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NYFOS@Caramooor 2020: Day 7

You never know which concert is going to become the year’s Big Event. I approach every project as if the fate of the world hung on my getting it just right. This season we revived two important, long-forgotten music theater pieces in November (Weill’s Silverlake and Blitzstein’s No For an Answer), gave Harlem’s gay subculture center stage in December, and rocked the Juilliard theater with Cuban songs in January. All of them struck me as sexy ideas for press coverage—and indeed, they each received a certain amount of notice. 

But none of us could have predicted that this year’s Caramoor show would be the Good Humor truck for music journalists because of the live stream. We happened to be one of the first to adapt to the New Normal, and it’s news. I’m thrilled, but I have to admit it does feel a trifle invasive. The Vocal Rising Stars program is a private world centered around a short rehearsal period, five days of intense exploration and study. The sixth day is dress rehearsal, and normally on Sunday we share our work with the Westchester public prior to a Tuesday concert in New York.          

It became increasingly clear that we weren’t going to be filling Caramoor’s Music Room with a crowd of listeners this year. Instead we would be facing cameras and microphones and broadcasting to…the world. When Caramoor renovated the Music Room they provided it with video equipment and the capacity to live stream. Suddenly the program I’d made would be visible in…Lithuania, and Banff, and Caracas.

It wasn’t so easy for any of us to forget about this when the concert started. I tried to speak and play just for the twelve friendly people in the room—the Caramoor staff and a few friends and family. But I couldn’t really let go until the last part of the first half. It didn’t help that one of the women handling the stream excitedly told us that people could leave comments on the website as they listened. Immediately I flashed on a recent Richard Tucker Gala concert streamed from Carnegie Hall. As I watched online, some very unflattering things scrolled down my screen—like “Who did her hair, Attila the Hun?” 

But I was more thankful than ever that I had chosen The Art of Pleasure as our 2020 project. The program hops through six languages and includes a few well-known pieces alongside a lot of stunning songs you might never have heard. As for the stylistic range, let’s just say that it includes both Rachmaninoff and the Kinks. I needed a versatile cast of singers, and I lucked out: Thomas West, Elaine Daiber, Siena Miller, and Terrence Chin-Loy delivered it all, from gorgeous Catalan art song to supper-club satire by Tom Lehrer, no questions asked. I’ve already sung the praises of my so-called apprentice pianist, Shawn Chang. After the concert was over, I said, “Shawn, you’ve saved my ass a million times. Can I have it back now?” (His answer: “Sorry, I’m keeping it.”)

If anyone keeps me calm through all my inner drama, it’s Michael Barrett who heads NYFOS with me. We complement each other in the most uncanny ways. He’s a firecracker, I’m a meditator. He strides forward, I look at scenery. He leads by being emphatic, I lead by telepathy. He vents, I implode. Between us the pH stays perfectly balanced. Michael’s limitless generosity and kindness got me through the stress of the week. 

We may not be able to embrace one another physically right now, but the music on Sunday was one of the best bear-hugs I’ve ever received—or given. There were so many beautiful moments—Elaine and Shawn’s exalted Rachmaninoff (“A Dream”), Thomas’ spot-on rendition of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and Terrence’s gorgeous Brahms (“Ruhe, Süßliebchen”). But it fell to Siena to coalesce the entire experience when she sang Michael John LaChiusa’s “Heaven.” She’d struggled with the piece earlier in the week, but by Sunday she owned it. She sang as if she were making it up on the spot, a spontaneous moment of revelation. At the end, when she sang “Peace—Flight—Safe—Right—Here,” I came very close to losing it onstage. I could see that Michael was in a similar state. 

We ended the program with David Krane’s gorgeous setting of “How Can I Keep From Singing.” It seemed like the purest expression of why we make music. 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 a concert. Before retreating to our corners we offered a hymn to the human spirit, a message of hope, a promise to return. And we’ll make good on it. 

