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From Lute Song to the Beatles

Today’s program combines a narrow focus on a single culture — the British Isles — with the wide-angle lens on four centuries of song, thereby ranging across practically the entire span of Western classical music. The purity of the Renaissance gradually gives way to the warmth of the Romantic era; doughty Victorianism yields first to the intimacy of Edwardian times and then to the possibilities of the jazz age and modernism. Through it all, something of Britain’s essential musical DNA remains intact: transparent textures, the harmonies of church music, the modes of folk songs, and an enduring respect for English verse, one of the glories of Western culture.

British Musical Tradition

In truth, for many centuries Britain’s literary tradition ran far deeper than its musical one. Her iconic playwrights (Shakespeare, Congreve, Sheridan), poets (Donne, Milton, Marvell), and novelists (Fielding, Richardson, Sterne) remain in our curriculums and on our nightstands to this day. But England’s musical tradition was slower to launch itself. For one thing, the British public (like the rest of Europe and Russia) was mad for Italian opera, nearly to the point of addiction. Other countries — notably Spain — were able to replicate some of those musical thrills in their own language, but that kind of vocal narcissism was more foreign to English composers. Britain’s musical culture was constantly overshadowed by that of Germany, where many of her composers went to study. And eighteenth-century London was also colonized by two visiting musical giants from overseas, George Frederick Handel and Joseph Haydn. Mid-nineteenth century England seemed relegated to the formulas of the parlor ballad, which would never attain the heights of Schubert or Schumann.

The tradition of the piano-and-voice art song may have taken its time to arrive. But England did have a Renaissance song tradition with some notable exponents. The strophic lute song flourished in Britain under the hands of John Dowland, Wiliam Byrd, and Thomas Campion (1567-1620). They created a repertoire of delicate “ayres” which are capable of bearing surprising emotional weight, given their slender means. Campion was as gifted a lyricist as he was a composer — and a great wit, as you’ll hear in his sly, R-rated “Beauty, since you so much desire.”

The theater was the other venue for much of England’s early, non-religious song. That is where the lion’s share of Henry Purcell’s solo songs was first heard. Considered to be the father of English classical music, Purcell (1659-1695) was an innovator, a composer of depth and invention, as eloquent as he is daring. The psychological complexities of his music have inspired composers from Elgar to Adès.

British Musical Theater

But after Purcell’s death British music seemed to falter. Of course, there were promising composers in the realm of ballad-opera, the eighteenth-century version of music theater. William Shield was a wonderful tunesmith, as was Thomas Linley the Elder (1733-1795), whose lovely “Think not my love” retains its fresh purity 225 years after it was written. Then, tragedy ensued. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, three young composers emerged who seemed as if they might carry the torch into the nineteenth century:  George Frederick Pinto, Thomas Linley the Younger, and Stephen Storace. All of them died very young, through illness or fatal accident. It was as if their passing cast a shroud over England’s musical development. Stephen Storace (1762-1796) was perhaps the most promising of all. He was a student of Mozart, and his sister Nancy created the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. You can hear the “Mozart Effect” in Storace’s grand aria “Be Mine, Tender Passion,” clearly modeled on Fiordiligi’s second-act aria from Cosí fan tutte, “Per pietà.” Storace began his career in Vienna and continued it in London, rising up the ranks of its theater composers through his skill with music, lyrics, dialogue, and backstage politics. His death at 33, after a brief illness, is one of the unsung tragedies in music.

Musical theater remained alive and well in London, and the team of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan quickly rose to the top of a crowded field. Books have been written about the peculiar alchemy of the dour, sexually repressed Gilbert and the exuberant, hedonistic Sullivan. But no one has captured the character of these men and their working methods more vividly than Mike Leigh in Topsy-Turvy, one of the greatest movies about music. That film centers around the creation of The Mikado. But for me, the most anti-gravitational of all their operettas is Iolanthe, which I first saw when I was seven years old, and which seems to have formed (some might say “warped”) my worldview ever since. Today we offer you my single favorite scene in the entire G&S canon: the Act II confrontation between the hero, Strephon, and his lady-love Phyllis, in which a veneer of elegance and innocence covers a tissue of desire, jealousy, and enthusiastic self-deception.

