WDAV Blog

Q & A: Mezzo-soprano Maariana Vikse Describes How Opera Singing Helped In Her Fight Against Breast Cancer

Pictured (l-r): Maariana Vikse as the Marquise of Berkenfeld, with Matthew Burns (as Sergeant Sulpice) and Carl DuPont (as Hortensius) in Opera Carolina’s production of The Daughter of the Regiment. Photo Credit: Mitchell Kearney Photography.

Performing opera professionally is always challenging, but especially so when you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Mezzo-soprano Maariana Vikse, who sings the role of the Marquise of Berkenfeld in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment told us about her experience.

Maariana Vikse

Maariana Vikse

Q: The physical demands of a professional opera career are considerable. How has your recent diagnosis of cancer affected your ability to rehearse and perform?

Maariana: Miraculously it has not gotten in the way. During my treatment, on days I was feeling well enough, I would sing. It kept my muscles supple, especially in my ribs, it brought circulation to the area and the deep breathing helps so much with the mental aspect of going through something scary and traumatic. I also forced myself to workout through the treatment so even though some days I was in pain or exhausted, I was able to keep the rest of me fit.

Once I was done treatment, I was able to build myself back pretty quickly. My body felt so happy to get back to “normal.” Having to build my endurance back up has given me more awareness of all of the muscles involved with singing, so in a way I feel like I have more understanding (and appreciation!) for what they do!

Q: People dealing with illness often report that music is an indispensable aid to recovery. Have you found that to be the case, and do you think being a musician has made a difference in your ability to fight the disease?

Maariana: I do not know how anyone goes through breast cancer without being an opera singer. Again the deep breathing and vibrations from my voice were incredibly healing. Listening to beautiful music is incredibly calming and centering. During radiation treatment I would “sing” my favorite aria in my head from Samson et Dalila, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” which translates to “My heart opens and the sound of your voice.” Each treatment was 25 seconds. I had timed it so when I finished “singing” the phrase my treatment was over for the day. Also doing this helped to distract me from the noise of the radiation machine.

Q: Is there anything about the role of the Marquise of Berkenfeld in Daughter of the Regiment that is especially challenging for you now?

Maariana: The Hat! And that has nothing to do with cancer. I wear a big, gorgeous, feathery hat for the entirety of the first act. I think it weighs 25 lbs. and it is on top of a wig. But it’s so fantastic I will make it work!

Also I would like to thank everyone at Opera Carolina. When I told them about my diagnosis initially, not only did they give me their full support but they stood by my decision to see if I could get through the treatment and recover in time to perform. Knowing I had a “gig” waiting for me at the end of treatment helped me to push through, and gave me hope and motivation. Now being [on stage], throughout this entire rehearsal process everyone has been amazing. Maestro Meena is always making sure I’m doing well and giving me encouragement, and the rest of the cast and the chorus members have been so kind and sweet, offering any help I need. I truly could not have asked for a more supportive and wonderful company to reinvigorate my career.

Q: What’s your favorite moment as a performer in the opera?

Maariana: Without a doubt listening to the overture. Waiting to go on stage. Hearing the crowd murmur, the anticipation and excitement of stepping out and sharing this amazing music with the audience. It [has] an incredible energy. It’s like the countdown to liftoff. It’s always my favorite part. It’s the time when all of the hard work comes together and you’re about to create something unique for that audience, that night.

Q: What are you especially looking forward to after this production, artistically or personally?
Maariana: Everything. I know that sounds silly, but everything is such a blessing right now. Even though my cancer was found early it was absolutely terrifying. No matter what stage of your life, or the stage of the cancer, when you hear the “C” word you feel like your life is over. To come to the other side and be given a chance again, it’s the most incredible feeling. Everyday that I get to sing is such a gift.

Learn more about Opera Carolina’s performances of The Daughter of the Regiment here.