You can watch the live stream for a few more days. Here’s the link:

NYFOS@Caramoor 2020: Day 6

Today wasn’t just our dress rehearsal, it was our Dress Rehearsal. The concert at Caramoor usually feels like a final run before the New York show on Tuesday, but this year it’s different. For one thing, there is no New York show because of the #$%^#&@*@ corona virus. And there will be only a tiny, silent live audience tomorrow at Caramoor. But there will be cameras and microphones for a live stream, which we hope to show again Tuesday as a substitute for the Merkin Hall concert.

We decided to videotape the dress rehearsal as well, just to have a backup. And we got gussied up for it—hair, makeup, earrings, ties, suits, gowns, heels. It was a good exercise for us all: singers, pianists, and video guru, who needed to see the show onstage to get the cameras and sound right for tomorrow.

We had just one audience member today: Tim Coffey, Caramoor’s Artistic Planning Manager who has been a beneficent demi-god for us all week. Otherwise the hall was empty. But we performed as if the world were watching us. Most of it went great, but we all had a couple of nervous fumbles. I can always catch the singers when they have theirs, but there’s no one to catch me when I have mine—not even Shawn Chang, my guardian angel at the other piano. Sometimes I find myself onstage telling myself, “Release! Release!” and then getting so distracted by my Inner Zen Quest that I have my biggest screw-ups. Let’s just say that I was in the zone a lot of the time, and grateful for it. I took a major step forward, and the cast followed suit. 

The presence of cameras brought out my vanity (you are permitted to do an eye-roll), so I decided I didn’t want to wear my reading glasses for the last few songs. Alas, that didn’t work out so well. I was not ready for the result—sharps that look like naturals, B’s that look like A’s, eighth-note rests that look like ink blots. I ended up doing a bit of “spontaneous composing” in a couple of numbers. I’ve learned to play wrong notes with celestial beauty, inspired by Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest”: “I don’t play accurately–any one can play accurately–but I play with wonderful expression.” That maxim has served me for almost half a century. 

It hit me today what a privilege this week has been. Caramoor is a sequestered place of great beauty, even in this unflattering part of the year with neither snow nor greenery. The five artists I invited, the two guest teachers, and Michael Barrett have a common aspiration: clarity, expressiveness, beauty, and catharsis. We are like hunters after a single prey, the truth of a song. Every time Thomas West, Siena Miller, Elaine Daiber, Terrence Chin-Loy, and Shawn Chang claimed victory, the world became calmer, less toxic, less baffling. And they did so over and over again today. I am so grateful to them, to Caramoor, and to Eileen Schwab, the godmother of the Vocal Rising Stars program. I can’t always see this during the day, which fills up with real-life concerns like Catalan vowels, tempo discussions, acting intentions, and the occasional missed beat. But with the distance of a few hours I can see the bigger picture, and I feel blessed.

You can watch The Art of Pleasure live-streamed here on Caramoor’s YouTube channel at 3pm on Sunday, March 15 through Tuesday, March 17.

NYFOS@Caramoor 2020: Day 5

This has been a lovely experience, a week of warm feelings, good discussions, support, kindness, and fine music-making. But I’ve been waiting in vain for the Big Breakthrough, the dramatic moment where you know an artist has loosened his or her shackles and is now able to fly higher than they ever did before. I wasn’t sure we were going to get one. 

I think we did today. 

We’re gearing up for a pair of videotapings, since we are not playing to live audiences at Caramoor or Merkin Hall. Instead we’ll film the dress rehearsal and the Sunday run, taking advantage of Caramoor’s updated technology. (First an accessible bathroom, now a permanent, three-camera, in-house set-up! Is it too much to hope for a sauna and a lap-pool?) The Sunday performance will be available as a live stream, and we think we can also show it again on Tuesday when the Manhattan concert was to take place. 

The whole thing has made me pretty jittery—I hate mics and cameras. The cast, however, is totally unfazed. In fact, the prospect of a video seems to have released something creative in the all the singers. Or maybe all the hard work we’ve done has finally hit the tipping point. All I know is there was some serious beauty on the stage today. 

