A wee public service announcement for people who accompany singers (mostly violinists and fiddlers)

It’s flat-out idiotic of you to accuse singers of being poor musicians for not being able to sing in any key that’s convenient for you, since you’re too poor a musician to be able to change key comfortably on your instrument. You are supposed to be able to play in any key. Singers can’t perform in any key. For someone whose voice sits in the B-C-D area, singing in G will damage them. You can buy new strings or a whole new instrument. They can’t.

In nearly all cases of sung music, the singer sets the key for their convenience and comfort, and if you don’t like it, tough. Either stop accompanying singers, buy another fiddle and tune it a half-step flat, or learn how to play the damned thing.

Sit it out, or suck it up.

I’m not even a singer and this irritates me. Maybe it’s just another instance of violinists getting on my nerves because they always assume that no one else on stage matters. Maybe as a pianist I’m like the cat who walks by itself, and all key signatures are alike to me. But when a singer is on stage, they drive the bus, people.

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“Vivaldi’s Women”

The entire documentary can be found on YouTube:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Note the continued, dead-wrong-as-usual insistence that people can’t sing in the voice commonly believed to belong to the other gender, as mentioned 3 minutes into Part 4. It’s a direct parallel to the insistence, in the face of massive and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that men cannot naturally sing alto without recourse to falsetto. Just as classical Voyse Expurtz suffer from selective deafness when listening to Smokey Robinson and Neil Sedaka, their ears also apparently shut off when they hear Aretha Franklin or the Pointer Sisters. Yes, such voices are rare, but so are good operatic sopranos and baritones. Rarity is not the same as nonexistence for pete’s sake.

The choir featured in the doco is also online and carrying out research into female vocal range; a concomitant research into male vocal range would also likely explode the absurd paranoid myth that voices come in pink and blue only.

Jesus, are there no other string players who are inspired by singers?

It’s so bizarre. I’m listening to some of the interviews on RBP’s Violins Rule podcast, and they are quite interesting, but man. One of the big things that people always say about stringed instruments is that they sound like voices — and yet every single string player in these podcast interviews, and most other interviews I’ve heard, talks about how they love guitar players and find inspiration in guitar players, etc. etc. etc.

Jesus. I seriously am the only string player in the known universe who found the majority of my inspiration from singers, inspiration to play this box with strings on it that supposedly sounds like someone singing. Crap.

The hell with guitars! I admire the living daylights out of EVH and Neal Schon, but seriously. Art Garfunkel! Cass Elliot. Frank Sinatra? Steve Perry! Aretha Franklin! Jesus on toast! I simply cannot be the only string player who see this, on this instrument that’s big claim to fame is that it’s a replacement voice.

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*

Musicians and left-brain logic

I’m going to say something rude.

On most musically inclined blogs, a post about left-brain logic would proceed to rip into scientific reasoning and deride it as insufficiently fluffy. I’m about to defend it.

Returning — briefly, so relax ๐Ÿ™‚ — to my pet annoyance of the entrenched and completely indefensible hostility to left-handed string playing, that was a strong clue to me that musicians don’t reason like I tend to. Not the ones who do it for a living, as opposed to the hard scientists and mathematicians I know who are amateur musicians, a lot of them.

When someone says, “You can’t play a string instrument left-handed!” I tend to interpret that “can’t” as a scientist would, which makes sense given my training. “Can’t” means “is physically impossible.” My arguments immediately move to the target of demonstrating that it is not only physically possible, but completely reasonable and would change nothing whatsoever in the pedagogy, bowing, or fingering, as long as the instrument is also mirrored. “Is string playing affected at all under a parity reversal?” is the question in my mind. The answer is, of course, no.

The problem is that the string players who say it aren’t thinking in those terms. “Can’t” to them means, “Dear, it’s just not done by the right sort of people!” It’s the same flavor of “can’t” as “you just can’t wear white shoes after Labor Day!” It’s also a conveniently impervious statement to logic. Like the science fiction monsters who are always impervious to bullets because they exist in another dimension or something, these statements exist in a logic-free dimension, so logical arguments pass right through them.

“Why not?”

“You just can’t!

