Art, song

[“Erlkönig,” Schubert] (all songs sung by Richard Lalli)

EVE SNEIDER: This is Richard Lalli, MUS ’86, noted musician and Yale professor, singing his favorite song, Erlkönig…

RICHARD LALLI: …which is a German song by Schubert describing a young boy who’s riding with his father on a horse, but feels something grabbing him, and feels sick. And what happens at the end of the song is that death has come along and killed him. […] It’s a great song! It’s a toe-tapper. So in this song the singer takes on the roles of the father, of the little boy, and of death. And also a fourth role of the narrator. That’s one reason I like it so much. As you perform it you get to become four different people.

ES: Erlkonig is an art song, a composition where a poem is set to music for a solo voice and piano accompaniment. Art songs are the subject of the seminar Lalli teaches in the undergraduate music department…

RL: Music 222, sometimes just called “Lalli.”

ES: They were also his first introduction to music, alongside folk songs.

[“The Cuckoo,” Benjamin Verdery]

RL: Folk songs are similar, they just don’t involve the piano usually. But when I was in high school at Interlochen, the summer camp, I was taking voice lessons, I sang in the choir first time I ever sang, then I got a solo, and then I took some voice lessons and that’s where I usually assign an art song.

ES: Interlochen was a watershed moment for Lalli. Born and raised in a small town outside of Chicago, attending the summer arts camp and, later, the accompanying arts boarding school in northern Michigan introduced him to a world of music he hadn’t known existed.

RL: That, for example, was the first time I ever saw a flute. My hometown was that remote, that there weren’t flutes around.

[“A Paris, ce vendredi,” Berg]

ES: After Interlochen came the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where Lalli earned a BFA, and then the Yale School of Music, where he received a Doctorate in Musical Arts.

RL: I was an opera singer. And then I stayed on when I graduated in 1981 to teach various things. The first year I taught I got paid $2,000 to teach one course on diction for singers, and then it snowballed into a number of things.

ES: A number of things is something of an understatement. In the 38 years since Lalli first came to Yale, he has been involved in founding many of the pillars of the undergraduate music program as we know it. There is the Opera Theater of Yale College, known as OTYC, Yale’s student-run undergraduate opera company, which was founded in 1992. Then, in 2007, came the Yale Baroque Opera Project, YBOP, which culminates each year in a full-scale professional opera production starring Yale undergraduates. And then there was the Shen Curriculum, Yale’s sequence of musical theater classes offered for undergraduates, the only program of its kind in the Ivy League.

ES: Lalli has enjoyed a colorful performance career, singing everything from fun popular songs to art songs, chamber music to new compositions. He has recorded four solo CDs, in addition to many more performances with ensembles and on commercial recordings, even earning a Grammy nomination for his recording of Yehudi Wyner’s The Mirror. Among his other work, it is noted on his website, is a collection of classic American popular songs he recorded with pianist Gary Chapman for his mother’s 70th birthday in 1990.

[“Tel jour telle nuit,” Francis Poulenc]

ES: Other accolades of Lalli’s include a Distinguished Alumni Award given by the Yale School of Music in 2010, and the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities at Yale University, which he was awarded in 2006.

RL: I’ve always been a teacher. In fact, I remember when I was in like the second grade, my friend, Jacob Hiab was doing poorly in arithmetic, so I made a little booklet for him of quizzes and exercises. I just did that instinctively, and I’m still doing it for Yale students. It’s an impulse. It’s a natural inclination, or gift, that I have, I think, for explaining things to other people.

ES: His pupils definitely seem to agree. In Music 222, or “Lalli,” students—who are admitted by audition only—must learn around six songs in languages ranging from Italian to French to German, Russian to Hungarian to Spanish.

RL: So in addition to learning how to sing them, they study the languages, study the poetry, study the musical customs of the time that they were written, study the composers’ lives and the poet’s lives, and try to integrate other information into a finely polished performance.

ES: In class, students must perform in front of Professor Lalli and each other. While this is, perhaps, daunting, even for a class of well-versed performers, Lalli’s teaching style keeps things fun. As Rachel Kaufman, TC ’19, puts it…

RK: …he comes up with these hilarious, strange strategies during classes in which you have to place your hands above your head—he always did that to me—or you have to run in place, or you have to sing the piece with this absurd characterization. Like, you’re singing over a tombstone, but just take these crazy personas and insert them into pieces to make them more lively and more interesting and also probably to get you out of your head as you’re singing. Class is just so entertaining and hilarious, and he’s sassy and goofy but also cares about all of his students and has such good insight into what they need and what coaching will help them.

ES: Jack Lindberg, PC ’19, adds that…

JL: …he doesn’t ask people to totally transform how they sing or how they learn music or how they interact as a musician overnight, but gives you some tangible steps you can take to start improving, which is more important than being like, here’s the gold standard, here’s none of the steps of how to get there.

[“Seeing a woman as in a painting,” Richard Pearson Thomas]

ES: When he’s not teaching music, Lalli enjoys other creative pursuits on his own. In recent years, he has rediscovered an old love for the visual arts, too.

RL: I painted a lot as a kid. And then I gave it up because my high school teachers at Interlochen said, you’ve got to stop doing that and practice more! So I stopped. And then when I was 52, I saw a sign on the wall at Willoughby’s coffee shop advertising a summer workshop in watercolors. So I just signed up for it because I knew I got bored in the summer time. And I fell in love, again, with painting, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

RL: Most of the painting I do is totally by myself, in fact I hate doing it when other people are around. It’s my little private time. Singing I usually do with other people. Although, as a young professional singer I would spend maybe four hours a day singing by myself. But singing is a much more social activity, it’s a performance art. Whereas painting is not a performance. They’re both creative expressions, they both involve a lot of feeling and beauty. All those wonderful things that the arts offer us.

ES: Lalli cannot sing any more. After a severe brain hemorrhage in 2008, he can no longer use his vocal chords or breathing apparatus the way he used to. This impacted his painting, too; he can no longer handle a delicate brush. Instead, he works with things like sweet potatoes and cucumbers, using them as stamps. His paintings are vibrant, colorful, full of life and gusto. Lalli says that there is much overlap between his discussion of painting and of singing.

RL: Control, contrast, color, high points, low points. Those are all important in both art fields.

ES: Music, too, is colorful.

RL: The different tones of the scale have different colors to some people’s ears. So you’re always dealing with this variety of colors in a melody, and also especially in chords… within the music, the words evoke certain colors, so your voice, you try to give the impression of that emotion. Like death, which is a very common theme in songs. Love. Spring. Desire. Hate. These all have different feelings and tone qualities which are comparable to the colors of painting. I love color. I always have. I remember walking home once when I was in grade school and seeing this beautiful autumn sky sunset. And I thought, God, those colors. So I ran to the art store and got some pastels in those colors and that was one of my many discoveries along the way: color.

One Response

  1. Jerry & Nonnie Tarr says:

    So very interesting! Overcoming a handicap makes his artistic talent all the more compelling.

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