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Blier’s Blog: Caramoor 2021

Steven Blier’s daily reflections on Caramoor’s 2021 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars Residency. You can watch the culminating concert livestream on April 1 (available for 48 hours). Get tickets here.

CARAMOOR DAY 7: the concert
A few impressions from last night’s concert:

–We were all nervous. In the past couple of months Béné has played a couple of live video concerts (no audience, just cameras and mics), but the rest of us hadn’t made music for the public without the luxury of a retake in over a year. Knowing my penchant for performance anxiety, I planned a day with not one but two calm warm-ups before showtime, and until 7 PM everything felt good. Arms mobile, back flexible, fingers reaching the right destination an amazing amount of the time. Onstage during the concert I have to admit I was abruptly somewhat tighter than I wanted to be. My mind remained calm but my body wasn’t quite ready to let go in front of the cameras. The triumph: I was ready for this snag, and I managed to get my music into the room anyway. It wasn’t perfect—I wasn’t perfect—but I felt I made a huge stride forward from last year when I froze in front of the livestream cameras. This year I had to fight a bit, but I knew exactly what to do and I came up with the goods.  

–Nicoletta, Erin, Aaron, and Sam floored me. Each of them sang with so much grace and beauty—a relaxed, sensual accuracy of style that one rarely encounters in classical vocalists. The four of them may still be in school or in young artist programs, but they delivered their songs like professionals. There wasn’t a French speaker among them, but they positively danced through their songs. 

A friend wrote me today to say, “Sublime, old-fashioned singing and playing. The real thing—the kind of music I remember from my childhood. Grateful it still exists with you.”

–Gracie Francis, the so-called “apprentice” pianist—wow, that woman can go from song whisperer to musical tornado in the blink of an eye. She played superbly.

–We had a tiny audience of Caramoor staff (3), husbands (2), cast members when they weren’t singing (3), and cameramen and -women (3). Yet we were finally delivering our music to receptive listeners, hungry to hear a live performance. I’d nearly forgotten about the magical telepathy between the stage and the hall. We felt as if we were in Carnegie Hall.

–More than anything I was grateful for every living and non-living soul who had made this beautiful evening possible, starting with Francis Poulenc and Charles Trénet, proceeding to my husband Jim, moving on to my magnificent artistic partner Bénédicte Jourdois who inspired us all to new heights—and Eileen Schwab and her family who endowed the program at Caramoor—and the smart, stalwart people on the Caramoor staff (Ellie Gisler, Tim Coffey, and Kathy Schuman) who met our needs with practicality and generosity all week. 

–But I also couldn’t stop thinking about Michael Barrett, who first dreamed up this residency and put me in charge of it. After 32 years Michael stepped down from NYFOS last autumn to base his life out west, and this was the first time I worked at Caramoor without him. Béné and I landed on our feet, but there would have been no landing pad at all if Michael had not built one thirteen years ago. I remain in his debt.

–The concert was a beauty. And you can still see “Le tour de France” for a few days if you go to the Caramoor website—caramoor.org. It’s been extended till April 8. 

–One thing you won’t see is a performance of the Michel Legrand “Twin Sisters” duet performed by the Aaron and Sam. That was a non-televised, private encore, delivered with flawless choreography in hilarious faux-French. It was the cherry on a very large sundae.

Day 6: Wednesday, March 31
Perhaps my enforced absence from the concert stage has given me a chance to rethink everything about putting on a concert. Maybe my daily partnership with Bénédicte has shaken up my old routine. Maybe I can’t even remember my old routine any more. But things feel different, and in many ways better.

Normally we’d spend the dress rehearsal day going over trouble spots in the morning, and then doing a run in the afternoon. But Béné and I—and the cast—decided to run the concert in the morning, have lunch, and then go cue to cue in the afternoon. That way we faced the monster of our first no-stopping rehearsal while we still had some energy. And later on, we’d know for sure what needed brushing up and what could be left alone.

