By way of introduction, my name is Thomas West. I am a baritone originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee and am thrilled to be taking over the Song of the Day blog this week in anticipation of this year’s Caramoor Rising Stars residency.
It has been six years now since I first met Steven Blier as a shy, quiet freshman singer in his coaching studio at Juilliard. And over those years he has become not only a mentor and teacher but one of my all-time favorite human beings and a very dear friend.
A couple of years ago Steve mentioned to me that he was doing a concert with Julia Bullock in San Francisco to raise support for Muscular Dystrophy Research, which I later found out had been entitled: Songs in the Key of Steven Blier. Utterly brilliant, I thought. And of course the left-brained part of me had to go off and make my own coaching binder full of songs that I felt represented that description. This week, I thought I might share five songs with you that I put into that binder. These are not just songs that feel inherently Steve to me, but are songs that I believe were major stepping stones in my journey to becoming the artist I am today.
To kick us off —I must begin with the first song I ever coached with Steve at Juilliard: Jayme Ovalle’s “Azulão” —a Brazilian gem given to me by my father who is a linguist and a lover of song. My dad first played me the song on a long car ride home right before I left for college. It had been a recent discovery for him and upon reaching home, we immediately went online to find out where we could purchase sheet music.
When I arrived at Juilliard a few weeks later, I knew I wanted to take a deeper dive into the piece but didn’t know where to turn. “Of the Juilliard coaching staff, who might be able to help me with a Brazilian Art Song,” I asked timidly in the Vocal Arts office on week three of my first semester. Multiple staff members faces lit up —”oh you HAVE to see Steve. He would LOVE that!”
I still remember Steve’s shock when he asked me what I wanted to work on in that first coaching: “A Brazilian art song?! Where did you find this??” But more importantly, I remember what Steve said right after I sang it through the first time: “Listen, Thomas, it’s very beautiful but you need to be more playful. Can you be more free with it? Resist staying exactly in rhythm and have a conversation with what I am giving you in the piano.” Throughout the rest of the coaching, I looked for a twinkle in Steve’s eyes—if it was there, I knew I had found the magic that he was looking for.
Below is my favorite recording of the song from Arleen Augér and Dalton Baldwin. I find their repeat especially breathtaking. If you listen, I think you’ll understand the kind of freedom that Steve was looking for from me in that first coaching with him.
The translated text reads:
Go bluebird, my companion, go!
Go and see my ungrateful love
Say that without her the sertão is no longer the sertão!
Go and tell her, my companion, go!
I hope this song brings as much pleasure to your Monday morning as it does mine.
Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin perform this sweet mélodie by Gabriel Fauré with text by Leconte de Lisle. A cool breeze of a song on a hot day.
I used to practice yoga regularly but I’ve fallen out of it in recent years. I guess this is a gentle reminder to myself that I want to get back into it. I reaped multiple benefits from practicing yoga: physical, mental, and spiritual. The word “yoga” literally means “union” and the concept that ‘we are all one’ is one of the primary teachings of the practice. Certainly the yogis do not have exclusive rights to the idea that humanity is interconnected. Many philosophies and religions share their own interpretations of that belief. If you subscribe to any aspect of this concept of oneness, you are likely as disturbed as I am by the current discord and division in our society. Of course, our own individual views of complex issues like politics, gender, race, religion, citizenship, socioeconomics, (the list obviously goes on…) make it difficult to agree, but can’t we strive to love and respect each other even if we disagree?
Banalités, Poulenc’s set of five songs on poems of Guilluame Apollinaire, ends with “Sanglots.” The opening lines of the song refer to the human race as being interconnected from the beginning of time:
Notre amour est réglé par les calmes étoiles
Or nous savons qu’en nous beaucoup d’hommes respirent
Qui vinrent de très loin et sont un sous nos fronts
Our love is ruled by the calm stars
now we know that in us many men breathe
who came from far away and are one under our brows
The song then continues with rhapsodic waxing of the hopes and dreams of humanity wearing its heart on its sleeve (or in its right hand as Apollinaire puts it). But as the song continues, the ultimate message is not of contentment but of despair and resignation. Poetic images of pain and disappointment abound. The bottom line is that humankind cannot avoid its predetermined fate of suffering. Not a cheery notion, but my take on it is a little less severe. To me, this song is a reminder that even though life can be difficult and painful, we need to be good to each other and treat each other with kindness and compassion.
I selected two different recordings of “Sanglots” as they each have their own merits. The first one is straight from the horse’s mouth: Monsieur Poulenc playing with Pierre Bernac (the two premiered it in 1940). Because Bernac’s voice can be a bit of an acquired taste, I chose another recording with Dalton Baldwin playing with the suave-voiced Gérard Souzay.
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