“Look, I’m doing it right now.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I can — look. Are you blind in the eyes or blind in the brain?”

And on and on it goes.

This is also why my viola teacher was fine with it; although a full-time professional musician and music teacher, he was trained as a computer engineer. His definition of “can’t” is the same as mine. (The sensible one.)

It also struck me that this was the issue with voice “experts” who are convinced that men can’t sing alto, despite having heard Neil Sedaka, Smokey Robinson, and Steve Perry do it for years. Again, I’m hearing that “can’t” as “is not physically possible.” They are not hearing that way.

“They’re physically capable, listen.”

“But they aren’t classical singers! They don’t count!”

“Not always, but listen to this particular passage — how is that different from a classical singer?”

“Because he’s in jeans!

“Listen to him talk — he sounds like Russell Oberlin.”

“Russell Oberlin is a high tenor!”

“So is a tenor also a high baritone?”

And on and on it goes … I’m talking physiology and taxonomy, and they’re talking white shoes in October.

I know that it’s fashionable among musical types, which I consider myself to be, to disdain the left brain and logic. Eew, icky logic. I’d advance the idea that professional musicians or self-styled “experts” can stand to learn a little of it, so they would stop saying dumb things like “you can’t play a string instrument left-handed” and “men can’t sing alto.” Especially not when rampant proof is under their very noses.

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. โ€œJustin Timberlake made a career of singing up in the falsetto voice and no one looks strangely at him,โ€ 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.

Con Gioia and Michael Maniaci — March 6, 2011 at the Reisch Residence, San Marino, CA

Michael Maniaci


A lot of things have to align perfectly in order to create a Michael Maniaci. There’s that miraculous voice of course, but in a man with no desire to perform it would be no good.

And of course the man in question, if he does wish to sing on stage, must be courageous enough to recognize that special voice as a blessing and not a curse.

Couple that with excellent musicianship and the ability to get the most out of such a voice, and the extraordinary ambition and drive needed to make an acclaimed, global career in just about anything. Much as one may love performing, no one loves an 11-hour plane flight, strange hotel food, nor jet lag.

The voice, the courage, the musicianship, and the drive. When they align, we get a miracle, and one willing to share his gift.

Add to that the manifold gifts of the Con Gioia early music ensemble, and it makes for an incredibly wonderful way to spend one’s 45th birthday. ๐Ÿ™‚

The program consisted of the following:

By Henry Purcell:
Fairest isle
If music be the food of love
Ah! How sweet it is to love
Dear, pretty youth

By Giulio Caccini:
Amor, ch’attendi, amor che fai
Amor, io parto
Con le luci d’un bel ciglio
Amarilli mia bella

By J. S. Bach:
Schliesse mein Herze
Laudamus te

By Barbara Strozzi:
Lagrime mie

By Nicola Porpora:
Alto Giova

By Haendel!!!
Chaconne in G for Harpsichord
Cara speme(!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Che bel content sarebbe amore
Quando invita la donna l’amante
Se potessero i sospir miei
Encore: Ombra mai fu(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

It’s hard to know where to start without exploding with joy.

The venue was nothing I had ever seen before — a very well-banked private home in an expensive area of Pasadena, with an enthusiastic hostess with a great love of the arts, and music in particular. It was attractive but not overdone, and my slight fears of feeling like rabble that had forgotten to come in through the servants’ entrance never materialized. I had fears of asking a skeptical-looking tuxedoed valet to park my dusty little Suzuki with the dinged-up right rear fender and the wine bottle bag in the back seat between a Lexus and a Mercedes.

The room was perfect for fewer than 100 people, which was about how many showed up. A beautifully decorated harpsichord stood next to an equally beautiful high-polish ebony finish parlor grand piano, and it was with a bit of a start that I realized that the Modigliani-style portrait in the corner was quite probably a Modigliani.

All in all, it was an amazing venue in which to hear one of the 21st century’s real miracle voices, and I’m extremely glad to have taken the opportunity.

