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in performance: “A hymn to free and happy Man” with the Des Moines Symphony

November 15, 2015

“What does the end of a fairy-tale sound like?” muses the actor William Dick in his portrayal of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for the Des Moines Symphony‘s performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 – Beyond the Score: Pure Propaganda? It is clear from the portrayal of the composer that he would have wished for a world in which the fairy-tale never actually ends. This inherent optimism shone through in the Beyond the Score presentation as well as the Symphony’s performance on Saturday night at the Des Moines Civic Center under the baton of Maestro Joseph Giunta.

Des Moines Symphony | Beyond the Score

Des Moines Symphony | Beyond the Score

Beyond the Score

Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s ever-expanding Beyond the Score program, which originated in 2005, is a fantastic audience development tool. The format features theatrical narrative performed eloquently by William Dick, Sarah Hinzman, Jill Shellabarger, and Roger Mueller – a remembered favorite from last year’s Beyond the Score production of Beethoven Symphony No. 5. Adding to the narration are instructive and illuminating musical excerpts performed by the Symphony. All of which accentuated with hand-paced projections providing both more visual interest and historical context. This particular program gave a surprising amount of insight into Prokofiev’s life; and furthermore, into his compositional process, the lives and works of other notable Russian composers from Mussorgsky to Shostakovich, and the historical context in which Prokofiev was writing. This type of program runs the risk of offending those who constantly admonish others to ‘let the music speak for itself.’ However, it is humbling (and yet, restorative) to be reminded through music of times not so long ago in which our world also faced fear and terror fueled by hatred.

Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 (1945)

The eminently singable melodies are the hallmark of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and the Des Moines Symphony displayed commitment to highlighting each in its own richness. The careful balance of lower strings allowed the first sweeping melody of the Andante, played by flutist Kayla Burggraf and bassoonist Kevin Judge, to soar over the rest of the texture. Likewise, the regard and thoughtfulness towards balance allowed solo themes from clarinetist Gregory Oakes and oboist Jennifer Wohlenhaus to command attention in the Allegro giocoso finale. To this taste, the brass articulations in early soli sections were lacking in clarity. As the intensity heightened in both the first and final movements though, the brass and the percussion sounds unquestionably blossomed. The work of Aaron Williams, Robert Meunier, Thomas Mackey, and Michael Geary was particularly thrilling in the Andante. While there were some surprisingly anemic moments in the Adagio, this did not extend into the incredible buildup of tension and brilliance in the Allegro giocoso finale coda.

The Prokofiev optimism, the sounds of fairy-tales, exuded throughout this performance and yet the undercurrent of brooding and ominousness intensified the entire listening experience. Prokofiev commented, “The Fifth Symphony is the culmination of an entire period in my work. I conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.” It is ventured here that these contextualized performances serve as reminders to the extent of the greatness of the human soul: to continue composing, creating, and absorbing sounds beyond the limits of fear and malevolence.

quick news: Sybaritic Singer on Wine, Women, and Song Podcast

October 6, 2015

Time to walk your fingertips over to your favorite podcast app because you’ll want to download this one in a hurry. In September, I was lucky enough to be a guest on the Wine, Women, and Song Podcast recorded in my beloved Charm City. Normally, podcasters blind taste 3 wines while listening to and discussing vocal recordings – including excerpts from the former Baltimore Opera – but this was a super-sized tasting of four red zinfandels paired with vocal selections on the theme of sin.

Have a listen now!

quick news: Sybaritic Singer on the Wine, Women, and Song Podcast

I hope you can hear how much I enjoyed chatting about red wine and vocal music – my favorite things! I simply cannot wait to do it again. The selections from the podcast have continued to percolate in the back of my mind since we recorded. It was an immense pleasure to get together with other vocal music lovers to talk about what makes each recording special. Wine, Women, and Song really hits the striking mix of fun conversation and ‘insider’ talk. I mean, how many wine tastings do you attend in which you can discuss tannins and technique with such finesse?