Q & A: Gullah Music Quintet Ranky Tanky Brings Lowcountry Sounds to Davidson

Ranky Tanky, whose name translates to “work it” or “get funky” in their native Gullah language, travels to Davidson, NC on November 16th as part of the Davidson College Artist Series. The series aims to bring innovative and diverse artistic work to the Davidson College campus and local community, and Ranky Tanky’s visit is no exception. The quintet has been profiled on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and their album soared to the top position on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Jazz Charts. They also headlined at the 2018 Spoleto Festival USA to rave reviews.

Charleston, SC based Ranky Tanky performs timeless music of Gullah culture born in the southeastern Sea Island region of the United States. From playful game songs to ecstatic shouts, from heartbreaking spirituals to delicate lullabies, the musical roots of Charleston, SC are “rank” and fertile ground from which these contemporary artists are grateful to have grown.

In advance of their performance at Davidson, we were able to ask a few questions of Clay Ross, guitar and vocals, to learn more about Ranky Tanky and their work.

Q: What are your musical backgrounds? How has your training allowed you to be successful as an artist?

Clay: I started playing the piano when I was three years old and eventually went on to the trumpet. I have had both formal training with private instructors and a college degree in Music Performance, as well as a lot of training by simply listening and paying attention, especially in church!

Q: What makes Gullah Music different from other styles of music?

Clay: Actually we can argue that Gullah Music has been a strong influence to many other styles of music, including Jazz, Blues, County, and Folk. One of the most obvious elements of Gullah is the rhythm and it has been influencing all of those other styles for quite some time.

Q: Why is your work important in helping to preserve Gullah culture?

Clay: I believe that Ranky Tanky’s method of giving some of these songs a new sound that is more contemporary, as well as simply talking about the Gullah culture, is helping. We have been blessed to have traveled to a number of places where Gullah is just not known at all. The fact that we are there, talking about it, singing about it…that is helping!

The Davidson College Artist Series brings Ranky Tanky to Davidson College on Friday, November 16, 2018 for a Gullah singing workshop with students and a public performance. For more information about the concert, click here.

Danny Elfman and The Nightmare Before Christmas

By Ross Hickman

Danny Elfman has a penchant for the odd, the mysterious, and the downright terrifying. Drawing on such musical luminaries as Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Maurice Ravel, Elfman does not shy away from unconventional and unsettling themes. His numerous scores for such spooky films as Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands strike up an inescapable tremor. Nowhere is this plainer than in his compositions for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman/Wikipedia

Working as the composer of its score and singing the part of the main character Jack Skellington, Elfman imbued this Halloween favorite with a tantalizing combination of light-heartedness and nails-on-chalkboard eeriness. Like much of his other work, the musical narration of The Nightmare Before Christmas is off-beat and full of clever contradiction. Though the creeps do indeed crawl in Elfman’s score, playful saxophones and sentimental strings add layers of emotional color in an otherwise bleak landscape. One gets the sense that Elfman, by virtue of his name, might have some inconspicuous allegiance to the day after The Nightmare Before Christmas. Nonetheless, after hearing the jarring laughter and peculiar voices once more, the unique sounds of Elfman’s imagined Halloween jump back out.

Elfman’s vocal parts in The Nightmare Before Christmas are just as formidable. Elfman takes on the role of the “Pumpkin King” with an extraordinary capacity for expression. As Jack Skellington, Elfman snarls with nasally malice and croons longingly – seemingly in the same wispy breath. Other songs, such as “Jack’s Obsession,” accentuate the contrast between high-pitched shrills and deep, unnerving groans. Ken Page, the singing voice behind the nefarious antagonist “Oogie Boogie,” conveys an almost comical vocal portrait of this villain – if it weren’t for the utterly horrifying moments that punctuate his “Oogie Boogie’s Song.”

With the jingles of bells next to shrieking notes, Elfman flouts the stereotypes of holiday-centered music. The barriers between the softness of Christmas and the sharpness of Halloween tumble, just as the elements of Elfman’s compositions soar in ways that obscure their relevance to either. Contrast is the essential ingredient in Elfman’s musical cauldron – a brand of contrast that plucks at the chords of tradition holding each holiday in its place. The result is, as the narrator of the film begins with, from “a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.” Or perhaps, your nightmares.

 

Ross Hickman is a freshman at Davidson College and works at WDAV.

