A strange dress rehearsal. There is a fancy dinner in the hall tonight and I was given to understand that that the staff wanted to start their setup around 6. But they were actually chomping at the bit to start rolling tables in at 4, which made it hard for me to concentrate or play with any sense of repose. I started well—really making some music on that pre-pre-pre-war Knabe—but then flipped to “get-to-the-double-bar” mode when I felt the restaurateur and wait staff literally breathing down my neck. One cast member got very emotional and couldn’t finish a song; another blew a whole lot of lyrics towards the end of the show. It’s all show biz, and it didn’t worry me; I take some comfort in the fact that we did not peak at dress rehearsal. But pleasurable? No.
Truth to tell, our final run didn’t go at all badly. The small invited audience went crazy for the concert, and that’s reassuring. The singers did a lot of good work, and if I can play this show with that much psychic disturbance around me, tomorrow should be a breeze. I shall sleep peacefully, and stay calm until my normal five-minutes-to-showtime freakout.
We had our first runthrough Friday. Praise the Lord, the program works just fine. No major snags, everyone in decent if not transcendent voice—high notes ringing out like crazy but a little huskiness in the lower part of the voice. If that’s fatigue, it’s the good kind. The piano in the hall is not, shall we say, an instrument of great beauty. When I am feeling inspired, I can sound decent; when I am in a more “get-to-the-double-bar” mode, I sound like a retired cement mixer to myself, or a bandleader at a regional junior high school. It was no one’s day to reach the pinnacle, but we settled on some staging ideas and (as I predicted) ran the songs for memory. The structure of the program is perfect. Today felt like seeing an apartment with bare walls and no furniture, as you imagine how beautiful it will be when the decorators and the florists arrive.
I guess it was inevitable. Wednesday was come-to-Jesus time, and on Thursday we welcomed Mary. Not the Sainted Mother, but stage director Mary Birnbaum, our Guest Artist this week. We’d all wanted some help staging the two group numbers and the two boys’ duets. I also nurtured a hidden desire that Mary might do a little laser surgery on the solo pieces.
Of course I got all my wishes. Kern’s “Enchanted Train” received a fizzy, charming, organized floor plan, and Mary also waved her magic wand over the encore, Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”—just one simple move in course of the piece, but the whole thing imbued with depth and emotion. For the duets Mary gave us a lot of ideas and staging, and I’m not sure we can keep all of it. The boys and I are unsure if the big band songs or the meeting hall space can bear that much theatricality. Still, it was like doing a shopping spree at Saks. You’re probably going to return a few things, but you come home with shopping bags filled with fabulous stuff. In the cold light of (Fri)day we’ll figure out what we can actually afford.
Mary gave amazingly insightful notes to the singers on their solo pieces. Once again I realized that artists need to hear things put in many different ways—and said by several different people—before they incorporate them. Yes, I admit I had a couple of moments where I thought, “I said the exact same thing yesterday!…” And there followed a moment of weird insecurity—“Maybe I can’t make myself clear any more…?” But Mary did something a visiting teacher can do more easily than a resident teacher: she cornered the singers into forming personal subtexts and sharing them out loud. It’s a lot for an artist to reveal, and since we are living and working in such close quarters I feel a certain discretion, a need to leave the singers some privacy. I think I am in their faces enough as it is. As a result, I try to corral a singer into finding a personal meaning in every song, but I don’t tend to make them blurt out, “This is like the time my grandmother poured scalding water on me,” or “This like when they took another soprano for the job because she was sleeping with the director.” I weave stories, lend scenarios, parse the poems, explain the cultural environment of the song, and make a framework. This is in fact a big help—and then I keep rehearsing until I feel the artists have taken ownership.
Mary is a bit bolder. And with the concert three days away, boldness was the right step. Mary, who studied mime in Paris, also has a keen eye for physical posture and gesture. She was only on board for one afternoon, but her art detonated with tremendous, benign force.
