Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tamara Brooks (1941-2012)

Photo by Jeff Thiebauth ( Used with permission.

Yesterday morning, I heard the devastating news that choral conductor Tamara Brooks died of a heart attack, at the age of 70.

After Joe Maneri, Tamara was the most inspiring, and most musical, musician that I ever encountered at New England Conservatory.  She was the real deal, the genuine article, a person whose deep passion for music was never spoiled by the world.  

She started at NEC the same time I did, September of 1989.  She came at an unenviable time in certain ways.  The legendary Lorna Cooke deVaron formed the NEC Chorus in 1947 and directed it till her retirement 41 years later.  During a one-year interim period, Lorna's replacement was sought.  The word was that no less than Joseph Flummerfelt was to come to NEC.  Negotiations were at a rather late stage, late enough that a salary (in the six figures) was already decided upon.  However (as the story goes), he insisted that all voice majors, not just undergrads, be required to take Chorus.  The voice faculty had a fit, and Flummerfelt walked away from the deal.  Tamara was, in effect, the "second choice." (To what extent she knew, or felt, that, I don't know.)

An obituary described Tamara as "firey."  I don't know if "firey" really captures it.  Sure, she was passionate.  But there was something elemental about her musicality.  If the writer meant "firey" as "like fire," I'll buy it.  But she was also like water, like earth, like air.  Maybe from a technical standpoint one could quibble with her.  Her beat was not always clear.  She did little if any vocal coloration — she wasn't one to talk about vowels.  She regarded everyone in that large chorus as a musician.  "You're all soloists!" she exclaimed one day.  Sometimes we sounded that way.  However, there's only one kind of good educator: an inspiring educator.  If she was one thing, she was inspiring.  She was a spring of anecdotes about great composers and conductors and performers — anecdotes that were always pertinent to music.  It wasn't just raconteurism for its own sake.  Like Joe Maneri, she was from New York, therefore she knew everybody who was anybody (perhaps even more so, because she studied at Juilliard).  Also like Joe Maneri, her stories were not only profoundly musical but profoundly human.  One day she said, with tears in her voice, "I still haven't accepted the fact that Vincent Persichetti died."  And she spoke of a musician, utterly unknown, utterly unschooled, utterly self-taught, who lived and made music in Cyprus.  "He was the greatest musician I ever knew," she said.  The fact that she so highly regarded this un-prestigious musician, solely on the basis of his innate musicality, was so foreign to the goings-on at the Conservatory. It immediately reminded me of a similarly unknown/unschooled/self-taught Italian priest whom I knew, Don Antonio Simioni, whose music touched me in a similar way.  I never told Tamara that, but I took great comfort in knowing that, had I told her, she would have understood perfectly.
The piece Tamara chose for that first year was Brahms's Requiem. I remember so many things about the experience.  Because Tamara was only about the music, the rehearsals were only about the music.  They were outrageously inspiring.  She also could be brilliantly funny.  In the sixth movement there was the phrase "kleine bleibende Statt."  She declared, in a put-on Teutonic accent, "Put more Vibratt on the Statt!"  Of course, that she would even ask for such a thing from a chorus shows how unorthodox she dared to be.  I also remember her time management.  The fourth movement was at concert-level in late September, while parts of the sixth movement were being look at for the first time in January, one week before the concert. 

But what a concert it was!  Life-changing, unforgettable! At the warm-up rehearsal in Jordan Hall, she conducted in a calm, controlled way.  She said she was saving it for the concert and wanted us to do the same.  I remember that the harpist was inexperienced playing with orchestra.  Tamara said to us in the chorus, "I might be conducting only the harp during this passage."  She was attentive to individual students' needs and could accommodate them in a way that was never belittling.  Again, it was only about the music.

It came time for the concert to begin.  She had deliberated which piece to pair with the Brahms.  She chose Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture.  I heard it from the hall.  She made the hackneyed music sound fresh, as if I'd never heard the piece before.  And I still remember the flutist saying to me afterwards, "She was wonderful.  She actually explained the music to us."  