Baritone Thomas West is the singer I know best. I was one of his Juilliard coaches for four years, and I’ve continued to mentor him as he finds his way professionally. We communicate without speaking, silently reading each other’s signals. That telepathy came in handy this week when Thomas been especially quiet. I knew he was handling the demands of our concert while dealing with some time-sensitive issues at his other big job as Executive Director of the Peace Project. At today’s runthrough, he stepped up to the plate and nailed his most difficult piece, the “Opera Scene” from Gabe Kahane’s “Craigslistlieder.” Gabe took an actual post from Craigslist and turned it into a wild cantata in six movements about a guy with a sociopathic compulsion: he is driven to put ice cubes down people’s shirts. It’s a tour de force in every way, hyper-serious and unhinged. Thomas navigated the razor’s edge of sanity and insanity, rational perspective and out-of-control OCD, to perfection. Even sitting behind him, unable to see his face, I knew he’d hit comic pay-dirt. 

I believe in Siena Miller, our mezzo-soprano. Her unique combination of fragility and depth enthralls me, as does the shimmery Cabernet of her voice. Siena’s personality is very dissimilar to that of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (one of the goddesses of song), but her artistry reminds me of Lorraine. Siena has been slowly coming in for a landing all week, absorbing (and perhaps wrestling with) everything Albert, Bénédicte, Michael, and I have had to say to her. I have sensed that what Siena needed most was some space to ground herself, and I’ve tried to give it to her. We were rewarded today with three beautiful performances of widely divergent material: a Catalan art song, a contemporary British art song, and a music-theater piece written for Mary Testa. Bingo.

Now I am the one who needs the grounding. I got my first alone-time at the piano today, for just an hour, and I’ll have another solo hour tomorrow to prep. I am negotiating with my arms and hands for a peace deal.  They are recalcitrant at the bargaining table, but I’ll sit down again and see if I can get to an entente cordiale.

You can watch The Art of Pleasure live-streamed here on Caramoor’s YouTube channel at 3pm on Sunday, March 15.

NYFOS@Caramoor 2020: Day 4

In 2014 Caramoor asked me to include a fifth apprentice artist in the Vocal Rising Stars mix: a pianist. Initially I balked at the suggestion—it meant another mouth to feed, a possible impediment to the intimacy of working with the singers. After the first year (with piano genius Leann Osterkamp) I changed my mind. Each of the pianists has contributed so much to the process, often rehearsing with the singers in the evening hours when I am at home wrestling with this blog. 

I’ve been blessed with seven wonderful keyboard players, including this year’s: Shawn Chang, a native of Taiwan who has lived in North America since he was 12. I met him last December at Juilliard when I was looking for a pianist to help me with January’s Cuban concert. Brian Zeger, my department chair, mentioned him as a good possibility. “He’s a little older than the others, I don’t know him too well, but he has a beard and a top knot…and the head of the accompanying division thinks he’s the only one who’s got the right experience for you.”          

Everything turned out to be true. Beard, moustache, complicated man-bun: check. Experience with Caribbean music: check. Most of all, a ready enthusiasm to try new things, learn new songs, and maintain a sweet, calm disposition hour after hour in rehearsal. He and I did a lot of improvised two-piano work at Juilliard, and after a somewhat chaotic start Shawn got the hang of it. He turned out to be a great duet partner. He has also treated me with amazing kindness and consideration. I need a bunch of gear to play the piano these days, and Shawn has mastered it all. He’s so unostentatious that it took me a little while to get the measure of his goodness. Now I bless the good Lord for it every day we’re together. 

I auditioned a few other pianists for Caramoor, and they were lovely musicians. But I decided to stay with Shawn for this project. I realized that he and I have built a rapport, a vibrational Bluetooth connection spanning from my piano to his. He is able to fold himself into my idiosyncratic way of making music, and in return I can read his signals loud and clear. Our duo-piano work is smooth and gratifying. We don’t discuss the details too much. We just turn on our piano-radar, and it’s pretty much there. 