I have often been known to have a quiet, scary meltdown at dress rehearsal. But I have had a lot of time to think about my nerves since the lockdown. And I have also been in front of the camera and the microphone much more than ever before in my life during past thirteen months. I cannot say that I have wrestled my demons to the ground. But I have developed a certain savvy for coping with them.

And I also realized that most of my actual problems stemmed from the fact that the pedal on the Caramoor Steinway was higher than the pedal of my piano at home, so I needed an extra board under my foot to play properly. When my foot works, my hands work. Ellie Gisler went off in search of something to give my heel another ¾” clearance. It’s not glamorous: a piece of corrugated cardboard covered in duct tape. But it did the trick and finally—for the first time all week!—I felt comfortable in front of the piano, the instrument that has absorbed me, tormented me, put bread on my table, challenged me, and released my musical soul into the world for the past half century.

All of us had our bobbles today, but the overwhelming impression was that these songs were getting the royal treatment from us. Nicoletta, Aaron, Sam, Erin, and Gracie brought tears to my eyes.

One moment sticks in my mind from the afternoon clean-up session. Erin has been giving a nice performance of Poulenc’s “Cimetière,” and we’d come up with an interpretation we all liked. But in spite of everything I privately felt something was off. It just wasn’t quite the “Cimetière” I had in mind. I think I was fixated on the way soprano Rosemarie Landry sang it when I first played the piece in 1982—naïve, floating, and silvery, not petulant. How could I get that musical result without changing everything we’d built in already—the day before a performance?

“Erin,” I began. “The girl in ‘Cimetière…’ Could she be more passive-aggressive, less actively angry?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, instead of ‘If you make me break up with my boyfriend, I’m going to kill myself and it’ll be on your head…’ perhaps it could be more like, ‘If you take my boyfriend away, I’ll die, but don’t worry about me, I’ll have a beautiful funeral, and Aunt Yvonne will come on Sunday to the graveside, and I guess I’ll rise up to heaven, I’ll be fine….’”

“I’ll try it.”

Whereupon she got up and spun out Poulenc’s Ab-major barcarolle sweetly into the empty hall pretty much exactly the way I’d heard it in my mind. Nothing is over until Bénédicte blesses it, though.


“Oh, absolutely. I love it.”

A sigh of relief.

Part of the joy of the week is the daily commute with Bénédicte. We have shared so much about ourselves, the music and literature we love, and the work we do. Neither of us holds back very much. The windows are up, we trust one another, and we say what we truly think. Needless to say, we laugh a lot. I sometimes have the feeling that Bénédicte knows everyone and everything. She is a stimulating friend and colleague, humbling in the best sense. She manages to be Vesuvian and delicate at the same time. I value her so much.

Day 5: Tuesday, March 30
It seems you can teach an old dog (me) new tricks. I am mercurial and intuitive, and I have a horror of repeating myself. But I have seen my colleague Bénédicte Jourdois turn the dogged pursuit of what seem like technicalities into a joyous treasure hunt. Mies van der Rohe had it right: God is indeed in the details. As we continue to work away at the fine points of the songs, we almost can’t tell if we’re infused with joy or going crazy. But the goal has remained consistent all week, and every day the performances get sharper and stronger. I am having a love affair with music. 

Béné and I had very dissimilar training, but I now understand that all roads lead to Rome when you are in sync about the result you’re after. We’re not a case of good cop/bad cop, more like Jungian cop/Freudian cop, or maybe Jewish cop/Catholic cop. We have found ourselves in agreement all week about what we hear and what we want. How we get it from our young colleagues—well, that’s a case of “Vive la différence.” Bénédicte has a confident energy that I covet. I’m more ruminative and intuitive, unsure of what I plan to say until it’s out of my mouth. And yet her vermillion and my cobalt blue go together perfectly. 