Q & A: Soprano Melissa Givens on Considering Matthew Shepard

Considering Matthew Shepard is a contemporary oratorio written by Craig Hella Johnson, founder and director of the acclaimed choral group, Conspirare. The work is a powerful and moving artistic response to the death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in October 1998.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of this tragic event, WDAV will feature Considering Matthew Shepard in its entirety on Sunday, October 7 at 6 p.m.

We’ve also spoken with soprano Melissa Givens, one of the singers featured in the memorable work. Givens currently serves on the voice faculty of Pomona College in Claremont, California. A Davidson College graduate, Givens has been involved with the project since the beginning and is traveling nationally to present the work in performance.

Melissa Givens

Melissa Givens

What has it been like to be a part of this monumental project?

It has been an amazing, touching, soul-opening experience. Each time we sing Considering Matthew Shepard (CMS) is another opportunity to introduce people to Matt and to gain new insight into this brilliantly written piece of music.

Composer Craig Hella Johnson has said that the voices of Conspirare were in his mind as he was writing this oratorio. Describe the process of learning, rehearsing, performing and recording the work.

We first prepared CMS for Conspirare’s 2014 ComPassion Festival. At that point, all that existed was a portion of the Passion section. Even then, we could tell what an affecting work it would be. Our first read-through was incredibly emotional. Between Matt’s story, the texts, the music, and just the pride we felt for the accomplishment of our friend and colleague, the tears flowed freely.

Later, with the completed score in hand, it was a joy to see how Craig structured the finished work. It mirrored the collage form of the Carillon concerts for which he is known; drawing disparate styles of music together into a glorious whole. He wrote to our strengths, making the learning process both challenging and familiar at the same time.

It was exciting to see CMS come together as the rehearsal process continued. To hear the orchestrations the first time our instrumental colleagues joined us. To see the audience reactions in the first dress rehearsals and the premiere in Austin.

The culmination of the birthing process was the recording sessions at Goshen College. Fortunately, those familiar surroundings mitigated any nerves we had about getting the recording right— both for Craig and for Matt.

What are the highlights for you, specifically, as a soloist with the ensemble?

Lesléa Newman wrote a beautiful book of poems about Matt’s death, October Mourning. Craig used some of the sections written in the voice of the fence in CMS. I am one of the three singers who portray the fence in arias. Besides singing beautifully written music, it is rewarding to be entrusted with one of the many emotionally laden moments of the evening.

You’ve been traveling with the ensemble presenting a national tour of Considering Matthew Shepard. How has the work been received at these programs?

The audience response has been universally positive. We can always hear sniffling throughout the evening, so we know that some audience members are connecting to it emotionally. Occasionally an audience will be moved to complete silence at the end and it will take a moment before the applause begins. But when it does, it is always generous and sustained. People will stop us to talk after the show to tell us how moved they were, or to tell us how grateful they are that this work exists.

As a follow up, how are you feeling about the upcoming performance of the oratorio in Laramie this October?

I expect that it will be very special, very difficult, and incredibly moving to honor Matt in that way in that place.

Why is a piece like this important and even essential in helping to remember Matthew Shepard and his story?

Matt was an ordinary boy murdered by hate. That fact alone is enough reason why he should be remembered. But we’re also in a time when hate has been weaponized, so an antidote is needed. The music of Considering Matthew Shepherd not only memorializes a murdered boy, but celebrates him—and reminds us all that love is the answer; that loving one another is how we save the world.

Copland and Bernstein

Pictured (l-r): Bernstein with composer, mentor and friend, Aaron Copland at Bernardsville, NJ. August 1945. Source: Library of Congress

By Clara Hare-Grogg

On November 14, 1937, Harvard undergraduate student Leonard Bernstein was attending a dance recital where he happened to be sitting next to Aaron Copland. Because November 14 was Copland’s 37th birthday, he invited everyone on the front row to a party after the recital. At the composer’s request, Bernstein performed Copland’s complex and challenging Piano Variations, greatly impressing Copland and igniting a friendship that lasted more than half a century.