Shawn falls into that grey area between student and colleague. He’s pursuing a Masters Degree at Juilliard, but he came back to school after several years working as a pro in the New York scene. There are things I want to show him about his songs, but I always feel a little abashed telling him what to do. Today I asked him to play something a little differently, and I illustrated how I play it. Shawn’s attack on the keys is a little more incisive than mine, but the song needed less metal and more velvet. After I played, he played it back to me exactly as I had done it. At first I thought he was doing a devastating imitation of me—could that be a celebrity roast?—but I soon realized it was a tribute. 

Katonah is so far from New York, and Caramoor seem to exist in its own little eco-system. But the truth is that it is part of the world at large, and the news of the day was dominated by the corona virus. At lunch time we learned that the Caramoor administration had decided to cancel our Sunday concert. None of us was happy, but we weren’t surprised. Almost all the theaters and museums in New York had closed their doors, at least till the end of March. But Caramoor had a lovely solution to the problem at hand: we’ll do the concert on Sunday just for Caramoor’s staff  and admin (as well as a handful of family members), and they will live-stream it. “Is it OK with you?” asked Executive Producer Kathy Schuman. I looked at Michael Barrett. He answered first. “Great idea! I’m in!” Then they looked at me. Everyone knows I hate being filmed, and tend to freak out around microphones. After a dramatic pause, I said, “Sounds fan-TAS-tic! We have to do this. Time to join the modern era.”   

This offer got even more attractive when we learned at tea-time that Merkin too had closed its doors till the end of the month, meaning that our Tuesday concert was also canceled. So we are trying to air the Caramoor show that night for the home crowd. We want our New York audience to hear The Art of Pleasure too, in spite of the current need for “social distancing.” The world is a hot mess, but we’re creating an oasis of order, an open bar for the spirit, a spa for the senses. 

You can watch The Art of Pleasure live-streamed here on Caramoor’s YouTube channel at 3pm on Sunday, March 15.

NYFOS@Caramoor 2020: Day 3

Bénédicte Jourdois joined us today. She is one of the premier French coaches in America, a superb pianist, a peerless musician, an assistant conductor at the Met, a colleague of mine at Juilliard. 

They don’t call her Bénédicte for nothing—she is a blessing. 

Béné is mostly asked to work on French repertoire, and I actually added another French song to the program when I knew she would be a guest teacher. But I also thought she might like working on music from other countries. I wasn’t surprised that she easily took on the German-language pieces, but she threw me for a loop today when she corrected Elaine’s Russian in her Rachmaninoff song. “Not ‘tishuhnah’—‘tishina.’ And you don’t pronounce ‘mnoga’ quite right.’” Where did all that come from? 

I first knew Béné in her student days, and I still have to make a mental adjustment when I see how assured and authoritative she is now, a sought-after professional at the top level. There is never any uncertainty or waffling when she coaches. “Bleu is almost a two-syllable word: b’leu,” she asserts. “You can make an accent with a consonant in a French word, but it’s going to be the first consonant, not one in the middle. If you double the later one, it will sound Italian.” And my favorite: “Avoid hitting the downbeat in French. It’s the most boring part of the measure.” I’ve studied French since I was a kid, and I know in my ear—in my soul—how the language goes. But Bénédicte puts into words all the things I understand by instinct. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, she puts a name on everything that grows, flies, flits, and crawls. 

We did the whole concert today for the first time, a stumble through that took us from 11:30 AM till 6:20 PM. My energy dropped at tea-time and once again I took a siesta. But Bénédicte and Michael were like the Eveready Bunny, pushing through with gusto and clarity from overture to encore. All three of us took turns coaching, though we gave pride of place to our visitor. The cast was getting a lot of feedback and direction, so I thought it best to keep my comments to a minimum. How much coaching can a singer take at one time? Michael sees things through the eyes of a conductor, Béné through those of a European-trained virtuoso pianist with opera-house experience.  

