The Amazing Sasha Cooke

Sasha Cooke press photoLast night we attended our first concert at the Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival to hear mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sing spirituals, some of Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, and Barber’s Op. 13 songs – the set that includes Sure on This Shining Night. This was part of the festival’s closing “Dvořák’s America” program which included Dvořák’s American Quartet and Quintet. The string playing was fine, especially in the closing Quintet, but as singers our focus was on the amazing Ms. Cooke.

The first time I heard Sasha Cooke sing was last year in the San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Ms. Cooke had the title role and was just outstanding vocally and dramatically. She totally nailed her closing “He loves!” aria, which to me is perhaps the most single spine-tinglingly beautiful moment in the entire G&S canon. That performance had some curious amplification – much to the displeasure of the starring Lord Chancellor, Richard Suart, and perhaps other cast members as well. So I couldn’t be sure of how great she was, but I had a pretty good feeling about it.

That feeling was confirmed when my wife (also a mezzo-soprano) and I heard her sing Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in June. I’ve heard these songs both live and on recording with some pretty famous singers, but the cycle as a whole had never really grabbed me. Individual songs like Absence are outstanding, sure, but the cycle has a lot of pretty slow songs that can blur together. Cooke made great dramatic sense of it, giving each song its own characterization and distinctiveness, but in a totally natural-sounding way. Some excellent solo singers have trouble being heard in the vastness and acoustic imperfectness of Davies, but this was no problem for Ms. Cooke at any dynamic level.

There are times when you can tell from the audience that MTT is having even more fun than usual, when a performance is just spectacularly good. This was one of those times – he was really radiating throughout the cycle. At the end during the applause, he knelt down and kissed the hem of Ms. Cooke’s gown. We’ve been subscribing to the San Francisco Symphony ever since we moved here, which was MTT’s first season with the Symphony, and we’ve never seen that before!

So the very next day we booked the tickets to last night’s Music@Menlo concert. I was thinking the Barber and Bolcom were pretty sure to be outstanding, but I was skeptical about the spirituals. Those were what opened her part of the program, and they were incredible. She was totally into the style, with the dialect and tone just right, but still with her personality. She was literally jaw-droppingly good, and demonstrated even more versatility than ever. The Bolcom songs were indeed outstanding. After intermission were the Barber songs, and perhaps it did these songs no favors to hear them after the others. I love them, but their poetic language makes them less immediately accessible to the audience than the much more vernacular spirituals and Bolcom. They are also tricky songs, and this was the only time where you could perhaps detect a little bit of singer’s calculation about getting everything just right.

But that’s in part because Ms. Cooke, unlike far too many other concert singers these days, actually learns her music by heart. I have yet to see her bring music on stage, and of course this frees her both physically and musically to really communicate with the audience. To see and hear her in a real chamber-music sized hall, seating about 120 people, was a special treat indeed.

Having heard her sing three times now in three different settings, I am really looking forward to performing with her next year! Sasha Cooke will be the mezzo-soprano soloist with the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on May 7 and 8. Tickets are available online now. I will be singing tenor in the chorus. Yes, we just performed this in March, but the Symphony will be taking it on tour next season. So we are reprising it with different soloists; Karina Gauvin will be the soprano.

The last time we heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing in person was when she sang the Mahler 2 with the San Francisco Symphony in the set of concerts that led to the orchestra’s recording. Katrina Karnéus sang it fabulously in our March performances. I can’t wait to hear what the amazing Sasha Cooke will do with Urlicht and the 5th movement. Catch this wonderful singer as soon as you can. With any luck she’s just at the start of her brilliant career!

Photo by Rikki Cooke.

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Dolet 5.4 Update for Finale 2011

Recordare has released its version 5.4 maintenance update for the Dolet 5 for Finale plug-in. The major new features is adding support for Finale 2011. Finale 2011 adds many new features that make scorewriting faster and more productive, including improved lyric entry and spacing, easier staff layout, and improved pickup measures. Version 5.4 adds support for each of these Finale 2011 changes.

In addition, we have updated our MusicXML sample files to reflect the latest software. All of our sample files are entered in Finale. They have now been updated to Finale 2011 and exported using either Finale 2011’s built-in MusicXML support or the Dolet 5.4 for Finale plug-in.

The biggest change is with the samples from the book Beyond MIDI: The Handbook of Musical Codes. Thanks to Craig Sapp’s work at the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities, the CCARH site now includes full-size, high-resolution versions of each of these examples. This has allowed us to create MusicXML 2.0 versions complete with MusicXML 2.0 formatting information. The formatting is approximate, given that these samples are exported from Finale re-creations rather than the SCORE originals, but the results are still good enough for sample purposes. This should be a big improvement compared to the MusicXML 1.0 files that we previously had available.

