The songs I’ve offered up over the last few days shook me by the shoulders and handed me this piece as my last choice. I realized mid-week that the songs I’ve chosen, and the majority of songs throughout history either celebrate our connection with each other, long for that connection, or grieve over its loss. Sondheim’s words sum it all up for me and they do it in both a contemporary and a timeless way. The melody sounds simple, though of course it’s not, and it takes root in your teeth and bones.
I have one more thing to add as I finish my week where No Song Is Safe. I sang a concert with NYFOS years ago that focused on really new songs—some still wet with ink. It was challenging, stimulating, sometimes frustrating and ultimately it was an experience that helped form me as a craftsperson. I cherish every opportunity to breathe a little of myself into each song I sing as a result. Those precious few days that I got to spend with Steve Blier and John Musto at the piano were thoughtful, revelatory and encouraging. I came away with a clearer sense of myself as a story teller and I felt welcomed into a distinctly particular family in the world of song. Since then, that family has become the Royal Family. I’m thrilled to come back in a couple of weeks and share the stage with Steve again. There’s nothing quite like it. For a singer, it doesn’t get any better.
I couldn’t submit five choices without choosing one piece operatic. Ok, it’s a bit long but it’s Richard Wagner, the early years when he was still in his ‘bel canto’ period. And baby, could he ever write a melody and throw some rockin’ orchestration at it.
The Dutchman is looking for a little peace of mind here. This is one tormented guy for lots of reasons. He is in need of serious redemption and is meant to finally find it in the love of a good woman. Turbulent seas in the orchestra, soaring vocal lines, dead silence—all here. This is human torment agonizingly yet glowingly set to music. I use the word human, though we at my house refer to the Dutchman as Wagner’s version of the Undead.
The Dutchman in this recording ain’t half bad either, if I may say so myself.
Am I sentimental or does this define the agony of break up and the anguish at trying to hold on to a relationship after it’s over?
I stood transfixed in the fourth floor walk up of an African actor’s sparse Paris apartment one morning as I saw this for the first time on his little rabbit-eared TV. We were in the middle of the rehearsing exorcism that became the European tour of Peter Brook’s La Tragedie De Carmen so this video caught me already raw and a little bloodied. I was twenty-seven and learning my way around hot, cranky Paris in August and had never even heard of Jacques Brel. His sweaty, snotty, tear-stained honesty stunned me and I still can’t separate this particular performance from the actual song, even though I had heard it before sung in English by Jack Jones maybe (“If You Go Away”, which isn’t a good translation). This one is the only performance to my mind and that morning in Paris is a moment frozen in time for me. As I stood there weeping my actor friend looked at my messy face and said in passing as he headed for the door, “Ah oui, Jacques Brel.”
Dated, maybe. Sentimental? Probably, but it, along with Peter Brook taught me the truth about the Truth when it comes to telling a story.
Straight to the skinny on this song:
It comforts me and allows me to open old wounds so they can heal. It reminds me why I love and it shows me again and again how much I am loved. Groth’s words teach me to love better and they tell me what a privilege it is to be the reflection of another’s goodness—to see him whole and well so that he can see it more clearly himself. I get to do that. Wow. There’s love and genuine hospitality in action. And if it weren’t for Johannes Brahms, well, I probably would have never even heard these words, and definitely never in a way so transcendent.
When Jessye Norman sings it, well, be prepared to be healed. It’s an aural laying on of hands—a two scant minutes of bliss.
My mother, Helen Joyce drove an eggshell Cadillac until she couldn’t drive any more, and the sprawl of West Texas required she spend lots of time in her car. She and I agreed on all things “Willie” and we differed on most things political, but when his cd in her Caddy landed on this track, all our differences blew away with the West Texas wind. We sang along with him most times and she always had it playing when I came to town. Our common ground was “Living in the Promiseland”. I love it for that and also because it makes me feel home.
Willie himself said he was surprised at how relevant the song seems now. He also said, “I’m happy to smoke a joint with anybody.” Just so you know…
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org