The fourth day of rehearsal is always the come-to-Jesus moment; it’s the last day you can really work in depth, get to the fundamentals, take on the big issues. There is something I want each cast member to focus on as we head towards Sunday’s performance, but by tomorrow they’ll be very focused on memory, repetition, security, control. So today was Art Day, and it was tiring. If something isn’t quite right vocally or a bit undefined musically, it takes tact and delicacy—and a certain passive-agressive indirection—to get a singer to turn the corner. You see, these are usually the very same issues many, many other coaches and teachers have addressed before and the singers have done this dance plenty of times. On the one hand, they truly want me to help them conquer the problem, but a part of them just wants me out of their face.
As a result, I feel I have about a thirty-five second window in which to make the point I need to make, and I have to be believable—while shedding some kind of new light on what is certainly an ongoing challenge. What made me happy today was that I went after a series of subtle and complex artistic matters with each of the cast members, and they took some big strides forward. The British songs need a kind of pristine elegance and hauteur; the Cuban ones need a loping rhythmic feel and a command of street Spanish; the American songs need a special combination of insouciance and precision. At these moments I thank God I was an English major. I certainly didn’t write well when I was in college, but I read a lot and wrote a lot and thought about language a lot. Coaching is like cracking the code before the alarm goes off (and the defenses come up). Today, codes got cracked, and the singers made huge and surprising progress.
Meredith, as it turns out, did not bring us more sorbet from Frank. I understood her reasons, but I admit I was crestfallen. She did bring us a local melon for dessert—a Sugar Baby, which is a small watermelon with yellow flesh. The cast posed with their desserts at the end of a very long, very interesting day.
Today was notable for two things. One: Meredith managed to charm Frank, the owner of the best ice cream store in Greenport—it’s called D’Latte—and showed up at rehearsal with two pints of world-class sorbet and a bag of gluten-free biscotti. The mint-lemon sorbet almost derailed rehearsal, when I had a momentary delusion that I would willingly cancel the concert if I could just keep eating Frank’s dessert unto eternity. I suddenly understood how Odysseus must have felt when he sailed past the Sirens. Meredith promised to go back tomorrow, when Frank made a demi-promise to have chocolate sorbet (my favorite). Jason and the Argonauts countered the Sirens by having Orpheus sing on board their ship; I have my own quartet of Orpheuses, so I shall be saved from rash, dessert-based psychotic breaks.
Two: we realized that—at least when empty—our lovely little hall is very live. If you open up and sing full tilt there, you are (a) deafening, and (b) totally garbled. No matter how hard you work your diction, your resonance will obliterate your consonants. Spit—explode—make a fricative you think they can hear on the South Fork—it’s no use. “A sea maid singgggggs on yonder reefffffffffff,” sings Meredith. From behind the piano, I heard something like “A sea aid siss on yohder ree”—though listeners in the hall picked up the lyric better. (Oddly, when Toby sang the word congregation, I heard “pornication.” But that might be my own aberration.)
In any case, the whole vocal equation had to be adjusted in the big numbers. It was a good discovery to make on the third day of rehearsal. I am pretty sure the hall is going to be packed on Sunday, and I know the acoustic changes radically when it is full. Still, a wake-up call. We are not printing any of the English-language texts and we have to make ourselves understood the old-fashioned way.
The songs themselves continue to grow and expand. I know David Margulis the least well, and he’s a man who takes his time to reveal himself. I prize that quality in him—a proud introvert with a killer high B-flat, an interesting combination of gentle and outspoken, rather more private than most singers—but a true tenor when the occasion demands it. I love the way Dave makes music, I love his leisurely, deep process of finding the core of his songs, I love the smoky charisma of his timbre. Today I also learned that he’s a subtle comedian too—he cracked us all up in a number of Toby’s where he has a walk-on role.
Meredith is our great musical seductress. She cast quite a spell with her ballads today and moved one of our listeners to tears. (Me too.)
