banner

steven blier photo

"How many concerts
have the narrative power
of exciting theater? How
many concerts offer such a
r
ich sense of discovering
new and vital music?
This is what we want all concerts to be, though we know it rarely happens.
An evening of discovery and enchantment, a reminder
of how illuminating a journey
a great song can be."
—New York Daily News

Blier's Blog

NYFOS@NorthFork: LATIN LOVERS

The Performances!

There were a lot of blessings this weekend. In spite of some nasty-looking icons on my iPhone weather app earlier in the week, the weather held up Saturday and Sunday. The Orient concert was sold out. And the Latin/Caribbean music worked its wiles on both audiences in a powerful way. The Saturday show in Bellport, courtesy of South Country Concert (run by the divine Deb Birnbaum, and another very cool woman named Laurinel Owens), is a true gift: a great, low-pressure place to work out the kinks and sing for one of those smart, grateful audiences we all pray for. It's the kind of place where the eight-year old girl in Row B turns out to be studying cello, and paying avid attention---the type of kid who will actually listen to Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras #5 the next day. (She joked with me that she would play all 8 cello parts when she performed the piece, miming how she'd accomplish this feat.) I'd been praying for good weather because Deb and her husband John Kocay serve an outdoor supper after the concert at their place, and that is a meal you do not want to have canceled on account of rain. John is a superb cook, and that farm-to-table meal had as much music in it as anything we'd offered in the concert hall. 


The Bellport performance went well. We'd not been able to get through the show without stopping at our dress rehearsal, but there were no serious glitches on Saturday. I sometimes forget how much vitality this repertoire has, but I could feel its power that afternoon. People were electrified. The day had started with one of those incidents that will soon turn into urban legend: after driving out in a BMW that had some transmission problems (it had a tendency to stall in a busy intersection), Dimitri discovered that he had left his pants home. (Of course, they'd fallen off the hanger. Problems of straight men....) Because I had my back to him, I missed his wild-eyed entrance into the hall clad in a purple shirt and a pair of boxers. "I HAVE TO GO TO TARGET AND BUY SOME PANTS." He headed back into the BMW, almost got hit by a truck in an intersection when the BMW took a brief snooze, drove to Target where (as I understood it) he was waited on first by a deaf person, and then by a person who could not speak. If I have the story right, am thrilled that Target has a policy of hiring handicapped workers, but there are times when it would be quicker to find someone with all their faculties. However they, at least, had pants, something Dimitri did not. 


He came back about 10 minutes before curtain with two pair of pants. Target cuts their trousers in that modern style, tight in the leg and high in the crotch. I was told by a fashion person that this trend was started because it saves money for the manufacturers--less material per garment. Even the bigger pair of pants was still rather, um, form-fitting. Well, I mused, perfect for Latin Lovers. It gave a whole new lift to the songs where Dimitri had to dance. 


On Sunday everyone had all their clothing, and Dimitri was back in his normal, comparatively baggy suit-pants. The little moments of tentativeness, most of the little language errors, the occasional vocal frailties had disappeared, washed away by the out-of-town tryout. The hall in Orient was packed and the audience got a very, very hot show. I think that NYFOS@North Fork is starting to have legs. I feel that my fellow Orienters are seeing the value of this residency, which is still small (one week, five artists) but could one day grow into a real institute as the support for it grows. The town is busy upgrading the hall, and the buzz around this annual event is good. At this point people out here still think of it as a gift they passively receive--look, Santa just arrived with a great show for us!--but in a few years they will feel the ownership I want them to have. They already exhibit so much generosity to us, and so much enthusiasm for the music. 

 

DAY 5: August 21, 2015

Thursday's big event was the arrival of Josh Vonderheide, our percussionist (pictured below). Clearly he doesn't look Latin, but he's one of those guys who can play anything from Brahms, Stravinsky, and Varèse to Cuban dance tunes. He is a calm, organized presence who makes music with the kind of command that would be staggering in a player of any age--but is especially impressive in a 23-year old. He knew the material cold--and hot. There is something about the sound of bongos and congas and claves and especially the shaker that defuses tension and gives music wings. For me, it was like arriving at an oasis. The dry spell was over.

guy with drumsWe have a little bit of dancing in the show--no big choreography, just what we call "'ography," fairly informal partner-dancing for a couple of numbers. I knew Alex could move and I assume all women can dance (is that sexist?), but I only recently found out that Dimitri, who is an imposing 6'2", has had some dance training as well. There is something breathtaking about big guys who are graceful, and our Dimitri is very light on his feet, a samba and merengue ace. He seems to turn into somebody else when he dances, a benign Lothario-bear. I could have rehearsed the instrumental break in "Frenesí" all afternoon. The hall was filled with life and light and swaying couples. It was interesting to see the boys vie for primacy as dance captain. I'd put Alex in charge, but Dimitri stepped up to the plate in a way we couldn't ignore. The girls let themselves be led except for one spot where Anna gently contradicted Alex. Seeing a little squabble brewing, I stepped in. I know very little about dance but I could see Anna's way was more graceful. "But...in Spanish dance, the man always takes the leading step!" protested Alex. "Sorry babe, it just looks a little awkward..."

It was gratifying to see everyone make big strides on their solos and duets. Alex sailed through his three numbers with a surprising Latinate vocal sheen--where does that Caribbean-Iberian sound come from in his Scottish-Russian-mongrel mix background? Wherever he finds the timbre, it's just right for this repertoire. Anna's opulent sound gets more flexible and personal every time she rehearses--that woman never stops working on her music. I could see that she'd picked up something intangible but palpable from our Skype talk with Victor Torres the day before, and her Argentinean songs were getting some sweet, south-of-the-border fragrance. Amanda has a way of stepping into her songs and inhabiting them in a way that seems effortless, a gift I am not sure she's aware of. She has a natural sense of rhythm and a capacity for big, bold delivery that I am trying to encourage. When she's on, she is a force to be reckoned with (I keep thinking of Shirley Verrett). And Dimitri had a late-rehearsal breakthrough that suddenly cracked his songs open. Because he's tall and seems confident, I sometimes speak to him more forcefully than I do with the others. It seems he can take the push, and after I explode "NO NO NO NO NO NO!" I can then explain where his process goes off the tracks, and how to fix it. He's a bright man, smart enough to have almost too many thoughts circulating in his brain while he's singing. I tried to simplify it yesterday, get it down to one task: just SAY what you're SAYING, and the phrase will follow. And it did--along with the color, the tempo, and the inner spirit of the song.

Over dinner Josh shared some of the more colorful details of his life. He's got a refreshingly open spirit and reached out to us in the most disarming way. They say "Never judge a book by its cover." In Josh's case, the appealing book cover isn't a bit misleading--but there are still plenty of surprises in the book.

NYFOS@NorthFork: LATIN LOVERS

DAY 4: August 20, 2015

In a short rehearsal period like this, Wednesday is the last day I can really work on the music in a substantive way. After that I can feel the ice forming, and soon everyone turns into Ethel Merman, who described herself before an opening night: "Miss Birdseye--my performance is frozen." I leaned on everyone pretty hard yesterday. But it's hard to be a martinet when you're trying to get people to swing rhythms, loosen their musical hips, relax their music-school training, and go native. Sometimes I try to do it just by the way I play, which is great if the singers are actually able to listen and absorb the almost aggressively Caribbean schmooze of my piano stylings. The current generation seems to be weaned on Handel and Stravinsky, very vertical composers, tidy and mathematical. When it comes to singing Villa-Lobos and Lecuona, you need to strip down to a musical bikini and have a few imaginary caipirinhas if it's going to work. I've supplied the musical swimwear. Let's see if they don it.


The day ended with a Skype session with Victor Torres, an Argentinean baritone whose CDs are a touchstone for me in this repertoire. We met in New York through a series of amazing coincidences a few years ago, but I hadn't seen him for quite a while. The cast and I had carefully amassed a series of concrete questions about the poems and the musical style, just to make sure we had something to talk about. Victor didn't actually answer any of them--he was baffled by the same things we were. That alone was comforting; it meant we could go with our own imaginations. We weren't missing something that "only Argentineans could possibly know." But Victor's spirit, his dyed-in-the-wool Buenos Aires personality, the occasional phrases he sang for us, and his amazing, quintessentially Argentinean accent were a lesson in themselves. There is saying about the greats, "So-and-so has forgotten more about this repertoire than anyone else ever knew," implying a depth of knowledge so great that even when the details are patchy, they are still a fount of understanding. That's my Victor. I really hope he'll come to New York again. He gave us a big lift.


After the Skype session, the cast headed down to my pool for an evening dip. From the sound of it, they were having quite a good time. I'll bet I can get them to swim in the music today.


In three hours we get our percussionist. No matter what, things will be heating up.

DAY 3: August 19, 2015

The process is always the same, but the details make the difference. It's true of producing wine, cheese--and the North Fork residency. To wit: since we're starting a week earlier, the singers are mostly coming directly from their last summer programs. I think that going from dorm life to a beautiful, well-appointed house by the bay must be like getting out of prison. But no matter how salubrious the surroundings, most of them did not have an interval to focus solely on Latin Lovers, and the first performance is now in...gulp...three days. It's going to be a photo-finish for everyone to get their songs in shape, but I have every confidence that they're going to nail it. Tuesday's rehearsal was miles ahead of Monday's, and if we can keep that pace going we'll sail through. But we have a lot of work to do.


Another difference: this year's cast has a distinctive quality that is a little hard to describe. The word I keep coming up with is "mellow." Our soprano Anna Dugan, who is fluent in Spanish, has taken over the role of ad hoc diction coach when they're at home. She also has a car and tends to mastermind the larder. And she is apparently a wonderful cook. Her groundedness has seemed to set the tone for the group, at least when they're around me. For all I know, they perform Bacchanalian rites with lampshades on their heads till 3 in the morning when they go off together. But with Anna there, I am confident that every lampshade goes back exactly where it came from, and that the rugs are smoothed out perfectly.


Last year I lived next door to the cast, and they were in and out of my place all the time. This year they're in the same house but I've moved to the other side of this very small town. It's funny how having a little distance from them changes the tone of our collaboration. They're by the water, near the hall; I am up a hill in a funky, wonderful rental with views of both the bay and the Sound. I have the feeling of being in an aerie, my "regal eagle nest," as Cole Porter would say. I have more privacy. I need it. By the time I get home I am running on fumes and reduced to monosyllables. Jim is more used to the regressive side of my personality, but I wouldn't want the young to witness Primordial Steve. They get hints of it anyway as 7:30 nears.


The day started with good news/bad news about my computer. Good news: the hard drive is uncompromised. Bad news: the motherboard is completely shot. Result: I bought a new Mac last night. I don't know why I have ongoing problems with motherboards. It's been a motif throughout my troubled life with laptops. Perhaps only a Freudian analysis would solve my motherboard issues. But I think it'll be cheaper to replace computers every three years than lie on a couch five times a week dredging up my deep-seated tech neuroses.


Tonight we might have a Skype master class with Argentinean song expert Victor Torres, a musician I admire; tomorrow Josh Vonderheide takes over my pool cabana. Stay tuned.

DAY 2: August 18, 2015

The first day of rehearsal is always an eye-opener. One person shows up with everything in a tabbed notebook, another has a wad of loose, double-sided, folded Xeroxes. Someone nails one song with emotional depth and convincing Argentinean Spanish, then proceeds to deliver another in what sounds like Esperanto. One person gives a thrilling, ready-to-go rendition of a Cuban piece, and then falls apart in what I thought was a much more straightforward Brazilian one. Three out of the four know what the encore is; most of them have all the pages of their songs but there are odd lapses. I'd been pretty meticulous, nigh unto OCD, about sending material to the cast, and had to suppress a few "grrs" during the day. It was a long rehearsal spanning six hours, with some great moments and some four-car pile-ups. I was at the piano for all but 30 minutes (my ritual tea break). When I got home I was reduced to monosyllables. Chopping a tomato took my entire concentration.


For the cast, this repertoire is uncharted waters, while I've played some of these songs for twenty years. I was reminded yesterday of my experiences accompanying Jessye Norman and Barbara Cook late in their careers. They were used to one way of singing their music, and in both cases I had to deal with tempos and phrasing and musical spacing that seemed somewhat...counterintuitive. I knew the songs well, well enough to have my own deep groove with them. Partnering them felt like being in an unruly rental car dodging potholes in thick traffic. Jessye was sweet with me in rehearsal but I knew she thought I was not the right man for her fanciful way with Poulenc and Strauss; Barbara was not so sweet, and in my entire career I have rarely been so glad to see a double-bar.


I care deeply about the artists I've brought out to Orient; I want the weather, the produce, the bike routes, the beaches, and the rehearsal process to be perfect 24/7. But they are novices with South American and Cuban song, and I have a lot of miles with these pieces. With great flair I pile into the intro I use for "Por una cabeza" and come to the cadence. Silence. I look up at gentle, intelligent Dimitri who asks, "So...are you going to give me four bars for an intro?" "Honey. I just played the intro." "Oh. OH! I get it." There is a little nuance I do in "Pueblito, mi pueblo"; yesterday I had to dissect it beat by beat for Alex McKissick who couldn't catch my wave. One of the issues is that they're not quite at the point where they can climb on board Rocketship Steve. Their minds are on entrances, notes, and the difference between Cuban and Argentinean Spanish, which then get confused with Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation. At one point I heard Spanish that conflated high German with Brazilian--amazing the amount of ways one can pronounce (and mispronounce) the letter "j," I mused.
The cast could use a rehearsal pianist, and at Caramoor, Juilliard, and Wolf Trap I have backup. Here, no. And the longer I play the more haphazard my work gets; clean at 3 PM, sloppy by 7. My fear is that by Friday they'll be perfect and I shall be a total wreck. Note to self: only you can prevent a piano fire. Hermano, cúbrete el culo.


And then there are the magic moments. The last song of the day was the Gardel tango "Por una cabeza." Once Dimitri realized where to come in, he piled into the music with all the wounded machismo the song needs. He'd been up since 6 in the morning, and by then his Spanish had descended somewhere into the middle of the Indian Ocean, but the essence of the song was blazing through him. I looked up and everyone was dancing, Anna and Alex gliding through the room with metaphorical roses in their teeth, Amanda doing a little solo. "We'll be fine," I thought. "We just need to get all of our rehearsals like this."

DAY 1: August 17, 2015

There is a lot of drama surrounding the beginning of any project, and today--the official day one of NYFOS@North Fork--is no exception. Three of the singers arrived yesterday. and two of them (Anna Dugan and Alex McKissick) jumped gamely into rehearsal, clearly too cowed to say "I don't want to sing after traveling all day." Amanda Bottoms showed up a bit later--blessedly in time for supper chez nous. And singer number four (Dimitri Katotakis) arrives by ferry this afternoon. Bongo-master Josh Vonderheide gets here Thursday and moves into the little pool house on our property, which we've referred to all summer as "the Bates Motel." (Actually, it's a very sweet cabana with a lot of privacy and, obviously, a pool outside the front door. And a Murphy bed.)


A project like this feels a bit like writing a cookbook without having an actual kitchen. You look at the ingredients, the proportions, the temperatures, the timing, you know you've made this dish before, everything should work. But there comes the moment when you see if your predictions and educated guesses pan out. The dough will rise, won't it?
To wit: The singers live in a donated house: will they get along? Will they burn a hole in the floor? Will they tell me if they burn a hole in the floor? Oh, and then there's the program: did everyone get the right song to show off his/her unique talent? Does it flow, or are the little traffic jams I didn't see in advance?


So far so good. Anna and Alex made a nice showing yesterday. I'd never heard Anna sing--just a bit of Cole Porter online, scarcely a way to evaluate her suitability to an afternoon of Brazilian, Argentinean, and Cuban song. But she came highly recommended, she has a great resumé, she's of Spanish descent, and all of my correspondence with her had been encouraging. (She's also Alex's significant other--a recommendation of a very different nature.) But I didn't know what to expect when she opened her mouth to sing. Verdict: oh Lord, what a gorgeous sound. Big, steady, opulent, rangy--wow. My Crackerjack toy turned out to be a diamond ring.


Everyone seems to be arriving here without having worked with a pianist on their songs, so the accompaniments are proving to be a slightly de-railing factor in their first renditions of the material. I am a lousy répètiteur, and have to resist the urge to bark "FIVE-SIX-SEVEN-EIGHT" like a hellish ballet teacher. But the atmosphere is so lovely here in Orient, and singing Latin American and Caribbean song one block from the Peconic Bay is not what I'd call a hardship. Peace reigns.


Mostly. It seems that every year my computer decides to die right around this time. No warning, no signal that anything is wrong. It's fine when I go to sleep (or last year, when I got up to have dinner), but inanimate when next touched. I have chosen to behave like Gandhi about it. There is actually a computer repair place in our tiny town, and a man named Vincent whose shop is just down the road now has possession of my Mac Book. I proudly kept part of its hot pink cover on--the top. But I removed its pink hot pants so that he could have his way with the machine. Wish me luck.

LETTERS FROM SPAIN

DAY 5 April 26, 2015

I do most of my programming staring at my computer screen. I don’t sit down and play through the show before finalizing my NYFOS concerts. I just…gaze at my Mac…and imagine how it’s all going to work. This method seems to be working for me. The last bunch of shows have been very strong, and these days it seems best to work by instinct.

