Tag Archives: culture snob

cool opera

What comes to mind when you think of “opera”? These are mine:
-Way too long
-In some language I don’t speak
-Centuries old music with centuries old plots
-I probably won’t get any of the jokes
-I’ll have to get dressed up
-The music can get monotonous if I’m not in the mood
-It’s kind of expensive

I freely admit – being a classically trained musician earning a DMA – that I have completely skipped out on operas that by all rights I should have seen, because I didn’t want to go sit through 3 hours of singing in German. Or Italian or French or Russian. Or English, for that matter. I just didn’t want to do it. Too long, too monotonous, and I get airplane butt (you know what I’m talking about) after about 2 hours. AND I have to wear nice clothes while I’m sitting there, not being seen by anyone, AND I don’t even have the movie theater luxury of snacking.  If I have to spend $30 for the cheapest seats available, there’s a good chance I’ll consider staying home, ordering a pizza and streaming the opera on Netflix or something. At least I can be comfy and have a pause button. AND I ACTUALLY LIKE OPERA.

But – what if I told you there was an alternative? That opera doesn’t have to be serious time/money/cultural commitment? What if I told you opera could be:
-Short – no longer than a sitcom episode
-In English
-Recently written, on modern issues/characters
-You don’t have to have a Ph.D in musicology to get the jokes
-Casual, relaxed performances
-Casual, relaxed venues
-About the same price as dinner out

If you’re still skeptical, let me present this:
-How about a ten-minute opera about Paula Deen’s attempt to get into heaven?

Got your attention? We’re NANOWorks – North American New Opera Workshop. We do short operas: none longer than 30 minutes. They’re all written recently, most within the last five years. They don’t require any special education to enjoy. They are about the things that interest us: some of them are thoughtful, some of them are ridiculously funny. We’ve performed in coffeehouses and bars. You can wear whatever you’ve been wearing all day and drink while you listen. I’m not kidding, it’s the greatest thing. And you get the joy of a live performance – the musicians playing off the audience for comedic timing and delivery. There’s nothing like it.

Think of it this way: We’re like when you decide to watch an episode or two of something instead of committing to an evening of the extended Return of the King. Which is undeniably worth it, but definitely not feasible every night. We are.

Now before you go accusing me of shameless self-promotion, let me state this: I am with NANOWorks because I believe in it. Mozart’s operas were popular because they were contemporary, the music was interesting, it was in their language, it was relatable to everyone (educated and uneducated alike), and 3 hours was a reasonable amount of time to spend on live entertainment (there was no other kind!). Opera was for everyone.

This is exactly what we, NANOWorks, are doing today: the music is interesting to our modern ears, it is in our language, it involves people and situations we can relate to, and it is a reasonable amount of time to spend on entertainment. I firmly believe that our operas are being presented and received in the same context as Mozart’s back in his day. Nobody needs a history degree or second language to enjoy them, nobody needs to drag out the pearls, and nobody needs to forego Starbucks for three weeks to afford the tickets (we, as musicians and coffee addicts, would never stand for such a thing). We are simply bringing you quality, live entertainment in a fun, comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. This is opera that your dad can get behind.

If this sounds way better than traditional opera to you, please check us out. We’re pretty sure you’ll have a good time.



And, good news! We’ve got upcoming shows! May 3rd and 4th!



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pure torture

My friend just returned from POW training*. During part of the simulation, loud, obnoxious music was piped in to prevent sleep. My friend found part of it recognizable, and eventually realized they were hearing Berio’s Sequenza for piano. And then the next track, which sounded like a woman making random ridiculous sounds, turned out to be the Sequenza for voice.

Let that sink in: Berio’s Sequenzas used as an instrument in torture simulation. Luciano Berio, one of the most notable, important, and most famous composers of the last century. Invoked in one of the most stressful, dangerous, taxing trials a person can undergo.

(Personally, I think this is hilarious but would have been better if it were Stockhausen, not Berio.)