There were lots of epiphanies today. This is unusual for the fifth day of a residency, when everyone is usually trying to freeze their performance before dress rehearsal and concert day. Nicoletta Berry gave us a taste of magic when she sang “Brezairola,” the haunting lullaby from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. The first run was ravishing, but I knew we could lift it another level. “Look, the A section at the beginning is great, so sweet and clear, don’t change anything. The B section…hmm, use the sounds of the words to soothe the baby. Cast a spell, cajole him with rhythm. And when the A section returns, your child has just about conked out. If Béné allows it—” [a quick glance into the hall to check for an alarm signal]—“darken the vowels, cover everything with a gentle umlaut. When the line goes up, sing softer. A thread of sound, an ‘inside’ sound.” I took my life in my hands and illustrated what I wanted. Sometimes it’s the only way. No one laughed. 

Nicoletta is a born singer. This is not a metaphor: I used to coach her father, Scott Berry, when he was making his way as a tenor in New York over 30 years ago. She was brought up with music, and Scott obviously instilled her with taste and technique. Nicoletta has emerged with an extraordinary range of colors in her paintbox. But sometimes you have to ask her to put them on her palette and use them. 

I asked her if she knew what I was after and she nodded. She then spun out a rendition of “Brezairola” that pretty much liquefied everyone in the room. Just what I outlined: lullaby, then an incantation, and finally a whisper of a melody like a love song to an infant. 

Later on, I mentioned to Sam Kidd that he too could sing the “Brezairola.” 

“Oh, I thought it was associated with female voices.”

“Yeah, usually, but I’m pretty sure Gérard Souzay recorded it too.”

Souzay is the iconic mid-century baritone who practically owned French art song from 1955 to 1985. He’s a reference point for all of us, a singer with authority and charisma. As I was talking to Sam I saw that Bénédicte had already Googled “Souzay-Brezairola” and come up with the very recording I’d mentioned. It was playing on her phone, and we all listened to it raptly. He sang it a whole-step lower than the original key, a lovely, straightforward rendition: A section, B section, repeated A section, the end.

When it was over we kept a respectful silence. I finally broke it. 

“Really nice performance. But…sorry, Nicoletta’s was better.”

An explosive group assent. “That’s just what I was thinking!” “I was afraid to say anything, but yeah!” “Couldn’t agree more.” “Damn straight.” 

Thirty years ago I learned so much from Gérard Souzay—from his performances, his recordings, and the few master classes where he’d taught me. If Nicoletta outdid him, he was one of the main artists who inspired me to show her the way. 

At lunchtime we received an exciting package: two berets Nicoletta had ordered as costume pieces for the “Twin Sisters” duet from “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” Nicki is 5’3”, and Erin is 5’10”, so in this version they’ve got to be fraternal twins. But how could they be made to look alike? I suggested wigs, but they were wildly impractical and the women vetoed the idea instantly. “Hats?” I asked. “Berets?” Nicki countered. “Perfect,” we all said. 

They certainly do the trick for the song, one of Michel Legrand’s most irresistible tunes. I have a feeling all four singers did the choreo together (they’ve not really shared that info with me) so I asked the women to pose with the hats, and then the men. In the gentle light of the Caramoor patio, they look like a Vermeer painting, if the Dutch master’s subjects had worn sweatshirts and hoodies.

Day 4: Monday, March 29
Normally the fourth day of a seven-day residency is a clammy experience. The concert looms, the window for fixing problems is closing, the music and words need to be memorized, and everyone is getting tired. In short, the party’s over.

That was blessedly not true today. We ran this project a little differently than in previous years: we gave the singers the option of a slightly longer stay that included a day off, and they unanimously voted yes. That meant that Sunday—yesterday—was the eye of the hurricane. In truth, we all needed a little bit of time to regroup. And since Monday was designated “off-book day,” the singers had a chance to catch their breath and work on memorization. 

