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NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 4

Something has been missing for me from the last few Caramoor residencies: one-on-one time with each singer, the kind of interaction where mountains get moved and new artistic ideas get planted. It’s mostly been a question of scheduling: when we have a guest coach, the singers are all in one room with Michael and me and the imported guru, and we simply have less one-on-one time. And this week we’ve had guest teachers every day. Until today. I determined to seize the opportunity for quality time with Ben and Christine, and it turned out to be extremely valuable. Singers share truths (and fears) when they’re alone with you that they would never say in a group, and my sensitivities are also sharper and more specific when I am in that intimate teaching environment. The more people there are in a room, the more generalized my responses get. Too much metal confuses my magnet.

unnamed-7So it was a relief to be semi-alone for a spell with Ben Dickerson and Christine Price (whom I always call “Miss Price,” followed by the breathless declaration “I have ALL your CDs”). Semi-alone because we had some visitors sitting in the back of the room during our sessions, and Eileen Schwab was in Row A. Eileen is the primary sponsor of our program, which is named after her late husband Terrance—she is a hugely sensitive and intelligent woman whom Michael and I hold close to our hearts. And of course Ho Jae was with us too. But somehow I finally felt able to address a couple of delicate vocal and musical issues that required relative privacy. It’s better to be, or at least feel, unobserved when you have one of those “you keep doing this but I want you to do that instead” conversations. Often the the “this” and “that” are either delicate, intangible things or some vocal bad habit that is rearing its head once more, easy to identify but hard to change.

I am happy to say that we did some strong work and that both of them sang with a new kind of abandon in the afternoon. The other person who had a big breakthrough was Hannah, who has been a little tentative in her two big showpieces all week. The second of these is a Cuban zarzuela aria, a real barn-burner with a take-no-hostages climax.  Ho Jae was playing it beautifully (that guy can make a piano sing) but he didn’t quite understand the timing of the final phrases, which require some unmarked tempo changes. He was following Hannah’s every gesture, but unfortunately she was schlepping where the music needs to move, rushing through a crucial fermata, and making the high note at the end much harder than it needed to be.

Now, I know a thing or two about romantic and Verismo-era vocal music—I grew up listening to it. I don’t understand Stockhausen, and all twelve-tone music sounds pretty much the same to me, and minimalism puts me into a deep sleep. But give me a blood-and-guts mezzo aria with a high A at the end and I am like a terrier after a rat. First I burst out singing it to Hannah with the timing and inflection I wanted. (“Singing” is a kind description of the noises I was making.) Then I asked Ho Jae to relinquish the keyboard and I shocked myself by attacking the piano like a hungry matron at a bar mitzvah buffet. I dove into a tremolo, and once again Hannah plunged into her phrase early, and of course, I shrieked “NO, NO, NO, WAIT!” and then I gestured her in, belting out the climax with her. “Not ‘por él sabréeeeeeeee morir,’ but ‘por él sabré AHHHHHHHHHHHH morir!’”  “Oh, can I change the vowel like that?” said Hannah. “YOU HAVE TO CHANGE THE VOWEL! YOU CAN’T SING A HIGH NOTE ON A SQUEEZED VOWEL!” You see, this type of music brings out one of my personas that very few people get to see: the screaming maestro, which is only a few steps away from another one: the imperious opera queen.

It seemed to be exactly what Hannah needed. She was singing at full tilt, knockin’ out the final phrases of the aria over and over again. They sounded great, she was acting up a storm and carrying on. Fabulosity flowed. After we got done, I was showing Ho Jae a few things about how I wanted him to play the piece and Hannah gave us two more fortissimo high A’s. I knew she was a feisty powerhouse when she auditioned for me. How great to see her trust that wild energy in rehearsal!

Oh yeah…Jack did some great stuff today too…but I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 3

Thursday is usually the most intense day—it’s the designated time for everyone to be off book, i.e., memorized. But today—Wednesday, usually a frolic in the sandbox—turned out to be a strenuous day of contact sports. Some of this had to do with the schedule: Marco was to join us in the afternoon, but he could only get there at 3:40. It was our last coaching day with him—yes, he’ll be back for more rehearsals and he’ll play the performances with us, but then he’ll be in his role purely as flautist. So we had a lot to cover in a short period, and that meant the day ended with three hours of extremely concentrated work on all the flute stuff and all the Spanish stuff.

