In this issue: “Deep River” performed by Mahalia Jackson;  Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” from Serse performed by Joyce DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro; Hahn’s “À Chloris” performed by Susan Graham and Jake Heggie; Mahler: “Urlicht” from Symphony No. 2, Resurrection performed by Bernarda Fink and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Ariel Ramírez & Félix Luna’s “Alfonsina y el mar” performed by Mercedes Sosa; Lucilla Galeazzi’s “Voglio una casa” performed by Lucilla Galeazzi and L’Arpeggiata

  • Now More than Ever The Arts Need You

Now, More Than Ever: Issue 44

Once again today, my thoughts turn to the benefits of looking to the performing arts as an oasis of peace and tranquility within a turbulent world.

We all woke this morning to the understanding that resolution to our ongoing national political debate may be some time in coming. At the moment, uncertainty abounds. That being the case, it seems especially important—now, more than ever (if you will!)—to seek out space for comfort, wisdom, and joy.

The idea for today’s column comes from Jacqueline Adams, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues and a dedicated reader of this blog. A great fan of contralto arias, she asked that we consider some distinguished examples of the genre, in particular Handel’s miraculous “Ombra mai fu” from the opera Serse. I’ve taken Jacqueline’s idea and expanded on it a bit, choosing a wider selection of works for the low female voice, and not limited to operatic arias or classical singers. But each of these selections is an excellent source of relief from everyday concerns. Music for this vocal category forms a deep well of expression… one to which I return often.

Anonymous: “Deep River”

Mahalia Jackson, vocals

When Jacqueline made her recommendation and I began thinking about voices that give me consolation, the first artist to come to mind was the legendary Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” and a performer whom Harry Belafonte once described as “the single most powerful Black woman in the United States.” Talking about her style of singing, Jackson once said, “With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues. I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free.”

While I generally prefer to highlight performances with a visual/video element, Jackson’s 1964 audio recording of “Deep River”—possibly the most beloved of all African-American spirituals—is more than strong enough to stand on its own merits. This is an artist of unusually wide communicative skills, with a rare kind of charisma—a sort of “Earth-Mother” quality—that absolutely enfolds you in its power.

And take a moment, please, to watch Jackson’s filmed performance of two classic hymns—“How I Got Over” and ”I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned”—at the 1963 March on Washington, to a crowd of more than 200,000 and just before civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Should you ever have cause to question the power of this woman’s timeless voice, just watch the faces in that crowd.

Handel: “Ombra mai fu” from Serse

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano
Il Pomo d’Oro

In the end, it’s a love song to a tree!

But Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” is so much more. The composer’s 1738 opera Serse begins innocently enough, with the title character—he’s the King of Persia—rhapsodizing about a tree and the shade it provides. In all of opera, there are only a few arias of such renown that come this early in the action and about which so little is known by the audience. It was composed for an alto castrato, so it would have been sung by a man; today, it’s usually performed by a mezzo-soprano or countertenor. But if you run a YouTube search on the title, you’ll find examples sung by every voice type. Over the years, “Ombra mai fu” has become so popular that it has transcended its original purpose. Indeed, it seems as if everyone has wanted a crack at it—from Beniamino Gigli and Enrico Caruso to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kirsten Flagstad, Plácido Domingo, and countless others.

I’m sorry that the television announcer steps all over Il Pomo d’Oro’s lovely instrumental introduction to this fine performance, filmed in Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco. But at least we get to hear our good friend (and former guest curator of Now, More Than Ever) Joyce DiDonato sing it so beautifully.

Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
Let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
Nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.

Never was made
A plant
more dear and loving
or gentle.

Hahn: “À Chloris”

Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Jake Heggie, piano

(If this video doesn’t begin at 4:10, please reset it).

Rather than focusing on that style that would become known as musical Impressionism, as did many of his compatriots, Reynaldo Hahn—the brilliant Venezuelan-born French composer and conductor (among other talents)—concentrated on pastiches, where he set many of his own works on top of music from another era (in this case Bach’s bass line to the Air on the G String). According to Hyperion Records’ website, Hahn’s superb “À Chloris” ranks as perhaps “the most successful example of musical time-travelling in the French mélodie repertoire (if one excludes that peerless masterpiece of the madrigal style, Fauré’s “Clair de lune”).

It has also become something of a theme song for the wonderful American mezzo Susan Graham, who has performed it, I believe, more than any other work, and whose love affair with and affinity for the French language is well documented. Here, Graham turns in a sublime, delicate performance at the 2013 Sing with Haiti gala benefit concert at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. If you have a few extra minutes, start the video at the beginning for Graham’s introductory remarks, where she explains why, on this special occasion, she has changed the title from “À Chloris” to “À l’enfant.” Spoken from the heart, her words are truly moving.

Lastly, it won’t be lost on our viewers that it’s none other than Jake Heggie, himself an acclaimed composer and pianist (not to mention former Cal Performances staff member!), accompanying Graham from the keyboard.

If it be true, Chloris, that you love me,
(And I’m told you love me dearly),
I do not believe that even kings
Can match the happiness I know.
Even death would be powerless
To alter my fortune
With the promise of heavenly bliss!
All that they say of ambrosia
Does not stir my imagination
Like the favor of your eyes!
translation © Richard Stokes

Mahler: “Urlicht” from Symphony No. 2, Resurrection

Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons, conductor

“Urlicht” (“Primordial Light,” 1893) forms the entire fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and can also be found in a version for low voice, often sung by men, in the song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). For the Second Symphony, Mahler expressly requested that it be sung by a woman.