I think the cast must have been fairly industrious during their free day, because they were (1) very much on top of their music, and (2) a bit tired. Still, the spirit in the room was good. Certain kinds of progress with a song can only happen once the performer gets his or her face out of the score, and there was more sweetness and more depth in their work than there had been two days ago. 

The Covid restrictions are still in place: the singers, who have previously quarantined, can work together unmasked. Bénédicte and I, who have been vaccinated, can also work with them unmasked as long as we are eight feet from them. At lunch we’re at the same long table, but Béné and I are at one end and everyone else is at a discreet distance away. Sadly, we can’t be photographed as a group unless we wear masks (and what is the point of that?) or sit apart from them. We tried it, but you can see me wincing.

None of this has stopped us from working in an intimate way. We have not used the other rehearsal room to split into two groups; I did not hire any other guest coaches this year. We have spent all of our time together as a septet, and because Béné and I have the same goal in mind and kept true to it, the process has had a rare feeling of consistency.

What is that goal? Well, none of our American cast actually speaks French. But we work every day on the poetry, searching out the nuances and beating the vowels into submission. When they sing their French songs, we want a feeling not just of correctness but authenticity. We want them to own those words and sing them with authority. We want them to sound as if they wrote the songs. We want the French audience to tune and say, “Oh la la, pas mal.”

There were some stunning moments today. When Samuel Kidd began the Charles Trénet song “Douce France,” he launched the tune with a suaveness that took our breath away. Most Americans have trouble with the conversational French “r” that we’re trying to use in the popular songs, and truth to tell four days ago Sam’s sounded a bit like Yiddish. Today it purred of him like Eartha Kidd seducing a rich businessman. He’s a veritable Carvel machine of music, a fountain of aural delight. 

In truth they’re all killin’ it. For some months I’ve been comforting my friends, “There is light at the end of the tunnel.” Now I know that my words of hope were actually true. Listening to Nicoletta Berry, Erin Wagner, Aaron Crouch, Sam Kidd, and Gracie Francis is my reward for getting through twelve and a half months of musical solitary confinement.

Day 3: Saturday, March 27
Quarantining is not anyone’s idea of fun, especially after a year of on-and-off home confinement. But the auspices asked our quintet of singers and pianist to isolate themselves for 10 days or so before coming to Caramoor, since they were going to be living together and (even more perilous) singing together. I wanted them to perform unmasked, and that was the price. 

There was a payoff: everyone had a long stretch to study the music for “Le tour de France,” kind of like the reading period before college exams. And their level of preparation was amazingly high. The singers knew their stuff cold. Well, not freezing cold, but pleasantly brisk. Just right. 

But sometimes when we have that much time to prepare on our own, we unwittingly wear a groove in the song, a habitual way of phrasing that may or may not be usable once we’re with our colleagues. This happens to me often, especially this year when I have been working alone non-stop. 

By and large, our cast has managed to avoid that particular trap, what I call the “beet stains” of coaching—bad habits so deeply ingrained no amount of washing will get them out. Everyone’s been flexible, and no one has buckled yet under the pressure of this compressed rehearsal period. 

The other day, though, I felt that Aaron was not quite finding the sexy languor of Poulenc’s “Vers le sud,” a song that describes a post-coital reverie in the south of France. I wanted to hit the re-start button on his approach, so I trotted out a technique I use for getting a singer to hear their song—the one they have practiced 200 times—from a fresh perspective: I invent a new accompaniment. 

“Sing with me, Aaron.” I jettisoned Poulenc’s notes and made up a Bill Evans-style arrangement of the piece, letting the music go commando. 

“Zénith,” Aaron began, as I oozed overripe augmented chords at the piano. “Tous ces regrets, ces jardins sans limites….” 

It sounded pretty much the same, like a French art song he’d committed to memory for a conservatory jury. Not what I was looking for. 

I rarely show irritation with my colleagues, but I think I might have barked at Aaron.

“No! NO! I am GIVING you the song, Aaron! WORK with me, LISTEN and sing WITH me!”

