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NYFOS@Caramoor in Review

A quick post-concert report as I bid farewell to this beautiful week. Overview: both shows went extremely well for the cast, who delivered the goods. The Sunday run took place in a black box theater that needed to be borrowed for the occasion due to renovations at Caramoor. It was an especially dry hall, a challenge to be overcome. Yet the show went smoothly and faultlessly. The in-depth work we’d done on the songs gave the concert the kind of strength and subtlety I had hoped for. “Crossroads,” which covers the gamut from the arty to the off-color, runs the risk of coming off as either over-refined or vulgar or both. I was happy to see that the program played with sure-footed elegance in Katonah. The big winners of the night were the German art songs, whose depth gave a warm conclusion to the free-wheeling playlist. Even people who don’t normally respond to Lieder told me that the Brahms, Strauss, and Schubert were especially moving. (Could it be that this rep should always be sung after songs about masturbation and gay cruising?)

Danny and I could barely hear the singers, an occupational hazard in our profession.  He rolled with it and played with superb elegance that afternoon, but I struggled. I wish I could add “and overcame it,” but not to my mind. This happens, too; one can’t always get the stars to align.

I couldn’t tell if the audience was on board with us or not—from where I sat I heard very little response, another hazard of spaces not designed for acoustic music. My heart goes out to the high schoolers who have to perform in that space all the time.  Quiet as the audience seemed, they had a very good afternoon and gave us an ovation-ette after the last song, i.e., a significant number of people stood up to clap, and they brought the cast back to the stage for an extra bow or two. In this context, that simple gesture indicated a triumph.

Tuesday at Merkin Hall was a more comfortable experience. The acoustic is warm, we had a pleasingly full hall, and the Manhattan public is always more vociferous than the more reserved Westchester crowd. I had had a day to get my act together, and I was saying my little mantras of positive thinking every time I heard my Inner Voice of Shame.

The show went quite well—the highs were even higher, though the cast made a few tiny mistakes in the rapid-fire numbers that they had never made. A few of them tried out some new ad-libs that I would have axed if I’d known about them in advance. But all in all it was an even finer performance: more musical flow in the French songs, more precision in the comedy, more shimmer in the German. We made a couple of crucial improvements in the staging and the song order. And everyone seemed to be in good voice, happy to be sinking into the comedy, drama, and sentiment of their songs in front of a very responsive audience. I’ll never forget the way the four voices joined at the end of the Fauré quartet, rising and falling with those beautiful harmonies like angels.

It was important to me to have at least a decent night at the Steinway. That is not always so easy at Merkin, where my primary challenge is a piano of voice-drowning loudness with an action so light that you can play wrong notes just looking at the keys too hard. I mustered every bit of technique, savvy, and juju I had. It didn’t exactly feel easy, but people told me I sounded good and I have chosen to believe them. Danny sailed through again with flying colors, of course.

Every residency is intense. Some are also rewarding. A few are pleasurable. This one was all three. I’ll miss the daily companionship of Devony Smith, Gina Perregrino, Philippe L’Espérance, Erik van Heyningen, and Danny Zelibor. But not for long. These are bonds that will last.



NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 6

I’m rarely cheerful the day before a show. I wish I had a bit of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s infectious, nitrous oxide enthusiasm to lift everyone’s morale—especially mine. But I always feel as if I am being led in front of a firing squad, and I seem to give birth to concerts only after a lot of labor pains. Today’s pains weren’t only metaphorical. On the car trip from Manhattan to Katonah, there was a four-car traffic accident that could easily have turned into a five-car one, were it not for Michael Barrett’s quick reflexes and presence of mind. I’m not clear on exactly what happened, but it seems that one car sliced into another one which sent it careening across 684 directly in front of us. The previously clear road was suddenly filled with a vehicle, and we were speeding right into it. Mikey slammed on the brakes and drove our van onto the shoulder, which blessedly had a patch of grass and not a concrete wall. We emerged without a scratch, but the car in front of us was seriously damaged. I got knocked around a bit and survived the afternoon on a couple of Advil, but I’m ok. Once again Michael Barrett has saved my life.