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Dolet 5.3 Updates Now Available

Recordare has released version 5.3 maintenance updates for both the Dolet 5 for Sibelius and Dolet 5 for Finale plug-ins. Version 5.3 of Dolet for Sibelius adds better export of lyrics that were originally created by importing a MIDI or PhotoScore file into Sibelius. Version 5.3 of Dolet for Finale includes eight bug fixes that make MusicXML import and export more accurate than ever, including improved support for simplified chord spelling.

These updates are free for current Dolet 5 customers. Both plug-ins are available at the Recordare Online Store, with upgrade discounts available for Dolet 4 users.

Recordare’s Dolet plug-ins for Sibelius and Finale improve on the MusicXML support provided by these music notation editors. Dolet 5 for Sibelius lets you export MusicXML files from Sibelius. Sibelius will import MusicXML files out of the box, but it does not export them. Dolet 5 for Finale improves the MusicXML import and export available out of the box in Finale, including new features and more frequent bug fixes.

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Coming Up: Ravel and Bernstein at San Francisco Symphony

Next week will be my last set of concerts with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus for this season. We will be singing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The concert opens with Stravinsky’s Ode, written in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct.

Originally the first half of the concert was supposed to be Stravinsky’s Threni. Due to immigration and visa problems, the UK-based solists EXAUDI had to cancel, so the program changed. You may have heard the chorus sing Chichester Psalms to conclude last month’s Spring Choral Concert, but that was the reduced instrumentation for organ, harp, and percussion. With full orchestra it is even more glorious. The Ravel of course is one of the most beautiful works ever written. The Suite No. 2 that is often done comes from the third act of the ballet. In this concert we are doing the entire wonderful score.

Performances are May 19, 20, 21 and 23 at Davies Symphony Hall. The weekday concerts are at 8:00 pm and the Sunday concert is at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available online at and at the box office.

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MIT’s Third Annual Herb Pomeroy Memorial Concert

Duke Ellington and Herb PomeroyMIT will be hosting its 3rd annual Herb Pomeroy Memorial Concert this Saturday, May 8 at Kresge Auditorium at 8:00 pm. As with the first memorial concert two years ago, this one will feature both the Festival Jazz Ensemble an MIT Alumni Jazz Band. Many of the alumni played under Herb’s direction when he led the FJE from 1963 to 1985. Fred Harris will conduct.

Herb performed with Duke Ellington – see the great picture of them together – and Duke’s music was a huge influence throughout his life. He taught courses on Ellington’s music at Berklee, and his big band had many Ellington charts in their book. The concert will include the Festival Jazz Ensemble playing several of the Ellington works most closely associated with Herb and his band. These include A Tone Parallel to Harlem and Star-Crossed Lovers, both of which I recall hearing the band play several times at the Scotch ‘n Sirloin in the North End over the years.

Of course Herb was also associated with discovering, teaching, and nurturing new talent, and several of his former students will have works performed at this concert. Jamshied Sharifi was Herb’s choice to take over the MIT FJE upon his retirement. His new work The Darkening will be premiered at the concert. The concert will also feature music by another former student of Herb’s, Magali Souriau, and by Herb’s longtime trombonist Phil Wilson.

As with the last concert featuring the alumni band, I will be attending this one in the audience, not on stage. I played in the FJE trumpet section for four years under Herb’s direction, but switched from trumpet to voice a few years after leaving MIT. This was a tempting gig, so over the holidays I tried to see if I could get my chops back, but that was just not going to happen. Since I had mentioned the possibility of playing in the band, Fred included me on the e-mail with the two charts that band would be playing. I downloaded my 5th trumpet part to the first chart, which was 5 pages long. Page 1 sounded pretty good, but it was all gone by page 2. That’s my trumpet playing these days: still a nice range and tone, but with an endurance of about two minutes.

If you’re a jazz fan in the Boston area, come enjoy this special evening by a top collegiate jazz band. Tickets are $5 at the door – a great deal for such fine music. See you there!

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Coming Up: Swedish Choral Music at San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony Chorus 2010 promotional postcardThe combination of work and chorus rehearsals has kept me from this blog. But I really need to let you know about Sunday’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus concert conducted by Ragnar Bohlin, just 16 hours from now.

This is the chorus’s annual concert without the orchestra – a mixture of a capella works, works for chorus and piano, and works for chorus and a small number of instruments. Some works call for a smaller chamber chorus, others for a larger group, so there is a diversity of both choral and instrumental textures throughout the program.

This year’s concert features a lot of music that is new to most people in both the chorus and the audience. The first half is a selection of Swedish music, made possible through a grant from the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. The concert starts with the premiere of Fredrik Sixten’s Let There Be, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony. The chamber chorus sings this, so I’ll be hearing it for the first time at the concert. The first half continues with Ludvig Norman’s Jordens oro viker, Ingvar Lidholm’s … a riveder le stelle, Sven-Eric Johanson’s Fancies II, and concluding with Two Folksongs set by Lars Edlund. The second half of the program starts with selections from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers sung by chamber chorus, and concludes with the organ / harp / percussion version of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

Of the Swedish pieces that the full chorus is singing, I think the Lidholm is the clear-cut standout. It’s also the one piece on the first half that the SFS Chorus has sung before. A setting of the final lines of Dante’s Inferno, it captures Dante and Virgil’s ascent back to the world of light “to behold once again the stars”. The work is a tour-de-force of 20th century choral writing. The soprano, tenor, and bass sections sometimes have 8-way divisions (the altos, alas, just 4-way), and at any one point in the score there may be 16 independent lines throughout the chorus. This is used for many effects: tone clusters and dissonant harmony depicting the Hellish scenario, great bitonal washes of sound, moving toward a gorgeously consonant conclusion as the journey ends.

