Voices Raised in Song
What is your earliest musical memory? Your mother singing you to sleep with a lullaby? Performing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in a neighborhood talent show? Making your way through the rounds of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat?”
Chances are, whatever your first musical memory, it involved singing. And the power of the human voice continues to create memories for us long past those childhood days.
“Vocal music appeals to us because we have the most intimate connection to it,” says Steven Rainbolt, Chair of the Voice Department of Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. “People express themselves most easily with the voice—whether or not they’re singers.”
In early times, it was through singing that people relayed their experiences to others—of battles, of love, of loss, says Rainbolt.
“In the beginning there was the voice,” adds Stan Engebretson, Director of the National Philharmonic Chorale, which will appear at Strathmore in the National Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert of “Famous Opera Choruses” on Saturday, March 18. “Vocal history is much longer than that of the musical instrument.”
Through the centuries, vocal music became more sophisticated but never became an art form that was “removed” from the masses, says Rainbolt. “Singing has always been very relatable…it can be cultivated and embraced by the common person.”
Music that comes from the body and not from an outside source offers an “immediacy” of contact that we can all appreciate, says mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer, a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and an interpreter not only of operatic roles, but of oratorio, lieder recitals, and symphonic repertoire as well.
“Vocal music is a personal kind of art form that reaches everyone,” says Beer, who will appear at Strathmore in “The Lure of the Diva” concert, presented by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, on Friday, May 5.
Globally, vocal music continues to be important, says Engebretson, for yet another very basic reason. “In countries where there is no money for instruments, there is always the voice.”
As it was when people first began to sing, singing continues to be an expression of human emotion, adds Stanley Cornett, a member of Peabody’s voice faculty. “It’s fundamental to human existence.”
When we watch an old musical on TV, attend an opera, or even get drawn in by a new young talent on “American Idol,” we’re experiencing a heightened (or perhaps suspended) reality that’s different from our everyday life, says Cornett.
“It hearkens back to the need we all have to express ourselves with our voice,” Cornett says. And it doesn’t matter what genre of music is being sung. The power to move the listener lies within the very act of using the voice. Whether it’s the dramatic flourish of Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma,” or Celine Dion belting out “My Heart Will Go On” from the film “Titanic,” we are witness to the exposure of a singer’s soul, says Cornett.
“We’re looking for that in life,” Cornett says. “It’s the job of the vocalist to take us to another, deeper place.”
Singing is also a way for the vocalist to connect with people, says soprano Emily Pulley, winner of the New York City Opera Richard F. Gold Debut Artist Award, and a frequent presence at the Metropolitan Opera., who will also perform in the BSO’s concert, “The Lure of the Diva,” on May 5. “When I’m having fun, that’s when I do my best singing,” she says, adding that audiences like to see singers enjoying themselves. “They appreciate experiencing a heightened sense of emotion, and feeling the connection between the words and the music.”
For Pulley, the joy of singing—especially opera—is also the opportunity it gives her to forge other relationships as well—with other cast members, with the character she’s portraying, and with the characters that the other performers are portraying.
“Singing creates a very intimate connection,” says Pulley. “It’s a great feeling…to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected to what you’re singing as well as to your audience.”
That emotional connection to a song is how jazz singer Jane Monheit—who will be presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society in concert at Strathmore on Thursday, May 4—decided what to perform in her worldwide concerts as well as what to include on her recordings. On her latest CD, for example, a collection of holiday-themed songs entitled “The Season,” Monheit has included songs that have had an impact on her life, from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—a song that has always been very special to her—first sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” to “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” a holiday “wish list” by David Foster and Linda Thompson for a more peaceful world.
"The holiday season can be a time for reflection, as we look back on the year," Monheit tells her fans on her website, www.janemonheitmusic.com. "Maybe we're thinking of ways to make our world a better place, as well as the sadness and suffering we see around us. I chose this song with those thoughts in mind. The day that we cut it…I watched some of the Live 8 broadcasts--the poverty and hunger of Africa, as well as this incredible outpouring of effort to alleviate it. I was really inspired by those images, and they were at the forefront of my mind when I sang this song."
When you listen to vocal music, you have an entirely different experience from listening to instrumental music, says Jack Lewin, original producer of the New York production of “Our Sinatra,” which is being presented by the Music Center at Strathmore on Tuesday, March 7. “Fifty percent of listening to the songs in the show is listening to these great lyrics,” says Lewin. “The show is about the lyrics and music together—as well as about the interaction of the performers with each other.”
“Our Sinatra” began as a one-hour cabaret at in New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the summer of 1999. It immediately sold out, and Lewin and his co-creators knew they had something bigger than just a cabaret show on their hands.
“It’s been very gratifying to see that there is still interest in this music…in lyrics that say something and music that goes somewhere,” says Lewin.
For Stan Engebretson, voices raised together in song creates a “many-faceted jewel” to be explored by singers, whether in a Haydn master work or a Tibetan harmony. “There are always great things from the past as well as new things to explore,” says Engebretson, who calls Washington, DC, one of the most active choral cities in the country, with four major choruses, countless community choruses, and professional organizations such as Chorus America headquartered here.
“Choral music offers so much,” says Engebretson. “You don’t have to be a solo talent to still be able to fulfill the artistic need of expressing yourself.”
Whatever the genre, says Peabody’s Steve Rainbolt—be it opera, musical theater, jazz, choral, pop, even rap—vocal music appeals to people of all ages, from all cultures.
“What’s unique about vocal music is its ability to communicate to the listener,” says Rainbolt. “In instrumental music, you create your own story…you respond in a different way. But in vocal music, the intent is there, the words are understandable…you get the message.
“The voice is capable of showing so many emotions,” Rainbolt adds. “You can’t help but be moved by a singer creating something wonderful. A voice can’t be beat by any other instrument in the same way…that’s what we respond to.
“It’s so purely human.”