Still, there is a scary moment of truth at the first run-through when I actually hear the concert in order. D-Day was Friday. And yes, I was surprised—but in a good way. The program order works pretty much as I had predicted, but on an emotional level Letters from Spain packs much more of a punch than I was expecting. For one thing, I hadn’t foreseen how much drama and color Alexey was going to bring to his Shostakovich songs. On the page they look like a delicious appetizer course; in his hands, they are more like dinner at The Four Seasons. I also hadn’t quite absorbed the scope of the Bolcom Canciones de Lorca, super-saturated music done to a turn by Theo Lebow. Let me just state that the boy has cojones. So does Bill Bolcom, who found a way to bring Lorca’s passion and sensitivity blazing into life. Like a lot of Bill’s music, these songs work on so many levels: a brilliant reading of the poems, a multifarious exploration of Spanish musical styles from flamenco to tango to Cuban dance, and a mini-biography of this iconic writer.

cast for April 28th

We were originally going to do this recital without an intermission in New York, but we’ve decided to give the audience a 10-minute breather before Corinne’s exquisite Guastavino songs. Hearing her sing “Se equivocó la paloma,” I remembered why they call this composer “the Schubert of the Pampas.” The two composers share the same kind of elegance and transparency, along with those heartbreaking changes of harmony when melodies repeat.. It takes real mastery to write something so simple and so perfect, and it's a special treat to hear them sung by such a colorful, warm voice. When the cast sang the encore—another Guastavino tune—I started to tear up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going into the other room to have a good cry.

DAY 3 April 23, 2015

There are some recipes that require you to mix ingredients in two different bowls and then combine the contents before cooking them. That’s what happened this week: Alexey could work Monday but not Tuesday, Corinne and Theo could work Tuesday but not Monday. Wednesday we poured the two brews together.

Corinne was singing when Alexey tiptoed into my apartment. I didn’t see him come in, but I could tell he’d arrived just by listening to Corinne. She subtly went from “I’m rehearsing” mode to “I’m performing mode,” as if her Guastavino song had put on heels and lipstick when company arrived.

april full ensemble

I thought it would be smart to get to the three trios as soon as possible, because everyone had been spending the lion’s share of their preparation on their solo material. Michael and I plowed into the intro to Lorca’s “Anda, jaleo,” in which Alexey has the first of the three verses. In the spirit of “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” Alexey let out with a roar that practically knocked me off my chair. In the opera world, size matters; it is the men’s locker room of music. Corinne and Theo have their feet squarely in that world, singing opera all over the world. Exerting exquisite muscular control they kept their eyebrows from hitting the ceiling, and then made their own counteroffer—“No, by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” They belted out their verses at the top of their lungs, and we suddenly had a team—and a great one. What a blessing these three singers are, one of the best casts we have ever had at NYFOS (and the bar is high).

For me, yesterday was a huge relief. Tuesday had been a long, long day at the piano, totaling out to about 6 hours of playing—and none of them very beautiful or comfortable. By evening my arm was sore, my spirits were low, my mood was grim. But by some miracle I had not worn myself out to the danger point, and I recovered to have quite a decent day of music-making. There are five spots in the Bolcom that still need repair, but on Sunday there were only five spots that sounded decent at all. Now, that is progress.

DAY 1 - April 21, 2015
We’ve had two days of rehearsal on LETTERS FROM SPAIN, a program about which I had some trepidation. No surprises there—I am always freaked out before I start a project, certain that I have miscalculated in some fatal way. So my dominant feeling right now is relief, for two reasons: the music and the cast, reassuringly great in both cases.

It began yesterday when baritone Alexey Lavrov came in for his first rehearsal. He’d auditioned for me about a year ago and I was struck by the aliveness of his singing, his theatrical daring, his burly voice. So I should have been prepared for the tidal wave he unleashed when he sang the Shostakovich Spanish Songs for Michael and me. In his hands these simple folksongs became vivid dramas, filled with more charm, humor, and emotion than I ever imagined possible. This guy is a life force and he sings from the gut. You don’t need to speak Russian to understand what Alexey is saying.

Later on we were working on a song by Antón García Abril set to a Lorca poem. Rather unsure as to whether this was a smart move on my part, I blurted out, “You know…this poem strikes me as very gay.” Silence. “Of course, most of Lorca’s poems seem that way to me.” Michael Barrett started to run interference. “Well,” he said, “that would be your perspective of course…” But Alexey was not fazed. He took a moment and then said, “Oh yes, yes—I see what you mean. Something intense, something private, something forbidden, something you couldn’t say just anywhere, something that you wait for the right moment to share.” The three of us talked about cultural mores in early twentieth century Spain, sharing stuff we’d read. Then Alexey sang the song again, this time with such startling intensity and longing that I literally began to shiver. When Alexey rehearses he likes to sing right at you, turning you into his scene partner. It’s a kind of musical “truth or dare,” and you need to summon your strength to face him down. “More like that?” he asked. “Yes,” Michael and I said. “Exactly like that.”

Lebow, Winters and Blier rehearsing

Today we saw Corinne Winters and Theo Lebow. I’ve worked with both of them before, and I would say there were no surprises…but after the shock of yesterday’s encounter with Alexey I was especially alive to their singing---their tremendous musicianship coupled to an amazing vocal aesthetic. Corinne has to have one of the most opulent voices on the current scene, and it’s a treat to hear her lavish that beautiful sound on Hugo Wolf and Guastavino. Theo is tackling four of Bolcom’s Canciones de Lorca, an insanely brilliant piece of music that has colonized our lives for the last few weeks. It was originally written for tenor and orchestra, and the piano reduction is dauntingly difficult. (The vocal line is pretty demanding too.) But we’re getting our act together, and Theo’s first reading was nothing short of stunning. That boy can wail, and it turns out that he has Latin hips after all—something he let loose in the last song, a salsa in praise of Cuba. I was dead tired and running on fumes as I heard myself say, “Can we just do the Cuba song one more time?"


 

CARAMOOR 2015

DAYS 5 and 6, March 13 and 14
So much drama. Friday we did a presentation for a bunch of high school choral singers. The kids didn’t seem too interested in Michael or me, but they were really into the singing, absolutely fascinated to hear full-throated, sophisticated vocalism close up. And we fielded a lot of great questions from them—as always, about four people had three questions each, but we accomplished the feat of having 40 high schoolers in the palm of our hands. This wasn’t “The Voice.” This was the real deal.


In the afternoon we welcomed Karen Holvik as our second guest-teacher of the week. Karen and I met at Aspen when we were in our 20s, and have had a long, long musical love-affair. She is now the head of the voice department at New England Conservatory, and has some of the sharpest eyes and ears and brain cells of anyone I know.


Friday’s runthrough was a little underwhelming. I’d started out a little hot under the collar about being relegated to the role of hired hand in the morning, but then I got quietly exercised about some real things. It seemed as if so much of the work Michael and I (and Giuseppe) had been doing all week was going out the window. The notes we gave were pretty much the same notes we’d given the day before, and the day before that. “It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’” I mused. “You wake up and you start all over again from scratch.” In these moments I have a decision to make: do I get better results from being warmly supportive, or do I reveal my irritation, and if so, how? What will be effective? I decided to let Michael and Karen do most of the talking. My mouth has a way of running away with me. Anyway the singers can smell it when I am not happy, and it’s not a pleasant odor.


That night I had to be in town for a memorial tribute to two great opera singers who had recently died, Carlo Bergonzi and Licia Albanese. My friend Paul Gruber had masterminded and produced the event, and he did a magnificent job. I must have been tired and vulnerable, because I did a lot of crying that night. When Licia Albanese, age 81, sang “Never look back!” in the video of “One More Kiss” from Sondheim’s “Follies” with the young Erie Mills, I flashed on Chris Reynolds and me. The old diva, the young hotshot. I sobbed. In the second half, there were major waterworks every time they showed a Bergonzi video. Thank God I was sitting alone—Jim was a row in front of me, blissfully unaware that his husband was having a total emotional meltdown two feet away. After the show I thought, “Just get out of the theater and go home. If you can do that you’ll be OK.” Unfortunately I ran into my old friend, artist manager Ken Benson who cheerfully said, “Wasn’t that amazing?” and I let loose with the biggest display of weeping yet. “It’s like the funeral…of my art form!” I managed to blubber. “It’s all GONE!” I wailed. On the way to the 11 bus I managed to burst into tears only two more times. Finally Jim gently said, “Um, Stevie, can you try to stop crying? Because if you don’t I’ll start crying too.”


It didn’t help that Vittorio Grigolo, young tenor sensation, had been on hand to give a live vocal tribute to Bergonzi. He gave the most bizarre, tempo-less performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which sounded like a Justin Bieber impersonation. He appeared to be singing in Esperanto, and addressed most of his burbling, bumbling song upstage to a still photo Bergonzi. Grigolo is a nice-looking man, slender (he wore really tight pants and maroon socks), and clearly into being a Personality. My takeaway: Bergonzi died and look what we’re left with, a weird narcissist with a papery voice.


Bergonzi and Albanese were doing what I had been asking my cast to do all week, and after Friday’s tentative run of the program I wondered if the whole tradition had died despite my best efforts. But this story has a happy ending. On Saturday Michael gave a strong pep-talk to the cast. He didn’t mince words, but he did tell them what he wanted them to do: man up, remember what we’d been working on, live up to their talent, take a risk. And by God they did. “Go too far if you need to, we can pull you back.” That happened only in a couple of songs. The dress rehearsal was thrilling. The singers—and pianist Chris Reynolds—knew that we were counting on them to sing with eloquence, dignity, passion, connection, and they let us know that (despite the evidence of superstar Grigolo) the future of vocal music was safe in their hands. They sang for keeps, and I arrived home a much happier man.

DAY 4, March 12, 2015
The atmosphere was, as I expected, a little different today. No guest coaches, just Michael and me—and our first work-through in concert order. Michael, Chris, and I decided who would be playing which songs on Sunday (with some possibilities of change for the Tuesday concert in New York). And it was time to blend the gentle, patient Zen-master approach with a bit of the “come-on-people-let’s-get-our-act-together” Realpolitik of getting a concert ready.


Except for a little bit of an explosion on my part about the Verdi song, I think Michael and I behaved like true midwives, coaxing, exhorting, cajoling, encouraging, but not letting up. The truth is that the cast is doing beautiful work, but they sometimes just needed a bit more energy, confidence, concentration, daring. Everyone was being a little careful, and you can’t sing Verdi carefully. It’s funny what Italian music brings out of me: a Steve I don’t know very well, a firecracker, an assertive guy who screams things like “NO!” and “MORE! MORE!” and “ARTICULATE FOR GOD’S SAKE!” and a few things I can’t print in a blog. Thank God I was coaching Shea, who has the composure of a Benedictine monk. And he gave me what I asked for—the sardonic, energized bon vivant of the “Brindisi.”

Music is about faith: you have to believe your instrument works. Sure, a good technique is a huge part of being a confident performer, but you also need a dose of moxie to exploit that technique and use it to its fullest capacity. My exhortation today was, “Don’t think about what Giuseppe asked for yesterday and let it immobilize you. Don’t be cautious and try to figure out what Michael and I want. No, put one foot in the prompter’s box and deliver the song! In Technicolor!”

DAY 3, March 11, 2015
Wednesday is usually when we start to see where the glories and the rough spots of the program are. It is also the last day when we permit ourselves to feel carefree and pleasantly exploratory about it all. “What key did you decide on for that song?” I say in a calculatedly casual tone. “Oh, I’ll let you know tomorrow…” “Can you fix up the mushy spots in the ensemble?” I toss off later on. “Oh, sure, we’ll practice when we get back to the dorm.” “Are you going to do that phrase in one breath?” “Um, I hope so! We’ll see…” “Printed cadenza or something of your own?” “Ah! I’m…still deciding…!”


All these answers hang in the air and I take them in stride. Because tomorrow we head into the let’s-get-serious mode when we have to start preparing for the Sunday performance. The words “off book” haven’t been mentioned; with a cast this experienced and responsible neither Michael nor I feel that we have to play schoolmarm about getting the songs memorized. In fact, I like to keep as much of a feeling of playfulness as possible throughout the whole rehearsal process. I liken it to letting Jell-O harden in the refrigerator. It simply happens in the course of time if you mix the ingredients together properly. You just hope that you got it into the fridge in time to be ready when the guests arrive.


Guiseppe Mentuccia and Steven BlierToday was our second day with Giuseppe Mentuccia, to whom I gave the nickname Il Principe, “the prince.” His thought processes about music are different from mine and Michael’s, and therefore of great value. He spoke about the consonants as “the trap set of Italian vocal music,” and showed us how they define the contour of the line. “This section is like a banda, we have them in every town, you know, town band.” He was speaking about the opening of the Donizetti duet. “BAAAAM, ba-BAM ba-BAM ba BAM-ba,” he sang. Suddenly the little unaccompanied vocal lines made sense—banda volgare unexpectedly turned into dolce bel canto. About the Pizzetti song, “Is bardic, is ancient, is primordial. But is not tragic.” About Bellini: “In classical period, the phrase goes to the downbeat. In romantic era, the phrase goes to the note before the downbeat.” As Giuseppe spoke, I felt as if I were hearing my own thoughts in a very loose Italian translation. We both wanted the same adjustments; but our cultural differences led us to express them in contrasting ways, as if we were walking into the same room through two different doors.


Christopher Reynolds and Alec CarlsonI finally got to work with our pianist Chris today; up till now he’d spent the lion’s share of the day in the other studio collaborating with Michael. Chris is a spookily smart and eerily gifted young guy (young, as in 19 years old). His playing is so easy and accurate that it can be a bit unnerving. He’ll come up with things like, “The only Busoni I ever played was his piano concerto. Really, really hard, and I hated it.” Pianists divide into two basic camps: concerto guys, and the rest of us working stiffs. I’ve never had the aptitude for using the piano as an athletic event, and I don’t even like listening to concertos all that much. To me, they are the porn of classical music.


The question remained: how do I teach someone who makes music—and talks about music—with a kind of assurance and virtuosity I never had? Certainly not by knocking his confidence down. Instead, I tried to show him gently how I think about making character and drama at the piano. No big overarching theories—just specific moments. After all, I have performed several thousand songs by now. “I take an extra second here to let the thought sink in,” “I know there’s no diminuendo written but if you play these two notes just a little softer it sounds as if the curtain is going up on the song,” “Maybe if you lift the second beat it sounds a bit more inebriated…no, not that much, the character isn’t plastered, just a little buzzed.” I myself appreciate detail more than generalities when people work with me, and I also do not like feeling over-controlled by a colleague. I could see that by loosening up a bit of Chris’s tight, incisive attack his music-making got more pliant, more subtle, more vocal.


Yesterday had begun and ended in a rosy glow, starting with Bix Beiderbecke and ending with a late-evening drink with my colleague, the English pianist Julius Drake. Julius schlepped all the way to my apartment just to spend a few minutes with me, and I was glad that he finally got to meet my partner Jim. (I guess I should get used to using the “h” word—“husband.” Give me time.) Yesterday, alas, was bookended by sourness. I greeted the day awakening from a nightmare, screaming “I CAN’T BREATHE! I CAN’T BREATHE!” (This is a rare occurrence for me.) And the end of the evening brought a double-whammy: I ran over my down coat and ripped it pretty badly, covering my hallway in feathers. It now looks like the home of an angry drag queen or an urban branch of Frank Perdue out by the front door. And I found out that my wheelchair, which has been in the repair shop for two months, got returned to the wrong address. When I think of the standards we musicians have in our profession versus the appalling slovenliness of health care for people with disabilities, I become pretty enraged. Depending on a wheelchair isn’t the most amusing thing I can think of, but god help you when your wheels break down. Because you are in the hands of a very screwed-up system where the bar is set so low you can’t even see it.

DAY 2, March 10, 2015
The day started with the usual drive from Manhattan up to Caramoor with Michael. Uncharacteristically he’d kept radio on: WKCR, the Columbia University station, was doing its annual birthday tribute to jazz cornet legend Bix Beiderbecke and he wanted to share the music with me. The KCR morning host was one of those wonderful jazz nerds who announced every single player on every single song. What celestial, sweet recordings Bix left us before he died at the age of 28. The DJ read what must be a famous quote by Eddie Condon about this jazz legend: "When Beiderbecke played his silver cornet, the sound came out like a girl saying ‘yes.’”


I felt so soothed and inspired by hearing Bix, as well as the old-fashioned crooners who still rolled their r’s when they sang with the big bands. I decided that I too wanted to sound like a girl saying “yes” when I made music. It seemed like the only sensible goal.
Today we welcomed our first guest coach, Giuseppe Mentuccia. He came very highly recommended by Corradina Caporello, the Italian teacher at Juilliard; he is also close friends with people I know and respect. Chris Reynolds, our young pianist, thought he would be a great idea for us. So I met Giuseppe, liked him, and took him on. Our program includes many languages—English, French, German, and Hebrew—but I felt sure that we would benefit the most from having some expert ears for the nine Italian songs. Adding one more keyboard player to the mix would mean that for two days we’d have as many singers as pianists, an embarrassment of instrumentalists (all with their own opinions). I worried that the delicate pH might go awry.

