The Music of Henry Purcell, the English Concert with Andreas Scholl, Walt Disney Hall, October 11, 2011

It’s so easy to gush, isn’t it? So easy to breathe in and try to get enough running room to reach the heights of hyperbole that you need for an enthusiastic review. And so often it just sounds forced. It’s not here. This really, honestly was spectacular. Beyond spectacular. Of course I have to pay more mind to the voice since that was the showpiece instrument, but … damn. Scholl was flawless. He made that hall ring like a bell, with the most perfect, purest, unaffected sound I’ve ever heard from a falsettist. He really is the calibration point by which all others must be measured. I heard him once before in Santa Barbara with the ACO, and this concert blew that one away, aided no doubt by the somewhat cleaner acoustics at Disney Hall.

I love Purcell’s music, and I’m not even a specialist in it. It was a DVD of ye-olde-schule falsettist standards where I first encountered him, with a smorgasbord of voices, and I noticed that every time I sat forward and thought, “Ooh hey, that one’s really good,” it was by Purcell. I fell in love with “Sound the Trumpets” and the “Evening Hymn” in particular; it took Klaus Nomi to make me fall in love with “Cold Song.” I was thrilled to learn about this concert and almost dropped over when I learned that Scholl would very likely sing “Cold Song.” (He did. Wow.)

Because of this, I freely admit that I sat in my seat last night waiting for the concert to start, amazed that I was about to hear some of my favorite stuff sung by the greatest living falsettist, backed by one hell of a band. I stand behind my incoherent gushing. Gah. Buh. Mmmmmph. It was unbelievable. Holy crap.

“Sweeter than Roses.” (With a short false start that the audience completely forgave. In small quantities, these things are charming.) “Music for a While,” which I’ll always associate with Alfred Deller. “Evening Hymn.” “O Solitude.” “The Cold Song.” “Dido’s Lament.” Just the whole top ten of Purcell, in the purest, clearest, most glittery voice. It sounds so clinical to compliment him on his intonation, phrasing, and the sheer champagne beauty of his vibrato, which is why I’m trying not to bring it up. But trust me, that all came across as well. I just don’t want to make it seem as if this is the sort of thing one should listen to with a checklist of notes in hand, waiting for errors. Classical music already has a long row to hoe fighting against that image of sourpusses sitting in the audience checking off notes.


When a group of people can lift you out of your seat with beauty and also just happen to get it all perfect, it makes an impression.

The band put a nice dark belt under it all, too — I’ll never be a huge fan of Baroque violins. Too skatey and too watercolor, not a deep enough core to the sound. (Although lots of people adore them, so that’s just a matter of taste.) But the violas were better, the cello was great (played standing up and propped on a padded piano bench, which seemed very sensible to me), and the violone was to die for. A beautiful thing as well, with one of those extravagant cornices-and-oak-leaf-lobes silhouettes that is sometimes seen on violas d’amore. Man, that thing sounded like heaven. The lutenist came out after the intermission with a little Baroque guitar, which could actually be heard — not always the case. It added a needed angularity to the music that old-style strings can’t contribute easily. Together with the harpsichord, it all was a lot meatier than one would have thought. No prissiness in this stuff, and they used the power well. The swell the band added underneath was a direct contrast to the occasionally too timid orchestration for some of these pieces in other interpretations. They filled the hall without once swamping Scholl. When I heard them a while back with David Daniels, there were more of them on the stage, and they did indeed overwhelm him a few times. Not this time. Fewer musicians, and a beautiful balance between all instruments, including the biological one.

I’ll stop. It’s just a gush at this point. Gah. It’s true — bad reviews take a lot more telling, but good ones are often boring, just “OMG GO SEE THIS.”


Geeky stuff I noticed: I only saw the first violin shift once. The reeds were fantastic — Baroque reeds really sound great. A bit of a gender swap since three of the four high strings were male, and the oboes and bassoon were all women. The trumpets were also cool; one of them had to perform some sort of emergency drainage blowout towards the end. Again, I’m glad I don’t have to clean spit out of a piano or a viola.

Non-geeky stuff I noticed: One of the violists had on the most beautifully colored long purple dress. The cellist was adorable. The cello was also nice, that gorgeous deep cherry-brown that I like so much on strings. None of the other instruments were particularly beautiful looking. Scholl looks like he’s in his early 30s, the bastard.

Yay boo, sort of.

1) “When I am laid in Earth” is magnificent when sung by Andreas Scholl. I think Sarah Connolly still has the advantage just for sheer power since she’s a mezzo (and an unbelievably fantastic one), but he does a wonderful job with it.