The English Renaissance

English song — and, some would say, English classical music — was brought out of its doldrums by two composers in the late nineteenth century: Hubert Parry (1848-1918) and Charles Villiers Stanford. Both were responsible for what used to be called “The English Renaissance.” It is a title that now seems somewhat ironic. Neither wrote music that survived the test of time, neither had the compositional inspiration of the masters that were to follow. Yet their operas, oratorios, and symphonies had their day. And they successfully began the tradition of English art song that was to rise to even greater heights in the decades that followed. I took a shine to Parry’s “No longer mourn for me” when I heard it playing on Sirius Radio after a live Met broadcast. The opera was over and somehow Sirius’ algorithm picked Parry’s song out of their pile of ten zillion CD cuts. As it wafted into the room on my telephone (of all things), I was transfixed by the passion of the music, with its echoes of “Ruckblick” from Schubert’s Winterreise.

The Golden Age of British Song 

Parry is our gateway to the Golden Age of British song, written by composers more familiar to concert-goers. Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) are iconic English voices, famous for the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance (Elgar), and The Lark Ascending and Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams). We’ll hear one of Elgar’s most famous songs, “Where Corals Lie,” the fourth movement of his Sea Pictures. This simple ballad never fails to move me. To represent Vaughan Williams, I bypassed his more famous cycles (The House of Life and Songs of Travel) in favor of one of the folk songs he collected in the English countryside, “Rolling in the Dew.” The British folk song tradition is a vital component of her musical vocabulary, and this tune is a charmer.

In his short troubled life, Peter Warlock (1894-1930) wrote a prodigious number of songs whose wide variety of moods and styles make it difficult to classify him in any traditional way. He had no formal schooling in music, but he did have two great mentors: Frederick Delius and the Belgian composer Bernard Van Dieren. Delius’s pastoral radiance and Van Dieren’s austere complexity forged the young man’s musical identity. Warlock’s real name was Philip Heseltine. He adopted his wizardly pseudonym at age 25. In truth, his dual personality needed two names. Heseltine represented the introspective, scholarly part of his nature, passionately devoted to the study and transcription of Elizabethan music. Warlock was the sardonic iconoclast composing in a highly personal, unpredictable mix of styles, often quite dark. His songs range from the expressionistic to the playful. Warlock/Heseltine was an unstable personality, drawn to the occult and prone to violent quarrels. Some have mistakenly characterized him as schizophrenic, though the true diagnosis might be closer to bi-polar. He was a composer of genius, with little genius for a successful life. In his thirties, he became increasingly prone to deep depression, and his early death was probably a suicide. To represent Warlock, we offer “My Own Country,” an arrestingly beautiful hymn to England.

It seems everyone has at least one good song in him. William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1857), a mid-nineteenth century journeyman composer, may not have possessed anything like the darkly chaotic talent of Peter Warlock. But he was gifted enough to impress both Mendelssohn and Schumann when he went to study in Germany. His early promise did not lead to a life of creative innovation, but the man had craftsmanship and grace. His charming madrigal “Come live with me” is an irresistible tribute to the part-singing traditions of the past. It always lifts my heart.

Today’s tribute to Scotland comes, ironically, from a British composer, Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946). He became an influential figure in London’s music scene by vigorously promoting the contemporary composers of his own day — including Delius and the pioneering duo of Parry and Stanford. Bantock’s own compositions showed his penchant for the exotic — works like the Pagan Symphony and the choral epic Omar Khayyám. He was especially drawn to the sounds of the Hebrides, that rugged archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland. This is the world he evokes so eloquently in “Song to the Seals,” an instant classic originally written for the tenor John McCormack.

Finzi, Bridge, and Britten

The great explosion of British song — indeed, of British classical music — arrived in the middle years of twentieth century. We have time to hear from three iconic composers: Gerald Finzi, Frank Bridge, and Benjamin Britten.