Guiseppe Mentuccia, Steven Blier, Michael Barrett and Eileen Schwab
But I had a sense that Giuseppe would be a force for the good, and I was right. He hails from Rome, and came to Juilliard about five years ago. He’s working on a doctorate in piano, but he’s also begun to branch out into other musical passions—coaching song and opera, delving into conducting, writing a thesis about the mystical conductor Sergiu Celibidache. He’s a pure musician, one of those guys whose very presence leads you in the right direction, and his ears are as sharp as the enchanter’s sword. He wore a spiffy burgundy sports coat (which I assumed came from a fancy Roman boutique, but was actually purchased at H&M) and I decided that life should definitely be lived in a series of dark-hued blazers.


The musical work continued strong today. Shea rehearsed the song by Mark Adamo, written to a lyric by Mark Campbell; the two Marks had given me the song for my wedding., where it was sung by Matt Boehler. It’s called “This Much Is New,” and Sunday will be the official world premiere of this gem. When I practiced the song at home I invariably broke down crying on page 3—not just tearing up, but the real boo-hoo stuff, sobbing uncontrollably. Jim would find me weeping at the piano and quietly say, “Oh honey, are you working on Mark’s song again?” I’d been nervous about rehearsing “This Much Is New,” but I got through it without embarrassment—though Shea is one of the very few human beings in front of whom I could comfortably cry. He’ll do this special piece justice—he has a beautiful heart.


Julia Dawson and Chelsea MorrisOn other fronts, Julia found the sabra soul of her Castelnuovo-Tedesco song (in Hebrew). Things cleared up for her definitively when I told her I thought the narrator of the song was a shiksa—a non-Jewish woman, I explained—in love with a Jewish guy. “Ohhh. A shiksa. That…is something I understand,” she said, tossing her blonde mane. I worried that the virtuoso Rossini piece I assigned her might be a bit much for a young singer, but she apparently tore up the rehearsal room with the bravura ending. “O mai gohd, Stiv, it wahz fahntahstic,” confided Giuseppe. Chelsea dug very deep into her soul today and stunned everyone in the room, including herself, with “Ombra di nube.” “I want to work on the Bellini,” she told me right after, “but first I need to go somewhere and cry for fifteen minutes.” And Alec’s voice is just like his smile, radiating light into the world. When he sings “I Only Have Eyes for You,” I wish Bix Beiderbecke could have heard him, and echoed that beautiful tenor voice with a sweet answer on the silver cornet.


DAY 1, March 9, 2015

I greet the Caramoor residency with a tangle of emotions drawn from my rich reservoir of neurotic complexity. I am very excited because the unique spell of the Music Room brings forth memories of powerful artistic connections in my life. I have had my musical heart broken in the most delicious ways there, hearing some of the most celestial singing of my career. Is it any wonder that I am also nervous every season my anticipation may lead to some unforeseen disappointment?


We had our first day today working on Bel Canto/Can Belto, a program of songs by Italians and Italian-Americans. It’s a demanding concert, requiring vocal fireworks, world-class musicianship, passion, irony, style, and charm. I was pretty sure I had the cast we’d need for such an audacious enterprise: soprano Chelsea Morris, mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson, tenor Alec Carlson, and baritone Shea Owens, with “apprentice” (aka “ace”) pianist Chris Reynolds. We had a pretty great first day. Their voices are, if anything, even more beautiful than the last time I heard them. And the spirit in the room was so calm and reassuring—a very mature quartet emotionally, and a group of people of such intense generosity and good hearts as to make geniality seem like a state of grace.


I am fascinated to see what forms of humor float to the surface with each group of singers. Some years we have a couple of artists (ok, I mean guys) who like to quote television shows or movies at length; others years we’ve had a share of good-natured ribbing that could occasionally tilt into frat-house humor. Today we laughed together like adults. Somehow we fell into a series of jokes using the B-word, begun (I blush to admit) by me even though I usually consider that epithet totally off-limits. We had some prize puns from Shea, to whom I’ve given the nickname “Grandpa.” Michael only told one joke today, timing out at 3 minutes (the rings-of-hell joke, one of his specialties). Alec was singing his heart out and got a nosebleed. Julia did a dead-on impression of a blessed-out yoga instructor in emotional denial, ending with the phrase “I am present in this shit.” Chris, our youngest-ever Rising Star (age 19) demonstrated a kind of calm competence that I can only call other-worldly. Chelsea made tea at 4, and proceeded to kill me softly with her song.


Yes, a good day. A very good day.

August 25, 2014
There is a certain excitement to playing in big cities and legendary halls. But there is an equal thrill, and sometimes a deeper pleasure, making music in intimate spaces. In big places, you sense you are there to impress people. This weekend in Bellport and Orient, I felt we were there to feed people—and these crowds were hungry for music.

Because our concert opened with an a cappella piece, I could sneak a look at the audience as the music began. While the cast burst into “Come live with me and be my love,” I saw astonishment and delight flash into everyone’s face. They were literally startled by the beauty they were hearing. They’d come to be indulgent about fledgling singers, and found themselves in the presence of some world-class musicians.

I was born in a big city—New York—and am at my most comfortable living there. But as an artist I understand the fine brushstrokes of chamber music best. I love detail, I love the feeling of communion you get when you can see the faces of the audience. I love diminuendos, and nuance, the placement of a consonant timed perfectly with an F-sharp in the piano, the precision of a ritardando, the way a rosy sound can turn deep red, or a vibrato-less outcry can ripen into a juicy lament.

This is why the past weekend was such a pleasure. Chelsea, Lauren, William, and Theo performed like masters in the solo material, and formed an ensemble with a blend as refined as the King’s Singers. Both halls were packed. Over and over I got a compliment I used to resent but now find heart-warming: “That was fun!” Because if a general audience experiences a program that includes Stenhammar, Oltra, Granados, Grieg, and Frank Bridge as fun, we have truly done a good job. Classical music is often thought of as castor oil: good for you, if rather unpleasant in the consumption. We turned over that particular myth once and for all.

I shall refrain from detailing the accomplishments of each cast member, for fear of sounding like a proud parent afflicted with a sad case of logorrhea. Suffice it to say that they delivered performances of astounding beauty, and each found the kind of quiet authority that is my deepest goal in NYFOS’s Emerging Artist programs. Chelsea located a new richness of timbre that added velvet to the amazing sheen of her sound; Lauren sculpted her Granados songs like Bernini having an especially good day; and William sang Frank Bridge with an unforessen supply of passion, color, and imagination. At the end Theo rocked the house with the “Craigslistlieder,” which he delivered with a combination of deadpan sincerity and hipster irony, revealing astonishing theatrical judgment.

I am a maniac about my own playing, and I had two mostly-decent encounters with the 88s. The Bellport piano is a really distinguished baby grand, the Orient piano an endearingly quaint one. I found myself wishing I’d had one more week off between the end of my month-long series of residencies and this project; I would have wanted a few more days to bash out the rough spots on my own. I was reasonably happy with my own work; I was ecstatic about the four singers’.

In Bellport we'd been treated to a sensational meal at the home of voice wizard Deb Birnbaum, who had produced the concert. That left me with one last hurdle to jump after the Orient performance on Sunday. The cast came to our place for a victory dinner, along with our Juilliard colleague, tenor James Knight (a superbly loose cannon), a close family friend of Chelsea’s, Theo Hoffman’s parents and their friend, the painter Andrew Keating. Theo’s father and mother are famous New York restaurateurs (owners of Savoy and Back Forty) and I was very nervous about feeding them. I was also terrified there would not be enough to eat, as the guest list kept creeping up. So I ordered in dinner from our premiere prepared foods place (Salamander, in Greenport) and prayed to Hermes, the god of hospitality. He heard my prayer, and supplied us with quite a decent meal, the gift of a generous local supporter. I was treated to the sight of Peter Hoffman masterminding the takeout, opening the wine, recommending the rosé, dressing the tomatoes, and (best of all) approving of the meal. Susan Rosenfeld, Theo's delight of a mother, actually did the dishes. There was a ton of food; three-quarters of it got eaten. It was my final sigh of relief.

 

August 21, 2014
NYFOS @ North Fork, Day 4
Officially Thursday is the second-last rehearsal, but since it is the day before dress rehearsal it is really the last time I can tinker with the songs. What does tinkering mean? A short sampling:

1. With William, working on the approach to a high note at the end of one of his Frank Bridge songs. For a tenor, modifying the vowels as you go to the top is nothing short of a science. To the listener, it sounds like five ordinary words in English, “and a rose her mouth”; for us, it’s “and euh rooz—heuh—m-eh + ow-----(silent th).” Tenors can debate this stuff like Talmudic scholars, adding in arcana about intercostal support and uvular lift. All in a day’s work for me. I have to admit I love it the same way I loved my chemistry set when I was a kid. And I love the sounds William got yesterday even more than that.

2. Chelsea (below) has such immaculate technical control of her voice, a sweet, intense, timbre that fascinated me the moment I first heard it. She can do anything, but she has to work a bit to find what I think of as a tragic, haunted timbre. So we went hunting for shades of blue yesterday, and I think we found them. Lauren was in the room when we did the saddest of Chelsea’s songs, “Zur Rosenzeit”; she put her hand over her heart when Chelsea floated the reprise of the melody. I think of her as a sort of Helden-Elly Ameling, the iconic Lieder singer of the 1970s and 80s--“Elly on Steroids.”

3. It’s been pretty thrilling to see how far Lauren’s “Tonadillas” have come this week; before this, she’d never sung in Spanish at all. Suddenly she is finding the flair and soul of her Granados women, and playing with all kinds of colors and sounds. 98% of them are fabulous; the trick is keeping her sense of adventure vibrantly alive while weeding out the 2% of her experiments that go slightly awry. It’s like laser surgery for singing: do not disturb what is healthy and blooming, and just zap the parts that need zapping. Fortunately she’s not fragile—just wants to try those phrases again and make them right.

4. Theo is his own little eco-system: a unique swirl of arty wind and rain and sunlight. He’s perfect for Gabe Kahane’s songs—a gallery of crazy, brash, horny, defensive, belligerent, sensitive, smart, dumb guys Theo inhabits with virtuosic ease. He’s doing fine: I am the problem in this particular equation. Gabe wrote the Craigslistlieder for himself to sing and play, and when he performs them he uses a microphone. We are acoustic, of course. No mikes. The piano parts are notey, rambunctious, and extravagant. Translation: LOUD. (Also difficult.) I need to put some ice on them today to get the swelling down, and we might lower the piano lid for this group.

It’s been interesting to listen to the ensemble pieces, which range from Broadway (Candide Act I finale) to blues (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, in my arrangement) to English madrigal (“Come Live With Me and Be My Love”). The vocal blend and stylistic command have been pretty astonishing, and the singers' patience with each other (at least in front of me) has been exemplary. Again, getting darker colors has been a little bit of an issue. The hall is bright and resonant, and young singers are taught to look for pink and yellow, not blue and burnt sienna, in their palette. So far we’ve made it to teal and avocado, and I expect the other crayons over the weekend.

August 21, 2014
NYFOS @ North Fork, Day 4
Days that have drama are easy to describe. Days like yesterday are more difficult. No one cried, no one blew up, no one had a meltdown. No one stopped in to hear rehearsal and supply a cute anecdote. But in a quiet way, mountains were moving. This was the day when everyone began to stop thinking about their songs, and made the first steps towards letting them have their own inner life. It’s one of my oft-repeated maxims: first you work on a piece, then you let the piece work on you. I’d privately scheduled that turnaround for today’s session, but it began to kick in yesterday.

For Chelsea, it had to with something non-vocal: I asked her to concentrate on what she was doing when she wasn’t singing. “Don’t look at the audience for approval. Stay with your story, stay with your privacy.” The first time she tried it, I admit she looked a little immobilized. But thereafter…magic. Every song had its own special aura. This woman has a unique sound: sweet, bright, clear, free, but also imposing, like a lyric soprano on steroids. Intonation from God, vowels clean enough to eat off of. I swear she’ll sing Elsa and Desdemona by the time she’s 40. She’s perfect for these Grieg Opus 48 pieces, which were originally written for a Wagnerian soprano but really need an innocent, girlish timbre.

The same thing happened to everyone. Theo began to inhabit the gallery of Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder characters effortlessly—from effete intellectual to bluff bear, clueless teen to highstrung neurotic. It helped that the cast started to hang around and listen to each other’s rehearsals, probably in an effort to keep me on schedule (which sort of worked). Theo instinctively understood he could do more with understatement than with jabbing at the comedy. Lauren turned off her brilliant Canadian brain to find the duende, the paella-scented Spanish soul, of the women in Granados’s Tonadillas. And William, a Rossini virtuoso who also has a beautiful gift for British music, found he could own, not just rent, the Frank Bridge songs I gave him.

It was a day when barriers started to melt. We celebrated by having drinks with Max Rudin and Amy Schatz, two of my dearest friends and the first of our family group to buy a house out here. On the way up Youngs Road, the cast recreated the cover of Abbey Road. Max served figs on a salt block.

 

August 19, 2014
NYFOS @ North Fork, Day 3
Tuesday is the day to go in for the kill (gently). Yesterday I quietly noted what I thought each singer’s artistic goals ought to be for the week. But that only gives us till Thursday to do real work, investigating, trying new stuff, pushing away at old habits, discussing, analyzing, repeating, searching. By Friday we need to let the songs have their own say--get out of the way and give them the steering wheel. It’s a quick process but I’ve been amazed what can happen in a single, intense week of rehearsal.

We leave the doors open so people can amble in and listen. Of course, most people do the thing I most dislike: they hover right behind me in my blind spot so I can’t see them. I know they're there because the singers are sort of playing to them, but I can only sense their presence and hear their breathing. I get it; they’re afraid they might be disturbing our work. Actually, having people lurking in the shadows is the only thing that really distracts me. So we invite them and to take a seat in the hall, and they always oblige.

A friend of ours, Bill McNaught, stopped in during his work day to listen. After the lurking ritual, he pulled up a chair and relaxed right in the middle of the hall. Bill arrived when Theo Hoffman and I were doing the title cycle of the program, Craigslistlieder. To us they’re well-known songs, almost part of the modern canon. But Bill had never heard them and didn’t know what he was in for. “You looked sexy, even though you were having a seizure…” sang Theo. Bill looked alarmed. “It was in the hair care section of the Vancouver Walgreens,” crooned Theo. Bill’s eyebrows went up. Way up. Theo growled, “I was the guy in the blue shirt holding your legs while that old man put his wallet in your mouth…”

We get to the end. Stunned silence. “Did you…like that, Bill?” I ventured. “What…what WAS that?” Theo and I explained Gabe Kahane’s cycle as simply as we could. I admit we were a touch freaked out; Craigslistlieder is brilliantly written and drily hilarious, but its sensibility is quite urban and distinctly Generation Y. But Bill was clearly intrigued. He stayed for the next three songs—“Assless Chaps,” “Half a Box of Condoms,” and “Two years ago.” When he got up to go back to work he was wreathed in smiles. “So…?” “Oh, I LOVED them! They're amazing. I'll be back tomorrow.”

Relief.

We can still use more audience members in Bellport on Saturday, it seems, but we’re selling very well here in Orient. When people pass the hall and hear the singing, they go home and call for tickets. New York arts institutions: take note.

 

August 18, 2014
NYFOS @ North Fork, Day 2
Today was the first heavy-duty day of rehearsal. It started at 3 PM, spanned tea-time (organic English Breakfast from the Country Store but no actual break), and continued all the way to 8:15 PM. I was in my piano chair the entire time. The session went longer than I’d planned and I was banking on my partner Jim’s good will (he’s a saint in many ways, but he does need to eat dinner). I canceled a cocktail hour meeting with a friend: music trumps white wine. Alas.

Jane Smith is a dear friend of mine here in Orient, and she is co-producing this concert in tandem with NYFOS. She had told me she wanted to stop by, hear some of the rehearsal, and meet the cast. When she arrived we were just about to work on the very tricky quartet by Manuel Oltra, “Eco,” which opens Act II. But we all had the same idea at the same time—to sing “Come Live With Me and Be My Love” for her instead. It’s so rousing and cheerful, and fills the hall—and the street outside—with joy. The cast plunged in and the endorphins flowed as freely as the bay outside our windows.

When we got done, Jane was clearly moved, just as I had been the day before when they first did the piece. “That was amazing. I’m kind of broken up…” I started to say something to ease the moment, but Jane stopped me. “No, let me explain. That was…very meaningful. You see, today is the birthday of my late partner Cynthia, whom I adored. She died ten years ago.” A pause. “And before she died, we built a gazebo in our backyard. And on the gazebo she inscribed the words ‘Come live with me and be my love.’” Another pause. “She would have loved this concert. She adored young people, she loved music.” She looked at me with her blue eyes shining. “She loved blue eyes.”

The rest of the day was filled with plenty of hard work. But gentle, kind, smart Jane Smith reminded us of the irreplaceable gifts we held in that little concert hall: the sweet company of our colleagues, the magic of music, the uniquely evocative power of poetry. Is it too much to add: the enduring power of love?

I've not mentioned the singers' names, and they are a superb quartet of artists. Our soprano is Chelsea Morris; mezzo-soprano Lauren Eberwein, whom I'd never met till Saturday night, holds up the middle of the ensemble in tandem with tenor William Goforth; Theo Hoffman is our baritone. I'll have stories about all of them in the coming days, never fear.

