Wednesday, January 11, 2012

800 Words: Lebewohl Thomas Quasthoff

(Singing Schubert with Daniel Barenboim)

It’s official. Thomas Quasthoff has not only cancelled all future concert engagements, he’s also officially retired from the stage due to persistent laryngitis - and he's only 52. And thus ends one of the most remarkable careers in music history. For any dyed-in-the-wool classical vocal fan, this should be an event nearly equivalent to the breakup of The Beatles or Cobain’s suicide. Even in his fifties, it still felt as though Quasthoff was only wrapping up the first act of his career - too many opera roles left to tackle, too much repertoire still unexplored, and far too few people having heard of him. Has there ever been a classical performer who has bridged the gap to do justice to non-classical genres so successfully? Has there ever been a performer whose on-stage persona was as welcoming? It’s just not fair, not to Quasthoff, not to us. If the world were a fair place, Thomas Quasthoff would be as famous as Andrea Bocelli, and Andrea Bocelli as famous as Thomas Quasthoff. Then again, if the world were a fair place, neither would be handicapped.

(Bach with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Vladimir Jurowski)

Millions of people go to see Andrea Bocelli concerts because they think it amazing that a handsome blind man can be a decent singer. But classical music fans have annoyed all these millions by pointing out that Andrea Bocelli is not an actual opera singer. Few, even in the classical world, would doubt that Bocelli’s actual voice is pleasing. The problem is not that Bocelli doesn’t sing nicely. The problem is that Bocelli doesn’t sing opera. Bocelli posesses a fundamentally untutored, undeveloped, quasi-pop voice that bears only a superficial resemblance to actual opera singing. Bocelli’s voice could never be heard without a microphone. He clearly never mastered any technique and like all talented but undeveloped singers has a only a few notes which ring out and many more which sound ennervated and pinched. He then puts this untutored voice to the service of a ‘greatest hits’ vision of opera so bland and boring that only boring people could enjoy it. This is focus group opera, guaranteed to offend nobody and therefore offensive to everyone. What he sings is not even light opera or opera light, his singing is semi-opera, quasi-opera, pseudo-opera, popera. It combines all the most boring qualities of pop and opera into a package that only people who hate life can enjoy. I know, I know, Pavarotti did it too. And as someone who’s sat through many more Pavarotti and Friends PBS telecasts than you have, let me assure you. It was just as boring when Pavarotti did it.

(Beatboxing and scatting with Bobby McFerrin)

But then there’s Quasthoff - a person so remarkable that the story of how he became the world’s most acclaimed classical singer has to be told in detail to do it any justice. The story begins before his birth. Quasthoff is what Billy Joel would call one of the Children of Thalidomyde. Before his birth in 1959, his mother would take the drug Thalidomyde as a way to combat morning sickness. It was only a few years later that the results of pregnant women taking Thalidomyde was published - of which Quasthoff is a typical result. He suffers from phocolemia of the upper extremities - which in plain English means that he has no arms. Rather, he has hands which are connected to his shoulders with the faintest nub in between. His lower body possesses shortened legs which cause him to stand at no more than 4’4. For her troubles, the German government paid Quasthoff’s mother 25,000 Deutsche Marks.


During his young years, he was forced to undergo surgery after painful surgery to make adjustments to his growing limbs. He was born with one of his feet backwards, and he spent a year and a half in bed with a permanent cast. The German authorities, not knowing what else to do with him, committed him first to a pediatric ward, then to a home for sufferers of Cerebral Palsy. It was only at the age of ten that he began to experience any sort of normalcy when his father took him to see a vocal teacher who proclaimed an extraordinary gift. Unfortunately, regardless of his talent, he could never be accepted to music college. Due to the fact that he basically has no arms, it’s rendered him unable to take the required piano courses, and was told by the Music School in Detmold that he could never attend music college - a college at which he's now a full professor.