Finzi (1901-1956) isn’t exactly a marquee name, but if you teach at a music school, you are going to get to know him pretty well. Bass-baritones gravitate to his graceful Shakespeare cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, and tenors will ply you with his less graceful A Young Man’s Exhortation. The introspective Finzi created a haven for himself in the countryside with his wife, the artist Joyce Black. Although non-observant, he was of Jewish heritage. His ancestors had immigrated to England from Italy in the mid-1700s. But no one sounds more quintessentially English than Finzi, with his modal harmonies, his gently un-climactic structures, and his emotional reserve. He took his inspiration from eighteenth-century English music, which he collected and helped to publish in scholarly editions.  His voice is unostentatious, but at his best he had a gift for linking even the most famous texts to melodies that seem inevitably right. Exhibit A: “It was a lover and his lass,” as buoyant and open as a puppy.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is probably best remembered for two reasons: he was the teacher of Benjamin Britten, and the composer of the rousingly effective song “Love Went A-Riding,” written in 1914. These two facts have tended to obscure his originality and importance as a composer (Britten was, in fact, his sole composition student), as well as his command of the violin and his skill as a conductor. Though his early works were crafted for the prevailing tastes of his audience, he broke away from his Brahms-drenched Victorian training after the First World War to discover a more radical voice, making free use of dissonance, chromaticism, and a shifting sense of tonality. Most of his songs were written in those early years, and there are treasures to be found — among them the delicate “Goldenhair,” set to a poem by James Joyce. After the war, Finzi became fascinated with the newest European musical developments, especially the ideas of Alban Berg. He wrote only one song in his later style, “Dweller in my deathless dreams” (1926), a fascinating blend of Ravel’s sensuality and the Second Viennese School’s morbidity. Alas, the more he developed his new voice, the less enthusiastic the public was. He was marginalized for many years, until his centennial brought him triumphantly back into the public eye.

American concertgoers need no detailed introduction to Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whose stage works such as Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Death in Venice, and Billy Budd have finally found a home in the Metropolitan Opera House. A man of great talent and great resourcefulness, he not only created a vast repertoire of music for the stage and the concert hall but also worked to bring music to a wide audience in England. He successfully fended off the prevailing tide towards academic obscurity that raged through classical composition in the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, he relied on his own unique, complex musical personality, at once intensely intellectual and immediately communicative. Britten made an enormous contribution to the literature for piano and voice, much of it written for his companion, tenor Peter Pears.

Britten had all the necessary ingredients to become a great songwriter: deep literary culture, peerless compositional craft, and a gift for piano writing that very few have possessed. He was one of the greatest collaborative pianists I’ve ever heard, and not just in his own music. Hearing him accompany songs by Schubert or Tchaikovsky or Rossini, I am torn between inspiration (“I want to play like that!”) and despair (“I never will!”). If there is one piece that encapsulates the musical world of this artist, I’d nominate “Midnight on the Great Western” from the 1953 cycle Winter Words with its eerie Doppler effect in the piano writing, its sense of foreboding, and its typical theme of innocence journeying through a dangerously corrupt world.

Contemporary English Song

English song is alive and well, and we have a couple of pieces to prove it. The first is by Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), a prolific composer whose operas and songs are increasingly making their way into American theaters. He is a composer with a wide range: he’s got a wicked sense of humor, as evidenced by his opera The Enchanted Pig, a palette that includes minimalism (his opera Flight) and romanticism (Flight again), rhythmic drive (his Tennyson Songs), and stark stasis (Tennyson Songs again). Dove’s music is often quite complex to master. When Juilliard put on Flight, I would routinely see groups of students in the hallways working together in impromptu study sessions. Waving their arms and nodding their heads in rhythm, they could be heard to curse as they tried to master the very tricky ensembles. I find myself very attracted to his music and am happy to offer the first of his Five Am’rous Sighs. The shimmering piano ostinato provides a sensuous background to an ardent love-song from one woman to another woman.

Welshman Huw Watkins (b. 1976) is a consummate craftsman. His hallmark seems to be a kind of elegiac lyricism, but his music also gathers a healthy, passionate surge when he needs it. Watkins emerges from the romantic tradition, a language he peppers with a shifting sense of tonality, spiced with dissonance. At first glance, he is less confrontational than Dove, who has a bad-boy’s impudence. But the song we chose tonight, Watkins’ setting of Auden’s “At last the secret is out,” is spiky, off-balance, and theatrical (rather Dove-like) — while the Dove song, “Between your sheets you soundly sleep,” is seductive and sexy (a touch Watkins-esque).

The Post-Modern Era

We end the concert with song by three of England’s great popular song composers: the Beatles, John Dankworth, and Noël Coward. Choosing a single Lennon-McCartney song was one of the tougher tasks I faced when programming this concert, but I narrowed it down to four or five that I thought were conducive to the forces at hand. I let the boys vote, and “Ticket to Ride” won unanimously (it was my front-runner too).

