Opera Philadelphia

What's On My Playlist: Grant Loehnig

By Grant Loehnig

Grant Loehnig, Opera Philadelphia's Head of Music Staff and pianist in the world premiere of Save the Boys on the Opera Philadelphia Channel, shares a Spotify playlist of the vocal artists he listens to when he's not in "opera mode."

When I first heard Régine Crepin’s recording of Ravel’s evocative Shéhérezade in college, I was transfixed. I had no idea what all those strange French words meant, but I didn’t need to. Her sumptuous, elegant, sensual voice transported me to another world. I played that recording over and over again to live inside the sound of that gorgeous voice. Around the same time a friend introduced me to the album Post by the Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk. And again it was love at first hearing. Björk’s voice grabbed me. I had never heard anything like it, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I played Post over and over, loving every click of her tongue and crack in her voice. Though Régine Crespin and Björk had very little in common, I loved them both for their individuality, directness, and ability to tell stories merely through their vocalism.

I’ve put together a playlist of vocal artists I enjoy listening to most when I’m not in “opera mode”. These are all singers who excite me with the emotional power and distinctiveness of their voices. I love listening to instrumental music too, from late Beethoven string quartets to jazz piano greats like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. But my favorite instrument remains the human voice. That’s why I picked this list of artists, spanning different genres but all of them telling stories through the power of the voice. Maybe there will be a voice here that speaks to you as well.

Listening Guide

BJÖRK - This song, like all of Björk's music, is a marvel of contradictions. There's beauty and there's danger, like the lush string orchestra she places on top of a driving house groove. And those contradictions are in her voice too. I love how she uses the percussive quality of the consonants at 0:57, and then moments later lets her voice open up in long, sweeping lines. 

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO - I think Peace Beyond Passion, Meshell Ndegeocello's second album, is a masterpiece. Her singing here is understated, restrained. But this only highlights her incredible songwriting abilities, with songs that dive deep into themes of spirituality, racism, and sexuality. And she plays a mean bass guitar.

SUFJAN STEVENS - Sufjan Stevens grew up as a classically-trained oboist, although you're more likely to hear him playing guitar and banjo on his albums. Here his folk-like, hushed vocals are transformed into a lush operatic chorus with trumpet obbligato (5:17).

BETH ORTON - Beth Orton's voice is expressive and commandingjust like her combination of folk and electronica. I love in this track how her chesty, earthy singing mingles with the haunting writing for the strings.

SHUGGIE OTISInspiration Information was released almost 50 years ago and still sounds fresh today. Otis himself provided every vocal on the album, and played almost every instrument on it as well. His light tenor vocals (1:04) are understated and the perfect match for his mellow harmonies and smooth funk. He was 20 when he released this album, and way ahead of his time. 

MATMOS - I'm totally cheating by including this song, because electronic duo Matmos works primarily in the instrumental realm. The inspiration for this song is a speech record for the hearing-impaired that teaches spondees, two-syllable words in which both syllables are stressed. Matmos takes simple, ordinary words like "lunchbox" (0:03) and makes them musical. You can't help but smile.

ERYKAH BADU - Badu's willowy, flexible voice often draws comparisons to that of Billie Holiday. They both have a fluttery vibrato (0:31) and an ability to spin out long, soaring lines effortlessly (4:41). The sparse, bluesy texture Badu creates in "Bag Lady" lets her unique voice shine. 

CHAVELA VARGAS - There's no mistaking the raspy contralto of Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, often called "the rough voice of tenderness." Vargas grew up singing love songs written by men to women and refusing to change the pronouns. She was open about her various love affairs with prominent women of the time, like Frida Kahlo. The voice is just as unapologetic, powerful, honest, and raw.

NINA SIMONE - Simone once said, "I am very concerned with the perfection of my piano playing and articulating the song's message, but I don't worry about my voice." But I think she finds as many colors and nuances in her voice as she finds in the piano's 88 keys. Simone wrote this song in response to the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evans and then the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. The piano intro sounds like it's setting up a bouncy show tune, but her voice at 0:52 is dripping with sarcasm.

MEREDITH MONK - Like most of the artists on this playlist, Meredith Monk defies categorization. But unlike anyone else on this playlist, Monk can call herself an opera composer. Her enthralling, epic opera Atlas was one of the first opera recordings I ever owned. But in this track from Volcano Songs there are no words and no instruments. Music doesn't get much more intimate than this. Through breathless panting and humming (1:05) she creates a folk music of her own that sounds both ancient and modern at the same time.

JAMES BLAKE - Is electronic gospel-folk a genre? This track, a collaboration with Brian Eno, melds Blake's quivering soul-inspired vocals into a texture of throbbing beats so that it sounds like another instrument in the ensemble. By the end of the song (3:48) you're not sure what's vocal and what's instrumental. 

BJÖRK - So you thought glass harmonicas were just for Lucia di Lammermoor? Björk creates a uniquely ethereal, otherworldly, and gorgeous sound world here with glass harmonica (0:28) and fuzzy techno beats. As all the various sounds melt together, Björk sings, "I'll heal you" (4:33), and I'm healed!

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