musical phrasing**

**otherwise known as subjective hearing :-).
This post has two purposes: the first is to describe briefly the concerts I have attended so far at the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), and the second is to use one of them as a bridge to discuss my musically-challenged “musical phrasing” definition and provide some examples. It will be somewhat unorganized.
The Boston Early Music Festival started this past Sunday, and for me, two concerts so far: The Vocal Concerto on monday night and Concerto Soave this afternoon. Since I signed up without knowing much the repertoire or the programs, it was a surprise each time. Last night was more a balance between baroque violin and voice (a bass) and this afternoon was much more similar to the recital I heard last month with Sara Mingardo, both in repertoire as well as make-up: Italian 16-17th centuries works by Barbara Strozzi and others, 1 voice + harpsichord/organ + harp (in place of theorbo). For the record, I liked last night’s vocal work better.. even though this afternoon’s repertoire was pretty much the same as what Ms. Mingardo sang. And since it was a 1.5hour concert with a lot of singing, I had time to ponder what it is that can keep the audience attention for long stretches in works that they are not necessary familiar with (or even if they do..)
So, let’s make an attempt at it: musical phrasing (and repertoire? + selections?). I might draw some comparisons to also the two recitals I heard at Wigmore Hall, with Dorothea Röschmann and Sara Mingardo, and today with María Cristina Kiehr. But first, let’s have a listen to her in something my ears are more attuned to: (look who passed off the music!)

My first impression at Jordan Hall (and 2nd impression listening to clip above) was what a warm and silky voice she has! Extremely soothing! Her takes on two specific works: (1) “Amico, hai vinto” by Sigismondo d’India before the break and (2) “O che felice giorno” by Caccini, where she sang only to very quiet and lovely harp accompaniment, were to me the highlight of the afternoon. It’s unfortunate that as she started (1) there was some persistent ringing and everyone had to stop twice to investigate.. but even before the unexpected pause I heard exactly what I love: phrasing! and she picked up exactly where she left off post-pause, full of emotion: shaping, dynamics+intensity. Whatever it was about, I wanted to hear more! In fact I was secretly hoping she would re-start from the beginning :-), but that’s asking too much. As for (2), with only solo harp accompanying, there were a lot of very nice and soft singing, shaping, long sustaining notes.
These two pieces, in addition to also the piece by Barbara Strozzi where there was more interesting developments than a simple and short song, occupied probably around 30 minutes maximum. That left about 1 hour of singing where I had enough time to hear and brainstorm my home-made vocabulary to describe music as well as opinion for what constitute an affective/exciting recital 🙂 . This is a windy way of saying I wanted to hear more dynamics and phrasings. In fact, she used her hands a lot (as well as eyes, fingers, eyebrows) to “shape” her phrasing, and I wished the voice was also part of it. What do I mean? There were hints at times that she’s singing something “angry” or “frustrated” or “sad”, but the range of emotion still falls within the mellow and too soothing and nice category. In addition, she didn’t use the full range of dynamics (intensity) in a lot of songs (similar to how i hear her in the clip above, although she does phrase!).
Independently, since the harp was there with some truly lovely sound, I think we can start there to build up my home-made musical vocabulary: (1) tone, (2) shade, (3) color, (4) dynamics, (5) shaping, (6) phrasing . (Incidentally, the harp has a very clear register BREAK between the high and low notes and nobody seems to care! and yet some are hell-bent on that when it comes to human voices, how interesting.) Feel free to let me know if I have been using wrong terminology all this time..

(1) tone: if we line up 6 sopranos to sing a note they all sound different, their individual sound is what I call “tone”.
(2) shade: for a same note, you can hear when a singer “shades” it to make darker / lighter to fit the mood/feeling
(3) color: this i associated more with the varying of the voice up and down the scale, such that in some range (and depending on their shading) they can be compared to 1 instrument and yet in another range they sound like a different one, e.g., a flute on high, clarinet in mid-range, basoon in lower range.
(4) dynamics (intensity): pianissimo ppp to forte fff
(5) shaping: this I associate more with pronunciation, how to “shape” a word around some musical notes. To be *very* precise, VK explained it exactly here with the “ò” in farò. Also note how she prolongs her upward “ò” as opposed to abruptly stops in the downward one. This is what I sometimes termed “abrupt ending” or “truncated” “instead of finishing” in my description.