Caramoor’s beautiful Music Room is under renovation, so our Sunday performance is at the arts facility of a posh Katonah high school—the Harvey School. Their theater is a black box space with a surprisingly-OK Yamaha piano and decent lighting. But I admit there’s a gulf between an atmospheric historical landmark filled with Renaissance art, and an unadorned cube that takes the idea of “black box” quite literally. Still, we soldiered on and put the show on its feet. I had enjoyed Love at the Crossroads the first time around 10 years ago, and had a first-rate cast: Sari Gruber, Paula Murrihy, Hal Cazalet, and Matt Worth. But this iteration takes the program a little farther. Working with our director, Stephen Barker Turner, we’ve gently created a theatrical through-line that allows each singer to build a character from the beginning to the of the show. The repertoire ranges from the elegant (Fauré and Brahms) to the outré (Ed Kleban and Jason Robert Brown), and I had been concerned that the classical music might seem stuffy, or the popular songs a bit vulgar. But romance, comedy, and philosophy each get their due and deliver the necessary message. Every composer and every lyricist sheds the perfect light on the battle of Mars and Venus.

Dress rehearsals, especially when they are the only time you get to work in the concert hall, tend to focus on physical spacing, details of movement, accuracy of stage business. I would have loved to work some more on the musical performances, but I knew that was not going to be on the agenda. So I decided to start the day by talking to each cast member about what I’d seen them accomplish during the week, and what I wanted them to work on in the last days of our project. I also wanted to say something helpful and supportive. Most of all, I wanted all four singers—Devony Smith, Gina Perregino, Philippe L’Espérance, and Erik van Heyningen—to know how much I valued them. It was the last time I could really act as any kind of teacher for the vocalists. I kept it simple and short, but it was very significant for me—and perhaps for them too.

Since we’re sharing a Yamaha at the Harvey School, I spent the day sitting next to our pianist, Danny Zelibor, and was able to give him some guidance over the course of the five-hour session. Somehow we haven’t had enough chances to work on the music together during the week—Michael had taken Danny under his wing, and I didn’t want to overload him. But this afternoon we were left to our devices. The benign neglect paid off big-time, and we had an amazingly good meeting of the minds.

Come hear us in Katonah—or on Tuesday at Merkin. Love at the Crossroads is something special, one of the best concerts we’ve ever done for the Vocal Rising Stars.
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

Love at the Crossroads

This program takes its inspiration from an opera — Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte — and a movie, Max Ophuls’ La ronde, which was based on the hugely controversial play by Arthur Schnitzler, Reigen. Both works are about the disruptive interplay of love and lust, fidelity and libido, id and superego. In our concert two couples meet and fall in love, but the honeymoon fades. Soon the guys feel trapped and the women feel betrayed, and then all hell breaks loose. The men experiment (including a fling with one another), while the girls drop all inhibitions and indulge their sexual whims. Wild oats sown, the four come warily back together with more experience, more wisdom, more doubts — and fuller hearts.

Each of the four chapters demanded its own language and musical genre. The couples fall in love to French romantic art song, which evokes that wonderful moment of infatuation when life sparkles with promise, the spirit shimmers, and the words lovers exchange are perhaps more beautiful for the way they sound than for what they actually mean. But when that moment wears off and reality sets in, things suddenly get more literal. “But you said,” “But I never meant,” “I just can’t stand…!” Suddenly we go from wings of song to the language of negotiation, recrimination, and comedy: English. English is also the best language for Act III, “Philandering.” After all, you don’t want to miss any of the juicy details. But German song seemed right for the closing section. Lieder offered the most beautiful, complex examples of mature love tinged with loneliness and betrayal. For a reflective coda, I drew on a Spanish song by the Catalan composer Manuel Oltra set to a Lorca poem. Once again life vibrates with possibilities— and memories.

