Interviewing Elizabeth Farnum Print E-mail
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Written by Lynn René Bayley   
Thursday, 14 February 2013

Interviewing Elizabeth Farnum

Elizabeth Farnum leads an extremely busy and active life in her dual role as a leading soprano performing modern music and a New York State-licensed wildlife rehabilitator. During her years in the New York area, Farnum and her husband, Kenneth, who is a keyboardist as well as music director/arranger for The GIZMO SynFauxNY, have been an exciting and highly respected example to others in both fields.

Well known for her versatility, wide-ranging repertoire, and high level of musicianship, Farnum has a busy international career, and has collaborated with composers including Samuel Adler, Anthony Braxton, Lukas Foss, Ricky Ian Gordon, John Harbison, John Zorn, Peter Schickele, and Charles Wuorinen, and appeared as guest soloist with many prominent modern music ensembles throughout the U.S. and Europe. She has appeared at London’s Institute for Contemporary Art, the American Academy at Rome, and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. She has performed Foss’s The Prairie with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Harold Meltzer’s Two Silas Marner Poems at the American Academy, Rome, Krystyna Naszar’s Song of Songs with the MW2 Ensemble in Krakow, Poland, Bartók’s Three Village Scenes with the American Symphony Orchestra, George Walker’s Poem with the New York New Music Ensemble, Wuorinen’s The Haroun Songbook at the Guggenheim Museum (world premiere), and Harbison’s Between Two Worlds at the June in Buffalo Festival.

I first became aware of Farnum through her 2002 issue of the complete soprano songs of Kaikhosru Sorabji (Centaur 2613) about a month before I was asked if I would like to interview her. Would I? You bet! Her performances on that CD were nothing short of revelatory, as was the music.

Q: If I may, I’d like to start with a question or two regarding that Sorabji album. How exactly did you discover his songs, and how did the recording project come about?

A: I was introduced to Sorabji’s piano works by my husband. His music struck me as extreme in almost every sense—boundaries were stretched, of length, tonality, musical complexity, demands on the performer—and yet the result was often strikingly beautiful. When I found that Sorabji had also composed vocal works, I became really intrigued, because I always like a good challenge! And I wanted to see what he would do for (and to!) the voice. I got copies of the songs (most of which have never been published) from the Sorabji Archive in the U.K. I soon discovered that Sorabji stretched boundaries for the voice as well, both vocally and musically (but not in length…interestingly enough, most of the songs are of standard length, and some are quite short, as opposed to his many gargantuan piano works). Some of the songs are rhapsodic in their sweeping melodies, and others are actually quite angular. They are extremely difficult—by far the most challenging pieces I’ve ever done—but the reward of experiencing this music from the inside out, so to speak, was well worth it.

At the time I discovered Sorabji’s songs (this was back in the mid ’90s, I think), I had been involved with a recording project that had been postponed, so I was casting about for another project. It turns out that his song output for soprano is just the right length to fill out a CD, so my pianist and I were off to the races with a new project!

Q: I don’t recall ever having seen or heard anyone else’s recordings of any of those songs. I also know that Sorabji was an extremely difficult man who seldom gave permission to have his work performed, let alone recorded. Do you happen to know if any other recordings exist?

A: I think a set of three songs was recorded in the U.K. by Jane Manning a few decades ago, but not for commercial release. I never did have a chance to hear it. Our recording was the first commercially available recording of the complete soprano song output, and it came out just about a decade ago. As far as I know, ours is still the only recording of the complete songs out there.

Q: I’ve noticed that you use Margaret Kampmeier as your accompanist on both the Sorabji CD and your current release of the Rosner songs. I was very impressed with her playing—she strikes me as much more than “just” an accompanist, but more like a full participant in the unfolding drama of each song. Is she your regular accompanist?

A: In my singing life in N.Y., I am truly blessed to have been able to work with some of the finest new-music accompanists out there, and Margaret and I have worked on several projects together, both in the studio and on the stage. Working with her is always fantastic—she’s not only a wonderful technical player, but she’s an incredible musician, especially when it comes to pulling the most delicate subtleties out of the music. And we just plain have a great time working together, which is also so important. You’re right about the Sorabji songs being more of an equal partnership than the singer being dominant with the piano playing a supporting role. Since Sorabji was a pianist himself, and wrote primarily for that instrument, his accompaniments are of a real tour de force nature, almost stand-alone pieces in some cases, rather than just supporting the voice. There really didn’t seem to be a primary/secondary hierarchy in his mind when he wrote the songs. And as the recording reflects, Margaret was more than up to the challenge of being just as front-and-center as the voice on this recording.

Q: While perusing your resume, Peter Schickele’s name jumped out at me. Was The Jekyll & Hyde Tour a combination of his serious music with that of P. D. Q. Bach?

A: Yes, you’re right—the Jekyll and Hyde Tour was in two “acts”—the first being music of good ol’ P. D. Q. and the second half consisting of Peter’s music—some of which was quite serious, and some of which had its own brand of humor, meaning Peter’s rather than P. D. Q.’s. I had the opportunity to fill in for Peter’s regular soprano on that tour, and I still remember it as one of the most enjoyable concerts I had done in a long time. It’s fun for a singer to be able to sing in several styles on one concert (classical, jazz, folk…singing in the style of a dachshund…!), and that was something that I particularly enjoyed. My background is in musical theater, and it’s really fun to still be able to tap into that background, which I got to do on that tour, since much of it was staged. I’ve worked with Peter on a few other occasions, too, most recently this past December.

Q: Your latest project, the Rosner songs, almost seems like a lark for someone of your accomplishment, meaning that the music sounds much easier to negotiate than, say, the works of Sorabji, Wuorinen, Elliott Carter, etc. How did you become involved in this project, and can you tell us a little about its growth into a two-CD set?

A: I’ve done some really gnarly and thorny projects over the course of my career, and yes, Rosner’s compositional technique is quite a bit more straightforward than that of some of the other composers I’ve collaborated with. We didn’t have a need to “woodshed” for the most part, which enabled us to get into the interpretation pretty much right from the first read-through. I’m a firm believer in the concept that just because something is difficult musically doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good (although a piece of music can certainly be both, as has been demonstrated by the three composers you mentioned, and many others as well). Over the years I’ve encountered a lot of really complicated and difficult music that seems to be so for no dramatic or “soulful” reason. For me, although I love the challenge of a complex piece of music, if there’s no soul or emotion behind it, it’s missing the most important component. Rosner has developed a musical language that is steeped in traditional tonality (often with a decidedly Jewish flavor), and he uses this language in a consistent way to present his dramatic ideas. A primary goal for me on this recording was to reflect the intention of this drama.

I first met Arnold at Kingsborough Community College, where he is an associate professor. I was out there to present some new music by another faculty member, and Arnold and I got acquainted. Soon after, he asked me to present a program of his music there. This was—oh, I don’t know—maybe 15, 16 years ago. Since then he’s asked me to collaborate on various other projects, including this recording, which originally was going to be a single CD of songs for soprano only. As we went along with the project, Arnold had the idea of expanding the project to include some more recent works, including a song cycle that involved a baritone as well as soprano, and some excerpts from his opera The Chronicle of Nine, which involved a tenor. There’s a song cycle on the disc that’s scored for soprano, piano, and horn, and Arnold asked the horn player if he would be interested in also recording a piece for the instrument by itself, and so that became part of the project also. Before we knew it, we had enough music to fill out two CDs, and that’s how the project has been released, even though it’s being offered for the price of one—I think there’s an ad elsewhere in this issue with info on that.

Q: In listening to the album, I noticed a distinct change in acoustic space during Of Songs and Sonnets— much roomier and more reverberant than any other track on the album, yet the CD booklet indicates only one recording venue, the Patrych Sound Studios in the Bronx. How was the sound modified for those three tracks?

A: Ah! Good question! We did indeed use a different acoustic space for the set of harpsichord songs, Of Songs and Sonnets, although Patrych Sound Studios still did the recording: they brought a remote setup to the space, which was actually an old gymnasium near my home on City Island in the Bronx. It has a fantastic acoustic, and it’s been used for other recordings as well. Best of all, it’s on the ground floor, which meant we didn’t have to lug the harpsichord up two flights of narrow stairs to the recording studio that we used for the rest of the project. That was actually why we chose to use that space, but the natural acoustic of the place was a great bonus.

Q: I was very impressed by your negotiating Rosner’s song cycle in Finnish, which is a very difficult language to sing. Did you use a language coach to help you through those songs?

A: This was my first time singing in Finnish, and I had a great time with the language. Believe it or not, I coached with a high school friend of my sister’s, who is Finnish and speaks the language fluently. I found her through the magic of Facebook, and she was really intrigued by the project, and became very enthusiastic about helping me out. We spent lots of time working together, both on Skype and over the phone. She was excellent as a coach, and really specific with me. She made a recording of the song texts for me, which was sooo helpful. Thanks to her, I felt very comfortable with the language by the time we did the recording, although as you said, it’s a difficult language to negotiate in song—lots of diphthongs, for one thing!!!!!!

Q: This may seem like a peripheral question, but I’m curious. Does your husband being a musician and piano technician help you in your work?

A: Oh, yes, and in so many ways, not the least of which is being incredibly supportive and understanding about what I’m doing with my life, and being a grounding force for me, which is so crucial. Kenny can completely relate to the business’s ups and downs, and I think that’s due in large part to being in “the biz” himself. He recognizes the strength of the commitment an artist has to make to his or her pursuits. If I need to go out of town on short notice for a last-minute gig, he’s totally fine with that. He occasionally goes out of town for keyboard gigs as well, and we both know that each other’s schedule is pretty unpredictable, both in our travel time and our always-changing schedules here in New York. We almost never sit down to eat dinner at home together, and weekends spent together are pretty much non-existent. That’s all OK with him, and I’m really grateful for that (the flip side of this is that the time we do have together always feels like such a gift, and we really revel in that. No falling into a rut for us!!). In addition to being on board with the schedule thing, Ken is so emotionally supportive of my ups and downs. Being in this business is an emotional roller-coaster (as I’m sure most of your readers well know!), and nothing is middle-of-the-road. I tend to react very strongly to things, both positive and negative, and Kenny truly keeps me centered and keeps my feet on the ground. As clichéd as it sounds, he really is my rock, and his own musical sensitivity and experiences give him a true understanding of the crazy emotions and stresses that the business can bring. And as an added bonus, we get a chance to actually work together from time to time. Our musical minds are very similar, and we have that special “two minds as one” thing when we perform together—it’s pretty amazing.

Q: If I may, I’d like to ask a couple of questions about your work as a wildlife rehabilitator. Does this mean that you rescue animals whose environment was removed due to human intervention (streets, homes, malls, etc.), or animals found injured in the woods, or both?

A: We do rescue a lot of injured animals, more due to human intervention than natural events, but we certainly see those cases as well. For a time, I worked with hawks and owls who had flown into electrical lines and suffered damage that rendered them unable to return to the wild—they were fantastic animals! They all had their own personalities. And then there are the inevitable cases of animals being hit by cars. We also see a lot of animals with neurological damage. That can be caused by a number of things; it can be from ingesting or breathing toxic substances in the environment. The removal of habitat can certainly be a factor, but the general safety or danger of the existing habitat is of real concern. It really is sad to see how destructive our human activities can be to the animals we share our space with. In addition to the injured guys, we see lots of orphaned but healthy animals, and they just need to be reared with some human help and returned to the wild, which is the ultimate goal with any animal—release back into its natural habitat, provided it has the skills to survive on its own.

Q: I’m assuming that because you have a very busy and active concert schedule that the time you can spend as a wildlife rehabilitator is more limited than you’d like it to be. Is that so?

A: Oh, yes, you have hit the nail on the head! I am so passionate about animals and nature, and I feel that a big part of my purpose on this planet is to do as much as I can to help and nurture them. I’m wildly interested in pretty much anything that has to do with nature. Then there’s my passion for music, which I would say is equal to my passion for working with animals, but doesn’t surpass it. BUT—I make money making music, and it provides me with my living, and rehabbing is done as a completely volunteer service. So by default, music takes precedence as the “job,” and rehabbing becomes the “hobby” (but don’t get me wrong—I love them both). Most of us do our animal rehab out of our homes. While a couple of central rehab centers have sprung up in the NYC area in the last couple of years, for a long time there was absolutely no central rehab center in the city. When I first began, I was working with marine mammals, and I drove two hours each way to get to and from the facility. Much as I loved it, it became clear to me pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be a workable thing for me. Between the long travel times and the fact that these places want a solid and consistent commitment from their volunteers (and rightly so), I realized that it just wasn’t going to be practical for me to volunteer at a facility and maintain my singing schedule. Rehabbing out of my home is also out of the question right now, since I’m not home often enough, or consistently enough, to keep up a schedule of care for animals on my own—it’s very time consuming. So at the moment I do a lot of phone work and I assist other rehabbers when they need some help, but that’s about it. So—sigh—there’s my big dilemma. I have these two equal passions in my life, and I’m still trying to find a balance between the two.

Q: Are there any other projects, including recording projects, that you’d like to discuss?

A: This is actually a really exciting time for me, with some fun things coming up. There are performances in the 2013 spring season of works by Mohammed Fairouz and Larry Alan Smith, and also a Brahms Requiem—a piece I haven’t had the pleasure of singing in years, having been so focused on modern music. And my liturgical gigs always keep me busy, especially around the Easter season.

A CD named Le Cirque, on which I appear, was released on the Furious Artisans label this past month by the Anderson-Fader Duo, and we’re stepping up promotion for that. I’ve recently teamed up with Bill Anderson and Oren Fader to form a trio, and with the help of our new management, we’re currently booking tours and concerts both in the States and overseas. We’ve commissioned some new works, including a piece by Canadian-American composer Frank Brickle that will be premiered here in New York in April. I’m particularly excited about this new trio—all three of us enjoy performing in a variety of genres, even though we’re all mostly known for our work in the new-music arena. We’re going to explore many genres, all the way back to early music, and up to folk songs and other contemporary music that isn’t classical in nature. I began my singing career in the worlds of theater, pop, and cabaret, and I also did a lot of early music back in those days. So it’ll be fun to revisit some of these different styles. I’m always trying to find ways to dedicate more time and effort to my work with animals, and this season I’ve added work on some marine projects at an aquarium in the area. I hope to continue doing that in a very significant way in the months, and hopefully years, to come. So, many good things to look forward to. Finding the balance, you know!!

ROSNER Psalm XXIII. 1,2 The Leaving Light. 1,2 Three Elegiac Songs. 1,2 Minstrel to an Unquiet Lady. 2,4 Into Thy Hands. 1,2 A Plaintive Harmony. 3 Songs of Lightness and Angels. 1-3 Poseidon. 1,2 Of Songs and Sonnets. 1,6 To the Keen Stars. 1,2 Strictly Personals 1,2,5 1 Elizabeth Farnum (sop); 4 Jonathan Goodman (ten); 5 Dominic Inferrera (bar); 2 Margaret Kampmeier (pn); 3 Daniel Grabois (hn); 6 Jeffrey Grossman (hpd) ALBANY 1353/54 (2 CDs: 118:26 Text and Translation)

This two-CD set, titled Songs of Lightness and Angels, is the completion of Arnold Rosner’s songs on disc. It’s essentially a production of enterprising soprano Elizabeth Farnum—whose CD several years ago on Centaur of the songs of Kaikhosru Sorabji took the musical world by surprise—though Minstrel to an Unquiet Lady features tenor Jonathan Goodman and one of the songs in Strictly Personals, “Swinging Couple,” features a duet between Farnum and baritone Dominic Inferrera.

Rosner, like many American composers who followed the lead of Aaron Copland, writes in a lyrical style that intermixes tonality and modality in addition to a clever use of chromatics in the accompaniment. I found his songs well matched in terms of music to words, although the music of the three-song cycle Minstrel to an Unquiet Lady tended, to my ears, towards monotony and thematic repetition. As in her groundbreaking album of Sorabji’s songs (Centaur 2613), Farnum makes an extremely strong impression on the listener with her musicality, expressiveness, sweet tone and excellent diction in presenting songs, while exhibiting some looseness of vibrato and occasional larynx strain in her top notes.

In both Minstrel to an Unquiet Lady and Into Thy Hands , I heard in Rosner’s music something of an approach to plainchant, with very simple accompaniment, little harmonic change, and rhythmically straightforward melodies. Both are adaptations of material from Rosner’s opera The Chronicle of Nine, based on the drama by Florence Stevenson. Tenor Goodman has an unusual voice: very pure of tone but slightly hollow, yet with excellent interpretive skills. It turns out that he was a member of the choral group Chanticleer, and has since sung the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. The lone instrumental piece on this album, A Plaintive Harmony, was written for Israeli hornist Meir Rimon in lieu of the horn concerto that Rimon wanted but Rosner could not find inspiration for. It is an unaccompanied piece lasting 11 minutes and is both very interesting in its lyrical but intense construction and demanding of the soloist. Sadly, Rimon died unexpectedly of cancer before he had the chance to play it. Daniel Grabois’s performance here is outstanding, however.

There’s an ironically funny history to the cycle Songs of Lightness and Angels. Requested by a horn player whose soprano partner was Finnish, he wanted the words to be in that language, which Rosner neither spoke nor understood. The duo did help Rosner understand Finnish phonetics and rhythm by phone, however. He worked hard and diligently on it and, sure enough, by the time it was finished hornist and soprano had parted company! This is a wonderful piece, though, full of unexpected harmonic twists and turns (hovering around A Minor), quirky yet attractive melodic structure (which in the second song sounds influenced by Hassidic music), and quite intense expression. Farnum’s voice sounds terrific here, with little or none of the slight defects apparent earlier in this recital. Small wonder the album was named after this piece: it’s terrific from start to Finnish! (Sorry about that, but I like it.)

Poseidon is another good song, also sung well by Farnum, but I was really knocked sideways by the baroque-influenced-with-some-modern-harmonies little cycle, Of Songs and Sonnets, set to words by John Milton. In this recording the acoustic is entirely different from the rest of the album, very roomy, as if recorded in a church, though the back of the booklet attributes all the recording sessions to “Patrych Sound Studios, Bronx, New York” between January and August 2010. And here, the music is really expressive, moving gaily and insouciantly between keys. The harpsichord accompaniment makes use of multiple stops, which gives the music a very crisp, forward propulsion. Nearly as good, in a different yet related style, is To the Keen Stars, set to the poetry of Shelley.

One of the cutest pieces I’ve ever heard, as well as one of the funniest, is Strictly Personals. Rosner wrote these himself, so you can’t accuse him of trolling the Internet or personal columns in the newspapers. The musical language here is a bit monotonous harmonically and rhythmically, but I think Rosner did this so that one could enjoy and occasionally laugh at the lyrics without thinking too much. In the five songs, Rosner covers the female entrepreneur, “successful and pretty, a wonderful catch,” looking for same…successful and rich, but if you’re not independently wealthy it’s OK, too, as long as you’re not bankrupt or owe a lot in alimony; the washed-out gay stockbroker who’s attempting a second career at a French culinary institute; the “love counselor” with her tarot cards and palm readings; a sad, older widower, looking for someone “who knows how to enjoy life [and] how to pray;” and—what else?—the ubiquitous “swinging couple,” looking for playmates of any sexual orientation or fetishes: “we take no prisoners, all identities, any ethnicity.” Here Farnum is joined by a young baritone, Dominic Inferrera, with a light, attractive, yet slightly unsteady voice, who does a generally fine job as the gay stockbroker, elderly widower, and half of the swinging couple. The album closes out with Five, a solo song by Farnum about the dilemmas of being at that awkward age—between infanthood and “real” childhood. Overall, then, this is a delightful duo-CD. If you are a fan of melodic contemporary music, you can’t go wrong with this one. Lynn René Bayley

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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