Do you have a favorite red zin or vocal music selection based on the sin theme to share? Please tell me all about it in the comments below.

in performance: “Jelly, Rags, & Monk” from Turtle Island Quartet with Cyrus Chestnut

September 12, 2015

From the clamorous applause before the downbeat on Thursday evening’s Turtle Island Quartet performance at Sheslow Auditorium in Des Moines, it is clear that Civic Music Association‘s programming has been missed over the summer intermission. The audience was evidently overjoyed to welcome Turtle Island Quartet, back for their fourth performance for the organization, and their collaborator Cyrus Chestnut to the stage. Their “Jelly, Rags, & Monk” project lead the audience on a historical odyssey from the early roots of jazz to such true American originality as found in Thelonious Monk.

Sybaritic Singer | in performance:

Turtle Island String Quartet

When Cyrus Chestnut took to the stage, his fingers soft-shoed across the keys in such a manner that he may have fooled the audience into thinking he was simply trying out a collection of notes rather than reeling them in slowly to his bewitching artistry with his performance of “It Could Happen to You.” Part of the beguiling nature of Chestnut’s playing was the lack of aggression throughout. It wasn’t that he eschewed dissonance, percussive sounds, or angular solos like those inherent in the Monk tunes, but that he made the dissonances graceful and welcome. Chestnut’s skills at the keyboard avoided the temptation of affectation; and yet, he gave each piece the most verve – each expressive turn elicited a smile when his sound emerged from the overall texture.

That graceful sound was mirrored expertly in the playing of each member of the Turtle Island Quartet. By the end of the concert, the quartet’s tempos and stylistic choices were the most vigorous and rousing of the evening. During the take on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Turtle Twist”, David Balakrishnan, who also doubles as the group’s fine “resident composer”, captured that early 1900s sound by transforming his violin into a swinging clarinet sound. Mark Summer‘s percussive techniques on the cello were more resonant and driving while Mateusz Smoczynski (violin) and Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola) explored more provocative sounds in their improvisations. This enhanced expressivity was pleasing, to this taste, because earlier parts of the program had an oddly uniform sense of tempo and coloring despite the diversity of compositions.

Scanning around Thursday’s audience there were heads bobbing and toes tapping in time and appreciation of Cyrus Chestnut and Turtle Island Quartet. Their slick tone quality and earnest ensemble interaction fashioned them into gentle and caring guides through this clever program. It leaves no wonder why they are welcomed back to Des Moines with such ready applause.


let’s discuss: Join Me for #MUSOCHAT on August 23rd

August 20, 2015

“But if musical identity is, then, always fantastic, idealizing not just oneself but also the social world one inhabits, it is, secondly, always also real, enacted in musical activities. Music making and music listening, that is to say, are bodily matters; involve what one might call social movements. In this respect, musical pleasure is not derived from fantasy – it is not mediated by dreams – but is experienced directly: music gives us a real experience of what the ideal could be.” – Simon Frith

This week’s #musochat topic: Identity in New Music

We use music, specifically new music, to shape our individual identities and help us belong to a communal identity. For my turn as #musochat host on Sunday, August 23rd at 9PM EST/8PM Central, the questions will revolve around that topic in concept, practice, and development. (Click to tweet) “Music is neither ‘simply a social and political category’ nor ‘a vague and utterly contingent construction’ but ‘remains the outcome of practical activity: language, gesture, bodily significations, desires.’”¹ I cannot wait to read your thoughts. I hope you will join me.

Sybaritic Singer | #Musochat | @mezzoihnen

Some ground rules:

(In July, J.M. Gerraughty posted guidelines for the #musochat. I have also provided them here.)

