INTERVIEW: Brian Asawa and Diana Tash ready to fly with ‘Spirits of the Air’

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Los Angeles - Brian Asawa and Diana Tash are ready for their FaceTime.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and both appear relaxed yet excited to talk about their new album, Spirits of the Air, released September 30th via Amazon and LMLMusic.com and iTunes on October 14th. A 50/50 collaboration between longtime friends and colleagues, Spirits of the Air is the result of 5 years of hard work, conceptualizing, pivoting and recording.

Although Asawa and Tash first worked together in a 1995 LA Opera production of Xerxes, it wasn’t until a 2009 concert collaboration that the Spirits of the Air ball really started rolling. Asawa explains: “I was doing a recital at the West LA United Methodist Church and Diana came on board to do a couple of sets of songs. When we started working on ‘Pur Ti Miro’, we immediately realized what a beautiful blend (of our voices) it was.  We started with baroque, so Diana and I came up with this idea of doing an all-baroque concert. Of course, it was an obvious choice for me because of my vocal category.  I didn’t choose it, it chose me,” he says with an ominous, comic tone.  Tash continues: “In 2011, we started with one continuo group, doing a kickstarter campaign in order to bring out a particular cellist from abroad. Sadly, the first continuo group didn’t work out. We arranged a second  group, and they were excellent but our schedules didn’t gel. They were very busy and it became difficult to coordinate. So (Tash laughs), we arrived at a third continuo group, with whom we recorded Spirits of the Air and thankfully it’s gelled in every way.  Musically, everything. They’ve become the ‘A-Team’.  Awesome as people, fun to work with, amusing, super smart and so very talented.”  Asawa concurs: “Yes, our third group was actually recommended by our previous continuo musicians (Ian Pritchard and Leif Woodward) as ‘young, up and coming’ types. At the time, Fred (Frédéric Rosselet, cellist) was doing his doctorate at USC while Arthur (Omura on harpsichord) is a graduate of the USC Early Music program. Once our group solidified, this is when things really started to happen for us.”

Speaking to ‘Spirits of the Air’, what are your individual strengths? Combined strengths? How did they work together to produce a solid effort?

Brian: “Purity of tone is very important. I believe we each succeeded in finding our own pure sound in this recording. With a harpsichord, baroque cello and two voices, it’s critical to have this purity because all four of us (in the continuo) are performing different functions. Diana, of course, is taking the top line and I’m taking the lower line and sometimes we overlap…the baroque cello is the grounding factor (in the quartet) and the harpsichord is essentially our orchestra, so the purity of both of our voices is key to the success of this recording. Adaptability and the inherent gift of pure sound are necessary for this type of baroque recording to work.”

Diana: ”When compared to myself, Brian has sung more baroque repertoire. I’ve sung in two baroque operas, Xerxes and Orlando.  So, Brian’s sense of style and ‘know-how’ were so important. He took me back to baroque school. It was hard work but delightful.”

Brian (to Diana): “Your musicianship, your skill and the fact that you’re such a wonderful technician and have such a strong sense of musicality counts whether it’s Rossini, which is one of your fortes or baroque.”

Diana: “Brian’s right. You need to have the adaptability to sing this type of music. You must be able to sing straight tone and you need to apply it, and then be able to blend and to match. That’s not easy, but it was easy to match Brian because he has such a specific voice. It was never ‘hmmm, wonder what he’s going to do here’. I’d say (Brian’s voice is) predictable, but in the very best way. We had an intuitive back and forth. And many times Brian would say ‘try this here’. For example, I sing a lot of Mozart, which has some good things that apply to baroque and other things that don’t. Brian would suggest new things to me, which was very helpful.”

Brian: “For us, the matching of vowels was so important. Two voices is more difficult than one. We had to match the vowels, the syllables, the words, the affect, and obviously the pitch. This is the finely crafted art of matching (each other vocally). Baroque music has evolved substantially since its resurgence in the 60s and 70s.  It’s such a different style now. Now, baroque singers on the circuit today often have more operatic and dramatic voices than their predecessors. The early music superstars often had one beautiful sound but now you hear singers like Bartoli, Anne-Sophie von Otter, and Joyce Didonato. These are singers who have loads of character and probably a lot more grit and depth of tone than previous early music singers with straight tone. This was still very beautiful but the style and the evolving  trend has lent itself to people enjoying the sound of singers with a broader palette of colors and richer sound. It’s all a balancing act.”

Diana: “Lorraine Hunt was in Xerxes with us at LA Opera, in the title role. For me, she was the most amazing singer I ever heard live…one of the most organic singers I’ve ever watched in my life. I so think she’s responsible for Handel’s pieces getting life breathed back into them and why Handel is performed more today than in previous decades.”

Brian: “Lorraine paved the way for other mezzo-sopranos and their success.”

Diana: ”Brian’s probably one of the top ten countertenors in the world. And (countertenors) weren’t falling off trees in the 1990s (laughing)! When I was singing Orlando with Sacramento Opera, I mentioned to Randall Scotting, the countertenor in the title role, that I was just talking to Brian on the phone. He stopped in his tracks saying, ‘That’s who I constantly listened to in school!’ I started laughing and all I could say was ‘yes, I believe it!’ Brian’s the guy that young, aspiring countertenors were and are listening to…and often want to be like.”

Brian: ”I just don’t know what to say about that (theatrically blotting his brow with a handkerchief while making a Zoolander-face and then grinning, Diana laughing). “I have to say that my (countertenor) forefathers also paved the way for us. Their approach to vocal production was less focused on an operatic sound, opting for a more intimate vocal production.”

Bios for all ‘Spirits of the Air’ composers are included in the liner notes. For the layman listener, could is this an introduction to baroque? Is SOTA a sort of baroque 101? Why or why not?

Together: “Yes and no.”

Brian: “’Pur Ti Miro’, the Purcell duets, a few of the Monteverdi solos which Diana sings so beautifully, some of my Scarlatti solos…those would be considered top 10 or top 20 early music 101 pieces but then you have the more complex Handel pieces, which have a bit more nail biting and are…”

Diana (interjecting): “Scary!”

Brian (laughing): “…rollercoaster rides through the baroque compositional style where all the lines are intermeshing with each other and overlapping. Diana goes under while I go above and then reversed while the cello is just banging crazy basso continuo lines while the harpsichord plunks away. So, some of Spirits will be easily accessible for non-baroque aficionados. The album is a combination, a juxtaposition, if you will (smiling, with an intentionally over-dramatic tone).”

 WATCH: The ‘Spirits of the Air’ Promotional Film by Filmmaker John Putch at PutchFilms.com.   

How did Lee Lessack at LML Music come into the mix?

Diana: “In 2009, I recorded and released a solo album with Lee and LML. I went with Lee because I appreciated his business sense. LML’s distribution is also so vast. Lee’s a great businessman whom I greatly respect, but he’s also a singer who understands both sides of the business equation. He came to me highly recommended, so it was the easy solution for us and Spirits. We knew that LML Music wasn’t a classical label, per se, and his artists are mostly from Broadway, cabaret, jazz and other genres. However, he already had one classical pianist on his roster and I was his first classical singer. Now (smiling and hugging Brian) he’s got two!”

‘Spirits of the Air’ is the shiny, new thing in your respective, professional tool belts. What opportunities do you envision?

Diana: ”More gigs (laughing)! At this point, as an ensemble, we’re a well-oiled machine. Let’s take it on the road. We’re good to go.”

Brian: ”Yes, now that we’ve performed the entire CD and additional pieces in Guadalajara (this past May), I think we’re ready to go forward with more touring. Hopefully the release will lead to more opportunities as a group and as soloists. We’re looking forward to Spirits of the Air being a springboard for us.”

Diana: “As we do more Spirits performances, it will continue to get better. Singing this music with Brian in Guadalajara was incredible. Everything was just great…the people, the audiences…all so perfect. Anne Delécole Silberling did an excellent job. She made sure everything happened when it was supposed to happen. We’d love to work with her again in Mexico. So, back to the question. I could see us performing baroque music with the LA Chamber Orchestra as well as working with various baroque orchestras.”

Brian: Agreed. We’d love to work with high-caliber baroque orchestras, such as The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and The American Bach Soloists. We envision singing not only the Spirits of the Air repertoire, but also operatic arias which require full baroque orchestras. Of course, it’s all very exciting to paint broad strokes, to set new goals and to aim high. We’re both ready to fly.

Diana Tash and Brian Asawa were interviewed via FaceTime on September 28, 2014 by James Mowdy of b|spoke – a brand consultancy.

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The ‘Spirits of the Air’ CD is available NOW on Amazon.com and LMLMusic.com.

‘Spirits of the Air’ iTunes Preview and Pre-order (digital download released October 14th, 2014).

On October 13, 2014, Brian and Diana will be interviewed live on KXLU FM 88.9 by host Bruce Teter from 7pm until 9pm. Both artists will discuss the recording process and “Spirits of the Air” repertoire with Bruce Teter, who will broadcast excerpts from the CD. 

On Friday, November 7th, San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program hosts a ‘Spirits of the Air’ CD Release Celebration for Diana Tash and Merola Alum Brian Asawa at Salle Pianos, San Francisco. Details and tickets here.

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