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Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 5

DAY 5:  April 26, 2015

I do most of my programming staring at my computer screen. I don’t sit down and play through the show before finalizing my NYFOS concerts. I just…gaze at my Mac…and imagine how it’s all going to work. This method seems to be working for me. The last bunch of shows have been very strong, and these days it seems best to work by instinct.

Still, there is a scary moment of truth at the first run-through when I actually hear the concert in order. D-Day was Friday. And yes, I was surprised—but in a good way. The program order works pretty much as I had predicted, but on an emotional level Letters from Spain packs much more of a punch than I was expecting. For one thing, I hadn’t foreseen how much drama and color Alexey was going to bring to his Shostakovich songs. On the page they look like a delicious appetizer course; in his hands, they are more like dinner at The Four Seasons. I also hadn’t quite absorbed the scope of the Bolcom Canciones de Lorca, super-saturated music done to a turn by Theo Lebow. Let me just state that the boy has cojones. So does Bill Bolcom, who found a way to bring Lorca’s passion and sensitivity blazing into life. Like a lot of Bill’s music, these songs work on so many levels: a brilliant reading of the poems, a multifarious exploration of Spanish musical styles from flamenco to tango to Cuban dance, and a mini-biography of this iconic writer.

cast for April 28th

We were originally going to do this recital without an intermission in New York, but we’ve decided to give the audience a 10-minute breather before Corinne’s exquisite Guastavino songs. Hearing her sing “Se equivocó la paloma,” I remembered why they call this composer “the Schubert of the Pampas.” The two composers share the same kind of elegance and transparency, along with those heartbreaking changes of harmony when melodies repeat.. It takes real mastery to write something so simple and so perfect, and it’s a special treat to hear them sung by such a colorful, warm voice. When the cast sang the encore—another Guastavino tune—I started to tear up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going into the other room to have a good cry.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 3

DAY 3 April 23, 2015

There are some recipes that require you to mix ingredients in two different bowls and then combine the contents before cooking them. That’s what happened this week: Alexey could work Monday but not Tuesday, Corinne and Theo could work Tuesday but not Monday. Wednesday we poured the two brews together.

Corinne was singing when Alexey tiptoed into my apartment. I didn’t see him come in, but I could tell he’d arrived just by listening to Corinne. She subtly went from “I’m rehearsing” mode to “I’m performing mode,” as if her Guastavino song had put on heels and lipstick when company arrived.

april full ensemble

I thought it would be smart to get to the three trios as soon as possible, because everyone had been spending the lion’s share of their preparation on their solo material. Michael and I plowed into the intro to Lorca’s “Anda, jaleo,” in which Alexey has the first of the three verses. In the spirit of “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” Alexey let out with a roar that practically knocked me off my chair. In the opera world, size matters; it is the men’s locker room of music. Corinne and Theo have their feet squarely in that world, singing opera all over the world. Exerting exquisite muscular control they kept their eyebrows from hitting the ceiling, and then made their own counteroffer—“No, by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” They belted out their verses at the top of their lungs, and we suddenly had a team—and a great one. What a blessing these three singers are, one of the best casts we have ever had at NYFOS (and the bar is high).

For me, yesterday was a huge relief. Tuesday had been a long, long day at the piano, totaling out to about 6 hours of playing—and none of them very beautiful or comfortable. By evening my arm was sore, my spirits were low, my mood was grim. But by some miracle I had not worn myself out to the danger point, and I recovered to have quite a decent day of music-making. There are five spots in the Bolcom that still need repair, but on Sunday there were only five spots that sounded decent at all. Now, that is progress.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 1

DAY 1 – April 21, 2015
We’ve had two days of rehearsal on LETTERS FROM SPAIN, a program about which I had some trepidation. No surprises there—I am always freaked out before I start a project, certain that I have miscalculated in some fatal way. So my dominant feeling right now is relief, for two reasons: the music and the cast, reassuringly great in both cases.

It began yesterday when baritone Alexey Lavrov came in for his first rehearsal. He’d auditioned for me about a year ago and I was struck by the aliveness of his singing, his theatrical daring, his burly voice. So I should have been prepared for the tidal wave he unleashed when he sang the Shostakovich Spanish Songs for Michael and me. In his hands these simple folksongs became vivid dramas, filled with more charm, humor, and emotion than I ever imagined possible. This guy is a life force and he sings from the gut. You don’t need to speak Russian to understand what Alexey is saying.

Later on we were working on a song by Antón García Abril set to a Lorca poem. Rather unsure as to whether this was a smart move on my part, I blurted out, “You know…this poem strikes me as very gay.” Silence. “Of course, most of Lorca’s poems seem that way to me.” Michael Barrett started to run interference. “Well,” he said, “that would be your perspective of course…” But Alexey was not fazed. He took a moment and then said, “Oh yes, yes—I see what you mean. Something intense, something private, something forbidden, something you couldn’t say just anywhere, something that you wait for the right moment to share.” The three of us talked about cultural mores in early twentieth century Spain, sharing stuff we’d read. Then Alexey sang the song again, this time with such startling intensity and longing that I literally began to shiver. When Alexey rehearses he likes to sing right at you, turning you into his scene partner. It’s a kind of musical “truth or dare,” and you need to summon your strength to face him down. “More like that?” he asked. “Yes,” Michael and I said. “Exactly like that.”

Lebow, Winters and Blier rehearsing

Today we saw Corinne Winters and Theo Lebow. I’ve worked with both of them before, and I would say there were no surprises…but after the shock of yesterday’s encounter with Alexey I was especially alive to their singing—their tremendous musicianship coupled to an amazing vocal aesthetic. Corinne has to have one of the most opulent voices on the current scene, and it’s a treat to hear her lavish that beautiful sound on Hugo Wolf and Guastavino. Theo is tackling four of Bolcom’s Canciones de Lorca, an insanely brilliant piece of music that has colonized our lives for the last few weeks. It was originally written for tenor and orchestra, and the piano reduction is dauntingly difficult. (The vocal line is pretty demanding too.) But we’re getting our act together, and Theo’s first reading was nothing short of stunning. That boy can wail, and it turns out that he has Latin hips after all—something he let loose in the last song, a salsa in praise of Cuba. I was dead tired and running on fumes as I heard myself say, “Can we just do the Cuba song one more time?”

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