Notes on three master classes

Weill Recital Hall was packed to the gills, with people outside waiting to get in. Marilyn Horne took note of this, as she welcomed the crowd. “So, you think I know something, huh? We’ll see.”

marilyn horneThe great mezzo-soprano was giving a master class January 16, which is to say, a class in which a senior musician, or master, instructs students in front of an audience. This is for the benefit of the students and the audience alike. Horne does this here every January, in a festival she leads: “The Song Continues.” She also invites two of her colleagues to give master classes. More about this year’s guests in a moment.

Horne is a splendid teacher, direct, clear, commonsensical and wise. And funny. She refers to a humorous, offbeat song—any such song—as a “poisonality piece.” She herself is a poisonality piece.

She speaks excellent, crisp English, and she expects her students to speak the same way, or at least audibly: “Speak louder, honey.” And she is of course a stickler for words in singing. “Consonants, I want to hear lots of consonants. This is Deutsch. The only other language that’s as bad is English.”

Now and then, she will refer to one of her mentors, Lotte Lehmann, the German soprano (1888-1976). And she is now referring to herself as “Mother”—as in, “Angle yourself more toward me. Sing to Mother.”

After a student sings a Schumann song, Horne says, “Your take is different from my take.” Then, with a sly smile, “I’ve had my take a lot longer than you’ve had yours.” She gives her take, completely convincingly. I don’t say that every word she utters in this master class is a pearl. I do say it’s well worth hearing—pearl-like, actually.

The next night, she introduces the next master: “one of the great, great singers of all time,” and, in particular, “one of the great, great song singers of all time.” She’s talking about Jessye Norman, the soprano from Augusta, G-A. When Norman speaks, she doesn’t necessarily sound like she’s from Georgia. She doesn’t sound like she’s from anywhere. But she is a pleasure to listen to, like Horne.

Her first student has trouble pronouncing German words. And Norman spends a lot of time on that: “Ich,” “frölich,” “zum,” etc. I think this is a poor use of a great artist’s time (Horne has called her a “monument”). The student should get her German from a coach, or exchange student. But Norman is patient and kind.

And she has almost a newcomer’s delight in notes, words and syllables, though she has played with these things for many years. In a Duparc song, there is the word “splendeurs” (“splendors”). Speaking of just the first syllable, Norman says, “Take your time with it. It’s too wonderful. Too wonderful.”

The third “master,” giving his class the following night, is not a singer but a pianist: Dalton Baldwin, one of the greatest accompanists ever. The word “accompanist” is frowned on now; the preferred term is “collaborative pianist.” I myself find no shame in “accompanist,” and much honor.

Introducing Baldwin, Horne says that he will be teaching French songs, and only French songs. The French repertoire is a “hard sale” in America, she says—outside New York, that is. Just try it “in Great Bend, Kansas,” for example. The audience laughs as though Great Bend, Kansas, were the funniest, most ridiculous notion they have ever heard of.

Over and over, one hears remarks like this on New York stages. Always, there is the same reaction. I have a feeling they’re more civilized in Great Bend.

In any event, Baldwin is an A-1 teacher, brimming with wisdom and experience. He tells a singer that the word “frêle,” or “frail,” sounds “a little too healthy.” He tells a pianist that all his notes must have resonance, even the softest ones. Pianissimo is no excuse for lack of resonance.

He has another pianist transpose a song up for a singer—that is, play it in a higher key. A singer has the right to sing a song in any key, he says, and an accompanist must adapt. This is the way it used to be, I believe; and I think most “collaborative pianists” today would say, “No way, José.”

You may wonder whether Horne and Norman did any demonstrating—any singing, as they taught their classes. The answer is yes—they sang a little, almost inadvertently. The young people were lucky to hear these few notes. So were we all.