On Music and Wine
In my second life, I am training as an operatic baritone. A
few weeks back, I attended a masterclass led by Stephanie Blythe at the San
Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I will graduate with a master’s degree
this coming May. Stephanie Blythe is one of the most sought-after
mezzo-sopranos singing today – a sensational interpreter of the works of Verdi
and Wagner, as well as a champion of the American art song. I’d had the
distinct pleasure of watching her perform the role of Mrs. Lovett in San
Francisco Opera’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Sweeney Todd the night prior.
Midway through the class, Ms. Blythe asked one of my
colleagues to recite the words to her song aloud. She subsequently went on to
compare singing to drinking wine. She explained that a singer, much like a wine
drinker, must explore the way the text feels on the palate. Some pieces
may be languorous and chewy, others rapid and tempestuous. Above all, a singer
should harness this experience to better recognize the true nature of a work
and to then convey it before an audience.
I was in awe. Until that moment, I would have bet good money
that every conversation about mouthfeel in that concert hall must have been
initiated by me. I’ve long felt indebted to music for helping me understand
wine. But, I’d never considered the inverse —that wine could teach me about
singing. As I traverse my two worlds, I’ve come to realize that the parallels
between music and wine are both ample and of tremendous value.
Coates, Johnson, Robinson, MacNeil, Mozart and Schubert, essentials in any wine or music library
Wine is a multi-sensory experience. We smell it. We taste
it. We see it shimmer in the glass, and we feel it wash across our palates. The
only sense we don’t use when evaluating wine is hearing. Thus, the comparison
to music is vital in completing the metaphor.
Music, incidentally is only transmitted through our ears.
Yet, as wine does, it holds the power to evoke the intangible. Music makes some
people see colors. Gershwin famously set his Rhapsody in the key of “blue.” In
his work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire,
composer Alexander Scriabin went as far as to incorporate a “color organ” into
the orchestra, illuminating the concert hall with changing lights to match the
score’s harmonic progression. For those of us non-synesthetes, both music and
wine have the ability to trigger past memories – transporting us back to the
scents and sounds of our childhoods, our travels and beyond.
Comparing wine to music also helps us grasp the importance
of complexity beyond flavor. Of course, a great wine will taste of many things
from fruit to flowers, soil to spice. But, what keeps us engaged is the order
in which these layers of flavors present themselves and how they transform on
the tongue. Like music, wine has tempo, rhythm and dynamics. A great Napa Cabernet
is like a messa di voce—a gradual
crescendo to fortissimo, then slowly tapering back to a haunting whisper.
Sancerre might have a subito piano,
exploding as it enters, then swiftly hushing before its volume waxes again. And
as the best melodies reverberate within us long after the piece has cadenced,
the greatest wines live far past their finish, their expression so clear that
they give us the power to taste them eternally.
Earlier in my education, I was introduced to Johann Gottfried
Herder’s concept of Volksgeist, or “folk spirit.” The eighteenth century German
philosopher theorized that people of a common national or cultural heritage
share a collective consciousness. One gateway through which that primordial spirit
may express itself is music. Herder would attest that for this reason
Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre just sounds Russian. Or even if sung in English, Humperdinck’s
opera Hansel and Gretel could never
shed itself of its German-ness. This inexplicable phenomenon extends to wine.
Italian wines, for example, are bound by a “good bitter” quality. Plant French
grapes on the Tuscan coast, and somehow the soul of Italy will still beat
strong at the heart of wines like Ornellaia or Sassicaia. Similarly a minty
herbaceousness somehow permeates through much Australian Shiraz, even when the
nearest eucalyptus tree stands miles away from the vineyard.
Staples of the baritone repertoire
We performers are often reminded of the humbling notion that
we are but vessels through which music is communicated. As we sing, our
individual interpretations undoubtedly color a piece. But ultimately, it is our
job to preserve the purity of Mozart’s or Schubert’s or Puccini’s intentions
and make their voice resonate even brighter than our own. Grapes are the same
way. The most exemplary wines of the world are those that provide the most
transparent window into the terroir
in which they were grown. Like great musicians, classic grape varieties—Cabernet
Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling—don’t rest on a singular identity, but rather best
help us understand their myriad homes, old and new.
There was one thing Ms. Blythe said about wine that I didn’t
fully agree with. She told us that like wine, a text should always taste good.
Of course, for singers this remains fully sound advice. If a piece suits you
poorly, your performance will be doomed from the start. But, for the listener
not every moment need be immediately pleasurable. I think of the famous bridge
that connects the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Beethoven builds anticipation so painfully tense, it causes you to writhe in
your seat. But when he finally releases to a triumphant C Major arpeggio, its splendor
feels ever more transcendent because he made you agonize first.
A great wine will do the same thing. It’s never one hundred
percent delicious. It’s tainted with the flavors of things we’d never actually
put in our mouths—pencil shavings, stale sweat, petroleum. Curiously, this is
something we accept in wine that we don’t in food. We never want any portion of
our meal to taste bad, just so the good parts taste better. Instead wine, like
music, challenges us to think. Through the ugly noises and adulterated flavors,
we come to better recognize what beauty really is. And isn’t that art’s highest
-- Bryce Wiatrak