Tonight’s playlist careens from the sublime to the ridiculous. Love is at once the highest expression of humanity and an unruly biological urge, a blissful merging and a litigious, daily negotiation. All of our composers and lyricists are exposing the exalted, messy truth about love — Schubert and Irving Berlin, Fauré and Jason Robert Brown, Brahms and Ed Kleban. A few of the composers, classical icons like Saint-Saëns and Strauss, won’t require biographical sketches for experienced concert-goers. But there are a some lesser-known pieces in the program about which you may be curious. Below: a quick guide to those recherché numbers.

The two Stephen Sondheim songs are comparative rarities from this often-sung composer. “Two Fairy Tales” was written for the two ingénues in A Little Night Music, Hendrik and Anne. Its dazzling wit shed a bit of light on their characters, but it did nothing to advance the story in Act II when the action needs the most velocity. Sondheim slyly recycled “Two Fairy Tales” as an instrumental piece: it became the tedious piano exercise played by Desirée’s daughter Frederika.

“Country House” comes from the 1987 London production of Follies. Sondheim and his book writer William Goldman made a conscious attempt to add more comedy to their brilliant but problematic musical. To that end they tweaked the libretto and added three new songs including “Country House,” sung by the wealthy, unhappily married Phyllis and Ben. In the 1971 Broadway script they had dialogue scenes but they never sang together. Sondheim and Goldman eventually withdrew the London version of Follies as a failed experiment, preferring the disquieting original. Still, this song is prime Sondheim. Smart, psychologically astute, and ultimately quite touching, “Country House” shows us a side of Phyllis and Ben Stone that makes them more sympathetic and vulnerable. And only Hugo Wolf can match Sondheim for turning perfectly inflected line-readings into melody.

Vernon Duke’s brilliance as a songwriter was matched by his bad luck and bad judgment in the theater. The Gershwin brothers took Duke, then a Russian emigré named Vladimir Dukelsky, under their wing in the 1930s, and his early projects went well. “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York” were instant classics, and his 1940 Broadway  show Cabin in the Sky was a rousing success. But thereafter his luck turned, and he produced a string of failures — the last of them, Sweet Bye and Bye never even made it out of Philadelphia previews, and was such an out-and-out disaster that Duke vowed to leave the theater forever. He eventually returned to Broadway in 1952 with Two’s Company, a revue starring Bette Davis and choreographed by the brilliant, tyrannical Jerome Robbins. Duke recycled a few of the best songs from Sweet Bye and Bye, including “Just Like a Man.” Duke’s vast songwriting skills are on full display: a patrician ability to evoke sophisticated world-weariness, and a harmonic inventiveness that begins in the song’s verse, an opportunity most other composers throw away.

Alas, Duke was defeated once again. The fly in the ointment was the show’s star, Bette Davis, a breathtakingly unmusical performer. Her grim, leaden rendition of the opening number, “Turn Me Loose on Broadway,” gives new meaning to the phrase “two left feet.” (You can check it out on YouTube if you’re brave.) She claimed illness during the run of the show — her croaking rendition of “Just Like a Man” on the original cast album certainly doesn’t sound healthy. Good or bad, Bette Davis was a huge box office draw, and when she left Two’s Company after three months the show closed.

Marc Blitzstein is most famous for his left-wing agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock, and his classic translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. One doesn’t usually associate this serious artist with froth like “Modest Maid.” The song was written during World War II when Blitzstein was stationed in London working for the United States Army. His job was to promote cultural ties between Britain and the States. What better way to do so than to write a bawdy song for the great English comedienne Beatrice Lillie?

Alas, she never performed it. But twelve years later it became a showstopper for Charlotte Rae, who met Blitzstein when she played Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny at the Theater de Lys. Blitzstein’s lyrics were probably inspired by the opportunities for outdoor sex during the blackouts in wartime London — a boon not just for “modest maids” but gay men like Blitzstein.