(6) phrasing: Finally, putting EVERYTHING together, and taking into account also the meaning of the whole phrase *and* breathing. You will forgive me for citing VK again as she demonstrated how much attention can be paid to this single phrase “Sarò qual più ti piace” within the 10-min aria:

I think it is clearly not a coincidence that we (some of us) grab on to the edge of our seats and intently listen with eyes wide opened when Dorothea Röschmann, Vesselina Kasarova, or Anja Harteros sings. You could lump it into our blind “devotion” but I disagree 😉 ; they really shape / phrase the music such that every piece is interesting, riveting, full of suspense or anguish, and we simply spring to our feet clapping or remained glued to the seat unable to move (and desire more). Interestingly, for me, Sara Mingardo doesn’t fall all the way into the category of singers above. I’m not sure if it’s mainly the repetoire she’s singing in.. but she’s simply instinctive with dynamics, breathing, shaping, and phrasing in whatever she sings in, such that it simply works in the sense of music for me *most* of the time (that and the gorgeously sexy attractive tone, although in my definition she doesn’t possess as many color as VK, in fact not many singers have that range of colors that VK possesses.)


2D vs 3D singing (c) unknown

At this point, I feel some example is in order regarding phrasing, with Sara Mingardo, Sarah Connolly, Sonia Prina, and Dephine Galou on the list. For the record, I find Ms. Connolly to be in the same box as Ms. Mingardo, her phrasing works for my brain! On the other hand, Delphine Galou’s phrasing really doesn’t work for the same brain, and for the particular example below, Sonia Prina’s doesn’t either. Perhaps the orchestra/tempo has something to do with it as well. You can also go through and check which one works for your brain, so we can tell how our brains are different when it comes to digesting (subjective) music 🙂

Example 1: S’agita in mezzo all’onde. This aria has not much to do with anything, it’s a big picture scene, with the settings taking place in the recitative just before that: Polifemo had just beaten up Aci, and Galatea first tells him what a brute he is and nothing he does shakes her, then follows up with this lovely tune. What I find most interesting here is that there is the music underneath, and I’m assuming they’re all singing to the same notes, yet the tune, which i can weed out very clearly in (a) is tangled up with phrasing/breathing/pronunciations in many occasions in (b) and (c) such that it breaks the musical flow. (Do we care? may be i put too much emphasis on this… Right, there’s also the thing about “excessive ornamentation”..).
(a) S. Mingardo, as I have already posted her live dvd version before, let’s have a listen to her cd-recording with Emmanuelle Haïm and her orchestra Le Concert d’Astrée.

(b) D. Galou, live

(c) S. Prina, live

Example 2: “He was despised and rejected” . Eyes mentioned once to me she also loved Ms. Connolly’s take. And to my surprise I found it extremely similar to Ms. Mingardo’s take (are my ears shot?), and thus they simply work for my brain! Again, the case with Ms. Galou is somehow again the words getting in the way. This is of course very subjective and simply meant to explain how it works for my brain. Perhaps I’m also trying to address the point of clear pronunciation versus musical phrasing with this set of clips.
(d) S. Mingardo, live

(e) S. Connolly, live

(f) D. Galou, live


About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

25 Responses to musical phrasing**

  1. Eyesometric says:

    First reaction – whatever terminology works for you is the correct one, so no rights and wrongs here, Dr T!
    This is a fabulous post. I’ll be back to play all your examples and read your thoughts in more detail.

  2. stray says:

    Arrive tmw in time for the Lute show (barring Pike traffic nightmare). The Envoy is already there & will be at Sequentia tonight.

    • thả diều says:

      oh, good luck with traffic! see you tomorrow! i saw an old bemf photo with 20 lutes, rocking! 🙂
      ps- is Sequentia the show at 11pm? if you pass my cell to the Envoy i might swing by Jordan Hall to say hi to her after my show? I just realized yesterday they’re playing the opera literally next to Jordan Hall.. i was thinking Boston U. theater near Fenway Park and worried about sprinting..

    • stray says:

      PS, Eyes, my cat sitter will simultaneously be doing the visa for Baltic Crossing 🙂

      • Eyesometric says:

        This had me revisiting their site and being once more aghast at Andy’s Criminal look.

