Monday, February 22, 2010

Beczala Triumphs Again


Few people know opera like Ed Rosen, president of Premiere Opera. Ed not only heard all the greats, from the 1950s onward, but he knew what he was hearing. The problem, of course, is the drastic decline in singing quality since the 50s. However, even Ed agrees with me that in Piotr Beczala we finally, finally, have a tenor worthy of those of the past. Ed Rosen:

Bohème Tonight‏
by Ed Rosen
Sun 2/21/10 12:33 AM

[...] I thought this was one of the very best Bohème performances I have seen in many, many years. I thought the sheer opulence of the voices of both Netrebko and Beczala was both thrilling and beautiful. I think this was the finest performance Netrebko has sung at the Met, and, as I seem to say every year, her voice simply gets bigger year after year, with no pushing at all. And she sang a very dynamically nuanced Mimì. Her Act 3 was indeed heartbreaking.

I thought Beczala was excellent in ever way. This Rodolfo as sung tonight can stand with his head held high with any tenor I have ever heard in this role, and that is virtually ever tenor who has sung it at the Met for the past 50 years. Perhaps the only tenor I have heard in the past 30 plus years who might have been better was José Carreras in 1975. For me, Beczala was superb in every way. He sang the aria in key, with a soaring, easy high C, which he simply held and held. He also sang the C at the end of the love duet, and both he and Nebtrebko were wonderful here, as in just about everything they sang tonight. He sings with great feeling, some lovely soft singing, and even a small tear in the voice when called for on a few notes. The voice is beautiful and has an ample bronze-like quality to help it project. For him, and his Mimì, the Met seemed like a small theater.

[...] I am glad I have tickets to the next two performances, and can't wait to see them. I thought tonight was the best night of opera I have seen at the Met this season, and for many seasons.


Photo of Mr. Beczala © Kurt Pinter

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Letter of Recommendation

As I was unpacking this afternoon, I came across something that choked me up a little bit. It was clearly one of the most unusual letters of recommendation ever written for me ... or for anyone.

11 February 1994

To whom it may concern:

I have known Leonard Ciampa since he was eight years old. As a musician and person he is now 94, 6, 17, and 35 years old. As an American-born, he plays our superb heritage of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin and transports us to the Spirit of that time. Leonard's theoretical knowledge through studies of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music are unquestionably grafted to his soul and heart. Still further, Leonard's mastery and in-depth understanding, accompanying, and performing of opera are astonishing.

I clearly know that Leonard's God-given musical gifts and personal evangelistic joys and passions bring a healing peace to peoples from all walks of Life.


Joseph Gabriel Maneri
Professor of Composition and Theory
New England Conservatory of Music

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Antonym of Counterfeit II

Joe & Sonja's wedding anniversary was easy to remember: Tax Day, April 15th. Every April 15th – I mean every April 15th – I called them to wish them a Happy Anniversary. Similarly, every February 9th I called Joe on his birthday. For almost 20 years, I did not miss one of these two annual phone calls.

Until last Tuesday. I couldn't call Joe. It was such a strange feeling.

You've read in these pages the story of the evening I first set foot in Christ Lutheran Church in Natick, looked up at the wall, and saw Sonja's Moses. I was never quite sure of the connection between Sonja and that church, until yesterday evening. In attendance at yesterday afternoon's Hymn Festival was a former pastor of the church, the Reverend Arthur von Au. He recalled an art show at Harvard Divinity School (where a parishioner was a student); the artist was Sonja Holzwarth Maneri. Rev. von Au was taken by Sonja's work and immediately became a patron. Meanwhile, he grew to know and appreciate Joe as well (who didn't?), to the extent that at his farewell service in Natick, whom do you suppose he asked to play? Joe Maneri.

Joe played at my church ...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Antonym of Counterfeit

Yesterday would have been Joe Maneri's birthday. The first one since his passing last August.