The career of Noël Coward needs no introduction to people born before 1980, but he’s no longer well known to the current generation. A kid once brought in a Coward song to a master class I was teaching, and I asked the students if they knew who Noël Coward was. Dead silence. Then someone raised his hand and said, “I think he’s a composer of crossover material, right?” It was my turn to stare blankly, until I realized that he only knew these songs because of a CD by art-song icon Ian Bostridge. Coward, of course, sustained a brilliant career as an actor on the West End, on Broadway, and in Hollywood; as a Las Vegas cabaret star; as a playwright; and as a songwriter. He raised the art of brittle wit to Olympian heights in songs like “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” and plays like Private Lives and Present Laughter (which enjoyed a successful run on Broadway last season). His acid sense of humor and his occasionally non-PC humor occasionally rankle, especially nowadays. But I have a tremendous appreciation for “The Master,” as he is known in England. At his best, he certainly earns that title.

John Dankworth (1927-2010) had a distinguished career in British jazz as arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, and composer. But he’s best known as the music director for his wife, the jazz diva Cleo Laine. In my college years, I became smitten with Cleo and heard her often in concert, always with Dankworth at her side. They were a classy team — she could scat-sing up to Bb above high C, which would make me faint with pleasure, but she also could spin out a ballad to perfection in her husky, deep-alto range. Dankworth set a number of famous British writers to music for his wife, and their Shakespeare album is a treasure. The jewel in the crown is the Shakespeare sonnet we’re offering tonight, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.”

After hearing so many brilliant individual voices, it seems presumptuous to draw blanket conclusions about the national character of English music. Yet there is a special elegance, a sense of restraint covering deep passions, that runs through so many of these songs. Spanish and Italian music explode with emotion; French music melds the logic of a math class with the sensuality of a boudoir. And England? A feeling of the countryside, a distilled, measured eloquence, and sentiment tempered by self-discipline. I used to say of Janet Baker, the iconic British mezzo, that she was like dry ice: so cold that she burned your soul. My bon mot could just as easily be applied to the beautiful music of England — like a Baked Alaska, a delicious blend of cold and hot — and sweet. From the lute song to the post-modern era, an unbeatable combination.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 3

We got word yesterday that a major snowstorm was headed our way. It would certainly make the city a slushy mess, and these storms are usually even more severe in Westchester. By lunchtime yesterday, Katonah hadn’t completely recovered from the previous Friday’s monsoon. Several people on the Caramoor staff still didn’t have electrical power at home.

unnamed-4There was no fighting the weather report. For the first time, the cast got packed off to New York. All the guys have apartments here, but the two women are from out of town. They were lodged in a hotel. At first the severity of the storm seemed to have been wildly overestimated. While the snow was supposed to start at 1 AM, it didn’t really kick in until 10 hours later. But then it turned the city into a picturesque Winter Wonderland, at least as seen from the comfort of my apartment. Outside it was an assault of insultingly wet precipitation.

I was sorry that we had to give up our Caramoor sanctuary in favor of the sanctuary of my home. But we had a beautiful day of work here. Today we welcomed our first guest teacher, Kate McGonigle. She is a recent graduate of Juilliard’s Drama Division, and I’d seen her in a couple of Shakespeare plays at school. But she and I had never met. Our email exchanges and phone conversations had given me a very good feeling about her, and this was confirmed when we got to work.

I had asked Kate to come and work on issues related to language. How British did we want to sound, or need to sound? Some things, like the Gilbert and Sullivan scene, need the King’s English. In other songs, like Frank Bridge’s “Dweller in my deathless dreams,” the insistence on British diction sounded intrusive and fake. Kate is a laser surgeon when it comes to the English language and she helped everyone find their footing. Like all good teachers, she also made everyone in the room feel confident, including me.

One of my favorite moments of the day was our work on the scene from “Iolanthe.” First Greg and Madison read it, to Kate’s obvious delight. One is always afraid that actors will roll their eyes when singers speak dialogue. All of us have heard that weary intake of breath, followed by the barely concealed disdain of “OK…hmm. Well.” We know it from our directors and our conservatory acting teachers, and it is not inspiring.