  3. dehggial says:

    I can’t listen to your examples yet (at work) but what do you mean by saying SM isn’t completely in that DR/VK/AH camp? You mean she’s singing intuitively and they are taking a more intellectual/deliberate route?

    (ps: that cylinder is giving me flashbacks! I had to draw and shade it countless times… it’s a good analogy, though; in that context I would differentiate shade from colour by saying shade = light/dark, colour = stuff like warm or cold, anger, fear, joy etc.).

    • thả diều says:

      oh, good question, i still dont quite know yet how to describe it.. but you remember SM’s alcina clip, compare that with harteros’ , i’m thinking of my own raw reaction, the style is so different it invokes completely different reactions.. if any thing i’d say the first camp overpowers you with feelings and SM’s infiltrates slowly so i dont realized until am hooked b/c it simply makea sense to the brain! not sure if i explain well.
      But i did hear something in s’agita… that can help elaborate my point of “it simply works” vs “not working”: when i hear SM’s clip i can “feel” she goes down for the reason of explaining something in her phrasing, i.e., it’s got a purpose.. whereas in DG’s case i dont hear any coonection so i scratch my head wondering why she goes down (ornamentation) at the end of section B, other than thinking she does it to show she can.. things like these scatter everywhere, very minor but has meaning. same can b said when VK puts ornamentation, somehow you “feel” it makes sense…

      ps- i see your point on colour, i usually think of it as part of shaping..

      • dehggial says:

        now that I heard all three – I like them all! It helps that I really like the tune and all three voices. I see what you’re saying about too much ornamentation and I’m not saying you’re not right, but when I think about Baroque a bit of exaggeration and showing off is part of the course. I mean it’s an aria about feeling unsettled so sounding a bit strange is ok by me.

        I would say SM’s is the most logical interpretation, yes. She’s doing lovely things with dynamics and I think generally she has a very gentle, delicate and elegant way of singing. There’s just a little touch on this or that word to stir the feeling one way or another.

        DG sounds like she’s thinking about an actual little ship at sea and not about how her character is feeling. However her tone and the (completely random) shading satisfies me on a very basic “it’s so pretty” level. It’s like singing the phonebook in a noble way. Maybe she needs to sing contemporary stuff.

        SP is all like “ok, guys, there’s this ship at sea, right? and I feel like that ship on rough seas so where the hell is my sword? I want to kick some ass right now!” She’s going way too fast, we don’t know why, let’s blame the conductor 😉 rough seas all right. I think if all slowed down it’d be a much better rendition. Normally she can rock slow arias.

        • thả diều says:

          a small break from festival madness 🙂
          you know I suspect my ears are highly susceptible to funny “distractions” like words or things.. Eyes one time designed this fun test where she hid a tune within some side instruments, and apparently everyone was able to detect the tune, and yet even when she pointed to me at which exact time the tune started i never heard a single note of it, but heard *everything else* (all the side distractions she added on :D)

          SP’s performance is avail in full in video form on tube, you should hear the “smooch” sound, she gave a nice one to the conductor while sitting on his lap!

          I’m curious though whether it helps that you understand the libretto somewhat? Coz funnily i hear only “words” that don’t make sense and as such they simply breaks the music and line of thought.. very odd. I also understand it’s baroque and as i understand from N.Stutzmann he annotated very little so left a ton of interpretation to the performers.. one could say based on our own experience we look/see/hear something and try to make sense in our head, so it’s rather biased already :-).

  4. dehggial says:

    re: words that don’t make sense. But surely you hear words with SM as well? How do they make sense then? As in, the way she says it makes sense even though you don’t understand the literal meaning? DG tends to be very rhythmical, so she accentuats as such (s’AGITA in mezzo all’onde = like this every time, which to me sounded odd because I’d rather accentuate the mezzo and perhaps the onde occasionally (SM does that at least once), but with one of your other tools (say colour or a little trill), I wouldn’t want to miss the rhythm either). Also her ornaments match the flute closely and so it’s not as legato as SM’s; it gets very descriptive of the movement of the boat but not so much of the feeling (this is rather melancholic and she’s heroic though not quite as martial as SP. In any case it feels detached, like she’s telling the story about the boat though she was never there and the boat had nothing to do with her).