Christine created a bit of magic today, the kind of thing that can only happen at a place like Caramoor. We were working on her Lecuona song, “Quiero ser hombre.” It is somewhere midway between a cabaret song and an art song, with a poem by the Uruguayan feminist Juana de Ibarbourou. She talks of how she’d like to be a man—so that she could have any kind of career she wanted, she could go out walking on her own, she could wander the earth as she pleased. Latin American women did not have a lot of choices in the 1940s, and very little freedom of movement in those pre-liberation days.

unnamed-6Christine has known the song for a little while now, and it was sounding good. She understood what it meant, her Spanish was very clear and amazingly authentic—good, solid work. But Michael was not sold. “Christine, the song has this descending figure, three-note groups that snake down after an upward phrase. There’s something…what’s the word for it…it has a name…oh, I don’t know. There’s something about that kind of writing…” I was a little puzzled. So was Christine. What was he getting at? “How should I do it?” Christine asked. Michael paused. “Actually, I don’t know. But you do. Figure it out—there is something to dig out of that phrase. You have the answer, not me. Go find it.” Another pause. Then Christine said something I wasn’t expecting: “Thank you.” What did she mean, I wondered? Thank you, I guessed, for not condescending to me, for trusting that I have a musical brain, that I have instincts and sensitivities of my own. It was International Women’s Day, and we were celebrating in our way.

Michael’s request was not the kind of direction I would have given a singer. But something happened: the whole song opened up. All of a sudden Christine was singing about life, and freedom, and being a woman, and wanting something. What sounded to me like musical nit-picking led straight to the Holy Grail. Everyone felt it. Hannah actually leapt to her feet and applauded. I thought I saw tears in Christine’s eyes.

Everyone, in fact, rehearsed as if their lives depended on it. I took the day to get closer to pianist Ho Jae Kim, pulling him in to play four-hand piano with me, molding his phrasing, balancing the sonorities of his two hands. He is such a surprising musician. I imagine all this material is pretty new for him, but I nicknamed him Ho Jae O’Lee after he played his Irish song with the eloquence of an old bard. He’s come up with some fabulous results in Cuban music too. Ho Jae has a tremendous musical instinct, and when his ear, nervous system, and hands coalesce—when he grasps what the music is, what it needs—the results take my breath away.

Get your tickets to Four Islands today!  Sunday, March 12, 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tuesday, March 14, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

Tuesday is traditionally the most carefree play-day at Caramoor. The Sunday concert still seems a long way off, memorization is not making everyone into zombies, and we can still do some real exploration with the singers and the songs. Michael and I have a sense of what we’d like our cast to get out of the week’s project, and there seems to be just enough time. It’s like working with plaster of Paris: there is a certain window when the materials are malleable before they harden for good. We seized the day, all of us.

Our second guest coach was with us, the Venezuelan flautist Marco Granados. As Michael said to me, “Marco has to be the sweetest man on the planet. After your husband Jimmy, of course.” It is true: Marco radiates warmth and generosity even when a patron seated next to him at lunch is saying, “I think Trump has some awfully good ideas, don’t you?” I dropped my head into my lunch plate and studied my roasted potatoes very, very hard, but Marco remained gentle and pliant. I was so glad he fielded that question. I believe his answer was some vowel-less murmur (“Mmnnh!”) that could be interpreted anyway you liked.

Marco is doing double duty with us, playing in the Ravel cycle “Chansons madécasses” and some of the Irish songs, while also stepping up to the plate as our Spanish coach. No one in our cast speaks Spanish, and most classical singers don’t have to deal with Iberian, South American, or Caribbean music until they get a gig with NYFOS. The Cuban scores are badly printed, with arcane handwritten lyrics that make “adorable” look like “adorabla” and “sabe” look like “saba,” while turning poetic lines into traffic jams of cluttered letters. For some reason I was most concerned about Ben Dickerson, to whom I gave anAfro-Cuban piece written in street slang. Ben is very cultured and internal, the kind of guy you want to hear in Vaughan Williams or Poulenc or Pizzetti. I didn’t know if he could ace the piece but I thought, well, it’s just one song and it’ll be good for him.