After their initial meeting, Copland became an informal professional mentor to Bernstein, advising him in musical composition and introducing him to his musically elite connections. Copland was also a sympathetic friend and supportive father-figure with whom Bernstein could discuss personal troubles such as his social life, sexuality, and politics.

Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein

Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein and Copland’s personalities complemented each other; while Bernstein was known to be overly emotional and flamboyant, Copland was more reserved and often described as “plain.” Their many differences, accompanied by mutual trust and admiration between Bernstein and Copland, enabled each of them to be the other’s greatest critic. Bernstein gave Copland conducting tips, and was at times brutally honest in his opinions of Copland’s new compositions. Similarly, Copland, the preeminent American composer of his generation, was generous with his time and advice regarding the younger composer’s compositional efforts.

Copland’s letters to Bernstein ended when he developed Alzheimer’s. Both friends died in 1990, within three months of each other. Bernstein’s last letter to Copland reads: “My dearest Aaron: May God, wherever he is, bless you today and every day forever—All my Love, Lenny.”

– 

Clara Hare-Grogg is a senior at Davidson College where she double-majors in music and anthropology. Clara studies violin with Joseph Meyer and serves as the concertmaster of the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

Bernstein’s Growth as a Conductor

By Ken Daegeon Lee

In 1936, Bernstein started attending Harvard University as a general music major. At this point, Bernstein had never conducted; he’d composed one piece, and all he had was immense skill on the piano keys. However, throughout his career at Harvard and then the Curtis Institute of Music after that, Bernstein grew immensely as both conductor and composer. This development was caused in part by his chance meetings with two people; conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and composer Aaron Copland.

Dimitri Mitropoulos visited Harvard in 1937. Bernstein, as a budding master pianist, played a few pieces for him at a reception including a couple of his own compositions. Surprised at this young musician’s skill, Mitropoulis invited Bernstein to come watch him rehearse and conduct. Bernstein accepted; as he watched Mitropoulis energetically and emphatically conduct the orchestra, Bernstein realized the amount of skill and work required for the position. Afterwards, Mitropoulis told Bernstein that he had much talent. This recognition, as well as their friendship, helped Bernstein bolster the confidence to move against his father’s wishes and pursue a career in music.

Next, Bernstein met Aaron Copland at a concert; he got himself a ticket to Copland’s birthday party by gushing praise at the composer. There, Bernstein showed his prowess by playing Copland’s very own Piano Variations, a difficult, strange modernistic jumble of noise (that people usually ran away from). Copland and company was highly impressed; thus began their long relationship as mentor/mentee, lover/friend.

These two forces combined to propel Bernstein into his first contact with actual conducting – in 1939, Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music to study composition and conducting. He did extremely well academically, to the point where he often argued with his teachers on their teaching methods and professional opinions.

In the summer of 1940, Bernstein took a six-week internship at Tanglewood under renowned conductor Serge Koussevitzky. His talent was instantly recognized. Using the baton-less style (as Mitropoulis did) Bernstein conducted the orchestra to great success; the following year, he conducted at Tanglewood again, this time for a crowd of 22,000 people. His encounters with Mitropoulis and Copland enabled Bernstein to reach Curtis and Koussevitzky, where his raw talent for conducting was quickly developed and refined.

Ken Daegeon Lee is a Psychology and Music double major at Davidson College. He also composes electronic music and plays alto sax in the jazz ensemble. 

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

Bernstein Explores Themes of Nationalism, Race and Greek Society in Harvard Writings

Pictured: Leonard Bernstein, 1936. Photographer unidentified / Library of Congress

By Matt Begley

During his years at Harvard, Bernstein wrote two major works, The Occult and his Bachelor’s thesis “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music”. The search for appreciation and acknowledgment seems to permeate through both works.

The first of these, The Occult, written in 1938, was a fictional account of meeting Dimitri Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos was a well-known composer and conductor at the time. The two met at a reception for the Greek Society at Harvard, at which Mitropoulos invited Bernstein to attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsals the following week leading up to their weekend performance that Saturday.