This score is also a textbook example of how to write dissonant counterpoint for a chorus. In the Music at MIT Oral History interviews, John Bavicchi expounded on this very topic – which he is quite expert on as both a composer and chorus conductor. The techniques that Bavicchi describes are just what you hear used in the Lidholm – such as starting with a unison / consonance and going from there to the more dissonant material. I hope to blog about this in more detail in a future post.

It should be an exciting program full of new discoveries plus some more familiar favorites. The concert is at 4:00 pm on Sunday, April 11 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are $20 and $30 and will be available at the box office starting at 2:00 pm.

And then after one day off, rehearsals start on Tuesday for Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The professional choristers will also be singing Stravinsky’s Threni on the first half of the program. Performances will be May 19, 20, 21, and 23 at Davies Symphony Hall.

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Dolet 5.2 Updates Now Available

Recordare’s Dolet plug-ins for Sibelius and Finale improve on the MusicXML support provided by these music notation editors. Dolet 5 for Sibelius lets you export MusicXML files from Sibelius. Sibelius will import MusicXML files out of the box, but it does not export them. Dolet 5 for Finale improves the MusicXML import and export available out of the box in Finale, including new features and more frequent bug fixes.

Last month, Recordare released version 5.2 maintenance updates for both the Dolet 5 for Sibelius and Dolet 5 for Finale plug-ins. Version 5.2 of Dolet for Sibelius adds support for Sibelius’s Focus on Staves feature when used with Sibelius 6. Version 5.2 of Dolet for Finale includes three bug fixes, including a couple of rare situations that could cause export to fail.

These updates are free for current Dolet 5 customers. Both plug-ins are available at the Recordare Online Store, with upgrade discounts available for Dolet 4 users.

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New Was (Not Was) Compilation: Pick of the Litter 1980-2010

Was (Not Was) Pick of the Litter 1980-2010 album coverThe amazing, beyond-category band Was (Not Was) has a terrific new compilation out that covers their entire 30-year recording career: from the first single “Wheel Me Out” to their latest album Boo!

How can one CD cover a 30 year career? Well, 18 of those 30 years were on hiatus while Don and David Was went their separate ways, with Don Was becoming a very successful record producer. Another 5 years were lost to record company disputes between their second and third albums. This still leaves us with 5 albums and several singles. Pick of the Litter covers this repertoire very nicely. The selected songs are very close to the sets that I’ve heard the band play the past few years in San Francisco and Anaheim. There are some nice crossfades between songs that make things flow together even better.

Part of what speaks to me about the band’s music is its inspired eclecticism. It’s not just that they are hometown heroes, though that’s part of it. Don and David Was were two white kids from the Detroit suburb of Oak Park who got two outstanding black singers, Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, to sing their out-there lyrics and music. They liked jazz so they hired Detroit jazz trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave, who played on their first album and the earlier singles. They would add all sorts of influences – jazz, rock, spoken word, noise, a State of the Union address by President Ronald Reagan – into their basic dance orientation. Detroit had so much going on in popular music in the 60s and 70s, from the Motown hits to the rock music of Bob Seger, the MC5, and many others. Mixing it all together seems like a natural thing to do.

Sometimes the eclecticism veered a little “out of control” for their own good, as in the wild series of guest vocalists that started with the Born to Laugh at Tornadoes album. Pick of the Litter does a very sensible thing by saving the highlights of these guest vocal appearances for the end of the CD, after doing the 15 songs sung by the band in chronological order. A great TV rehearsal take of “Hello Operator” from 1989 comes next, then the 3 collaborations. Doing it this way, there’s only one choice to close the album: “Zaz Turned Blue,” sung by Mel Torme and backed by the New York group String Fever, founded by violinist Marin Alsop. This was before the Maestra became music director of the Cabrillo Festival and the Baltimore Symphony!

Another familiar name on the credits is Debra Dobkin, who played percussionist in the band during its 1989-1990 peak of popularity. Lately she’s been performing with Richard Thompson in his 1000 Years of Popular Music band. Maybe Richard will include a Was (Not Was) song in a future version of the show?

If all you’ve heard from the band is their hit “Walk the Dinosaur”, check out some of the other musical riches on offer. Pick of the Litter makes a great introduction to the world of Was (Not Was). The band plays great live, so catch them if they come to a town near you for one of their rare gigs!

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