Kate, on the other hand, reveled in Greg and Madison’s reading of the scene. Of course she had some diction notes, which we got used to hearing repeated all day. “No ‘r’ in the word ‘her,’ or ‘we’re,’ or ‘inspire.’ Words with a ‘t’ get clipped short.” And then there were all the varieties of “ah” vowel: chahnce” and “hahf” and “pahss,” but “lass” and “land” and “stand” closer to the American pronunciation. “All” is pronounced “awl.” “There’s no logic to it, sometimes we have a broad ‘ah’ and sometimes we don’t,” said Kate.

And oh, the sheer delight of that G&S scene, my favorite three minutes of the whole Savoy canon. I was in heaven, grinning like a child after a shot of bourbon. After Madison and Greg read it, Greg read it again, this time with Kate playing Phyllis. Then Madison read it with Kate as her Strephon. Kate is one of those artists who can make you laugh without appearing to do anything at all, certainly nothing you could imitate. She doesn’t appear to work to make the comedy happen. She simply says the line and everyone in the room is giggling.

But everyone in the cast had wonderful comic moments. Matt and Madison are singing an English folk song arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It’s a dialogue song, and I divided up so it could be a duet. The two have them have made it into a delicious little scena. Matt has to say the words “She answered me” eight times, and each time it is completely different—and hysterically funny.

unnamed-10Other highlights of the day: Adam and I did an impromptu four-hand version of the Stephen Storace aria and gave Madison the kind of orchestral support only 20 fingers can offer. Kayleigh broke all hearts with “Think Not, My Love.” We had a picnic lunch and a decadent tea-time. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, say I. I’d been afraid that leaving Katonah meant that we’d be breaking the thread of our work. Instead, I think we bonded even more here than we had upstate. One piano, one living room, everyone huddled together dropping their r’s. And making Art.

Get your tickets to From Lute Song to the Beatles today!
March 11 at Caramoor in Katonah, NY 

March 13 at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

A few years ago I got a request from the administration at Caramoor to add a fifth artist to the Vocal Rising Stars program: an apprentice pianist. I turned this over in my mind for a while, considering the pros and cons of sharing accompanying duties with yet another person. After all, we already had two pianists on board, Michael Barrett (henceforth to be known by his nickname, Mikey) and me. As I mulled and mulled, the gentle request turned into something more definitive: the program was now to include four singers and a pianist. Any questions?

The expansion turned into a success. We’ve had four superb musicians on board with us: Leeann Osterkamp, Chris Reynolds, Will Kelly, and Ho Jae Lee. Each of them proved to be a powerhouse with a strong personality. Of course the unseen advantage of having a live-in accompanist at Caramoor is that the singers can rehearse off-hours. (Not that I want them using up their vocal velvet in a 24/7 sing-off.)

But there are two tricky aspects of having a pianist in the Rising Stars mix. One is personal: I have to play a lot less every day, which keeps me fresher. But also means that I don’t have as much of a chance to settle into the piano. I arrive un-warmed-up, and I sometimes never get the engine running properly. My home piano-chair is at Caramoor for the week, so I can’t begin the process at home. Meanwhile the so-called apprentice pianists are playing all day and perhaps all evening.

But the trickiest part of the endeavor is the actual teaching. This year’s pianist is Adam Rothenberg, a very gifted musician with a world-class pair of hands. He has the whole program down cold, and plays everything with smooth aplomb. I respect him and don’t want to pull him down in any way.

But we are talking about songs I’ve known for decades, including pieces I first played when Watergate was in the news. For me, they contain crevices and crannies and gleaming caves and love letters and flashes of defiance followed by the softening of regret. How do I convey the topography of the song, not just the map?

With Ho Jae, I once played the intro to John Musto’s “Litany” and gave him my verbal soundtrack to the nuances of the piece, an internal monologue that I didn’t even know I had inside me until I heard myself say it out loud.

It’s a little different with Adam. He has a very unified approach to each song, extremely respectful of the score, every marking observed, every tempo indication followed. It’s so valid and so beautifully executed that I hate to disturb it. The problem is that I sometimes understand the song—and its journey—in a very different way. Do I ask him to mimic me, do I tell him “Take time here, make a bigger bar line between these two phrases, make this chord softer”—the color-by-numbers approach of so many teachers in master classes? I find the idea a little repulsive. It takes away his autonomy as an artist.