I was slightly abashed at having raised my voice even a bit, but Aaron absorbed it all. I know a few of his past teachers, so I am confident he’s heard a lot worse screaming than my little tantrum.I began again with my Bain-de-Soleil Poulenc arrangement. This time Aaron sang “Vers le sud” like he meant it. It was ardent, it was sensual, and it was stylish. The phrases crested and receded, stretched and sighed. Bingo.         

“Wow. Oh my! Wonderful.” Pause. “OK, Aaron. Now the acid test. Do the same thing with Bénédicte when she plays the actual piano part.”

She began and I held my breath. “Zénith,” he crooned. “Tous ces regrets, ces jardins sans limites…” And there it was: the sated, happy-sad lover at noontime on a sunny day in Antibes. A startling, magical transformation. 

It was only one transformation in a day that contained many other epiphanies. Later on, Nicoletta tapped into the magic of the Brezairola from the Songs of the Auvergne and I caught Bénédicte’s eye. “Can you believe this?” we said telepathically. These are the moments you live for. 

I had been a bit nervous about staging the group numbers at the end. I had a sense of what I wanted, but I was the pianist for both of them and am too busy playing to take charge. But we worked on them as a group and they look good—simple and clear, droll but not clownish. On the recital stage, less is more—but nothing is nothing. 

I don’t want to drop any spoilers about the jazzy “Twin Sisters” duet from Michel Legrand’s “Les demoiselles de Rochefort.” Suffice it to say that “adorable” doesn’t begin to describe it. 

I had not realized how young this group is. The eldest of them, Sam, is all of 25. You’d never know it from the sophistication of their singing and the power of their voices. I think about myself at that age and I am humbled by their strength and their maturity.

Day 2: Friday, March 26
The second day is often devoted to nitty-gritty work on technical details of language and musical style. Once the cast has assimilated them, they will be free to take possession of their songs.

That is an easy paragraph to write, but an exacting day to live through. Bénédicte Jourdois, my co-director on this project, was in her glory. Her energy is unflagging, and her ear for language is as sharp as any diction coach I have ever worked with. Of course, Béné is not merely a diction coach, but an artist of great depth and accomplishment. She has a virtuoso’s piano technique, and a knowledge of culture that verges on the encyclopedic. But today her focus was on the poetry—phoneme by phoneme when necessary. And it proved to be necessary a few times.

My method is in many ways the diametric opposite of Béné’s. She hones in on the details immediately—Your closed ‘o’ is like a German vowel, not a French vowel”—“No, your French neutral has WAY too much closure”—and (my favorite) “Remember, the word ‘bien’ is has two syllables, ‘bi-en.’” She is relentless in her pursuit of linguistic authenticity. She does this with so much charm and so much authority that she seduces pretty much everyone into speaking and singing better French, and once the language flows, the music is not far behind.

I tend to start with the bigger picture. First I want to know the “who” of the song–what is your character, and what story are you telling? This, I feel, will give all of the painstaking detail work more context and more appeal, while opening up the history of the song, the meaning of the lyrics, the message of the music. This initial discussion makes an artist want to get the details right. And it provides a never-ending source of invention. Today Sam kept tripping over the line “Avenue des Gros Barbus,” a made-up street name in a song about a Paris taxi-driver. “Order him to take to you there but be a little defensive, as if it were the address of the best gay bar in town.” After that Sam sang it perfectly.

Then I want to examine the vocal aspects. What is the vocal color, the weight or airiness of the singing line? How much lyrical legato, how much talkiness, and—most importantly, how much legato in the talky spots? Here is where Béné and I coalesce. We’re word people as much as we’re music people, and our ideas dovetail in a graceful consensus.

