivari, an ingenious student at the College of Ghent has found a truly unique way to amplify the sound of this lustrous and honored instrument.  Happy weekend, dear Revelers!

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

Just Another Bernstein Monday (whoa oh ohhh)

Leonard Bernstein

His birthday was Sunday…whoa oh ohhh…

Oh, hello!  Apologies, I was lost in a reverie of rewriting that classic Bangles song. Yesterday would have been legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 95th birthday.  In the words of the WQXR Blog, he still “looms large over classical music, remembered both for his extroverted conducting style and for his vibrant, culturally omnivorous off-stage persona, documented in countless interviews, TV appearances and public talks.”

My first exposures to Bernstein began, as usual, when I didn’t know it.  In ninth grade my wonderful choral music teacher took us to see West Side Story.  It was love at first note. Bernstein’s score manages to capture every emotion exuded in the star-crossed tale: love, rivalry, nationalism, loss, get-your-mambo-shoes-on.  I am in awe of the gift composers possess, and LB is certainly no exception.  EVERYONE knows at least a little something from West Side Story.  When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.

My next exposure unaware was a couple of years later and in a far less erudite fashion. My best friend and I decided it would  behoove us (academically, natch) to memorize every lyric to R.E.M.’s raucous caveat “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.  Come on, you know the line: “blah blah blah blah blah LEO-NARD BERN-STEIN!”  I figured that if Michael Stipe, whom I revered, was including That Name in That Song, it was worth checking into.  Thus, here I am these years later, happy to have made a rich, albeit figurative, acquaintance with The Maestro.

Here are three favorites off the top of my head for you to enjoy:

1) Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in this clip the final movement.  He is, in a word, electrifying to watch.  It’s clear that there are actual notes running through his veins. Please ignore the soprano soloist, I find her strident and entirely irritating.

2) LB composed the score to his friend Jerome Robbins’ very first ballet, Fancy Free, in 1944.  This is a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at the NYCB production.  The music is fantastic and another example of Bernstein’s capacity for variation in his writing.

3) I picked Candide over West Side Story because, frankly, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Candide.  Bernstein wrote the music to the operetta production of Voltaire’s satire and it opened on Broadway in 1956.  The entire show is hilarious, clever and poignant.  Here are Kristin Chenoweth (as Cunegonde) and Patti LuPone (as The Old Woman) singing the naughty “We Are Women”.  (PS- if you ever watch “Live From Lincoln Center”, the overture to Candide is playing during the opening credits.)

How I would love to go on, but as Wm. Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of blogging.” Happy reveling, and happy birthday, Lenny!

I’ll Counter That Tenor!

Well, the reveling sibs have clearly given in to the indolence of summer’s furnace. But lo! This morning broke cool, cloudy, and breezy over the nation’s capital and that’s when some of us get to work, like dwarves headin’ to the mines with pickaxes and a pretty girl at home.

Today on WAMU, the fantastic local NPR station whose delightfully NPRish slogan is “The mind is our medium,” there was a piece on Morning Edition about countertenors (Sibley the Younger loves the radio, if you haven’t noticed). The impetus was a new opera opening in Santa Fe called “Oscar.” Unfortunately, it’s not an operatic look at the Tragic Magician, George Oscar Bluth, but the Flamboyant Flâneur, Oscar Wilde. The countertenor in focus is David Daniels. Here is a link to the story, which Morning Edition helpfully kitted out with several examples of Daniels’s work:

I very much like the Schubert piece there, “Nacht und Träume.” But that’s not a surprise.

The piece called to mind an episode in the Sibs’ classical education which took place during the summer of either 1998 or 1999. ‘Twas the former, I believe, but my surety is low. We gaily traipsed one evening, during Mostly Mozart, to Avery Fisher Hall to hear Bach’s incomparable Mass in B Minor. It was the first time I’d ever heard it. And beforehand, there was a lecture on the piece in whatever that penthouse is called across the street. Suffice it to say it’s not the kind that receives letters of a certain nature. All in all a magnificent evening I’ll never forget (some of the pertinent data notwithstanding), in large part because the alto part was sung by a German countertenor by the name of Andreas Scholl.

I had never heard a countertenor before (recall that I’m not the choral nerd in our dynamic duo). Chills ran down my spine when he sang the lento, haunting “Agnus Dei,” as his voice filled the hall and reverberated. It is a wonderful movement because the instrumentation is exceedingly spare, allowing the voice to take and keep center stage. You won’t be sorry for listening to it, nor indeed seeing Andreas Scholl. Danke sehr, Internet, because a recording of him singing the Agnus Dei (qui tollis, as everyone knows, peccata mundi) exists on YouTube. As Uncle Jesse might say, miserere nobis indeed.