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years had only a short off-Broadway run in 2002, but it has become a beloved work for the current generation of music theater fans and performers. It tells the story of a failed marriage with a unique narrative twist: the heroine’s songs start at the end of the relationship and move backwards to their first date, while the leading man’s plot line starts at the beginning of their love and ends with his leaving his wife. The structure of the musical is a beautiful metaphor for the inability of this young couple to synchronize their lives. Brown’s songs, especially those for his hero, Jamie (a successful writer and clearly a stand-in for Brown himself ) have startlingly vivid lyrics and a lively musical groove. For me, The Last Five Years shows Jason Robert Brown at his very best and “A Miracle Would Happen” is one of my many favorites from this show.

Everyone knows Ed Kleban’s work, even if they don’t know his name: he wrote the lyrics for the 1975 blockbuster A Chorus Line. He had a number of other musicals in the pipeline but they never came to fruition. Kleban died in 1987 at age 48, leaving a scattering of songs and unfinished projects. One of them was a musical called Warhol, the source for “Do It Yourself.” I first heard this song at a benefit for the Manhattan Theater Club in 1974, when the now-venerable MTC had just finished its second season. Bob Balaban (of Waiting for Guffman fame) was the lead singer, with Kleban and writer/producer Richard Maltby, Jr. filling in as backup chorus. Ed promised to get me a copy but fate intervened. Thirty-three years later his longtime companion, Linda Kline, finally sent me the music for a piece that had haunted my memory for decades.

Even Britten specialists don’t tend to know the duet “Underneath the Abject Willow,” which received a premiere at London’s Wigmore Hall in December 1936. Its poet, W. H. Auden, and its composer, Benjamin Britten, had become artistic collaborators and close friends the year before, and they continued to work on films (through the G.P.O. Film Unit), song cycles (On This Island and Our Hunting Fathers), and operas (Paul Bunyan) for another six years before their paths diverged. Britten was initially somewhat cowed by Auden’s keen, articulate intelligence; it took him some time to feel that he was the intellectual equal of his friend. He was also far less sexually adventurous and experienced than Auden, who wrote “Underneath the Abject Willow” as a way of encouraging the rather repressed Britten to enjoy his youth and accept himself as a gay man. Britten turns Auden’s poem into a breezy three-movement suite of dance tunes that lightly mock and taunt, and ends with Britten’s musical equivalent of a kick in the pants.

The poem for Schubert’s Licht und Liebe comes from a play by Matthäus von Collin, The Death of Duke Frederick the Valiant. As the title character thinks about happier times in his past, he hears this poem sung by two voices passing in the forest. The music probably dates from 1822 — no autograph survives — and is reminiscent of Schubert’s operatic works from that time in his life. Schubert may have lacked the theatrical skills to create successful music drama, but few can match his ability to suggest subtle, shifting gradations of emotion, or portray the human heart in all its strength and vulnerability. In three minutes Schubert evokes love’s healing light and its ability to wound, simply by juxtaposing two contrasting rhythmic patterns, dipping suddenly into the minor mode, dropping briefly into recitative, and returning to the opening theme using overlapping vocal lines that allow the music to flower.

Manuel Oltra is probably the least familiar of tonight’s classical composers. He was a Catalan musician in the lineage of NYFOS favorites Eduardo Toldrà, Frederic Mompou, and Narcís Bonet. Like his fellow Catalan composers, he prized simplicity and lyricism, and shared with them a beautiful sense of musical space. Oltra casts a spell using refined, spare musical materials — a delicate watercolorist of sound.

Eco was the first song I chose for tonight’s concert, even though at that point I really didn’t know exactly what story we would be telling. The music startled me with its beauty, and so did the brief poem by García Lorca. Its nostalgia for a perfect shared moment, bathed in a combination of warmth and coldness, seemed the perfect conclusion to any story about love. The poem became even more resonant as I found out a bit more about the meaning of “nardo,” that mysterious “spikenard plant” mentioned by Lorca. Spikenard is known more commonly in this country as valerian, and is a traditional flower at Mexican weddings. It has large white buds shaped like spheres, which is why Lorca compares them to the moon. “Nard” is also mentioned in the Bible, where it figures in the Song of Solomon, and is used to anoint the head and feet of Jesus. “Nardo” carries with it a sense of deep reverence and the holy consecration of marriage.