After the Mendelssohn, the choir met in Brown Hall.  She gave us a short pep talk, telling us (convincing us?) how well-prepared we were.  Then she did the most inspiring thing she could have done.  She read a passage from a biography of Brahms, quoting a contemporary of the composer.  The room was nearly silent.  I don't know if anyone else felt transported in time, but I did.  We filed up to Jordan Hall and sang the Brahms.  

Tamara was the opposite of what she had been in the warm-up.  Her passion filled the stage.  She was so musical that we felt it was safe to be so, ourselves.  At the end, at the final "Selig"'s, the harp was playing, and the chorus was singing their F's and A's, and Tamara, who was 50, looked about 20.  I was not the only chorister to notice it.  Her face was transfigured. 

After the concert I was in another world.  I remember walking down Hemenway St., singing parts of the Requiem at full voice, without realizing it was full voice. 

A few days later, in my mailbox at school, was a hand-written thank you note from Tamara.  This was remarkable for two reasons.  Not only did she take the time to thank every individual chorister (and probably also instrumentalist), but the stationery itself was decorated by hand.  Each piece of paper had these flowers, done with several color markers or calligraphy pens.  No two pieces of paper had the same design.  Probably she whipped them off pretty quickly.  Still, I could not believe that she would give me, an undistinguished inhabitant of the back of the bass section, a hand-written AND hand-designed thank you note.

I left NEC and returned two years later.  This year, Tamara chose a different requiem: Verdi's.  The voice department almost had a stroke.  They tried to prevent Tamara from doing the piece and causing such laryngeal stress upon their students.  Tamara prevailed, but I imagine it took its toll on her. 

The rehearsals were as inspiring as the Brahms rehearsals two years before.  Tamara conducted from a facsimile of the manuscript, and from time to time she would exclaim things like, "In your score there are three p's.  In mine, Verdi writes SEVEN p's!", or, "In your score it says, 'senza misura.' In mine, Verdi writes, 'senza tempo'!"

I didn't sing in the concert, as I'd left school a few weeks before.  I did attend one of the orchestral rehearsals, at which Tamara was both the interpreter and the educator.  In a certain passage there was an interplay between the viola and clarinet that Tamara thought was very unique.  She had the violists and clarinettists play it and made everyone else in the orchestra stop and listen.  I don't think any of the orchestral conductors took such pains to inspire and educate.

I attended the concert, which I don't think I fully appreciated at the time.  The tenor and bass sections were not strong enough, the voices being too young and too small in number.  However, Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe waxed poetic, declaring that Brooks's performance was "the clear winner in this season’s Verdi Requiem contest." There were two other Verdi Requiems during that same three-month interval in 1992, one by Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic, and another by Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony.  Dyer called Tamara's performance a "sublime, spiritual experience," adding, 

everything was drawn out of the music and the situations it depicts and embodies; nothing was superimposed. And this made every moment of it profoundly original…Everyone sang within what they had and with the purpose of personal expression.  Though there were plenty of soaring climaxes, this wasn’t a blow-out Verdi Requiem; it spoke to humanity’s most intimate fears, hopes, and confidences, and it compelled the active participation of the audience’s feelings, too. More than once I wept.

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned from Tamara occurred in a rehearsal, either in '89 or '91.  She was talking about tempo in general.  She said that tempo had to be chosen according to harmony.  She went to the piano and played Chopin's Aeolian Harp etude at a rather brisk tempo.  She then played either a Bach chorale or Chopin's C-minor prelude (I no longer recall which), placing each chord deliberately, almost forcing us to hear the color of each harmony. 

Hankus Netsky got it right when he said, 

Tamara was incredibly dynamic, charismatic, energetic, a vortex of passion, love, and talent.  When she got excited about something, there was no stopping her. And she got excited about a lot of things. When that happened, she was 100% there and never imagined that her students or others might not be as excited about a project as she was.