Yet I am not satisfied with his gorgeous rendition, its perfect complexion and elegant coif. It is too perfect. For me, it still needs more nuance and sentiment. So—taking my life in my hands—I say, “Let me show you how I do it. Just so you can hear and decide.” Then I make my usual excuses about how it’s going to be a little messy, I haven’t touched this song in 10 days, my dog ate my fourth and fifth pages, I’m not warmed up, I’m having male menopause…and then I play him the song I’ve known for almost 50 years.

And yes, it is a little messy here and there. I ain’t no Juilliard pianist. But I feel my own life-essence flowing into the piano, I hear my own heart making music, I am indulgent to my occasional clumsiness. I hear the nooks and crannies, the gold and cobalt, the sweet and tough. And I am aware of the sleek ease of a pianist in his early 20s, and the weighty life-experience of a pianist in his mid-60s. I then tell Adam: “You do not need to do this my way. I just wanted you to hear what I do—instead of pushing you around phrase by phrase.”

I can’t wait to hear what he does tomorrow.

unnamed (2)There were many beauties in today’s work. Madison and Adam romped through a ferociously difficult modern song by Huw Watkins, Matt poured out an amazing amount of gorgeous sound in his Britten song, Greg honored the composer Jonathan Dove with his deeply sexy, X-rated reading of “Between your sheets you soundly sleep,” and Kayleigh found a stunningly vulnerable timbre for her jazz piece (a John Dankworth Shakespeare setting). She took all the Mozart-Handel makeup off her voice, and revealed the most sensuous alto sax.

At lunch we had a visit from the actual Queen of the Vocal Rising Stars, Eileen Schwab, whose family endowed the program. I adore Eileen and treasure her devotion to song. It’s always a red-letter day when she shows up.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 1

Today marked the beginning of the tenth season of NYFOS@Caramoor, aka the Vocal Rising Stars Program. Our annual retreat to Caramoor for this residency is a highlight of my year. The unfailing warmth of the people who work there, the calm of the environment, and the feeling of being in a artistic sanctuary feed my soul in a way that few other concert engagements can.

Not that Caramoor doesn’t have its stresses. I hired three singers I knew pretty well, either as students or as recent concert colleagues. I took on a pianist—Adam Rothenberg—with whom I had far less experience, but whom I knew from the hallways of Juilliard. Adam auditioned for me a year ago, and I asked if he’d defer for a season so I could bring Ho Jae Lee to Caramoor in 2017 when I was sure he’d still be in America. Adam was patient and faithful, and so was I.

But I also hired a mezzo I had never met at all. I had been recommended by several people to listen to a young woman named Kayleigh Decker, lately of Glimmerglass Opera and about to enter the prestigious Chicago Lyric Ryan Center. Buoyed by these impeccable credentials, I gave her a modern audition: I listened to her sing Wolf’s “Kennst du das Land” on a YouTube clip. I totally disapprove of YouTube auditions, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to doing them occasionally. I liked Kayleigh’s Wolf song very much: straightforward, not artsy, but sung with an even scale, clear words, and a feeling of truthfulness. “I could definitely work with this,” I thought to myself.

Naturally our first encounter was a bit fraught, though neither of us betrayed a flicker of insecurity. It’s important not to flinch. The first thing I heard Kayleigh sing today was “Sound the Trumpet,” a classic duet by Henry Purcell. Great baroque-style coloratura, a clean trill, wonderful breath control, lovely musicianship. I wasn’t the least bit surprised but I admit I was pleased.

It was one of the best opening days I can remember at Caramoor. The cast is, of course, young, but they all seem like old souls. By contrast I feel like a skittish puppy around them, darting off in a million directions. They are grounded, serious, smart, and gifted. We’ll need to make a few decisions about how British we want to sound for this concert. I have trouble hearing words like “earrrrrrth” and “worrrrrrrrrld” pronounced with big ol’ American r’s in this rep. Greg has an admirable command of the British accent, except that occasionally his characters slip into lower-class Londonese, not the King’s English. Today his Strephon in Iolanthe sounded like a sexy blue-collar worker. I kind of loved it, though I know it may not quite echt.

Highlights of the day: Madison Leonard sang Frank Bridge’s “Dweller in My Deathless Dreams” with luminous perfection, every note vibrating like a star, really stunning vocalism. Matt Pearce and Greg Feldmann belted out “Ticket to Ride” with impudence, style, and a shameless amount of beauty. (I got the idea of putting out bowls of panties in the entryway for audience members to take and throw up at the stage during the song.) Adam Rothenberg was worth the wait. What a sensitive, gifted player. I was humbled. And Kayleigh seduced me over and over again with her elegant musicianship.