 

August 17, 2014
NYFOS @ North Fork, Day 1
By 3 PM, the four singers have arrived in my beautiful little Long Island town. Some are already friends, some are new to one another. Three hours later, I am witness to a small miracle: they are singing together for the first time—only they sound like they’ve been an ensemble for years. Tossing the counterpoint of William Bennett’s “Come Live With Me and Be My Love” from voice to voice, shading the dynamics as if John Eliot Gardiner were leading them, the quartet erupted with a spontaneous kind of buoyancy that I hadn’t dared to hope for. No one told them what to do; they knew.


It’s getting to the end of summer, and a part of me thinks I should go on vacation 24/7. But today I realized that this is the vacation I really want: to wed the joy of music with the delights of Orient (the easternmost village on the North Fork). Salt air and sweet voices, the miracle of bringing songs to life at the most precious, poignant time of the year: this is what my soul most craves right now.

March 18, 2014
We had our Caramoor show on Sunday, and today [Tuesday] was the first of our two at the National Opera Center. The opening was full of surprises—mainly that the audience was so responsive to the songs, and that so many of them went superbly. We didn’t hit the bull's-eye on every single tune but they all landed, the highs were high indeed, and nothing serious went amiss. The Caramoor crowd has not been notable for animation in the past. The room itself has the kind of austere beauty that doesn’t encourage stuff like applause and laughter. On Sunday they were definitely giving us more than I anticipated, and they were even quick enough to catch the dry, campy humor of Noël Coward’s lyrics. I had a very good afternoon at the piano—started well, and kept the energy humming just right. This is a complicated show for me because Leann is playing a lot of it, so my bouts at the piano are very discontinuous. But on Sunday every time I settled back into the keyboard, I was in gear.


Tonight’s show went really well for the singers—even more five-star performances across the boards. Everyone in excellent voice and spirits. Leann was on fire too--wow. The audience likes the National Opera Center; I kept hearing people say, “Oh, it’s so great to be up close like that to the performers.” And the voices do sound good in the hall—no, there isn’t the rafter-ringing reverb of bigger spaces, but apparently words are clear and voices sound opulent. The program itself plays like gangbusters, and the combination of all the different genres of songs plus the connecting prose and poetry does have a built-in magic. That was lucky because I had the most peculiar night of it; I started well, really hooked up and dancing with the Yamaha. Cooking with gas. But two-thirds of the way through the show I felt I went a little dry. I got a little weirded out by….something I can’t define, and I was working hard to play my easiest songs in the show, stuff I can toss off in my sleep. It was like having an existential tummy ache. By the encore it was gone.
I am eager to tackle it all again tomorrow [Wednesday!], and I think the performance will be the best of all. We have some very distinguished folks coming to the hall and all of us plan to entertain them royally. I'll be sad to put this program to bed, and I hope you'll hustle down and catch it.

March 14, 2014
VOCAL RISING STARS, SIXTH SEASON: Day 5
As Sondheim wrote in Company, “Today is for Amy.” At Caramoor, that meant giving Amy Burton time to have leisurely one-on-one sessions with each cast member. After lunch we worked on the spoken continuity and then we “hit the low spots”—i.e., rehearsed all the numbers that needed special review. The day started at 10:30 and wound down at 7 PM—time well spent.


It is a little bit of an adjustment—and an act of trust—to let someone else come into the rehearsal process at the end of the week and make adjustments to the work you’ve begun. But Amy is family, and she made a tremendous contribution. She has an eagle eye for gesture and stage space, she respects and loves the voice, she hears poetry equally as sound and meaning, and she’s so cultured and experienced that her soul seemed to resonate with every song on this crazy program. As the day went on, Michael and Amy and I started to function as one entity, and by the time everyone limped out of the hall I felt we were simply a community of eight artists—five singers and three pianists—working the material like a team of jewelers.


Theo HoffmanTheo and Miles have been reveling in good health and good spirits, and the music has been like an artistic aphrodisiac for them. But Annie and Olivia have been fighting various ailments all week—the tail end of colds and flus that seem to have taken up squatter’s rights in their bodies. I too was sick last week and am puzzled to find that I’m still coughing as if I were overplaying the role of Mimí in some regional production of La bohème. Coughing doesn’t affect my piano playing all that much, but it has challenged both of the women in the program. Today we had to change one of Olivia’s numbers. Truth to tell, necessity was the mother of invention: I much prefer the song we’re going to do (by Granados) to the one originally planned (by Turina). It’s far more appropriate to the theme of the program, and it plays into Olivia’s strength. She studied Granados’s songs with the great Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza a few years ago, and brings a patrician authority to the material—or will, once she sings it for a couple of days!


Annie’s been husbanding her resources with wisdom and calm. When she sings, she gives everything she’s got (and it’s stunning); she also is one of the few singers I’ve known who can have a really useful rehearsal without singing at all. She’s been a great scene partner in all the group numbers, and her oversexed British dowager in Coward’s “A Bar on the Piccola Marina” has only gotten drunker, dirtier, and (somehow) more subtle as the week has progressed.

March 13, 2014
VOCAL RISING STARS, SIXTH SEASON: Day 4
A day of highs and lows. In the morning we had some visitors—a small cadre of Caramoor donors and board members, and also the General Director of Caramoor, Jeff Haydon. He’s the fellow who took over Michael’s old job, and I admit I have a soft spot for him. He’s a very decent guy with wonderful energy, and things always seem to shine a little brighter when he’s around. I like it when Jeff comes to rehearsal because none of us are afraid to do real work (i.e., screw up) in his presence, yet our hearts remain light and buoyant. Jeff always makes me feel talented and worthy and I appreciate that so much. He and the other visitors, including the appropriately named Vivian Song, were a sensational audience and the cast gave some of their best performances so far. Olivia suddenly morphed into a Brazilian sex-kitten in “Nenê,” Theo brilliantly channeled Noël Coward in an amazingly stylish rendition of “Uncle Harry,” Miles poured out vocal gold in his Grieg song, and Annie stopped time with “Calling You.” By the time we went into lunch Michael and I were feeling that all was right in our corner of the world.

The afternoon session took a turn for the worse. We did a run of the whole show and lots of it was really good, but…some of it was suddenly sliding out of place. If God is in the details, he was taking a siesta. I'd played really well in the morning; in the afternoon I felt like a hack. The concert seemed to need some sort of chiropractor to get it back in alignment.

 

As it turned out, God was not asleep. He sent us the art-chiropractor we needed: our guest teacher for the week, soprano Amy Burton. She hadn’t worked at Vocal Rising Stars since the first season five years ago, but I remember how sharp she was on every level: language, voice, interpretation, staging. Amy BurtonShe dispensed some much-needed vocal wisdom to the singers, and she instantly fixed two of the biggest problem spots in the group numbers. My favorite moment? A critique of the Hoagy Carmichael song, which had been absolutely stellar yesterday but which abruptly lost its way this afternoon. “Theo, ‘Hong Kong Blues’ is about opium. You look like you’re strung out on crystal meth...or coke. Anyway, wrong drug. We’ll work on it tomorrow.”

In truth these shows are elaborate undertakings for a seven-day rehearsal period. But with these heartbreaking singers, plus Wonder Women Amy Burton and Leann Osterkamp, we’re going to be fine.

March 12, 2014
VOCAL RISING STARS, SIXTH SEASON: Day 3
The third day is the sweet spot. The pressure of the performance isn’t really upon us yet, the group numbers are on their feet (or, in one case, on its butt, since the cast is seated for it), the guest teacher hasn’t arrived, and it’s just the family, workin’ away on songs.

Salient features of the day:
The Cast in Prayer(1) We had a morning visit from about twenty students from a nearby high school, all of them members of their school chorus. They were amazingly attentive, asked a lot of good questions, and gently kicked all of us into performance mode. Sure, they were watching us rehearse, and we let them see us change keys, talk about vibrato, place vowels, fix problems. But inevitably you don’t rehearse the same way when you have an audience—you have to deliver the song, and that was a good boost to our energy. They also gave us an idea for a dance break in the Hoagy Carmichael piece that had been eluding us--it’s something called the Bernie…? Anyway, it comes from a movie, I think, it rang a bell with Miles and Theo, and it covered sixteen bars we’d been struggling with. I have found with high school students that a tiny, tiny touch of bad language and a soupçon of irreverence go a long way to earning their trust. I was all too happy to oblige.

Theo Hoffman and Annie Rosen(2) Both Olivia and Annie asked for a day of vocal rest. They have been struggling with some fatigue, and Annie is still getting over the same cold I just had. They devoted all their energies to the ensemble numbers, in which they sang lightly but acted with amazing commitment. Annie has to play a dowager in “A Bar in the Piccola Marina,” and she is already channeling Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge. Today we got her to speak so she’s always straddling her register break—upper crust perfection, slightly crocked. Everyone’s great in that piece—Miles and Olivia as her very strait-laced children, and Theo double-cast as her boring (and soon dead) husband, and also her libidinous Italian boy-toy.

Miles Mykkanen and Olivia Betzen(3) With the girls pretty much on “mute," Miles and Theo had breakthrough days. I gave Miles a pretty wide range of songs, from the gentle to the forceful, and he’s rising to the challenge quite beautifully. I always say that song is the great arena for expanding your vocal art, because you can safely go into uncharted waters in the span of a two-minute song. In his Grieg piece Miles is stepping into what I call his Helden-lyric voice, his big-boy sound, and it's perfect for his juicy Scandinavian Stimme. And Theo is breaking through barriers, sinking into his music, his voice, and his art in the most moving way. The warmth and passion of his music is so satisfying.

Stenhammar under the piano(4) The cast decided they wanted to sing their a capella Stenhammar piece lying under the piano, just as we’d done two years ago rehearsing the Blitzstein quartet “In Twos.” They’d read about it and seen the picture on this blog, and they decided they needed to revive the tradition. This time we made sure Gabe Palacio, the photographer, was around to capture it. And I got a shot of Gabe on the floor with them as he took his pictures.

 

March 11, 2014
VOCAL RISING STARS, SIXTH SEASON: Day 2
Miles MykkanenThe first day is always the honeymoon; and on the second day I can see what the week’s work is going to be about. These singers all have such fertile imaginations that they are sometimes bombarded with thoughts, ideas, images, impulses. They’re gifted and young, and they are still building the wiring to handle their own artistic electricity. Their capabilities are enormous. Some singers would be daunted by the eight languages in “Ports of Call”; others would need to be shown the subtleties of melody and style. At Caramoor, though, everyone has a tremendous instinct for music, and no one has raised a fuss about the languages, not even Danish or Russian or Brazilian Portuguese. But in these early rehearsals, the cast tends to overreact to their material with bursts of passion that can knock them slightly off-kilter.

Annie Rosen and Michael Barrett


So today was all about simplicity, legato, bel canto. “Just sing the notes, everyone,” I finally told them. “It’ll ALL be there, just sing. Especially the little notes—make ‘em long and fat.” It’s the kind of advice you can only give to people who are natural stylists. The song is in there already, it just needs to be allowed to emerge.


Theo Hoffman

 

I am glad there is such a range of music on the program, because everyone finds songs where they instinctively relax into their voices—often the American popular stuff. “AHA! There’s your voice—sing your art songs like THAT!”


 

Olivia BetzenHighlights? Miles stopped time with his “Song of the Indian Merchant” from “Sadko.” Annie has amazing command of Bill Bolcom’s “To My Old Addresses”—so does Leann, who hops through the piano  writing as if it were child’s play, which it definitely is not. Theo is devastating in Guastavino’s “Pampamapa” and naughtily dapper in Noël Coward’s “Uncle Harry.” And Olivia is making a beautiful thing of the Brazilian tango “Nenê,” her first foray into Portuguese. She got a language lesson from Portugal-native Merceds Santos-Miller during which I quietly freaked out—oh lord, the Portuguese accent and the Brazilian one are even more different than I thought. But God is good. Merceds approved of the way Olivia learned the poem under my guidance…


As if to reward us, the sun came out after lunch. I was outside for about three minutes and I felt something I had not experienced since October: warmth. I’ll never forget that feeling—nor the music that came afterwards, equally warm.

The Ensemble

March 10, 2014
VOCAL RISING STARS, SIXTH SEASON: Day 1
Today was the first day of the 2014 Vocal Rising Stars program at Caramoor—the sixth season NYFOS and Caramoor have collaborated on this project. Every year has its own distinctive atmosphere, like the unique timbre of an instrument or the tantalizing aroma of a something in the oven. Our cast is a bit younger than usual—just a few years, really, but for people in their twenties the age difference is significant. One of our singers, Annie Rosen, has sung in opera houses overseas, but the other three—soprano Olivia Betzen, tenor Miles Mykkanen, and baritone Theo Hoffman—are just entering the professional world. Theo is still an undergraduate (he’s the youngest we’ve ever had in the program), and Olivia is fresh off the boat--she moved to New York about six weeks ago after finishing the Masters program at Ann Arbor. All of them are superb musicians and total stage animals. I am reveling in their freshness and their sense of freedom. Sometimes the first day of rehearsal can be stressful as each singer endeavors to impress his colleagues. Today we saw no grandstanding; Michael and I were struck with how everyone was easing into the songs by exploring them, sinking into the words and music, letting the beginning be a true beginning—the bud, not yet the flower, of the song.

Caramoor asked me (gently but repeatedly) to add a young pianist into the mix of artists, and I (gently but repeatedly) demurred. I felt it was like having another mouth to feed, and I admit that I was feeling selfish and proprietary about the songs. I’d created this program last summer at Wolf Trap and played it on my own; now I was already flipping out about splitting the repertoire with Michael—how could I add another person at the keyboard? But when Michael not only leaned on me to acquiesce but suggested Leann Osterkamp to fill the role, I had no trouble saying yes. Leann had helped me get the Juilliard show ready this January, and she is a dream colleague: prepared, attentive, flexible, and generous. I let her wear my hat all day as a gesture of inclusion.
One thing is certain: all of us are in need of something restorative, an Art Retreat, and I cannot remember a group of singers who were more grateful for the peace and quiet of Caramoor. It’s like being in the eye of a storm for seven days. You know there is a lot of turbulence around you, but you are safe in a cocoon, a temple of music, a private clubhouse with a well-stocked DVD player. It’s a conservatory with only four students—and three pianists at their beck and call.

It was beautiful hearing everyone sing today—what a program, if I do say so myself. If there was one single highlight, it was playing Kurt Weill’s “J’attends un navire” for Annie. I felt something at the piano that I hadn’t experienced in a few years, something I’d been missing: the feeling of riding on a rocket. The music is so powerful and it seemed to lead me back to the kind of uninhibited, spontaneous music-making I remember from my twenties, when I was the age of this cast. After we were done, Annie looked at me wide-eyed. “That’s how it’s going to go,” I said—“you up to it?” “Oh, YES!” she answered.

......................................................................................

January 12, 2014

On Friday our last family member arrived: guitar/ukelele/banjo-player Greg Utzig who’d done the show with Hal and me thirteen years ago. I love making music with Greg, but when he reports for work my flower-child days are over. You see, all week long I’ve been playing like a wild-man, reharmonizing chord progressions, messing around with snaky inner lines, and throwing in colorful piano riffs that are not in Kern’s lovely, sober sheet music. It’s not that I can’t keep doing those things when I play with Greg, but I have to do those alterations the same way and in the same places every time, just so he and I stay in sync. At first I feel as I have been put on a leash. But I am ultimately so enchanted by the sound of Greg’s playing that I man up and make the tough, adult decisions that need to be made. Things like: “E-flat-diminished-seventh at the top of page 3”—or: “that crazy chromatic scale I throw in at the end of the bridge has one whole step right at the end.” I have to be both a free spirit and a conscientious musician—devil-may-care fantasy wedded to OCD. Today I did something I hadn’t done all week: I actually wrote a few chord symbols in my score to be sure I’d stay faithful to what I told Greg I’d play. And he is such a great colleague. Every time I discover that I have altered the written changes—I’m often unaware of my various “improvements”—Greg gently says, “Oh, show me what we’re doing there.” (Not “you’re.” “We’re.”) And when I do, he always says, “Oh, that’s so much better than the printed chords.”

                

Highlights from the past few days? James reported to work today with a large rubber horse-head that he found “lying around his apartment.” Of course we’re using it. Alex McKissick’s ad lib rap during “We’re Crooks” gets more creative with every run of the song—“Oh look, a guitar, an acoustic guitar, that’s because it comes from Acousticia, look, there’s Steve, colorful socks and all moisturized, oh look, that music, the paper was made in Brazil…” Raquel has a bit in “Non-Stop Dancing” in which she enacts an 85-year old doing the shimmy with bad ankles. Ben has learned to move his hips. It’s been a good week.


We’ve been through that enchanting early-January NYFOS bootcamp, seven days of six-hour rehearsals. Everyone is dead tired and exhilarated. Tomorrow school goes back into session. It’ll take the elevator much more time to arrive and when it does, it will be packed with dancers and actors and bass players. My cast will be immersed in their full schedule of classes and coachings, and our private NYFOS/Kern retreat will have to integrate itself into the real world. This morning I woke up feeling sad. Room 335 has been a sweet haven for the words of P. G. Wodehouse and the music of Jerome Kern; for Hal Cazalet and Mary Birnbaum, who have begun to co-direct as if they have worked together for four years, not four days; for Greg Utzig and Leann Osterkamp, my assistant; and for my beautiful, hard-working cast. Tomorrow we’re gearing up for the shock of moving from the rehearsal room to the theater, at best a startling experience. Even after being a professional pianist for forty years, I’ve never quite been able to take that moment in stride.