I leave you with a YouTube clip of Tamara conducting Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium.  You don't see a lot of her in the video.  But you can hear the shaping and the humanity.  In these respects she was inimitable.


Monday, April 16, 2012

The MetroWest Choral Artists Inaugural Concert

Leonardo Ciampa, Founding Director

Proudly present:






Hear these two renowned performers in music by

Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Morandi, Petrali, &c.

This concert is in celebration of the


of the

MetroWest Choral Artists

(Leonardo Ciampa, Director)

who will perform

BRAHMS Waldesnacht (“Forest Night”)

CIAMPA Su l’ali del canto (“On Wings of Song”) (World Première)

WEDNESDAY, 18 APRIL 2012 at 8:00 p.m.

St. Andrew’s Church in Wellesley

(79 Denton Road, on the corner of Route 16)

$10 suggested donation (payable at the door)

For more information:

(617) 913-8647

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Return of George Howell

I'm very overcaffeinated right now. In fact, a mosquito bit me and immediately died of a nervous breakdown.

But the strain on my synapses was well worth the unforgettable culinary experience I had earlier this evening.

Tomorrow marks the grand opening of George Howell Coffee in Newtonville, MA. Tonight, on the eve of this event, a joyful open house was held, attended by George and Laurie Howell.

What makes these events so auspicious?

George Howell was singlehandedly responsible for Boston's coffee renaissance. Between 1975 and 1994, his chain of coffee houses, the Coffee Connection, defined good coffee drinking in the Boston area. Then in 1994, Starbucks bought the Coffee Connection. Part of the deal was that George was not allowed to open a coffee shop for ten years.

He was "retired," but of course for someone like George Howell, "to retire" means "to do even more." George traveled the world and became an even more legendary coffee guru. With his Terroir line of coffees, he was the first person to produce single-origin coffees. Great vintners have produced single-origin wines for millennia, but George was the first person to care enough about coffee beans to opine that they deserved the same respect as grapes. And while certain socially conscious coffee producers embrace "fair trade" policies, George went one step further. He does "direct trade," working directly with the growers themselves and eliminating the middle man.

One reason George could not sit still in retirement is that he didn't like the direction in which coffee was going. Starbucks popularized the overroasted coffee bean, producing some of the most robust — sometimes downright burnt — beans on the market. They explicitly stated that the more you roast a bean, the more flavorful it becomes. Seems to me that's like saying: the longer you barbecue a steak, the more delicious it becomes. After the third or fourth hour on the grill, there certainly are diminishing returns! Though I have never heard George speak of Starbucks by name, I have heard him speak many times about his preference for slightly (or more than slightly) lighter roasts. (I'll say something else about that at the end of this blog.)

In 2010, George bought the Taste Coffee House on 311 Walnut Street in Newtonville, MA. He assembled a wonderful team, with whom he started to think about the character of the place. There is a sleek, slightly Euro quality. You see the uncluttered, glistening machines, and you instantly realize that the protagonist is not the sandwiches or the décor, but the coffee itself.

For Bostonians who sorely miss the Coffee Connection, or for those who simply want the best cup of coffee to be had, tomorrow's opening has created lots of buzz. For the first time, here is a coffee house with George's personality, his innovations, his inimitable stamp — inimitable because no one in the world knows, or loves, coffee as much as George Howell.

Yesterday, I suddenly realized just how far-reaching the influence of George Howell still is over the world of coffee. I walked past a Starbucks and saw a big sign, which read, "Now Introducing Our New Blonde Roast." I immediately thought of George and took delight that even the Giant from Seattle — especially the Giant from Seattle — listens when George Howell speaks.