I admit it: Cy Coleman and Gabriel Fauré aren’t the kind of artists you’d expect to see on the same musical quilt. Yet all the disparate, brilliant voices in tonight’s program understood the power of love, and each one advances the story in his own way. If Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the heroines of Cosí fan tutte, sang art songs, I doubt they’d let loose with “Modest Maid,” and I doubt that their swains Ferrando and Guglielmo would be sparring with the “Tennis Duet.” But this is the age of Hamilton. Let’s allow our two modern couples to duke it out with the full psychological and social artillery of the twenty-first century. And afterwards, we can discuss who went home with whom.

Join us for Love at the Crossroads
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 4

Today we went into uncharted territory when our director, Stephen Barker Turner, reported for work. I hired him sight unseen on the recommendation of two other directors I’d invited. They had to back out of the gig because of some late-breaking auditions and film jobs, and they thought I’d like working with Stephen. I knew that this concert, which tells a complex story through an intricate playlist, would benefit from the care of a theater person. Prior to our meeting today, Stephen and I spent some time on the phone talking about the program—that was his “audition.” I was impressed by his gentleness, his kindness, and his intelligence. He’s a Juilliard graduate with a sturdy resumé, he seemed to get what I was trying to do with Love at the Crossroads, and I decided to invite him on board.

IMG_5084Unlike most of the directors I’ve worked with in the recent past, Stephen has not had a lot of experience with the demands—and limitations—of the concert stage. Song repertoire is not his wheelhouse, and he has not worked much with classical singers. All of this turned out to be an advantage, not a deficit. It seemed to allow him to see everything with freshness and imagination. I especially loved his detailed sense of the dramatic arc of every piece. All afternoon I felt I was seeing my deepest and most intuitive feelings about the songs springing to life in the rehearsal room, and I understood some new things about pieces I’ve known for decades. You never know if you can really collaborate with someone until you try. But Stephen and I found a groove today that exceeded all my expectations.

His vibe is different from my recent artistic partners. Stephen is internal, humming rather than sparky, soft-spoken rather than showy—a kindred spirit. I loved the way he found the internal life of each song and let the staging flow from that, rather than creating a lot of catchy stage pictures and bustle. The energy comes from the four singers, who are bursting with life. There’s no lack of show biz, but Stephen’s maturity also brings out everyone’s depth.Philippe and Devony

There were some stunning moments today. Philippe L’Espérance and Devony Smith are singing a Sondheim duet, “Country House,” in which a couple’s attempts to restart their relationship end up in a nasty exchange of invective. I always think of Philippe as sweet and eager, the quintessential lyric tenor. I wasn’t sure he was quite right for this piece, but—oh lord, he can be a monster. (I mean that as a compliment.) After he lashed out at Devony I saw a tear come into her eye, and then she lashed back. Hard. Then all hell broke loose—it was like watching a traffic accident. Breath-taking.

Gina and Erik

Erik van Heyningen and Gina Perregrino went to the other end of the spectrum with their Lalo duet. Stephen took a fresh look at it and got us all thinking about the essential question: what is the event of this piece? Gradually a lovely, somewhat generic romantic duet turned into something arresting and surprising: an experienced seducer finds himself utterly vulnerable, while a rather unsure young woman suddenly senses the power of her femininity. All of this unfolded spontaneously under Stephen’s gentle guidance—and, I admit, a bit of mine as well. You see, I was also truly hearing the piece for the first time, though I’d known it for decades.

I haven’t written much about Danny Zelibor, our pianist. He made some beautiful music today, sparkling and flowing. I don’t know what he’s eating at night, but whatever it is I could use some of it. The piano’s been fighting me all week, and today I was on the verge of taking a hatchet to it. I felt like I was on the IRT, but Danny was on the Concorde this afternoon.