......................................................................................

January 9, 2014

There was a blessed event today. No, no one had a baby. But at around 4 PM I heard a voice in my ear murmuring “Hey, Stevie!” in an insinuating way, and I turned around to see that Hal Cazalet had slipped into the chair behind me. I knew he was due in from London—ETA 2:30 PM at Newark—but I never thought he’d saunter in so early or so casually. In fact I really didn’t imagine we'd even lay eyes on him till tomorrow. I have rarely been so happy to see a human being as I was to welcome Hal this afternoon.


A little background. Hal was my student at Juilliard in the mid-90s, and we went on to do several notable NYFOS projects together after he left school. He is a brilliant singer and actor, as well as a wonderful composer; I’ve programmed a few of his pieces over the years. Hal is also the great-grandson of P. G. Wodehouse, and it was because of him that NYFOS first did a Wodehouse/Kern recital, then entitled P. G.’s Other Profession. Hal and I took that program to Washington D.C., London, and New York, in tandem with Sylvia McNair; the three of us also made a Wodehouse/Kern CD in 2000.


I met Hal when he was the age of my cast. Today I found it heartwarming and sobering, in equal measure, to collaborate with this handsome, settled man, the father of three. Hal has mellowed, but he has lost none of the springy, apple-cheeked vigor I remember from his youth. He bonded instantly with Mary Birnbaum—they appear to be a co-directing team made in heaven—and he jumped into action when the two of us pressed him into service. Jet-lag? Not a sign of it. He was always a clever, adept performer—the funniest Nanki-Poo I ever saw, a deliciously slimy Don Basilio in Figaro, and a class-A recitalist in Schubert, Fauré, and Britten. But by now he’s become a true master of the stage, and he electrified the room with his charm and his stage smarts. After he showed Ben and Alex the choreo for “We’re Crooks” I finally said, “Hal. Please. Would you…just sing it for us?” There followed three minutes of pure magic—he instantly morphed into a pugnacious music-hall thug imbued with a goofy, light-footed grace. None of us could take our eyes off him.

......................................................................................

January 8, 2014

Today was one of those days that could have been unpleasant. We had six hours of rehearsal in a room that was wildly overheated, as if to compensate for the ghastly cold outside. We took just one half-hour break, and later a ten-minute breather. In that time we staged four big group numbers plus three or four solos, and went over some of yesterday’s work too. Somehow we were still buoyant at 6 PM. Delirious and running on fumes, but buoyant. No director relishes doing the big songs that need choreography and repetition, but Mary Birnbaum kept her nerve. And I am always delighted that she lets me help her with the staging—something I can only do because I have the blessing of a musical assistant, Leann Osterkamp. That woman has saved my butt on this production, and I do hope she’s collecting valuable prizes for it.


Highlights of the day? Hmm, where do I start. In one song James Knight enacted a spry, booty-shaking senior citizen with denture issues; in another, Mary Feminear got to stick her head between Alex McKissick and Joe Eletto as they head off to what seems to be a gay nudist party; Hannah McDermott sustained the deadpan lunacy of “Cleopatterer” with a kind of ease that took my breath away. I am somewhat in awe of Raquel Gonzáles’s physical grace—she has the most extraordinary sense of stage space and such fluidity in her movement. And Ben Lund? Heart, heart, heart, heart, heart.

......................................................................................

January 7, 2014

There are things you just wouldn't know about your students until you work with them. For example. Joe Eletto cannot do the shimmy. On the other hand, Alex McKissick can shake his, um, upper torso like an overachieving Maytag washer-dryer set on "Shred." This came to light yesterday when we were staging "Shimmy With Me," originally destined as Joe's comic turn. But Mary wanted the guy in the song to learn the dance and boogie offstage with great panache. It turns out that Alex is not just an earnest, sweet-voiced, bright guy but a closet Mexican Jumping Bean. I imagine he could be arrested in some states for shakin' it out the way he does. (The girls are also amazingly good at the shimmy. Where do they learn stuff like this? Don't tell me, I don't need to know.)
Hannah had her first day--her flight from LA had been delayed and she joined our program in progress. Hannah seems to be a girl living in 2014, but it's clear to all of us that she's really being beamed in from 100 years ago. Her freedom with this style is so sure that it makes me believe in past life regression.

......................................................................................

January 6, 2014

All Iast semester I had been feeling uncharacteristically lazy about this year’s NYFOS@Juilliard show—a program of Jerome Kern songs with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse called The Land Where the Good Songs Go. I had a fall season filled with fascinating (read: stressful) projects and I contented myself with preparing the songs and duets a little at a time, hopping through all the ensemble numbers in a single group meeting right before we left for winter break. It was the only time the whole cast was in one room. Now, this kind of laissez-faire is not my typical modus operandi. Like a salmon swimming upstream, I used to try to fight my way through a web of scheduling obstacles to “forge an ensemble.” I realized that I usually ended up with a roomful of exhausted students pretending to be patient with my efforts to play teacher. This year, I chipped away at the songs bit by bit and threw the ensembles together in one giddy, fabulous hour. My feeling was that I had either reached a new level of Zen Enlightenment, or completely fallen apart.

Wonderful news: the first day of rehearsal for The Land Where the Good Songs Go was not just smooth sailing—it was, well, water-skiing. Like the famous Blackwing Pencil slogan, “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” The cast was on top of everything, director Mary Birnbaum is a fountain of style and lunacy (I mean that as a compliment), pianist Leann Osterkamp spelled me at the piano so I didn’t have to bang out Jerome Kern for six hours, and I was as happy playing these fabulous songs as a dog rolling in mud.

Highlights? Leann confided that her father is a body-builder. Mary Feminear reclined on top of the rolling bodies of the male cast members and somehow kept singing. Ben Lund stopped time with his rendition of the title song, and Raquel Gonzáles did the same when she sang “Bill.” James Knight leads the way in stage fearlessness (the guy practically defines chutzpah); Alex McKissick seems as if he was born to be a Kern leading man; Joe Eletto has enough charm to light up Manhattan during a blackout. I feel encouraged—no, blessed.

......................................................................................

October 14, 2013

Facebook is a strange, algorhythmic companion. Today it invited me to wish a happy birthday to my friend Patricia Scimeca. The reminder brought me up short. You see, Tricia died three weeks ago. She was in that special category of beloved-friend-of-friend. I met her through Amy Burton and John Musto, and we had many sweet encounters over the decades. I coached her some in the 1980s—she was a Wagnerian soprano, a Sieglinde type. After she married Michael Scimeca, who was on the NYFOS board for a number of years, I was regularly at their house for holiday parties and after-concert events—unforgettable banquets. For a few seasons they threw a summer fund-raiser for us. And I recently recalled that I not only attended their engagement party, but I was somehow persuaded to play the piano and sing at the reception. This is a very rare event; once every decade I pretend I’m Michael Feinstein for three minutes, if I’ve been unwise enough to indulge in too much alcohol. Somewhere there is a videotape of me belting out “Makin’ Whoopee” at an electric piano. Whoever has the cassette: erase it.

I gradually lost touch with Patricia when her husband stepped off the NYFOS board, and I regret it. Michael is an irresistible, larger-than-life New York character, and Tricia was a dear human being, as generous and bright as they come. She fought cancer valiantly—and was winning until the all-too-ingenious illness figured out a way to conquer her. She was in hospice from April until September, and I was unaware of it until Amy posted something about Tricia on—what else?—Facebook. I realized that my beloved, distant friend was dying.

I remember thinking as I rolled over to her funeral at St. John the Divine, “Well, Ben Franklin had it right. In this world nothing is certain—except death and taxes.” Friday I wept bitterly for Patricia—I think her death echoed those of my sister-in-law Liz and my cousin-in-law Nan, both recent and painful losses. And Saturday, I worked on my 2012 income tax figures. (Yes, I always file at the last minute.)

There was still more sadness to come, of a different nature. On Monday, New York City Opera shut down operations for good. The decline had been even more drawn out than Tricia’s slow descent. I’d been a regular attendee since the mid-1960s when I saw my first Traviata at their original home at City Center. When George Steel took over as Artistic Director, he hired me as a casting consultant. It was my first job with a full-scale, adult opera company—perhaps my last as well, though I’d welcome a similar post with a more solvent operation. I was somewhat prepared for the bonfire, but the whole affair is still very painful. I was therefore especially galled to read that the well-fed Carnegie Hall stagehands were demanding still more money, as both City Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra crumble and every other arts organization in the world is on austerity. Perhaps most galling of all was a full-page “think piece” in the New York Times about why we need to take Miley Cyrus seriously as she “bravely” forges a “new path” in popular music. I think Dante wrote about that path…in the Inferno.

As a counterpoint to the poverty and avarice that is running rampant through the world of classical music, Tricia left the world a beautiful legacy: a fund to help young singers, administered by Opera America. It’s not easy to find the Patricia Scimeca Fund for Emerging Singers on the website, but if you contact Sam Snook (ssnook@operaamerica.org) he can explain everything.

......................................................................................

September 2, 2013

I am no techno-geek, but I admit to a fascination with Spotify. I love old opera recordings, and am at my happiest flossing to Elizabeth Grümmer singing the Freichütz aria or taking out my lenses as Miliza Korjus warbles a Strauss waltz, complete with insane cadenza and vibrato-less high F-sharp. If at the age of 13 I had been told that I could tune into this stuff through a telephone—in my own bathroom—I would probably have fallen into a dead faint.

And if I wake up in the middle of the night I plug in my headphones and tune into Verdi operas, which are like a lullaby because they are so old and familiar. I am oddly soothed by Italian adults wailing about life, death, and honor. Two nights ago, I dialed up the peculiar, unaccompanied quartet for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and two basses from Act II of Luisa Miller. Somehow I thought it would calm my nocturnal anxieties to hear four opera singers try to stay in tune for two and a half minutes without the benefit of any accompaniment. What can I say, it was 4 in the morning. First I sampled the Luisa of Mara Zampieri in a live performance from Emilia Romagna in 1976; as a chaser, I let Gilda Cruz-Romo serenade me with the same scene in a broadcast from Turin in 1975. Zampieri had a large, dark voice with impressive instrumental precision and a bizarre color—a gritty kind of bronze, with a tight vibrato and an upper register like a siren (sometimes the air-raid kind, sometimes the Odysseus kind). Every note is in place in a wonderfully OCD way, and she sounds simultaneously ice-cold, white hot, and on the verge of madness. It was great to hear her when she was young, before her whole act got seriously strange. But Zampieri is also slightly tiring to listen to—perhaps that was the whole point in the middle of the night. Cruz-Romo is more human and emotional, feminine and a bit sloppy. She cooled me down after Zampieri’s stimulating high-wire act.

Despite an off-stage clarinet softly playing the first note of every phrase to keep everyone in agreement as to where G-major actually is, the Zampieri quartet went out of tune at the very end after holding onto the key for most of the piece. The orchestra came charging in like a corrections officer at the final cadence. Cruz-Romo and her colleagues are much bigger slobs, but they ace the crucial moment at the end: their G-major is the same as the orchestra! With that happy conclusion, I fell asleep.

And now you understand why I always conk out at the opera house.

......................................................................................

August 26, 2013

I am pleased to report that we had a great success yesterday--the real deal, not just a rosy blog report. Something quite astounding happened in the hall, the thing I most wanted but was aftraid to hope for. No, I was not surprised that the concert went well, nor that the hall was full. I knew we had class-A singers and wonderful songs, and that we’d gotten to capacity on pre-sale and reservations. And the cast was on fire yesterday, everyone at his/her peak (and beyond). But there was a kind of electricity in the place that I don’t always feel even when performances are going like gangbusters. The public’s receptivity to the music was palpable to me, as was their excitement at hearing such beautiful voices in their town—up close and personal. They were a dream audience, making every connection, grooving out on the words and music, and gorging themselves on the artistic smorgasbord. I feared the inevitable comparisons with past programs I’d done here, but the consistent comment was, “What a great group! But you always have the best singers.”

When I play in big metropolitan concert halls, especially in New York, I often feel I am trying to feed people who are already sated. I’ve got to give them the equivalent of a truffle-asiago-crab stuffed gnocchi doused with saffron-infused olive oil, or I don’t even get their attention. Years of playing in the Big Apple have forced me to up the ante year by year, so I habitually aim pretty high and am rough on myself when I feel I have not quite grabbed the gold ring.

But this audience, many of who are actually Manhattanites during the cold months, received the music in a way I have not experienced in some time. At the intermission, a friend came up to me and said, “This is hitting me so hard. I’m just so moved by the music, I’ve been crying—and laughing—and I feel as if I need to go home now just to recover.” “But….you won’t do that, will you? I mean, you’d miss the Cuban songs,” I stammered. “No, of course I’m staying! What I mean is…I needed this music, and I had no idea how deeply I needed it.”

I too had felt that Orient “needed” music, but I didn’t realize how much. It turns out that the people in this town are starving for concerts. On the way home, a woman saw me driving down the street in my wheelchair and said, “WAIT! Stay there—I’ll be RIGHT back!” She went back into her house and came out with a chilled bottle of champagne. She tore across the street and gave me the gift. Then she got quite emotional. “I want you to have this. The thing is…you’re the reason people want to be alive.”

......................................................................................


August 24, 2013

A strange dress rehearsal. There is a fancy dinner in the hall tonight and I was given to understand that that the staff wanted to start their setup around 6. But they were actually chomping at the bit to start rolling tables in at 4, which made it hard for me to concentrate or play with any sense of repose. I started well—really making some music on that pre-pre-pre-war Knabe—but then flipped to “get-to-the-double-bar” mode when I felt the restaurateur and wait staff literally breathing down my neck. One cast member got very emotional and couldn’t finish a song; another blew a whole lot of lyrics towards the end of the show. It’s all show biz, and it didn’t worry me; I take some comfort in the fact that we did not peak at dress rehearsal. But pleasurable? No.

Truth to tell, our final run didn’t go at all badly. The small invited audience went crazy for the concert, and that’s reassuring. The singers did a lot of good work, and if I can play this show with that much psychic disturbance around me, tomorrow should be a breeze. I shall sleep peacefully, and stay calm until my normal five-minutes-to-showtime freakout.

 

......................................................................................

August 23, 2013

We had our first runthrough Friday. Praise the Lord, the program works just fine. No major snags, everyone in decent if not transcendent voice—high notes ringing out like crazy but a little huskiness in the lower part of the voice. If that’s fatigue, it’s the good kind. The piano in the hall is not, shall we say, an instrument of great beauty. When I am feeling inspired, I can sound decent; when I am in a more “get-to-the-double-bar” mode, I sound like a retired cement mixer to myself, or a bandleader at a regional junior high school. It was no one’s day to reach the pinnacle, but we settled on some staging ideas and (as I predicted) ran the songs for memory. The structure of the program is perfect. Today felt like seeing an apartment with bare walls and no furniture, as you imagine how beautiful it will be when the decorators and the florists arrive.

......................................................................................

August 22, 2013

I guess it was inevitable. Wednesday was come-to-Jesus time, and on Thursday we welcomed Mary. Not the Sainted Mother, but stage director Mary Birnbaum, our Guest Artist this week. We'd all wanted some help staging the two group numbers and the two boys' duets. I also nurtured a hidden desire that Mary  might do a little laser surgery on the solo pieces.

Of course I got all my wishes. Kern’s “Enchanted Train” received a fizzy, charming, organized floor plan, and Mary also waved her magic wand over the encore, Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”—just one simple move in course of the piece, but the whole thing imbued with depth and emotion. For the duets Mary gave us a lot of ideas and staging, and I’m not sure we can keep all of it. The boys and I are unsure if the big band songs or the meeting hall space can bear that much theatricality. Still, it was like doing a shopping spree at Saks. You’re probably going to return a few things, but you come home with shopping bags filled with fabulous stuff. In the cold light of (Fri)day we’ll figure out what we can actually afford.

Mary gave amazingly insightful notes to the singers on their solo pieces. Once again I realized that artists need to hear things put in many different ways—and said by several different people—before they incorporate them. Yes, I admit I had a couple of moments where I thought, “I said the exact same thing yesterday!…” And there followed a moment of weird insecurity—“Maybe I can’t make myself clear any more…?” But Mary did something a visiting teacher can do more easily than a resident teacher: she cornered the singers into forming personal subtexts and sharing them out loud. It’s a lot for an artist to reveal, and since we are living and working in such close quarters I feel a certain discretion, a need to leave the singers some privacy. I think I am in their faces enough as it is. As a result, I try to corral a singer into finding a personal meaning in every song, but I don’t tend to make them blurt out, “This is like the time my grandmother poured scalding water on me,” or “This like when they took another soprano for the job because she was sleeping with the director.” I weave stories, lend scenarios, parse the poems, explain the cultural environment of the song, and make a framework. This is in fact a big help—and then I keep rehearsing until I feel the artists have taken ownership.