Now, I could make about a thousand points about this:

About how far classical music seems to have deviated from commonly-accepted aesthetic norms;
About the dichotomy between contemporary classical music and common-practice classical music;
About the dichotomy between contemporary classical music and popular music, or pop culture;
About the value of aesthetics versus structure/process;
About how structure/process needn’t be sacrificed to maintain aesthetics;
About how we define and value “aesthetics”;
About how contemporary classical music can be perceived as “torture” and how this came to be;
About the implications of contemporary classical music being perceived in such a light;
About whether or not we want to be perceived this way;
And about whether anybody actually does care if we listen.

I could go on. I could write a volume on each point. But I’m not, because I choose to make it Not My Problem. I will let other people make it their problem if they wish. Instead, the only point I will make is:

Now they know how I feel when I have to listen to Katy Perry.

*Everything but the most salient information redacted for the security of everyone involved.

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happy things for grey days

I’m home sick. I think I caught some kind of nasty upper respiratory infection from my choir director and/or his family. I’m praying I don’t get laryngitis. I canceled my rehearsals for today. And I took the opportunity to redesign the blog! It’s brighter, much easier to navigate, cleaner, more readable, and just in general better. I hope you like it.

Also, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite recipes. (Fear not! I’d never turn this into a recipe blog.) I got this recipe in Switzerland, while I was staying with a family outside Zürich for a few days. My host-mother, as it were, took me on a tour of several of the cantons in northern Switzerland during the morning. She asked her next-door neighbor to watch after her husband while we were gone. We returned several hours later to a late afternoon lunch/snack. My host-mother brought out a piece of Zuger Kirscht0rte we bought the night before. It was good – it was a sweet white cake soaked in cherry liqueur with a light white frosting, from what I remember. The neighbor had made an apple tart for my host-father while we were gone, joking, “He didn’t get his lunch, so I made him something full of calories to make up for it!”

They offered me a piece, and I was about to decline it, after having just had this cake, but I thought, Heck. I’m in Switzerland. I only live once. And oh my goodness, it was amazing. It tasted like apples and butter, light and simple. I asked the neighbor how she made it, and after pressing her for details on every step of the process, she offered me the recipe. I gratefully accepted.

She gave me two photocopied sheets. The dough recipe was from a German cookbook, which she explained and translated to English for me. The filling recipe was typewritten, already in English.

When I got home, I was a little frightened of making it, as I’ve always been a little leery of baking. Cooking, when you screw something up, is pretty easily fixed and almost constantly adjustable. Baking is not – once it’s baked, it’s baked. No going back. But I thought if she can do this, so can I.

It’s come out perfectly every time.

For the dough:
200g flour (about 1 3/4 cups)
pinch of salt
1 stick of cold butter
2-3 T of sugar
juice of half a lemon
one egg

Rub the flour, salt and butter together with your fingers or a pastry cutter until it turns mealy. Add the sugar, lemon juice, and egg – mix to form a dough. Let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450.

For the filling:
6 tart eating apples
juice of a lemon
2 T sugar
1/4 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg or allspice

For the streusel topping:
6 T brown sugar
6 T flour, sifted
zest of one lemon
6 T softened butter

Make the topping by crumbling everything together in a bowl using a pastry cutter or a fork.

Peel, core, and slice apples into eighths. Put them in a bowl and toss them with the lemon juice.

Roll out the dough and place it in a tart pan. Or, press it in with your hands. Arrange the apples in the pastry shell and sprinkle them with the sugar and spices. Sprinkle the streusel topping over the apples.

Bake at 450 for 15 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 350 and bake an additional 30 minutes.


My only notes on this: for a holiday twist, I’ll change up an orange for the lemon. Sometimes I’ll also add cranberries or mix in pears, but the original is my favorite. I hope you enjoy.

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brahms short pieces and a sunflower

I have never heard someone so eloquently and concisely express sentiment as Brahms. There is never any mistaking what he feels – longing, contemplation, peace, joy, passion, sadness, tenderness. Especially tenderness. Perhaps this clarity is a result of his reservation in public life.

(I have a recording of Gilels playing Op. 116 that is just superb. Not just the wide brushstrokes of mood, but he captures the little twists and turns of thought. It’s the kind of captivation where I can’t even try to think of anything else.)