And me….? I seem to be a pu-pu platter of Steve Stuff that I’d be hard pressed to describe. I didn’t go to music school. My coaching puts music, literature, psychology, physical empathy, theatrical savvy, and improvisation into a blender, sometimes to good effect. At one point today I thought the only way to get Elaine to sing the Rachmaninoff the way I wanted was to improvise a new accompaniment for the song—something more dreamy, relaxed, and sensual than the strenuous piano concerto Rachmaninoff actually wrote. “You’re describing a wonderland of dreams, not doing a sales pitch on a sleep clinic,” I chided. (I knew Elaine could take it. She’s tough and smart.) Pretty soon the ecstasy was there, the hard-sell gone. 

Our job will be to keep the ecstasy for the next six days, even though Bénédicte is gone. We’re on it.

NYFOS@Juilliard 2020: Day 5

I was out of sorts today. I had to get up uncharacteristically early (5:30 AM), and after a productive morning I got snagged by an infuriating series of delays that made me twenty minutes late for rehearsal. It seems to be my special gift to squander a luxury of time and end up in the usual mad scramble. Once I got to Juilliard I never quite recovered, but the good humor of the cast and directors pulled me through the weeds. 

I never cease to be amazed at how differently people can perceive the same thing. It’s like that famous trompe-l’oeil drawing that can look like either a young, fashionable woman or a crone, depending on how your brain makes sense of the ambiguous lines. Today I found that Mary and I had completely different reactions to a song called “Tú no sabe inglé.” It’s about a guy named Bito Manué (Cuban dialect for “Victor Manuel”). His friend—the narrator of the song—is mocking him because Bito never learned English, so he panics when a pretty American tourist tries to hook up with him. I’ve played this song many, many times in the past twenty years. It was a late addition to the program, and I threw it in for César who I thought (correctly) would have a field day with it. It has always brought down the house, and yesterday it got belly laughs from César’s mother and father.

But the song made Mary uncomfortable. “He’s making fun of someone because of something they don’t know. Only people who speak English get to fall in love in Cuba?” I felt as if I had just slammed on the brakes while speeding down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Whiplash.

Songs take on life deep in my mind and my spirit. For over two decades I had envisioned a Bito Manué who richly deserved the mockery: a bully, a goof-off, a player, someone who thought nothing of stealing other people’s girlfriends just to assert his machismo. The song was like “The Revenge of the Nerds”: “You made fun of me for not cutting English class with you, and now you’re paying for it.” 

Mary and I tend to see things in a similar way, so when we don’t it can be mind-bending. The truth is that Guillén’s multi-faceted poem is about many things, including the long shadow America cast in Cuba since 1898. It is about Afro-Cuban culture and oppression—no wonder Langston Hughes was friends with Guillén and even made a translation of this poem. Mary, who is new to the song, saw that side of the equation much more clearly than I today. 

And yet I have trouble having sympathy for the Bito Manué I invented twenty years ago. The exuberant music tells me a different story, one that I think equally valid. As someone who is studying Spanish, the song seems to strike a blow for the power of education, opening your mind to new worlds. Knowledge is power, something to promote. And “my” Bito Manué thought nothing of treating his friends like dirt. 

Everything got a bit muddled today because I also had a problem with a bit of staging Mary was planning on using. I was not at my most articulate, and I responded by making a noise like a cow having a gastric issue. I finally resorted to words when Mary stared me down and said, “Steve, explain why you don’t like it.” I do not think I gave an articulate answer. But she must have felt the alarm bells and cut the bit in question. 

I’ve been thinking all day about the line-drawing with the double image. When I first saw it in the book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” all I could see was the young woman’s profile and her bonnet. It took me a quarter of an hour to find the old woman, but I finally did. Mulling over today’s quiet altercation,  I am finally able to see that song through Mary’s eyes. I get it.

I spent my early years playing for the great cabaret singer Martha Schlamme, who always taught me, “Find the triumph in the song.” So I stand by my scenario, especially as propelled by Eliseo Grenet’s exuberant music (and César’s life-affirming performance). But my brain definitely exploded today due to the fascinating Mary Birnbaum.