Mary is a bit bolder. And with the concert three days away, boldness was the right step. Mary, who studied mime in Paris, also has a keen eye for physical posture and gesture. She was only on board for one afternoon, but her art detonated with tremendous, benign force.

 

......................................................................................

August 21, 2013

The fourth day of rehearsal is always the come-to-Jesus moment; it's the last day you can really work in depth, get to the fundamentals, take on the big issues. There is something I want each cast member to focus on as we head towards Sunday's performance, but by tomorrow they'll be very focused on memory, repetition, security, control. So today was Art Day, and it was tiring. If something isn't quite right vocally or a bit undefined musically, it takes tact and delicacy—and a certain passive-agressive indirection—to get a singer to turn the corner. You see, these are usually the very same issues many, many other coaches and teachers have addressed before and the singers have done this dance plenty of times. On the one hand, they truly want me to help them conquer the problem, but a part of them just wants me out of their face.

As a result, I feel I have about a thirty-five second window in which to make the point I need to make, and I have to be believable—while shedding some kind of new light on what is certainly an ongoing challenge. What made me happy today was that I went after a series of subtle and complex artistic matters with each of the cast members, and they took some big strides forward. The British songs need a kind of pristine elegance and hauteur; the Cuban ones need a loping rhythmic feel and a command of street Spanish; the American songs need a special combination of insouciance and precision. At these moments I thank God I was an English major. I certainly didn’t write well when I was in college, but I read a lot and wrote a lot and thought about language a lot. Coaching is like cracking the code before the alarm goes off (and the defenses come up). Today, codes got cracked, and the singers made huge and surprising progress.

Meredith, as it turns out, did not bring us more sorbet from Frank. I understood her reasons, but I admit I was crestfallen. She did bring us a local melon for dessert—a Sugar Baby, which is a small watermelon with yellow flesh. The cast posed with their desserts at the end of a very long, very interesting day.

August 20, 2013
Today was notable for two things. One: Meredith managed to charm Frank, the owner of the best ice cream store in Greenport—it’s called D’Latte—and showed up at rehearsal with two pints of world-class sorbet and a bag of gluten-free biscotti. The mint-lemon sorbet almost derailed rehearsal, when I had a momentary delusion that I would willingly cancel the concert if I could just keep eating Frank’s dessert unto eternity. I suddenly understood how Odysseus must have felt when he sailed past the Sirens. Meredith promised to go back tomorrow, when Frank made a demi-promise to have chocolate sorbet (my favorite). Jason and the Argonauts countered the Sirens by having Orpheus sing on board their ship; I have my own quartet of Orpheuses, so I shall be saved from rash, dessert-based psychotic breaks.

Two: we realized that—at least when empty—our lovely little hall is very live. If you open up and sing full tilt there, you are (a) deafening, and (b) totally garbled. No matter how hard you work your diction, your resonance will obliterate your consonants. Spit—explode—make a fricative you think they can hear on the South Fork—it’s no use. “A sea maid singgggggs on yonder reefffffffffff,” sings Meredith. From behind the piano, I heard something like “A sea aid siss on yohder ree”—though listeners in the hall picked up the lyric better. (Oddly, when Toby sang the word congregation, I heard “pornication.” But that might be my own aberration.)

In any case, the whole vocal equation had to be adjusted in the big numbers. It was a good discovery to make on the third day of rehearsal. I am pretty sure the hall is going to be packed on Sunday, and I know the acoustic changes radically when it is full. Still, a wake-up call. We are not printing any of the English-language texts and we have to make ourselves understood the old-fashioned way.

The songs themselves continue to grow and expand. I know David Margulis the least well, and he’s a man who takes his time to reveal himself. I prize that quality in him—a proud introvert with a killer high B-flat, an interesting combination of gentle and outspoken, rather more private than most singers—but a true tenor when the occasion demands it. I love the way Dave makes music, I love his leisurely, deep process of finding the core of his songs, I love the smoky charisma of his timbre. Today I also learned that he’s a subtle comedian too—he cracked us all up in a number of Toby’s where he has a walk-on role.

Meredith is our great musical seductress. She cast quite a spell with her ballads today and moved one of our listeners to tears. (Me too.)



August 19, 2013

The weather outside was on the cool and cloudy side. Inside, though, it was pretty sunny—a lovely day of making music. Not that there weren’t some obstacles. It seems that today was the only time the repairman could come to fix a broken door at Poquatuck Hall, so the first three-plus hours of our rehearsal were punctuated by some pretty Wagnerian crashes and bangs. I took the moral high ground and kept working blissfully as if I were in a soundproof booth, pausing only when the noise obliterated my notes to the singers. “When you get to the” [BANGBANGBANGBANG] “second verse, maybe we should”[really alarming scraping sound] “delay the crescendo until” [DEAFENING CRASH] “the third bar. What do you think, sweetheart?” Somehow we managed to get a lot of good work done in spite of it all. I continue to love the program, and the cast is taking me to the heights. My ears love their singing, but my hands and arms seem to feel the inspiration too. I’m scrambling around the keyboard like a colt.

Alexandra Batsios—aka Lexie—arrived today. I’d worried about having two sopranos on the program, but their gifts complement each other perfectly. Meredith Lustig was my student at Juilliard for five years, and her charms are evergreen—an exquisite sensibility, easy, radiant sound, musicianship, charm, and perfect comic timing. But I didn’t know Lexie very well; we met this past June at Green Mountain Opera. At our first coaching I sensed that she was someone I wanted in my musical family as soon as possible. What I didn’t know is that she’s not only a dazzling coloratura soprano, but also stylish and funny in American popular song. It’s a rare combo platter: virtuoso Mozartean and Sondheim belteuse. Of course, I am smitten.

At about 5 PM, two children danced into the room, a pair of beautiful red-haired girls. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing there and asked where their mother was. I got some garbled answer that I am sure would have made sense to someone who knew them. Then the younger one told me, “I’m five. Last week.” Her sister said, “I’m seven.” Then the other one said, “I’ll be six.” “Yes,” I hesitated, then asked lamely, “but…certainly not till…next August?” At which point they started running and pirouetting around the balcony, down the stairs, into the hall, in a sort of mad Isadora Duncan swan dance. I eventually realized they were the workman’s daughters, and their mother was elsewhere. They were fascinated by Lexie’s rendition of the first-act aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. The five-year old became increasingly mesmerized and started to sonnambulate towards Lexie just as we were getting to the end of the piece. At which point Lexie sprayed her with a ringing, full-voiced high D—and the kid stared for a second before taking off in terror as if her pants had exploded.

I had said that we’re almost sold out, and that’s pretty much true. But there are a few tickets left—grab ‘em in advance by calling (631) 323-1378 and reserving!


August 18, 2013
We just had the first day of NYFOS@North Fork, our newest Emerging Artist Program. I’ve nurtured this dream for a number of years and—as if in preparation—I’d done a few concerts out here in Orient, Long Island, in past years. Orient is the easternmost point on the North Fork, and has a serenity unlike anyplace else I know. The Orienters (not Orientals) are hungry for live music, and the shows I gave in tandem with Paul Appleby, John Brancy, Sasha Cooke, Kelly Markgraf, and Darius de Haas were unforgettable nights, peak moments. Still, this is a little different: having the NYFOS imprimatur on this endeavor changes the equation. I feel as if I am bringing my significant other home to my parents, an electrically charged merging of powerful strands in my life.

Three of the four cast members arrived today: Toby Greenhalgh, David Margulis, and Meredith Lustig. I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time, and their arrival did my heart a lot of good. I told the cast very little about Orient in advance. Toby thought it was going to be big and commercial, with hotels and crowds. “No, that would be the South Fork.” My greatest joy was watching each of them discover where they were and how special the place is—I could see it in their eyes. My second greatest joy was hearing them sing: three great sets o’ pipes.

The hall is half a block from the bay, and the songs seem especially meaningful in this marine atmosphere. When David sang Peter Warlock’s “My Own Country” it seemed to have been written about Orient, not the English countryside.

Today I heard we’re almost sold out. I suppose we could sell lawn seats…if we had a lawn. It’s one problem I shall enjoy having.

March 16, 2013

It’s funny—the minute a concert is over, life washes in like a tidal wave, and all the things that I’ve put on hold scream for immediate attention. Therefore: a belated log-in about Tuesday’s show.

I worried that we might not have much of a house because my former student Naomi O’Connell was having her official debut recital (courtesy of Concert Artists Guild) at Weill Hall the same night. Our mutual friends would have divided loyalties, of course, and I would have to do my level best not to hold grudges against those who elected to support Naomi on her big night. But we still gathered a very good crowd at Merkin, and even a few of my Juilliard students (bless them) showed up. (It’s a good thing I don’t have to give any of them grades.)

Midnight Sun cast after the final performance

Sunday at Caramoor had been a watershed day for me at the piano: I was able to implement some of the new technical stuff I’m working on while under the scrutiny of the public. It was a real step forward to have my brains, my hands, and my heart working together at a higher level than ever. But playing in New York is always a bit tougher for me; I’m more nervous, and even after 40 years onstage I’m still aware of who’s out there. Though I say soothing things to my hands and arms they don’t always listen. Still, I felt pretty good in the first half of the show, and continued to play well after intermission in spite of a few moments when some old, habitual tensions invaded my body. I used to think that this was my own private, unutterable burden, but in recent years I have finally learned that I am not alone. It seems that most of us pianists are constantly tweaking our techniques—as we try to make our boxy percussion instrument into something sexy and seductive. On Tuesday I managed to tame the rather overbearing piano at Merkin Hall, but I thought I was working a little too hard at the end of the evening.

Still, the cast sang like gods, Michael was a gem, and I could feel that the audience was moved by the songs—and bowled over by the singers. We ended the Rising Stars experience just right: with a beautiful musical communion.

March 11, 2013
Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, days seven and eight:
out-of-town debut, in-town dress. Two halls, two pianos.

Midnight Sun castIt’s the night before the New York show and I do not want to jinx things. Suffice it to say that we had a beautiful performance yesterday, and that the audience at Caramoor who came to enjoy budding young artists were confronted instead with four very assured, powerhouse musicians. The Westchester crowd is not demonstrative; they’re low-key, easy to talk to but not big laughers, easy to entertain if you’re not expecting an explosive response. But they did explode, in their gentle way, several times yesterday. And we had one slice of luck: a wonderful man sat in the front row, beamed at us, inhaled the music as if it were Chanel #5, laughed at my jokes, and appeared to be in Music Heaven for the entire afternoon. Afterwards I told him that he was invited to sit in Row A of every concert I give for the rest of my life, and that I would pay for his ticket, airfare, and hotel. I even got his business card—I’ll keep you posted.

It’s usually a shock to the system to move the show from the clear, dry acoustics of Caramoor’s Music Room to the reverberance of Merkin Hall. At Caramoor you can bound onto the stage in three beats; at Merkin you need four measures. But we ironed everything out, kept the singers near the three hanging mikes, and kicked a few umlauts back into place. Something cool happened to my left arm during Act II—it was as if a tendon way up near my shoulder untwisted and released my hand. Signing off—have to go back to the piano and see what that was all about….

We are at Merkin Hall—Tuesday night, the 12th—8 PM. And this is something you’ll really enjoy and remember.

March 9, 2013

Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, day six: reassuring dress rehearsal.
Final Lock and Load, tray tables up.

The Cast of Song of the Midnight SunWe had an amazingly good dress rehearsal today, and I couldn’t be happier with the program or the singers. I even had one of my first above-average days at the piano, which was a huge relief. There are always spots in every concert where you have to let-go-let-God (and then you find out whether God exists after all). Each of us has one song we want to slap upside the face till we have our way with it. But this afternoon most of the music felt warm and familiar in my hands, and I do like the Steinway up at Caramoor. It’s a non-antagonistic musical partner.

No one in this cast had ever sung in Swedish, Norwegian, or Danish—not even Sarah Larsen, whose ancestors hail from that part of the world. (I had assumed she’d be our umlaut guru. But no. Probably just as well…) And therefore: what a miracle to hear each of them baring their souls so fully in languages they have known for such a short amount of time. This is a quartet of very charismatic voices, and everyone is capturing the full monty of this rep—the warmth and the ice, the stoicism and the despair, the quiet joys and the confessions of guilty desire.

It was so great to have Karen Holvik out front to watch and listen. She sees details—the way the singers distribute their weight over their feet, the way they move, a momentary loss of vibrato, the occasional flicker of indecision about a gesture, a slight problem with visual focus. And she is right there with a solution—no, a few solutions, methods for making a commitment when any tiny moments of uncertainty crop up. I knew she had great ears but she also has great eyes, and she earned everyone’s trust.

I admit it: I am looking forward to the concert tomorrow. 21 great songs, 4 startlingly beautiful singers, and a pair of pianists with big hearts and a passion for the task at hand.

March 8, 2013

Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars, Day Five: Resilience and Breakthroughs.

A faux-blizzard only makes it all the more Scandinavian.

It was the third day Michael and I couldn’t get to Caramoor for our morning session, this time because of a very wet snowstorm that made driving conditions somewhere between irritating and dangerous. We waited till 11:45 AM and then headed north. By then the snow was letting up, and the roads around Caramoor were clear. Once I was on the grounds, there were a couple of places I skidded on my wheelchair—I nearly drove into a parked car when I hit a patch of slush. Very exciting. But all in all the weather emergency receded quickly, leaving us only with a lot of picturesque snow-covered trees and a feeling of having passed a test.

Today we had our second guest teacher, my dear old friend Karen Holvik. We’ve known each other for over three decades and been onstage together many times. Karen has sung a fair amount of Grieg; as you can tell from her name, she is of Norwegian stock. And she is now the head of the voice department at New England Conservatory. She missed her train in Boston when her cab got mired in snow, but she was in time for our late start.

It is interesting having a newcomer in the room after an intense week of rehearsal. Michael and I have seen the progress, we also know where the singers still need to be encouraged, persuaded, reminded, applauded, and gently scolded. But by Friday we have two slight disadvantages: we have asked for certain things over and over again and we can see that there is a slight gap—one might say a credibility gap—between us and the cast. And we hear them from behind the piano while we are busy trying to make music ourselves.

 

Karen Holvik with the cast of Midnight SunKaren came in cold to the rehearsal, armed with her sharp eyes and ears and her elegant sensibility for performance. And she is a singer. There is something about a singer coaching a singer than no pianist in the world can ever attain. She didn’t say a single thing that we had not said before, but she had a heartwarming believability for the cast. If she says, “That sound carries beautifully, you don’t need to go louder,” they finally sing more softly. If she says, you need more consonants, they up the ante on their diction. With her clarity and kindness, Karen was able to break down that last bit of resistance. In the car ride after the rehearsal when we were dropping Julia and Toby off for dinner, both of them thanked me for Karen’s contribution. “Oh, that was great. She came at just the right time, around dress rehearsal.” “You know, she said pretty much what I’ve been saying all week…” “Oh yes, sure…but…well, it’s great to have another singer in the room.” And it is, it really is. If it’s someone of Karen’s caliber.

In truth, it was a joy to team-coach with Karen and Michael. The songs are in their third trimester; I can induce labor but Karen is a midwife.

March 7, 2013

Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars,

Day Four: Mecca slowing coming into view, on a road strewn with umlauts
Today the singers showed us the staging they did for the encore after Mikey and I left last night. I won’t divulge what piece we’re doing because I want it to be a surprise. But they came up with something devilishly clever and pretty sexy. There is a lot of thrilling singing in our show, and a lot of moving material—Sarah, Julia, Theo, and Toby break my heart (and Mikey’s too) on an hourly basis. But it was great Theo Lebow and Sarah Larsento see them do something playful. I also received a video yesterday evening of Toby singing one of his Sibelius songs solemnly accompanying himself on a vibraphone they found in the basement of their residence, while Sarah (holding the phone-camera) is shrieking with laughter. I think the four of them have become a family, and thank God not one of those depressed, dysfunctional Ingmar Bergman families.

Thinking back on the week, I am remembering a Julia moment on Tuesday, when John Lidal was working with us. She was singing a very famous song by Grieg called “En svane”—she’d asked for the piece and I happily put it on the program to oblige her. It has a poem by Ibsen. Sixteen bars in, she stops singing and goes into “I can’t sing this piece, I don’t understand it, there’s something that doesn’t make sense.” I start in patiently explaining the poem when I suddenly realize that after knowing this song for forty years I don’t quite get it either. It talks about a swan who sings, of course, just before dying, In the middle, though, it has a line about “But at our last meeting, when vows and glances were secret lies…” We look at John. “Um, vows, glances, secret lies. Explain.”

Toby Greenhalgh and Julia Bullock

John clears his throat and says, “Well. Who knows if this is true, but legend has it that there was a woman who was in love with Ibsen for years, and she never told him till she was dying. And that’s what the song is really about—a confession of love from a death-bed.” “Not a swan?” “Not a swan.” Silence. I open my mouth to say something but Julia gets there first. “Let’s sing it again.” Of course it was a totally different song. The miracle was twofold: first, Julia looked at that text and saw there was an unexplained mystery, and she did so in the presence of a man (our beloved John Lidal) who could actually unlock the door.