IMG_0991At tea-time, a longtime Caramoor tradition now more appropriate than ever, I rolled up to the table and saw what looked like a woman standing very still, smiling at me next to the hot-water boiler. She was so motionless that I started to get the creeps. Finally I realized it was a cardboard cutout of Queen Elizabeth. She was happy to pose for pictures with all of us. She didn’t mind that I screamed when I realized that Ellie Gisler and Tim Coffee had planted her there.


Danny Schmidt: Company of Friends

From Maggi Landau, Artistic Director, American Roots Music, Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts:

Many songs from the American Roots realm (folk, blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, cajun, string band, traditional, and more genres) are cultural touchstones, songs that just about everyone knows.  Songs like “Blowin’ In the Wind”, “Stand By Your Man”, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”.  But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser known songs being sung in local song circles, small coffee houses, regional festivals that, if given the opportunity, would also find their way into the canon of songs with the power to touch and move any listener.

I first heard the “Company of Friends” around 10 years ago sung and penned by a young Austin, Texas based singer songwriter named Danny Schmidt.  It’s the kind of song where the lyrics pierce your heart.  Where you know exactly what he means. And what you want to embrace for yourself. It’s a universal anthem and a true touchstone. This version from from 2008 is sung by Danny and his now wife Carrie Elkin.

Snarky Puppy: I Asked

From Caramoor’s Artistic Coordinator, Timothy Coffey:

I’ll admit it—I’m a Snarky Puppy addict. They’re ridiculously good. Picking only one song from them is actually easy because there’s no wrong choice. Listening to only one song is not easy, so if you’re reading this, and you haven’t listened to SP, a good starting point are their Family Dinner albums (volume 1 and 2). Both albums feature artists/musicians from across the globe, each taking their own turn with SP for one song. The first track off volume 2 features American singer-songwriter Becca Stevens and Väsen, a Swedish folk music band, performing Stevens’ song “I Asked”. Folk, Jazz, R&B, Funk, Soul—I’m not sure how to label this. Maybe the word “awesome” will suffice.

Snarky Puppy:  I Asked feat. Becca Stevens and Väsen

Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d’Eté: I. Villanelle

From Caramoor’s Manager of Artistic Planning, Ellie Gisler Murphy:

Hector Berlioz, the French romantic composer more known for his large scale works, symphonies, operas and oratorios, than for his song writing, gave us the infectiously carefree and flirtatious “Villanelle” from his song cycle Les Nuits d’Eté. Berlioz was a prolific diarist and letter writer, but wrote little about this set of six songs that he wrote in installments, however we can make some guesses as it was written between 1840 and 1841, while his marriage to his wife crumbled and he began an affair with the soprano Marie Recio (who would later become his wife). The song cycle itself follows a love affair, from the first whispers of young love in the spring (represented by the ebullient “Villanelle”), through a death and mourning period and ending with the promise of new love.

As a stand-alone, “Villanelle”, the first song of the set is one of the most interesting melodies in song literature and surely (at least for me) one of the most fun to sing—it radiates exuberant joy, mirroring the uncontained wonder of the first real warmth of spring and the first hints of a new love.

The whole song cycle is sung here by the lovely Dutch soprano, Elly Ameling

Edvard Grieg: Våren

From Caramoor’s Manager of Artistic Planning, Ellie Gisler Murphy:

I spent the school breaks of my college years in Norway, while my parents lived there for a work assignment. It was impressed upon me during that time that the Norwegians are an entirely proud bunch, and nothing makes them more proud than their stunning landscape of rugged coastlines, vast mountain-scapes, and steep fjords.  To be Norwegian is to understand that participation in the outdoors, regardless of the weather, is compulsory. (Perhaps made evident than their obvious and consistent domination in the Winter Olympics, and with their famous saying “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing”).

Though known for those dark and long winters, perhaps no season is more special to the Norwegians than their springtime, a brief and late season where 18 hours of darkness, thick snow and ice gives way to flowers, greenery and sunlight.  Those who live in the Northeast can perhaps relate to a certain extent, especially so in late February.  The notable Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg captured the approaching season in his song “Våren” (“The Spring”).  The poem, written by Aasmund Vinje, wistfully recalls the emerald meadows, butterflies dancing in blossoms, and spring-gladdened vales.  Among all the songs of spring, it is one of the more solemn, as the speaker imagines this spring to be their last on earth, but to me,  it makes the song all the more exquisite.