2) It’s still a bit *shrug* for me, beautiful as it is, just because of the story. I’m a bit allergic to “then the chick kacked herself over some guy” as a general rule. I can still, forty years later, hear my father rolling his eyes when he was talking about Madama Butterfly and saying, “Then what does she do? She kills herself? Over some asshole!” It took a lot to make my father roll his eyes at Puccini, but that crossed the line. He loved the music. So did my mother. But the story just went too far, even for a genre known for its serial female death. (Only women died of tuberculosis, did you know that?)

So the general story of “Dido and Aeneas” tends to get up my nose. Even at the end, when he decides he’ll defy the gods and stay with the woman he loves, her reply amounts to, “No! This is an opera! These people paid to see some chick kill herself, and by god, they’re going to get it!” Come on.

So yes, beautiful music, but I think I’ll give the opera itself a pass. I’m glad opera took two hundred years to resettle on that sort of unfortunate gobbledegook.

I’m also trying hard to be surprised at the fact that Scholl’s decision to do this is something he feels he needs to defend. Legions of women have sung “Ombra mai fu” for years. This is absolutely no different. Of course, I’m really not surprised at all, which is why my love for opera tends to stick most profoundly to Haendel’s work, where the bad guys die, the lovers are reunited, the heroines do not pay for someone else’s crimes with their lives, and the heroes are often quite decent human beings.

If he sings this live …

… I’m going to explode:

This was written in 1691. Sixteen-freaking-ninety-one. Three hundred and twenty years ago. Please don’t tell me that music from thirty, fifty, or a hundred years ago isn’t “relevant” to you.

What it must have been to hear it at its premiere.

I’ve listened to a decent amount of that era’s music and earlier, as a fan of the high male voice, and I’ve been lukewarm toward some … but not Purcell’s stuff. Every single time I’m listening to Assorted Real Old Stuff Sung Up High By Guys and my ears prick up, it turns out it’s always something Purcell wrote. What a shame he died so young — another Mozart-level loss.

And the Nomi version for comparison:

What an incredible piece of music … Props to Nomi for grabbing it and bumping it up into a register that truly works with the music and the message, and its glittery, freezing atmosphere. Another one who died way too young.

Gawd, I hope he sings this when I see him live with the English Concert. It says they’re doing some stuff from “King Arthur,” so I can only hope this will be included. If it is, I will have heard Michael Maniaci do “Cara Speme” and “Ombra mai fu” live, David Daniels do “Furibondo,” and now this — and I’ve heard Scholl do “Vivi, tiranno,” “Va tacito,” and “Dove sei?” live in a recital with the Australian Chamber Orchestra! *fist pump*

Marvel vs. DC — the Comic Book Guy smackdowns

Once again, this guy’s blog posts often bug me about one or two particular annoying assumptions he keeps making, but this post is spot-on.

I have stopped talking to other classical music fans — especially classical voice fans — because I’m sick and tired of them looking at me like I just held a stale cat turd under their noses because I mentioned Freddie Mercury. Worse, they pinch their lips, smirk, and ask, “Now who is he?” I’ve often wanted to say, “Have you been under a rock for the past thirty years? Either you know and you’re afraid to admit it in public, or your smirk is only going to deepen when you learn that he sang with a rock band called Queen.”

I’ve gotten tired of even discussing voice at all with people because they are either:

1) rock fans who think that opera is a lot of nice music ruined by fat Italians singing, or
2) classical fans who roundfile anyone who dares to suggest that Boy George has a damned fine voice. (Again, this is assuming they even know who he is or will admit to it.)

Let’s not talk about the classical voice fans who have only just learned that the male falsetto exists thanks to the Baroque revival, and who instantly imagine themselves experts in it — completely ignorant of the fact that rock and pop singers have been using the technique for decades starting long before some of them were born. At that fantastic house concert with Con Gioia and Michael Maniaci that I discussed earlier, I overheard some of the most poorly informed conversations about high male voices and falsettists that you could imagine, and not a one of them would have been prepared to be educated — no matter how gently — by someone who knows as much about Jimmy Somerville as about David Daniels. And due to the fact that natural and falsetto high male voices were banished from the classical world from roughly 1850-2000 give or take, there is no way to talk about these voices without mentioning names like Frankie Valli and Steve Perry, any mention of whom would probably cause their sphincters to clench so hard that they would suck up their seat cushions.

So I kept my mouth firmly closed and said nothing at the proclamations about Alfred Deller creating the falsetto revolution in the 1980s, about women not having falsetto voices, and Maniaci himself being a countertenor(!!!!!!).

He’s as much a countertenor as Cecilia Bartoli is.

About the only people I could have had any conversations with, and they probably would have been quite fun, would have been the musicians and the singer themselves. “Justin Timberlake made a career of singing up in the falsetto voice and no one looks strangely at him,” says [operatic falsettist David Daniels]. No, but people will look strangely at you for bringing Timberlake up in the conversation.

