Saturday, June 19, 2010

Maureen Forrester
Maureen Forrester has passed away. My friend Emily sent me the news today. Those who know me will know what she meant to me.
I first met her at William and Mary in October 1983. My friend Tom Field came to visit me at the listening library, where I was working part-time. He told me that she was going to give a recital that evening at PBK Hall. Tom, who seemed to know everything about classical music, told me that she was a Mahler specialist. He had introduced me to Mahler by playing the First Symphony for me once. I don't remember being particularly impressed at the time. 
So I needed some more motivation to go to a Liederabend. I had just returned from a year in Münster, where I had discovered music in a profound way through personal performances. My best friends there were students at the music conservatory, so we spent at least one evening every week at a concert there. Usually I got to know the performers and listened with rapt attention to them talk about the intricacies of the pieces they had played. 
I now realize that a large part of my passion for music has to do with wanting to connect to the musicians.
So Tom and I read her biography in the library and he said, "Trust me on this. Go to the concert." Thank you, Tom!
I had recently become the classical music DJ at WCWM, the campus radio station. Most of the other DJ's those days played punk. I had a pretty good 4-6 p.m slot Monday through Thursday. That afternoon I looked to see if any of the recordings which we had seen listed in the biography were in the radio station's library. I found two: Brahms and Mahler. I played the Mahler "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" for my listeners that afternoon and heard the four songs by the young composer for the first time myself. I liked them a lot.
That evening Maureen Forrester charmed me with her stage presence and impressed me with her vocal quality. She sang Purcell, Wolf and some contemporary songs by Canadian composers. After the concert, Tom and I went backstage (a habit I kept up for 10 years) to talk to her and get her autograph. 
It wasn't until a year later at an orchestral concert in Richmond (Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto) that Tom taught me to only say, "I enjoyed your concert very much." That evening I told her everything on my mind. I told her about how I had played her records for the radio station that afternoon. I said my favorite of the Mahler songs was "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld" and she started singing it for me. I excused myself and went upstairs to the radio station and brought down the records, which she had made in the late 1950s. She later told the Dean of Students how impressed she was by how knowledgeable I was about her and her recordings. 
Her pianist asked me to take a picture of the two of them there with his Polaroid. I did so and as we watched the picture develop in his dressing room, I said, "I'd kill to have a picture of Maureen and me." He said, "Let's go!" So that's how the picture above came to be. 

After graduating from college, I went to Europe to look for a job and lap up the cultural riches which seemed to me strewn over the cobblestone streets. After realizing how difficult it would be to break into the European job market with a B.A. in German and little business experience, I began looking for other solutions to my employment dilemma. I wrote Maureen and told her I would like to be her private secretary, chauffeur, whatever. She wrote back a charming letter, saying she did all that for herself now and suggested I offer to help out a young singer who was just starting a career. I replied that I'd keep my ears open.
Visiting my sister in Vienna, I would sometimes go to two concert an evening - 6 p.m. in the Bösendorfer Saal for a piano recital and hurry over to the Philharmonic for an 8 p.m. orchestral concert. But that's another story.
I hadn't quite run out of money after six months, but somehow I heard that Maureen would be singing the solo part in Mahler's Third Symphony in Washington D.C. on Mother's Day (1985). I thought that was a good enough reason to head home. I ordered tickets (way before it was as easy as a mouse-click) for my Mom and me and Ody and his mother. We spent the night at Ody's in McLean the night before and drove to the Kennedy Center together. Mstislav Rostropovich (whom I had heard in Recklinghausen with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and an encore of a Bach Suite in 1983) conducted the mammoth work. I was in heaven as Maureen sang, "O Mensch! Die Welt ist tief." During the applause I walked down the aisle from the 33rd row and handed her a single red rose. 
After the concert I found my way back into the Green Room, where I heard the conductor and contralto exchanging compliments. I spoke with her and got another autograph. I also heard someone ask where she was staying.
The following day I called her from Richmond at her hotel in Georgetown and asked her questions about working with Bruno Walter ("If you were on his wavelength - which I think I was - he didn't have to explain much.") and about her favorite Mahler song (surprisingly "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen").
The following year I worked with Ody in his record stores in Northern Virginia, where I was responsible for ordering the classical stock (records and tapes until the first CDs arrived in early 1986) and keeping the classical customers happy (including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whom I didn't recognize when he ordered Händel's Messiah from me one Saturday morning). But that's another story.
I still hadn't heard Maureen live in Mahler's Second Symphony, which was the tape I pushed hard every Saturday morning when customers would come in looking for "something good." My chance to hear it came when I discovered that she was to sing it in Cincinnati. A childhood friend played French horn in the orchestra, so I called him and asked him to get us some tickets. Now I just needed a way to get there. My girlfriend from Austria was visiting me, but neither of us had a car (mine was in the shop again) that would take us there safely. Enter Janet:

Janet Kirkly was one of the DJs at the college radio station and was in the mood for a road trip, so she drove us there. She had never heard Mahler and didn't particularly like it, so she walked out at the end of the long first movement and had a cigarette down near the Ohio River. We had driven two days (broken up by a night in a motel somewhere in Pennsylvania). We had visited Charles and his wife and seen his practice room, which was lined floor to ceiling mostly with Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler LPs. 
So you drive two days to hear a big old woman sing a four-minute solo and you'd think you'd be setting yourself up for a disappointment, right? Not if the woman is Maureen Forrester. Again, I was totally enthralled, not only by my first Mahler 2 but by the way she turned "Urlicht" into the most moving piece of music I know.
We go there early and enjoyed the spring evening as the crowd entered the Riverbend Music Center.


I was blown away by the concert. Of course, Johanna wanted to take a picture of me with Maureen after the concert, so we made our way up onto the stage and I threw compliments at my favorite singer. When we returned to D.C., the guys at the record store couldn't believe I had gone on a road trip to hear "the fat lady sing" because they thought only Dead Heads followed the Grateful Dead. So they started calling her MoFo and me a MoFo Head. I yam what I yam.

The following year she published her memoir, Out of Character (available used via Amazon, etc.). It is quite a good read and includes lots of photos of her throughout her life.

Soon after this concert, I accepted a teaching position at Benedictine High School in Richmond, VA, where I taught American literature and German, coached soccer, did the yearbook and otherwise tried to set a good example for the cadets. My personal tastes in literature and music often clashed with those of my students, who couldn't understand what I saw in Mahler and Nietzsche. "That's all pretty fatalistic, isn't it, Mr. Martin?" Keith Warfel asked. In similar contexts he would sometimes dare to call me "Mr. Death." But that's another story.
I was lucky enough to hear Maureen perform Berlioz's "Nuits d'été"  and Mahler's Second in Raleigh the year in 1987.
Das Lied von der Erde was to be performed in Charleston, WV, in February 1988. My brave girlfriend and I drove over the mountains in a snowstorm to get to that one. When we arrived after eight hours of difficult driving, we found out that the tickets I had ordered over the phone ("Please give me the best ones available") were in the next to last row up in the balcony. I wasn't going to put up with that, so I went to the box office and explained to the two women there what an ordeal we had been through to get there. The younger woman started to explain that there was nothing she could do for us when the elder woman reached into the pigeon-hole with the green tickets and said I could gladly exchange ours for those at no extra charge. Tammi and I walked down to the fifth row and enjoyed Mendelssohn's Violin Concert and the Mahler. 
Afterward we went backstage for another visit and an autograph in her memoir.

She said she was happy to be able to put a face to the man behind the letters.

We spoke German and talked about the text of Das Lied von der Erde. Her rendition - live! - of "Der Abschied" was worth seven snow storms!

I must have said something funny. She loved a good laugh and had a wonderful sense of humor herself.

I heard her sing once more at the Kennedy Center in Brahms' Alto Rhapsody. She was already in her mid-50s and had just made a recording of great American theater songs. As an encore she sang "I like pretty things" and "That's what friends are for," the song that Diane Warwick had made famous again as a benefit for American Foundation for AIDS Research. She was, after all, singing with the Gay Men's Choir of Washington.
The last time I heard her sing live was in Trenton, NJ, where she sang the "Kindertotenlieder". I will certainly miss her, but her music will stay with me forever.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Worldwide Photo Walk, Stuttgart, July 24, 2010

For three years now, Scott Kelby has been organizing a couple of hours each year during which gregarious photographers get together to walk through their town and take pictures. Fynn and I did the walk together in 2009. Michael Dämbock led the walkers from the Schloßplatz, through the Schloßpark, up the train station tower and out to a beer garden in the Schloßpark. It was so much fun that I looked online to see who was doing it this year. No one had signed up to lead it yet, so I volunteered.
After the wonderful experience last year, I wanted to offer returning participants and new ones alike something different. It should be scenic yet also something I'm familiar enough with to be able to improvise if the weather turns foul.
Having lived in S-Ost for eight years now, I've learned that it has a lot to offer. The Muse-O is showing its second exhibition of S-Ost photographs now. Furthermore, the Werkstatthaus on Gerokstrasse is becoming an important place for me to develop my photographic skills. Frank Uhlig offers not only official courses on every imaginable aspect of photography but also helps organize an informal meeting of photographers there every six weeks. Finally, there is a group forming in S-Ost right now. There is no reason why S-Ost should not be showcased in such a forum.
In preparation for this walk, I've been doing some research. Gathering tips for a city walk. Walking myself. Doing tasks from Robert Hirsch's magnificent book. Dreaming up things to do during the walk. Talking to people. Organizing some special surprise highlights for the participants. I hope some of my photographer friends join my son Fynn and me on this walk, too!
So here are some tips gleaned from watching a Kelby Training Video, in which Scott walks through Manhattan with Jay Maisel. His style may not be yours, but if you want to try the "Jay Way" of city shooting, try out some of these ideas:

1. Leave your camera bag and heavy equipment at home. Take one camera and one lens. That way you don't have to worry about what lens to use in certain situations. Are you going to miss the shot of a lifetime because you took a wide-angle instead of a telephoto lens? Probably not. EXERCISE: Use a prime lens (50mm, 90mm, etc.) for one week. It will teach you two things: a) how to crop your pictures better and b) how to move around with your camera.

2. Take off the lens cap and the lens hood. The first is a no-brainer, but the lens hood? Doesn't that keep unwanted light rays off the sensor, thus making the pictures sharper because only the most directly aimed rays go in through the lens? Yes, but think about this, too: Most lens hoods make an already long lens much longer and more conspicuous. How can you make a picture of someone spontaneously if they saw you coming from two miles away?

3. Leave the camera on during your walk. The whole time. It has an energy save mode. And any battery will last 2-3 hours. Not sure? Take a spare one with you in your pocket. It would be a shame to miss a good shot by a split second.

4. Shoot at as high an ISO as your camera and your software will allow you to. Shooting in aperture priority mode at ISO 1600 will keep the shutter speed quick enough to compensate for long lenses. We're working with available light in the city and need all we can get. Sometimes the grainy quality of a high-ISO picture is attractive. TEST: See how your camera reacts in bright light at ISO 1600. Is the shutter speed capable of 1/8000th of a second? Maybe you need to close the aperture to 11. Or move the ISO down to 800 as long as you are on the sunny side of the street.

5. Use high-speed exposure bracketing. Taking three pictures of everything (one "perfectly" exposed, one underexposed by 0.7 and one over exposed by 0.7) may fill up your hard drive thrice as quickly, but it may also land you some space on a museum wall, too. Of course, you may say that you are shooting raw files and like spending time correcting the exposure on the computer. Fine, but the fact remains that if you take three shots of something/someone, the chances are much better that one of them will be in focus. It makes most sense to bracket if you are taking pictures of people or moving objects. A gigabyte for good odds! EXERCISE: Learn how your camera's bracketing functions. The Sony 700 can bracket in many different ways, including for white balance, dynamic range, and shutter speed. And it can bracket various numbers of shots at diverse ranges. Read your manual and try out the settings.

6. Walk slowly, not deliberately hurrying from Point A to Point B. Watch people. Learn to anticipate things. See relationships develop. Find a nice background and watch players enter and exit your stage. EXERCISE: Find a nice, inconspicuous place to sit or stand for a while. You should be facing a wall or line of trees that provide a nice, subtle background for your photographs. Capture people presenting themselves in front of your background.

7. Don't intrude on people's privacy. Smile at them while you are taking their picture. Tell them they are beautiful, interesting or captivating (they captured your attention, didn't they?). You can conclude by telling them they are now immortal. If they ask why you are taking the picture, tell them the truth. When in doubt about whether to shoot, ask yourself if you would like to be photographed in that situation. EXERCISE: Pair up with another photographer and take pictures of each other as you walk through town. How does it feel?

8. Do your "visual push-ups" every day. Take your camera with you wherever you are. Go out on photo walks every day. Practice. Johannes Brahms said the sign of a true artist is seen in the amount of creative work he throws away. What do you think?

9. On the other hand, take your pictures carefully. Some people prefer to say "make pictures" because you are in charge of setting them up the way you want them. Jay Maisel quoted someone else: "We don't take pictures; we're taken by pictures." That means there is often - or should be - a trigger that excites you visually and makes you want to capture an image. The trigger is something that excites you (through your eyes), such as a certain light, color, contrast, etc. Think about why you pick up a certain stone on a rocky shore. What was it that caught your eye? In other words, if there is absolutely no reason to shoot, don't shoot. Again, if you are practicing, for example, to see what wide-angle pictures of poinsettias look like, you have a reason to shoot. EXERCISE: Go out and try to tune into one artistic element for an hour - a color (shoot all things yellow), a certain brightness, a shape, etc. Look at the pictures as a collection and see what it is about that particular element that still thrills you even after you've put your camera away.

10. Ask yourself (preferably before you shoot) what will be different in the picture you are about to make from one that another photographer may have taken from that very same spot (below the Eiffel Tower, for instance). We all carry our life's experiences unconsciously and often fearlessly into whatever we do. Our art will be a product of our third grade math teacher, our driving instructor, our first lover and our last meal. If we see, through our art, that we appreciate symmetry and harmony, that may tell us something about us that we may not have known.