Hear this complex story told through an intricate playlist at Love at the Crossroads
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

One of the luxuries of the Vocal Rising Stars program is that I am encouraged to invite guest teachers in to work with the cast. But it wasn’t easy to locate the right people for this crazy multilingual program. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I needed—should it be another musician, a director, an actor, a language coach? Early in February I had a few wonderful prospects on the hook, but they got other gigs and had to bow out. And then I remembered a very moving conversation I recently had with Bénédicte Jourdois in the Juilliard lobby. She is one of our French coaches at school, and she also works at lots of other places including the Met. I remembered that Paul Appleby held a special place in his heart for Bénédicte. Earning Paul’s respect is no light thing, and I also knew that the students at Juilliard adored working with her. I hesitated for about a day because we only had five French songs on the playlist…so would this be the best use of our time….? Then I remembered how eager I was to work with her and I thought: if she’s available, grab her for a session early in the week.

I knew Béné was a good person and a good coach. I just didn’t realize quite how good. First of all, she exudes enthusiasm and receptivity of a high order. Michael and I were treated to a healthy dose of this in the car ride up to Caramoor, and then we got some more Béné-charm in our non-French-rep morning session. She listened to German, Spanish, and American songs as if she were being presented with a four-star meal (and had some valuable things to say as well). I had no idea Béné was a Sondheim fan. What a treat to present her with two songs by him that she’d never heard before.

IMG_1115But when it came time to work on the French material Bénédicte sprang into action with a kind of joyous intensity I have seen in very few colleagues. Of course she corrected mistakes and imprecisions of pronunciation, something she does with amazing efficiency and clarity. But she also took us through the poems in some detail, explaining the nuances, examining the images, creating the atmosphere, embracing the romance. Most French diction teachers are obsessed with the vowels, which I admit are complex and subject to rigorous rules. But Béné is just as involved with the consonants, the way they propel you into the word and give the song its juice. I found that she strongly advocated some ideas I’d developed about French diction that I had worried were a bit outré. It’s not a foggy, misty string of vowels. It’s an energized, passionate language powered by sexy, liquid consonants. The real trick is to keep the vocal accent away from the downbeat—to caress the unaccented off-beat notes, what the French call the “accent d’insistance.” She was (appropriately enough) insistent about this idea all afternoon, and I was glad to be her cheerleader.

Bénédicte never played the songs, nor did she coach the music per se. Nothing explicit about tempo or balance or phrasing. And yet when the cast sang the pieces after she worked with them, the music was transformed. A Chausson duet that had seemed shapeless and earthbound was suddenly liquid gold—exalted and flowing. I felt it myself—I’d been struggling to get the damn song off the ground but it refused to do anything but waddle in mud. Suddenly Gina, Devony, and I were flying.

The real eye-opener was the work Béné did on that recalcitrant Fauré quartet. The first run was competent but somewhat clumsy, like four people without a common language trying to solve an equation. After Bénédicte took us through the poem—even with an interpretation I didn’t quite agree with—the cast sang it again. Suddenly they sounded as if Sir Simon Rattle had walked in and conducted them through it. Elegant lines swooped and dovetailed, the whole thing danced. I had grimly anticipated a long, damp session tomorrow in which we went through it section by section, beating the piece into submission until it sounded graceful. But Bénédicte’s poetic analysis and sheer force of personality brought out everyone’s natural musicianship. Magic.

I sensed that something important was going on, palpable but a little elusive. I was trying to wrap my mind around what was happening, and so was Gina. She suddenly stopped dead in her tracks and said, “Oh, I am having a breakthrough moment…it’s all comes from the poetry…sorry, I can’t really find words for it right now.”  I think she was a bit overwhelmed and more than a bit exhausted from two long work days. I hope she’ll explain it tomorrow. I too learned something today about my profession, and I hope I can put words on it tomorrow.