The weather outside was on the cool and cloudy side. Inside, though, it was pretty sunny—a lovely day of making music. Not that there weren’t some obstacles. It seems that today was the only time the repairman could come to fix a broken door at Poquatuck Hall, so the first three-plus hours of our rehearsal were punctuated by some pretty Wagnerian crashes and bangs. I took the moral high ground and kept working blissfully as if I were in a soundproof booth, pausing only when the noise obliterated my notes to the singers. “When you get to the” [BANGBANGBANGBANG] “second verse, maybe we should”[really alarming scraping sound] “delay the crescendo until” [DEAFENING CRASH] “the third bar. What do you think, sweetheart?” Somehow we managed to get a lot of good work done in spite of it all. I continue to love the program, and the cast is taking me to the heights. My ears love their singing, but my hands and arms seem to feel the inspiration too. I’m scrambling around the keyboard like a colt.
Alexandra Batsios—aka Lexie—arrived today. I’d worried about having two sopranos on the program, but their gifts complement each other perfectly. Meredith Lustig was my student at Juilliard for five years, and her charms are evergreen—an exquisite sensibility, easy, radiant sound, musicianship, charm, and perfect comic timing. But I didn’t know Lexie very well; we met this past June at Green Mountain Opera. At our first coaching I sensed that she was someone I wanted in my musical family as soon as possible. What I didn’t know is that she’s not only a dazzling coloratura soprano, but also stylish and funny in American popular song. It’s a rare combo platter: virtuoso Mozartean and Sondheim belteuse. Of course, I am smitten.
At about 5 PM, two children danced into the room, a pair of beautiful red-haired girls. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing there and asked where their mother was. I got some garbled answer that I am sure would have made sense to someone who knew them. Then the younger one told me, “I’m five. Last week.” Her sister said, “I’m seven.” Then the other one said, “I’ll be six.” “Yes,” I hesitated, then asked lamely, “but…certainly not till…next August?” At which point they started running and pirouetting around the balcony, down the stairs, into the hall, in a sort of mad Isadora Duncan swan dance. I eventually realized they were the workman’s daughters, and their mother was elsewhere. They were fascinated by Lexie’s rendition of the first-act aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. The five-year old became increasingly mesmerized and started to sonnambulate towards Lexie just as we were getting to the end of the piece. At which point Lexie sprayed her with a ringing, full-voiced high D—and the kid stared for a second before taking off in terror as if her pants had exploded.
I had said that we’re almost sold out, and that’s pretty much true. But there are a few tickets left—grab ‘em in advance by calling (631) 323-1378 and reserving!
We just had the first day of NYFOS@North Fork, our newest Emerging Artist Program. I’ve nurtured this dream for a number of years and—as if in preparation—I’d done a few concerts out here in Orient, Long Island, in past years. Orient is the easternmost point on the North Fork, and has a serenity unlike anyplace else I know. The Orienters (not Orientals) are hungry for live music, and the shows I gave in tandem with Paul Appleby, John Brancy, Sasha Cooke, Kelly Markgraf, and Darius de Haas were unforgettable nights, peak moments. Still, this is a little different: having the NYFOS imprimatur on this endeavor changes the equation. I feel as if I am bringing my significant other home to my parents, an electrically charged merging of powerful strands in my life.
Three of the four cast members arrived today: Toby Greenhalgh, David Margulis, and Meredith Lustig. I had been looking forward to this moment for a long time, and their arrival did my heart a lot of good. I told the cast very little about Orient in advance. Toby thought it was going to be big and commercial, with hotels and crowds. “No, that would be the South Fork.” My greatest joy was watching each of them discover where they were and how special the place is—I could see it in their eyes. My second greatest joy was hearing them sing: three great sets o’ pipes.
The hall is half a block from the bay, and the songs seem especially meaningful in this marine atmosphere. When David sang Peter Warlock’s “My Own Country” it seemed to have been written about Orient, not the English countryside.
Today I heard we’re almost sold out. I suppose we could sell lawn seats…if we had a lawn. It’s one problem I shall enjoy having.
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