I was looking at videos of “Urlicht” and there are some pretty classy versions out there—Jessye Norman’s and Janet Baker’s, to name two. But I wanted to share this magical performance by the Argentine mezzo Bernarda Fink, an understated and perhaps somewhat undervalued vocalist with whom I once had the pleasure of serving on a jury for the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation (now Bollinger) International Song Competition. There, I was delighted to encounter all of the same disarming qualities—the simplicity and directness of expression, the profound humility—that she brings to her singing.

I must admit, also, to shedding a tear or two while watching this one. The great Mariss Jansons, who passed away late last November, was a towering musician, as well as a deeply humble man. This video recording comes from the period when he was directing the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam (2004–15). And the musicians here are playing like gods.

O red rose,
Man lies in direst need,
Man lies in direst pain,
I would rather be in heaven.
I then came upon a broad path,
An angel came and sought to turn me back,
Ah no! I refused to be turned away.
I am from God and to God I will return,
Dear God will give me a light,
Will light my way to eternal blessed life.
translation © Richard Stokes

Ariel Ramírez & Félix Luna: “Alfonsina y el mar”

Mercedes Sosa, vocals

One of the most beloved and highly regarded songs in Argentinean folk music, “Alfonsina y el mar” (“Alfonsina and the Sea”) memorializes poet Alfonsina Storni, who committed suicide in 1938 at La Perla beach in Mar del Plata. (A biographer claims that she threw herself into the ocean from a breakwater, but a legend has grown that she drowned after slowly walking into the sea and that the poem she left behind, “I Am Going to Sleep,” was a kind of farewell message.)

Artists of the stature of Nana Mouskouri, Alfredo Kraus, and José Carreras, along with many popular singers, have recorded the song, but its worldwide fame is largely credited to Mercedes Sosa, Argentina’s greatest diva and a national symbol of the fight against the military regime that controlled her country in the 1970s and early ’80s. Her 2009 obituary in the UK’s Guardian noted:

Sosa possessed a deep, alto voice and a strong sense of conviction, and had a warm, engaging personality. These qualities helped to make her one of the few Latin American musicians who could, over five decades, command a wide international audience. Described as “the voice of Latin America,” she was revered as a commentator on the political and social turmoil that afflicted the region.

Across the soft sand that the waves lick
Her small footprints are not coming back anymore
Only one path made of sorrow and silence
Reached the deep water
Only one path made of untold sorrows
Reached the foam

Only God knows about the anguish that accompanied you
And about the old pains your voice never told
That caused you to go to sleep, lulled by the song
Of the seashells
The song sung in the depths of the dark sea by
The seashell

You’re going away, Alfonsina
Along with your loneliness
What kind of new poems did you go looking for?
An ancient voice made of wind and salt
Is shattering your soul and taking you away
And you go there, like in a dream
Asleep, Alfonsina, dressed with the sea

Five little mermaids will escort you
Through paths made of seaweed and corals
And phosphorescent sea horses will sing
A round, by your side
And the aquatic dwellers
Will soon play by your side

Dim the light of the lamp a bit for me
Let me sleep in peace, nurse
And if he calls don’t tell him I’m here
Tell him that Alfonsina is not coming back
And if he calls never tell him I’m here
Tell him that I have left

You’re going away, Alfonsina
Along with your loneliness
What kind of new poems did you go looking for?
An ancient voice made of wind and salt
Is shattering your soul and taking you away
And you go there, like in a dream
Asleep, Alfonsina, dressed with the sea

Lucilla Galeazzi: “Voglio una casa”

Lucilla Galeazzi, vocals
Christina Pluhar, theorbo and director

You may at first be surprised by this collaboration between one of Europe’s most respected early-music ensembles and the Italian folk singer Lucilla Galeazzi, but these artists actually have a long and fruitful history together, including a handful of albums, the first recorded in 2002. L’Arpeggiata director Christina Pluhar (here playing the theorbo) likes to call on Galeazzi for folk-music projects as well as classical music that adapts traditional material.

Steve Smith called Galeazzi “a singer of penetrating tone, pinpoint control and ready access to that bottomless pool of expressivity reserved for the greatest divas” in a 2012 New York Times review; I like to think of her as a kind of Italian Joan Baez, a performer so winning and magnetic that you just can’t help but surrender to her considerable powers. Plus, she’s a good reminder of that magic, elusive relationship between artist and audience, and how wonderful it can be to sit among strangers, with each and every person a participant in the joy of the moment. May the future provide countless such opportunities!

I want a house, I want it beautiful
Full of as much light as a star
Full of sun and good fortune
And the moon will shine over the roof
Full of laughter, full of cries
House, I dream of you, I dream of you so often
Diridindindin, Diridindin…

I want a house for lots of people
I want it solid and cozy
Robust and warm, simple and true
To fill it with music morning and night
And poetry will have a bed there
I want to work under that roof
Diridindindin, Diridindin…

I want every house that’s built
And then no one will sleep in the street
Like a begging dog
Because it no longer has a place to go
Like an animal which is spat upon
And nobody but nobody ever helps him
Diridindindin, Diridindin…

I want a house for children
who don’t know where to meet up anymore
and for the old folks, spacious houses
where they can live with their relatives
inexpensive houses, for families
where sons and daughters are born
Diridindindin, Diridindin…

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