George Howell Coffee, 311 Walnut Street, Newtonville, MA, 617-332-6886

The following quotes about George Howell are from Wikipedia:

“The Coffee Connection was different from the competition we faced elsewhere. The sale [in 1994]… gave Starbucks immediate access to a core of well-informed coffee drinkers.”—Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz (Hyperion, 1997) on the sale of The Coffee Connection in Boston to Starbucks.

“Howell became legendary for doing anything to find clean, beautifully processed beans.”—The Joy of Coffee by Corby Kummer, senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995).

“The ultimate aesthete”—Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast (Basic Books, 1999)

“George Howell…one of the coffee world’s most knowledgeable and passionate spokesmen. I know of no one who has done more to improve the quality of American coffee, and no one has taught me more, both directly and by example.”— Coffee Basics by Kevin Knox (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997).

“[George Howell] made The Coffee Connection one of, if not the premier, specialty coffee retailer of North America.”—Bill McAlpin, Hacienda La Minita, upon presenting the Specialty Coffee Association of America Lifetime Achievement Award to George Howell in 1996.

“Mr. Howell [is] a walking encyclopedia of coffee.”—Florence Fabricant, food columnist for The New York Times, 1993.

“More than perhaps any other roaster in the country, the Coffee Connection focuses on selling the most quintessential example from each coffee-producing country. [George Howell] is trying to purify and identify the core essence of each origin: What is it that makes Guatemala Antigua so good?”—The Perfect Cup by Timothy James Castle (Aris Books, 1991).

“Back in 1994, before George Howell sold … the Coffee Connection … to Starbucks, he had the best selection of green coffees in the US. Now he has started a new coffee-roasting business called GHH Select (George Howell Coffee Company). Most American “specialty” coffees, powerfully influenced by Starbucks, are roasted much darker than European coffee, covering or driving off the finest aromas. But Howell, as ever, roasts moderately…. On his recent list, the coffees from all seven geographic provenances were aromatic with fruit and flowers … in the way wine is.” —The Art of Eating, quarterly magazine by Edward Behr (2003, number 65).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Countdown to Planyavsky at MIT (1 more day!)


Tomorrow is the big day! From 10 a.m. to noon at Boston University's Marsh Chapel, Peter Planyavsky will lead a masterclass, featuring organ students from BU and MIT. The repertoire will include Mendelssohn sonatas 2 & 3, Du Mage suite, and the Vivaldi-Bach A minor concerto (1st movement).

Then in the evening at 8 p.m. at MIT's Kresge Auditorium, Planyavsky will play a FREE recital on the 1955 Holtkamp organ, culminating in a grand improvisation.

Looking forward to seeing many of you at tomorrow's exciting events!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Countdown to Planyavsky at MIT (2 days)

"3 Questions: David Briggs on playing the organ in Kresge Auditorium"

(On January 16, 2011, David Briggs played a full-length recital in Kresge Auditorium -- the first by an internationally-renowned organist in 30 or 40 years.)

Q. MIT is not necessarily a sought-after place for organists to play, but the Institute does have
two organs — one in Kresge Auditorium, the other in Kresge Chapel —
built by the well-known Holtkamp Organ Company. Are you familiar with
Holtkamp organs?

A. I’m delighted to be performing on the Holtkamp Organ here at MIT. In fact, I played my
first-ever concert in the U.S. on a Holtkamp instrument. It was at the
Church of the Covenant in Cleveland, Ohio, in February 1997. I remember
five inches of lake-effect snow fell during the course of the concert,
and I improvised on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Q. Why did you start playing the organ?

A. I’ve played the organ since I was six, although I didn’t have any lessons until the age of 12 —
after I’d reached a fairly high level on the piano and my feet could
properly reach the pedals. My grandfather was a well-known organist in
Birmingham, England, and I used to sit on the bench with him. When I was
nine, I became a chorister at St. Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, under
Roy Massey. It was at that period that I really decided I wanted to be
an organist. When I was 16, I studied in London with Richard Popplewell,
at the Chapel Royal. Richard was a fabulous and very generous teacher
as well as an extremely kind person. I lost my father when I was 16, and
Richard in many ways took over. I owe him a huge amount.

