FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Learning Words and Music from the Masters
Friday, January 27, 2017 - 12:22 PM
Each year, I enter certain dates in my daily calendar that are musts for me. These include opening day at Yankee Stadium, the Tony Awards, opening nights at the Met, New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall and election day. I also know the date when the Metropolitan Opera announces its forthcoming season, which I look forward to the way cineastes anticipate the Oscar nominations.
One other set of dates, in January, are always written in indelible ink: the annual series of master classes, recitals and concerts at Carnegie Hall called The Song Continues, a series that was created and lovingly nurtured by Marilyn Horne when she turned 60 on Jan. 16, 1994. It was a glorious third act in an unparalleled career. No one has given back more to her profession than Horne, who decided that there were other artists who could teach opera but she had to preserve and support the exquisite and intimate art form that is the song recital. This is, in fact, a collaboration between two equal partners — a singer and a pianist (we no longer use the term accompanist, which implied subservience).
I go to master classes all the time and have taught a few in the U.S. and Europe. I adore them because I learn so much from the artists who are teaching. I read the text as the students sing and learn the subtleties of language, how words are shaped, vowels are sounded and consonants are stressed or coddled. The amount of work and personal investment that a singer and pianist put into each song is extraordinary.
There was a time when many opera singers devoted a portion of each year to recitals that included the wonderful repertory of German Lied, French chanson and songs in Italian, Russian, Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, Finnish and numerous dialects spoken in Europe. And then there is the amazing and underappreciated song literature in English by British and American composers that native speakers have advocated for and, when possible, commissioned from living composers.
In her career, Horne sang recitals in every American state, the last one being Wyoming. Certain artists in the generation behind her, including Thomas Hampson, Renée Fleming and Stephanie Blythe, have held high the value and standards of the vocal recital. It was customary for serious young artists to give a debut recital that was covered by the critics. It was a rite of passage. I vividly recall Hampson’s stunning debut in the 1980s at what was then called Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill). It was all the talk in musical New York the next day.
Due to changes in taste, the economics of the classical music business and (I believe) that we are forgetting how to focus, concentrate and listen, the vocal recital is not something many people can experience. Remedying this became Horne’s mission, she built a foundation and through the years enlisted many of the finest musicians to teach young singers and pianists. In recent years, The Song Continues was folded into the activities of the Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall’s wonderfully comprehensive educational initiative.
Horne is a marvelous teacher who combines a superb ear, the ability to effectively communicate concepts that can seem abstract and just the right amount of good humor and tough love when those are called for. Watch this class she taught at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where she heads the vocal program.
At Carnegie Hall, Horne told stories about singers and composers and then quickly abandoned those subjects to zero in on a detail of technique. She explained to a singer that putting the letter H behind certain letters, it gives a particular flow to the music. For a famous aria by Donizetti, she said that “adding the H helps tenors: Oooh-nah Foor-teeh-vah Lah-greeh-mah … ”
Dame Felicity Lott gave the singers great freedom to make each song quite personal rather than asking them to conform to traditional notions. But then, with great delicacy, she sanded and polished their interpretations in the most non-invasive yet profoundly insightful ways.
The revelation to me was pianist and teacher Margo Garrett, who has taught at major institutions in America and Europe. She explained that both singer and pianist are storytellers and that this is anchored in the German cultural tradition. She was explicit with pianist Nathan Raskin about how using the pedal on his instrument could affect storytelling: “The pedal gives resonance and can be played loud with a ‘damper’ pedal and the effect will not be as penetrating as softer playing with the pedal. Never use the damper pedal when playing forte.”
Each teacher had a different opinion about the use of hands during a recital. Horne: “I have a thing about people standing with their hands at their side unless it is planned. It looks too much like a student. They have to be used.” Garrett said, “I don’t like much use of hands. I prefer the use of voice and face. Hand movement should be natural.” Lott said, “If you are going to use gestures you must be careful as they can be quite distracting. Draw people in with your concentration. That said, my hands and arms have a life of their own and I am not sure what they are going to do!”
This year’s crop of students was outstanding: Sopranos Erin Alcorn, Dorothy Gal, Caitleen Kahn, Brittany Nickell, Alexandre Smither and Anne Wright; mezzo-sopranos Noragh Devlin and Marjorie Maltais; countertenor Wee Kiat Chia; tenors Ricardo Garcia and Patrick Shelton; bass-baritone Ted Pickell; and pianists Zalman Kelber, Nathan Raskin, Madeline Slettedahl and Katelan Terrell.
Horne’s last year at the helm of The Song Continues will be 2018. After that, it will be placed in the secure hands of Renée Fleming, herself an excellent teacher.
Put these 2018 dates in your calendar now for the events in The Song Continues: Spotlight recital (Jan. 23); master classes: Marilyn Horne (Jan. 24), Graham Johnson (Jan. 25), Renée Fleming (Jan. 26); and Marilyn Horne Song Celebration concert in Zankel Hall (Jan. 28).