  1. If you’re responding to a specific question (i.e. — Q1), indicate it in your answer (i.e. — A1). It’s even more helpful to keep your hashtag and answer indication close together (i.e. – A1 #musochat or #musochat A1.)
  2. I’ve pre-scheduled all the whole number questions (Q1, Q2, etc.), but if I find an interesting subject to follow-up on, I’ll insert decimal questions as necessary (Q1.1, Q1.2, etc.)
  3. As host, I won’t be answering questions unless asked directly — I’ll be concentrating on hosting and keeping conversation flowing.
  4. You are not obliged to answer any questions. Hell, you can just lurk the entire time and not say anything!
  5. If you do want to participate, make sure that you put #musochat into your tweet, so we can all see it.
  6. Keep your language civil. Disagreement is okay, flaming is not!
  7. Q n’ A will last for about an hour, but conversation can go as long as people are willing to talk.

“Becoming what one is is a creative act comparable with creating a work of art.” – Anthony Storr

Let me know if you have any questions. In fact, let me know if you’re going to be there by tweeting right now – all you have to do is click

quick news: Join Us for #musochat Sunday Nights @9pm EST on Twitter

July 22, 2015

Editor’s note: I have reblogged this from the wonderful J. M. Gerraughty’s website. Please take a moment to check out his work here and here.

#musochats - Sun @ 9PM EST on Twitter | Music Entrepreneurism | Sybaritic Singer

This is the first result when you Google Image Search “Entrepreneurialism In Music.” Thanks, thousandfold echo!

Last week, Megan Ihnen, Shaya Lyon, Hillary LaBonte, Gahlord Dewald, Garrett Schumann and I (J.M. Gerraughty) started up what we’re hoping will become a weekly (or maybe bi-weekly) #musochat on Twitter.

Join us for the next one, this Sunday (July 26) at 9pm, EST

This week’s topic: Entrepreneurialism in Music

Description: We’ve all read blogs, seen interviews, and otherwise had it pounded into our heads that the key to success in the current classical music landscape is “entrepreneurialism.” Unfortunately, this word tends to mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. This week, we discuss what entrepreneurialism means for us, and find ways in which we can integrate entrepreneurial strategies into our current career paths.

To join in, just go to Twitter and search for#musochat (or just click that link), and join in. I’ll be asking questions to the group periodically, but these are meant to stoke open conversation.

Hope to see you there!

Got any questions or topics that you’d like us to cover in the future? Want to be a moderator for #musochat? Comment below or tweet us on Sunday!

6 Questions RE: Social Justice Opera “Stinney” with Composer Frances Pollock

May 5, 2015

Stinney, a social justice opera for soloists, ensemble, and chamber orchestra, will receive its upcoming world première in Baltimore, MD next weekend. The work will be performed at the 2640 Space at 7:30PM on the evenings of May 15th and 16th, 2015.  “Stinney is an opera set in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944. The story is told from the perspective of two young murder victims: Mary Emma Thames (age eight) and Betty June Binnicker (age eleven). The girls guide us through the repercussions of their horrific deaths and the ensuing trial of George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy and the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th/ 21st Century.” I had a chance to chat with composer Frances Pollock about her inspirations and thoughts about writing the work as well as putting it together for the world première in Baltimore.

6 Questions RE: Social Justice Opera Frances Pollock, Composer & Soprano

When listeners hear Frances Pollock’s voice, hailed for its full, rich lyric sound, they might be surprised to learn that they are listening to a woman who began her musical journey as a composer and theorist. Once this fact is known, it comes as no surprise that this soprano, who eagerly tackles some of the most challenging and enticing repertoire of the 20th and 21st century, is sought after to première works of many up and coming composers.

As a composer, Pollock draws inspiration from the evocative sounds of her native South and from her strong ties to humanism. Originally from North Carolina, Pollock’s music digs its roots into jazz, blues, gospel, folk, and a variety of other genres. Unafraid of looking for truth onstage, she is especially interested in themes that explore idealism and human nature.