The fictional account changes the names of people and places (ex. Leonard Bernstein to “Carl Fevrier” and Dimitri Mitropoulos to “Eros Mavro”), but clearly follows these events, adding references to Greek mythology and hyperbole to allude to this being like an Epic in feel.

The second, his Bachelor’s thesis, discussed the incorporation of folk elements and nationalism into art music. He wrote this in 1939, during the rise of nationalism and the rise of Nazi Germany. Bernstein separates nationalism in music into material nationalism (elements and styles of folk music) and spiritual nationalism (the embodiment of those in art music of that nation).

Bernstein notes that America, unlike many other nations, cannot be identified with a single racial or ethnic background, which limits the material nationalism that represents the entirety of the nation and restricts American composers to mostly imitating Europeans. However, Bernstein argues that musical elements in the African American tradition, specifically Jazz, provide the material nationalism source for American composers to make art music representative of the nation as a whole and embody spiritual nationalism.

The American composers he believes have overcome this using these are Copland and Gershwin. He uses Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as an example of merging material elements from Jazz into spiritual nationalism in American art music. Copland also provided invaluable feedback and guidance to Bernstein while he was working on his thesis.

 

Matt Begley is a senior music and biology major at Davidson College from Black Mountain, NC. He is also a member of the Davidson College Chorale.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.

Leonard Bernstein: The Harvard and Curtis Years

By Amelia Willingham

Leonard Bernstein entered Harvard in 1935 aspiring to be a musician, yet at this point in his life he had minimal musical direction. By the time of his graduation from the Curtis Institute in 1941, Bernstein had built a solid foundation for himself as both a conductor and composer. Though his studies challenged and grew him, it was really the experiences he had and the mentors he learned from that made this time in his life truly pivotal.

Through his involvement in the Harvard Student Union, Bernstein conducted Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937), a highly controversial play faulting the system for working-class Americans’ lack of success. It elicited a Red Scare response in the 50s, and Bernstein became another suspected Communist-sympathetic American classical composer. Another of his most notable projects was his composition and conducting for the Harvard Greek Society’s production of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Each of these projects proved his collaborative skills and built up his confidence as both a conductor and a composer.

While at Harvard, Bernstein met and developed relationships with long-time mentors and friends, Aaron Copland and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Bernstein looked to each for advice as well as reassurance of his talent. Mitropoulos became a key conducting influence, even inspiring Bernstein’s The Occult. Copland served as a compositional mentor as well as a valuable resource for Bernstein’s senior thesis, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.”

Leonard Bernstein Graduation at Curtis Institute.

Bernstein’s Curtis Class of ’41 Leonard Bernstein Graduation at Curtis Institute. Source: Kristina Wilson/The Curtis Institute

At Curtis, Bernstein studied Piano with Isabelle Vergerova and Conducting with Fritz Reiner. Each instructor shaped his philosophy on music as well as pushed him to become the disciplined and highly skilled musician and conductor that he was.

In his first year at Curtis, Bernstein conducted Curtis’ orchestra in Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and Brahms’ Third Symphony. In 1940, Curtis director Randall Thompson included one of Bernstein’s original compositions in a broadcast, boosting his self-confidence in his compositional skill. While at Curtis, Bernstein maintained contact with Mitropoulos and Copland, and even received offers from both to work under their mentorships. While Mitropoulos’ offer fell through due to Bernstein’s lack of Union Membership, Bernstein was able to be a composition student under Serge Koussevitzsky at Berkshire Music Center.

Leonard Bernstein’s experiences both at Harvard and at Curtis, through his relationships with mentors as well as his many accomplishments, propelled Leonard Bernstein along the path of composition and conducting, shaping his philosophy along the way.

Amelia Willingham is a Senior Music Major and Hispanic Studies Minor at Davidson College from Charlotte, NC. She works for Davidson Technical Services and spends much of her time arranging music for and singing with her a cappella group, The Nuances.

In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series. Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.

Please consider also joining us for a production of Bernstein’s Mass at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts on Sunday, September 30th at 3 p.m. at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem. A private reception for WDAV listeners will follow the performance. For more information, visit our webpage here.