I still like the music I like. I’ve just gotten sick and tired of defending it from both sides and so have sort of detached from the whole conversation or at the very least stopped expecting people to engage.

And if I never to talk to an academic “expert” on anything again, it’ll be too soon. God, they’re awful. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a starchy professor in a third-rate liberal arts college who fancies himself a global expert on early music, or a Baby-Boomer art-rock fan in the throes of a midlife crisis. Comic Book Guys are awful, whether they read Marvel or DC.

Examples of the speaking voices of falsettist and natural male altos

That article I wrote about high male voices seems to be getting traction lately. I should add in the laryngoscope images at some point, and have included below some interviews with altinos and falsettists to illustrate the contrast between the two voice types. Once you listen to James Bowman and Andreas Scholl talking and then hear Russell Oberlin, it becomes quite clear what’s going on.

Falsettists — all with baritone speaking voices:

Andreas Scholl: An interview wherein he discusses his experience of the falsettist countertenor voice.
David Daniels: Promotional clip for his (now available) Bach CD, featuring his speaking voice.
Jimmy Somerville: Interviewed on television in 1988.

And here are a few with natural male altos (and one soprano) — all with very light, high speaking voices:

Russell Oberlin: Billed himself as the only “true” countertenor of his time.
Neil Sedaka: Yes, the bubblegum pop singer.
Steve Perry: Yes, the rock singer.
Smokey Robinson: Of the Miracles and Motown.
Dennis DeYoung: Yes, the other rock singer, and the lowest voice in this list.
Michael Maniaci: Brilliant male soprano, at least a fifth to a sixth above the other voices in this list, and an incredibly unique artist.

A cursory listen will more than illustrate that sumpin intrestin’s goin on. Tell me that you don’t listen to the guys in the second list and feel an urge to slap them on the back so they can clear their throats.

What a strange instrument (5).

It occurs to me that, while I’ve found several violists that I admire and love to listen to, all of my inspirations for picking up the viola are singers. All of them. Even the two violists I’ve attached myself to were people that I only found after I decided to study it.

Given the preponderance of voice articles on this blog, that’s not a surprise, but it just struck me recently how thoroughly true it is. When I was vacillating between viola and violin briefly, I went to Wikipedia to look up the ranges for both instruments and saw that the viola encompassed the tenor, contralto, and alto ranges (as well as mezzo-soprano although that’s how it’s identified). That decided me. If the violin is a soprano and the cello a baritone, then the viola is where my favorite voice types lie: low female voices and high male ones. Marian Anderson, Russell Oberlin, and Andreas Scholl are on the viola, as are Aretha Franklin and Steve Perry. The instrument can go low but, like a contralto, always has a light shimmer that keeps it from being muddy. And it can go high but, like a natural male alto, always has a stripe of darkness beneath it that keeps it from being shrill.

All of my inspirations for studying viola are singers. Every last one.

Keeping One’s Ears Open

I’ve mentioned in this blog before the common (mis)perception that the male voice does not go beyond tenor without, shall we say, surgical intervention.

Recently, while in a hotel restaurant on business, I was eating a fantastic lunch — a nice pumpkin risotto with a glass of white wine, delicious stuff — and about to take a train to the municipal airport to return home when I began listening closely to two businessmen talking about something financial at a nearby table.

I would wager my retirement that the taller, fairer of the two would be a natural male alto. His speaking voice didn’t strike me simply because of its range, but also because of the relatively unremarkable quality of it. It was the sort of voice that one might hear every day, think, “That’s a bit higher than usual,” and then shrug and move on. The sort of “impossible” voice that we’ve all actually heard from time to time without really registering. I can think of one UPS delivery man and one young man I overheard speaking to his girlfriend in an elevator in my living area with similar voices — and this is only in the last few months!

Consider the speaking voices of the following natural male altos (and one male soprano):

Russell Oberlin — billed himself as the only “true” countertenor of his time
Neil Sedaka — yes, the bubblegum pop singer
Steve Perry — yes, the rock singer
Dennis DeYoung — yes, the other rock singer, and probably the lowest voice in this list
Michael Maniaci — male soprano

Now, consider — with the possible exception of Maniaci — how many times you may have heard men with similar speaking voices at work, in supermarkets, in elevators, in restaurants, and perhaps realized that their voices were a bit higher than usual, but nothing beyond that.

I challenge any(!) readers: keep your ears open. Listen. These voices exist; we’ve all heard them. (Even someone with as high a voice as Michael Maniaci; Nature never makes a miracle only once.) Every now and then, one of these voices turns up in the throat of a man with a bent toward music and singing.

And every now and then, it’s accompanied by ambition and talent, and we’re privileged to enjoy what we call a “miracle.”

But the raw materials are far more common than anyone imagines.

Keep your ears open.