Pollock recently graduated from Furman University with a BM in Theory and Composition. She is currently completing her masters under the tutelage of Steven Rainbolt at the Peabody Conservatory. She has also studied extensively with Jill Feldman and Marilyn Taylor of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Pollock is currently involved in founding the new music group, “Prima Volta,” an upcoming group dedicated to help establish new music and fledgling professional musicians.


Welcome to the Sybaritic Singer, Frances! You’ve been building your career as both a soprano and a composer. Your undergraduate studies at Furman were in Theory/Composition and now you’re working with renowned pedagogue Steven Rainbolt at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD. Can you tell us more about discovering your voice both on stage and through composition?

I love theatre. My whole life, I have been drawn to theatre because it has the ability to transcend the barriers of normal relationships and heighten them to a universal experience. I love that the ephemeral nature of plays and opera brings a certain audience together to for an experience that is only tangible in that moment. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a part of that creative process in any way. In eighth grade, I wrote a musical based on AA Milne’s “House on Pooh Corner” that was put on by a local theatre company. I wrote music for my high school choir and helped arrange tunes for my dad’s jazz band. I attended Furman, anxious to be the next Sondheim.

When it looked like I was going to have more opportunities to perform rather than compose, I came to Peabody excited to hone my voice. Likewise, when this year presented me with a lack of singing prospects, I turned my attention to writing an opera that could give my peers a chance to perform. I was very lucky this year to find a friend and a mentor in Dr. David Smooke who paved the way to doing a project on such a large-scale and for having the backing of Peabody Conservatory and Johns Hopkins who have made many generous donations to Stinney. This year has been a whirlwind and I am very lucky to have had the support to create a work of this size.

That is fantastic. I think there are many singers who can sympathize with a seeming lack of singing prospects their first year of graduate school. It is so inspiring that you’ve been able to create your own fulfilling projects. Going back a little farther, what about growing up in the South, specifically North Carolina, has influenced your work both in sound and concept?

The music of the South is beautiful and typically overlooked in a classical setting. My dad is a jazz pianist, and I grew up immersed in the sounds of jazz, blues and everything country. That is the sound world that I am really comfortable in. When writing this opera, I wanted to maintain the integrity of the story in every aspect, including sonically. George Stinney did not grow up in the world of Mozart, Beethoven and Massenet. He grew up with gospel music, Baptist hymns, and folk songs.  Using this music that I am personally familiar with provides authenticity to the story.

Stinney has been called a social justice opera. What drew you to telling George Stinney’s experience of a disingenuous legal system and the mishandled evidence through music and theatre? What do you think makes this story vitally important?

This opera did not start out as a social justice piece. I wanted to explore a story that I understood on a personal level. George was exonerated this year, 70 years after his death, gaining national attention and interest. At that point, this project was already underway. This opera became a social justice piece when the trend of police brutality surfaced with the unfortunate lack of indictment in the Michael Brown case. From there, it became important not only to express Southern culture from a personal perspective, but also to examine a racially divided world that exhibited parallels to the racism we see in our country today. This story is important because it shows the ramifications of a fearful and divided world and the devastation it can wreak on a younger generation.

How has opera as a medium allowed you explore the larger issues of racial tension that are just as specific to that fourteen-year-old boy as they are to the current grievous state of our country at-large?

Opera has always been a medium for political platforms. When Mozart was writing Le Nozze di Figaro, he was being revolutionary in his discussion of class systems and his portrayal of the protagonists as strong and independent female minds. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is one of the strongest examples I can think of because of his inescapable portrayal of poverty and humanity’s disregard for human life. Stinney follows in this tradition in its depiction of relevant social issues. It paints an unfamiliar world and draws direct correlations between a tragedy in our past and contemporary social unrest.

Baltimore is a diverse city that sees its residents separated along many lines: race, income, well-being, and education. Was it important to you to bring several communities together in performance of the opera? 