I was very pleased to see the Purcell on the program; I’m more a Baroque fan than an early music fan. The Baroque music is just edging into the modern aesthetic enough that it was be enjoyed as a native tongue while the Renaissance/Elizabethan stuff takes a bit more intellectual effort to look past the quasi-Great Vowel Shift that music passed through at around the mid-1600s. However, every time I’ve heard something from that era that I’ve liked, it’s been by Henry Purcell.

It was all wonderful, especially the last one, “Dear pretty youth,” that Maniaci put a nice, petulant twist on at the end (or seemed to). The song itself had a lot of liveliness and joy in it as well and his interpretation was great — very jaunty and energetic but again, ending with a bit of aw-come-on style petulance.

The next one to catch my ear was the last one by Caccini — one of the creators of opera with Peri and Monteverdi if I recall correctly — “Amarilli mia bella.” It was again beautiful, and just like “Dear pretty youth,” Maniaci really nailed the interpretation. It was so sincere and genuine and just wah, I’m going to gush now, excuse me …

The next one to really catch me was the “Alto Giove” by Porpora, not a shock since he was one of the big teachers and composers of the golden era of the castrati, who trained up many of the best singers and worked at the best conservatories as well. If anyone would write top-flight music to exercise and showcase such a voice, it would be him, and this was a beautiful piece, beginning to move into the type of music that doesn’t sound quite so unusual to modern ears.

And of course, when I saw “Cara speme” on the program, I almost died. Tuva Semmingsen will forever own this for me, but I was already sniffling at the intro. His voice was so sweet and so rich and absolutely beautiful that he got every drop of emotion that can be gotten out of this aria and more. His vibrato, trill, the texture of his voice, the sweetness with a hint of dark bittersweet … it was all so perfect for this, a gentle and heartbreakingly beautiful song about a very ungentle vengeance.

Aside from that, it’s hard for me to single out any particular Haendel aria since Haendel for me is pretty much the acme of the genius, hook-happy songwriter/composer, but “Se potessero” was another showstopper, and again a large part of that was due to Maniaci’s interpretation, given that Tirinto is such a tragic character.

And then the encore. “Ombra mai fu,” of course. And there was me sniffling again like an idiot, but it was worth it. As I’ve observed before, Maniaci marries clarity and richness like few other singers do, all of whom are either high male or low female voices, the Best of Both Worlds type of voices. He called out the lazy sunshine, fresh air, and rippling leaves just by singing about them.

Just in general, his voice has such a ringing quality, but without the pungency of many high voices, including the voices of men who sing very high due to endocrine reasons. There is no ringtone quality to his voice, not even on that delicate, crystalline high end of his. At all times, his voice retains real darkness, richness, and warmth together with a champagne glitter. His vibrato is brilliant, quick without being intrusive, and a real signature of his. His gift with a cadenza, his rubato, his modern, slightly cheeky musical-theater way of interpreting … all of it is something I am deeply grateful to have seen live in such an intimate setting, and with so many wonderful musicians.

I don’t want to slight the musicians either, by the way. Preethi de Silva, Head Honcha of the ensemble, made the harpsichord turn cartwheels and brought out all of the roiling meatiness in Haendel’s music that had been missing for most of the overly stuffy pre-Baroque-revival 20th century, when his music was performed more like robot clockwork than living music. The violinist, M. Anne Rardin, was wonderful on a Baroque-outfitted fiddle (which always amazes me), and with a young protegee (I’m guessing) named Danielle Rosaria Cummins on a modern fiddle — or what I’m guessing was a modern fiddle given the fine-tuner that I think I spied on her tailpiece and her cambered bow. The viola da gamba, always a favorite of mine for its depth and cushiness, was played by Denise Briese (who looked very familiar for some reason), and both archlute and theorbo were played by Jason Yoshida, who according to the program materials, I’ve already heard as he was in the pit during the LA Opera’s “Tamerlano.” They were all fabulous.

All in all, it was an incredible day, and one that I am absolutely stunned and delighted to have enjoyed. After complaining for so long that I always seemed to have heard about Maniaci two months after he went anywhere, I was overjoyed to discover this performance in time to attend, and in such a wonderful, almost period setting — a wealthy patron’s parlor, filled with a cozy, intimate number of other music-lovers and amateur musicians!

A magnificent day.