NYFOS@Juilliard 2020: Day 4

We had visitors today, two people I was especially looking forward to meeting. César Parreño’s parents flew in from Ecuador to visit their son and hear next Wednesday’s concert. I am always excited to meet my students’ families, but this was something special. You see, César is the first person from Ecuador ever to attend Juilliard—in any department. After a couple of years as a Business student in Guayaquil, he decided to follow his dream of becoming a professional singer. César has a sweet, docile nature and an easy smile, so it takes a little while to perceive his strength of purpose. I’ve rarely seen someone improve so rapidly over the course of two school years. He arrived without a lot of formal musical training and a free-wheeling approach to singing—some beautiful sounds, some wild ones. He’s made huge advances in musicianship, to the point where he could take on a role in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer that demanded pin-point, rapid-fire accuracy. 

He hasn’t lost the sunshine that he brings to the music he loves—not everyone manages to keep that flame alive as they work on their technique. And this is why it was so heartwarming to be with his mother and father. Their pride in César was palpable. No parents are ever sure if their kid is good enough to have a career in the arts, but it would be particularly hard to know in Guayaquil, Ecuador what the competition is like to get into a school like Juilliard. I trotted out my Spanish to speak with them. “He did this all himself,” said his dad Patricio. “We had no idea if he had the talent. But César—he is fearless. From an early age he was getting up to sing in front of people, always with total confidence.” He did that again yesterday, and we all heard the gold in that sound. 

All of the work was fascinating, including three twenty-minute sessions we were able to snag with cast members who are also rehearsing The Mother of Us All down the hall. One was with Jaylyn Simmons, who dug into a Cuban protest song, “Lamento esclavo,” with her unique blend of emotional sensitivity and physical abandon. It also led to a fascinating discussion about slavery and discrimination, made all the more intense because of the compressed time we had. 

Mary had been so entranced by Santiago’s drumming yesterday that she gave him a couple of percussion solos in his Lecuona song. (Today it was Leo who taught Santiago how to get the rhythms right. Think you can just shake a maraca any old way? Try it sometime.) And Aaron Keeney evoked the classic Latin lover in his zarzuela aria—the brooding loner with a five-o’clock shadow and a loping walk. A total girl-magnet. 

Three hours well lived.

NYFOS@Juilliard 2020: Day 3

One picture, worth 1000 words: Santiago Pizarro showing Leonardo Granados some cool Peruvian rhythms. First on drums, then at the piano, grooving to a sexy, exotic beat.  It was a side of Santiago I had never seen, though I suspected it was there. The two of them had quite an amazing little jam session. Santiago broke into song, apologizing for not knowing all the words of the canción he was wailing. “Ah, well, at least that’s consistent with your other rep,” I commented drily. 

I love to joke with Santiago, but the truth is he’s been doing superb work. I got the idea to put this show on during a coaching with him last spring. I wanted him to have a moment in the Juilliard sun, and in his own language. He’s come through like a champ  both as singer and dancer. And he does know his lyrics.  All of them!

NYFOS@Juilliard 2020: Day 2

I don’t know how Adam Cates and Mary Birnbaum do it. They are able to sustain positive energy hour after hour as we slam this show together. Today we had an ambitious agenda, and when I heard them say “We’ll stage the four operetta numbers in two hours,” I raised an eyebrow. And no, we didn’t make it. On the other hand, the songs we did get done are full of invention—elaborate vaudeville turns in one duet, a full-on choreo-staging for another piece I’ve often done (far more simply) in the past. There are literally hat-tricks and a skeleton dance, along with all the salsa and merengue.

