Ending on a high note: Favorites 2016

We’re coming upon the end of 2016, and with it, the one-year anniversary of my return to blogging. After about a month of writing on my old blogger site, I transferred everything over here to Books and Beethoven and determined that I was going to write more about both reading and music, which each hold high points in my life.

I lost momentum over the summer, but I’m determined to try again—new year, new me and all that. I started using a planner, and I’ve got a great Trello board for all of my writing plans.

I can do this.

Earlier today, Sarah asked the BR blog support group what our blog resolutions were, and I really had to think about goals that I might actually be able to keep up with. (If you remember, I wrote a whole post about goals for October, and then didn’t write anything until the end of November…)

Here was what I determined:

  1. More straight reviews of books and music
  2. Regular check-ins for Read Harder 2017
  3. Regular check-ins for Read My Own Damn Books 2017
  4. More writing about music as I encounter it

I will try my best to pull that off. If nothing else, monthly check-ins will continue, and random mental meanderings about music and books will come up.

Right. Favorites.

Here are some of my favorites of this year, in books, music, film, and TV. I’ll post a regular December wrap-up in the next few days, but I wanted to get this one out of the way when I was thinking about it.

Favorite Book Published in 2016

the-geeks-guide-to-unrequited-loveHands down, no question:

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash.

This book was just adorable and heartwarming. I loved the voice, and the characters, and all of the geeky goodness in this three-day story that takes place over the course of New York Comic Con.

Favorite Backlist Book Read in 2016

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I started reading this in 2012 after it started getting peppered with seals from ALA and all the rest of the book people. I got a few pages in and just wasn’t into it. But I needed a book to listen to and this one was available at the library, so I went for it.

What magic I had been missing. Lin-Manuel did a perfect narration, bringing to life the type of prose that I occasionally just don’t process the same when I’m reading it.

Favorite Read Harder Challenge Book

30688435So I didn’t actually complete the RH challenge, but I got close, and came across some really good books because of it. There are a lot of books I would have read anyway, but Exit West was one that I probably would have put on my Want to Read list, never to be seen or heard from again. It takes place in an unnamed country, but sounds like it could be the Middle East (and the author is from Pakistan, so it’s not a far leap). I probably wouldn’t have read this book if it hadn’t been dropped in my hands by someone from Riverhead Books, but I’m so glad I did. It doesn’t come out until March, so  I was glad to be able to read it so early, but I want to talk to people about it!

Favorite Read My Own Damn Books Book

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan is the second book in the Brothers Sinister series, and it is Historical Romance Perfection. It’s Victorian instead of Regency. The hero is a duke’s “natural son” with severe political aspirations, and the heroine is an heiress who will do anything to inspire disinterest (and even dislike) in gentlemen who need to marry for money. And the secondary romance is the sweetest.

It does things with stuff.

Goodreads tells me I added this to my to-read shelf in July of 2013, and Amazon says I bought it March of 2015. It was time. (I also owned the first one. Which I also read. It was wonderful, but this was so much better.)

Favorite Movie Seen in the Theater

MOOOOOAAAAAAANNNNAAAAAAA

I saw so many good movies this year; all of Disney and Pixar’s contributions were excellent. Rogue One was perfect. Loving was magnificent. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was tons of fun. But Moana was all of these things, not to mention it had amazing music (also written in part by Lin-Manuel Miranda) that I went home and downloaded and still can’t get enough of.

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Favorite New TV

Shadowhunters.

No, really. Seriously.

It took all the good parts of City of Bones and made them better. The writing improves as the season does, and Dominic Sherwood is a very attractive Jace. And of course, Malec. All the Malec. I can’t wait for it to come back; except now that I don’t have a DVR anymore I’m not sure how I’m going to work my way around that.

exclusive-first-look-of-malec-shadowhunters-season-2-01

Favorite Hulu/Netflix TV

Luke Cage was magnificence personified. I’m looking forward to more Defenders TV.

And I finally got around to watching Season 1 of Crazy Ex Girlfriend and it was worth it to just binge. I am in love with Rebecca Bunch (and Rachel Bloom). Also I bought the season one soundtrack and will never be able to watch Frozen without hearing “I Gave You a UTI”. Thanks, Hans.

Also, I’m four seasons into Smallville and I can’t look away.

Favorite Popular Music Discovery

Post Modern Jukebox is definitely the royal music maker of 2016. They were around before this year, sure, but this was the year they made it on my radar to the point where I had PMJ music playing in iTunes. Some of their covers are songs I know better than the originals, like Radiohead’s “Creep”. Man, that song.

Favorite Musical Theater Discovery

Waitress. I really loved seeing the long performance on the Tonys. Jesse Mueller is fantastic, and it was fun to watch Sara Bareilles glide in on her piano. (And the album is only 5.99 right now, what!)

Favorite Classical Performance

There were only two for me this year, and it was definitely the Fall performance of the Haydn Lord Nelson Mass and Mozart’s Solemn Vespers. I’ve done both of them before and preparation for this one really tightened up my knowledge of them. Also, they’re both just magnificent pieces of music.

Favorite Song of 2016

Is it any surprise that it’s “How Far I’ll Go”?

 

 

What were your favorites this year?

November Wrap-Up: Thanks, I guess?

Oh look, it’s December!

November was an interesting month. I finished a few books, but left many more incomplete or barely started. I spent Thanksgiving and Black Friday putting more words to paper than I had the entire rest of the month; and I was so worn out I couldn’t stick to anything else, really.

I “discovered” a new author, though I own four of her books. I’ve been collecting Courtney Milan’s books for years, but when I went about writing a historical romance series list and realized I couldn’t include hers because I couldn’t explain what made them different, I knew I had to remedy that.

And holy crap.

Not only does the Brothers Sinister series take place in the Victorian era instead of Regency, but her characters are witty and smart and have a much more worldly point of view than our favorite regency dukes and their heroines. Even the necessary duke wishes the aristocracy didn’t exist. Sadly, the second one got caught in my slump, but I don’t plan on abandoning her ever. I’ll make it back soon.

Other highlights from October and November:

The Soldier’s Scoundrel  – One of the nice things about M/M historical romance is the breadth of types you discover. Even in Regency and early Victorian stories, these gentlemen are often middle class and lower gentry. It’s refreshing.

Princess Princess Ever After – I can only squee. It’s soooooo darling and wonderful. If only there had been more of it. There needs to be a grown up version.

Beethoven’s Hair – After several years of meaning to read it (since I did work a floor below where the titled lock of hair lives now) I finally got around to this. It works works as a science book and a biography, as it alternates between describing Beethoven’s life and the story of the lock of hair, which they used to potentially discover the origins of many of his health problems.

The Accidental Movie Star – This one surprised me! It had been sitting in my kindle app for however long and I finally decided to try it out, completely expecting it to be one of those mediocre badly-designed-covered self-pubs that I find myself interested in. But no! I was almost immediately emotionally invested.

Under a Painted Sky – YA friendship-centered historical fiction about a Chinese-American girl and an escaped slave pretending to be boys? Yes, please.

The Midnight Star – This was the final book in the Young Elites trilogy and whoo doggie. Danger ahead.

Keeping Her Secret  – Cute and sweet, and bonus music!

Romancing the Inventor (with bonus review on Women Write About Comics!)

Goldie Vance – I haven’t been reading a lot of comics recently, but I’m glad I picked up this one.

Inferno – Once I discovered they’d continued the Robert Langdon film series, I realized I probably needed to read this. I had hate quit The Lost Symbol about 150 pages in, but it doesn’t seem to matter for continuing with the series. And Inferno was the book that brought me back into Dan Brown discipleship. Florence, Dante, Mystery, and Unexpected Twist Endings are all things that will make me either hate or love the shit out of a book, and this one managed to get me to go in the direction of the latter. If only the movie had been so kind.

The Boy is Back – This is the one book in Meg Cabot’s trilogy of nostalgia (she put out new adult books in the Princess Diaries universe and the Mediator universe this year, too) that I made it through and enjoyed. It helped that it wasn’t really part of a series; it was a completely new book with new characters, just done in the same tradition as the other Boy books.

Truth or Beard – Surprise book of the year, you guys! The Winston brothers are my new favorites. I am kind of waiting for the series to be done to continue, though. Just in case.

Four Letter Word  – J. Daniels is a new favorite. I was intrigued by the premise of this book: woman calls BFF’s cheater married boyfriend to curse him out and ends up calling the wrong number, and then starts a phone relationship. Talk about a twisted meet-cute, right?

Exit West  – So I was a featured Riverhead Loves Librarians librarian a while ago and a few weeks after that posted, my interviewer told me she’d be sending me something she thought I’d enjoy. Little did she know how much I would, and how I wouldn’t be able to finish a book again for a week.

Matilda  – Until I got to this one! Which I finished in a few hours. It helped me get closer to completing the Read Harder challenge, both as a book published in the decade I was born and a book that was adapted into a movie (I love the narrator of the book, but I like the way they expanded the movie’s plot).

November was also a heavy music month. Tucson Masterworks Chorale did two Austrian Masters concerts, featuring Mozart’s Somemn Vespers and Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, which is one of those that I unapologetically geek out about. My favorite movement is one with a million words that I still remember after doing it in 2008 with Symphony Silicon Valley, and I had been jonesing to do it again for years.

Mayhem did our usual second Sunday of the month, and I didn’t completely fail, which is always nice. Also, I found a new wig in the box that I will fight to use in every show. I might have to get my own, but I dunno. It’s a nice wig. Who knows how expensive it’ll be.

But it contributed to an awesome Captain America costume:

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photo c/o Tracy Lester

I musically ended November with a Messiah Sing-In, which reminded me that, with the exception of the Hallelujah Chorus and Part Three, I don’t actually know The Messiah. So it was…interesting…to sight-sing all those runs. Someday I’ll be forced to actually learn it and then I will be….UNSTOPPABLE!

Or something.

So yeah, I’ve got a little less to deal with musically this month, but I’m still not ready.

Business as usual.

On The Wiz and being a crossover artist

I finally sat down to watch The Wiz Live on Friday night. For the most part, the stars were Broadway or pop/r&b singers who have a certain vocal style. With some exceptions, the performances were well done (even if I wasn’t always thrilled with some of the “updated” orchestrations), and I’m jealous that students of the future won’t have to suffer through the 1978 version of “He’s the Wiz” while their music teacher screeches the Munchkins’ backup parts during classroom viewings. I was pretty happy with it.

And then Uzo Aduba sang “If You Believe”.

Uzo Aduba is a classically trained musician. She has a powerful voice and an amazing range. She sang that song. She could have mastered it, but she went too far in the Broadway direction and not far enough in the style she does best (even on Broadway).

I know a bit about that.

Since moving to Tucson, I have committed to being a part of two very different styles of musical performance. The first is something I have been doing for more than half my life: choral singing.

I started singing in real choral groups in middle school, having been in glee club since the first grade. Once I realized there was a whole classical side to singing in groups, I was all about it. I was in citywide groups and did whatever I could in high school. When I got to college, I auditioned for a couple a cappella groups but didn’t get in; probably best for me, because I would have probably been satisfied with whichever musical group I joined and not looked further. I went a full semester before I sent the director of choral studies an email asking if he took January additions for the Chamber Choir. He did, and I didn’t look back. However, I joined a research fellowship my Junior year and couldn’t commit to the time choir met, so my director got me into voice lessons, which sent my capabilities skyrocketing. But when I went to grad school, I knew I had to get back into the choir thing, so I joined the symphony chorus in San Jose, and then the small group that did more art songs. When I moved back to DC, I kept that momentum going and auditioned for one of the best known choral groups in the DC area—one that was a significant step up from my California group. But I took it in stride, and in four years became a much better musician with a hell of a repertoire under my belt. So obviously I wasn’t planning to let that fall to the wayside when I moved here.

My voice and mechanism hadn’t adapted to the desert climate when I auditioned for the symphony chorus here, and I just wasn’t prepared as I should have been, so I didn’t get in. Luckily for me, there are multiple choirs that don’t need auditions. I was in one of those for a year and a half, but scheduling opened up my chance to join a different one, which so far is going pretty well. (We’re doing Mozart’s Requiem and Zadok the Priest for the spring concert, which I’m really excited about.)

The other side of my musical coin is a much weirder animal.

I have always loved musical theater. The first music I knew was probably from West Side Story or some Rodgers & Hammerstein production. I was in a couple of school plays but really preferred choral stuff so didn’t do much of it. A few years ago, my work bestie (also the theater teacher) told me about auditions for a community theater production of Ragtime, one of the first shows I recall seeing at DC’s National Theatre, and I was all there. Preparing for and producing that show was rough, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Fast forward to Tucson. A friend from work’s boyfriend was the director of a small-time, wacky musical theater comedy troupe, and she often invited me to attend. I finally did and thought it was fabulous. So when auditions came up, I waxed and waned over whether I would take part.

Waxing won.

So here I am, a person very much used to preparing for something for months (and often still having the music in front of me, even if I don’t often use it) joining a group whose tagline is “Underrehearsed and Overdramatic.” I was pretty out of my element. But I was loving the chance to perform songs from musicals (and some other things, but mostly musicals).

Finally, we get back to the topic of this post: being a “crossover” musician.

My best singing style is classical. I have the most practice and training in it, and I resort to it when I need to. I know my theater belt is less than half my classical range, which I have lost a bit of since leaving The Washington Chorus, but still have, for the most part. I have been improving my theater voice (you know, practice and all that), but I still incorporate my vocal training when I feel the push. Or the pull. Or the strain. The things that tell me to switch gears  in order to not kill my voice.

You could hear Stephanie Mills doing it during “The Feeling We Once Had”.

(Oh yay, Uzo just won the SAG award as I’m writing this!)

Anyway.

In no way am I throwing any shade at Uzo. She is an amazing performer, as we all know. I’m just questioning the choices of The Wiz Live‘s directorship, and why anyone might have told her to belt instead of using her best voice. Was it the need to appeal to a certain audience? Was it the need to present a certain kind of sound?

I dunno.

I’ll still watch it. And then watch the Lena Horne version on Youtube when I’m done.

 

 

Two times I got choked up on the KCCH stage and one time there were actual tears

I have been thinking about this story for a long time. Like, well over a year. People often tell cute stories about meeting idols and coming to some kind of realization while singing, but these stories are all connected thanks to one thing: my tear ducts.

The First Time: Finale to Symphony #2: Resurrection, Mostly Mahler, May 2011

I joined The Washington Chorus in January 2010. It was a trial by fire; my first half-season involved three of the major Requiems and some seriously crazy baroque music. So by the time I got around to the second season, the five concert layout for the full season seemed pretty light.

So in the Spring of 2011, I started learning a lot of music I had never even heard before, let alone sung. Among these were the first half of the Veni Creator Spiritus, an act of an opera that Mahler completed, several short pieces, and the Finale of the Resurrection Symphony, Auf erstehen. I prepared with professional recordings and went to all of the rehearsals, but it wasn’t until the orchestra rehearsal that I really grasped the intense emotion that comes from producing those sounds together.

So there it was, the day of the concert. This Finale would be ours as well, as really, you can’t follow that with anything else. The piece begins very quiet, and then builds until there is such an overwhelming amount of sound and harmony as the orchestra brings the piece to a conclusion at the end. The adrenaline had been building, and building, and then I had to stand there and wait for the last fifty bars. I wanted to curl up and cry. But I was good and just waited.

And then I went home and collapsed.

The Second Time: Testimony, The Wizard and I, May 2013

Two years later, I got to be a part of an NSO Pops concert featuring four Broadway superstars. It was a tribute to Stephen Schwartz (who made an appearance!) and the tenth anniversary of Wicked on Broadway. There were some power songs, and overall it was a whole lot of fun. I got to meet Norm Lewis and Jeremy Jordan, I got to hear Julia Murney sing “Shadowlark”, and I got to experience the process of learning and producing “Testimony.”

“Testimony” is Stephen Schwartz’s contribution to the It Gets Better project, and it’s a doozy. Written for chorus (originally TTBB but then for SATB), it has two halves: the first runs the gamut of the feelings of so many young people, questioning or not; the second is a more uplifting reflection on what the speaker might have missed, if they had acted upon those feelings.

It’s intense.

By the time of the performance, I had it memorized. It was such a poignant piece, and so current, and so heartfelt, it was hard not to feel it personally. So by the time we were there, singing to thousands of people (three times, I might remind you), with feedback coming from the conductor, who himself seemed to be affected by it, it was hard not to feel a tightness in my chest and a squeezing in my throat by the end. This time, we were just done at the end of it and could sit down with the lights off and process. And I really had to process after that. Every single time. But damn, I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything.

The Tears: Almighty Father, Made in America, June 2014

Made in America was the final concert I did with The Washington Chorus. After nearly getting my five year pin but cutting it short because of a need to be economically satisfied and environmentally happy, I had established relationships, friendships, and a hell of a vocal repertoire. I had become a better singer and a better, well rounded person with this group, and this was the last time I would experience being surrounded by these voices. The first half would be a newly cut concert version of Bernstein’s Mass and the second half was a concoction of several modern pieces by mostly living choral composers.

And then, at the end of the first half, there they were.

Fucking tears.

If you haven’t heard the Bernstein Mass, you will in a second. But let me explain what makes it so conducive to tears.

The bookends of a lot of different feelings and forms of expression is a close-harmonied, lightly accompanied hymn. The vibrations between nearly 400 people producing those sounds are tangible. So when you’re not only an empath, but you are also…whatever you call someone who is overly affected by music, that kind of energy just breaks you.

Music is one of my lifelines. It makes my heart sing…but it can also make me exhausted and overwhelmed.

And that’s one of its wonders.