March 6, 2013           

Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars, fifth season, day three: hard work and patience

We had a great afternoon session and managed to delve deep into every single song in the program. It felt a little weird not having a native speaker in the room for the Scando stuff (the bulk of the concert), but that didn’t mean the language police weren’t out. We tend to use the passive-aggressive method of correcting one another—“How are you saying that word, sweetheart?” instead of, “Oy! You’re saying it wrong!” Among the six of us, there will usually be at least two who can come up with the correct pronunciation at any point.

The drama happened in the morning when our very rattly, rented wheelchair-van malfunctioned upon arrival at Caramoor. Not only was the motorized door-opener/elevator dead as a doornail, but we couldn’t even revert to the manual, hand-cranked method because one of the critical doors was jammed. Toby and the ace maintenance guy at Caramoor bashed at it with everything short of a crowbar, but I remained locked in the car. For two hours. Michael was more overtly upset than I; I made a conscious decision to take the moral high ground and go Buddhist till the crisis was over. All the singers came and visited me in my van-prison, Julia brought me lunch, Theo told me a joke, Sarah looked sympathetic, Toby went into handy-man mode. Eventually a guy from the Danbury rental agency showed up, ripped the inside of the door off and wrestled the lock into submission. I was ready to work at 11, but started at 2. Still, the snow held off and we all rose to the occasion. And they brought us a new van, less rattly, in place of the wreck we were using.

The Theremin volume dial goes to 11.There is a Theremin—yes, a Theremin—in the Music Room at Caramoor. The original owner, Lucy Rosen, was a devotee of the instrument and gave its inventor, Léon Theremin, some heavy-duty financial support. I’m not a fan of Theremins but the one in our space has a great quality: the volume control GOES TO 11. It’s just like Spinal Tap—if you want that extra push, well….


March 5, 2013

Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, day two: buckling down      

Today was our second (and last) with John Lidal, and we went through the whole show with all hands on deck. Of the five languages on the program, English and German are familiar and non-threatening; but navigating the intricacies of Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian is a mind-bender. An “ä” sounds one way in Swedish and another way in German; g’s and k’s do strange, disparate things in the three Scandinavian languages, occasional consonants are unpronounced, the odd “s” turns into “sh,” and the vowels are not consistent—sometimes the Swedish “o” is “oh,” and sometimes it’s “oo.” There’s no rule to memorize, you just have to know so you don’t say “sofa” when you mean “forest.” But today I could feel that everything was falling into place, and we’re all pronouncing words like “kärlekstengeln” and “kjaerlighed” with foolhardy conviction.

John Lidal with the cast of Song of the Midnight SunHaving John Lidal coaching in tandem with Michael and me all day made for an intense six hours of rehearsal. Hats off to the cast for absorbing everyone’s contributions with so much concentration. John is a benign and articulate man and could coach this concert with one hand tied behind his back, but occasionally I felt I had to step in. Toby was once again tremendously moving in “Våren” but he kept pronouncing the word “ein” in the German way, “ine.” “No, it’s really ‘ane.’” Toby would sing the phrase again and say “ine,” and John would say, “Um, no, it’s ane.” After the fourth time, I spoke up. “Toby. Toby! It’s ‘ane,’ like…anus.” Short pause. “OK! Well, now I'll never forget it,” replied Toby. And he didn’t. Later I interceded when Theo was having trouble with the word “vakar,” which he got right when he put the word “mother” in front of it.

I continue to be bowled over by the four singers—extraordinary artists and startlingly good musicians. People with voices this good aren’t usually this smart. Music is pouting out of them, and I am more in love with these Scandinavian songs than ever. Hats off to Julia Bullock, Sarah Larsen, Theo Lebow, and Tobias Greenhalgh--and to Michael Barrett, to whom I owe so much in my life. 

March 4, 2013
Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, day one: RELIEF
I work very hard in advance of our annual week-long residency at Caramoor to get everything just right. I need a sweet-tempered, housebroken quartet who also happen to be great singers; a worthy program; inspiring guest teachers. It’s good if I also get a chance to practice the music and work on the poems before I start rehearsing (just to keep up appearances), and it’s a plus if I’ve finished the notes and translations by Sunday night (which I did). On top of my usual knee-jerk anxieties I was dealing with a few unpredictable wild-cards. You see, the program is devoted to Scandinavian song and while I have some experience with Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish I do not speak them. Nor does my cast. Two of my singers are New York-based, and I knew they’d done some prep work in February, but the other two were coming in from Seattle and I didn’t really know what they’d be bringing to the table.


So I hired one of the world's pre-eminent experts in Nordic song to help us at the beginning of the week—a guy named John Lidal to whom I have sent singers in the past, but never met face to face. He was lovely to deal with by email but I irrationally feared he might be a diva to work with.


I needn’t have been so nervous about it all. All the singers had studied hard; Michael Barrett and I were bowled over by the sheer power and beauty of their voices. Julia Bullock, Sarah Larsen, Theo Lebow, and Toby Greenhalgh made good on the title of the Caramoor program—Vocal Rising Stars—and broke my heart at seven-minute intervals. I can't wait to get back to work with them tomorrow. (Just for the record: Sarah and Theo knew their stuff cold.)


John Lidel and Steven BlierBut I already knew my cast. The discovery of the day was John Lidal, a tall, gentle, handsome Norwegian man who brought an undreamt-of expertise, sensitivity, patience, and intelligence to the rehearsal. It’s always daunting to hand your songs over to another guy—frankly, it feels a bit illicit. John gained my trust instantly—our very first conversation involved a passionate analysis of the Danish “D”—“Oh, that terrible sound—no, you’re right, you absolutely can’t sing it the way you’d speak it. Use a voiced ‘th.’” This might not seem like sweet talk to you, but it was music to my ears. I’d been fretting over that gutteral, thick-tongued choker for the last eight days and John swept the problem away like an industrial Hoover. It was the first of his many acts of grace. (Another example: after Toby finished singing Grieg's 'Våren," John waited a moment and said, "I must say, your Norwegian is perfect. Like a native.")


Tomorrow we’ll do the whole program for him in order. This is a little like showing the doctor where it hurts. But it’ll cure our ills, I know it.

February 17, 2013, 2012
stevenI did a little math this morning and realized that I am celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my professional debut this week. It's a saga, of course. When I got out of college I was 20 years old and living with my parents, trying to figure out what my next move would be. Yale had not been a pleasurable experience and I was unspeakably happy to be out of New Haven. One day in September of '72 I got a call from David Alden, whom I'd met through Matthew Epstein five years earlier. David was directing a production of The Barber of Seville for some company in Florida. The cast included Neil Rosenshein, Alan Titus, and a young mezzo named Frederica von Stade. David needed someone to cover a pair of two-hour rehearsals, and he called me, knowing that I would certainly have nothing else to do. I took the express bus down to the old Manhattan Theater Club on 73rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, arrived early (the last time I ever did than in my career, unfortunately), and found Alan Titus in the rehearsal room. He was about 27, fresh from a tremendous success at the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at the Kennedy Center. I looked about 12 years old. Alan said, "Would you mind running the 'Largo' with me before everyone gets here?" No problem. I'd been playing that aria for some time--it was something Matthew Epstein used to sing when he was a baritone, on his sojourn from bass-baritone to tenor to King of the Opera World.

So I whipped through "Largo al factotum," probably at breakneck speed, and Alan said, "You're great. Hey, I have a recital next February. Want to be my pianist for it?" And thus began my career. A few months earlier I'd been turned down by Yale Music School with a truly memorable quote: "Mr. Blier, you will never play the piano anywhere, with the lid up or the lid down, except perhaps for your children." But it now seemed I was officially enrolled in some version of University Without Walls.

The recital was in February of 1973, under the auspices of Community Concerts. Alan sang Tosti, Chausson, "Simple Song" from "Mass," and group of Russian folk songs in which he accompanied himself on the guitar to end the show. I wore my father's white tie and tails and a pair of suspenders which almost did me in--they felt like a straitjacket, but my father insisted. I remember throwing them off my shoulders in a fit of temper at the end of the show, and then having to get myself back onstage really fast for the encore. I wasn't mentioned in the review, as I recall, thus beginning a long career that alternated anonymity with notoriousness, and occasional renown. Alan was a complex colleague, but on a whim he gave me my first break and I shall always be grateful to him.

October 15, 2012

I had two experiences with opera last week, and in different ways they both involved water. The first was the new Met production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, which struck me as the soggiest performance of that work I’d ever seen. It was hard to diagnose what put the dampers on this damp show. There were a lot of talented people on the stage, but the evening was like watching someone try to light a wet match.


When the curtain went up it wasn’t obvious that we were seeing a concept production. Far from it—the sets were traditional and the period costumes were truly elegant. But the relief of not seeing the chorus housed in those ubiquitous Met spice-rack boxes quickly dimmed. The whole evening was curiously lacking in sparkle—it was more like spackle. A few strange things happened: Adina (Anna Netrebko), wearing a top hat, pulled a knife on the vain Sergeant Belcore (Mariusz Kwiecen) before letting him feel her up about sixteen bars later. But the strangest thing of all was that this foolproof Donizetti masterpiece had the charm of a frozen Chick-Fil-A. All I could think was, “DUDE, what did you do with my OPERA?”


When we got home Jim was reading the program notes (I was too depressed to read) and he said, “Oh, it says here that it was supposed to be about the Risorgimento.” “WHAT?” “Yes, and that the army was supposed to be the occupying Austrian army.” “REALLY? I thought we were seeing L’Elisir d’amore, not La battaglia di Legnano.” The latter, of course, is one of those early Verdi barn-burners designed to fire up the Italian people in their quest for unification. Elisir, I thought, was the apotheosis of commedia dell’arte, a heavenly blend of comic archetypes and early romantic sentiment. It seems that “concept” can bite you in the butt. That night I was hearing Donizetti’s music, but it had the effect of a mediocre performance of Berg’s Wozzeck.


The next night my computer was still on the kitchen table when we were making dinner, and to soothe my still-wounded soul I went on one of those YouTube jags. For opera fans, this is the equivalent of falling down Alice’s rabbit hole, and equally magical. One irresistible clip leads to another and it’s almost impossible to stop. As I was chopping vegetables for a salad I clicked on Renata Scotto’s final scene from Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the Met in 1981. Dicing cucumbers and quartering tomatoes from the farmer’s market, I was transported by Renata’s staggeringly powerful performance. I was too mesmerized (and too covered in tomato drippings) even to enlarge the picture to full-screen. A canny mixture of calculation and abandon, Scotto held nothing back. She was Norma Desmond and Eleanora Duse rolled into one, stagy and sublime, Her death scene--an achingly slow collapse to the ground which I'd once seen her try to teach to a young American singer in a master class--held me transfixed. I was seeing life, death, and miracles on my MacBook.


The clip ended and I abruptly burst into tears. Not the polite kind, but alarmingly loud sobs, wails of grief and catharsis and mourning. Jim is used to these sudden bouts of emotion at the end of Verdi operas and during Gilbert and Sullivan overtures, but these waterworks were on an epic scale that caught him off guard. They lasted a while. They were tears of grief for a lost era of opera, but also tears of joy that I could still respond so deeply to the music I’ve loved most of my life. As Norma Desmond would have hissed, “It’s the operas that got small!”

............................................................................................

September 30, 2012

This past summer was not a cornucopia of bliss. Yes, I connected with a lot of extraordinary people over my break from school, and enjoyed my annual fill of local corn, tomatoes, and outdoor chlorine. But I was grappling with what I can only describe as an existential dilemma, a foggy point in my path. Just as I was on the verge of attaining a bit of clarity, there was an unanticipated family tragedy—the sudden death of my beloved sister-in-law Liz, one of the lights of my life. Jim and I devoted August to reminiscence and healing. We’re still working on that. Saying Kaddish at Yom Kippur this year was intense.

Steven Blier and Corinne Winters rehearse.At the end of August, however, there was a true ray of light: we had a visit from Corinne Winters, whom you may remember from the Caramoor Spanish Gold concert in 2011. She came out to Long Island to work on a CD of Spanish songs we’re going to record next May for GPR Recordings (with Glen Roven as producer). We got to do something very few musicians get to do these days: rehearse for a project that is still nine months in the future. What a balm to play Montsalvatge, Toldrá, and Turina while bathed in that beautiful sea air—and without the looming pressure of a performance or the intrusion of a microphone. Corinne is a dream colleague. She has an opulent voice that can shake the rafters, or float, or do both at the same time—over a two-and-a-half octave span. Her voice is amazingly free and colorful, almost a guilty pleasure like Teuscher chocolate. And she is lovely to spend time with, as sweet and generous as they come. I made Corinne sing Montsalvatge’s “Canço amorosa” every day because Tomás Garcés’s poem talks about taking a boat ride at the end of summer: “What happiness at your side/To see the land receding/And to follow in the August nights/The stars that make us dizzy with pleasure.” (I always take an unwritten tempo stretch over that phrase.)

Steven Blier and Corinne Winters on the shore.After the summer's rocky beginning, I hadn’t expected to be dizzy with pleasure. My goals were less exalted: stabilize, find my compass. Thanks to music and poetry, and one special human voice, I remembered the true joy of life. I am deeply excited about this CD with Corinne Winters, and glad that we still have eight months to follow those August nights, even in the dead of winter.

............................................................................................

March 12, 2012
Drama, drama, drama, every day. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Friday I was irritable. We had a donor event at night and it put a little roadblock in our process. The cast circled their wagons, protected what they had, didn’t take too many risks, saved their voices, worried about memory. The 30-minute show went fine, and afterwards we got the usual kinds of questions: “You guys are so good at those popular songs. Why aren’t you on Broadway?!” It’s a lovely compliment, but really…what would these beautiful artists sing on caramoor vocal artists.Broadway these days? Spider Man? Rock of Ages? Jersey Boys? Book of Mormon? Don’t get me started. I behaved pretty well until Eugene blurted out (incorrectly) that José Carreras had created the role of Tony in West Side Story on Broadway. I heard a strangled yawp come out of me that doesn’t usually emerge in public. (The first Tony was Larry Kert, who could actually speak English, in case you are coming up blank.)

But Saturday was a day of grace. We did a workthrough of the show and all four singers plunged in to do the final lock-and-load, running a Dustbuster over the French diction, tweaking the musical details, and rolling with Michael’s and my good cop/bad cop duo as we laid down the law about matters of singing and acting. If the four of them were treading water on Friday, they swam the English Channel on Saturday. I was very proud of everyone.

But I was even prouder on Sunday when they sang the Caramoor performance. Everyone was in great voice, the hall was packed—a full house in Westchester for French art song!—and I felt blessed. Meredith is like a muse to me—she inspires beauty with her charismatic sound and classy phrasing. Kristin merges good taste with take-no-hostages brass, a patrician walk on the wild side. Brent has sweetness, sensitivity, squillo, and smarts in such abundance that he’s like a Teuscher truffle that got into Mensa. And Eugene? 100% animal and 100% artist, a singer who can be pelvic and exalted at the same time.

Today we had our dress rehearsal in Merkin, which sounded cavernous and echoey after a week in Caramoor’s Music Room, and the piano had all the delicacy of the F Train. We’ll all be ready for it tomorrow—it always takes a day to adjust but Merkin is ultimately a great place to make (and hear) music. We had a visit from royalty: jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, who’s playing in the NYFOS’s gala on April 2, was so fascinated by what he saw on our website that he stopped by to hear some of the show. I was very nervous playing Irving Berlin in front of him, but I think Kristin and I passed muster. “You weren’t playing what was on the page!” he exclaimed. (“Duh!” I thought…I mean, I don’t have any idea what’s on the page.) “It was great! Both of you!”

What a relief. Tuesday night should be a blast.

.............................................................................................
March 8, 2012
Thursday is always a critical day up at Caramoor. The free-wheeling exploration period is just about to end and everyone feels the pressure. It’s not quite as innocent to forget lyrics or smudge a passage on the piano. After all, tomorrow we’re doing a part of the concert for some donors, Saturday is dress rehearsal, Sunday is a performance in Katonah, and Tuesday is the Big Apple. Every singer and pianist knows the feeling: time to get your act together.

Caramoor cast pictureWe had a visit from our guest teacher today: baritone William Sharp, one of my closest colleagues and someone I’ve performed and recorded with for over thirty years. Bill is also very close to Michael Barrett, and it was like a reunion of dogs who’d grown up in the same kennel. Bill and I were finishing each other’s sentences. I would be thinking, “This song needs…” just as Bill was saying exactly what was in my mind. It’s always delicate to rehearse in front of an “outsider,” but Bill is not that. He was just an insider who was having his first (and only) day with us. He was so positive with everyone, unfailingly helpful—and, like his name, sharp. He is not afraid to say, “I loved it. Let’s fix the one spot that bothered me.” A perfect Thursday visitor.

Highlights: Eugene got on the hot core of his beautiful voice and rode it through Fauré’s “Les roses d’Ispahan”; Meredith coaxed and caressed her Poulenc song into submission; Kristin morphed into a haughty but vulnerable Chinese wife in her Roussel piece; Brent found both the charm and the cojones of his Roussel song. I gave a little lecture about not making what I call “Phony Faces of Motivation”—those little moues I see at auditions where singers pretend to show they’ve “just” thought of the next line of their aria by looking at a spot just to the left of their shoes (or the corner of the rehearsal room) and pensively pursing their lips before they sing again. Bad Opera Acting 101, and I’ve seen it on the rise recently. When I caught a tiny moment of “P. F. of M.” today I decided to nip it in the bud. I was rewarded with a short, hilarious demonstration, by Eugene, of his pantheon of Execrable Opera Stage Behavior.

