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December 18, 2015

Curator Spotlight: Song Remix

By Martin Katz

martin katz
Photo: Martin Katz at the piano. He curates an evening of song on January 8, 2016. Photo by Jesse Meria.

It’s time to celebrate the art of song…not singing, although that’s obviously required, not arias from operas we all love, not Handel’s Messiah, but the special art of performing songs. Songs are performed in the simplest way imaginable: a singer, a pianist, perhaps an additional instrument once in a while. The absence of lighting, costumes, and movement puts all the responsibility on the performers to help us “see” and experience what the words tell us.

The poet and the composer

As interpreters of song, we are beholden to two masters: the poet and the composer. It matters not at all what a performer may think of the words by themselves. The challenge is to deliver what we believe the composer thought of those words. In essence this is a double filter, and the importance of this distinction becomes immediately apparent when one finds two musical settings of the same text. One may be tragic while the other is angry. Performers of song — not having a resume for their character or background — must be detectives, piecing the musical forensic evidence furnished by the composer with the words which inspired it. Very daunting is this, but also very liberating, for no two performers will arrive at the same conclusion. There are no right or wrong answers.

For the song audience, a great deal depends on concentration, imagination, willingness to appreciate details in some of the smallest and subtlest animals in the musical zoo. In our era of sensory overload, the capacity to really listen and listen well is not demanded of us very often. Yet without this commitment from the listener, a song’s magic might go unappreciated. Songs are not all-purpose murals; they are full of rich and specific details which can only augment the whole experience on both sides of the footlights.

A kaleidoscopic program

UMS has entrusted me to enlist colleagues (and friends) who are deeply committed to this art of song. Together we have fashioned a kaleidoscopic program, rather like a song smorgasbord. Many of the giants of song composition are present, and some names which will be unfamiliar to you as well, giants-to-be, perhaps. Don’t plan on getting too comfortable, for by the time you have appreciated one style, we will be serving up another. Such is the ability of song to depict a myriad of emotions and experiences in only a brief moment or two.

Something new to seasoned audience members will be the use of surtitles for the texts being sung, particularly helpful when the words are not in English. (Eight different languages will be heard throughout the evening.) No one’s attention need leave the stage to attempt reading a program in the dark. Many of us are accustomed to this with operatic performances, but on this occasion we borrow that device and believe it will heighten enjoyment both on stage and in the audience.

Ann Arbor has been too long without a series devoted to song, to all the things it can be. It is time to celebrate its reappearance. We need song!

Pianist Martin Katz curates an evening of song on January 8, 2016. The evening will feature Jesse Blumberg (baritone), Janai Brugger (soprano), David Daniels (countertenor), William Ferguson (tenor), and Frederica von Stade (mezzo-soprano).


Martin Katz, U-M’s Artur Schnabel Collegiate Professor of Collaborative Piano, has been dubbed “the gold standard of accompanists” by the New York Times. His 45-year career has taken him to five continents, collaborating with the world’s most celebrated singers in recital and recording. Katz brings together five singers for a true songfest to kick off the new UMS Song Remix.