This past weekend, I sang the Alto solos in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Music of the Baroque Orchestra in Chicago. This was only my second foray into Bach, my first being the second soprano solos in the B Minor Mass several years ago. Can I tell you something? Bach scares the crap out of me. Because his music is so weird and wonderful, and so frequently goes in directions that you aren’t expecting, becoming derailed, even while you’re staring directly at the music, is a distinct possibility. I came home from the first rehearsal complaining to my boyfriend, “I think I might be too stupid to sing Bach.”
The feeling that I was the dumbest person in the room was only exacerbated by the fact that the conductor and the rest of the soloists all happened to be seasoned experts in this particular repertoire. The conductor was Jane Glover, renowned for her interpretations of Baroque music and Mozart, as well as for her book on Mozart’s Women. The other three soloists; Paul Agnew, Sanford Silvan, and Lisa Saffer, have all had extensive experience singing Bach all over the world. And then here was me, with my one little Mass under my belt, reaching for the stars. Baby's got Bach indeed.
On a side note, I was particularly tickled to be working with Sanford Silvan – or Sandy, as many people call him – because I happen to be a big fan of his. I became aware of him while I was a student in Boston thanks to his many collaborations with Boston based Peter Sellars, and I used to play his recording of Die schöne Müllerin on repeat whenever I was in a bad mood to cheer myself up. He has this expressiveness that really spoke to me right through the speakers of my CD player (remember those?), and I have always really admired his outstanding artistry. I had never met him until this weekend, and I’m happy to say that his artistry is matched perfectly by his kind and genuine warmth as a person, and it was such a pleasure to get to spend the week with him. I even geeked out and told him I was a big “fan,” explaining my obsession with his CD, and he handled my effusiveness with extreme humility and grace.
But back to me and Bach. The concerts went fine, although I couldn’t bring myself to look up and away from my score nearly as much as I would have liked to, and I found that my left arm and shoulder were horrendously sore after each performance from the death vice grip I was keeping on my music while I was singing. Bach’s music is really astonishing – as I was learning my arias, I was often like “WHOA – how did he get there from here??” Instead of remaining confined by the strict parameters of Baroque harmonics, he wove his way through the music by taking crazy turns and shifts of harmony that almost sound like they come out of the 20th century at times. It’s one thing to write crazy music where you have no rules about tonality –but to write crazy music when you are completely constrained by tonality at all times the way Bach did it, explains why all these years later we’re still performing his Christmas Oratorio every year. And it also explains why I was keeping that deathly vice grip on my score and was petrified of getting lost. But it’s obviously also thrilling and exhilarating if you make it through to the end in once piece – it’s like making it through an obstacle course in a sports car. Wheeeeeeee!
Now I have three days to repack my suitcases, ready my apartment for sublettors, and study yet another buttload of baroque Italian recitative, before I’m off to Berlin for two long wintery months.
Here you can hear Sandy Sylvan singing The Monk and his Cat by Samuel Barber, with some cute cat photos thrown in for good measure: