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Tommasini’s Adjectives.

If you’ve hung around University Diaries for a long time, you know that UD hugely admires the writing of Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times music writer. The man’s got style.

Yet UD freely admits a struggle, all these years, with Tommasini’s adjectives. They are many and pretty and … baffling, especially when they are characterizing a person’s singing voice. Here he describes the great Polish contralto, Ewa Podles:

It’s the dark coloring, earthy character and plummy richness of her sound that define her powerful contralto voice. Even in its upper register, it has dusky tone and throbbing intensity.

Dark, earthy, plummy, dusky, throbbing… I sort of get it, but I have to say that I’ve been pondering plummy ever since this review appeared in 2006. Plummy.


This morning was another challenge.

The tenor Marcello Giordani brings his beefy, ardent Italianate voice to the role of Ramerrez…

I read it aloud to Mr UD, who sat across from me drinking Starbucks Italian Roast Sweet Slightly Smoky X-Bold Whole Bean Coffee and eating one of his horrid Atkins bars.

“Listen to this. It’s describing a tenor’s voice. Beefy. Ardent. Italianate.”

Mr UD looked confused. “Beefy? How does a beefy voice differ from, say, a porky voice?”

“I think it means to convey masculinity. A beefy voice is a macho voice. Muscular.”

“Italianate? Aren’t buildings Italianate? What if he’d written Italian? How does an Italian voice differ from an Italianate?”

“I do not know. But here’s one of those damned if you do damned if you don’t things in the same review:

As always, Ms. Voigt’s singing will stir debate within the opera world. Given the competition around right now, I cannot think of a soprano who could sing any better this demanding role, which requires luscious legato phrasing, a powerful top range and stamina. But the Deborah Voigt of more than a decade ago, before her surgery to help shed excess weight, had a richer, warmer, more gleaming sound. For Minnie, she has found a way to soften the sometimes harder edges of her voice and sing with lyrical pliancy while still cutting through the orchestra for big climaxes, including a fearless high C in Act I.

Voigt was teased and tormented and denied roles because she was so fat. So she did the bariatric thing and now she looks good. But they surgically removed her voice! The surgeons are going to have to reinstall her stomach!”

“What is a gleaming sound?”

Margaret Soltan, December 9, 2010 9:34AM
Posted in: great writing

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10 Responses to “Tommasini’s Adjectives.”

  1. Bill Gleason Says:

    No worse than wine critics…

    And I’ve heard Voight sing before and after (twice): bullshit

  2. Bill Gleason Says:

    ps. Or should I say warm and steamy…

  3. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    Beefy is defined in my dictionary as “large and impressively powerful.” I think that’s a very apt descriptive adjective. “Plummy” is derived from wine-tasting vocabulary. Used together, these adjectives create a purplish, slightly gamy mouth-feel.

  4. MattF Says:

    …with an aftertaste of raspberries flambé.

  5. Ralph Luker Says:

    “beefy” doesn’t seem to me to pair well with “Italianate”. Isn’t “Italianate” architecture a bit prissy?

  6. Bill Gleason Says:

    Think Pavarotti.

    I just don’t see Italianate as prissy. For some examples see Wiki:


  7. Polish Peter Says:

    I’d expect someone with the name of Marcello Giordani to have somewhat more than just an Italianate quality in his voice unless he comes from Cincinnati.

  8. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Polish Peter: Totally irrelevant, but I can’t resist sharing the story about George S. Kaufman’s review of an Italian tenor’s performance:

    “Guido Nazzo is nazzo guido.”

  9. Betty Reiser Says:

    I think it is riotous. I laughed all the way to the end of. It is about time that Tomassini has been taken to task for his sometimes ambiguous statements or his “damning with faint praise observations.

  10. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Betty: Many thanks! I’m glad you liked it.

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