Singers who are training for opera careers tend to be primed for maximal output, the full-throated cry of Italian opera brayed over 95-piece orchestras. French art song needs something gentler, but it’s a mistake to imagine that a breathy, wispy sound is any kind of a solution. The right answer needs to be tailored for each vocalist. I encouraged one big-voiced singer, Aaron Crouch, to engage less of his full-out sound and look for lighter positions (“I can do that?” he asked), while another, Erin Wagner, actually needed to be reminded to stay on her voice consistently to avoid what she called “sausage singing”—a salad of ravishing long notes obliterating undernourished short ones.

The spirit and the talent of the cast continue to astonish me. Béné and I are perfectly interlocking yin and yang, and we are relentless in our pursuit of the song as we look to bring out the best in these brilliant vocalists. I should add that we have a pianist in the young artist mix, Gracie Francis, who is one of the fastest learners I have ever witnessed. She’s a whiz at the keyboard and one day she’s going to be a formidable teacher herself.

It was, in short, a typical second day: a kind of art song boot camp. I loved every second of it.

Day 1: Thursday, March 25
The last time I left my house to give a concert was a year and ten days ago. It was at Caramoor, where I am Artistic Director of the Vocal Rising Stars Program. Covid was just rearing its head, and we gave our performance for an audience of 12 people–a few friends and family, plus the Caramoor staff.

Since then I’ve been making music at home, mostly with remote duet partners ranging from Berlin to San José. In the past twelve months I’ve had only two brief opportunities to collaborate in real time with onsite partners: a few songs for our Christmas show, and one piece with Isabel Leonard for the January video.

Today marked my re-entry into the career I left behind 54 weeks ago. I didn’t know how I’d feel about being in a room with a group of singers again. Of course, I craved it. By all rights I should have been jumping out of my skin with excitement today when I got to make music in real time with three-dimensional, non-Zoomed colleagues. But I’ve survived the pandemic by being measured, turning down my emotional thermostat, rolling with the punches, and practicing gratitude for what I have been able to do. I refused to focus on the privations.

My excitement today was palpable, but gentle. Mostly I just got back to work. The project at hand was a concert of French song called “Le tour de France,” devised with pianist-coach Bénédicte Jourdois The program zips the listener to the north, south, east, and west before a five-song stay in Paris at the end. Some of the songs were familiar to me, and some brand-new.

So was the cast. I’d worked with pianist Gracie Francis and mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner face-to-face at Juilliard back in the day of pre-masked coachings. But I had more modern relationships with soprano Nicoletta Berry, tenor Aaron Crouch, and baritone Samuel Kidd. Yes, I’d worked with them all, but only online. I’d never met them in person. Their artistry was vivid and compelling as experienced on my Mac, and I felt confident hiring them for the gig.

It is a peculiarly modern experience to transfer from a previous Zoom collaboration to a face-to-face musical ensemble. Aaron, Nicoletta, and Sam were indeed the gifted, charismatic vocalists and interpreters I intuited from the scratchy, peaky sound of our FaceTime encounters. There were some surprises. I thought Sam was going to be a cute, compact guy, but he’s actually a rangy 6’3”. I had pegged Nicoletta as a long-stemmed beauty rose, but she’s a powerhouse 5’3”. Last time I saw Aaron (at the November NYFOS concert Q&A) he was going for an ornate, modern hairstyle, but today he sported a more conventional cut.

If my feelings about ending a long, long artistic fast were quiet, they were also deep. I am still vibrating to the sound of those four colorful, plangent voices. It’s taken me a few hours to acknowledge the emotional power of live music, the way it can invade your sensibility and change your inner pH. I am so grateful to all four members of the cast.

My last blog was on concert day last year, March 15, 2020. At that time I wrote: “All of us face months of cancellations, gigs that have gone up in smoke. We’ll be back onstage one day, but this was the last time for some months that we’d be singing and playing in a concert. Before retreating to our corners for a few months, we offered a hymn to the human spirit, a message of hope, a promise to return. And we’ll make good on it.”

We have kept our promise. We’re not yet at the point when we can welcome an audience into the hall—you’ll still have to watch it online. But the ice is beginning to crack.

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