My three most powerful musical experiences

By Frederic Friedel

My father Alois was a classical music devotee. He spent a number of years in Italy, mainly Naples, and visited the opera as often as he could. He told us he had seen La Traviata twenty-one times, and that he had dined, personally, with Enrico Caruso. As far back as I can remember we always had classical music, mostly opera, filling our home — shellac 78 rpm records playing on a gramophone.

When I was seven we spent a month in Naples. On the first evening I went down to the beach with my mother, and when I returned I sang “Santa Lucia” to my father. I have seldom seen him cry, but this was one of the times he had tears in his eyes. “Where did you learn that??” he asked. From an old man on the seaside. I can still sing it in the version I learned at the time, without actually understanding the text:

Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento.
Placida è l’onda, prospero è il vento.
Venite all’agile barchetta mia,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

My father immediately bought me a shellac disk with his beloved Caruso singing this, and I recently found the sounds I remember from my childhood on YouTube.

So I became a classical music devotee myself, had hundreds of LP records, then DVD albums, went to classical concerts and operas. And I had some very profound musical experiences. For instance I listened to Joan Sutherland from a very good seat at the Hamburg Opera, and spoke with her and her husband Richard Bonynge afterwards. They were very graceful and discussed music (and the city of Hamburg) with me for quite a while. I also mounted the stage after a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau concert, and stood close to him as he sang Erlkönig, a Schubert song I have known and loved since my childhood.

All the classical recordings, which are now copiously available on on YouTube, send chills down my spine. There are too many to mention, but I will give you two examples: first listen to Yuja Wang play the Liszt version of Schubert’s Erlkönig. Or the following rendering of E strano from La Traviata — sorry Maria, Joan, Sumi Jo, this Korean soprano, Lee Myung-Joo, possesses a technical and artistic perfection I have not experienced in fifty years of listening to Violetta. Although: Maria Callas, pretending she will not take the final e-flat and then belting it out with full force … shiver, shiver.

But let us come to the subject of today’s article, the most powerful musical experiences. None of the above, exhilarating as they were, are in the top three. The following surpasses them.

3. Barbara Kind

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I was at a function in Berlin and they had a musical interlude: the soprano Barbara Kind (rhymes with “wind”) sang a number of arias, all beautifully performed. At the ensuing gala dinner I joined her at her table and told her how much I liked her voice. I mentioned how well she was able to develop the tremolo on key notes. “You mean ‘vibrato’,” she corrected me. “Yes, of course, I’m sorry, I keep mixing up the two. Can you explain the exact difference?” That she did, Barbara Kind, much in the way Christopher Jacklin explains it here. Tremolo is essentially the variation of amplitude, or the very rapid repetition, of a note. It is mainly used in musical instruments and by jazz and pop singers. Vibrato is the periodic variation in pitch (frequency) of a note. “Let me give you some examples,” Barbara said, and proceeded to do so. The entire hall went still, conversation stopped, spoons froze in midair. Everyone turned to look. And I was sitting three feet away from the singer. Thank you Barbara, for the lesson and for the incredible musical experience.

2. Nina

Some years ago we had a young Australian student staying with us. Nina was fifteen and a lot of fun to have around. I (half) convinced her that I had no short-term memory and looked at her in bewilderment when she appeared first thing in the morning. “Who is that?” Nina diligently explained each time.

One day I was playing on our Yamaha piano when Nina entered. “Ave Maria,” she mumbled. “It’s Bach’s first prelude, from The Well-Tempered Clavier,” I explained. “They had just developed tempering keyboard instruments, which meant slightly mis-tuning the clavier so that it would sound good in all keys, independent of how many accidentals — sharps or flats — it contained. Bach wrote twenty-four sets of preludes and fugues, the first in C major, the second in C minor, the third in C-sharp major, the fourth in C-sharp minor, and so on. It was a kind of test to see if the harpsichord was properly tempered. This is the first in C major.”

Ave Maria,” Nina insisted, this time more emphatically. “Ah yes,” I replied, “Gounod wrote an Ave Maria based on it. You know it?” “Sure. Can I sing it?” Nina asked. “Of course,” I said, and started to play the prelude from the start.

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During the recital my wife Ingrid shot this, with a camera that still used celluloid film.

What I didn’t know was that Nina had a fully trained voice, and she sang that Ave Maria like an angel. I could barely play, my hands were trembling. It’s difficult to describe in words what it was like — and there is a better way: I advise you watch the following video of a (younger) girl singing Gounod’s Ave Maria during the semi-final of Holland’s Got Talent:

Amira is all of nine years old. It’s difficult holding back tears when you watch this video. But Nina, fifteen years old, was better! And she sang the entire piece (Amira does an excerpt), hit every note perfectly, and did this from three feet away. So you can imagine how I felt, and how I feel to this day.

1. Covent Garden

We were in London, my wife and I, and one evening we went strolling through Covent Garden, formerly a fruit and vegetable market in West End, now a popular shopping and tourist site. There are many cafés and outdoor restaurants, and quite a bit of street entertainment going on.

Well, at some stage we were passing an open-air restaurant when a young lady, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, approached me, holding out a hat with some money in it. Clearly she wanted a donation. “For what?” I asked her. She simply looked at me and smiled. “You need to tell me what I am giving you money for,” I insisted, but she just continued to look me in the eyes and smile. In the background there was a portable stereo playing some music. And suddenly, in tune with it, she started singing Carmen’s Habanera from the Bizet opera, just (you guessed it) three feet away from me. She was a professional singer from the Royal Opera House, which was located close by and also called “Covent Garden”. This lady was moonlighting for a little extra cash, and at the same time advertising the Covent Garden performances.

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Opera singers from Covent Garden performing on the streets in the year 2000

What this singer, whose name I do not recall, did was to execute Carmen’s mezzo-soprano aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (“Love is a rebellious bird”) much in the style of Maria Callas, who sang it in the same place, Covent Garden, many decades ago. And the contemporary singer did it with the whole Carmenesque flirt, performed for me.

Watch Callas doing Carmen, and try to imagine what it would be like standing right in front of her, three feet away. When my singer was finished I poured money into the hat, everything I had, and almost added my watch and mobile phone to it. That was the most powerful musical experience I have ever had. Without a doubt.

Addendum: Waddya know, it has become a tradition and there are scores of video from exactly the same location on YouTube — just search for “opera singer in covent garden”. Here’s an example that gives you an impression.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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