That turned out to be the understatement of the day. Ben is such a strong musician and so smart that he got the essence of “Tú no sab’ ingle” pretty much on the first reading. He needs a little encouragement to realize the full brattiness, the cojones, of the song. He may not lead with his hips like a Cuban, but that Vermont boy can definitely swing with the best of them.

Everyone shone today—Hannah Dishman radiated feisty heat as both an Irish country lass and a frustrated music theater wannabe; Jack Swanson figured out how to be a narcissistic Latin lover in one piece and a creepy Manhattan voyeur in another; and Christine Price raised the roof with Kurt Weill and seduced everyone in sight with her Corigliano songs. Ho Jae Lee and I improvised four-hand arrangements (that guy is a trip!). But the highlight for me was the Zulu folk song, which I had been avoiding for no real reason. It’s short—two pages—and not complicated. But I feel irrationally daunted when I have to make vocal arrangements, even though I do it all the time and usually come up with something good. After lunch we plunged in—Jack, Christine, Hannah, Marco, and I—and I think we came up with something exotic and haunting. We can keep developing it, but the bones are there—one voice leading to harmony and finally erupting with Marcos’ bird calls on his flute. Are we ready for the soundtrack of a documentary about Madagascar? Ask me tomorrow.

unnamed-5 In the photo: Jack Swanson and Marco Granados search for the “fuego sagrado.”

Get your tickets to Four Islands today!  Sunday, March 12, 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tuesday, March 14, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall (NYC)

Gian Carlo Menotti: Steal me, sweet thief

from Christine Taylor Price:

“Steal me, sweet thief” has been one of my favorite arias since I heard it about 2 years ago. I only started singing it recently because my usual English aria, “No Word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s opera The Rakes Progress (another must-listen), wasn’t quite doing it for me anymore. “Steal me” is one of the only well known arias by Menotti. From his opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, written for radio in 1939, it was extremely well-recieved by the American audience which, made it easy for Menotti to start paving his own way as an opera composer in America.

Laetitia is the character who sings “Steal me”. She is Miss Todd’s housekeeper and is a young, beautiful, sparky girl who just wants to be loved, so when Bob shows up looking for a place to stay, Laetitia convinces Miss Todd to give him the guest room. They soon realize that Bob is a thief so, of course, Miss Todd wants to get rid of him but Laetitia has been falling in love with him and again convinces her to let him stay. Day-dreaming, Laetita sings steal me, sweet thief, wishing her life would start before she grows old and gray.

NYFOS@North Fork: Days 5 & 6

The last few days before a concert are always a little tricky to handle. I want to build confidence. I want to fix the little errors—notes, words, rhythms, dynamics—that seem to be repeat offenders. I also want to keep the cast reaching for the heights of expression from depths of their souls—while keeping their work simple, direct, and open. No navel-gazing allowed. As a result, I have to pick my shots: should I mention this incorrect lyric, which I have now heard five times but which isn’t important, or this other one, which I’ve heard twice and is important?

Friday we had a thorough work-through, and Saturday a dress rehearsal. We didn’t stop, except when one song went off the rails and needed to be restarted…and restarted again. I would have been happy to try and keep going, but the singer (whose identity I shall protect) said the fatal words “Oh, shit.” For me, that is like yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, a clear signal of impending disaster. The third time was the charm and the song was a success, and (as I always say) it is better to have a colossal memory slip in rehearsal than in performance.

Miles Mykkanen and Alex Rosen

Miles Mykkanen and Alex Rosen

Everyone wore the shoes they were going to use in the show—a good idea for a concert where there is a bit of movement. It did give Alex a slightly bizarre look: he had on beige cargo shorts, patent leather shoes, and black dress socks. His exposed shins seemed to be in shock, naked in between his beachy clothes and his fancy feet.

We had some important visitors: Andy Smith, and Barbara and Lily Sacharow. They are people I have come to love. Andy is the son of the late Jane Smith, who used to produce these concerts—and indeed most of the musical events in Orient. Barbara and her daughter Lily were among Jane’s most intimate friends, practically family. Jane was also very dear to me, and her death last April after a long bout with cancer was a deep loss. She had fought her illness so hard and so long that I was able to persuade myself she would last forever. Andy’s sad email four and a half months ago hit me hard.

