March 10, 2014
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 (email@example.com) 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.)
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.
It’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.
We 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 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,
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 to 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.”
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.
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.
Having 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.)
But 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
I 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.
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.)
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 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.
We 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.
I 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.
March 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.
We 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.
February 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.
November 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.)
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 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!"
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.
He 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.
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.