(Crooning Moon River)

And so Quasthoff studied music in Hanover, privately and intensively, with cult favorite soprano Charlotte Lehman for seventeen years, and did so without the benefit of any official higher musical education. In his spare time, he went to university to study law. After college, he worked at a bank for six years. For extra money, he sang in cabarets and jazz clubs. The combined stress of being a bank teller and music studies saddled him with a serious illness which made him bedridden yet again and forced him to give up the bank job completely. When he was sufficiently well again, he went to work as a radio presenter, and achieved some eminence in that field - not only for his voice or physical condition, but also for his erudition. He was often used on air not only to introduce the music but also to recite poetry on air. It was during these years as a radio presenter that Quasthoff finally achieved some notoriety as a singer. In 1988, still not yet 30, he won recognition at a vocal competition in Munich for which 315 people entered, and was praised by no less than the greatest Baritone (perhaps singer) of the 20th century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as having a beautiful voice. When the chief of the jury presented him with first prize, he said: 'You can be absolutely sure you didn't win the competition because of your disability. If you hadn't earned it, that would be a much bigger problem for you.'

(Quasthoff easily sailing over an entire orchestra, playing four different characters, and almost making you think that orchestrating Schubert lieder is a good idea.)

It took Quasthoff another eight years to establish a full-time music career. It would seem that he appeared on the classical music scene one day, fully formed - giving regular recitals in Carnagie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, the Musikvereinsaal or La Scala. He seemed to become the favoured Baritone of Berlin’s ‘big three’ conductors - Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, and Simon Rattle - who almost seemed in competition with one another for who could engage his services most often. His recital programs were filled with the standard Schubert, Bach, Brahms, and Strauss. But just as often you were as likely to hear a late 20th century work - and the contemporary work was as likely to be by The Beatles or from the Great American Songbook as it was by Penderecki or Reimann.

(Singing Georgia, On My Mind)

It goes without saying that Quasthoff has a wonderful, almost infinitely malleable voice - nearly as comfortable in English as German (though not quite...), and far larger than average for a full-size singer but particularly enormous considering that it emanates from a 4 ft. body. It’s lower-lying than most baritones, yet with a ringing quality that has all the sharp overtones of a tenor yet also capable of summoning all the stentorian chest power of a basso profundo (there used to be a video on youtube of him singing a tenor aria, then a baritone, then a bass). Is it more beautiful (or even as beautiful) as Terfel, Fischer-Dieskau, Hrovotovsky? Probably not, though at his vocal best he can recall all the great singers of days past. But like all truly great singers, one tends to forget the beauty of the voice after a few minutes. All that remains is that communicative quality, the ability to draw a listener into a personal world of the music from which you never leave you so long as you’re still able to remember what you’ve heard. Whether it’s the spiritual darkness of late Schubert, the hearty joy of Bach Cantatas, or the brash breeziness of Harold Arlen, Quasthoff sets the mood of the piece more perfectly than perhaps any singer of our lifetime. It’s a quality that takes a number of talents in itself - not just the intelligence to meaningfully shape a phrase but also the stage presence put that shape into action. Very few opera singers possessed that quality to Quasthoff’s extent - doubly a shame, since Quasthoff rarely performed opera.

(A more than usual German-accented Copland. Believe me, it’s worth it...)

It’s often been commented that we’re living in a particularly good era for baritones. It used to be that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau dominated the baritone repertoire (and everyone else’s too) , and he was such a reliable recreative genius that no other Baritone on the recital circuit ever stood a chance. But if DFD was a King with no equal, then Quasthoff was a chairman of the board. Even after Quasthoff goes, we still have Bryn Terfel, Thomas Hampson, Dimitri Hrovotovsky, Sergei Leiferkus, Simon Keenlyside, Gerald Finley, and Rod Gilfry. Most of them probably have a good fifteen years left in them. But it can’t be denied, we’ve lost the giant among them. This is a singer whose disabilities caused him to operate at a higher, not lower, level. The way we thought about music was never the same before him, and it will never be the same afterward.

...I’m very happy I’ve resisted the temptation to link to his rendition of ‘Short People’ by Randy Newman.


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