I wanted to write about him yesterday, but I couldn't bring myself to face the significance of the day. There was a memorial service for him in New York. I was here in Massachusetts. When he died, in Massachusetts, I was in Utah. I can't seem to be in the right state at the right time.

In my last telephone conversation with him, last summer, we talked about his birthday, for some reason. He told me something I never knew: he was proud of the fact that he was born on 2-9-27, whereas Charlie Parker was born on the 29th, and Lester Young was born on the 27th. Eerily, both Parker and Young were born in August, the month Joe would die. In fact, Joe died three days shy of what would have been Young's 100th birthday.

Over the years, Joe would say certain sentences that seemed to me so inspired that I would write them down. I wish I did this more often. I did write down a sentence about Lester Young: "Every note that Lester Young played said, 'I love you.'"

Joe was a chameleon in the best sense. Sometimes he was Italian; sometimes he was German; sometimes he was a classical musician; sometimes he was a jazz musician. But when he was a jazz musician, he was REALLY a jazz musician – not some sort of imitation, like when a concert pianist plays Gershwin, or when an English boy choir sings an African-American spiritual. Joe was bona fide at all times – the antonym of counterfeit.

As an example: this is a story told to me by his son Mat the afternoon of the funeral (one of many anecdotes floating around 7 Maple Lane that bittersweet afternoon). One evening, the Joe Maneri Quartet – consisting of Joe, Mat, Randy Peterson on drums, and I'm not sure who the bass player was at the time of the story – were giving a concert. After the concert, Mat and Randy stayed up quite late. The next morning, Mat and Randy groggily descended to the breakfast table. There was Joe, eating breakfast. Now, before I go any further: I had many breakfasts with the Maneris and can attest, firsthand, that fresh garlic was not an unusual ingredient on the breakfast table. It wasn't every morning. But it was not at all unusual to have what Joe would call "Sicilian French Toast": bread dipped in egg and fried, in the regular way, but instead of butter and maple syrup, the condiments were olive oil, grated pecorino romano, salt, pepper, and fresh chopped garlic. Another permutation might be bread or toast dipped in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon juice. In any case, Mat and Randy sleepily arrived at the breakfast table, to see Joe with, in Mat's words, "a jelly donut in one hand and a clove of garlic in the other." Joe's response to their facial grimaces: "Man, you cats don't know what it's about."
Indeed, it was as a "cat" that the Joe Maneri of later years was most widely appreciated. And yet it was as the great classical composer that I always saw him. Joe had one of the rarest musical gifts I ever encountered. He could hear any piece of music – and I mean any piece – and he had the uncanny ability to know what the composer was doing. Maybe some rare musicians can do this with Palestrina, or with Mozart, or with Elliott Carter, or with Milton Babbitt, or with Pietro Mascagni. I personally witnessed Joe do it with all of them. Even my own music! I'll never forget the time we sat and listened to a CD of my "Suite Siciliana" for chamber orchestra. Mind you, he'd never heard the piece before. Well, every nuance in the music, even the most subtle one, could be seen in this reactions on his face. For a moment I wondered if he had actually composed the piece, not me.

The last piece of music he and I ever listened to was Al Jolson singing, "You Made Me Love You." Though Joe played this sort of music in his youth in Brooklyn, I doubt seriously that he listened to, or even thought about, this sort of genre for many years. And yet I will never, so long as I live, forget the radiance on his face. He bobbed his head at every musical nuance, as if he knew what was coming next, as if he himself had did the orchestration and was himself singing. His smile lit up not only that room, but my whole life. Because if music is to be felt any less strongly than this, what is the point?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Musical Excellence

The following was a piece I wrote for The Reporter, the monthly newsletter of Christ Lutheran Church in Natick, Massachusetts, where I am Director of Music.


Since age seven, music has been the raison d'être of my life. There was not a single, solitary instance that my parents had to ask me to practice. There were times when they hoped I would stop.

This is not to say that music has always made me happy. It's just that not doing music made me unhappy, so I really had no choice. I didn't choose music; it chose me.