Andy Smith and Steven Blier

Andy Smith and Steven Blier

The program for “Killer B’s” had taken on an especially elegiac quality fifteen years ago when I did it in San Francisco a few months after my own mother’s death. In memory of Jane, I retained many of those songs for this edition: Bolcom’s “Never More Will the Wind,” Bowles’ “Once a Lady Was Here,” Bernstein’s “Spring Will Come Again,” and especially Burleigh’s beautiful ballad, “Jean.” I felt that the community here would appreciate a tribute to someone who had ornamented it for so many years. Above all, I was thinking about Jane’s family and the Sacharows when I put the program together.

My plan to serenade the Smiths and Sacharows got waylaid. It turned out that a high school up-island planned some kind of tribute to Jane at the exact same time as our performance, and they needed the three Smiths and the two Sacharows in attendance. They also asked Barbara to speak at the ceremony. Thus I lost the guests of honor for my show. But I still wanted them to hear the concert, and invited them to the dress rehearsal. Linda and Steve, the sister and older brother, couldn’t make it, but Andy, Barbara, and Lily were there.

Suddenly I was in a dilemma. I had been near tears every time I rehearsed the “Jane songs,” and I was afraid they might hit the family even harder. With no audience to serve as a buffer, the message of grief—so pure and piercing in the songs and in the cast’s performance of them—suddenly seemed like an emotional sledgehammer. Would it be cathartic, or just depressing?

In the end, I think all of them were grateful for the honest tribute to Jane. I believe they were moved by the songs, and the program has so many other colors—humor, brashness, romance, good cheer—that it places grief in the larger continuum of life. You mourn, you move on, you mourn some more, you confront another life issue….

“Killer B’s” doesn’t end with a snappy number, but with a eulogy and a gentle song of hope. We got done, and our little audience applauded us. Then Barbara said, through tears, “You…do have…an encore?” Well, of course we do. And it’s the silliest song of the afternoon, complete with the cast doing the pony. Never has Motown seemed more welcome.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 4

I have always had a complex relationship with the piano. But I have an especially complex relationship with the piano I am playing this week at Poquatuck Hall. Oysterponds Community Activities, the hall’s parent organization, proudly bought the piano several years ago, and it was a major upgrade from the weather-beaten wreck it replaced.

But when I first sat down to play it, I had the oddest sensation of déjà-vu. In fact, I felt as if I were seeing a ghost.

This turned out not to be one of those quirks of brain chemistry, the effect of some errant gas in a cerebral nerve ending. You see, this faded, once-black Mason and Hamlin baby grand was the same instrument I grew up playing. The giveaway was the music-rack: square corners, matte finish, unmistakable. Same vintage, same size, and same timbre. I played it, and suddenly I was five years old again.

Our Mason and Hamlin had belonged to my grandparents. Like the one in Poquatuck, its wood had gotten bleached out by being placed in the sun. Ours had another quirk: the key slip, the piece of wood on the front lip where the white keys descend, was loose and had a habit of edging forward and adhering to them as I played. Being a child, I adapted. I became adept at pulling the key-slip back quickly to unstick the keys while rattling through Schumann’s “The Merry Farmer” or Mozart’s “Ronda alla Turca.” The vagaries of my childhood piano set the course for a lifetime of bizarre technical quirks.

Coming back to the same make and model I played as a kid is a very strange homecoming. Due to some strange acoustical property of the room, I can’t quite hear myself when I am playing—until I biff a note or spazz out on a phrase or lose control of a transposition. Those I hear in Technicolor vividness. The hammers have seen better days and don’t like being played too forcefully. The action of the piano is decent until you get down to very soft dynamics, at which point the notes don’t always sound. This can make an easy song into a mine-field of clunks and unwanted silences.

Like women after the rigors of childbirth, I tend to repress the memories of my struggle with this Mason and Hamlin the minute I am done with the annual concert. But this week I am going through the psychodrama of confronting the instrument that got me hooked on playing the piano. It feels like meeting the guy who gave you the gateway drug, sealing your fate as an addict for life.

