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Billy Strayhorn: Day Dream

Our continuing preview of this year’s concerts continues with a peek at Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem, set for December 12. After the dizzying success of last year’s tribute to W. C. Handy, I wanted to get the team together again as soon as possible. And I almost succeeded: vocalists Joshua Blue, Justin Austin, and Lucia Bradford were available, as were reed-man Scott Robinson and piano partner Joseph Li. Full-out rapture turned briefly to modified rapture when we lost Vince Giordano, our bass/tuba/percussion guru, and then Shereen Pimentel. She has been called away to a project that trumped ours—the role of Maria in the new Broadway “West Side Story.” It still takes my breath away to type those words. I am wildly proud of Shereen and can’t wait to cheer her on the Great White Way. But I admit I didn’t see this coming (she’s a senior at Juilliard!), and it took me some months to find a replacement. After a bunch of auditions, that piece of casting was finalized yesterday: Bryonha Parham will join the ensemble, and I am restored to full rapture. Bryonha is a sensational performer, recommended by a pair of artistic giants in my life (Michael Barrett and Broadway producer Jack Viertel). I know we’ve landed on our feet. 

The material in the show draws on songs written by Billy Strayhorn, Porter Grainger (composer of the title song), and Bessie Smith, as well as material popularized by “Ma” Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and others. Elliott Hurwitt is helping with the research, as he did with the W. C. Handy show, and his expertise in early blues and jazz is beyond a mitzvah—more like a “mitzvissima.” 

If you’re unfamiliar with Billy Strayhorn, you’re in for a treat. He was Duke Ellington’s amanuensis and (often uncredited) co-composer for some of Duke’s iconic hits, including “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Strayhorn was a musician of tremendous skill and a sensuality rare in the staccato world of jazz. Here is one of his most beautiful songs, “Day Dream,” sung with antigravitational ecstasy by Darius de Haas.  I got the full measure of the piece when I once had to play it in transposition. Normally it is not that difficult to move the key of a popular song—the chord changes, no matter how bewitching, are fairly standard. Not so with “Day Dream,” which has the most beautiful and deceptively complex harmonic progression of anything in the Great American Songbook. 

Ricky Ian Gordon: When Sue wears Red

Last summer while I was a festival artist at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I received an assignment to participate in a special Ricky Ian Gordon presentation. Nine singers were to be featured in concert performing a variety of pieces by Gordon. I initially declined my participation because I felt I was too busy and didn’t want to risk being underprepared. After the director of artistic administration called me into his office and asked me again to participate, I humbly accepted. I wasn’t going to say “No” to the face of someone that had just given me the opportunity of a lifetime to be singing a principle role at a place like OTSL. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it almost didn’t happen!

The piece I was given was “When Sue Wears Red” This piece was my introduction to both Ricky Ian Gordon and to Langston Hughes who wrote the text. To the readers that know the work of both of these men, you can understand how mind blown I was when I researched them for this project. I had heard of both artists but had never actually worked on anything of theirs. The first work session with Ricky, I was stunned at how generous, loving, caring, and passionate of an individual he was and how that rang throughout his music. I was so nervous singing for him but managed to get through the piece the first time without falling on my face. After I finished, we went straight to work. “It needs more sex” he said looking at me serious as a war general. He then went on to say “Sing it from your crotch.” I couldn’t help myself and started to laugh. “There you go! Let’s have some fun with this.” he stated. I no longer was nervous and was able to have fun, tons of actual fun, in the worlds of these very serious and profound artists.

Langston was in high school when he wrote this poem. Before his period of sexual ambiguity, Hughes had a huge crush on a girl in his class named Sue. Langston describes how he feels about a particular red dress she wears by saying “Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!” which was eloquently translated to me by Ricky as “Damn, Girl!” Langston’s youth and carefree attitude in this time in his life is set perfectly by Gordon. Take a listen! If you care to hear a live performance of it, I’ll be singing this piece along with others on a very special concert curated by Ricky Ian Gordon on September 18 at 7pm in Greenfield Hall of the Manhattan School of Music.

Adam Guettel: Hero and Leander

I was at a party recently where a friend of the host politely asked me to tell him about next year’s NYFOS concerts. I am not the most comfortable self-promoter, but I took a deep breath and launched into a quick overview of our three subscription concerts. “We’re starting with an evening devoted to the Rodgers family—Richard, Mary, and Adam Guettel. You’ve…heard of Adam Guettel?” “Oh yes.” “I am very excited because I have a few new songs that haven’t been published yet. I am a huge fan of Adam’s, I think he’s one of the best songwriters in the world right now, his harmony, his vocal lines…” My new friend laid his hand on my arm. “Why don’t you tell him yourself?” “Huh?” “Look over by the window—he’s standing right there.”

I hadn’t noticed Adam—and I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway. Adam and I have been warm but casual acquaintances for some years, but I sensed he was a guy who needed a bit of distance around him. He was always somewhat aloof, and somewhat troubled. I knew he was fighting some demons, and that composing was slow work for him. I also heard he could be a prickly colleague. I remembered that he’d been a bit chilly about a performance of his songs I gave at Juilliard eleven years ago. (It had, admittedly, been a dicey afternoon, an ambitious student project where the cast had bitten off more than they could chew.)

Adam was already walking towards me, and he bent over to hug me like an old, intimate friend. He was physically changed—I have not seen very much of him in recent years, and our encounters were always brief. I still remembered him as the James Dean-ish sylph he was in his 30s. The 50-year old Adam I now saw was earthier, somewhat stockier, a touch of salt-and-pepper in his hair—but still as handsome as ever. And the furtive, wounded diva of old seemed to have morphed into a generous, open-hearted life-force.

thumb_IMG_2821_1024I told him about the Rodgers/Guettel program scheduled for November 1 and 3 at Merkin Hall. And I started to gush about the song I played at NYFOS Next in February of 2015, “There Go I.” (I’m saying I premiered it, since I have no evidence to the contrary.) “Oh, I have some more new songs I can give you.” “You…do? You WILL?” “Sure, sure, drop me a note, I’ll be happy to share them.”

For me, it was like getting a $10,000 gift card from Bergdorfs. No, better.

Trawling through YouTube I found the recording Darius de Haas and I made of Adam’s song “Hero and Leander,” from “Myths and Hymns.” If Fauré and Stevie Wonder had had a baby, this is the music that blessed child would have written.

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