IMG_1103There was another magic moment today. We have a tradition that started in our third season, when our singers were having trouble hearing the piano in a Blitzstein quartet. I casually commented that the best place to hear the piano was on the floor right underneath the sounding board. Michael said, “Oh, great idea, why doesn’t everyone lie down under the piano, and we’ll do the piece again.” It was a success, and now we always have an under-the-piano moment during the week. Mikey brought it up today, saying we might do it on Thursday. But the cast said, “Why wait?” We were doing a difficult a cappella piece, “Eco” by a Spanish composer named Oltra, and there was a section that was not quite jelling. The four of them positioned themselves under the Steinway and started to sing. Suddenly the blend was heavenly, the fall-apart moment was tight, and time stopped. One of these years we’re actually going to perform a piece with everyone lying under the piano. Who knows, maybe this year?

Be inspired to your own breakthroughs at Love at the Crossroads
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 1

This is our tenth anniversary at Caramoor—which means it’s my eleventh season as Artistic Director of the Vocal Rising Stars Program. I look forward to these residencies with a mixture of anticipation and fear. The work is intense, and the week’s success depends a lot on the chemistry of the cast. Not only do they have to make music together, but they have to live together. Inevitably I know some of the artists better than others, so I have to rely on instinct and faith.

It was a relief to feel the good vibes in the room when Michael Barrett and I arrived this morning to start rehearsal. Devony Smith, Gina Pellegrino, Philippe L’Espérance, Erik van Heyningen, and pianist Danny Zelibor already seemed like a smoothly functioning machine. They’d had a chance to do some work before Mikey and I got there, and they plunged right into Stephen Sondheim’s “Two Fairy Tales” for us, a tricky duet I’ve turned into an even trickier quartet. They pretty much nailed it the first time, and managed to make me laugh twice. Their voices blended beautifully in the Fauré quartet “Madrigal,” though I wanted the piece at a much faster clip than what they showed us. They’d obviously heard the same performances of it on Spotify that I’d listened to, four dismaying renditions that turned it into a dirge whereas I want it to sound like the prelude to an orgy. Turns out that my crew did too, and apparently it’s vastly easier to sing that way.

The program we’re working on is called Love at the Crossroads. It tells an age-old story: two couples meet, woo, and marry, then quarrel and philander. At the end, they reunite, though it’s hard to say which of the relationships really has survived the damage. They romance each other in French music; they quarrel and cheat in English; and they try to reconcile in German. The music ranges from Fauré, Brahms, and Schubert to Irving Berlin, Jason Robert Brown, and Marc Blitzstein. It’s a show that will need a lot of flexibility, delicacy, and sheer chutzpah.

Luckily nothing seems to faze this group of singers. And I am always fascinated to understand their perspective on material that is new to them, but has been part of my sensibility for decades. This afternoon I had to analyze the charm of an early Fauré song, the irony of a Jason Robert Brown R&B parody, and the sweaty romance of a Saint-Saëns duet. Style is a hard thing to articulate. I could show some of it from the piano, but I had to explain some of it verbally. Ultimately it’s about submitting to the will of the music and letting it seduce you—entering the spirit of the song, not judging the characters from a purely contemporary point of view. Every song asks three questions: what is it now, what was it when it was new, and what will it be for all eternity? The world changes, but art still reflects and refracts the truth. And sometimes it’s helpful to think about what the song meant to its original audiences.

NYFOS@Caramoor 1Devony was wrestling with Vernon Duke’s “Just Like a Man.” In this piece, a woman laments that her boyfriend has left her—even though he was constantly thoughtless and unkind. “I am having more trouble with this than with anything.” “You ARE?” I asked, with disbelief. It’s always struck me as truthful, witty, and perfectly funny-sad. “Well, yes, because it’s so against my world view.” I took a moment to understand. “Ohhh, I get it, because she’s addicted to this guy who treats her badly.” “Yes!” My mind went into overdrive—how do I get this very talented modern woman to embody a song written in the late 1940s? “But Devony, don’t you see, it’s totally against her world view too! She hates herself for being this way. She can’t believe she’s selling herself so short.” Silence. “Do you get it…?” Silence. “Oh my god, yes, wow, thank you. Let’s try it again.” And there was the character—rueful, bamboozled by the human condition, and a slave to her sexual attraction in spite of herself.

I am told this still happens in 2019.

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