Things took a turn for the better yesterday. Unlike the singers, who can practice all morning, run lines while floating in the bay, and review choreography on the beach, I don’t really have a way to put a bandage on the inevitable spots that come undone during a rehearsal week. I literally awaken in the middle of the night going over the knotty measures in my sleep—“fingering my passages in bed,” as the old joke goes. So I have resorted to a kind of Zen technique, getting hold of the task at hand in my mind before I go to rehearsal, picturing a calm connection between my aural concept and my hands, and inducing a spiritual acceptance of the piano’s limitations. I must say that I played a lot better at our work-through yesterday. Yeah, there were some accidents, but no five-car pileups. Nicks and scratches, everything covered by insurance.

unnamed-5As for the cast, “the weather still continues charming,” to quote The Important of Being Earnest. Miles showed his teeth in a way I had not seen before (wonderful), Kelsey’s emotional command continues to detonate, Alex’s warmth and humanity shine through like a beacon (though I occasionally have to ask for them), and Christine—who said she wasn’t feeling too well—blazed through her songs with radiance and power. We had a few visitors and heard our first applause. A mother brought her four-year old son in just as we were launching into Bernstein’s raucous “A Julia de Burgos.” Christine hit a high C for the ages—but mother and toddler were gone by then. I am sure they could hear her a block away.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 3

Wednesday is always the last play-day. People are still giggling over their memory slips, I calmly look the other way when I play a wrong note (which means I am looking the other way quite often), and a certain amount of experimentation remains the order of the day. Sunday’s performance seems centuries away. Everything changes tomorrow, when the glass is definitely half-empty. But today we were in the song-sandbox all afternoon, with the glass safely half-full.

I hustled hard to get to the hall on time and almost made it, speeding down the main road at full speed on my wheelchair, braving oncoming traffic, checking my watch every 40 seconds. I streaked in through the back door, feeling semi-triumphant, only to find the cast completely absorbed in the task of eating their lunch. The room had the deep, meditative quality of a yoga class. Kelsey emerged from the Bikram-haze to offer me a bag of Caesar Snapea Crisps (really good), and I realized that no one was in much a hurry. I reverted to Orient Mode (“We have all afternoon”) and set my nervous system to “Chill.”

It is fascinating to watch this cast sink into the poetry and music. Their first readings had been very good—it was clear everyone already made a real investment in the program. But as my friend Alvin Epstein once said about a young woman working on a scene from Blitzstein’s “Regina,” “It takes years to make a bitch like Regina.” The leap from understanding a song intellectually to living a song as if you’d written it…well, that too can take years. But you can go pretty far in a week if you are in an environment where that is clearly the artistic goal. And a week is what we have.

I’ve been keeping my eye on Kelsey, who has a couple of big acting songs, as well as two that are more lyrical. She is the baby of the group and I feel protective of her. Not that she needs coddling—she’s a strong, self-starting young woman with a keen eye and the soul of an artist. On Monday and Tuesday she’d given very nice, very intelligent readings of Bill Bolcom’s “Toothbrush Time.” But today, something shifted. We talked it over yesterday, located the song in a physical way, filled in some backstory and details. Specifics, like “Where are you? What’s to your left, your right? How long have you been there? What are you wearing? Whom are you talking to—in your mind—a girlfriend? Your shrink?” All of a sudden the piece was happening in real time, and the character’s frustration and compulsiveness were bubbling under every line. Personally, I am a little tired of this song—I first played it in 1979 and it has that not-so-fresh feeling they used to talk about in TV ads. But working with Kelsey today, it rose again, Lazarus-like, and I almost felt as if I were hearing it for the first time.

unnamed-4I am working with four very nice people—decent, sweet, generous colleagues, real boy- and girl-scouts. What is hardest for them is to play characters who are not so nice, not so idealistic, not so saintly. In a group number, supported by one another, they can match Don Rickles for insult humor. We end Act I with “Outside of That, I Love You,” and they practically have a food fight onstage. But that’s comic anger. Real anger, bloody-mindedness, selfishness: these take some real work when they crop up in solo material. I think back to Alvin’s words about Regina—“it takes years to make a bitch.” Can we condense that down to four days?

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