To start the day we took a few moments for everyone to talk about their connection to Latin culture. The singers with family ties to Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, and Puerto Rico were thrilled with the energetic freedom in our project. “This is how we party where I come from, and this is my language,” said Santiago Pizarro. “I can’t believe I get to sing and dance like that in this building.” But the singers from other parts of the world had their own unique take on Cuba. “In Korea they did a TV show set in Havana,” said Joyce Kang, “and I really loved it. It was very vivid to me, and I always think of those colors and that light when I’m working on my songs. That’s the Cuba I know.”

I am just getting to know the pianist Shawn Chang, who is assisting me on the show. In past years I haven’t had two pianos in the room, so either I played or they did. (Occasionally we played four-hand piano.) But this time Shawn and I both have pianos—admittedly his is a rickety and unbeautiful upright with only three wheels. It’s what the famous Juilliard piano professor Ursula Oppens would have called “an unmusical instrument.” At this point in rehearsal I haven’t really decided who’s doing which songs in the show, or which ones will use two pianos. But Shawn has plunged in head first, and we are currently playing everything together. I haven’t stopped him.

He’s very gifted, and a fast learner. In every song I have to figure out where he’s situated himself in the registers of the piano—is he staying up high, is he in the middle?—and then I supply the rest of the sonorities (usually more bass and some tinsel at the top). This is very much the way I work with my duo-partner Joseph Li, but he and I have known each other for a longer period and we have a telepathic system for creating arrangements. We carve out our territory. This is more of a free-for-all. Still, Shawn and I are steadily working our way towards our own wireless connection. Right now I just want him to explore.

I know that at some point we’ll have to settle on something less chaotic. So far, I occasionally rein him in or encourage him to build on something I especially liked. He learned the show from a recording of me playing it, so his hands are often exactly in the part of the piano where I expect to be, doing what I expect to do. I am experiencing the joy of coming up with something new. Oh the trips you take when someone is parked in your parking space…!

Pictured: Adam Cates, Mary Birnbaum, and me in front of the poster at Lincoln Center

NYFOS@Juilliard 2020: Day 1

We had our first day of rehearsal today for this year’s NYFOS@Juilliard show, Cubans in Paris. It’s a tricky process: more than half of my cast is also rehearsing The Mother of Us All by Virgil Thomson, scheduled for performances at the Metropolitan Museum in early February. I cannot imagine what it feels like to alternate the chilly austerity of Gertrude Stein and Maestro Thomson with the pulsating heat of Cuban rumbas and habaneras, but that will be the drill for five out of my eight singers. They’re troopers.

Today and tomorrow we managed to get all eight performers for the entire day, so we are doing our best to stage as many of the big group numbers as possible. “We” in this case means the director, Mary Birnbaum, the choreographer, Adam Cates, and my two side-men: Shawn Chang, a gifted grad student who is my assistant and second pianist, and Leonardo Granados, my ace percussionist. Adam began the day by teaching everyone the basics of Latin dance—rumba, cha-cha, salsa. Adam is a force of life. He worked six solid hours without show a sign of fatigue or impatience. I flagged around 4 PM, but neither Adam nor Mary flickered for a second.

I try to keep out of the way when the songs are getting staged, only piping up when I think something in the lyrics could be put to good use—or if I find something jarring. I want to lend wisdom and decades of experience to the process, but I always fear I might come off as a fuddy-duddy. I am very aware of being a fair amount older than anyone else in the room, and my frames of reference can be a little different from theirs. I needn’t have worried. Adam and Mary welcomed my comments and found ways to incorporate all my suggestions.

It’s a joy to watch these eight opera singers cut loose and do some serious booty-shaking. There was a lot of joy in the room all day, but especially when Jaylyn Simmons worked on her second-act solo “Palmira.” In life Jaylyn is cooperative, hard-working, level-headed, humble. But this fabulous song by Moisés Simons allows her to be someone else—an aggressively sexy, vain girl hypnotizing a chorus of men into submission. It was a treat.

Pictured: Olivia Cosío, Kyle Miller, César Andrés Perreño; Ian Castro, Aaron Keeney, Santiago Pizarro, and Joyce Kang; Jaylyn Simmons learning to do a Cuban fan dance from Adam Cates.

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