Absolutely. We are telling a story about a people divided. How can you tell a story like that without people from all walks of life? We are lucky to have a cast that hails from all across Maryland, bringing together many perspectives on race, religion, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic status. Our rehearsal process has been as much discussion-based as it has been musical. The potent part of this project is interacting with people who appear to be different from you, but who come together for a passionate and unified goal: to tell the story of a community divided by fear that lead to the death of a fourteen-year-old boy.

Do you feel that music, or specifically new music, has a duty or responsibility to be a manifestation of social justice? Would you like your work to encourage others to perform music in a way that underscores justice, health, and change?

Art has to advocate for something. Not just a political something; it can be advocating for beauty or joy or compassion, but it needs to advocate for something. Artists have the unique responsibility to speak out because their works have the potential to reach a wide audience. There is an unsettling trend in the world of classical music to create music purely for the sake of entertainment. When media outlets talk about why classical music is dying, it’s because people need more than entertainment in their lives. We can worry about entertaining the masses when everyone is fed and housed and treated with compassion. In a time where there is devastating social unrest, why wouldn’t we as artists use our platform to advocate for equality and justice amongst all people?

About the performance

Stinney will be premiered in a semi-staged production on May 15thand 16th, 2015 at 2640 Space in Baltimore, MD. There will be a presentation on the history of the trial before the performance and a Q&A session with the performers and composer afterward. Admission to the performance will be free of charge; the show has been funded through a combination of grants and fundraising initiatives.

Don’t wait. Reserve your tickets now.

in performance: Vladimir Feltsman Performs the Music of Schumann and Mussorgsky

May 2, 2015

Vladimir Feltsman plays the piano with a sure sense of will. He approaches the instrument without a moment’s hesitation and his fingers greet the keys as the contours of a known love. He reassures the audience with each passage that he is the arbiter of the night’s sounds. His interpretation is clear and clearly his own — born from thoughtful consideration and practice.

Konrad Fiedler for The New York Times

Feltsman performed an exquisite evening of piano favorites for a welcoming Civic Music Association audience in Des Moines on Friday night at Sheslow Auditorium on the Drake University campus. The program featuring Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15 and Faschingsswank aus Wien, Op. 26 before intermission and followed by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, was a perfect vehicle to demonstrate Feltsman’s interpretive command.

The candor of Feltsman’s playing was captivating; particularly when he used it as a pretext to subvert the ear before the following phrase.The return of the Promenade theme in Pictures at an Exhibition was a glimpse through a kaleidoscope of interpretive nuance from the initial clarion declamation to the wistful Tranquillo. The straightforwardness was often a necessary easing from the onslaught of sound that he commanded from the keys. This program was rife with moments wherein he absolutely turned the piano out with sound. For example, The Great Gate of Kiev, the final moments of the Mussorgsky, was a glorious array of sound that gave the impression he had an entire festival orchestra under his fingertips. In fact, triumphant might be too soft of a descriptor in this case.

It is important to note that part of the brilliance in Feltsman’s playing is the realization that he eschews exact purity and over-refinement. This is not a question of his technique but rather lauding his ability to still capture that element of humanness in his playing. His phrasing never strays into the sterile, or conversely, into overt sentimentality. Feltsman brought this ability to fore in the two Schumann works and with his stirring encore, the Liszt Liebesträume No.3. Nothing in this program had the feeling of being slow. So, when he seemed to relax into the sound of a single chord it became even more satisfying to the ear of the audience. This was felt most in his poignant renderings of the Op. 15 Träumerei and Der Dichter spricht.

Vladimir Feltsman is commanding as a performer even when he elicits his most tranquil sounds from the piano. While I wouldn’t recount his playing as being gentle, his assured sense of sound and resonance of the instrument are nevertheless alluring. Which brings to mind: not every recital is the same. Not every musician playing the piano repertoire we, as audiences, love is the same. That isn’t always as clear as perhaps it should be; however, it is sublime when it is.


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