...then back to work

.............................................................................................
March 7, 2012
“I can dance…and make romance,” sings Eugene Chan as he rehearses “The Boy from New York City.” I look over and this arty, refined guy is doing some major moves on the Caramoor floor. For one guilty moment I really wish I could still dance. I’d abduct Eugene to a disco (do they still have them?) in a nanosecond.

cast of the showI had begun the week thinking the group was a bit sedate, and that maybe the swingtime songs wouldn’t…swing. This cast is not sedate: they’re serious, elegant, and somewhat quiet at mealtimes. They don’t tell jokes, do imitations, or recite TV dialogue verbatim. But give them a chance to shake booty and booty is shaken. Hard. We have an encore by Charles Aznavour and I can’t believe where they’re taking it. Eugene belted his solo like a Gallic Louis Armstrong today, sinking to his knees as he put the moves on Meredith. I doubt we’ll keep the bit but none of us is going to forget it. Meredith later grabbed Brent’s butt. That, we’re keeping.

This is a cast of transformers. Kristin gets to play not one by two African-American women, singing “Harlem on My Mind” by Irving Berlin and “Mon histoire” by Milhaud. She seems fearless, and there is definitely a wild woman lurking until that proper Canadian veneer. She’s a passionate girl, an open channel. Blond, all-American Brent has the soul of a poet and a wicked sense of adventure onstage. He also seems to know how to be wry, romantic, and real in French. Was he paying attention in high school?

And it’s so rewarding to spend time with Meredith. I began working with her when she was a sophomore at Juilliard, and by now we’ve been onstage together a fair amount. She sings so freely that she inspires me to be my freest too. Today she asked to end rehearsal with Rodgers’ “A Tree in the Park” and it was definitely in Technicolor.

.............................................................................................

two vocal stars from CaramoorMarch 6, 2012
We’re getting started up at Caramoor with this year’s Vocal Rising Stars residency. Every year has been so intense and so different, with a new program and a new group dynamic. This time we’re working on a French-American program that ranges, NYFOS-style, from Roussel and Poulenc to Rorem and Irving Berlin. The group numbers were really hot from the very first day, including a ridiculously good rendition of the finale, “The Boy From New York City.”

I didn’t know baritone Eugene Chan had a 60s backup singer living within him, but he does. (He’e also a fabulous interpreter of Poulenc.) Canadian mezzo Kristin Hoff sings American jazz with a kind of abandon I don’t associate with Canadian mezzos. She sounds like Diane Schuur without the glass-cutting rasp. Meredith Lustig floats the faux-raga “Un sapin isolé” by Maurice Delage perfectly, and breaks my heart with her rendition of “A Tree in the Park” by Rodgers and Hart. Brent Ryan has wit, charm, brains, and a killer high C; he’s nailing all his songs.

two more singers from CaramoorWe usually have a couple of live-wire, ringleader personalities every year, but this time the energy is more introverted and sweet. There doesn’t seem to be a lightning-rod in the bunch, just four serious, smart, hardworking people making art together. Rehearsing the Blitzstein quartet In Twos, Meredith said, “I just can’t hear the other singers well, I can’t feel the blend.” And I blurted out, “Well, maybe you should all just lie under the piano together, that’s the best place to hear everything.” She said, “Great, I’m game.” Me: “Really?” Meredith: “Yeah, really,” as she assumed the position. Soon everyone was lying under the piano and singing In Twos. The ensemble was vastly improved, and the spirit of the song was palpable. “So…how was that, Meredith?” I asked. “Somewhat better…” was her answer.

.............................................................................................

cast of hooking upFebruary 9, 2012
My living room has turned into a hormonal hive of Kinsey-esque creativity, as we work on A Modern Person's Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up. The comic stuff is a riot--no surprises there--but the show is even richer than I had imagined; since almost everyone in the room is either married or engaged (including me), the cast is bringing a depth of experience and emotion to the songs that I was not anticipating. There are some pretty kinetic people in the room, and I'll probably have to buy my downstairs neighbors some chocolates because of all the choreo....Now, if we just don't get banned in Boston....

.............................................................................................
December 28, 2011
I just read of Martin Isepp's death. He was a teacher of mine at a crucial moment in my life. When I was 20, I enrolled in the extension division at Juilliard to work with him (at the insistence of Matthew Epstein). Martin helped to tune my ear, he boosted my confidence, he showed me what a professional collaborative pianist did, and thought about, and knew—and gave. He helped me a great deal and I have always been grateful to him. Requiescat, Martin. May Victoria de los Angeles and Margaret Price serenade you in Heaven.

.............................................................................................
in maryland on tourNovember 16, 2011
We had a beautiful show last night in Maryland. As always, I want to steal that Gildenhorn Hall at University of Maryland; it's a perfect place to do song and New York unfortunately doesn't have anything like it. We had a very good house and they seemed utterly fascinated with the program. Pretty good laughers: superlative listeners.

I have such powerful feelings about Manning the Canon and the four guys in the cast. I've known each of them for a while now and I feel as if I've watched them step into in their adulthood before my very eyes. We all know each other's strengths and passions, we are gently aware of each other's fears and vulnerabilities. I really love those guys with all my heart.

My favorite moment—among many—was the big laugh we got in "You're the Top" on "You're Camembert!" I took a little stretch in the tempo so Jesse could really lean into Scott's armpit and ostentatiously demonstrate his ecstasy to the audience. As I mentioned…I invented that bit of 'ography. (I am good with an armpit.)

I always wonder if Manning the Canon will work its magic on straight people. Wonder no longer, Steve: it did last night. There were a few enclaves of gay guys (and a few gay women) in the audience but we were not preaching to the choir in Maryland. At the end of the show, two elderly ladies made a beeline for me. "We just wanted to say… that…. was…. AMAZING. I've never seen your group before….and that was….one of the most AMAZING evenings of song I ever heard." Two more satisfied customers, and not the ones I was expecting.

.............................................................................................
November 10, 2011
No sooner is one concert over than all other projects come flooding in. I had about 8 minutes of calm after In the Memory Palace before reality hit me: A Goyishe Christmas to You! (our December show) and Invitation to the Dance (the Juilliard program, due to hit the boards in January) needed to be finished. And Manning the Canon was just about to go into rehearsal—a revival with one new song and one new cast member, and yikes, I haven't touched the music in a year.

I'll skip the ulcer-inducing 12-day interval and cut to the golden present: Goyishe and Invitation are pretty much programmed, and Manning the Canon is falling back into place. The gnarly spots in the music that kicked my ass last time are kicking my ass again, only not as hard. And the guys in that show are a collaborator's dream: beautiful musicians, and men with the kind of spirits that make you think there might be a god after all. I've known Jesse Blumberg for a long time, and I've always loved the guy. But at our rehearsal the other day—as we worked up our Britten and Tchaikovsky again—I felt that we'd become one musical entity, one expressive being. We even screwed up at the same time.

Matt Boehler is a force of nature, sort of a benign tsunami; Scott Murphree sings Poulenc and Saint-Saëns exactly the way I hear them in my head—an uncannily intimate experience; and Tim McDevitt, the new guy, already knows the moves for the ensemble pieces better than the guys who created what we call the "'ography." He is rapidly taking possession of his solo pieces, which are going to fly high. Since Jesse and Scott haven't rehearsed together yet, I haven't yet seen my favorite moment—the 'ography for the lyric "You're Camembert!" in Cole Porter's "You're the Top." (That bit is mine. Maybe I shouldn't be admitting this.)

rehearsal photo

Cole Porter, "You're the Top": You're an O'Neill drama, You're Whistler's mama, You're Camembert!

Friday night we're doing a workthrough of the whole concert and then cooking dinner together. The Friday cast dinner is by now a tradition with this show. I haven't told Tim about the hazing ceremonies we have for new cast members. I'm sure he'll be fine. He's young.

.............................................................................................
October 26, 2011
I shouldn't have been surprised at the power of In the Memory Palace—but I was. The quattro staggioni effect of four song cycles, each of them intense and utterly different from one another, worked even more magic than I had expected. The beauty of not being especially confident is that good experiences still fill me with wonder and joy. Tuesday's concert was such an experience—a wonderful evening where everything worked like gangbusters. Michelle, Becca Jo, Paul, Andy: American originals, brilliantly gifted vocalists, sublime ensemble artists. And Michael played like an angel/demon. Best of all, Gabe Kahane's cycle swept everyone away; every singer I spoke to afterwards said, "OK, I want those songs."

Rinse and repeat tomorrow....

memory palace rehearsal

Memory Palace cast after the dress at Merkin Hall: Michael, Becca, Andy, Steve, Michelle, and Paul

.............................................................................................
October 24, 2011
Moving to Merkin from our Washington venue was a bit like going from dating Twiggy to dating Gina Lollabrigida. Our Washington space was a Bombay martini; Merkin is graciously reverberant, and it sure LOVES the piano. We spent a pleasant afternoon adjusting to the new (but by now familiar) acoustics—both its challenges and its possibilities. Everyone is trying to bleach out those last "ring around the collar" moments in the show, the tiny errors that refuse to listen to reason. The quartets sound so beautiful at Merkin, and the cast is starting to take up permanent residence in their solo cycles.

.............................................................................................
October 23, 2011
It sounds simple: you leave town to make music in another locale, and then you come home. But touring is seldom a bed of roses, and this bed was unusually thorny. Dramas abounded. When we got to Union Station in Washington on Friday night, our specially pre-ordered cab (with a ramp for my wheelchair) had blithely loaded another passenger (without a wheelchair). Off they went, leaving us stranded at the train station. The driver worked for Royal Cabs, who seem to have gotten their idea of Royalty from Henry the Eighth, i.e. they screw whomever they want. After some heated negotiation, the dispatcher condescended to send the driver back after he had dropped off the interloper; two hours later, he showed up. We drove into town in silence as he took us to the wrong address. Finally disgorging two very tired angry guys at the Westin Georgetown, he burst out with, "You're LUCKY I came back for you! I wasn't GOING to!" Just as I was about to lace him with some choice Big Apple invective, I managed to locate what I call my Inner Flicka (Frederica von Stade's nickname). Flicka is among the gentlest and most forgiving people I know, and if I can summon up her spirit in time, I manage to avoid epic pissing matches that I cannot win. What would Flicka do? She'd say a prayer for him. I couldn't quite summon that up, but at least I kept my mouth shut.

The people that ran the performance space were the exact opposite of my cab driver the day before: meticulous about their jobs. The hall was one of those black-boxy places where the crew always tells you within the first 45 seconds, "Oh, it's a bit dry for the performer but we assure you the sound out front is crystal clear." This is a bit like telling someone that no one else will feel their bee sting—comforting, but irrelevant in the moment. Michael's piano had a big, brave sound. Mine was more like a Wellesley sophomore: sweet, elegant, not forceful, cultured. I quietly gave up the idea of colorful climactic phrases and geared myself to the Barricini version of my songs.

We all had our meet-your-maker moments Saturday night, and I was in a fine lather by the end of the performance. I have one need before I walk onstage: I must play through all of my songs. But between one thing and another (including the need to tune two pianos, a Q&A session with four very bright voice students, and the auspices's decision to open the house 45 minutes before showtime), I didn't get my warmup. I had gotten caught between extremes of callous incompetence on Friday and OCD-ish efficiency on Saturday. The good news? In spite of it all, it was crystal clear that "In the Memory Palace" is a first-rate NYFOS show, great songs, great performers, great sequencing. Gabe Kahane's cycle grabbed the audience's heart. Frank Bridge astonished, Granados detonated, Villa-Lobos seduced. On the way to the restaurant after the show a guy drove up, came to a screeching halt in front of us, jumped out of his car, and yelled, "I LOVE THOSE GABE KAHANE SONGS! THEY'RE GREAT! THANK YOU!"

airplane

Mission accomplished. Glad to be out of the space capsule and back on the earth again.

.............................................................................................
October 19, 2011
Today is my late father's 100th birthday. One of the cast members took his photograph down from my windowsill and put it on my coffeetable—the Danish Modern one I inherited from him. It gave my dad a ringside seat for the six-plus hours of rehearsal today, and I think he enjoyed it. I mean, he was grinning throughout the whole day. Of course, he's been smiling like that since the picture was snapped in 1956.

blier's dadHe had a lot to grin about. The cast is doing sensational work, and I am in love with the music for next week's concert. There is always a horrible interval between the optimism of conceiving the program and the first few days of working on the concert. During that six-week period I always think I have created a monster. I go through all of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance—acceptance that I am preparing a latke, a flat tire, a root canal of a concert. Then the cast walks in and starts singing the songs we sent them, and I am amazed at how beautiful the music is, especially in their hands. This drama is so predictable that by now I pay it no mind, but I have never lost the wonder of hearing the birth of the show. "In the Memory Palace" is so arrestingly lovely and fascinating; I am grateful to all the composers and all the singers.

Above: Steven's dad, still smiling

.............................................................................................
October 17, 2011
A recent NYFOS tradition: the roadside display of personalized mugs for rehearsals at my place. I spend too much time thinking about who gets assigned which color.

the first day of rehearsal

.............................................................................................
October 16, 2011
As I get ready to rehearse Granados's Tonadillas, I've been tempted to listen compulsively to other performances of them—I have about six recordings on my iPod. But I realized that rather than torture myself hearing de los Angeles and Gerald Moore for the ninetieth time, I'd do better to spend that time slugging it out at the piano myself. After all, I've known those recordings since I was about 12 years old and they're already embedded on my internal hard drive. What I'd rather hear, of course, is their out-takes, the wrong notes, the phrases that needed to be re-done, the curse words they spat out when they screwed up. That would be comforting! And educational.

Lacking that stimulation, I embarked on a high-minded course of cultural enrichment. I admit that this happened by chance: at a recent used-CD sale I picked up a recording of the Beaux Arts Trio playing Turina and Granados. The Turina piece was lovely, and absolutely what I expected: a gorgeous sound track of picturesque Españolitude, full of flair and charm. Musical paella. But the Granados—what a shock. It starts out with a riff that sound like the love-child of Keith Jarrett and Philip Glass, and goes on to evoke the beauty of Brahms leavened with of the sweet transparency of Fauré. The Tonadillas are pure Madrid, and they're sublime. But this piano trio is like getting on a plane with Granados and having dinner with him all over Europe—in the best restaurants.

I'd written in the program note about the Goya paintings that inspired Granados to write the Tonadillas, so after I'd busted my knuckles on them for a while I decided I'd earned a cup of tea and 10 minutes of web surfing. I found my way to the Frick Museum site where they had posted a brush-and-ink drawing called "A Fight." Two people are brawling in the background, maybe two women but maybe a man and a woman; in the foreground a Spanish dandy, a majo, is also sprawled on the floor—but he's laughing at them.

When I went back to the piano, with my mind full of Keith Jarrett and angry Spaniards wrestling like crazy people, the Tonadillas started to fall under my fingers pretty easily. Bless caffeine, the internet, and m'man Granados. The link > www.frick.org

.............................................................................................
September 23, 2011
I had a revelation yesterday afternoon that may surprise you. It certainly surprised me. To be a good citizen, I went up to Caramoor for the afternoon. They were giving a special concert honoring their four mentoring programs, and since I am the artistic director of one of them, the Vocal Rising Stars, I felt I should make an appearance. The surprise? I was completely swept away by the beauty and power of the music—songs and chamber music by Clara and Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms.

Because of my line of work, I get to/have to listen to lots and lots of live singing. Eventually all the different places I hear vocal music start to blend together, and the distinctions between coachings, rehearsals, auditions, and performances by students or superstars get quite blurry. My unguarded (and mercifully unspoken) reaction to Anna Netrebko's first aria at the Met's dress rehearsal of Anna Bolena was, "OK, wow, there’s lots to work on, so let's start again from the recit...."

Yesterday’s concert was an unexpected gift. It transported me back to the magical way I heard music when I was a kid. I have to confess that I wasn't able to silence my mental chatter during the one vocal piece, much as I enjoyed it. My inner coach was on the sidelines all the way through Schumann's "Spanisches Liebeslieder," listening for vowel choices, monitoring breath support, evaluating acting choices and tempi. The only “off button” for that seems to involve the consumption of several alcoholic beverages.

But when the instrumentalists offered the chamber pieces, I went to another world. Those players set me on fire—the Linden Quartet, violinist Benjamin Beilman, cellist Alice Yoo, and especially the pianist Roman Rabinovich who seems to wed the emotional depth of Rudolf Serkin with the gorgeous fantasy of Bill Evans. I was reminded of something I didn't even realize I'd forgotten: the intense beauty of hearing music performed live. I remembered what a miracle it is to touch a piano, draw a bow across a string—and in the process heal souls. People often talk excitedly about going to concerts to “see people take risks.” That kind of daring has little interest for me—once I’m aware a musician is taking a risk, I lose track of the music and start obsessing about how brave or foolhardy or egomaniacal the performer is. All I want is to be drawn forcibly into the current of the music, to take artistic communion with the musicians, the audience, and the composer, to go to my inner Woodstock. Yesterday I got to do just that—and now I’m fired up for my own season of concerts. What a beautiful way to start the Jewish New Year.