Op. 76 seems to be less heavy than Op. 116, which I suppose is logical. The Brahms I am most familiar with is Opp. 116-119 and the clarinet pieces (114 and 115) – later stuff, heavy, darker. Much of it tends to have a reminiscent quality. Op. 76 seems to have more clarity – though it has the seriousness of the later works, it doesn’t look back quite as much and still lives in the present.

When visiting the musician’s plot in the Central Cemetery in Vienna, I stopped by Brahms’s grave. Someone had given his statue a sunflower. And I thought, that’s gotta be the most incongruous thing I’ve ever seen. To this day it puzzles me. Maybe they were trying to impart hope? Or maybe it’s that little reflection of tenderness found in his later pieces, saying no, it’s not all bad.

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liszt, the thinker

Anneé II brings me back to Vienna. (Wrong country, I know. bear with me.) I spent probably 4 hours in one of the museums, just looking, painting after painting, taking it all in. I got to the Raphael room. I stopped and wondered what the fuss was about. Okay, he was revolutionary, I get it, but these don’t particularly speak to me. So I stopped at one. I don’t remember particularly which one, and I can’t say I looked at it, or studied it, or contemplated it, but it got under my skin and I began to know the painting (to say “understand” is pretty presumptuous.) There was elegance, and grace, and strength, and an extreme tenderness. It was incredibly beautiful, emotionally. I moved onto the Caravaggios, which I was really excited for. And I stopped, and I looked, and it affected me in a completely different way. That is to say, I was still overwhelmed emotionally, but the painting got to me psychologically instead. In another room, there was a 15th or 16th century portrait of a craftsman that absolutely rooted me to the spot, and I could not move. It’s these little spiritual (religious?) experiences that I hear in Year II. Quiet contemplation, then overwhelming knowledge and understanding.

Anneé III and the late pieces still have these elements, but they are much darker, quieter, reflective. They’re not full of life and curiosity and acceptance. They have perspective and knowledge. If the previous experience was impossible to put into words, this is even moreso. These pieces are resigned, and even the more lighthearted pieces (Mephisto Polka) seem to be from the perspective of a bystander. Liszt now carries the burden of the wisdom of age.

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schumann’s characters


In general, I notice that Schumann really loves octaves. Chords and melody seem to appear in octaves frequently. Without looking at a score, runs appear to be comfortable, but there are also a lot of awkward jumps in both hands. It’s not quite scored symphonically, or in a chamber idiom, but I hesitate to call it truly pianistic, either, not in the sense that Rachmaninoff or Liszt are pianistic. The “virtuosity” in this piece just seems difficult, without there being too many tricks to it. There’s also almost no real counterpoint.

Musically, I really love the rhythm in this piece. Five against two, offset, misplaced, and obscured downbeats, grace notes, flowing eighths. Every rhythm dances and moves.

The first time I heard this piece, I could not for the life of me understand it. Each movement, each little character piece, is charming and stands on its own merit, but now I think I’m beginning to hear how they fit together. That little more than its rhythms and connections between moods and characters hold it together – that its own lack of cohesion gives it cohesion. It seems like a puppet show – characters and caricatures, vignettes, short little scenes. Each little movement is solid, like I could pick it up and hold it in my hand, and this collection of little dolls and scenery makes for an interesting and entertaining story, and that I could retell the story later.


I feel that Papillons has better overt cohesion than Carnaval. It stands as a whole piece rather than a collection of tiny movements. It almost sounds like variations, which I guess makes sense, since it was written earlier. I don’t get the feeling I’m watching a puppet show with this one – it’s less caricature-ish, more Classically refined (even though it is clearly a Romantic piece). There’s a bit of counterpoint, and the rhythms are less overtly interesting than in Carnaval. Although they do propel everything forward and still maintain that dance-ish style at times, I find myself more drawn to melody here. Each tiny section stands less concretely on its own (again like the puppet) and more abstractly conjures up images of shifting colors, not leaving a solid memory of what came prior but nevertheless moving somewhere else (like a sunset). I could not tell the story of what happened in this piece, but it would probably make for some great photography.

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