    • thả diều says:

      “But surely you hear words with SM as well?”

      Yes, and i have been re-listening again last night to check what exactly i hear: her words fit in the phrase somehow, so it’s part of the music for me. You know it depends on how to shape the word it can either accentuate the music / point instead of disrupt? at least that’s how i heard it. I must say it’s very similar as well for me with VK, esp. when she sings Händel or Romeo (but also her cd version of..whatever the character’s name in La Favorite, her french simply accentuates the music and you (I) immediately feel it, defiance, determination, resignation, it simply works :-))

      Often when I hear one thing that “makes sense” and another that doesn’t, i ponder why one is affective (for my brain) and it has so much to do with shaping the words and breathing (you remember that aria in il trionfo between VK and SM that i kept babbling about? because i was so puzzled why in VK’s version during that particular run it just didn’t make sense to me 🙂 , and i got bothered because her singing almost always makes sense (to brain) that when not i immediately ponder “what is she thinking here? what was her intention? may be she’s trying to say something and i don’t get..”

      As you said, DG’s accentuates in places that you hear (and i hear the exact thing) and I think you could digest and analyze it, whereas I can’t put into words except knowing it just breaks the flow (in my brain) and I can’t focus on the scene or shape it in a form to understand what she’s trying to say… So i do ❤ a lot you get to the bit analyzing what she might be saying (1 step further than my vague works vs not works for brain hand-waving babbling.)

      • dehggial says:

        Glad it worked 🙂 so basically you like voice actors rather that people who sing pretty 😉 this whole thing made me wonder if in a recital one is allowed to just sing pretty if they want to. Let’s say in a recital you sing something but maybe you don’t really care about the role or the character and just want to sing the music because you like it.

        • thả diều says:

          vocal actors 🙂 , i like that!

          I’m sure you also search for that no? in addition to other things perhaps? this reminded me.. many people i’ve talked to also tend to get bothered more by staging whereas i almost don’t care unless it didn’t make (my) sense 😀 or looks like curtains from great-grandma’s basement..

          regarding recitals, i think why not? in fact there might be singers who do recitals and sing very beautful i guess.. though i think most of the well established ones make the effort to express it. I can’t remember who said during recitals you also have a bit of freedom to express more of yourself (must be VK 🙂 ) instead of 100% focusing on the characters.. this reminded me of Renee Flemming, i’m not nesc in her camp but remember i was sooo impressed when she sang the US national anthem at some sport game.. was shockingly amazing, one realizes that’s what these singers are trained to do!

          and now that i have established my vocab, think i can sort out why some singers work and others don’t, and some still requires digestions… E.Garanca: loooovely tone, (mostly) 1 volume (dynamics), (mostly) 1 color, i can’t hear shade.. ACA: i don’t always get her singing, lots of time the “words” get in the way, but her shaping + phrasing i find very intuitive + effective at times, and she’s got a nice edge to her voice (tone), pushing + risking to bring out the characters, hence i like 🙂 .

          • dehggial says:

            yes, I do, but I am also a sucker for an interesting tone and can overlook lack of expression if the voice is just so gorgeous. But it must be a quite unusual voice, not “pretty” per se -> I strongly dislike “angelic” singing (like Jaroussky but there are women singers too, not just CTs who have that – lots of sopranos). If the voice is kinda boring but you can tell the singer is using it expressively then I also like it (Inga Kalna comes to mind, sometimes JDD) . I think I agree with you about the problems with EG. ACA is definitely taking risks, that is also good. You don’t want a “goody-goody” singer who would rather sing nice for their entire career for fear of not damaging the voice. I say better 10 years of amazing singing than 30 of lukewarm stuff.

            now I’m off to bed, flying to Frankfurt for Wiesbaden in a couple of hours 😀 ready for some “cheerful” operas 😉

          • thả diều says:

            oh wow, have great fun!!! watch out what’s inside the closet at your airb! 😉

          • dehggial says:

            So far so good, though there were many doors in the building, none of them labelled! The girl who checked me in thought I’d been here before so I had to randomly knock on doors until I found the right one 😀

          • thả diều says:

            i once threw pebbles up windows to gain attention for entrance 😀 . have a wonderful time there!! i ll b lurking 😉

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