Q. MIT is synonymous with science and engineering. How or why do you think organ music relates to science?

A. The organ is the largest and most complex of all musical instruments. Many large
instruments have hundreds of thousands of moving parts and tens of
thousands of pipes. Each mechanical part (be it wind reservoir, pallet
magnet or wind stabilizer) has to work perfectly over a long period, and
each pipe has to be voiced to blend to the rest. The finest organs are
those that represent an ideal synthesis between artistic vision and
technical prowess. In other words, the very best instruments are the
result of many, many hours of skilled workmanship in terms of pipe
voicing, sophistication of key action, stability of voicing, excellence
of acoustic and so on. Then you have a true meeting of science and
music. Playing on such a large variety of instruments is a very
enriching experience — each time you have to ‘learn’ the instrument
because organs are so different to each other.

(Published on the MIT website on January 14, 2011.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Countdown to Planyavsky at MIT (3 days)

For the first piece on his program at MIT's Kresge Auditorium this Friday evening, Peter Planyavsky chose an interesting work: the Fantasy in B-flat Major by Alexandre Pierre F. Boëly (1785-1858).

Boëly holds an important — and fascinating — place in the history of French music. He has been called “one of those luckless figures in music.”

During much of the 19th century, France was a bit like Italy in that the musical mainstream consisted mostly of opera. Add to that the virulent anti-German sentiment of those times, and you can see why there weren’t many symphonies being written in France (and no important ones, that I can think of, between 1830 and 1886).

Boëly, meanwhile, was an outspoken opponent of this new Romantic music, favoring instead composers like Bach, Couperin, and Frescobaldi. From 1840 to 1851, Boëly played at St. Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris, where he tirelessly promoted the music of his favorite composers – all of whom were dead, and none of whom were Romantic. After 11 years, St. Germain dismissed Boëly, who spent the rest of his career as a piano teacher in relative obscurity.

But this isn’t the whole story. Boëly had a great influence on future generations of French composers, especially Franck and Saint-Saëns – both of whom did indeed dare to write symphonies.

Meanwhile, as Daniel Roth has pointed out, one reason Widor was never promoted from Provisional Organist to Titular Organist of St. Sulpice in Paris is because the church authorities felt his playing was “too German.” Today we often forget how avant-garde it was for Widor to perform and edit so much Bach, or to compose music in a clearly Beethovenian style (such as the famous Andante Cantabile).

For all of this, the somewhat obscure, somewhat scorned Boëly laid the groundwork.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Countdown to Planyavsky at MIT (8 days)

Several of these posts have discussed the 1991 Rieger organ at the Stephansdom in Vienna, designed by Peter Planyavsky. However, I'm yet to speak of the history behind the preceding instruments.

I won't dwell on the length or the difficulty of the struggle to obtain the Rieger. Suffice it to say: Planyavsky became Domorganist in the 1960s. The Rieger came in the 1990s. 'Nuff said.

One problem was the sharp difference of opinion as to the worth of the large Kauffmann organ that still resides in the rear gallery. One camp felt that this postwar instrument was of inferior sound and cheap materials. The other camp felt the organ wasn't THAT bad; and because it is an example of that particular school of organbuilding, it is considered "historic."

What everyone agrees on, however, is the magnificence of the organ that the Kauffmann replaced.

The 1886 E. F. Walcker organ was an instrument that is hard for most of us to imagine today. Imagine a Romantic organ, of that vintage, with a Hauptwerk of 35 stops! 47 ranks! The 1881 E. F. Walcker at the Mariendom in Riga, Latvia, still exists. It gives us a sense of the aural and visual splendor that the larger, younger Walcker must have possessed.

The Stephansdom Walcker was destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Below: The 1881 E. F. Walcker organ at Riga Cathedral, Latvia.