You can’t beat it in the original Norwegian dialect Landsmål, here sung by Barbara Bonney:

Reynaldo Hahn: À Chloris

From Caramoor’s Vice-President of Programming, Kathy Schuman:

I can’t say for sure the first time I heard this song, but I remember distinctly when it first made a serious impression—as an encore at Susan Graham’s recital at Carnegie Hall in 2003. I was absolutely swept away by the beauty of it.  Up until then I didn’t really know anything about Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947), a Venezuelan-born composer who lived in France. Now I see his songs pop up on recital programs frequently. Whenever I see “À Chloris” listed on a program, or announced as an encore, I heave a deep sigh and settle back in my chair and let this simple beautiful song wash over me. From the first notes of the piano introduction, I am transported to another realm. His songs are a bit old-fashioned compared to contemporaries like Ravel, and it may lack the depth and intensity of Schubert lieder, but for me it captures perfectly the rhapsodic feeling of a newly discovered love.

Over the years I’ve heard it sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, Sarah Connolly, Philippe Jaroussky, David Daniels and others. It’s hard to beat Susan Graham’s version here.


Eduardo Toldrà: Maig

This week I’d like to focus on some of the singers I’ve accompanied over the years. A collaborative pianist—the word “accompanist” is out of vogue these days, thank God (I don’t play the “accompano”)—can only realize his/her musical vision in tandem with like-minded vocalists. We are always seeking that magical moment when our hands and the singer’s breath become one entity. I’ve been blessed, especially in my NYFOS partnerships.

So let’s start with a love story: soprano Corinne Winters, whom I first heard when she auditioned for New York City Opera. A recent graduate of AVA in Philadelphia, she sang Manon’s entrance aria “Je suis encore tout étourdie,” and the third-act Bohème aria. Her voice intrigued and puzzled me. It was dark but very free at the top. While she had the lightness to soar up to an easy high E in the Massenet piece, she also demonstrated the rich timbre of a Verdi singer. There was already a fair amount of sound coming out of what seemed like a diminutive body. She had passion, she had control. I was fascinated by all the oppositions colliding in one artist—a kitten soon to grow into a tigress.

I invited Corinne to NYFOS’s Caramoor program that spring, where we’d be doing Spanish songs—Castilian, Catalan, Sephardic, Basque, Galician. I didn’t know how she’d respond to learning a lot of unfamiliar repertoire in all those new languages. I needn’t have worried—she immersed herself in all of them and rapidly became a kind of Iberian polyglot. Corinne went on to make her Santa Fe début singing a role in Mandarin Chinese, which makes singing in Basque look like child’s play. Her standard repertoire includes Desdemona, Fiordiligi (for her upcoming Covent Garden début), Mélisande, Donna Anna, Liù, and her signature role, Violetta, which she has sung all over the world. Check out her website, where you can watch her in action. (Oh my, that Mélisande video…)

Corinne and I developed a strong bond at Caramoor, and I soon had my heart set on making a CD with her. It took a few years, and the path was strewn with crazy challenges, but our recording finally came out (it’s on Roven Records, and you can find it at iTunes). I had originally wanted to call it “August Nights,” a title drawn from one of my favorite poems on the album. But wiser heads prevailed, demanding a straightforward Spanish-language title with an explanatory subtitle in English. It became Canción amorosa: Songs of Spain. Here is one of my favorite songs from the album: Eduardo Toldrà’s “Maig,” a hymn to the beauties of spring—and the preciousness of life itself. It is both a balm and a warning in this volatile period we’re living through.

This is the exquisite poem by Trinitat Catasús, in my translation:

Earth in bloom,
Sea enchanted by the flowering,
Sweetest breath
Of life in exultation.

Crystalline raindrops,
Waters reflecting
Tender children
Laughing with joy.

Deep, reverberating brightness,
Cloud dispersing,
A breeze that wafts
The moisture from the tender green shoots.

Soft buzzing
Of the bees, deep
Silent peace
Of a bountiful hour.

The world rejuvenated,
Love flourishing,
Delicious oblivion
Of silver-edged nights

When the full moon
Of May, silent,
Seems to be telling the flowers
Of an impending misfortune.

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org