The times I was unhappiest were the times that music felt like entertainment. When music is entertainment, practicing suddenly becomes a striving for the things that don't matter. No harm is intended when a concertgoer watches a young pianist and says, "Wow, look how fast his fingers are going." But how does that make the young pianist feel? For me, it felt like being a circus attraction. "Wow, look how tall that woman is. Look how fat that man is." It's the fixation with some unusual physical attribute, not an interest in the person. It made me want to practice less, because if practicing made me more "unusual," I didn't want to do it. I wanted to be normal.

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the musical world is the competition. A musical competition is no different from a figure skating tournament in the Olympics. You go on the ice. As soon as you slip, the judges put a checkmark on their sheet. You just went from 10 to 9.75. Slip again -- another checkmark. Now you're at 9.5. And so forth. It's not that the best skater wins; the skater who did least badly wins. The winner isn't chosen; everyone else is eliminated. If the point of my practicing is to prevent the judges' checkmarks, it's very hard to motivate myself to practice.

The times I was happiest were the times that music felt not like entertainment but like healing. When I play a religious service or a concert, the best I can hope for is for someone to say to me afterward, "Thanks, I needed that. I was having a terrible day, and I almost didn't come. But I'm so glad I did, because your music soothed me. I'm feeling so much better than I did before." A doctor may prescribe a pill; the pill might make you feel better, or it might make you sicker. But if I can make people feel better with my music, that is no small feat.

When the goal is healing, then I have a reason to practice. Because now I'm not serving the competition adjudicator, or the circus spectator. Now I'm serving a person on a human level. I'm trying to prepare that piece of music so that its expressive qualities -- indeed, its healing qualities -- can best emerge.

One of the most miraculous things that has occurred to me in a long time occurred right here at CLC. I was in the car with my wife, heading for Natick for that first interview. I fretted the whole way -- to the great annoyance of my wife Jeanette, who wondered why she was wasting the time and fuel to take someone somewhere that he didn't seem to want to go!

We pulled into the parking lot. I walked in the door. I looked up on the wall. And there was Moses.

I was floored, because I instantly knew who the artist was. The reason I instantly knew is because I first met Joe & Sonja Maneri when I was about eight years old. They were like my other parents, the parents that I would have chosen if one could choose one's parents. Joe passed away last August. There is no way to convey my grief at the loss of one of the greatest musicians, and human beings, that I have ever known.

It was Joe Maneri who taught me that music could heal -- and must heal. There is an amazing story, an absolutely true one, which I do not believe was unique in Joe's life. Many years ago his daughter Nina was sick in the hospital. And yet he had this powerful urge inside him to attend a party. He was at war within himself. "My daughter is here sick in the hospital, but why do I want to leave and go to this stupid party? What's wrong with me?" To make a long story short, he quietly left the hospital, went to the party, and there was a young woman, crippled from birth with cerebral palsy, sitting in a wheelchair. Her grandmother sat next to her. Joe took out his clarinet and started to play, "Hava Nagilah," which in Hebrew means, "Let us rejoice." Sonja accompanied on the piano. The girl stood up from her wheelchair and started moving her hips. She was dancing! The girl's grandmother was floored. She said, "I don't know who this Jesus of yours is, but he must be pretty wonderful." Joe returned to the hospital, and his daughter recovered just fine.

I don't know how to heal someone like that. But I should would like to find out! May I always strive for the highest musical excellence. But may it never be for entertainment.

The "Hava Nagilah" story was even wilder than what I wrote in the church article. One day Joe had been wearing a pair of shoes that had seen better days. A woman said, "Joe, if those shoes last another year, I'm going to throw a birthday party for them." A year passed; Joe was still wearing the shoes; and so the party in question was -- get this -- a birthday party for his shoes! Imagine Joe's dilemma: stay with daughter in hospital or go to birthday party for shoes! Just goes to show: sometimes what the Lord asks us to do is more unusual than, "Put $100 in the collection plate," or, "Recite the 'Our Father.'"