I realize I’m glossing over the physiological curio that is the male countertenor. I remember reading an interview with Scholl once, or perhaps it was in liner notes, where he said that he realized he had this capability only incrementally as he went through his singing education and development. I once asked a male opera singer whether he could just sort of “sing along” to recorded music like we plebeians (I was kind of hoping he’d belt out something like “Just What I Needed” in his opera voice). To his credit, he didn’t preface his response with either an eyeroll or a “Duh,” but told me quite simply it was a muscle that could be flexed to varying degrees. In other words, yes, he could blend in with mortals. You’d think I would have known that already, having grown up with a diva sharing a bedroom wall!

Lend Me A Tenor, Please

Today’s Revelation is for all you opera lovers out there- and especially for all you opera-ignorers who have immediately pictured a corpulent Wagnerian soprano shattering glass with Viking-horned high Cs (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Stephen Costello is one of my favorite operatic tenors. A 2007 graduate of the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor that same year.  He is a 2009 winner of the Richard Tucker Award and his star is fast rising on the world opera scene, right along with his wife’s, lustrous soprano Ailyn Pérez.

I’m pretty picky when it comes to voices, altos and tenors especially.  Some just don’t “speak” to me- the color is dark or the vibrato is miles wide.  Others are spot on- supple, soaring and perfectly trained.

Such was the case when I first heard Stephen Costello.  He was in his final year as a resident artist at AVA and was the tenor soloist for my choral group’s performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater.  During a dress rehearsal, he burst forth with the “Cujus animam” movement and I promptly lost all powers of singing and furthermore decided to lip-synch for the remainder of rehearsal so that I wouldn’t miss anything he sang. (Sincere apologies to my director and assurance that I did in fact actually sing at the concert.)  That’s when I knew he was Going Places.

Speaking of Going Places, those of you in the NYC metro area will have an opportunity to hear him when he takes the SummerStage in Central Park on July 16th as part of the Met’s Summer Recital Series.  Along with some champagne and a picnic blanket, you’re in for a lovely evening.

For the moment, though, I’ll leave you with this (thanks, WQXR!):

Bravo, indeed!


Beauty In The Midst Of Loss

I attended a funeral today.  As I quietly sat listening to the Mass, muted sunlight illuminating lovely stained-glass windows, threads of Gabriel Fauré’s “Pie Jesu” (from his Requiem) kept nudging my mind’s ear.

Pie Jesu Domine.
dona eis requiem
Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem sempiternam

This soprano aria, its simple beauty surrounded by a quiet organ and solemn strings, was the perfect piece to accompany the service, if only in my head.

Pious Lord Jesus,
grant them rest
Pious Lord Jesus,
grant them eternal rest

It’s a beautiful prayer.  Although I did not know well the person we had gathered to remember, he was someone who never failed to be warm, kind, funny and welcoming whenever we saw one another.  I was there to honor his life and support friends who are family to me and I am grateful for the opportunity to have done so.

Here is acclaimed soprano Judith Blegen, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Shaw, in my favorite recording of Fauré’s “Pie Jesu”.  I hope you will enjoy listening to it!

Confessions of a Choral Geek

Confession, readers:  I’m a choral geek.  A classical choral geek.  Add a little soft-shoe and I’m a triple threat!  I have been singing in a chorus since I was in fourth grade.  It is a cornerstone of my life and I have come a very long way since the sweet days of “Friends Forever”.  I regard it a true privilege to be part of an art form that brings tremendous beauty and passion to so many.

On Sunday evening, I had the pleasure of performing, with my choral group, a wonderful program of French choral compositions.  Heralded as “A French Affair”, we filled the wonderfully echoing spaces of the venue with Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, and Lili Boulanger’s Psaume XXIV.  For a bit of textural contrast, Duruflé’s Ubi caritas and Tota pulchra es were also part of the program.

Four days later, various segments of Poulenc’s Gloria are enjoying a much-welcomed sojourn in my brain.  Until this season I had never sung any Poulenc, and I quickly became enamored of his Gloria.  It is a joy to sing- clean and vibrant, melodic and exhilarating.  The last movement, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” (Thou enthroned on high at God’s right hand) ends in a triple pianissimo so ethereal that you will forget to breathe.

My favorite movement is the fourth:  “Domine fili unigenite” (Hail, O Son of God).  I love Poulenc’s note in the first measure of “Très vite et joyeux” (very quick and joyful).  And that’s exactly what it is.  The movement is less than two minutes in length.  I love when the tenors burst onto the scene in the twelfth measure.  I love the elocution of “Jesu Christe”. I love how the dynamics are either piano or fortissimo- nothing in between! Most especially I love how we soprani, after one orchestral measure, leap back in the game on a piano F natural just before the end. It’s just the loveliest.

If you’ve never heard a Gloria before, or choral music, or if you’d prefer the sound of a dentist’s drill to the sound of sung Latin, I think this bright and beautiful composition will bring you over to the sunny side.

As for me, I can’t wait for the start of our next choral season.  I wonder if anyone will notice if I don’t return my Poulenc score.  Just kidding…maybe.